We get up early in the morning to meet Sunayana and Kenji from Calcutta Walks, at Shovabazar ((Best pronounced ‘Shobabajar’ – Bengali doesn’t actually have any v or z sounds, but they’re often used in transliteration of words and names out of deference to their Sanskrit or Persian origins)) Metro station ((I’ve written about my experiences on the Kolkata Metro, here, if you’re interested – and you can follow links from there to more writing about my trip…)) in North Calcutta ((for no very good reason I’m spelling Kolkata as Calcutta throughout this; both spellings and pronunciations are in widespread use by residents, and I tend to use the other, but our guides use the old-fashioned/English spelling in their name, and ‘North Calcutta’ is an English phrase – if I’m talking about Kolkata, should I call it Uttor Kolkata as well?)). They are to show us around some of the old houses and narrow streets of this part of the city. It’s uncomfortably early for me, but it’s worth it to be able to walk around in the mild heat of the morning, rather than the scorching sun of mid-day.
This is where the richer Bengalis mostly made their homes in the time of the Raj, and thanks to this it is one of the few parts of Calcutta with a visible history of secular Indian architecture, going back more than a century or so. From the street itself upwards, everything man-made here looks and feels more Indian than most of Calcutta, where nearly all the public buildings (temples aside) are obvious Colonial hangovers, and newer developments are so often so obviously modelled after their Western equivalents.
Here we see why Kolkata was known as the ‘City of Palaces’ – an unlikely number of spectacularly grand old palatial homes are clustered here, built by rajas and nawabs to show off their status and house their families for centuries to come. Their wide courtyards are surrounded by beautiful arches with expansive rooms beyond, and since we are there in the lead-up to Durga Puja, most of them also have particularly impressive shrines set up in them, each in the house style of the family that owns them. Although many of their proud residents are quite happy for us to pop in and look around in wonder, very few of them allow photography.
We briefly visit a very small press, printing packaging on letterpress machines older than independent India. Many such tiny industries exist here, where the old families often find themselves with more property than money, and rent out the odd room to make ends meet.
Our guides buy us some ludicrously cheap, very tasty and reasonably safe fried street food, served in disposable little bowls made of leaves, and take us to see traditional sweets being made. It is fascinating to watch these vast pans of curds and syrup being skilfully manipulated into tiny confectionery treats, but preferring to avoid dairy, I only allow myself a taste.
Another highlight is the maze of narrow, twisty streets of Shovabazar, where dacoits and resistance fighters alike could vanish as required. The sheer number of available alleyways would fox pursuers, and the tiny space between opposing walls would keep out any vehicles, and in many places it would make it easy for a competent climber to vanish in seconds. With sympathetic residents on your side you could melt away here like nothing, and never be found again.