I could not have hoped for a softer landing in Kolkata, a city known for its willing embrace of chaos. There’s sweep-you-off-the-floor charisma too, but Kolkata does not give up its secrets easily. Tucked away on top of a modern office tower behind the historic Army & Navy Stores building (now known as Kanak Building) on Chowringhee, the Glenburn Penthouse could not have had an unlikelier location. Whisked up in an efficient elevator from the deceptively prosaic ground floor entrance, I entered a world far removed from the tidal sweep of the streets below. Here, time flowed slowly, and was measured in teacups. It was also an explosion of colour, raging against the rain-swept grey of a city that will, in a million imaginations, always be sepia-toned.
The driving force behind the Penthouse is the affable Husna-Tara Prakash. She’s nothing if not succinct when summing up her life story: “I went backpacking around the world, met a tea planter, fell in love and married him.” That’s how she came to live in Kolkata. Her husband, Anshuman Prakash, belongs to a family of veteran tea planters. In 2002, Husna opened up the family’s Glenburn Tea Estate in Darjeeling for stays (they have estates in Assam as well). She has run it to the highest standards ever since, offering a unique and immersive experience and cementing a well-deserved reputation as the perfect host. A Kolkata property was the logical next step. The Penthouse was several years in the making though, taking much longer than anticipated, and only recently made its debut. But it’s already stealing the show.
When it comes to hospitality, you can’t do things by halves. Either you go minimal—all soothing whites and beige—or, if you’re more ambitious, you embrace colour in all its possibilities. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Husna opted for the latter, roping in her old collaborator from the Glenburn Estate, the interior designer Bronwyn Latif. The result is a sumptuous design feast. Known for her unapologetically flamboyant style, Latif has created a space which feels, on the cusp of something wonderful; where even you can’t help feeling special. It’s a homage to Kolkata’s colonial heritage, to Bengal’s crafts traditions, and to the champagne of teas. The two-leaves-and-a-bud are a recurring motif, even making it to the stone inlay work on the bespoke table tops, while the Victoria Memorial features in the kantha stitch on the cushions. And, if you still need a reason to stay here, they have a view of that splendid monument that no property in Kolkata can match.
Buoyed by her love of heritage and history, Husna has also been leading walking tours around Kolkata for several years. She has unlimited reserves of energy, obviously, but also the outsider’s awe of Kolkata (her parents live in London). Natives tend to be a bit blasé, while we gawp at everything. Prior commitments prevented Husna from taking me on a walk herself, but she put me in the able hands of Navpreet Arora of FunOnStreets, one of the few guides she trusts and works with regularly.
We set out early, hoping to dodge the humidity. We were fooling ourselves, of course. Emerging from the air-conditioned cocoon of our SUV at our first stop—the riverside flower market—we began sweating immediately. I lived briefly in Kolkata, but, caught up in that stuff called life, never got round to much sightseeing. So this was the first time I was laying eyes on the legendary Mullick Ghat flower market. I’m invoking two clichés here, but to call it a riot of colour would be an understatement. From vivid marigolds to coy orchids and everything in between, lotuses eager to bloom, flowers meant for very specific kinds of worship, even an impressive bouquet of leaves for sale—the flower market is a sensory overload, a tribute to the Indian love for colour. For me it echoed the Penthouse’s florid and buoyant interiors.
Nearly devoured by the flower market is the Ramchandra Goenka Zanana Bathing Ghat. It must have been beautiful once, the tilework clean and resplendent. Now it’s a paan-stained mess, having long eschewed its function as a ladies’ bathing ghat, but you can readily visualise its former glory. And that’s Kolkata in a nutshell, really.
Flowers are not something you associate with a cold word like ‘industry’ but this is really what it is, a well-oiled machine bringing those parcels of joy to us. Some say this is Asia’s largest flower market. Winding our way through the flowers, we felt we were getting in the way of this colourful commerce. So, on Navpreet’s suggestion, we climbed up to the Howrah Bridge, which sits right next to it, for a better view. It’s only then that I got a sense of the scale of operations here.
Calcutta/Kolkata was built by the British and, while their legacy evokes mixed reactions at best, they left behind an extraordinary wealth of built heritage. The richest concentration is in Dalhousie Square, which was the heart of White Town. It’s been renamed Benoy Badal Dinesh Bagh (or B.B.D. Bagh, as emblazoned on Kolkata’s iconic minibuses) after three braveheart freedom fighters who attacked Writer’s Building in 1930 and paid for it with their lives. The seat of the state government for decades, Writer’s now wears a deserted look after the current government shifted operations across the river to Nabanna.
Dalhousie is still imposing, and key buildings include the General Post Office, built on the site of the old Fort William. This is where the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta was located, and Navpreet pointed out the exact spot to me.
I could only spare a few hours, but to truly do justice to Dalhousie, you’ll have to set aside several days. Having Navpreet at hand was a boon. Besides rattling off a mind-boggling variety of historical facts, she pointed out a bunch of interesting stuff. Like the building that used to house Spence’s Hotel, said to be the oldest hotel in Asia. Established in 1830 near Government House, it finds a mention in Jules Verne’s The Steam House. Or the exquisite Royal Insurance Building, which horses could trot into. A true gem was the Currency Building. Derelict and dilapidated, the Archaeological Survey of India has nursed it back to health. The dome collapsed a while ago. Since the original plans could not be located, it’s not been reconstructed. The result is something surreal, a building open to the sky on the inside; the arches that once supported the dome looming over you. The building has now been repurposed for exhibitions and events.
