Travel to Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta wherein you need to say the first part in a lightning speed and second part slowly). An opportunity came in the form of joining a course in the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIMC). Located in the eastern part of INDIA, Kolkata was on the cards for some time. While embarking on this short trip I had sort of kept my agenda of not having a fixed mind. I try to do that in every travel except the dates of travel. This part of India is a lush tropical delta with numerous rivers and large water bodies. The season was spectacularly joyous and I could gauze that while the flight was landing. The autumn was riding vigorously on a receding monsoon and the earth was covered permanently with a cloud flecked sky dark in colour just like a Mother covering her child in her bosom, reminding each and every one of us the most secured place in earth. Maa and Kolkata were welcoming me. Maa Durga a resplendent figure in gold and red with her dark red tongue and ten hands was welcoming this son. Bolo Durga Maaaa ki Jaaai.
My cousin Jithu was waiting for me and we caught the taxi to their Badi in Sitalatala road, Sahapur in New Alipore. The journey till we reached home was exciting as he showed me the different facets of Calcutta - From uptown high rise buildings to old heritages still being nurtured. Life in Calcutta is at its own pace, it's slow and I sort of enjoyed it. The liberating effect of a journey is complemented by another potent pleasure - food. Autumn and later winter is the time to eat well, especially richer foods that we are unable to digest in the heat of summer or persistent dampness of monsoon. The onset of DURGA Puja preparations with various pandals and beautiful goddess banners elevates food to an almost supra sensory experience. I am glad that Jithu too shared this common taste. He showed most of the food joints till we reached home and we had sort of shortlisted our strategy on covering them. The topics we covered were an antidote to the distance we travelled and I personally felt we reached in few minutes though it was an hour and half journey from airport.
Jayapachi treated us with the best fried rice I have eaten for long along, with a Paneer dish she learnt from Annie's kitchen. I must say that the Paneer dish just mesmerised me. It was the softest one I had ever in my life including overseas (am comparing it to any variety of cottage cheese including feta and goat cheese) with the thick masala made in the most delectable manner. I was on a veg diet for a month as LORD GANESHA was being welcomed by my brother and family at his Mumbai abode. Jayapachi (my dad's youngest 11th sister - remember my grandfather was the most handsome man in the village and my grandmother the most beautiful woman ) as my dad's family represents is also an epitome of GODDESS as her sisters. All of them amazing cooks too. If they were sent to atleast a decent hotel management system school we would have got some of the best chefs in the world and that includes some of their brothers too. Living upto their reputation the welcoming food was grand in its taste and more importantly the quantity. Perfect to the last morsel. As we finished food, had some ice cream (Jithu had brought the full family pack considering me) to cater our sweet cravings we decided to scout the city. As we were about to leave Rajan uncle entered the gate. He had specifically taken an early leave from office to meet me. I was honoured and humbled with the hosting ceremonies by the entire family. Though we had decided to skip tea, now we went for it to spend some lighter moments with Rajan uncle who is witty to the core. One should not be misguided by the sort of serious aura he carries and I am sure all of us have shared some of the wittiest moments with him. Tea, naiappams and lighter moments relaxed us.
Thereafter we hit the road just like MTV ROADIES - JITHU with his Dulquer look in bullet and I was his pillion maybe a semi bald Sunny Wayne. We took the road from New Alipore through the bylanes of Mominpore, Iqbalpur, khidirpur untill we landed in front of the famous Mohamedan Sporting Club office and ground. The area is minority dominated and our mind travels to the era when GANDHIJI was fasting and streets were flooded with Hindu Muslim riots. This place should have been part of that history. Being a pillion rider has its advantage especially for a person like me. I cannot fail to notice that these places are chaotic, busy,the air smells of kebabs, spicy meat delicacies and taxi drivers yelling at each other. The yellow taxis which are part of this city's heritage as I gathered later were already angered against the OLAS and UBERS. To add to that with the onset of pooja preparations the traffic police were harassing them. But jithu hardly had pity on them as it seems they themselves were the reason for this agony. As we moved ahead we crossed the defence area and went through a serene space of grassy grounds untill we reached the Mecca of Cricket....THE EDEN GARDENS. I was thrilled to see the board itself and traces of Indian superiority in this field fills your mind. We crossed the road and checked if we still looked good against a CRICKET ASSOCIATION OF BENGAL backdrop. We were not the only ones and am sure no simpleton in INDIA misses this opportunity. As we moved I could sense the air was moving towards a water body and before I could