Kolkata in 3D

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#1 May 29th, 2010, 21:36
It's all Greek to me, but Benglish will do
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Now it has been almost two months since our return from Kolkata, so it must be high time for me to write my latest trip report. My previous visits to Kolkata are described in “City of (Satyajit) RAY-diance” and in “An Ode to Kolkata”.

“Very few people have ever said anything nice about Calcutta, unless they were Bengali.”
(Geoffrey Moorhouse)

Does this mean that I am now an adoptee of my favourite city since I am about to heap yet more praise on her?

Some years ago when I visited Kolkata for the first time I had mentioned the places that I had failed to see which would be on my agenda for a future visit. They included Kalighat, New Market, Tollywood and the Park Street cemetery. I am happy to say that I can now tick the list for three of these four items! Tollywood will just have to wait. I had been advised that Science City, the new malls, Salt Lake were all worthy of a visit. And they were!

This time around, however, it was more a question of visiting friends and trying to understand the way of life of this teeming metropolis. Before I go any further I would like to thank IndiaMikers Kausik and his family, Nayan, and mousourik and his family for their hospitality and the way they have all opened my eyes to Bengali culture.

We arrived just in time to celebrate Holi in the traditional fashion with friends in South Kolkata.

The major excitement of Kolkata 2010 was then to greet our old friend Belur, who had travelled up to the city from Bangalore especially to see us. He was very pleased with the Duronto train. So much so that he found the journey too short…as he was enjoying the chance to contemplate and to read.

In between visiting numerous book shops we had to undergo the rite of initiation of our first outing to the Asiatic Society, 1 Park Street. B., his friend P., and P.’s son A. came to our hotel and we set off enthusiastically via Esplanade on foot. There is always the choice of Free School Street or Esplanade as the route to Park Street but we preferred the latter as it is less potholed and B. is walking using a cane nowadays. Arriving on the dot of ten a.m. we were a little surprised to see no action whatsoever. You could say that the whole place was in slumber.

As an aside here: the previous day we had visited the Seagull Bookshop near to Jatin Das metro and bought some wonderful books, including the incredibly useful book “Cultural History of Bengali Proverbs” by Sudeshna Basak, published in 2007. meghna chaite jal! Which means “unexpected treasure!” (Literally: Rain even before looking for clouds.) The kindly owner had told us that the next day there would be a mini-book fair at the Asiatic Society. That is why we chose that particular day for our visit.

We confidently told the desk clerk that we had come to attend the Book Fair. “There is no book fair”, said he glumly. He swatted us away in order to enjoy more his pre-work siesta. Not another soul was around. We insisted. B. took on an air of Brahmin inscrutability. P. looked amused and as if this was a normal Kolkatan experience. A. fidgeted. Mr. t. lost his temper. I lost my temper. We insisted that the owner of Seagull Books had invited us. Our distinguished friend B. had come all the way from Bangalore … wild exaggerations … smirks from P. and A. Finally, the desk clerk said, “Well, there is a Private Book Fair, but it is opening at midday only.” (It was by now around 10.15 a.m.) “You can come back later.” We refused. So, at my instigation, we requested to see the Library. The Museum? This is the Asiatic Society of Park Street, Kolkata? Much humming and hawing and frowning and form filling ensued. We were sent up a floor, down a floor, up three flights, down one, filled out more forms. I can’t remember how many forms.

Finally, we were on the landing next to the LIBRARY. It was very much shut. Out of the corner of our eye we could see frantic sweeping and cleaning going on inside. It seemed as if they only clean up a bit if and when they get visitors.

We were allowed to enter the Holy of the Holies. We asked if we might actually look at some books. They were horrified! We talked to the lady in charge. I tried (unsuccessfully) to ingratiate myself to her by saying she looked familiar. I had seen her on the television in a documentary “The Story of India”. But to no avail. She simply said she herself had not seen the programme in which she features. More form-filling. (I am yawning even now as I remember.) We were let loose on the card index files. They were filled to the brim with cigarette butts and paper rubbish from previous picnics.