We rounded off our Dalhousie tour with a visit to St John’s Church. The Sunday service had just ended, and the devout were quietly slipping out. We stopped under a tree for some tea. It was from the Glenburn estate, of course. Built in the neoclassical style, St John’s was modelled on London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, its most distinctive feature being a 174ft-high stone spire. Warren Hastings laid the foundation stone in 1784 and construction was wrapped up in 1787, making it the third oldest church in the city. To the left of the altar is Johann Zoffany’s impressive rendition of The Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples modelled on well-known public figures of the day. The painting was restored in 2010. It’s a beautiful church, the grounds serene and well-kept. The mausoleum of Job Charnock, who remains, in popular perception, the founder of the city, lies in the churchyard, as do the graves of several of William Dalrymple’s ancestors.
Kolkata’s heritage spectacle was far from over, however. In its heyday the city was peopled by communities and religions from all over the world. Among these was a sizeable population of Baghdadi Jews. The community may have dwindled to almost nothing, but the lavish interiors of the Magen David Synagogue on Brabourne Road conjure up its glory days. An Italian renaissance building, the complex also houses the smaller Neveh Shalom Synagogue. The latter is Kolkata’s oldest existing synagogue, built in 1831. The synagogues, uniquely, have Muslim caretakers. Thank god there is at least one place in the world where Muslims and Jews coexist in harmony.
To the north of White Town lies the prosperous mercantile quarter, where many Bengali fortunes were made in the service of the British. And what did they do with their wealth but build mansions. Maintaining those 18th- and 19th-century palaces was an uphill task though, and many are ramshackle and rundown now. It does lend them a certain scruffy charm.
Navpreet led me through streets that seemed to get progressively narrower, a far cry from the expansiveness of Dalhousie Square. We peeped into impressive inner courtyards, gawked at the confection-like façades, and balked at the crowds. On Pathuriaghata Street, named so because it used to be paved with stones, we entered a building which had, at one point, a fleet of Rolls Royces parked outside it. But Jadulal Mullick’s house is really famed for being the place where the mystic Ramakrishna Paramhansa experienced his epiphany.
Even though we had barely scratched the tip of the iceberg, it was time to head back. I, for one, was glad to return to the comforts of the Penthouse. Three set menus are on offer: Nawabi, Colonial and Bengali, all executed with finesse, and I sampled them all (over the course of my stay, in case you’re frowning, rounding off my meals with their homemade ice creams). The tea menu is even more impressive, and offers everything from first flush and second flush to monsoon and moonshine teas. They plied me so generously with it that I probably ran through their entire tea inventory. They do an afternoon tea service as well, which needs to be booked in advance.
The longer I stayed, the more I appreciated how ambitious, audacious even, the Penthouse project was. Starting out with what was essentially a shell, the interiors—from the layout of the rooms to the corridors to the service areas—had to be imagined from the ground up. More rooms could have been carved out, but Husna has been generous with space. There are a mere nine suites, spread across two floors. Suffice it to say that the bathrooms are larger than the rooms in some hotels. My suite was a sanctuary, tempting me to retreat, but it’s a compliment to the property that I spent more time in the convivial living room than holed up in my lavish quarters.
On the roof is an infinity pool, with that view of the Victoria Memorial to die for. That is one of the few heritage structures I had seen before, so I gave it a miss this time, but I cannot recommend it enough. It’s a marvellous building, nearly bested by its gorgeous gardens. The art collection is beyond impressive, in particular the company paintings. But the display could be much better.
Husna’s love of history has found a physical manifestation in her collection of old maps and prints, and several of them grace the walls of the Penthouse. She also collects Pietro Ruffo, a contemporary Italian artist who creates artwork out of old maps among other things and there’s a dramatic piece by him too. The wallpaper in the common area is stunning. There are flowers everywhere. The staff is great. What’s not to like?
How a magnificent city such as Kolkata came up in a location so inhospitable will remain an enduring mystery. But now that we have the Glenburn Penthouse, let that be your excuse to explore this overlooked gem that more travellers should be inspecting.
THE GLENBURN PENTHOUSE
The boutique property occupies the top floors of Kanak Towers (7A Russell Street, Kolkata 700071), offering an exclusive experience in a location to die for. There are nine rooms in all. The five Grand Bengal suites are priced at `27,000 per night on double occupancy, while the four Calcutta suites are `24,000. The tariff includes breakfast and afternoon tea but other meals are extra and must be booked in advance. High tea can be organised with sufficient notice. Call +91-33-22885630 or +91-9830070213 for more information, and see glenburnpenthouse.com
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Just like any mega city, there is much to do in Kolkata, so it’s best to pick an area of interest, and be guided by that. This can be anything from heritage to food (where the offerings are so vast and varied, you’d probably want to break it up into subsets like sweets, biryani, street food) to art, textiles and even nature. The Glenburn Penthouse offers all-inclusive 1-3 day private excursions, the pricing depending on the number of pax and days. The first day is usually focussed on colonial heritage and also includes a scenic boat ride on the Hooghly, while the second day is all about ‘Black Town’. The third day is quite flexible and can be tailored to your interests; it could include anything from a round of golf at one of the clubs to a visit to the Botanical Gardens or the Tea Auction Centre or, of course, shopping.