It was almost nine in the evening when our train reached the Howrah railway station, five and a half hours late. The moment we stepped down from the train, we were hit with this wave of enthusiastic coolies and the sticky humidity. Getting out of the station was a challenge because hundreds of fellow passengers were going in different directions all at the same time. Hawkers, coolies, beggars, policemen and hundreds of passengers with their annoying crying babies will make you want to leave the station as soon as possible. It was hard not to scream out in frustration and get on the next train home.
Over the next one and a half years, I stayed in the “City of Joy”. Yes, there were challenges of various magnitudes, ranging from finding an apartment to getting used to the greasy street food culture. As a guy who had lived much of his life in the northern part of the country, the whole Kolkata experience was quite enlightening.
This post is about sharing some of the things that I learnt about this great city during my stay there. Here is the Survival Guide to Kolkata.
Never discuss politics with the locals:
The locals here are passionate about a lot of things and one of the things that they are most passionate about is politics. You will find people discussing politics everywhere you go. Watching their antics and their hand movements from a distance can be a lot of fun but think twice before participating in the discussion as you never know when things turn real.
Never argue with a taxi driver or a rickshaw walah.
Yes, they are small in stature and built. Yes, you can probably beat the living hell out of them if it ever comes to that (99 times out of a 100, it will not come to that). The only thing is, the arguments here in Kolkata seem to go on forever. In the end, it is the person who can tolerate and continue the nonsense the longest that usually wins. Always negotiate the prices before you avail of their services and make sure that they understand exactly where you want to go.
The majority of the policemen are useless (I’m sorry but it is true)
If you are in a tough spot and you see a cop, in his white uniform coming to your rescue swinging his big round belly, do not drop your guard. There is a good chance that the cop will not only be useless and slow but irritating as hell. You might end up asking yourself, who the hell made this guy a cop.
Most of the roads in Kolkata are quite narrow and getting around especially during the peak hours, when all the private vehicles of the city are on the road, can cause considerable delays. During the evenings, most of the these roads become narrower at night when a large part of the road is taken over by road side trolleys selling all kinds of fruits, vegetable and random household items. If you are on your way to something important, make sure you leave with a decent amount of time at your disposal. Kolkata is not kind to people who are in a hurry to get somewhere.
The heat and the humidity
Kolkata is hot like the most of India, but the thing that makes it worse is the humidity. Make sure you have air conditioners installed in your home and office. In case you are planning a day out or your boss is making you plan one, grab a bottle of lemon juice to rejuvenate yourself when you are sweating your ass off under the sun.
Street food.. unhygienic but awesome!
You can find all sorts of good food in the streets of Kolkata. They maybe greasy, and unhygienic but they are cheap and delicious. If your stomach is up for the challenge, head to the Park Street area and have some chicken or mutton rolls. In case you want to try some sweets, always know that you are never too far from a shop selling mishti doi (sweet curd). Just ignore the flies that you see sitting on the sweets (It’s not like they would have been super safe to eat without the flies). If you want to eat what the locals eat, try some muri and telebhaja (puffed rice and fried vegetables). And of course, the people of Kolkata are known from their love for fishes. Try some.
Passion for sports
The Kolkatans are a passionate set of people. Be it cricket, football or a friendly game of carom, they love it and they live it. If you cannot see a soul on the streets on a sunny afternoon, don’t worry. They are probably at home watching a game. It may seem pretty harmless at first, but at times things can get violent when the supporters of different teams decide to take matter into their own hands. So, if you are going to watch an East Bengal v/s Mohan Bagan football match, it might be a good idea to not wear any of their jerseys. Wear the tight pink t-shirt that your mother gifted you on your birthday instead. Who knows, they might take it easy on you if you project yourself as a homo.
Biryani with eggs and potatoes
If you heading to Kolkata from some other part of the country,this is probably going to take some getting used to. Bengalis love potatoes and they are not afraid to use it, even in dishes with well chalked out recipes like the biryani. The reputed restaurant chains usually serve half a potato and a full hard boiled egg with the biryani. They taste pretty good though once you open your mind and get used to the idea.
You can see a lot of poor people in India, but the poverty in Kolkata is of a whole different level. Walking around even in the posh areas, you can see some of the skinniest beggars you have ever seen. You can see families, with little kids and newborns, living on the sidewalks.
In others parts of the country, beggars keep a distance, but here, do not be surprised if they tap on your shoulder or touch your arm asking for money. It may seem like a non-issue at first, especially because a firm “no” will drive them away, but it can get really irritating when they touch you when you are on the phone or are in a hurry to get somewhere or just took a shower. I know I may be coming off like a snobby jerk, but in the heat and humidity of Kolkata, you do not want even the Miss Universe to touch you unless it is absolutely necessary.
Get used to strikes, and political rallies
I think there are more strikes in West Bengal than anywhere else in the country. Almost all the shops and establishments are shut down during these strikes. People here take strikes very seriously, so if there is a strike coming up, make sure you stuff your fridge with food and stock your shelf with DVDs and magazines.
As for political rallies, they are just plain out annoying. There are very few things that I find more frustrating than being stuck in traffic on my way back home after a long tiring day. As you slowly drive down the narrow road filled with auto rickshaws and a sea of cars of all shapes and sizes, honking as if their lives depended on it, you see the root of the problem. The “leader” of a local political party is delivering a well rehearsed speech on a makeshift stage right on the middle of the road. It is hard not to shout profanities at him and take a vow to never vote in your life. Things like these make murderers out of simple hard working people. Hey, I’m just sayin’!
The festive season
October and November are usually the months during which the Durga Puja Festival is held in India. Kolkata is the best place to come to during these months but make sure that you book your flights and trains early because the seats tend to fill up quickly and lack of planning on your end can result in you shelling out a lot of extra cash.
Shopping areas in Kolkata range from the street markets of Bow Bazar and Sealdah to the brand crazy malls of Park Street and Salt Lake. Credit cards and debit cards are accepted in most of the high end shops and scams are pretty rare. Try visiting the City Centre Mall or Mani Square during the weekends when the atmosphere becomes festive. If you want a little more of local flavour, you can head to the markets of Maniktala, or Dharmtala. I would have advised you to go to Bara Bazaar as well, but it has been catching fire awfully lot lately.
The Bengali Rock ../
Kolkata has a very “happening” rock music scene with bands like Topu and Chandrabindu leading the pack. Yes, most of the upcoming bands are not good since all they care about is aping the rock legends rather than creating something original but every now and then, you hear something that will make you want to download it… legally or otherwise.
And finally… Books!
There is a reason why I created a special section on books. The Bengalis love their books, be it Hindi, Bengali, English or Sanskrit. I won’t be surprised if Kolkata turns out to be the most well read city in the country. So, if you are into books, be it new or old, Kolkata is a good place to browse. You can head to New Street or College Street for shops selling a wide variety of books in different genres. Frequented mostly by college students, many of the shops there buy and sell used books as well.
If you manage to look beyond the dirty street corners or the mismanaged administration, and embrace the rich heritage and history of the city, you will understand that Kolkata is unique. Be it the busy coffee houses or the laid back government offices, you will not find it hard to blend in. Just remember, Kolkata does things in its own unique way. Just go with the flow and everything will eventually make sense.
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