A tourist visiting India is unlikely to hear the name “Kolkata” in his list of “cities to visit”. I do not blame him, neither do I blame anyone who associates Kolkata with Victoria memorial, and well, nothing else! My city is full of historical monuments that the government does not care about, it does not even come close to some other leading cities regarding the glitz and glam quotient.
If I choose to write about my city, I will never stop and hence I will write about one street, a street of memories for any student living here…the college street, ”boi-para” as it is fondly called. It is home to the Calcutta University, and The Presidency College, both highly prestigious . The whole narrow street just bursts with life. Pavements lined with book stalls, shabby, with a mind-boggling stock of second hand books. Students from all streams hang around with their friends – the budding author, the self-proclaimed intellectual – every one is seen bargaining in raised voices. The sheer variety of books is just overwhelming. Another factor is that the stalls are not “isolated”. It is a web, a network. You go to buy a book in one stall, if you are given the verdict that it is not available (happens rarely), you can rest assured that a search has been conducted in at least ten stalls to your right and left before having told you that. And if the owner tells you that you have got the publication or the name of the author wrong, you know he is right mostly. They are educated and possess a vast knowledge about books, though of course there are exceptions!
To visit college street, you also need to be a highly alert person. The street, being quite a narrow one, has an array of vehicles passing amidst the huge crowd of people. The signature trams, private buses, cars, cycles, hand pulled rickshaws, the bamboo made “thela-gaari” carrying loads of goods, you name it and it is there! Things get better if it rains; one has to wade through knee-deep water to reach one’s destination amidst the choc-a-bloc situation.
Needless to say, it is a paradise for book-lovers, and has something for everyone. Though I too frequent Oxford book stores and Crossword, the charm of sitting on a bench in shackles, asking about numerous books, showing the expression of utter earth-shattering shock when the shop-keeper quotes a price, fighting to get that rarely available book without emptying one’s pockets is just something else. The sheer nostalgia of opening an old book, with names scribbled on it, pages turning almost brown from the “newer” yellow shade…the experience cannot be felt in a day. The continuous hopping from one stall to another, chatting with friends.(one is bound to meet one there!) is tiring. Of course, college street is incomplete without a mention of The Indian Coffee House. I love the new-age cafeterias and yet I love to enter this coffee house. It is not well-maintained despite all of its heritage status. Though it is quite frequently depicted in films for the nostalgia it has about it, a visit is needed to soak in its atmosphere. You will hate it if you are used to the sugar-coated, mechanical responses of today’s waiters at the cafés. Here, the old waiter will actually “scold” you if you ask why your order is not coming and the coffee cannot match up to the freshly ground sophisticated versions, yet you will return, for the atmosphere. Grimy walls, fans that make noise, ordinary comfortable chairs and tables, where you can chat for hours (it takes hours for your orders to come), drink your coffee, eat your food soaked in oil, be engulfed in the smoke, and continue doing what Bengalis are best at doing – having “adda” sessions. Every Bengali is acquainted with the song sung by Manna Dey dedicated to this very place.
I do not know for how long this street would remain a reality. Last heard, a supermarket was going to be built with one floor dedicated to the book stalls. Maybe it will be a better experience or maybe not, but it will be different from what we have felt and lived. In my mind, this street is going to hold its own charm forever…at least in memories if not in reality.
[Image Source: http://flickr.com/photos/lecercle/484540154/]