Sunday, December 19, 2010

Oh! Calcutta: City with many moods

She never fails to overwhelm in ways uniquely her own. The wrinkles of age are visible but she’s a portrait of grace. Some adore her, some abuse her. But she embraces them all, unconditionally. She nurtures and gently compels to look beyond the mundane and the material, and live life in full measure. She shows a way to enjoy moments and not long for minutes. She’s real yet she’s an enigma. She’s Calcutta.
If you want too see an Indian city with a soul, buy travel tickets to Calcutta, now Kolkata. A bustling, bursting-at-its-seams metropolis, it’s got the answer you’ll ever require to charge your five senses. Here’s the A-Z of a city with many moods.

Ambassador: Production of the good ol’ Amby, India’s first car, has stopped but it still packs city streets. Under its matronly, domed hood are delightfully classic features like the side-vent windows for breeze in your hair. The Amby is largely spotted as the quintessential yellow taxi.   

Belur: The headquarters of the Ramakrishna Misssion, it’s a serene complex on the banks of River Hoogly. The main temple, devoted to sage Ramakrishna, is built in traditional Bengali char-chala (four-arched) style. A string of smaller temples includes one dedicated to Swami Vivekananda.

Chowringhee: Down the centuries the street has captured the imagination of all those who have traversed it. The city’s most famous business address, it has a striking Colonial skyline and defines the ‘Calcutta era’ in all its splendour.  

Dover Lane Music Conference: The city’s fervour for classical compositions touches the high note every winter when music sessions are held. The four-day Dover Lane event at Nazrul Manch has reached legendary proportions and draws connoisseurs from afar. Other celebrated programmes are Gunidas sangeet sammelan, Sabrang sangeet sammelan and ITC guru-shishya sammelan.

Eden Garden: The haloed ground of Indian cricket, the Eden Garden stadium, has been the venue for many a dramatic match. Opposite it is Maidan, the city’s green lung and amongst the largest metropolis parks in the world. On Sundays it turns into a battle ground for cheer and jeer when hundreds of cricket matches are played by enthusiastic boys and men. On its fringes are some of the oldest sporting clubs of the country like Mohan Bagan and East Bengal.

Flower market: Located on Mallick Ghat, at the head of Howrah Bridge, it’s the biggest wholesale flower bazaar in eastern India and its sheer profusion of colour is a feast for the eyes. Blooms of myriad varieties vie for attention but there’s no taking away from the dominance of the saffron-hued marigold that lights up all spaces. Weekly business worth crores happens in this shanty market.   

Graphitti: The Bengali breathes art. The city walls are also his canvas where the flair with paint and brush manifests itself majorly as creative slogans of political rhetoric. The gods are appeased too and so are iconic heroes like Che and Maradona in similar fashion.      

Hoogly: For a tryst with the great Ganga—River Hoogly here—and to experience life playing out on its ghats (banks), hop on to a ferry that gently bobs in the shadows of the stunning Howrah Bridge and Vidyasagar Bridge.

ICE Zone: Sector 5 in Salt Lake is the info-tech and communication district. And it chills out nearby at Sector 1 City Centre, the glitziest contemporary public space in town designed by renowned Charles Correa. It represents a vibrant confluence of shopping malls, cineplexes, restaurants and food courts amidst luxuriant contours. To get an arresting bird’s eye view of a neon cityscape ascend to Afraa, its fine dining space, on the seventh floor.

Jorasankho: 6/4 Dwarkanath Tagore Lane, Kolkata – 7. That’s the address where lived Bengal’s reverend father, Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Tagore. His house was the hub of Bengali literati and many a revolutionary idea was sparked here. Currently it’s a centre for performing arts. Its well-preserved Tagore museum has serene, overpowering vibes. Around the corner is Marble Palace, an aristocratic residence, now slightly disheveled, that displays a personal collection of priceless European masterpieces and bric-a-brac.    
Kathi rolls: A Kolkata invention, it’s undoubtedly the simplest, yet most delectable street fare fit for epicurean taste-buds. A version of the wrap, it’s about succulent pieces of chicken (barbequed on wooden skewers or kathi, thus the name) rolled in an egg fried roti (flour tortilla) layered with chopped onion, green chillies, spices and a dash of lemon all in a jiffy.

Lal-paar & dhuti-punjabi: Fashion may swing between Rathore and Armani but there’s nothing as classy as the lal paar (red border) saree worn the traditional way by women and the dhuti-punjabi (lower-kurta) sported by men. The attire is a constant at any social event, especially during the festive months.

