CULTURE CLUB • July 2019
From the baking sun and sweet chai teas to jaw-dropping temples and colour-packed streets, we’re all clued up on India’s vibrant charms. But in a country this big and bewildering, where to start? Amit Chaudhuri, Indian poet, author and professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia, eases us in
The various historic neighbourhoods of Mumbai all have a unique architectural style. I’d also recommend a visit to Fort Kochi in Kerala; take the five-minute ferry ride to Willingdon Island and walk down Malabar Road to look at the river-facing houses. Or go to Odisha (using its capital Bhubaneswar only as a base) and visit the temples on the outskirts – here you will find some of the most beautiful sacred structures anywhere in the world.
…the combination of spice and heat with the sweetness of the fish; its use of vinegar, chillies and coconut; its love of all things marinated. And I adore Parsi food for its subtlety and sweet-sour flavours. In Mumbai, go to Britannia Restaurant (open only for lunch) and Jimmy Boy for sweet treats. And try the mishti doi (sweet yoghurt) if you’re in Kolkata – head to Bhim Nag bakery in the north for the best.
In the cities of India, Uber, yellow cabs or Cool Cabs are the best way to get around. In Mumbai, take the steamer from the Gateway of India and enjoy views of the Arabian Sea for half an hour on your way to Unesco site Elephanta Island. When in Kolkata, take the tram to the centre, where you can look at the colonial office buildings and Chinese shoe shops, and stop at sweet shop K C Das.
The lead-up to Christmas, the festivities on Park Street (the city’s most famous thoroughfare), the weather... For Indians around this time, childhood memories take over, lasting long into March when they’ll begin to dry up in the oncoming heat. In October, don’t miss Durga Puja, the festival to celebrate the mother goddess Durga’s slaying of the demon. Scout out the temporary marquees that resemble popular landmarks and monuments in every Kolkata neighbourhood, each designed to confuse and surprise.
...especially the in-between ones: that brief time in March, between winter and summer, echoes those few weeks at the end of October when the heat is beginning to fade. These short-lived periods of transition subtly punctuate Indian life. Remember that Indian seasons aren’t encompassed by winter, spring, summer and autumn – not only do they include the extraordinariness of the monsoons (July to September), but, during the rest of the year, all sorts of nuances and gradations.
…to the temple town of Mahabalipuram. A coastal drive, it’s all about the monuments at the end of the journey. Look out for the amazing rock carving retrospectively named ‘Arjuna’s Penance’, with a carving of a monkey sorting out lice from another’s hair to its right. Nothing I know embodies more the confluence of the mythic and the commonplace.