There is a goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne; but none of Forgetting. Yet there should be, as they are twin sisters, twin powers, and walk on either side of us, disputing for sovereignty over us and who we are, all the way until death  (Richard Holmes, “A Meander through Memory and Forgetting”)

 

The Enchantments of a Coffee Shop

He was running down the lane from College Square. The shopkeepers that usually asked about him didn’t stop him today. They were closed. The terror of the shuttered down shops added to his panic. He felt the Police catching up to him. At one point, he stopped running. He turned around and the wait began.

The gentleman shut the diary, looked up and smiled at his enraptured audience. The sudden loud rumble of a tram running on the street outside shook them out of the trance. Chatter broke out and everyone started talking at once. He gave me a questioning look and said: “well what do you think? This is one of the true instances of the Naxal revolution that had started right here in College Street. I stumbled upon this diary some time back and I found these treasures inside it. So I started sharing these with my friends here.” I smiled back and nodded in agreement at the facts he just threw into the conversation. I recognized his intentions to provide me with as many historical facts as possible–to be a helpful respondent of my field work.

I was seated at one of the circular tables’ right in the middle of the room. I was surrounded by a number of aged gentlemen, dressed in the middle class Bengali Bhadralok[1] style. They sit in the Coffee House everyday and transcend into the past of a ‘vivacious Calcutta.’ They welcomed me into their time travel- where the journey is conducted orally and memories become the scenery. These ‘addas[2]’ would occur at hours on end. The rickety fan was whirling away at its own pace, waiters, dressed in white uniforms and a white turban, resembling the royal staff of the olden days, are traipsing by us, carrying the quintessential dining cutleries. A murmur of constant chatter fills the air, within sudden breakouts of laughter from a corner or two. The faded walls and the long, rickety ceiling fans provide an insight into the financial crunch, but every nook and corner of the space tells you to stop for a moment, to take consideration of this space before writing it off as a bygone era. The name of this establishment is simply ‘Coffee House’. But that is all it needs today- the name suffices for a grandeur any outsider in Kolkata (previously Calcutta) would fail to understand. This seems to be an opportune moment to step into the seeming grandeurs of the enchanted coffee shop and the surrounding neighborhood.

Coffee House stands in the solidity of a colonial structure- previously as the Albert hall, founded in April 1876. Later, the Indian Coffee Board decided to start a coffee joint from the Albert Hall in 1942. It grew into a beloved ‘adda’ joint and has weaved its way into many a song and story about Calcutta in general. Coffee House stands as a beacon of light, a potent form of public space in the midst of College Street, Boi Para (literally meaning the neighborhood of books). Considered as one of the most prized public spaces of Kolkata, its charm carries the heavy weight of the memory and nostalgia of the entire city since the early 19th century. Boi Para (the neighborhood of books) lies along a mile long portion of College Street, placed in Central Kolkata.

 

Intimacies of Boi Para (College Street)

The myriad of activities that typified chaos in the narrow lanes of Boi Para (locality of books) soon transforms itself into a harmonious symphony. The iron rods of a hand pulled rickshaw clanged onto the road as the old man reared up to gather the stacks of paper piled up on his vehicle, and just as I got out of his way, my attention is pulled away again with the constant calls of the shopkeepers that lined the streets. The intermittent horns of the buses and cars, the rumblings of a tram that snakes its way past this chaotic street bazaar create the high notes of this opus. Suddenly the soundtrack turns into a lull, and a softer note tunes into the grand symphony, as I turn into a small alleyway that opens up into the courtyard of a large house. The courtyard accommodates two book shops in two large spaces beneath the house. The symphony gathers the sounds of the experienced book seller calling out to the helper who is rushing about in search of a particular book, the stacking of books, the slurp of tea being sipped from clay cups, and the business of transactions of selling and buying books- all of which make up the space of this courtyard hidden away from the main street. It houses the veterans of academic institutes such as Presidency University, University of Calcutta, and Calcutta Medical College since the 19th century, and bears the weight of the world’s largest second hand book market[3], along with thriving scenery of activities associated with publishing, paper, stationary and allied industries. The crevices of College Street are carrying the memories of an era where Calcutta thrived on the colonial notion of ‘Modernity’- a particular section of society that made up a unique public space within the boundaries of ‘Boi Para’ (Neighborhood of books)

