Calcutta : the more things change, the more they stay the same

#1 May 28th, 2013, 10:19
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#1
It has been exactly one month since my return home from India and I woke up this morning thinking about Kolkata. After many visits to this city, which is by turns intoxicating, infuriating and - like an old lover - impossible to change; I realize that it is a mirror of my own expectations. The saying "The more things change, the more they stay the same" applies to Calcutta. In spite of recent changes, the spirit of the city is changeless and enduring.

We arrived at the spanking new airport, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose International. I was anxious on several counts. Just before we departed on our trip this year there had been press reports of falling glass ceilings and overflowing toilets. However, contrary to my expectations, the experience was extremely positive. Beautiful design and efficient passport control, in stark contrast to the old terminal. Here is a photograph of the new terminal:



The only downside is the freezing air conditioning, at least twenty degrees colder than the ambient temperature outside the airport. I put on my jacket and noticed several other passengers were doing the same thing as we awaited our luggage.

Next potential hurdle (and all the more so when you are feeling sleepy after a flight) comes with the prepaid cab desk. It is thus a pleasant surprise to find that the new system works better than the old one. A quick hop skip and a jump and we are off to downtown Kolkata.

The new flyover at VIP Road is an eyesore and incomplete. Lack of funds and a switch from one backer to another means that the work is ongoing. Dust and rubble mingle with the heat haze as we speed along like slalom drivers on a ski slope avoiding the rickshaws and pedestrians. Until this is complete, the new airport image is sorely marred. On the other hand, why spend so much money on flyovers when the city is in desperate need of improvement in other areas. I don't have an answer to that conundrum.

Our taxi driver had lit an incense stick to keep the mosquitoes at bay. At some point he had to chase it around the cab as it was trying to escape. He also found it practical to spit paan juice inside his own cab. No comment.

It was therefore with great relief that we arrived "home" in Sudder Street and met up with well known faces in the area of Chowringhee. The Lytton hotel is like a home from home for us. We were greeted with enthusiasm and slept well that night.


Next morning we immediately made a plan for the day, which generally has to encompass my own "Golden Triangle" of the Oxford Book Store on Park Street and Flurys café and the emporium next door for music, known to all Kolkattans, Music World. Actually we only got as far as the first two then slightly zigzagged across to the Hobby Centre on Russell Street to buy a gift for the child of friends.

Walking via the backstreets, I was pleased to encounter a slice of a forgotten era here:



I noted the new blue railings on Park Street, which have already become faded in the summer sunshine. Mamata's painting is her signature tune and, along with a lot of new overhead lights, can be seen all over town now.



Thankfully the Oxford Book Store is still a marvel and one can spend hours just browsing. The temptations were too great, however, to resist. I came away with a huge coffee table book on Nagaland (which I then proceeded to carry around with me for the next four weeks in my luggage) plus a book of short stories by one of my favourite authors Amit Chaudhuri.

At the café, I indulged in Flurys' famous Lemon Tart whilst Mr theyyamdancer tried one of their chocolate cakes (and pronounced it delicious). The tarte au citron is better than any I have tasted in Paris. The waiters continue to be snooty, as is their habit, and wanted to take us to a different (smaller) table but we argued with them (having had a lot of practice in this department with Parisian waiters). Finally the smiles replaced the frowns as we exchanged a few words in Bengali, pronouncing the tea and cakes to be "fatafati".






At the model centre, I actually had a conversation in Bengali. Amazing. There is a display of "Life of Pi". I attempted to explain to the shop assistants the story of the film, which I had watched on the flight coming over to India! They politely pretended to understand what I was talking about.

Here are some photographs of the place, which is a treasure trove. Highly recommended, even if you don't have a plan to buy anything.















[ to be continued ]
Last edited by theyyamdancer; Apr 6th, 2015 at 13:37.. Reason: Restoring Image link
#2 May 28th, 2013, 10:38
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#2
love it. I miss Kali's City, my 2nd fave after Chennai. I was supposed to go back this year then on Varanasi, but got sick and had to cancel it all. A Bengali friend even flew in from Dubai to see me!

next year!
My India Photos, 2005-2017
"When you are truly genuine there will invariably be people who do not accept you. And in that case, you must be your own badass self, without apology." -- Katie Goodman
#3 May 28th, 2013, 10:50
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#3
You know it is so refreshing to read 'escapes within a city' as opposed to the long trips that more often make it to travelogues. Wonderful write up. Look forward to more
#4 May 28th, 2013, 11:06
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Thanks, Sama and Vaibhav, for your immediate appreciation ! Of course this is not a travelogue in the true sense of the word. I have written endlessly about this city, and will continue to do so. It has a way of capturing the imagination and it is addictive in a way that few places in the world can imitate.

