Sandip Mukherjee shares, reminisce of his childhood days in this two part series. In the first part he spoke about his days in Delhi and in this part he recalls his visits to Calcutta where he experiences a feel of the cosmopolitan city
Only one sentence comes to my mind regarding Calcutta- “a kid in a candy store”. I have purposefully kept the old spellings –since that was what it was called when I was a child. I was a wide- eyed kid as I saw a mini railway running around the city. I am talking about Trams. I remember how it fascinated me. I was then a small town boy from Delhi. Calcutta to me was a big town and had all the trappings of a real city- not a sarkari town like Delhi.
Baba used to take me to some wonderful restaurants and historical monuments. Siraz, Aminia and Shabbir were to me the epitome of Mughlai food. Nizams was famous for kathi rolls and Carcos was known for their kheema Shingara (I refuse to call them “ Samosas”). That was the first time I tasted Biryani at Shiraz much before Arsalan and Bedouin were in vogue.
New Market earlier known as Hogg’s Market during the British times, had shops with big roundels of cheese, hams and other cold cuts catering to a large Anglo Indian and Armenian community who were was based in Calcutta. In fact when I was in my teens I remember frequenting Free School Street to buy rare records. The Anglo-Indians left for Australia and the Armenians simply died off. Stephens Court in Park Street is testimony to their presence in Calcutta.
I am told that most of the famous hotels in Calcutta like The Grand, Park and Fluries (very English with their cakes, ham sandwiches and of course tea-it was all so proper) were once owned by them. I used to go gaga over “Mishti Doi”. I was not much a mishti/sweets person.
So much about the famed Calcutta gastronomical scene, Now for the inhabitants of the city, of course along with quintessential Bengali “Bhodrolok” with umbrella and dhoti ( that’s the image my mind used to conjure up when visualizing the Calcutta Bengali going to the “bajaar” to buy fish with a hole in hand as I have seen my mamas do. There used to be the Anglo Indians who used to be either in Railways or in Police, they used to be ostracised by the Englishmen and the Scots who used to be school teachers or again in the Police. While Delhi had the Punjabi flavour Calcutta used to be more cosmopolitan.
I remember that I was very scared the first time I saw the Egyptian Mummy (not the film, I mean the real one) at Indian Museum along with huge whale jaw bone (I wonder where the rest of it went?) The real treat was the Birla Planetarium, where I was awestruck and held my baba’s hand very tightly because outside the sun was shining and here I was looking at the night sky full stars and the planets up so close. Unfortunately it didn’t evoke the same reaction from my children. I guess my generation was very backward!!!
Calcutta was full of discoveries for a wide eyed boy like me. While Delhi was laid back Calcutta was dynamic and vibrant. Delhi was a necropolis of empires Calcutta was a proper colonial city. Victoria memorial was resplendent in white marble. Though Delhi zoo had far bigger and sprawling grounds but Calcutta had more animals and I was especially terrified of the reptiles in the reptile section. The aquariums were full of multicolored fishes and at that time I didn’t know that one could keep an aquarium at home. I could spend hours watching the antics of the fishes. My mother bought me two goldfishes and I brought them over to Delhi in a glass bottle. I was the talk of the locality for some time that is till the time they survived. I can still hear the tram bell clang in my mind and the tracks like a railway but alas the grand old dame of Calcutta is swiftly going away because apparently they slow down the traffic. It’s a pity……the colonial past being replaced by new neighbourhoods with glitzy malls and department stores, which have no place for a slow aged English lady. I, for one am sorry to see them go.
(Please forgive me dear reader about my limited knowledge of Calcutta, since I was not born and brought there)
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Sandip is an investment advisor who worked for various banks and loves to travel, cook and curl up with a book .