A not so chilly December afternoon, I land in Calcutta, a city I had only read about in books or seen in movies. I step out of the airport and meet my uber driver, and after much confusion, I’m off to Hotel Astor, a hotel housed in a beautiful 100-year-old heritage building. A lot of the buildings in Calcutta are heritage, as I soon learnt, and not very well maintained, peeling paint and faded glory, yet reminiscent of the grand aura that the city undoubtedly once had, but a long time ago. The uber driver and I start chatting about how popular uber is in the city and how he signed up. I offer him an orange.
Calcutta is India’s second-biggest city. Nowhere else in India will you see daily life so starkly varied; on one hand there is in-your-face poverty, and on the other hand, the city is regarded as the intellectual and cultural capital of the country. It was also the capital of British india, and so it still cherishes the colonial-era architecture, the grand old gentlemens’ clubs, and the biggest golf course. And the cuisine is definitely something to experience.
I have reached my hotel and taken a power nap. I take a deep breath and step out of my hotel; I’m ready to find the Calcutta that Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray or even Jhumpa Lahiri have shown us through their work. The traffic seems to be have changed direction, I could have sworn all the vehicles were going the other way when I just arrived at the hotel. I learnt later that at certain times of the day the vehicles on the road reverse their direction to ease the flow of traffic. Not at all sure this is a good idea, I make my way to Flurys, which turns out to be the highlight of trip: English breakfast and a couple of dozen pastries later, I head to the Victoria Memorial.
The Victoria Memorial, built between 1906 and 1921, was funded by many Indian states, individuals of the British Raj and the British government in London. Like the Taj Mahal, it’s built out of white makhrana marble, and in remembrance of an empress. The main dome, the corner towers, and terrace are in the same style as the Taj Mahal. Most of the paintings here are copies and the original ones are, obviously, in London. However, Victoria’s childhood desk and pianoforte are the original ones, I’m wondering why they left these here, and kept our diamond. A team of 21 gardeners maintain the beautifully manicured gardens. The entry is through the north and south gates, but for brilliant photos, check out the north gate, slightly east for amazing views across the pond that reflects sunlight.
I caught this photoshoot in front of the Memorial, the girl had to run to the guy multiple times for the perfect shot. This area in front of the Memorial was (unofficially) cordoned off by the this tiny feisty guy, the photographer’s assistant, who went hopping mad anyone came close enough to ruin the frame with their shadow.
The Streets of Calcutta
The sepia-toned streets of Calcutta get increasingly tinted as I wander around. I see a yellow ambassador and a gramophone, people still listen to music on these and record stores abound with classic albums. There’s tonnes of antique junk to be bought: furniture, kitchen stuff, jewelry, books, you name it. I walk around the New market, searching for Nahoums, a Jewish bakery started in 1902. I buy everything that I think will stay a couple of days after I return home: walnut brownies, cheese straws, and chocolate fudge. There’s a family here that’s clearly shopping for a wedding; loads of pastries and other savouries are being packed for them in numerous boxes as an inquisitive crowd (and a dog) looks on. I, of course, only have eyes for the dog.
One thing I notice about the city is the stark class divide. A doorman for every little eatery, be it a little café or a pub; they expect to be tipped for opening and closing a door and wishing you good day! I saw a girl at Mocambo’s tip the doorman 200 bucks! Waiters hover around till you feel awkward and tip them in most places. Yes, your bill is cleared and they stand in front of you till you tip them. Rich, fat people, insist on clambering on the rickshaws that are hand-pulled by frail old men. The Chinatown area, the Tibetan market, which tripadvisor et all will suggest you visit is dirty and in a state of despair. The buildings everywhere are greying with peeling paint and almost crumbling away. The trams are just rickety boxes of metal clankering along on the tracks. Pretty quaint for a novel, but not for technological advancement.
