“Nomoshkar!” Typically said with a slight head nod. If you’re planning to visit Calcutta, you might want to get that head nod right. There’s something different about Calcutta or Kolkata, as it is now called. It’s full of surprises. You will find magnificent malls just a walk away from less-privileged areas and modern buildings right next to ancient architectural beauties. If you’re planning a visit, I hope this helps you be a little prepared.
Practice using the word “dada” and use it before or after every sentence – it’s used to refer to any male stranger. It means older brother. When speaking to a woman – use the word “didi”. Meaning older sister. If by any chance you find yourself speaking to someone way younger than you, then you can use the words “bhai”, meaning younger brother or “bon”, meaning younger sister.
As soon as you leave the airport, you will be greeted by loud chatter. Bengalis are probably the loudest people on the planet. Since pick-ups are not allowed inside the airport, most family members and friends wait at the entrance. Along with them wait other drivers looking for passengers. Expect to be approached by multiple drivers asking if you need a ride. Try to catch the word “lagbey”, meaning, “do you need?”. If you have someone picking you up, you can chose to ignore answering or shake your head with a polite but firm “Na”. That means “no”. However, if you are planning to ride into the city all by yourself, pick your mode of transport depending on the level of adventure you want to have. Ask for an AC bus route or pre-paid taxi to your preferred destination. “Dada jaaben?”, is the phrase to learn here. For example, “Dada Park Street jaaben?”. Jaaben means “will you go?”. Interpreting the response from your driver is important. Most responses will be a confusing head nod. If they wait for you, it’s your cue to board. If the nod or absence of any response is followed by them driving away, look for the next available option.
You can smell the air. Some say it’s the smell of smoke. Maybe it’s because of all the vehicles at any time of the day since the roads are busy all the time. When you leave the airport and head into the city, you will be amazed/overwhelmed at the seeming chaos. Trucks, buses, cars, taxis, trams, rickshaws, cycles, pedestrians might all be competing to use the same roads. Lanes are N/A and really unnecessary but given the number of vehicles, every one is forced to move at a slow and safe pace. Of course a lot is dependent on the time of day.
Buses and yellow taxis are the most common public transport options around the city. Other private cab services and car rentals are also easily available. If you plan to use a yellow taxi on the street, they might quote an outrageous amount for a small distance. Your response should be “meter dada”. Most will agree, some will drive away. But there are hundreds of other taxis available. The underground metro is another inexpensive and quick mode of transport around a major radius of the city. After a few years of successful construction, the metro rail should connect more parts of the city.
Since Calcutta is very inviting, you will find people everywhere. If you look different than the locals, you will draw attention no matter where you are from. You might be greeted, asked friendly questions (possibly in a native language), you might get stared at, followed or completely ignored – all depending on which part of which city you are in. It’s wise to politely acknowledge any direct question but keep moving unless you really want to engage in conversation.
Another common street sight might include the homeless. Not all of them are beggars. Some of them have agricultural lands in villages around Calcutta but are daily wage earners in the city and live on the streets to save on housing. Beggars are not uncommon. If you’re dressed neatly, you will be approached by children, adults with infants, toddlers, or elderly people. Your discretion is recommended in terms of charitable giving. You might not want to fund drug addictions or crime with your generosity. If you really want to give, consider sharing food. Even then, be prepared to find the receiver selling the food to a nearby store for money.
In terms of food, there are all kinds of options available – five star restaurants, world and local cuisine restaurant chains, small restaurants, dhabas, and street-side food. Don’t be intimidated by foreign names on menu cards. You can ask any restaurant for recommendations. Bengalis love their fish so if you try a local bengali restaurant, ask for maach-bhat (fish curry and rice), maach bhaja (fried fish), maacher paturi (spiced steamed fish). If you want to try the famous naan and accompaniments, try out the chicken tikka masala, chicken butter masala, dal makhani (spicy lentils), alu dum (spicy steamed potatoes) with the naan. Bengalis also love their Biryani, which is rice, potatoes and meat cooked in the most delicious meal ever possible! Chicken rolls are another favourite. They are kebabs wrapped in the softest parathas. You can also find several other Bengali, North-Indian, South-Indian, Mughlai, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese, American, Thai, Japanese restaurants around the city. Even though there are so many options, don’t forget to try phuchkas (hard to explain – has to be experienced), shinghara and jalebis as snacks.
And there are the cha stalls. You can find them all over city. They are temporary street side counters with steaming tea and biscuits. You can pick your preferred clay cup size. These cups are called bharn. (You have to hear that word before pronouncing it right). Biscuits are pronounced biscoot and are similar to American cookies. Ask the vendor for “ekta cha” and pay in small change. Prices range from Rs. 5 to Rs. 10. Usually several people can be found around such counters. If you find a group of people drinking cha and chatting, it’s called an adda.
Noteworthy sites to visit include the Howrah Bridge, Victoria Memorial and Maidan, River-side (Babu-ghat), Mother House, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. John’s Church, the Race Course, Botannical Gardens, Tea-board, New Market, College Street, Park Street, Nicco Park, Eco Park, Science City, National Library, Zoological Gardens, and the flower market under the Howrah Bridge. There are several clubs and discos as well. Consider a walking tour – you can experience so much more that way. If you visit the city during the summer, expect heat and humidity and carry your bottle of water.
In most residential areas, you can expect to find makeshift stores selling fresh produce along sidewalks or footpaths. There are such independent stores for clothing, accessories, flowers, meat, groceries, stationery, other items. You can certainly find similar items at department stores around the city, at slightly higher prices.
Locals are mostly conservative in their outlook towards attire and public actions. Sarees, salwar kameezes, jeans, shirts, trousers, lungis are common attire. If you want to blend in, choose conservative casuals. PDA is considered disrespectful and is best avoided.
It’s a little hard to capture this magical place in words. So get that camera ready – there will be a lot to capture. And remember that the sun rises around 5 am and sets at around 6 pm and therefore the hustle begins early but goes on beyond midnight.
Author: The Overseas Magazine Editor