Thursday, June 20, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Kolkata bliss

Update : 09 Feb 2014, 07:05 PM

There is something about Kolkata that gets almost everyone misty-eyed. For this writer, the city brings back a wave of memories from the time in the early 90s when the city of joy was truly the place which drew hordes of young people from Bangladesh with the unparalleled allure of Hindi movies, adult theatres, mouth-watering road-side food, and countless pubs offering chilled beer in an atmosphere of relaxation, without the worry of sudden police raids.

Rest assured: You won’t need to carry a faux drinking licence here to be safe!

 Someone recently told me that Kolkata has changed a lot – that is from the last time I went there in 2008. So, the truth in their comment became evident the moment I landed at the spanking new airport – clean, immaculate, and spacious.

 Also – and this may sound strange – rather tranquil. Of course, “peaceful” is not a word that we usually associate with airports.

The taxi driver Sarfaraz tells me that even at the busiest of times, there is an air of composure. Looking at this monumental structure, it’s hard to dismiss that as a xenophobic exaggeration.

There was still plenty of euphoria the day after Saraswati Puja, with plenty of young men and women on the streets dancing and singing while taking part in jovial processions.

It’s puja jubilation blended with the firebrand promises of Narendra Modi who had addressed a sea of people in Kolkata that same evening. No wonder the whole city was adorned with large posters with the bold exhortation: Brigade Cholo!     

So, has the city changed a lot? It depends on whether or not you are seeking out the new look. As for me, I wanted the old Kolkata with a slight touch of leftist idealism that is accompanied by earthen tea pots, cigarettes that cost below Rs40, street thali food featuring luchis fried in refined butter, and road-side book stores selling second-hand books and vinyl records.

Found The Beatles Abbey Road LP in store!

Don’t get me wrong here – the new Kolkata with the glitz and the razzmatazz is also welcome and much cherished. However, if you have been to this city and made an effort to get into the inner layers in the quest of a spiritual core, then the discos, lounges, and the hip hotels may not be the main attraction.        

But the wise thing to do is avoid being judgmental – new cannot be appreciated without the old and vice versa!

Sarfaraz, the taxi driver who owns his Ambassador car and is mighty proud of its performance, tells me that the iconic vehicle is no longer made in West Bengal since orders have dropped sharply.

“They are only used for government work and taxi service,” he says, unable to hide the sadness.  

Can’t blame the people for choosing the new cars that have flooded the market – BMWs and Audis are common. Perhaps the Chinese formula of communism laced with frantic consumerism has secured a spot in life here.

Whatever the case, the Ambassador is still majestic – remember no one stops to take photos of the high-end cars, but when the old behemoth roars on, tourists are bound to pick up their cameras.

Kolkata is a still a city of paradoxes – with the aged buildings, trams, hand-pulled rickshaws, and ubiquitous street eateries, it looks exactly as this writer first found it in 1988.

Yet, the facade of backwardness hides the ultra modern side where latest mobile phones, top watch brands, and fashion retailers have comfortably found their social places.

Here, one can be a king for a week with $500, or can feel miserably cash-strapped on the same amount for one day – which side you want to choose is up to you.

Both sides of the spectrum will give the visitor a unique experience.

While the habit of drinking coffee is overshadowing tea consumption in Dhaka, here in Kolkata, tea houses still run strong.

 There is a silent competition to be the maker of the best brew in town.

To be honest, I have not found a single place that sells sub-standard tea. Even the street stalls that sell a cup for Rs5 has made tea-making into a superior art form.   

A hip place to drink great tea is the One Way Cafe in Chowringhee. But if tradition and history is what you are after, head for the Russel Punjabi Dhaba, also on the same street. Like I said – in this city, contrasts (the old and the new) cohabit in perfect harmony.

After finishing your drink, remember to break the earthen cup – it provides an inexplicable pleasure!    

One evening, I saw a small Chinese restaurant called Ambassador by the Chowringhee Raod and decided to step in.

It was like getting into a time capsule to be taken to the 70s – an elderly man was seated behind the reception, while another veteran was working as a waiter. The interior had a very quaint decoration – the air smelt of a time lost.

The food tasted different – no, it actually tasted like the Chinese food Dhaka restaurants served in the late 70s and 80s.

There was no rush or loud music, and the restaurant appeared more like a gastronomic sanctuary that satisfied the palate while massaging the senses.  

After a hard week’s work, people like to have a few drinks here. One can either walk into a high-end pub and order Laphroaig neat or just buy a small bottle of Officer’s Choice local whiskey to add some rainbows to the weekend nights. 

The place to unwind can be a plush lounge or a corner of the large field near the Birla Planetarium.

To catch a rainbow is the objective – how much you can afford to spend is your matter.

Maybe I am wrong, but there was a feeling that a lot of old-fashioned values still haven’t died out in this city of joy. 

Talking about joy, the city is covered in posters of a movie due to be released on Valentine’s Day. It’s called “Abhishapta Nightie” (The cursed lingerie), and the images on the posters are surely very provoking.  

For a city that has a reputation for espousing liberal thought, talking about sex is never a taboo.

A vendor at a pharmacy pointed to a newly launched condom called Skynn and said: “Niye jaan dada, bapok jinish! Skinless skin ...”   

Why suppress something when it’s a fundamental need, says Sarfaraz, and adds with a wink: Last night in Kolkata, some place spicy, boss!

Well, the bottle is half full, the night has a piquant flavour and Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club had just beaten Mohun Bagan by a goal to move to the IFA Shield Semis.  

Relaxing in the Ambassador, I smile back and say: So ... Sarfaraz bhai ... what do you have in mind?

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