Mr. t. requested a book. We all went and sat down to await the arrival of the said book. We waited. And waited. B. was getting a bit fed up. The others took it in their stride. I wandered about and removed a book with serious mildew from a glass case. A. told me “Put it back or we will all be thrown out.” Finally, the long anticipated book “The Baiga” by Verrier Elwin arrived. Much rejoicing. B. and Mr. t. read it together for around an hour. By then it was time for us all to head off to the book fair.

We entered the room (on a different floor) hoping for an exciting event. Cardboard boxes were still littering the floor. Books lay in certain stages of disarray, in piles, higgledy-piggledy arranged on tables, cramped so you could hardly move between them, spines invisible. You can understand our dismay.

After around fifteen unsatisfying minutes we left and beat a hasty retreat to Flury’s for a well-deserved coffee and cake.

It occurs to me now that this anecdote is not particularly complimentary to my favourite city! Read on, dear readers, and things will only improve.

As a side-note, this same book that caused our hearts to beat faster was subsequently ordered from Vineeta at Earthcare Books and we finally managed to own a copy after a long wait.

Later on in the week we were joined by the rest of the extended family of B.’s Salt Lake friends and we all went to eat at Kwalitys on Park Street. Check: kebobs. Check: ice cream. Check: adda. Check: obligatory power cut. Check: A memorable evening!

Speaking of food, we were also invited to “Pen and Ink” in Salt Lake. I recommend it. Needless to say, we were the only tourists there, but the other diners were far too polite to stare at us. I ate bekti in poshto which was delicious. And our hosts were quick to tell me that next time they would cook it at home for me, in which case it would be far superior.

The highlight of our first week in Kolkata was the concert which we attended at the Kala Mondir on Theatre Road (Shakespeare Sarani) where we had the privilege of hearing Kishori Amonkar singing A Raga for the Rainy Season. She is a truly amazing singer. Just think how thrilled we were to meet her in person a couple of days later at the departure lounge of Kolkata Domestic Airport. She was extremely gracious.

Just before we left West Bengal for our trip to Meghalaya (which I have written about in “Khublei Khasi Hills”), we had a mini IndiaMike unofficial Meet-Up at Kausik’s house. A great evening was had by all of those present. And we off-loaded a ton of books and DVDs for Kausik’s safe-keeping until we returned from our trip. A big thank you to Kausik and all his family.

****************************** *************************


When we returned from the Cherrpunjee/Shillong escapade, we felt as if we were coming back home. The guys at the hotel were saying things like “Welcome back…. Again… and again…”.

It had reached the point where the beggars on Sudder Street said hello to us and asked us how we were.

During our second week in Kolkata we went on a research mission to the Park Street Cemetery as well as the Scottish Cemetery. For on our travels we had become friendly with a couple from Perth, one of whom was an Anglo-Indian born in Kolkata, desperately seeking the tombs of her long-lost relatives. Imagine our mixed feelings of sorrow and joy when we finally located her grandfather’s grave at the Scottish cemetery amongst the weeds and the flowers. Then, in a timely encounter, of the sort which no longer surprises us, we met the couple themselves, just down from the Hills, literally bumped into them on Sudder Street. A celebratory cool one at the Fairlawn was most definitely a good idea!


[To be continued]
#2 May 29th, 2010, 22:53
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#2
Asiatic Society - it gets sunshine outside only. So it's not surprising that there's mildew inside. There's more of politics there than books.

Next part please.
#3 May 30th, 2010, 17:24
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#3
Really interesting book stories there theyyam, but it must have been so frustrating. But with the distance of time the annoyances become part of the story, and you tell it well.

And I'm pleased you got the book in the end!

Quote:
Originally Posted by mousourik View Post Next part please.
ditto
#4 May 30th, 2010, 18:10
It's all Greek to me, but Benglish will do
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#4
Thanks for the encouragement!

