Thursday, March 24, 2011

Oh Calcutta!

‘Tillotoma’, ‘Kollolini’, ‘Swapno Nogori’, ‘Praner Shohor’ – these are just a few of the charming adjectives used to describe India’s erstwhile capital Calcutta, time and again. When you read or hear a city being described in such lofty phrases, a slow desire urges you to explore it, like it, fall in love with it.
Unfortunately, my very first impression of Calcutta* as a six year old which I still remember vividly had exactly the opposite effect on me.
*In those days it was Calcutta and not Kolkata and to be honest I prefer the earlier version, so that’s how I will refer to the city in my blog.

We three - me, Ma and Babai were in taxi (yes, that’s how one refers to the dear old black and yellow ambassadors) trudging along in an overcrowded Calcutta street. We were on our way from Howrah station to one of our innumerable relative’s house.
FYI- Whoever has been in Calcutta knows that speeding is impossible there; you mostly crawl. Yes, even now.
Well, back to the scene from the 1980s.
Roads in most parts of the city were narrow, clustered with shops on both sides and there was way too much traffic. Metro and flyovers were just visions; no one had any idea that in future they may / will help decongest the famous Calcutta traffic jams.
Little Gargi was in a puzzled, unhappy state with cranky questions lining up her mind. Why are the cars not moving? And why are the buses around us so dirty looking with black smoke emitting from them? When will we finally reach so-and-so uncle’s place?
A little impatient and tired from the train journey that brought us to Calcutta, stuck with  petrol smell all around me creating a severe sense of suffocation, I had finally turned and asked Babai with the wide eyed wonder of a child, “All I can see are shops, where do people live? There is so much dust and smoke all around, why do they live in this untidy looking place?”
To my six year old self, the city looked like a mess. It was a congested (data suggests it is the 13th most populous urban area in the world), dusty and dilapidated.  
I also remember the hurt in Babai’s eyes post my comment.
And the fact that I started throwing up - result of that polluted petrol smell all around me.
Ahem, not a very memorable first impression!

Well, you can’t exactly blame me. I grew up in a place called Durgapur – a quaint, neat well planned industrial town on the banks of river Damodar. Our townships had roads lined with trees. Sal, eucalyptus, gulmohars, mangoes and jackfruits. The road that took us back from school had lush green paddy fields on both sides of the road that swayed like a smooth green velvet carpet when it was windy. You could see the blue sky and green fields merging at the horizon. Well almost. Traffic jams were an alien concept to me till the day I landed in Calcutta. In those days, Durgapur hardly had traffic. In fact there were fixed time for public buses on all routes. If you were unfortunate to miss one, you had to wait for at least half an hour for the next one to arrive.

Calcutta was my Babai’s city. His true beloved. In his eyes, there wasn’t any place more precious (read beautiful) than Calcutta on this earth; it was close, pretty close to Utopia. In his workplace Durgapur, approx 176 kms from the state capital of West Bengal, he perpetually lamented all that he missed about Calcutta. Such was his fierce loyalty for Calcutta that he even gave extra tips to plumbers, carpenters, rickshaw pullers and other such staff who claimed they were from Cal!

It has been 27 years since then. I have never really managed to appreciate Calcutta or its people.
Its not that I did not try, but somehow it has always been the city I love to hate.
Let me spell out the few prominent reasons for loving it. The architecture fascinates me - Calcutta has many buildings adorned with Gothic, Baroque, Roman, Oriental and Mughal motifs. The thought of the wide variety of finger licking street food available in Calcutta– the chicken rolls, fish cutlets and phuchkas – makes my mouth water at any given time of the day. The magnificent book fair in Maidan that I used to visit during my childhood every winter was to-die-for. And of course the mighty Ganga (known as Hoogly there) – I am still in awe of her; every time I lay my eyes on her.
I will not go ga ga over mishti doi, rosogolla and jeelipi. Yes I agree that they are God’s gift to mankind, but then trust me you get them everywhere in Bengal – the entire state is a paradise for sweet lovers.
It is also a city which I relate with some very bad memories. And not to forget my strong dislike for the super interfering relatives and neighbourhood aunties who a) never mind their own business and b) asks you too many personal questions thus succeeding in adding points to the hatred part. Also the traffic jams and the incessant honking. The flyovers and metro have helped in decongestion, but the situation on an average is still pretty bad. And the climate sucks - it is HUMID and makes you sweat. I totally abhor the smell of sweat.
Yet, I have gone back there – time and again!

So, this time while planning the impending trip after 3 long years, I was clear that I will give it my best shot - to sincerely like / love Calcutta. I had made up my mind to visit it without past baggage. I wanted to explore the Calcutta that I heard of from Babai and read about in novels penned by my favourite authors.
I did explore Calcutta this time; in fact quite a bit in spite of heavy duty relative-meeting sessions. However, since it is not possible to write all that I explored in one post, I will break them in segments.
This post is specifically about Pincode – 700009, which our gang of four explored one sunny and lazy winter afternoon.

