Goodbye Kolkata, for now


Many different ways to see a city. Once in Kolkata, from the back of a motorbike, hoping any cars slicing too close wouldn’t take my leg off. Grateful to the many people I’ve met for their hospitality, for letting a stranger poke into their daily lives to better understand a story, and occasionally, for letting me in, so frankly, on the intimate details of their inner worlds—their love lives, even. I grew up on novels and love the idea of writing fiction, and I am dabbling in it in my own time, but there is nothing quite so rewarding as writing nonfiction, and this is why. You get to see the world through so many people’s eyes.

Here’s a vignette of random footage taken. This is Christopher, a 38-year-old dentist, who lives and works near Tangra—an area west of the city built on marshland known as “the other Chinatown” by virtue of the Chinese-owned tanneries in the area, which are dwindling. I met him through other people I met in the “old Chinatown” around Tiretti Bazaar, and he was nice enough to take me for a recce around Tangra on his day off. 

Christopher is a third-generation Chinese in India of Hubei origin. In India, where you’re from still determines the work you do—and most Hubeinese are dentists. “Well, it’s easier, isn’t it?” he said, while we sat in the waiting room of an upstairs office selling dental supplies (he was looking for a new supplier after a dispute with his regular one, who hadn’t appreciated being told there was something wrong with his equipment in front of his other clients) after taking a spin around Tangra. “Everything’s established. You don’t have to start over. I’ve inherited all my father’s clients.”

I had been told that the Chinese community in India (well, actually, anywhere) can be a closed community, that they generally like to keep themselves to themselves—you don’t ask me questions and I won’t ask you questions, that kind of thing—and that it might be hard to get access for a story. I did encounter some of that, but mostly, I think being Chinese myself helped in that regard. 

Thanks also to the Buddhist monk who invited me to lunch with her fellow monks and disciples, the families who invited me into their home, and everyone who was willing just to take the time out to chat, and to help pave my way to more people I could speak to. I feel like I’ve seen so many different aspects of Kolkata just by following this one community: from the city centre, to the tanneries in Tangra, to the spruced-up neighbourhoods in the northeast like Salt Lake City (apparently so named because it used to a be a salt marsh), known for its prevalence of software companies—and where there’s even a “Big Ben”, I kid you not.

Not everything I’ve seen and heard will make it into my final story, but I’m grateful for all of it.