Rags to Riches in Kolkata

We left the Indian Coffee House and wandered through some more of the city’s back streets and laneways. Many of the walls were lined with the daily washing. Even the run down, dirty grey buildings looked beautiful with the bright reds, orange, yellow and green of saris and the bleached white of Dhotis & Kurtas drying in the steamy heat of the day.

Kolkata Laneways, Washing in Kolkata Slums, Drying Washing in the Kolkata Laneways, Kurtas,Washing Day in the Laneways of Kolkata

We decided to take a rickshaw instead of the train. I felt uncomfortable then, and still do, that this form of transport still exists. No one should have to pull another person along by hand, but I realise also that these men need to make a living. Most have come from the  countryside in Bihar and  have  families to support.  Unfortunately it’s often the only work they can get.

Rickshaw Pullers from Bihar India, At this moment there are around 3000 Rickshaw Pullers in Kolkata

Our rickshaw puller or Wallah as they are called in India, was  immaculately dressed, small and  wiry with muscles as strong as an ox. As we weaved between traffic the tiny bell attached to his fingers rang out to call his presence.

Ickshaws Kolkata, Rickshaw Puller, Oberoi HotelOur Rickshaw Puller in Kolkata, the last City in the World to use hand-pulled Rickshaws. Note the string of his bell around his finger

At times we seemed to dodge buses & cars by inches, but I was amazed by the way our wallah handled his cart with such ease, considering his size and our combined weight. ( more than usual after eating curry, rice & Indian desserts for a month!!)

Rickshaw Wallah, KolkataWith his tiny bell tinkling our Wallah negotiates the crazy Kolkata Streets.

We left our rickshaw puller at San Yat Sen station and caught a train  to the  Esplanande Metro Station. We were close to the  expensive Oberoi Hotel. and as a friend had recently told us to have a look inside, we did.  As we walked through the internal garden & swimming pool area we would never have known that we were on one of the busiest streets in Kolkata. We saw  the billiards bar and thought we would order a coffee. Maybe we’d get a decent one here!!

Rags to Riches, Oberoi Hotel Kolkata,

It was considerably better than our previous one and was served with some very delicious homemade biscuits.  But we paid heavily for the priveledge, Aus$20  to be exact. We were served by very polite waiters who were happy to deliver our coffee quickly in case they should miss a wicket in the cricket match they were watching on TV.

Rags to Riches in Kolkata, Oberoi Lobby, Coffee & Biscuits at the Oberoi, KolkataLobby at the Kolkata Oberoi. A nice place to stay I guess, but if you prefer the real experience of Kolkata it’s probably not for you!!

What a difference here. Nothing could have been further from the experience we had enjoyed at the Indian Coffee House and our journey to find it. We had gone from rags to riches within the space of 30 mins.

That’s India!!


Searching for Coffee in Kolkata, India

It wasn’t easy to find a good coffee in Kolkata. There were  certainly plenty of cafes selling coffee but they were not so good. Until the last decade most of India’s coffee consumption was in the South and the North was still predominantly a tea drinking society. Then along came the  chains such as Starbucks, Barista and Coffee Day and western style coffee became the ‘in thing’ especially amongst the younger population.

The popular Flurys Cafe at 18, Park St Kolkata opened in 1927

Since I find coffee at these places mostly undrinkable I found a new appreciation for tea during our month in India, especially Chai, which generally was far more palatable than anything else. Hotel coffee just didn’t cut it for me and although we tried several cafes including the famous Flurys in Park St we couldn’t find a decent cuppa. But then, the Patient Partner and I are coffee snobs so I guess we’re just too fussy!!

Chai Tea in Kolkata, Brewing Chai on the Street, Indian ChaiSpicy Chai Tea being brewed on the street in Kolkata

This, of course did not stop my need to find the Indian Coffee House. I had read some time before our trip about this iconic institution and I needed to see it with my own eyes, and whats more I wanted to drink coffee in it, just once!

There are several related Indian Coffee Shops around India but the only one I wanted to visit was the one in Kolkata.  Here was the true meeting house of Kolkata’s literati. Great names from India’s rich past such as Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Bose, Satyajit Ray and the revolutionary Malay Roy Choudery
I wanted to sit where they had sat. Where they had passionately discussed their poetry, plays, music and films. Where academics had held their adda and heated arguments on politics and the future.

Front View Indian Coffee House Kolkata, College St Coffee House Kolkata, Heritage Coffee House, Albert Hall, KolkataThe Iconic Indian Coffee House, College St, Kolkata

After going through the usual security search of bags & body we squeezed into a train carriage on Kolkata’s underground with what appeared to be at least half of the city’s inhabitants.
Just as well we are fairly slim or we may never have had this pleasure!
We got out at San Yat Sen Central Station and walked the rest of the way to the College St area where we would find the coffee house.

