I expected to find dire poverty and human suffering in Calcutta (Kolkota), capital of West Bengal but I was pleasantly surprised. There are the usual beggars and homeless in the street and congested traffic. Compared to Mumbai, however, Calcutta is smaller and more manageable and much less manic, probably thanks to a few delightful parks, one of the good marks left by the British, which made lasting impact on Calcutta more than any other Indian city. Another outstanding British legacy is the imposing Victorian Memorial, described by the Lonely Planet as a ‘cross between St. Paul’s Cathedral and Taj Mahal’.
The birthplace of Tagore, the nobel prize-winning poet, as well as the Bengal Renaissance, the city is known for its literature and art. The British brought its culture and education and the Bengalis had their rich literary and intellectual tradition. The people here are famous for being articulate and emotional. This seems to be proved by a few people I have met. Yesterday a friend of a friend took me for lunch at a well-known restaurant called Mocambo. The gentleman in his early 50’s has retired early from his cooperate life and now runs his own publishing house just for fun!
In the evening, I met up with a local writer who then introduced me to a close friend of his, a fellow writer, prominent TV journalist and a one-time enthusiastic Communist Party member. (The Communists are a big deal here). We spent hours on the lawn of the Press Club, talking about literature, politics and life. They drank rum and I sipped tea. Both are very argumentative and good story tellers. From time, they would turn to me: it’s your turn to tell a story. I told them my life story and the story of making a friend with a beggar lady in Pondicherry a few years back. Then we were driven to dinner by the former Communist’s chauffer in his vintage car!
Tonight, the two guys took me to see a Bengali play at the Institute of Fine Art. I didn’t understand what was said, still I could tell it was a good production with plenty of tension and humour. In the winter season, there’s a show every night. Very impressive.
In the afternoon, I paid a visit to Tagore’s charming house.
So I am having a bit of cultural over-doze in Calcutta.