How living in Kolkata as a Bangladeshi made me more culturally aware

In August of 1947, the Bengali nation found itself divided into two countries. But geopolitical borders can only separate people, not their cultures and souls. West Bengal and Bangladesh are two bodies with one soul, with their hearts beating within the people who contain a bit of both entities. The culture differences might be overwhelming to some, but to many, the similarities is where the harmony is strengthened. The capital of West Bengal, Kolkata is specifically loved by many Bangladeshis because of still containing the residue of original Bengali traditions and inspirations gracefully enough, while becoming a modern cosmopolitan city.

A tale of two cities

Kolkata is not just a city to many, it is also an emotion for being the heart of emergence of the historic personalities, events and art that have shaped the dimensions of our collective culture. It will forever remain precious since it has still preserved it all with simplicity, sincerity and joy.

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Read more: In Kolkata, the city of joy

Dhaka is different. It might not be as aesthetically pleasing but it has had the fortune of being the home of Nawabs. This 400-year-old city still preserves the faint scent of its lost glory days in the narrow alleys of Old Dhaka. Being someone who appreciates food and fraternity, my love for Dhaka is eternal since you will find it in loads here. The versatility of cuisines and food habits here beats some of Kolkata’s for me. Old Dhaka is undeniably the heart of likeable chaos and urban heritage. This is how it steals my breath, even after being overwhelmingly crowdy.

Read more: 6 places in Dhaka that remind us of our glorious past.

A tale of two teachers

I have been blessed with the fortune of having a residence in Kolkata, unlike many. Being a wanderer in nature, Kolkata as a city has always actively taken part in shaping my emotions, feelings, values and cultures. The city has a particular aesthetic that no other city could beat for me till now. This is a city for the people with a hearty appetite and curious eyes. Kolkata gave me so much more than a place to stay. It gave me comfort, peace, diversity and joy. So much, that I became addicted to its roads flooding with sodium lights, yellow ambassadors with loud Bollywood songs from the 80s, earthen tea cups that have their own flavour and so much more!  The air of this city has a distinct smell, the smell that will excite anybody who is familiar with the diversity it offers.

How life in Dhaka University changes you

Dhaka pampers you with unpredictability and availability. It gave me a home to grow up in and understand myself better. Nothing in Dhaka is too far but it consumes time like no other. Even then, it will still give you hope. From the delicacies to the nightlife, everything here is a trade. The trade of time, energy and sometimes, life.

Kolkata or Dhaka, why not both?

While Kolkata wows me with art and ethereal beauty, Dhaka prepares me for the worst. It is like Yin and Yang, balancing each other in harmony. Kolkata was originally inspired by the British. Their credit? They built it. Kolkata’s credit? It preserved and carried it, even today, like it’s their own. The historic buildings, churches, temples, mosques, offices.. everything gives you the feeling of being in the right place, no matter how many times you’ve visited the place already. The best thing about Kolkata carrying its cultures so devotedly even today is the candidness behind everything in this city. Nothing feels forced, nothing feels odd. Even the shady alleys will offer something to your thoughts.

6 places in Dhaka that remind us of our glorious past

Being a frequent visitor of Kolkata since the age of 4, I realized there’s more of Kolkata in me than Dhaka, as I am now labelled an adult by society.

The cultural similarity we share has been sowed within me by Kolkata and was nourished here in Dhaka. Every time I visit Kolkata, I learn something new, even if it isn’t directly associated with anything cultural.

A tale of two art forms

Dhaka has its own way of expressing itself. It will express its ‘sorrows’ through the sweat stains of a tired Rikshawala on a humid day, ‘happiness’ through the smile on the face of a mother when her child returns home, ‘fear’ with the speeding buses and trucks on busy streets, ‘anger’ with every innocent life lost, ‘hope’ with every warning a girl receives from random strangers when her orna is tangled to the wheels of a rickshaw and ‘joy’ with every cricket match Bangladesh team manages to win. We have our own graceful way of doing things here.

Rad more: 5 unique experiences in Dhaka that most tourists never see

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Kolkata is a living art. From Howrah to New Market, the extended roads with shadowy alleys, sodium lights and oversized billboards, the faint smell of incense coming from a distance and the classic yellow ambassadors lining up one after another in traffic, everything will please your eyes. Kolkata isn’t entirely modern but it doesn’t want to be it either. It is almost like a modern cosmopolitan woman draped in a saree, unpretentiously appreciating the combination. This effortlessly beautiful city has always been therapeutic for me, whenever I felt dilemmatic, whenever I needed a breath of fresh air. The discipline of this city despite the chaotic charisma as it may seem to many, is praiseworthy as well.

