Born and brought up in Calcutta, Iftekhar Ahsan’s inexplicable love for the city prompted him to embark upon a journey of rediscovering the dusty roads and crumbling buildings of Calcutta. While his ancestors were ‘rangrez’ or cloth dyers in Rajasthan, Iftekhar broke out of the traditional family business in order to start his own. A graduate from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, Ahsan’s love for the city coupled with his intuition for business gave rise to Calcutta Walks, a unique idea of walking tours through the city’s heritage spots and cultural centres. Iftekhar and his team prefer to call themselves ‘explorers’ who not only find joy in exploring Calcutta, but also attempt to encourage the people around the world to do the same. Team RealtyMyths had a wonderful interaction with Iftekhar Ahsan. Here are the excerpts:
Special Correspondent – Baishali Dutta, Kolkata
What is the story behind Calcutta Walks? When did it start?
Approximately about ten years back, some friends of ours came to Calcutta once and they wanted to see the city. So, we showed them the city with the help of a tour guide. But this guide thoroughly bored us throughout the day. I personally was terribly disturbed by this lackluster description of such an amazing and interesting city. There is so much to see and relate about Calcutta. I thought, ‘then, why not me?’ So I decided to do something about that, and that’s how this entire idea started.
What is the response of the locals and the foreigners to this initiative?
The response was pretty good, and while there were only foreigners initially, now we have a foreigner to Indian ratio of almost 50-50. Out of the desi visitors, interestingly about 10% are Bengalis.
How did you come up with the idea of Calcutta Bungalow?
When we go on walks, we see some old buildings and love their structures. But suddenly one day, when we go back to the same place, we see that structure demolished. It is very painful to see those beautiful, old buildings destroyed. So I decided to buy one such building and save it; give it the best kind of treatment in terms of restoration to the truest of our abilities.
When will Calcutta Bungalow be open for visitors?
Calcutta Bungalow will be a hospitality facility with Bed cum Breakfast plans and we envisage, should start operations within next six months.
What are the operational steps taken to restore the old building?
There were lots of technical requirements for the process of restoration. Initially, we had the building’s structural strength sorted out, after which we employed experts dealing with iron work and ‘chun-surkhi’ (lime plaster and powdered brick). We are using original building material as far as we can and trying to work with utmost sincerity so that the renovated building looks beautiful. We also got a vaastu person, a structural person, an aesthetics person, a landscapist– we just called in people who’ve done a good job in other places, consulted with them, discussed and planned with them. But overall, I personally got involved in this process for the care and love the building deserves.
Obstacles faced in respect to Calcutta Bungalow?
There were questions raised from different quarters, including civic bodies. But those were raised mainly because of the ignorance of the nature of the project, and were subsequently sorted out. Finding the right kind of expert for this renovation job was also a problem.
Did you receive any support from the Government?
This is a private project and government help was not sought.
Any other plans like Calcutta Bungalow?
I have quite a few ideas, but I’m more occupied with The Calcutta Bungalow at this moment. After seeing the viability of this Project through next five years, I will contemplate the next.
What is your greatest achievement?
That’s a question I don’t think I can answer yet. But then I guess inspiring people to walk through and appreciate the amazing city of Calcutta, is one of my biggest achievements.
Which place or part of Calcutta is your personal favourite and why?
All parts of the city is fascinating in their own right, but my favourite place in the city would be South Park Street Cemetery. I love the poetry on the graves, the dilapidated condition of the graves and the banyan trees growing out from everywhere. It’s an absolutely beautiful place.
What message do you have for the new generation of the city?
Work hard, as much you can between the ages of 15 and 25. Young people need to set sail, leave the safety behind and follow their hearts much more than they do right now.