Chris' Original Blogbeque

A fresh, vinegar-based examination of life

First impressions of Kolkata city

Posted by Chris on October 3, 2007

As I think I said earlier, I went into the downtown city for the first time on Friday (Sept 28). I think 45 mins – one hour is a reasonable time to expect the trip to take. From my room, I walk out to the main road, which only takes 3-4 minutes. From there, you hail/catch an auto-rickshaw to the end of its route in Kabar Danga, then catch another to Tollygunge. This is the first metro station—the metro only has one line, running North-South. The city stretches very long North-South, I think I’m 15-20 km from the center of the city.

Coming off the metro, I really didn’t have much of an idea of what to expect. My idea of city was/is so stuck in the Western mindset. There are some tall, “normal” buildings in Kolkata but they are in the minority. Corporate offices that I would walk by reminded me more of a dictatorial palace than office space: tall iron fence in the front, gated driveway with security guards posted, white stone building.

So anyway, I think the hardest thing to adjust to is how different it all looks—even in the area I’m staying. Where I live is somewhat of a middle-class area, but, you’re not used to thinking about a huge open-air market as middle class. (obviously I’m using a lower standard, in absolute $$ terms, to signify middle class). But on my street are large, multi-story, single-family homes. Again, they don’t have lavish gardens, shutters, etc… so there’s an mental adjustment I had to make to realize that this is a relatively prosperous area.

Same thing goes in the city. On the outside, a bank’s façade might seem crummy. There’s very little stress on architecture. But if you walk in the bank, while smaller than an American bank, it seems bank-y enough. Instead of 10 retailers on a block, there might be 30 small shops.

There are also myriad street vendors and hawkers (goods laid out on a blanket, or someone who shines shoes, without any kind of physical stand). Most sidewalks have at least a line of vendors. Some have things on both sides with hawkers as well. Then, there are so many people. Everywhere. I think that was the most overwhelming thing. I never felt like I could just sit down and relax, except for when I got away from the road and near a park or to a less crowded area. There aren’t park benches. People are pressing in on every side. I don’t know if I’d say people are in a hurry, like in NYC or any large American city, but a combination of the numbers of people, along with all the different businesses, really overwhelmed me.

For some reason, I expected there to be sections that would look more familiar. There is nowhere like that in the downtown area of the city. There may be some places outside that are more Western, I’d have to see, there are some places I’ve been told about. In Mumbai, or Delhi, it would be more Western at parts. Kolkata, and West Bengal as a whole, has retained more of the Indian flavor I guess.

I don’t quite understand how this is so. Calcutta was the capital of the British Empire in India for a long time. I’m guessing that these changes to “modernize” per se have come recently in all the cities, and Kolkata is now less likely to follow suit. English is much less common and the formal business sector is not growing as quickly as other cities.

There were also beggars, of course. It was a long time before I saw many of them, but once I walked into the heart of the city, there’s at least one person on every block. The most shocking thing is seeing kids, and mothers with kids. That is a sight I’ve never seen in America. Why doesn’t someone just throw them in the back of a truck and take them to some kind of home?

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2 Responses to “First impressions of Kolkata city”

  1. mom said

    Having listened to the book you gave me (The World is Flat) I expected the city to be more modern as well. There was a lot in the book about business development in there in India and I just assumed it would be in any big city. I’ve heard stories about the crowds of people but can only imagine it.

  2. Sheila Hargett said

    Looking forward to more geography and history lessons for school!
    Praying that you will make a difference there, even if you don’t realize it now, or ever actually see what you have accomplished.

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