Kolkata: Down the Maidan

Monuments are the highlight of tourism. Like an entire sporting match condensed to a series of big plays for television shows, monuments draw the casual viewer's eyes to the most striking sights.

Before we get too far: I'm not going to attempt irony here. I like monuments and distilled tourism myself. It gives the wandering ignorant (me) something to grasp. Here in Kolkata I need all the help I can get grasping anything. Even I have visited the Victoria Memorial, one of the city's chief monuments, twice now; my first was 2006. It is an impressive play and I am not above taking cues from the guidebook. (Beware anyone who says "real India.")

I like to walk--not out of a perverse sense of cheapness, but just because I like to walk. I walk at home and I walk here. I like to see and feel--and, for good or ill, smell and breathe--the scene from the ground. Walking shows the connective tissue between monuments. Walking gives dimension to the place that would otherwise be glossed over.

In Kolkata one of those dimensions is honking--cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, even ting-a-linging bicycles. They honk when passing or turning to say, "I am here! I am here!" They erupt in a tremendous peal of honking when the traffic light changes from red to green. They honk in that good old fashioned American way to inform an offending driver what will be performed on his mother tonight.

The sum of all this honking and vrooming, of all of this exhaust inhalation and harrowing street crossing, is a stressful experience. I enjoy it, in a way, because it is culturally strange and thus a Valuable Experience, but I am sure this noise will be the soundtrack in my cubicle in hell.

One day, quite by accident, I discovered the Maidan. Everybody breathe in; hold it. Now breathe out; say, "Ah." You've just shared my experience of the Maidan.

The Maidan is a huge open green area stretching several kilometers between the city center and the Hooghly River. It is a wonderful and literal breath of fresh air that I was lucky to find. After grabbing another kati roll for lunch I was trying to find the Park Street metro station, but I got sidetracked and lost crossing Jawaharlal Nehru Road. (I will explain later: the Sikhs distracted me.)

Instead of the metro station, I found a park and a game of cricket--a fair substitute, if a bit short on transportation opportunities. I am fascinated by the sport, not because I find it terribly exciting--it's like baseball, except the guy who throws the ball is an athlete--but because I've lived so long without encountering a sport that a third of the world plays. In this little bit of heaven--the northern tip of the Maidan is even called Eden Gardens--the traffic noise was somewhat filtered by the trees and the members of the tourist support industry (read: beggars, vendors, and drivers) were no nowhere to be found. And there, with no monuments bigger than the wickets, I spent a good hour watching a game.

The next day I walked across JN Road, purposefully this time, with another kati roll--single egg double chicken, excellent, excellent--and watched the cricket players, this time performing drills, batting practice, sprints, fielding, etc. Walking south down the Maidan, toward the Victoria Memorial looming through the hazy sun, I found more of the same: cricket as far as I could see, ranging in skill and professionalism from the games with spectators on the north side to kids with tennis balls in overlapping fields on the south side.

I watched there on the north end, which also had the benefit of shade trees, before wandering down the Maidan, past the cricket matches, ponies, kites, goats, and snack vendors, until I made it to Queen's Way, the street in front of the Victoria Memorial, where the world again lapsed into monumental sights and cacophony.

[Photos, of course are forthcoming.]

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