Life in Kolkata.....

Relocating from one city to another provides numerous arrows of narratives in the arsenal of personal experience. Some good, some funny, and some, ugly. For every shift bag and baggage, physical exertion and mental exhaustion come packaged as free gifts, not to forget an entirely new perspective.

The shift from ‘city beautiful’, Chandigarh, to the ‘city of joy’, Kolkata, has given me some unique instances to narrate and two lessons for the visitors/new inhabitants.

Our flight landed at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport, Kolkata, around 2:00 pm in the month of June. My husband and I were supposed to be picked up by a car to be sent from the guest house (where we were supposed to stay for the next 10 days). We looked in vain at all the name cards being flashed, nowhere was the name to be seen which meant our car was not here. Calling up the guest house further increased our waiting time only to be followed with an apology at the driver not being available at 2 pm. We decided to have a pre paid taxi booked.

The weather was mercilessly humid once we were outside the terminal trying to spot the taxi number printed on the payment slip. The congregation of yellow ambassador cabs on a hot and humid afternoon seemed a portion of sun’s yellow ray each. After waiting for about fifteen minutes punctuated with several enquiries from other taxi drivers, we finally spotted OUR TAXI. Eureka!  There was nobody in it. By now we were increasingly getting impatient. Sensing our trouble, another taxi driver came towards us. He informed that our taxi driver was asleep and that he would wake him up and get him soon.

‘Wow’, thought I, ‘sleeping at an hour when it’s time for a flight to land and passengers to travel towards the city! ‘

Finally, the sleepy man came and adorned his seat. With a still drowsy pair of eyes and sullen face, he asked the address. We informed him but were taken aback when he asked the tanki (water tank) number.

‘What tank number? We need to go to a guest house. ’

‘Madam, we identify the locality by tank number. There is no road number in that area.’

Again we had to call up the guest house attendant to seek this information.

(Special mention: He too sounded sleepy)

‘Tank number 13’

‘ok,ok’

My husband couldn’t resist his smile nor could I.

In an hour amidst snail paced traffic, sweating profusely, we reached the guest house after revolving and getting lost several times in the quagmire of numerous islands in the Salt Lake township (Island simply means the round-shaped traffic islands at various cross roads).

The first lesson: any place in Salt Lake is often recognized by the tank number or the nearest island. Of course, the house number follows. For any newcomer, finding a location in this township can be a daunting task.

After carrying our luggage to the room booked for us, the other two attendants were back to sleep. It seemed as if we were unwelcome guests in their afternoon reverie. After freshening up, I ordered lunch. Luckily, the cook was awake. We had the famous Bengali ‘maacher jhol’ (fish in gravy) and ‘bhaat’ (rice). Must admit, both of us pounced upon the food that day and breathed only after the last morsel was consumed.

House hunting began the next day. We contacted a broker who arrived promptly at 11 am. He had five houses in his kitty, from Salt Lake till Rajarhat, the New Town, areas being developed extensively on the outskirts of Kolkata.

A common thing I noted in almost all the houses we visited was that they were locked even during the day. When our broker called aloud to inform about his presence with the prospective tenants, it would generally take a long time for the owner/his representative to arrive with the key. At first, somebody would peep from the first floor and then ask ‘kay’(who is there?) and after being convinced about the visitors being the right people, would come down to ‘show the house’.

All this with us standing on the road in front of the house till the convincing part went on!

Some aged owners, especially  the women of those houses, looked at me as if x-raying me from top to bottom trying to ascertain if I was indeed a married person (blame it on my attire: jeans). Surely, I changed to salwar suit to create a better impression from next day onwards till the day we found a house that suited our taste and budget. Who says there is no aura (electromagnetic waves, in scientific terms) around a person? I, despite not being a parapsychologist, realized that this aura is capable of sending clear signals and the signal here was – ‘if you do not dress up appropriately in Indian attire, you will not get any house.’

One of the landlords laid out a condition after inquiring whether I was working or not:

‘We will rent out the house only if there is somebody staying in the house all the time. If you work, we cannot.’

