“No refusal” is written on all the egg yolk-colored cabs of Kolkata, a pledge sometimes kept by the cabdrivers, but always fulfilled by the city itself. From the first time I had a chance to wander the decaying colonial city, Kolkata's been a mysterious yet open city for me, its wide sidewalks like something out of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” I’ve always wanted to come back to dig deeper, not to mention savor the spicy Bengali food once again.
Gavin, my trusty guide to all things Indian, awaits me at the Fairlawn Hotel. A quirky Armenian couple have run this hotel for some time, the years manifested in the steady accumulation of knick knacks and eccentric rooms like the one painted entirely green from the floor up the chairs onto the walls and ceiling.
After a crazy cab ride we make it to Cima Art School, host to a network of art shows spread out across the city in various buildings. The show has great energy; one set up in an old burned out cinema is especially inspiring.
Next on to Chamba Lama, Gavin’s favorite jewelry shop in New Market, run by a lovely Tibetan brother and sister—-very jolly and friendly once you warm them up. Don’t miss the funny cookie shops in the market with fellows elaborately icing cakes and biscuits. Finally, it’s time for lunch at a small Bengali restaurant, jackfruit and fish in banana leaves, not to mention a massive shrimp curry.
We spend the next day snooping around the auction houses on Russell Street finding odd assortments of things like old stereos, glass chockas and Bollywood movie posters. Auctions take place weekly but they will happily sell you anything on the spot. Nearby is a tiny old bookshop featuring hand-screened children’s books.
We stop in at the Punjabi Government Emporium - I try not to miss the emporiums, you never know what you will find. I’m rewarded with some lovely vintage Bagh Phulkari wedding dowry blankets, hand embroidered flowers on a rusty hand-woven fabric.
We end the day at the end of life: The South Park Street Cemetery, an old British remnant. Remarkable mausoleums from the 1780s display sad yet chatty eulogies hand carved in lovely scripts, detailing the short lives of the expats succumbing to all sorts of maladies and battles such as Col. Charles Russell “who was killed by a cannon ball while commanding the storming of Tippoo Sultan’s stronghold at Santinungulam”.
Our last day we hit the museums. First the vast Crystal Palace, former mad mansion of a wealthy industrialist. Our guide makes some false claims about a so-called Caravaggio and leads us past massive bird cages, covered upholstery, a colossal statues of Queen Victoria. I especially fall for the pieta of Dura marble.
Afterwards we wander the surrounding neighborhood taking in the amazing old mansions falling into ruin. Then on to the National Museum to see an incredible collection of old stone Chola period carvings of the gods and goddesses the devoted locals love to touch as a sign of their respect and devotion. We barely scratch the surface of Kolkata, but please skip some other cities and spend some time there, you won’t be disappointed.