Park Street, Kolkata, December 14, 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)
As the very welcome winter chill sets in, Kolkata shows its true cosmopolitan colours in the bright Christmas lights all over Park Street, Elgin Road and New Market. The city doesn’t forget its history; it is a city that can accommodate a diversity of opinions, protests and festive cheer. The sparkling chains of festive lights bear witness to this diversity as come Durga Puja, Eid or Christmas, the light-makers of Chandannagore (the erstwhile French settlement near Kolkata) get their act together to make Kolkata one of the most interestingly lit cities in the world. These lights speak for the cosmopolitanism and inclusiveness that are a hallmark of Kolkata’s love for culture. Christmas is here in the city and despite everything that is unchristmassy around us, the city will celebrate in style.
The restaurants and hotels, some venerable like the Oberoi Grand or Moulin Rouge and Mocambo, and some of the new gourmet restaurants in south Kolkata, all advertise their Christmas menus just like the Italian restaurants run by Peliti and Firpo (who arguably brought pizza and pasta here before anyone else in Asia) would have done a century ago. The clubs of the city have already started making their preparations for the ‘borodin’: the smaller neighbourhood clubs are arranging picnics while the elite century-old Bengal Club and Calcutta Club (and others of their ilk) have announced their very exclusive Christmas lunches. Allen Park and Bow Barracks are hosting the city’s annual Christmas festivals but there are already posters in the hotels and clubs announcing their own brand of Christmas Cheer. The local teashop in Baranagore is stocking up on ‘Dandi’ cakes; these have nothing to do with Mahatma Gandhi’s famed Salt March and the name derives from Dundee, Scotland—presumably, the Jute Mill wallahs from Angus or Fife who settled on the outskirts of Kolkata (or Calcutta, back then) brought the recipe with them. Of course, by now most people in Kolkata have already queued up at least once for the plum cakes at the city’s Jewish bakery, Nahoum’s, incidentally and quite uniquely a part of the city’s Christmas tradition.
I started my Christmas week by attending a concert by Artie’s, a French chamber ensemble that is visiting the city under the auspices of the Alliance Française’s winter festival. As I was sitting in the eastern wing of the Victoria Memorial listening to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, I couldn’t help noticing Lord Cornwallis’ statue right behind the cello player. The East India Company’s governor general stands larger than life, dressed like a proconsul of the Roman Empire. The Company and the Raj are now long gone and in the 72 years of independent India, Kolkata has seen and survived many vicissitudes. The city has been the hub of activities that led to freedom from the colonial masters and it has seen famine and riots but it has been singularly accommodating to new ideas and ‘resistant to sectarianism and bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism’ as one of its famous citizens announced in his speech in the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Cornwallis’ statue, the Victoria Memorial and the many remnants from the Raj era are part of city as much as are Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, and all one needs to do to see how the city remembers itself is to go on a walk down the full stretch of Chitpore Road.
Take a detour while you are in the Dalhousie area walking towards Burra Bazar (Barabazar). The Maghen David and Nevi Shalom synagogues are difficult to spot but once inside, you can see a fascinating exhibition on the Jewish community in Kolkata. Hindustani classical aficionados will be fascinated to learn that Gauhar Jaan was of Armenian-Jewish descent as were the actresses from early Indian cinema, Arati Devi and Promila. As you walk away from the light streaming from the stained-glass windows into the deafening throng of the wholesale markets of Barabazar, a short walk will take you to the even-harder-to-find Armenian Church. Apparently, the right hand of St John the Baptist is brought to the Church on Armenian Christmas Day (January 6th). Back on Chitpore Road, one should pay a visit to Gobindaram Mitter’s temple or the Black Pagoda. The Navaratna Kali temple built in 1725 by the notorious deputy collector of the Company, Gobindaram Mitter, was hit by an earthquake and a cyclone and despite almost being destroyed continues to function to this day. Walking down the long road one finds shops selling musical instruments, marble statues, perfumes, nagra shoes and sweets, with areas designated for each of these.
