Kolkata is unique in many ways. Not the least are her surprises; as a city has people with a kind heart. Yet that surprise, that heart tends to get overlooked if not hidden under the pile of trash and chaos that marks Calcutta.
In changing India and in a changing city, a mix of old world charm amidst utter chaos is where Calcutta’s soft heart beats at its best. Nowhere is it more prominent than at its hundred-year old Market complex – the New Market (see the buildings in the photo above). To me her closest cousin is the Victoria Market in Melbourne. Born as Stuart Hogg Market, this was at one time an avant-garde shopping arcade in the city, long before Calcutta had her shopping malls.
In some ways, New Market is symbolic of the old theme that speaks to the decline of the city. Today, if you visit the New Market, teeming with shoppers from all over India and from Bangladesh, in the thickness of the raucous crowd and unkempt ill-designed shops, rude salespeople struggling with hundreds of shoppers, it is very difficult to figure out the charm. There are gems like a bakery – Nahoum’s (a Jewish bakery) that makes some of the finest baked goods and savouries in the world. I tried their date scones – the near perfect creation of succulent date filled scone with a crusty flake. Yet you wouldn’t recognise it unless you really _knew_.
Another. The day before I left NZ for Calcutta, I asked my colleague what would he like me to bring back. My friend said he collected wise monkey figurines and he had quite a collection of them from all over the world. He said if I wanted something he did not yet have in his collection and he doubted I could surprise him; he asked me to send him a photo before I bought anything just in case he had it already in his collection; that, lately, none of his friends could surprise him with a figurine that was not in his collection. Could Calcutta surprise him? In Calcutta, in the old times, we had a saying that one could find tigress milk in the middle of the night in the New Market. I spotted a figurine in one of the Curio shops as I was window shopping and the store clerk tried to assure me that my friend surely would not have the brass wise monkey in his collection. Yeah, right, I thought and snapped it and sent it to my friend. Should I be surprised when my friend wrote me back that indeed, this figurine was not in his collection?
The city never ceases to surprise you!
This morning as I was heading out for the morning run, I saw a commotion in a street crossing. A group of people stood around a woman who lay unconscious in the street bleeding from the back of her head. People, street people took care of her, hailed a taxicab and someone went with the woman to the nearest hospital with emergency services. In a city where nothing works, where ambulances would have to struggle to wade through traffic and in India where we often hear heartless tales of people turning blind eyes to people dying in the streets, where bystander indifference is the norm, watching ordinary, poor people with heart to come to the rescue of a stranger in times of urgency was unexpected and heart warming.
This is Kolkata as well. A city that has a kind, gentle heart beating in the middle of chaos, squalor, and disorganised frenzy, which throws everything we know about urban design thinking to garbage bins and moves on.