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.

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The Great Calcutta Party season

It’s Almost the New year. As the clock struck 12 on 30th December, we were stuck in the traffic.

“Villagers from the surrounding towns in 200- 300 km radius of Calcutta, come during the holiday season.” informed me one cab driver.

“… they must be coming to see the Anaconda in the zoo. It was all over the Bengali local papers.” told me another one.

” The anaconda and the new lion” , I joined.

Just like Christmas, into the new years, we all move along, just the 20 million of us, plus our one million vacationers. A small country we make.

 

 

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!

 

Torn between three cities

Today, between a misty morning and a cup of hot coffee, I got a call from an ex colleague.

“I’m in your home town” he said.

“Delhi?” I asked.

“I forget you change your hometown every other year! I tend to forget where you live. Sometimes you are in Goa, or Bombay and now Calcutta… which one do consider as home town?”

“It is Delhi I guess,” said I with the fair explanation, that I was schooled from there and majority of my relatives still stay there, so that’s what it would be.

It’s difficult for Hindu Kashmiris such as me. We don’t really have a hometown. I believe its a patch of land between India and Pakistan, still been fought upon, even after 60 years of “Independence”, tearing away families to all parts of the country and the globe. Till then, I think I’ll call Delhi the hometown.