How to Spend a Day in Kolkata
So the day begins with you running after a train that has already left the station. A pre-booked train that would’ve taken you to Santiniketan for a day-long vacation on a crisp December morning. But you, lulled by your naive expectation of Kolkata trains being perennially late, are now panting on Platform no 12, watching the train you missed by a minute show you its back like a middle finger.
You now have a whole day ahead of you in Kolkata with no plans whatsoever.
And I will tell you exactly how this day goes...
Begin With a Boat Ride
When nothing works your way, you must head for good food. And what better food than dessert?
But to get to the best dessert place in town, you must cross a river!
So you walk out of the overcrowded Howrah station and head for the launch ghat that you may take a while to find. When you do, fetch a ticket to Babughat – it costs six bucks per head! #ItHappensOnlyInKolkata.
You hop aboard a junkyard-worthy launch that sways uncontrollably under your weight, and you start to wonder if taking this mode of transportation will bring you a real-life experience of the Titanic. But once the launch starts, after the initial fright for your life, you ease into the same lazy-daisy mood as the boat — you’ll need to know this feeling (aka: ‘lyadh’ in Bengali) if you’re in Calcutta, for there lies its true spirit.
If it’s a sunny day, on your left you will see the stoic structure of the famous Howrah Bridge. On your right, at a distance, will be the Vivekananda Setu – Howrah Bridge’s lesser-known, India-made step-brother. And if you’re lucky enough, some say you might even catch a glimpse of Gangetic dolphins here. *shrugs*
Breakfast at Nahoum’s
On the other side of the Hooghly river, you land on the steps of Babughat which lead up to a mini railway station and a cha-biri’r dokan, i.e, a tea stall where you shall find a flock of customary Bangali babus at all times, inhaling their Navy Cuts and bhar’er cha (↓).
Right outside this station is your Strand Road, and across from it, the Shahid Khudiram Bose Sarani. You can always take a cab from here, but I’d suggest you walk. The world you see while walking is very different from the one you zoom past when in a car.
Down this road, you will spot the Kolkata High Court complex, the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, the legendary Eden Gardens, the Air India Radio building and the rear-end of the Raj Bhavan. If you turn left from the roundabout and go along the Raj Bhavan, you will see a dozen more such incredible historic spots, including the Writer’s Building and St John’s Church...but the wafting smell of baked goods summons you towards Esplanade, so we go straight.
After a long (long!) walk, you finally land into the boiling pot of shopaholics called The New Market. And through its crooks and lanes, you find the little shop of Nahoum and Sons.
At the end of the day, during an overexcited call to a friend, you may just describe Nahoum’s as “ten times better than Theobroma” — a sentiment that will leave your friend miffed and come back at you with facts and figures. But hey, didn’t William Wordsworth swear to having seen ten thousand daffodils at one glance, all for the purpose of expressing the brilliance of the view? #AapEmotionsKoSamajhLijiye
So at Nahoum’s, you and your other friend scoff down cake after cake— almond pastries, strawberry scones, cheese puffs, mince pies, chicken patties and whatnot.
Warm cheese oozing from the crisp puff pastry, sweet strawberry cream melting in your mouth, spices of the minced meat that make your tongue sing. You could eat at Nahoum's all day long...
But your blood is now pumping with sugar and happiness, and you need some exercise to work up an appetite for your next food stop. Because when in Calcutta, your trip is rendered useless if you can’t constantly eat — like Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven.
And what better way to exercise in leisure than to visit a museum?
A Walk in the Museum
You now stand at a spot with quite a few museums around you. There’s the Indian Museum (aka Jadughar, aka Imperial Museum of Calcutta) at a stone throw distance, where you’d get to see a real-life mummified prince, the skeletons of a mammoth, some really cool artifacts and some really creepy stuffed carnivores!
Then, there’s the Victoria Memorial about 20 minutes from New Market, which houses an underrated museum housing some of the most incredible paintings and statues from the colonial era.
If you’re willing to go a little further, take a metro Girish Park and walk from there to the Jorasanko Thakur Bari — here you’ll get to delve into the life and times of Rabindranath Tagore and his family...maybe make up a little for the missed trip to Santiniketan.
A good one to two-hour walk through one of these museums is bound to have metabolised all those pastries. Time for some big lunch now!
To Park Street for Some Overpriced Lunch
Calcutta is known for good and cheap roadside food that rarely gets you a one-way ticket to the hospital, but this being a holiday and all, what do you say we try out one of those narcissistic, posh restaurants Park Street has a reputation for?
You could walk to Park Street if you’re at the Indian Museum, or take the metro if you’re at Victoria Memorial or Jorasanko. Either way, it’ll be worth the work, I promise.
There’s Peter Cat, for starters…but when you reach, there’s a wait list of 40 minutes! So you head for the next best thing — Mocambo. Here too, a waiting time of half an hour. And they say Kolkata is not for the rich!
Just when you’re beginning to consider Flury’s, Moulin Rouge, or even KFC if they’ll take you, the three-piece suit-wearing manager at Mocambo unlocks the door and invites you in. And the moment you step inside, the aroma of food hits you along with the din of sizzling meat and tinkering cutlery — you know you did the right thing by waiting.
