Thursday, December 04, 2008


"Don't expect anything" was the invariable answer I had when I was announcing people I was going to India. They were all wrong!

First of all, let me be clear with you: I did not go to India I only transited in one Indian city. Worse than that I only spent three days there from which half of my time was spent at a friend's wedding. But from my extremely limited time I had the chance to spend in the city of Kolkata I have to say that this city gave me a new perspective on urbanity and metropolitans.

The first thing that was surprising to me was the architectural contrast that exists within the city. For example, you can walk in a giant park, right in the middle of the city, in a prime real estate in which you can observe the overly famous Victoria Memorial seating on it throne. The grandiose white building, now turned into a museum, is dedicated to what was life before the independence/separation and the city history, but its importance in size and its plentiful white color contrast with the city, reinforcing (or overstating) the difference that existed at the time between the two sides in the planet somehow.

Luckily, the surroundings of the Memorial have cricket games after cricket games, been re-appropriated by the local Sunday national sport heroes. After all the Brits left the place over half a century ago and never came back to claim the rent, so better use the under used wide space for cricket practice....

On the same vein, if you spend some time around the Dalhousie Square (BBD Bagh), and if you look up in the sky, and if the pollution cloud is not too dark for once you will be able to contemplate the grandiose Victorian architecture surrounding. Only few places in the city give you enough perspective to see it as a whole, BBD Bagh is one of them and even today is still consider by many as the centre of the city.

My experience in the city would have been very different without the help of Uncle J. (ex-Calcuttan and neo-Bangalorian) who guided me in the city, its neighboroughs and its history. Never would I have been able to find the secret place of an old Bengali Palace, the Marble Palace (pictures forbidden), without his kind help. At the end of a very recluse and narrow street where only a yellow taxi could squeeze two wheels at the time, a giant mansion in a middle of another beautiful garden exhibits its marble walls and floors to the overcrowded street next door. With a modest fee which helps the privately own palace to maintain its dethroned status, one can discover a vast collection of statues, painting, chandeliers, clocks, floor to ceiling mirrors, and busts of kings and queens.

The personal tour ended in what I consider as one of the most unexpected surprise by far of my stay, I was given the possibility to contemplate "The Marriage of St. Catherine" from Rubens. This 5*4 meters master piece was hiding back in a dark room on the first floor of the mansion. This private collection was another wide contrast by which I could see the witness the difference of appreciation for what people value in life: Rubens hanging on one side of the wall, and dirty cloth used as a shelter on the other side of the same wall. This place is certainly complex to understand.

Outside these pockets of hidden properties, the city is huge conglomerate of people living together everywhere they can. Some lucky ones have a house, food everyday, a chauffeur and a cook for protection and some have old clothes, a piece of wood and sometime food, and sidewalk as a shelter. Never in my wander had I asked myself why, but often I could see my brain focusing on how … how come so many people could live together without suffocating, how do they organize themselves to have a share of something, how do they do this… and that.

I was constantly fascinated by the alive living aspect of the street. I am not only talking about what happen in houses and streets, but also on sidewalks and crossroads. The concept of sidewalk itself is as vague as the concept of snow in the desert: we heard about it, but not sure we will be able to see it in our life time.

Like a giant ballet without any previous rehearsal, the crow is able to move from one place to another among the multitude of stool. Here you find a hairdresser, there an orange seller, or public writer; any sidewalk place is a business opportunity for someone. If a cluster of people block the flow of movement, then the street is taking over by overflowing people and a rough and sometime violent battle start with cars on who is allow to stand still on a forbidden place. Only when cars have the naivety to stop at red lights that kids or other half disembodied professional beggars knock on dark widows for a dime or two.

This is not the only psychological violent scene that Kolkata offers to visitors you will be able to test your limits on every corner of every road. The amount of people, the diversity and density of genre, the constant flow of activities trigger an ongoing brain behavior, challenging your values and question your inner sense of human being.

I did not expect anything from my trip to Kolkata, but I receive a lot form it. My three days there help me to experience a new sense of urban space, or how people take over a city and make the city theirs rather than the opposite. I experience the constant life, anywhere, anytime of a megalopolis, not like I had experience in the past for fun and entertainment, but for survival and fight for extra day. This crossroad called urbania could be a fighting place, among thousand and thousand people for an extra day in someone life.

For sure this place is complex, dense, and rich in layer while behaving in cluster. I can't wait to explore more of India.