In Kolkata, India’s most contradictory city, creativity triumphs over disorder, as artists and intellectuals improvise their way through the commotion.
How can anyone be creative in this climate? I can’t see straight, let alone think straight. I have taken just a few steps from the front door of my hotel, the Fairlawn, in central Kolkata, and already I am sweating. My glasses have fogged up. The hotel guard opens the gate onto Sudder Street. It’s no wider than an alley but packs in more life—the good and the bad bits—than a small city. I walk past the backpacker hotels, forlorn buildings where you can rent a room for less than the cost of a beer at the Fairlawn; past the Blue Sky Café, which serves Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Italian food; and past the little shops that somehow squeeze a Costco’s worth of goods into a space the size of a studio apartment. I’m taking all this in when a taxi, driving on the wrong side of the road, whizzes by and nearly hits me. Clearly, traffic signs are taken as mere suggestions. ￼A red light means you might want to consider stopping. Or not.
I walk 20 yards in a state of heightened alertness, then spot a small statue nestled between a travel agency and a tea stall. The man depicted is bearded and sagelike, with a garland of marigolds looped around his neck. The man is Rabindranath Tagore. Poet, essayist, dramatist, composer, activist, he is India’s Renaissance man. Tagore, who was born in 1861 and died in 1941, lived for a while on Sudder Street and penned one of his best-known poems here. “You must read Tagore,” says a passerby who sees me staring at the statue. “To read Tagore is to forget all the trouble in the world,” he says, quoting Yeats. Maybe that is why Kolkatans adore him, I think, as I continue my stroll down Sudder Street. There is so much trouble in this city, much forgetting is required.
I turn onto Jawaharlal Nehru Road, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, and nearly step on a beggar. He is lying on his stomach, the stumps that remain of his arms twitching like a seal’s flippers. Much to the consternation of Kolkatans, this is the side of their city that dominates its image abroad. Kolkata as shorthand for Third World misery.
As I loop back toward my hotel, I think about the fact that, over the years, Kolkata has spawned a handful of Nobel Prize winners (Tagore, economist Amartya Sen, and physicist C.V. Raman, among others), an Academy Award winner (Satyajit Ray), and scores of novelists, artists, scientists, musicians, and other bright lights. By the time I arrive back in front of the Fairlawn, I am thoroughly flummoxed. How can this be? How can a place so chaotic, so impoverished, so hot, be so incredibly creative?
The hotel’s guard swings open the gate and snaps a wry salute. Sam, the Fairlawn’s COO, working at reception, smiles when he sees me and wants to hear about my adventures. He listens intently, nodding in approval. Sam is a genuine Kolkata intellectual. His idea of small talk is a discussion of postmodernism. He takes an immediate interest in my quest to solve the great Kolkatan mystery. He recommends a few books on Kolkata’s history. More like a library of books. I jot down the titles, struggling to keep up, and then find a plastic chair in the hotel’s beer garden.
In such a whirlwind of a city, you need something to hold onto, and there is no better grip than the Fairlawn. It hasn’t changed much since it became a family-run hotel in the 1930s. A hodgepodge of styles and fabrics and colors, the Fairlawn does not aspire to five-star status. Like the city it inhabits, it’s not trying to be anything else. In the sylvan beer garden, parallel worlds collide: earnest volunteers from Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying, locals decompressing after a long day at the office, relatively affluent travelers slumming it, rupee-pinching backpackers on a splurge, and a journalist looking for creative Kolkata.
The next day, I wake early, before the tropical July sun gains traction, then amble downstairs for breakfast. I have what I would have every day: runny omelet, watery Nescafé, gamy fruit. The waiter, a polite young man named Khan, says the same thing he would tell me every morning. “It’s going to be hot today.” He says it as if it were a revelation, as if there were any other sort of day possible now, during “the putrid months,” as Kolkatans call the pre-monsoon season.
After a few sips of Nescafé, providing barely the requisite caffeine for my brain to reboot, I’m ready to tackle the mystery. Kolkata offers an especially wide range of transportation options. There’s an antiquated tram system, a recently built subway line, frumpy but lovable Ambassador taxis that look like large turtles on wheels, and wooden rickshaws pulled by bone-skinny men with leathery skin and an intuitive understanding of the laws of physics. I reject them all and decide to walk again.
