My husband, Todd Melby, is a writer, as comfortable at the keyboard as a driver behind the wheel.
So why is he sitting on a box at a sidewalk desk, dictating a letter to a man behind an old typewriter? And not just a letter, but a love letter?
Because the typist is there. And we are in Kolkata. And he loves me.
We are in this city formerly known as Calcutta because India has bewitched us. Over the past decade or so, in three-week vacation stints, we have been working our way around the country’s contours. Most recently, a 30-hour train ride from New Delhi had delivered us to this crusty colonial capital in the state of West Bengal. As the seat of the Raj, Kolkata’s streets are lined with British colonial architecture — stolid facades now groaning under the weight of its 4.6 million residents. Vines have reclaimed what the British left behind in 1947.
Todd is sitting with a typist for another reason, too. Our travels in India have taught us lessons, including this: To embrace a place as complex as Kolkata, one must do as the locals do.
Typist Row is a destination the guidebooks omit. Not that we spend much time reading guidebooks. Our approach to travel is to follow our curiosity wherever it leads us, preferably by foot. The tap-tap-tapping beckoned. The reason for the typists? India’s stubborn illiteracy rates; the typists provide a service for those needing legal documents and letters.
Typist Row was only a few blocks away from our hotel — the Lalit Great Eastern Hotel, the “Jewel of the East,” as Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, called it. A gem in its day, the legendary hotel had fallen into neglect under decades of indifferent government stewardship. By the time we arrived, its privately financed refresh was nearly complete. For the price of a little construction dust, we got a deal.
• • •
To appreciate Kolkata, one needs a solid night’s sleep.
When I think of the Lalit Great Eastern, I think of Joita Ghosh, who worked reception. It was her bright face and large almond-shaped eyes that greeted our red-rimmed ones. After four nights at a small guesthouse, we were desperate to sleep elsewhere.
We are not luxury hotel people. No, we are freelance writers/radio producers who prefer overnight trains to extend our modest budget. But the previous four nights had been a nonstop sneeze fest. Mildew had crept up the guesthouse walls, carpeting the bathroom tiles in black fur.
Happily, I found an irresistible web rate for the Great Eastern. After undergoing airport-level security to enter the grand dame’s air-conditioned lobby, we were shown to the breakfast bar. Whereupon I poured myself five glasses of fresh-squeezed juice: cucumber, coconut, orange, pineapple and mango.
• • •
To understand Kolkata, one must appreciate its cultural complexity.
We discovered a walking tour organized by Calcutta Walks and eagerly signed up. The tour sent us deep into crowded, polyglot urban corridors we would never, ever, have found on our own. It showed us how this city grew into a storied entrepôt.
Led by our enthusiastic hipster guide Iftekhar, we came face to face with Muslim butchers and bloodied goat heads. We saw Chinese vendors selling eggs by candlelight and a noodlemaker pulling dough amid clouds of white flour. We visited Parsee and Buddhist temples and Jain mandirs and Anglican churches and a glorious synagogue. We watched knock-kneed kids play cricket in narrow neighborhood streets, and we drank chai from terra-cotta cups before crushing them underfoot.
We even saw a man walking a pair of fulsome pugs. Months later, back at home, we saw a cameo appearance by those same pugs in a Bollywood movie filmed in Kolkata called “Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!”
• • •
To know Kolkata, one must meet Kali.
One of our favorite nights was spent with native Kolkatans. A Reuters correspondent named Sujoy Dhar invited us to his home, where we joined his journalist friends to drink whiskey and eat fish curry and ask questions. We had so many questions.
Earlier that day, we had visited the ancient pilgrimage site of the Kalighat Temple. (The Hindu goddess of destruction lends her name to Kolkata.) At the temple courtyard, we had kicked off our Chacos, stepped over a bloody trail left by sacrificial goats and found our way inside the crowded temple. For a moment, we stood before an icon of the goddess, personified by a long, pink outstretched tongue. Then, a priest put out his palm for a donation. Todd rummaged in his wallet. Fifty rupees, as the guidebook mentioned? No. A hundred? No. Two hundred? No. Six hundred rupees (about $9) was the magic number. Todd peeled off a wad of notes. All the while, the pilgrims churned against us to catch a glimpse of Kali.
