The last blooms of Spring

Already a lot has been written about the climatic change in Calcutta in my previous posts. While spring was awaited, it came and left in a blur of just a few weeks. The temperature which was cool rose ten degrees as we move towards the sweltering summers. Already the fans are on and it won’t be long before air-conditioning would be a must to escape from the humid scorching sun.

While this transition was underway, a chance visit to the green room of a cultural program left me bedazzled. The dancers, though amateur, were bedecked with sholapith flowers as a wreath outlining the face. Gold jewellery adorned each part of the belles. Calcutta sari is also worn in a different way with the long ending is brought in front and swings a key. An oversized red bindi dots the forehead.


Living on the banks of a Legendary River


“It’s a Nullah (Indian for a traditional canal ).” People would warn us as we shortlisted a place to stay in Calcutta, about the tiny water body running alongside the house.

“Terrible smell from it on certain days”, we were told.

Considering it a temporary arrangement, we went ahead to begin unpacking.

Disregarding the stench, sometimes overpowering enough to close the doors, gradually the place grew on us. The Pipal tree would give refreshing air night and day. The mango tree would be abuzz with butterflies and birds. A hot favourite was the Red Silk Cotton tree (bombax malabaricum) which was conveniently located right behind the house and viewed from all back rooms. The squirrels would scamper on it all day. Spring would bring red flowers and birds of all colours; the yellow canary, flaming orange woodpeckers, Black Asian cuckoo bird and many more. There was one incident where we even spotted a family of Civets, confirmed by the fact when one of their members, smelling food on the table, made way right into our home and was chased by the cat.

In the afternoons, the loud drilling of a boat at the boat factory across the shore (if I can call it that.)  The late evenings, sometimes one can hear the horn of a patrol boat.

I was told this was the Tolly’s Nullah. During the British colonization of India, a gentleman called Tolly got the area cleared up of silt at his own expense  in the late 1700s. He has the nullah and a prominent colony to his name.

I might have forgotten about this back area, had it not been while reading Swami Vivekanand’s  memoirs (year 1899) that I chanced upon the mention of Tolley nullah again. He spoke about how the Holy Ganges was divided into “Hooghly” and “Padma” river before they deposited into the mouth of the bay of Bengal. He mentioned that “…the present “Tolley’s Nullah” represents the ancient course of the Ganges, and is known as the Adi ganga.” He also mentioned that foreign trade was carried out through a port called Triveni ( modern day Tribeni ) near the port city of “Saptagram”, on the river Saraswati. Triveni was the diverging point of three rivers during that ancient time, the Ganges, the Saraswati and the Yamuna.  It’s also known as Muktaveni to distinguish it from Allahabad Triveni.  Over time, the mouth of the rivers got silted. He further described how the gradual silting of the river course, led conquest forces to shift the port further and further. He also described how ships sank in a matter of minutes without a trace while trying to navigate these silted rivers. This is all estimated to have occurred over a time period of 400 -500 years from now.

At this point I mused how scholars are essential to our understanding of history and ourselves as a human race. Scholars such as Vivekananda provide a bridge between the present and the ancient times. So different from today’s scholars who selectively search and are given strict assignments. Swami Vivekanand mentions living in “modern times”, which of course from the future point of view, is history.

Coming back to the present times, Adi Ganga today is a forgotten mess. After it breaks away from the main Hooghly river, settlements over its banks, encroaching its soil with concrete homes of a few million plus. It traverses the side of Taj Bengal, but before that it accumulates all the waste and filth from Kidderpore market, and human and animal excreta from the poor living on its sides in Orphangunj. When we will stop mistreating the natural resources our country has been so abundantly endowed with? Wonder whether this silk cotton tree and its birds would remain part of the ecosystem in another 100 years or be gulped down by the insatiable human greed of land and forces of politics.

It also connects the city into two parts, one the side with Victoria memorial and the ultra rich Alipore, where once Warren Hastings had a sprawling estate, which is now a national library. The two were connected by the Zeerut bridge sometime in the British era.

There is another historical fact associated with this area. Less than an hour away from Tribeni and right on top of these ancient fertile banks, is the village of Singur. If you are wondering where you have heard about it, it is the place where the Tatas in connivance of the state government and under aegis of an archaic 1894 act, planned to set up a car factory for the world’s cheapest car called Nano, in 2007. An activist then stood up for the river, the fertile land and the people it supported and didn’t allow the plan to succeed. The rich man lost and was forced to shift the factory to the west part of the country. This activist is today the chief minister of West Bengal. Her name is Mamta Banerjee.

