Calcutta Vignettes

Calcutta gave me a whole lot of stories, colours, sights and sounds. It made me feel a whole lot of different emotions that are difficult to put in words. For a first-timer like me, Calcutta can be quite a bit overwhelming on the senses – it was to me. It can be tough to take in all the chaos, the hustle and bustle, the old and the new, at once.

Because of these different emotions, different feelings, that Calcutta aroused in me, I think the best way to do a travelogue about the city is in the style of vignettes – a few little stories at a time, about something that we saw there, interspersed with the way it made me feel. Would you like that?

Here we go with the first installment of vignettes – about how Calcutta goes about its day-to-day life.

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Kulhads are everywhere in Calcutta, from the smallest of tea stalls to the biggest. For someone like me, used to drinking tea in steel glasses or mugs, drinking kulhad chai is a unique experience that needs to be savoured, but for the average Calcutta resident, it is a matter of routine. Most of these kulhads are not very finely made – they are sometimes wonky in shape – because they aren’t supposed to be works of art to be preserved in a showcase. They serve a function – the drinking of tea – and then they are thrown on the ground to shatter into pieces. We saw so many people breaking their kulhads on the roads after their tea, and it was a tad disturbing to see at first. Later, though, we realised it is, indeed, an eco-friendly and wise thing to do.

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Kulhads at a tea stall in Calcutta

Old Calcutta is full of tea stalls, selling different quantities of tea at prices ranging from INR 2 to INR 10. These tea stalls are de rigeur – you’d be hard pressed to find a proper eatery selling tea or coffee, unless it is very posh. And you don’t want to get into a posh eatery in the middle of exploring an ancient part of the city, right?

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I fell in love with the yellow taxis making the rounds of Calcutta. They add a bright pop of colour to the city, and look just lovely against the backdrop of the dull facades of the ancient buildings.

Photographing these yellow taxis was something I absolutely loved doing all the time we were in Calcutta. Riding in them was an experience I savoured every single time we did it, in spite of being swindled a couple of times. We got some really interesting taxi drivers, who told us the most interesting of stories.

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The yellow taxis of Calcutta

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White ivory bangles, red bangles and a single iron bangle – aka the shankh pola – adorned the hands of most married Bengali women we came across in Calcutta. We absolutely had to get a pair for myself and some more for the women in the family back home.

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Shankh pola for sale outside Kalighat

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It was so very enchanting for me to hear the rumble, rumble of the trams as they run down the tracks on the road, in select parts of Calcutta. The other traffic then makes way for the tram, as it winds down slowly along the road. It was quite charming to see these trams shuttling by, and I would pause in the middle of shopping or photographing to take a look at these beauties.

Sadly, though, we didn’t get a chance to ride on a tram, all the while we were in Calcutta, due to a combination of a lot of factors. Well, next time!

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A tram shuttling by in Gariahat

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For a saree lover like me, Calcutta is paradise. Just enter a market (like Gariahat, for example) and you will find rows and rows and rows of stalls and shops selling these beautiful Bengali sarees. Handloom, powerloom, cotton, silk – name the kind of saree and you will find it in these markets.

Tants, Tangails, Garads and Jamdanis are the ones we found the most of. I was desperate to see some Begumpuris and some Kantha work sarees, but we didn’t find any. Maybe, we didn’t know the right places to look for them. All the more reason to go back to the city, I say!

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Tant sarees at a roadside stall in Gariahat

 

I absolutely love the couple of Tants that I picked up for myself and those we bought to take back home, as souvenirs.

Oh, and these markets are fab places to pick up some gorgeous, gorgeous junk jewellery at very, very reasonable places. I picked up some of those too!

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Hand-pulled rickshaws are a very common mode of transport in Calcutta, at least in the old part of the city. The rickshaw wallahs go tinkle, tinkle, tinkle with the beautiful cowbells that they hold in their hands, all the while sitting on their rickshaws. These rickshaws transport everything from luggage to people for short distances through the city, the owner pulling the rickshaw manually.

It was heartbreaking for me to see this, but no one else seemed to have any qualms in using this particular mode of transport.

