Back to the old Hometown!
What’s the old adage? You can never go home (or something like that)? Over the course of time, things change…and it’s never quite the same, or so “they” say. It’s especially tricky for those of us who started off in one part of the world and then ended up on completely the other side. Where really is home? Frankly, for me, Canada feels like home since I’ve been there since I was 11 and, given my advancing years, that comprises the vast majority of my life. However, those early, formative years in Calcutta still ring out with vague memories of early mornings at the racecourse with my Dad and far too many smacks with the bamboo cane by Miss. Higgins at the nursery school bearing her name (I’m sure I hold the smack record!).
Since we’re in India for a good spell, and we have some time before the treatment starts (turns out we had more time than we thought, given the substituting surrogates), Brita and I decided it was time to pay a visit. We’d visited the Calcutta airport, while flying between Bagdogra Airport (Darjeeling) and Bombay, during on our honeymoon in 2006 but that was the extent of Brita’s exposure to the city. This was Brita’s third trip to India so it was high time she visited the old hometown. Fortunately, they rolled out the welcome mat (it was hard to miss as, in an exemplary urban planning move, they placed the sign precisely where the traffic bottleneck happens when leaving the airport).
We’d caught the 6:25am flight out of Delhi because I wasn’t going to visit Calcutta without going to the races and, much to my horror, I discovered that this was the one week where there was no racing on the weekend. That meant getting into town in time to catch the Wednesday afternoon races. Only after we got there and were chatting to our gracious host ,who happened to be the current Chairman of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club (Cyrus Madan), did we find that some ex Chief Minister had just died so they’d cancelled the previous weekend’s racing and rescheduled it for the weekend we were going to be here anyway. Ahh well…it’s India…. Nevertheless, it was a great afternoon at the track – I was so busy soaking up the atmosphere of the place that I didn’t bother to buy a program nor place a single bet! On top of that our new friend Gautam (moved here from San Fran) handed me a roll of the most-excellent street food ever invented…the shockingly good, Calcutta invention, the “Kathi Kebab”. If I can get one of these guys to move to Vancouver, we’d make a fortune selling these on Burrard or after the bars close! One bite and you can’t help but have a smile on your face….
The afternoon at the races should have prepared us for what was to come – overwhelming hospitality wherever we went in this city. From Cyrus (even though he was busy doing his work) taking the time to chat to us, to Gautam sharing the afore-mentioned kebab, to Ram Gupta buying us a drink 5 minutes after being introduced, to Harish & Kavitha inviting us to dinner and a city tour after chatting with us for 10 minutes…it went on and on! That same evening we were picked up by my old friend Aditya to be taken to dinner at his place – where two other friends I hadn’t seen in 36 years were waiting to join us. Apart from the great fun of reconnecting with people you haven’t seen since you were 11 years old, our concerns about finding things to do for the following 4 days evaporated in the space of about 10 minutes. They all wanted us to come over to their respective places, take us out for dinner, hang out during the day, etc, etc, etc….and suddenly we were worried that we couldn’t remember what we had committed to and when! This was the four of us…admittedly, looking decidedly longer in the tooth than when we last saw each other…(at least when they last saw me).
We spent our first night at the idyllic Tollygunge Club (warning – it is the usual terrible website). This place is an amazing oasis from the teeming milieu outside. You can play golf or tennis, ride a horse, swim in one of two pools, and be pummelled from head to toe while being slathered in mind-boggling amounts of oil at the Aryuvedic Spa…all in the same day if you wish. On top of all that, as a guest, you can take advantage of the club-subsidized prices in all the restaurants (seriously cheap!). Our favourite was a breakfast of “Akuri” (spicy) eggs with hot-buttered toast…ahhh….
Another reason we made sure we could get at least one night at the Tolly was that I wanted to show Brita where my family first got into horse racing. In the ’50’s and ’60’s, Tolly used to host amateur horse races (presumably starting when club members wanted to race their horses against each other). It grew into quite an organized spectacle with a racetrack encircling the grounds, a grandstand…and, of course, bookies. All of that is now gone (mainly due to land being grabbed by the city for the subway line in the 1970’s) and, what used to be a 9 hole golf course has spread itself out and grown to 18 holes. The place where the grandstand was, is now part of the hotel complex but they’ve kept the old winning post (visible in the bushes in the photo below).
