AFTER A HIATUS of three years, I found my way to Kolkata (Calcutta) to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s. Kolkata has always been special and will remain so. For all that you might say about Mamata Banerjee, there is no denying that Kolkata is much cleaner and far more navigable than it has ever been. If you can forgive the ugly blue-and-white colours on each lamppost and the fake Big Ben that stares you in the face, you will be fine because nothing else will assault your senses like the folks in Delhi routinely do. This year was unlike any other. With the passing of the legendary Naresh Kumar, there was no familiar place to go to in order to usher in new year and add to that there was tremendous pressure to attend my school reunion which I finally resisted: I certainly didn’t want to have anything to with my alma mater La Martiniere which for years had tolerated corrupt headmasters and their ilk. My years at La Martiniere added no value to me and I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to be under any illusion that they had.
The celebrations began with a dinner at an art-deco home in the Lakes Area: the home of Neha and Sidhant Arya, a much younger couple but with old-age values of both drinking and eating. Their dinner was the perfect start to ten days of cheer that will be etched in my mind forever. Post all the drinking, my wife and I found our way to the iconic Azad Hind Dhaba (famous for its Husain murals) and had the traditional Kolkata meal of chicken tadka, dal fry and kebabs. A meal like no other. The next morning, we went off to Tollygunge Club: the club is still there but the food and service were not what they used to be. I am unable to understand how the Tolly (one of India’s finest clubs at one time) has seen such a sharp decline in the quality of its food and service. And what is surprising is that the Tolly has a fine CEO in Anil Mukherjee, but I guess the folks looking after F&B need to take a reality check.
It was only fitting that on the last day we drove an hour-and-a-half to the Rajbari Bawali for a lunch fit for zamindars. The Rajbari is easily one of Kolkata’s best-kept secrets and if you ever want to lose yourself in the Kolkata that once was, then this is the place
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The next evening, Shashi Tharoor and I were in conversation on his new book Ambedkar: A Life. The conversation was scintillating because the book is magnificent and Shashi has penned one of the finest biographies of the great BR Ambedkar. What was heart-warming was the way the event had been designed. And here, one must credit the genius of the very low-profile but extremely talented Sundeep Bhutoria who runs a clutch of NGOs, including the Prabha Khaitan Foundation, Kitaab and Ehsaas. It is only now that I got to know the real Sundeep and the phenomenal work he does with literature, including with child authors and suchlike, and that too across multiple languages. Sundeep Bhutoria would easily be amongst the most uncelebrated geniuses of India and the manner in which he blends compassion with intellectual heft is just awesome and inspiring. I first met Sundeep many years ago at the Jaipur Literature Festival and what charmed me was how convinced he was that he was always able to organise the best samosas. But obviously there was and is much more to the man that I have now discovered. People like Sundeep Bhutoria will ensure the spread of knowledge through literature in ways that you and I can’t imagine.
Madhu and Harsh Neotia are the people who have kept culture alive in Kolkata in a myriad way. Building on the legacy of the late Suresh Neotia, they hosted a dinner for my wife and me and it was there that I connected with the Kolkata of my past. Be it Dr Sandeep Chatterjee, now one of the country’s most admired doctors who was a fellow debater once, or Ajay Rawla, my schoolmate who now runs the fabulous Rajbari Bawali: a 350-year-old mansion that he has restored with affection and care. It was only fitting that on the last day we drove an hour-and-a-half to the Rajbari Bawali for a lunch fit for zamindars. The Rajbari is easily one of Kolkata’s best-kept secrets and if you ever want to lose yourself in the Kolkata that once was, then this is the place.
We left Kolkata as we always do: with tears of joy and a promise to return.
Kolkata is not a city. It is an experience. It always was and will always remain so.