1A, Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Kolkata 700013.
What about it? Anything special in the address?
Depends on what you are looking for.
To tell the truth, there can be multiple reasons why this address may have skipped being a part of your itinerary — either as a resident of Kolkata or as a visitor.
The first reason is that this is also part of that stretch of the city known as the Metro Gully, one of those places in the Esplanade area teeming with hawkers and pedestrians, where the pavements are a cluttered mess of wares. Only those with a purpose, or genuine need, would venture in.
But wait, that’s a one-sided perspective.
1A, Jawaharlal Nehru Road is also the address where a part of Kolkata city’s not-so-celebrated heritage thrives with equal gusto even after a hangover of 150 years. That’s how long the Shaws have been in their business of “on” shop liquor. It’s a tale that began sometime in 1870, before horse-drawn trams would run in India and a couple of decades before someone would drive a car on the city’s streets for the first time.
According to records that are available, the shop — on Lenin Sarani, a stone’s throw from KC Das’s famous sweet shop and Tipu Sultan’s Mosque — went without a name for a considerable period, drawing customers who scarcely bothered with nomenclature, or the lack of it, as long as they could swill their favourite drink in their glass. But, a time came when it was necessary for the business to have a name. Thus was born “The Shaw Brother’s (Wine) Private limited”, a name later shortened to “The Shaw’s Bar” and, informally, the more endearing “Chhota Bristol”. The bigger Bristol was the two-storey hotel that existed in the same building, at the corner of Dharmatala Street and Chowringhee.
The Shaw’s Bar in Metro GullyArijit Sen
In a way, the bar, among the oldest in Kolkata, is an example of a reality where something smaller and far less conspicuous outlives a more famous and bigger establishment. The Bristol Hotel, as only a few would know, although millions walk by its decaying façade on this bustling stretch, was established by a lady called P. Magre. The establishment subsequently moved to a double-storey structure to the larger premises next door on 2, Chowringhee Road. My Kolkata readers would be able to identify the multi-floor twin buildings capped by two domes with a central staircase, that still exist albeit in a sorry state of neglect and decay. And intertwined with this tale is also the humble beginning of this alcohol shop — today’s Shaw’s Bar, Chhota Bristol, or whatever name you want to give it. The owners wouldn’t mind — that’s how they have been running the business for 150-plus years.
Not much glitter, but that’s how it’s always beenArijit Sen
Response to colonial-era segregation
The start may have been in humble circumstances — the ambience hasn’t altered much even today — but the shop’s beginning was also an indirect act of protest. Among the first of the pubs in Kolkata’s colonial past to move away from Mission Row or today’s Bowbazar Street, Chhota Bristol was established as a response to the then prevalent practice of segregation in establishment codes. “We owed allegiance to the ‘suramakers’ of the past and, as such, were ranked low in the social order. Our initial customers were of course our own people who were not exactly allowed to intermingle with the Europeans,” said Anjan Kumar Shaw, the senior-most among the Shaw brothers now, as he took My Kolkata on a trip down memory lane.
“But we were compensated handsomely by the indulgence and favour of our Indian customers, both gentry or otherwise.”
Asked what it was that made Chhota Bristol such a popular haunt of “Bacchus and his pards”, Shaw had a single-word answer: honesty. That, he said, was how the business has been run since the pub was established.
Honesty in what sense?
Shaw must have anticipated the question because his reply came quick. “Chhota Bristol, or the Shaw’s, has carved a niche for itself largely because of its service and a truthfulness it has steadfastly maintained through generations. It’s true, we don’t have the frills that modern pubs may boast of but we offer pocket-friendly rates, the right truthful measure, a warmth that is impossible to miss and an approach that continues to be only a step away from being in a comfort [zone] of your own.”
Two generations of the Shaws. The senior-most Anjan Kumar Shaw is seen with (standing) Uday Kumar Shaw, Shiibaji Shaw, Ankan Shaw and (extreme corner) Dibendu ShawArijit Sen
A sense of comfort, even belonging, is one of the first impressions visitors get. For one, Chhota Bristol has no brawny bouncers — the bursting-at-the-seams muscular types one unfailingly notices elsewhere in establishments of this nature. “Our regulars and our clients are the bouncers and they make sure that the too boisterous types and possible troublemakers are shown the
door. That is because nothing is allowed to disturb the equilibrium and peace that each one experiences within this little world of happiness.”
