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Discovering Calcutta Today

200905-a-calcutta-today

Photo: Christian Witkin

Discordant juxtapositions, let’s face it, are nothing new in India and no novelty, either, to the foreign audiences that crowded into Slumdog Millionaire. At the Oberoi Grand, a guest slips in an instant from tumult into a hushed security. Even before November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the transition from the hubbub of the pavement into the enveloping safety of the hotel (armed guards pass mirrored wands under the chassis of each incoming vehicle) was welcome, largely because the greatest luxuries in India are private space and a place to escape the insanity of the street.

Not that Kolkata is a maelstrom. Yes, there is plenty to deplore. But one could say the same of Detroit. Unlike Kolkata, however, Detroit was never known as the City of Palaces and it does not possess the marbled texture of urban nougat, studded and veined and patterned with the strange and wonderfully accreted remnants of centuries.

One may not visit Kolkata to tick landmarks off an imaginary life list. And unlike, say, Delhi, where the remnants of ancient dynasties lie jumbled atop one another in landscapes that read like palimpsests, it more closely resembles a crumbling South Asian version of a Victorian industrial center. Its pleasures, like its citizens, take time to know. But it is, for India, an unusually good place for a walker, abundantly supplied with the decayed civic furniture of the British Raj. And the food is justly celebrated, as anyone knows who has ever tucked into a plate of yellow lentils and the river fish called begti at Kewpie’s Kitchen, a landmark restaurant in the southern part of town.

The Indian Museum there, the country’s largest, is a vast and stolid colonial edifice full of unheralded oddities and treasures hidden in plain sight. On the morning of the day after our arrival I took an extremely pleasant stroll to the museum along Jawaharlal Nehru Road, which was just waking up, the fruit vendors and chai wallahs bustling around to set up their stalls by the curb. Paying my $3 admission, I entered the museum and found, to my pleasure, that I had it almost to myself.

My main accompaniment was the noisome gossip of the local mynahs, which kept up a running conversation in the museum’s interior courtyard as I mooched contentedly along, from spaces full of first- to third-century Gandharan friezes to rooms where cases held items like a pair of women’s iron bangles—recovered, a label explained, from the intestines of a crocodile.

Another morning I made a pilgrimage to the tumbledown Marble Palace, in North Calcutta, built during the 19th century by the trader Raja Rajendra Mullick to accommodate a strange hoard of Chinese urns and ornate statues of naked European ladies and pictures allegedly by Rubens and Murillo, whose paint now flakes and whose canvases sag in their frames.

Feeling a bit weighed down by the place, I exited the palace and went walking in its scrubby gardens, where stood the rajah’s aviary and the wood-caged remnants of what must have once been an impressive menagerie. For a time my attention was so absorbed by the morose Bengal porcupine and some molting pied hornbills that I failed to notice a large, wild-eyed monkey advancing along a pathway until it was almost on top of me.

I hotfooted it out of there and spent the rest of that day threading the labyrinth of roofed lanes inside the dusty colonial-era New Market (or, rather, its replica; the 19th-century original burned in 1985) behind the Oberoi Grand, shadowed all the while by a man whose official badge identified him as a coolie.

It is probably worth noting here that, like the existence of barefoot rickshaw pullers in the streets, the presence in Kolkata of anachronisms like coolie is troubling in light of the city’s preening new status as a booming tech hub, home to a sophisticated and highly educated middle class. Last year, for instance, the city donated six acres for the creation of a contemporary-art museum to be designed by Herzog & de Meuron, architects of London’s Tate Modern. Set to open in 2013, the museum will be anchored by holdings amassed by some of India’s new art-infatuated superrich.

These types may share the air of Kolkata with the tout who trailed me past vendors of jasmine garlands, plastic flip-flops, and bolts of sari cloth, but it goes without saying that such people inhabit a universe very distant from his. My tout steered me forcefully away from my stated goal (the Tibetan antiquarian shop Chamba Lamba) and toward stalls operated by Kashmiri vendors, where my charitable purchase of a $5 pashmina would bring him that much closer to his kickback, the fake Rolex of his dreams.

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