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Sunday, 5 May 2013

A Visit to Kolkata, the City of Joy

[I was visiting Kolkata last week-end, and hence could not post. It may be apt, therefore, to describe the visit this week. And here we go.]

I met Ria for the first time on April 14 last year. The day was Vishu, the second most important festival for Keralites after Onam (Christmas is not counted, since it is a global festival, other festivals such as Dussehra, Holi and so on are not counted either, since these are not very popular in Kerala). Etathy (sister-in-law) had gone to Kerala since her mother had not been keeping well. We invited ettan (elder brother) and his sons to lunch with us. We were asked if Sujay (the younger nephew) could bring one of his friends, too.

I said, ‘Yes, why not?’

I, however, asked, ‘Is he a Keralite?’

I was told it was not a ‘he’ but a ‘she’ and not a Keralite.

Seeing the close interactions between Sujay and Ria I thought theirs was more than mere friendship. Ria is a Bengali and April 14 happens to be the Bengali New Year.

I asked Sujay in Malayalam half jokingly and half seriously, ‘Did you bring her to introduce her to us?’

He laughed and said, ‘No’.

But the ‘no’ was not very convincing. Not only that, he immediately translated my question for Ria. A couple of months later ettan told me that Sujay wanted to marry Ria.

To cut a long story short, the marriage was fixed for 29 April this year with the consent and blessings of parents from both sides. The wedding was to be solemnised in Kolkata, the bride’s native place.

Eleven of us, including Sujay, ettan, etathy, Suji and Sonu (elder nephew and niece-in-law), cousins (Santhi and Leela) and Leela’s son (Appu), my wife and son (Jayasree and Srikant) and I, started our journey to Kolkata, the ‘city of joy’, a city of which I have heard a lot, but not visited even once. I have several Bengali colleagues and they, too, were thrilled when I told them that I would be visiting Kolkata. One’s birthplace is the greatest on any day and under any circumstances! I asked them what is there to visit in Kolkata in one day (the maximum time I thought we might have).  They told me about the famous Kali temple (‘filled with filth’, one of them had said), the Victoria Memorial (which everybody supported), and the Howrah Bridge. However, one of them had warned me that it would be terribly hot and humid and advised us to stay inside without venturing out.

I noted one peculiar thing, however. Whichever place or monument they talked about, it all ended with naming a few good places or hotels where we can have excellent food. When I reminded them that I was not very particular in having a lot of food, they said, Kolkata was famous for food. (I was not, therefore, surprised when a colleague started his conversation on my return by asking what kind of food they served us! He also started assuming, ‘They must have given you this and that, or such and such food and beverages’, etc.) It had even been suggested that we could tell the hosts to serve us typical Bengali vegetarian food! How can I suggest we want this and that? Again, why should I do it at all? They knew that we were vegetarians and didn’t consume egg or fish. It goes without saying that we should expect them to serve us vegetarian food. Let me emphasise, what we received was far beyond our expectations.

We started our journey in the late evening of 26 April by the Sealdah Duronto Express. Four of them including the bride, her father, cousin, and uncle were waiting at the station to receive us. We were put up in Thara Mahal hotel in the Park Side Road area. We all had either double or triple sharing air-conditioned rooms fitted with TVs and cable connections. The hotel served its guests complimentary (South Indian!) breakfast. Their service was excellent, too.

The bride’s family invited us to dinner the day we arrived. Several of their close relatives and friends visited us there.  The dinner was good with a lot of sweets, which, unfortunately I could not enjoy being diabetic. Our daughter Ruchi and Suji’s in-laws arrived the next day. Also our niece Veni and her family, staying in Kolkata, visited us the same day.

The engagement ceremony was held on the previous day of the wedding in an auditorium not very far from where we were staying. Both in this and the wedding ceremony, it was interesting to find many similarities with our own ceremonies with a few changes. (Mohua would later say, ‘Well, basically all Hindu rituals are the same.’)

The turmeric ceremony is somewhat similar to our important pre-wedding custom of ayaniyoonu. However, ayaniyoonu, the last major feast before the marriage, is conducted the previous day, whereas the turmeric ceremony was conducted on the morning of the wedding day. Participating in ayaniyoonu is almost as important as participating in the marriage. In place of turmeric, we apply oil on the bridegroom’s head. Also ayaniyoonu was separate for the boy and the girl and conducted by their respective relatives. Here, however, the girl’s brother and sister-in-law and cousin came to conduct the ritual. They had also gone to invite Mother Ganga (River Ganges) to the wedding before coming for the ritual. They also carried a pot full of water from the sacred river symbolising the presence of Ganga at the wedding.

One somewhat strange ritual was that the height of the groom was measured with a string, which was inserted into a banana and the bride’s mother swallowed it! I don’t know what the significance of this ritual is. Mahua said that since the mother couldn’t give birth to the groom, this could be a symbol to show that she accepted him as her son.

Another ritual that is not found in our custom is the hoisting of the bride sitting on a piri (seat) by her brothers, uncles, and other relatives and making seven rounds around the groom. The two piris used in the wedding ceremony were special. One of their own relatives had made beautiful paintings on them. The same set of piris, I was told, had been used in several marriages! They then had got it laminated. Ria’s cousin Sandip and his wife Sima make excellent paintings, too. We saw one specimen when they presented Ria with a painting of Krishna and gopis. The packet was immediately opened and kept near the stage for all to see. An extremely nice painting, it is. My hearty congratulations to you, Sima.

Krishna with Gopis - Painting by Sima
One interesting incident was Ria’s panic when she was hoisted high in the air after making the seven circles around the groom. She even forgot that she had the two betel leaves in her hands covering her face from the groom. She clutched the piri with both her hands in panic. She was also shouting something in panic. It looked like she was asking them to put her down! It would have been then the groom’s turn to be hoisted in the air by his relatives. But it didn’t happen. Maybe because he was tall enough and did not need another hoisting! Another reason could be that this was to have been done by us, the groom’s relatives. Since it is not in our custom, they probably decided to by-pass this particular ritual! It looked like that the bride’s side saved us from several such embarrassing moments! 

We walked down to the Kali temple in the morning of the 28th. It was certainly not as filthy as one of my colleagues had warned. We had gone there in the early morning, so there was not much rush either. There were, of course, several priests who approached us offering us ‘direct’ entry to the abode of Kali if we paid fifty rupees per head, which we gracefully rejected.

On our way back we happened to pass beside a tram store. And we went straight inside to see some of the trams parked there. Mr Verghese explained to us that the difference between the two ‘classes’ is that there are fans fitted in the costly class. These days, however, the tram service has been negligible, with the prospect of the starting of metro services in the city. We, however, saw a few running trams while travelling from Sealdah railway station to the hotel on our day of arrival. We also visited the Guruvayoorappan temple.

The other place we visited was the Victoria Memorial museum. It would have taken a day or more to see all the exhibits and read their inscriptions, and we had about an hour! So, what happened was we saw them, without actually understanding what they were!

We also found that the Kolkata roads were much narrower when compared to Delhi, with quite heavy traffic. The whole area (at least those areas which we happened to see) was much cleaner as compared to some areas of Delhi.

This note would be incomplete if I did not talk a bit about the hospitality we received from Ria’s family. As I already said, we were received by Ria and her relatives at the railway station and taken to the hotel. They also had kept a vehicle at our dosposal. Everybody, including her relatives and friends, was found to be extremely courteous, open, and sincere. They had made special arrangements for us to have only vegetarian food and one or two of them always stayed with us while we dined, to help us with anything we wanted.

