She is the first Indian mayor of Barnard Castle, a market town on the north bank of the River Tees, in County Durham, Northern England. When she is not chairing meetings or representing the community at formal functions or carrying out ceremonial duties, she can be found at her Old Well Inn pulling a pint or making a handi of kosha mangsho with Jharna ghee just so she can bring some authentic Indian food to Barnard Castle, UK. And when there’s a blue moon and she doesn’t have either of those roles to play, she is cuddling with Zarah and Maya, her four-legged, “very spoiled” girls.
My Kolkata spoke to Rima Chatterjee, the Kolkata girl who might be gardening, walking and binge-watching some mindless series in Barnard Castle, UK, to pass time but is also dreaming of eating phuchka and jhaal chips outside school gates and gorging on rolls!
My Kolkata: You were elected mayor in 2021. What has the past year been like?
Rima Chatterjee: It’s been challenging and overwhelming. Other than the fact that we were still reeling from the after effects of the pandemic and things had not really gotten back to normal, I also had my business to deal with. However, I don’t fear challenges. So I’ve just kept going. I’ve had a lot of fun as well. I’ve done things a bit differently than it’s traditionally been done. I take young people as my consort for events instead of my husband. That’s been accepted and appreciated. And it’s a thrill for the young people!
Rima likes doing things differently and takes young people as consorts to events, instead of her husband
You have been in Barnard Castle for just seven years and already you have been elected as council member twice and now the first Indian mayor. Was it a surprise?
It was very surprising when I got elected the first time as a councillor, a year after living in the town. I think, being in the hospitality trade, we meet people all the time and if you make a tiny difference, people notice. I was apprehensive and never expected to get voted in!
The second time I got re-elected, I was very grateful. Imagine if I hadn’t after five years of being a part of the community! And when my fellow councillors voted for me to be Town Mayor, I was deeply humbled. But I was very sure that I had to be a tad different!
Rima Chatterjee at a mayoral event with other mayors
What is your role as mayor?
In England, the office of a mayor is a ceremonial post. The mayor has the status of being the first citizen. They chair meetings, represent the community at formal functions and carry out ceremonial duties. They work to keep the community strong and united.
Rima at a Remembrance Day event
You are a hospitality industry person, how does the role of the highest-ranking municipal officer sit on your shoulders?
I think it helps! I’m a people person. Hospitality teaches one to be respectful. We also gain a different understanding of hard work and patience. All of that has helped me tremendously.
What made you choose Barnard Castle as the place to settle?
It was just meant to be! We had decided on moving to the UK. We were in Lagos, remotely searching for a property here. Out of all the hundreds we went through, The Old Well Inn popped up and it was the only one where we had actually stayed many years ago when on holiday. Serendipity?
Rima and her husband Roy in front of The Old Well Inn, when they first leased it six years ago
Kolkata will always be home. But this is now a home away from home
You are a Kolkata girl, born and brought up here, then you moved to Lagos where you were for 10 years before moving to the UK. Tell us about your journey.
I was born in Calcutta, studied in Loreto House till Class XII. I studied hotel management from IHM Goa and then Kolkata. Soon after I passed out, I got married! I worked on and off while growing a family and moving around the country, wherever Roy, my husband, was transferred to.
I guess my husband and I are a tad adventurous. When we moved to Lagos, he felt his roots were beckoning. Roy was born in Ethiopia and spent his formative years in Kenya. So off we went, two young boys in tow. We spent an amazing 10 years there and made lifelong friends. Then we moved bag and baggage to the UK, this time with two dogs in tow! Roy had hoped he would hang up his boots and I would be the breadwinner… alas! That never happened and he has to work very hard, unfortunately!
We were welcomed into the community and never felt out of place. The warmth, love and support has kept us going and growing. After the hustle and bustle of India and then the frenetic pace of Lagos, Barnard Castle is ever so serene and scenic. Our boys, Aaryav and Aayush, have grown and flown the nest. It’s just us and our two girls now . But we are blessed to have loved ones visit us often. Especially since we are not able to travel for long periods.
Kolkata will always be home. But this is now a home away from home.
Rima Chatterjee with her husband, Roy, and sons Aaryav and Aayush
Apart from running your B&B, The Old Well Inn, what are your other passions?
I love and enjoy nature. When the weather is kinder, I spend a lot of my spare time in the garden. And as you can tell, I am passionate about my dogs! Our lives revolve around them and their needs. I am passionate about helping the community that I live in, in whichever way I can. Wherever I have lived, that’s always been something I’ve endeavoured to do. It’s instilled in my genes!
Rima’s fur babies, Maya and Zarah
Better roads and fewer potholes; no loadshedding! Kolkata is still as charming as ever
Do you come to Kolkata often? What brings you back to the city?
I wish I could. Unfortunately, the nature of our business doesn’t allow us to travel for long periods. And then the pandemic didn’t help. My family… loved ones… I yearn to see them. Fortunately, they visit as often as possible.
What did your family back in Kolkata say when you became mayor?!
I think my mother (Ranu), my inspiration and my role model, was a bit chuffed. But I missed the look on my father’s face. We lost him only days before I was elected. He would’ve been so very thrilled.
My sisters, cousins and their (lesser) halves just ribbed me, as they do!
Rima and Roy dressed for Burns Night, a mayoral event
How has the Kolkata you grew up in and the Kolkata you visit now changed?
Better roads and fewer potholes! No loadshedding! Infrastructure seems much improved. More crowded, though, and hence the traffic. But still as charming as ever. Kolkata will always be Kolkata. Gives me that warm and fuzzy feeling.
Heritage buildings and… Holi!
If you were the mayor of Kolkata, what three things would you like to action in the city?
A cleaner and much greener city. A safer city, although Kolkata is safer than most Indian cities. I wish all the heritage buildings could be maintained and rejuvenated. Some are, but not all and that’s sad. Especially in North Calcutta.
What do you miss most about Kolkata?
My family… and Phuchka!
If a Kolkatan were to visit Barnard Castle what would you recommend them to do?
Enjoy the clean air, walk miles and capture the scenic beauty. Visit The Bowes Museum that Roy lovingly introduces to everyone as our Taj Mahal! Experience the warmth and friendliness of the town. It’s palpable.
Rima with Lord Lieutenant of County Durham, Susan Snowdon
What I brought from Kolkata to Barney, is the spirit of Kolkata
Is there anything of Kolkata that you have brought to Barnard Castle as mayor?
Holi! Although it doesn’t relate only to Kolkata, we used to celebrate Holi tremendously, growing up. The revelry and merriment is unforgettable. And this year, as my mayoral event, I couldn’t think of a better way to bring joy to everyone’s life after this unbelievably angry storm that we’ve all had to pass through.
The festival was meant to bring joy and add colour to our lives. It had to be inclusive and fun. And it did all that. It brought the community together. It was hugely supported and appreciated. I doubt that the colour run will be a one-off. I think we will have to do it every year!
So I think what I brought from Kolkata to Barney, is the spirit of Kolkata.
Rima at the Holi event in Barnard Castle
What is next for Rima Chatterjee?
My father was a music buff. And before we could speak, I think we grew up listening to Que Sera Sera, whatever will be, will be…..
And so shall it be! Cheers, Baba!