It all began when the Hindu Lord Shiva discovered his wife, Sati, had passed away. Enraged, Shiva began a celestial dance of destruction and Sati’s corpse was dismembered, her body parts flung across the earth. One of her toes landed by the Hooghly River in eastern India, and up sprung the temple of Kalighat. Kalighat would be one of the first human settlements in the region of Bengal. Bengal is a flat and wet land, criss-crossed by the River Ganges, the Brahmaputra River, and their thousands of tributaries, streams and offshoots. The waterlogged soil of this region provided a fertile ground for agriculture, and therefore trade. The flight from Chennai to Kolkata was mostly over water, a fitting introduction to a part of the world which is defined by its relationship with the element of life.
Kolkata is a city of parks, of regal monuments and of crumbling colonial architecture. It is a city of artists and beggars, of gentlemen and poverty. A city of devotion, culture, life and death in equal parts. I began my day by walking to the Victoria Memorial, a building which looks like a hybrid of the US Capitol building and the Taj Mahal, and is surrounded by lush gardens where Kolkata‘s well-to-do still come to think and discuss. There I met a group of photographers who were on an excursion to learn how to best capture the shifting light on the beautiful white marble structure. The monsoon had already provided two heavy downpours that morning, and the gardens glistened in the sun like dew drops in a mountain field. Yes, Kolkata was turning on its best for us, and the day had only just begun.
Exiting the gardens, I headed out into the streets of the city and took shelter near the English country-style St John’s church just as the heavens opened up again. On the streets around me were poor people, also sheltering from the rain.
I quickly realised that Kolkata was home to a whole new level of poverty. In much of India, you see beggars on the street who disappear into shanty-towns or slums after when it begins to rain. In Kolkata, many of them sit on the streets with all their belongings in a bag next to them; the absolutely destitute who don’t even have a sheet of scrap metal to call home.
Once the rain abated I continued walking into the city centre, along streets lined by colonial buildings in various states of romantic disrepair. Some of the stone buildings were particularly eye catching, and more so because all these buildings are still in use; Kolkata is a city which utilises its past. In amongst all of this existed a sort of cultured rat race; businessmen sipping chai from cafes enroute to work, smartly dressed women laughing over their morning pastries, and near the metro stations, all sorts of people at news stands taking in the overnight developments.
Kolkata is an Indian city like no other, and I was beginning to like it. Bengalis are proud of their gentle, refined culture, and are often frustrated by the images that “Calcutta” conjures up in the minds of westerners. This is partly the reason for the name change in 2001. Bengali’s have always called it Kolkata, and have known it as the London of the East, “the city of joy”, India’s literary home. Kolkata gets drenched by not one, but two monsoons each year, back to back. Western writers describe the five months of solid rain as a source of despair, but Bengalis know that it was this melancholy climate which inspired India’s most beautiful and enchanting poetry, In fact it was a Bengali, Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote both the Indian and Bangladeshi national anthems – the only
instance of two countries sharing one composer.