A tale of two cities ……

I am back from a trip to Kolkata. A trip I made after nearly 2 years. Traveling to Cal (I still prefer calling it that way) is always a welcome change. A tamilian born in Durgapur I have fond memories of this part of the country. As I landed at the Netaji airport – I could sense the similarities with Chennai airport. Both the airports are run by AAI (Both suck and are the amongst the most inefficient in the country). Therein starts this exercise and as I was spending a day in Cal – I could not stop myself from spotting the numerous similarities and some differences between these two lovely cities.

Travel to Kolkata

Lets get started – Cal & Chennai are the only two metro cities which are still loyal to the grand old Ambassador Taxis . Mumbai is still stuck with its Premier Padmini but every other city has moved on to the Fords, Renaults, Maruti …..

Victoria Memorial Kolkata

Both Cities have a long history. Being major ports they have been key bases for the British & the Dutch. Remnants are still visible in numerous buildings spotting the city. Cal having been the capital of the British beats Chennai hollow on this count – in terms of numbers, size, magnificence….  Yes the Ripon building is impressive but is no comparison for the Victoria.

Chennai Central Railway Station

Chennai Central is an impressive structure, although smaller than Howrah Station –  both have their similiarities with their striking design and bright red color.

Howrah railway station

The Howrah Bridge is an icon of Kolkata and a marvel of engineering (Talking of the Howrah bridge do you know how many nuts & bolts were used to make it – that’s a common quiz question, check out Google). Add to this the second bridge over the Hooghly.

Howrah bridge in kolkata

The Cooum and Adyar bridge is all that Chennai has – while the Cooum is a disgrace the Adyar bridge is just a small bridge over a river that flows for maybe a few months in a year). But Chennai has the Marina Beach. (Some say this is the longest & widest  beach in the whole world. It is nature’s gift to Chennai but sadly not well maintained)

Cooum and Adyar bridge Moving on to education. Both have a culture where education is valued, kids are studious, and they have some of the best schools & colleges the country can boast off.  Many are Jesuit institutions over 100 years old – St Xavier’s, La Martinere, Scottish Church, Don Bosco in Cal and Loyola, Stella Maries, Christians College in Chennai. The BE college at Shibpur and the College of Engineering at Guindy are amongst the oldest in the country. Presidency is a veritable institution and many still prefer Jadavpur to IIT KGB. Chennai boasts of an IIT and Calcutta of an IIM.

Xaviers Kolkata

There was a time when the majority of IIT seats were bagged from Madras & Cal (That has now changed and Hyderabad holds claim to that title now). The highest % of students who crack CA are from the Cal & Chennai CA Institutes. In the 1960’s majority of IAS officers came from these two cities. (That was before reservations, now UP & Bihar hold claim to that record!!) Both cities also contribute significantly to the brain drain – and now for H1B Visas.

Bharatnatyam

Both cities are rich in culture & art.  Chennai the heart of Carnatic music & Bharatnatyam, while Cal is famous for Rabindra Sangeet, Jatra, Baul & Satyajit Ray. Getting seats to the Music Academy or for a program at Rabindra Sadan is equally difficult.

Kanjeewaram silks

While the Kanjeevaram silk rustles in finery and bright colours  the Bengal handloom holds sway with its elegance and class.

Bengal handloom

The Chennai “Mami” & Calcutta “Boudi” hold sway as they majestically stride down T Nagar or Bou Bazar shopping for the finest of gold ornaments. (Both cities love to buy gold and are a key reason for the astronomical increase in gold prices in India.)

Gold in Chennai

The spicy “Jhal Mudi” and “Puchka” beckons at every corner while the “Sundal” (Boiled Chana) at Marina  bags a distant third place. Luchi – Allor Dam , Mochar Chop , Baingan Bhaja and the tasty Hilsa , Rui & Katla ( I am veg – just heard , smelt and seen them)  compare well with the  Ghee Roast, Avial , Sambar of Chennai.

Luchi in Chennai

Both are predominantly rice eaters (Some say that rice adds to the intellectual capacity and wheat to the brawn power – probably that’s the reason most of the folks in the Indian Army are from north of the Narmada and the intellectuals from TN & Bengal)

Rasagolla sweets

The Rosogolla reigns supreme in the land of sweets while the Mysore Pak and Jangri entices you in Chennai. (While I love all sweets – Bengali sweets made of “Chana” are better for health since they  are not fried)

Best hotel in South India

My only grouse in Cal is the difficulty in finding a neat & clean restaurant chain where I can dig into Bengali delicacies. (I always end up at Aheli – but that’s fine dining and pretty expensive). Chennai has Saravana Bhawan at every main street serving delicious treats that are tasty & consistent. When I asked the cab driver to take me to a good sweet shop he took me to Haldirams !!