Calcutta – 700009 = College Street
The epicenter of Kolkata’s cultural milieu
In 2007, College Street, featured among the famous landmarks of India in Time Magazines’s “Best of Asia” list. That is just one of the many accolades that have been bestowed upon the street steeped in history.
College Street basically refers to a street in North Calcutta which stretches from Bowbazaar to Mahatma Gandhi road crossing which leads to Hatibagan and Shyambazar further north. There is a tram line which runs right through the middle of the road and there are thousands of makeshift bookstalls on both sides of the road. These stalls are made of bamboo, wood, canvas and even corrugated-tin sheets!

Well-known academic institutions such as Presidency College, Sanskrit College (the pioneer institute of oriental studies in 1824), Scottish Church College, Bethune College, Kolkata Medical College (Asia’s first medical college in 1857), Vidyasagar College, Hare School (established in 1872), Hindu College (established in 1817) and School, and the University of Calcutta (established in 1857) are situated in and around this street and has turned it into the intellectual nerve centre of Calcutta.

If one decides to visit this locality, it is better to keep a couple of hours aside so that one can explore and soak in the vintage sight, sound, smell that it offers. I would strongly recommend the following on your must-check-out list while visiting College Street.
  • Coffee House
  • Boi Para
  • College Square
  • A visit to Presidency College / Calcutta University campus
  • Snacks at Putiram
We were not sure how much time we can manage, as we all got delayed due to respective commitments earlier in the day. But since a visit to College Street without visiting Boi para or Coffee House is like going to Agra and not checking the Taj Mahal, we decided to meet at the Coffee House on College Street.
As the taxi trudged (yet again) the meandering streets of North Calcutta while Sudipto gave kept up his narrative (my husband after all had spent his childhood in these bylanes), I kept waiting anxiously for the first sight of the famous landmark. The road was one way from where we were coming, so we had to get off at one point from where the Coffee House was a few minutes walk amidst book lined roads.  I was super excited. Finally I am visiting the iconic place I have been reading about all my life.

The Legendary ‘Indian Coffee House’
It is not the coffee that pulls you there. It’s the romance and the history that one associates with it.
Coffee House to me has always represented freedom. Freedom of speech and thoughts thus converting the utmost ordinary youth who fights his everyday battle to become extra ordinary through his discussions, views, writings! Established in 1942 under the vaulted ceilings of the Albert Hall, it still remains THE favorite place of artists, writers, revolutionaries and of course groups of bright-eyed-full-of-ideals students who indulge in animated discussions on every possible topic under the sun.

The entrance to the Indian Coffee House is deceptively low key. In fact its semi hidden behind shops, so if you are not careful, you may actually pass by the entrance without realizing.
Once you enter the dark interior, you will be greeted by red spit filled winding stone staircase, the surrounding walls lined with various posters. Once you reach the first floor, on your right you will find the roaring two floor cafeteria. On your left, you will notice signs for bookstores which pulled us like a moth to flame.
We decided to visit the Rupa Publishers stall first. For any book lover its can be hailed as paradise. You are left gaping at the vast and varied collection!
There were books on nearly every topic you can think of at affordable rates. And boy, it had the old world feel stamped on it. The smell of books and dust in cramped book shelves, piles of books lying around anywhere on the floor - it made the entire experience so much more relaxed and comfortable. No one kept hovering over you in a boring looking uniform asking “Ma’am, can I help you?” They just let you be. Help yourself is the motto. You can look around at your own pace and stumble upon something that will make your dayJ
Modern day book stores – please note.
With the amount of room fresheners that you spray and the over lit, antiseptic looking interiors and vague looking employees who go on doing their job but does not really care for books (the attitude is too obvious) you are killing the fun.
After browsing, I wish I could do that for endless hours, I settled for The Illustrated History of Art – Judisth Clarck and Da Vinci’s Notebook.
FYI – There was also a small booklet on “emotional sms” near the cash counter!

With a satisfied smile plastered on my face (I always do, post buying books) we lazily strolled towards the coffee house.  Long before the CafĂ© Coffee Day, Barista and Cafe Mochas of the world there stood this monument to the glory days of past steaming with conversations, gossip where seeds of political revolutions germinated.

We managed to find place in the ground floor near a window overlooking the busy street below. All around us was incessant chattering and spirals of cigarette smoke while veteran waiters in faded white uniforms with turbans and cummerbunds moved deftly amongst tables serving coffee and snacks from an eclectic menu. The food served in steel cutlery is cheap. Damn cheap. You can have a plate of Moghlai Porota for like 15 bucks which is amazing! While one of our friends tried freezing images in his camera, I soaked in the atmosphere while the warm sunlight streaming in through the window fell on my shoulder. 

