Sunday, October 20

Is Kolkata India’s City of Stories?

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Kolkata is slowly waking up. Men stand on the street corner chewing neem twigs. The tea shop brews cups of hot, milky tea. An old woman threads limes and chillies to ward off the evil eye. And I am on a Murder and Mayhem walk.

“That’s the house where one of Kolkata’s most famous serial killers lived,” says Tathagata Neogi, the founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta and my guide through the seamier side of Kolkata’s history (he has been researching this walk for more than a year). It turns out that in the 1860s, Kolkata had its own Jack the Ripper. And it was a she. Troilokya Sundari was a Brahmin widow who had been sold to the red-light district. She scammed men looking for brides, swindled jewellery stores by pretending to be a rani on a shopping expedition and drowned prostitutes in a pond after relieving them of their valuables. The police almost managed to catch her a few times, but she fooled them by pretending to be a helpless, naive woman.

As we walk through narrow streets lined with barfi shops and shuttered synagogues, bottle-cap merchants and perfumiers, we meet other ghosts of Kolkata’s less bhadralok past. There’s Rose Brown, the Anglo-Indian woman who was found murdered in the middle of the street in 1858—well dressed but missing her shoes. And the drunk Jewish man nabbed at 3am wandering the streets while carrying a ladder. The police later realised it was the getaway ladder used in the murder of a Jewish woman who had been having an affair while her husband was busy trading opium in China. Her home now houses the very respectable Gujarat Education Society.

I was born and brought up in Kolkata. I have left it and returned. The city clings to me as stubbornly as the moss on its buildings after the monsoon. We grew up with Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose and Satyajit Ray. But there’s another Kolkata that lurks in their shadows. You just have to change your perspective to find it.

Sometimes all it takes is a cruise on the Hooghly. From the river, the city looks almost unfamiliar, like a watercolour painting of another city from another time. I can see the spire of old St John’s Church. Giant sheds once built to store tea. The dome of the GPO. A brick-red clock tower from Cooke and Kelvey, once timekeeper for ships coming and going. Floating cranes like Lego dinosaurs. Burning ghats. Promenade ghats. Memorials to indentured labour bound for places like Suriname. A white mansion that was supposedly modelled on a Greek temple that turned into a parikhana for an exiled nawab’s many courtesans.
“We look after 32 ghats,” says Goutam Chakraborty of the Kolkata Port Trust. This river cruise is his passion, his effort to make people aware of the uniqueness of the only riverine port in India. As our boat, the Sealand, goes under Howrah Bridge, we get a view of the bridge few ever see. Once the third-longest cantilevered bridge in the world, it soars above us, while matchbox-like cars and ant-like people cross its span.

“It was built during wartime. Out of 26,000 tonnes needed, 23,000 were supplied by Tata,” says Chakraborty. “They created a special steel called Tiscrom just for the bridge. Our Prime Minister talks about Make in India. I think this was the first major example of Make in India.”
The bridge was inaugurated in 1943, in the middle of the night in a city fearful of Japanese raids. “There was a big Japanese raid on Kidderpore (the dock area), but they never attacked the bridge. It was a glistening beauty in the winter sun,” says Chakraborty. The Hooghly is a unique, dramatic way to look at the history of Kolkata. This is a city that grew up around and because of the river. It’s along the river that the Europeans and their East India Companies fought with each other to establish a foothold in India. The British triumphed and their legacy is all over Kolkata. But upstream there is Chandannagar, once home to the French; Serampore, which belonged to the Danes; the Dutch colony of Chinsurah and the Portuguese outpost of Bandel, which has a church whose original avatar dates back to the Portuguese in 1599. Serampore, once Frederichsnagore, has a college founded in 1818 by the missionary trio of William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward. In Chinsurah, the old Dutch cemetery still stands in a corner of the town with boys playing cricket among the tombstones. The remnants of the Dutch barracks, now painted bright blue, house a madrasa with old cannons still standing guard. The Strand in Chandannagar has the Sacred Heart church, the crumbling Registry building, the beautiful bungalow of French Governor Dupleix, now a museum. A stray dog is curled up on Dupleix’s sofa when I visit, taking shelter from a shower.
“The riches of Paris, London, Antwerp and Amsterdam were built on the backs of the poor of Bengal and Bihar,” says Peter de Vries, who, along with his wife, Leonora, has been running Little Europe on the Hooghly tours for three years with CrossIndia. But these tours are not just about colonial nostalgia. When de Vries goes to Hooghly jail near Chinsurah, he always pauses to remember the revolutionary poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, who was imprisoned there by the British for publishing a political poem in 1923. “And I read that poem by the riverside. It’s quite powerful,” says deVries as he recites a stanza. “I am the rebel eternal.”

