Themed heritage walks with a guide are an excellent way to learn about a city. You understand the layout and gain an understanding of a city's history, culture, and people. And hear some exciting stories or legends.
Several organisations in Kolkata provide thematic walks and events that introduce visitors to the city's stories. Among them is Know Your Neighbour (KYN), whose walks give you a taste of the rich and diverse history and culture of Kolkata that many need to be made aware of.
The campaign from its inception, has attracted the attention of many civil society activists and academics. Among them are Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen, poet Shankha Ghosh, writer and social activist Joya Mitra and Professor Sugata Bose.
We had a chat with the folks behind KYN and the idea behind the initiative.
How did the idea for community walks come about?
In the run-up to the general elections of 2014, and the period following it, we witnessed extreme communal polarisation and heated debates that often belied ignorance and prejudices against Muslims. That’s what made us think about how we could intervene to reduce the ignorance and prejudices steeped in the majoritarian conscience. The ultimate trigger was a spate of riots in Bengal in 2016-17.
Heritage walks are not something new, but we term them neighbourhood walks, as the idea is not just about exploring sites and monuments of historical values but about knowing and understanding those neighbourhoods (or paara) like Metiabruz, Kidderpore, central Kolkata, Daftaripara and Selimpur, better and reducing the prejudices.
These neighbourhood walks are participatory, where the local community gets involved in different ways, and the core of the idea is to initiate discussions and dialogues and bridge existing gaps. Post-pandemic, we increasingly focus on youth and often collaborate with schools and colleges to organise these events.
Tell us more about your walks.
The first neighbourhood walk was organised in 2016 in the Zakaria Street-Colootola area in central Kolkata. The idea was to explore the rich legacies of that area and its local history beyond just kabab and biryani. Many non-Muslims, women included, visited the Nakhoda mosque for the first time and even walked up to its highest point to get an eagle-eye view of the city.
We have not always been able to maintain a record of our walks as we are a small team. But recently, we tried to document the list of events based on our social media posts and other records we had and the list we could come up with is 45 events till July 2023 that include walks and discussions we have hosted (sometimes jointly with colleges, universities or other NGOs).
One of the most recent events was in July commemorating the bicentenary of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, who spent the last decades of his life in exile on the outskirts of Kolkata in Metiabruz and contributed immensely to the cultural and culinary landscape of the city. We have organised regular neighbourhood walks to the Garden Reach area, including Metiabruz, highlighting this often ignored part of history. Although Shah's haveli does not exist anymore, the imambara he had built, a small private Shahi Masjid, and a few other structures still exist.
The Zakaria Street-Colootola walk is another important walk we have organised many times. That part of central Kolkata is in many ways the most cosmopolitan location you can find in the city where within a two-kilometre radius, you can find places of religious importance like churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, Parsi fire temples, Chinese temples, mosques belonging to Bohra community, et al. Some of the old Durga Pujas also happen in the baris (houses) located in the bylanes of that locality.
In the "Beyond Park Street" walk, we focussed on areas and people that are glossed over when we talk about Park Street, the city's nerve centre. Just behind Park Street is the area where Kazi Nazrul Islam spent important parts of his life and even wrote his famous "Bidrohi poem," this is where Begum Rokeya started the Sakhawat Memorial School that now stands at its present location on Lord Sinha Road, and this is where Warren Hastings established the Calcutta Madrasah.
What is coming up in the future?
Through innovative approaches such as neighbourhood walks and interfaith discussions, KYN has achieved remarkable positive outcomes in areas like Kidderpore, Metiabruz, Colootola, Zakaria Street, Daftaripara, and more. The organisation has also launched its "Neighbourhood Narratives" project to document these areas' diversity and rich history. Furthermore, KYN collaborates with colleges in and around Kolkata, nurturing sustained engagement with the youth, which is essential for shaping a harmonious future.
Over time, through its multiple strands of work, KYN has realised the need to create a pool of trained youth from different communities and from diverse walks of life who will help sustain links between other communities. We conduct regular neighbourhood walks in the different parts of the city to break the stereotypes about minorities, documenting the diversity of the areas.