Peering down from the balcony in Kolkata’s Indian Coffee House, I see a group of bald-headed, bespectacled men leaning forward on their table, glasses of tea and coffee steaming at their elbows, as their heads bob and jerk with the urgency of men with big ideas. This coffee house has long had the illustrious reputation of being a meeting place for the intelligentsia of Bengal. While the waiters in pristine white uniforms serve their customers, I sit back with a smile and soak up the feeling of being part of the history of this grand, high-ceilinged room.
I’ve only been in Kolkata a matter of hours, but I love it already – the faded colonial grandeur mixed with the vibrancy and energy of a modern Indian city. Stepping back out onto the chaotic street, I’m surrounded by makeshift bookstores lining the roads around the college. You can buy pretty much anything here, from the latest IT textbook to Frank Bough’s Breakfast Book. It’s well worth browsing before moving south towards Mullick Ghat and the incredible flower market there.
I’ve been told that Mullick Ghat is best first thing in the morning, but at any time of day you can’t fail to be impressed by the hundreds of flower sellers plying their trade. There are huge mounds of aromatic pink and orange garlands, and baskets piled high with petals for temple-goers. Once laden, baskets of a dizzying size are carried on the head with extraordinary poise back up the steps and onto Howrah Bridge. Beneath the bridge, men, women and children are washing, playing, praying, working, eating and carrying out their daily lives in and around the river. The vast cantilever bridge provides an impressive modernist backdrop to
the dilapidated old temple on the Hooghly’s banks.
I head back along Cotton Street from the bridge and come across open-fronted shops full of trumpets, trombones, flutes and drums, the home of the many wedding bands in the area. A few wizened old guys in shabby brocade uniforms sit forlornly outside, waiting to be hired. Anything and everything is being sold on this stretch of road, from fresh pineapples to pieces of mangled metal, adding to the general commotion of Kolkata’s streets. I’m struck again by how loud it is. Alongside the incessant honking of trucks, buses, cars, trams, bikes and rickshaws is the cawing of the ever-present black crows and the constant hassling cries of hustlers, traders and rickshaw drivers.
If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of human-drawn rickshaws, there are plenty of cycle and engine-driven carriages at your disposal. However, I decide on one of the delightfully decrepit yellow taxis to take me south. I jump in and ask to be taken to the Victoria Memorial. Almost 20 terrifying minutes later, having hurtled through impressive boulevards, not-so-wide streets and I’m-not-sure-we-can-fit down-there alleyways, I arrive at the Maidan; Kolkata’s vast green space inhabited by goats and their herders, cows, cricketers, footballers, horse-riders, hawkers, picnickers, kabadi players and all manner of other activities and leisure pastimes. The Victoria Memorial rises majestically through the smog, and it’s easy to see why this monument to colonialism has endured where many haven’t.
Having taken a leisurely walk around the memorial, I brave another taxi ride to Kalighat, Kolkata’s most significant temple, where human sacrifices to the fertility goddess allegedly took place more than 400 years ago. The whole area is alive with noise and colour. Pilgrims, vendors, beggars, prostitutes, locals, tourists and animals flock the streets whichever way you look.
Kolkata is one of India’s most fascinating cities. And, of course, being India, it’s cheap. As the sun sets, I head back to Sudder Street and the charmingly eccentric Fairlawn Hotel for a well-earned G&T… well, it is India.
Jet Airways flies daily to Kolkata via Delhi from Dhs2,550 return (including taxes). Emirates flies direct, with prices from Dhs2,075 return (including taxes).
Where to stay
Fairlawn Hotel (www.fairlawnhotel.com). A double room is 2,500 rupees a night full board (about Dhs200), but there are plenty of cheaper options around Sudder Street.
It takes about 10 days to process an Indian visa. Visit the Indian Consulate in Dubai for more info.