In Calcutta we have some unique pet peeves. We love our pooches, as well cats, birds, rabbits, mice and still now our city newspapers everyday carry obituaries dedicated to our furry friends. One of my earliest childhood memories are of Curzon Park in Esplanade, opposite Raj Bhawan which was a small zoned off area dedicated to colonies of hundreds of furry rodents. Sadly over ridden by over zealous urbanization it no longer exists just like many of Calcutta’s charming old traditions and morals.
Similarly every tea seller (and their patrons) in Calcutta have their own entourage of stray waggy tails for whom glass bell jars hold crunchy, crackly “doggy toast” biscuits, otherwise known as rusks. Calcutta street dogs are very street smart and they weave in and out of rushing traffic as expertly as the citizens. They can read traffic signals, human eyes and effects of their cute looks perfectly well, and hardly any Calcutta stray can nowadays be found collarless, scrawny or underfed. They confidently roam around the Golpark roundabout, the flower shops and the adjacent book stores keeping a sharp lookout for their fans like me.
Golpark florists and second hand book shops are an integral part of South Calcutta cityscape (although the florists are fading fast) and every shop has their own band of loyalists. I loved walking by the Golpark florists during my school days and still now the delicate fragrance of tuberoses brings back my adolescent Calcutta memories. I remember saving precious pennies from my meager pocket money to either buy seasonal blooms or borrow books and comics from Golpark. The Golpark book shops have been existing even before my school days and we literally grew up with them. All of them are illegal squatters and sell precious, sometimes hard to find copies and manuscripts, from stacks piled on walls or plastic sheets spread on the sidewalk. They double up as lending libraries, are hugely popular (we still prefer dog eared, thumb tacked paperbacks over Kindle) and clamour for space next to t-shirt vendors.
The biggest book market in Calcutta however would be the iconic College Street in the central part of the city. Accessible by braving crumbling picturesque buildings, narrow lanes filled with jangling trams, cars, buses and hand drawn rickshaws, it is a popular haunt of students. The market sells all kinds of academic books and paraphernalia along with plumbing and toilet furnishings from radiating adjacent lanes. Crowded, a bit claustrophobic but extremely atmospheric, no College Street visit is complete without a short break at the iconic Coffee House, which even has songs dedicated to it.
Coffee House is one of Calcutta’s biggest institutions and spittle stained broad stairs lead up to a huge hall which is always crowded. Ancient snappy waiters in peacock styled head gears, slowly turning equally ancient ceiling fans and streams of endless cats greet you inside the legendary coffee shop. The food and beverages are mediocre and often served in chipped plates and cups by harried waiters and an all pervading stale cigarette smoke lingers there all the time. While this might not seem anything remotely special or memorable, but in reality the patrons jostle there to share space in both past and present with some of India’s biggest movers and shakers. It’s proximity to Calcutta’s academic district and houses of the old moneyed and rebels, made Indian Coffee House a favourite among artists, academicians, revolutionaries, thinkers and aristocrats (in later years).
Calcutta is riddled with historical gems and a bit of a walk from College Street in any direction leads to some of the most oldest and traditional parts of Calcutta. While not as swish as the south, this part of the city, because of its character and aura has forever been the biggest draw for film makers, photographers and painters. History seeps from every stone and step in that part of Calcutta and often jumbles up eras in a most confusing way. However to make things easier, it is makes sense to segregate the seamlessly blended north and central Calcutta as per their inclusions. North Calcutta technically includes Chitpur, Bagbazar, Belgachhia, Shyambazar, Shobhabazar, Maniktala, Jora Sanko, Sealdah station and the famous College Street area.
Nakhoda Masjid in Chitpur (an old mosque with exquisite interiors built by shipping prince from Kutch, Gujarat), the iconic Jorasanko Thakurbari/Mansion (the ancestral home of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore), beautiful Marble Palace (a stunning and well preserved 19th century mansion at Muktaram Babu Street), Tipu Sultan Mosque (built in 1832 by the late sultan’s youngest son), Gouri Bari Jain temples, Star Theatre in Hatibagan (along with Minnerva Theater were the hot beds of anti British plays) etc create an unforgettable North Calcutta heritage walk and the eclectic tightly pocketed mix of communities changes here at a breathtaking pace.
The central part of the city centers around Esplanade, the green open space called Maidan and B.B.D Bag, also known as Dalhousie. The entire area is huge, extremely congested and busy and expertly hides locations of some of India’s and world’s most important historical events and facts. Scattered with exceptionally old churches (the most beautiful being St John’s Cathedral where Calcutta’s founding father Job Charnock lies buried in eternal slumber), World War Memorials, old cemeteries and grandest of colonial buildings, history is tangible here.
