Six months in Asia travel blog

The Victoria Memorial


Street life

South Park Street Cemetery

Before me the Victoria Memorial is reflected in the lake which is set in peaceful gardens and I can just see the spire of St Paul's Cathedral. Where am I? Transported to some alternate version of London? No, I'm in Kolkata which has turned out to be the biggest surprise of the trip so far. Calcutta was the capital of the British Raj until it was moved to Delhi in 1911 and the city is full of colonial architecture, although sadly many of the buildings languish in a sorry state of decay.

When you think of Calcutta, the cliches spring to mind; the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta and an image of the destitute and poor being helped by Mother Teresa are the two most likely. But Calcutta has a rich history of culture and the city itself is surprisingly manageable. For the first time I actually enjoy walking. It helps that the roads have proper pavements separated from the insane traffic by a metal barrier and bushes. Mind you, crossing the streets remains perilous.

The activities in the streets, however, are uniquely Indian. When I left my hotel this morning, there was an astonishing spectacle of human life. People were washing and shampooing themselves at a tap by the roadside, street vendors were whipping up breakfast at makeshift stalls on the pavements, a man was ironing clothes, human-drawn rickshaws were vying for space in the busy roads and another man sat by a tree burning candles surrounded by flowers as commuters stopped for a quick blessing on their way to work.

Yet in this mayhem sit some wonderful monuments, most notably the Victoria Memorial. While I was wandering around the interior I bumped into a group of students from Tamil Nadu I had met on the beach at Puri who were also travelling. It felt quite a coincidence and they were excited to see me again. There is also the South Park Street Cemetery where many British men and women are buried, several of them having died at quite a young age. I tried some Bengali food for lunch which is quite different from the usual Indian fare. It's heavy on the mustard, but delicious. In the late afternoon I couldn't resist tea and cake at an old-fashioned cafe.

The train journey here from Puri yesterday was also a pleasant surprise. It was still dark when the train pulled out of the station at 6am and for the first hour after sunrise a thick mist covered the fields, so trees seemed to rise rootless out of a snowy ground. The train was sitting only, unlike a lot of trains in India which are sleepers designed for long distances. It was a bit pricier too, but breakfast and lunch were all included.

I'm off tomorrow for a three-day tour to the Sunderbans, a huge delta south of Kolkata, where I'll finally be able to escape the traffic as I'll be staying on a car-free island and taking long boat trips.

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