Calcutta happens to possess an unusually diverse selection of thoroughfares, ensuring complete and utter access to virtually every square metre of the core city. This is only natural for a large metropolis, but the variations encountered never cease to amaze me. Listed in my friend P. Thankappan Nair’s consummate (and indispensable) ‘A History of Calcutta’s Streets’, the roster of street nomenclature is a copious assortment of roads, approaches, avenues, gardens, gullees, ranges, rows, saranis, terraces – and lanes. Especially lanes. 1st lanes, 2nd lanes, 3rd lanes, by-lanes, they’re all here.
While there’s something of interest on pretty much every route in Calcutta, it’s the lanes where the soul of the city – at its most intimate – resides. Mainly because their collective character reveals details which are thoroughly human-scaled in their proportions, and with a village-like integrity.
Today I’m heading into lanes which are new to me, deep within ‘another’ Calcutta, which has a pedigree similar to that of core city. Identified on old maps as Punchannogram, it is a land consisting of fifty-five villages, located on the suburban periphery. It was ceded to the East India Company by Nawab Mir Jafar, as part of his inglorious sell-out, following the tumultuous events of 1757.
This will be a pretty quickstroll-through, as the fully urbanized tract hereabouts is consummately vast and concentrated. But to me, it promises to be just as intriguing as more familiar marches. So I’m happy to cover any ground that fills existing gaps.
My casual goal is to reach the final resting place of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s ashes, at the temple named in his honour. As much an icon as the Tagores and Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna needs no introduction here. His teachings form one of the abiding spiritual currents within Bengali culture and belief.
North of the Narkeldanga Main Road’s arterial is the erstwhile village of Kankurgachi, now a low-key, moderately built-up area. Clearly, this locale has become desirable. Medium-rise blocks of flats are trending, and to the west is a massive pile with an Italianate skyline, which I facetiously dub ‘The New Rome’.
Down here in the lanes though, intimacy flourishes with characteristic modesty. A playfield, a children’s park with an elephant slide, and a downright peaceful ambience each add to the gentle charm. Just at hand, the southern wall of the Ramakrishna Samadhi Mandir campus is embellished with mural scenes from the great man’s life. They are elegantly presented, somewhat in the mythological style, but with more realism integrated, mainly because he was so well documented. Busts of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda reside behind Plexiglas in telephone kiosk-like cabinets. Their likenesses are so familiar, I always tend to regard them as old friends, holding steady, and in good form.
The Mandir itself is accessed after further lane-time, and for me, it’s quite a surprise. That is, everything is conspicuously ‘modern’, impeccably tended, and a hushed serenity prevails. I had expected a much less developed site, but there are no pretensions here whatsoever. Devotion, love, and simplicity are the main effects. The domed temple, built in 1931 by disciple Swami Yogbinode, is a model of humbleness. Inside, the meditative space is austere but attractive, highlighted by the garlanded life-sized portrait of the holy man, sculpted in white marble. Like countless other depictions, it is based on the famous photo showing him seated, perhaps just emerging from samadhi. This is the most robust version I’ve seen. He looks hearty, genial, and in tip-top shape.
Back in the lanes, I quickly notice there’s a good deal of imaginative and lively attention lavished on many of the residences along here. Some are playful, with free associations of colour and form that hint at the personalities within, while others are more restrained in their fine lines and grillwork, suggesting a considerable degree of prosperity. There also seems to have been a fad for sporting entranceways with framework fashioned like tree-trunks, and rivalry for the biggest and best gets a bit intense!
These details of artistic expression reflect a pride of place, an interest in contributing to the fabric of the city, and the considerable talent of local craftspeople.
Also, in the great Calcuttan tradition, the people are welcoming, confident, easygoing, and good-neighbourly.
Even after such an impromptu expedition, I am quietly elated. For, despite the unremarkable anonymity of the brick and concrete boxes reaching into the Punchannogram sky, down in the lanes, human-scaled living, inventiveness, wit, colour, and spiritual fulfillment survive – and prosper. For those of us who cherish the soul of Calcutta and its heritage, well-spent lane-time will always be a reminder of the absolute necessity for such neighbourhoods to always endure.
Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!