In Kolkata, the city of joy 7

Being in a love-hate relationship with Dhaka has enabled me to appreciate the best of both cities.

Dhaka will always capture a bigger part of my heart and a broader part of my understandings of culture. The city may not be as artistic and aesthetically pleasing, but it will make you appreciate the little things in your life. Dhaka lets you set priorities and act on it everyday. Dhaka will disappoint you, but some days it won’t and you’ll fall in love with it. The heart of Dhaka is not what it contains but the people who make this city liveable. Culturally, Dhaka has given me the concepts of assertiveness, relationships and the importance of being there for each other. Dhaka will destroy you first and then build you up better. Compared to Kolkata, Dhaka gives you hopes with conditions. Dhaka gives you freedom with restrictions. But Kolkata?

Divided by a border, united by culture

Kolkata lets you live, in all the ways you want to. As Dhaka keeps me grounded, Kolkata gives me the wings to fly. The combination of two didn’t only help me appreciate the beauty of the Bengal, but also it gave me a strong sense of security and cultural awareness.

If these words didn’t make enough sense to you as someone who’s yet to breathe the air of Kolkata, why don’t you pack your bags and board the next flight to make sense out of it? And if by any chance, you’re reading this from Kolkata, it’s never too late to visit this cousin city at least once.

The Bhawal King: back from the dead

The just-released trailer for the upcoming Indian film of Srijit Mukherjee, Ek Je Chilo Raja, is worth all the hype. Here’s why. The movie is a biopic of the infamous Bhawal King, who in the 1920s, presumably came back from the dead as a monk, to reclaim his kingdom from the British. The movie also doubles as a brilliant courtroom drama about one of the longest running court trials in Indian history.

Ramendra Narayan Roy was the second prince of the Bhawal zamindars in Bengal, a part of which is modern day Bangladesh. He was popular among his subjects and spent a lavish lifestyle hunting, in festivities and in the company of women. In 1909, he contracted syphilis and went to Darjeeling for further treatment. He presumably died there and was cremated. His young wife Bibhabati Deb later moved to Dhaka to live with her brother. The remaining Bhawal princes died later on and the British took over the Bhawal estate. Tragic, but the story is only about to begin.

bhawal raja case
Raja Ramendra Narayan

One fine day in 1920, a Sanyasi covered in ashes arrives at the Buckland Bund in Dhaka, near the Ruplal House. He sits on the street, meditating for four months and attracts public attention. Under public pressure, the Sanyasi reveals that he is Ramendra Narayan Roy, the second prince of Bhawal. To prove his identity, he even discloses private information of the prince which only the prince himself or those close to him knew. Many of the relatives, though doubtful at first, later recognizes him and accepts him.

On 29 May 1921, the claimant arrives at the Bhawal estate with two lawyers to meet the district magistrate and collector J. H. Lindsay, who recorded his claim.

ek je chilo raja jawa ahsan
Popular Bangladeshi actress Jaya Ahsan plays a significant role in “Ek Je Chilo Raja”.

Amid much public row, the British government eventually filed a case terming the claimant as an imposter. And thus began the infamous Bhawal case, one of the longest running trials in Indian judicial history. The trial ran for 16 years without a final verdict. The claimant, who insisted that he was the returned king, died of a stroke before the trial ended. The government could never prove that he was an imposter.

Jishu Sengupta stars as the Bhawal prince in the upcoming movie. Anjan Dutta and Jaya Ahsan also appear in prominent roles. The biopic is set to be released on 12th October 2018.

We’ll bring you an official review of the film after it is released.

In Kolkata, the city of joy

One of the oldest and the busiest cities in the world, Kolkata nicknamed the city of joy, is also the proud holder of a very befitting title, the cultural capital of India. The city of Kolkata is full of people, colours, scents and noises of all kinds and a rich cultural heritage to boast about.

Kolkata is a coveted destination for all the history buffs, cultural explorers and spiritual travelers. This is the city that saw the rise of modern India and is the birthplace of the Bengali renaissance. For someone from Bangladesh, there is no better destination to travel to if you want to embark on a journey of discovering your roots and heritage.

Anyone who is looking for the experience of a lifetime on a tight budget, the city of Rabindranath and Satyajit Roy welcomes you.

