Oh, India. I’m hard pressed to think of a country in the world that has so many ideas and fantasies projected onto it by potential travelers. Whether it be walking beautiful streets filled with colorful fabrics and the sweet smell of saffron in the air, taking a boat trip down the Ganges at sunset, riding a camel through the desert, or seeking spiritual enlightenment at a Shiva temple, I think most travelers at some point have experienced a certain fantasy of visiting this country. Some people go expecting to find peace and serenity, others excitement and adventure. Now I would never be so bold to say that any of those expectations are misguided or naive; after all, I was only in India for one month. But if I did learn one thing in that time, it’s that in a country that is larger than the entire region of Europe in both size and population, divided into 28 states, and comprised of six major and countless minor ethnic groups that speak over 200 languages, you can’t really expect that what you think is true about India on one street corner will still be true on the next.
Kolkata (or Calcutta, as it is known to most of the world) is the capital of the West Bengal region, and is known to many as the cultural center of India. That statement is open to debate, but as first impressions go, Kolkata offers an astounding introduction to the country. From the moment you step off the plane, you are immediately bombarded by an assault of sights, sounds, and smells. In one hour upon landing, we witnessed our first stray cow walking across the taxi rank at the airport, were given a primer on the Hindu pantheon of the gods by our auto rickshaw driver, and were crammed into an old metal subway car with a hundred Indian men on their way home from the office.
Once you’re over the initial shock and ready to head out, Kolkata offers plenty of tourist attractions, including the Victoria Memorial, the Birla Planetarium, and various museums, palaces, and temples. But simply taking a tram to the center of the old city and getting yourself lost can be a truly rewarding experience in and of itself. The area contains a fascinating mix of Indian and British culture. Old Kolkata was the capital of British imperial rule for over two hundred years, and walking around feels a bit like stepping back into the age of the Raj. 1950s Hindustan Ambassadors are everywhere, ranging from taxi yellow to royal white, sharing the road with tiny three-wheels autos and bicycle rickshaws and directed through chaotic intersections by traffic police wearing all-white uniforms, complete with white bobbies. Old Kolkata also contains the business center of the city, so densely packed that it often pours onto the streets. Typewriter-owners often set up shop on the sidewalk, drafting up correspondence and official documents for lower-class customers.
All this walking can of course produce a bout of hunger pangs, and on this point I can say without a doubt that Old Kolkata offers some of the best street food in the world. Cups of chana masala served up with fresh toast, big tubs of dal, and spicy potato samosas can be found in abundance on most street corners. But the absolute must-have is Kolkata’s specialty, the paneer wrap. Sautéed vegetables, with or without fried egg, mixed up with paneer (Indian cheese) and served in a wrapped chapatti. Sliced green chilis are optional but highly recommended if you can take the spiciness. And if you can’t, what the hell are you doing in India?
Finally, you should always top your meal off with a nice cuppa, the best being the masala chai served on the street. Served in tiny clay cups, the drink is an aromatic mix of strong black tea, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, with just a hint of caffeine. You’re always welcome to hang out near the chai wallah until your finished, after which you just throw your cup on the ground and watch it shatter. Really, they insist.
And no trip to Kolkata is complete without a visit to the Kalighat district. One of the oldest in the city, it features the dense collection of staggeringly beautiful and antiquated religious buildings. The Kalighat Temple itself is quite an experience. Prayer rituals in front of burning pyres, young girls crying as their mothers shave their heads, and to top it off, a baby goat getting decapitated. No pictures allowed inside, of course. This area stands as a stark contrast to the comparatively quaint city center, and one could easily spend weeks wandering the streets and alleyways surrounding the temples, crossing rivers of garbage and exploring slums packed to the gills with families. So which is the real Kolkata? I’m not sure it’s up to any of us to decide.