Kolkata 2.0

And here I am again visiting the first capital of the British India empire, twelve years later. A lot seemed to have happened to me and then of course to Calcutta. The city that remained the capital till 1911 when the British shifted the Capital to Delhi and roughly 100 years later changed its name from Calcutta to Kolkata. While Park Street retains its glory, the older parts of Kolkata seem almost fraught with neglect and closer to decay while the newer parts of New Town and Salt Lake are nothing short of magnificent. Teeming with history or historical context at every turn Cal, as it is still fondly referred to is beautiful in its own way. While I tired of the almost crumbling past architecture sometimes dotted and punctuated by some stellarly conserved pieces of architecture, I was smitten by the newer parts of the city all equipped with its swanky condominiums and staggeringly gorgeous buildings of the future. Landing into the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport we were welcomed into a new Calcutta that was plying its age old yellow ambassador taxis with the new age Uber in line. Says a lot about a city that lets its past be just as it moves into a glitzy future. Jumping into the yellow ambassador that looks oh so cute and possibly putting the joy of the city on the street we battled the streets to finally get to the most famous street of the city, Park Street. Passing the Victoria memorial gardens made the drive very pretty, but passing the Indian Museum and the Oberoi I was quite shocked! Chowringhee lane so popular in old history books and movies is today so boisterous and literally hidden in a cacophony of a marketplace, a busy road and lots and lots of people. The Park Street I remembered was very changed, renovated rather to every bit that I could only recognise the branding of Flurry’s and the Park Hotel, but the rest of the street, very swanky, with LMNOQ and Burma Burma, Park Street is super cosmopolitan today. Kusum Rolls, Rollick ice creams, Haldirams and the fuchkas at nearby Russell Street, the Vardhman Bazaar retain some of the old world charm. This world famous street directs traffic one way in the morning hours and totally the other way in the remaining hours. That was quite something.

On another day when we tried to find a yellow taxi, the driver asked us where we needed to go. Tagore mansion was our destination, which he didn’t seem to know or care about, Raja Katta I said indicating the area, even that he didn’t seem to register, then he exclaimed, “Calcutta kya number hain?” I had no clue what we was talking about, phone dialling code I thought, but it wasn’t, he said, “Calcutta aath ya kya hain?” it took me a while to realize that he meant the pin code. Never did I ever hear anyone ask me for a pin code to detect a place save for the postman. That I thought was pretty incredible, unless the chap was an ex-postman! And then when we finally got to Tagore mansion getting through the Rabindra Sarani and all the mess of the city’s older streets, the mansion gates were firmly shut with absolutely no explanation. If we hadn’t seen another group of tourists waiting I would’ve been really confused as google did not account for the closure. The neighbours also didn’t seem to know. They simply guessed that it must be closed for Saraswati Puja is tomorrow, maybe they are cleaning and they simply shrugged their shoulders. Well all seems to be okay in love and the city of joy! Having had enough of the old world charm and it’s notoriously decaying streets we ventured into the Salt Lake City and were charmed by its swanky condominiums and luxury hotels, a little ahead and into New Town we were shocked by the planned vistas and a city metro that ventured into yet unbuilt areas. Ofcourse here we were treated to scaled replicas of almost all the wonders in the world.

Calcutta is a wonder of the world in itself, while many call it a city with a soul, I find it as a city with a lot of history, layered history. And the stalwarts that the city has produced only just make one exceedingly proud. As a capital of the British India till 1911, Calcutta boasts of a bunch of colonial buildings that are being restored by the dozen and painted a gleaming white, so beautiful. On the other hand dotting the landscape is the Howrah Station (the number of platforms it boasts of is insane) and the mighty Hooghly River that forms a part of the Ganges Delta. Beautiful clothes, think Sabyasachi and Anamika Khanna have their bearings in Cal, gorgeous sweets, rosogulla is a given and a couple of Nobel Prize winners makes Calcutta such an indelible part of India. While I always felt so jarred by the feel of the city the merits of this city of joy is out there for all to see. With city walks and bungalows all done up with a brush of history, Kolkata is a shining jewel in the crown of India. Mamta Banerjee the present leader of the city lives humbly, on literally the other side of town the Tollygunge Club boasts of a spectacular history quite like none other laced with a colonial legacy. When Calcutta was capital the British laid siege through economy as the East India Company. Later the atrocities were started and also largely felt. While Christmas on Park Street is one of the beautiful remnants of the colonial past, the interpolation of the old and the new is keenly felt. The apartment 42 and the Victoria memorial areas were my favourite parts of Calcutta, Park Street seems too modernised from what remained in my memory, this time.

A city like no other, it jarrs as much as it endears, it’s decay just as much it’s joy, and it’s new just as much as it’s old!