The fresh and green of it!

I don’t know exactly when it happened that I started gardening herbs. Maybe it was triggered by an impulsive buy of Lady Evleyn’s recipe book that opened a whole new world of vegetables for me and her description of vegetables fresh from the country garden and game fresh from the hunt. However it started, it is now beginning to be fun.

When you are traveling to a new city every three years, there is not much you can do with the garden. At one time, I had a backyard big enough to plant crops to last the year, but scant appreciation or time for it. Going to work and getting back prompted me to do the cost analysis that it is cheaper to buy vegetables from the market than the effort needed to grow. As a result, my three lemon trees also withered and died. After failed attempts in the next three postings, I finally decided that it was time to let go. My flowers and plants from Bombay had thrived, but couldn’t make it till the destination. I finally let go of the thought of a green balcony and flowers dotting my dinner table.

Then somewhere last year, Marie Kondo and Konmari happened. I had de-cluttered my kitchen much to my satisfaction and elation of my maid, who received most of my hand-me-down pots. In a bid to put some fresh energy into the kitchen, the window area was cleared and put to use. After getting saplings of green chilli, I also tried coriander , fenugreek and baby spinach, through seeds. Its been a few months, but so rewarding. wonder why I couldn’t do this before!

Five secrets of an Urban Indian experience.

Most of my friends in India belong to India. Ironically, most of my social media friends belong to anywhere but India. Portrayal of India in foreign magazines and media sometimes makes the average urban Indian dweller like me giggle. Our generation, the third gen after Lord Macaulay’s 19th c. reforms of Anglicized education “making people Brown in color, but English in thought ” has living example in urban Indians even today. (Our education system hasn’t changed much since the British left 60 yrs back….)

So, don’t ask me if I have ever ridden an Elephant, because that is as exotic to me. Nor have I seen a snake charmer in 40 years. So, if you still want to know about modern India and not the stereotypes, I insist you read below.

Here are five things urban Indians (xenials mostly) enjoy doing:

Try out various cuisines

There was a time when India had few restaurants for multi cuisine. Cuisine was limited to Indian and its many regional sub cuisines. Then were the Chinese dishes; suitably localized with funny sounding names, followed with Pizza and then finally the Pasta. Its only in the last 10 years or so and mainly after Masterchef, that we are beginning to explore other cuisine; the raviollis, entrees and the chocolate mousses.

Watch English movies with subtitles

No matter how much anglicized some of us Indians might claim to be, it’s an open secret that we understand the English movies better with English subtitles! An American or Australian accent is just as foreign to us as some of our other regional languages. I don’t know who was the genius who first thought about having subtitles, but it’s always a packed hall in cinemas when it is.

Watch runs /reruns of friends, big bang theory, scandal, greys anatomy…etc.

While we are watching the movies, we are also catching up on entire series of soap operas that the world has seen and is done with. I remember watching “the old fox” and “didi’s comedy show” in the 90’s. Come 2000’s the entire book of cable tv soaps opened up. Sometimes 3-4 seasons of a single soap are broadcast one after another.

Give somebody a “missed call” to save money on telecom

Whats the height of miserliness? To call someone on their cellphone. Let the phone ring once and then quietly disconnect before it is answered. Before Whatsapp made our lives  connected and even before we had telcom wars vieing for our attention; we had few telcom suppliers for mobile services. Cashing on to first mover advantage and a naive market, they had exorbitant rates per minute of calls. To get around this, we devised an informal model using the “missed call” message service. Works also when you need to call someone you don’t want to speak and justify…”but …I did give you a missed call.”

Send each other Good morning messages on WhatsApp

Late night TV and smart devices have stretched our bedtime much past the culturally accepted time. So there are many smart alecs who like to rub it in by sending floral image heavy Whatsapp messages with cute quotations at daybreak. Apparently, google servers are known to crash during the morning time in India. Hopefully by now, they have sorted this out.


Ten things you can do in under $1 in Calcutta.

When I first came to Calcutta, I was told how “cheap (read inexpensive)” this place was. People were beaming at mention of shopping and it’s many markets. In the first few months I felt nothing so. Everybody seemed out to fleece me. The taxi cab would charge Rs 200 ( 4 times the rate) to get me home, in-spite of the “no refusal” printed boldly on the side of the car. Maybe they meant that the commuters can’t refuse the fare, else you won’t be driven? The app cabs and app food came to my rescue. Gradually I found my way around and located the bargain spots.

