City of Joy

What can one say about Kolkota – It’s not just a city, it’s an emotion !
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It is an unforgetable experience each time you visit. It moves the soul, stirs the heart and connects emotionally with you. Once you visit the city, a part of it always remains with you. It’s rich heritage, the sights, colours, sounds, smells, food, people, conversations ranging from Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Kishore Kumar, Cricket, Football, Politics, Literature, Food – all leave you with a feeling of nostalgia and longing. It indeed is one of the most charming big cities in India.
My connection with Kolkota is longstanding – It is the city of my birth. I lived there for the first 4 years of my life, shifted to Delhi, and only returned 20 years later as a tourist. This was my daughter’s first trip to Kolkota.  I was very excited that she would finally experience the magic of the city that continues to mesmerize me each time I visit.
Our 2 day trip began with a bonfire dinner at a friend’s place ( where we were staying too ). They live in an upscale neighborhood of Jodhpur Park. Our flight was late by 2 hours, and we landed at 10.30pm. We were picked up by our host’s friendly driver who told us we will be at ” dada’s baadi ” by 11.30 pm. We arrived and were welcomed in true Bengali style with a warm hug and taken straight to the terrace where a bonfire awaited us. The evening had just begun.
The bar would put any International bar to shame. From the finest single malts of Scotland and Yamazaki to the best wines , we were spoilt for choice. With my poison ie red wine in my hands, I was soon introduced to everyone there, and in a matter of minutes I was part of the extended family. The guests were mostly Bengalis who now live in other countries or cities in India. And come back every year at Christmas and New Year’s to be with their friends and families.
Let’s start with the food – what can I say about the spread. 3 types of fish, mutton, chicken, extensive vegetarian fare, rice, luchi ( the Bengali version of Puri) , 3 desserts followed by Sandesh. Fine Gourmet cuisine. And we had missed the appetizers !
No evening can be complete without music. Every Bengali can sing and/or play an instrument. With a guitar  in our midst I heard the most beautiful Bengali songs – which I was told later lends itself perfectly with a guitar, and does not necessarily need an orchestra to accompany it. Given my childhood training in Hindustani Classical music, I too rendered one of my favourite ghazal of Farida Khanum ” Aaj jaane ki zid Na Karo”. The evening finally ended when the bonfire died down.
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I am an early riser, and though I had retired at 2.30 am, I was promptly up at 7 am, and out of the house at 7.15 am for my morning walk. The house is very well located, close the Rabindro Sarobar Lake , which is a ten minutes, Google maps direction led walk. The walk to the  lake was most interesting – the first few mins was through the residential lanes and suddenly you entered into smaller narrow lanes. Morning rituals had begun, from brushing teeth to drinking chai, children running, stray dogs chasing a squealing hen – Suddenly I stopped, there in front of me was the Goddess Kali Idol – a striking idol, she was right there in the middle of the narrow lane, gazing at you in all her glory.  I couldn’t help but stop and fold my hands as I marveled at the happenings on the streets of Kolkota.
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Moving on I came across railway tracks that one need to cross. Across the tracks I again stopped to fold hands at a Shiv temple – the linga and his devotee Nandi by his side, and a small orange Idol of Hanuman.
Finally I was at the park . The lake is surrounded by jogging, walking tracks -3 rows of them. And there are benches at every corner, facing the lake. People were walking, jogging, doing yoga, meditation, or simply talking to each other. In the middle of the lake,  groups of people were rowing, and I saw a coach standing at one end barking directions. To the other side of the park I saw the Calcutta Cricket Training Academy, with coaching sessions in full flow. Next to it a football field, a game was on with spectators cheering. Next to it another cricket training academy – truly a sports loving city. Through the walk I enjoyed observing people and catching fleeting bits of conversation – from a Kishore Kumar concert description, to the latest Bengali film ” Amazon Obhijaan” to analysis of the recently concluded India Sri Lanka cricket tour. Before I knew it I had reached the other end of the lake. This was my favourite corner – trees in the middle of the lake with hundreds of  birds on its branches. The trees looked like they were part of an art installation, and the birds perched on top were so still, they looked almost lifeless.  This area of the park also had an ” Art Centre”.
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Having done 2 rounds, I decided to head back the same way I came. I was looking forward to a hot scrumptious breakfast.
I was back at their place by 8.30 am and greeted with a hot steaming breakfast of luchis and multiple cups of Garam Chai.
Sufficiently fortified I was ready to begin my day in the City of Joy.
We started at the “Marble Palace”, a beautiful heritage home in North Kolkota – a hidden gem, off the beaten track, not listed on any ” to do tourist attractions”. Built in 1835 by Raja Rajendra Mullick, a wealthy Bengali merchant, it was a visual delight. Managed by a family trust, the entry was free. While the mansion is Neoclassical style in architecture, the plan with open courtyards is in Bengali Style.
