Time seem to stop as you alight in Calcutta. Is it the postcolonial hangover, the nonchalance of dreamy Bengalis, the silent rumble of commercialisation as flyovers and malls sprout up, or perhaps the vulture of culture circling the decaying remains of an era gone by?
Well, time stops for me when I arrive to the city. The driver who comes to the airport hasn’t the slightest urgency to get me home, he’ll banter and cruise sluggishly and re-affirm my belief that no one is in a hurry in Calcutta. My large Bengali family united by a love for celebration and food; not heirlooms. Drenched by the familiar smell of tradition, like a constant, never-changing layer of skin, the city makes time stop. When you grow up in Calcutta you begin to weigh things in sentiments, which is perhaps why I choose to call it Calcutta rather than Kolkata.
As a child, summer holidays were my preferred time of the year. They were made of tough math puzzles set by my aunt. They were also made of reading The Famous Five and Feluda and walking to the ‘haat’ with my grandfather to buy fresh fish. Lunch was a six-course meal and afternoons were spent discovering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen. We had siestas like gentlemen, woke up to a devious game of hideand- seek, ate supper at seven and read a book in bed.
When I went from half-pants in junior school to trousers in senior school, my fondest memories were those of going to the Book Fair with my father, thrilled at the thought of buying brand new books; Sunday school at the magnanimous St. Paul’s Cathedral where everyone was so proper that we even ironed the socks we wore to church, where I was introduced to orange squash and Marie biscuits; jubilant expeditions to the tube-light-flooded Jewish confectioner, Nahoum’s, to buy Easter eggs; memories of my aunt taking us to The Tollygunj Club to watch the horse race and indulge us in Fish ‘n Chips; the stampedes at New Market during Christmas and trips to the Missionaries of Charity, which was across my house on AJC Bose Road.
Growing up as a teenager I remember much of my time spent reading Tolstoy, Satyajit Ray, Steinbeck and Tagore, discovering Wicca, Freud and Rumi, wandering in and out of fascination with the art of Ganesh Payne and Paresh Maity, watching plays and debating with candour and passion.
Now, a decade later, as I reflect and muse over I remember Calcutta more as a tourist, a concerned, almostformer resident; now holidays home are spent indoors, living the city more gastronomically than cerebrally. But I can’t stop loving Calcutta; its beauty calms and yet causes a tempest in your senses. A city so striking, that even the ravages of decay, poverty, communism and apathy can’t take away its sheen of resilience and humility.
When in Calcutta, go see the films of Suchitra Sen, Uttam Kumar, Mrinal Sen, who one masterpiece at a time, fortified the Bengal school of Cinema; read the bards Sunil Gangopadhyay and Jibanananda Das; travel to the heart of darkness, the Sunderbans, with Amitav Ghosh; watch the magical Son-et-Lumiere at the ramparts of the Victoria Memorial; take a steamer ride on the Hoogly river under the Howrah Bridge; buy yourself something avant-garde from Sabyasachi’s store; hum songs from Parineeta and Anthaheen like Vidya Balan; devour Chinese food at Tangra; scream and thump your chest boisterously at a Mohan Bagan football match; drink Champagne at the Taj Bengal; sit a while and sip tea at Dolly’s tea shop; read a book at Oxford Book Store; walk around the Academy of Fine Arts; take a buggy ride around the Maidan; go for a lazy Sunday picnic to the Botanical Garden and gawk at the stunning century old Banyan tree and play Monopoly in its shade; drive to Shantineketan to buy some art from rural artists; and remember to just meander through the city. In all its shambles and slow progress, Calcutta will transform into something poetic and photographic for you.
Board the electric reptile, the Tram, and head towards College Street, which is most famous for its overabundance of Bengali publication houses, bookbinders, publishers and printing presses. The street is dotted with innumerable book kiosks selling old books. You can buy rare manuscripts, textbooks on various subjects, examination papers, English paperbacks and Bengali masterpieces at throw-away prices, though you must remember to bargain excessively! After all it is the world’s largest second-hand book market.
For those looking for a bit of nightlife in the sleepy city, Vikram and Ekta Puri’s Plush Lounge & Bar at the Astor Hotel is splendid for an evening of music which can quickly turn into a night of dancing. The ceiling draped in sheer curtains transform into screens for projections. I love the sense of risqué and baroque in the décor, the Mediterranean cuisine; prawns in Piri Piri and Orange Caprioska’s always save my night.
So Calcutta, may you simmer and stew and be as stubborn and sleepy as you are. You are the heart of Bengal’s renaissance, you survived the British Raj in style, you fostered the intellect of a thousand idealists. You are a thing of beauty and will be the city of joy forever.
Thing To Do
- For an honest to god Biryani, drive past Arsalan and pack yourself a generous helping of Chicken Biryani and a Mutton Chaap
- Call Urvashi at Sweet Surrender for some decadent custom made cupcakes and baked delights (8017306129)
- Have breakfast at Sharma’s, large kochuris with aloo dum and very large and very syrupy roshogollas
- Have a mutton kathi roll at Nizam’s
Volume 1 Issue 11