As a child, BBD Bagh was nothing more than a strange name of a place, painted in big, bold, red letters across the mini bus that would drop me to school, tuitions, or the ‘swimming club,’ on its way to a busier, far more important part of the city; the ‘business’ part of the city, the part I had no business being in.
On the rare occasions that we ventured out of our staid south Kolkata lives to travel outstation, I vaguely remember our taxi passing through a cluster of buildings that always had me riveted. They loomed large over us as we sped through the streets on our way to Howrah station. These rides would usually be in the darkness just before dawn, when the city was still stirring in its sleep. The buildings, which are little more than a background, a setting, for important political, administrative and bureaucratic events during the day, would be free from their business-hour trappings by night. They would stand naked and exposed, with nothing to distract me from their magnificence, their clean lines, their beautiful marriage of opulence and austerity. I remember looking up through the half-open window, and craning my neck, so I could get that last glimpse as they receded in the distance.
Back then, words like ‘heritage’, ‘colonial’, ‘Gothic’, meant nothing to me: there was just this raw, unsophisticated veneration for a thing of beauty. The opulent facades stood like sentinels to a world that I had no reason to enter; BBD Bagh was a rite of passage, if you will, on the way to a (far more important) vacation.
Part of the problem is growing up in a city, and then staying put in it, well into your twenties. This has a way of damaging the beauty receptors in your brain. You cross the same Dhakuria bridge on your way to school every day, then to college every day, then to work every day. You walk the same 700 steps to the bus stop every day, buy jhaal muri from the same mustachioed alcoholic every day. Your senses are inured, your eyes blinded to beauty, history, and diversity. You’re sure you’ve seen all there is to see.
And then you move cities: the blinkers fly off, and everywhere you look, there’s something that makes you catch your breath: a 2000-year old cave complex, a British-era milestone, a cluster of opulent Gothic buildings, a Portuguese village. And the best part? The blinkers fly off for good. No city will ever be taken for granted again: not even the one where you spent the first 22 years of your life.
Now, each time I return to Calcutta for a brief interlude from my manic Mumbai life, I see my home city with the eyes of a traveller: everything is new, everything exciting, everything makes me want to stop and stare. I notice Art Deco buildings that I passed every day for years, blind to its smooth, curved edges, and its stunning symmetry. I seek out pockets in my city that have something interesting to offer: a glimpse of the Chinese expatriate community, the boats bobbing up and down in the wind under Howrah Bridge, the old, crumbling facades in Beadon Street, or Derozio’s resting place in the south Park Street Cemetery.
Last month, on my fifth trip home in five years, the word BBD Bagh accrued new meaning. It now means much more than those big, bold red letters on a mini bus, or a bus conductor leaning out at a characteristic angle from the door as he chants the name of the last stop. BBD Bagh now stands for a walk through a well-preserved colonial heritage district on a crisp summer morning. It stands for Job Charnock’s grave, Kolkata’s first parish church, British India’s first administrative nerve-centre, and other stories carved into stone, built into buildings.
BBD Bagh now stands for falling giddily in love all over again, with a city you once claimed you were tired of, a city you struggled to flee, a city you said you were done with.
Text and Photos by Yashodhara Ghosh.
Yashodhara is a native of Calcutta but works in Bombay. She loves good local food and architecture of all kinds. She holds a diploma in Ancient Indian Arts and Sciences from the University of Mumbai. Follow her adventures on Instagram.