Soon at your table, food starts to arrive, food you could only dream of in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh...
Chunks of bacon dipped in cheese for appetisers, risotto cooked with chicken and pork, lasagna layered with more cheese and meat, overpriced cocktails to wash it all
— and maybe, just maybe, one could dream of creme brulee.
If you still haven’t died and gone to food heaven yet, perhaps you could rest a while at the South Park Street Cemetery…
Rest at South Park Street Cemetery
"Whose graves these are I think I know.
Their homes were in a faraway land though;
They will not see me stopping here
To watch as age wash over their bones..."
A quick Google search will tell you that this is the “largest Christian cemetery outside Europe and America in the 19th century,” that it was opened in 1767, was in use till 1830 and is now an archaeological heritage site protected under the government of India. And here’s a quick fact:
The Park Street cemetery, where lies the remains of poet Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, sits right across from the Lower Circular Road Cemetery which houses the tomb of poet Micheal Madhusudan Dutta.
Imagine the ghosts of Dutta and Derozio walking across the road to meet after lights out, discussing poetry, politics, 'azaadi', Faiz Ahmed Faiz…
Back in the South Park Street Cemetery, you just walked in on a balmy winter afternoon after paying a particularly annoyed gatekeeper Rs 20 for entry fee. You now get to walk down an aisle flanked with age-old tombs and graying graves of 20, 30, 40-year-olds who lived and died in a century long before yours.
Their bones are now earth on which thrive the greenery that surrounds you and form an entwining canopy over your head. And from the canopy sing birds who drown the cacophony of the 21st century city that exists outside the walls of this cemetery.
And maybe, just maybe, as you walk past these ancient graves from an era that saw Indians unite in a unique revolution for freedom, someone will whisper into the wind Tagore's Mahamanob, which has never been more important to remember than now.
Sunset by the Hooghly at Prinsep Ghat
The wind is cold but soft as you sit down on the steps of the ghat with your lebu cha (a poor person’s street-style rendition of lemon-infused tea). The sky is now a dark-ish blue, the two bridges jam-packed with home-bound traffic and the noise of this city is reaching a whole new decibel.
But by the river, the cacophony screeches to a halt. Time slows down to match up with the gait of the dinghy floating home after a long day’s work. Hooghly is in no hurry, and nor should you be, traveller.
So sit here for a while. Talk. Not about politics or climate change or the hell the world is heading for. But about yourself, about poetry, music, science. The mushy, nerdy stuff other cities look down upon Calcutta for. Be a romantic here. This city gives you a free pass.
And once the sun has gone down, turn around and walk back to the James Prinsep Memorial. By now, it should be lit up — its Gothic pillars and arches washed in amber light.
Sit by it (now that people aren’t allowed to go inside and abuse the structure anymore), enjoy cones of ghoti gorom and perhaps, if you’re lucky, a local who’ll tell you stories about the ghosts that haunt Prinsep Ghat…
A Movie at Nandan
You call a cab, because by now, your legs have given up. And you ask the dada to take you to Rabindra Sadan. On your way, you get to catch the glorious sight of Victoria Memorial in the dark, lit by a thousand golden lights.
At Nandan, just before you run in for that random Bengali movie you’d have paid at least 300 bucks to watch at a multiplex, you stop and steal a glance around the renovated compound. Now all painted in blue and white, levelled up to air-conditioned theaters, galleries and outdoor decoration.
But the best parts of Nandan are still the good-old cafeterias, the impromptu group discussions, and the makeshift pond wherein reflects a Christmas-lit St Paul’s Cathedral on a dark winter night.
Quit the pensive! You’re missing the movie you get to watch for 50 bucks. Run, Forest, run!
Wrap it Up with Sangrias & Aloo Biryani
You make a point to take a trip around the Film Academy on your way out of Nandan, because you know that's the natural habitat for Tollywood stars. Who knows, you might just clumsy-stumble and almost fall into the arms of Ritwik Chkraborty, or casually run into Parambrata Chatterjee, because, just like that!
And all this as you head over for your last stop for the night — a perfect dinner.
You can just run across the road at Rabindra Sadan and eat at Haldiram’s, or walk to Forum Mall at Elgin Road and ring in TGIF’s pork chops and Sangrias (this would also mean you get to pass by Satyajit Ray’s house!).
But, if you ask me, a day that began with breakfast at Nahoum’s should end with biryani at Arsalan. That’s just a bus away to Beckbagan, and from there, a max 15-minute walk to Arsalan, Park Circus.
Summon the waters to your mouth — mutton biryani, chicken biryani, the smell of basmati rice tossed in meetha attar and the juicy, scrumptious, buttery aloo that melts in your mouth... and then, some sweet Sangrias.
And on that sweet wine note, your day out in Kolkata comes to an end. You are now in an Uber back home, dawdling through the amber streetlamp-lit streets. Your limbs are aching, your back's effed-up, and your belly is overfilled with an assortment of junk and overpriced food. And your heart...your heart is buzzing.
Could the day have gone any better?
Of course! You could’ve been in Paris, or on a gondola in Venice, or climbing to Machu Picchu, or on a date with a Tinder crush who actually turns out to be a wonderful person.
But could this day have gone any better?
Heck, no. Because, Dorothy, there’s no place like home.