Delhi to Calcutta

It is bright outside. The sun has the personality of summer, its glare reflected off the veneer of ice that coats the road. I can see great slabs of ice on the Hudson beyond, but I am tempted to step out for a few minutes even though it feels like -20°C outside. My great temptation is the resident Great Bernese of our building who is swaying her beautiful, big body through the park. Plus I have not met her yet in person and that seems a shame.

How different it seems to my time in India. For I felt a curious tug to Calcutta this time. Curious because here I had spent my grown-up years trying to get away from it, yet there I was actually lapping every moment I spent in my former home town. The thing about building this feeling called home in different places is that you have pockets of your soul invested in each place. Every time you return to any of those places, you have a reawakening of emotions. Then there is the constant clash running in your mind, the comparison of the old with the new, of keenly felt dissatisfaction at changes, and once in a while, an acknowledgment of the fact that some changes have actually been for the better.

In India, I find caught up thus in a maelstrom of emotions. The weather, the people, the roads, the scenery, the very pace of life, change significantly enough that the mind takes time to slip back into old familiar routines, what the body and mind has been used to for the longest time. It starts with Delhi, the city where I came into my own, but I have a short stop there on the way to Calcutta. So I do not have time to mull over it. I do not have time to see it once again as I used to as a reporter. I have just enough time to spend moments with family and friends and devour the luscious food cooked at my in-laws’. But I had a moment there when I felt unsettled in Delhi. Nothing too grave on the face of it. It’s just that when familiar roads start to look a little unfamiliar, you realise with a start that places and roads can gradually be erased from the mind. How could that even come to be, you wonder?

Then I got to Calcutta and the pace of life slowed down almost immediately. The pace of life seems hurried there only when it comes to eating. While Adi was there for a few days before returning to his parents’, we did eat out as much as we could — egg rolls, Indo-Chinese, more Indo-Chinese, phuchka (street food) over and over again (Adi was on a diet of phuchkas), and breakfasts at local sweet shops…but you cannot eat constantly really, so you take a breath, and you decide to stop before your explode. Though my Calcutta cousins here would like to interject and point out, as a couple of them did, that I certainly do not eat enough. That I do not eat at all. That I am sure to fall ill by the time I turn 60. I do not know if I can accommodate them, but you never know. The human body is a mystery.

Once Adi left, my brother and his family too left for a holiday in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where they had quite an adventure in that they were caught in cyclonic weather, but I was home. There was enough time at hand to bask in the earthy quality of Calcutta. I met old friends, nattered for hours, took out old books from my library room to dust and read, spent time running around the neighbourhood parks and getting chased by stray dogs who for some reason love to chase bicycles, cars (and now I am adding me to the list). I also slowly jotted down recipes from my mother — recipes with no measures, but after spending years in the kitchen, I have stopped carping about the lack of them. Cooking is after all an instinctive art, unlike baking. There were always four different dishes of veggies in every meal. I did not miss eating out. It is something I savour every time I am there in Calcutta, because at one point, ma was ill. She would hardly get up from bed. Clinical depression is suffocating even for the family. And here she is all about the place, chopping and cooking with ease, for hours at a stretch. She has mellowed with age, my mother — which makes it easier to actually enjoy her company (to think that she could grow on me is a most miraculous thought). Now, it has been a few weeks that I have been back in Bayonne, but I still miss it all.

Delhi

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The star of the show at my in-law’s is the cook. Here he is waiting on the fire to barbecue kebabs.
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My in-laws just before we fell upon a Christmas feast put together by my mother-in-law.
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Adi with our nephew and niece
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Boozy sisters-in-law at Delhi Gymkhana
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Christmas Eve with our friends
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Hmm cake, can you even have enough of it?
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The mad as a hatter musician who does exquisite covers of Ella Fitzgerald
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Journalists of Delhi

Calcutta in Colour

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Coz my mother’s fond of these leafy boys
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And they deliver enough bananas and banana flowers to demand a few images
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Catching the liquid sunshine in Calcutta
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Banana flowers. In Bengal, these are used to rustle up mochar ghonto. A dish cooked with potato, a few spices and garnished with grated coconut. 
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Shiuli. Night jasmine. Its fragrance steals over the senses like the sweetest melody.
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Iconic Park Street
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A view of the city’s past glory — St. Paul’s Cathedral and Victoria Memorial — from Monkey Bar
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When the family sans my mother (she eschews fried foods) stops for a round of phuchkas.
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Stepping out for egg rolls with the sister-in-law and nephew
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Coffee with a friend with whom I used to catch the bus to school (in pigtails and glasses).
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My former flatmates who live in Delhi and Kiev
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Ready to gobble up Indo-Chinese at Chowman with Adi and my brother.