According to Shaw, a sense of “bonhomie” runs through every corner of the pub. “No table is unique to a group and everyone has the right to seat themselves wherever an empty chair might be seen.”
Back in the past, long benches matched with equally long tables made up for the lack of chairs. These tables and benches have since been replaced with more comfortable arrangements but the idea of sharing prevails even today.
Shaw’s forerunners showed they had good business sense too when long back they commissioned a rather expensive air-conditioning unit. The 22-tonne AC plant was originally with the United States Information Service, which wanted to get rid of the unit because it was giving problems. Curiously, all the problems disappeared once the AC unit was installed in the pub, its inner mechanisms possibly buoyed by the alcoholic air within Shaw’s.
The well-stocked counter is always managed by a family memberArijit Sen
‘Stuck in time’ but proudly so
Another example of how much ahead the original Shaws were of their time was the use of air filters that strained much of the nicotine from the smoke-filled air inside the pub. Not much has changed otherwise, apart from such modern essentials as closed-circuit surveillance gadgetry and LED bulbs and boards that have replaced the incandescent bulbs and handwritten notice boards. If one can overlook these, Shaw’s is still what can be called “stuck in time” but proudly so.
The interiors are not what the modern generation of tipplers would find appealing, the seating arrangements far less so. But those who feel so would be discrediting the fact that this is how Chhota Bristol has
prospered and survived for so long, still drawing clients at a time swanky restaurants and bars have mushroomed across the city. Yes, there is hardly anything that you would capture in a “selfie” here and the pub has no special items that can mark it as a culinary destination. In fact, there is no place for a kitchen here and refreshments include items served by vendors. But you do get some fancy items, courtesy these vendors, and no one has complained yet.
The Shaw’s signature 'Kancha chhola with aada and salt' (right), and cheese (left) are popular accompaniments with drinksArijit Sen
Top on the list of refreshments is Shaw’s own offering of “Kancha chhola with aada, salt”. There are people who, in their memoirs of the establishment, have fondly remembered the unique combination of this plateful of local chickpeas with ginger and salt with their favoured spirit.
Other munchable favourites include stir-fried mutton liver with chillies and onions, cheese and salted cashew, again provided with vendor support. The happiness is enhanced by the price of the items.
“Customers have been coming here for the simplicity of things and whatever we may lack in décor or in food options has been more than compensated for with honest service and attention, even concern for all those who happen to come,” said Harendranath Jana, the senior-most waiter, now in the fortieth year of his service with the pub.
Harendranath Jana, the senior-most employee at Chhota Bristol, peels ginger for the customers’ favourite kancha chhola with aadaArijit Sen
Today, Shaw’s is the “favourite watering hole” of a large clientele who represent every stratum of society. Here’s a place that had made Kolkata’s famed “adda” possible in a new avatar and one cannot help overhear the topics that are discussed across individuals, even across tables. No lines are crossed, but then again no issue is taboo. That is what Chhota Bristol is all about.
There is, of course, another side to the place that might seem anachronistic in today’s world. At Chhota Bristol, women are “not welcome”, in every sense of the term, but that’s how it has always been — a male bastion since its inception. Shaw is clear on this: if a man comes accompanied by a woman, he is firmly told that this is not a place for all (read men and women together).
The Shaw’s remains, to this day, an all-men barArijit Sen
It’s essentially a man’s lair, Shaw says, a kind of brotherhood where men feel cared for as the waiters keep constant vigil over them, not only for their well-being lest they over-indulged, but also to ensure that freeloaders don’t take the regulars for an expensive ride. To this end many regulars are admonished for asking for a peg too many.
A peg too many? Check the bus ticket
Shaw recalled the story of a gentleman who would come regularly to the pub and hand over a bus ticket at the counter. For each peg that he would order he would first read the bus number and, if that was right, only then would he proceed with the drink.
Then there was this another gentleman who fell sick while on a bus nearby and insisted that he should be taken not to his home but to Chhota Bristol. He was certain that the Shaw’s would do the needful better and he wouldn’t be left to fend for himself.
Such little incidents show the trust that Chhota Bristol clients had in those who ran the show at this watering hole. That faith continues unhampered even today. Thus regulars are served, cared, pampered or cajoled and, in some cases, even dropped home.
Asked how the owners intended to keep up with the times, Shibaji Shaw, who represents the sixth generation of the original band of Shaw brothers, said they had plans for a different style of functioning, more in tune with their modern counterparts, but that would have to be somewhere else. “What we have here,” he said, “is too precious.”