Miscellaneous & Offbeat

Met Mr MJ Akbar in Baghdad


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Honourable Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar is a veteran Indian journalist and author of several books. During his long career in journalism, he launched, as editor, India’s first weekly political news magazine, Sunday, in 1976, and two daily newspapers, The Telegraph and The Asian Age in 1989 and 1994. He has also been editorial director of India Today and The Sunday Guardian. He was the Editor-in-Chief and then Editorial Director of The Sunday Guardian, a weekly newspaper that he founded, until he left to join politics full-time. He has remained associated with leading media houses and periodicals in India including India Today, Headlines Today, The Telegraph, The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle, among others.

In 2005, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia appointed him as a member of the committee to draft a ten-year charter for Muslim nations on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Mr Akbar is on a visit to Baghdad. The Indian ambassador hosted a lunch reception in the honour of Mr Akbar at his residence in the afternoon. I was also invited at the reception and lunch. It’s an honour to have lunch with such a great personality. Some local leaders, dignitaries, diplomats and businessmen attended the reception. We were five Indians there, three from United Nations and another is the Country Head of Toyota Motors.

India looks to boost ties with three countries in West Asia — Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — during the eight-day-long visit of Mr Akbar. On the last leg of his visit, he stopped in Baghdad. He met the President of Iraq, the Speaker, and the Foreign Minister. The visit is expected to add further impetus to India’s bilateral engagement with Iraq.

The importance of Iraq to India comes from the fact that it is the largest supplier of crude oil to India, having overtaken Saudi Arabia in June, according to a Reuters report. India sources a major portion of its crude oil requirements from the Gulf region that also includes Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.

There was no formal speech. Mr Akbar just mingled with everyone present there and talked with them. There was an arrangement of nice lunch and drinks. The lunch was catered by DoJo’s, a restaurant in International Zone managed by my friend Vivekanand. It was delicious!

It was a nice gathering, but we had to leave soon after the lunch as we went for the reception from our office.

Views & Opinion

For the Indian girls at Rio


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I received the below post via WhatsApp. I have later on come to know that this wonderful post was written by Rachita Prasad on her Facebook timeline. I am copying it here to salute all the Indian women athletes who participated in the Olympics in Rio. Some of them won medals while a few of them missed it by whiskers. But all of them won hearts of billions.

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They defeated the ultrasound that declared ‘it’ was a ‘she’.
They defeated the nurse declaring in a sombre tone “ladki hai (it’s a girl).“
They defeated murderous parents or even worse those who keep them alive but kill their spirit every single day.
They defeated the odds against them for parents “allowing” her to chase her dream.
They defeated the family pride that wants every Indian child to be a doctor or engineer.
They defeated the school teacher who said “it’s not a girl’s game”.
They defeated bad sports infrastructure and even lack of healthy food needed to fuel the fire.
They defeated a system where overweight foreign travelling officials, who have only played Ludo as a sports, decide her fate.
They defeated the Dada-Nana, who told her “good girls don’t wear short clothes”.
They defeated the Dadi-Nani, who told her not to play in sun and become “kaali-kaluthi (dark-skinned girl)”.
They defeated friends who told her she needs to “control aggression and chill.”
They defeated the pados-waali (neighbouring) Aunty ji who wondered “akele kahan-kahan ghumti hai aapki ladki. (your daughter goes around alone here and there)”
They defeated the million eyes staring at her legs and not noticing the brilliant game she played.
They defeated the Bua jee and Mausi jee, who ask “tum shadi lab karogi? (when will you marry?)”
They defeated the journalist who asked her when she would “settle”.
They defeated the cynics who thought they were pouting and clicking selfies on a fully paid foreign trip.
So dare not take even a slice of her glory by calling her HUMARI BETI!
They have achieved what they have not because of us. But despite us!

