"Calcutta,” my niece Anamika says, winding up the window of the battered Ambassador taxi in an attempt to keep at least some of the dust outside, “is the place lesser viruses come to die.”
We’re mired in an early morning confusion of rickshaws, taxis, trams, trucks, and (yes) cows, precipitated by the eternal road works that have turned Free School Street in central Kolkata (to use the city’s official name) into a traffic nightmare. We haven’t budged for 25 minutes.
We’re supposed to be heading north—Anamika to college, and me to meet up with a heritage walking tour. It’s getting late and we’re getting nowhere. I decide to try to find a cab on the other side of the New Market. With a quick “Bye, see you at dinner,” I get out.
Strictly speaking, Anamika is not really my niece. We are actually second cousins—her mother is my mother’s niece. But in Bengal, the term cousin is considered cold and, well, English. So Anamika’s mother Angela is my “sister-cousin,” making Angela’s husband my brother-in-law and their two children my niece and nephew. Not that this doesn’t stop a million people everyday from asking Anamika how a pukka Indian girl like her could have a gaura (white) uncle like me.
As I race past the Gothic, red-brick bulk of the 19th-century New Market, I realize that it will be quicker to walk to the meeting point in Dalhousie Square, renamed BBD Bagh after India’s independence to commemorate the nationalist leaders Binay, Badal, and Dinesh. I dive into what seems like a hundred lanes of roaring traffic on the Chowringhee and some 30 heart-stopping seconds later, make it into the Maidan, Kolkata’s massive central park.
Warren Hastings, the first British governor general of Bengal, used to hunt tigers here on elephant-back. These days, the only dangerous beasts are the buses that sometimes take swerving short cuts across this corner of the park on their way to the bus station. Dodging one, I pass the Shaheed Minar monument, which looks a lot like a “Mogulized” version of Nelson’s Column in London, and a minute later I’m on the Esplanade, the gateway to British Calcutta.
The streets here are wider and better laid out; architecturally, the buildings fall somewhere between 18th-century France and Victorian England. Take away the palm trees, the Bengali signboards, and the squadrons of suitcase-sized ravens cawing and wheeling overhead, and this could be Rouen, circa 1885. Heading past the Neoclassical columns and pediments of Raj Bhavan, a copy of Keddlestone Hall in Derbyshire and residence of West Bengal’s governor, and up Government Palace East, I soon catch sight of the huge greenish water reservoir at the heart of BBD Bagh.
Akhil Sharkar, the tour leader, is waiting in front of the Old Currency Building, a heap of Victoriana with ornate iron gates that was British India’s first mint. Occupied by offices until the 1980s, it’s a mouldering ruin today, testimony to the corrosive effect of Kolkata’s sweltering climate. It is one of the 500 buildings that activists like Sharkar have persuaded city authorities to classify as heritage sites, which means that it is supposed to be restored. One of these days.
In fact, the entire square, from the Writers’ Building (the old administrative hub of the city) and the Bengal Chamber of Commerce to the Standard Assurance Building and the Dead Letters Office, are all protected. Sharkar explains that there are plans to rehabilitate the reservoir, relocate the bus and tram terminus, remove all the hoardings, and transform BBD Bagh into a major tourist attraction.
“Then we will tear down the Telephone Exchange,” he says, gesturing towards the imposing and elegant post-Deco tower on the southwest corner of the square, “so that we can restore the old line of sight between Writers’ and the Raj Bhavan.”
Apparently, not all heritage is created equal. I am tempted to ask Sharkar why he’s so keen to tear down some historic buildings and preserve others, but I just nod. I’m eager to get going and it seems that today, I’m the only one who has turned up for the walk.
“Hope you’re feeling fit,” Sharkar says with a smile. “There’s a lot I want to show you.”
Three hours and a good 15 kilometres later, we have travelled from the rational, regal capital built by the British East India Company, with its Gothic spires and Corinthian columns, into the depths of what was once contemptuously called “Black Town”: the Bengali half of the city. Dusty, run-down, crowded, and yes, a little pungent in places—much the way Kolkata’s foreign overlords described it 200 years ago—the neighbourhoods between Jorasanko and Bagh Bazaar are nevertheless home to some of Kolkata’s most beautiful houses.
