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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Calcutta and a car with no driver

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North Indians who had never been to Calcutta had surprisingly consistent reactions when I mentioned that I will going there for my next project. Calcutta is perceived as an unappealing city — city where there is nothing to look forward to, city which is old and dirty, city where no one in sane mind would want to go. There is not so much of disdain than surprise and disinterest. Fortunately, I didn’t have any such presumptions to begin with.

I knew Calcutta is left behind in march of ruthless progress which has painted facade of other metros and tier-I cities in India but I was also keen to visit part of country which I’d never been before. Calcutta didn’t disappoint me. As a tourist, at least, I walked into a city frozen into sixties but came out happier. Streets hustling with crowds and vendors, pavements lined with myriads of goods decorated in many ways, dilapidated trams crawling in middle of road and denizens relishing uniquely Bengali delicacies sent me back to memories of childhood fairs. That my most favourite snack gol-guppas were staple of city did help the matter. I didn’t see city much in two days but got glimpse of life in general. Victoria memorial at night was lined by couples in stages of embrace which could put Marine Drive in Mumbai to shame. Street side food is mouth watering. Even though I am no big fan of Bengali sweets, and sweets in general, I found Sandesh — which I tasted for first time — quite nice.

There is no better way to mention the ethos of Calcutta than to narrate little experience I had while being driven from airport to my destination.

At some point along two hour ride, our driver decided to switch to “shot-cut” to avoid potential congestion on the road ahead. To give Murphy a credit, our alternate route was no less congested. While being stuck in a traffic jam for few minutes, our driver had an epiphany: he could use time better. He excused himself almost in hurry before we could protest and said that he’ll back after ‘taking a leak’. To further credit Edward Murphy, jam was cleared within minutes of him departing. Naturally, cars behind us started honking after courtesy wait of one second. Our driver was spotted on far end of road smoking, oblivious of raucous that an unmanned territorial vehicle created in middle of heavy traffic.

I had heard Calcutta is laid back city. I think, those ten minutes in car were perhaps what Calcutta is all about.