The air here is a problem.
In the city of Kolkata, even breathing has its perils. According to a 2007 study, 70% of residents of Kolkata suffer from respiratory diseases caused by air pollution, with 18.4% cases of lung cancer per 100,000 people. It's a problem serious enough to have triggered a WHO Health Advisory Alert in 2017, and it's a worry that tends to rather discourage long walks.
Venturing out of my hotel to wonder the city, I soon found myself seized by the bracing smell; a seething mix of grit and pollution that sticks in the teeth. There's a familiarity to it, an odd nostalgia; it's reminiscent of the taste of other Indian cities I have visited in the past, the temples in Jaipur and the markets of New Delhi.
If a single word describes Kolkata, it is towering. The city seems to be crawling upward in an attempt to escape its own smog. Hulking legs of concrete support huge curling bridges, shepherding traffic up on raised highways. Decrepit old apartment rooftops, covered in drying laundry, are cowed by the vast new housing blocks rising to overshadow them. Improbably large billboards overlook the sprawl, and at night, parts of the city take on a surreal twinkle.
The twinkle is down to fairy lights wreathing swathes of the city's roads; some of the lights even wrap the bodies of streetlamps, turning them into neon blue candy canes. Explanations for the street lights vary, when I ask around. The most plausible story seems to be that they are leftover from the city's annual Christmas celebration.
The city's wealthy middle-classes traverse it cautiously, insulated from the pollution by their air conditioned cars. Ubers are common, as are shiny yellow taxis. Motorcycles, tuk-tuks and rickshaws remain for those who can't afford to escape the not-so-fresh-air.
Kolkata is not an easy city for tourists. Sights (like the famous Victoria Monument, deposited by British colonials unable to leave their architecture behind) are quite broadly distributed. Even ignoring the poisonous air, walking is not terribly convenient; much of the city's sidewalk seems to be torn up, in a perpetual state of mid-repair. The architecture, while impressive, is often more functional than pretty. The poverty is striking--shanty towns are frequent, including one built on an active a train track, where people move their lives back and forth to dodge incoming vehicles.
Indian cities are always vivid, no matter how thick the air. From the sights and the sounds to the contrast in living conditions, every step brings a new assail on the senses. It's enough to overwhelm, if not approached with awareness and caution.
Kolkata has a heady atmosphere.
Breathe it in with care.