Calcutta…what an amazing city! I boarded the plane at Zia International and the moment I stepped off onto the Indian tarmac, only thirty minutes later, Calcutta really grabbed hold of me. The heat knocked me sideways for a start, and humidity was crippling, but still nothing could jade my enthusiasm.
The love affair started just before I left Bangladesh I suppose, while changing my taka into rupee and dollar. Pretty smitten you might think, if I even found Indian currency fascinating, but I thought it beautiful, with Gandhi himself smiling right out at me from every single denomination.
At Calcutta airport I climbed into one of the stylish yellow Ambassador taxi cabs that seem to be knee deep everywhere you look and we made our way into the heart of the city to find my hotel. Every mile we drove Calcutta opened up, right before my eyes, so many busy people, dense traffic, cattle everywhere, all strung out along the road side, becoming more vibrant if that were possible, as I adjusted my senses, taking it all in.
The streets themselves moved at lightening speed. A well planned and coordinated road system, along with numerous smartly uniformed well organised Traffic Police saw to that. Layers thick, from hand pulled carts to a modern tram system, millions of Indians move about this city efficiently despite the impression of random chaos. Traffic jams were few and far between and even with such a huge volume of traffic we kept moving, rarely stopping due to weight of numbers or impatient driving. We moved slower in the narrower streets, where everyone seemed to be busy either buying or selling, anything from mango to envelopes.
With so many rickshaw and cart pullers operating on the streets, water troughs, which seemed to be in constant use, provided an opportunity for cold showers right there on the pavement. While physically demanding work in very high temperatures require facilities to cool off, people also brought bicycles for cleaning, and several dogs splashed away happily in the puddles created by those washing at the roadside.
Out in the suburbs, street markets were commonplace with strange and exotic fruit and vegetables for sale. It’s currently jack fruit, pineapple and mango season, so they were bountiful and cheap, but the more familiar in the form of the humble potato and onion was also abundant. Occasionally I spotted a few varieties of fish, but never live chicken or goat as seen frequently in Bangladesh.
In a busy Calcutta street I spotted a pavement game involving around half a dozen men. In full flow they kept one lazy eye on their street stall, but most of their serious attention was focused on the game itself. This time, unlike the strange and unfamiliar battle I witnessed on the Dhaka street, I immediately recognised what drew all this serious concentration…Ludo!