What had my poor job to do with the decision of the house being rented out or not! We were confused. He told specifically how concerned he was about increasing instances of theft in the area and that if there was nobody in the house during the day, chances of burglar attacks increased manifold.

‘They even have guns at times.’

‘Phew!’ I had nothing to say. Really. What would I do if a burglar with gun attacked the house even with MY presence in it! Was the house owner looking for a tenant or a security guard?

And that too a thin and fragile person like me! Ha, ha.

My husband said ‘Thank you sir’ and moved out. I followed. He later mocked at me- ‘you will save his house, the strong, muscular Sonal!’

On the sixth day of our arrival in the city, we finally managed to like a house. The owners seemed nice and had no objection to my working status. The rent agreement was prepared soon and we shifted in two days.

It’s the house that we stay in currently. There is a local market nearby that caters to most of our household needs.

Five months in Kolkata.  Enough to know what this place is about.  An unconscious evaluation always hovers at the back of the mind. There are vast differences on many parameters between Chandigarh and this city, the first being the size of the roads and space; the second, lifestyle. We keep comparing. People here live life as if life is forever which is good in a way. This brings me to the second lesson.

Visiting shops in Kolkata between 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm (stretch it to 5:00 pm in case of local shops) will be punishment for the needy because it’s ‘sleep-time’ for shopkeepers and the attendants during these hours and nothing could wake them up. Trust me. This schedule is true for some other sections too (some offices) who I would not like to name for fear of being sued 😉

As an outsider-turned-temporary inhabitant of the city, I must say food is good here. People are simple but do not open up easily or at times, even favorably, to non-Bengalis. For our enjoyment, we often relish the melt-in-the-mouth sweets, mishit doi (sweetened curd) and good non vegetarian food. In October, we soaked in the Durga Pooja fervor, absolutely awed and mesmerized by the beauty and grandeur of this celebration. The spirit was palpable in the air.

We have enjoyed visits to tourist attractions like the Victoria Memorial, Belur Math, Dakshineshwar Temple and loved the panoramic view of the Howrah Bridge, built upon the Hooghly River. Sadly, this beauty is lost in the filth and garbage, capable of anesthetizing the good senses.

What I have not been able to adjust with till date is the traffic and humidity and the sight of people sleeping for so long.  It amuses me, surprises me. For one who has had a chance to stay in cities like Bhopal, Mumbai and Chandigarh, used to a different lifestyle, Kolkata comes across as a question. But I am sure, for many, this city may be the answer. I am still trying to come to terms with it. As somebody said to me:   ‘this place grows on you with time.’ I hope so too.

Am I dozing off? The clock is ‘striking thirteen’! Ummm, one!

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22 responses »

  1. Varun Reddy says:

    I heard a lot about the food there… I am fond of Fish and one day I plan to visit the city just to eat “maach” !!!

    • Sonal Shree says:

      If you like kebabs and biryani, make sure you visit Flame and Grill.
      They serve unlimited food – at first a variety of kebabs- veg and non-veg or both, as per your choice, and then a buffet.
      For Chinese, of course, there is Mainland China.
      For ‘maach’, ‘Oh, Calcutta’ and several other restaurants.
      Oh yes, one thing that will surprise you in Kolkata will be discovery of big round potatoes in Chicken biryani (I was shocked initially).
      Discovering more 🙂

  2. Varun Reddy says:

    Nice… That’s the first positive blog-description I have heard from a non-Bengali 🙂 Have a great stay there 🙂

    • Sonal Shree says:

      Hi Varun

      Thanks for stopping by and good wishes.

      I had only two options – either to lament and complain about the bad or be happy and appreciate the good aspects, tackling the bad good humoredly.
      I chose the latter.

      Discovering the city each weekend.

      Food is great, really, for those who know the exact places to be in.

  3. Dear Sonal.

    A lovely account of Kolkata from your perspective. An aam aadmi’s or should I say aaurath’s views about the place she is residing in.

    I liked the interesting narration.

  4. Indrani Talukdar says:

    Kolkatta is one place you love or hate, nothing in between. I am not too enamored myself, but what keeps it going are the people; they are warm-hearted and witty- just like your blog! Very good, Sonal.