This report is not necessarily in chronological order! We visited Science City one afternoon. It had been on my agenda for a while. Various reports had praised it or condemned it as being suitable for children only. This area of town was completely unknown to me. The huge surprise was how much cooler the air was there, surrounded by greenery. Obviously it has taken a lot of work to install this place. There are many attractions. The most interesting – for me – was the IMAX cinema. We just so happened to arrive at the right moment to view a documentary on Kolkata in English which was fantastic. It made you feel as if you were flying. Then we visited the interactive Science Museum. It was a lot of fun! Returning to the centre of town across a new flyover was also an interesting experience. This is the Kolkata of the future.

As the temperature soared we took refuge in air-conditioned Malls. We discovered South City Mall and Hiland Park Mall and revisited Forum Mall. We spent many happy hours seeing movies and sampling the delights of the food courts. (Highly recommended: dosas at South City Mall food court before going to the cinema!) This was the peak of IPL season and crowds had come in to watch cricket on the huge TV screens. When the Kolkata Knight Riders were on good form the excitement in the mall was palpable.

On walkabout with Nayan as guide we discovered some of the treasures of the erstwhile Chinatown. Now Tiretta Bazaar Street has been renamed with no fewer than three names. But tucked away amidst the thronging market stalls are the places of worship of the Orthodox Armenians and of the Jewish Community. The Armenian church remained closed to us. It was the wrong time of day. But we admired its architecture as well as the beautiful frangipani trees in the garden. The Synagogue opened its portals to us after some pleading, and we discovered how meticulously it is maintained despite the fact that the worshippers are now so few that Sabbath is no longer celebrated. On a different occasion on walkabout with mousourik we discovered the Greek Orthodox Church. I was intrigued to enter and listen to the liturgy. The different places of worship of Kolkata are so numerous and so fascinating that it is impossible to view all of them. But that did not stop us from trying: Kalighat (an overwhelmingly brief but blissful visit, the culmination of which was to taste a drop of Holy Water from the Ganges); St. John’s (where you can view, if you are so inclined, Hastings' chair as well as Job Charnock’s mausoleum); St Paul’s Cathedral, a wonderfully tranquil place to pray or to sit and meditate on a scorchingly hot summer’s day.

Being more of a cinephile than a church-goer, I was very keen to visit the Nandan, the Mecca of film-goers. We were lucky to find a Retrospective of Uttam Kumar films. We viewed “Kamal Lata”, an old black and white smoochie, starring Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, directed by Harisadhan Dasgupta in 1969. It was in Bengali without subtitles but the music and acting surpassed the script making it a joy to watch. As the only foreigners in the audience (mainly retired Kolkatans, as this was a matinee show) we were the object of intense scrutiny. The park around the Nandan affords original views towards St Paul’s. There is a good chai dhaba too for pre- or post-cinematic refreshments. Lots of people were sitting there doing nothing, escaping the sultry heat of the streets, or playing chess, or perhaps playing hookey from classes.

Another intense experience was the visit to New Market. On previous visits we had been intimidated by the ever-watchful touts. But this time, karma being on our side apparently, we made the acquaintance of Jamal, an elderly Muslim official guide. We asked him to take us to Nahoum’s Jewish Bakery in the heart of the market. What a pleasure to zip straight through and watch all the other touts fall away like the Parting of the Red Sea. On subsequent visits we said “No thanks we have a guide already, ami janin…” and it worked. We did know our way! If anyone needs to be told what to buy at Nahoums, which is unlikely since everything is delicious, then I really recommend the ginger nuts and the macaroons.

Back to the favourite topic of food! With Nayan one day we sampled the delights of Oh! Calcutta inside the Forum Mall. It was every bit as good as expected, but it is extremely popular so you have to be prepared to queue. With Kausik we went to eat at the traditional Chinese restaurant Tung Fong on Free School Street which was excellent. (The air conditioning is arctic, however, be warned and bring a shawl.) With mousourik we ate real Bengali food, both as a guest at his home (a huge thank you to him and his family for their hospitality), as well as in an old-world dhaba of South Kolkata.

