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.

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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.

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.

 

Cozy Things

Warm furry creature, curled up at my feet.

A well tailored Indian skirt with a scarf (why did I not pick it from remote Lahaul Spiti valley.

Hot cocoa with mint.

Dark chocolate with brandy filling.

Colourful slipons made of grass and silken thread.

An orange sunset on the beach.

Cozy Things.

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.

Khichdri

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.

Yakhni

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).

Idli

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.

 

A tourist in my own country?

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Her sari was bright, like a few jumbled prints.He sister’s sari was brighter with stripes of printed juxtaposition. The child’s clothes were not left, they were equally demanding in visual attention.

They stood like a monument at side of the dusty Odisha village road, attempting to cross their road overtaken by the city traffic moving outwards at the beginning of the Christmas weekend.

“Perhaps this is what tourists think about when they think about India.” I thought.

This bold combination worn by simple village ladies is actually called “Kitsch” and has fattened the wallets of many Indian and foreign designers. It is remarkable how the scenary changes every few kilometers in India. 100 kms back, I was in Calcutta and the colours were muted and the skins were darker.

Then we moved west and the bright saris and bright homes dotted all alongside the periphery. Its a big indicator of the community of the towns and villages of India. While modern cities mainly look like cousins or replicas of each other, its the small town which preserves the communal heritage, language, script and customs.

And we city people, are but tourists in our own country!