Travel blogger Aditya Akhauri explains the appeal of Kolkata, a city he believes is defined by its appetite for nostalgia.
Every Indian metropolis has its own distinct character. The style and pace of Mumbai, the sights and smells of all-powerful Delhi, the culture and traditionalist attitude of Chennai and the nostalgia that is the very air of Kolkata. Yes, nostalgia is what makes Kolkata great.
It is a city of the past, where the old meets the new, but unlike other places it’s the old that’s powerful. Things change slowly in Kolkata. One can see the remnants of the British Raj everywhere in the city – from the trams that crawl the streets like giant rats to the architecture in the old quarters, everything strikes of modern Indian history.
Kolkata – perhaps still better known as Calcutta – is the only Indian metropolis where the ideologies of Marx are still taken seriously and beyond textbooks. In fact, the hundreds of closed factories on the Howrah side of the city are testament to its relationship with socialism. Political graffiti, monuments and heritage buildings coupled with the fact that all the city’s landmarks were constructed during the Raj make this the ultimate place to experience the history of colonialism and Kolkata’s fraught relationship with it, one that pushed the city into the arms of Marxism.
Kolkata’s culture is perhaps its most vibrant attribute. It has its uniqueness still intact. Here, folk still take pride in selecting a fish from the bazaar rather than buying from a supermarket, which is fast becoming the trend elsewhere. It is a city of people who are as yet undaunted by the modern emphasis on looks and adhere to the view that what matters is what’s in your head. In Kolkata people like to take things slowly – they don’t chase money with the madness of Delhi nor are they in a perpetual rush like the hordes of Mumbai. Office lunch hours are often an extended affair (indeed, cab drivers working the commercial areas often refuse passengers during lunch) and evenings are spent on tea stalls chatting with neighbours. Perhaps no other metropolis in the world has such a leisurely pace of life – be it rich or poor, seemingly everybody indulges in keeping things slow.
As the strides of capitalism try to shake things up, Kolkata as we know it is changing. The pace of life is picking up and many things are no longer as they were. Marxist parties have given way to pseudo capitalism and high rises are cropping up – structures that are fast becoming new landmarks. Old mansions adorned with dates like 1821 or 1835 are crumbling and people are finding it increasingly difficult to find time to sit down and chat. There is a struggle that is going on; one that will change the city forever.
Perhaps today we are in a position to see the city in all its historical glory for the last time. It is changing and straddles a precarious position between the new and the old. What paths it will take no-one knows. What we do know is that all Kolkata’s fans are praying that some things don’t change – the awesome cuisine, the warmth of the people, the beautiful buildings from the colonial era and its deep affection for past – arguably this Indian megacity’s defining attribute.
Ahmedabad-based travel writer Aditya Akhauri writes for the Lonelyronin blog.
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