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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Calcutta and I

As mentioned in a previous post, I was in Calcutta for a very brief period of time.

The first thing I noticed about the city was that the roads were not too good, at least when compared to those in the other state-capitals that I have been to in India, including New Delhi, Chandigarh, Dehradun, Bhopal, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Madras and Goa. Another vital difference that I noticed, as against Delhi's roads, was that there were no stray cattle on the roads of Calcutta, even as there were plenty of stray dogs around.

I found the city to be much more verdant, though, than Delhi, with a lot of plants and shady trees along the roads. It also means that a number of birds live in these trees and, therefore, one has to be careful while passing under the branches. I was at the receiving end of the birds' beneficence on at least two occasions, even as they failed to score direct hits at other times.

As compared to some other places in India that I have been to, like Chennai, for instance, where I did not understand the local language, I had little problem communicating with the local people in Calcutta, as most of them understood either Hindi or English or both.

I did not have the opportunity to sample much of the food available there, except aaloo-paraathhas, which were unlike any that I had tasted before. Not only were these made of maida, instead of the whole wheat-flour paraathhas that I am used to, but also appeared to have been baked instead of being cooked on a tawaa (hot plate).

Having spent the first day, out of the two that I spent in the city, at office, I found some time for sight-seeing on the second.

As I set off, on foot, to find a cyber-cafe, so that I could access my email and get a print-out of the e-ticket for flying back to Delhi, I came across a set of tracks in the middle of the road, on the bare patch of land bifurcating the dual carriageway. Soon, a tram came rumbling across the tracks. It had wooden benches for the passengers and no window panes at all. The driver and conductor wore khaki safari-suits. What I found amusing, however, was that not only did the tram stop at the traffic-signal, when the light turned red, but also when some vehicle or the other made an illegal U-turn across the median, unlike anything else moving on two parallel steel rails that I had seen before!

Later, it was time to experience railborne transport first-hand, as I rode the Calcutta Metro from the Rabindra Sarobar station, near Tollygunj, to the one at Park Street crossing. "Chhoy takaa (six rupees)", said the man behind the counter, when I enquired about the cost of the ticket. That was the only time, as far as I recall, that any one replied in Bengali to a question posed in Hindi, while I was at Calcutta. This could have something to do with the fact that he was a guard employed by a private security firm, acting as a substitute for regular personnel on account of some reason or the other, and may have migrated to the city from one of its surrounding areas. On the whole, however, I found the service to be economical and efficient, with the trains arriving and departing on time. It, indeed, was a pleasure travelling on the underground, rapid mass-transit system!

Then, I walked on to the Indian Museum, located quite close to the Metro station at Park Street. I spent nearly three hours there and would have been glad to spend another three, if I could. The museum is housed in a white, colonial-era building, which is breath-takingly beautiful.

Among the exhibits, those related to natural history were the ones that I found the most interesting. Arguably, the museum has the largest collection of such items in India. The ones related to fauna include fossils, bones and entire skeletons, in addition to dead animals, preserved and mounted for display. The fossils and bones originate from different parts of India, as well as from what is now Pakistan and other parts of the sub-continent that once formed a part of the British empire. What I learnt from looking at these was that animals of yore, obviously, beleived in the slogan, "Live life king-size!". Judging from the enormity of the remains, it was clear that the animals must have been many times larger than their present-day descendants. Afterwards, when I discussed this with my father, he surmised that this must have been because of the easy availability of food and lack of competition for it, during the times that these creatures roamed the earth.

Some of the species, I noticed, have Latin names that have been derived from local nomenclature. For instance, crocodiles found mainly in the Ganges river system and known locally as Gharial, have been collectively named as Gharialis Gangeticus.

I appreciated the gallery with a large number of dead animals, stuffed and mounted by taxidermists, as it provided me with an opportunity to take a close look at several rare and exotic specimens. This might have been difficult to achieve otherwise, even in a zoo. Besides, no living animal had to be confined to an enclosure, in this case.

The collection of antique microscopes on display that were once used by the Geological Survey of India, also interested me quite a bit.

There are, of course, a number of places in the city, incuding the Victoria Memorial, Esplanade and the Howrah Bridge, which are of interest from a tourist's point of view, that I did not have the time to visit. God willing, I shall definitely see all of these, if I happen to be in Calcutta again, at any point of time in the future.

1 comment:

Sidhusaaheb said...

Most readable account – I have been planning to visit Calcutta for ages – alas this has yet to materialize.
The Museum building that you visited is a stunning piece of architecture…

My grandfather[s] lived/studied there and it happens to be the oldest of cosmopolitan centres of the subcontinent.

thanks for taking me there alebit in the cyberspace!
Raza Rumi | Homepage | 10.06.07 – 7:00 pm | #


And, there was another fascinating character from Calcutta – Gohar Jan – in the early twentieth century: an Armenian Jewish-Indian, singer par excellence who spoke seven languages (including French etc.).

These were amazing places..!
Raza Rumi | Homepage | 10.09.07 – 7:21 pm | #


Thanks for a virtual trip of Calcutta, a city I’ve heard and read so much about. Your writing is remarkably vivid!
I Me My | Homepage | 10.09.07 – 10:54 pm | #