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Image Courtesy: ESPN

Dipa, Sakshi and Sindhu have become national idols in a cricket-crazy nation. Over a billion Indians glued to TV to watch them performing and praying for their win for the sports which never evoked much interest in the country. Clearly, women athletes are creating history. Indian women have indeed come a long way in sports since Nilima Ghose and Mary D’Souza, two athletes, joined the contingent in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

Hats off to Dipa, Sakshi, Sindhu, Babita, Adity and all other sportswomen who competed with international champions and gave their best. Winning is not everything, but fighting tough is!

Business & Finance

Currency & Power


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We have a global economy, but we don’t have a global currency. Technology is now reaching the point where a common digital currency, enabled by near-universal mobile phone adoption, certainly makes this possible. And however far fetched a global currency may sound, recall that before the first world war, ditching the gold standard seemed equally implausible.

The current system is both risky and inefficient. Different monies are not only a nuisance for tourists who arrive home with pockets full of unspendable foreign coins. Global firms waste time and resources on largely futile efforts to hedge currency risk (benefiting only the banks that act as middlemen).

The major benefit of a global currency is that there would no longer be currency risk in international trade. In addition, no country can no longer use currency exchange as a means to make their goods cheaper on the global market and hence there would be somewhat of a level playing field. The most obvious downfall to the introduction of a global currency would be the loss of independent monetary policy to regulate national economies.

Benjamin Cohen, professor of International Political Economy at the University of California says that power is influence, and it is also the ability to do what you want without having to worry about what others want, according to Cohen. The United States dollar has been a dominant currency because the U.S. economy has dominated since World War II.  What makes the dollar attractive, according to Cohen, is the U.S. financial market. The U.S. dollar offers liquidity advantages that no other does.

Few currencies are able to meet all the demanding economic and political qualifications for internationalization. That is not pessimism but realism. Given the substantial stakes involved, the competition that is at the core of the process of internationalization is bound to be unforgiving.

Currency internationalization alters monetary geography by accentuating the hierarchical relationship among currencies, expanding the domains of a few popular moneys well beyond the jurisdictions of the countries that issue them. The outcome is produced by a sort of a Darwinian process of natural selection, driven above all by the force of competition—much like Gresham’s Law, except in reverse. Instead of “bad” money driving out “good,” as Gresham’s Law traditionally holds, the good money drives out bad. There is nothing irrational about the process. On the contrary, internationalization may be regarded as a quite natural demand response to prevailing market structures and incentives.

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Let’s recall that while under the Bretton Woods system, the U.S. dollar’s primacy was rooted in law, this has not been the case for the past 30 years: dollar usage has continued as a matter of choice. The U.S. dollar dominates the global economy, used in settling trade and investment deals but also held in reserve in vast quantities by central banks in case of a payments crisis. This demand for dollars keeps the U.S. borrowing costs lower than they otherwise would be, reinforcing the country’s economic clout and helping to pay for the world’s strongest armed forces. Its widespread acceptance is partly the consequence of the dominant position of the U.S. economy, but has also been sustained by the following factors:

  • The depth and liquidity of the United States’ financial and forex markets, which remained resilient even during the financial crisis.
  • The U.S. economy’s track record of macroeconomic stability, which bolsters confidence in the dollar’s long term purchasing power.
  • The willingness of the U.S. fiscal and monetary authorities to allow the dollar to be used in international transactions, and to generate sufficient high quality liabilities to meet international demand for assets denominated in dollars.
  • Network effects—the more a currency is used and held, the more useful it becomes, which in turn increases demand for it even more.

The U.S. dollar’s status as the leading global currency gives the U.S. immense political as well as financial clout, but that power risks being eroded — with unpredictable strategic consequences — as the Chinese renminbi and possibly other currencies assume greater prominence.

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Cohen describes what he calls a currency pyramid, which includes the U.S. dollar at the very peak.  It has universal scope and domain.  Potentially the renminbi, China’s currency (a.k.a. the yuan), which is still just a minnow, according to Cohen, but its international use is growing quite rapidly.  It reflects that China has achieved a degree of autonomy that’s almost unprecedented.

