If there is an unexpected rush of foreign visitors to Calcutta when the lockdown ends, Mamata Banerjee can hold one man responsible for the influx — Richard Vines.
The chief food critic of Bloomberg News, who is also UK chairman of the world’s 50 best restaurants as well as a judge in the restaurant and bar design awards, is clearly an influential voice in the world of travel and cuisine.
And he says he is daydreaming of a return to, yes, Calcutta. And his article, though affectionate, is not sentimental gush. Most people in Calcutta will acknowledge he seems to have caught the spirit of the city.
This is how his article is projected to would-be tourists: “Forget the Taj Mahal and Pink Jaipur, Take Me to the Chaos of Kolkata. This writer reckons the packed streets of a crowded and noisy city will be the best way to counter the experience of self-isolation.”
He begins: “At the moment, all of our plans are on hold. But that doesn’t mean we here at Bloomberg Pursuits aren’t planning the experiences we’ll rush out to enjoy when it’s safe to do so.”
He encourages his readers to daydream, admitting his is to go back to Calcutta.
Vines says: “Calcutta was a great city— home to magnificent buildings and a centre for trade and culture — like Venice, only without the canals. As great world cities come and go, Calcutta came and went. I just can’t wait to get back.”
The writer, now 66, remembers: “I first visited in 1981, when I was 27 years old and in Asia for the first time. Even the airport, then called Dum Dum, had an exotic ring to it. That was nothing, compared to the sensory overload of the city itself: the vast crowds, the anarchic roadways, the heat, the noise, the smells, the broken buildings. Rickshaw drivers competed with battered buses for pathways through the chaos.
“Imagine visiting India, and you might think of the Taj Mahal, the palaces of Jaipur, or the beaches of Goa. All are great. But you are missing out. Kolkata is a magical city with heart and soul, raw energy and passion.
“When I returned last year, the rickshaws were gone, and it was Uber drivers picked their way through the mass of people. But not a lot else had changed. The sounds and smells — of spice and sweat —are unfiltered in this capital city of West Bengal, where the challenges of commerce and survival have triumphed over any desire to make it nice for tourists.”
To be sure, there are “fine tourist attractions”, among them the Marble Palace and the Victoria Memorial Hall.
“There are many others, such as the Dakshineswar Kali Temple; St. Paul’s Cathedral; and the Indian Museum. My favourites include the boxy Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly river; the red-brick Howrah Junction Railway Station, the oldest in India, which opened in 1854; and St. John’s Church, where there is a discreet memorial for the Black Hole of Calcutta, a dungeon in which dozens of captured Europeans died in 1756.
“But it’s on the streets and in the markets you can really pick up the buzz of Kolkata.”
Vines mentions a number of restaurants, including Peter Cat and Aaheli, but adds: “My own favourite is Mocambo, a restaurant time capsule that appears to have changed little since it opened in 1956…. My final meal, in the Sonargaon restaurant, was among the best.”
Vines concludes: “Kolkata can be comfortable for visitors. Prices are low, and there are charming luxury hotels, especially the historic Oberoi Grand, where I stayed on my most recent visit. I’d first read about it in one of my favourite works of fiction — The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, and the hotel retains its colonial charm.
“Kolkata isn’t for everyone. If it is a jewel of a city, it is cracked and flawed, like a broken heart. Please take me back.”