My Kolkata Kahani by Rekha Karmakar

Kahaani of Kolkata
(I haven't been able to proof what the typist has done fully but wanted to share this quickly - KK)

No, this is not a sequel to Sujoy Ghosh’s recent film Kahaani. I don’t have the expertise or talent of Sujoy Ghosh to portray the humdrum scenes of Kolkata in a larger-than- life style and thus evoke the sentiments of the Bengalis in general. Nor do I have the charm of Vidya Balan to give this post a punch and enhance one’s zest for life.

This is simply the version of one who was neither born nor brought up in the city but happened to settle down in Kolkata at a mature age of thirty by a stroke of fate. As a result, her opinions may differ from those of die-hard fans of Kolkata – an example of the blind men and an elephant, the timeless parable of differing perceptions and perspectives.

My connection with Kolkata, however, started at a tender age of my childhood. As the child of a ‘probashi’ Bengali residing in Delhi, it was compulsory for us to visit West Bengal at least once a year if not more. Though our final destination was Diamond Harbour where my paternal grandparents lived, we usually stopped at Kolkata for a day or two at my uncle’s house.

Whenever we went there, my aunt invariably took us to meet her people at College Square, where they had settled down after partition. However much I might have loved their  pampering, I was scared of the narrow alleys, hackneyed buses and the mosquitoes of Kolkata.

I was probably born at a wrong time in the history of India as well as of West Bengal. Born in 1947, I did not have to face the travails of partition directly as my previous generation had to. But I felt the after–tremor of the catastrophe which was in itself quite devastating.

Whenever we passed through Howrah and Sealdah stations, I used to be overwhelmed by seeing the refugees staying in platforms. Each family occupied approximate ten metres of space. They lived, cooked and slept in that open space making it difficult for the passengers to walk. This situation continued for quite a few years. Gradually they took shelter in places like Jadavpur, Garia, Behala, Baghajatin and Tollygaunge which were supposed to be in the outskirt of Kolkata at that time.

All these left an indelible mark on my impressionable mind. May be contemporaries in Kolkata did not feel it as much as I did because if you keep on seeing the same scene almost every day, you become more or less immune to it. As human tendency is, I wanted to avoid these disturbing scenarios and run away from them.

Misfortunes continued to plague Kolkata for quite some time even after partition. Unemployment was at its peak. Strikes and lock-outs were common events. Young men spent their time in idle gossip sitting on some neighbour’s ‘rock’ or verandah. New words were coined in Bengali e.g. ‘rockbaz chele’(a boy spending idle time on someone’s rock/verandah), ‘addabaj chele’(a boy wasting time in useless adda/gossip)

Then came the Naxalete movement. Murders and arrests were everyday occurrences. As if all these were not enough, in 1971 after the liberation of Bangladesh, came another influx of refugees from Bangladesh. It is not that I was a direct witness to all these or was in any way influenced by  these happenings but I read about them in newspapers and heard from relatives and friends staying in Kolkata .Several books written on the partition and its aftermath also moved me deeply.

In 1973, I left India for abroad after I got married. I came back in 1979 to settle permanently at Kolkata.

When I started living in Kolkata on a regular basis, I began to discover the brighter side of the city. Moreover, the problems of Kolkata too had subsided to some extent.

Very often we would go to Park Street for dinner or lunch. Sometimes, we would take our son Kalyan to Alipore zoo or go to Rabindra Sadan theatre to watch a play or the live performance of a ‘kathak’ dance show. We also started knowing the elites and the Marwaris, who were mostly my husband’s patients. My initial dislike for Kolkata started giving in to my fondness for the city.

After a few years, I took up a teaching assignment in a college (under Calcutta University) at Howrah, which was at a stone’s throw from Howrah station. I travelled everyday from South Kolkata (Tollygunge) to Howrah by minibus, which took me one and a half hour while going and the same amount of time on my way back. While travelling from one end of the city to the other end, I came across all the major tourist spots.

During my bus journeys, I mastered the art of taking a nap, keeping my head straight, without dozing off on the next passenger. Every day, I would hear the conductor blurting out the names of the tourist sites in my half-sleep and half –wake state. This went on for twenty five long years. As a result, whenever someone named a tourist spot, the picture of the bus stop came to my mind first. Then came the vision of the actual place to my mind.

