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Beat Street: Can Kolkata’s Sudder Street shake off its seedy reputation?

Over the years, Sudder Street has grown as a backpacker’s haven, a reliable fleamarket for hip clothes and accessories, a neighbourhood full of cheap, good restaurants, and as the bhadrolok will tell you, a den of decadence.

Written by Premankur Biswas | New Delhi |
Updated: January 18, 2015 1:00:48 am
Trigger-happy at Sudder Street (Source: Express Photo by Subham Dutta) Trigger-happy at Sudder Street (Source: Express Photo by Subham Dutta)

If the brain changes matter breathes
fearfully back on man — But now
the great crash of buildings and planets
breaks thru the walls of language and drowns me under its Ganges
heaviness forever.
— Last Night in Calcutta, Allen Ginsberg

American poet and star of the Beat generation, Allen Ginsberg visited Kolkata in the late 1960s and by all accounts, loved the city — it moved him and tested him in equal measure. And for a short while, he called Sudder Street home.

He lived in its flea-pit hotels, did a variety of drugs, spent hours at the burning ghats trying to overcome his fear of death, sought out godmen and their prescriptions for nirvana, and spent time with the Hungryalist quartet formed by poets Malay Roy Choudhary, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Samir Roychoudhury and Debi Roy. It was 1968 and the street, named after an old “sadar” court of appeal, symbolised freedom, a convergence of minds and cultures that defied easy categorisation.

International tourists at Raj’s Spanish Cafe (Express photo by Subham Dutta) International tourists at Raj’s Spanish Cafe (Express photo by Subham Dutta)

In the 1960s and 1970s, when the hippies started streaming into India, Kolkata was a favoured stopover because of its proximity to Kathmandu; with its cheap hotels and location in the centre of the city, Sudder Street promised the best hashish, pimps and their “college girls”, and all sorts of goods and services that would make the middle-class Bengali wrinkle their nose in consternation, or disgust, or both. “In the 1970s, when I was growing up in the area, my school friends would refuse to visit my home. For them, visiting Sudder Street was akin to visiting a red light area. Anyone living here had to be involved in something seedy,” says 50-year-old businessman Vipul Shah, who owned a cyber cafe in the area till the mid-2000s.

Over the years, Sudder Street has grown as a backpacker’s haven, a reliable fleamarket for hip clothes and accessories, a neighbourhood full of cheap, good restaurants, and as the bhadrolok will tell you, a den of decadence. The latest blow to its reputation came when earlier this month, the Kolkata Police arrested three tour guides from Sudder Street, along with two others from Gaya, for allegedly gang-raping and robbing a Japanese tourist. But its residents are not going to give up without a fight.

“This incident is like an alarm bell for us. We need to convince visitors that Sudder Street is not really the monster that it’s being made out to be,” says Rajan Prasad Pal, proprietor of the popular Raj’s Spanish Cafe in the area. “We have to realise that the onus of safety of the people here lies on both the police and the residents. If we warn our regulars to not trust local louts, if we have more organised tours, things will be different,” says Tapan Pramanik, officer-in-charge, New Market police station. The Japanese tourist was allegedly duped by a guide and his friends, who coerced her to visit Bodh Gaya with them.

Lucille Berard, 23, who is on a backpacking trip across India from France, has heard about the incident, but doesn’t want that to cloud her “experience”. “I feel quite safe here though I understand how quickly that can change. I am sure if I take proper precautions, nothing untoward will happen,” she says.

Near Raj’s Spanish Cafe, Govind Kumar Prajapti,17, is perched on a borrowed bike. A resident of faraway Canal East Road, he visits the street every week to make “friends”. “I want to improve my English. How is it wrong to befriend new people and learn from them?” he asks. Spanish tourist Maria Lopez, 22, doesn’t seem to mind. “I have talked to them a few times. They only want to be friends. I feel it’s wrong to look upon everyone with suspicion. Of course, I make sure that I don’t go anywhere alone with them,” says Lopez, who also volunteers at the nearby Missionaries of Charity.

Meanwhile, Sudder Street shows telltale marks of a neighbourhood trying to shed its skin. Each corner has a a cafe offering “European dishes”, travel agents come with the guarantee of Lonely Planet stamp and beer bars have a “family section”. In the last few years, two luxury hotels have sprung up in the dusty, noisy neighbourhood; scurrying to break even, traditional backpacker joints are now charging close to Rs 1,000 for a room. “Even a few years ago, rooms were available for Rs 300 in the area, now the average room rate is Rs 800,” says Lakhan Jha of Blue Sky Cafe, the first European style cafe in the area.

During the day, in the mellow winter light, the entire expanse of the street, a few hundred metres stretching from the iconic Indian Museum to Free School street, looks decidedly festive. Streamers hang from trees, a gaggle of Korean tourists crowd at a street-side kimchi stall (unpretentiously called Nataraj) and the neon lights of bars and eateries glow an hour too early. And right at the middle of it, at the corner of Madge Lane that connects Sudder Street to Lindsay Street is a green treasure trove of nostalgia.

Since 1783, the Fairlawn hotel has been a bastion of respectability. The 232-year-old building has housed many distinguished guests, including the likes of Shashi Kapoor and the Kendal family, Julie Christie, Tom Stoppard, Gunter Grass and anybody who would like to step into a time machine and be transported to the Calcutta of the Raj.

The hotel belonged to the late Violet Smith, the “Duchess of Sudder Street”, who passed away last year, at the age of 93. Here, a different Sudder Street exists, one that offers old-fashioned pleasures such as gin-and-tonic taken at sundown on the verandah. “Fairlawn is actually a destination for most of our guests. They come from different foreign countries to experience the old-world charm of the place. Money is not an issue for them,” says Hasan, who has been associated with the hotel for more than a decade and seems eager to disassociate the property from its less-genteel surroundings.

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