Kolkata was one of my destinations for 2019. Who would’ve thought life would change in a matter of months. Now I am deeply saddened by the fact that while battling this worldwide Covid-19 crisis, this city was also badly hit by Cyclone Amphan.
SETTLED in a cranky old sedan for the 45-minute ride to the hotel, with no information about the city except when attached to the name of Mother Teresa, we were surprised by the fact that it was very modern, even in comparison to New Delhi.
On do-it-yourself mode, we were happy to be told Uber was quite efficient here. While the rides were old, with visible signs of wear and tear, sometimes without air conditioning, they were quick to arrive and very cheap, I felt guilty every time we paid up, tip included. We survived three days riding them, or the bright yellow Hindustan Ambassador taxis, that all the more made this city very colorful and interesting.
Kolkata, the capital of the Indian State of West Bengal, used to be the capital of British India from 1772 to 1911. Because of this status, it is the only city in India that has a train network, and its tram system is the oldest operating electric one in Asia. The Kolkata Metro is the first underground metro railway system in the country; the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, the first golf club established outside the United Kingdom in 1829. In addition, the Birla Planetarium is the largest in Asia, the Alipore Zoological Garden and Indian Museum are also the oldest of their kind in the country. So many places are proud testaments to its glorious beginnings, it was impossible to visit them all, considering the level of traffic in a city of almost six million people.
On our one full day of sightseeing, we opted to rent a car from the hotel to save on time and effort. As we waited for our ride, an old sedan came up the driveway, and turned up to be the hotel car. The scene that followed was more hilarious. Inside, there were so many mosquitoes that we were either trying to shoo or kill, until we realized we seemed to be upsetting the driver. In retrospect, we should have considered that most Hindus believe that any living thing that dies is reborn in another living form, hence their great respect for all life.
I had requested to pass by Howrah Bridge – the sixth longest bridge in the world. Locally called Rabindra Setu, it is named after the famed Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who is very familiar to me, as we had studied some of his work in school. On the way to the Victoria Memorial, I was astounded to see rows of fairytale-type horse carriages waiting for tourists, much fancier than ones you may see elsewhere. They looked out of place but were so beautiful. After lining up for our tickets, we entered the gates of the memorial and proceeded to the gardens. The memorial is made of makrana marble, the same kind used for the Taj Mahal, so you cannot help but notice similarities in their design. This structure was completed in 1921 in memory of the Queen. Inside there is a museum filled with artifacts and interesting memorabilia.
We were not prepared for the scene inside the Dakshineswar Kali Temple compound. While easy to find a parking spot, the sheer number of people patiently waiting in line to get in was staggering. Of all ages, they were all barefoot, dressed in traditional costumes and brought various offerings. We circled the complex expecting a line for paying tourists, but there was none. We instead spent some time outside, taking in what I felt was the most “real” slice-of-life experience so far. We strained our necks, glimpsing through peepholes--- people bathing half-dressed in some act of purification, smiling parents with babies in one arm and offerings in another, colorful saris, fancy toenails on naked feet---all set to the sound of prayer. As we were leaving, two children decided to hang on to both legs of our companion, trying to coax him into giving them something. This was our signal to leave, as we were already standing out in the crowd. Someone should have told us that seas of humanity converge here on Tuesdays and Saturdays, but we found this out too late – a risk when you decide to sightsee without a guide. But I will tell you now, if you have the chance to visit Kolkata when the pandemic clears, see this temple built by philanthropist Rani Rashmoni in 1855, it was a fulfillment of a vision from a dream of hers.
When evening came, we made our way to the Mother House. Surprised by the crowds in the Temple, here there was just a small scattering of people, mostly tourists. We had enough time and space to pay our respects to her tomb, go up to her simple bedroom quarters and visit the small museum showcasing her life. A 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner and the founder of the Missiona-ries of Charity, Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, lived there and in Ireland, before moving here, devoting her life to serve the poo-rest of the poor. Often referred to as the Living Saint during her lifetime, she was canonized in Rome on September 4, 2016. Most Catholics revere her as a symbol of how a Christian should be in the service of others, so kneeling before her grave was an emotio-nal experience. That I was here, where her lifelong passion was focused and also where her life ended, was the most significant part of the trip.