He would like to do overnight tours, but there’s little upscale accommodation in towns like Chandananagar. Exotic Heritage Group (from Rs25,000) has found a way around this. It leads eight-night boat trips up the river so passengers can explore by day (Katna with its 108 Shiva temples; Chandannagar and its Strand) and sleep at night on a four-poster bed in a two-level luxury boat that looks like a floating wedding cake. “An Italian architect designed the boat, the interior is designed in Delhi and Italy, the windows are imported from France and the guides are from Kolkata,” says vice-president Vineet Arora, as he shows me around. With cabins named Maharaja and Viceroy, and an older, mostly foreign clientele, it’s like the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but with a river view. If you want something more exclusive, there’s the Nauka Vilas. “It’s a wooden ship for just two people, your bedroom at the bow, your own sun deck and eight people attending to you,” says Arora. This year, they are also targeting the Indian market with shorter, three-night trips.

For the longest time, Kolkata was the also-ran city in the Incredible India story. It does not have the Mughal history of Delhi or the Bollywood appeal of Mumbai. Tourists only came here when they were on their way to Darjeeling or the northeast. Manjit Singh Hoonjan, who runs Calcutta Photo Tours , says people thought of the city as “dead, decaying and dying.” He remembers a time when Indians did not understand the concept of walking tours. They would ask, “Kya kya included hai?” When they understood, they would say ‘What? We will walk and we will pay you?!’” Foreigners would come to do their stint at Mother Teresa’s homes after doing the Golden Triangle and a week of beach R&R in Goa. “That was the black-hole image of the city,” he recalls.

But these days, walking tours are unearthing whole new histories of the city. Neogi leads excursions through the once bustling Chinatown, explores the city’s World War II history and Little Europe. Some of it can be nostalgia tourism, he admits, but “nostalgia is the stepping stone to reviving heritage.”

There’s not enough reviving of heritage happening, but it’s not all lost either. Iftekhar Ahsan started Calcutta Walks in 2007. Now he has beautifully restored a 90-year-old house in north Kolkata, so that people can also get the chance to stay at a property with an old Calcutta feel. He says as part of the walks, he would go to a house that once belonged to the courtesan of a rich babu. “We would go into the courtyard and be transported into another world,” he remembers. “And then it was destroyed. And I thought we had to restore and save at least one building.”

Calcutta Bungalow (doubles from Rs5,000) evokes that world, but not in a grand zamindari palatial style. It’s far more intimate, with the feel of a lived-in home. There are old typewriters in every room, the colours are warm and inviting, knick-knacks from all over the city are on the walls and each room pays homage to a neighbourhood in a city that is all about neighbourhoods. “The good thing about using old stuff is if things spill, it does not matter,” laughs Ahsan. “It adds character.”

But it’s not easy to make an old house work for a 21st-century traveller. Just restoring it was an education, he says. “Regular mistris could not do the plaster. Then we found one from Murshidabad. He said we first needed gursuparimethi and bel. And then came the cement. There are at least 10 food items in these walls.”

This kind of fastidious care lavished on heritage is new to the city, which, it would often seem, preferred its heritage to just crumble artistically. But now, in Serampore, the West Bengal government and the Danish government, along with INTACH, are involved in a project that is aimed at reviving and restoring what is left of the Danish presence. Architect Manish Chakravarty spearheaded the restoration of the 232-year-old Denmark Tavern, a yellow building that features clean, unfussy lines and dominates a corner overlooking the river. Once upon a time, this structure used to be a boarding house for travellers. Now it belongs to the police, but it was pretty much an abandoned building, recalls Chakravarty. “The thought process was that this was a gone case and would die its natural death,” he explains. “It was like medically reviving a person who is on a ventilator.”

The team did an underground archaeological study of the entire foundation of the building, reconstructed the walls to the same thickness, looked up old 19th-century sketches that they found in a Copenhagen library and tried to repair only what was essential to its survival or to its new incarnation as a boutique hotel. For example, Chakravarty created an atrium to draw in light. “It’s restoration versus reconstruction and you have to incorporate that balance—have the old and the new co-exist,” he says.

