The author unfolds Kolkata’s first tourist map, which reveals the old city like never before.
“How do I get people to fold this map properly? Look, the Howrah Bridge is a mess. And there’s a big crease right through Dakhineshwar,” chides Iftekhar Ahsan, city walks operator, as I look down sheepishly at my wrinkled copy of The Calcutta Walks Tourist Map. This man has every right to get protective. After all, this one of a kind map he charted himself.
The last known map of Calcutta and its environs was from the 1790s by A. Upjohn, with its ‘pucca’ road, ‘cutcha’ road references. Centuries later, Iftekhar collaborated with railways junkie and cartographer Samit Roychoudhuri on a project none had taken up in the last two centuries: a Calcutta Tourist Map. “Calcutta is a storytelling place,” Iftekhar tells me, between sips of chai from his clay kullar, stressing the City of Joy’s old name. “It tells stories; great stories. And stories become more powerful with facts. Can you believe that there isn’t a halfway decent map of the city? I had no expectations from the government but even private players hadn’t done anything. Something basic would do. At least show the attractions and create some idea of the distances.”
But this map does so much more. Nesting locations of migratory birds, directions to used book shops, street food zones, and markets; a plate of three yellow ladoos marks Sweet/Confectionery stops in the city. Etched mid-way through the chart are two not-so-posh watering holes — Chota Bristol and Saqi Bar — once frequented by rowdy sailors. “You know, this is a city where the East and the West collided. I want people to experience the sparks of this collision. Take, for instance, Charles Stuart, an Englishman who loved Hinduism so much that his cemetery in Kolkata is built like a temple,” he says, tracing a finger along the tombstone symbols on the map. Of course, there is a list of quirky things to do in Kolkata too. ‘Chess with the local grandmasters under the flyover’ and ‘Play football in the mornings with local boys at the Maidan and find out if their favourite team is East Bengal or Mohun Bagan’.
Exactly the kind of detail this map is best at — fragments of social history in the fabric of the buildings, usually above the eye line or tucked down an alleyway, those you would never notice unless someone told you where to look.
“Over-population over the decades hasn’t destroyed the city’s splendour; but has added to its density and complexity,” says Iftekhar. “Thanks to the humidity, citizens pour out of their homes and use public spaces like no other Indian city does. You will see a lot of public activities on the streets, or addas as they call them in Calcutta, where people come to celebrate their interests; politics, chess, jazz, wrestling or physics, among many other. This is a hallmark of Calcutta.”
Asked about the mapping process, he elaborates: “First we sent out e-mails to our well-wishers all over the city. Bonani and Pradeep Kakkar, Ananda Lal and Saifal Sarkar came up with these idiosyncrasies that Calcuttans have developed over a period of time. Samit Roychoudhuri drew out the map when he wasn’t plotting train routes.
“Neo-geography has been wonderful in enabling many people to easily compile information spatially,” says Samit, the tall publicity-shy author of The Great Indian Railway Atlas. A detailed series of maps of one of the world’s largest railway networks, his book provides information on the tracks, stations, yards, etc., complete with accurate track alignments. “Through things like Flickr, geo-tagging of most photos, tweets and social media posts, it’s difficult to do anything with a mobile device that isn’t geo-coded, so there’s this amazing explosion of spatial data. That was one of the biggest sources of our information. Then of course, Google maps and personal site visits with a GPS locator helped us compile the rest of the information.”
“Making a map of Kolkata, a city so squashed, was simply too complex,” he admits. It is a fused hodgepodge of points, lines and polygons with text of varying size, kerning, spacing going every which way and overlapping important sights. Many streets, for example, have undergone name changes, and many address numbers have been modified or moved around. “So, we drew the map by hand and in Adobe Illustrator. If you look at the map, flyovers and bridges actually look like flyovers and bridges. Our basic idea was to make map as minimally intimidating as possible,” he explains.
And they pull it off. “There are about 40 museums in this map. One for textile lovers too. “So we see this map as the backbone for the study of other Kolkata-based travel and tourism maps,” says Samit, the pride evident in his voice. “What this can do for us, for example, is facilitate searching and learning about places, which have been hidden in the historical records.”
Recounting a visit to Kolkata a year back, writer-translator Pavan K.Varma said that the assault on his senses had left him “agreeably confused.” Standing at the crossroads of Dalhousie Square in Kolkata, think I know how he must have felt. Although thanks to the map, the city is a much more agreeable, and a tad less confusing.