There was a counter on one side manned by some very bored looking bhodrolok. The wall on the other end had a huge photograph of a young Rabindranath. There were old ceiling fans which you get to see only in black and white movies of bygone era. The tables around us were occupied with a motley crowd. There were groups of students, full of giggles and chirpy talks. Few were comparing notes, few busy with cell phone cameras. There was some couple types totally engrossed with each other. There were the elderly patrons who seemed very comfortable with their endless cups of coffee while they discussed the current political scenario and life passed by. Apparently the prices on the balcony floor are strategically priced at two rupees more, than the main hall. Though the balcony floor looks cleaner, somehow it does not have the madness of the ground floor.

The coffee was bad. I did request repeatedly for sugar, since it was missing from my cup, I never got it in the forty minutes that we spent there.
As I sat there, listening to the bright hum and sipping the weak, sugarless coffee, I realized that in spite of the bad coffee this place has managed to evoke a positive feeling in me. Adda is like oxygen to us - Bengalis. And by providing a favourable atmosphere the Coffee House permeates a good adda - amiable but hot discussions ranging local politics to global warming to cricket/ football to Neruda to iPad. Spending a few hours here is like stepping into a time capsule where everything moves in a slow unhurried pace like a graceful ballet; it is a world where the images are still in black and white. For someone who thrives on nostalgia, this is a place worth visiting.

As we started walking towards Boi Para, I kept humming in my mind the soulful, famous song by Manna Dey - ‘Coffee House er sei adda ta aaj ar nei’.
The words must be so true for an entire generation of people who grew up spending endless hours at the coffee house; this place has provided many with some very poignant memories to be cherished for a life time.
As you walk out of coffee house you hit the boi para.

Boi Para (Boi:book, Para:Neighbourhood) or Book Market
You have to see it to believe it.
College Street, famous for its book stores is lined with stalls & stores of every shape, size and attitude!  Known as ‘boi para’ or ‘book mart’, it is a paradise for academicians and book lovers. Dotted with countless book shops - humble small book kiosks / make shift stalls holding tattered chronicles dating back at least a century stand shyly beside their smarter / bigger counterparts. Many bigwigs of the Bengali publication industry are also situated there.
Hidden behind the innumerable book shops are the compound walls of Hare school, Presidency College and Calcutta University. 
You can totally related to the unbreakable bond between educational institutes and books while strolling down this old neighbourhood.

Said to be more than a hundred years old, Boi para is the world's second largest market of second hand books. You get all sorts of them here; from classics, textbooks, and manuscripts to comics and so on at unbelievably low prices.
It provides a perfect shopping stop for students looking for text books and reference material. Book-lovers and avid readers of all genres routinely visit the Boi Para. Ah, the thrills of finding an out-of print book or an original leather-bound classic jostling for space alongside a 'how-to-crack-the-IAS'. The shop-owners are very knowledgeable and can help you find a book of any interest. I have heard from my friends that some of the stall owners are very knowledgeable about books and can even tell you immediately whether a particular book can be found at all.

However, the old-world nostalgia will change very soon with the West Bengal government planning to build a book mall and pull down the shops in order to beautify the city. The upcoming project called “Varnaparichay” is a Public Private Partnership Project between Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and Bengal Shelter Housing Development Ltd. As a part of urban development they are planning to construct the world’s largest book mall in this area. I just hope it can retain the comfort level this run down place provides and also hope that the street vendors will not be uprooted but will be able to go on with their year old family business.

FYI : Varnaparichay or Bornoporichoy (if you want the correct Bengali pronunciation) is the first text book for basic Bengali education. The word Varnaparichay in Bengali means “introduction to Varna or alphabets”. This is the book of basic language construct and fundamentals compiled by Pandit Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, one of the most prominent scholar and social reformer of Bengal.

Past the books shops, we started strolling leisurely in the warm afternoon glow towards College Square. My friends had moved ahead while I stared at the magnificent Calcutta University. It looks very impressive and imposing with its colonial white architecture. However, since others had moved on and I am not too familiar with the place and did not want to lag behind, I rushed to catch up with them; promising myself that next I visit Calcutta I will definitely visit the campus.

College Square:
You have to know where this is located to find it amongst the lines of shops. There is an arrow that points towards it, but seriously amongst so much graphitti one tends to miss it. Dominating the center of the area is the Vidyasagar Sarovar, traditionally known as the College Square. It has a large tank that is used by numerous swimming clubs and swimming coaching institutes. The water looked bit muddy to me; apparently the water is drawn is drawn from river Hoogly, which explains the colour. There is a walk surrounding the tank which I am sure is occupied by college sweethearts and others seeking leisure. It was mostly empty when we visited it and had a very lack luster feel to it.

As we walked out towards the main road, we realized that Police has started cordoning off stretches of the road because of CM’s impending visit to the locality. As we waited endlessly for a taxi I realized that visiting Putiram for snacks and the famous fruit juice stall in the vicinity remained unexplored. But, never mind. College Street – am coming back to visit you as many times as I visit Calcutta in future. You made my day and offered me vistas of old colonial times which are a great fix any day for a nostalgia junkie like me!

And yes - Babai, this will never reach you, but I have to acknowledge that I have started liking CalcuttaJ. In bits and pieces but that is a ‘start’ nevertheless.