Featured Image Caption: Chota Bristol, Kolkata
They said celebrated filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak would take to whisky there to drown his sorrows whenever he ran out of funds or was hugely unhappy with a script. They say how he would bring his unit members and friends over and altercations would often break out following which he would storm out only to return after sometime. You must have guessed that we’re talking about a popular watering hole. Yes, it’s not just a cheap watering hole but a slice of history as we know it. Located behind the once renowned Bristol hotel (which does not exist now), this middle class bar is called Chota Bristol.
They say that at 6 PM every day, the employees and owners would close their eyes in prayer to the deity for a minute. In that minute, there would be no shouted orders from customers and conversation ceased magically in the bar. They talk of the Bangali dhoti clad gentlemen who would leave on a rickshaw each night, carrying a glass of rum to drink en route to their homes. These gentlemen would return the glasses intact the next evening and depart with them again. They also talk of how Chinmoy Lahiri, popular singer, would get ruffled when asked to sing in a merry moment here while Samaresh Bose also got discomfited at any discussion of his writing and preferred to talk left politics instead.
Supervising the clamor would be siblings Madhu and Dinu who owned the establishment though they behaved like humble servants of the babus who came there to drink. They are the mass, the innumerable patrons of this pocket sized dynamite called Chota Bristol and of course, one the present owners, Gaur Shaw. Chota Bristol is almost the only bar in Kolkata where you will be welcomed by a price list firmly entrenched on the board past the entrance on the right. The left side contains several newspaper-like cutouts of testimonials. You’ll walk into a heady mix of alcohol, noise and the delightful cacophony of clinking glasses while tipplers await their daily fix of Nirvana on small benches and hawkers ferry snacks from table to table.
In the only contemporary advancement perhaps, an electronic board displays the prices of brands offered while a merry flock of guards scan visitors, keeping an eye out for underage visitors and potential trouble makers. Located in a little corner of the (in) famous Metro Galli, Chota Bristol is officially a subsidiary of the Shaws’ Bar in Lenin Sarani. It’s been 132 years and counting but Chota Bristol still boasts of affordability and the wine soaked hot aroma of happiness and mirth. Tables cannot be exclusively occupied and snacks include time tested old favorites like aloo chaat, ghugni, sliced ginger, aloo kabli and chops sold by hawkers camping along the lane. You have to pay for your peg once it reaches your table.
According to Gaur Chandra Shaw, the air conditioning is probably one of the rare changes done around 50 years back. There are a thousand stories that you can dig out of the octogenarian Shaw and also if you happen to strike up a friendship with the employees, some of whom have been here for entire lifetimes. Chota Bristol is not one of those joints for yuppie executives or the city’s swish set. However, if you are looking for some undiluted mirth and serious drinking minus the frills, this is the place to be not to mention some of the cheapest alcohol prices in the city! Today’s generation, though, thinks differently even though pocket money can sometimes be a severe pain in you-know-where. Ushnish Guha Bakshi, a musician, student and public relations executive at our magazine is firm when he says “people below the age of 26 are not allowed at Chota Bristol when 21 is the legal drinking age in these parts.
Additionally, three quarter pants are not allowed. I’d rather not have history forced into my experience” Another youngster who is doing his MA and above the Chota Bristol lower limit (name not disclosed on request) stated how “cheap the bar often feels, particularly with those old tables and benches, the same old shabeki snacks and the crowd which he claimed was not quite to his taste (lathkhor he called it, as the popular Bengali epithet to uncultured devilry is known).
However, Manash Das (age 51), owner of a grocery shop in Tollygunge and a Tollywood aficionado, talks fondly of many an evening at Chota Bristol. “It was before my marriage when we were a group of six and used to hit the bar twice every month. My father manned the shop and I had plenty of free time. Chota Bristol will always be a Mecca for us and we had plenty of fun. We would even sing Bengali songs out loud at times”.
To cut a long story short, Chota Bristol may not be your fancy pub with the right ambience to match. It may not reek of the sophistication and comfort that you may hanker for on a typical Saturday night. It is loud, chaotic, old school and nostalgic; what it does have is a big heart. Do you match up enough to give it a try?
By Anuvab Chattopadhyay
– I am a writer, poet & musician. I run my own content startup and have worked extensively as a journalist and magazine editor.