Iftekhar with some visitors in St John’s churchyard
Cash — waiting to be netted — may not exactly be flying around Calcutta today the way, they say, it once used to, but every brick of our built heritage is worth its weight in gold.
Three young city-based entrepreneurs have discovered this truth, and have since last November started “walks” down the memory-haunted older quarters of the city, meant for tourists as well as other interested persons.
Calcutta Walks, as it is called, tries to bring Calcutta history alive for visitors. Their USP is “fun” and clients have appreciated this. “We really enjoyed our walk around Dalhousie Square, especially the green coconuts,” wrote back Richard and Alison Parr of UK. And Iftekhar Ahsan, one of the entrepreneurs, emphasises: “If we haven’t enjoyed a walk ourselves, we know it is not a good walk.”
It all started, says Iftekhar, when he was showing around friends from America, and he realised that “there was something wrong in the way Calcutta is shown”. Others have, in the past, taken groups of people for walks to the heritage zones, but these were mostly meant for people with specialised interests.
Iftekhar’s partners, Manjit Singh and Pritish Shah, too, feel that what was missing was the “real pulse of the people. They lacked entertainment value and were not appealing enough.” They looked to London and Singapore walks for inspiration, and closer home to Bangalore and Ahmedabad.
Before starting out on their own they spent one whole year researching Calcutta’s history and model walks to “see how things are done elsewhere,” says Singh. They had started before that, but it was only from February that they started documenting their walks and now they have a database.
They have six walks on offer — Dalhousie Square, Sovabazar, Chowringhee, Bow Barracks to Burrabazar, Kumartuli and Park Street. But guides are hard to get.
Instead of reeling out dry facts and figures, clients are encouraged to take Calcutta in their stride. “We always urge them to push boundaries and indulge in activities they would not otherwise on their own, like pull a rickshaw, inspect how a cobbler mends shoes or even imitate a hawker’s call,” says Iftekhar.
In this short span of time they have already conducted 35 to 40 walks for about 200 tourists but Dalhousie Square is still their “bread-and-butter” walk, says Iftekhar. He finds this zone fascinating as he “unravels new things” every time he is there.
They have tied up with the Oberoi Grand and The Park who have started sending them clients. Earlier, says Singh, “Calcutta was just a transit point. Now, we tell travel agents that we can give them four good days. Calcutta is turning into a tourism point.”