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My love-hate relationship with Calcutta

You might have already figured this out from my last name, that I’m a Bengali. While I no longer live in Calcutta (yes, I come from a time when it still used to be Calcutta or Cal, not Kolkata), I can’t seem to stay away from it either. It has a strange inexplicable way of pulling me back.

When I left Calcutta for good, I knew about all the things I’d never miss about the city. The never-ending traffic jams, the sticky cheep-cheep weather, the grime and filth that cake the city and the chaotic streets belching smoke and squalor. What a relief it was to escape this veritable madhouse! But in a few years, I was yearning for the gob-smacking Bong food, the laidback adda and its crumbling buildings that speak of a dying glory. And there started my love-hate relationship with Cal.

Victoria Memorial

I love how time slows down

In a world that’s increasingly getting faster, Calcutta has its own set of internal clocks. Here, time is not measured in minutes or hours but rather with khawa-dawa (eating), adda and ghora-phera (outings in the city). Never-ending tea-breaks to long glorious lunches; the laidback attitude towards work leave people to pursue other worldly interests (like telebhaaja and rosogolla).

A tram groaning to a stop

Baghbazar, North Calcutta

On the flipside, if time runs slow then well, everything happens slowly. The trams trudge at a snail’s pace; the traffic jams take forever to clear; work goes on haltingly; municipal developments take decades to see the light of day and nothing ever changes. Taking a step back, it’s kind of scary that in a world that’s moving at a break-neck speed, Calcutta might actually be regressing (of course it’s a debatable point).

People don’t gossip. They have adda

The concept of cha and adda is something that’s innately Bengali. It’s almost like we were born with it. Whiling away a Tuesday afternoon cracking jokes with old cronies is the perfect example of a day well spent.

Coffee House, College Street

Ok, enough talk. When does the lunch break get over? - Aarey chap niyo na dada (don’t stress about it brother!)

I love...Nom nom nom nom!

In Cal, if I’m eating breakfast, I’m thinking about what to eat for lunch; and at lunch I think about what to eat for snacks and that way one day rolls into another. And why not? When there’re such delectable delights to be found at every corner.

Malancho: One of my favourite telebhaja (a deep fried snack) joints in Hatibagan

Inversely, if food is the impetus to life you can bet it isn’t the healthy stuff you’ll be eating all day long.

Something old, something new, something blue

Littered with simple joys across the city, Calcutta is never in dearth of unique experiences. As the erstwhile capital of British ruled India, Cal is the home to some of the most beautiful Victorian era architecture accentuated with touches of Gothic styles.

Victoria Memorial

The Bartaman Patrika office

While most of these buildings have been renovated over the years, you can’t say the same for the old forgotten Calcutta that has its own charm of decay. Lost in a labyrinth of bylanes these crumbling bungalows speak of bygone wealth and glory. Falling from disrepair and disregard, you wonder how the tables were turned on these families over the decades.

Exploriing College Street

Old rundown bungalow in the depths of Girish Park
Somewhere in the bylanes of Hatibagan

I believe I’m not the only one with mixed feelings about Calcutta. The first time I went to Delhi, I was awed by its infrastructure; in Bombay I was taken by how everything moved faster – the people, traffic, work, you name it. But in Calcutta, you feel the city throbbing around you with every heartbeat. Anything but peaceful and yet within its veins runs this quiet complacency amidst a city thrown into perpetual chaos. You either love it or hate it or accept it for what it is; a melting pot of conflicting emotions.

Do you have such a love-hate relationship with any other cities? Would love to hear all about it.

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