For a long time, I have been thinking of visiting Kolkata. It has been over 13 long years that I have spent any time there. Last real visit was way back in 2002 for my cousin’s marriage. In between, in 2011 I was there for a few hours reaching at around 11 pm & leaving at 4 am, spending the time in a non-descriptive hotel room trying catch up some sleep.
I am in the process of trying out my hand at a venture that is close to my heart along with a friend of mine. We were discussing the modalities when we thought perhaps we could look at some franchise options as well. This led to the discussion of the food scene in Kolkata and that to the eventual visit to the City of Joy. My only pre-condition was that we travel by train as I have not travelled long distance by train for more than a decade. We decided to take the Rajdhani Express while going and Duronto for the return journey.
My wife had very benevolently sent the car along with the driver for the drop at the New Delhi Railway Station and I took this opportunity to pick up my friend Santanu Basu from C R Park on way to the station. Initially we had thought of booking the First Class but the price tag was way too high, we might as well have taken the flight!
Once upon a time Rajdhani Express was the train for the elite, not any more. There are proletariat even in the 2-Tier coaches and that is the sign of prosperity. Once boarded, we realised we have managed to book ourselves in the side berths but together. I remembered the amount of pampering that Rajdhani Express used to shower on its commuters but soon my bubble of expectations burst into tethers. The evening tea was accompanied by 2 Marie Biscuits, one oily Kachauri and a sandwich whose filling was questionable. This was followed by a soapy soup with 2 bread sticks and a non-veg dinner consisting of absolutely dry chapattis (perhaps left-over from Tihar Jail), rice, unknown yellow dal and an apology of chicken curry. The only saving grace was the nectar of life that we carried with ourselves. Once we had that, everything became very palatable.
There are 4 toilets in a coach and 3 of them were Indian style. I wonder why we call it Indian Style when the very concept was British creations. May be because they have since changed the style of how one shit and we Indians continue to shit the old way!!! Anyways, both of us wanted to use the western system and looking at the co-passengers hoped that there will be not many claimants for it when the time comes in the morning. One visit to that ‘temple’ before retiring for the night was shocking, most of the taps in there was leaking, vain attempts have been made to stop the leakages with sealants but the floor remained wet. There were cigarette butts lying on the floor when smoking is strictly prohibited on the train. The seat was down and wet with use by the previous occupier. But who cares? I CARE DUDE. This attitude change is quintessential in ushering in Swatchh Bharat. No government or Prime Minister can do it if we don’t change ourselves.
We reached Howrah on time, YES ON TIME. This punctuality is surprising to many of us because we have got habituated with trains running late for innumerable hours. My cousin brother, Apu had come to pick me up lest I get lost in the city of joy. Once we hit the road, I realised, that was a very real possibility, and even the old part of the city has changed a lot, with many roads becoming one-way. Once we neared his house at Kasba area, it became evident to me that I would have definitely missed the turn to his house. My landmark is the Siemens building which was not just the tallest but visible from a distance but now I could not figure out the building with so many similarly sized or taller buildings that had mushroomed all along the road.
While driving, my cousin Apu casually asked me if I would like to visit my other cousin at Burdwan. I had no illusion about the local EMU trains that one usually takes from Howrah to Burdwan, so I told him about my apprehension. He told me we would go by road, there’s a new highway that connects the town of Burdwan with Kolkata and suggested that we go post lunch.
We left around 2 pm for Burdwan and on our way dropped my Boro Kakima at Belghoria where they have another house and she spends a few days there just relive the past. We took the second Hooghly Bridge to cross the Ganga River and soon hit the Durgapur Expressway. This road and the Taj (Agra) Expressway are living proof that we, the Indians can do it and maintain it as well. I do not mind paying the Toll if the roads are good and well maintained. The only dampener was the traffic, the trucks invariably was on all three lanes of the road forcing you to go jig-jag. Why can’t they move in a disciplined way on the left side of the road? The other noticeable thing was that there were no signs of any Speed Limit and no highway patrol (which is very much present at Taj Expressway all through from Greater Noida till Agra).