On my route from Tollygaunge to Howrah, I passed by these tourist sites every day. The most famous tourist spot after Tollygunge is Kalighat Temple. The conductor would enthusiastically get down and shout at the top of his voice ‘Kalighat, kalighat’. They do not believe in adding a suffix or prefix to a name. Kalighat Temple, the oldest kali temple of Kolkata is five minutes’ walk from the main road. Many people feel that the name ‘Kolkata’ has been derived from the word ‘kalighat’. Tuesdays and Saturdays are the most auspicious days for worshipping Goddess kali. It is said that there are ornaments worth crores of rupees on the idol of Goddess kali.

Ekta Kapoor, Vidya Balan and many other luminaries of Bollywood are its regular visitors.

After Kalighat Temple, the most famous tourist site is ‘Victoria Memorial Hall’. The conductors of all the buses would get down here and shout in chorus ‘Victoria, Victoria’. Thank God Queen Victoria is not around or she would have been shocked to death for the second time hearing a petty native conductor calling her by her first name not even adding ‘Her majesty’ or ‘Queen’ to it .Jokes apart, ‘Victorial Memorial Hall’ was the brainchild of Lord Curzon. It is an iconic building built with white marble. So much so that many people call it the ‘Tajmahal of Kolkata’. The building is surrounded by sprawling gardens on all sides. The archive inside is a treasure trove. A few months back, Queen Victoria’s piano, on which she once played, was repaired and put on display.

The most interesting part of the building is the little dancing fairy on its top. Sometimes the fairy would stop dancing and the authorities would take all measures to set it right. Every day I would look at it through the window of the bus to watch its progress.

Then suddenly one day the little fairy would put on her Cindrella shoes and start rotating slowly over the dome of the monumental building . I have not been able to track its movement for the last few years as I do not go that way much.

 The next stop is Park Street. The conductors call it ‘Parkees Street’. A lane that goes inside from the main road is called Park Street.

It is lined by restaurants on both sides of the road and is the ultimate destination of the foodies. ‘Peter Cat’, ‘Mocambo’, ‘Bar-b-cue’,‘Oasis’, the newly renovated ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Flurrys’ are a few of them. Heritage buildings along with the modern buildings give Park Street a fashionable and sophisticated look. If you go farther you will come across the famous ‘St.Xaviers College’, which has now become autonomous.

After Park Street, the bus would pass by the famous ‘Indian Museum’ where I once saw mummies transported from Egypt.

After this the bus passes by ’The Grand Hotel’ which is really ‘grand’ as its name suggests. Next to it is the bus-stop of New Market. A road, from the main street, takes you straight to New Market. This market, made up of quaint little shops, is under one single roof. You can find everything here - from a pin to an elephant. Quite often I have lost my way in the maze of the shops. Lot of malls have come up around this market but New Market has not lost its charm. It is still a major tourist attraction.
The next destination is Esplanade or ‘bus adda/terminus’. The buses line up here for long destination trips. ’Sahid Minar’, next to it, can be compared to ‘Qutub Minar’ of New Delhi though it is much shorter than the one in New Delhi.

Built earlier, this Minar was later dedicated to the Shahids/martyrs. Many political meetings are held in the ground surrounding it . Whenever the crowd swells, the leader concerned pats his/her own back and feels like saying ‘I am the lord of what I survey!’.

After Esplanade, the bus turns left and passes by the statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the famous Eden Garden Cricket Ground. Then it enters Dalhousie Square/B.B.D. Bagh. It is also colloquially called ‘office para’ as this area was specially developed by the British as an office complex. Buildings after buildings, with red bricks, were built to house offices. Nothing has changed since then. This area is unmistakably British and goes to show that Kolkata was once the capital of the British Raj. Sometimes I wonder how many buildings the British built! Poor souls! They must not have ever thought of leaving this country and handing over everything to the natives.

G.P.O or the General Post Office is one of the most important buildings of this area . The big clock over G.P.O reminds me of Big Ben of London. But never ever think of setting your clock right looking at the clock over G.P.O because half of the time it does not work.

