Seventeen idols and images of and references to Hindu gods and goddesses huddle around the foot of a giant tree. Among them is a clay model of the serpent god, a soft toy representing the elephant god, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, hanging precariously from a branch as a calendar illustration. Add the image of Shiva, the destroyer god, embossed on the back of Chandicharan Saraswati's orange t-shirt, and that makes it 18.
Chandicharan charges down the wet steps leading to the river and collects handfuls of gooey, malleable mud. He does this repeatedly till he has stocked enough for the day, well ahead of the hour when the river bank will be submerged in the high tide. As he softly dabs the clay around the base of the tree, he outlines his plans: once he puts up photographs of a mosque and Jesus and Mary alongside those of the Hindu divinities, the spot around the tree will emerge as a pantheon of faiths. "A tree is symbolic of the world," the middle-aged man explains. "And all religions live under its shade."
It is apposite that Chandicharan's pantheonic tree is located on Prinsep Ghat, the river port where the world came calling from the mid-19th century right till rail travel took over. The Prinsep Memorial - an understated, elegant tribute in Ionian pillars and Palladian arches to Orientalist scholar James Prinsep, erected in 1841, a year after his death - is separated from the ghat by the intra-city circular railway line, which carries hundreds of passengers into the heart of the city on weekdays.
Across the rail line flows the Hooghly, the biggest tributary of the Ganga, its murky waters heavy with silt. In previous centuries the river carried the ambitious and the adventurous of the Western world to the city's periphery. The Danes, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese all set up colonial camps on the fringes of Calcutta (as it was then, and still continues to be known, in defiance of the rechristening): The small upriver towns of Serampore, Chandannagore and Chinsurah still contain interesting vestiges of those short-lived colonial fantasies.
Now Prinsep Ghat lies wedged between two compelling images of Kolkata. The massive iron façade of the Howrah Bridge, a British-era creation that connects the twin cities of Howrah and Kolkata, dominates the northern view, while the towering cable-stayed Vidyasagar Setu, inaugurated in 1992, looms over Prinsep Memorial to the south. The modern bridge and the Memorial in the same frame provide one of the most sought-after photographic images of a city trying to move beyond its mouldy past (as the Howrah Bridge has come to symbolise) towards a zipping modernity. Both bridges continue to bring thousands into the city daily, infusing it with the freshness of new lives and styles.
Small country boats with colourful thatching bob gently at the water's edge, waiting to take people on a joyride down the Hooghly. Crows pick crumbs from small flotillas of water hyacinths and get carried along with the current's slow flow.
Inside the garden
"The gate will open after 10 minutes," the guard at Eden Gardens declares, somewhat apologetically. Rabindranath Bhowmick lets me in though, but makes me wait in the guard's room till its time. Foreigners, he says, are allowed in at any time of the day. In my case it is a light drizzle that opens the gates before the 12noon entry hour.
Designed in 1841, Eden Gardens is among the oldest parks in the city and was named after the Eden sisters of Lord Auckland, then the British Governor-General of India. Spread over 50 acres, the only time the Eden Gardens park lets its peace be shattered is when 100,000 fans cheer a Tendulkar hit at the adjacent cricket stadium, the park's famous namesake.
On a non-match day Eden Gardens is quiet. A group of herons is gathered at one end of the water body that holds the park together, and the mild winter rain lends the park an unseasonal shine. Tall trees, both of local and introduced varieties, line the paths, which lead inevitably to the small arched bridge across the still waters, still hazy under a veil of mist. Beyond the well-maintained lawns stands a Burmese pagoda. Cracks run through the woodwork and rise up to dragon figures coiled around the red-and-gold structure, which is surrounded by imposing statues with distinctly Oriental features.
A small sign near the pagoda mentions that the specimen of "Burmese Ornamental Architecture" was "removed" from the city of Prome in 1854 and reconstructed here in 1856. I'm intrigued by the use of the word "removed". The city of Prome, the internet informs me later, was once the city of Pyay (also Pye), a bustling Burmese commercial town along the Irrawaddy. Its prospects and strategic location saw the town pass through many conquering hands before it came to the British. The name, Prome, remained.
Just as "Dalhousie Square" has survived in Kolkata. Named after the erstwhile Governor-General of India, Dalhousie Square, a stone's throw north of Eden Gardens, was once the epicentre of British rule in India, and was renamed BBD Bagh (after Benoy, Badal and Dinesh, three nationalist martyrs) in post-Independence years.
No building in the vicinity of the square denotes status and aspiration more than Raj Bhavan, the erstwhile residence of the British viceroy and now the home of the governor of West Bengal. Built in 1803, the mansion's colossal cost earned Lord Wellesley an official rebuke. Its large, domed roof, neoclassical architecture, elegant porticos, pebbled walks and vast compound continue to be behind giant iron gates, off limits for the public.
Local folklore describes a Bengali gentleman relieving himself every other evening on the boundary walls of Raj Bhavan before paying the steep fine to the British authorities. These days a busker performs near the northern gate of the building, his back turned to the awe-inspiring structure.
A short stroll away, men seated on small stools type away furiously on old Remington machines around the wide rotunda of the General Post Office building, which lords over the south-west flank of Dalhousie Square, with its domed roof and long line of Ionian pillars. The typists tirelessly tap faceless keys whose inscribed letters have long been sacrificed to overuse. Others sit on the wide staircase of the GPO, selling postal forms and certificates.
In contrast to the immense building, which some consider to be the site of the infamous Black Hole incident, the office of the Philatelic Bureau housed within the GPO, is a one-room affair. But it is of immense importance to philatelists and researchers for its commendable collection of Indian and British era postal stamps and trivia.
Across the road is Writers' Building, its brick-red façade, Corinthian columns and Raj-era insignia as much an icon today as it was in the late-18th century, when it was constructed as a seat of authority. The Lal Dighi, a dug-up water body in the middle of the area, reflects of the splendid architecture of the square. On most days groups of meditative anglers can be seen sitting around Lal Dighi, unmindful of the tremendous bustle of traffic and the din of street vendors in Kolkata's business district, selling everything from steaming-hot five-course lunches to Chinese-made binoculars.
In close proximity too are the magnificent Town Hall and Metcalfe Hall, with their wide stairways and classical architecture. While these two structures have been renovated recently and returned to the citizens of Kolkata, the impressive High Court building, with a distinctly Gothic edge to its architecture, hums with the activities of litigants and lawyers.
As I walk past the Treasury Building, a red-brick structure constructed around the 1880s which now serves as the office of the principal Auditor General, I stop to admire one of its intricately designed wrought-iron gates. Against the orange glow of the lamp hanging from the high-arched entrance, the gate assumes a tremendous aesthetic character. The gateman, though, hurries me along. "Shore daran. Babu berobe," he urges me in Bengali. (Please move away. Babu is due to leave the office.)
It all comes back to a tomb. In the recent past Kolkata has debated, even through public-interest litigations in court, the identity of the city's true founder. While newer names have come up, the most widely held name is that of Job Charnock. For the man who made a global city out of three villages in the late 17th century, and laid the grounds for Kolkata to be considered the "second city of the Empire", Charnock's mausoleum within the leafy precincts of St John's Church, to the south of Lal Dighi, is unassuming and short of official decorations.
It seems indicative of a city that has one foot in the future but has never untangled itself from the past.