Some people would like one world currency, which would come with a great deal of power. While it is interesting to speculate about the future of the international monetary system, and the U.S. dollar’s role in it, the reality is that the current system has proved its resilience while the alternatives have not; and though change is likely over time, it will not happen overnight, or by decree.

According to Cohen, as long as we have a political system that relies on state sovereignty, we’re going to live with an imperfect monetary system and the best we can hope for is international institutions that can help smooth some of the rough edges.

For today’s international monetary system, the perfect – an unattainable single central bank and currency – should not be made the enemy of the good. Working within our existing means, it is surely possible to improve our policy tools and boost global growth and prosperity.

Event & Festival

Celebrated India’s 70th Independence Day in Baghdad


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India observes Independence Day on 15 August every year and India celebrates her 70th Independence day today. On this day, people pay homage to leaders and freedom fighters who fought for the India’s freedom from British colonialism on 15 August 1947. The struggle for India’s Independence began on 10 May 1857 with the Sepoy Mutiny in the cantonment of the town of Meerut, now in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The Indian freedom was a long struggle which claimed thousands of lives and countless sacrifices. Many of these sacrifices went unnoticed but some of them found their way into history books and are even remembered today with great pride and honour. Their sacrifice will always be remembered and honoured.

Indian national flag was hoisted in the morning on this occasion at the residence of the Indian ambassador in Baghdad. There was a reception in the afternoon hosted by the embassy at the residence of the Indian ambassador, which was attended by local Indians, foreign dignitaries and other friends of India in Iraq. We listened to the President’s address to the nation on the eve of the Independence Day, which was played through a projector. It was followed by a nice Indian lunch catered by DoJo’s Diner in Baghdad.

It was a working day in Iraq, so we had to rush back to our office after the lunch. These functions at the embassy give us an opportunity to meet other Indians in Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala.

Happy Independence Day! Jai Hind! Vande Mataram!

Miscellaneous & Offbeat

The value is much more than the price


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A blue, dinosaur-printed pouch, carried by Ms Ho Ching, the wife of Singapore’s PM on a state visit to the White House, has stolen the limelight. Priced at just SGD 14.80 (USD 11), the dinosaur-printed pouch is designed by a 19-year-old Singaporean student at Pathlight, the country’s first autism-focused school.

Ms Ho is accompanying prime minister Lee Hsien Loong on his state visit to the United States. Ms Ho originally faced much criticism online for her choice in outfit, with netizens quick to point out the difference in dressing between Mrs Obama and Ms Ho.

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(Image: The Art Faculty by Pathlight / Facebook)

She was seen carrying the pouch, which she bought at a recent fundraising event, at the arrival ceremony at the White House South Lawn, where President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama officially welcomed Mr Lee and Ms Ho to the United States.

But, once it was discovered to have been designed by 19-year-old Seetoh Sheng Jie of Pathlight, the pouch started selling like hotcakes. The school typically sells 200 pouches in four months, but sold 200 within a day after images of Ms Ho were shared widely, the school told the BBC. The pouch has since sold-out. If you need to have this pouch then you have to pre-order it now, with an estimated timeline to delivery of 2 months!

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(Image: The Art Faculty by Pathlight / Facebook)

According to the platform run by the school that’s currently retailing the pouch, “Dino Silhouettes” is made of denim and the dinosaur print was illustrated by Seetoh from his own knowledge about the prehistoric reptiles. Sheetoh is extremely pedantic about dinosaurs — the spelling of their full paleontological names, their detailed expressions captured in the miniature replicas he creates — everything must be done just right. No reference books are used.

Seetoh’s design is part of the school’s Artist Development Programme, which was formed in 2011. The mentoring programme allows professional artists to work with Pathlight’s students to nurture their creative talents and showcase their work.

