Discovering Kali in the City of Night (Part 2)

After a great first couple of days in Kolkata, we were keen to see what the next two days would hold. (If you missed Kolkata part 1, click here to read it.)

Our third day in the city coincided with Kali Puja, and we decided to make our way to Mullik Ghat, by the Hoogly river under the Howrah bridge, to see the large flower market there. Checking a map, we saw we could take the subway a few stops, and then walk a short distance from there. The subway part of the journey was fine, if a bit alarming: I’ve never seen people push onto a subway with such zeal. Ever, in my life. The doors open, and the people on the platform dive into the car as though there were pots of gold for the first one in. They don’t let anyone get out; old people are trampeled, clothing is grabbed. I’m not exaggerating. Luckily, our stop was a popular one, so we didn’t have too much trouble getting off.

Once we oriented ourselves and found the right direction to walk, we were instantly caught up in the hustle-bustle of city life, buses, taxis, cycle rickshaws, people carrying ridiculously large baskets of fruit or bundles of clothing on their heads, marveling at the array of vendors selling everything imaginable on sidewalks.

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As we got closer and closer to where we thought we needed to go to reach Mullik Ghat, we soon realized we were walking through what appeared to be a very conservative neighborhood. And unfortunately–having grown lax from the super-touristed sights in Jaipur where you’ll see plenty of westerners in shorts, capris, skirts, whatever–I put on the one knee-length skirt I had brought that morning.

Yikes, the stares! If my legs could have blushed they would: I felt naked (and for the record, I had long sleeves, and a scarf on as well). But I should have known better, because I had read what every woman traveler to India has written: cover up. Cover your arms, cover your legs; just do it, and you’ll be much more comfortable.

We unfortunately also realized we were in a bit of a dead-end, a somewhat closed-off neighborhood of butchers, bicycle mechanics, and corner stores, where I spied not one other woman in eyesight. So, there were some uncomfortable moments as we tried to figure out how to get back to the main street and regroup, setting out in the right direction eventually.

We were finally rewarded with arrival at the Howrah Bridge, and the flower market. It was a riot of color below, and girders above. The pictures don’t really do either justice.

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We then made our way to the BBD Bagh area, to see some of the old British government buildings (which are apparently forbidden to photograph, which is why I was able to sneak only one in below), and also to check out Dacre Lane, which was known to be a very popular, and safe, street food area. Alas, foiled by our timing: because of the holiday, the government offices were closed, and one lone vendor was working a food stall, and had almost no customers. Not an auspicious way to try street food, we returned to the hotel where we knew we could get a decent lunch.

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To salvage the afternoon, we decided to see the Victoria Memorial more properly. It’s a beautiful building, with lots of interesting information inside about the history of British colonial rule in India. It seemed half of Kolkata was out and about for the holiday as well, visiting the museum itself but also enjoying the surrounding gardens: another example of a peaceful, open area that residents can go to escape the throngs of the city.

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That evening, we walked around the streets near our hotel to see the various pandals–makeshift temples erected by different neighborhood or civic groups for Kali Puja. Some were elaborate, some simple, but most had loudspeakers blaring music, and a few had a celebrity guest to draw crowds. A few people were lighting firecrackers and such (an activity that would reach its peak the next evening, on Diwali), many of which didn’t seem like something that would be legal here in the states. In any case, it was an enjoyable walk.

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Our final full day in Kolkata, Diwali: we went to the New Market/Hogg Market area, with the idea to look around, possibly pick up a souvenir or two, and then have lunch at a place we had read many good reviews about. Unfortunately, the restaurant, when we finally found it, seemed to be some weird cross between a Russian mob front and an Asian disco, with thumping music playing so loud we almost could not hear over it.

Making a quick retreat to the street, we found a cab to take us back to the Chowringhee area and sought refuge from the heat in the Oberoi Grand, where we knew we could catch our breath and have a cold drink. Even more delightful, the bar manager came over to chat, and took some time and care explaining cricket to us in a way I finally understood.

That evening, we had planned a meal at a place that had universally good reviews and was supposed to be one of the best places for trying an authentic Bengali meal. The place was called Kewpie’s, and was not that far a walk from the hotel. They offered two or three set menus, so we each opted for a different one.

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The food was very, very good. Unfortunately, the timing of it being Diwali meant that, aside from one other western couple, we were the only patrons there. And, it appeared that the owners were keen on getting us fed & out, so they could go celebrate the holiday themselves. We did feel a bit rushed, though the food was delicious and a very fair price.

Our last last evening was filled with the sounds and sights of Diwali: walking back to the hotel through streets smoky with fireworks, the loud blasts competing with the blare of music from pandals overflowing with garlands of flowers and donations, open trucks passing us on street corners, full of people shouting and laughing, escorting their neighborhood Kali statue down to the river, and of course, always, the honking.

Back at the hotel, having a final drink at the outside courtyard bar, we were joined by a young, smartly dressed Indian man, whose beautiful cream silk kurta was detailed with a tasteful amount of beading and gold thread. He was escaping the family holiday dinner going on in the restaurant at the hotel, and talked to us about Diwali, the politics of noise, and how he understood that all Americans retired at 45 or 50. We tried to disabuse him of this notion to no avail, but had a nice time chatting with him. When he was joined by a few friends for a second and then a third whiskey, we said our farewell and wished them all Happy Diwali.

In the morning we would be leaving the tropics of India for the mountains of Nepal.


Read our previous posts on Delhi and Jaipur, or click the India tag under the title to check out everything related to this trip.

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