The last time I visited Kolkata I was filled with fear and wonder, shock and poetry, confusion and excitement – eager to dig beneath the dusty outer layer of this faded, vibrant, mad, laid-back, modern, ancient, rich slum of a contradiction. I wrote hasty notes on my phone, on the inside covers of my notebook and in various random emails – all filled with confused enthusiasm.
I was mainly intrigued by her people’s sense of calm in the face of a brisk, crowded and cacophonous environment. There was something admirable about their ability to blank out any kind of aggression or anger that impatient foreigners would sometimes direct at them – a passive yet powerful exclusion of Western middle-class angst.
It also felt as if my eyes lacked the right visual register to decode and classify what I saw, so nothing made sense. But that’s exactly what spurred my curiosity.
Despite all this, I didn’t make any time to go out and take pictures. In my defence, I was on a business trip spending my days in a windowless conference room, returning to the hotel at 10pm for a quick meal and then bed. Still, even though I didn’t have much choice, my own lack of adventurousness bugged me.
Why? Well, to paraphrase David Bailey, it’s a good idea to photograph a new place as soon as possible after you arrive, when you are still perceptive and impressionable. This lets you capture the best of a vision that rapidly blurs as your senses become more jaded: quirky street scenes seem strange no more; bright colour combinations fade into normality; exotic sounds go flat; and intriguing street characters turn into plain passers by.
My second visit happened under similar circumstances to the first, so I again had no free time at all. But for some reason it didn’t bother me much. I failed to bring my camera and I felt no urge to get out there and see more.
There was none of the previous visit’s visual and emotional incongruence. People just seemed to be parochial busybodies. The landscape: urban, dirty and poor. The traffic: insane. The contrast between rich and poor: infuriating. Nothing to see but an impoverished dump tainted by raw luck, inefficiency and corruption. The visit made bearable only by the preposterously inappropriate luxury of the hotel we were staying in.
Not a lot of poetry there!
Still, I thought it was ridiculous to visit a place twice without having some kind of visual record of it. The problem, though, was that I still didn’t have any time, nor did I have my camera on me. So I had to settle for what I could get.
This can never be a comprehensive or accurate documentary of life in Kolkata – there are no revealing shots of her people, for a start. It’s really nothing more and nothing less than a quick snapshot of Kolkata taken with my iPhone from the protected vantage points of the airport, my hotel and the taxi shuttling me from one to the other.