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The rickshaw wallahs of Calcutta

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Durga Maa is everywhere in Calcutta. Everywhere. All around.

We found some really beautiful Durga Maa showpieces in the markets of Calcutta. Many of these showpieces were in the shape of winnows, which hold special significance for Bengalis on festive occasions.

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A Durga Maa showpiece in the Gariahat market

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Madame Mamata Bannerjee is everywhere in Calcutta, too. She seems to hold a special place in the hearts of the city’s residents, we could feel.

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A Mamata Bannerjee hoarding on a Calcutta street

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Food being prepared and sold right on the streets is something we often saw in Calcutta. A huge part of Calcutta eats on the go, straight off the street-side stalls.

From rolls and tikkas to chaats and chowmein, you get everything at these road-side food stalls. I can’t say we sampled everything the street-side carts had to offer, but we did try out a lot of the food stuff on sale. Most of it was good, I would say.

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A chaat vendor on Lindsay Street, who was super happy to pose for me

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That’s about it for today, folks! I hope you enjoyed this little tour through Calcutta with me!

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24 thoughts on “Calcutta Vignettes

  1. Thank you thank you TG for that wonderful tour of Calcutta! I have never been there, dont even know if I ever will. Just reading your account and going through all the pictures gave me a beautiful insight into the city. Loved your photography! Own a pair of shakha-pola has been in my bucketlist for quite sometime :D. And I wish to try the Bengalis’ version of pani puri which I have heard from Smits and R’s Mom that it’s to die for! Did you get to taste it?

    1. @Deeps

      Glad you liked the post! πŸ™‚ Here’s wishing you get to visit Calcutta soon, too.

      Yes, we did try out the puchka there. It was good, but not outstandingly wonderful. That said, I am not sure if the couple of places where we ate it at were the right ones.

    2. Deeps, I can vouch for the street food there! It’s absolutely delicious! I’ve never enjoyed puchkas and pani puris anywhere else since. And the variety of street food!

      1. @Smitha

        I am guessing we just didn’t check out the street food at the right places.. there was a whole lot of variety, definitely, but the taste was good, not as great as I had expected it to be. Especially the phuchkas were disappointing. 😦

      2. Yes, I suppose, that’s a possibility. Also the styles are different, so some might not like it as much as the pani pooris. For instance in Jamshedpur, pani puris were always super hot and spicy. Whenever I ate them in other states, there was always a sweet chutney, which spoiled the taste for me, while others couldn’t imagine it without a sweet element πŸ™‚

  2. Oh this brings back memories! I want to go and eat there now! My mum used to be extremely fond of Bengal cotton sarees. We used to get a lot of variety in Jamshedpur too, but the variety in Calcutta was supposed to be amazing.
    I’ve just never been there during the Poojas. One day, hopefully, one day.

    1. @Smitha

      I absolutely love the Bengali Tant sarees too. They are so comfortable to wear, are inexpensive, come in such beautiful colour combinations, and look simple and elegant too. πŸ™‚

      Here’s hoping you get to go to Calcutta during one of the Poojas soon!

      1. Yup one day. I’ve got to take Daughter to Jamshedpur once. She has just been once when she was 2 month old baby. Since then dad retired and we moved to Wayanad. I’ve got to plan a trip to take Dad and daughter there, just to relive the memories…

  3. TGND, I love love your style of writing this series – vignettes. I might just steal it to write some long pending travelogues because photos evoke so many stories and I might be able to do some justice.
    I loved the little things you have chosen to share here. I have been to Calcutta twice, falling sick both times, still trying some street food but never truly experiencing the spirit. From the travels I have had, I feel like these pictures so well capture some of the essence of Calcutta. Thank you for bringing back those memories. I want to see the Pujo in Calcutta and it is not something we cannot go to considering how much we are connected to the place, especially K. Some of our close friends are from Bengal and hopefully we will do this trip soon.
    I look forward to more stories (wait, I think you have another post up already!) πŸ™‚

  4. Nice account of the city! I’m just beginning to get interested in sarees too. Would you mind sharing pics of the sarees and junk jewellery you bought?

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