Kolkata (erstwhile, Calcutta) is a picture of paradoxes. It is a city which is ready to take on the future and yet clings on longingly into its Colonial past. A city of nostalgia. A city that is a daily celebration of the human existence. It is ‘the city of joy’, indeed. As the former capital of British India, the city has its fair share of history to share. Buildings of dramatic colonial architecture, street food, the omnipresent quintessential Bengali ‘adda’ (informal gathering of friends, colleagues and/ or strangers over tea or coffee and generous doses of miscellaneous conversations), the political activism- all of it coexists in harmony within the folds of the city. Calcutta has seen it all. It has been the epicentre of the Naxalite movement and the Bengal Renaissance where the Bengali intelligentsia has taken action. Even today the city is often referred to as the intellectual and literary capital by the rest of the nation.
Boi para: of Books and Beyond
To feel the nerve of Kolkata, thus, one has to visit the street where its intellectual soul comes alive. And what can be better than a visit to College Street (quite similar to ‘Diagon Alley’ for the ones familiar with Harry Potter references)? The name of the street itself exudes an old worldly charm that brings to life the world’s largest second hand book market. It consists of about 2000 bookstores frequented by 1 lakh people everyday. Also called ‘boi para’ (the locality of books), one can scurry through the alleys of shops and stalls to find books on any subject under the sun. The invigorating smell of books, new and old, lovingly read and reread fills the atmosphere. You can find books to prepare for competitive exams, educational texts, medical encyclopaedia, religious texts, serious non fiction, popular magazines to the more popular contemporary paperback novels- all at unbelievable prices. Haggling for prices is common and many veterans swear that the bargaining adds to the pleasure of the entire experience itself. Many of the major Bengali and Non Bengali publications such as Ananda Publications and Rupa & co. are also to be found here.
The street extends from Bowbazar on one end to the College Street Bata Crossing on the other (in the northern part of the city. It is located in close vicinity to some of the oldest and most reputed educational institutions of Calcutta. (Presidency College, Calcutta University, Calcutta Medical College being a few examples) Thus the multitude of small and big book shops are always teeming with book lovers and students alike. A day spent browsing through the huge collections offers you the thrill of finding a rare book that has gone out of print, a leather bound original edition or rediscovering an old favorite all over again. Places which exude the Calcutta spirit more than College Street are indeed very rare.
The Added Attractions : Indian Coffee House and other gastronomic experiences
And this is here that I tell you that the place is not a heaven only for the bibliophiles, but also for the foodies (and the ones who like a dose of intelligent conversation with their cup of tea or coffee). The famous Indian Coffee House in the area can provide patrons with hot coffee and delicious kobiraji cutlet while you read the newest bestseller. Coffee House is an important landmark that is associated with the innermost fabric of the Bengali culture. It has been a favorite haunt with the leading poets, novelists and literary figures of Bengal for a very long time. The famous musician Manna Dey composed a song about the ‘addas’ in coffee house that retains its popularity even after decades.
College Street also harbors the best places to quench your thirst. You cannot afford to miss the legendary ‘Paramount Juices and Shakes’ with its famed Daab Malai (a dessert made from green coconut) and chocolate shakes. A sip of the heavenly drinks will drive away exhaustion and the scorching heat of the city. And then there are the many street hawkers selling potato and eggplant fritters and phuchkas (a street food delicacy that is a legend in itself) that will be a gastronomic epiphany while you walk along sipping on tea ( with just the right amount of sugar and a whiff of ginger or cardamom) through the college campuses looking at used and unused books. A day out in this corner of the city can make you one with the beating heart of the largest cultural hub of the country.
College Street: the Future
The winding alleys and stacks of books buried in the stalls that we identify College Street with might soon be a thing of the past. The Government of West Bengal has taken up the project of modernizing College Street. A swanky book mall called ‘Barna parichay’ is coming up and the rehabilitation of the thousands of book sellers into the folds of the mall is in the pipeline. Whether or not the mall will be able to recapture the authentic indelible College Street spirit is however, another question altogether.
The construction of Barna parichay has made rapid progress and the world class mall will soon be operational.