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.

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.

Christmas moments on Park Street

Calcutta has become the home of LED light art. Every Festival, mind you we have many, the main streets are decked with lights as if an installation is being created on the streets. The city that usually goes back home by nine and sleeps by ten, finds a burst of activity on such occasions. The first was Durga Puja, then Kali Puja followed by Id and Chatth puja. Come festival and you can be sure that some arterial road would be blocked.

On Christmas it was Eliot street and Park Street. Eliot street is home to St. Pauls Cathedral and it closed by 4:00 pm on Christmas. Park Street is where the sea of humanity, a major part of a highly populated city of a highly populated country, descends to “see the lights”. The second vocation of all Bengalis is eating. Kakori kababs , puchkas and jhalmuri compete with plum cakes, Christmas mince pies and turkey pies on this street alone.

I must appreciate efforts of the local Kolkata Police. They barricaded two ways along the street, one way up and the other down. I wondered if any entertainment happened in the open space between the barricades.

“None today” said a friendly policeman on duty, ” Everyone just goes straight up, eats from the stalls or the restaurants, then turns around and goes back.

We did exactly that; picking up a parcel from Flurrys, a well known tea shop; before leaving the street with moments always to cherish.

Six Mildly flavoured Indian Dishes

When you think of India, don’t you think hot and spicy? I also think greasy and complex. After 40 years and traveling to many states of India here are some of my personal favorites with mild spices. Two of these are Kashmiri dishes and you might order them only at a wazwaan (Kashmiri cuisine restaurant). Caution: There is no comparison with home cooked food.

Kashmiri Haak Saag ( Spinach Kashmiri style)

I started with my comfort food. Haak Saag is found mainly in the northern locales and similar to spinach found south. I remember my mother making this dish by adding only water and salt. This soupy side dish is unique.While giving you necessary minerals, its light on the tummy and very yummy while piping hot. Best with plain white rice.

Prawn Malai Curry

When I first came to Calcutta, I was like a hungry kid. The kitchen hadn’t yet been unpacked and there was the curiosity of trying local cuisine. This dish, suggested by a restaurant in Park Street, was made of soft prawns blended in a creamy coconut milky base.


This is the eternal Indian comfort food for all homes. Mothers generally make a light lentil and rice mixture boiled till creamy consistency with minimum spices; generally for recovering kids or during the many tummy upsets of eating street food. The simplest variation  of this chow is made using yellow pulses and rice, with no vegetables and no tadka (to keep it mild) and only some salt or red/green chilis. Its also called the poor man’s dish, but that’s debatable. Its easy to digest and easy to make.


Another Kashmiri dish, this is mutton boiled in a milky curry. Due to the milk base, very few spices are needed. The common tomato onion base is not used in the curry. The curry is made spiced with bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon. Incase your dish arrives with a sea of fat floating on its surface, just separate it and pick out the mutton pieces from it instead. (That’s what I did in my childhood when coaxed to eat.)

Plain Roti (Phulka)

Rarely have I found the humble Phulka, or the flat wheat bread, on any Indian restaurant menu. Inspite of that, its the softest bread accompaniment for Indian food. I always try to avoid the roomali roti (too much refined flour) and the tandoori rotis (a hassle to chew when they cool).


This is a rice ball steamed to cook. If you are more experimental, you can try it with the white coconut chutney, but its fine on its own when fresh. Best hot & fresh for breakfast or an evening snack. Tinier versions called Baby Idlis are great finger foods for kids.