Mishti: The famed Bengali sweet-tooth has given rise to mishti (sweetmeat) shop in almost every lane and each seems to excel in not just its rosogulla and sandesh but a whole gamut.  In winters, sugar in the mishti is replaced with notun gur or the divinely-delicious date-palm jaggery. Joynagarer Moa (pix) is another winter special. Balaram Mullick in Bhowanipore is one of the many established name in traditional treats.  

Nahoum's: The 1912 vintage shop in New Market is one of the handful Jewish-owned confectioneries found in India. A legend in itself, its timeless glass-wood cabinets are packed with favourites like walnut brownies, baklava, feta cheese sambusak (pix), mutton rolls, water biscuits and its famous rich fruit cake, for which there are unbelievable km-long queues on Christmas eve.  

Oh! Calcutta: A chic restaurant for gourmet Bengali at Forum, the city’s popular multiplex, on Elgin Road. It’s value for money and flavour and the daab-chingri (shrimps in tender coconut shell) is a must-eat. A short distance away is Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s home. (For traditional fare in unfussy environs book a table at Bhojohori Manna,, where the menu changes everyday).

Park Street: Once Asia’s most happening nightspot, it’s a petered down version of its former self but is still alluring, especially under a neon glaze. It has some fine restaurants, cafes and bookstores and is the place for a leisurely browse and munch. A landmark here is Flury’s, a one-time Swiss confectionary, that’s a must-visit for its sparkling ambience and the nostalgia it holds, besides of course its scrumptious cakes and savouries.
Queen’s Mansion: It was the residential address on Park Street. The mansion still stands in regal grace and a fresh coat of paint has added new life to the Victorian edifice. A few lanes away, New Market (pix) too has had a bit of a facelift.

Rickshaw: These are wheels of heritage and beget admiration, even if you need heart to see man lug man. The hand-pulled version found only on these streets has attracted its share of human rights activists who have been pushing to see it go off the road. It still hasn’t, and the rickshawalas are carting passengers, and quite happily so.

Street food: Kolkata is so much about food that it overpowers the senses. But nothing matches the gastronomic range served on its streets. It makes a mess of the surroundings but there’s such passion on display in the process of making fresh food in bare minimum ways that it’s gone way beyond reasons of sustenance and entered the realm of art. The aromas are appetising and its best to allow your nose to dictate as it trails the smells of luchi-aloo, macher jhol-bhaat, chop-cutlet, roomlai-koshamangsho et al. In the district of snacks there’s the numero uno jhaalmuri—raw mustard oil-flavoured spicy quick-fix of puffed rice—channajor garam, chilla, singhara, chumur…it goes on. The maati-bahander chai or tea served in earthen pots is another unparallel.   

Tram: For a ticket to ride on a mode of history jump on to the tram, running only in Kolkata, delightfully crisscrossing lanes and showcasing a cultural slice. The most architecturally-rich routes are those touching Esplanade and BBD Bagh stations which go past the Tipu Sultan Mosque, Chowringhee, Writers Building, Shaheed Minar, GPO, Raj Bhawan and a host of Victorian buildings. A new glass-roofed tram car is the latest scorcher.   

U/A: Nandan on AJC Bose Road has been the celebrated place for movie buffs and you need to catch a film here to see what draws the population. During film festivals it’s the most effervescent venue to be at and join animated discussions at addas (group chats). The complex has a museum dedicated to Satyajit Ray.

Victoria Memorial: It’s vintage Calcutta’s signature structure. Striking in its grandeur, it remains the favourite spot for local citizen and tourist alike and long queues can be witnessed almost everyday. Inside its portals is a museum and atop its dome is the figure of an angel that’s also a wind-vane.

Wonton soup: This is a hot seller at the Chinese breakfast served on the street at Tiretta Bazaar. The venue gets the marks for sheer ambience and is a sight to savour from 6 am - 9 am when the residents of this area, erstwhile China Town, come out of their homes to cook and serve piping hot fare. If you are late you don’t even spot the crumbs.  

X-mass: Not just Durga Puja, no one celebrates Christmas the way it’s done here. It’s a pan-community affair and the city wears festive lights. St Paul’s Cathedral and Park Street is where the crowds converge and Santa Claus pops out of every restaurant door. 

Yesteryears: Kolkata is one of those cities where ‘yesteryear’ holds true in the present. It’s a city that values commitment to tradition and it’s here that you are treated to a stimulating, seamless blend of conventional and contemporary.

Zoological garden: Alipore Zoo, the oldest in the country, has the largest party of the animal kingdom and they are known to growl, roar or make a monkey of the teeming numbers who visit them. Sometime they do oblige with a priceless pose for the lens.     

Published JetWings Int'l, 2010

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