Off Season Tourist - India Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta
Two weeks in India, 2003 Notes from the Off Season Tourist
A Kolkatta street after the rain
Walks in Calcutta
Enthralling to walk around, but impossible to walk to.

To walk in Kolkata requires a sturdy sole. The rest of the shoe is inconsequential, for when it rains there is no scotch guarding that can protect socks or skin. A strong sandal is great for the sudden divots in the road; the constantly uneven rocks on which every person treads and can help a foot that rocks and imbalanced stone into an ancient puddle to dry off quickly.

There are visual, aural, nasal and tactile treats and displeasures everywhere you walk in this city. The grandeur of the Victoria Memorial in the Maidan park's greenery stands secluded from the run down multistory buildings on Chowringee Road, aka Jarawhal Nerhu Road, aka Maidan East. These crumbling buildings are splinted with bamboo scaffolding and twine that adds to the complexities of their architecture. Any buildings with shattered windows, rusted window frames, water stained facades and trees growing at will from the side or the roof would be abandoned in the West. Here, there is no need to abandon the entire building when parts of it are still functioning. Why stop a bus from taking on passengers just because it is missing part of its floor? This last point is another reason to support walking as a mode of travel.

Kolkata is a long city, running North/South. It is not terribly wide but has grown Eastward with the modern development of Salt Lake City. The metro system creates natural points at which walks may begin and end. To leave one station and plan a circuitous route to the next is a treat for any lover of cities. The fascinating produce bazaars at M.G. Road, or the Tea and Timex bazars on the close to Central have great alleyways to wander and get lost in. Without a compass I would never make it back! Between the Central and M.G. Road Metro stops is Calcutta University and the requisite book bazaar that accompanies it.

A governmental walk around BBD Bag or the electronics and clothing bazars near Esplanade are definitely worth a venture, but not two. Park Street provides amenities galore and holds the offices of both the Survey of India and the Indian Museum close by. Rabindra Sadar is the place to come for art, theatre and science (in India there is little that separates these three items).

However delightful these walks are there is one serious conundrum; how to find something that you want to go to. To begin with, the scale of city maps is too large and the main roads they actually do list are renamed regularly. Even when the street name from the map does match, the city procedures have said that signs on the corners with other streets are unnecessary for all but the most important of streets. Fortunately some shop owners are kind enough to write their address in English above their shop door.

It has taken me 15 minutes to determine my exact location in this city and once done I have the joy of working out where to go in order to find, for example, the Asiatic Society or the Bengali restaurant called Kewpies. They are both listed in guidebooks and both with street names. It takes the purchase of three Kolkata guides and one map to work out the most current name of the street. This doesn't help though because the locals use the old ones. I know the rough area of the city and I know the closest subway, but I can wander for hours without once coming close to what I think should be the right place. I still have found neither.

Even in the case of wandering around it is possible to come upon a lovely mosque or a public garden which cannot be located at all on the map and so there is no way of knowing what this place is. Often talking to a local, when you can find one that speaks more than Bengali, is not so helpful because unless this place is of value to them in their life, they will not know what it is. A small aside: I'm looking for a particular item, let's say a notebook covered with soft leather or soap, the salesman I talk with see no difference between what I have just shown him and a cloth bound hard book notebook. To him it is the same. When buying soap I look at two brands. One is thick and has a skin conditioning element, the other, by the same company lacks coconut oil and is very liquid - to the salesman, who tries then to sell me every other cleaning product he has in stock, the only difference is the 'flavour.' I guess this is an issue of distribution. Because something is available today or this week, does not mean it will be here next week so Indians will take anything that provides the same function and there can be no preference for something based only on aesthetics.

The resolution may be to take up the reins of a bicycle or foot rickshaw driver and explain for 15 minutes the destination needed. These people do not rely on the tourist trade alone and so may or may not know the destination wanted. Instead I can end up somewhere 'just the same' as where I wanted to be which just happens to be somewhere else in the city that I do not know.

To walk in this city is adventurous; to locate a destination is simply an added benefit.

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