It’s such a curious place. The city merely shrugged the British off like an old cardigan, drank some chai, and left the place exactly as it was. More apparent than in any other city I’ve visited in India, the colonial legacy pervades every space – cobblestone roads, Ambassador taxi cabs, the Grand Ol’ Post Office in Dalhousie District, and the famous British tea house Flury’s, est. 1927.
Dilapidated and seemingly uninhabitable, the old Bengali homes speak to each other – and you – in whispers, as you drive by. The pulse of daily life is so unhurried; the people unbothered to contribute more effort or concern than required.
It may be strange to draw this parallel, but I experienced something similar while visiting Cuba. The people were relaxed, but not overtly happy or unhappy. Like the buildings, gently grumbling as they crumble, the people seemed to exude a pleasant tolerance of the current state of affairs. I felt a sense of sincerity in all my interactions, from the pav bhaji stall to the designer boutique … an honesty with themselves, and with those who visit, about the way things are.
Driving down Red Road in the twilight, having tea and rum balls at Flury’s, or passing the Victoria Memorial in a horse-drawn buggy makes you feel part of the Calcutta of the 1950s. And then you realize, much of this is the Calcutta of the 1950s. As if the land has been frozen in time, for our amusement and wonder. The post-colonial charm is tangible, everywhere. Lady Kolkatta is endearing in her peculiarity.
Curious (er) facts:
- A Calcutta old wives tale: whoever eats the last morsel on the plate will marry the most handsome husband!
- Calcutta has one of the highest literacy rates in India. Insistent that the common man should be kept abreast of the latest news, the city posts newspapers in the vernacular on the walls every morning.
- The Botanical Gardens are home to the largest banyan tree in the world. It takes 10 minutes to walk around the tree trunk!
- The duty free shop in Calcutta has the cheapest liquor prices in the world!
Our hosts’ apartment was like a carefully curated museum of bazaar-bought home wares, Victorian-era furniture, and Anita Aunty’s paintings.
There were oodles of deliciously lazy moments in the house – tea and snacks every evening, feasts of Bengali dhal, chicken currys, and fresh rotis in the night, generous access to Mahesh Uncle’s fully-stocked bar … and most of all, tons of laughter.
It was luxury to nestle into the Burma teak sofas, speckles of colored light dancing on my wine glass from the Moroccan lamps. Mahesh Uncle, Anita Aunty, and Namrata took us in like family. I’ve always felt the best way to see a new city is through the eyes of those who call it their home.