The central and southern part of Calcutta is the part I’m most familiar with, having been the area I spent the most time wandering around as a kid. The actual core of the city isn’t that big so I still have a pretty good idea how to get around. The main street for social things like restaurants and bars is Park Street, with some famous older places such as the Swiss confectioner, Flury’s, and a bar which has been around since the 1960’s (Trinca’s). Flury’s used to supply the amazing Easter Eggs my mother used to ship up to Darjeeling for me when I was in boarding school…they were hollow chocolate eggs (probably 6 inches long) filled with yet more small chocolates and covered in a fancy marzipan coating. That was heaven for a 7 year old! Like many other parts of the city, there are some great heritage buildings on Park Street (some of them could be in better shape!) from the 300 years of Brit colonial rule.
Of course, the one thing I had to do (especially to re-live old memories) was to wake up at the crack of dawn and head over to the racecourse to watch the horses working out. Cyrus, being the great host that he is, picked me up at 6:15. Calcutta often has a light mist in the early mornings during the winter (combined with the usual smog) and that makes the whole place glow with the sunrise. The light, along with the sound of galloping hooves, is such a great memory for me! This was taken from the trainer’s stand with the Victoria Memorial (Warning! Rubbishy website #2) looming in the distance.
After walking out into the area where the horses warm up before their works and chatting to various of the locals, we made our way over to where the majority of horses are stabled. Horses and grooms (called “syces”) have to be nimble of foot as they have to cross a rather busy road to get to their stables at Hastings. These have been around for a long time and have that patina that seems to come to old buildings which have seen hundreds of monsoons. I spent many great hours here as a kid – riding around on horses as they were being led about, helping to feed them (while trying to retain all ten of my fingers)…and sipping hot tea out of very environmentally-friendly mud cups!
Our final dinner in Calcutta was eaten at what’s commonly referred to as a dhaba. These are usually restaurants located at truck-stops or attached to a gas station and are open 24-hours. Unlike the usual truck-stops at home (read greasy-spoons), these often have food every bit as good and fresh as you’d find in fine restaurants. New friends, Harish and Kavitha, showed us around their lovely farm near the airport (after a night-time tour of the city), then took us to a dhaba nearby. The food was amazing – kebabs, rotis, etc…fresh and hot! Definitely one of the best meals we’ve had while in India.
The last, but certainly not least, trip down memory lane was to go and visit my old nursery/elementary school. Miss. Higgins (of the afore-mentioned penchant for introducing bamboo to my outstretched palm) had a school on New Road, to which I used to hike over every day. Tunna, Aditya and myself headed over to have a look on Saturday morning but, much to our chagrin, we couldn’t actually get inside the main building. At least we had a poke around the grounds (it’s amazing how much bigger you remember things from your childhood) and had a chance to reminisce about all the trouble we used to get into!
Our old house was just up the street and around the corner on Diamond Harbour Road. I’d seen the old place a couple of times since we’d left in 1974 but it’s really going to seed now. The stately old red brick is crumbling, the front gate looks like it’s about to fall off, the garage has been turned into a shop and funny bits of black plastic are hanging from windows. It’s all rather sad, really, and I’d expect some developer to knock it down and put up an expensive set of flats in the near future (assuming archaic state rules allow the landlord to convince the tenants to leave). Having said all that, the old place looks a bit artsy in black and white…
It may not be the most trendy city in the country, nor the most hip, nor the commercial or political capital anymore, but, for me, Calcutta is the big city with the most soul. Between its gorgeous buildings, hospitable people, and its well-earned reputation as being the intellectual capital of the country, it’s definitely my, admittedly biased, favourite. On top of that, I love the fact that the place is flooded with thousands of Ambassador cars (mostly taxis) all scuttling about on their ancient, twisted axles, no doubt hoping that they can find a role to play in the 21st century.
Yup…they’re probably right when they say you can never go home – especially after all these years. On the other hand, it makes a visit so much more rewarding!
PS: For all the Calcutta pics, check out my FlickR Album