When at last we arrive to Calcutta (Kolkata) we are starving zombies! There is a decent-looking restaurant in the station so we head there. While we are waiting in the queue to order, we converse with a very friendly guy with whom we will share a table. He is a university student of what seems good economic standing. While we have paneer butter masala (one of our favorite Indian dishes) we talk about our friend Victor attending a wedding in Lucknow; that’s when he comments he’d like to marry his girlfriend but they belong to different castes and their families don’t quite agree. Even though the caste system isn’t legally recognized by the government, Hindus still practice it widely. Briefly explained, Hindus can be born in four different castes, namely: Brahmans, the highest caste (priests and scholars), Kshatryas (soldiers and warriors), Vaisyas (merchants and professionals) and Sudras (laborers and servants). The lowest of the Sudras are the Chandalas or the “Untouchables” and those who take, receive and do the worst of the worst. According to this system, Hindus should only marry those belonging to the same caste, so our friend here is facing some deep rooted customs. It is quite shocking to see that some of these ancient traditions still have place in modern society, regardless of the economic or social status of those involved.
We start heading out, not without trying some delicious gulab jamun first, plus other tasty sweets; we can confirm their good fame. When we step at the exit, it is easy to find the taxi stop, with long lines of yellow Hindustan Ambassador classic cabs. Our accommodation is quite far, but surprisingly the price we pay at the prepaid counter is low. Furthermore, they write down our destination address and the car’s plate number and give us a copy.
Probably due to the image spread decades ago from Mother Theresa’s work in Kolkata, we are expecting to see lots of poverty and a dirty city, but we are surprised to be driving on a cleaner-looking town with ample roads and bridges, and big signs everywhere showing the (female) governor’s picture and announcing free outdoor WiFi in the Park Street area. Our neighborhood also turns out to be very nice, with many cafes and restaurants and near the city center.
After some back and forth on the street, we find the apartment we are staying in. Our host Samidh welcomes us warmly despite our long delay and the room is spacious with an attached bathroom. We are exhausted and sleep soundly until noon the next day.
We have slept a lot so we start the day late. Samidh suggests some restaurants in the area where they prepare some tasty food. We also discover a big market along the sidewalks of an avenue where we are pleased to not be hassled at all.
The following day we take a shared auto rickshaw to the nearest metro station. They only charge us 8 rupees each instead of trying to rip us off, we are really liking this city. The metro is much older than that of Delhi, which is also impressive because one would think the capital city would be the first for most things. However, Kolkata’s metro has existed for much longer than the very recent Delhi subway. Next to the ticket counter there are two signs that catch our attention: one lists the for different types of offenses against women. It ranges from looking or taking pictures without consent to more horrible things like raping—where they have to distinguish individual raping from group raping for some alarming reason. The other one shows the photos of known thieves, so that you take good care of your belongings if these people are on sight. With a feeling of discomfort, we go downstairs to the coach, where fear for the aforementioned punishments for staring a woman seem to not apply to the male passengers…
Back on ground level, we pass through Park Street. A workshop with music from the state of Rajasthan is taking place; it is a morning event that makes part of the Sufi Sutra, a yearly festival in Kolkata that we coincidentally had plans to attend with our host during the evening. We are delighted with the rhythms of the drums and string musical instruments, as well as with the two Egyptian male dancers. The musicians wear the traditional Rajasthani turban, whereas the dancers are wearing colorful skirts that they use almost acrobatically in different angles, tossing them in the air as if they were using hoops. They easily spend 5 minutes turning nonstop without losing a bit of their balance.
Here is a small recording of the music:
Once the small performance is over, we head to the Victoria Memorial (no pictures allowed inside). We are very surprised to find out that the entrance fee is about 20 times more for foreigners than for nationals, but this is not exclusive from this monument and we’ll see it in all Indian sights. Upset feeling overcome, we head inside. It looks as if a piece of England had been cut and pasted here. The architecture resembles Saint Paul in London. The gardens also look very European and are ample. Inside, the building serves as a museum. It has many interesting pieces on display, most belonging to the colonial period. In an extensive collection of watercolor canvasses painted by a British traveler we notice a couple of sights that would be interesting to add to our trip, if they still exist (they do, and we will go there). There is a detailed exposition telling the country’s history before the British colony until India’s independence. We would need several weeks if we wanted to read it all, but we still learn a good deal from it. Time runs fast and dinner time is already on us.
In the evening, we head to the park and attend the Sufi Sutra concert. Three different teams are performing, and each one is better than the previous. Firstly, a band from India plays traditional music from West Bengal and other Northern states. Secondly, a group of women from Morocco energetically sing and play at the rhythm of different types of drums. Finally, a band playing flamenco. We actually never listen to it at home, but in no time we are shouting “Oleeeee” and clapping our hands the flamenco way feeling a sentiment of pride and sweet melancholy.