Arrived in Kolkata this morning on the overnight train from Varanasi. A city of opulence in decay. Everywhere there are big old colonial buildings with their paint peeling in the hot sun like pale skin. Not meant for this climate.
There are still traditional rickshaws here, pulled by wiry men that run through the cobbled streets with bare feet and looks of determination. One of them tried to sell me a small steel bell. He explained that he found it. Had no use for it. Neither do I, but I bought it anyway.
People want to ban the practice of pulling rickshaws, but these men are proud of it. They don’t want to stop. And what would they do anyway? There are so many here employed in barbaric jobs that shouldn’t be done by anyone, but a lot of people don’t have the luxury of choosing not to do them.
At night, on the corner of Sudder Street and Jawaharlal Nehru Road, the homeless huddle. There are men pimping Bengali girls. One or two of kids came up to me. Asked for money. Instead, I bought one of them a kinder surprise she wanted and a teenage boy a cup of chai. Later, I walked past them again and bought an old lady some bananas. Rolled a cigarette for a teenager probably too young to be smoking.
Went on a long walk through the city today with Yolanda, a Spanish artist I met at the train station. We walked from the hotel towards the Howrah Bridge, where there is a large flower market. On the way, we passed through BBD Bagh, past St. Andrew’s Church, where we found a group of Nepalese Christians celebrating Thanksgiving early.
In the evening, I caught up with Pradipta, a lecturer in English literature who I met in Varanasi. We had dinner at Peter Cat, an old colonial era restaurant. We had a great conversation about the city and its wonderful literature. This is a place with an incredible cultural legacy.
Ended up having lunch and dinner with Pradipta and her family today. The household consists of her and her husband, their two children, her mother, her husband’s father and their cook/housekeeper.
Over lunch, I learnt about the family. Her father wrote the first ever radio play recorded in Calcutta. They are a literary family. The house is full of books, lined up on bookshelves in every room or simply stacked on the floor in columns.
After lunch, I was invited to take a nap. From a state of semi-consciousness, I was aware that Pradipta’s father had shuffled over to the couch where I was resting and placed a blanket gently over me. A touching gesture.
Back in my little room at hotel, I think about this moment and it almost brings me to tears: experiencing such warmth from people I have only just met is beyond words.
All photos copyright Simon Bonneau