Romancing Kolkata

Romancing Kolkata


Romancing Kolkata

It was a humid December afternoon when I landed in Kolkata. As the yellow taxi made its way through labyrinthine roads, I tried to take a deep breath and search for the Kolkata I had imagined from Tagore poetry, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland or Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire.

I strained my ears for Rabindra Sangeet, bits and pieces of which I had listened to, on the Doordarshan of my childhood. Why, I even looked for the Kolkata of Saurav Ganguly, with the distinct voice of Geoffrey Boycott — “He’s the Prince of Calcoottar” ringing in my ears!
It became an obsession over the next few days to look for the familiar sights of the famed city I had only seen on television and read about so far. And I found them as well. First, as we walked along the wide footpaths near the Victoria Memorial and the extremely well-curated museum inside. Then, as I walked along Sudder Street and took a turn to enter Mirza Ghalib Street, I chanced on a gramophone playing a melody I couldn’t recognise. My mind was transported to a far-off place and I couldn’t shake myself off, but a hand-pulled cart (another Kolkata image stamped on my mind) passed by, and I had to make way. I even saw the little board on a building compound (Armenian College) that indicated that novelist of the Victorian era, William Thackeray, was born here!

Walking the streets

I repeated the addresses on Chowringhee Lane, even as images from 36, Chowri-nghee Lane, another film I watched as a kid on Doordarshan, kept coming back to my mind.
Later, as I walked to Park Street and stepped into Flurys, I knew I was entering another venerated Kolkata space. The tea house was started way back in 1927 by a Swiss couple, and everyone who has grown up in Kolkata has a favourite Flurys memory, it seems!
My Kolkata quest also took me to Nahoum’s, a Jewish bakery in New Market, which was started in 1902, and moved to the present address in 1916.

You throw a stone in Kolkata, and it is bound to hit a heritage spot. I gazed at the Writers’ Building, where the clerks of the East India Company once sat, I took in the amazing details of Esplanade Mansion, the GPO building, and even walked into the Eden Gardens. Howrah happened and the picture-postcard-pretty Vidyasagar Sethu.

Walking on Muktaram Babu Street with crumbling buildings and shuttered windows, I stopped near Marble Palace. The mansion was built in the 19th century by merchant Raja Rajendra Mullick. A guide showed us around the palace, parroting the names of painters and their works, and pointing out design elements, sculptures and objects of art — in the manner of guides I had seen before, speaking on auto mode.

At Jorasanko

But there was one important pilgrimage to be made. And, so off to Jorasanko Thakurbari I went. Finally! Rabindra Sangeet in the background, the beautiful red exterior, its lovely green shuttered windows, wonderful inner courtyard...

We walked from room to room, taking in the details — the floors, slatted windows, the robes of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the many paintings, the ceiling, terraces with intricate metal work, the red pillars on the exterior and the white interior pillars... Did he stare out of this window? Did he stand on this terrace? Did he write his poems here, I asked myself as I walked from one room to another. 

Jorasanko Thakurbari was where the great poet was born and breathed his last. As I walked along the terraces with the cool floors, I felt as if the very air was heavy with poetry, ideas and musings of the poet.

Coffee & more

My thirst for the Kolkata I imagined also took me to College Street, and the Coffee House, apart from the home of Subhash Chandra Bose, a portion of which is now a museum. At Coffee House, Kolkata came alive. I could feel the magic in the air — this was the hub of Kolkata’s brightest minds. This was where the quintessential adda (hangout) happened. This was the haunt of Tagore and Bose and Ray and every other prominent Bengali one could think of.

I had finished my coffee and shingara, and it was time to leave, but I knew I had somewhat found the Kolkata I had looked for. Back home in Bengaluru was where I really romanced Kolkata, as I watched the Ray classic, Charulata. Jorasankho was coming alive in a manner it didn’t when I was actually there. On my laptop, ‘Ami chini go chini tomare o go bideshini’, Tagore’s verse sung in Kishore Kumar’s voice, played on loop. “I know you well, oh my lady from afar,” the city itself seemed to tell me!

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