Kolkata has had a blue and white makeover. Blame the state chief minister Mamata Banerjee – the colour combination is a favourite of hers. At night, the street lights look like sticks of peppermint candy and even the bridges are tricked out in blue fairy lights. A city once known for creaking infrastructure now has fancy flyovers.
‘In Kolkata, babies will soon be born coloured blue and white,’ said Kolkata-born Ramanuj Ghosh, the 31-year-old tour guide of Calcutta Walks, who is leading the early morning stroll through the city’s British colonial office district.
Ghosh’s comic remark transported me back to the Kolkata of my childhood, where Jyoti Basu, the Communist chief minister between 1977 and 2000, was lampooned with a pun. Back then, the city was characterised by brutal electricity rationing that meant homes went without electricity for six to eight hours at a stretch. A play on the minister’s name went Jyoti elo, Jyoti galo, meaning ‘the light came and the light went’.
That morning, Ghosh was irreverent in a manner that made me feel I had never left the city – even though I was returning properly after 18 years.
Kolkata is the Havana of Asia, owing its grandeur to being the capital of the British Raj in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Kolkata of the 1970s and ’80s did not merely live off its past glory so much as party and picnic against a backdrop of crumbling mansions. In no other city is eating on the street by rich and poor such a widely observed ritual.
But the city also suffers from an epic image problem. Even the eternally kind travel writer Jan Morris depicted it as a ‘city pursued by nightmares, chaos always at its heels’. Garth Davis’ wonderfully paced, ultimately uplifting Oscar-nominated film Lion is only the latest in a series of bad reviews the city has received. The movie features harrowing scenes of street gangs that kidnap children. As a boy, the protagonist of this true story, Saroo Brierley, ended up at Kolkata’s gargantuan railway station being pursued by Fagin-like characters.
Brierley – portrayed by Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel in the film – has returned from Australia 15 times in the past five years to visit the Kolkata adoption agency that gave him a second life in Tasmania. Kolkata brings back a lot of memories for Brierley. ‘The hardships I went through, the situations I was placed in, and the possibilities of those situations becoming so hostile,’ he told local newspaper The Telegraph. But he relishes every trip back. ‘It is a great place to come. The buildings, the Hooghly river, the Howrah train station…I always visit those places.’ Likewise, every one of the half a dozen travellers on the walk I was on – from Pakistan, the UK and Hong Kong – said Kolkata was their favourite city in India.
Minutes into the walk, we were in front of a building on the crossing of Esplanade Row and Old Court House Street that looked like it was last painted half a century ago. It had housed the city’s first Italian restaurant in the 19th century, and somehow, the nameplate, Pederico Peliti, still adorns the building. We were soon gaping at the cream and pink wave-like art nouveau exterior of Esplanade Mansion, built in 1910. It looks over Raj Bhavan, the governor’s mansion set on 11 hectares, built in 1803 by Lord Wellesley in the design of Kedleston Hall, the Curzon family home in the UK county of Derbyshire. The provincial governor today is only a titular head so his perks seem excessive.
At times, the walking tour felt like being in the midst of street theatre. The Puck-like Ghosh pointed to a banner of a cultural festival organised by the union of the
Union Bank of India. Nearby, the morning’s copy of local Bengali newspaper Ganashakti was pasted onto a bus stand for commuters to read. We stopped at the deserted General Post Office, with its giant white rotunda, to buy the water of the Ganges, which has religious significance for millions of Hindus, but is inexplicably sold by government edict at the post office gift shop. Our final stop was St John’s Church to admire a blasphemous Last Supper by German artist Johann Zoffany who had settled scores in 18th century Kolkata by depicting a local auctioneer who had ridiculed his work as Judas and a transvestite police magistrate of that time as Mary Magdalene. It was beautifully restored in 2010.
Our walk ended with an unscheduled stop at a building on SN Banerjee Road that looked as if it had been condemned. The walls were covered with cobwebs so large that they looked like installation art by Jackson Pollock. The staircases creaked as if about to give way; the higher floors had been abandoned. As we were leaving, we met the jolly proprietor of an electrical components company on the ground floor. Jayanta Dasgupta was the grandson of the person who bought three businesses as the British were departing, including what he described quaintly as ‘a creamery and a piggery’; an eveningwear company run by a designer called Doris Smith; and a dry cleaner. Dasgupta led us around as if he were showing off Downton Abbey until we were outside the garage at the back where the family Cadillac had once been. It was surrounded by a car-sized heap of rubbish. We parted ways, promising to meet when he visited Hong Kong en route to an electronics fair in Shenzhen.
By then we were late for lunch with another Kolkata character, Bomti Iyengar, who organises walks and boat rides for visiting tourists, ending with a meal at his high-ceilinged apartment-slash-art gallery. His guests that day were an English couple and a Singaporean, who had visited Kolkata four times and was already planning his next trip. Offered a drink, on a whim I asked for a pink gin, which I had been reading about in an account of a 1960s visit to the city by British author Simon Winchester. Iyengar’s family waiter instantly produced one with just a hint of Angostura bitters. I had never met Iyengar before, but we discovered our late fathers had been colleagues in the 1970s.
The remainder of the day was the work of a Márquezian magical realist.
Later that afternoon, on our way to visit the studio of an artisanal saree and stole maker (whose traditional house is presided over by a demented screeching parrot), Iyengar cajoled his way past the surly guard at the entrance of the Kolkata YWCA, which my mother, who died 12 years ago, headed for three decades. I found myself outside what had been her office door. Feeling like a schoolboy again, I belatedly repented having phoned her at work so often, sometimes after tiffs with my elder brothers, but often for no reason at all.
That night, I joined friends at Bengali restaurant Bohemian. The unpretentious chef, Joymalya Banerjee, a keen Grateful Dead and Beatles fan, produced one of the best meals I have eaten in a decade and then came by guests’ tables to chat. Kolkata has lost little of its eccentric bonhomie – or its capacity to surprise.
Need to know
Calcutta Walks runs a range of walking tours, ranging from exploring neighbourhoods to colonial architecture.
Bomti Iyengar organises walks and boat trips down the Hooghly River at sunset. +91 98 3131 4990, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nouvelle Bengali cuisine. +91 33 66064241
6 Ballygunge Place
Bengali restaurant. +91 9830353881
The Park, Kolkata
In the heart of town with a contemporary look.
ITC Sonar, Kolkata
A haven away from the bustle of the city.
Sienna store and café
Sienna works with potters and weavers to help them make their skills more marketable. The café serves creative salads, sandwiches and dips.
Browse cupboards bursting with stoles and sarees with modern touches on traditional Bengali weaving patterns.