During my school years in Calcutta in the fifties and the sixties, we were still close to the colonial past. We saw a number of foreigners on Chowringhee, Park Street and New Market, the shopping “mall” for the jet-setting crowd. Nahoum’s and M X D’ gama were famous as patisseries. The elite Italian restaurant Firpo’s gave the whole city its soft white and brown bread. Flurys, the Swiss restaurant on Park Street, with its chocolates and the legendary tea room for the rich and the famous was another landmark. Many of our schools were still headed by foreigners.
Calcutta was the city of my growing years, home to my aspirations and my travails too. A city you can only know and love if you have lived in it, heard the song of its streets, and pirouetted dangerously on the footboards of its buses. Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray ignited and fed the soul; rasgullas, mishti doi, jhalmuri and puchkas fed the corporeal self. Mumbai is about money, Delhi is about power, Calcutta is about people—folks who are intellectually agile, culturally conscious and unbelievably hospitable ... Kolkata is about adda, those lively, freewheeling chat sessions on the roks (small verandas) on every conceivable topic. It is said that while in New York youngsters talked of relationships, in Kolkata they spoke about exalted, eclectic stuff. And the ubiquitous football and cricket took over entire seasons and lives.
Our favourite haunt was Boi Para on College Street, lined with book shops revelling in first editions and out-of-print classics. The Presidency College, ancient with wisdom and the birthplace of many a genius, presided over the life. Across is the Coffee House, the hub of intellectual debate. Beethoven, Brecht, Tolstoy and Tagore figured in cerebral conversations. A popular adda joint, poems were scribbled on scraps of paper and political issues thrashed out with young fervour over cups of coffee. The cheap menu, the freedom to sit for hours amid swirls of cigarette smoke pondering over the complexity of human relationships, the greatness of love and its triviality, where else could you do it?
Novelist Amit Chaudhuri writes, “Calcutta is like a dew drop. It holds within it the light and colours of the entire world.” I found in Calcutta every community from within the country and even populations of Chinese, Afghans, Armenians, Jews, Iranians, Turks and Europeans who gave the city its cosmopolitan character. Their cemeteries, churches, temples and synagogues bear tearful witness to times bygone. Today the skyline has changed, the pace of life has quickened and the soul in the Mahanagar is no longer there.