Sundarbans Diary – Oh Calcutta!

Jennifer Nandi bids goodbye to the Sundarbans and acclimates to civilisation as she traipses the streets of crowded Kolkata

The famous bridge over the Hooghly River in Kolkata

January 12 – Leaving for Kolkata

During the three-hour-cruise to the jetty, from where we will be transferred by car to Kolkata, we are surprised by thousands of ducks – hundreds of Wigeon and Tufted Ducks on open water, and Lesser Whistling Teal huddled against the comparative safety of the reeds. Our eyes devour these sights of the Sundarbans – a landscape full of colour and incident for the vigilant visitor.

Ferrying hay in the Sundarbans – note the toilet at the back of the boat

Sadly, the Sundarbans are also the recipient of eroded topsoil and silt. In their downward flow from the Himalayan regions, rivers and streams — the primary agents of soil erosion — drain the Himalayas, eroding large quantities of soil in their upper courses. During the monsoon, unsorted sediments clog reservoirs, turbines and irrigation works and are deposited over agricultural fields and settlements by the swollen rivers. As the sun’s intense radiation accelerates the rate at which snow melts in the uplands, the increased erosion causes water levels to rise to flood proportions, sweeping away unwary people and animals. 

In fact, Nepal exports to India the one commodity that it can least afford to part with – its topsoil. This affects the lives and property of several hundred million people in Gangetic India and Bangladesh. The Bay of Bengal is the eventual sink for this sediment. The Bengal Fan, at over 20 km thick, is one of the thickest accumulations of sediment in the world. Indeed much of the country of Bangladesh is built on top of the fan, which lies on top of the oceanic crust. Truly, in the face of deforestation, the rivers wash our future into the sea.

Our 3-hour drive back to Kolkata feels like, according to Ken, a Kamikaze run! Too much frenetic traffic, too many people, too many obstacles that should never have been on the road! Warmly embraced by the hospitality of the Oberoi Grand Hotel, we luxuriate in it till early evening when we set out to buy books and, in general, to gad around the city streets. We pass on the option of eating elsewhere, so happy are we with the fare at the Oberoi Grand.

After our sojourn in the wild Sundarbans, exploring the postcolonial wilderness of the City of Joy was actually pleasurable

January 13 – Kolkata

For much of our city tour, photography is banned. Police shepherd photography-intentioned, gawking tourists away from the imposing edifices that line Kolkata’s colonial streets. The Writer’s Building, built in 1780 for the East India Company’s bureaucracy, is the most glorious. BBD Bagh, renamed after the nationalists who attempted to assassinate the British Lieutenant Governor Lord Dalhousie, was once a central reservoir that supplied Calcutta’s water. It is not uncommon to hear locals refer to it by its old colonial name, Dalhousie Square. The other equally imposing edifices are the Standard Buildings and St Andrew’s Church. Across the road, on the ruins of the original Fort William — the site of the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ — stands the truly grand, domed General Post Office built in 1866. There is a 1902 Black Hole Memorial, sequestered in a corner on the grounds of St. John’s Church. It is an interesting church, but lacks the extraordinary majesty of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Here, the pews are original and the stained-glass west window is by Edward Burne-Jones.

The stately Victoria Memorial stands in memory of a dead queen

Although built for a dead colonial queen, the Victoria Memorial is an incredibly beautiful building. We pose in its well-tended gardens and photograph its magnificence over and over again. Only then do we enter the interior galleries that trace the history of the city.

We are overawed by the city; there is much that we haven’t seen – the Metropolitan Building of the colonial era, and Tipu Sultan’s Mosque. All this and much more will have to wait for another time. Meanwhile, we come away with an untroubled feeling. No pushy hawkers, no lewd remarks by passing men, no blank belligerent stares which women in Delhi are routinely burdened with.

That night we dine at “Oh Calcutta!” – a fitting end to a rather interesting day. As we feast on excellent Bengali cuisine we shelve thoughts of packing to be done that night – the hotel will graciously permit us to leave behind luggage so that we travel light onwards to what for me is the highlight of the whole trip.

Text and photos: Jennifer Nandi


  • Jennifer Nandi

    Jennifer Nandi thrives as a guide, turning her passion for travel and natural history into a career filled with excitement and the embrace of uncertainty. She enriches her tours with knowledge and the courage to explore, transforming each journey into an adventure of beauty and mystery. She is the author of No Half Measures, a travelogue set in Northeast India.

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