Kolkata - My City

by Sunil Vaidyanathan 18. May 2009 00:29

View of Howrah Station from across the river.

I recently read an article “A Walk in Calcutta” by Somini Sengupta (http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/travel/03calcutta.html The New York Times) forwarded by family who live in the United States. While it was well structured and concise, there were several aspects of the city that the author seemed to have conveniently overlooked. Perhaps it was the paucity of space… (Being a regular contributor to several publications, I know for a fact, articles always have to comply with a word limit.) For a person who has never visited Calcutta, it might make an interesting read; but the ‘City of Joy’ is not just about poverty, power-cuts and dingy alleys. For those of us who have lived / grown up / spent a lot of time in this city, Somini’s views portray a twisted view of unverified facts. The purpose of an article should not be just to highlight the negativity of a place. In this case the negative is so dominant, that it has completely buried the few good things that the author has portrayed!!

I don’t know when the author last visited Calcutta. I can vouch from my recent visit (February 2009) to College Street and the ever famous Coffee House, that though the waiters there may not greet you with a smile, they definitely do not wear thick dirt covered caps. The place in fact is much cleaner than it used to be and it has recently been renovated!  Where else can three greedy people have coffee, sandwiches and “fritter like pakodas” for less than sixty rupees?! 

When you enter the doors of Flurys it is similar to walking through a time portal. Flurys still serves what they were famous for; else it would put Mrs. and Mr. Flury to shame even in their graves! Of course their menu has increased considerably.

While talking about food in North Calcutta, Nepal Sweet’s bite sized “kachoris” with the famous yellowed “alur torkari” (curried potatoes) are worth a mention. I usually do not like food cooked in clarified butter (the odour nauseates me) but, I can easily devour at least ten of those sinful little things at a go!

The Northern part of Calcutta is steeped in old-world charm. However, if you care to look beyond the “green shutters and mouldy ledges,” you can see tall new structures with plush interiors and modern amenities.

“Kumartuli” on the east bank of the Hooghly is where the best artisans and idol makers in West Bengal sculpt exquisite gods and goddesses; it also houses some of the most skillful “shola” workers. Although poor, they welcome you into their homes (the front room is always a workshop) and proudly display their art without hesitation.

Established in 1787, by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kyd on the west bank of the River Hooghly, the main attraction of the Shibpur Botanical Garden is its 250 year old Banyan Tree. This grandfather of banyans covers an area of 1.5 hectares, (with 2800 prop roots supporting it) making it the second largest canopy in the world. Perhaps that is worth a mention rather than the broken benches on its premises! For nearly two centuries this garden, which is the largest and oldest of its kind in South East Asia, has been a premier institution for botanical and horticultural research.

It is common knowledge that the poor gather where free food is distributed. If it is important to mention the destitute masses around Kalighat, then it is also important to highlight the throngs of beggars that converge at the conjunction of Calcutta’s (so called “posh”) Park Street and Rawdon Street (Now Sarojini Naidu Sarani) every afternoon, for free meals that are handed out by representatives of the Assembly of God Church near the Park Street Cemetery. Perhaps we should look at the larger picture of a “poor” but humane city with a heart big enough to distribute free food to hundreds everyday. Many people do not know, that the Park Street Cemetery also houses one of the city’s most famous plant nurseries.

South Calcutta has been rather marginalised. There is more to this area than the mentioned Kalighat Temple and Tollygunge Club. The latter incidentally is difficult to “walk in to” unless accompanied by a member. You are bound to be confronted at some point by a manager and be faced with an embarrassing situation. This club is extremely dear to my heart; my parents have been members for over two decades and I had my wedding reception on these premises. Other than golf, equestrian events, indoor sports, (squash, bridge and snooker) tennis and swimming are given equal importance here. The jackals are permanent members; they do not bother you unless disturbed.

The oldest and perhaps the largest golf club in Calcutta is the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC) with “Tolly” coming in a close second. But if clubs in Calcutta are to be mentioned, one should not leave out the Bengal Club, Calcutta Rowing Club, Saturday Club and the city’s namesake – Calcutta Club.

The GPO and the Writers’ Building both stand out for their architectural finesse. However, many other buildings in the area are equally imposing colonial relics. The Calcutta High Court, St. John’s Church, Governors’ House and the Town Hall are all worth a visit. Incidentally, the cemetery of St. John’s (India’s first Anglican Church) entombs many famous personalities like Job Charnok, the founder father of Calcutta.

On a parallel road (towards the Howrah station) is Howrah’s famous flower market. It was unfortunately destroyed in a fire last year, but most of the stalls have since been reconstructed. If you can push through the crowd and muck and survive the chaos, you are greeted with row after row of vibrant colours. Behind the market, steps lead down to the one of the ghats on the River Hooghly. The ghat is dirty; but the view of Howrah Station (another splendid heritage structure) across the expanse of the Hooghly is sure to take your breath away.

Calcutta is renowned for its ability to absorb other cultures without any inhibitions. The Chinese who came to the city as early as the 18th century brought with them their technical skills and cuisine. As Somini puts it in her article, “in Calcutta, you can eat the world.” However, if we are to mention Chinese food in Calcutta, it would be sacrilege not to mention Park Street and the adjacent Free School Street. These streets boast of several multi-cuisine fine dining restaurants, some of which serve the best Chinese food in the city. Of course, the traditional Chinese ghetto of Tangra /China Town is still the preferred destination for connoisseurs of Chinese food.

If I wanted to continue about Calcutta, (now Kolkata) I could go on for days. I could write volumes and still have more to say. Perhaps I shall do so in bits and pieces, whenever I find the time. I don’t live in the city any more but every time I return to it, I find a new facet that I failed to notice earlier. And that is the real picture of my city – Kolkata.




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