|In my short time in this capital of West Bengal I have learned that Kolkata is a city of complexities. India's center of culture has been conquered, plundered and it's people, through disasters, natural and otherwise have suffered immensely. And although outside influences have been relentless in their poking and prodding, the Bengali spirit remains vibrant and hopeful.
I took a taxi to the start my tour at the Victoria Memorial. The massive marble structure is dedicated to Queen Victoria, the Empress of India. It's a stately, but ostentatious symbol of the British Raj period. The memorial sits in the middle of acres of sprawling lawns and pools of water. Inside the memorial is an interesting museum that chronicles British rule through Indian independence in 1947. It is a pleasant place to be on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Next, I travelled to an area called the New Market. It's one of those markets that goes on and on and on, with vendors selling anything and everything. Want luggage, shoes or a handbag? The selection continues for blocks. I didn't spend too much time here, as it is no different from a market in any large city. After wandering through the downtown area, I decided to take a ride on the tram, something that I planned to do. Kolkata has the oldest operating tram system in Asia and the only trams in India. In recent years the controversial government run system has definitely seen a decline. Many say the reason is mismanagement and a lack of understanding of the tram's role in a comprehensive mass transit system. To access the tram, I had to literally jump aboard, as the tram stopped for a matter of four or five seconds. I had no idea where I was going and the attendant in the carriage, as well as the riders couldn't direct me for their lack of English. It was an old dilapidated carriage and a fascinating clanky ride south through some of Kolkata's poorer sections. I disembarked at the last stop, which turned out to be at Park Street Circus. What I refer to as my "nickel tour" actually cost me four rupees or about eight cents.
Walking back towards my hotel I discovered the South Park Street Cemetery. It's a Christian cemetery and packed with memorial structures, mostly from the late 1700's though the mid 1800's. At the entry I was instructed to sign in with my signature, date and time and upon leaving to sign out. I asked the attendant about the group responsible for operating the property. He explained that it's run by the government. After a tour the grounds, it was obvious, as the cemetery is maintained just like the trams! I describe the cemetery as a mini version of Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery, full of large aged memorial structures. Here the structures are very closely placed between walkways and set amongst large mature trees. Although it was a sunny day, my walk though was quite Eerie. Many of the inscriptions have been lost to time and neglect. But some of the remaining epithets are quite flowery, poetic and passionate.
I met Emma at the South Street Cemetery. She is 30ish, youthful, attractive and a traveler of the world. Emma lived in London until several months ago when her and her boyfriend vacated their flat in trendy Notting Hill. They quit their jobs and began what she described as a sabbatical, beginning their travels though Europe. They took the trans Siberian railway across Russia to China and have made their way to India. They have plans to meet UK friends in Jaipur for New Years. Emma and I walked from the cemetery to the Mother House to visit the home of Mother Teresa.
The Mother House is what you would expect; simple and basic. This is the headquarters of the Sisters of Charity and where Mother Teresa lived for years. On the second floor I peered into her room, which remains as it was when she died in 1997. It's a small room, maybe 8x10 with a plain single bed and nothing much else. I read that the room is above the kitchen and although it gets quite hot, Mother Teresa refused to use even use a fan. On the first floor of the building is an area with a quasi museum that chronicles her life and service. Mother Teresa's life and accomplishments are amazing. Another room contains her tomb, a large marble square which is surrounded by chairs for prayer and reflection. For me, my visit was most humbling. I think some day soon Mother Teresa will be declared a saint and I wonder if she will be memorialized like Queen Victoria?
I finished my day with dinner at Bar-B-Q. It's a popular eatery on Park Street. Afterwards, desert; ice cream at McDonald's. On my walk back to the hotel I met Shantanu Das Gupta, a Bengali who works at McDonalds. He just finished his shift. He works six, nine hour days a week. He has worked at Mickey D's for about three years and said he has ambitions to someday be a manager. But, he added that there are challenges that make promotion difficult.
Although during my short visit I saw only slivers of life in Kolkata, I think the label "City of Joy" is most fitting. Originating from a 1985 novel by a Frenchman Dominique Lapierre, the book was adapted into a popular US film starring Patrick Swayze. It's a story of life in a Calcutta slum and despite hunger, deplorable living conditions, illness and back breaking work, the people still hold on to the belief that life is precious and worth living. In consideration of all that Kolkata has endured, and the strong Bengali spirit, it's definitely a City of Joy.