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Books, food and tradition: Memories from the city of joy

Last updated on: August 21, 2012 19:36 IST
Cab drivers in Kolkata are in no mood to rush you home

Also known as the city of Joy, Kolkata, or Calcutta, is a wonderfully old-fashioned and archaic city. Abhik Bhattacherji takes a nostalgic look at his hometown and gives us the lowdown on what you must do when you come visiting.

Time seems to stop as you alight in Calcutta.

Is it the postcolonial hangover, the nonchalance of dreamy Bengalis, the silent rumble of commercialisation as flyovers and malls sprout up, or perhaps the vulture of culture circling the decaying remains of an era gone by?

Well, time stops for me when I arrive in the city. The driver who comes to the airport hasn't the slightest urgency to get me home. He'll banter and cruise sluggishly and re-affirm my belief that no one is in a hurry in Calcutta.

My large Bengali family united by a love for celebration and food, not heirlooms.

Drenched by the familiar smell of tradition, like a constant, never-changing layer of skin, the city makes time stop.

When you grow up in Calcutta you begin to weigh things in sentiments, which is perhaps why I choose to call it Calcutta rather than Kolkata.

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I'd walk to the hatt with my grandfather to buy fresh fish

Last updated on: August 21, 2012 19:36 IST
Fish is the staple diet of most Bengalis

As a child, summer holidays were my preferred time of the year.

They were made of tough math puzzles set by my aunt. They were also made of reading The Famous Five and Feluda and walking to the 'haat' with my grandfather to buy fresh fish.

Lunch was a six-course meal and afternoons were spent discovering Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen.

We had siestas like gentlemen, woke up to a devious game of hide-and-seek, ate supper at seven and read a book in bed.

'We even ironed the socks we wore to church'

Last updated on: August 21, 2012 19:36 IST
The ambience of the Gothic styled cathedral is soothing

When I went from half-pants in junior school to trousers in senior school, my fondest memories were those of going to the book fair with my father, thrilled at the thought of buying brand new books.

Then, of course, there was Sunday school at the magnanimous St Paul's Cathedral where everyone was so proper that we even ironed the socks we wore to church, where I was introduced to orange squash and Marie biscuits.

After the horse race, we'd indulge in Fish n Chips

Last updated on: August 21, 2012 19:36 IST
The Tollygunge Club where horse races take place

Not to forget, the jubilant expeditions to the tube-light-flooded Jewish confectioner Nahoum's, to buy Easter eggs and memories of my aunt taking us to The Tollygunge Club to watch the horse race and indulge us in Fish 'n Chips.

I still remember the stampedes at the New Market during Christmas and trips to the Missionaries of Charity, which was across my house on AJC Bose Road.

Growing up in the company of literary giants

Last updated on: August 21, 2012 19:36 IST

Growing up as a teenager I remember much of my time spent reading Tolstoy, Satyajit Ray, Steinbeck and Tagore, discovering Wicca, Freud and Rumi, wandering in and out of fascination with the art of Ganesh Payne and Paresh Maity, watching plays and debating with candour and passion.

Now, a decade later, as I reflect and muse over I remember Calcutta more as a tourist, a concerned, almostformer resident.

Now holidays home are spent indoors, living the city more gastronomically than cerebrally.

But I can't stop loving Calcutta -- its beauty calms and yet causes a tempest in your senses.

A city so striking, that even the ravages of decay, poverty, communism and apathy can't take away its sheen of resilience and humility.

Hum songs from Parineeta like Vidya Balan

Last updated on: August 21, 2012 19:36 IST
A still from Parineeta starring Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan

When in Calcutta, go see the films of Suchitra Sen, Uttam Kumar, Mrinal Sen, who one masterpiece at a time, fortified the Bengal school of Cinema, read the bards Sunil Gangopadhyay and Jibanananda Das, travel to the heart of darkness, the Sunderbans, with Amitav Ghosh, watch the magical Son-et-Lumiere at the ramparts of the Victoria Memorial and take a steamer ride on the Hoogly river under the Howrah Bridge.

Buy yourself something avant-garde from Sabyasachi's store, hum songs from Parineeta and Anthaheen like Vidya Balan, devour Chinese food at Tangra, scream and thump your chest boisterously at a Mohan Bagan football match, drink Champagne at the Taj Bengal, sit a while and sip tea at Dolly's tea shop, read a book at Oxford Book Store, walk around the Academy of Fine Arts or take a buggy ride around the Maidan.

Go for a lazy Sunday picnic to the Botanical Garden and gawk at the stunning century old banyan tree and play Monopoly in its shade, drive to Shantineketan to buy some art from rural artists and remember to just meander through the city.

In all its shambles and slow progress, Calcutta will transform into something poetic and photographic for you.

Things to do when you visit Kolkata next

Last updated on: August 21, 2012 19:36 IST
Although it has a relatively quieter night life, the city's famous as the world's largest second-hand book market

Board the electric reptile, the tram, and head towards College Street, which is most famous for its overabundance of Bengali publication houses, bookbinders, publishers and printing presses.

The street is dotted with innumerable book kiosks selling old books. You can buy rare manuscripts, textbooks on various subjects, examination papers, English paperbacks and Bengali masterpieces at throw-away prices, though you must remember to bargain excessively! After all it is the world's largest second-hand book market.

For those looking for a bit of nightlife in the sleepy city, Vikram and Ekta Puri's Plush Lounge & Bar at the Astor Hotel is splendid for an evening of music which can quickly turn into a night of dancing.

The ceiling draped in sheer curtains transform into screens for projections. I love the sense of risque and baroque in the decor, the Mediterranean cuisine, prawns in Piri Piri and Orange Caprioska's always save my night.

So Calcutta, may you simmer and stew and be as stubborn and sleepy as you are. You are the heart of Bengal's renaissance, you survived the British Raj in style, you fostered the intellect of a thousand idealists. You are a thing of beauty and will be the city of joy forever.

Thing To Do in Kolkata