Kolkata, College Street, Indian Coffee House and Creativity

Batakrishna Dey

A cup of coffee at the Indian Coffee House once again, after 60 years, with my grandson.

As an observer, if not a joyful participant, I fondly chronicle here bits of my memory of a glorious piece of Kolkata’s history. This is the story of the famed College Street of Kolkata, and the bustling life surrounding it.

College Street in central Kolkata is, in more senses than one, central to the identity of intellectuality and creativity of the city which was once famously christened by the French author Dominic La Pierre as the City of Joy. The street is called so because it has on its two sides, several prestigious and heritage schools, colleges, university campuses, rows of bookshops and libraries, even food stalls on wheels!

Kolkata’s premier Presidency College (I am one of its alumni) which is also known nationally in India as a premier educational institution, Sanskrit college (Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was its principal), Hare school, Hindu school, Calcutta University campus consisting of mighty buildings such as the Senate hall, Ashutosh Building and Darbhanga Building, Calcutta Medical College and Hospitals, including the School of Tropical Medicines – all heritage buildings of colonial vintage and of majestic Gothic design, have their addresses on College Street.

I spent a decade or more here in the vicinity of College Street. My six years of Presidency College, including two years at Calcutta University and a further few years as an academic at Saint Paul’s Missionary College as well as the City College of Commerce, all located not far from the College Street neighborhood, facilitated my daily football here. Apart from these compulsive movements on account of being a student and later a professor in this area, the added attraction was the enormous magical pull of Indian Coffee House, which along with my classmates and female friends, I used to frequent on a regular basis, almost daily, to “add value” to life!

This Albert Hall Coffee House was spread over two floors –  the first floor one humorously referred to as House of Commons, and the one on the second floor as House of Lords. Who would not visit this den –  students, professors, poets, journalists, business professionals, couples in love – all signed its visitors’ book, as it were! It was verily an intellectual hub. The ambience was informal and warm, but also loud – no one spoke in soft voices. The taste of the coffee was uniquely aromatic, casting a hypnotic and addictive spell on the sippers. With the benevolent indulgence of the owners and the well behaved and polite waiters, one could spend hours over only a cup! None would ask you to hurry or quit, quite unlike other commercial establishments.

Another interesting jaunt was a somewhat unkempt bookstall called Patirams, on the intersection of College Street and Harrison Road which is now renamed Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Road. At this book stall, most of the current magazines and periodicals of the time, even books and year books would be on display, for poets, writers and readers to browse and look through the pages, but buy only if they felt like. Reader friendly, patient and tolerant, the proprietor was Patiram. I was a regular beneficiary of his benevolence. 

Whenever during my four decades long stay away from the city I thought of Kolkata’s College Street, the Coffee House and the many bookshops shone bright on my mind’s memory screen. 

After six decades, I went back to College Street and the Coffee House in 2016 with my daughter and grandson when they visited Kolkata. I took them to Presidency College and Calcutta University, we walked through the corridors of my college and even went inside some classrooms. We walked on College Street, browsing at the old bookshops which didn’t seem to have changed at all! The grand finale of the trip was a visit to my beloved Coffee House, where we had coffee and snacks, just like old times. What a bittersweet visit this was – old memories of my student days came flooding back while I excitedly re-discovered the soul of College Street once again, refreshing the old memories to treasure in my heart in the coming years.