Revisiting Calcutta - Part 2
In my last blog post I talked about the crumbling beauty of Calcutta. For me, personally, it was an attempt to get reacquainted with the sights, sounds and smells of the city where I grew up. I was on a mission, and spent the four days rushing from one end to another, taking photographs and notes.
From the narrow bylanes of Shyambazar to the green expanse of the Maidan, from the bustle of Dalhousie to the quieter neighbourhoods of Jodhpur Park and Golf green, from the old houses of Alipore to the new highrises on the Eastern Bypass, I tried to pack in as much as possible in between catching up with a few friends and relatives. Of course, one also has to eat.
No nostalgia trip can be complete without food. I carried with me to Calcutta a checklist of some of the foods I used to love when I lived there.
On my first night I ate mutton biryani from Rahmania. Calcutta biryani is neither from Lucknow nor Hyderabad. It's cooked with meat, potatoes, and sometimes egg (sacrilege to biryani purists), is a bright yellow in colour, and has a strong artificial scent of saffron.
The following day a friend and I caught up over lunch at an old haunt, Peter Cat, just off Park Street. And obviously we ordered the chelo kebab which was the reason I was in the restaurant. I've eaten a lot of kebab and rice combinations in Middle Eastern restaurants in the US, but nowhere do you find a fried egg atop the bed of rice. Quite delicious, even though my friend pointed out with some amusement that this dish is only made for nostalgic NRIs nowadays.
Chelo Kebab at Peter Cat
In a previous post I had complained about the lack of a good pav bhaji in the Delhi region. Now the best pav bhaji I've ever eaten is at Mayaram's opposite Shri Shikshayatan School on Lord Sinha Road. They take your order from the car if you want so you don't have to get your feet dirty in the monsoon slush. The pav bhaji comes in regular and special (with dried fruit) versions. The regular was just as I remembered it - piping hot, very spicy and tangy. The consistency of the mixed vegetable puree was perfect, like a thick dal, but with a bit of crunch. With roasted buttered pavs and washed down with Calcutta's famous ice-cold masala soda, it's still heavenly.
When I was out at three one morning and pretty ravenous there was only one obvious place to go. Azad Hind Dhaba on Ballygunge Circular Road where I would often eat in my car after night shifts at the paper or after dancing at one of the nightclubs on Christmas or New Year's Eve when I was allowed to stay out past my curfew. This time, I ordered their egg tarka, which is unavailable in north India. These Calcuttans, they put eggs in everything.
The last thing I want to mention eating on this trip is from the bakery that stands right next to La Martiniere. Kookie Jar. When I was in school, every afternoon, when classes ended at 1.20 pm, boys and girls in their uniforms would head to Kookie Jar to grab chocolate pyramids, chicken envelopes, slices of pizza, macaroon tarts, and chicken mayonnaise sandwiches. It was my favourite bakery in the world for the longest time.
I found that the macaroon tarts and chicken sandwiches taste exactly the same, but the pizza, like the biryani, has been upstaged by more authentic versions. Still, there's something about seeing the bright red Kookie Jar sign still there, right across from Plants and Flowers, our neighbourhood florist, on Rawdon Street where many high school romances were conducted, that makes you all warm and fuzzy even on a cool, misty day.
Of course, there were many beloved foods that I couldn't eat. But they are not forgotten. Sabir's, on Princep Street in Central Calcutta, with its thick nihari, cooked with juicy pieces of mutton every evening during Ramzan, which my colleagues from The Statesman and I ate after afternoon press briefings at Lal Bazaar or the Municipal Corporation.
Shibuji's, off Theatre Road, where we drove late at night after dinner to eat a variety of fruit kulfis in small clay pots or in the fruit itself - chikoo, guava, orange, sugar apple, mango.
The extremely spicy and lemony alu dom served in shaal leaves bound together at the makeshift phuchka stalls by Vivekananda Park. Scalding hot chimney soup at How Hua, kathi rolls at Campari, pork momos in the hole-in-the-wall dimly lit joints off Elgin Road, ice cream at Scoop at Outram Ghat, overlooking the river, rum balls at Nahoum's in New Market, steaks at Oly Pub, authentic Chinese food in the walled Chinese township of Tangra.
For a variety of inexpensive options for food, Calcutta couldn't be beaten. Add to that the two foods traditional Bengalis are most dedicated to, ie the many kinds of fresh water fish in the markets and the varieties of sweets, both of which I rebelled against as a child. But now, in a land far away, sometimes I miss the soft flakiness of a lightly rose-scented sandesh or the first juicy bite of a hard tal shash sandesh made with nalen gur (molasses). In completely predictable Bengali style, I shall end this list with the spongy syrupy Rosogolla, once sold in large clay pots. I remember my father's stories of how he could once eat 150 of them at a go. And then drink the syrup from the pot.
