Oh Kolkata!

In Kolkata after more than a decade! My favourite city and my favourite spot, New Market! In spite of living in cities and watching the growth of the cities of Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Delhi over the years, I was taken aback by Kolkata’s growth. Growth of population, crowds like I have not seen anywhere, not even in Chandni Chowk or Babu Bazar the old city in Delhi and Jaipur. Growth of traffic. Cars, SUVs and Trucks! Only in Kolkata do you see the large rounded Ambassador cars of the 1960-70s! Mostly operating as taxis and of course my official Government appointed car! In one of those ambassador cabs on the streets in the late afternoon the traffic and crowds are like no other city! Traveling from Dunlop bridge in  Baranagar, through Barrackpore Trunk Road, Chittaranjan Avenue to Esplanade was a strange feeling and the pleasure of being back in this old city of my childhood!

In no other city do the buildings look so  quaint! At the same time in large stretches and areas the buildings wear an unpainted and dilapidated look! Outside the New Market I saw a building which made me wonder how it was still standing there. I almost rushed past and later felt foolish at my reaction. The light was fading in the evening when I thought I should capture it on camera! Those windows with wooden shutters, typical of Kolkata, could be seen in all the old buildings. Such a look of antiquity! At the same time there is dirt and squalor all around. Shacks made of all materials including thatch, and people living on the footpaths.

One way to judge general poverty of the local population is the clothes worn by the people on the streets. In Kolkata I saw, what looks like the lower middle and poor class, women wearing sarees and men wearing kurtas that looked old, worn out and often dirty. The other state I noticed this recently was in Bihar and the City of Patna.  That is not to say there is no poverty and squalor in Delhi or cities of Western India.

The area around New Market was unrecognisable! I was afraid the cab driver was taking me to the wrong place. He warned me that due to December 25 and 31, the crowds were unmanageable. That was an understatement, I soon discovered. So the driver dropped me off on the main road. All the area around New Market was converted to walking zones. And hawker zones! It was fascinating for the informal sector sympathiser and researcher in me!  However, I was totally disoriented. My decade old memory was failing me! Where do I find the front of the New Market? I asked around for the old shoe shops I knew were in the front lanes. “Keep walking ahead” I was told. OK, be bold. I wound around the crushing populace oozing out of all lanes, hawker tents, shops and managed to find the front of the main building. The wide road in front which was a fancy street five decades ago was a pedestrian street now! I had memories of seeing “The Sound of Music” three times in the Globe Theatre across the New Market, father searching for parking in the middle of the wide street! Could not judge whether Globe Theatre still existed, as the thought of crossing that overcrowded ‘Hawker Zone’ to investigate was frightening!

So I proceeded to enter New Market from the front!!! My ambition, to find the shops that sold leather shoes and leather bags! I can imagine my daughter and husband frowning! Too many shoes and too many bags!! I remembered that she did not let me buy one more ‘juthee’ at Jaipur during Diwali! I found the shoe and bags shop lane inside the Market and entered the shoe store. Well! Many of them attracted me, I tried a few, but decided I did have too many!! “Where is the bag store?” I demanded of the boy. “Across the lane” he said. Sure enough there were many, I entered one. An old man with a beard sat behind a small counter! Now! It was difficult to decide, what size of bag, for what purpose, and what colour? Well bags to fit in my various gadgets, laptop, iPad and iPhone!  Hmmm, I decide, I will not get one for my laptop as carrying a large bag was bad for the back! And of course I had a few. iPad?? Hm, well I picked one from many. IPhone? A clutch bag or one with a long strap? The former is stylish, but the latter is more practical for practical institute going humans like me! So I pick one, “do you have more colours in this design?” Sure, he does not get up, but shouts for a helper who stands outside. The guy was missing. The boy of the neighbouring store helps out. I pick coffee coloured bag, both actually. That reminded me later that the large laptop bag at home, was also of the same colour! No matter. Mission accomplished!

Now to check out the Market. My decade old memory does not fail me this time. The bakery we frequented was exactly where it was earlier! Except for the crowds, all was the same. To accommodate the crowds, they had placed a large counter in the middle of the large long shop! And there was general confusion! The meat store area was exactly behind this store, where I expected it to be. The dried fruit store, cookie stores were all intact, except bursting at the seems and over flowing into the narrow lane! Do I try to get orange peels for my Christmas cakes? I did not see them easily and gave up!

Interesting thing about New Market is that there are no Bengali sweet stores within the main building! That was my memory, but I decided to check with a number of people. All of them guided me to exit the main Market  building from the back and then the instructions were varied. My next mission, with many reminders from home, was to buy ‘Sondesh’, the delicious Bengali milk sweet! So with that in mind I exit from the rear. Absolute and even greater confusion prevails outside. Where do I go? Again with instructions from passerby I find a fascinating street! On half the street cars are jam packed!! “How do they ever get them out?”, the thought passes my mind. On the other half every form of vehicle is plying, cars, autos, cycle rickshaws and the quintessential hand drawn rickshaw which exists only in Kolkata! Think I have seen it in the narrow lanes of old city of Lucknow too! And humans of course, including me. The street pedestrian paths are covered and there are food stores, restaurants actually. So I venture to ask again! “Oei dhikane” he points vaguely is some direction “Gopal Krishna it is called”. OK, now that is more precise. I enter another crowded, generally dirty and filled-with-squalor lane!! And I find it. Brown ‘Sondesh’ lasts longer! I cannot resist “Misti Dhohi”, only for me, unfortunately as it cannot last two days. Mission 2 accomplished!!

How do I find a taxi? Another confused and packed street with non-stop streaming traffic, one way street! I try to flag down a yellow taxi, none stop, one refuses. I begin to despair! I stay far away, it had taken me an hour to get here. I had discovered that auto rickshaws only do the local rounds here. One I spoke to in Baranagar did not know or had not heard of New Market! Fortunately I find my self in front of Elite Cinema house, a distinct landmark. OK, let me try my OLA App!! A few taxis seem to be in range, how will they get to me on this jam packed one way street? I try. The guy I speak too sounds unfazed by the task of reaching me at Elite Cinema! So I wait, barely missed being run over by speeding buses trying to get past the green light at the cross roads! Ravi, the cab driver arrives, I see him across the street. Amazingly he identifies me in that streaming traffic and is watching. Maybe the phone in my hand and my trying to reach him on phone, did the trick. I actually manage to cross the mad street unhurt and dump myself and my precious goods in the back seat of the OLA cab! Ravi is not concerned with the long drive! And so backwards, Chittaranjan Avenue, Barrackpore Trunk Road, Baranagar and Dunlop Flyover!!! Relieved to be back in the government guest house in good old Kolkata!

I am sorry I did not capture the confusion on camera! But I have captured it in my memory, and hopefully in this blog! Oh Kolkata, Calcutta of my childhood!

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