How do you get to know a city better? Is it in pieces in the form of little pockets of spaces? Or in the tales and stories the city produces, either directly or obliquely? These questions were my constant companion during my time in Kolkata.
Dawn in Kolkata is heralded by the music of the temple gongs, the Azan of the muezzin, the clanging of the trams, and the Rickshaw pullers’ tinkling handbells, and the city awakes. The boatmen and the trains begin to ferry the millions who live in the villages and tiny towns on the west bank across the River Hoogly into Howrah and Sealdah Stations, carrying in fresh flowers, fruits, and vegetables wholesale markets. And the office goers hurry to their place of work. A city in the repose of 14 million quickly expands to a teeming metropolis of 17 million.
There is a story in everything
Every city has its art galleries, museums, places of worship, but Kolkata has some many stories woven into each stone. A visit to the Great Banyan tree at the Botanical Gardens tells you about the men who created this amazing 109-hectare property and brought plants from across the globe to study and research. The first tea Bush from China was brought here to see its growth probability in the Indian subcontinent! You even come across a Baobab from Africa!
Despite this, most travellers overlook Kolkata for cities rated “glamorous”. Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur attract the crowd due to their extended publicity and well-known sights, imagery and smells, thanks to today’s Instagrammers.
The famous Park Street
The Belvedere house lawns experienced the infamous duel between Sir Philip Francis and Sir Warren Hastings. Was it over a lady? The gothic tomb of the South Park Street Cemetery is home to many spirits. Why does Charles Dickens’ son reside there? Who was his best mate? How did the poet Landor’s sweetheart die? Burial street, which is renamed Park Street, is downtown Kolkata. Bustling with renowned restaurants and bars such as Trinca’s, Mocambo, Peter Cat, Olly Pub, Flury’s, Oxford Book Shop, Bengal Club, Russell Exchange Auctioneers FreeMasons Hall, Kwality, to name a few, with their idiosyncratic tales are symbolic landmarks. The street that was once a deer-park is a popular place today.
The White Kolkata
The Majestic Victoria Memorial, home to one of the world’s largest Oil paintings and a fantastic collection of Company School Artists, including the Daniel’s, will astound you with its grandeur, however, the story of a spectral Angel. St. John’s Church premises house Job Charnock’s tomb, aka the “founder of Calcutta” and to give him company lies a rather charismatic Begum Francis Johnson. The Painting of the Last Supper by J. Zoffany is a story in itself!
Ocean of multiculturalism and pluralism
Move onwards to the Synagogues that speak about the thriving and extremely successful Jewish Community that made Calcutta their home. The multiculturalism and pluralism to this City of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Jews, Armenians, Portuguese, French, British, Chinese are like peeling an onion and revealing their stories in their Architecture, Cuisine, Culture and festivals. All prospering on the Banks of the mighty Hoogly, which winds her way towards the Bay of Bengal.
As much as I enjoyed these expected thoughts, what fascinated me more were the spaces that I unintentionally discovered and the narratives they revealed to me.
Art at the centre stage
Kolkata is a metropolis where art can’t be separated from its soul. Hang around the Kolkata Centre of Creativity, Experimenter Gallery, Ahuja Museum of Art, or Cima Gallery, Weavers Studio, Sasha, and you will see yourself. The galleries in Kolkata have more to contribute than art- drawing collectively various art exhibitions and shows. The city has already become a strong fixture on the international art circuit. Stroll from one gallery to the next – some nibbles here, a talk show there – seeing the art and meeting the artists, and being seen yourself.
The yellow taxi culture
Despite the record-breaking taxi strikes, you can’t ignore the appeal of Kolkata yellow taxis culture. These taxis are cool lifestyle items for both Kolkatians and travellers. People don’t just want to get from A to B as quickly as possible, they want to do it in comfort and less expensively. You can see some taxi fans on them. So, make a part of your trip on these yellow taxis before they phased out the market.
And, City highlights for you
A visit to my City of Secrets must include The Magical Marble Palace, Jorasanko:The House of the Tagores, Potters Village, India Coffee House, College Street, Wholesale Flower and Fruit Market, Sir Stewart Hogg Market, St John’s Church and St Paul’s Cathedral, Magen David Synagogue, Old Currency Building, Town Hall, High Court, Metcalf Hall, Belvedere House, Horticultural Gardens, Botanical Gardens, Gurusaday Museum of Textile, Indian Museum, Birla Planetarium, Royal Calcutta Race Course, The Tollygunge Gymkhana / Golf Club, South Park Cemetery, A cruise on the Hoogly, Belur Math, Dakshineswar Temple, Kalighat Temple and The house of Mother Theresa.
As the sun sets, nightlife in this bustling city refines itself to social gatherings at clubs, theatres, restaurants and street corner chats. The city never sleeps. It slumbers.
A week in my Calcutta will be a week full of memories, a week of fun, laughter and bonhomie, a week of secrets and stories, and a promise to return.
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A wine connoisseur, an active member of Calcutta Wine Club, visits Jazz and Classical Rocks and an entrepreneur curating and promoting Indian textiles work.