Kolkata – ‘The City for All’
Train travels have always lent a special touch to many of the journeys I have done over forty five years of my existence. These special moments, courtesy of Indian railways date back to the early 1970s when I used to travel with my father to Madras during my childhood where I did my primary schooling. The memories of such journeys along the meter gauge track connecting Egmore to Kollam remains evergreen in memory. Train travels, especially in the Indian subcontinent has a charm and is seamlessly interwoven into every Indian’s travel dreams. Traveling cheap while experiencing the Indian cultural and linguistic diversity is the highlight of train journeys from South to North or East to West. This visit to Kolkata began with one such journey. A journey by train from Trivandrum to this historic city, ‘the city of joy’ now rechristened the ‘city for all’.
This visit to Kolkata was a special one since it was my first visit to this cultural hub of India. The days before independence turbulent with national spirit yearning for freedom, imbibed the energy and spirit of Kolkata to propel Indian nationalism to its ultimate goal. Nethaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the fiery spirit of Indian nationalism against the British rule was a son of this great city. His views different from those of Gandhi, might have given India a superior position in the Asian and International scenario had the revolution succeeded. We reached Shalimar station, one the four major railway stations in Kolkata by Gurudev express from Trivandrum on 12th November 2013, by 3.50 pm, two hours behind schedule. Our driver, Siddarth was waiting outside as we walked out from the platform. Soon we were driving out into the heart of Kolkata. The most striking feature of this metropolis is presence of numerous old buildings, some more than two hundred years old along with new ones. The Howrah Bridge which is was renamed Rabindra Sethu in 1965 towering above the Hoogly river which is in fact the Ganges was a sight to behold as our cab passed through it. Siddarth gave a good account of its history and other building and monuments on either side as we drove on. Hoogly by the sheer volume of water it contained was an astounding sight. Numerous vessels and Barges could be seen plying along it. West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC) offers rides in the rivers at different rates.
I was surprised to find neatness and systematic traffic on the roads contrary to my belief that Kolkata was place of utter chaos. This turned out to be mirage as the ugly face of Kolkata soon surfaced. The dusty and dirty Kolkata was evident was we moved on. Soon the cab entered a quiet and dainty street which had sidewalks and reminded me of the China town in Singapore where I was a year back. The streets were not as broad but clean and lined with old palatial buildings. This was posh area, I was told. We alighted at the 2nd house, the hotel where, my dear friend, Venugopal native of Kannur and resident of Kolkata for the past forty years had arranged our accommodation. Thanks to his influence, we could get a deluxe room at a very cheap rate.
Even though tired after the long journey, I could not resist myself from strolling through the streets to the lake side near our hotel while Babu, my colleague and companion opted to rest in the room. This park as one would more aptly call it is one of the many water bodies in the city situated amidst greenery. Lot of youngsters along with the opposite sex could be seen in the green shades. It was getting dark even though the time was only 5 pm. The phenomenon of early fading of day light is very evident in north east regions. By the time I reached back to the hotel room, it was quite dark and somehow coaxed Babu to go out once again. Kalighat, where the famous temple of Kali is located was only 1.5 km away from our hotel. Even though festivities associated with Durga Pooju were over only a few days back, the place was all colorful. The typical Kolkatan spirit was evident as a procession passed us with men, women and children dancing and singing with gaiety and fervor following a huge idol of Kali on a truck. Celebrations in Kolkata are marked with indulgence and enjoyment. The temple, I would say did not have the neatness, associated with those in Kerala. Nevertheless the sincerity and faith was obvious.
The next day began with a cab ride to the Tourism center of WBTDC located about six km away from out hotel. Our host had booked two tickets through WBTDC for a one day city tour. It turned out to be worthwhile experience considering the low cost of tickets (Rs. 450/- per head) and number of places covered. We reached the WBTDC tourism center by 8.30 am to report for the tour. Since there was sufficient time, we decided to have breakfast from the vendor supplying iddlies and chutney in front of Tourism office. It turned out to be a good idea as the food was tasty and the cost did not cut into our pockets. The tour started at 9.30 am with a window side view of Raj Bhavan, Akashwani Bhavan, Bidhan Sabha, High Court, Treasury building, St. John’s church, GPO building, Writers building before entering the Howrah Bridge. A commentary by the guide about the history and importance of buildings and sights on either side of the road was highly informative. We stopped at Belur Math, which was built and is being maintained by Sri Ramakrishna Math. This is place of exquisite beauty both in terms of natural and man-made landmarks. Set in the tranquil surroundings on the banks of Hoogly, the prayer hall is housed in a building which is an architectural marvel. It was difficult to digest the fact that such a place could exist in chaos and din of Kolkata. After spending some time there we departed to the Dakshineswar temple. Here Matha Kali is the chief deity with twelve Shiva lingas housed in the adjoining area along the banks of Hoogly. Along the bathing ghat near to this many pilgrims were seen performing pooja and taking dips in the waters of Hoogly.
Our next stopover was the Jain temple, which again is an architectural splendor though of a different kind. The intricate drawings and carvings on the wall are a sight to behold. A small shop in the premises gives tourists an opportunity to buy ornaments of local make. The Police museum which was the next stop displayed an impressive array of weapons and gave an insight into the history of Bengal State Police Force. Raja Ram Mohan Roy museum, our next halting point was this great man’s ancestral home. His works, writings and other contributions are displayed supported with documentary evidence. This was a truly enlightening moment of my life. During the stop over for lunch our guide showed us a restaurant which was famous for Bengal fish curry. The taste was quite different from that of Kerala style fish curry, but quite delicious.
The first monument on the way as the tour resumed after lunch was the Shaheed Minar followed by the town hall and the historic Eden gardens. We alighted at the Nethaji Bhavan, the residence of Nethaji Subhash Chandra Bose. The inspiring pictures of Nethaji and the letters penned by him during the period ranging from mid 1930’s to late 1940’s choked me with emotion. I couldn’t help wondering where India would have been among world nations had Nethaji been successful in realizing his dream. The car in which Nethaji escaped to Burma when British stormed his house is still preserved in the same state in the front yard.
After bidding adieu to Nethaji’s residence, we proceeded to Victoria Museum, the jewel of Kolkata. This monumental building nestled amidst acres of sprawling gardens gave a sense of being in some European country.
On the next day and our last at Kolkata, after having breakfast at Banana leaf, a popular South Indian restaurant, we decided to try the metro and trams of the city. The metro though not as sophisticated the one in Delhi is a cheap and fast way to get around. Boarding at Kalighat we got off at Esplanade. To get a true feel of Kolkata we took a hand pulled rickshaw to the tram station. Boarding a tram from Esplande we got down at Kalighat to complete a full circle. The tram, a cost effective and pollution free mode of transportation is the trademark of Kolkata. Promoting tram rides in association with Department of Tourism is a sure way to attract tourists, both domestic and international to Kolkata.
That night after a cab ride to Sealdah, a bustling station about fifteen kms away from our hotel we boarded the Uttar Banga express to New Jalpaiguri (Siliguri) at 7.40 pm. Priyanka a young lady who works in Kolkata and my co-traveler in the train shared her experiences in Kolkata which gave food for thought. The night lying in the upper berth of the train compartment, the thoughts of Kolkatan experiences kept me awake for quite some time. The most striking aspect was that the culture and essence of Kolkata lies in the system which moves along smoothly in the chaotic hustle and bustle inter woven into the lives of every Kolkatan.