We reached a point when Apu slowed down and stopped the car on the side. He then showed me the expansive abandoned factory of Tata Nano at Shingur, Hooghly District, West Bengal. It is huge and definitely had immense potential not just from the car manufacturing but from the number of ancillary units that would have been a necessity to feed the main factory (a case in point is Gurgaon that prospered way before the IT and ITES made it their preferred work place, all because of Maruti factory that prompted the ancillary units to open shop nearby the mother factory). The political blindness or is it ego of one person that led to the ouster of Tata Nano is not a loss to the manufacturer but for the people of West Bengal.
From top left: Abandoned Tata Nano Factory Gate, the expansive structures of factory and factory shades in ruins.
I was immensely surprised when my Pishtoto Dada & Boudi recognised me instantly for I had a head full of hair when I last met them more than 13 years ago and now I have shaven head. My Pishi’s abode has changed drastically. My brother has sold off the back portion and built-up a new 2.5 storey at the front portion with all modern amenities. As is customary with all Bong households, they cannot simply offer you a glass of water, it has to be with a Mishit and you cannot refuse even if you’re high on sugar! We spent an hour chit-chatting and remembering the bygone days when the house used to be filled with people at all times. Now there are only three persons residing, my dada, Boudi and nephew. I could not meet my nephew whom I have last seen in his pre-teen years and quite a brat he was then. Now he is a Doctor of medicine and an eligible bachelor. I promised them to come back for his marriage with or without family and bade them goodbyes.
As we reached Kolkata, Apu asked me, “Would you like a drink before we go home?” With a sheepish grin, I affirmed. Then he asked me whether I have any reservation in going to a SHURIKHANA, which literally means hooch joint. I thought what the heck, I have read about it in books so let me see this too. He took us to AAEI (Automobile Association of Eastern India) Club which definitely is not Shurikhana by any stretch of imagination. It was quite similar to the Press Club in Delhi and some Beer joints of Mumbai with a hall filled with tables in rows, nothing fancy but then the visitors to such a place is not looking for ambience. They are more concerned with what is being served and at what price. We ordered for Blender’s Pride, favourite with both of us and for snacks we had Green Peas Chicken with egg, very innovatively prepared dish and Fish Fingers. The atmosphere was very lively but non-intrusive. When the bill was presented, it was shockingly low and I can tell you that it was less than half of what a standard Delhi Club charges and one/third of any Delhi pubs.
I had decided to explore the city on my own and asked Apu to drop me at Rashbehari Avenue. My first call was at Naktala Road to meet one of my Masi & Mesho. Their son, on whose wedding, I had last gone to Kolkata is now based at Kathmandu as a Country Manager for a Pharma MNC. I took a taxi from Kalighat Metro station for Naktala Road. The driver said he knows where Naktala Road is but doesn’t know my final destination point. I told him not to worry, because Google Map with its GPRS is Zindabad! For the first time in my life, I used the Google Map service and instantly became its fan. It was a smooth ride barring the noise and dust pollution, no traffic jams. The Google Map guided me to my destination and I paid off the cab which is perhaps equivalent to an Auto-fare in Delhi. How do they manage it with much higher fuel prices than Delhi?
My next stop was perhaps my mission to go to Kolkata, to find the whereabouts of a long lost childhood friend. I had managed to establish contact with his brother on Face Book and we had exchanged our mobile numbers. They stay a short distance from where I was but my mesho insisted on dropping me at the appointed place. I realised, he wanted to get out of the house in any case. I met my friend Mukul near Aurobindo Institute and from there we walked to his house at Moore Avenue to meet Uncle and Aunty whom I was meeting after 35 years!!! They have become very old both having heart strokes in recent times.
I had a brief chat with uncle who is practically bed ridden and extremely frustrated as he was unable to continue with his writing that is his passion as well as profession. Aunty asked me to have lunch but I was full up to my neck courtesy my Masi and before that my Boudi. I enquired about my friend Atish Bhattacharya who stays separately at Dumdum Cantt., but strangely none of them knew his mobile or landline numbers. It sounded odd as, if there is any emergency (the parents being old with known illness), how will they contact him? I was told that he (Atish) visits them on his way back home from his office in the city, usually on weekends but they are not aware if he would visit them that day (Friday). I was very disappointed to say the least for I had lot of hopes of reaching out to my best buddy after 11 years.
