“Look at Santa Claus dancing,” the merry voice of a few children rang out over the noise of the crowd and the music. It was a hilarious sight indeed. Standing on the small flat area just below the seat of a typical Kolkata hand-pulled rickshaw, Santa was dancing a merry jig while his seated companion struggled to prevent Santa from falling off by clinging to his waist. From a bag by Santa’s side, the duo showered candies on the cheering crowd as the group of young men pulled the rickshaw around the quadrangle.
“Bow Barracks in Kolkata is the only place in the world where Santa Claus arrives in a rickshaw,” said IT entrepreneur Indrajit Lahiri as he hoisted his little son on his shoulder so that the kid could have a better look, “and therefore a must visit.”
Tucked away from Chittaranjan Avenue, one of the busiest thoroughfares running through central Kolkata, is a cluster of red brick apartments, called Bow Barracks. Apparently built to accommodate soldiers during World War 1, it was later converted to a housing for Anglo Indians by Calcutta Improvement Trust. But without maintenance, the buildings -- arranged in compact uniform blocks -- look dilapidated. For the greater part of the year, the tenements lie forlorn, quiet.
But it is a transformed place during Christmas.
Urmi Rahman, a former BBC journalist who spent a good many years in London said she has been coming to Bow Barracks during Christmas ever since she has taken up residence in Kolkata. “Although the celebration cannot be compared, I get a whiff of the cheerful London celebrations only here,” she said.
Usually, the celebrations begin during the week before Christmas. The grotto where the local residents pray is spruced up and decorated. A crib is set up in a corner. A decorated Christmas tree sits pretty with all its baubles. Streamers and other festive decorations hand over the quadrangle. Every flat has a shining star on the balcony.
The local community holds various programmes, including that for senior people as well as the poor and needy children of the area, irrespective of religious faith. Food packets are distributed among the poor. Sporting activities, including football matches, organised.
The best time to visit Bow Barracks is in the evening. The entire place is lit up with fairy lights. Canopies of lights cover the quadrangles. The buildings are illuminated. Carol singers mingle with the crowd. Children enjoy a turn in the merry-go-round. Music programmes up the festive mood and people are not averse to dancing to the beat.
The local residents set up stalls and sell home-made food. However, with the number of Anglo Indian families dwindling, people from other communities are moving in. The food stalls were a reflection of this mix. Lahiri, also a veteran food blogger, who we bumped into again, let us into a little secret. “Visit the Barua bakery located down the corner if you are thinking of fruitcakes,” he said, “and while you are there do not miss their unique ‘chhana’ pudding.”
Although Kolkata sees no dearth of Yuletide celebrations, including the carnival held along Park Street, Bow Barracks has its own followers. “Although the place is becoming increasingly crowded with photographers and curious visitors, it is pleasant to see so many smiling faces around us,” said 70-something Patricia H (name changed), “as we have little to cheer about for the rest of the year."
Getting there: Bow Barracks is situated off Chittaranjan Avenue (CR Avenue; old name Central Avenue), behind Bowbazar Police Station. You can take any bus travelling along CR Avenue. If you are travelling by the underground Metro Railway, get down at Central station and walk down.
A word of caution: Although the Anglo Indian community is generally friendly towards visitors, some dislike the intrusion. So do not take pictures of people and homes without permission. And do not ask if they sell home-made wine. Whatever they make is for the family’s consumption and not for selling.
JN Barua Food Products: 6 Robert Street, Kolkata 700012; tel: 9339683265
Appeared in 2018 in our December issue.