When we asked why we got shaken down, the locals rolled their eyes and laughed. Kalighat priests have been sniffing out the weak since Queen Victoria (herself memorialized with a large building in Kolkata) sat on the throne, probably longer. “You’ve been blessed by Kali,” Sujoy said, sticking out his tongue.
• • •
To navigate Kolkata, one must be observant.
Todd’s energy tends to fade in the afternoon. But that’s when I am at my fiercest. One day, I decided to dine at a Muslim restaurant known for its biryani, a traditional dish of lamb and basmati rice, on my way to the house museum of the great Bengali writer and scholar Rabindranath Tagore. I asked the Great Eastern employee — not Joita — to confirm my route. He begged me to not go on foot. He urged me to hire a driver. He quoted me a price that made me laugh-bark out loud.
Off I went. The biryani was succulent, and the walk eye-popping. When I overshot my mark, I asked a police officer with a wax-tipped mustache for directions. Though he didn’t speak English, nor I Bengali, he recognized the name Tagore and pointed, and I made my way there.
After my immersion into Bengal’s literary cognoscenti, I returned to the street, intending to take the subway home. I soon noticed a shadow following me, which, if you think about it, is pretty perceptive, given the humanity that swarms every sidewalk. I stopped to see if I was imagining things. The shadow, a small man in a white tank top, halted. I sped up; so did the shadow. I abruptly stopped to look at a store window. So did he. I spotted the police officer from earlier and mimed my concern. He understood right away. Within seconds, I heard a smack and a “WHAA!” and the shadow spun away against a wall. I took that moment to descend to the subway — though, looking back, I’m saddened that my discomfort was answered with brutality.
Walking Kolkata isn’t easy, though. Petrol fumes, charcoal dust and dirt so pollute the air that you can taste it. Crossing traffic is an out-of-body experience. And the sidewalks abruptly disappear or erupt in obstacles, like spokes of rebar or marching bands. Todd and I saw whippet-thin men in velvet and satin-brocade uniforms, conked out between shifts. It was wedding season. Like Mexico’s mariachis, the bands were on call around the clock to play horns and bang drums for impromptu marital marches.
• • •
To look good in Kolkata, one must submit to scrutiny.
Todd has a thing for grooming in foreign lands. In Ankara, a barber singed his ear hair with a flaming cotton ball. In London’s East End, a Bangladeshi barber gave him a trim and a lecture on the appeal of Osama bin Laden. In Hanoi, a street barber gripped a razor blade with his fingers to excruciatingly saw away at Todd’s beard.
In Kolkata, Todd’s sidewalk barber had a gentle touch. His shop was beneath a sprawling tree, with a mirror hung from a wall. Using an ancient gold trimmer with interlaced jaws, he snipped away to tame Todd’s beard. Passersby on their way to business lunches talked on their cellphones and did double takes.
• • •
To find Kolkata’s treasures, one must appoint a local guide.
One of the reasons I love India is I’m a textile fanatic. Homespun, handwoven khadi cloth — Gandhi’s goods — of cotton, wool and silk abounds. But Todd’s collecting pursuit — vintage Bollywood vinyl — requires a hunt. We asked our new friend Sujoy to aid our quest. He knew just where to take us.
A streetside vendor with a greased pompadour had an encyclopedic selection. Sujoy and Todd rifled through the displays, then haggled over a dozen 1960s and 1970s gems. Dragging these fragile relics through multiple airports was cumbersome, but my fabrics were the perfect insulation. Today, Lata Mangeshkar’s helium-tinged voice in “The Jewel Thief” pierces the air of our Minneapolis home.
• • •
To accept Kolkata in one’s heart, one must be willing to return the favor.
On our last evening there, I ducked inside a textile shop not far from the hotel. A worker pulled up to me and started to belt out a song. Her colleagues stopped working to watch, and I nodded and namaskared — bowing, palms together — repeatedly once she finished. Then, she raised her hands before her as if to say: Now it’s your turn. Gulp. With all eyes on me, I started singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” It was off-key. The crowd was nothing if not grateful when I ran out of lyrics.
Returning to the Great Eastern, I found Todd standing in the lobby with Joita. He was showing her his new-to-him vintage albums.
Joita, millennial that she is, was unsure what an album was. Vinyl? The instant she saw the soundtrack to “Sholay,” Bollywood’s classic film, she started singing and dancing. She knew all the moves.
Diane Richard is a freelance reporter based in Minneapolis. This was her fourth trip to India.