Day 13 India Wednesday, 4 January
A day in central Kolkata. It’s not more than 20 miles away but it takes the best part of an hour to get there with slow moving heavy traffic, first on the local road then on the by-pass. Even with slow moving traffic, the newspaper has daily reports of people getting killed or injured; poorly protected pedestrians sidestepping incautiously into the traffic flow, two-wheelers with precariously balanced sometimes side-sitting unhelmeted passengers falling off into the carriageway, unlit invisible night-time cyclists and bigger vehicles dodging and weaving, some bearing the motto “Safe traffic, save lives (or occasionally “Save traffic, safe lives”). A difficult environment for a dreamer who comes to a halt when thinking; my companion has to sharply refocus me several times; I explain about the phalanx of guardian angels with flaming swords surrounding me, which only I can see but I sense scepticism about their ability to deal with Kolkata’s dodgem race.
The city is covered by low yellow-grey cloud and I’m glad for my state-of-the-art mask, which keeps the particle-laden air at bay and enables me to avoid exhaustion. We are making for the university quarter and College St, still popularly known by its Anglo name. I’ve been there a couple of times before but by myself and didn’t then explore the alleys and find the publishers’ bookshops up anonymous flights of stairs. It’s wonderful to see compared with Sweden where a modest-sized town may lack a bookshop and where even Stockholm is now a thin city for bookshops, with Hedengrens hanging on and Akademiska Bokhandeln, which feels like a shadow of its formal self after the great purge of the shelf warmers a few years back. I find a couple of classics that have passed me by to read on the flight home – Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga” and Wilkie Collins “The Moonstone”. I almost buy them but am put off by their poor quality with brown spots and generally scruffy appearance. Back home I remember the technical word for brown spots on old books, foxing. These books were badly foxed. I’m overambitious when I travel and the plane has often hardly left the home runway before I’ve concluded that my chosen reading demands more concentration than I can muster. Unfoxed Kindle it will have to be.
It’s intensive but very pleasurable to explore this area – despite being libro-chaste. There are a few cycle rickshaws here and a wonderful old tram, which I’d like to ride on.
We fail, however, to get into the Ashutosh art gallery with its fine collection of Indian art and objects, closed for Covid and not reopened. Hopefully, it just means it’s being refurbished. It’s a wonderful old place with few concessions to the uninitiated, no other visitors while I was there and convoluted requirements for information as I passed from gallery to gallery but I liked it, a museum’s museum.
We retreat to Peter Cat restaurant on Park Street and this time come in swiftly, forgetting about the pot-bellied man who slithers past the queue to gain a paltry few minutes (ideal Kendall wounds him to the quick with a cutting remark, real-existing Kendall hunches his shoulders to deal with life’s vale of tears).
To enjoy Kolkata, you need oases where you can sit and rest from the exotic (and at times wretched). Staying in the centre on a previous trip in a small fifth-floor guest house with a swastika-decorated door, I could look down on the polluted cloud and a temple garden, fending off the kindly hotel staff concerned about my sparrow appetite. I honed my skills at getting through the city – investigating uncrowded parallel streets, finding places where I could safely cross roads, where I could eat and drink, I didn’t get as far as waymarking my trails with small cairns of rocks but I was tempted to do so.
You never quite get as much done in day trips to Kolkata as you plan. Everything takes time in the mega city whether it’s crossing the road or finding a cash machine. But despite the physical and mental strain, the wretched and the ramshackle alongside the super modern, I find the city fascinating with its wealth of associations and want to know more. I enjoyed my day but was glad to be able to remove my mask when I reached the purer air of rural Bengal and think that maybe tonight or tomorrow, the sky will be clear and I can look at the stars.