I had planned to meet another friend of mine Shreya but she was down with viral and said that she will call me up and fix a meeting later in the day. I decided to do the most important thing that Deepika had asked me to do very specifically, buy some sarees. It was easier said than done as I had no clue about the right shops. If it was Delhi, then I know where all I can go and pick them up. I took the Metro from Tallygaunge Station, now renamed as Mahanayak Uttam Kumar (after the matinee idol of Bengal) and got down at Kalighat Station, where I started my solo journey.
I decided to do the walking as I was feeling little uneasy with all the stuff that I had guzzled since morning. My first shop was Melody, a music shop from where I picked up a few CDs of Rabindrasangeet. Then reconfirming the direction to which I had to proceed started my trek through Rashbehari Avenue, a road that I had traversed many a times earlier because Dabur’s (where I used work) Kolkata office is situated here. The geography of the place has changed considerably with hawkers occupying half the footpath with permanent shades. Funnily, I could not locate my ex-office that I used to frequent once upon a time.
I went to a shop that displayed some really stunning designs of sarees but somehow did not felt like buying, some kind of negativity emanated from the shopkeeper and his staff. I came out and immediately saw this place called Adi Dhakeshwari Bastralaya and it was spread over 4 floors of an entire building. I remembered the shop but it was much smaller when I had made purchases on earlier occasions. I went in and was directed to the second floor based on my requirement. The array of choices that was offered took me over an hour to decide my picks but during the course the sales guy educated me on fabric quality as well as how to differentiate between hand-embroidered and machine embroidered varieties. I made my purchases and came out to the sultry heat of the city.
I had already walked almost 2 km in the humid heat of the afternoon and badly wanted to get back to home. I couldn’t locate any taxi and decided to walk a bit more with a hope of finding one and in the process had almost reached Dhakuria overbridge when out of the blue a taxi came and slowed down even before I could hail it. Once again I used, by now the most trusted Google Maps to reach my destination, P Mazumdar Road, Kasba.
In the evening, I met with my Pishtoto Didi and Jamai Babu after a decade perhaps. Pleasantly, she accepted my plea of being diabetic and did not try to stuff me with mishti once again. Instead she offered us homemade pasta which was delicious. Dipakda, my Jamai Babu took snaps as memory of my visit. Our next stop was to the abode of my niece Shuva (this didi’s daughter) who is of my age and therefore more of a friend than any kind of relation. She had all the ingredients ready in case I would ask for a banquette but we settled for kebabs and Bacardi with Coke. There I realised that I am a natural dog-lover and the dogs too feel comfortable in my company. She has a pug called BUCHI (because of its blunt nose, very unfair) and Buchi immediately became my friend although she had never seen me before. I could not meet Shuva’s family though as her daughter had moved to USA for higher studies and husband was at Shantiniketan where he is the professor at Vishwa Bharati University.
It was Saturday morning and I was talking to Apu and Mukul (boudi) about having Kolkata street foods at Park Street or Esplanade for breakfast. Mukul, my bhabi was dead against the very concept fearing a stomach upset that I may get. Her point was that it was too risky in the current weather conditions. I had to agree with her and settled for her home cooked porota & aloor sobji.
Very unexpectedly but to my pleasant surprise, my friend Shreya Guhathakurta called up to fix up the time to meet. We agreed to meet at the South City Mall at 12:30 pm for a cup of coffee. I had a very tight schedule for a Saturday, besides meeting Shreya I had lunch appointment with my sister Bukudi followed by a visit to another Masi who stays nearby and later show my culinary skills by making pasta with chicken.
I had met Shreya only in Delhi when she had come here during the Durga Puja for her performance of Rabindrasangeet. Amongst the contemporary Rabindrasangeet exponents, she stands very tall not just with her melodious voice and rendition but her diction and understanding of the subtle nuances of the lyrics too. The meeting and chatting with Shreya lasted more than I had anticipated but it was great fun.
