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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.

My Five memorable moments of 2017

I know its pretty early to be writing about year ending, but I believe that once the date crosses December 15th, we are left with a countdown till the next year starts. I actually wrote my top  and favourite ten moments on Pursuit of Imagination, but thought let me share those moments here too, being guilty of not being able to blog for majority of the year! So the Top Five of my top ten moments is selected and presented here.

STAR GAZED

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The year’s hyped astronomical event was the total solar eclipse seen after a gap of a century in America. In Calcutta we had an episode of a partial lunar eclipse on a full moon night. I waited till 1 am to see the complete phenomena and tried to record it.

SOME MORE STAR GAZING

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Then another star caught my eye one evening. Dusk had just descended on the quiet hazy evening. It blinked red, then green and appeared to give out flashes of light. Sirius is its name, the brightest star in our constellation. While my hand did shake to capture on manual mode, the colors it gives out are ethereal and almost unreal as if belonging to another dimension.

LOOKED INTO THE EYE OF A ROYAL BENGAL TIGER

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The Royal Bengal tiger looked directly towards me. He was half hidden behind the leaves camouflaging his stripes. They are known to be man eaters. But I saw him from the safety of a partition wall, in the zoo. Alipore Zoo was built in the late 1800’s. He also shares the zoo with a white tiger. A lion and a leopard are the new occupants. Can sometimes hear them roaring at night. (I stay close to the zoo.)

TRIED DIFFERENT CUISINES

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Whether it is the bakers, the Mughlai cuisine or the seafood, in abundance you find it all in Calcutta. If I wasn’t online much of the time this year, I was probably eating some Biryani, the Victoria Vada or savouring an English Tea with thin sandwiches.

RODE A HORSE

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(This picture is from Australian Stock horse society, but mine was rather similar.)

How difficult can it be reaching the race course at 5:15 every morning in early spring? Not very. The air is fresh, it’s peaceful and add to that a like minded riding group and you are all set. The breeches were bought, so were the strong leather shoes and a stiff round riding cap. The trotting was not painful and a horse with a very human name, “ Mr Vijay Kumar” was allocated to me. It was a fine majestic horse with a shiny dark brown body and a tall countenance. After a week of getting accustomed to the horse, I decided to call it quits. The reason? The pain. Not to me, but to the horse? Each horse is held with a harness attached on their mouth, all the way to their teeth and to make the horse “obey” you need to pull the muzzle tight or loose as required. I don’t know whether the poor creature felt the pain, but I felt it every time I wanted to make it “obey” me. One day my instructor told me to whip the poor thing. I decided that it was the last day for me.

I write this last line and then wish for God to make the next ones better. The Next year smoother. Wishing you and your loved ones well during the holidays! Peace on Earth.

 

 

 

Calcutta on a chariot

Today is Rath Yatra. As an Indian, its tough keeping track of all our festivals. There seems to be one every single day.

A very cute deity picture appeared in the local daily as an advertisement and that is what informed us, the outsiders, of the event.

It is surprising how many such events a single city can have. Marketers opportunity indeed! Apart from a handful (a million?) of the population, there is not much involvement of the middle and above middle classes in these events, unless ofcourse there is some political affiliation.

Bengalis seem to like two things, one is things to eat and the other is intellectual pursuits. It is ironical however that a place which gives the world so much talent, itself hasn’t grown with the rest of the world.

Reading an eighth grade textbook with a neighbor’s kid enlightened me to some historic facts. Amid many yawns that history textbooks bring, it was almost like a modern day thriller.

In short here is what happened:

1500s: Europe wanted cinnamon for their bread. and silks. They form trading companies and set asea. They find Bengal, a treasure trove of natural resources, gold and silks.

1600s: they establish east India trading companies, after bowing a part of the profits to their queen.

1700s: last of mughal rulers died. British companies look at the divided princely states and start their policy of quietly  annexing states one by one. They promise to protect one ruler of a princely state from another, however, they annex one state after another.

1800s: Industrialization begins and Europeans want coal for their trains and markets for their “manufactured” goods. They kill the self sufficient cottage industry of Bengal and start sending in imported “manufactured” goods to the natives. An age of plundering and corruption begins. They take the 16 year old son of the last ruler, give him passage to the royal family in Britain along with a British military doctor, as his guardian. Shrewdly they get the young king to pass over the family jewels to the crown. The Kohinoor diamond included.

1900s: world wars happen. Britain transfers debt of war to India and exits.

2000s: Neo colonials, unscrupulous traders and political machinery still carries forward the legacy of loot and corruption.( I need to stop here, otherwise they put people in jail)

People tend to turn a blind eye (?) and carry on work as if nothing happened. Education machinery works overtime and kids are brought up to be prepared to be “educated” and mostly they leave the state.

Then some religious event happens and all unite to celebrate the forgotten prosperity and good times. Of some 400 years before.

The Rath yatra today, celebrates an event of 625 years before.