Ms Ho is an adviser to the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) in Singapore, which helped set up the Pathlight school. She deserves praise and respect for her unusual choice of accessory and her support for a cause.

Business & Finance

Is it the right time for consolidation of Indian banks?


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Services at around 80,000 bank branches in India were hit today as employees of public sector banks went on a one-day strike to protest against consolidation of public sector banks through mergers, and other issues.

Consolidation is a recurring theme. There was a discussion in 1990s on consolidation large banks and small banks. New Bank of India was merged with Punjab National Bank on September 4, 1993. I was then in Punjab National Bank and had seen the merger quite closely. I was also involved in the finalisation of accounts of New Bank of India on the merger date.

The government has raked up the issue of merger between public sector banks (PSBs), after a long gap. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in his budget speech that a roadmap for consolidation would be spelt out, which was followed up by the announcement to set up an expert panel to look into the issue of consolidation. The Indian government’s ultimate aim is to reduce the number of PSBs to about 8-10 from the current 27. On June 15, the union cabinet approved merger of the five associate banks of State Bank of India (SBI) with the parent bank.

The Indian government is pushing consolidation within PSBs as part of one of the reforms it intends to undertake in the banking sector. While the country needs big banks but timing may not be right as banks need to focus on cleaning up of balance sheet first.

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Stressed assets — gross non-performing assets (GNPA) plus restructured assets (RA) — among PSBs have reached alarming proportions of approximately 112% of equity. Indian banks have seen their stressed assets surge to close INR5.9 trillion (USD88 billion) as of March 31, after the Reserve Bank of India conducted an asset quality review (AQR) across the sector and asked banks to classify bad assets appropriately. This has also put pressure on capitalisation levels as banks have had to put aside more money for provisions against bad loans.

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Moody’s Investors Service says, in a recent announcement dated June 28, that the Indian Government’s proposal to consolidate the country’s PSBs creates risks that — in the current weak economic environment — could offset the potential long-term benefits.

India’s banking system has witnessed an increase in stressed assets since 2012, with the result that no PSB currently has the financial strength to assume a consolidator role without risking its own credit standing post-merger. From a credit perspective, industry consolidation would strengthen the banks’ bargaining power, help save costs and improve supervision and corporate governance across the banking system. These potential benefits, however, are outweighed by multiple downside risks, says Moody’s.

In particular, the banks’ weakened metrics since 2012 and weak performance mean that many have difficulties meeting minimum regulatory requirements without regular capital injections from the government. As a result, few PSBs have the excess capital required to acquire meaningfully sized peers. Adding to this financial pressure, all listed PSBs are trading at a significant discount to their book value, limiting their ability to attract external capital to support acquisitions.

Therefore, Moody’s believes government support will be a crucial driver of the credit outcome of potential mergers, particularly in the form of the equity capital required to shore up capital buffers.

Finally, Moody’s also sees considerable challenges from potential opposition from employee unions, which could hamper merger efforts and drive up costs. For example, SBI estimates that its merger with the associate banks will cost up to INR30 million (USD0.45 million) due to differences in employee pension schemes.

It makes eminent sense to have a few large banks to get scale, and get synergy, but merger of banks is not going to improve their asset quality in any manner immediately and also the capital requirement will still be there. There are various other factors involved — trade unions, technology, business model and HR. In any case if it starts, it will not happen overnight but the issue is when does the merger happen, is it under a distress situation or under a repair model or is it a happy marriage.

Nature & Environment

2016 is the warmest!


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High temperatures in summer are common in Iraq. Growing desertification — where fertile land turns dry — is pushing temperatures up. The Iraqi government has announced yesterday a two-day mandatory official holiday beginning today due to a heat wave as temperatures are soaring above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. It is the first heat advisory issued by the Iraqi government this summer. It is not uncommon for such public holidays to be declared when severe heatwaves hit during Iraq’s long, hot summers. The temperatures in southern Iraq even touched 54 degrees Celsius (129 degrees Fahrenheit)!