Writers Building next to it, is West Bengal’s seat of power. It was the bastion of Left Front Government for more than three decades. Now the Government of Trinamul Congress is ruling the state from here.

Burrabazar is the next bus stop. Every day business worth crores of rupees is transacted in the dingy shops of the over congested alleys of Burrabazar.

Then from far I could see the Howrah Bridge, glistening in the sun, standing as tall as ever. Built by the British, it has become the symbol of the city. Though another bridge has been built parallel to it, the old Howrah Bridge still carries most of the load.

Finally, the bus crosses over the bridge and reaches ‘Howrah Station’ bus-stop. All the conductors as well as the driver get off the bus to sip some black tea, smoke and gossip. It would wait at least for ten minutes no matter what. Seasoned passengers like me would not utter a word to hurry them up but the amateur ones would fight with them without producing any effect though.

After the break, the bus would move for a few minutes and then again stop near the subway of the local trains. The conductors would get down from the buses and shout their respective destinations. If they had their way, they would have dragged the passengers by hand to their buses. After the ten minutes’ scheduled wait near the subway, the bus would run for a few minutes and drop me over the middle of the flyover. I would climb down about sixty stairs from above the flyover and enter the college huffing and puffing. Now I hope, you realize, why I visualize the bus stops first when someone names a tourist spot rather than the actual place.

Quite often I had to go to Calcutta University at College Street Campus on different errands such as receiving answer scripts of C.U examination for correction, collecting mark sheets of students or attending seminars. I used to take a bus from the college, which passed through a very crowded street of Kolkata.

The first time I saw Calcutta University, I was very surprised to find it situated in a crowded locality and also having very little space. I remembered Delhi University from where I had passed out, having a campus that extended for miles and had tall palm trees and beds of roses. Later I realized that was the difference between a State university and a Central university – the difference between the children of a poor dad and a rich dad. Calcutta University’s academic excellence was, however, recognized recently by NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) and it was accredited a very high grade.

The rows of book stalls , in front of the university gate, from an integral part of the area. Book shops after book shops occupy both sides of the main road. Name any book and you will find it here. It is a book worm’s paradise.

I cannot resist here the temptation of narrating an experience that I had in this book-street. Before my retirement, I found out that book was missing from the list of my borrowed books. The librarian said that I would have to pay ten times the price if I did not replace the book. So one fine morning, I went to College Street book shops to try my luck as the book was out of print as well as out of syllabus. On my asking about the book, the shop-keeper asked me wait for a while. As I waited, I noticed a flurry of activities. The whole of College Street was alerted. Within half an hour, a man came and gave me a moth eaten second hand book. I was amazed at the excellent network of the College Street book Bazar in finding an out of print book so soon.

As you pass by the book stalls and go farther up, you will come across the prestigious Presidency College, which is more than one and a half centuries old. I have always been enthralled by the magnificent and iconic building of the college with a porch in the front. A few modern buildings have been added to the campus to cope up with the expansion of the college. Many worthy sons of India, including our first President Dr Rajendra Prasad as well as the present President Pranab Mukherjee, were students of this college.

And The Knife (OK I added this line ;) KK )

Presidency College has recently been granted the status of a University after a long struggle. It is now called ‘Presidency University’ instead of ‘Presidency College’.

In the vicinity of this college, you will also find the state-of- the- art – building of ‘Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management’(IISWBM), India’s first business school as well as a pioneer in the field.

No story of Kolkata can ever be complete without a reference to its underground metro railway, which is Kolkata’s pride and India’s first metro railway.

When I came back to Kolkata in 1979 from abroad, I found that the whole city was dug up for laying tracks of underground metro railways. Trench-like tunnels, with mud heaped on both sides, were common sights for many years. In 1984, a short route of the metro rail from Bhowanipore to Esplanade started functioning.

Finally in 1995, metro rail started operating from Tollygunge to Dumdum. I remember that I travelled from Tollygunge to Esplanade on the second day of its operation. I was thrilled to find myself so many feet below the surface. I felt like little Alice who followed a rabbit in a tunnel and found herself in a wonderland. Kolkatans have by now got used to this mode of transport and do not even think once while entering or going out of the metro tunnel.

