Rudyard Kipling wrote of 19th century Kolkata:
Thus the midday halt of Charnock–more’s the pity!
Grew a City.
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed,
So it spread–
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built
On the silt–
Palace, byre, hovel–poverty and pride–
Side by side;
And, above the packed and pestilential town,
Death looked down.
Straddling the Hooghly river, the old Raj capital sprawls 'like fungus' towards the horizon, which itself is lost somewhere between the moody skyline and gloomy firmament. From a distance the city looks like it is in the throws of a nuclear holocaust, some barking dogs and beeping horns the only signs of life in an otherwise smouldering ruin. What Kipling described as 'The City of Dreadful Night' was once the second city of the British Empire, though as your taxi driver pulls up to urinate on the side of the main road, you wonder where it all went wrong…
Having spent three months living in Kolkata (and during several trips since), I have explored the markets, the ghats and the alleyways. Each market like an organ, the alleyways like veins and between them flowing everything Kolkata needs to survive; vegetables, rice and rickshaws, if my experience is anything to go by. In this post I want to step outside of the bowels of the city and take a look at another corner of the city. Often called the 'Lungs of Kolkata', the Maidan is a huge park located near the Victoria Memorial building. While this may not be Central Park (the dogs in New York have more clothes than some of the people here), it is a hub of recreation, a reprise from the relentless soundscape of the city, and has been a culturally and historically important space for Kolkatans for centuries.
The park is owned by the army and used on occasion for drills and ceremonies
I am not completely sure what was going on here, but I think it's reasonable to assume the whole West Bengal army were learning the dance to the popular 90's song 'Macarena'
Taking a break between dance routines, these soldiers hung out for most of the day while it was others' turn to step it up
Just as I took this photo, he pulled the trigger. I had barely reaslied what happened until his superior slapped him a few times on the head and took his rifle away...I guess I'm lucky bullets aren't standard issue
Kabaddi is a style of team wrestling popular in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, Punjab and other parts of India. These locals were training for an upcoming competition.
Face-off...the calm before the storm. The idea is for the guy in the shorts, once tagged, to get passed the other guy...
As you might guess, this sometimes ends in tears...
This guy had his pet monkey perform tricks for tourists just outside the park. Most of them were less impressive than disturbing and certainly cruel. The monkey clearly was tired of the routine...
This guy, carrying his stall on his head, was roaming around the park looking for a spot to set up
These kids were watching on as the army worked through its drills
Among other attractions here for tourists, kids ride horses around the corner of the park and charge a small fee for a more tame ride
This poor kid was taking a long nap in the middle of the park. Extreme poverty is never far away in Kolkata