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We walked through the beautifully manicured gardens with marble fountains and were guided by the staff to walk first towards the ” mini zoo” there. While there were deer, antelopes and monkeys , it was the exotic birds that caught my eye –  Macau, Hornbill, Yellow and White parrots, African gray. We then moved towards the mansion. One needed to leave the shoes at the entrance and enter with a guide. The first sight inside took our breath away. The floor was all Italian marble with 125 different colours. The walls were also made of marble. While we walked from one room to another, we continued to look with awe and amazement at the artefacts and antiques , sculptures and paintings. From  an original Rubens to a large, almost 15 feet rosewood statue of Queen Victoria to the most beautiful porcelain vases from China and Japan, to rare carpets, to stunning chandeliers , everywhere one looked one gasped at the beauty of the collection –  a collection to rival any international museum. The family still lives there in a portion of the palace that is closed for public viewing. We were amazed to discover this jewel in the city.
The tour had made us hungry and we decided to head to Park Street at our old favourite haunt – Mocambo. We were being wishful to get a table at 2 pm. Given there was a one hour waiting, we decided to grab some rolls instead. It is one of the most mouth watering meals. I had a mutton egg roll , which was gobbled up in minutes, and we were ready to head to Victoria Memorial. After a 30 mins walk across the maidan ( the famous grounds) we reached the Memorial. You cannot visit Kolkota without a sight or glimpse of this most iconic , beautiful marble structure, with the wind angel on top of the dome and Queen Victoria at its entrance.  It was built between 1906 and 1921 and  was dedicated to Queen Victoria. Today there is a museum inside. After a quick photo stop we decided to walk to St Paul’s Cathedral – another famous landmark. Noted for its Gothic style of Architecture, it continues to attract groups of students who visit the Cathedral every day to study it’s edifice.
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While walking , by the roadside, we came across the street food of Kolkota –  puchkas, chaat, jhaal moodi ( my personal favourite), golas ( frozen ice balls dipped in different flavored syrups), Ice cream vendors. With a packet of jhaal moodi in our hands we entered the Cathedral. The stained glass windows are what capture your eyes first. Given a service was happening in the main chapel we quickly made our way out.
It was 5 pm and the sun had already set. We decided to call our car and give our weary feet some rest and head home.
After multiple cups of chai and discussing the main features of the day we were ready for dinner. Choices ranged from Chinese to Park Street options to the famous Kolkota Clubs, but we finally settled for delicious home cooked Bengali fare.
There was one more most essential part of the day that was yet to come.
If you are spiritually inclined, you cannot leave Kolkota without paying homage to Goddess Kali and visiting the Kalighat temple.
It was 10.00 pm and yet there were crowds of devotees who had come for a ” darshan” on the last Saturday of the year.  With some ” assistance ” we managed to get one of the priests to guide us through the crowds into the inner sanctum. And there she was. One of the most powerful deity I have seen. Kali Ma – the Dark Mother, the Goddess of creation, perseverance and destruction of evil.  We were blessed to spend 10 minutes there. The vibrations one felt in the temple is difficult to describe. It was a most fulfilling experience.
Our first day ended, and was filled with rich experiences and emotions.
Day two , post morning routine, we decided to give Mocambo another shot. New year’s Eve brunch only the courageous would venture to Park Street. As they say, ” fortune favours the brave”. We landed up at 12.15 pm most purposefully and were immediately ushered into the restaurant. The old world charm is still alive – from the tables, to the lights, to the unchanged menu, to the uniform of the waitor. Devilled crabs, Chicken a la Kiev, Pork Sirloin Steak Sizzler, Chateaubriand Beef Steak Sizzler, with chilled beers,  followed by Marzipan and Baked Alaska, an old classic for Desserts. Burrrp !
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We were a satiated lot when we walked out of the restaurant and looked most pleased with ourselves when we saw the waiting line to get into Mocambo.
Next stop – The Ganges. We drove to the famous Prinsep Ghat at Fort William by the banks of the Hooghly River ( distributory of the Ganges) – the Ghat was built in 1841 during the British Raj. The Palladian porch there  is named after the famous Anglo Indian scholar  and antiquary Mr. James Prinsep and was constructed in 1843. This memorial is rich in Greek and Gothic inlays and is popular amongst locals to take photos.
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Beyond are the railway tracks which we crossed to get to the Ghat.  Here one got a view of the imposing Vidyasagar Setu, more popularly known as the Second Hooghly Bridge. We paused to soak in the sights – the colours of the boats, the barges, the bridge and the magnificent river .
We headed towards Belur Math next, to see the famous Ramakrishna temple. This is located on the west side of the Hooghly River in  Belur and was founded by Swami Vivekananda, the founder of the Ramakrishna Mission. The temple is famous as it combines architecture elements and motifs from all the three religions Hindu, Christianity and Islam. We reached 30 mins before it’s evening opening hours and went to a roadside dhaba to have masala tea which they serve in clay cups. At the complex, there were over 2000 people. We couldn’t go inside, however we got time to admire the beauty of the temple from the outside and it’s location.
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Just across the river is the famous Dakshineshwar temple – I have had the opportunity to visit in an earlier trip and is one of the most beautiful temple complex on the banks of the river.
The day ended at a country side getaway one hour outside the city.
Alas, it was time to return home.
Au Revoir Kolkota – Bhala Bidaya, Abara Dekha Habe ( Goodbye, See you again) .

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