A strange variety of secret societies existed in Calcutta in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Some of these include National Association for Parents of Sleepless Children (a small society that still exists), Bengal Bhattacharya Society (seemingly, people with the last name ‘Bhattacharya’ gathered here), St. John Ambulance (a relief charity now functional in multiple cities across the world, but it was a secret, elite society in Calcutta), Calcutta Microscopical Club, and the relatively popular Sherlock Holmes Society of India (for detectives).
I learn of these during my one-night stay at the Calcutta Bungalow, a 1926 townhouse-turned-B&B in North Calcutta that has existed since before art deco architecture became popular in the city. Glued on a wall panel on the ground floor are over a dozen brass plaques etched with names of secret societies, blending appropriately with the stay’s decor. Chongas or loudspeakers upcycled as lamp shades, a small, framed poster of Boroline, traditional Bakelite switches, gamchas or classic plaid cotton towels, and khorkhoris (wooden windows with levers for effortless modification of ventilation and sunlight) used as headrests in beds and as tabletops transport an observer back in time. Every room has a working typewriter and some are even for sale at the stay’s souvenir shop.
Run by Iftekhar Ahsan and Christopher Chen of Calcutta Walks, which offers diverse tours of the city, the 92-year-old bungalow has a central square courtyard or uthon, half of which is still occupied by a family that owns part of the property. Within, The Calcutta Bungalow is a blend of modern and vintage. There are creature comforts such as air conditioning, but also colonial arches and exposed brick walls with chun shurkhi, a mixture of 16 ingredients including lime, mortar, and lentils.
The stay’s six rooms are named after different neighbourhoods in Calcutta. I spend the afternoon exploring the property as I familiarise myself with Calcutta’s heritage. Two rooms that catch my fancy are ‘Boipara’—boi means books and para is Bengali for neighbourhood—and ‘Jatrapara,’ an ode to jatra, Calcutta’s popular folk theatre that dates back to the 16th century. The former is a tribute to the city’s undying love for books and to College Street, the hub of literature and the original book market. A portion of the floor at the room’s entrance is furnished with old marble plaques featuring calligraphy from the 18th century. Traditionally, when a relative died, family members donated a sum of money to a temple so they could purchase a part of the temple floor to place a marble plaque carrying the name of the deceased. Many of these plaques were ordered but not claimed, and that is how they landed up in The Calcutta Bungalow. Within, Boipara is filled with literature on Calcutta, among which I spot a framed poster of the historical novella Raj Kahini by Abanindranath Tagore, whose book cover was designed by Satyajit Ray.
In Jatrapara, props from jatras such as handheld fans, and framed posters of covers of jatra scripts can be seen. If you read Bangla, you can even buy a jatra script at the shop. The rooms ‘Darzipara’ and ‘Mochipara’ are tributes to neighbourhoods of tailors and cobblers respectively. I spot a sewing machine for a study table and cobbler anvils for bookends within. I’m staying in ‘Sahibpara,’ which flaunts elements of ‘White Town,’—modern-day neighbourhoods Dalhousie and Esplanade—where the British in colonial Calcutta lived (Indians largely lived in what the British referred to as the ‘Black Town’—Shyambazar, Sovabazar, Kumartuli, among others). English-style candle stands and cutlery adorn the shelves of the room, and at the end of the bathroom is a large, impressive copper bathtub in which I spend my summer evening before heading for a hearty meal at the dining room, called Notunbazar (new market), named after one near Chitpur in North Calcutta.
For dinner I am served jhur jhure aloo bhaja (crispy fried, thin potato strips), tangra maacher jhol (catfish curry), bhetki maach in mustard, Bengali-style chicken curry, and sondesh (a Bengali sweet). The meal was excellent but overpriced (rS1,500 per person for a meal in Calcutta is 5-star hotel rates).
Zero sound, cosy blankets, fluffy pillows, and a good night’s sleep later (despite the absence of ceiling fans, and I detest air-conditioning), I wake up for my last leisurely bath in the glorious bathtub that single-handedly enhances my stay. For breakfast, I binge on a bowl of fresh fruits, fluffy, milky scrambled eggs, and cereal. The stay also offers a Bengali breakfast that includes radha ballabhi (lentil-stuffed Indian flatbread deep-fried in mustard oil), luchi-alur dom (aloo-puri), and rosogolla. The rooftop café is a great place to spend a winter morning but it was too warm to be out in the sun in June.
The Calcutta Bungalow takes guests for complimentary hour-long walks in North Calcutta, but with so much history and literature on offer inside, my lazy heart decided to skip this and sleep in instead.
The Calcutta Bungalow is on Radha Kanta Jeu Street in North Calcutta, 11 km/30 min southwest of Kolkata airport (calcuttabungalow.com; doubles from Rs5,000, including breakfast).
Chandni Doulatramani is trying to hide somewhere on the fringe, swapping between the roles of an independent journalist and a writer. These days she can be found loitering around the streets of Calcutta, eating jhaal muri and thinking up stories to tell.