A few minutes from the Denmark Tavern stands St Olav’s Church, freshly painted, also restored by Chakravarty. Its wooden beams were rotten, its roof had partially fallen in, ridden with termites. Such huge beams are hard to find anymore. So he replaced them with encased steel beams and replastered the parts of the wall that were dead from within. Its great bell does not toll, but now the church looks as good as new, or as good as old.

Chakravarty tells me that a bus stand used to be in that area, with tea stalls and roadside shacks and rickshaw stands. All that has been moved. “This is not a celebrated tourist town like Tranquebar or somewhere in Rajasthan,” says Chakravarty. “This is an urban space with problems of crowded bus stands, politics, governance, lack of understanding. It all took a long time and multiple meetings, but now we actually have a plan to organise this space. The government is in the game. So Serampore could be a model.”

It could be, for example, for Chandannagar and its French heritage. But there’s a difference, says Basabi Pal, head of the French department at Chandannagar College. The French are interested, but do not have the funds. A survey has found 99 buildings that could qualify as heritage. Seven have been declared heritage as of now. Pal says the architecture is quite unique—with French elements on the façade, but Bengali- style courtyards inside. “Some of these could easily become heritage hotels; we just need the imagination,” she says.

Having grown up in these parts, she remembers stories from her granduncles about French Chandannagar. “If drunks created a nuisance on the street, the gendarmes would chain and handcuff them to the side of the road until they sobered up,” she laughs. And there was a French bakery near the bazaar, which had old, traditional ovens to make country loaves, that was always buzzing. Chandannanagar College was a magnificent old building with graceful columns and a skylight. “But its cast-iron railings and bannisters were stolen and sold as scrap,” Pal laments. She threatened to go on hunger strike if the government even considered bringing it down. In 2010, it was declared a heritage building.

Sadly, every year that passes another ‘heritage’ property bites the dust, a liability sold off by its owners. But occasionally, there is reinvention. Harsh Neotia decided to turn Swabhumi, a defunct crafts bazaar into a boutique hotel with a central courtyard and magnolia trees that bring zamindari Kolkata to mind. “Everybody said raze it to the ground. That would have been a no-brainer,” says Neotia. “But I’ve always been fascinated by the Renaissance lifestyle of zamindars and I wanted to try to make a creative expression.” Then he quips, “Luckily, I don’t have shareholders.” The 33-room Raajkutir (doubles from Rs9,000) not only evokes a colonial feel, it comes with its own ‘history’ of a Raja and his three sons, one a revolutionary, one beholden to the British, one interested in fine arts. The history is made up, but the hospitality and attention to detail are not. The rooms, with their four-poster beds, are named after all the characters of the family drama—Mamababu, Mejobouma (middle daughter-in-law), Pishima (aunt). The menu features largely forgotten once-legendary city delights like Vegetarian Cutlet from Elliott Hotel, Decker Lane chicken stew and the Bhetki Meuniere with lemon-butter-parsley sauce that Satyajit Ray loved at the long-gone Skyroom restaurant. “This is not about the business traveller,” says Neotia. “This is for someone who wants a local experience. It’s a fair bit of risk, but if it leads to a string of old properties being restored, then that’s great.”

These walks, boat tours and restorations are trying to fit together what’s left of Kolkata’s heritage into a jigsaw puzzle that tells a different history of greater Kolkata, one that does not have to moulder into picturesque ruin.

As our boat on the Hooghly turns back towards the dock in Kolkata, the sun starts to set. The boat pushes against the tide. We can see both bridges across the Hooghly silhouetted against the sky. Boys whoop and swim in the muddy water. Barges from Bangladesh stand laden with fly ash. We sail past the parikhana again, once home to Wajid Ali Shah and his courtesans, gleaming white in the gathering dusk.

“Did you know that Wajid Ali Shah’s tiger once jumped into the river and swam across?” says Chakravarty. Where did he go, I wonder. No one knows, but there’s a poignancy in the king confined to Calcutta and the tiger that escapes its cage. I can almost imagine the ghost of that tiger still swimming across the treacherous waters and disappearing into the trees of the botanical garden, some still standing from those times.

“We nurse the ghosts of Calcutta,” says Chakravarty. As the evening shadows gather, I can almost believe him.

Source: Conde Nast Traveller

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