Eight o'clock on a Tuesday morning and already a dozen or so of Kolkata's legal clerks were hard at work. At their makeshift offices of tarpaulin and bamboo that fringe the exterior of the imposing 19th-century High Court, they were clattering away on sturdy manual typewriters, their multiple carbon copies clipped together with clothes pegs. India, the land of IT, was showing an endearingly antiquated face.
I was taking a morning walk around the heart of West Bengal's vibrant capital. Even at 7am Kolkata had been a wide-awake city of early street markets, food stalls, and clanking trams. Goats were being herded to the Maidan, the huge park in the middle of India's third-largest conurbation. It was the British who established this green swathe, a defensive zone around their 18th-century fort. Today, it functions as an enormous open space for ad hoc cricket matches, animal grazing, political rallies and army parades, while hooting, tooting city life takes place haphazardly around it.
Kolkata defies expectations. As Calcutta, this was the seat of British India's government, a place of grand villas and splendid offices. When the capital shifted to Delhi in 1911 Calcutta began to decline. After Partition and India's independence, the city attracted such waves of refugees that abject poverty became its foremost image; hence Mother Teresa's valiant work. And the impression stuck. In 2001, this great urban sprawl was renamed Kolkata, in line with Bengali pronunciation and effectively giving the city the chance of modern image enhancement. Yet the dismal reputation persisted – and still does.
However, although pockets of heart-rending destitution remain, Kolkata today is a wonderful, kaleidoscopic jumble. And in addition to its chaotic, dizzy charm, it offers a great sense of adventure. For this is also the gateway to the Sunderbans, a wild and little-visited area of Bengal that has recently opened up to foreign visitors. I had come to sample the city, from Raj to contemporary riches, and to take a trip into the remote region beyond.
First off, my walk through the past. Guided early morning tours of the colonial core have become the acknowledged connoisseur way to see British-built Kolkata. You complete your walk well before official bureaucratic life begins at 10am, missing the worst of the traffic while taking in the most remarkable aspects of the city's Raj era. The domed General Post Office stands on the site of the first British fort and of the notorious "Black Hole of Calcutta", the quarters where British troops were held in the 1756 uprising and where 123 soldiers are said to have suffocated (current revisionist thinking is that the number was heftily inflated). The pedimented, red-painted Writers' Building just to the north is effectively the birthplace of Indian bureaucracy – this was where the clerks of the East India Company had their offices. Today it houses the government of Bengal.
Nearby, the remarkable church of St John is a copy of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London: plans and paintings were followed by a British military engineer, Lieutenant James Agg, in 1787 with the resulting dimensions slightly askew. The church lies in an all but neglected green enclave, its graveyard containing the tomb of Job Charnock, the colourful East India Company trader credited with founding the city in the 1690s. Our tour ended in the vicinity. But entranced by the poignancy of a half-forgotten world, I was guided east to Park Street where in the late 1970s a large British cemetery was rescued and reclaimed from a mass of vegetation. This haunting memorial of the imperial past is filled with cupolas, columns, urns and other mausoleums, a great many of the epitaphs recording lives lost young, such as Martha Goodland who "departed this life aged 23"; and the poet Henry Derozio who was buried on 26 December 1831, aged 22.
Just north of the South Park Street Cemetery, there's an abrupt change of pace and outlook as you enter College Street. This is the time-honoured hub of Bengali intellectual life and it is here that most of Kolkata's 600 or so bookshops are located. Little kiosks line the street and sell anything from second-hand bestsellers to Hindu epics and the works of Kolkata's literary hero Rabindranath Tagore. My companions and I made for the Indian Coffee House on the corner with Bankim Chatterjee Street where we took a table amid small groups in ardent discussion and where white turbaned waiters served us cups of coffee costing 8 rupees (10p) while ceiling fans stirred the humid air.
For a very different angle on Bengali life we headed due south to the city's holiest site, the Temple of Kali (from which it is thought the name Kolkata ultimately originates). As you approach this shrine of the fierce goddess and wife of the great deity Shiva, you pass through the red-light district. The all-senses onslaught of colour, aromas, hand-pulled rickshaws, carts, cows, Hindustan Ambassador taxis and more is both bewitching and bewildering. We joined crowds of pilgrims buying flowers and cakes at the temple entrance and then wandered through the outer courtyards, glimpsing the image of Kali in an inner sanctum and glad to have missed a recent goat sacrifice – apparently undertaken with one clean stroke of the knife.
After this, the juxtaposition of stylish city life couldn't have been greater. An afternoon shopping led us into another world. You need to know where to find the chic aspects of Kolkata, so we enlisted a personal shopper – with the impressive name of Devika Datt Duncan. She took us first to two of the city's most glamorous shops, somewhat improbably located in a block of flats in the suburb of Hastings to the south-west of the city. Hugli is a beautifully presented lifestyle store stocked with rich silk cushions, rattan table mats, finely embroidered tops and more. Across the hall, Medhavini Khaitan is a cool menswear outlet and offers a particularly striking range of designer shirts. Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani is home to the Forum shopping mall, with cinema, restaurants and hip boutiques. Here is a shop owned by Ritu Kumar, an Indian fashion pioneer who has revived traditions of hand-stitched embroidery, incorporating the work in her exquisite, contemporary designs. Perhaps best of all was Sasha, a boho-chic gallery on Mirza Ghalib Street supporting local crafts, with goods ranging from elegant wall hangings to silk bedcovers and jewellery.
