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.
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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. Madhu, I have to admit that Calcutta was never previously on my wish list for travelling in India… but with this post you have singlehandedly changed my mind! I’m amazed at the number of architectural gems still intact from the days of the Raj. The blue lampposts and dividers are beautiful on their own, although they should have been painted in either red or green!

    Previously I only knew of the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge and St. Paul’s Cathedral, which seems directly transplanted from the south of England.

    I’m glad to see that Calcutta hasn’t gone the way of Hong Kong, tearing down its built heritage at every opportunity. My parents fondly remember the delicate red and white arcades of the General Post Office (http://www.imagesofasia.com/html/china/images/large/post-office.jpg). Local lore has it that while the blueprints were shipped from London, they were mixed up with another post office intended for a city in India. If true, I wonder if that was in fact Calcutta, but then again its importance would have demanded something even more grandiose.

    I have mixed feelings about renaming city streets, especially in such a top-down fashion without the consent of the populace. One fear we had before Hong Kong’s Handover was that the old British street names would be eradicated in favour of “People’s Avenue”, “Liberation Road” and equally cringeworthy titles. But 17 years on I still ride through Gloucester Road, Queens Road Central and Bonham Street on a regular basis – and I would honestly like to keep it that way. The day Beijing issues an order to rename them is the day we lose our East-West identity.

    1. James, I don’t know how I missed responding to this thoughtful comment. Intrigued to learn of the mixed up post office blueprints! Your guess must be right, considering the Hong Kong building looks more Indo Saracenic as compared to the simpler and more elegant one in Calcutta.
      I concur with you about name changes. Nationalistic fervour aside, I don’t see how that can wipe out nearly four centuries of colonial history. And like I featured in my Delhi post how long back does one go to pinpoint a national identity? Ridiculous really, in a country that really didn’t have an identity up until the eighteenth century!

  2. Stumbled on your blog by accident and what a lucky find it is. Love your style of writing and photography. You showed me a side of Calcutta that I have never seen before, having visited the place couple of times. Inspired to explore the city like how you did.

    1. Chaitali, many thanks for your lovely comment. Let me know if you need pointers when you do decide to visit Cal.

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