Welcome to Kolkata
My introduction to what is renowned as one of India’s poorest cities was typically Indian, and the car trip from the airport was typically heartbreaking.
After a delayed flight from Kuala Lumpur, Kolkata’s city lights below the plane were a sight for sore eyes. But we weren’t there yet. At what seemed like five metres above the runway, the plane jolted back up into the sky. As we waited for the longest 10 minutes of my life to find out whether we had lost an engine on descent (which, the seat safety guide reassuringly notes, is not a big deal), the captain came over a crackly speaker: “Um, ah, ‘ello lady and gentle. We have been forced to reject our landing due to animal blocking the runway.”
After circling the airport for half an hour, we went in for our second dive, and as we touched down, I prayed to Ganesha I didn’t see a cow flying past my window. Thankfully, no casualties.
I don’t think Kolkata airport has been redecorated since about 1978. There is red velvet and wooden-framed mirrors galore. There is also no need to security check anything – bags, people, cows? Just come on through. And, on average, six people are required to do one job.
As my boyfriend and I walked through the exit, we were accosted by very few people, which I was very surprised by. I had expected to see a sea of hungry children and taxi drivers. However, I was still pretty happy to see someone holding a piece of paper with ‘Mr Utting’ on it, despite my gender being female the last time I checked.
The two of us piled into the back of an old navy-blue Ambassador and drove to our hotel, with our driver turning off the motor to conserve fuel at even the slightest hint of a traffic jam. This is what I will remember most about Kolkata: the squeal and shudder of all the Ambassador taxis turning over their engines one by one as the traffic light changed to green.
Hotel Broadway was like an old colonial boarding house with big hallways and high ceilings. It felt like a haven from some kind of impending war, or maybe a really high-class brothel where naked women would be packing heroin. It also had the feeling of a place where revolutionaries planned their next move, or where poets wrote long sonnets. For us, ex-brothel or not, it was an $8-a-night place to sleep, with a clean bathroom and running water.
I can describe Kolkata in a few words: chaotic, organised, relentless and loud. My god, was it loud. They say New York is the city that never sleeps, but I think Kolkata comes pretty close. The traffic seemed to stop only between 3 and 4 every morning and would resume almost like clockwork at 4:01 with an almighty chorus of beeps and screeches.
The city itself did not feel threatening to me at all. The more pressing issue was crossing the roads. Unlike other cities I’ve visited, Kolkata’s traffic is an unforgiving a wall of yellow cabs peppered with pushbikes, rickshaws and motorcycles that wait for no one.
The first few days in India were spent trying to organise a mobile phone and eating at the hotel restaurant, because it seemed almost impossible to find anywhere else to dine. Our daily meals were quite a comical affair, as the restaurant seemed to double as the hottest bar in Kolkata come night time. Being one of the only women I had seen after a week in the city, I found I was quite the show for the locals whenever I went downstairs for a quiet ale and dahl.
I found the stares from Indian men really quite funny, because their interest is so obvious. Despite this, I never felt uneasy about the attention at all. It could be because this is my second time in India, but for the most part, I understand the stares arise from an interest in the different, rather anything sinister or sexual. I’m still convincing my boyfriend of that.
I’m still convincing my boyfriend of that.
My experience of Kolkata was that of a city that seems to wring you out with its relentless nature, but at the same time, rejuvenate you and leave you longing for more. It was so difficult to do anything, and even the smallest task took hours. At the same time, this was all part of the charm. What was so clear though was the clash of old India wrestling tirelessly with the new: for signage space, car space, store space, any space to develop a modern Kolkata. The city, like the country, is expanding at a rapid rate, but the gap between the middle class and the working class is still large and seems to grow even larger as the new India rises from the ashes.
There are children being forced into prostitution in the red light district while wealthy Indians order paneer tikka masala burgers for breakfast at the Park Street McDonald’s in the centre of the city. The psychology of Kolkata seems like it is still 30 years behind the rest of the world, but as the old colonial buildings make room for the neon KFC sign out the front, I hope it will not leave behind too many casualties as it is thrust into the 21st century.
Written by Alexandria Utting