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.

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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!

 

 

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!

 

Encounter with the wild kind.

The house where we have been staying, is next to the banks of a tributary of Ganges. Trees grow on either banks with the ecosystem which something similar to the Sundarbans a bit further off. Pipal. Mango, banana trees guard our compound wall with their strong presence. Birds like the green headed barbet, tree pie, mynah, magpie and many others visit these trees. Bird watching from my kitchen window or the dining room is a favourite hobby for both me and the cat.

A gentle breeze blows at night through the lush greenery. Caramel, the cat, usually curls herself on the pillow and dozes off like the family.

A few day back, while the house was asleep, she sprang from the bed and scampered around the room in a mad haste.

A black and white furry creature, somewhat longer and bigger than her, with patches of black around the glowing eyes, was the object of her chase. The creature ran around the room in circles with its unusually long tail upright, and then proceeded to be chased out of the room and maybe out of the door and veranda of its entry. By now the lights were on and we were wondering where it was, what it was and where it had come from.

It had led some traces of an odd smell in some of the rooms. A quick google search introduced us to the “Civet”.

The Indian civet is a creature which looks somewhere between a mongoose and a cat. It may have been led indoors by the smell of food. Apparently Channel No 5 uses some civet essence in their fragrance mix as well.

That was hardly impressive.

To wake up at 2 am and see an unknown wild animal running around your bedroom is not the ideal memory for urban dwellers.

Two thoughts crossed my mind.

The first was that we talk so much about sustainability, but do we really know how to live with other animals? We fear them. We may even not know about some of them.

Second was a bit more on the abstract. The creature was a creature of the night. It had perhaps spotted our dwelling, just like we had been watching the birds. We were till this incident unaware of its existence. But was it unaware of us? Would it again attempt to enter?

We so often take what we see and experience everyday as the beautiful truth, while there maybe something or someone lurking somewhere that we know the existence not of.

Someone watching us. The same feeling you get of someone watching over your shoulder when you are doing something, no matter how mundane it is. The freedom of making your mistakes in private. The security of the predictable future. The security of sleeping comfortably in a room you can call your own without any intruder.

Actually, isn’t it a lot like the right to privacy?

(Cat did not sleep at night for the last few days. This encounter made her feel threatened of her space. She undertakes guard dog duties for the night, leaving the comfort of her pillow.)

 

 

 

 

 

Walking through a Bazaar

When the Spring Equinox ends, the day is celebrated in many places in India by various names. In Bengal its called “Pohela Boishakh”. A north Indian might call it “pahela Baisakh” with a lot of tongue curling.

The little pavement shops were dressed for the occasion. A lot of Red, glitter, pottery painted with designs and a Haal Khaata, or an accounts book ready for the morning ritual.

I sometimes wonder the need of an accounts book. Majority of the Bengali Hindus are not really known for their business acumen. That is left to the Marwari community and this prosperity is evident by their really large houses in the poshest localities of the city. Even then, they would get down from their Audi, or the least a mercedes, as the entire family, and extended family, would plan a sunday trip to the Jhalmuri wala. The matronly mother would then order a dozen or so jhalmuris (a kind of a mixed salad with puffed rice), keenly noting the amount of sufficient almonds to go into it. The eldest male member would then make the payment after sufficient negotiation with the roadside vendor.

The rest of the Bengali community has two major occupations, one is slaving for the above community and the second is the intellectual class; who’s children leave Calcutta for better prospects as fast as they grow up. And they do extremely well, …. but outside Calcutta.

Then the mind wanders to intellectual Bengalis and the name “Amartya Sen” comes to the mind. I haven’t googled him yet, but I believe he is known for his studies relating to poverty which got him a noble prize.

The gaze then shifts back to the roadside dweller, a sickly thin lady, wearing nothing but a blouseless sari and eating the scraping from a used curd bowl.

Wonder if she has heard about him too. I suspect not.

Locked Out!

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I forgot the password. It actually took a year to recover. Do I have a simple explanation to it? If I were to give an excuse, there would be many. Ever since we have this trend of alpha numeric codes with multiple special characters interspersed, password creation has become a chore. Increasingly most of our dealings are going online. Password creation increasing directly proportional. Need to remember and age both take their toll as the mind stresses itself to juggle with many new characters, meant to be different each time.

Over the last one year from the previous post, I’ve changed residence four times. A physical “home” to be took precedence over a web “homepage”. Real locks and keys took precedence over the digital ones.

The experiences, though were gained. Traveling through Calcutta. Discovering new places, to eat. Thanks to mobile apps , travel and food is both available at click of a button but the joy of discovering the hidden markets beneath temporary plastic sheets, on either sides of the road is unexplainable. I feel a certain sense of joy at discovering a 100 year old sweet shop, sampling roadside food, picking a kalamkari skirt at a bargain deal from these streets. Then, the frustration while communicating with a sleepy shopkeeper at 2:00 in the afternoon as Calcutta shuts shop for their siesta.

Watching the palash tree bloom, then the copper tones and then the gulmohars. I must say that I have a nice view. Sometimes, its good to be locked out. Now I’m back.