After Bombay, Calcutta is the third most populated city in India with 16 million inhabitants for the total agglomeration. Greater Calcutta covers an area of 1,750 km², comprising 72 cities and about 500 villages; the population of the city itself is "only" 4.5 million.
Compared to Bombay, where there is order even in its traffic jams (rickshaws are forbidden inside the capital of Maharashtra), Calcutta is quite different. In terms of traffic, it obeys the law of the strongest, the same law that generally prevails on the country's roads.
Buses, trams, taxis, cars, hand and motor rickshaws are engaged, from the first light of day, in a knife fight over an acre of asphalt: race or life.
For some, Calcutta is a Dantesque city, for others a sewer city where the dregs of humanity are rotting away, for others it is the City of Joy, as popularized by Dominique Lapierre when he chose the nickname Calcutta as the title of his best-seller published in 1985.
As for us, we prefer to stick to the etymology of the name. Calcutta is a deformation of Kalikata, i.e. the city of Kali, the Goddess of Destruction. A city where everything ends and everything begins again. The city changed its name in 2001 and now Calcutta is officially called Kolkata. A city of extraordinary vitality that the traveller would be well advised to discover after a certain habituation to India.
The city was founded in 1690 by an English merchant, Job Charnock, as he was called, who was then in charge of the East India Company in Hooghly, when it was decided to set up warehouses in three small villages where Armenians and Portuguese also traded: Sutanati, Govindpur and Kalikata.
In 1756, after constant development, the city was besieged by the Mogul of Murshidabad. Most of the British population escaped, but 146 people were detained in a cellar measuring 6 by 5 metres. Twenty-three survived the tragedy, which has since been called the Black Hole. The fort, built in 1696 near B.B.D. (Dalhousie Square), was enlarged and Calcutta became the capital of the British Raj. Economic growth intensified during the 19th century and continued even after the capital was transferred to Delhi in 1911.
The year 1947 marked a notable change in this expansion: the region, split in two, deprived the jute producers in the depths of Bengal of their trading centre, and vice versa. Although the clashes were less bloody than in the equally torn Punjab, the influx of miserable Hindu refugees helped to change the face of this dynamic city. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971, with its influx of new migrants and uncontrolled demography, further accentuated the imbalance between production and demand. Today, Calcutta still conveys, wrongly, a miserable image that Mother Teresa's humanitarian work and the film City of Joy (1992) have left a lasting impression. But lepers and the dead have not been littering the streets for a long time, and you will come across at most a few animal corpses, as is sometimes the case in India.
This distorted vision of Calcutta particularly annoys its inhabitants, who rightly believe in a vital energy that radiates out from their city. You will undoubtedly be charmed by the colonial district of B.B.D. Bagh, the imposing Victoria Memorial, the bazaars of Rabindra Sarani, or the flower market of Mallick Ghat, under the Howrah Bridge, where it is good to stroll. The city is best known in India for its intellectuals, the most famous of whom is the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature: Rabindranath Tagore. The people of Kolkata have faith in a better future, as their communist fervour shows. Throughout the year, the Bengalis take to the streets to demonstrate their demands behind banners bearing the effigies of Lenin or Marx. Nice thumbs up to those who say the Indians are overwhelmed by fatalism! In Calcutta, hope is alive and that's good...