Jul 2, 2008

extremes in steamy kolkata

warning. this post contains mayhem, enjoy responsibly.

this weekend i visited kolkata, one of india's great (i mean large) cities. it is located in west bengal, in the top-right corner of the india map. my colleague joshua took me with him, as he went visiting his parents. kolkata used to be the capital of india under the british rule, and this has influenced the city, in some places it has a faint londonish feel to it. it is also a very humid city, it was steamy now in the monsoon, lush green in some places.

joshua is coming from a well educated, christian, wealthy family, and i crashed at their place for my 2.5 nights there. his parents were very hospitable and also very interested in me. it was a nice experience to be a real indian family's guest. view from the balcony:

the weekend held some surprises for me. in just 24 hours between noon saturday and noon sunday i saw and experienced two very far ends of the lucky scale.

saturday afternoon, while crossing the river hooghly in the northern regions of kolkata, i saw a man laying face down on the rocks of the riverbank. he seemed a little strange, even though there are thousands of people laying in various poses and various places all the time all around in indian cities. this man was dead, and this was obvious at first glance. i looked around. maybe to see if other's also noticed him. if they find a body in the canal in dublin, it always makes the news, and of course it is removed/buried. here it seemed that i was the only one finding this a little strange, and definitely nobody wanted to do anything about the body. i have never seen a dead body before. i took some photos, and realized once again, that the life of the indian poor is very, very cheap. these people and streetdogs are treated pretty much the same way in their lives and in their deaths too. i was a little hesitant about posting the photo of the body here, but then i decided that this is probably the only written notice of this unlucky person's death, and also because of illustration for this post, i am going to place a link to it, here.

so after this episode, later in the evening, we sat back to joshua's car and asked his chauffeur to bring us to the 37th best restaurant in the world, which is also number 1 in india. it is in the itc sonar hotel, and has 2 michelin stars, serving indian cuisine (at least this is what i was told, however my research shows different, see end of post). i was invited to the kitchen where 3 chefs explained and demonstrated me in detail how the naan is done. then they gave me the naan fresh from the tandoor on a white plate. the food was really nice of course, actually we did not even get to order, because the manager of the restaurant was joshua's childhood friend, so the chef took care of our table. we did not get to pay at all of course at the end, although i would have been very happy to pay, the food was really nice. again i remembered the poor unlucky guy on the riverside... some get nothing, some get everything, sometimes even for free..

the next morning we went to have brunch at the tollygunge golf club, which is a vintage, members only, exclusive club founded by the british. one of joshua's friend's grandfather is a member there, so we got in as conditional member and guests. i had a great english breakfast with tea, and called my friends in dublin and hungary to tell them about it. the friend in dublin is visiting me this weekend in india, the friend in hungary was on his way to rome for holidays... some of us are so so lucky, while others are so miserable.

kolkota is not a great city, but it has the potential to be one. just that it is running to its destruction like many other indian cities, not being able to stop growing endlessly, therefore suffocating from its gigantic poor masses and its army of four wheeled monsters. i judge cities based not on a few nice places, but on the overall picture. kolkata, like most gigapolises, has some parts that function, but the city as a whole is disfunctional.

verdict. the hospitality and the experience of being the guest of an indian family is a solid five stars. the roller coaster between luckland and misery, the whole understanding and thoughts it gave me is again a five star. lastly, the city itself, its sights and eateries was worth 3 stars to me.

update: my research on the best restaurants of the world reveal that the best restaurant in india is also the best restaurant in asia, and it is not the itc sonar, but the bukhara in the itc maurya in delhi. the bukhara was world 37th in 2007, but it actually did not make the top50 in 2008.


Ricco said...

Man this is the world we are living in. India is just a reflection of our planet. If you look at the larger picture people in the north (lets call it like that) have easy lives and treat people in the south like "streetdogs". I dont think you or i think about this on a daily basis, why should Indians do? Just because it is more visible?

Tornádó said...

Great post... The dead man's picture is shocking and I think it's good you posted it. Gives me a better perception how lucky I am.

g. said...

well definitely, this is the world we are living in, and i agree with your larger picture too.

to help you understand my post better: i was actually thinking about this larger picture, and even larger pictures since my late teenage years on a more or less daily basis. i wrote my master thesis on international development cooperation and sustainability. so for me being in india, and finally experiencing the reality, what i know so well from graphs, data and papers, is really exciting and interesting.

i don't think i recommended indians to think about this in my post. although i do think that poor choices made by the indian gov is holding back improvement on the most important and pressing issues this country has.

thanks for your comment. my intention with the post was exactly to think about it, and realize how extremely lucky you and me are to have good health, have education, have adequate incomes, and have family and friends who care about us.

ricco said...

Sorry it seems that i have misunderstood this. and of course i didnt know what you have studied. fair play to you! (just to use some irish here)

Anonymous said...

I don't think any person can judge a city in two and half days by going to some locations in the city. I know most outsiders have a tendency to rush into judgement about Kolkata - poor and hungry. It is partially true. Yes, a lot of poor people keep streaming into Kolkata from rural places in Bihar and UP giving the city a distinct look of unkemptness and rural feel. The Mother Teresa stereotypes spun by right wing missionaries also solidify those impressions for the western market. In reality though a vast majority of Kolkatans are middle class people. Surprised? The core city has not grown much over the past two decades in population. Surprised after hearing all those expansion stories? There are many myths about Kolkata and two and half day trip reports based on half truths often tend to strengthen myths than reality. But maybe that is often the intent of writers - the condescending attitude of trying to look down on third world cities.

g. said...

hey anonymous, thanks for your candid comment.

i don't know about other writers/bloggers, but i am certainly not trying to look down on third world cities. actually i wouldn't even call india third world, but that is an other issue. when i am 'judging' a city, my purpose is to wake the citizens of that city/country up to how an outsider sees their place, and this way maybe trigger improvement.

i understand that it might seem arrogant and superficial that i am giving a verdict on a city after a weekend, but i think that you misread my intentions. i don't look down on kolkata, and it was actually painful for me to see that such great place can't live up to its potential because of its careless mismanagement by its government and its people. i worry about kolkata just as much as i do for any other city anywhere in the world. the examples you brought up jus prove my conclusion point: some parts of the city function, but the whole is not. and this can be apparent in 2.5 days.

Post a Comment