Sometimes it’s easier to write about negatives than positives. When one feels disgruntled about something, it’s normally easy to articulate the source of said disgruntlement. Therefore, writing about my recent trip to Kolkata is comparatively difficult, because the trip was absolutely perfect.
I don’t like leaving unfinished business. In a sense, this applied here because I’d visited once before, but was uncharacteristically unwell and didn’t see very much. This time, I travelled in a way I haven’t travelled before, namely spending all of my time (19 days) based in one place. I didn’t get bored, and although I’ve seen now most of the touristy things and achieved my poetic goals, I’ve left thinking a return visit is certainly high on the agenda, and not just for poetic reasons.
Kolkata (often still called Calcutta, including by at one major national newspaper, but I don’t want to appear to be colonial) has a reputation for being the most cosmopolitan, liberal, artistic and interesting of the four great Indian metropolises. I haven’t spent much time in Delhi and Mumbai, and I haven’t been to Chennai/Madras at all. However, Kolkata has all of the aforementioned qualities in spades, so I’m prepared to believe the claim.
Touristically, it doesn’t have the ancient monuments Delhi has, but there is lots of more recent history, much of it concerned with the British Empire. Until 1905, Calcutta was the capital of British India, and London was the only city in the Empire which was bigger. Much of the colonial architecture is still standing, and it’s very easy to get a feel of how the city was back then. Lots of churches are still standing, plenty of old commercial buildings and very informative places, like the Park Street Cemetery, where the young ages on the headstones demonstrate chillingly why workers who made the move from the UK were very handsomely rewarded for doing so.
Modern Kolkata is comparatively user-friendly. Most of the touristy things are in a fairly compact area. For those which aren’t, India’s only metro system (cheap, efficient and under expansion) serves well. The chief backpacker area is Sudder Street, slightly north of centre. I stayed just off Park Street, ten minutes’ walk away, and more upscale, but right on the doorstep of the Lit Fest venues, including the venerable Oxford Bookstore, which organises the Festival.
For the first half of my time, I mostly played tourist, rather than poet, reversing the roles for the second half. As well as the major attractions of the Victoria Memorial and the Indian Museum (the country’s largest), the Asutosh Museum, the Planetarium, the remarkable Z Planet art deco house, the Botanical Gardens (containing the world’s largest tree in terms of canopy cover) and a few smaller galleries kept me well occupied. Throw in a side trip to the Sunderbans Eco Reserve (in theory, you can see a Bengal tiger, in reality, there’s more chance of the Loch Ness Monster) and the pre-Lit Fest time was filled easily and enjoyably.
The poetry side was an absolute pleasure. At the Lit Fest, I performed a few poems, and also took part in a panel discussion on Gender Sensitisation in Children’s Literature. I was a bit nervous about this, as I haven’t done such a thing before, but all went well, not least because the other panellists are established high-profile children’s authors, who generated plenty of ideas to talk about. The whole Lit Fest was great fun and very well organised by Maina, Anjum and their team.
Lit Fests also throw up the unexpected. The best example I have this time was that I talked football for fifteen minutes or so with a very nice man called Lorenzo, who happens to be Italy’s ambassador to India. He’s also a writer, and wasn’t just there for ceremonial purposes. Highest profile guest in terms of writing was Andrew Sean Greer, an American writer who’s just won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, with his comedy novel, which I’ll be reading before too long. He’s been writing for quite a while with limited success, so I take my hat off to him for his perseverance and achievement.
The final few days were taken up with three workshops I managed to organise while in town. So, thank you to The Creative Arts, led by the indomitable Ramanjit Kaur. Two of the workshops happened at this excellent organisation, one with child actors and another with women actors. For the third workshop, thanks to The British Council, where several staff joined forces to organise a stellar workshop attended by a whopping 26 students, mostly young adults. At all three events, the commitment, passion and generally being up-for-it-ness were amazing.
And last, but certainly not least, thanks to Saikat and Aquib, who at different times were most helpful with tea, directions and wholehearted attentiveness.
Finally, there’s a poem below that’s my thank you present for the whole experience. This year was the 10th year of the AKLF Lit Fest. It’s theme was ‘Celebrating Park Street’, where the festival is organised. Therefore, the below is appropriate, and features many of the street’s landmarks.
Finally finally, if anyone is facing a massive dental bill and fancies getting the work done well and cheaply while abroad, I can recommend Kolkata, and recommend an excellent dentist to anyone who asks for details. My Upper Left 6 hasn’t felt so good for ages!!
Park Street, End of the Festival
As the sun sets
For the tenth time
To an embryonic horizon
And the rest
Take their bow
Take their leave
Take to their nests
Sleep sixteen hours straight
In a flurry of sweet dreams
By the thought
Of a Job well done
The old ones are the best
Cracks his familiar smile
Holds a balloon
Bought from a child
The Park Hotel
Paints a brave face
On a five-star hangover
While in the cemetery
Raise another glass
The late Metro News
Illuminate to Mansion green
As an antique gas lamp
With a rag shroud
The naked eye
Of the tiny inside spark