To stand on the streets of Kolkata is to be assaulted by this raw and unapologetic city in eastern India. Vehicles, masses of humanity and the climate press down on you from all sides. Amongst the myriad exotic locations that India has to offer to the intrepid traveler, Kolkata is often at the bottom of the bucket list. But this is a city that has shaped history and shaped a nation.
Kolkata, or Calcutta as it was known until recently was the capital of British India. Walking the streets of Kolkata takes you down to ground level where you can experience the faded but still magnificent colonial architecture. It also gives you the opportunity to experience the city’s intellectual heritage which gave birth to socio-cultural reform movements such as the Bengal Renaissance, fermented nationalist awakening and produced Nobel Laureates like Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen. And this is the niche that Ritwik and his colleagues at Calcutta Walks (www.calcuttawalks.com) have carved for themselves. As their tag line proclaims, they help you discover Kolkata one step at a time with tours tailored around any theme that might take your fancy.
The walk began on College Street, home to some of the most venerable educational establishments in Kolkata. Remarkable is the endless rows of stalls on either side of the main avenue selling all types of academic literature from medicine books to mock exam papers. Down a side street from the main avenue is the Indian Coffee House. There is nothing to distinguish the Coffee House from the other grey, dilapidated buildings in the area except for a blue sign above the doorway announcing its name. A dingy flight of stairs leads you to the first floor of the building in which it is located and you enter a vast, cavernous room with endless rows of tables and chairs. Ceiling fans hang low and the 1913 Nobel Laureate for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore’s picture hangs on one wall. But this modest appearance belies the fact that the Coffee House since its start in 1942 has been the meeting place for the literati and intellectuals such as Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen, the freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose and noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Today it is mainly a hangout for college students and office goers and a hosting place for the favorite Bengali past-time of an ‘adda’, an intense and rambling discussion during which the world and its cousin are set straight.
North Kolkata is strewn with the palatial homes of erstwhile landowners and merchants in various states of disrepair. At a short distance from College Street is a rambling and derelict mansion whose colonnaded entrance opens onto a central courtyard with a prayer area facing the main doorway and living quarters on the other three sides. This building looks like the ruins of an old temple but was actually a family home. In the past it was customary practice for many generations of the same family to live under the same roof and hence the massive proportions of this building. The Marble Palace, a landowner’s 180 years old family home is a treasure trove of art and artifacts with the finest marble from Italy and an original Rubens painting.
The final leg of the tour took me to the idol makers’ quarters, Kumartuli. This warren of lanes is where more than 450 workshops mold clay into idols of the goddess Durga, her children and the demon she slays.
Kolkata created a saint. In homage to Mother Teresa and the other towering individuals that called Kolkata their home, it is worth visiting Mother Teresa’s museum and children’s home and Tagore House, the home and museum of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s greatest modern poet and 1913 Nobel Laureate.