I’m heading west, toward the Hooghly River, the life force of the city, when I’m struck with a sharp pang of déjà vu, even though I’ve never been here before. Am I having one of those “India moments,” temporary suspensions of disbelief that tend to afflict visitors to this mystical land? No, the reason Kolkata seems so familiar, I realize, is because it looks an awful lot like London. The British created the city in their own image, with the same street plan, the same Victorian architecture, as London. For the British, Calcutta, as they spelled it, served not only as the capital of the Raj but also as a kind of proving ground for new ideas. Calcutta had a sewage system before Manchester. In a way, the city has creativity coursing through its veins.
Down Lindsay Street, I enter New Market, one of the city’s frenzied bazaars, and find chai wallahs heating tea over open fires, boys playing a pickup game of cricket, men brushing their teeth, pigs gorging on a trash pile, baskets of squawking chickens. As I walk, I see that although Kolkata is a large city (population 14 million), it celebrates the small. It boasts not huge Broadway-style theaters but little, intimate playhouses; not behemoth box stores but street vendors who meticulously arrange exquisite fruit pyramids adorned with sticks of burning incense. Even the city’s temples are rightsized. I pause in front of one at a busy intersection. A micro-shrine to Lord Krishna, it consists of only a framed picture of the deity, with marigolds dangling off one corner. You could easily miss it. But hardly anyone does. People touch the top of the frame, hand on heart, or press their hands together in the namaste greeting and bow slightly.
The bookstores are tiny, too, some no larger than an SUV. I pass one and stare in awe at the sheer number of titles. They’re piled floor to ceiling, everything from Tagore to John Grisham. It looks like utter chaos to me, but the owner assures me there is a hidden order. Sure enough, when I request a particular title (Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those Days, a historical novel suggested to me by Sam), he retrieves it in a matter of seconds.
Another morning. Another breakfast. Another Nescafé. It’s like Groundhog Day, only hotter. Today, I’m going to Jadavpur University, the center of the city’s intellectual life, I’ve been told. I have an appointment with a novelist. Maybe she can help me solve the puzzle. After two days of walking, I opt for Kolkata’s much touted subway line. I descend into a station and run headlong into Mother Teresa. She is everywhere in this city, competing with Tagore in a sort of posthumous popularity contest. This particular station displays several photos of her. In one, she is cradling an infant. In another, she is bowed, palms pressed together in prayer, above these words: Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies. Mother Teresa was a true Kolkatan, I think. She found beauty in the small.
The metro is shiny and new, but this is still Kolkata, and that means lots and lots of people. A train pulls into the station, its cars so tightly packed that people’s faces are literally squished against the glass, cartoon style. When the doors open, passengers are expelled with an audible whoosh, like the sound you hear when you open a can of tennis balls. Some cars are air-conditioned, others boiling. I get lucky and revel, luxuriate, in the coolness. That is the thing about Kolkata. When something does work, when the stars align in your favor, you appreciate it more than you would in, say, Anaheim.
I disembark and enter the university gates. The grounds are buzzing with students running to class, backpacks slung over their shoulders. I smell Rimi Chatterjee before I see her. Her clothes are splattered with dog shit. She explains that she was helping a stray when there was, well, an accident. She suggests tea, so we hop in her car, which smells of dog, and head to a nearby chai stand. She orders tea. I opt for Nescafé. I’ve grown oddly fond of the drink; it reminds me of the Fairlawn. We find a slab of open concrete, sip our drinks, and talk.
Rimi has written several novels, everything from historical fiction to sci-fi. She’s never been tempted to move to Mumbai or Delhi or London, as many of her friends have done, she says, because she can’t bring herself to leave Kolkata. She finds it easier to write here.
“Despite the chaos?” I ask.
“Not despite it, because of it.”
“There’s nothing in your way in Kolkata. All that schmoozing that’s required elsewhere in India does something to your head. Here, you are left alone.”
Kolkatans have space for other things as well, Rimi adds. They will happily engage in an activity that is not immediately profitable. In Kolkata, sloth is more of a virtue than a sin, she continues, and for Kolkatans there is nothing more virtuous than “doing time pass,” something akin to our “killing time,” only without the violent implications. “Kolkatans would never think of killing time,” Rimi explains. “Time is their friend.”