In 2010, metro rail was extended from Tollygunge to New Garia. This time the railway track was laid over high pillars above Tolly’s mullah so there was no digging of the area.

People of the Tollygunge–Garia area went mad with excitement when it was first introduced in 2010. They went on rooftops, climbed trees to wave at the passengers of the train. Luckily for me, one of the stations named ‘Masterda Surya Sen’ station is just on the other side of the road of our building. Though my sons have left the city and I do not go to work anymore, I always feel very proud and happy whenever I go out taking a metro from ‘Mastarda Surya Sen’ station.
Let me now say something about the people of Kolkata and their social life as a city is known by its people.

Kolkatans are on the whole good natured’ bhadralok’ type (gentleman type) people. They are not a gun-toting tribe - that is you will not see guns jutting out of their hip pockets. But they will not bat an eyelid while assassinating your moral character. More concerned about what is cooking in other people’s pot rather than in their own, they amply justify nineteeth century British novelist Jane Austen’s remark ‘Neighbours are our voluntary spies’ ( God, please, help  me from the Kolkata fans!)

Jokes apart, people all over the world are touched by the warmth of the people of this city. The Kolkatans will go to any length to help you. You need not necessarily be Vidya Balan of Kahaani to get their support and love.

The most remarkable characteristic of the Kolkatans is their enthusiasm coupled with spontaneous joy for life. This enthusiasm manifests itself in the celebration of their festivals - the most important one being Durga puja.

Come Durga puja , the whole city will let loose its hair and celebrate it for five days in such a way as if there is no tomorrow. Chanting of mantras, smell of flowers, burning of incense shicks, sounds of ‘dhaak’ (a wooden table-like musical instrument specially played on during Durga pujas), blaring of mikes and constant chatter of the people fill the air.

Idols of Goddess Durga are examples of exquisite craftsmanship and artistic capabilities - only to be immersed in the river on ‘Dashami’, the last day of the puja.

Every one attires oneself in new cloth. Food stalls and restaurants become chock-a-block. Kolkatans celebrate Durga puja mostly by pandal hopping - that is going from one pandal to another to see the idols. Kolkata police has been doing a fine job in controlling the crowd for the last few years.

People from different countries come to Kolkata during Durga puja though some people find these few days very noisy and chaotic. This is what happens. You do not appreciate your own things . When the Spanish celebrate their ‘la tomatina’ festival by throwing tomatoes at each other or chase a bull to death or vice versa, we all go ‘ga ga’ over it. But these same people will go to any length criticizing their own rituals. This is the fallacy of life.

Not only Durga puja, Christmas is also celebrated with the same gusto and fervour. Twenty fifth December In Kolkata is also known as  ‘borodin/’lond day’ meaning days start being longer from that day.

There is hardly any shop in the city which does not put up Christmas decorations, a Christmas tree or a fat- bellied red coloured Father Christmas. All houses and buildings are decorated with coloured bulbs as well.

New Market smells of freshly baked cakes. Cheaper cakes are also available in locality shops as one must buy a cake no matter what.

There is a small church in our area where you can see a serpentine queue of people waiting to go inside.

Park Street is the right place to be on Christmas. Roads, trees, restaurants and hotels are spruced up with decorations. There is so much crowd in the area that it becomes difficult to walk or find a place in the restaurants.

Last year (2011) , I was in Mumbai during Christmas with my son K.  Bandra, where he stays, was decorated for the occasion as it is mainly a Christian dominated area. But other pockets of Mumbai seemed oblivious of the fact that it was Christmas whereas in Kolkata each and every one celebrates Christmas irrespective of one’s religion. It clearly shows the British legacy as Kolkata was the capital of the Raj for a long time.