I have to note that transportation in Kolkata is greatly facilitated by the metro. It is really easy to use, very clean (much cleaner than the Paris metro for instance) and practical for journeys on a North-South axis. We discovered the joys of fixed-route auto-rickshaws on the West –East axis. I have not yet experienced a tram ride. We have to leave something for next time!

Shopping in Kolkata is great fun when you know where to go. Thanks to a recommendation from IndiaMiker chAos I went back to the Weavers’ Studio in Ballygunge. Having bought a super turquoise and lime green salwar kameez there last year, and emboldened by Nayan’s encouragement, this year I splashed out on a multi-coloured silk sari. It is really beautiful but I don’t dare wear it out in the street until I come to terms with how to tie it or the strategic placement of safety pins.


[To be continued]
#5 May 30th, 2010, 18:48
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#5
nice reading
#6 May 30th, 2010, 22:42
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#6
The cinema in science city is called astro-theatre. The nearest city where another one of its type can be found is probably Singapore or Hong Kong. And that show on Kolkata is a must-must-see for everybody.

South city mall (or any mall for that matter) is visited mostly by young people in the weekends - where else will you find such sweat-free atmosphere free of cost ?

This is now becoming like a mega-serial : one of those popular tv shows - the audience is forced to see the next episode.
#7 May 31st, 2010, 13:54
It's all Greek to me, but Benglish will do
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No visit to Kolkata is complete without a ramble in Kumartuli. Last year we had visited the para of the artists who prepare the statues for Durga Puja. So this year we set off confidently by metro and shortly entered the warren of alleys adjacent to Soba Bazaar. My fascination for the skill of the sculptors is growing every time I see their utmost devotion and concentration in preparing these life-size idols which will feature in October in the pandals and processions. We were welcomed as we took photos of them hard at work. Then, as the blazing sun beat down and the streets were largely deserted save for stray dogs sleeping in the shade of empty hand-drawn rickshaws, we headed down to Coomertolly Ghat. That is the spelling on the plaque at the riverside. Small boys were diving into the turpid waters to cool off. Brightly clad and smiling ladies collected holy water in vessels. Saddhus in saffron meditated. A small river cruiser floated by watching us watching them watching the Hooghly.


Another favourite for an afternoon of aimless wandering is the boi para around College Street. On this occasion we descended from the metro at M.G. Road and immediately lost ourselves in the adjacent bazaar. Mr. t. was amazed and thrilled to see fresh green chickpeas, something he considered a delicacy in his youth in Crete, and which are no longer to be easily found here in Greece. We stopped to take photos of young girls shelling the chickpeas and were rewarded with brilliant smiles. (They most probably wondered why we were so delighted with such a commonplace occurrence.) Further along the maze of vegetable stalls was a tethered goat munching contentedly on the same foodstuff. More photo ops! Wondering where the College Street was and asking our way every so often we soon emerged into the melee of students, flaneurs, booksellers, wholesalers and traffic jams of the book market. Emerging from the dusty scaffolding you can nowadays spot the appearance of the forthcoming book mall which will bear the name Varnaparichay (pronounced more like Borno Porichoy) in honour of the much-loved Bengali alphabet primer. Discussing with one of the book sellers, we were reassured to learn that the resident book shops will not be obliterated upon completion of the book mall. It is apparently intended to house the pavement vendors who make it very hard to walk around without stumbling. We shall see. The ambiance is bound to change.

The Indian Coffee House is almost changeless, however, as adda is “thickened” under the constant whirring of the overhead fans, and pairs of self-conscious students hold hands ever so discreetly under the watchful eyes of the uniformed waiters who glide serenely from table to table dispensing filthy coffee and delicious pakoras.

