March 24, 2020 – Published in Design & Decor Winter 2017 issue
India… an acquired taste
Words Jim Dunn
Don't be fooled by the stunning PR that India, that utterly marvellous, chaotic, friendly country, has had over recent years across all media, print, film and TV… to visit India you have to be prepared.
The publicity for the country has been outstanding, well deserved and certainly not surprising with the Marigold Hotel films and TV series, The Viceroy’s House, a rather dull look at the Partition tragedy through British eyes and now there is Victoria and Abdul about Queen Victoria’s relationship with her Indian servant and the 3 part Ganges series on BBC. Not to forget the recent award winning Indian centred films like the world hit, Slumdog Millionaire.
Travelling in India can be a nightmare although a lot has improved since I made my first visit almost 30 years’ ago. Coping with the country, the poverty, the crowds and the dirt is an acquired taste and you have to prepare yourself if you are going to do it properly. I love it! I’ve been many times over the years to all the wonderful regions and cities from Kerala in the south to the north and the Golden Triangle of Rajastan and the cities of Udaipur and Jaipur. If like me however you want to ‘do’ India properly you have to get down and dirty… literally… with the locals. This is the real India.
Of course, you can visit the country in air-conditioned luxury and in great splendour as many of their former Maharajah residences and Palaces are now gorgeous world standard 5-star hotels with impeccable service and comfort and I will confess that at the end of a day roaming the markets and slums of its iconic cities of Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata I am so grateful for a blast of a/c and a hot, hot, shower.
My itineraries always include a selection of the following and must include contact with the locals. Walking in local areas, meeting the people, they are an extraordinarily friendly and inquisitive lot always interested in talking to you about their country and yours, proper artisan shops not the tourist traps (which admittedly are very hard to avoid), local markets for flowers, fruit and vegetables, artists’ homes…not galleries which overprice good local art and of course coffee shops… not forgetting a cup of Chai… tea.
Restaurants are a different matter! I take all the best medical advice and pills with me but I really would not recommend eating with the locals other than in the better hotels. Sorry India! Having said that things have improved we had an early breakfast on my last visit, at Flurys in Kolkata which is used by locals for early morning business meetings and we were pleasantly surprised and survived… a full English breakfast no less!
I also make sure all my travel arrangements are made by an expert in the Indian travel market who will give you honest straightforward advice and I always use It is staffed by regular travellers to India and they know the country very well.
My most recent visit took in an itinerary which included a few days in Mumbai, a flight to Kolkata and then a delightful car journey up country to an enchanting old Palace The Rajbari
The Palace, you can see here photographs of the refurbishment… a major undertaking… was recently bought and completely re-styled to provide every modern day comfort, by wealthy Indian businessman Ajay Rawla. His conversion of the Palace still manages to retain the majesty of the period of the Raj when local Kings ruled India. Ajay made his money in all kinds of industries including jute. His mission now is to make the Raj Bari Palace one of the best hotels in India and hopefully, eventually to help the local villages and surrounding areas by employing and training the locals in hotel operation. He has a bit to go yet as far as the operation of the Palace is concerned but I had to admire his guts and bravery by putting his money where his mouth is. It is well worth spending a few days here as an antidote to busy, hot, steamy and recommended Kolkata, especially for the Spa staffed by excellent Butanese professionals.
India’s ‘City of Dreams’ Mumbai where millions are homeless, is India’s largest city but 350 years’ ago it was just a marshy and malarial area occupied by fishermen. It now has an estimated population of almost 21 million and is home to the country’s wealthy Bollywood film industry, hence the ‘Dream’ tag and millions of poverty – stricken locals. It’s reckoned that about 8 million people are homeless living alongside Indian billionaires film stars who are treated as Living Gods, and the burgeoning Indian middle classes. It is now hoped that the trickledown effect of the money supply will in the end help the poor living in extensive and rat ridden shanti towns and makeshift tents. We shall see.
The middle classes are very much in evidence now with restaurants, shops and hotels of Western standard. You won’t lack for comfort nor good food. This is the most obvious change that you see in today’s India. It’s a first world country now with 3rd world poverty at every corner and much of it is very disturbing if you are unprepared. The Government is trying and are building social housing and have launched a campaign to ‘clean up India’. Now that is a challenge. Litter, plastic bags and human waste and smells are everywhere.
A 4-hour walking tour around the City is a must. You’ll visit The British Heritage District, the Art and Design sector, the Churchgate train station where millions of commuters pass through each day; the Gateway of India, the monument built to commemorate the visit of King George V and witness the Dabbas in action delivering the daily ‘tiffin’ lunch boxes to thousands and they never seem to get an order wrong.
It was however Calcutta or Kolkata as it is now known that I wanted to return to and I wasn’t disappointed.
‘Kolkata is a chaotic, polluted metropolis but one with abundant charm. The city is home to more than 14 million people and is unquestionably the most soulful city in India making it easy to fall in love with’. So says Fiona Caulfield who has lived there for a number of years and has written a ‘must’ guide to have in your pocket as you travel around. Simply called ‘Made in Kolkata’ it’s a guide to the best artisans, boutiques, crafts, designers and hotels and restaurants. A shopper’s bible but a good general guide nonetheless.
A cluster of three villages on the Banks of the Hooghly River, a tributary of the iconic Ganges, was transformed by the arrival of the British East India Company in the late 17th century. Kolkata was a vital trading centre, of muslin, opium and jute and was the capital of British India until 1911 leaving a legacy of grand colonial architecture, magnificent mansion houses… many of them now in dire need of repair… and important cultural institutions all of which today rub shoulders with a vibrant, modern city.
Memorials to the British abound and, of course, to Queen Victoria, the Botanical Gardens, with the famous Banyan Tree said to be more than 250 years’ old, temples and the famous Howrah Bridge crossed by 2 million people a day. The trams where male/female segregation still exists… a jolt on one of these will introduce you to some wonderful characters and the infamous ‘Black Hole’ will all be explained.
It’s views of the Ganges River which will remain with you. There is indeed something about The Ganges, and I don’t quite know what it is, as you walk on its banks or sail on it especially at sunset which gets you thinking and when you do you begin to understand why this vast, long, let’s be frank sewage pipe and bathroom for millions means so much to Indians. To walk its banks among the people who live there, to wander the flower market on its edge early in the morning and to be fortunate enough to watch as they go about their life by the river is indeed a privilege.
Make sure you put Kolkata and The Ganges on your itinerary. They tell me they saw dolphins living in the river this year… City of Joy or Dreams indeed.