Beneath the Surface in India's City With a Soul

Hold a contest to select the world's most problem-plagued cities and this one would be hard-put to remain outside the small pack of front-runners. Yet with all of its poverty, "pavement dwellers," air pollution and bottomless pit of other problems, Calcutta is known throughout the country as India's "city with a soul."

While Bombay is India's economic engine and Delhi its administrative overseer, Calcutta is the cultural and intellectual stronghold, with the country's largest library, oldest and finest museum and a reputation for being the birthplace of 90% of the ideas in a culturally resurgent India spanning the past century.

Founded in 1690 as the British East India Co.'s largest trading center, Calcutta was India's capital during Britain's raj era. As the capital also of West Bengal (the former East Bengal was later East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh), it was a hotbed of India's independence movement, so much so that the British moved the capital to Delhi in 1911 with the hope of quieting things down. It didn't work.

Today's Calcutta is a city of 11 million souls and 450,000 vehicles, including 6,000 rickshaws, 10,000 cycle rickshaws and a few more running on cooking gas. What must be close to the balance is in taxis, all apparently delivered from the factory with their horns blowing.

It's the country's last bastion of the rickshaw wallah, those pitiful men who haul citizens, produce, dry goods and whatever else through the teeming streets of the inner city. All this adds up to the nearest thing to vehicular and human gridlock one is ever likely to see on this planet, and the noise level would deafen a stone.

Given this dispiriting assessment, it would be very easy to write Calcutta off with a quick "why bother?" Yet there is a distinct pride of place by Bengalis for their capital city. Walk the streets and one is struck by the broad smiles and friendly nods of greeting. Further, Hindu and Muslim live here in harmony, with none of the religious conflicts and bloodshed that have cursed Kashmir, Punjab and other parts of India.

The City of Joy is the name given long ago to Calcutta's poorest and most desolate section. It's across the always-jammed Howrah Bridge, which serves as the principal artery between the Howrah side and the more affluent Calcutta side of the river, where the better hotels, shops, airline offices, museums, sights and other attractions are located.

The Calcutta side of the river is an outright British invention, cast in the colonial mold of roundabouts, spacious green parks and enough sahib-memsahib holdovers to lend a few remembrances of things past. There is also the Royal Calcutta Turf Club race course and two stadiums seating 95,000 and 120,000 for cricket and rugby. Old habits die hard.

Mixed emotions are sure to follow a first-viewing of the massive Victoria Memorial. Said to be a British attempt to create their own Taj Mahal, it embodies a bit of the Renaissance with enough of the pretentious excesses of Victorian architecture to startle anyone. A statue of the dour "widow at Windsor," as Kipling once described Queen Victoria, sits outside, reminding us that India's largest city was once the jewel in her crown.

After four visits to India covering every region and major city of the country, we can only say that Calcutta may not be a city of joy, but it is certainly one with a soul. And we wouldn't miss returning for anything.

How long/how much? Give Calcutta three days. Hotels run the price gamut, but it is wise to stick to the upper third. Dining like a viceroy on superb Indian, Chinese and continental food is unbelievably inexpensive.

Getting settled in: The Kenilworth gives one just about everything needed in a hotel: 110 air-conditioned bedrooms; a cool and bright marble lobby; an Indian-cuisine restaurant; another open-air establishment serving Chinese, continental and Mughlai barbecues; a 24-hour coffee shop, and a super-friendly staff at your beck and call. In price it is mid-range, with a good location near the Victoria Memorial.

The Fairlawn is a real throwback to colonial days, with many of its clients still having 4 o'clock tea in the open-air lobby beneath pictures of Princess Diana, the Queen Mother and other assorted royals. It's getting pretty long in the tooth these days, and bedroom furnishings definitely range between quaint and tatty, but the budget rates include three very substantial meals of "home country" food in the garden restaurant, with a bottle of English HP meat sauce on every table. The Fairlawn is a Calcutta institution with budget-conscious visitors.

Calcutta has two top-of-the-line hotels--the 3-year-old Taj Bengal and the Oberoi Grand. The first is cast in modern style with wonderful terra-cotta statuary in a palm-shrouded atrium lobby. Both offer every possible comfort and amenity, but the Oberoi strikes us as one of the half-dozen finest hotels we have visited in four decades of travel.

Turn into the private courtyard off roiling Chowringhee, Calcutta's main street, and enter a true oasis of rare beauty and tranquillity. Green marble, teak, rosewood and exotic flowers give the lobby the elegant feeling of a maharajah's palace, and the bedrooms are no less regal. The palm-fringed and very formal pool-garden Palm Court terrace is the hotel's centerpiece. Four dining rooms offer Mogul, Indian, Sichuan and French food, and there's a brasserie for breakfasts of continental or Indian fare.