Here, the hulking expressions of imperial grandeur that dominate BBD Bagh give way to the more modest private palaces of Bengal’s merchant and land-owning classes. They are for the most part three- and four-story homes covered in intricately carved wooden panels, with interior courtyards, delicate rooftop pavilions, and screened balconies that allowed the women of the house to observe the street without being observed themselves.
Some are less modest. The extraordinary Marble Palace on Muktaram Basu Street looks like a Neoclassical folly straight out of Gone With the Wind, until you see it up close. Then the vigorous use of decoration, from multicoloured marble floors that look more like carpets, dark woods, heavy embroidery, and a surfeit of statuary, to the almost tropical stucco-work and florid frescoes and the occasional pseudo-Mogul touch, make it clear that this mansion could only have been conceived in Kolkata.
The Mullick family, who built it in 1835, still live in part of the palace, but visitors are permitted, if not necessarily encouraged, to explore the public areas. It is one of the few old houses on this street that still belongs to its original owners. Many of its neighbours have lain empty for decades, forsaken in favour of the wider spaces and leafier streets of south Kolkata.
Kolkata’s merchants weren’t the only ones attracted to the suburbs. Tollygunge, the city’s toniest neighbourhood, is home to Bengal’s film industry. Affectionately known as Tollywood, a riff on Mumbai’s Bollywood, Kolkata’s studios do not produce all-singing, all-dancing Filmi extravaganzas. Borrowing from François Truffaut and Rabindranath Tagore, rather than Busby Berkeley and Lucille Ball, Tollywood specializes in low-budget, hard-hitting, socially aware films, of the kind lapped up in Art Houses from Tokyo to Turin. It was here that Kolkata’s—and perhaps India’s—greatest filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, made Pather Panchali and Aparajito and won a level of international acclaim that other Asian directors of the time could only envy.
Plaudits aside, Tollywood has had little direct impact on Indian cinema, although many major Bollywood actors routinely reference Bengali films. But by focusing on subject matter that would normally be considered inappropriate – think domestic violence, mixed marriage and political corruption - Tollywood helped break a lot of taboos, opening doors for Indian directors elsewhere. And that, as a family friend who writes a weekly food column in The Telegraph once told me, is what Kolkata is all about.
“We don’t have the money or the (political) influence any more,” he said, when I asked what he thought made Kolkata different. “But the experimentation and the thinking, that is still done here.”
A city of artists and intellectuals: that’s certainly the way Kolkatans like to imagine themselves, especially when their city is otherwise an international synonym for disease (think Mother Teresa) and poverty (think City of Joy). The cliché about everyone, even taxi drivers, being able to recite Bengali poetry is obviously an exaggeration (especially now most Kolkatan taxi drivers are Punjabi), but this must be one of the only cities on earth where a flute recital can draw a capacity crowd at nine o’clock on a Friday morning.
I admit I am biased when it comes to Kolkata. My mother’s family, Rajputs from what became the “other” side of the India-Pakistan border after Partition, arrived here in the late 1930s. My mother grew up in Kolkata and only left when she married, and my cousin—sorry, my sister —Angela still lives around the corner from the old family home.
I visited the city three times before I was two, so there are paan vendors who remember playing with me as a child and gatekeepers who used to take me to watch the trams. The next time I went back, I was 17 and most of my family had passed on. Inevitably, then, my Kolkata is a place of nostalgia, a city that is mine and yet unfamiliar. Not really a holiday destination, not really home.
Visits revolve around leisurely meals, the table invariably laden with kebabs and something tandoori (my mother is a staunch culinary Northerner and prefers to eat her childhood favourites whenever she visits) alongside the fragrant, sweet-and-sour Bengali dishes that I love: aukto (bitter gourd and vegetables), alurdom (potato curry), and cholar dal, then maybe some rich, creamy pistachio-studded rosho malai or a clay pot of mishti doi (sweet yogurt) for desert.
Evenings are spent on memory lane—stories about my father chasing Angela’s mother along the road with a goose’s head; or my mother buying her wedding dress and gold bangles back from the Chor (Thieves’) Bazaar a few hours after they were stolen; or how my grandfather, a tall, distinguished man burdened with the unfortunate name of Pious Christian Singh, could make credulous children do anything he said.
