No sooner than I stepped inside the portico of the Old Currency Building—a landmark edifice located at one end of Kolkata’s business district Benoy Badal Dinesh Bag (Dalhousie Square)—one of the two security guards proffered a bottle of sanitiser while her colleague waited with the thermal gun. All of us were wearing the mandatory face masks. My temperature was noted, normal, and I was allowed inside. So this was what life was going to be like, I mused, in a world battered by COVID-19. Since 1868, the Old Currency Building was the Office of Issue and Exchange of Government Currency from where it derived its name. For a while, the building also housed the Reserve Bank of India. It was already the third week of July, the oppressing heat now replaced by cool monsoon showers. The kadamb trees had started flowering, their sweet scent permeating the air. What better time to find out how the city I call home is adjusting to the new normal?
Where would I start?
I began with a visit to the Kalighat temple, abode of Kolkata’s guardian deity, Maa Kali. Shops selling puja offerings, small idols, or household items, had opened, but takers were few. “We’ve opened more out of habit rather than expecting sales,” said one of the shopkeepers. The famous temple is currently open for limited hours and allows only 10 visitors at a time. Priests at the other famous Kali Temple in Dakshineswar have even donned PPE, I was informed by a friend.
The metro services are yet to resume, so I hopped on to my next viable option, a bus, to Dalhousie Square. On the unusually short ride, I couldn’t help but catch glimpses of the city from the window only to see Kolkata like never before. Most of the hawker stalls shut, fewer than before hackney carriages in front of the Victoria Memorial, and the the green lungs of the city—the Maidan—bearing marks of the rampaging super cyclone, Amphan, with fallen branches piled high on the side.
A jaunt down party hub
Park Street revealed that most restaurants and shops were open but seemed bereft of their usual crowds. Physical distancing was partly to blame for the deserted look. However, there has been a steady increase in the number of visitors, confirmed Flurys and Peter Cat, reflecting diners are slowly growing confident about eating out. The haunt of Kolkata’s intellectual brigade, the Indian Coffee House, was re-embracing its proverbial ‘adda’, along with Paramount and its syrupy invites in the College Square neighbourhood of central Kolkata.
Alighting at Dalhousie Square, I found the business hub yet to awaken to its noisy, crowded self. Most offices appeared shut or running on skeleton staff, while the pedestrians seemed intent on hurrying indoors. The hawkers peddling office stationery and other sundry offerings were also few and far between. The rows of food vendors, usually crowding office buildings, were also missing in action. Even the famous khao gully Dacres Lane was quiet. Maybe this was the right time for photographers to explore Dalhousie Square with its 19th and 20th century buildings sporting Gothic architecture, I wondered. However, the heritage churches and other places which allowed public entry were yet to open. Luckily for me, the exhibition—‘Ghare Baire: The World, The Home and Beyond’—at the restored Old Currency Building was open. I spent my afternoon roaming through the galleries, displaying 18th to 20th century art in Bengal. These included Kalighat Pat, print-making, works of European artists in Bengal and six artists from Bengal whose works have been recognised as National Treasures of India.
After an artsy afternoon I decided to take a walk down to one of my favourite spots in the city—the river bank. I managed to sneak a peek into the Metcalfe Hall on the way. Displaying an ongoing art exhibition on the cosmopolitan culture of the city, titled ‘Ami Kolkata: I am Kolkata’, it was open to visitors as well. In the final phase of its journey to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganga, more colloquially the Hooghly, flows sluggishly past the western boundary of Kolkata. You may take a walk along the Strand to enjoy the breeze, and watch the two towering bridges—Rabindra Setu (Howrah Bridge) and Vidyasagar Setu—spanning across the breadth of the water.
Since the Millennium Park along the bank was shut and the tourist boats non-operational, I decided to take a ride in the passenger ferry that operates between the park and Howrah Railway Station on the other bank. The short journey paved the way for a panoramic view of the city’s skyline from the river, a view of the bridges spanning like giant birds’ wings, and the many ghats along both the banks. If you are lucky you may also see the rare Gangetic dolphin, I was told. Though not the dolphin, I was lucky enough to witness a kaleidoscopic view of the river bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun. My heart filled with joy, I turned homeward.
How to Reach:
Nearest Airport: Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, 15km from the city centre
By Rail through Howrah, Sealdah, Kolkata, Shalimar and Santragachhi railway stations with the rest of India and neighbouring Bangladesh
Metro Railway (north-south route): Tickets range from Rs5 to Rs25.
Yellow taxi: Minimum price Rs30
Bus: Both government and private operated. Minimum fare in AC bus Rs20
Kalighat Temple: It is over 200 years old, while the place of worship houses 15th century texts. Timings: 6am-12 noon, 4pm-6:30pm; 10 people at a time. No entry to the sanctum sanctorum
Belur Math: Drawing inspiration from various indian landmarks, the main attraction here is Ramakrishna temple. Timings: 9am-11am, 4pm-6pm. Only four temples within the complex are open; belurmath.org
Gariahat: A shopper’s delight in South Kolkata. Pick up saris, furnishings, jewellery and souvenirs here. Timings: Shops open from 11am-7pm; while hawkers can be found till 9pm
Rosogolla: KC Das. 11 A&B, Central Ave, Esplanade, Kolkata 700001
Kolkata biryani: Shiraz Golden restaurant. 135 Park Street, Kolkata 700039