    • Sonal Shree says:

      Hi Indrani. Thanks for reading and commenting. For me, its a love-hate relationship for Kolkata. Moment I start falling in love with it, something or the other happens for worse and changes my opinion.
      Some of my acquaintances are really good while some, just the opposite but I am sure its more to do with human nature rather than being a Bengali or a non- Bengali.
      For now, ‘I am loving it’- non-veg food, the ‘cool’ weather and light woollens.
      Thanks for your appreciation. 🙂

      By the way, I have posted some photographs of Kolkata on my FB account. See them, I am sure you’d like.

  5. Geetashree Chatterjee says:

    And yes, the photograph is superbly shot. Looking for some more.:)

    • Sonal Shree says:

      For this, we must thank Shail. She does a commendable job:)
      I have some photographs of Kolkata which I will upload on facebook.

  6. Geetashree Chatterjee says:

    So at last ! You did write about your Kolkata experience. Good.

    I was born in Kolkata which was just an accident because soon after we migrated to the Capital and I completely lost touch with my unofficial home town. (I consider Delhi as the official one as I understand this city’s pulse more than my own.)

    By a trick of fate, I was again thrown into the city’s vortex and made to stay there for an interminable eight long years. I hated it as much as you are trying to get accustomed to it. But again as wise men have said ‘the city grows on you”. It did.

    I learnt the city more through hearsays and wanderings and less by reading.

    The problem arises when we try to know Kolkata by comparing it with other cities and metros.

    The secret of enjoying the city lies in developing a taste for it, something like learning to savour sushi.

    I hope you get my point!!! 🙂

    Well written. It does give an “aerial view and ethos” of the city of joy.

    In your next blog, a more microscopic one is expected 🙂

    • Sonal Shree says:

      Well, I am trying. In fact, of late, I have consciously stopped comparing Kolkata with any other metro I have stayed in. Feels better.
      by the way, the wise wo-‘man’ who told me ‘the city grows on you’ was you dear. Remember our chat?
      🙂
      Thanks for stopping by.

  7. deepika says:

    Well written piece of writng. I can imagine your situation very well and you know it why? Initially its difficult to adjust at a new place but gradually we learn to adjust accordingly. I’m also trying hard to do so.

    • Sonal Shree says:

      Glad I found an empathizer. Hope you have adjusted well in your new surroundings. I am trying.
      Thanks for the appreciation.:)

  8. Beyniaz says:

    Interesting account! Enjoyed reading this blog.

  9. vimala ramu says:

    A delightful account,Sonal. I notice that one thing you have not come across in Kolkata is their short tempers. They are easily provoked and fights are quite common.
    On the other hand you have that atmosphere of culture,literature and fine arts.
    A unique city indeed as you will get to know as you go along.

    • Sonal Shree says:

      Hmm, I have not taken note of this ‘short temper’ factor but can surely recall few things. You are right. Have you had such experience here?
      Am trying to know Kolkata better each day.
      Glad you enjoyed reading 🙂

  10. Sneha says:

    I’ve been to Kolkata about five times, Sonal 🙂 And I’m sure you know why. My boyfriend’s from Kolkata, now in Mumbai with me. Although, hiding it from all his cronies, we’ve managed to escape some good and pleasant memories of the city. I agree that one perspires a lot in the city. However, I like the lazy feel of the city which makes you feel like time is ticking away at our own pace; me seldom getting time to even blink an eye in Mumbai ! 🙂
    Would be great if you could mail me some pictures of Kolkata. I’ll treasure them.

    Loved your descriptions, by-the-way… of the landlords and the ‘kay’ question. Also, what was he even thinking when he said that you shouldn’t be working because of fear of thefts (sometimes even guns!) Don’t tell me you’re going to become a bodyguard soon 😉

    • Sonal Shree says:

      Hi Sneha

      Would definitely send you some pics of Kolkata. Give me a week’s time. Am just back from home and too lazy to do anything at this juncture.
      You like the lazy feel of the city- see how lazy I have become!
      Bodyguard-ing and me, ha, ha!
      Am glad you enjoyed the descriptions.

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