Rickshaws in Kokata. Kolkata StreetsOne of many  Hand Pulled Rickshaws on the Streets of Kolkata

And what a walk it was. I had fallen in love with Kolkata the moment I had stepped out into its crazy streets a few weeks earlier and this second visit did nothing to change that feeling.
Walking around this city is like going back in time. The rattling sound of its dilapidated trams and the jingling bells of it’s hand pulled rickshaws are enough to have you believing that time is standing still in this city with a big heart.

Kolkata Rickshaw,Kolkata Tram, We walked through streets, lanes and alleyways that cradled a million stories.
Streets where cows, dogs, cats, chickens and some of the city’s poorest live as  one. Women cooking on cast iron stoves under tarpaulins held up by 4 spindly sticks, while children, laughing, and just being children, played with flattened footballs and sticks for cricket bats. It was quieter here too, away from the craziness of the City’s busiest streets.

Cooking while living on the street. Street Food in KolkataLunch on the street in Kolkata’s slums

No one bothered us or asked for money. People were too busy trying to eke out a living in some way or other to worry about a couple of tourists walking their streets. We took it all in and whilst there could have been some priceless photos, I couldn’t find the heart to pull out my camera and so obviously capture their poverty.

We eventually came to the College St area. We couldn’t mistake this location. With the University close by, the streets were lined with stalls selling books. In fact the pavements oozed with books piled high, many neatly tied in bundles with coloured twine. Everywhere we looked there were books, old ones, new ones, secondhand, and anything in between. Students were milling around, chatting and checking out the various stalls which possibly all carried similar, if not the same books as each of  the other stalls.

College St, Kolkata, Bookshops in KolkataOne of the many Bookshops on College St, Kolkata

And then we saw the sign. It was on the front of a very old, narrow, and tall, run down building.  Actually there’s not much in Kolkata that isn’t old and run down!!  And this building dates back to  1876 when it was the Albert Hall.  It became the Coffee House in 1942 run by the Workers Co-operative Society. In 1958 the management closed it down but a petition was raised by the College & University to save the heritage building and it was re-opened the same year.

Old sign Indian Coffee House, New Sign Indian Coffee House Kolkata, Searching for Coffee in Kolkata, Tagore, BoseThe Old Sign now dwarfed by the brightly illuminated new one, including the mobile number!

I’m not sure whether it was good or bad timing but at that moment a  bright, new illuminated sign was being hoisted above the very dirty ageing one that looked as if  it had been there since the Albert Hall gave way to its successor. I felt sad. The original one had history & character etched onto its face. Like everything that’s happening in Asia now it seems that NEW is better!!

 We watched it being attached and then went inside. As we climbed up a dodgy  staircase to the first floor we passed a wall panel of even dodgier wiring and switches that looked old enough to have serviced the entire building since it was built.
The Coffee house was just as I’d seen it in photos except that now it looked more tired and somewhat  grubbier. Maybe the photos did it more justice than it deserved.

Old Power Board, Electricity in Kolkata, Indian Coffee house powerboardThe Indian Coffee House Powerboard, how old is this?!!

Several waiters were swanning around the tables in white Punjabi uniforms with  head gear that looked like fanned serviettes.    A brick and wooden bench was being manned by the cashier. Nothing fancy in this place, especially the service. We waited sometime for our serviette waiter to take our order. It didn’t matter, I was too busy photographing the entire room and the incredible balcony that overlooked the hall and housed the second floor.

Serviette style Turban, Waiter at Indian Coffee House, KolkataPlacing our coffee order, note the Waiters’ unusual Turban style head gear

Our coffee arrived. It was nothing to rave about, In fact it was pretty awful. A watery tasteless cup of nothingness. But at 16 cents Aus you can hardly complain. And anyway we were not there for a great coffee, however nice it might have been, but for the history of this amazing building.

Awful Coffee at College St Coffee House, Watery Coffee at Indian Coffee HouseePretty Ghastly Coffee, but who cares, look where we are!!

We sat for a while, soaking up the ambience. The whirring sound of ancient fans added to the atmosphere and  old photos of a bygone era brightened up the faded walls. A huge photo of Rabindranath Tagore on one of them.  There was a smoking area which seemed to be the whole room. No one other than us, the only foreigners there, cared about the haze, they were too busy in conversation with each other. It was a welcome sight. The majority there communicating without the need for a smart phone!

College St Coffee House, Balcony Indian Coffee HouseInside the Indian Coffee House, Kolkata, an awesome balcony around much of the second floor

We watched the waiters lazily taking orders, the customers hardly glancing up as they ordered another watery coffee between another important sentence.
We sat long enough to feel the ghosts of the past and imagine the conversations and debates that possibly changed the face of Kolkata’s politics and provided India with its famous poets and writers of the time.
Sadly we were unable to access the balcony & the second floor but we left knowing that the search for a coffee had given us an unforgettable experience.

Balcony College St Coffee House, Coffee Kolkata