Kolkata is one of India’s larger cities with many areas of the city that will never be explored by tourists, and many more that will not be explored by me in the few days I have chosen to stay here. In an attempt to engage with the city outside of the immediate centre an adventure by public transport is in order.
A metro journey a little after rush hour was an easy way to take us to Mahatma Gandi road, the older part of the city is between here and the river here, with lower rise buildings, narrower hustling and bustling streets and a few of the city’s markets. The smell of piss, smoke, shit, fried onions and incense become more familiar as I walk the streets, these are a few of the smells that overwhelm the constant smell of traffic and join me occasionally throughout my time in the city.
Approaching the river in earnest I walk past the intimidating market building and the decorated trucks unloading their goods taking just a quick peek inside en route. Nearer the river the smell of the city becomes a bit sweeter, the bursts of colour more frequent with marigolds aplenty, the goal of this already exciting walk becomes apparent with the hodge podge of the Kolkata flower market just over the railway foot bridge. It’s an assault, not physically, well the market porters are a bit pushy, the large bundles perched on their heads sure look heavy and the crowd here isn’t that willing to move much, so who can blame them. The stalls are beautiful, festooned with flower arrangements and garlands, the casual traders have gigantic sacks of loose flower heads, vibrant foliage and full stem flowers arranged in more ramshackle arrangements directly on the filthy market floor, a few layers of tarpaulin separating the filth from the beauty above. The sweet smell emanating from the crimson roses masking the older mustier smell underneath.
Just across the river from the flower market is Howrah station, Kolkata’s largest train station, and also one of the domestic ferry stops tucked down past the immediate ghats, the street hawkers the assertive collection of taxis and motor rickshaws. The ferry thankfully waiting for me at the peir, it’s bare bones, with wooden seats and a fairly reasonable crowd of people joining me for the trip. Standing at the river facing railing I am aware of the open rail to my left, and hold both the rail and my camera tightly, I don’t want to take a dip in this murky brown water. The view is pretty cool across the water expanse I see an occasional fisherman and many people washing themselves and their clothes at the ghats, this life on the riverbanks reminding me definitively that I have made it to India. As the ferry moves up river I idle by as I head towards Bagbazar pier, a few glimpses of everyday life to remind me.
My intention with visiting Bagbazar was to see one of the older, purely residential suburbs, it’s not a particularly wealthy area and there should be lots to see. With a tram line running through the neighbourhoods between here and the city centre, a short walk along the tram lines should present an opportunity to look at the neighbourhoods, the local people and all the cool stuff in between. Once tired or bored I can simply catch a tram back to the centre, it seemed like a good plan, I never did see a single tram plying the route but it didn’t matter. The walk was compelling, with plenty to see, temples, an array of shopkeepers and school children, some chai sellers to drink tea from and some street snacks from surprised vendors to keep the hunger at bay. It was about an hour to walk back to the centre along the often crowded and overloaded footpaths, numerous rickshaw drivers were left without a ride, many urban cattle had my sympathies as they too ambled through the almost oppressive traffic.
This interesting walk has given me great hope for the few months ahead. So far India is as dirty as I assumed and friendlier than I imagined, I hope the rest of India can follow Kolkata’s stellar example.