Home to 14.5million people, where you can still travel by hand-pulled rickshaw (if your conscience allows), where you can get chai for 3p on every street corner, and where pollution clouds the sky but not the hearts and minds of its inhabitants. Kolkata is a city oozing with soul.
Within Micha’s first few hours of being awake in the country I thrust us both through the open doors of a passing bus heaving with people hanging on for their lives as it careered its way through the onslaught of traffic and propelled us into the epicentre of this throbbing city, with the driver’s hand glued firmly to the horn. We spent most of the first two days of Micha’s “holiday” walking these streets, mouths and eyes wide open, trying to inhale the “impressions per metre” (quote Micha) but not the pollution. Every inch of space had been given a purpose, within 5 metres you can find someone cutting hair, another cutting vegetables and a third cutting cloth.
We visited the tourist sights of St Pauls cathedral, saw a light show at the Victoria memorial and walked up a glowing Park Street adorned with Christmas decorations (not unlike Oxford Street back home) complete with designer shops and fancy restaurants. And when our legs became too tired to walk any further we hopped on a boat for a soothing paddle amongst floating plastic on the ganges, letting the noise of the traffic, animals and children drift into the distance.
On day 2 we found ourselves amidst a crowd of about ONE MILLION people (that’s like 7 Glastonbury festival’s worth) pouring into the city for a meeting of the communist political party. They previously ruled the state of West Bengal for 34 years, ending in 2011, and supposedly “faded into the distance” since then – hard to believe this was a dying party from the constant stream of supporters arriving on foot, boat and buses full to burst coming from villages as far as the outskirts of the state, flags and body parts dangling out of windows and roofs filled with grinning, singing, chanting, clapping, drum banging horn blowers.
The less frequent of these visitors to the city made the most of this rare opportunity to drink and bath in the ganges, swimming amongst the empty food and drink wrappers, filling up water bottles to take murky holy water back with them. We watched intrigued as fathers instructed small children to cup the brown sacred water and splash it into their mouths.
Finally we returned to our Salt Lake sanctuary, dusty, tired and a little overwhelmed. Kolkata is such a huge hive of activity and so full of life, everyone has their purpose, from the smart business men in their tailored silk suits, to the bare footed street cleaners sweeping away the debris from the previous day in the early morning. We barely scraped the surface of understanding this complex city and needed some time and space to reflect. So it was back to the office for me for a few days, with a new appreciation for the peacefulness it provided, before heading up into the mountains in search of blue sky and fresh air…