This week’s dream
Walking the streets of Kolkata
To appreciate a place as complex as Kolkata, you have to dive right in, said Diane Richard in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. My husband and I have made four extended visits to India in recent years, and “our approach is to follow our curiosity wherever it leads us, preferably by foot.” India has “bewitched us,” for reasons large and small, so we knew enough when we penciled in a trip to the country’s former colonial capital to give the city of 4.6 million, formerly known as Calcutta, time to speak to us. That’s how we discovered Typist Row—where men at sidewalk desks tap away all day on antique typewriters. Kolkatans with limited literacy skills use the service to write letters or legal documents; my husband used it to present me with an improvised love letter.
We aren’t allergic to all tourist offerings. A foot tour offered by Calcutta Walks “sent us deep into crowded, polyglot urban corridors we would never, ever have found on our own.” Led by a hipster guide named Iftekhar, we “watched knock-kneed kids play cricket in narrow streets” and “drank chai from terra-cotta cups before crushing them underfoot.” We also visited Parsi and Buddhist temples, Jain mandirs, Anglican churches, and a glorious synagogue. Along the way, we saw Chinese noodle makers working amid clouds of flour and Muslim butchers handling bloody goat heads.
To be honest, “walking Kolkata isn’t easy.” The air is so polluted you can taste it. Sidewalks often disappear without warning, and trying to cross traffic can be “an out-of-body experience.” Once, when I was out alone, a man started following me—until a police officer intervened and clubbed the stalker. Mostly, though, I loved the city and its people. My husband was able to load up on vintage Bollywood vinyl records that he proudly showed off to a friendly hotel staffer. I meanwhile binged on Indian textiles, including from a shop where one worker, for no good reason, offered me the gift of a song. And I reciprocated, despite my lack of talent. “To accept Kolkata in one’s heart, one must be willing to return the favor.”
At the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel (thelalit.com), doubles start at $76.