Yes, Sama, Kolkata is my favourite Indian city and continues to entrance me with her humid charms. We were actually very lucky with the weather, since it rained torrentially to greet us and wash away the dust. A freshly bathed city is a joy to behold. After spending far too long on the telephone, chatting to friends all over India, our plan to take a tram was thwarted by the fact that we really needed to 'take rest' in preparation for a Baul concert that night in New Alipore. The trams will always run, right ? But it is not every day you are invited to hear musicians who have come down especially from Bolpur for the occasion ! Thus we lazed around and drank copious amounts of tea, only venturing forth to check out New Market and reassure ourselves that Nahoums is still there and still producing fantastic biscuits and cakes.





We thought about taking presents of a cake from Nahoums to our host that night. But it is a bit like taking "coals to Newcastle" as the saying goes. So we stuck to our original plan of gifting something from Greece.

Our friends picked us up on the corner of the India Museum and we sped off, in light traffic for a weekend evening, towards the greener and more upmarket reaches of South Kolkata. The musical delight of the evening was unparalleled. We were about twenty people and Mr TD and I the only non-Bengalis. There were two musicians, one playing the string instrument, and one on percussion. I wish I could transcribe the lyrics of the songs here. Maybe I will be able to decipher them all one fine day. Everyone of course knew them by heart and some added their glorious voices to the chorus. As a cool breeze ruffled the sarees and we sipped a mint drink I knew that Kolkata will always be in my heart and mind and that whatever changes happen to the city there will always be a corner where we can be "pagol" too.


- > youtube amar motun pagol pelam na
(I have yet to find someone as crazy as me)











Last edited by theyyamdancer; Apr 6th, 2015 at 13:44.. Reason: To add a pic of musicians
#5 May 28th, 2013, 11:17
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#5
wonderful posts...theyyamdancer, as always.
#6 May 28th, 2013, 11:21
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#6
Thank you very much, Adam.
#7 May 28th, 2013, 11:55
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#7
What is Baul music ?

Wiki gives a hint.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baul

William Dalrymple, the famous author, describes God's troubadours in an article in the Guardian newspaper. [The article is several years old; the Baul music is timeless.]

Mahatma Gandhi's favourite song was a Baul song, whose lyrics I think (I hope someone will confirm this) go along the lines of "You have to go alone, If you call and noone comes, Then you have to go alone...."

-> ekla cholo re
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j64PR78bB4I

See also:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ekla_Chalo_Re

This song was composed by Robindronath Thakur, aka Rabindranath Tagore. It has also entered into Bollywood via a film called "Kahaani" (2012). Thanks Wiki!

Quote:
Ekla Chalo Re was first recorded by Rabindranath Tagore himself sometime between 1905 and 1908
..../.....
Quote:
In 2004, "Ekla chalo re" song was used along with Hindi lyrics composed by A.R Rahman in the movie Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero. The song was included in a 2012 Bollywood film; Kahaani and is sung by actor Amitabh Bachhan under music direction of Vishal-Shekhar.

I am relying on my memory of the tunes and my notebook where I attempted to scribble some of the lyrics. Happily these songs are also available everywhere online.

But I may need help with some of the more obscure (to me at least) songs. One of the songs we heard that night is called "amar mone manusher shone". I liked it very much. Even with my rudimentary knowledge of bengali, these gaan are moving. The guests were all entranced.

->http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM9rm4mDEHI


Happily I have just found a version of it on Youtube. This song was one of my favourites of the evening. Can anyone translate it for me ?





The musicians that night were incredibly talented. I would like to thank again our hosts (you know who you are!).
#8 May 28th, 2013, 13:14
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Next day being Easter Sunday we wanted to go to church. The service was held in the Church Hall in Sudder Street, since the St Thomas church is currently being renovated for the first time in fifty years. Bishop Ashok Biswas needs 25 lakh rupees for the church repairs.

Along with singing some hymns and meeting up with our friend John who plays the organ there, we had a very long conversation with Michael, a stalwart of the church. He is a localite, though about to shift house. In fact, some of the faces in the congregation were familiar to us from other visits here.

I was requested to read a lesson from the Bible. With trembling knees, having never been asked to do this since school in the sixties in England, I did my best.

I also offered up a prayer before we set out on our travels to Nagaland so soon afterwards.

I must say that I am not a believer. I like to visit churches, synagogues, temples, from the point of view of a secular person. I do enjoy the singing.

