Kolkata is totally mystique. Most of the times it does not figure in the bucket list for most travellers. There are plenty of reasons. The only time when most travellers touch Kolkata is when they need to change flights. The city is hot and humid, has enough of trash,cacaphony and poverty. However if you think you will still brave all these and visit the city then please read on.
Having spent a good amount of my life in Kolkata, I can tell you that the city is amazing, a lot-lot much more than what you apparently see. So following are my ten commandments for anyone planning to visit the city for the first time or even planning to revisit to soak in its rich culture and heritage.
1. Bengalis address any strangers as "Dada" (elder brother) or "Didi (elder sister)
You have to admit this is something very sweet of a race, they will address any stranger as either 'dada' or 'didi' and mind it does not bear any reference to the person's social or economic status. So if you address anyone as dada or didi you are sure to earn some brownie points. Mind the gender though!
For example, you say to a shopkeeper(male) : Dada, can I have two packets of biscuits please.
To a lady on the street : Didi can you please give me the directions to the bus stand?
2. Never ever say anything criticizing Tagore, Netaji, Vivekananda and Sourav Ganguly
Bengalis are the most soft people anywhere in India and they can bear any criticise or abuse without ever raising a finger, but then everything comes with a clause just like Santa Clause. Never ever say anything demeaning Tagore, Netaji, Vivekananda and off course Sourav Ganguly. These four people are held with high regards. It is unofficially a crime to say anything low about these people and can earn you life long foes.
3. Bengalis are awesome cooks
Yes, Kolkata is the gastronomic capital of India and every food you get is awesome. Bengalis make the most amazing fish, crab, mutton or chicken dishes. There are restaurants that people swear by. Try the famous Kolkata Biriyani ( biriyani with a big soft potato) and chicken chaap or mutton boti at Arsalan in Park Street.The biriyani smells and tastes out of the world and should be a must try for anyone.
Try the the lip smacking vegetarian food at Haldiram's (Exide Crossing). You can thank me later!
Also sample bhel puri,jhal muri, papri chat, kati roll and phuchkas at any roadside shop. Bear in mind you and hygiene should be two entirely separate entity while sampling street food. Nothing will happen, you won't die but if you bother about hygiene while eating from the not-so-great looking roadside shop you will ever enjoy your food. Believe me there are no forces in nature that can kill you while eating roadside food, so just chill and enjoy.
If you are lucky enough to get a lunch or dinner invitation at some bengali home, do not miss it. You may not regret if you lose a chance to earn a thousand pounds but you will definitely regret the great gastronomic loss if you miss a bengali lunch/dinner invite.Be sure to sample the dish called 'aloo-posto' ( poppy seeds with potato).
4. Bengalis swear by their fish
United States swear by buffalo wings and fried chicken,Italy by pasta,UK by chicken tikka masala( Indian dish!) and bengalis double swear by their fishes. Bengalis eat a wide variety of fish mostly sweet water fish and no bengali meal is complete without fish. The fish that most bengalis live (and reborn) for is hilsa. Its a highly bony fish but tastes and smells awesome.In a subsequent blog I will give you the authentic bengali way of preparing hilsa. There is one more favourite that is the prawn or more precisely the tiger prawn.And the funny thing is they refer to prawn as 'fish' in bengali although they know it's a crustacean and biologically not a fish. Pretty weird though!
Also visit any fish market and be amazed to see the variety and volume of fish that any average bengali 'dada' or 'didi' buys.
5. Too many sweets
A friend of mine once exclaimed saying she saw more sweet shops in kolkata compared to medicine shops. Yes, that's true..you will find sweet shops in almost every major alley and almost all time filled with customers. Bengalis are voracious sweet eaters and can readily have sweets any time of the day. They will be very happy if you carry a packet of sweets if you go to their homes after a long time. Be sure to be feed sweets also.
The sweets are all too good.Take my word for it. Some of the very popular sweets are rosogolla, chomchom, sandesh and misti doi. Even if you have antipathy for sweets do not miss misti-doi (sweet yoghurt).