Kolkatay Shwagotom
Traveling to Kolkata from Bangladesh is as easy as it gets. There are trains, which take roughly 8 hours, daily buses from Dhaka with a journey time of 12 hours (+ horrible Dhaka traffic) and of course aeroplanes that will land you in Dumdum airport in just about 2 hours or so. Indigo airlines would be the cheapest option if you’re planning to catch a flight.

Trains and buses will cost you the same, which would be a lot cheaper than an aeroplane. Trains operate between Dhaka to Kolkata four days a week from Kamalapur, tickets are sold as early as one month prior to your travelling dates. Check with the railway website for more information on timings and other details.

A number of buses operate daily on the Dhaka-Kolkata-Dhaka route. The best option would be to get a ticket for the BRTC-Shyamoli service. The staff is efficient and helpful and will get you a “VIP privilege” during land immigration, which can be a lot confusing than regular airport immigration. A round trip should cost you around 4000 or less, including taxes and other charges.

Kolkata New Market

A place to stay
If you’re traveling by bus, they’ll drop you off right in the heart of the city, Marquis street. Just adjacent to Marquis street, is Sudder street, the central backpacker’s district. You’ll find a number of cheap to mid-range hotels on Marquis and Sudder street. Just walk into any if you haven’t pre-booked one.

If you’re looking for a cheap stay with quality rooms, check out Ashreen guest house on Cowai Lane. Right in between Sudder street and Hogg’s market, the Ashreen guest house has 3 star rated rooms, in terms of quality, for a jaw-dropping cheap rate. Just don’t expect a proper 3-star hotel facility. You get what you pay for.

Many of these hotels are in heritage buildings that are hundreds of years old and are meant to keep it that way. Whether you’re looking for a heritage stay or a quality upgrade for a little value for money, finding a stay in Kolkata is an absolute no-brainer.

Explore, explore and explore
Kolkata is a crowded and crammed city. It has its own fair share of dirt and filth. But every street in Kolkata has some sort of history and culture associated with it.

The streets of Kolkata are a bold mixture of the old and the new. When Job Charnock of the East India Company first arrived in the banks of Hooghly in 1686, he realized the potential of the region for English settlement. For the next 150 years, English colonists would clear the jungle of Hooghly and establish roads, erect buildings in British architectural style and turn Kolkata into the first capital of the British Raj in India. Kolkata still bears the sign of its glorious past. Old British colonial buildings still adorn the streets of Esplanade and Park Street. The Park street cemetery houses the graves of 200 years old British families who were the first to arrive in India.

College street houses the largest street book market in Asia alongside the Calcutta University, the first institution for westernised higher education in India and Asia. Calcutta University and the subsequent educational institutions in Kolkata would, later on, produce some of the brightest minds in Bengal and create an educated and politically conscious middle class who were the pioneer in the movement for Indian independence. The college street is also home to the infamous Indian Coffee House. The intellectuals of Bengal would come here often to discuss literature, politics and everything in between over a cup of coffee.

This is the same coffee house Manna Dey wrote his famous song about. And it is believed that Roma Roys and D’Souzas really did exist.

There’s Victoria Memorial, a magnificent structure built by the British in memory of Queen Victoria. Built with a mixture of Victorian and Mughal architecture in style, Victoria Memorial was quite literally erected because the British happened to be jealous of the Taj Mahal in Agra wanted something as magnificent as Taj Mahal for the Empress too. Whether it served its purpose or not is of course, for you to decide.

Victoria memorial Kolkata
Victoria Memorial

St. Paul’s Cathedral is near to the memorial. It’s an 18th-century church built in English-Gothic architectural style, for the increasing number of English populaces in the city. The church is open to all and visitors are expected to maintain civic and silence when visiting the church. The church also houses a number of Graves inside its walls. Some of these graves belong to prominent British bishops, reformists and Lords who died in Kolkata.

St. Paul's church Kolkata
St. Paul’s

Birla Planetarium, the second largest planetarium in the world is close by and Birla Mandir, a magnificent temple with intricate marble stone carvings on its walls, is about 20 minutes taxi ride from the planetarium.

The famous Howrah bridge stands proudly on the Ganges river. Go to the Mullickghat flower market very early in the morning to witness one of the largest flower markets in Asia alongside the morning view of the Hooghly bridge.

