I have always loved history. Somehow, it has the power to enthrall, excite and make me humble all at once. I think the interest developed because we had a teacher in school who had immense talent for making history interesting. It wasn’t only about battle dates and mugging. It was more like watching a“Troy” or “Gladiator” or “Jodha Akbar”every day in school. Hence, I have always loved places which have history entwined in their existence, much more than shiny new skyscrapers and state of the art technology.
I had been to Kolkata; then Calcutta, when in school. The only images that stayed in my mind out of that trip were ones of intense heat, grime, people washing themselves nonchalantly on the roadside in the middle of busy midday traffic and hordes of people trampling over my feet in the temples. Little wonder then, that I was not so keen on Kolkata as a holiday destination.
Summer holidays bring out the wanderlust in me. It’s a time when I can take off and wander with a legitimate excuse that I need to take my kids out for a holiday. So this year, when we decided to see Sikkim, our transit halt had to be Kolkata. This time though,I was blown away- both by the heat and the place;).
If there was Satyajit Ray’s house at one corner of the street, Mirza Ghalib stayed at the other when he came to seek his pension. We saw the first newspaper printing press of India, the place where Ronald Ross first discovered the life cycle of the malarial parasite, the first office of the East India Company, The first supreme Court of India, the town hall where J C Bose displayed his experiments to the world, Swami Vivekananda’s room ,the Eden gardens and much more in just one day!
It was as if I was taking a walking tour through India’s turbulent past, albeit in much more calmer circumstances! Every road, every lane and every building reeked history. It looked as if the youngest building was almost a hundred years old. And had some great name associated with it!
There is a laid back vibe to the place, which is endearing. No one seems much bothered by the fact that there is so much history lying around.They just go about doing their work. It’s all so matter of fact.Like our driver who says “ Oh, we’ll just take the turn on the road near Netaji bhavan” kind. Takes you a moment to realize that the Netaji is Subhash Chandra Bose!
There is no way I can capture what I saw and imbibed in Kolkata in one blog post. There is so much I want to share about the place, which is an amazing amalgamation of history, mythology,revolution,sport and culture. Hence, I thought I will share my best six experiences of Kolkata.
- Visiting the Mother House.
This is a given, as I have idolized Mother Teresa ever since I was a kid. Her ideology of offering “Death with Dignity” was a major influence on me wanting to get into a profession which involved caring for the diseased. When in school, I was a huge fan of the Tinkle comic. The address of Mother house was mentioned in one of the issues. On a whim, I wrote a letter to Mother Teresa indicating my desire to become a nurse (well, that was my first ambition!). It was written in the spirit of the summer holidays when I had nothing better to do and there was no cable tv, and I completely forgot about it, till one day a letter arrived for me from the Mother herself, encouraging me to take up the profession of caring! I was over the moon, and a mini celebrity for a while at home.
When I saw her spartan room with a writing desk and a small neatly made bed, I imagined her writing that letter to me sitting in that room! It was a transcendental experience.
We got to meet Sister Prema, who is in charge of Mother house now, after Sister Nirmala’s death. A nun from Germany, she gamely obliged when we asked for photographs with her. Definitely, the highlight of my day!
- The Netaji Bhavan
During our struggle for independence,one of , if not the most controversial freedom fighters was Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. His death and the mystery surrounding it has always fascinated me. With the furore regarding the declassification of his files in recent times, I was intrigued as to why he was so very important.
Well, as an answer to my questions, and to add fuel my craving for the romantic, we saw the Netaji Bhavan, aka Subhash Chandra Bose’s home before he fled from India. The two floors of his house have been preserved intact. The bed chambers of the two brothers with their slippers, umbrellas and pristine white dhotis lying just so,give you goosebumps. The museum contains documents and photographs of his times. I was surprised to know that he was extremely widely traveled and hobnobbed with most dignitaries of those times. The British Government’s letter which gave permission for his assassination by two British officers and his escape route from the house in his car have been well depicted. With his speeches playing in the background, and seeing the house intact as it were in those days, would definitely bring out the patriot in any one of us!
- A ride along the River Hoogly
Thanks to road repair work, we took the boat (called the Bhutbhuti)to ferry us from Belur Math to the Dakshineshwar temple. This, in fact turned out to be one of the best experiences of the trip. I would go so far as to recommend it, even if the road was functioning well! It was a half hour ride, watching the people on the river bank go about their business of living, taking bath right in the open, praying, smoking beedies and swimming. Seeing the room in which Swami Vivekananda lived on one bank of the river and the small room in which Ramakrishna Paramahamsa stayed at the other is inspiring.With the Howrah bridge in the background, many temples dotting the shoreline, the wind in your hair and sudden splashes of the waters of Hoogly, it is a great experience!
- The institute of Tropical medicine.
I had recently read The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, and so this place came alive for me. In small letters , on the side walls are names of bigwigs including Ronald Ross. This was the place where the life cycle of the malarial parasite was discovered and where Robert Koch discovered that the bacteria causing cholera was comma shaped!
- A stroll along Park Street
Any holiday of mine is incomplete without good food and books. Everyone from the hotel staff to our tour guide to the driver to a passerby recommended Park street for food.The street is a vision at night. There are hotels from one end to the other, starting with “Trincas”, a bar where the famous Usha Uthup started her career. The street is brightly lit, the atmosphere is festive,and each time any door opens onto the street, heavenly aromas of food waft through and tempt you to go in. Huge long waiting lines outside each restaurant are the only hitch. But you will definitely not mind as each bylane has an amazing array of street foods like puchkas, kathi rolls and biryanis. There are famous places for savory deserts as well like Flurys, Mio Amore etc.
And the icing on the cake is the Oxford book house, which has a café on the second floor where you can browse and watch the world going by while sipping on a cuppa. Must do for all food and book lovers!
There were many more things to do and see, but as I had not anticipated falling in love with Kolkata, I had kept very little time to spend. Back home, I’m repenting it and eagerly awaiting my next visit to the City Of Joy!