Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

Books, books, books on College Street April 2, 2020

Many moons ago, I attended a talk about India by a travel journalist. I recently came across my notes, and among other things I had jotted down was: NB! Calcutta, College Street. When I planned my first visit to Calcutta three years ago, College Street – known to be the largest second-hand book sale in Asia or the world for that matter (statistics vary) – was high on my agenda.

College Street is rightly a street, but putting all the nearby book-ish lanes and alleys together, it becomes an area. Here you’ll find the city’s most prestigious and renowned academic institutions like University of Calcutta, Calcutta Medical College, Presidency College, Sanskrit College, Hare School and Hindu School. Not surprisingly then, the many stalls and shops sell text books and students can be seen roaming the area. In fact, text books seem to be predominantly.

I haven’t actively searched for novels on College Street, but from the many hand painted signs literary work seems to be less available. From what I’ve read, it hasn’t always been like this, but India now has Amazon and Flipkart, and people are turning to their computers here as elsewhere. Although I’m pretty sure those intent of finding that rare, long sought-after book on College Street will be able to, either by luck or hard work.
Because books are more than plenty in ‘Boi Para’; the Book Town. And that is of course an understatement … Uncountable, I’d say, at the same time I guess every stall and shop-owner has a reasonable idea about his stock.

If you’re not hunting for that special book, there are still plenty of reasons to visit College Street, like for instance the mere sight of the area. What intrigues me more than the number of books, is the various stalls; how they come in many sizes and shapes, made of different materials. Always with a man (yes, this is yet another man’s world) peeping out of an opening; small or large, made to measure, hand in glove – some not wasting a centimetre and stack their books so that their face is just about visible. What more do you need to sell a book anyway?

Some stalls are just a cupboard, others seem to be literary made of books – more spacious ones occur. And there are of course ordinary shops among the stalls, many of them highly reputable, dating years back, like Dasgupta established in 1886. College Street is also home to important publishing houses. Some of the shops have beautifully fitted furniture and a feeling of awe is never far away. Or perhaps it is fear; that all this will be lost to a modern e-world.

What I also love about College Street, is the hand painted signs (found all over the city for that matter). I haven’t seen a single neon-lit sign, only beautiful lettering. Signs may be worn and grimy, looking rather poor as it is, but they belong to the city’s rough surface.

A must-visit on College Street is the Indian Coffee House. It’s a renowned intellectual and literary hub, proud to have once welcomed Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray and many more. One might go there to admire the waiter’s fancy hats and the retro environment, but coffee is definitely better elsewhere. I couldn’t resist paying a short visit to TripAdvisor, and it’s obvious that many visitors (based on their grumpy coments) expect something entirely different than they get. In many ways I’m glad the place seems not to have lost its eccentricity and ended up a slick tourist destination. Maybe the coffee house is best left to the native people of Calcutta and their adda.

College Street is a fascinating jumble of book stalls, food stalls, people – and among the buses, cars, carts and rickshaws I spotted a flock of goats being herded down College Street – just to complete the picture!


Coffee – in two different ways… November 25, 2010

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 9:20 pm
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It happens – when in India – that you need a break from everything… The heat, the traffic, the pollution, the people, the noise. It just happens. I always feel in need of decent coffe at some point every day, so I go to a Barista or Cafe Coffe Day – Starbucks look alikes and very good they are. They sell all kinds of coffees, sandwiches, muffins and the bigger ones, at least Barista, sell good Italian food.

Theobroma, South Mumbai.

But on my last day in Mumbai I came to notice a place called Theobroma at Colaba Causeway, the main thoroughfare in Colaba, South Mumbai. It was incredibly hot, I had hours to spend before my plane left Mumbai after midnight and I realised I had to stop shopping – which is easily done because 1) the shops cool you down and 2) it whiles away the hours. So I stepped into Theobroma, another modern western style coffebar I quickly realised – and entered another world. In fact, it could have been Norway. But there is one major difference, staff is more plentiful than guests and customers. In fact I thought I saw a new guy every two minutes and was thinking where on earth do they come from… And yes, only male staff. All with hygienic plastic gloves.

The coffebar cum bakery was small, but the interior very nice. Four or five small square tables fit for two people and some more tables along one wall. The menu was extensive, it was in fact difficult to chose. The counter had a variety of tasty food on display; typical French bakery, smoothies and even cup cakes. On the menu was sandwiches, salads… on the shelves bread and a lot more for sale… For a moment I forgot that  was in India, this could easily have been Ostehuset or Food Story in Stavanger. Absolutely nothing reminded me of India, as we mostly think of India.

No doubt... it's cool!

Even the clientele was different from most people on Colaba Causeway, saris were few and far between. In fact, during that one hour I sat there, only one woman who came in was dressed in a sari. The rest of the customers and guests were dressed in western clothes. Jeans and a t-shirt. A lot many girls and women do dress in jeans of course, but very often with a kurta as a top.
The food was delicious, the coffe tasty. But you pay a price.

As I sat there I came to think of a coffee bar in Jaipur. It was that time of the day I just needed what I call a decent coffee. We had hired an autorickshaw for the day and asked th driver to take us to a Barista before we paid and left him. Well he did, but only too late did we realise that the Barista was shut down… so we started to walk and search for another coffee bar. What we found was the Indian Coffee House, a business found all over India run by cooperatives. It was simple, to say the least… But very retro. Close to cool! And incredibly cheap, a cup of coffee cost 10 rupies, equivalent to 0,21 Dollars or 1,5 kroner. They might as well give it away! But to be frank, it was not drinkable. The food on the other hand, was good.
The coffee house had two kind of separate chambers for woman and families. In India, the society very often sees to that women can sort of withdraw a bit. Like Mumbai trains have women’s compartments. But the few women who came in, preffered the main area. Strange then, that the toilet was for both sexes. The first thing I saw when I opened the door were the pissoirs, but no men… Well I didn’t venture futher though.

The staff was dressed in immaculate white and Gandhi caps!

The coffee and food at Theobroma was good, but this is what you get everywhere these days. The atmosphere at Indian Coffe House was memorable!