Dinner that evening gave us another take on fashionable Kolkata. Zen restaurant at the Park Hotel was designed by Terence Conran, the space cleverly lit and divided by wooden fretwork screens that add sleek atmosphere and a sense of privacy. Thai and Japanese food here has become something of a performance art, with an open kitchen (described by the hotel as a "theatre of food"). Afterwards we dipped into Kolkata nightlife at the hotel's Someplace Else bar where a strangely hybrid Indian-Latin American group were playing to a rapt audience.
Slipping away from the noise and bustle of many-faceted Kolkata was remarkably easy. We made a morning departure: at 9am sharp we arrived at the Millennium Pier on the River Hooghly right in the city centre and boarded a 32-cabin cruise vessel. Less than half an hour later we set off for the wilds of the Sunderbans about 100km away, the river offering us an absorbing outlook on Kolkata's iconic Howrah Bridge as we sailed out.
Set in the vast mouth of the Ganges and encompassing a large chunk of neighbouring Bangladesh, the Sunderbans is a great archipelago of mangrove swamp and mudflats. It covers about half the size of Wales, its exposed land areas ever changing with the ebb and flow of tides. The world's largest population of tigers is said to live here, with 276 having been counted on the Indian side. Conducting the survey must have been daunting in the extreme: the tigers of the Sunderbans are man-eaters.
Farmers, honey collectors and woodcutters living on the periphery of the tigerlands are frequently mauled and killed. Fishermen, too, for these big cats are powerful swimmers, often moving between islands as much as 30km apart. The waters are inhabited by estuarine crocodiles and also by gangetic dolphins that arch out of the water in quicksilver-like blurs.
As a World Heritage Site, this wildlife area is avidly protected. However last year, the authorities dropped a requirement for foreigners to obtain permits before entering the Sunderbans. The easing of arduous restrictions more or less coincided with the start of a new venture, Vivada Cruises, which offers three-night trips into this V C region. It all sounded compelling. And the first day did not disappoint. We travelled due south through a dreamy waterworld dotted with fishing boats, and as daylight started to fade we called in at the village of Namkhana where colourful little trawlers were coming in with their catches of prawns, pomfrey, bekti and more.
However, as we entered the wildlife zone the next day, the trip started to pall. I had little expectation of catching sight of tiger, but I had hoped to see other creatures. Yet the mangrove terrain was unyielding. Even the rich bird life I had read about failed to emerge. For much of the time our boat meandered past monotonous-looking islands of impenetrable hedge-like shrubs, the pervading sense of ennui on board punctuated by meals of wonderful Bengali food. We could come ashore only at specific points, where we walked to watchtowers through corridors of rope-mesh that stood between us and attack from the ever-elusive tigers.
Much of our disappointment we attributed to teething problems over the cruise's wildlife guidance. Our visits to the watchtowers were almost invariably made during the heat of the day when few if any animals are about. The commentary we received on the area did little to excite our interest. Yet with a bit of imagination and reordering of schedules the cruise could be transformed.
And there were compensations. Our fellow passengers were a cheerful and entertaining group of Indian tourists and Indian media, among them a graphic designer, a healer and a Bengali film crew making a travel documentary. By the end of the cruise we had acquired a long list of additional bars and restaurants to visit in Kolkata. Now all that remains is to make a return trip to try them out.
Travel essentials Kolkata
*The writer travelled to Kolkata and the Sunderbans with Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.com). A week's trip with three nights at Kolkata's Oberoi Grand Hotel (including breakfast) and three nights' all-inclusive accommodation aboard MV Paramhamsa exploring the Sunderbans costs from £1,999 per person (based on two sharing). The price also covers BA flights from Heathrow to Delhi, connections to Kolkata, transfers, a "Heritage Walk" around the city, entry fees and all transfers in India. There are no direct flights between the UK and Kolkata, but Air India (020-8560 9996; airindia.com) offers connecting flights from Heathrow via Delhi, while Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) flies from some UK airports via Dubai.
*The Oberoi Grand, 15 Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Kolkata (00 91 33 2249 2323; oberoihotels.com). Doubles start at R9,450 (£122), including breakfast.
*The Park Kolkata, 17 Park Street, Kolkata (00 91 33 2249 9000; theparkhotels.com). Doubles start at R8,400 (£108), room only.
*Hugli, Hastings Court, 96 Garden Reach Road (00 91 33 2489 2104).
*Medhavini Khaitan, across the hallway at the same address (00 91 33 2489 2708).
*Forum Shopping Mall, 10/3 Lala Lajpat Rai Sarani (00 91 33 2283 6022).
*Sasha, 27 Mirza Ghalib Street (00 91 33 645 89421; sashaworld.com).
*Three-day cruises to the Sunderbans are operated by Vivada Cruises (00 91 33 2463 1990; sunderbancruises.com). Prices start at R20,000 (£257) per person.
*British passport-holders require a visa to visit India. These can be obtained from VF Services (0905 757 0045, calls 95p/minute; in.vfsglobal.co.uk), which has branches in London, Hayes, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester. You can also apply online or by post. The price for a tourist visa (valid for a single-entry stay of up to three months) is £38.86. *India Tourism: 020-7437 3677; incredibleindia.orgReuse content