From Nongriat we began a three day journey back to mainland India. We spent a night in Shillong and a night in Guwahati (ew) before taking a 20 hour train ride to Kolkata. For this train we were “wait-listed” which means that we wouldn’t know until the day of the train if we would get on or not. When we showed up at the station, we found that we had each been given a half seat and – as this was an overnight train – that also meant we had half a bed. So we shared our two foot by six foot berth for a very long, uncomfortable night before reaching the city.
Kolkata has been very surprising but not in the way you might expect. Kolkata has the infamous reputation, in the west, of being a city of squalor and destitute poverty. The core of the city has a very modern layout, designed by the British, and the poverty seems no worse than any other Indian city. The Howrah train station where we arrived is famous for the many homeless children who live there but we didn’t see any. Kolkata gets this negative reputation from a time shortly after partition when 3,000,000 refugees flooded across the border of the newly formed East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The Indian census recorded that 27% of Kolkata’s population were East Bengali refugees. This influx of people was more than the city could handle and most of them found themselves without work or home. Massive slums formed on the outskirts of the city to house the refugee population.
The thing that most surprised us about Kolkata is the food. We have found many great Bengali restaurants and phenomenal street food as well as cheap backpacker restaurants serving great breakfasts. We have been spending our time browsing Kolkata’s numerous used bookshops and trying in vain to find a decent sitar shop. For some reason the people who work at the music stores have no idea about their products and seem to have no musical background whatsoever. We have heard great things about some of the buildings, temples and museums around the city and plan to explore these in the coming week.