But alas, the clay pots have mostly disappeared now, and most Bengalis of my generation and later prefer baked goods from places like Kookie Jar. What remains are the family legends and memories of famous Bengali appetites.
Despite this foodie's memories of Calcutta's food, I didn't spend all my time eating. There was just about time to revisit a few old venues where I spent considerable time, such as Statesman House, which remains beautiful outside but is quite dilapidated inside.
Then there was the other heritage building I had to visit, La Martiniere. Luckily, I managed to sneak in with a friend on a wet Sunday when there was no one about. The school looked lovely in the rain, its pristine white buildings and pillared halls just as they were when we studied there.
La Martiniere For Girls
Next I went to Jadavpur University, which is quite a contrast to the school with its wild growth of plants and lotus-filled ponds. Much of JU looks more modern and concrete now, but the one section that's gone is the infamous Lobby where we spent many afternoons playing Twenty-Nine and sipping lemon tea. Now, it's a deserted parking spot for a row of motorbikes.
Some things of course can never be altered or indeed updated. Such as the Calcutta Club where I was staying. It still has a men's only bar, a strict dress code for gentlemen, heads of deer on walls and the same uniformed bearers who probably served our grandparents fifty years ago.
Calcutta Club, the gathering point for the stiff upper lip crowd of the city.
To escape its stuffy grandeur, one evening I dropped into Someplace Else, the Park Hotel pub where I spent many a night a decade ago, listening to live music by Krosswindz or Hip Pocket. It's remarkable how little has changed there too even though it's the exact opposite from the Cal Club in ambience and age group. I sat in the same booths I used to, drank the same beer, and listened to the same 80s rock. And it was only then, surrounded by old friends and listening to Dire Straits that nostalgia truly set in.
In the days leading up to my visit I had thought that perhaps I'd be flooded with emotion upon landing in Calcutta. After all this was where I had met most of my closest friends, enjoyed my first successes and failures, and suffered my share of heartbreaks. Nearly every place in Calcutta held some fond memory or the other.
While in school, my friends and I would spend most of our time in and around the posh neighbourhoods of south Calcutta, going to school and back, and to each other's homes. Sometimes we hung out at the family clubs our parents were members of, like Tolly, Saturday, or the CCFC. I remember as a teen browsing through the dusty used-book shops along Free School Street for old issues of Seventeen magazine for my fix of American culture. Most of the issues were from the 70s but that didn't matter. Then there was Oxford Bookstore on Park Street which also had a lending library. Down that street were the restaurants I frequented with my parents and their friends. Chinese at Barbecue, continental at Blue Fox. Not far from Park Street stood the historic New Market (formally Sir Stuart Hogg Market) with its winding rows of shops that sold everything from fresh flowers to clothes to the handicrafts and costume jewellery at Chamba Lamba. The best time to visit was around Christmas for a glimpse of the giant tree right in the center of the market, a taste of Nahoum's Christmas cakes. Around New Market stood Globe and New Empire, the movie theatres that played Hollywood movies which came to India several months late.
The New Market or the Stuart Hogg Market
Late at night, in the middle of our sleepovers, sometimes my friends and I would get one of our family drivers to drive us around town while music blasted from the stereo. There were two main routes to take if you wanted a long drive. You could either go all the way down the Bypass, past the foul-smelling Dhaapar Maath, to the airport hotel for a coffee. Or you could do the rounds of the Maidan, serene at night, and climb the Second Hooghly Bridge to see the city spread out before you.
Despite the early years, it was only in my last phase in the city, when I worked as a reporter for The Statesman, visiting daily (and often nightly) government offices, slums, railway stations, and even the districts, that I truly began to understand my hometown. An understanding that will always remain incomplete for Calcutta is not a mystery you can easily solve.
Most of us always wanted to leave for better professional opportunities and more cosmopolitan lifestyles. But every now and then you just have to go back to make sure it wasn't a dream.
And so when I landed in the city after eight years, I was certain I'd be overcome with nostalgia. But I wasn't. I admired the buildings, clicked away at everything, took note. However, it felt clinical, like I was a scientist or a reporter. It was only when I saw a few of the old friends who have remained in the city that I began to feel anything. It was reminiscing with them and swapping anecdotes about old times that evoked the emotions and even a deep sense of loss. Maybe nostalgia really only comes from people, not places after all.
After four days, I left with a renewed sense of the city's pulse. Its heartbeat, ever vigorous, travels further than you'd think. As I waited for my plane to take off, I felt a sense of peace. No matter how far I go, Calcutta will always stay in the same place. And despite the changing governments, the satanic malls and hideously painted flyovers, the essence of Calcutta won't ever change. In the end, if I see things differently, it's because all the changes are in me.