Calcutta in B&W

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My father and the vegetable seller 
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Fish sellers
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Phuchka-wallah 
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Eco Park,  a sprawling affair in Calcutta where the Taj Mahal brushes shoulder with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Colosseum too. It is as mad as the chief minister.
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Cristo Rei also shows up near the Pyramids in Eco Park.
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The family gathers over sparkling wine on New Year’s eve. My parents can never keep their eyes open.
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Squeezing into a frame because that’s what family does. My arm features prominently too.

The Nostalgia of Calcutta

The days have melted away in a puddle of emotions. I leave tomorrow for Delhi where after spending a day at my in-laws’ place, I head home to my Adi. But there is a feeling of disquiet that haunts me when I walk at night upon the terrace of my childhood home. In the shadow of the coconut trees that stand silhouetted, tall and straight-backed, against the moonlit sky, I cannot help brooding upon the changes that time shall bring. For it always does. It is the one constant in this journey of life. Change. For these trees have been silent witnesses: To the years drifting by as my parents walked in to this home of ours, young, full of dreams and aspirations; time as it slowly whittled down their energy and youth; then us as we grew up, left everything behind to chalk our own paths and took off for distant places to set up new homes. In the shadows of these trees, I cannot help thinking about whether this be the last time that I shall see everything as it should be. Fears of mortality but then there you have the inevitability of living.

Everything has changed so where we live. People have tripled in number in this quiet suburb of Calcutta. Where there were green vacant plots earlier, there stand houses, some not quite aesthetically pleasing. The ones that have not been yet claimed by anyone have been transformed into tiny rubbish dumps. The mayor of our town though is proud about organising various events for the residents, putting together musical events and putting up hideous sculptures of animals in the parks. Who wants to see a python in stone dangling above their heads, eh? Would it not be much better to see those resources pooled in to clear the roads of rubbish and concrete dumped on the pavements?

The old neighbours are no more there. They have all slowly opted out of the race of living. I could not even spot the house of one of my dearest friends because the changes in her alley have been quite remarkable. My early morning cycling yielded pleasure and sorrow in equal measures.

Yet behind these melancholic thoughts are moments strung together by memories. Meeting an aunt who was our neighbour in Oman. Her husband died of a stroke a few years ago but I have memories of his canvases that he painted with great pride and whenever I visited him, bullying him to part with a canvas, he would just ask for a kiss on the cheek in return. The school friend who is married into a conservative family and is happy though she lives within the shackles of her community. Her stories emphasise upon me that India has a long way to go before women achieve their right to even make their own decisions. My hope lies in women like my friend who are pushing the boundaries in their personal lives yet she has to take the permission of her husband to step out of the house.

I sauntered around with Adi before he had to leave and made sure he ate his way through the four days he spent in Calcutta. Chanced upon film sets in the old houses of South Calcutta (the one in the lead photo), railed against the prevalence still of ‘Indian Standard Time’ — everyone likes to be punctual about turning up late, chased food with my brother and his family who have flown back to their home in Lagos, met many cousins and friends, toyed with food at old haunts that soothed the senses with delirious pleasure. Mughlai at Arsalan, Chinese at Bar B Q and Beijing. The old names. Then stopped by new places like Sienna Café where I snacked on organic pesto and mozzarella layered squares of bread with a cousin from Glasgow, sighed with her over lush saris and traditional textiles, caught street food around home – the usual suspects you know. Egg rolls and fish fries, phhuchka (hollow semolina balls filled with tamarind water), samosa and kachori chaat (tangy, spicy snacks), pathishaptas (traditional pancakes stuffed with coconut and date palm jaggery) experimentally stuffed with meats.

But do you know about the winner in this cornucopia of flavours? My mother’s many veggie and fish dishes. She had lost her touch when she took to bed with depression for years but now she is up and about. And boy, can she cook. A strange goodness spreads like a halo around my head as I eat these simple and subtle flavours. Ma has no recipes. I suppose if you go by recipes strictly, you can hardly invent new dishes. With every spoonful of her many veggie and fish dishes, I am overcome. I hope someday I can cook like her. I might not like her stubbornness in certain quarters of life but she is a brick.

Now I cannot possibly put it all down in words because being home is overwhelming but I shall try and present some of these moments through shots captured in the split second.

Doors of Saltlake
The Freemasons’ Lodge in Calcutta is a secretive affair on Park Street where there remains some ancient prints from Jerusalem and one of the original Freemason lodges in London which was destroyed in the great fire.
Oxford Bookstore on Park Street, the bookworm’s delight.
Old-world Chinese in Bar B Q on Park Street
Chilli Chicken
Chicken Manchow Soup
Flurys, a tearoom from the 1920s on Park Street
Spicy egg chicken roll

Misty Days
A strange sight: Recreation of London’s Elizabeth Tower (which you know as Big Ben)
An even stranger thought: They play the national anthem in theatres!!! There I was struggling not to drop my popcorn and drink as I had to stand up suddenly as the anthem was played.
Sweets at Nolen Gur festival. Nolen gur is date palm jaggery that is a popular winter dessert.
More Nolen Gur sweets but experimental ones
Traditional sweets like patishapta (in the foreground) and malpua (the fried flat discs behind the patishapta)
Rabri (condensed milk sweet)
From the verandah of my library room

