West Bengal rings as Rasagullas, Rolls, and Rabindranath Tagore. But the truth is West Bengal which was once the capital of British India has much more to it than what it is stereotyped for. This balmy state on the east homes not only India’s Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore but also several other intellectuals and reformers. In fact, it was these Bengali visionaries who birthed the Indian Independence movement which later gained momentum to spread to the rest of the country. The native cuisine ranges from very elementary to complex mixture of flavours. From mouth watering chelo kebabs, aloo posto, muri ghonto, illish bhapa to mishti dois, sandesh, chanar jeelapi, darbesh, the list is never ending. A visit to West Bengal was long due in my list and the opportunity presented itself as a friend’s wedding. I’m yet to figure out if its our love for fishes, the red creeks of communism or the parallel cinema that binds a Malayalee to a Bengali.
We arrived on a Saturday morning at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport. Airport taxis snaked up at the arrival, but since we have been tuned to the comforts of online cab booking, we booked an Uber right away. The first thing you might notice when you are in the city of joy would be their iconic “Peeli”s, also known as yellow taxis. The bright yellow metered Ambassadors buzzed about like bumble bees, speeding through traffic and at times too close to one another. Though nobody could tell me why the taxis were painted yellow, they have become an integral part of Calcutta’s identity.
The roads widened as we continued our journey from airport to Kalighat. On either side were buildings which looked like they time traveled from few decades ago. I didn’t know then, that these 4 or 5 storied muted structures with their grilled balconies full of clothes would become a common sight in the coming few days of our stay in Kolkata. One could see a grand colonial building or a high rise glass structure right next to a decrepit one. The old and new, squalor and splendor clasped hands in the streets of Calcutta.
Within an hour we reached our airbnb stay at Park Street where the rest of our friends were put up. Since the wedding reception was in the evening we decided to have a small city tour. Our first halt was at the much clicked and cliched Victoria Memorial. It is a lesser known fact that Victoria Memorial now stands on the site which once held the Calcutta jail(Old Presidency jail). It was Lord Curzon, the then viceroy of India who had envisaged this palatial memorial for Queen Victoria shortly after her death. A new jail(New Presidency jail) was built at Alipore so as to make space for the memorial hall. It is interesting to note that the road leading from Victoria to Presidency was not officially part of Calcutta, hence had to be legally added so as to facilitate the transfer of prisoners and other infrastructure from the old jail. As we walked closer towards the building, white edifice widened spreading its wings like an eagle, grabbing your complete attention. Isn’t it strange if not kismet that a place which once served as jail is reborn into something as magnificent as this memorial.
This imperial structure, made from Rajasthani Makrana marble, stands tall in a sprawling area of 64 acres. Even on a bright warm Saturday noon, the gallery halls were bustling with chattering tourists and intrigued foreigners. The building exhibits numerous articles belonging to Queen Victoria such as her writing desk and piano, as well as paintings and hand written manuscripts pertaining to the British-Raj era. What I found more absorbing was the Indian gallery hall which takes you through the history of Bengal, the birth of Bengal renaissance, the Bengal partition and so on. Perhaps, if I get one more chance, I’d like to visit this gallery again and walk through those corridors which narrates a story which now gets told only in history books.
Sun and hunger had reached its pinnacle and we decided to grab something to eat before the heat got us weary. From the gathered list of must eat dishes and restaurants we decided to go to Peter Cat situated at Park Street. Because Uber had no taxis at that time, we chose our first “peeli” ride. As 5 of us packed comfortably into the Ambassador, I remembered those times when my family folks used to squeeze 10 of us into this King of the Roads. We didn’t need ACs, chargers or music neither did we need to check our whatsapp, post on instagram or comment on facebook. Packed like sardines, sitting on one other, one could barely hear their own voice amidst the cacophony caused by laughter and incessant talking. As the vehicle comes to a halt, kids and elders tumbled out one after the other like peas from pod. It is often joked that an Indian wedding is incomplete without an Ambassador ride. Snapping out from distant past, I looked around this timeworn vehicle. Despite creaky gears, rattling doors, worn out seats and wheezing noise, I was amused by the odd familiarity of this rickety ride.
When we asked our taxi driver to take us to Peter Cat at Park Street, he seemed to be puzzled by the location. Neither the restaurant nor the area rang bells. We tried telling him of other places in the street and finally he says, ‘Ah Sarani!“. Sarani means lane or path, and that’s how the local people refer it to. Lane is definitely an understatement for this avenue which once used to be the glitter and glory of Calcutta. Tall trees with thick foliage and colonial styled mansions border these wide roads. Park street has reborn thrice over the course of history. From the “burial ground road”, used rarely by civilians and often by dacoits, to the uptown”Park Street” of the 20th century, and finally to its latest avatar, Mother Teresa Sarani. But of all its rebirths, Park Street one has been the most celebrated, sporting the country’s first pub, first department store, and the most extravagant classy restaurants. The creme-de-la-creme of Calcutta resided in these streets and the elite class frequented it. It was once the epitome of luxurious and genteel living. One among those mansions is the Bengal Club which was previously the residence of Lord Macaulay, famous as the author of Indian Penal Code and infamous for his half quoted dictum ” he(Macaulay) had found none ‘who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole literature of India and Arabia’. Every building in this street has a story to tell, from the traitor’s house(Murshidabad House), to the jesuit college(St Xavier’s College), to the European tea room of the 1920s(Flury’s) or perhaps the nightclub which had a female singer in kancheevaram sari(Usha Uthup at Trincas). Over the years, park street became the fallen angel. With the migration of Jews, Armenians, and the rest of the crowd which made up the cosmopolitan culture, Park Street lost a sophisticated grace that it upheld. Then came the Bengal partition, Indian Independence, Marxist-Maoist movement which all took toll on this street in due course.
As we were waiting for our reservation outside Peter Cat, I wondered if I could see flashes from the Great Gatsby shimmering through the plebeian mask that the Sarani has worn. A crossroad brimming with anecdotes from its illustrious and grand past.