guess Jithu parked his vehicle. We took 10 steps and crossed a railway crossing and lo...the next step you are in front of the River HOOGHLY or the Bhagirathi HOOGHLY which is a tributary of the HOLY GANGES. The evening dusk was giving way to the night. The banks were filled with people praying with GODDESS IDOLS, children praying on the parks attached to the banks or ghats as they are called here, vendors and hawkers selling pavbhaji, different muris etc. We walked up to Princep Ghat and saw the monumental New Howrah bridge from the Lord Princep Memorial. The picture is amazing with the entire bridge litted with purple lights. Here is where we had the first Street food of calcutta - GHOTI GARAM (an awesome union of chanachur, lemon juice, onions and chillies which is optional). This is the 20th item in the list of best street foods of calcutta. The walk along the river in all its serenity is relaxing and you could spends hours there. You need to excuse me for not mentioning that the place is a hub for many lovelock pairs as you might see in marine drive, bandra or upvan. We returned from there back the same route but Jithu had something else in his mind. He would not reveal it though. We rode through Dalhousie (similar to Dalal Street in Mumbai) came to esplanade (a mini dadar in Mumbai), crossing and redressing the same lanes. The scene was similar to a SCENE in a popular Malayalam movie INDIAN RUPEE - where Jagdee Sreekumaran enters for the first time with his old scooter but he would not park as he had something in his mind. Jithu was in a similar state of mind. At last he stopped and it was the best finish to the evening. We got to a lane next to the oldest K C Das shop...the best MANGO LASSI I had for a long time. It was creamy, fruity, lots of dry fruits laden and filling. BOTH OF US HAD A LOOK IN OUR FACE SANTOSHAM AYI MONE SANTOSHAM AYI. We both drove home back to end the evening with the taste of creamy lassi still lingering in our mouth.
The 2nd day of the calcutta diaries starts on a different note when I reach Sahapur at 2.30 pm. The veggie days were over and I was craving for some good non veg. For some days I had the opportunity to eat one of the best veg cuisines in the world -The Bengali Cuisine (surprised !!!!). The Alur dum (slow cooked spicy potatoes) nestling in the glistening dark tamarind sauce and, puffy luchis (type of puri) or the Golden Choler Dal - a thick dal added with whole masalas with coconut scrapes fried in mustard oil. Blessed to have few of the most amazing Dals in our country ,try the shuktos or postos with the spicy panch poharan giving the added zing. Having said that today was the day for fish and chicken. Jayapachi had prepared a chicken dish in a spicy fragrant sauce wherein the masala could be tasted till the bone marrow and it was not overpowering the taste of the meat. This is an art which comes out of sheer devotion to cooking. Salute. The fish parai was cooked with minimum spices and perfectly cooked - fluffy and soft. Jayapachi had prepared avial, beans upari, papadam as accompaniments to a slurry, tangy Ladies finger sambar.
Since it was my last evening in Kolkata as I had to fly to Coimbatore the next day I decided to utilize the evening to the maximum. We hit the road again. This time fearing the rains and its ancillary problems we concluded to use public transport system. JITHU called for a Yellow Taxi but he seemed to be in distress. The driver said he would ply but there was a sort of discomfort he was facing. When we enquired he was waiting for his vehicle to be parked for attending nature's call. But he was irritated as in the middle of the road one cycle guy had parked and rushed to attend his call. When he came back he got a mouthful from our Taxi Driver. The poor cyclewala could only retort to the rushing taxi driver " Arrey bhai Jor se peshab lagi thi...Ka Karein pant mein Kar dete ???". We were laughing at the tone and situation. We drove from there to Babu ghat to take a ferry to Howrah Bridge. The ferry ride a short one was joyous with lots of ferry hawkers asking us Ghoti garam and peanuts etc. All were returning from their offices and the effects of the day spent were visible on each ones face. The sun was setting and we could see the splendour of the bridge against the misty saffrony dusk engulfing the ganges. It was really a treat for the mind as well as the heart. The magnitude of its majestic engulfment is subdued by the way the water carries us. It's the same feeling which one feels I mean that safety factor when as a child you are in your mother's lap. We got down at the Howrah ferry station. We were stopped by the ticket checker and I was not at all surprised as even in Mumbai every time I got off a local train the TC invariably caught me for checking...they say in Mumbai."Shakalse hi chor lagtay". As soon as we came out of the ghat we were greeted by a magnificent British era architectural building -The Howrah Station. Just to mention here Jithu confirms that Rajan uncle, Jayapachi and jithu (till he was small ...I don't recall when was that...in a lighter vein) used to reach kerala after taking a ferry, then ordeous journey of train, then bus in 3 days and the same way back...but I have not heard a single complaint of any tiredness or fatigue in my meetings with them...hats off. As I was scooping the building, the pavements and the roadside vendors outside Howrah Station, a funny incident happened.