Some famous sweetshops are Kamdhenu, Bancharaam and K C Das, though I am not much fond of the latter. You can try from any sweetshop you find nearby.
6. Head to North for Heritage
Kolkata has two distinct parts- North Kolkata and South Kolkata
The cosmopolitan part is South Kolkata bursting with shopping malls,shops,companies. It was mainly developed post India's independence from the British rule. You will find too many people who have crossed the border and have settled here,calling this part their home, post independence when Bangladesh was given to Pakistan and West Bengal given to India.
North Kolkata is where the heritage lies. The houses though now looks very cringy and dark because of lack of maintenance tells of an aura when the rich and affluent used to live here.The houses look so different,distinguished and beautiful. They speak volumes of the bygone era. If possible arrange or do a solo walk in North Kolkata and see for yourself the languished beauties. You will be humbled.
7. Durga Pujo
Google and find out what this festival is. This is possibly the biggest Hindu carnival and once a lifetime experience. But yes, one word of caution, if you are not much comfortable with crowds the better avoid this time. Please do not think me cynical.
8. No dearth of cheap public transport and Bengalis are proud of their metro rail
Yes you read that right, there is no dearth of public transport in Kolkata but they may be jammed with people. So anyone who is familiar travelling in less-occupied buses or trains will find it hard,jostling with too many passengers.But if you can accept this, then life is a breeze. Public transport is superbly cheap and versatile. A 3 km ride in a auto (shared tuk-tuk) will cost you less than 0.1 $, but mind it you have to sit with three four other co-passengers.
The yellow taxis are iconic to the city. Though they may not be comfortable to people like us who are more accustomed to the luxuries of our private cars, but they are cheap, runs anywhere in the city and are visually appealing.
Any person is very very proud of the metro railway.The reason is obvious, Kolkata was the first in India to get the metro rail and the most amazing thing is its partly an underground rail system.
Also the city is very sentimental of its tram. Yes you will not find tram anywhere in India except Kolkata. A lot of countries have who previously had trams have got away with them since they are slow and high on maintenance. But not so with Kolkata. When there was a discussion in the government to abolish trams, the people protested. They could not sever with anything that is so much nostalgic and linked to the city. So the tram is still there.
The tram is really a remainder to us that no matter how fast paced we become, there should always be some time for enjoying the small things in life, for retrospecting life and for living life.
9. Everyone has opinion
Well this might be annoying but deal with it. Any bengali you will meet will have an opinion on anything and everything and is too eager that you hear.It doesn't matter whether its EuroCup, Obama or Hillary, solution to the World's hunger crisis or what you should have for dinner if you have got constipation. An average bengali is well educated and more inclined towards art,poetry,theatre,music and gossip.Just your listening to them will make them happy.
Its a very normal on the streets that if you ask any single person for the direction, two or three will gather from nowhere and will start telling you the direction and sometime even brainstorm among themselves to tell you the best route.
Yes, cricket may be the religion in India as well as the money minting sport but what steals every bengali's heart is the football. Every father or uncle will scold his son/nephew if he plays football without studying hard, but the truth is that person had also done the same and this will go down generations.
There are two major teams East Bengal and MohanBagan. As I told before post independence a lot of Hindu bengalis shifted to Kolkata because of Bangladesh's hostility towards Hindus,so team East Bengal was initially formed by them.The natives had MohanBagan. So whenever there is a match between these two teams, people gets divided into supporters of either one of them just like county cricket.Each will tease other in a friendly way whoever loses.But at the end of the day its just a game.
So unless if you are truly a supporter of any of this two teams, better not take any sides because your co-passenger in auto( tuk-tuk) might vouch for the other team.
Well everything here is my opinion and you are free to take or leave any or all. Just as any Bengali I also have my opinion on anything and everything but I prefer to write.Let me know if I have missed any. See you in my next blogpost.
|The iconic yellow taxi|