By a happy coincidence, one chanced upon a column by Australia’s High Commissioner to India who happens to be of Indian origin (Calcutta Dairy by Harinder Sidhu, Outlook June 24, 2019). Her wistful affection for a place which is my city of birth, and the locations, presented an even more remarkable concurrence of circumstances. Calcutta, now Kolkata, is the capital of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal while the lady’s forebears hailed from Punjab.
In the 19th century, the Bengal Presidency stretched from the North-West Frontier Province in the west to Burma, Singapore and Penang in the east, blazing a possible trail for later movement. Ms Sidhu’s father travelled to Bengal in the ‘forties and proceeded to Singapore, the gateway to Australia. She was in Kolkata to open Australia’s fourth Consulate-General in India, arguably a harbinger of things to come.
The fact that she chose some of the Bengali’s most cherished subjects conveyed familiarity with the place. She wrote about College Street, a public road in the north. The campus of Presidency College (now an autonomous university) is situated off it with the Indian Coffee House across the street, a meeting place for students, writers, artists and reputed literary and publishing groups. The college has an illustrious history, which also defines its neighbourhood. She did not mention either Presidency College or the second-hand book shops lined against its outer railings, which were renowned for the ability to produce any book on-demand.
But she perceptively picked the unique Bengali institution of the “adda” for discussion. From the word “akhra”, a kind of wrestling club, “adda” is rambling but charged banter. She mentioned the Coffee House, a successor to the Albert Hall built-in 1890 in commemoration of the prince consort's visit and converted into its present form in 1944. The culture developed from an early 20th-century trend when news of the scientific and political revolutions in Europe and its configuration into sovereign nation-States was trickling in. Young men met to exchange their rough and ready notes before training at the “akhra”. The latter element was gradually neutralized by close colonial surveillance, leaving the remnant of dialogue for posterity.
The Flury’s tea-room on Park Street a few km north in roughly central Kolkata is a perfect foil for College Street’s Coffee House. It was known for its confectionaries, introduced by a European gentleman in British days. Flury’s continues to be an upmarket rendezvous. Ms Sidhu visited the place and seemed to have captured its ambience. If memory serves, at least one of her favourite book-store personalities was a regular visitor and knowledgeable about the city’s cultural spaces.
Kolkata has long been at the receiving end as Rudyard Kipling’s “City of dreadful night” and simply “dying city”. But there are people to whom it is eternal, warts and all. Ms Sidhu’s warmth for the “City of Joy” will surely strike a chord in a region which should one day regain its lustre.
By Uttam Sen
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