In a flashback

Anjana Basu | Updated on July 13, 2018

Forward to the past: Friends Iftekhar Ahsan, founder of Calcutta Walks, and Chris Chen came together to convert a decrepit house in north Kolkata into a B&B with six bedrooms. Photo: Anjana Basu

A slice of the Kolkata’s urban heritage is reborn as a bed-and-breakfast

A hot Sunday afternoon. A trip to Sir Radha Kanta Jew Street down a long, not-so-straight road. That too tracked by the tinny voice of the Google Maps woman: “100 metres turn left.” It was a long time since I had been to north Kolkata and I certainly did not remember taking that road. I ignored an elephant with a raised trunk in front of a municipal market, in a rush to reach petrol pumps and intersections that Google Maps guided me to.

Sir Radha Kanta Jew Street — not named after a follower of Judaism but a Vaishnavite who, apparently, was addressed as Radha Kanta ji — was one of those narrow intersections past the petrol pump. “You are here,” said the voice with finality — the ‘here’ being a lemon building with a splash of aqua that was, oddly enough for the colour scheme, a bank. Further down was my destination, Calcutta Bungalow, a new heritage B&B. The name in gold lettering announced itself from the verandah upstairs. It had been constructed from a townhouse and curated to recreate old Kolkata — not the Kolkata of zamindari houses rich in marble statues and gilt furniture but a more modest one dating back to 1926.

The building in its entirety had belonged to two brothers of the Mazumdar family, who had divided it with a pillar down the middle. Both buildings were mirror images of each other with courtyards, rooms and flights of stairs. Presumably, the women of the houses would climb up to the terrace every evening and comb out their long hair while continuing conversations about maids and menus and other such because, given the narrowness of the houses, secrecy seemed impossible.

The air of nostalgia that hangs around Calcutta Bungalow is courtesy Iftekhar Ahsan, founder of Calcutta Walks, and his friend Chris Chen, a producer of essential oils. And the rooms owe their look to scenographer Swarup Dutta. There are six bedrooms, each named after one of the six neighbourhoods in the area.

1926 again: The building once belonged to two brothers of a Mazumdar family. Photo: Anjana Basu


Jatrapara is theatrical (thanks to the posters on the walls) in keeping with its reference to stage actors who lived in the area; Mochipara refers to the cobblers who crafted leather for the rich and poor of north Kolkata (shoes with curly tips have been neatly framed); Boipara riffles through the old books that line nearby College Street; Darzipara pays tribute to the tailors with framed scissors and patchwork bedcovers, and then there is Sahibpara, the room with a great copper bath perched on a platform, in homage to Kolkata’s association with the British Raj.

Notun Bazar, the breakfast room, has a vast wooden table with glass jars filled with biscuits that one finds in the city’s innumerable tea stalls. Among them is the iconic projapoti or butterfly biskoot — it had travelled to this part of the world with the French under the name of palmier. The low hanging lights in Notun Bazar are old megaphones once used for making announcements. The food menu is mostly Bengali, with a sprinkling of continental dishes. And walk-ins are welcome for lunch or dinner.

Each room here has an Olivetti typewriter to invite residents to clatter out a love letter or even a postcard from a time before emails and instant communication. An army of caretakers, with brushes and ink tape, services the machines once a month — they work on the scores of typewriters that still line the High Court pavements for the benefit of litigants.

Not too far away lies Sonagachi, India’s largest red light district, that once housed the city’s most sought-after courtesans. A café is planned on the terrace, where a pink neon light scrawl celebrates the fact that Bengal has 13 festivals in 12 months (baro maashey tero parbon).

Come October the area will twinkle with tuni bulbs (fairy lights) and the dhaks will beat as Durga Puja announces its presence in the old city. A medley of moods, styles, cultures and commerce will unfurl just a stone’s throw away and Sir Radha Kanta Jew Street and the new-minted Calcutta Bungalow will time-travel to the days when north Kolkata was the heart of the known world for Bengalis.

Anjana Basu is a Kolkata-based writer

Published on July 13, 2018

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