Echoes Of The Raj

Oberoi Hotel, Jawaharlal Nehru Road”  we repeated helpfully, as our cab driver frowned at his job sheet. He bobbed his head vigourously in response, “Yes, yes, yes…..Grand Hotel, Chowringhee”.  Turned out they were one and the same. The trend of our interactions with anyone we stopped to ask for directions in Calcutta followed a similar vein:

Anandilal Poddar Street?”…...Blank stares!  Then we rephrase…….”Russel Street?” Aah yes!!

So chuck those carefully marked Google maps when you visit next, unless you have taken the time to pencil in the old street names. Present day Calcuttans, it seems, do not share their card carrying comrades’ paranoia of all things European. Calcutta, is Calcutta to most residents, whatever her latest nomenclature! 

Even more surprising however, was the matter of fact reference to colonial segregation. That the distinctly European areas around Chowringhee and the less affluent ‘native’ Northern sections, are still referred to as ‘White’ Town and ‘Black’ Town. And in a ‘red’ state at that!

Sightseeing therefore is easily compartmentalised into white and black, and even an indistinct grey area in between, where many other cultures collide. While the edges are beginning to blur, the contrasts between these neighbourhoods remain stark.  Affluent old families from both areas have relocated to newer, more salubrious suburbs, leaving decay and disrepair in their wake. And a city caught in a time warp.

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata
A lion guarding the stately Victoria Memorial, conceived by Lord Curzon as a fitting tribute to his Queen. The capital shifted to Delhi before its completion. Photography of the interesting but badly maintained collection of paintings and sculptures inside – including some Daniells – is prohibited for whatever reason.

It felt strange to be struggling to order from restaurant menus like we would say, in Paris or Beijing! (My knowledge of Bengali is possibly a little worse than my rudimentary French, especially when it comes to food terminology.) The cuisine is as diverse as its population, and legendary Mughlai rolls vie with Anglo Indian cutlets, and sweet Mishti Doi with Chinese dumplings and Jewish baked goods.

Bengali food, overpowering in its use of mustard and mustard oil, is something you either love or hate, and we loved most of what we tasted in our four days. The highlights being Chef Joy’s fusion chilli pickle and cheese baked crabs (the rest of the meal was tepid in every sense of the word) and our lunch in a tiny Dhakai (Bangladeshi) ‘mess’ called Kasturi, that served outstanding seafood. I still salivate at the memory of the Kochu Paata Chingri (river shrimp and greens curry)!  I would go back just for that. And the Nolen Gurer (new palm syrup) ice cream that our hotel churned up on request.

Writers building and St. Andrew's Church, Kolkata
Writers Building and St. Andrews Church. The clashing blue paint on the dividers and lamp posts are new additions on the orders of Madame Chief Minister! Wish politicians wouldn’t interfere with urban planning and aesthetics.

Calcutta’s origin is debated. Until recently Job Charnock was credited with founding the city when he bought and converted three villages – Sutani, Govindpur and Kalikata – into a trading port in 1690. But a 2003 High Court ruling overturned that piece of history by stating that the Nawab of Oudh only granted the land rights to the aforementioned villages to the British in 1698, nearly five years after Charnock’s passing! There is no debate however that Calcutta’s transformation from swampy village to largest metropolis outside of London (at the time), is owed mainly to the East India Company.

Yellow cabs , Kolkata
The ubiquitous yellow cabs!

Dalhousie square (now BBD Bagh, after three freedom fighters – Benoy, Badal and Dinesh – who assasinated an IG of prisons inside the Writers Building) and its surrounds, boast some of the finest colonial architecture in the country. Most, spruced up and in better stages of preservation – on the outside at least – than the decaying monuments and mansions in the rest of Calcutta. That ‘progress’ hasn’t claimed much of these heritage buildings so far is thanks mainly to the city’s 34 year long Marxist rule (1977-2011). There is talk of an Indo – British conservation project and a possibility of turning the area into a living museum.

Walking down the tree lined boulevards of ‘White’ Calcutta on a Sunday morning is eerily evocative of the Raj. I half expected a hansom to come clipping by. Then we turned a corner and came upon a cricket match in the middle of the road that halted only to let a yellow ‘ambassador‘ cab pass.
DSC_9172 copy

Posted by

Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

64 thoughts on “Echoes Of The Raj

  1. Absolutely stunning architecture Madhu and you’ve captured it all so perfectly! Love the horse at the stable. I would have stayed there all day long. 😀

  2. Lovely tour in both words and pics. I must make a note to try the river shrimps and greens curry. Pondicherry has a white town and black town too incidentally.

  3. Wow, the photographs are wonderful. I was tempted by the baked crab, too! So many places in the world are crumbling away. The ones that we don’t blow to pieces with our warfare… I really did enjoy this post! I think I would like Calcutta.

  4. One of my aunts went to Kolkata in 2008 and she also stayed in the Oberoi. She was stunned and overwhelmed by the number of beggars outside the hotel. Did you feel the same thing? I’ve been seeing images of great British monuments in the city, which you explain in this post as in state of disrepair, sadly. I also wonder why the Marxists can hold onto power for such a long time in West Bengal because things don’t look very good.

    Anyway, the chili pickle and cheese baked crab make me salivate! 🙂

    1. There were no beggars at all Bama, but the area just outside is unbelievably crowded. It was overwhelming even for us. Despite that, the location can’t be beat, and combined with its history and legendary service, it is by far the best place to stay. My review is long overdue.

  5. Wow, like having two continents in one city – fantastic photos, but of course with the Brits over there for so many years must have a strong influence the country a lot. I never expected this side of Calcutta. India is for me just a big blank canvas – so the blogging world is filling it little by little, my few hours and one night sleep in Bombay … didn’t give much to put up. *smile

  6. When I think of Calcutta, I think of beaches. Your description of it much inviting snd exciting. Oh thr knowledge you impart to us, coupled with your reflections, and with writing excellency, your blog truly is topnotch!
    Amazing how just a simple taxi ride is an experience already on its own.

    1. Rommel, I am touched by your generous compliments always. Thank you very much, and apologies for the belated response!

Let me know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.