Normally me and jithu seen together seem to be slightly abnormal sized than an average east Indian...Moreover we both are of lighter tones, jithu being more transparent which I have consciously avoided. While we stood to have to making tea and contemplated whether or not to have luchis ( puris) with it, the tea vendor went discreetly and reported to a nearby police persons that he felt something suspicious about us. One of the policeman came to me and asked "Aapka movement kidhar ko hai "....we sensed what was going on but kept our cool. We enquired "movement mane?" and He explained his enquiry. We replied that Jithu is from Kolkata and all the other details.He checked my mobile as I was taking snaps of Howrah station which was not allowed. But he said after that it's fine and a smile from both ends stated ALL IS WELL. From there we took a long walk to Bada Bazaar through the Howrah Bridge. The structure was huge, the pavements chaotic with lots and lots of vegetable and cottage industrial vendors but the river flowing brings serenity and peace within you. The walk covered shops of electrical, hardware, household pooja items everything in a row. Along with this the market smelled of eateries, juices, sweets. The walk had awakened our appetite. The guide in jithu sensed this perfectly. From bada bazar we boarded a bus to esplanade. We covered this place in bike on the first day and I was quick to recognise it. The milkshake place. We checked in straight to the Ist KC Das store in kolkatta...Rasgullas....modest
We walked through different shops of ladies junk jewelleries, chappals, bags etc and since Durga Puja shopping was on the place was all lighted and made our shopping experience beautiful. We got hold of some jewellery for my lil princess. Next stop was at the Times Square of kolkata, we decided to stand here and munch on the remaining paratha (Anadis cabin is too crowded to sit and complete your paratha in peace). Time to refill ourselves with cash...As we roamed around I noticed that all items even during this peak season was 3 times cheaper than coimbatore. I did some small shopping courtesy Jithu as he paid for it. Jithu had a perfect layout planned for me I guess. He took me to a shop where I had the best fruit cake ever had in my entire life.... NAHOUMS and Sons. Briefly about NAHOUMS - A Bakery set up in early 1902 by a Jew who had come from Baghdad. Amazing is a small word for this wonderful baker. People here in Kolkata say that Christmas in Kolkata is incomplete without a Nahoums' fruit/Plum cake.
After this we walked till M G Road, took a tram to college Street....my first time in this erstwhile transport system and I simply enjoyed the ride. The road till M G road is dingy, cramped and full of bootleggers but all in their own world. The pavements on either side of the tram route is full of bhajia and pakoda makers. College Street is where the famous presidency college is situated. The streets are covered with stalls of just books, books and books....a paradise for book lovers and academicians. No wonder this city has produced such literary wizards. The journey though short had created some space in our stomach....we entered one more vintage joints of kolkatta where many comrades would have assembled to argue, plan, debate and gupshup. THE INDIAN COFFEE HOUSE. Jithu ordered for fish cutlets and coffee. The place is now frequented by youngsters in Kurtas, jeans and smokers irrespective of the gender. The cutlet was good but the smoke killed the ambience. This was not a dapper by any means for what I experienced till now and want was in store for me.
The journey could not be completed without a visit to the famous China town in kolkata. From the time I saw it in a travel programme in NDTV the place was set in my mind. I knew exactly how the entrance looked, the seats everything. After some deliberation as to whether to have Moghlai or Chinese we settled for Chinese. So our next stop was Tangra China Town -Hotel Beijing. The ambience was soothing and waiter who attended us the most courteous. We ordered what he suggested - a chicken pakchoi soup, crispy honey chicken and Cantonese soupy noodles. Adequate quantity for both of us. China town is a place in Kolkata located in Tangra and as the name suggests the area has a good number of Chinese people (though I have come to know that the numbers have gone down). The best thing about the area is it has chinese restaurants in every nook and corner run by migrant chine population. With so many restaurants in an area the competition is high so be rest assured the quality of food is going to be amazing. We went to the best place Beijing .However if you are visiting kolkata and china town you can definitely try Big Boss and Golden Joy along with Beijing if time and pocket permits.
What an evening ....a perfect start to finish. We took a cab back home and the next day I flew to coimbatore...but the food, people, cityscape created a lasting image on my soul...I must acknowledge that this city, the people are a joy to be with. No wonder it is called the CITY OF JOY...TRULY JOYFUL.