Business in Cal has been taken over by the Marwari’s (Other than Peerless – every large business is run by Marwari’s – Birla, Abuja’s, Khaitans, even the Lovely Brand underwear are made by enterprising Marwari’s). Sowcarpet in Chennai has its share of Marwari’s & Guajarati’s but the Chettiars control the pulse of business in Chennai.

Jayalalitha Iron lady

Madam Jayalalitha runs the show , while here its Mamata Di. Both are mercurial and have a tendency to be dictatorial. Both have ideologies that they are ready to dump and freely switch between UPA & NDA as per their convenience.

Morning coffee

Chennai wakes up at sunrise to Suprabhatam, temple bells and fresh hot filter coffee. Cal wakes up a little later to “Allah O Akbar” ( in many parts) and  the aroma of Darjeeling tea. (Never figured out why Cal has a Coffee House in College Street and not a Tea House).

Both cities have their share of minorities – 20% Muslims in Cal & 20% Christians in Chennai. But thank God they live in harmony and peace.

The intellectuals at Calcutta love their “ Adda” over a cup of hot chai (In earlier times in a mud pot)  with a spicy & tasty “Singhara” (Samosa) and many of the worlds problems are solved in these neighborhood “Addas”.

Darjeeling is an overnight journey from Cal and so is Ooty from Chennai. Two of the finest hill stations in the country, which are sadly well past their prime. Both are similiar in height at 7000 feet.

Both have local trains that keep zipping thru the city from morn to night.  Cal got its metro many decades back, Chennai is working on getting it soon. The Trams in Calcutta are iconic. Chennai is a major auto hub; Cal was also nearly an auto hub, till Didi got into her act in Singur.

Local trains in India

Chennai expands to OMR with high-rise building and world-class amenities; Cal is fast expanding to Rajarghat (which when fully done one day will look like New Calcutta, its already called New Town).

The Iyer Brahmin in Chennai is pure veg , the Brahmin in Cal eats Fish & Chicken & Mutton. The DMK preaches to be an atheist, so do the Communists. DMK Patriarch Karunanidhi’s son is named Stalin and the doctrine of the original Stalin runs deep in some of the venerable institutes of Cal. But Religion runs deep in both cities. Chennai probably has the highest number of temples in a metro while Cal celebrates Durga Puja, Kali Puja, and many others … with pomp & joy

Special on Durga Pooja

The prince of Behala is waiting to be  a kingmaker (Hopefully when Jagmohan uncle comes back as the BCCI President) while Chennai adopts Dhoni , Kolkatta has adopted Gambhir.

The “Kalkatta Pan” is world famous while Chennai has its “Madras Eye” (Red Eye infection).

President Venkatraman one of the finest the country has seen  came from Madras and now Pranabda from Calcutta will probably match him.

The Statesman founded in 1875 and The Hindu founded in 1878 were the leading news papers from Cal & Chennai – both are a class apart with great editorial and error free english.

I could go on and on – but then I am going to lose my reader. So Lets stop.

Whenever I travel to Chennai or Cal I come back with a feeling of “ when is my next trip”. I remember the title song of a Bengali serial we used to watch in DD many years back in Durgapur when we were kids  “ Aajob Shahar, Premer Shahor, Bichitra Nagar, Ei Kolkata” however when I travel to Mumbai or Delhi its always “ when can I get out of this city” .

Which leaves me wondering – when we have two cities with so much of culture, tradition, intelligentsia… whys is Delhi the political capital & crumbling Mumbai the financial capital. Is there hope, will we see a change in fortune and will Cal & Chennai come back soon as the top 2 cities of this country and the world at large ?

Please do share your thoughts.

11 comments on “A tale of two cities ……

  • The Bull , Direct link to comment

    Well written. Reading this I miss both the cities. One wr I was born (Cal) and wr I have my roots, the other ( Chennai) wr I learnt A-Z.
    Aamar Shonar Bengal and Ennodai Singara Chennai 🙂

  • usha venkitachalam , Direct link to comment

    Wonderful comparison. Enjoyed reading. As far as the financial capital is concerned, it will always be ‘Amchi Mumbai’. Whoever comes here for a livelyhood is well taken care by Godddess Mahalakshmi.Life in Mumbai is much easier than in any other city in India.

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  • Armab , Direct link to comment

    Chanced upon this article and throughly enjoyed reading it . Never been to Madras but I hope to be there some day . Spent my salad days in Calcutta and now based out of Gurgaon for a very long time . The opulent buildings around Dalhousie square ( they are being painted now ) , the magnificent Maidan , the evening breeze at the waterfront , the serenity at St Paul’s or one of the many churches that dot the city , the salubrious environs around victoria memorial are among the many things of Calcutta that still lingers on in my mind .

  • Soumita , Direct link to comment

    Great write up. Loved it! After reading this would love to visit chennai. Super kanjiveram saree btw!

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