If the state government had had its way, Bow Barracks in central Kolkata—the hub of the city’s Anglo-Indian community—would have been demolished years ago. Declared unsafe for dwelling, the rundown buildings of Bow Barracks, a garrison during World War II, would have made way for modern-day apartments.
But that would have put paid to the legacy that holds together Kolkata’s Anglo-Indian community. Every December, the crumbling buildings come back to life as members of this community, who have branched out to other parts of the city and beyond, return to the Barracks—“their home”—for Christmas. The entire neighbourhood is transformed.
A visit to the Barracks always ensures you meet some fascinating people. One such person is Mantu Baruah, or Mantuda as he is called. A middle-aged Bengali and Buddhist by faith, Baruah is a baker. During this season, he earns a living from baking Christmas cakes. No one knows what he does the rest of the year.
Even today, Bow Barracks continues to draw people to it; hard-nosed film-makers, who have made films on the Anglo-Indian community, have set their stories in these dilapidated buildings. Bow Barracks Forever, a film by singer-actor Anjan Dutta, captures the resilience of Bow Barracks’ spirit.
The celebrations strike a quieter, devout note at the city’s many churches—even at the 86-year-old Greek Orthodox Church in the Kalighat area of south Kolkata. It still draws some 80 followers, says Father Andrew, though its twin in Chittagong, Bangladesh, is almost defunct, and its predecessor in the Burrabazar area in central Kolkata has been razed.
In this City of Joy, however, Christmas is more than just a religious festival. Every community joins in the celebrations. Picnics, outings and Christmas cakes from Flury’s are a tradition in many families, Christian or not.
A few kilometres south of Bow Barracks sprawls New Market—still the most popular destination for Christmas shopping. It has long lost its crown as the shopping destination of the rich and famous to the swanky malls, but come Christmas and its labyrinthine, non-air-conditioned corridors are packed: Nahoum’s, the iconic Jewish bakery in the city, is spilling with shoppers of every faith and the queues at Kalman, a processed meat shop founded 83 years ago by a Hungarian couple, are as long as ever.
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Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint