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Forget the Taj Mahal and pink Jaipur, take me to the chaos of Kolkata

Richard Vines

Bloomberg

 /  Wed, April 29, 2020  /  11:04 am
Forget the Taj Mahal and pink Jaipur, take me to the chaos of Kolkata

Kolkata isn’t for everyone. If it is a jewel of a city, it is cracked and flawed, like a broken heart. (Bloomberg/File)

On a rundown lane in north Kolkata stands a neoclassical building filled with treasures from around the world.

The  Marble Palace is crumbling and dilapidated, with an air of neglect. Inside, your footsteps echo in the dusty halls and imposing ballroom: There are few visitors. Each room is packed with an extraordinary, eclectic jumble of furniture, sculptures, and objets d’art, as well as paintings by the likes of Reynolds and Rubens. It feels like the long-forgotten storeroom of an abandoned museum.

This is the collection of a merchant called Raja Rajendra Mullick, who built the palace in 1835 when Calcutta (as it was then called) was the capital of India and the second city of the British Empire, behind London. It could be a metaphor. Calcutta was a great city—home to magnificent buildings and a center for trade and culture—like Venice, only without the canals.

As great world cities come and go, Calcutta came and went. I just can’t wait to get back.

The British decided to switch the capital to Delhi in 1911, and Kolkata has since become better known internationally for poverty than for riches. It’s no coincidence that Mother Teresa’s Mother House is one of the leading tourist attractions. 

I first visited in 1981, when I was 27 years old and in Asia for the first time. Even the airport, then called Dum Dum, had an exotic ring to it. That was nothing, compared to the sensory overload of the city itself: the vast crowds, the anarchic roadways, the heat, the noise, the smells, the broken buildings. Rickshaw drivers competed with battered buses for pathways through the chaos.

Imagine visiting India, and you might think of  the Taj Mahal, the palaces of Jaipur, or the beaches of Goa. All are great. But you are missing out. Kolkata is a magical city with heart and soul, raw energy and passion.

When I returned last year, the rickshaws were gone, and it was Uber drivers picked their way through the mass of people. But not a lot else had changed. The sounds and smells—of spice and sweat—are unfiltered in this capital city of West Bengal, where the challenges of commerce and survival have triumphed over any desire to make it nice for tourists.

Yes, there are fine tourist attractions. The marble Victoria Memorial Hall is among the most impressive. This architectural wedding cake sits in 57 acres of gardens with fountains, its white walls and domes catching the sunlight. Construction began in 1906, before the decision to move the capital, and was completed long after. It came like a beautifully dressed guest arriving after the party has ended.

There are many others, such as the Dakshineswar Kali Temple; St. Paul’s Cathedral;  and the Indian Museum. My favorites include the boxy Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly river; the red-brick Howrah Junction Railway Station, the oldest in India, which opened in 1854; and St. John’s Church, where there is a discreet memorial for the Black Hole of Calcutta,  a dungeon in which dozens of captured Europeans died in 1756.

Read also: 10 tips for first-time visitors to India

But it’s on the streets and in the markets you can really pick up the buzz of Kolkata. No need to take my word for it. Just listen to one of Kolkata’s most famous daughters, Asma Khan, the first UK chef to be featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table:

“I was born there, and I love it because that city has a soul: There is a beauty in the decay, and then there is the huge warmth of the people, which you notice partly because there are not dazzling buildings that take the breath away,” she tells me. “One of my best childhood memories is that my father used to take us out late at night when the city was sleeping. We’d drive round the old commercial part, and my father would tell me: ‘This is what London looked like before the [wartime] bombing.’ He is a storyteller, and we used to imagine we had been transported back to this amazing city built by the same people. 

“We have been let down over the years because the city has not had a proper voice speaking up for us. The city has so many stories but unless you come, you will never hear them. The only way to discover Calcutta is if you come there, and you will immediately realize you have come somewhere magical: the architecture, the food, the people. There were layers of history even before the British arrived and then there is a rich colonial history. There’s so much to discover.”

Khan says there are three strands to the city’s culinary richness: Traditional Bengali cuisine, led by seafood; Mughlai food, which arrived when the British exiled the Lucknow court to then-Calcutta in 1856; and Muslim dishes. Her go-to places are Nizam’s, behind New Market, for kati  (kebab) rolls; followed by Flurys bakery on Park Street for a chocolate-boat pastry and a pot of Darjeeling tea.

While some of the best food is to be found in local joints in the bustling New Market area and in the commercial district of B.B.D. Bagh, you might feel just a little intimidated as a visitor. Still, you should not miss the local variety of biryani, a rice dish to which potatoes are added in Kolkata, at Arsalan on Park Circus. It’s a large, inexpensive, and very popular casual restaurant. Don’t be surprised to see Chinese dishes on the menu. Many restaurants reflect Kolkata’s diverse history and culture.

My own favorite is Mocambo, a restaurant time capsule that appears to have changed little since it opened in 1956. If the starched, white tablecloths are stiff, they are as nothing compared to the waiters in their smart uniforms. Service is formal, courteous, and solicitous. They pad across the thickly carpeted room to pour you an ice-cold beer or to bear such dishes as mulligatawny (spicy soup); prawn cocktail; chicken a la Kiev; egg curry; and meringue with vanilla ice.

Peter Cat is another fine restaurant with a similarly eclectic menu, from chicken cocktail sausages through brain masala and even American banana split. Honestly, after a day or two of the noise and heat of Kolkata, it’s a joy to retreat to a quiet place with air conditioning and cold drinks.

For traditional Bengali cuisine, there is the less-chichi Aaheli, tucked away in the Peerless Inn. When I visited for lunch, the other diners in the ornate, windowless dining room were all Indian families, perhaps untroubled by the fact that alcohol isn’t served. You can order fish dishes such as Dhumrogondhi Eilish, boneless smoked hilsa (similar to herring) cooked in mustard, and a wide variety of vegetarian options that include Piyaz Aloo Posto (potato cubes and onions, cooked with coarsely-ground poppy seeds).

If  you are not feeling adventurous, you can eat very well in the five-star Taj Bengal hotel. My final meal, in the Sonargaon restaurant, was among the best. There’s no shame in enjoying dishes such as Gucchi Kumbh Mattar—a curry with mushrooms and green peas—or roasted leg of baby lamb in luxurious surroundings. 

Kolkata can be comfortable for visitors. Prices are low, and there are charming luxury hotels, especially the historic Oberoi Grand, where I stayed on my most recent visit. I’d first read about it in one of my favorite works of fiction—The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, and the hotel retains its colonial charm. Afternoons spent beside the pool, sipping chilled Indian white wine while shaded by palm trees, were a welcome respite from the cacophony and chaos of Kolkata, much as I love it.

Kolkata isn’t for everyone. If it is a jewel of a city, it is cracked and flawed, like a broken heart. Please take me back.

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