Food is another passion of the foodaholic Bongs.  Moghlai, Bengali, Chinese or Continental - name any type of food, you will get the best cuisine here at a very reasonable price. Restaurants, having fusion Bengali food, have also opened up. One such fusion food restaurant is ‘Bohemian’ opened by chef Joy at Bondel Gate.
Egg, chicken and mutton rolls along with ‘Bengalicised’ chowmein rustled up by pavement vendors are the most favourite food of the city dwellers as well as of the outsiders. It is the same with the Bengali ‘misthis’/sweets. People say that Bengali sweets are ‘pure evil’ but at the same time they also admit that they are wonderful to eat.

Retail FDI might have found it difficult to enter West Bengal but pizza, pasta, puffs, KFC, Macdonald’s have already got entry visa here and the young Kolkatans  gorge on these food looking with disdain at their home cooked Bengali food.

When my two sons come to Kolkata, the first thing they do is to make up a list of food, in their minds, that they must consume during their stay. They plan their lunch, dinner and evening snacks according to the food that they have decided to have. I look at them in amazement wondering if they have been living in famine stricken places for all these months.

Kolkata has come a long way since its early post–independence days. Most of the refugees from East Pakistan have by now settled down. The divide between the ‘bangals’ (refugees from East Pakistan) and the ‘ghotis’ (original Kolkatans) is also not that great.

Since the last decade, Kolkata has been doing quite well due to the growing economy though there is no scope for complacency. Much is desired even now.
Shopping malls, multiplexes and good restaurants are common sights these days. Smart young men with backpacks and young women wearing trendy dresses can be seen frequenting these malls, speaking English fluently.

IT hub in sector V of Saltlake is doing well. Quite a few projects of metro railways and flyovers are going on for fast transit.

A shoppers’ paradise, availability of excellent food at a reasonable price,
innumerable heritage sites, fast transit due to metro railways, warmth  of the people and a moderate climate – all these have made Kolkata a great place to visit. Quite a few tourist sites around Kolkata e.g. Diamond Harbour, Kaakdip, Bakhkhali,  Sundarban, Tarapith,Digha sea beach,  and the hills in Darjeeling are worth visiting too.

Lastly, I would like to end this post by hailing  Goddess Kali, the presiding  deity of the city , by saying   ‘Jai Maa Kali’ ! Kolkattawali!’

Rekha Karmakar


kaniska said…
better than any of those "10 famous walks of calcutta" books. vivid, lucid, vibrant. just like she talks. love the way she lets the sequences unfold. it is a rare gift.
Anonymous said…
Dear Mrs Karmakar,
As I've told The Knife before, I love your style of writing and eagerly await posts by you. I loved your Haridwar posts and I'm going to bookmark this one as well. It makes me want to explore all the Cal landmarks that you've mentioned. Please do keep blogging about your travels
Anonymous said…
lovely post....much better than all those touristy tomes!
What a wonderfully evocative trip down memory lane. I have lived away from Kolkata for nearly two decades now, and this post was such a treat. The Knife's posts on Kolkata landmarks are a pleasure to read, but this post was like a guided tour of the place and the people at one go. I can so identify with the sons coming home with a list of things to eat. Both my brother and I do that every time we visit with our parents, and they have gotten used to it now.
Soyel said…
by far the best write up according to me..maybe because it's about Kolkata and the post brings back memories of Kolkata very vividly for all kolkatans, residing outside kolkata :)
Pinku said…
Lovely post Mashima!!

the best part is the fact that you write and feel about Calcutta just the way I do. Being born in Delhi and bred here so to speak I do like some things about Calcutta but I really detest the onslaught of poverty and humanity.

Ur post brought some very old happy memories of discovering Calcutta with Baba alive. I am now waiting to introduce my young daughter to this city as well.

by the way one of my most loved part of Kolkata is the Dakhineshwar mandir and Belur math. Love the peace and serenity of these places.

Please keep writing, its a pleasure to read. :)

Bhalo thakben!
Rekha Kakkar said…
Such beautiful description of the joy ... felt like I have seen it through your eyes. Thanks for sharing !
Sassy Fork said…
What a lovely bus journey!! Will see all the places I missed last time! You have covered Kolkata in a nutshell.Can see whom your famine stricken son has inherited writing genes from...
Kalyan Karmakar said…
hi folks, mom has asked me to write in asking me to thank you for your comments...she has enjoyed reading them