The transformations of three villages- Kalikata, Sutanuti and Gobindopur into the wholesome city of Calcutta became the pinnacle of modernity in colonial India. College Street became a planned street with the advent of the Lottery Committee between 1817 and 1836. The spatial transformation of College Street was furthered with a rising contention of the need for public institutions. The market itself came up in the 19th century adding to the multifarious functions of the street. Gradually, more bookshops, publishing houses and printing houses came up in and around College Square. College street market was built in 1917, transforming this street into one of the busiest parts of Calcutta. Thus came about the creation of a small territory that became generator of Eurocentric idea of modernity in the city. It is the place that made Calcutta ‘modern’.

 

Chronicles of a ‘Modern’ Public Space

College Street itself ushered in a new era in the social and political scene of Calcutta. The thriving publishing business and the book market captured the burning passions of that emanated from the adjacent institutions. The students became the yin to the yang of the local shopkeepers. Together they took over the public space of College Street that curiously began to resemble the modern notion of public space as the sociologist Jürgen Habermas has identified. [4] He went on to trace the emergence and decline of coffee houses in 17th and 18th centuries as places of debate, pointing out their reliance on conversation and print as means of communication and the importance of their location in heart of the city. The role of the physical form of public space therefore very much featured in the creation of a well oiled public sphere. For Habermas, the success of the public sphere was founded on rational-critical discourse-everyone is an equal participant and the supreme communication skill is the power of argument. A public sphere began to emerge in the 18th century through the growth of coffee houses, literary and other societies, voluntary associations, and the growth of the press. College Street harbored an intrinsic relationship between the educational institutions, book market and public places like Coffee House. Boi Para began to wield a public sphere full of intellectual debates, where its everyday activities turned into a subculture of its own- be it the ‘adda’ breaking out in any area (Coffee House, bookshops, pavements), the novelty of book selling on the pavements, the revolutionary spirits and student politics, or the modernities of a thriving printing press.

An enduring relationship between this form of public space and ideals of modernity propagated by the colonial rule crafted a unique, indigenous form of public space within the heart of Kolkata, one that continues to tryst forms of modernity to this date. By Colonial modernity I refer to a modernity influenced by the rationalities of a European Enlightenment. As an epoch modernity is generally regarded as referring to modes of social organization which emerged in Europe from about the sixteenth century, broadly represented by the discovery of the new world, the Renaissance and Reformation.[5]  As the European powers expanded over many parts of the world, including India, the philosophy of Modernity became dominated by a sense of rationality, reason, logic, and organization. The ideas of Eurocentric rationality found material representation in colonial lands through the built environment. The colonial cities became the site of progress for the ‘traditional’ colonies and among this Calcutta became the crown city of the British Colonial Empire. The public spaces of Calcutta became the imprint of the Colonial touch. The public spaces of the city began to speak for the ideas of progress and modernity, but that modernity was conscious of only the European sense of the term. Calcutta’s public spaces were produced at the cross section of several discourses and practices that brought together in conflicting relationship questions of the immediate community and imagined community of the nation. Thus the public spaces in Calcutta during the early 19th and 20th century was created in a particular form by the colonial rule, but their utilization by the locals and the conceptualization of the same was quite different. What became crucial, through constant intervention, was the reinforcement of the conceptual distinction between the legal and the illegal, between the fixity of the shops on the streets and the chaos of vendors on the pavement. The everyday culture of College Street embraced the modernity of the colonial and created a modern space of its own.

 

Trending Global Modernities

Calcutta grew into Kolkata gradually. Kolkata’s public spaces speak of a half-hearted attempt to enter the global race of modernity. The present state government has put Kolkata’s present and future in tandem with that of London. That includes a replica of famous London Big Ben. It seems the colonial imprints of imposing architecture in public spaces have been internalized by the city. On the other hand the creation of shopping malls, parks and plazas, and consumer chains of coffee shops have overtaken primary forms of public spaces in the city that once bred an amalgamation of human interaction; accumulated sensory effects, practices of negotiation, and social reflexes.  Such monuments are pushing Kolkata towards the brink of a new cultural heritage- one that seems to be celebrating the signage of the western world (the model of development). These places are emerging to be the source of congregation for the public, with often a consumerist end to it. College Street is vying for its share of the global modern and is all ready to set up a mall at the juncture of the book bazaar. The vitalities of its public places are gradually transforming. But the name of College Street and Coffee House continue to nail down its nostalgia and create an air of legacy around its dilapidated structures, overcrowding and dwindling book market.

