There is something about Kolkata that anyone who has visited it, finds inexplicable. They call it the “City of Joy”. I reckon, it is not all about the people living in apparent happiness. There is the “adda”, which essentially means gossip. But is so much more. I found it to be more of a ritual. Something so intrinsically woven in the society that it cannot be seen as a separate entity at all. I have been to the city a number of times but only had the time and freedom to really explore it in the last couple of years. Here are some of my favourite picks on how to best spend your time in Kolkata.
Starting at the base (on books and coffee)
Kolkata has often been dubbed as the intellectual capital of the world. Starting at the base irrevocably means starting at countless book stalls stuffed till the last corner with paperbacks and old gems at College Street, right in front of the University of Calcutta. In fact, local literary evangelists haunt the street to pick out rare first editions and signed copies. Some even manuscripts, easily dating back a century if not more.
And then there is the hugely popular Coffee House (15 Bankim Chaterjee Street | Tel.: 91-33 2237-5649). A place of intellectual importance where in times of financial decadence, emerging artists, poets, musicians and journalists exchanged ideas, hopes, philosophies and carefully guarded dreams. There is a cult song by a popular singer Manna Dey, where he reminisces his own time there. Here is Kolkata at its literary and intellectual best. Look for “Capital is not in crisis. Capitalism is the crisis.” on the whiteboard.
Who can ignore the food?
No seriously, who can? Ideally of course, the best way to experience Bengali cuisine with an exceptional appetite for river fish and mustard oil is inside a Bengali home. If you are not fortunate enough to know someone (trust me, just ask a blogger who’s based in Kolkata) try Kewpie’s (2 Elgin Lane, Tel.: 91-33-2486-1600). It sits on the ground floor of a historic residential bungalow. The mangshor thali comes at Rs. 620 for which you get a choice of fish, a vegetarian and a meat curry. Beside these, the regulars of dal, mishti (dessert). In their own words, “We started from the garage in our house which once hosted my brother Chandradeep’s “Food Shop” which later developed into Gourmet Cuisine, our catering section after his passing in 1991.”
Kumartuli – about creating religion
The Durga Puja is an event like nothing I have seen. And I have seen a good share of festivals and rituals. The colours, the glamour, the fascinating ladies, and the astounding art create a world of their own.
At Kumartuli, artisans sitting among seemingly endless lines of idols lit by light bulbs, tirelessly practice the craft. The walk fringes along the riverside, meandering along the living quarters of the artisans, the place where the material for the idols is sourced from, and a myriad of other associated sights.Walks of India rediscovers Kumartuli and its internationally renowned artisans who create magic out of straw and clay.
The Flower Market and the quintessential Howrah Bridge
Kolkata Magic conducts this tour. However, I would say it can well be done independently. The area, although a mayhem of activity, does not really require a guide, being right beside the transport hub of the city, the Howrah station. The Flower Market is a one-of-its-kind, real-life spectacle. No discernible market lanes, stalls or even a well defined boundary. But rather, a huge open space, a riot of colours, and countless vendors selling flowers by the tons. By far not a tourist attraction. The sight of an old man siting by himself in a comparatively quieter nook and reading a newspaper in such profound peace and content, and once again, “City of Joy” rings a bell; more audible now.
For the shopping lover
If you grew up in a Bengali family living elsewhere, or even know a Bengali, you will know the gold-lettered belief they all live by: “There is no better place to shop than Kolkata.” I’ll give you, that statement can be very well contested. Nonetheless, there must be something that elicits that swear! Shopping malls have taken over the city’s newer neighborhoods (specially in the south and the east). Skip those and head over to the massive New Market on Lindsay Street.
Technically, “New Market” is the covered S. S. Hogg Market. However, popularly, it includes the shopping arcades all around the complex. My wife tells me it’s great for pashmina shawls and side bags. Personally, I just keep standing somewhere gawking at the range of items on sale there. Pick anything from flowers to food.
The list can of course keep going on. Folks will ask you to try out the amazing colonial architecture of Sova Bazar, or ride the almost extinct trams, take a horse-cart ride from Victoria Memorial and lots more. I agree, those are just as endearing. This list however are the things that have stuck closest to me.