I’d only been once to Kolkata before, a long time ago. And I’d been dying to go. Our team at work had been engaged in a field study on auto rickshaws in Kolkata and a consultative workshop in December was the perfect occasion for us all to go in an engage with the project a bit more.
My colleague Manish, who is never satisfied with the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, bullied us all into booking what he called “a quaint heritage property on Sudder Street”. It’s only when we got there that we realized this was the famous Fairlawn Hotel. With its interiors painted a bizarre green, its walls cluttered with newspaper clips, photographs and paintings, and its rooms full of eclectic curios, Fairlawn is a sensory explosion indeed!
We spent quite a few amused and excited moments recognising famous faces, including Patick Swayze and Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor (who apparently spent their honeymoon here!), several photographs of British Royals (I’m not they ever visited though!) and some very detailed water colours of Fairlawn that I particularly liked. Fairlawn’s infamous owner Violet (Vi) Smith, who was well known as a talented racconteur and host, passed away at the ripe old age of 93 only in 2014! One could see, standing there in those rooms full of atmosphere, that Fairlawn had seen some really interesting times! The building, I gather from news reports online, is over 200 years and was inherited by Vi from her Armenian mother. Through its history, it has been a home, a barracks and mess for Canadian airmen during the World War II and finally, a hotel that was a must-visit for foreign visitors in Kolkata for years. Vi’s daughter Jennifer runs it now.
Amid our busy work schedules, we managed to sneak in some crazy pictures of ourselves in Fairlawn as well as some moments of leisure chatting while standing in its historic corridors.
Born and brought up in Kolkata, Antara Choudhuri was sensitized to Tagore, Nazrul Islam and other bards, dramatists and writers, whose contributions to the field of literature have earned the City of Joy its coveted sobriquet. She believes that nothing in this world can exceed the magical beauty of words, strung together in sentences, giving form to ideas and beliefs, and most importantly, making communication effective. Since her childhood, she has always loved to play around with words and her love for languages and writing stems from the belief that languages all over the world, have only one purpose, which is not to divide people on the basis of ethnicity, race, culture or geography, but to bring them together by facilitating effective communication.
Comment: Antara’s entry was appreciated for its deep passion and sense of belonging for Kolkata and the interesting use of personification, metaphor and symbolism in her description. Writing this piece was clearly an act of love!
Me: At least the moon, the stars and the wind are the same here as in Kolkata
You: Yes, the rain and the sand too.
Me: Sand?? Are you making fun of me?
You: No. Matite bali thake toh. Kon balir kona kotha theke eshechhe tui janish? Ekta Kolkata, ekta Chennai, ekta London.
In that moment, these words became more than a mere three line message on my WhatsApp messenger. They made me feel closer to my city than ever before. The city that I had left behind with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat, that refused to let me be for days at a stretch.
Kolkata, a city like no other can ever be. No, she is not like the planned cities of today, divided into sectors and blocks. She has a character of her own, much like the mood swings of a well-read woman. A woman who is always on the lookout for something new, something that will make her think, read a little more into it and then think some more! She is a never-ending maze of roads and alleys that conceal a surprise at every turn. Each path leads you to a new destination, a destination which may be physically the same, yet has something new to offer each time you visit. You will never encounter a dead end, neither literally nor metaphorically! Such is the allure of my city!
An oasis of peace, of tranquillity, with diverse flavours that not only pamper your taste buds, but also make you think in ways and about things like never before! Each day brings with itself a new surprise. Be it the bright sunny day, the dreamy cloud cover or the despotic shroud of fog in winter, each day is different and has a new story to tell. A story that will intrigue you and leave you feeling unique and special at the end of each day. Such is the allure of my city!
My city is more than a mere collection of constructions in bricks and mortar. She is a living, breathing entity, waiting to breathe life into you! Her entity is not limited to her physical being. A plethora of sounds complement her physical being and make her a city that can be experienced through the five senses. When was the last time you felt even remotely connected to something non-human to the extent of endowing it with human qualities? Such is the allure of my city!
Kolkata, the city of my dreams. Indeed the city of joy, rife with festivals, the most important among them being the Durga Puja. The red bordered sarees, the red bindis, the tinkling of jewellery, the overwhelming enthusiasm of people flocking from one pandal to another. Yes, I can vividly see it all as I close my eyes. It’s like being transported back in time, back to the precious days spent in the all-encompassing affection of the city that I call my home. For, it is only here that I “live”, elsewhere I merely “exist”. Such is the allure of my city!
As I watched the superbly skilled Vidya Balan in ‘Kahaani’ tonight (film highly recommended), I could not stop admiring the way Sujoy Ghosh has romanced Kolkata in the film. Portrayed in a suitably old world tint, every frame captured the worst of Kolkata and converted it into an endearing visual. Poverty, entangled wires, hand riksha pullers, the jerky motion of the tram, the roadside tea stalls, the winding alleys, the decaying buildings, the traffic and ceaseless mass of humanity. Faces creased with worry, faces that smiled, faces that wore indescribably expressions. I wanted to go there immediately and lose myself in this great city, all by myself, with a sketchpad and camera. Kolkata has been hitting me for the past few months through books, articles and visits by friends and family; it’s beckoning for sure!
Mind still filled with images of lovely Kolkata, what a shock it was for us to step out of the exit into a stairwell that had a ceiling not even 6 feet high! As we walked down the exit stairs, we were met with the most extraordinary amount of filth and litter. One landing had rotting vegetables, presumably supplies that the banquet hall on that floor hadn’t consumed for the wedding dinner they were hosting. Another landing had piles of rubbish. Another had spit stains, yet another had used, discarded plates with wasted food spilling out, another had mattresses piled in it! The stairway was barely lit (anyone could have slipped and fallen), the exits back into the mall were locked, so no one could leave the smelly stairwell even if they wanted to.
Nearing the end of this horrendous journey, I started to take pictures; believe me, these tell only a small bit of the tale (i was unable to go against the flow of traffic to capture the real gems!). Perhaps the romantic street scenes of Kolkata, when met in the flesh, may not seem so beautiful, I realized, as I filled with rage at the irresponsibility of SRS Cinema and Omaxe (this was in the Omaxe Celebration Mall on Sohna Road, Gurgaon). How could they let an entire movie hall full of audiences, who paid hard earned money for tickets to be subjected to such a humiliating experience. The least I could do was document this and here are the pictures to tell the story.