After the service, we had the great idea to go for a ramble and wind up at the Forum mall to take in a movie and food. So we took the fantastic metro to Rabindra Sadan (only a few stops away from Esplanade) and thought we knew the way..... Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately ?) we had become completely disorientated whilst underground. We started walking in totally the wrong direction. After enjoying the Sunday empty streets for about an hour, I thought - surely it is not this far away? - have we come to the wrong metro station ? Then I recognized the area around Jatin Das, near the Seagull book shop. It is very lucky I have these bookish landmarks to recall. So I said - Uh oh, we are not going the right way. We kept asking directions from passers by and did not believe them when they had pointed us in the opposite direction to that which we were so confidently taking till then. Finally, clutching a well worn and torn map in our sweaty hands, we retraced our steps right back to where we had started. A couple of hours later we were having cold coffee in the Forum mall. We skipped the movie and the food but did do some shopping at Fabindia instead.
#9 May 28th, 2013, 13:29
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#9
As good as always, TD!
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid Albert Einstein


Trip reports:

Syalsaur/ Deoria taal/ Chopta trip report, West and South Sikkim trip report , Puri/ Konark trip report
#10 May 28th, 2013, 13:34
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#10
Hey Sagar, thank you !


Here are some more snaps then..





Last edited by theyyamdancer; Apr 11th, 2018 at 14:20..
#11 May 28th, 2013, 13:42
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The India Museum is also under renovation, as these pics testify:



Last edited by theyyamdancer; Apr 11th, 2018 at 14:24..
#12 May 28th, 2013, 13:49
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Quote:
Originally Posted by theyyamdancer View Post ..... We were actually very lucky with the weather, since it rained torrentially to greet us and wash away the dust. A freshly bathed city is a joy to behold.....
Kolkata knew its favorite daughter is here again!
#13 May 28th, 2013, 14:16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by asishdas View Post Kolkata knew its favorite daughter is here again!

That is very kind. Thank you asishda.



Continuing then with some more photographic evidence from the streets of my favourite city, with some sights which never change, although perhaps we wish they would.

Hand-pulled rikshaw


Overcrowded bus


I want to add a photo of paan stains on the new carpets of the departure lounge of domestic flights in the new airport terminal, but I will refrain from doing so.


We were all too soon speeding away through the clouds with a glimpse of the mighty Himalayas ! Upon our return from the North East we would flash through Kolkata again, with time to catch our breath, see some good friends, and continue our journey.


Last edited by theyyamdancer; Apr 11th, 2018 at 14:40..
#14 May 28th, 2013, 15:03
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Kolkata Revisited, between Naga Hills and Monsoons in Odisha



When we came back again to Kolkata from our trip to Nagaland, we were very happy to savour the idea of some more sightseeing before continuing our journey down to Odisha a few days later.

We had heard so much about the Prinsep Ghat and its recent renovation by Mamata, converting the walkway by the Hooghly into a brightly lit and clean touristic attraction as well as a place for a summer evening stroll.

I was very happy to see this place and to join the throngs at the ghat.









With our good friends K. and D. and their daughter A. we then drove to South City Mall and had a great evening at the Flame and Grill restaurant. It is such a pleasure to reunite with friends we had not seen for two and a half years, since we celebrated Durga Puja with them back in 2010.

Next day we were due to have lunch with Bengali friends in New Town near Rajarhat. So we thought of buying some sondesh from K.C. Das as a gift. Walking fast along Esplanade we were less bothered by the omnipresent touts than on other occasions. Perhaps we were so intent on our purpose that we seemed not to have time to dally. At the famous sweet shop I mentally prepared to announce our order in Bengali. Some other customers in a hurry for their Sunday sweets were pushing to jump the queue. But the smiling person on the other side of the counter patiently listened to my badly articulated request. He then repeated it in perfect English to make sure we had achieved nirvana of communication. We had. Our sweets were perfectly wrapped and presented in record time and we whisked them along in a taxi to our destination.

As luck would have it, some time during the following days, we were struck with Kolkata Belly. Too much chili ? Too much rich food ? Something we drank ? Who knows. the truth is that we were floored and had to spend several days in close proximity to the bathroom. Did this put me off Kolkata ? Honestly speaking, yes, for a short while. But not for long !

What was annoying in the extreme was that all my carefully laid plans of visiting the Botanical Gardens, going to check on the status of the still-under-construction Borniporichoy book mall near College Street, revisiting some of my favourite bookshops elsewhere in town, and walking around my para to my heart's content, were shattered.

Oh well, there is always next time.







On the way down to Vizag I purchased, at the newly installed bookshop of Kolkata airport, the newest book by Amit Chaudhuri, entitled "Calcutta, Two Years in the City". This is a gem of a book and it sums up many feelings which I am too clumsy to express.
Last edited by theyyamdancer; Apr 6th, 2015 at 13:50..
#15 May 28th, 2013, 15:48
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Nice photos and report theyyamdancer.
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