I would also like to specially thank Mr Verghese and his wife Ms Omana for giving us company throughout our stay there and for being ready to be of assistance. They have been staying in Kolkata for the past forty years and have been friends with Ria’s family throughout. They were going back to Kerala to settle down there permanently. It was Mr Verghese who voluntarily accompanied us to the Kali temple and warned us of the touts in the garb of priests. Thank you Mr Verghese and Ms Omana for your invaluable help and guidance!

The return journey was uneventful. I, however, returned with a bad cold. If the cold can be compared to a carnatic vocal recital, the recital was accompanied by fever on the violin, cough on the mridangam and body pain on the ghatam.


  1. പ്രിയപ്പെട്ട ജയന്തന്‍,

    ലേഘനം വായിച്ചപ്പോള്‍ കല്‍ക്കട്ട നേരിട്ട് കണ്ട ഒരുഅനുഭവം. ഒരുമാസമായി നാട്ടിലാണ്. അഭിനന്ദനങ്ങള്‍. സീ.കെ. പരമേശ്വരന്‍.

    1. Thank you, Parameswaran, for your kind words. Yes, I met Uma yesterday (4 May) during the reception and she said you are in Kerala since a month.

      Kindly continue to read my posts and comment critically.

  2. I stayed Kolkota for about 5yrs. Now It might have changed a lot. I had wish to attend the marriage, but couldn't.
    As I see you didn't have much time for observing the kolkota otherwise we could have got a more interesting picture. However, it is nice. regards

    1. Thank you, Omy.

      Another fact which I did not mention is the overwhelming presence of the yellow taxis. In Delhi they have become almost extinct. In Kerala they are black and yellow. I also found that the taxi charges are very less compared to those in Delhi.

    2. calcutta as i know ,is a city contains every type of tpt. from man-pulling rickshaw horse pulling rickshaw ,trams, boats metro and all

  3. Received via e-mail:

    I have never visited Calcutta therefore thanks for the article. I now can say I have visited it.

    Kum Kum Khanna

  4. Received via e-mail:

    I read with interest your wrote on Kolkatta. It arose my nostalgic memories. Thanks and my sincere compliments to you. I used to get your write ups. You write well and they are interesting to read.

    K.P. Narayanan

  5. nice to see Kolkata through a visitors eye :)

    1. Thank you very much for stopping by. You have got a great blog. I just visited it. Love to do it more often.

  6. Interesting account (especially the parts about the customs/wedding rituals)
    Nicely written too. :)

    1. Thanks, D., for your kind words and thanks for stopping by. I just visited your blog, too. Nice one. Would like to visit it more often.

  7. Hi Uncle,
    This is Ankita, Ria's younger cousin, the one who came for the 'haldi' ceremony. I just read your account of the visit to our city. It is beautifully written. I am so glad you've enjoyed your visit. I hope you've recovered from your illness now. And I hope I'll see you again in Kolkata or if I visit Delhi...Take care. :)

    1. Thank you very much, Ankita, for your comments. It is indeed very gratifying that you read and enjoyed my post. And, yes, I do remember you, though I didn't know you name then. Now I know.

      Yes, as you said, I hope now all of us shall keep in touch.

  8. Hi Uncle,
    It's me Sandip. Yesterday we got back to Kolkata. It was a very nice trip. We are very happy that we got a warm welcome at Ghaziabad and had a wonderful lunch with mouth watering South Indian food. We met a lot of nice people and had a great time with them. It is a very nice blog. I had forwarded it to Ria. Sima will be very happy to read this. Unfortunately, I don't have the email IDs of Verghese uncle and aunty, but I will definitely try to get this. Hope we will meet again.

  9. Thank you very much, Sandip, for your kind words.

    Yes, I hope we shall have more occasions to meet now.

  10. Wonderful trip. Thanks for sharing your trip experience. The interesting array of places to visit in Kolkata makes the epithet 'The City of Joy' all the more meaningful and help you discover the joy of various Kolkata tourist places. Check out all best places to visit in Kolkata also.