Here I have compiled a list of things you can certainly do in under $1 (or Rs 50) in Calcutta. Hope you enjoy them too!

Walk in Victoria memorial lawns ( Rs. 10)

A morning walk or evening walk in the lawns of Victoria Memorial. Victoria memorial is a lovely quiet place with a few gardens and built up ponds. If you don’t mind the few couples that are snuggling around, I am told you can have a good walk in the morning hours. You might even bump into some movers and shakers of the fading economic industry of Calcutta.

Sharma ji ki chai ( Rs. 10)

Once you finish your walk, the next stop is the lane of tea vendors in the nearby Princep Ghat. Once an alighting point for river vessels, now the riverfront has a neat promenade to walk and you can see howrah bridge in the distance. To curate, I have selected sharma ji tea vendor, known for his piping hot ginger tea served in quaint mud vessals.

Enjoy Jhal muri ( Rs. 10)

After Bombay, I would say that Jhal muri is a close second to the famed bhelpuri. It’s a mix of puffed rice, garnish and spices. Ten rupees can get you a small packet to enjoy while you take in the river view.

See Victoria Memorial from inside ( Rs. 20)

Once you are done with the breakfast, its a good time to see Victoria memorial from the inside. No photography is allowed inside and any morning, but of a holiday, is a good day to visit. I have visited that place thrice with visitors, but you can’t be in for too long, its very restricting and the airflow is not the best. Fifteen minutes is the maximum time you need here, unless of course you want to see the statues and paintings in detail, early oil paintings.

Watch 3D science on a sphere show in science city (Rs. 15)

The last time we visited science city, this was the only show that had tickets available during holiday time. After a wait of over 45 minutes int he queue we were told that everything else, time machine (Rs. 20) the most popular, the cable car ride (Rs. 20) were sold out. I had quietly asked the overworked boy at the counter whether they had online system of reservation.

Understanding my anxiety, the boy answered pointing at the crowds around,”If we raise the tickets to say 40 or 50 rupees, all these people wouldn’t be here. But we can’t.”

Entry to Science city ( Rs. 50)

I almost forgot to mention, that to enjoy the above treat the entry fee to this very kid friendly science based park is Rs. 50.

Take a walk in Agro horticultural society ( Rs. 20)

There is another place to relax and also enjoy peace and calm. It’s the agro horticultural society established in the late 1800s. For Rs. 20, you can get an entry of an hour for a walk or jog in its small compound. Pick also saplings from its nursery or enquire about its gardening classes from its quaint office.

Visit Alipore Zoo ( Rs. 20)

I hear the Asiatic lion roaring each night. The alipore zoo, also established in the 1800s, has the royal bengal tiger, a white tiger and an asiatic lion as its inhabitants. The state of the other animals is rather sad, but if you do want to look around, the ticket is a pocket friendly Rs. 20. Avoid visiting between 24 dec to 24 jan.

Eat a sweet sandesh (Rs. 15)

Bengal is also known for its sweetmeats. A rich sweet made of palm jaggery ( called nolen gur) and loads of creamy milk is called a sandesh (pronounced shondesh) . You can try some at any local sweet shop.

Eat a Rossogulla (Rs. 10)

Ending with the sweetest thing to eat in Bengal, its the Rossogulla. Bengalis have taken this humble dish to an art form. It is available plain or in many forms, some of which are jaggeried, flavoured with strawberry, baked, and even dipped in vodka!



When the air gets rough….

This winter in Calcutta has been one of choking coughs, cold, haze and smoke. Funnily, at-least three half marathons were held in various polluted parts of the city while the pm 2.5 levels between 200 and 350. While the government in the neighboring Chinese towns would announce masks for the general public in such a scenario, here we buy overpriced athletic wear and show it off while running and filling our lungs towards another day less in our lives. Between the million plus public, gradually thinning on the roads and the loud processions of the saraswati procession, I got a chance to visit the nearby horticultural society to see the January blooms. Here are some of my favourites which gave a moment of pleasure in the otherwise stifling air.

Cold Calcutta

In the eastern states of India, sun rises at 5 am. Usually. In the winters, it rises an hour and a half later. So at six in the morning, it was no surprise that it was a bit dark, but it was darker today. Fog had descended on the city.

Presently Calcutta is competing with Delhi in the weather department. With temperature hovering around 11 deg to 12 deg at night, its just a couple more than that in Delhi. Life has come to a quiet lull.