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

Tuktuk

This is a post about a kebab-loving labrador. Because today is his birthday and he is in doggie heaven having a kebab party.

Tuktuk came into my life along with my husband when we met in a bar in Delhi in 2009 and he started wooing me. I met Adi in the bar, not Tuktuk who did not even have to try to woo me. Photographs of the dog with the Tigger-like face popped up in my facebook messages in the summer of 2009. Then I met the handsome boy in person only to realise that I had found my second soulmate.

Tuktuk was a big, sinewy labrador. If you were wary of dogs, you would think twice about patting him. During our days of dating, a party was thrown at Adi’s for his friends. We were chatting in the living room when who should patter in quite curious at being left out of all this natter? Now one of the gang was a girl who was petrified of dogs. She leapt up on the couch and started shrieking. Imagine Tuktuk’s confusion, if you will. If he could have voiced the confusion that showed upon his face at that moment, it would have been something along the lines of ‘I just want a pat and some food from your plate, lady, so why must you shriek so!’ So he inched closer to the couch and to her. She would have none of him, and he would but meet her, thank you. Opposing wills were at work here.

Tuktuk was soon taken away to the other room. I took him some food to comfort his wounded ego. Who would know the solace you can find in food better than me – we shared the common passion of devouring anything put in front of us, Tuktuk and I.

Adi maintains that Tuktuk was a vegetarian. That is before I walked into his life. I saw anything but the non-vegetarian in him. He would demolish the kebabs I handed him – with alacrity. Adi also insists that Tuktuk thought of me as a giant walking, talking kebab.

When Adi travelled for work, and I would visit my future in-laws often, Tuktuk inevitably slept in my room. Every morning, quite so early, I would wake up to see him eyeing me rather solemnly. He was a grand old man in those moments. Huffing and puffing because he needed to go for his morning wee.

Later when we were married and I lived for about 6 months at my in-laws’ place, a single woof outside the door used to be our signal. ‘Let me in you bozos. I want some of that air conditioning too. I mean have you seen my bloody thick coat?’ Tuktuk waited outside our door thus, waiting to be let in on hot summer nights. And how we teased him. Our boy did not like being ignored, so we would be all cuddly and pretend to ignore him. Naturally he would nudge each of us repeatedly. Then he would go and sit with his bum facing us. Any attempt at cajoling would be met by the sight of the bum.

But then Tuktuk always gave in. And when he did, he would come bounding over with his tail wagging nineteen-to-the-dozen, tongue hanging out.

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Our natty boy
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Let’s box
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A bit askew because this is on our walls and I just could not find the photo for the life of me.

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His birthdays were occasion for celebration, sometimes him turning into a pirate in the bargain. I am sure he would think then, ‘Oh god these silly humans. Do I have to indulge them to get the goodies?’ He lived 13 years in a very loving home, my in-laws were his indulgent grandparents because Tuktuk was Adi’s baby. He was. He is.

We miss him.

We got the news one early morning, when we were in the Belgian town of Mechelen. That he had quietly passed away in his sleep. It was unreal. The thing about such news is that it takes some time to sink in, and when it does, it leaves its mark. This poem gave us some comfort at the time:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Happy birthday Tuktuk.

Reminiscing Sundays

For this fine Sunday, here’s a set of postcards that takes me back to our summer in Seattle and the Pacific North West with my husband’s sister and her family. It was a hot but splendid summer spent exploring lavender farms and driving through scenic mountains wreathed in mist and past pretty passes, making our way into old American towns with typical diners and rail engines, chugging on iced teas and beer, guzzling wine like water after setting our mouths on fire with the hottest chilli sauce we have ever dug into, meeting good looking Native American boys in Canadian towns with hair that reached their waist (at that point I had a pixie hairdo so it made me miss my mane a fair bit), tucking into hot, hot, hot chicken wings with our niece and nephew gunning us on to compete for a level-7 challenge (this remains on our bucket list with them) which is supposed to send you screaming into town. You get the picture. We had a ball. That sentence could have gone on and on and yet it remains the longest sentence I have ever written. Happy browsing, folks.

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In the end is the beginning

I have always thought that it makes a whole lot of sense. What our good man Eliot wrote. Even though another year is coming to an end, there is always a fresh year to look forward to. Wonder what it holds in store for my husband and me. We have new things creeping around the corner. Moving countries, setting up a new home, a new start. Daunting. Yet we gotta make the best of the hand we are dealt in life, isn’t it?

There is a bagful of nostalgia and wistfulness to go with it. The year for my husband and me has been about travel and the accoutrement that comes with it. You know, good food, fumbling jaunts in the many fairytale nooks and crannies of Europe, rambles in our beloved English countryside, attempts at decoding foreign tongues, sharing kindred moments with strangers we might never have known had we not been in a particular place at a particular time. What a delightful prospect 2016 was… I could not help but capture the year roughly as it has been for us, in photographs.

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Ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, Tarragona. In the Catalonia region of Spain.
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Bergamo, Italy
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Torre de Belém, Lisbon. Portugal.
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Park Güell, Barcelona. Spain.
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Castleton, Derbyshire. England.
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Girona in Spain
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Carew Castle, Pembrokeshire. Wales.
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The Pantheon, Rome. Italy.
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Anacapri, Italy.
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Lake Maggiore, Stresa. Italy.
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Malaga, Spain.
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The Amalfi Coast, Italy
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Candy colours, Burano. Italy.
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Lushness of Norwegian towns marked out by stunning waterfalls
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Yachting holiday in Plymouth, Cornwall. UK.
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Hofburg Palace, Vienna. Austria.
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Cimitero Monumentale, Milan. Italy.
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Fjords of Norway
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Jordaan quarter in Amsterdam
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Amalfi, Italy.
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Ravello, Italy.
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Silhouette of the Alhambra in Granada. Spain.
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Bergen, Norway.
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Durga Puja pandal, Kolkata. India.
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Durga Puja that has been celebrated by my family for over 250 years now. Kolkata, India.
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Duomo, Florence. Italy.
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Barafundle Bay, South West Wales.
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Verona, Italy.
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Lake Como, Italy.
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Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Zaragoza. Spain.
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The Hungarian Parliament, Budapest.
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Hemingway landmarks, Madrid. Spain.
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Sunset upon the Venetian waterfront. Italy.
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Heat haze and the El Tajo, Ronda. Spain.

If you have reached the end of this post, have wonderful celebrations for the end of the year. For us, new year’s eve is always a bit of a dampener because the expectations always exceed the actual celebrations. But this year we decided to have a go at it and make a change. We are in Prague and having a gorgeous time. So here’s to changes and new years and new resolutions and new beginnings. Na zdraví!