Touchstones

Lost, the Calcutta of my dreams

Kolkata is definitely not the Calcutta that one had imagined it to be in terms of its architecture and heritage buildings. Neither is it the highbrow bhadralok enclave where the Bengal Renaissance took place. The Calcutta of the colonial period or even of the early 1960s is, but, a faint memory

Lost, the Calcutta of my dreams

Old versus new: Here Didi’s Kolkata jostles with Ray’s Calcutta. Agencies

Ira Pande

High on the bucket list of places I wish to visit has always been Kolkata (I still prefer its old name, Calcutta, by the way) and although I have been there on three or four occasions, it was always on work. This meant I flew in, checked into a hotel, attended a meeting or event and flew out. Apart from a few visits to friends’ homes or a meal out and a memorable trip to Belur Math and Dakshineswar, I had seen little of the city or felt its rhythm. Recently, a friend called up and asked whether I would like to come for a short four-day trip and I readily agreed.

This time of the year is wonderful to travel anywhere in eastern India. The weather is just right, neither cold nor muggy and the light is something else. The mellowness of the sun and the spectacular canopy of trees and flowers is a joy to behold. The mango trees were already covered with blossoms and the Flame of the Forest and dhak trees a proud splash of red against a blue sky. Blue, as I discovered on our drive from the airport, is now as much a part of Didi’s Bengal as pink is to Jaipur. Every fence and railing, each building and bus is now painted in a colour that must be dubbed Didi blue. Didi smiles at every corner from huge hoardings and her presence is stamped all over the city. Make no mistake, she has taken care to brand Kolkata her city — the Communist days are well behind us, as is that unfortunate party. The only serious rival to her seems to be an equally belligerent BJP and it will be interesting to see who wins the battle for Bengal next year. If Prashant Kishor is successful in persuading her to tone down her aggressive attitude, as he is said to have advised Kejriwal to do with great success in Delhi, Bengal may not be the cakewalk that the BJP was imagining it to be.

But let’s leave politics for other more serious analysts to speak about. Let us instead focus on the food and cultural landscape. If you are a foodie, there is no better place to go to than Kolkata. We dumped our bags at the Bengal Club (more about that later) and ran to search out an authentic Bengal thali. Our driver recommended Tero Parbo in Hindustan Park, a modest little eatery, and either because we were famished or whatever, it was the most divine lunch I’d eaten in a long time. There was an ambrosial sonar moong dal, rice and shukto to start with before we went on to a fried bhekti chop, hansher deem curry (ducks’ egg curry to you) and a superlative prawn malai curry. Topped off by a delicious mishti doi, we ate until we could barely rise. That evening we went to a café called Roasterie, with a courtyard full of animated clients and a long line of people waiting to find a table. There were three of us women, all grey haired, out on a Valentine date and I think the manager found this so funny that he gave us a table over many others. Delectable snacks and several rounds of delicious virgin mojitos made with the fragrant gandhoraj neebu (a special Bengal variety of lemon) and great coffee to round off a very satisfying introduction to a foodie’s paradise.

Each successive day saw us eating greedily — Chinese, Anglo-Indian and Bengali food — and the sweets one saw and devoured could fill a full page. However, the highlight of my trip was a cruise on the Hooghly: a three-hour leisurely cruise that takes one from Millennial Park to Belur Math, the headquarters of the famous Ramakrishna Mission, and back. A guide points out all the landmarks and the two grand bridges (the old Howrah bridge and the newer one) are magnificent when viewed from the river.

There were many places I would have loved to explore in greater detail but lack of time made it impossible. However, we did drive around many of the legendary areas that bring so many Satyajit Ray films to mind, such as Chowringhee. Kolkata is definitely not the Calcutta that one had imagined it to be in terms of its architecture. Neither is it the highbrow bhadralok enclave where the Bengal Renaissance took place. The Calcutta of the colonial period or even of the Sixties is now a faint memory and many of the iconic hotels and clubs of that time a sad memory of a time gone. Once home to Lord Macaulay, The Bengal Club, where we stayed, is an example of a grand building which is a shadow of its earlier self. Most old hotels have lost the graciousness that was once a part of their lovable but shabby elegance.

So this is partly a requiem to the memory of a Calcutta that I needed to put to rest: loved but almost gone.

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