“It’s all right if someone doesn’t like Calcutta, it has its flaws. But my love is rooted,” says Parama Ghosh, a designer whose traditional Bengali weaves are splashed with embroideries of yellow taxis, flaming palash flowers and the Howrah Bridge.
Ghosh, who grew up in New Alipore, an upscale neighbourhood of high-rises and gated societies, moved to Behala after marriage. Here, the new normal was to share shutki macch (dried fish) in steel tiffin boxes, gossip good-naturedly about other people’s business, and play gully cricket on bandh days. Suddenly it was acceptable to love and quarrel with the same ferocity. “Perhaps that’s the difference between a neighbourhood and a para,” ponders the owner of the label, Parama. For Ghosh, ‘neighbourhood’ indicates the formality of pin codes and buildings. But a ‘para’ is a system of bonhomie, where you can hold conversations from balconies and drop into each other’s houses unannounced,” she explains, listing out favourites.
Ghosh nurses a soft spot for Dalhousie (now B.B.D. Bagh) and Esplanade, adjoining pockets of colonial architecture in central Calcutta. Having worked at a law firm in High Court para, she is no stranger to its swelling colour and noise of office-goers, a whirl of attachés, smoke breaks and footpath lunches. Ghosh admits to being in awe of the Writers’ Building, the city’s political nucleus since the British era, with its gorgeous Greco-Roman exterior; St. John’s church with its 19th-century steeple; the Old Currency Building; the hulking art nouveau facade of the Esplanade Mansions; Raj Bhavan, Lal Dighi, St. Andrew’s Church, Stephen Court, GPO, and other visual vestiges of the city’s journey.
“I always joke that the reason Park Street’s pin code is (7000)16 because it’s never outgrown the spirit of adolescence,” quips Ghosh. Step into the restaurant-drinking-joint-bookstore-filled part of the city, and your mood is likely to lift. Between swinging live music at Trincas and the soulful reading corners of Alliance Française, off-season merriment is genetic to Park Street. Revellers can take their pick from chelo kebab at Peter Cat, devilled crab at Mocambo, brain masala at Shiraz, or an evening of tipsy karaoke at the uppity youngun of the lot, Hard Rock Cafe. Autumn through winter, blinking lights put up for Durga Pujo and then for Christmas turn the home of Flury’s and Bengal Club into a template of teenage romance. “But it is not about being young. It’s about feeling young, the entrepreneur clarifies.
“Chitpur is special for how it changes character at every corner.” Ghosh’s description of the northern neighbourhood has its basis in the potpourri of visual, olfactory and gustatory seduction it offers. Walk the stretch between Poddar Court and Natun Bazar—you’ll smell from the attar shops, then biryani or mutton burra kebab from the Royal Indian Hotel. In the fast-changing landscape packed cheek-to-jowl stand gamchha shops selling Bangladeshi weaves, printing presses, old photo studios, typography shops, and make-up units for jatra (folk theatre) artists. “I could travel to just look at the jatra posters, hand-painted and with the funniest names, she reveals, also noting her love for iftari food from Zakaria Street, which houses the beautiful Nakhoda Majid.
Snacks, Sarees, Shakespeare
For a neighbourhood nicknamed Boi (books) Para, College Street’s appeal goes much beyond books. As a child Ghosh visited its by-lanes crammed with books and stationery shops to buy dista paper sold by the kilo. But as a youngster hunting for cheap dates with her boyfriend, she frequented the north Calcutta neighbourhood for snacks, not Shakespeare. Sherbet at Paramount, fish kabiraji at Dilkhush Cabin, fowl cutlets that emerge only after sleepy waits at the Indian Coffee House… not to forget the pice hotels, serving no-frills, delicious meals at rock-bottom prices. Then came my wedding, and I rushed to Adi Mohini Mohan Kanjilal for the Benarasi,” she recalls. “Invitation cards for rice ceremonies to invitation cards for funerals, is there anything you can’t find at College Street?”
At Garanhata Street, jewellers selling giant ornaments for house deities can be convinced to customise pieces for mere mortals. The antique shops and budget hotels of Sudder Street; Ahiritola Ghat and Kumortuli Ghat, perfect for uninterrupted Ganga-watching; the gold and spectacle shops of B.B. Ganguly Street and Central Avenue, and the Anglo-Indian settlement of Bow Barracks—all jostle for space on Ghosh’s list.
Done exploring neighbourhoods? Ghosh recommends washing down the experience with a few pegs. At Broadway Hotel, drinking food means salted cucumber, not chakna, a brave attempt at striking balance. For beer and al fresco ambience, there’s Fairlawn Hotel, for magic views of the Calcutta skyline, Blue & Beyond. Don’t miss the fish liver curry at New Cathay Restaurant and Bar, or the joy of seeing your alcohol measured out at the table at Oly Pub. For cracking Calcutta Chinese, the dim-lit watering holes of Chinatown serve best.
“Living in Calcutta is like living with your surprisingly cool grandparents. You get a bit of the old—and new,” laughs Ghosh.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.