Bottlebrushes

Sugarcane carts

With my brother at Beijing, an old Chinese eatery in Tangra where the Hakka Chinese started their tanneries when they arrived in the city a long time ago.
New Year’s eve at the Marriott Hotel
Views from the Marriott of life passing by along a busy thoroughfare

Long queues outside Arsalan. Bengalis will do anything for good food.
Mutton biryani, the food of nawabs, at Arsalan
Mutton chops
Chicken malai kebabs with a coating of cheese
Gariahata market
Gariahata Market
Dimer devil (devilled eggs) and Chicken Pakoras at a roadside stall
Park Street on the first night of the new year
After 20 years. School friends.
A noon with relatives and my sister-in-law on the extreme left.
The Glasgow cousin who was also in town. Outside Sienna Café.
Sienna Café
Sienna Café
Baked goodies at Sienna
Apple cake for the soul
At an art gallery
Graffiti project for missing girls in Calcutta to raise awareness about sex trafficking
Doorways of South Calcutta
With my two former flatmates and the cutest two-year-old
S and I
Ella Rose

Portraits of Kali and the Family

It was my father’s birthday the other day. Time gallops for it has been a few weeks already. It was his 80th birthday and I had grand plans of hauling the entire family to a hill town. It was pared down soon to humble proportions because well most of my plans revolving around the family perish as quickly as they are hatched.

A tuck-in of monstrous proportions the night before at a grilled food restaurant made sure that everyone groaned at length with the contentment generated by an army of kebabs of prawn, fish and meat. In Calcutta, food reigns over lives. At breakfast, thoughts rally around the possibilities that lunch can offer. There is tea in the afternoon after a protracted lie-in when fish and vegetable chops (croquettes) are devoured with pots of aromatic Darjeeling tea, and there is a late dinner filled with even more possibilities because who can eat a morsel after the goodies of the early evening have settled in.

My father’s birthday on the morrow turned out clear and chilly. The sun was a honey gold and the chocolate cake laced with coffee and hazelnut praline from the local bakery delectable. Baba ate payesh, rice and milk pudding simmered in cardamon-infused milk. It is a must at all Bengali birthdays. Then he cut two beautiful dark chocolate cakes which were an instant hit with the young one in the family, my nephew.

The plan had been fixed previously that we should step out for Chinese lunch at Bar B Q at an early hour because parking dilemmas on the busy thoroughfare of Park Street assumes gargantuan proportions as the afternoon progresses. Therein stepped in my mother’s sudden and inexplicable need for a cuppa before leaving home because how can one step out of the house without tea. Time is a fluid concept in India – people will make you wait without recognition of their tardiness. I might split hairs at length but the fact does not change and there are few far and between who turn up on the dot. For instance, one school friend of mine turned up right on the decided time, another made me wait an hour and a half before turning up for a breakfast engagement.

To return to the matter of the birthday lunch, after everyone had enough tea to saturate their senses, we drove to Park Street where naturally parking spots had all been snapped up. On a weekday noon you would think people had better things to do than mooch around Park Street. Then it so happened that my brother missed out on zeroing in on two valuable parking spots. Two. My sister-in-law berated him. I piped up too. Baba’s hackles rose alongside. How could anyone gun for his dear boy? He started shushing everyone. Chaos. After about 40 minutes of circling around, we found a plum spot on Park Street itself. The traffic police on the beat mentioned that he should not be paid but quietly pocketed the notes forwarded by my brother who insisted that he is a man of the world and this is how it works. Then my mother decided that she should sit inside the car and wait for us because she was fasting. We had struck a bargain, you see. That we should attend a puja of the goddess Kali later on in the day.  I had acquiesced to it. Read: With much whinging on my part.

That was my father’s 80th. As eccentric and dramatic as the family I have been born into, concluded by listening to the priest chanting mantras at the foot of the idol of Kali, the intense avataar of the Goddess Durga as she goes about vanquishing evil from this earth for all Bengalis. Oh and yes, my ma did finally break her fast which I thought she had done anyway at Bar B Q with a fruit punch and tiny cheese puffs.

No, I had not popped a vein by the end of the evening.

Payesh
Baba and I
Tweedledee Tweedledum
Nephew and sister-in-law
Kali
…trampling Shiva
Paraphernalia fit for a goddess
The goddess prefers variety. Crunchy rice, dates and fruits along with narus (coconut sweets) and rolled-up betel leaves.
The brass thali, boti (a long curved blade with a wooden platform used in Bengali kitchens to chop veggies and fish) and coconuts ready to be grated.
Betel leaf, betel nut and batasha (rice pie made with ghee and sugar syrup)
Banana leaves
An aunt as she puts together odds and ends for the priest
Nephew and coz
The feast for Kali
Brass pots and pans
The brass bell
Chants in Bengali. In case the priest forgets his lines?
The goddess as dark as the night