At first glance, Paramount reminds me of The Leaky Cauldron, the favourite watering hole of wizards and witches in J.K. Rowling’s London that is invisible to Muggles. Paramount is similarly inconspicuous and materializes out of the colonnaded arcade of an ancient building only if you are looking for it.

If the lofty ceiling criss-crossed into neat rectangles of wooden rafters and the yellowing photographs of Renaissance men of Bengal on the walls do not transport you back in time, the Dab Sherbat surely will. According to the waiter, the composition of this signature drink has not changed since the founder of Bengal Chemicals, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, brewed it for his friend, Nihar Ranjan Majumdar, who founded this sherbet shop in 1918.

Mrigendra Majumdar, who took over the reins of Paramount from his father Nihar in 1979, says, “Our shop operated as a secret rendezvous for the freedom fighters." The marble-topped tables at the rear are silent witnesses to clandestine meetings of revolutionaries like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, M.N. Roy and Pulin Behari Das, who plotted strategies to undermine the British rule from here. “My father was a revolutionary himself but he never joined the covert conferences lest the police get valuable information if they interrogated him. He preferred to be on the lookout for a raid," Mrigendra says.

My drink arrives. I take a swig of the delicious concoction. The recipe of Dab Sherbat, like other sherbets in the shop, such as Cocoa Malai, Lichi Crush and Green Mango Juice, is a closely guarded secret. The recipes have remained unchanged since the 1940s and 1950s, when they were first created. No synthetic additives are added.

And like its legendary sherbets, the interiors of Paramount have remained unchanged too. The slim tables topped with Italian marble, the framed list of luminaries who have stopped by for a drink and the small alcoves housing garlanded idols exude a charm that is both antiquated and refreshing. The only change has been the logo of a popular food website, adorning a side wall from which the mounted heads of two antlered stags stare down at the tables. “My father bought them at an auction 85 years ago," says Mrigendra, 73. “They had belonged to the nizams of Hyderabad," he adds.

Bose’s favourite table

A stone’s throw from Paramount, tucked between rows of shops selling old books and stationery, this tea-and-toast shop called Favourite Cabin oozes a sense of casualness that betrays a colourful past. This teahouse was the birthplace of a literary movement that changed the course of Bengali literature—the Kallol movement.

“In the 1920s and 1930s, for about 15 years, this was the daily haunt of the group. The brainstorming sessions of firebrand literati that included Premendra Mitra, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Buddhadeb Basu and Achintya Sengupta often extended beyond closing hours," says Mridul Barua, the youngest son of Nutan Chandra Barua, who founded the tea house in 1918. Nutan and his elder brother were active supporters of the Swadeshi movement; a fact that, coupled with the radical atmosphere of this tiny outlet, attracted a different breed—the city’s freedom fighters.

The outer sitting area led to a rather dingy inner chamber where the revolutionaries held their meetings. “There was a small back door by the kitchen. My father, while manning the cash counter, kept an eye for police vigils. The back door was the exit route for the rebels," says Mridul, who now sits at the same counter.

The staple fare has always been crispy brown toast with a generous layer of butter topped with a sprinkling of black pepper; washed down with tea, brewed with milk and sugar in orthodox north Kolkata style. The tea is still priced at an unbelievable 5. “A lot of local residents prefer their morning cuppa at Favourite Cabin when it opens at 9," says Gopal Sinha Roy, a regular since 1965.

I take a seat at a corner table and sip Darjeeling tea (a late entrant on the menu with few takers). “Legend has it that Kazi Nazrul Islam used to recite poetry and sang his songs here while a young Subhas Chandra Bose listened to him. Is it true?" I ask Mridul.

“Yes, and they always took table No 4," the septuagenarian replies with a smile and points to the dusty photographs of the rebel duo hanging above my table.

A hearty lunch at the Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee
A hearty lunch at the Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee

Secret meetings at Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel

I walk down College Street along the uninterrupted corridor of stalls selling used books and take a narrow lane on the left. It tapers off to a small flight of stairs and I climb into a small room where about 20-odd people are seated around square tables having a quiet lunch in the tobacco-coloured semi-darkness.

I am at Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel, the legendary “pice hotel" that serves scrumptious Bengali cuisine at less than half the price of its upmarket counterparts. The fish curries are as authentic as in a traditional Bengali household, made with freshly ground mustard and cumin seeds. But the signature dish is charchori—a flavourful mishmash of vegetables, fish heads and greens. “This was the favourite dish of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose when, as a freshman in Presidency College, he first came here in 1913. Back then, it was known as Hindu Hotel," says 99-year-old Prahlad Panda, the owner. A frail man with a feeble voice, his eyes light up when he recalls meeting the legendary revolutionary in later years when Netaji held the post of the mayor of Kolkata’s municipal corporation and often dropped in with his followers. It was a convenient place to strategize over a wholesome lunch. “The sessions always ended with resounding cries of Vande Mataram," reminisces Panda. “Once the British police raided the hotel when a few rebels were inside. My elder brother Mongovinda stood guard at the front door. He was severely beaten but did not budge till the rebels cleared off from the premises."

This patriotic legacy continued during the Bengal Famine of 1943. For months, Mongovinda and Prahlad arranged for frugal meals for the starving people flocking to the city. On 15 August 1947 the outlet was rechristened Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel and still celebrates the day every year with a fresh coat of paint and free meals to the poor.

I find myself a table and an elderly waiter comes up, rattling off the lunch menu. Fondly known as Anadi-da to regulars, he has been working here for more than 40 years. Among the dishes on my plate there is a piquant charchori, postor bora (poppy seed fritters) and tangrar jhal (a spicy, tangy catfish curry) but Anadi insists that I take my meal a notch higher with a portion of prawn malai curry (made with fresh coconut milk). “This is today’s special," he smiles. Without much ado, I proceed to eat one of the best Bengali meals I have ever had.

Close