In praise of the City of Joy

The author  of Geography of Genius  makes a strong case for the fact that Genius tends to be clustered in space and time . Ancient Athens is the first known example when we had brilliant minds like Socrates , Aristotle , Plato , Herodotus , Aristophanes , Sophocles, Euripides,Euclid , Archimedes , Hippocrates  co exist within 200 years of each other . Moving forward , we can see the time of the Renaissance where we have Da Vinci , Michelangelo , Machiavelli live around the same time in Italy , fast forward a hundred years and we have the Enlightenment in Scotland that had Hume , Smith , Paris with Voltaire , Rousseau , Lavoisier, Montesquieu , Kant in Germany and our own Founding fathers in America , similarly between 1840 and 1920  Calcutta (Kolkata) experienced the Bengal Renaissance where we had Nobel laureates such as Rabindranath Tagore , Biologists / Physicists such as Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose . The book is very readable in spite of being only a subset of the different places and times (it skips Paris in 1920s).  So here I am in Kolkata , wondering if I can see what made the city so special in that time .

Kolkata had an interesting mix of populations during the British rule, while on the one hand , the most educated and Anglophilic existed here but co existing with them were the most fervent nationalists who were opposed to the British rule . The Indian national anthem comes from Rabindranath Tagore , there has been some rumblings that we should focus on”Vande Materam ” written by Bankim Chandra Bose (another Bengali) which is a fervently patriotic song that rouses one’s spirits even one such as myself who does not understand the language.

The people are reputed to be extremely friendly and helpful. I got my first taste of that when I was trying to get to the famous Kalighat temple. A rickshaw driver actually took a detour  to guide us through the narrow alleys to get us to Kalighat . I was touched. I had never ever experienced anything like it. Kalighat is an old Kali temple in Kolkata

Early morning street markets getting ready to open

The main temple dome

Inside the temple , I saw a streak of fresh blood across the floor and following the streak led me to the beheaded carcass of a baby goat. I suppose that was the sacrificial offering for the morning . I saw offerings of purple radishes  , I had never seen offerings of vegetables in temples before , asking the priest led to some incomprehensible mutterings in Bengali , after grilling him in Hindi , he responded curtly that I would not understand. I took the hint and moved on

A tram – relic of days bygone was certainly a sight to see . Though I see it routinely in San Francisco and find it mundane , somehow seeing it in Kolkata was different,  watching it amidst the crazy traffic is like watching a thriller .

This is a replica of the Big Ben in London.

These are the pictures of the famous Park street

I found some interesting fruits on Park street , I searched for them everywhere but could not find any

This fruit reminded me of starfruit, the texture is similar and just like starfruit , it is bland and juicy.

While this one was a total mystery

I learnt from Google that it was called a Rose Apple and apparently it is grown in Oregon and California but the ones in North America does not look anything like this. The texture is like a pear and it has a delightful rose fragrance. This particular variety grows in South East Asia

This is the iconic Howrah bridge on the Hoogly river

The Hoogly is a tributary of the Ganges , the holiest river for the Hindus . Hindu myths dictate that a dip in the Ganges washes away all of ones sins . Today the Ganges flows into Bangladesh where it meets the Indian ocean in the Bay of Bengal but every tributary is considered just as sacred so one finds a lot of Hindus bathing in the Hoogly

Kolkata is also the home of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa , an 18th century mystic highly revered in Bengal and also the home of Sri Vivekananda who travelled to America in 1890s and introduced a new spiritual movement in America . Sri Ramakrishna had his divine visions at the Dakshineshwar temple.

This is a view of the bridge from the temple

One has to take a ferry from the temple to get to Belur Math which is where the temples are dedicated to Ramakrishna, his wife  and his disciples and one gets to view where the old co-exists with the new

A fisherman in his canoe getting ready to launch his fishing tackle

As can be expected , the entrance from the water is quite scenic

The main temple

Feast for the eyes for Flora lovers

Dedicated to the wife of Sri Ramakrishna .

Just outside Belur Math was a street vendor selling something that looked like potatoes , and they call “Sweet Potato”, it turned out to be Jicama (Mexican Yam) my sister insisted on tasting it so we had the street vendor cut it up for us . He added some rock salt-spice mixture to the chopped pieces . The texture was more like  a pear and it did not taste at all like a raw potato or even the Jicama that I have eaten before. Just last month , I had encountered a book called the Botany of Desire which deals with 4 plants ; Apple , Potato , Cannabis and Tulip. The author reiterated was that these plants have been artificially moulded by our desires . Apples as sweet as a Red Delicious is an anomaly as is a Russet Burbank . We do not let these plants attain the vast potential that their genes are capable of . In the Andes is a purple potato that I have never heard about.  Kolkata showed me an apple that did not look or taste like any Apple that I had eaten before . A touching incident here was the interaction itself , my sister asked the vendor to add more of the salt spice mixture , he insisted that his concoction was the best but just to satisfy us , he gave us a packet of his precious spice mixture which he said we could add if we wanted but he assured us that we did not need to. I looked at him marveling at his torn clothes , extreme poverty had not affected his pride in his craft . His pride to me was touching and inspiring.

My tryst with history as I expected it did not materialize . There is a lot of history in this place including the Battle of Plassey which led to the first British stronghold on Indian soil in 1757 . Modern Kolkata owes a debt to Job Charnock who not only saved a young Indian woman from Sati , a dreadful practice of burning widows alive with their dead husbands but married her and sired 4 children and adopted Indian ways of smoking cheroots or Indian cigars and drinking arrack , a harsh palm brandy. I saw a hospital named after him and I presume that there are more memorials to the man .

RFD-Trunk-Road-Map3-tmagArticle

The Grand Trunk road connects Chittagong, Bangladesh to Kabul,Afghanistan via Kolkata , Delhi , Amritsar and Lahore. Reading about Sher Shah Suri who ruled India in 1540  , I had discovered the Grand Trunk road .However I was to learn later that Chandragupta Maurya  had built large sections of it.  This was my great opportunity to ride on the section of the Grand Trunk Road west of Kolkata and retracing the steps of those brave travelers so many centuries ago. While thrilling , most of it is slow progress . Like most highways in India , they tend to go through the hearts of small villages so one can expect a small crowd in the middle of the street drinking tea , a herd of buffaloes crossing the road and other interesting sights so dont speed , you never know what will show up in front of you on the road.

I found the culture to be charming and interesting , the city shuts down come 12:30 PM and does not re open until 3:30 – 4 PM . They take their time for lunch and a much needed siesta after the delicious meal . The sweets have been reputed to be the best in India as long as I can remember , I consumed them like a glutton who knows no tomorrow and I have to admit that just about everything that I tried there was delicious . The pale imitations that I had eaten earlier in other cities do not come close . They have an amazing variety of sweets that I did not know existed . On the flight there , several of my co passengers after learning that I had never been to Kolkata heartily recommended several sweetmeat shops and I fortunately took them up and indeed the sweets did not disappoint. The Bengalis love their meat and fish and indeed so much so that I was introduced to an amazing sight , one that I had never seen before . Vegetables , fruits , meat , fish , chicken all sold in the same market place with no separation .

Here one sees the goat carcasses alongside the fresh vegetables and moving further one sees a sea of fish . The Bengalis love their fish and call it the vegetable of the sea .

Bangur road is a tribute to their artistic capabilities

Here one sees a lawn sculpture of the famous Dandi march statue in Delhi

A horde of elephants

Bangur street is covered with street posts that have been created by artists , one finds a lifesize clown loitering around and a roadside snack vendor and only close inspection reveals that these are sculptures . The traffic is horrendous and parking is impossible so I could not get out of the car to take much needed pictures

Turned out that my trip to Kolkata was far shorter than what I should have planned for . Also turned out that there were far more sights to see including the Sunderbans which is the home of the Bengal tiger , Ganga Sagar which is where the Hoogly meets the Indian ocean .Time to plan a return trip!!

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2 thoughts on “In praise of the City of Joy

  1. Wow! What an amazing account of your trip! The pictures brought your words to life and I felt almost — not quite, but almost — as though I had traveled with you, though from the comfort of my computer chair. Everything was interesting, but I was most amazed at the variety of fruits there and wish I could taste them for myself. For that, the words and pictures did not suffice. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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