The Jorasanko Thakurbari, home to the illustrious Tagore family, is now a museum and also houses sections of Rabindra Bharati University. Not far away is Kumortuli, famous for the clay idols of the gods and goddesses that are made by the artisans every year. Before getting there, however, one will come across the Nakhoda Masjid, built in the early 20th century combining many styles of Mughal architecture. The legendary Royal Hotel, famous for its brand of Awadhi Biryani is close by. Further down in north Kolkata, is the Chitteswari Temple in Cossipore after which the area and the road may have been named. A few minutes’ walk away one comes across the Cossipore Gun and Shell Factory, perhaps the oldest surviving factory in the country.
Rambling down Chitpore Road, one can be the perfect flâneur walking down the bylanes of history. Acknowledging its colonial heritage as well as its pivotal role in India’s struggle for freedom, the city tells multiple stories in many layers. The former unwritten divisions of Black Town and White Town have changed to south Kolkata versus the north, and with very different connotations. The city has stretched well beyond its earlier southern borders of Ballygunge and Russapuglah (modern-day Tollygunge). The sahibs at the Tolly Club may be gone as have the Mysore princes who were held hostage here, but the club authorities are busy decorating it in its full splendour for the festive season. The north-south divide is often highlighted when the denizens of the older north Kolkata argue about the superiority of their mishti or sweets or their adda, that untranslatable word for the very Bengali soirees and meetings of friends and even random acquaintances. Speaking of sweets, the famous rossogolla is said to have been the creation of Nobin Chandra Das from Baghbazar in north Kolkata: ‘Baghbajarer Nobin Das/Rossogolla’r Columbus’ (Nobin Das from Baghbazar/The Columbus of rossogollas) as some of the locals are wont to quip. As for the adda, the porches of the north Kolkata homes provide ample space as do the local teashops or the famous Coffee House on College Street, where people sit for hours sipping the black and sugary ‘infusion’ coffee and smoking their umpteenth cigarette right below the ‘No Smoking’ sign. In fact, someone has managed to erase the ‘N’ from the sign so it now reads, ‘O Smoking’—an apostrophe that is only fitting in a place that so many poets have graced.
College Street, arguably the second-largest second-hand book market in the world, is lined with bookshops where you might spot a rare gem every now and then among the rows of testpapers that obviously have a huge market given the manic competition to qualify in public examinations. Inevitably, however, a rare book on an obscure subject will catch one’s eye and rather surprisingly, come at an unthought of bargain. As the booklovers have finished buying their Christmas presents, it is time to turn southward again and join the throng in New Market, jostling around Christmas trees and innumerable little shiny pieces of tinsel to bedeck them. The Christmas market will soon set up its stalls on Park Street and the street will be closed to vehicular traffic to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of revellers celebrating boro din.
The Hungarian charcuterie called Kalman’s (started by a trapeze artiste from Budapest) has now moved from its original location near New Market to southern Kolkata but it is still doing booming business before Christmas, as are Nahoum’s and the cake and mulled winesellers in Bow Barracks. Compare the scenario with a Christmas celebration in 1780 as reported in a contemporary chronicle of European life in India: ‘The external appearance of the English gentlemen’s houses on Christmas Day is really pleasing from its novelty. Large plantain trees are placed on each side of the principal entrances, and the gates and pillars, being ornamented with wreaths of flowers fancifully disposed, enliven the scene. All the servants, from the Banian down to the lowest menial, bring presents of fish and fruit ; for these, it is true, we are obliged in many instances to make a return perhaps beyond the real value, but still it is regarded as a compliment to our burrah din. A public dinner is given at Government House to the gentlemen of the Presidency, and the evening concludes with an elegant ball and supper for the ladies.’ (Elizabeth Fay, Original Letters from India)
Not much has changed today, although the Company and the Raj are gone; the banana trees have been replaced by ersatz Christmas trees or sometimes even real ones. The merrymaking and the general winter cheer is always quick to spread; Christmas in Kolkata is and will be a convivial affair. The city’s cosmopolitanism and deep-seated appreciation of its own heritage gives it a certain spirit of its own. In this, Kolkata is similar to cities such as London or Berlin that are very distinctive in character from the rest of their respective countries. Despite its crumbling palaces and poverty, the Kolkata spirit remains one of promise and of inclusiveness, come what may.