My Two Kolkatas

by Ekua on February 3, 2011 in India

On the first day of the wedding festivities, I walked into the opulent lobby of the Oberoi Grand. Everything about it was truly grand: the chandelier hanging from the ceiling, the flower arrangement in the center, the piano, the amount of space, the way I was greeted by the employees.

It was clear that there were very different ways to travel in Kolkata. It’s true; that can be said of many destinations. But in the Chowringhee neighborhood of Kolkata, I witnessed and experienced a location dichotomy that was more extreme than anywhere else I’d ever been.

Many of the wedding guests were staying at the Oberoi Grand. Even with the group discount rate, with my measly dollars (as opposed to the pound, the currency most overseas guests were working with) and my public educator salary, I could not afford to stay there during my time in Kolkata. But I was at the Oberoi Grand every day of the four day wedding so I could be transported to various event locations, mingle with other wedding guests, get ready for events, and for the reception on the final day of the wedding.

That first wedding day, I began to lead a sort of dual existence in Kolkata. In the mornings, I’d wake up to the sounds of Indian classical music and people getting ready for the day in the slum next door to my guesthouse. I was a backpacker in the morning, fully immersed in Kolkata’s choas. Each time I stepped out of my guesthouse, I was immediately blanketed with distinct smells and sounds and culture shock. As I navigated the streets, I’d look up and down constantly, trying to avoid stepping in poop and trying avoid colliding with someone bathing, brushing their teeth or getting a shave on the streets. I’d eat at little holes, spend time in internet cafes with strange fellow backpackers, and try to avoid sales pitches as I walked through the congested markets.

In the afternoons and evenings, I’d put on fancy attire and head over to the Oberoi Grand. The employees would all welcome me with a gentle, “Namaste.” Hands together, heads bowed, no gawking.  I’d meet up with other dapperly dressed guests and air-conditioned SUVs would arrive to take us to lavish venues full of flowers and song and tasty morsels and joy. When dance interludes came, I’d feel like I was living in a Bollywood film. When we returned to the Oberoi after the day’s festivities were over, I’d sometimes stick around and hang out at the hotel bar or by the pool with some of the other guests. I’d eventually catch a cab or walk back to the Sudder Street area, enter my meager hotel room and take off my glass slippers. Or gold dress sandals, to be exact.

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