Wandering the streets of north Kolkata, beyond the grand old colonial buildings of the British Raj heart, draws you into a maze of alleyways and a patchwork of religions where life fizzes as intensely as in any Bollywood movie. This was and still is Kolkata’s “grey zone”, neither black nor white, where Christian Anglo-Indians live beside Muslims and Zoroastrians, and tiny communities of Chinese Buddhists beside the last surviving Jews. And, oh joy, the city’s infamous traffic-jams are left behind.
My exploration of the streets took place soon after dawn as city-dwellers woke up, washed, did puja (worship), brushed their teeth with neem sticks, washed at street-pumps, cooked and/or ate breakfast, opened up tiny shops and generally prepared themselves for the day. Chai is of course a priority – and a ritual, as below right.
Pans sizzled, chai brewed in huge cauldrons, luchis (round bread) puffed up in hot oil, pavement markets took vivid shape and, shockingly, rickshaw-wallahs sprinted past pulling neatly dressed young schoolboys.
I was in the company of Manjit, a cheerful Sikh photographer who organises photo tours of his city – not to give technical instruction but to facilitate sights and contacts, as well as lead us inside places we’d never have discovered alone. With a stream of facts and jokey asides, he kept us alert and totally transfixed for three intense hours as we observed street activities shift into top gear.
Kolkata is one of those cities that is impossible to encapsulate, but this neighbourhood has to be one of the most revealing – and it was fun too as, helped by Manjit, we communicated with locals who, whatever their job, exuded incredible warmth and dignity.
Here, for example, are two Muslim caretakers who paradoxically light the oil-lamps every sabbath at an 1880s synagogue. It was under restoration, hence the scaffolding, though few Jews frequent it as their community has virtually disappeared.
And here is a charming woman at Tiretta market in what was once Chinatown, on a street named Sun Yat Sen. Right next to it was a Chinese clan-house with an upstairs temple. One lone Chinaman sat down below, reading Kolkata’s surviving Mandarin newspaper.
India is one of those countries that seduces you non-stop by sheer density of colour and intuitive design, and the vegetables stalls are no exception, like this one, with its almost painterly quality of beauty.
Of course there is misery and poverty too, as below, though that was far from a common sight, contrary to all my expectations.
In contrast, here’s a delivery man, perfectly groomed for the day, concentrating on his morning paper. Literacy is high (Kolkata’s rate is an impressive 87%, well above the national average of 74%) thanks to over three decades of Marxist government in West Bengal. After the 2011 election of Mamata Banerjee, a controversial female leader who heads a Bengali splinter party of the Congress party, education may well suffer.
Some people are still faithful to Marxist principles – as demonstrated below where the hammer and sickle flutters in a street of laundered jeans, an ironic juxtaposition. Idionsyncracies? in Kolkata they are infinite.
See also my article about Kolkata in the Telegraph and my post about the city’s frenetic autumn festival, the Durga Puja in honour of goddess Kumartuli