Still outside of india more commonly known as Calcutta, I arrived by train from Mumbai, the near 2000km journey taking just under a day and a half.
At Mumbai train station, the tremendously long train had docked with the lower classes closest to the head of the platform, where travelers appeared to come close to outright fights in their attempts to get on board. But, the biggest employer in the world reserves a bunch of 1st and 2nd class tickets on every train for foreigners. On the quieter routes, this is a boon. on the busier routes, this might mean waiting a while for a ticket, or throwing yourself in byzantine fray of getting a regular ticket.
Still reasonably enough priced, it meant the four-to-a-compartment sleepers were quite doable, if kept a bit too cold by the relentless AC.
Interestingly, in India, train stations appear to be the best place to attract voters. In Mumbai, several political parties had information booths strewn around the train station hall, with many of the walls plastered in promotional party material.
Also, the many digital clocks at each station were not in sync with each other.
Arriving in Kolkata, architecturally, the city is not overly impressive, if pleasant in a faded kind of way, the biggest draw being the Victoria Monument, a palace somewhat like a neoclassical interpretation of the Taj Mahal but built in honor of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, if completed 20 years after her death.
For a long time the colonial capital of India, much of the city has clear British roots, and although being the second largest in the country, after Mumbai, and said to be the cultural capital of the country, the city is also distinctively poorer than the home of Bollywood.
I arrived just after dawn, to many of the smaller streets being packed with men in their cotton wraparounds, gathered at the many water points, taking their morning baths. When do the women bathe?
There is an interesting collection of dilapidated British architecture around town, hiding behind crumbling facades, sometimes literally. One synagogue, no longer in use, once having had its entrance on a main road, had another, fairly narrow, building constructed right in front of it.
With the clear construction boom at the start of the previous century, some of Kolkata's streets conjure up the image of a some post apocalyptic Central European inner city during a blazing heat wave.
The city was indeed exceedingly hot. Halfway the first day, I took refuge in the planetarium, just to be able to enjoy the aircon for thirty minutes.
I planned a bit better ahead on my second day, buying a drink on virtually every street corner; sugar cane juice, fresh fruit juice, lime juice, chai. The hydration paid off, I didn't keel over.
Turns out, my stay coincided with Bengali new year, which indeed coincides with Thai new year. Not that it was noticeable. The first I heard of it was while being interviewed by one of the local TV broadcasters after coming out of the Kolkata zoo, which was not nearly as bad as it once was, known for its cramped housing, occasional mauling and, more intriguingly its now defunct big cat hybrid breeding program.
In its city planning, Kolkata stands out for the small fraction of its surface taken up by roads. The city has no wide boulevards and many of its streets are just glorified alleyways. As a result, traffic is a major issue and also why the city was the first in the subcontinent to have a metro. Already five lines were planned in the 1970s, but so far only the north-south line has materialized. It's extremely cheap, though, at just under 6 euro cents for a ride.
Apparently, in a 1984 BBC survey, it was voted the most agreeable metro in the world, but that's a stretch. It's fine, but feels very used, if useful.
Another interesting aspect of the city is it not lighting up at dusk much, the buildings staying surprisingly dark when night falls. Perhaps, just like mornings see the men of the community washing themselves at the outdoor water pumps, the British built architecture, which must have been constructed with plumbing as well as, I suspect, electrification, has fallen to such a state of deprecation that neither water nor power is available in many of them. Or they're mostly empty, but that would require many more of the 18 million or so Calcuttans to be out on the street, all the time.
An interesting quirk, one way streets tend to reverse direction in the middle if the day.