The historically important Posta Bazaar is also nearby and to the naked eyes, it is a massive Marwari community dominated wholesale market selling everything possible under the sun. However once upon a time, it used to be an epitome of Bengali mercantile aristocracy and its narrow lanes had seen the likes of Robert Clive seeking loans from the Posta Bazaar money lenders. Founded and previously occupied by the sinfully rich traditional Bengali merchants and bankers, Posta Bazaar trade generated wealth which created some of Calcutta’s most beautiful buildings.
A lot of these merchants were later conferred fiefdom called Zamindari by the grateful British and they built massive palatial mansions called Thakurbaris to flaunt their social standing. Life of those rich Bengali babus/aristocrats were indulgent and they lavished money on cock fights, pigeon races, mujras (courtesan performances), drinking and competitive Durga Puja festivities. Calcutta is still plentifully strewn with such proud ancestral possessions and north Calcutta Thakurbaris Durga Puja celebrations are some of the city’s most exquisitely traditional functions.
Wealth and egos of those 18th and 19th century aristocrats were of legendary proportions and they flaunted both with display of grand whims and fancies. One Ramtanu Dutta had his mansion washed with rose water twice a day while Khelat Ghosh had dancers perform on giant stiff pre ordered sweets just to check if they remained intact. Horse carriages, luxurious barges, collecting European Renaissance artwork, Belgian glass chandeliers, rare cigars and pipes etc were a trend among the flamboyant babus and they helped Calcutta become a huge storehouse of some of the world’s most exquisite and rare private art collections.
Moving from the traditionally steeped, aristocratic Indian residential section of the north to the humming central is like changing continents and a sharp undiluted European influence takes over the British dominated Central Calcutta. The Esplanade houses Calcutta’s biggest retail shopping districts (New Market/Hogg’s Market), inter state bus station, Shahid Minar (Martyr’s Monument erected by the British), Park Street, Sudder Street, Free School Street, Burrabazar, Chandni Chowk etc along with host of churches, synagogues, Zoroastrian firehouses and Chinese shrines. Old Mission Church (founded in 1770), Armenian Church (built in 1724 it holds Russian Orthodox Church services), Cathedral of the most Holy Rosary also known as the Portuguese Church (Burrabazar), Lascar War Memorial (Hastings), the stunning wedding cake style Metropolitan Building and the Oberoi Hotel bring with them an unshakable aura of world war escapades, thrill and romance and evoke a period straight out of Somerset Maugham’s novels.
The grand GPO, Great Eastern Hotel (famous for hosting Mark Twain, Nikolai Bulganin, Queen Elizabeth II, Ho Chi Minh), Stephen House, the reputedly haunted Writers’ Building, Raj Bhawan, Howrah Station with the city’s most famous and beloved Howrah Bridge and endless colonial buildings mark the Dalhousie area which is also the Central Business District of Calcutta. The river runs close by and massive morning flower markets, (the most famous of them being the one held at Mallick Ghat) light up the dank ghats, which have seen hundreds of years of riverine trade flourishing along the littered well trodden stairs. Huge wooden shutters, massive stone steps, porticos and creaking wooden stairways make the buildings most photogenic and columns, floral wreaths and cherubs stare down frozen in time. These were the offices of the expansive British East India Company, from where they controlled, manipulated, built and often blessed their conquered with progress.
A few scattered old ruinous buildings stand defiantly squeezed between the well preserved British power and their intricate sensual grille work make them starkly different from the clean magnitude of the colonial gems. Banyan tree roots dangle over them as if veiling the interiors from privy eyes and their clear Islamic style often made me imagine ghostly eyes of long gone courtesans staring out at the world from them. Incidentally Calcutta was famous for being the base of some of India’s most talented and beautiful courtesans and they were some the city’s most powerful (highest tax paying) and prominent residents on their own right. The legendary Gauhar Jaan is perhaps one of India’s most historically important courtesan and the country’s 1st disc had recorded her singing a khayal in Raag Jogiya in 1902.
Calcutta’s charming history also brings alive the tight tapestry of the residential minority communities who make up some of the most interesting parts of the city. Greeks, Afghans, Tibetans, Chinese, Armenians, Parsis (ancient Iranians), Baghdadi Jews etc thrive along with the city’s huge Bengali, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Gujarati, Punjabi and Marwari communities and incidentally all of them have their own pockets of existence in the city. They all contribute to the city’s legendary food scene and central and north Calcutta offer some of Calcutta’s most delectable dining options (and quite a few of the world’s rarest dishes). With the deluge of colonial influence, wealth, indulgence and exquisite taste, food acquired an intelligent art form in Calcutta and just like the rest of its creative pursuits, is still being followed heartily.
For more detailed Calcutta walks, refer to http://rangandatta.wordpress.com/blog-index/calcutta-kolkata/ and http://amitabhagupta.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/durga-puja-of-bonedi-families-at-kolkata/ for a beautifully described list of traditional Durga Puja celebrations of the old Bengali aristocrats.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE