Built up around what remains of the fading splendour that was once the British Raj, modern Kolkata is at once defined by its past and at the same time so much more. The storehouse of both India’s creative talent and intellectual wisdom, it has a long tradition of philosophical, political and religious discourse dating back centuries. Nowhere is this more evident than on College Street and in the grand surroundings of The Coffee Workers Association Ltd. Teeming with students and booksellers rummaging through heaps of literature at stalls along the roadside, it’s not hard to see why Kolkata is India’s biggest seat of learning.
Hitting the streets of any large Indian city can at first be overwhelming. Most of life happens right here as tea stalls, fruit sellers and snack vendors set about selling their wares, while the streets throng with crowds of shoppers. Colourful religious preachers share their view of the world with anyone who’ll listen, elderly rickshaw pullers nap in the midday sun between jogging people around town, while packs of stray dogs and children run amok until the heat of the day becomes too much to bare. Don’t be shocked to turn the corner and bump into a goat wearing a jumper or someone lovingly preening their pet monkey. Do be careful of traffic. Whether it’s one of the numerous taxi’s or tuk tuks, a cyclist on a rusty old bike that’s seen better days, or the proud owner of one of the vintage Royal Enfield motorbikes, no one seems to obey any rules on the road. Their first and only line of defence is the horn, which most hold down permanently as they go about sabotaging themselves at every opportunity by gridlocking the cities roads.
Sport is more than a pastime, it’s a way of life in India, and your average Bengali is passionate to the point of religious fervour. Especially about cricket. Roads and residential blocks are regularly closed off so that locals can play a game, which is worshipped by much of the city. Expect to see kids hurtling past you at lightning speed as they chase a stray tennis ball, poking around in the branches of a tree trying to retrieve one that’s become stuck or ecstatically jumping up and down screaming and shouting when the stumps are finally bust apart by the teams’ star batter.
Every street and alleyway is awash with colour in Kolkata, but it’s the pungent aromas that really strike a first-time visitor. Bengali spices fill the air as local restaurants and cafes cook up the days curries for a hard-working population. The smell of baking drifts alongside that of freshly brewed milky chai tea as merchants work all hours to keep up with the demand for fresh breads, cakes, sweets and refreshing hot drinks. Fragrant incense smoke rises into the air everywhere you look. From shrines worshipping countless deities to food sellers who use the sweetly perfumed sticks to keep insects away in the midday sun. Kolkata is a city of smells. Granted not all are good, but they’re inescapable non-the-less and part of the very fabric of daily life in this vibrant urban sprawl.
Fancy getting to know the real Kolkata while tasting amazing food local people eat? Don’t just stick to the hotel restaurant. Come with us on a ramble about town in search of the best hidden food stops in Bengal.