Getaway Take a ride on every local transport available, to discover Kolkata like never before

“Didi ektu shorey boshun,” says a woman in a booming voice. There isn’t really any space for me to move. Yet, I pretend to shuffle in my seat. It’s like the domino effect, all the others sitting on that row move in a synchronised manner, and the authoritative woman immediately plonks herself next to me, her lunch dabba half resting on my lap. I am on a local train to Howrah, one of the busiest stations in Kolkata. Today is about discovering the city through trains and buses. I board the train from Uttarpara, a suburban town in Hooghly district, known for housing the United Spirits Distillery (earlier Shaw Wallace Factory), and The Hindustan Motors plant set up in 1948, which, of course, churned out those pudgy but reliable Ambassadors that dot the roads of West Bengal even today.

The train trundles past small stations, open meadows, ponds, idle cows and halts at Belur station, famous for the Belur Math set up by Swami Vivekananda in 1898. A few Baul (a type of folk song) singers in saffron gowns board the ladies’ compartment. Often, Baul singers relinquish everything and wander around like sanyasis . One of them is carrying the stringed instrument ektara , and occasionally strums it while the others sing and accept money from whoever is willing to pay.

I spot a lone man in this compartment with a sack of knick knacks on his back. He pulls out a hanger, from which are suspended little plastic pouches containing hair clips, bands, safety pins, bindi s, bracelets, combs... the list is exhausting. A giant box of vibrant hair bands is whisked out and as a few of the women try them on, he gives his much-valued feedback about what colour suits whom. He looks at me and says, “Blue band makes you look like Katrina. Take it!” The deal is sealed.

It's getting sunny outside. I wear my shades and continue listening to the diverse conversations taking place. One of them is angry with her in-laws, one is making plans to catch a play, and another rehearses a speech. As I listen to her, she looks up at me and says, “I have similar goggles. Bought them from the platform for Rs. 40.” I smile politely, remove my Fendis and put them in my bag, where they die a humble death.

The wheezing train slowly inches its way into Howrah. Suddenly, there’s a spate of activity — like a seismograph during an earthquake. Those who had been sleeping all this while are waking up, some are re-applying make-up, and there are some who find it increasingly difficult to close the gripping novels they have been reading. As soon as the train halts, people tumble out and walk hurriedly. I am the last one to get out and before I know it, I am swept by the moving mass of people to the exit.

There’s a long queue for taxis and there are about 100 taxis standing bumper to bumper, resembling a giant yellow snake. I resist the urge and walk towards the mini-bus stand. Boarding one that’s headed to Park Street, I quickly find myself a window seat and busy myself with a copy of Anandabazar Patrika to test my Bangla reading skills. So I painstakingly read, and underline what I can’t understand. An old man sitting next to me looks up quizzically every time I underline a word and, finally unable to hold his curiosity, asks me what I am up to.

I tell him I learnt to read Bangla 23 years ago, but haven’t really had the opportunity to read after that. “Give it to me,” he says in Bengali-accented English. As he holds up the paper and starts reading aloud, a few people standing along the aisle join in. By the time I get off at Park Street, I have enough recommendations from people on the bus about what books to read to improve my language skills. 

I get off and walk to the iconic Flurys. In its 86th year now, this tea room, as it’s still called, is reminiscent of European cafes. I get myself its famed English breakfast consisting of sausages, crispy bacon, fried egg, hash brown and grilled tomato with toast and a cup of coffee. To burn the just-gained calories, I walk up to the nearby Globe Cinema.

The theatre is defunct now, but the heritage building remains. I hop onto a cycle rickshaw. Rickshaw rides always make me feel like royalty. And so, I wear my lace hat, open out my vivid orange umbrella, and finally do what I have wanted to for a while — wave at everybody walking by, like the queen. And guess what? They make me feel like one, as they wave back warmly. This is the magic of Kolkata. It makes you feel loved.