Baghdad is simmering!
Baghdad is simmering!

The world is on track for its hottest year on record and levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have reached new highs, further fuelling global warming, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said.

On the heels of two record-setting years for global heat, 2016 is likely to set a new high for the planet in modern times. Two key climate change indicators — global surface temperatures and Arctic sea ice extent — have broken numerous records through the first half of 2016, according to NASA analyses of ground-based observations and satellite data.

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Credit: NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally in the modern temperature record, which dates to 1880, according to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. The six-month period from January to June was also the planet’s warmest half-year on record, with an average temperature 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the late nineteenth century.

The extent of Arctic sea ice at the peak of the summer melt season now typically covers 40 percent less area than it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Arctic sea ice extent in September, the seasonal low point in the annual cycle, has been declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade.

Previous El Niño events have driven temperatures to what were then record levels, such as in 1998. But in 2016, even as the effects of the recent El Niño taper off, global temperatures have risen well beyond those of 18 years ago because of the overall warming that has taken place in that time.

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Scientists have warned the world is heading for a “global emergency” and there are reports our planet could be heading for the hottest year on record. (Image: Getty Images)

Iraq’s summers are known for their merciless heat, but just as Iraqis have shown resilience and ingenuity in dealing with the violence, they do likewise when it comes to exceptionally hot days. Some shop-owners are merciful to shoppers, setting up showers on the sidewalk that men stood under without hesitation to cool off.

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Iraqis cool down from the scorching summer temperatures under public showers in Baghdad. (Image: Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqis are undeterred by severe heatwaves and can be seen dancing at a party in Baghdad. Well, that’s the spirit! Isn’t it?

History & Heritage, Nature & Environment

Iraq’s marshes named World Heritage site


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A wetland in southeast Iraq, thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden — the Ahwar of southern Iraq, has now become a UNESCO world heritage site, reports Reuters. Fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the marshlands of Mesopotamia are spawning grounds for Gulf fisheries and home to bird species such as the sacred ibis. They also provide a resting spot for thousands of wildfowl migrating between Siberia and Africa.

Home to the Marsh Arabs, three archaeological sites and an array of species of birds and fish, the marshes are “unique, as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, in an extremely hot and arid environment”, says UNESCO. It also contains the ancient sites of Uruk, Tell Eridu and Ur — the birthplace of Biblical patriarch Abraham.

Saddam Hussein, who accused the region’s Marsh Arab inhabitants of treachery during the 1980-1988 war with Iran, dammed and drained the marshes in the 1990s to flush out rebels hiding in the reeds. In the 1970s, the marshes, formally known as the Ahwar of Southern Iraq, covered some 9,000 sq. km, but were reduced by Saddam to barely 760 sq. km. Iraq has said it aims to recover a total of 6,000 sq. km.

After his overthrow by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, locals wrecked many of the dams to let water rush back in, and foreign environmental agencies helped breathe life back into the marshes. Over the past decade, local efforts to re-flood the area and help from environmental agencies have replenished about half the wetlands. Wildlife and Marsh Arabs, native to the wetlands for about six millennia, have also since made a return.

The origins of the Marsh Arabs are still a matter of some interest. British colonial ethnographers found it difficult to classify some of their social customs and speculated that they might have originated in India.

Image Source: UNESCO

Food & Drink

Kleicha


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Iraqi date cookies called Kleicha are considered to be the national cookie of Iraq. Iraq is one of the top three producers of dates in the world. This is a traditional recipe and there are many variations. It comes in different shapes and fillings, the most common types are filled with dates or an assortment of coconut and walnuts.

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Image from internet

During the month of Ramadan they are very popular. It’s also the custom to exchange platters of kleicha among neighbors. Kleicha is moderately sweet and not so greasy. It is rather dry but pleasantly brittle to the bite.

