City of Joy

How does one describe this wonderful place? City of Joy? Or city of sorrow and poverty? City of suffering? I was familiar with Mother Theresa and her work. I have seen the documentary Born into Brothels, about children born to prostitutes in the red light district. I had seen the movie City of Joy, a movie about a priest living in Calcutta and the life of his rickshaw driver. We were mentally prepared for the poverty.

For me it was love at first sight. I couldn’t stop looking out the window of the taxi at the frenzy of activity. The men trimming bamboo for scaffolding. Bicycle rickshaws. transporting goods. Un-air conditioned buses taking people to work. Our taxi inches away from the cars next to us weaving trough traffic. Massive billboards. Small street and neighborhoods bustling with activity. The tropical heat and crumbling architecture was reminiscent of Havana.

It is a city of contrasts. When we arrived in Delhi we had opted for a home stay, but in Kolkata we decided to stay at the 5 star Oberoi Grand hotel, an iconic 125 year old colonial hotel filling an entire city block. Around the entire periphery of the hotel are shops under a covered colonnade, so densely populated with vendors and people that you can barely walk. Once you entire the gate of the hotel it is an oasis of tranquility and elegance. Francois was in need of a massage so I opted for relaxing by the pool and enjoyed a very expensive Bombay and tonic.

We had been emailing Calcutta Walks about either a cooking experience or a walk through the markets. I had hoped for the bengal cooking class, but it had been a holiday weekend and no one was available on Sunday night for us. So we opted for the “Confluence of Cultures walk, which would take us into the neighborhoods of the various communities that called Calcutta home, the Chinese, Armenian, Jewish, Muslims, Parsis, Marwaris, Biharis  and Buddhists.

The walk did not disappoint. If any of you have a chance to visit Kolkata, you must go on a walk with Calcutta Walks. Our explorer Ifte guided us through the markets with ease. He went out of his way to take us to an area with theater billboards because we were talking about Francois’s  new project photographing billboards. We saw so many things that we would have missed otherwise had we not gone on this walk. It was thrilling, offbeat and fun.

Kolkata, the city of Joy? YES, without a doubt.