Ripe old Kolkata

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on September 07, 2018

March past: Nostalgia for an older, gentler culture endears Kolkata, also known as the City of Joy, to some tourists. The food served in many of its older restaurants — Mocambo on Free School Street, for example — adds flavour to the city’s heritage   -  ZAC O’YEAH

Some things are best unchanged. The city’s buildings, people, and some of its food make the past both beautiful and coveted

I’m about to step into a taxi in Kolkata, but notice that a mangy dog has chosen to nap under its shade. So, I softly shut the door and decide to walk. The Park Street Cemetery is nearby and my legs need some stretching from hours in traffic jams.

I love to walk about in Kolkata and see its sights on foot. There’s something about its decay that makes it feel utterly realistic: No plasticky Disney make-up covers the scars of urbanity; everything is the real deal. Interestingly, “decay sightseeing” is trending globally — camera-toting tourists go for “urban adventures” promising guided “ruin porn” — gawking in the seediest sectors of Berlin, Bucharest and Budapest. Former Soviet capitals Minsk and Tbilisi showcase picturesque drug addicts overdosing at the feet of rotting Lenin statues, and offbeat sites such as Chernobyl (where the burst nuclear reactors have cooled sufficiently) allow close-up peeks. Amateur photographers love to snap bag ladies tottering across deserted car parks in Detroit, the erstwhile Motor City of the US.

India is, of course, a premier destination to experience. For example, there are some fine old hotels gone to seed, such as the Grand Hotel in Pune’s cantonment or Mumbai’s disintegrating cast-iron construction Watson’s (where, long before Bollywood existed, the country’s first film screening took place in 1896). But, perhaps, best of all is Kolkata, the City of Joy, which seems frozen in time like a mosquito in amber. Tourists like me are drawn to it, perhaps out of severe nostalgia for an older, gentler culture epitomised by a street life of chai addas on grimy pavements, open-air handpump bathing, trees growing out of cracked walls, hand-pulled rickshaws, battered vintage trams that count as the oldest in Asia and, at the heart of it all, the New Market, which, despite the name, is really ancient and has equally ancient deals on offer, such as smoked Portuguese-style Bandel cheeses, which are still being manufactured and sold at the yesteryear rate of ₹10 apiece.

But, soon enough, it’ll all be gone, just like the Sudder Street relic Fairlawn Hotel, residing at which seemed to transport one back to the Raj. Fairlawn was purchased by a luxury hospitality group recently and will probably be reopened as a boutique inn with a flashy bistro. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay there once and felt like a proper neighbour of Tagore — who wrote his celebrated poem ‘The Awakening of the Waterfall’, standing on the balcony of the adjacent house. I also fondly remember a stay at the 19th-century YMCA around the corner in Chowringhee: Like at Fairlawn, dining was included in the reasonable room rate, making it possible to experience old-style “boarding & lodging”. Both hotels featured cast iron architectural details and antique, musty furniture.

While walking down the streets of Kolkata, I end up lamenting the inevitable loss of everything I see. If not replaced by malls, everything will disappear into the Hooghly one day, as newspapers report that the city has sunk by more than half a metre over the last decades. This is apparently why so many buildings lean as precariously as the Tower of Pisa.

After a stroll through my favourite graveyard, the suitably decaying Park Street Cemetery, where caretakers nap inside the crypts of towering tombs that constantly remind me of exotic, old-fashioned ways to die — ranging from monsoon melancholia to too many sips on the hubble-bubble to choking on pineapples — a dapper man approaches me. “You like girl? Cheap rate because you are my friend. No? How about hashish? Please, do some business with me. I am so hungry. I’m Christian.”

Speaking of hunger, and after giving the well-dressed beggar what coins I had in my pocket, I head to the enchanting Mocambo, which stands in funky Free School Street. It’s on the same side of the road as the birthplace of 18th-century British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray and just around the corner from posh Park Street (where the city’s other classic restaurants like Blue Fox and Moulin Rouge are being turned into either McDonald’s or sports bars).

Luckily, Mocambo hasn’t changed a bit since I first set foot in it decades ago, and hasn’t decayed much at all. Many of the dishes on offer have become perennial favourites, top-class foodie heritage originally cooked 60 years ago by Mocambo’s then Italian chef. I consider ordering peculiarities such as angels on horseback (oddly enough, for this seafood-obsessed town, made with chicken fillets rather than oysters), macaroni casserole, fish Wellington of “beckty”, or perhaps the devilled pepper crab, but despite all the enticements on the quirky menu card I end up asking, as always, for the signature surf & turf (₹525), in which jumbo prawns top a juicy slab of chateaubri, doused in dense mushroom sauce, and accompanied by sautéed colourful veggies and roasted potatoes. It goes well with the chilled beer, which is served in a sturdy pewter mug.

Mocambo, always, and Kolkata, often, are proof that there may not be any need to change things when they are absolutely fine and functional as they are. Even if a bit old.



Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on September 07, 2018

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