Historically, kleicha may be traced back to the ancient Mesopotamian ‘qullupu’. The ancient Babylonians were known to make similar cookies called qullupu, which were known to be round in shape (qullu), also taking note that the modern term for Kleicha derives from the Semitic kull meaning whole, and the Greek kolo meaning circle, and kuklus meaning, wheel.

Arts & Culture

Book Markets of Baghdad and Kolkata


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MUTANABBI STREET, BAGHDAD

Name the book you’re looking for and it’s said that you will find it in one of the tens of bookstores lining this fa­mous cultural avenue in the heart of Baghdad. For many Iraqis, this street — named after Abu al-Tayyib Al-Mu­tanabbi, a 10th century poet from the Abbasid Caliphate period, who was regarded as one of the greatest poets in the Arabic language — of­fers a glimpse of hope that Iraq is still home to the Arab intellect.

This ancient street is referred to as the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community as it has been a refuge for writers of all faiths since at least the 10th century. The national library is about a mile away from Mutanabbi Street. Professor Muhsin al-Musawi of Columbia University says that when the Abbaasid Caliphate took over Baghdad in the 8th century, the district surrounding Mutanabbi Street was already full of scribes’ markets and booksellers’ stalls and shops. There is an old Arab saying:

Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads.

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Poets, writ­ers, intellectuals, painters and musicians converge on Mutanabbi Street’s smoke-filled traditional cof­fee shops to display their assets. Street is full of books and behind this counters is shops — with stationery, books, stuffs for office, dried fruits and also cafes.

Mutanabbi Street has always been a hotbed of dissent. Under the long leadership of Saddam Hussein, anti-government cells published and sold illegal copies of their tracts here under fake names. After Hussein’s fall more than a decade ago, dissidents gathered in Mutanabbi Street as successive administrations rose and fell.

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COLLEGE STREET, KOLKATA

College Street is an eminent center of Kolkata’s literary crowd. Its name derives from the presence of many colleges and educational institutions, including Presidency University (established in 1817), University of Calcutta (established in 1857), Medical College & Hospital (established in 1857), Sanskrit College (established in 1824).

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The College Street is most famous for its small and big bookstores, which gives it the nickname বই পাড়া (Boi Para) or “Neighbourhood of Books”. The street is also dotted with countless very small book kiosks which sell new and old books. An article in the journal Smithsonian described College Street as:

…a half-mile of bookshops and bookstalls spilling over onto the pavement, carrying first editions, pamphlets, paperbacks in every Indian language, with more than a fair smattering of books in and out of print from France, Germany, Russia and England.

According to Wikipedia, it is the largest second-hand book market in the world and largest book market in India and collectively boasts of a collection of almost any title ever sold at Kolkata.

Kolkata Boi Para

In 2007, College Street featured among the famous landmarks of India which have made it to Time Magazine’s “Best of Asia” list. The magazine has mentioned:

Thriving beside the rusted tram tracks of College Street in north Kolkata is the boi para, or “neighborhood of books,” offering the largest mass of secondhand volumes in Asia. Generations of Kolkata’s famous writers and revolutionaries have come of age amid its chaos.

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The Indian Coffee House, popularly known as Coffee House, on the College Street is a favourite hang-out places among the students, youth, scholars, editors, artists and writers. It has been the rendezvous place of many illustrious and notable personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Subhas Chandra Bose, Satyajit Ray, Manna Dey, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen, Shashi Kapoor, Aparna Sen, and the list goes on. Many talented geniuses have penned down pieces of lyrics, poems, story scripts or exchanged brimming ideas related to the world of art and culture in this cafeteria.

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In 1883, the first session of the Indian National Conference was held at the prestigious Albert Hall of College Street that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress in Bombay in 1885. College Street has been the hub of Political meetings since 1930’s and is witness to many historical political congregations led by iconic Indian leaders like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. College Street has also witnessed the beginning of the Naxalite Movement in West Bengal.

Although far apart, Mutanabbi Street and College Street have striking similarities!