“What is that?” I ask, wrinkling my nose.
Rimi apologizes, assuming that I’m referring to the stench of dog feces that, despite her best efforts, still emanates from her kurta.
“No, no. I meant . . .”
“Oh, that,” she says, knowingly. “That’s some really cheap ganja.”
I’m silently pondering whether I’ve just stumbled across the secret to Kolkatan creativity when the conversation pivots to another local passion: food. If I’m going to understand the city, she says, I must try a kathi roll. A kathi roll is paratha bread (pan-fried flatbread) stuffed with vegetables, cheese, eggs, and other ingredients, usually sold by street vendors. Kolkatans are wildly opinionated about everything, but especially about kathi rolls. Everyone has a favorite kathi stand, and nothing else will do. It’s like New Yorkers and bagels. Rimi is loyal to a place called Nizam’s, not far from the Fairlawn. Do not—do not—go anywhere else, she warns me. I promise I won’t.
And then Rimi is gone. Something about a dog in trouble.
The next day, I try Nizam’s kathi rolls, and they are delicious. But despite the novelist’s revelations, I crave more insight. On a tip from a fellow traveler, I phone Soumitra Ray, the lead singer of a band called Bhoomi. The group is huge in the world of Bangla rock, an amped-up variant of Bengali folk music. We agree to meet at Coffee Day, one of the many Starbucks-like cafés that have sprouted across the city in recent years. I arrive early and soak up the air conditioning like a dog lapping water.
A man walks in wearing jeans and a tie-dyed shirt. His graying hair is pulled tight into a ponytail. I know instantly it is Soumitra. He looks the part. It’s no act, either. He is clearly comfortable in his own skin, at ease with his fame.
We order a round of café Americanos and talk. It’s impossible to separate his music from his city, Soumitra says. He grew up with the songs of Tagore. They were as much a part of his house as the furniture. He jokes that he probably heard Tagore when he was in his mother’s womb.
“I fall in love with Kolkata every day,” he tells me. “This place is the most beautifully chaotic in the world. I just love the chaos.”
“So the chaos is not a distraction from your creative work?” I ask.
“Not at all. It gives me a lot more inspiration.” Then he pulls a well-worn notebook from his rucksack and shows me the lyrics of a song. “I wrote this on a bus,” he says.
It’s a 45-minute commute from home to office, and that’s the time when he’s alone—“alone in the crowd,” as he puts it. That’s when the ideas come. And when they do, he jots them down, sometimes on the back of a cigarette carton.
I’m impressed. I can’t imagine writing anything on an Indian bus, except perhaps my will. I’m coming to the realization that Kolkata’s kinetic energy and creativity are connected. Paradoxically, all this motion inspires, and produces an inner calm where imagination thrives.
“I visualize from reality, from real life,” he continues. “I have a nice conversation with you and it might turn into a good song. It’s as simple as that.”
“So anything is material?”
“Everything is material. Look, Kolkata is a pulse that never stops, and I don’t think it ever will stop. It’s like a giant percussion. It just goes on and on, like a metronome. Sure, it has its ups and downs, but the music never stops.”
Soumitra suggests we go for a walk. We cross the street—no small feat in Kolkata—and enter a large store called Music World. I’m stunned, not just by the existence of an actual brick-and-mortar record store but also by the fact that entire aisles are devoted to the music of Tagore. “Tagore may have died decades ago, but his music remains as relevant as ever,” says Soumitra, as he steers me toward the good renditions of Tagore and away from the unacceptable ones, displaying the same certainty that Rimi had shown with kathi rolls.
Recognizing a young woman browsing the bins, Soumitra introduces me. She is Anushree Gupta, a singer and songwriter. Gupta grew up in Kolkata, left to study in Mumbai, but returned to her hometown, drawn to what she calls its “percussive quality.” Her songs, she explains, come to her not in buses but in her dreams. As many young Kolkatan musicians do, she had sent her music to Soumitra, who doubles as a talent scout. He always listens to the demos, at least long enough to conclude they’re not very good. But with Anushree he kept listening. He knew she had it. (Listen to Gupta’s music here.)