At this juncture, my field experience rears up its head to lead us into the present College Street that refuses to give up its historical ties. It continues to offer a fierce struggle to book reading in the electronic format as well as to the chain business of large book stores such as Oxford and Crossword. The streets and crevices of College Street continue to dwell on a memory of grandeur and all that came with it.

 

Perennial Nostalgia

The reading of the Naxalite story is but a drop in the ocean of memory and nostalgia of College Street. Coffee House’s claim to a glorious modern past resonates within the intense discussions of Gramsci, Baudrillard and Foucault interjected by puffs of cigarette smokes (something unheard of in the traditions of early 19th century Calcutta). The nostalgia lies in the songs of Manna De, the stories of how Satyajit Ray, and many others occupied the spaces of Coffee House. Nostalgia gives way to memory of a revolutionary space in College Street, one that fought through the religious seals, to the fight for independence, or the revolutions of a Naxal time. Every category of memory, nostalgia, and reminiscence are carved within the spaces of College Street–Coffee House just manages to house them all simultaneously. The scene of an enraptured audience listening intently to a piece read out by the gentleman speaks can well be mistaken for a book launch. But at Coffee House a formal book launch will look foolish. The act of whiling away time in pursuit of an intellectual debate or just to engage in harmless banters is what Boi Para prides itself on. The public memory rests in the greatness of leisurely engagements as well as in the passion filled feuds and revolutionary thoughts of every era. The unhurried demeanor in the space is a rupture from the global version of modernity.

But this rupture from the present global modernities is starting to strain at the purse strings. College Street and Coffee House are having a hard time in protecting its legacy and finding its position in the space of newfound Kolkata. The answer seems to be hidden in the term – ‘cultural heritage conservation.’ The particular nostalgia has been legitimized to develop itself into the culture heritage of Kolkata- one that needs conscious conserving. The claims to the idea that Boi Para is a heritage space seemingly lies in the intangibilities of memory and nostalgia. The populace of Boi Para collectively and individually continue to remember and interpret the past creating a public memory based on the needs of the present. The challenge lies in capturing the intangibilities of its space. Recognized for the South Asian nuances of a street market and traces of a colonial past simultaneously, College Street consequently is transitioning into a functioning heritage space, with the tangible signage of global modernities overtaking the intangibilities of a colonial modernity and indigenous everyday cultures.

 

Notes

[1] Bhadralok: Emergence of an educated middle class Hindu community in Bengal in the 19th and 20th century, who dominated and spearheaded social and cultural changes in Calcutta. (Sumit Sarkar’s essay by that name in his Writing Social History.)Their distinct dressing sense entails clean white dhotis and kurtas.

[2] Adda is a common Bengali practice, defined as ‘idle talk by Manpreet K. Janeja in her book ‘Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative Lives of Everyday Bengali Food’

Dipesh Chakraborty in his book ‘Provinciallizing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference’  sought to explain Adda as a social practice where friends get together for long, informal and unrigorous conversations

[3] College Street houses the world’s largest second hand book market, and the largest book market in India. This has been confirmed by the West Bengal Tourism Department. The news has been covered by various international websites.

[4] In the Greek city state, public life was strictly separated from home life. Public life – political debate and action – went on in the market place or agora. Habermas discusses how this model of the Hellenic public sphere and its spatial manifestation, the agora, has been handed down to us via Renaissance architecture and enshrined in Roman law that defined the private and the public.

[5] Bill Ashcroft talks about the alternative forms of modernity that needs to be talked about in his article – Alternative Modernities: Globalization and the Post Colonial.

 

 

This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol I., as part of the Coldnoon journal.

 

Arunima Ghoshal

Arunima Ghoshal

Arunima Ghoshal is a scholar at the Department of Geography, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. Her research interests are urban geography, heritage studies, social theory and culture studies.

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