One of Kolkata’s most enduring landmarks is the vintage College Street, popularly referred to as the Boi Para by the locals, is a narrow constricted road sandwiched between Bowbazar and Mahatma Gandhi Road, that extends all the way to Hatibagan and beyond. The quintessential Kolkata tramcar plies along this route thereby adding to the old world charm of the place. The scene of a slow moving Tramcar slowly wending its way past the labyrinth of chaotic crowds and the walkways on both sides of the road occupied with improvised bookstalls assembled of wood, bamboo, corrugated tins and canvas is straight out of a pre-independent India of the British Raj.
Kolkata being the intellectual nerve center of India, citizens of Kolkata are avid book lovers. Traditionally Bengalis have always had a fascination for books and the Bengali psyche is such that they want to be learned men. With this kind of a mindset, it’s not surprising that Bengal produced luminaries of the stature of Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chatterjee, Michael Madhusudhan Dutta and of late Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen. Today you will find a Bengali at NASA as you would at the Trinity College and if the person concerned is a Kolkatan, chances are that he or she might have been a College Street regular.
The Vidyasagar Sarovar dominates the landscape with its presence at the heart of what is known as College Square. This popular reservoir is very popular with amateur swimmers as they come here in large numbers to master their watery skills while the meandering walkways along the banks are the favorite haunt of lovelorn couples.
Like most Kolkatan’s who are born and brought up in this incredible city, College Street was a popular hangout zone for me and my friends during our hurricane college days. We would spend hours together at this historic part of Kolkata and the rendezvous never seemed to end. We belonged to the renegade “Hard Rock” era when Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Metallica ruled the roost and conversations centered around how Guns ‘N’ Roses performed at the annual rock concert at Michigan to the fall of the Berlin Wall and beyond.
The rebels that we were in no way hampered our earlier generation of “Bengali Bhadroloks” (gentleman) to desist from converging at the good old Coffee House for that addictive “Adda” session, which when I recall today, were actually the laboratory of creativity. The sheer process of exchanging ideas with one’s own peer groups as well as those from earlier generations was a kind of bedrock of ingenuity and believe me, it felt so good when in the year 2007, College Street was incorporated in the Time Magazine’s list of “Best of Asia” list. At first glance, College Street would look like any other overcrowded Kolkata street – honking of horns, rickety rickshaws meandering along the narrow alleyways, cows converging on the garbage bin, the fruit juice seller doing brisk business and the quintessential Kolkata Tramcar heralding its advent to Collage Street by tooling the bell. But as you spend more time, you realize that it is no ordinary place and if you have managed to occupy your seat in the coveted Coffee House, you cam make out from the chatter that it indeed is the intellectual hub of Kolkata. The fact that College Street is located in close proximity to some of Kolkata’s most prestigious educational institutions like the University of Calcutta, Presidency College and Scottish Church ensures that there is a steady stream of philosphers and intellectuals in this historic Kolkata neighborhood.
It all began way back in the year 1876 with the establishment of the Albert Hall and the erstwhile Coffee Board came up with the novel idea of launching an exclusive Coffee Shop. Remember, in those days there was no Barista and Café Coffee Day outlets and an exclusive Coffee joint was a luxury. A cursory peek into the Coffee House’s history reveals that it used to be the favorite haunt of persons of the stature of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose and others of their ilk. There was a period of turmoil when in the year 1958, the then management decided to shut down the shutters of Coffee House but was soon reopened due largely to the enthusiastic zeal of a group of Professors who filed a heritage petition for the revival of Coffee House. In the post-independence period Coffee House have attracted stalwarts like Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Oscar winning Director Satyajit Ray, Aparna Sen, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Jagadish Chandra Bose and others of their ilk. Even today when you walk into the hallowed portals of the Coffee House, you are likely to come across the crème de la crème of Kolkata’s society. From film makers to literary figures, the Coffee House still remains an enigma to many in Kolkata. Legend has it that some of the path breaking periodicals and magazines ever published in India had their roots at Coffee House.
