I find myself grinning widely inside Stella’s fluorescent lit grocery shop, unwrapping a delicious prune and poring over a book with her photo in it.
Our next few stops were Chinese temples, a noodle making factory, a social club, and a leather shoemaker’s workshop. Knowing little about the city’s heritage despite having been here before, I never expected to find myself in Calcutta’s old Chinatown. Did you know the Chinese brought sugar to India? That’s why we call it chini!
I’m on the Confluence of Cultures walk that goes through the city’s ‘grey town’, a colloquial moniker for the space in between the ‘white town’ of the British and the ‘black town’ of the natives.
The walk started in Bow Barracks, an anglo Indian locality and wanders down quiet bylanes and cacophonous gullies making many culturally diverse pitstops before ending in a synagogue in Burra Bazaar, the first I’ve ever visited.
The tour is led by Iftekhar Ahsan or Ifte, the founder of Calcutta Walks, an urban explorer whose knowledge of the city goes beyond the encyclopaedia. He’s well informed, full of useful trivia and an extremely generous guide, plying us with tasty snacks like dalpuri and warm chickpea gaathia with raw papaya and kulhads of hot chai
I’ll maintain the best way to see a city is on foot (though on a bicycle is a close second), and as an oft solo traveller I am a big fan of the walking tour. I’ve done them in many cities all over the world but until I got to Kolkata last weekend, had never been on one in India. I don’t know why I took so long. A walking tour in India with its barely navigable streets and vague addresses makes perfect sense.
I spent the previous morning with Calcutta Walks too, learning of the city’s history. Calcutta it turns out is a city of firsts. It boasts India’s first tram track, first post office, first ambulance service and has the relics to prove it. On their ‘In their Footsteps of the Raj’ walk that near circles Dalhousie square, I fell in love with the Calcutta of yore with its stunning and mostly well maintained colonial architecture and engrossing stories.
If you’re visiting Kolkata, I highly recommend Calcutta Walks. What surprised me most was what I didn’t know I didn’t know, if that makes sense.
Each shared walk costs Rs. 1500 per person with private walks also available. Get all the details here.
Pictured: Design details in red from my Confluence of Cultures walk.