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Friday, July 30, 2010


Personal History: Kolkata (Calcutta) Old and New


Chinese Eateries * Streets with New Names*Anglo-Indians

It does not take much to take one back memory lane to scenes, smells and sounds of years past.  In my case, many years past; it was 1969 when I left Kolkata for the west coast of the United States.

Recently, a friend forwarded a link about Kolkata's China Town and it included video clip of the evocative documentary, Legend of Fat Mama,  made by Rafeeq Ellias in 2005 for the BBC. 

The trams at the very beginning of the video made me think of my weekday trips from Park Circus to the office on Old Courthouse Street.

The city fathers of Kolkata ran amok with name changes. For some of us Old Calcuttans it is hard to visualize once-familiar streets with their new names. So, this post contains names as I knew them.  Must confess though that, opposed to America's senseless war in Vietnam, it gave me a vicarious sense of pleasure when Harrington Street, where the U.S. Consulate was located, became Ho-Chi-Minh Sarani.   A few examples of my former stomping grounds, new names in italics.

Old Court House Street - Hemanta Basu Sarani
Camac Street - Abanindranath Thakur Sarani
Lindsay Street - Neli Sengupta Sarani
Free School Street - Mirza Ghalib Street

For some odd reason, unless the web site is incorrect, Park Street and Bentinck Street were spared. 

Although I and my colleagues regularly went to various Chinese eateries in and around the old China Town, to my regret I did not have the pleasure of meeting Fat Mama and enjoying her food.   In the video, one of the characters talks about Fat Mama and her plates of noodle that sold for 4 annas.  That is a clue that Fat Mama plied her business before the conversion to metric currency in 1956, and before my 10-year residency in Kolkata began.

One place we used to go for lunch near the office was nameless (there was no signage) but we called it Hole in the Wall.  It was almost that.  From Old Court House Street, we walked down Waterloo Street and shortly before Bentinck Street made a left turn into a narrow lane. Hole in the Wall was in the second building on the right. The front door was never locked; it  lead to a small courtyard and living quarters of a Chinese family.  There were a few tables and chairs. We took our seats and ordered food from the lady of the house, usually chicken or pork fried rice or chow mein. Watched her cook at the stove.  Between the chores she operated a sewing machine and made garments.  The price per plate was Rs.2.50!  Simple but tasty fare.

Then at the other end of the spectrum was the venerable Chung Wah, now reported to be under management of a Bengali family and with singers to entertain diners in the evening! The now defunct Waldorf on Park Street served Chinese food in elegant surroundings. Somewhat down the scale was Jimmy's Kitchen near the crossing of Lower Circular Road and Theater Road.

Searching the web for Isaiah's Bar on Free School Street I found myself in Abhijit Gupta's Memory Lane. It didn't mention whether Isaiah's Bar where sailors, and others, went in search of ladies of the night, was still in existence but it was a pleasure to find that Kalman Cold Storage was. Remembered the delicious sausages and cold cuts.  In those days calories and cholesterol were not matters of concern. Nearby, Smiley's on Ripon Street was a dingy place that served a decent plate of rice and Goanese pork vindaloo.

Walking down Elliot Road and Royd Street on Sundays and holidays one could smell aroma of  coconut rice and ball curry wafting downwind from apartments occupied by Anglo-Indians.  That,too, is history. The Anglo-Indians left in droves for Australia and Canada.  My Anglo-Indian friends still cook and enjoy coconut rice, ball curry, Country Captain, Mulligatawny, jhal frazee, and vindaloo but most of them now live in single family homes in the suburbs of Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, and Toronto.


"The past, with its pleasures, its rewards, its foolishness, its punishments, is there for each of us forever, and it should be."
----Lillian Hellman


Hi Musafir:
It was wonderful reading your article on Calcutta. I am also away from Calcutta since 1975. But still today I feel very connected to Calcutta----often refer as my city.
Please respond to my E-mail:akundu1000@aol.com for more conversation on the topic.
Thanks, Achin Kundu
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