More than anything, P.C. (as my grandfather was known) loved horse racing. My grandmother, Elma Josephine, a teacher blessed with the ability to freeze children and many adults in their tracks with a single glance, did not approve. Every Saturday, he would sneak away to the racetrack at the southern end of the Maidan and have a flutter. If he lost, he’d invent some fairytale about where he’d been and send Angela to act as his intermediary. Grandma was never fooled but if P.C.’s story made her laugh, he’d get off with a mild scolding.
They lived in central Kolkata, surrounded by tesus (half-castes) and kattus (“cut ones”), the rather indelicate labels they gave their Anglo-Indian and Muslim neighbours. All my Urdu-speaking grandfather’s closest friends were Muslims, so I doubt he meant it as an insult. The tesus, however, were another matter.
Though Christian and a quarter Scottish, my grandmother was firmly Indian. She had no time for “Anglos” who thought of themselves as English and called Indians “bloody wogs,” even though most of them looked just like the people they insulted. Nor did she have time for talk of “home,” meaning England, a country few of them had ever visited.
“Home, is it?” she would thunder, after learning her children had been called names again at school. “Let them go ‘home’ then and we’ll see what the British call them.”
Many eventually did and my grandparent’s neighbourhood began to fill up with Muslim migrants from neighbouring Bihar and Bangladesh. The churches my family attended, including the one I was baptized in, are still there, but along Eliot Road, the peal of church bells has been replaced by the muezzin’s call to prayer.
Kolkata is no stranger to demographic change. As the capital of British India, it was second only to London in importance. Even when the capital was moved to New Delhi in 1911, Kolkata remained India’s powerhouse. As such, it had always attracted economic migrants from across the subcontinent and as the 20th Century took its increasingly bloody course, it also attracted political refugees; exiles fleeing the Chinese Civil War, then later Partition, the Bangladesh War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
A combination of careless post-colonial administration and smugness led to Kolkata’s economic decay. By the 1950’s, the Hooghly, the massive muddy off-shoot of the Ganges that winds its way through Kolkata, had begun to silt up. As it became increasingly difficult for the bigger ships to reach the city, Bombay began to develop, promoting itself as an easier alternative. Soon, it replaced Calcutta as India’s leading port.
Politics too, underwent a change. The laissez-faire mercantilism of the boom years was replaced by a hardcore Marxist political agenda that worked wonders in deprived rural areas but proved too hostile for business, big or small. As Kolkata declined in the 1960s and 1970s, it became less able to cope with migrants, who continued to arrive in large numbers. Many ended up on its streets or in its slums, creating the now-famous image of a city of unimaginable hardship. Gradually, the Bengalis became a minority in their own city. Today, you are as likely to hear people speaking Hindi, Marwadi, or Urdu. As Mumbai (and later Bangaluru) took over Kolkata’s role as “the city that thinks today what India thinks tomorrow,” Kolkatans cultivated an intense nostalgia for the past.
And what a past it had been. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, a period now known as the Bengal Renaissance, Kolkata’s poets, musicians, educators, and philosophers dominated Indian intellectual life. Melding the best of East and West, they blazed new trails, becoming champions of social, political, and educational reform. Womens rights, land reform, universal education, liberty, equality and fraternity, Calcutta was open to them all. Urbane and educated, the city’s brightest lights were as rapturously received abroad as they were at home. Poet and social reformer Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, while the message of religious harmony preached by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his disciple Vivekanada proved even more popular in Europe than it did at home.
The mantle of cultured Calcutta may be why so many of the Kolkatans I know take greatest pride in the things they don’t do for a living. Like the math teacher who tells me he is a rock musician, the doctor who introduces herself as a landscape painter, or the software engineer who only grudgingly admits that he does more than play the sitar.
Still, surveying the immaculately dressed crowd at Aqua one Saturday night, it seems doubtful whether young Kolkata, with its marked preference for lounge bars over tabla recitals, pursues any art other than seduction. Here around the rooftop pool at the Park Hotel, house music pounding, Stolitinis and Kingfisher beers in hand, Kolkata’s most gilded youth are casually indulging in the kind of behaviour rarely seen in the raciest Bollywood flicks. It’s pretty heated, but my niece assures me that it’s just show.