The Coffe House and College Street are inseperable. In fact each one compliments the other. The College Street landscape is dotted with some of India’s most prestigious institutions that are rich in architecture and with thousands of booksellers, makes it the world’s second largest book market. Here you will find everything from a racy Agatha Christie bestseller to the latest Deepak Chopra wellness package. Apart from the big players of the publishing world like Penguin, Rupa & Co., McMillan, you will find hundreds of books shops of lesser standing but with stocks that would make even the British Council library envious. The sheer variety on offer is astounding.
If you have come to College Street with the sole intention of buying books you have to take the art of bargaining to an altogether different level, especially when dealing with the streetside book sellers. Once the initial price is quoted by a cunning bookseller always ready to rake in the mollah! Straightaway quote a price which is half the price quoted by the bookseller. At first the mischievous bookseller would ridicule you. Don’t panic. Instead move on to the next shop. Chances are that even as you begin walking, the impish bookseller will follow you and finally agree to the price quoted by you. Bargaining is great fun at College Street. But don’t ever bargain at the branded bookshops. You will make a mockery of yourself.
No visit to College Street is ever complete without a stopover at the historic University of Calcutta and the Ashutosh Museum located inside the University premises. Founded in the year 1857, under the direction of of the “Court of Directors of the erstwhile East India Company. Initially though, the University of Kolkata merely functioned as a governing body and most of its activities were related to administering the affiliated colleges. But with the passage of time, Post Graduate courses were taught at this esteemed institution, which strictly adhered to the University of London model. Scholars who passed out from this hallowed institution is a veritable Who’s Who in every sphere of human activity. The names of Bankim Chatterjee, C.V.Raman, Meghnad Saha, Satyajit Ray, Satyen Bose, J.C. Bose , Nirad C. Choudhury, Amartya Sen, etc… readily comes to mind. The original campus at College Street is a must visit site for visitors. The campus throbs with activity and houses the Central Library and the Humanities Department. The Ashutosh Museum is the first in-house public museum housed in an Indian University. The museum is a treasure trove of Indian art and antiquities. A mind boggling 25,000 rare antique items are showcased in this one-of-its-kind museum.
College Street and Coffee House combined together is a Kolkata landmark of sorts, but you don’t find it being emphasised in any tourist brochures. The atmosphere is cozy and laidback, much like the Raj era. However, the old-world charm of College Street is not going to last long as the winds of change blowing across Bengal, courtesy the pro-industrialization policy of the Buddhadev Bhattacharjee regime has meant that the city of Kolkata is being decked up by flyovers and shopping malls so as to appear more acceptable to the new age world. And College Street is no exception with the Bengal government going forward with an ambitious plan of building an exclusive “Book Mall” that would effectively mean the end of the road for the street side hawkers that for more than a century had lent a characteristic appeal to this historic street of Kolkata.
This Rs.400 core project – “Varnaparichay” will be executed by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation in association with Bengal Shelter Housing Development Ltd., and once complete will provide space, which will be all of 10 Lakh Sq. feet. According to reliable government sources, the project has evinced keen interest among the big players of the publishing world who have already committed to buy space at this one-of-its-kind “Book Mall”. Hafeez Contractor, one of India’s most renowned architect has provided the blue print for “Varnaparicahy” project, which is expected to be complete by the year 2010. The exclusive design by Hafeez Contractor will highlight the Indo-Saracenic architectural style that exists in College Street market. The visionary architect has blended the long-established Hindu and Islamic architectural traditions with Gothic style, which in itself is rather innovative as far as Kolkata’s architectural landscape is concerned. Once complete, the Mall will offer state-of-the-art facilities like an exclusive publisher’s zone where apart from the average bookshops there will be provisions for showcasing rare books as well. Add to it features like a well-stocked library, an auction center, translation services, a sleek multiplex, music store, cafetaria as well as an exclusive smoking zone for that world class experience.