We say good-bye and I return to the Fairlawn, where I find a message from Anushree in my email inbox. It’s a clip of her music. I click and listen. And keep listening. I don’t know much about music. Half the time, I don’t even know what I like. But I know I like this. It is the most quietly powerful, naturally emotive sound I’ve ever heard. I don’t understand a word of the lyrics—they’re all in Bengali—but that doesn’t matter. The forcefulness of the melody and Anushree’s voice overwhelm me. Her song becomes my Kolkata sound track, something I will return to every evening, seeking some peace after days spent in the whirling chaos that is this city.
The next morning, I update Sam on my progress in solving the Great Kolkatan Mystery. I’ve made some headway, I tell him, but I feel I haven’t really cracked it yet. Sam listens intently, like a doctor hearing about a particularly difficult case. He suggests I try an adda. “No thanks, Sam,” I say. “I’m on a diet. Too many kathi rolls.”
“An adda isn’t food,” he explains, “it’s a conversation. A special kind of conversation.” An adda, it turns out, is a conversation with no point, though not—and this is a key distinction—a pointless conversation. Sometimes addas take place in gatherings at set times in someone’s house. Sometimes they break out spontaneously at a coffee shop or tea stand. Perhaps witnessing an adda will take me to the heart of Kolkata’s creative ferment.
After a few inquiries, I connect with Ruchir Joshi, journalist, novelist, and bon vivant. He invites me to his home for an adda with a few of his friends—fellow Kolkatans who, like Ruchir, left the city for a while but boomeranged back. Over aloo tikki and rum and Cokes, the conversation meanders. We veer from the serious (Indian politics) to the silly (Indian politics). There is no agenda or logical progression. At one point, Ruchir deploys saltshakers and other household implements on the dining room table to demonstrate a point about Kolkatan geography.
“I was born on the rump end of a great historical freak-out,” says Ruchir, referring to Kolkata’s creative golden age, which began in the 1870s, bookended more or less by the works of Tagore and Satyajit Ray. “It was this cocktail, an alchemy. By the end of the ’60s, it was over and we didn’t know it.”
Several rum and Cokes later, Ruchir declares, “The city is a great teacher, a cruel teacher.” We all nod.
Ruchir’s comments evoke the feeling that while the city had a good run in the 19th and 20th centuries, its best days lie behind it. But I recall something I read in the magazine India Today by the Kolkata-born journalist Swapan Dasgupta. “The creative juices of Bengal have started flowing more generously than at any point in the past 50 years,” he declared, with perhaps a bit of Kolkatan hyperbole, and I still wonder if this could be a city on the verge of a second act.
In nonlinear adda fashion, I ask Ruchir, “What about feeling good? Where does that enter the picture?”
“Feeling good is not a service we provide in Kolkata,” he says. “If you’re looking for the easy path, you’re in the wrong place. Nothing works in this city. So you learn to improvise.” In other words, creativity is like a muscle, one that Kolkatans are constantly exercising, simply to survive. Another piece of the puzzle. Yet it feels as though there are still pieces missing, so I ask directly: “How can I figure this place out?”
“Everyone enters Kolkata through the back door,” says Ruchir, though he doesn’t tell me where I might find that door. An adda, I have learned, is a great forum for asking questions, but rarely does it yield definitive answers. Finally, Ruchir declares the adda over. We’ve exhausted topics of conversation. Plus we’ve run out of rum.
The next morning my omelet is reassuringly runny. And the waiter informs me it will be hot today. All is well with the world. Later, on my daily walkabout, I notice the little signs of everyday creativity. The beautiful clay mugs that street vendors use to serve tea. The way people call seafood “water vegetables.” So creative. So convenient for vegetarians.
That evening, I’m sitting in the Fairlawn’s beer garden, savoring one last Kingfisher and clutching a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, a gift from Sam. “You must read it,” he said. I promised him I would. I wonder, have I solved the puzzle? Have I found the secret to Kolkatan creativity? Perhaps, although not in the books people write or the music they sing, but rather in their day-to-day improvisations and their uncanny ability to look at the world and find it inspiring. In a city like Kolkata, that is their most creative act of all.
Photos by TrujilloPaumier. This appeared in the October 2013 issue.