I normally travel very light but in this occasion, I realised that I needed a hand baggage to fit in my overflowing things. So after meeting Shreya, I did my shopping and then rushed for my lunch appointment with my sister Bukudi. She had made elaborate arrangements which unfortunately I forgot to click as I was feeling hungry and immediately attacked the food. The food included some bong specialities like mochar ghonto, chingrir kaalia and mishti doi. Post lunch we had our good old adda that went on and on till my other sister with whom I had my evening appointment called up. My Chhoto Masi is a replica of my mother though they were born many years apart. My Mesho, by a twist of tale in the relations dating back to my grandfather’s time, also happens to be my kaka (chacha) but that’s another story to be told at a more appropriate time. It was a decided with my sister Jhumki (Mastuto bon) that we will meet for evening tea; there was no tea but a plateful of luchi with prawn curry and chicken (from Bhojo Hori Manna). All my protests fell on their deaf ears and I had to finish the offerings. I told Apu that dinner will now be served only after 10/10:30 pm giving myself time to recover from the food attack.
Coming back, I had ENO cola flavour and after sometime started to feel better and ready to showcase my culinary skills. It is difficult to cook in an unknown kitchen without your habitual utensils, but I managed to overcome the obstacles and dished out the pasta right from preparation to the final dish in 90 minutes flat. To me, the pasta got little overcooked but the guests were way too happy and engrossed in it to complain. My day was made, especially after Apu, very graciously opened up his Single Malt collection.
Apu and my sister Bukudi have been debating on how I should reach Shealdah to catch Duronto Express in the evening. The easiest was to catch a local train from Ballygaunge to Shealdah, deposit my suitcase at the cloakroom and carry on to Hridaypur (on the Bongaon line) to meet my maternal uncles and aunties. However, Bukudi was adamant that not only Apu drops me at the Shealdah station but see that I am safely on my way to my Mama’s place. My opinions were immaterial to them but I do not easily forget and now I await either of them to visit me in Delhi!!!
Apu went a step further and drove down all the way to Hridaypur to drop me. Thankfully, there was congestion at the railway crossing at Hridaypur (the house is on the other side) due to some drain cleaning activity and my Babu Mama came over to take charge of me from Apu. All of them forget that not only I have grown up now but my left-over hairs have turned grey too. Anyways, since I was carrying my suitcase in addition to my back-pack, Babu Mama hailed a “VAN” to take us the short distance. Now this VAN has nothing to do with motorised version. It is basically a cycle rickshaw with a flat surface where normally a bench used to be. The idea is to carry luggage as well as humans together as the erstwhile rickshaws had limited space to accommodate both.
The house remains the same from the outside with cosmetic changes from my last visit. Many memories came flooding to me; I could see my Dadu sitting on the veranda in his easy chair… I could hear my Boro Mama saying, “Look who has come!”
I was welcomed inside by my Chhoto Mami and after the customary pranams of all the elders, I settled down. Once again the food attack happened thereafter, as said earlier Bongs cannot offer you plain water, it has to be accompanied by a plateful of mishti (sweets) and refusals to consume are usually frowned upon. I met my Boro Mami after 13 years; she hasn’t changed much as I remembered. Also my cousin Rupai, she has put on weight over the years but remains the warm person that I remembered. We talked of the good old times when my Boro Mama with whole family used to come over to Delhi every summer vacation and we used have really good time together.
Chhoto Mami called us to have lunch and went over to the dining table. The food spread was something that I will not forget for years to come. I have never had so many dishes in one go. There was Fish, Chicken, Prawns, Paneer, besides veggies and not to forget the homemade mango chutney that reminded me of my Dida (nani). The food was delicious and I forgot all my restrictions and cleaned up my plate like a starving man. The intake of such sumptuous food made me very sleepy but I had to catch my train in the evening so decided to take a stroll in the Bagaan (garden) along with Babu Mama. The garden is essentially of fruits like mango, coconut and jackfruit. There used to be trees of guava and a fruit called Jalpai, which looked like the inside of litchi and full of juices. We walked around the block and came back home to take some rest before I embarked on the last leg of journey back to Kolkata. I spoke to my other cousin Sanjna who lives in Dubai over Skype. It was good to connect with her after many years. I couldn’t meet her brother Pushkal who had gone for a short trip with his friends to a place near Asansole.
After tea, I bade goodbye’s to all boarded the local EMU train for my journey back to Shealdah and then to Delhi. It was uneventful except when a bunch of eunuchs boarded the train and demanded money from the people at random. I kept a straight aloof face and thought how to react, I had no illusion that I will not pay come what may, luckily a station came along they hurriedly got down. I reached Shealdah and searched for Santanu Basu who had also reached about the same time. The Duronto Express was on time and we started our journey back to my most favourite city, New Delhi.