Regional food and drink: True Bengali dishes can, unfortunately, be found only in homes, but Calcutta's choice of various Indian and other cuisines is enormous. The country's food can be divided generally into the vegetarian-based Hindu kitchen and the glorious Mughlai meats and breads, many cooked in the same kind of tandoor that the Muslim Moguls brought along when they invaded India in the 12th Century.

Calcutta has the best of both foods, plus a preference for freshwater fish and Bay of Bengal prawns. The number of delicious breads is almost endless, with our preferences being the Mogul naan and roomali roti , a paper-thin "handkerchief" bread.

Sweet-toothed Bengalis have a definite weakness for their very own sandesh , a fudge-like affair of flavored cottage cheese that comes in three versions: sweet, sweeter and sweetest. Black Label is the Bengali beer that goes well with anything.

Good local dining: Shenaz (2a Middleton Row) is a small, rather dark and intimate place favored by business folks for lunch and dinner. The menu runs from vegetarian to seafood to Mughlai, and all main dishes are less than $2. The garlic prawns were excellent, mutton biryani (a spicy rice dish) just as good. If the low prices give you pause, consider that they're that way in most places all over town. What's important is that the food and service were superb, and the atmosphere very pleasant.

One of the most popular restaurants for Indians and knowledgeable visitors is Amber (11 Waterloo St.), famous for its Northern India Mughlai dishes. Amber has a rather strange setup: ground-floor bar for men only; second floor for families, and there must be a woman present, and third floor for anyone. Prices here are pennies more than Shenaz. Try the rogan josh , a rich lamb curry that costs 95 cents, or tandoori prawns for $2. Decor at Amber runs from practically none in the ground-floor bar to ornate Indian on the second and Indian-modern on the third.

What must be the best bargain in town is Hotel Oberoi Grand's Mughlai Room luncheon buffet, a formidable spread of just about any Hindu or Muslim dish one can think of. Start with a choice of appetizers and hearty soups, then select from the tandoor oven's lamb, chicken, fish in a coconut milk sauce, or a variety of other meat dishes. Now add half a dozen mixes of cooked spicy vegetables, more pastries, ices and other desserts than one can count, and this wonderful initiation to Mogul food will probably cost a mere $5.

On your own: Hail a taxi wallah and start with a ride down Chowringhee past the Maidan (Calcutta's huge version of London's Hyde Park) to the Victoria Memorial. Inside the memorial you'll find galleries of Raj-era memorabilia, including the Queen's piano and other personal effects.

Beside the memorial stands St. Paul's Cathedral (1839), an Indo-Gothic structure with a marble memorial to officers of the Bengal Lancers who died for the Crown. Due south of the cathedral lies Kali Temple, named for the goddess Kali, who in turn gave her name to the original town, Kalikhata. It's one of Bengal's most important Hindu shrines.

A visit to the glorious Indian Museum is worth it if only for a look at the Buddhist art, artifacts from early India and the breathtaking marble stupas, erected in the 2nd Century BC for the remains of Buddhist monks.

Shoppers will be in heaven at Calcutta's many handicraft emporiums from various Indian states. The government-run Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Chowringhee has a fine selection of all of them, including the priceless hand-embroidered Kashmiri crewel. Very moderate prices are fixed here, so there's no haggling.



Getting there: Fly British Airways, Lufthansa or Pan Am to Delhi, then Indian Airlines on to Calcutta. An advance-purchase, round-trip Delhi ticket will cost between $1,950 and $2,005. The Delhi-Calcutta fare is $132 one way.

A few fast facts: India's rupee recently sold for 25.5 to the dollar, about four cents each. The monsoon season runs from mid-June until mid-September, with daily if not torrential rains, and best times for a visit are between October and March. Stick to bottled mineral water or soft drinks anywhere in India, and carry plenty of five- and 10-rupee notes (20 and 40 cents) for tipping bearers, wallahs and others.

Where to stay: The Kenilworth (1 Little Russel St.; $38 double); Fairlawn Hotel (13a Sudder St.; $60 double, including all meals); Oberoi Grand (15 Chowringhee; $175 double), and Taj Bengal (34b Belvedere Road; $175 double).

For more information: Call the Government of India Tourist Office at (213) 380-8855, or write (3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010) for brochures on Calcutta and East India, plus a map of all India.

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