It takes a lunatic to celebrate his sixtieth birthday by herding unsuspecting guests into a bus, drive them through congested Kolkata pockets, sip chai in roadside dhabas, make them walk 37,000 steps (over two days) and get them to say ‘Can we do it again?’
The credit for this unexpected response goes to Kolkata, as discovered through the narrative of the famed Iftekhar of Calcutta Walks.
For two days, Ifty and his guide gang (Ramanuj and Tuhina) drove guests crazy by navigating them across 49 stops, pointing to an arch, doorway, verandah grill, urn and painting or evoking visions of Viceroys, rajas, scientists and revolutionaries. And then to top the ridiculousness of things, they called this the ‘City of Firsts Tour.’ I mean, what the hell. Calcutta? First?
This is how the lunacy was unleashed. All guests – even those living within the city – were lodged at the heritage Tollygunge Club, which appeared to be such an inconvenient proposition (why stay in South Kolkata when all the walks are in North Kolkata?).
The tour comprised places most people have seen (starting with ‘Raj Bhavan’ of all places, possibly the most over-exposed Calcutta location after Victoria Memorial and Howrah Bridge).
The tour covered Rangers Club, the building of which hosted flags on two large-ish domes (Rangers and Union Jack) until 1947. There was Great Eastern Hotel, possibly the first five-star hotel of the Indian sub-continent (the food came from a neighbouring Italian restaurant Peliti’s).
There was a ten-minute stop at Dead Letter Office (where letters were returned after it was discovered that the recipients had died) at a time when no one writes letters. The faithfuls moved on to Old Currency Building which has nothing to do with currency notes any more. The explanation at St Andrew’s Kirk (Scottish church) was more about cocks and steeples than faith and prayer. There was nothing to see inside Writers’ Building, the erstwhile seat of government, except for silence and darkness. The stop at Lyons Range (share market) was for chai-toast than trading.
The guides referred to the General Post Office as ‘Old Fort William’. The Maharaja of Darbhanga in his statue appeared like an unshaven overweight fakir trying a new head dress. The Standard Life Assurance Building had more figurines on its walls than a museum, suggestive of where shareholder money disappeared in the old days. The staff quarters of the Raj Bhavan (Viceroy’s House in the century before last) appeared to pass off as a palace of sorts, which prompted the remark of how profitable it must have been to be a servant of the British. The most striking feature (pun intended) of St John’s Church was its multi-tonne bell, exposed brick and some calligraphy.
At the Park Street Cemetery where people have been lying in peace for dozens of decades, there were folks kneeling to kiss the white decaying tombstone of someone called ‘Derozio’ even though they were not related.
Thankfully, Trincas lunch was called out thereafter at Park Street, where in a broad 2022 afternoon, guests whispered excitedly to each other (I picked up one word: ‘Sixties! Sixties!’).
Early afternoon was spent at the Jorasanko home of Rabindranath Tagore (they said he was gone from home for 80 years and yet to return). Then to Swami Vivekananda where I wondered how he could have lived in such a polished place until I saw the homes across the street. The residence and campus of JC Bose should have been positioned as art destinations instead.
The Police Museum (which represented a collection of customised bombs, swords, guns and daggers used by revolutionaries) is what most have used extensively in video games by the time they are eight. The birthplace of ISKCON appeared to pretty well souped up. A homestay called Calcutta Bungalow offered soft white sandesh, bhajias (fritters) and a puchkawalla.
The last stop was Bengal Rowing Club where instead of discussing coxswain and oarlock, the group settled to devour a 15-dish meal off silver ware. That night, the tour hosts let their guests down: no leg masseurs at Tolly Club.
If one felt that this would have been enough, then wait; the lunacy extended into the second day. This time there was excitement about seeing a flower market, which is nothing but your roadside flower vendor multiplied by 700. One descended to Mullick Ghat on the edge of the River Hooghly to behold the angled spectacle of the Howrah Bridge (the very spot from where 34865 such pictures have been shot in ten years) and couples engaged in pre-marital photography (the Kate Winslet shot from the Titanic extensively used).
At the adjacent Hanuman akhada, two five-sixths naked men grappled at each other in dirt without bothering about personal hygiene in a post-Covid world (how people forget).
The guides added to the confusion by pointing to the grave of an Armenian with ‘1633’ on her tombstone in the Armenian Church when Calcutta was founded in 1690. The reverend Father Menezes at the Old Portuguese Church cautioned us against attending Sunday service (he said ‘You might get addicted to it’). I found the name of the masjid ‘Nakhuda’ an interesting play on words for what is essentially a god-fearing place of worship. The Chinese Temple had more student artists scrawling the Chinese alphabets than devotees seeking deliverance.
At the Parsi Fire Temple, I got to meet only one Parsi (a disappointment) who spoke in English and not in his ‘dikra’ vernacular. At Netaji Bhavan, they insisted that we wear masks while entering even though the virus is history.
What a waste of two days, one would have presumed. This is where it gets strange: for the next seven days, guests gushed on their WhatsApp group using words like ‘Only in Kolkata’, ‘Unbelievable’ and ‘Eye opener’; one even demanded that a book be created to commemorate this deviant behaviour.
Which is how I came to write this piece and make a public confession.
And yes, the lunatic was me.