Jorasanko Thakurbari, the ancestral home of Rabindranath Thakur is a must visit. The house is now turned into a museum and you can get inside the rooms Rabindranath and his family used to stay. The house also served as a center for intellectual practices during the renaissance period and now doubles as the Rabindra Bharati University. Satyajit Ray’s ancestral home is also nearby.

Tagore house Kolkata
Tagore’s house

Visit the Indian Museum, the largest in India to witness the vast and rich collection of our ancient civilisation and heritage. Top it off with a quick visit to Sir Stuart Hogg Market, commonly known as the New Market. The market built mainly for the British back in the 1800s now houses hundreds of shops that sell everything from antiques to traditional clothes. Shopping in the Hogg’s Market is an unforgettable experience.

Visit the Kalighat temple. The largest temple devoted to Goddess Kali or Durga. It is one of the 51 Shakti Pithas in Hindu mythology. According to some historians, the etymology of Kolkata is directly related to Kalighat. Mother Teressa’s house, Nirmal Hridoy, is right adjacent to the temple.

KolkataAbove everything, the most important aspect of traveling that I’m an advocate of is that, take random aimless walks down the streets and alleys of a city. Breathe in the smell of the city as every city has a smell of its own. Experience lives of the locals like the locals do. If nothing else, it enriches the soul.

The magnificent culinary journey
It is needless to say that food in Kolkata are practically crafted to our taste buds. The street foods are to die for. In Madge lane, right opposite to the New Market, you’ll find stalls selling hot Pav Bhaji, Chicken Paneer Kebabs, Chow mein etc. Don’t forget to try the Kulfi Falooda.

In New Market, you’ll find Nizam’s which have been around for 100 years selling delicious Kosha Manghso, Chicken Roll, Chicken Kabirazi etc. Head over to Baba Rolls in Park street to try the mouth-watering hot kathi rolls. The momo chain “Wow Momos!” sells some of the best pan-fried momos in the continent.

In college street, you’ll find Hindustan Dhaba. They sell the best Punjabi thali in the city. A hearty lunch at the dhaba is not only easy on the wallet but also one of the most delicious meals you’ll ever get to try. The juicy butter chicken and tandoor roti alone is enough to make one come back to Kolkata just to try it one more time.

Food in Kolkata
Thali in Hindustan Dhaba

You’ll, of course, go to the coffee house when on College street. One heads up is that the coffee at the coffee house is nothing special to be absolutely honest. But it’s the conversation that people come here for, not the food.

You’ll find some of the best South Indian idly and dosa in Friend’s Eating House behind the new market and their masala chai is a must try. There’s a small stall in Hartford Lane, near Ashreen guest house, that sells snacks like sandwich, omelettes, toast, chai and many more. They open early for breakfast and close late at night. Head over there for a cheese omelette if you’re not feeling too adventurous. The boy who runs the stall is a talkative young chap who can recommend you a thing or two.

And the best for the last, Roshogollas. Kolkata would not be Kolkata if there were no roshogollas. Try Bheem Nag and KC Das to taste these delicious sweets and maybe get a box or two home.

Getting around in Kolkata
At times it feels like Kolkata never moved on from the colonial times at all. 1958 models of Hindustan Ambassador yellow taxis and Royal Enfield motorcycles ply the streets along with trams, a forgotten mode of transport in most parts of the world.

Kolkata has the oldest running tram system in the world right now and getting a tram ride is a part of the Kolkata experience. Human run rickshaws are still found in the streets.

There are of course buses and conventional Uber rides. Kolkata also has a metro line which happens to be the first and the oldest underground metro in India. Travelling in the metro is cheap and fast for covering long distances. However, get one of the trademark yellow taxis to cover short distances and places where the metro will not go. Make sure you bargain well. They’re not very costly anyway.

Biday Kolkata
As night falls over this 300-year-old city, you should take a long look at the city from somewhere high enough that overlooks the old colonial buildings and crowded streets. The scent of incense would swirl into the sound of Azaan and the church bells would remind you that time is almost up.

You’ll get your return bus tickets from the same counter where you were dropped off. Or you could always take the train or the aeroplane, the choice is up to you.Kolkata taxi

As your bus/train will keep taking you further away from the city, you wouldn’t know what it is that’d keep calling you back. Is it the coffee house? Esplanade? The yellow taxis? Or is it the hundred years old night over Hogg’s market that stands witness to numerous events of history and culture? You will only know if you get back again. Kolkata, as always, welcomes you.