It was a hot, humid Kolkata morning and I had been advised
to take a tram.
I decided to walk and within
about 500 yards, I was lost. I had a map but there are few street signs in Kolkata.
I soon worked out that many shops have
their address on their sign. That was how I got my bearings and found the
tramline on Lenin Sarani. I took the tram to College Street
. My fare was 5 rupees (about
is the academic and literary centre of Kolkata. I knew I had arrived because a
poster put up by the Kolkata traffic police read ‘Educational area – please
maintain silence’. On Kolkata’s raucous and chaotic streets, the poster was a
triumph of hope over experience.
Second-hand bookstores line the street. Most sell academic
books written in English. At one stall, I asked for short stories in English,
and found myself with a compilation by Sudha Murty called ‘Grandma’s Bag of Stories’.
It was a book of cautionary tales in English and I thought my grandson Floyd would
enjoy it. There was a bookplate in the front. The Jewish Girls School of Kolkata
had awarded the book to a pupil for science in April 2017. I was buying it for 100
rupees (about £1) less than a year later. The ungrateful little madam had already
sold her valuable prize.
It was hard to find the Indian Coffee House. These coffee
houses were set up after Independence
as nationalised establishments. They have become an Indian institution. It was
everything I hoped it would be. There was a high ceiling. Waiters in clean but
scruffy white uniforms and turbans made their way at glacial speed between the
tables. Eventually I was able to order a cup of coffee and some hot buttered
toast; nothing trendy or modern here. I hoped to see and hear the other Indian
institution called ‘Adda’, the art of lively and argumentative conversation.
There were tables full of mostly men engaged in lively conversation and I
reckoned I had found my goal. I was not invited to join in. A pall of cigarette
smoke hung above the tables. At one point, the ceiling fans prevailed over the
production of smoke to reveal a sign rendered almost illegible by nicotine
stains. The sign read, ‘No smoking allowed. Smoking here is an offence’.
I started to read my copy of The Statesman, which had cost
me all of five rupees. The Statesman is venerable English-language newspaper
published in Kolkata. To prepare myself for the city I had listened as an
audiobook to “The Epic City” by Kushanava Choudhury, formerly a journalist on
The Statesman. So there I was, set up as
I like to be, in a foreign city with coffee, my journal and the local
newspaper, just absorbing the atmosphere. The Statesman’s masthead told me that
it incorporated and was directly descended from ‘The Friend of India’, founded
When I had sufficiently imagined myself as some sort of
foreign correspondent, I attracted the attention of the waiter for the bill in
less than five minutes. Another 10 minutes or so and it came and I paid 37 rupees.
My change came on a tray. I then made a terrible faux pas. I took the note and
left the coins as a tip. My very tall waiter looked down at me and tipped the
tray contemptuously towards me so that the coins fell back into my hand. There
was to be no capitalist tipping here in this cathedral of socialism.
My business in College
was done. It was not so much that I needed
to achieve anything there I just wanted the feel of Kolkata. Here, as in many
parts of India
there is a huge emphasis on education and self-improvement everywhere were advertised
courses in English and even commercial English. Perish the thought of a course
in commercial English, do they learn phrases like, ‘Let’s run that one up the
flagpole’, or ‘Thinking out of the box’?
I found a tram to take me back south along College Street
then right into Lenin Sarani towards Esplanade. This time I was near the front
of the tram and could see the driver standing at the controls. They were not
complicated. He had a dead man’s handle, which he could push forward to make
the tram go. Under his right foot was a metal button on the floor that operated
the klaxon. Then I spotted that the street was one-way northbound. The trams
however ran both ways. Mine was southbound.
We swung right into Lenin Sarani, I could see
ahead of the driver, a phalanx of six yellow Ambassador taxis spread from
pavement to pavement with no gaps between them and what seemed like six more
ranks behind them. The driver did not hesitate. He drove straight ahead parting
the taxis like a zip through yellow fabric. Taxis, cyclists, handcarts and cows
constantly impeded the tram’s progress. The driver pushed his dead man’s handle
forward and back like a demented fruit machine player while his foot beat a flamenco
on the button that operated the klaxon. When all else failed, which was quite
often, he yelled in vivid Bengali at recalcitrant pedestrians and cyclists. And
so we clattered banged and barged until the road opened out into Esplanade and
the tram station
I lost my way back to the hotel again and had to ask. All
Note: If, like me, you would like to know more
about The Indian Coffee Houses, I recommend “The Palaces of Memory”, by Stuart
Dewi Lewis Publishing