No one in their right mind can visit Kolkata without sampling the sweets (sondesh, meaning both sweets and “good news”) of K.C. Das. A further visit (or several) is mandatory to try some more of their delicacies. Let me try to name a few of them:


misti doi
dasmalantsui
rosomalancha
rosgolla
kalojam
gulab jamun



If the taste explosions do not succeed in transporting you to instant bliss then you are not alive!

pet bhore gaeche! I am full up.

Still on the subject of food, I have yet to taste the famous sweets made with gur since I believe the season for those specialities had just ended when we arrived.

Every season in Kolkata is special. One of the great things about being there in April are the flowering trees. The palash trees, the krishnachura trees, the gul mohar trees, the frangipani trees, and countless others whose names I am yet to discover.

The rewards of uncovering the secrets of Kolkata are great for those who have the time to explore.




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Last edited by theyyamdancer; May 31st, 2010 at 15:05..
#8 May 31st, 2010, 15:44
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#8
thank you yet again, yyam!
durdanto write-up aar photograph below !



Quote:
Originally Posted by theyyamdancer View Post pet bhore gaeche! I am full up.
full filled and fed ups with all the mishti, huh ?
but madame - you are eating only shop foods - no mentions of street foods as yet ?
kee, stomach cannot stomach, nah ? bhery bad girl that nayan also, not taking you for strit foods.



:brishti
#9 May 31st, 2010, 15:48
It's all Greek to me, but Benglish will do
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#9
Yes, you are right. I have not tried any..... yet...... But that will not stop me the next time!

So far I am compiling my list of places and street foods and then I will just dive into them one day.

(Maybe I am waiting for you to come and take me around?)

As they say in Bengali, karo poush mash, karo shorbonash. (Very loosely translated, one man's pleasure is another man's poison.) But my guts will tell me when is the right time to cast caution to the winds and then, bhel puri here I come.
#10 May 31st, 2010, 16:00
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Quote:
Originally Posted by theyyamdancer View Post karo poush mash, karo shorbonash.
salud !!!!



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#11 May 31st, 2010, 16:16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by theyyamdancer View Post So far I am compiling my list of places and street foods and then I will just dive into them one day.
Its a tough job, theyyamdancer I mean compiling the list of great street food in the city. You can spend a couple of days on them from breakfast till dinner and end up sampling different types of food every time!!

By the way, an excellent write-up.... More please.
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#12 Jun 1st, 2010, 01:45
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#12
Fantastic reports, theyyamdancer Oh yes by your next visit, you must build up the intestinal fortitude, quite literally, to sample the yummy street foods of Kolkata.
#13 Jun 1st, 2010, 22:45
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#13

Crete and chickpeas

Quote:
Originally Posted by theyyamdancer View Post Mr. t. was amazed and thrilled to see fresh green chickpeas, something he considered a delicacy in his youth in Crete, and which are no longer to be easily found here in Greece.
Apologies for being completely offtopic but I'm curious about this ...

Why can't you get fresh chickpeas anymore in Greece? Do the farmers get a better price if they sell them dried? Or have they switched to growing other crops (maybe with EU subsidies)?

And where do your dried chickpeas come from in Crete? I just checked a pack in my kitchen and they were from Turkey

Finally, and sort of ontopic , a cooking question for Kolkatans and Cretans alike: what do you do with fresh chickpeas?
#14 Jun 1st, 2010, 22:54
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#14
from a Kolkatan -

its called chhola.

The fresh variety is mostly eaten as it is.

The dried variety used as
1. a healthy snack(after an overnight soak in water)
2. Used in salads
3. roasted and eaten as snack/street food
3. added to various dishes(the one that comes to my mind right now - a spicy papaya dish called chola diye peper dalna).
#15 Jun 1st, 2010, 22:57
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JuliaF View Post Finally, and sort of ontopic , a cooking question for Kolkatans and Cretans alike: what do you do with fresh chickpeas?
I sautee them in olive oil, and add a lot of freshly ground black pepper + pink Himalayan sea salt.

If they're really fresh, I eat them raw tossed w/ a squeeze of lemon, extra virgin olive oil, and salt and pepper as above.
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