top of page

Kolkata in change mode


The taxi was driving off, and I was standing in a dark street in Kolkata. It was 5 AM, and the only light I could see was from a naked light bulb in the distance. "Let's go toward the light," I assured myself.


I had asked my driver to take me to a cheap, decent place to stay. He woke several people up at three different accommodations, but none had the bare minimum living standard. Finally, he gave up and left me on the street. It was a still, pitch-black morning, and I didn't know where I was. 


The light came from the local chai walla preparing the day's first chai batch. I decided to stay, have a chai, and get my bearings while night turned into day.  Five hours later, I was still standing on that same street corner, watching how this tiny area came alive and transformed as people started to inhabit it.


This was the first time I set foot on Indian soil and the exact moment I fell in love with Kolkata. 5 AM on March 3, 2017.  I don't usually remember dates or times, but this event is cemented in my mind.

Everything I experienced during those hours confused my senses. On the one hand, I felt excited by what I was witnessing. But, on the other hand, I felt a heaviness in my heart. Compared to where I spent my childhood and later my adult years, I recognised very few things in India. Yet, I felt as if I had come home. 


I'm back in Kolkata, six years on, and I'm experiencing the same confusing emotions I did then. The city has changed, mostly for the better. Kolkata, the former capital of India, still has the feel of a village/city mix that made me fall in love.


In a week, I'm leaving Kolkata, and India, from the same airport I arrived at back in 2017. It's like I've gone full circle. Whatever that means.


These open air laundries that I saw many times back in 2017, are not as common in Kolkata now. 


The local food market is the one place to visit everywhere I go. Kolkata is no exception, and its meat market is exceptional primarily because of the amount of chicken displayed and sold. Here they are kept in circular cages, but in some places, they lay straight on the ground. 


In 2017 I could see chicken being transported this way on rickshaws and bicycles but is less common now.


"I have two lightbulbs and one fan that I use electricity for. My monthly expense for that is 500 rupees. Much less expensive is coal, which I use for cooking." This is what the street food vendor I visit every day tells me. Considering he charges 30 rupees for breakfast and 60 for lunch, this is a significant expense for him. He also has two employees and his own family to support.

According to the source-apportionment study by National Environment and Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), food vendors are one of the most significant sources of the city's air pollution due to coal usage.


This is where I have my breakfast every day. The people are the nicest, always greet me with a smile and welcome, and the food is delicious. I always try to support the local street food vendors when travelling. One of the reasons is that despite the looks of the kitchen, this is the safest place to have food. Restaurants that look westernised often cook in big batches, and then the food stays out the whole day. 

The other reason is that every local chai stall, street food vendor or local Dhaba is where I can interact with locals. The place to observe, listen and learn.


I see old shops have been refurbished, new nightlife establishments are rising, and electronic payment methods have been implemented. But the number of toothbrushes in plastic bags and personal laundry hanging on walls is still there. 


The Ambassador Classic cabs have been a mainstay of Kolkata's life since they first rolled onto the streets in 1958. While these taxis are iconic and hold a special place in Kolkata's history, their numbers are sadly dwindling. With the rising usage of Ola and Uber, these taxis are no longer the only or preferred public transport mode. As a result, they are becoming somewhat of an endangered species.

bottom of page