I make sure I have a day to check out some of the heritage buildings, the Writers building, where the East India Company clerks must have toiled perhaps, the High Court, where I’m not sure what they did, and the post office, the beautiful Town Hall, with it’s majestic pillars, and other grand looking buildings with signature features such as shuttered windows.
I make sure to drive by the Howrah Bridge and the Vidyasagar Sethu, engulfed in grey, yet making for a (somewhat) pretty postcard.
Calcutta Feeds You Well
When it comes to food, Calcutta doesn’t mess around. Except for Mocambo’s; what I ate there was a mess. I ordered lasagna and arrabiata pasta. Is this what Calcutta is eating and thinking of it as an iconic eatery? This unfortunate experience aside, my Calcutta trip was one long feast. The chello kebabs at Peter Cat are worth raving about. I had to make a second trip on my last day in the city to make sure I ate them again, just to commit the buttery velvety texture of the mutton to memory. Sneak in sometime to grab coffee at the Coffee House on College Street, where prominent Bengalis, the culturl and literary geniuses hang out, and have great intellectual debates and discuss culturally important issues, and what other (not they themselves) should do for the country. Before I can eavesdrop or offer some of my own intellectual theories the bill is handed to me, so I walk over nearby to Subhash Chandra Bose’s house now turned into a museum.
Street food in Calcutta is incredible. You start with puchkas, crisp fried dough balls, filled with a mixture of mashed potato, and boiled chickpeas and seasoned with coriander and a generous sprinkling of spices. This is then dunked in sweet and sour water flavored with tamarind, green mango and spices. Then comes the famous Calcutta roll. It’s a parantha, or an Indian flatbread, stuffed with filling of your choice; egg, chicken, mutton, paneer, or a combination of any of these. My favorite was the mutton and egg roll. Walking around the little street, happily eating my roll, I come across a couple of more stalls: pav bhaji; fluffy buttered bread with a potato curry, raw onions and lime; aloo kabdi chaat, a mashed potato, spiced chickpeas, a mixture of chopped onions, tomatoes and green chillies.
Looking to wash it down? A lemon soda in different flavors sprinkled with black salt, tangy and refreshing, served in earthen pots; and kulfi; an indian popsicle made out of full fat milk and spices like cardamom and saffron, slow cooked on a low flame for a long period till the mixture becomes one-third the quantity. it is then poured into popsicle moulds and frozen. The kulfi, cold and fragrant, creamy yet grainy is the perfect way to round off every street-side feast. A popular sweet, Moa, is made with date palm jaggery and puffed rice, available only in the winter as date palm jaggery is only produced in the colder months. I ate all of these multiple times during my stay in Calcutta and then I had to go to the gym everyday when I got back home. Oh to hear the sounds of butter sizzling on a hot pan while doing crunches…
Jorasanko Thakur Bari (Bengali: House of the Thakurs)
One thing I do not recommend you miss is the Thakurbari. The incredible red exterior, the Rabindra sangeet wafting from the imposing green shutters, the wonderfully quiet inner courtyard; all conjure up poignant images of reading Kabbuliwallah in my English textbook in school. India’s only literary Nobel prize-winner, Rabindranath Tagore, in notably one of the best known Bengalis, known for reshaping Bengali music and literature. You know why he was so brilliant? Because he TRAVELLED. He has travelled extensively and lectured in Asia, Europe, North and South America. This is Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral home, built in the 18th century by his grandfather, now turned into a museum dedicated to his life and works.
Jayne, blogger from Girl Tweets World, tells me my pictures from Calcutta remind her of her time in Havana, Cuba. This makes me happier than it should. As I make my way to the airport, clutching my baked goods from Flurys, I think to myself no Bengali I’ve ever met in my life evokes that sense of awe or culture that I felt as a child reading Tagore’s works or portrayed in popular works featuring Calcutta. To me Calcutta felt like a city stuck in a time warp, a British souvenir drenched in rich colonial legacy, yet so far behind current times. It made for a great escape for a little while out of the hustle and bustle of Bangalore, and for a many moments here and there, it felt like an escape back in time.