“Most of them live with mummy and daddy,” she says, “so even if they wanted to do more, they don’t have anywhere to go.”
Looking around, I reflect that it was fear of precisely this kind of behaviour that kept the nice Indian girls of my sister’s generation locked up at home. A decade ago, even a trip to the cinema was considered risqué. Unmarried girls, alone, in a dark place, with men? The horror.
Now here I am watching one couple do what can only be described as the bump and grind. I’m shocked to discover I disapprove. My niece catches my expression.
I am, but I am even more shocked by my reaction. I’ve done far worse in my time than a spot of dirty dancing. The DJ puts on the Village People. I grab Anamika’s hand and head for the podium.
“Let’s dance,” I say, desperately trying to regain Cool Uncle status. “I haven’t heard this since I was a teenager.”
Kolkata has changed, and not just because of faux lap-dancing in rooftop lounge bars or the shiny new malls in Ballygunj. Its major sights, like the white-marble Victoria Memorial and the government buildings in BBD Bagh, are cleaner and better maintained. Power cuts are less frequent, and last minutes rather than hours. Suburban flight has slowed, and while few of those who resettled in Ballygunj or Tollygunj are thinking of moving back to old family homes in the north, they do now take pride in owning “heritage” properties.
The local music scene, centred on the pubs and clubs of Park Street, is awash with new talent, while bigger bands like Bhoomi, Fossil, and Chondrabhindu - who mix Tagore’s poetry with Hendrix guitar riffs - now play to Bengali expatriates in London, Boston, and San Francisco.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, Bengali cuisine has suddenly become India’s sexy new alternative. From Howrah and Oh! Calcutta in Mumbai, to Ballygunj Place in Bangaluru and Chowringhee in Delhi, diners tired of the ubiquitous tandoori chickens and masala dosas are learning the art of deboning tender ilish fish, getting used to the bite of the bitter gourd, and discovering with joy that every single part of the banana tree, from flower to trunk, can and should be eaten.
After years on the defensive, the city is palpably more confident and young Kolkatans are not as desperate to get out as they once were.
“Delhi is a savage place; Bombay is too blasé,” says the math teacher/rock musician, adding that many of his former students have returned in recent years. “Calcutta is more forgiving. Here, you can be who you are and not have to give an explanation.”
The week before I leave, I take a trip to Burra Bazaar, the noisy neighbourhood just above BBD Bagh. It has always been one of my favourite parts of Kolkata, a warren of twisting alleyways crammed with shops, sidewalk stalls, and crumbling tenements, just behind the grand buildings of the Raj.
India can be alienating at times. It is an unashamedly curious country and wherever you look, there is always someone looking back. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter; it’s all part of being a tourist. But sometimes you wish, for one horribly self-conscious second, that you could pass unnoticed.
Sure enough, Burra Bazaar is all stares and gentle yet insistent fingers pressing me onwards, pushing me to one side or trying to pull me toward them. Just as it is all becoming too much, I have a moment of transcendence, the kind that normally only a brush with death or months meditating under a Bodhi tree produce.
The street begins to glow. The air clears and turns syrupy and as the clamour of commerce fades, the crowd appears to move in slow motion. I start to notice faces. There are the broad cheeks and braids of Bhutia men and Tibetan housewives, the teak complexions of Assam and the eastern Asian features of Nagaland. There are bearded faces from Lucknow and Kashmir, and the smooth features of Marwadi financers and Tamil spice traders. There are Bihari porters and Punjabi entrepreneurs, Bengali bookkeepers and Chinese shoemakers, Afghani moneylenders and Anglo-Indian families, here for the holidays, laden with gifts to take “home.”
Neither observer nor the observed, I finally realize that I too am a part of this melting pot. They – we - are all Kolkatans now. Like everyone in this sea of different faces, of different races, my sense of belonging need not depend on genetic inheritance, family history, birth or residency. City of flux and eternal crossroads, Kolkata can be home because I choose to call it home. Open to all-comers and all possibilities, visibly more confident than it has been for decades, Kolkata is mine and I am convinced it is happy I want to stay.
Originally Published in Destinasian