It just so happened that the weekend of our arrival to Kolkata was also the birthday of Surya’s uncle. Partha, a civil servant, divides his time between New Delhi and Kolkata. Last year, in town after a business trip to Bangladesh, he joined us at a fabulous new Northwest Frontier restaurant (read: Pakistani/Afghani cuisine), Peshawri, at IT Sonar, one of the latest hotels to rise in the outskirts of Kolkata. Ironically, it bills itself as a luxury business resort that recreates the golden era of the 50s and 60s in Calcutta. But as the wealthy and their haunts shift from downtown to the outer paras, icons of that golden age sit unused, waiting for the day when the city claims them for demolition.
This year, Partha was again in town with his wife Aparna, preparing for their youngest daughter’s nuptials. We took them to Peter Cat. If you come to Kolkata, you will undoubtedly be told that, to sample Kolkata life, you must go to Peter Cat. The restaurant is famous for its chelo kebabs (according to its purveyors, a protected regional product of West Bengal) and, like Peshwari, its specialty Awadh cuisine. But despite its melt-in-your-mouth kebabs, Peter Cat is famous far more for its legend than anything else. The restaurant borders on the endearing here and, like a well-loved toy, it shows in its image. It is slightly worse for wear. Peter Cat isn’t so much unkempt and fraying as it is just plain old. Its atmosphere – intentionally – resembles the decade when it first opened. That’s how Kolkatans like it.
Peter Cat shares space on Park Street, Calcutta’s most famous road, with a handful of other hangers-on that hosted a glittering crowd. Back then, Calcutta was the city of the Asian subcontinent, and Park Street was more like an exclusive walking space than a regular thoroughfare. Only the best-dressed deigned to stroll past its shops and hotels, and its supper clubs like Mocambo and Trincas welcomed the best singers in the country. Patrons stepped through the doors in shining patent leather and dripped with pearls and gold, India’s favorite form of wealth.
The five of us – kakima, bara-mama, bara-maima, Surya and I – sat around a circular table bathed in red and dimmed to the point that I forgot that it was one o’clock in the afternoon. The restaurant was packed. We’d been lucky to get a table upstairs, which according to everyone there, was the better section of the restaurant. They should know. They’d been coming to Peter Cat for years. In Kolkata the upwardly mobile tend to celebrate their first salary at Peter Cat. A father passes the tradition down to his son, and he to his child, and such is how the tradition continues.
Our waiter (dressed in maharaja style uniform and turban) told us this crowd was only the first wave. Another would begin again at three in the afternoon. It was a typical Saturday. He’d been a Peter Cat waiter for 38 years. In the West it’s unimaginable to think of someone in his fifties having a forty-year run as a waiter. Waiting, after all, is a job, not a career. Sitting in Peter Cat it’s difficult to remember that, despite the enormous changes in Indian over the past two decades, despite its entry onto the the global stage, as its called, 75% of Indians are not upwardly mobile. And waiting in an air-conditioned restaurant is a better profession than manual labor in the suffocating Kolkata heat. At a good restaurant like Peter Cat, a waiter (females need not not apply) will earn enough to retire in the dingy, one-room apartment he rents and shares with his wife and a few family members. But he’ll never reach middle class.
Indianess, even in the most westernized sections of the city, creeps up like that, and I noticed it as Kakima sipped her lime soda and hovered nervously over her brother when he ordered a second Kingfisher. Litul, Surya’s 27-year old cousin, was as versed in the cures for hangovers as any Western twenty-something of her elite class. But she’d never drink in front of her elders. And Kakima, bara-maima, and bara-mama represented a different middle class altogether, one that was a little more reserved, a little more tentative. One that respected tradition.
Outside the restaurant, after our meal, as we drove through Chowringhee, Surya nudged me to look out his side window. A large, white, colonial-style building stood almost stately on the corner of Hemanta Basu Sarani and Abdul Hamid Street. Save for the occasional boarded window, the patches of peeling paint.
“The Great Eastern Hotel,” he said. “It’s famous.”
I hadn’t heard of it, and the only feature that distinguished it now was the street-level colonnade that supported the structure and served as a shady area where hawkers sold $1 waterproof watches, cosmetic brushes, men’s shirts and fresh coconut water. Back at home, I looked it up. The 165-year old Great Eastern was one of the oldest and, at one point in time, most opulent hotels in the country. “The jewel of the East.” Up to the 1970s, Indian nawabs booked its suite 209 for lavish New Years Eve parties. But in recent decades, as a public sector undertaking, the hotel dwindled. In 2005 it was sold to a private company and hammers began to break down some of its walls. But Kolkatans love tradition, and chairman Lalit Suri pledged to undertake the hotel’s restoration. He died shortly after the project began, but in this town of all towns, they hope the hotel won’t be forgotten.