We arrived to Kolkata City Centre in the early hours, at 02:00am, which is a time rarely witnessed by others. And while normally, with these rare opportunities, I’d be snapping my camera at every corner, but on this occasion, I froze. I instead spent the entire journey glued to the window, doing nothing, and saying nothing, and Fanfan is the same. Our silence only ended awkwardly by Fanfan, on arrival at the hotel “It’s so sad”. I find no reply. As the scenes have left me lost for words, because Kolkata is sincerely grim at night. Trash covered streets, garbage eating dogs, and pavements lined with the homeless and mentally ill. A seemingly endless odor of fumes and burnt rubber is still with us when we arrive. But I wouldn’t say the streets appear dangerous, they’re just completely dire, and being sure not to miss on all opportunities to photograph, I capture an image outside our hotel gate in the tourist area of Sudder Street. We then rushed the check-in at the hotel to stand stunned in our room with a look of ‘what the **** have we just done’ smeared all over our faces. We then slept fully clothed that night… While I had expected to witness poverty in Kolkata, I just didn’t expect it to be so widespread, and everywhere. I certainly didn’t expect it in the tourist areas of the city centre, on our hotel doorstep.
In the morning things are brighter, as the decay and desperation appear to be masked by the busy street bustle. The scenes are lively outside, exciting even and completely new to my eyes. And while the areas surrounding us on Sudder Street are considered the clean and tourist friendly areas of Kolkata City Centre, just don’t expect them to be clean, or tourist friendly. So if you have a comfort zone be sure to lose it before arrival, as in Kolkata they don’t exist. Because other than in hotels, ordering room service and some (amazing) food and restaurants, there are really few comforts to be found. And from first setting foot on the streets you will likely be hounded, not so much by hard sell, but more by begging. Locals will yank at your clothes and rattle tins next to your face. They will help with the most menial of tasks and then pester you for payment. And while my words may seem harsh, they are only honest. Please don’t expect to turn up, and hand out money, to solve India’s social problems, as in many ways you can make them worse.
Why Ever Visit Kolkata?
Kolkata is far from a holiday destination, it is more of a ‘Welcome to the Real World’ destination, a world I first learned of 15 years ago when in Grammar School reading about the ‘The Slums of Calcutta’. A world I never expected to witness face-to-face, as, until now, poverty like this only existed in text books. And I certainly didn’t think it existed in today’s modern word. But how wrong was I. And just one drive, in any direction in Kolkata City centre, pockets of desperation dotted throughout. As life in Kolkata is a continuous struggle, in many cases hopeless, and this is what Kolkata teaches you, and this is the reason you should go. You’ve lived in a house all your life? Lucky for some.