Kolkata – original East India Company trading port

We landed in Kolkata to find multiple messages and missed calls on our phones. Our children had been trying to contact us, because news of the dreadful Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka had just come through. I struggle to understand why anyone could do such a terrible thing, but what’s most important is that we don’t allow these things to divide us. The world must stand together as one and try to find unity after such tragedies. These events are so disturbing and worrying too, for our relatives in Colombo who we knew would be attending church services on Easter Sunday, and also because we are planning to go there in 2 weeks time. We managed to contact Neil’s Auntie and Uncle and we were relieved to find they were safe. As yet, we have not decided whether we will continue with our plans to go to Sri Lanka; on the one hand it seems like it is unsafe, but on the other hand, if we don’t go, then these bastards win. I feel very conflicted about this, especially as everyone in Sri Lanka still need to go about their lives, it seems unfair of us to choose to stay away. Our thoughts are with the victims and their families and friends, so devastated by this atrocity, and the beautiful people of Sri Lanka having to live with this fear.

Once we settled in our hotel, we went for a walk around the nearby streets. There were many stalls set up along the footpath, reminding me of Bangkok, the way they all have a tarpaulin over them and you walk along through a kind of tunnel of lean-to shops.

This city is really hard to get a handle on, a bit of an enigma. Kolkata is where the East India Company first started its trading post in the late 17th century. On the banks of the Hooghly river they set up a major trading port and this became the capital under the British Raj until the early 20th century. It has so many different facets, historical colonial buildings, modern skyscrapers, huge disparities in people’s living standards, which is much the same as everywhere else I guess, but here it seems more obvious and the demographics seem more mixed. Slums and makeshift dwellings along streets with more affluent houses as well. Fancy modern shops and tarpaulin lean-to stalls outside, especially in the new market area which is just a crazy mix of everything.

For the first day we didn’t do much as the Wise One was unwell (his turn for the dreaded TD), so mostly we hung around the hotel, with a short foray out to the Victoria memorial and gardens, but he was feeling pretty bad so we headed back. Once again I featured in many selfies with young people, mostly students. I asked one fellow why he wanted a photo with me, he said so that he could tell his friends ‘this is me with my Australian friend” …ok, whatever.

The next day we decided to visit Eden Gardens stadium to see if we could get tickets to the IPL game. Well, turns out you have to buy them online, then take your barcode to the ticket window to collect your tickets. Ok, so far so good. The ticket windows were a hole cut in a fence, with a person on the other side with a scanner and printer. Ok, that’s weird. There was a long queue of women of various ages  standing around waiting in line to buy tickets but then they were sold out, so some mounted police came up and chased them away with their horses, shouting and charging at the crowd, very scary. We think the women were just queue spot holders for scalpers. Anyway, the process of getting a ticket took us across two days and much frustration and waiting, looking into the hole in the wall, and eventually we got our tickets. What a process!

After this we headed down to walk along the Hooghly River at sunset, then found ourselves a bar and had a couple of beers, as we were hot and exhausted.

Next day we went to New Market and Park street shopping areas. Hard to describe, endless stalls and shops selling everything imaginable. Whitegoods, jewellery, clothes of all types, shoes, selfie sticks, stuffed toys, cameras, watches, and everything in between were on display and their owners shouting and competing to get your attention. In the middle of all this we stumbled across a noisy crowd, only to discover that the cricketers were about to leave the hotel and a huge mob had gathered trying to get a picture. The police were pushing everybody back, blowing their whistles and waving their sticks. The frenzy about seeing the players was crazy; what it must be like to be mobbed everywhere you go if you are a cricket celebrity.

On our last day in Kolkata, we had a midday checkout, but weren’t catching our train until 11:20pm, so we had a lot of day to fill. We decided to visit the India Museum. The building is an imposing neoclassical white building with a grand courtyard with colonnades, built in 1814 and designed by Walter Granville, it is still the largest museum in India. The exhibits are a mixture of archaeological, geological and zoological specimens housed in timber and glass cabinets from a bygone era. There were also some sections with large dioramas, depicting animals in their ‘natural’ habitat. The whole place smelled of mothballs and it felt like you were stepping back in time to when museums like this were in vogue.

After finishing there, we were feeling hungry and wandered down Park street (an area we learnt had shops and good restaurants around the corner from New Market) looking for somewhere to eat. We stumbled upon an establishment that felt like it came from the same era as the museum. The restaurant, named Kwality, has been there since 1952. It has an old world ambience with an abundance of waiters wearing bow ties, and a clientele of gentlemen and ladies enjoying silver service food and an alcoholic beverage or two. It was all very civilised in a ‘gentleman’s club’ kind of way. The food was tasty and the beer was cold and not too pricey despite appearances.

We returned to the hotel to collect our suitcases and meet our driver for the evening. We needed to explain to him that we required him to take us to Eden Gardens for the IPL cricket match, then pick us up afterwards to take us to the Sealdah station to catch our overnight train to Jaipalguri (headed for Darjeeling). After much discussion, it seemed he understood, but then there was some confusion about where he would be able to park while we were at the cricket. He found a parking spot in an area that was a fair way from the ground and we needed to walk along a dark path to get there, so he walked with us to make sure we were safe and then told us to call him when we were ready to leave. We entered the ground and found our seats. It was an interesting experience, so loud and crazy, but the Indian fans were just having a great time. Sitting next to us was a young man we had met in the queue when buying the tickets, so we chatted to him a bit. Neil was also interviewed by some Indian reporters asking what he thought of the cricket and some questions about the Australian team ‘sand paper’ scandal. They also took our photo, so who knows if we will end up in the Indian press tomorrow. They seemed pretty interested to find Australians watching the IPL in India. It was time to leave, so we called our driver and started walking back to the car, there he was, walking along to meet us, to keep us safe. Drivers here often take a very protective role, ensuring your safety and security, its very reassuring.

Eden Gardens stadium (panorama)

He took us to the station with plenty of time to meet our train, the Padatik Express. We thanked him profusely and gave him a good tip for his trouble. Time to say goodbye to Kolkata, an interesting city that was beginning to grow on us, once we began to understand it.

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