While we could


Nothing ever happens when it drizzles, have you noticed? The day drizzles too. Heavy rain could turn a road into a river, but a steady drizzle just turns your day into a soggy pulp of nothing. Not that I want the river; I had enough of those back in India.


After we got married, D and I rented an apartment in Cornfield Road in Calcutta. Though the road didn’t run along eponymous fields of corn, it did harvest something else. Rainwater. Legend had it that Cornfield Road could get flooded on a dog’s pee.


We started our life there with one such legendary flood.



It was the monsoon of 1999, and the skies were crying like a colicky baby. The skies cried, the waters rose, and I watched from our first floor balcony with mixed emotions: half anxious adult, half excited child. The excited, less-practical me wondered how high the waters would rise; if it would give us future anecdotes to roll our eyes by. (Maybe even something to write about in a blog fifteen years later.)

In the evening, after a few hours of copious rain, we got a call from our landlady who lived a floor above us. Over the years, she had developed a nose for floods; she suggested we stock up on essentials from the neighbourhood grocer, while we could. Suspecting greater wisdom, D and I waded out in calf-deep water with useless umbrellas.


Next morning, we woke up to a kitchen stocked like a bomb-shelter. And the lull of gentle waves. We could’ve been in the Maldives.


When we stumbled bleary-eyed onto the balcony, a makeshift raft was floating past. A car that had been parked in front of our house was almost under water, it’s roof shining like an island. On the raft, three men stood grinning at the bloody adventure of it all. Full of cheerful foreboding, they pointed at the main road, towards Ballygunge Station.
“It’s much worse there, didi. Enough water to drown a child,” they shouted.
The woman in the house opposite ours poked her head out of her ground-floor window to inform us that the water was up to their bed. There were whispers of water snakes.

The drains were saturated, everyone said. The water could stay for days, our landlady predicted. So, later that morning, D and I packed a small overnight bag and decided to go to Ma-and-Baba’s for a couple of days. The water was too high for me to walk through now. D carried me on his back till the end of Cornfield Road, where the water level started to drop; a rickshaw carried us the rest of the way.


When we reached Ballygunge Circular Road and got off the rickshaw, there was not a blip of a flood. Not even a darn puddle. This was higher ground, the roads had already dried, and we looked like a pair of comics in our wet, rolled-up jeans. Clutching onto our little overnight bag with the expressions of the newly-evacuated.

Still, there’s something to be said for roads that turn into rivers: On a drizzly day in a different country, fifteen years later, it gives you something to write about when you have nothing much to write about.

In the oven, on days that drizzle

When its grey outside, I say cook a squash that looks like the sun. Stuff it with prawns and coconut milk and lemongrass and fresh coriander. Use your squash like a bowl, fill it with things and sit and watch it cook itself. It’s the beach.


Ingredients


1 small squash per person

For each squash:
6 large, raw prawns, cleaned
A few slivers of ginger
1 green chilli
Fresh coriander leaves
2 one-inch pieces lemongrass
Coconut milk
Salt
1 tsp vegetable oil
A slice of lime


Pre-heat oven: 150 degrees C.
Cut a lid off the squash, empty the inside. Smear the hollow with a sprinkle of salt and oil.
Put the lid back on and slide it into the lower rack of the oven for 30 minutes.

Take out the squash and check if the inside is cooked. If it’s not, put it back in for another 10-15 minutes. Don’t worry if the skin is charred – it gives the whole thing a beautiful flavour.

Once the inside is tender, open lid and put in the prawns, chilli, ginger and lemongrass. Top up the squash-bowl with coconut milk, covering the prawns. Add the coriander. Put the lid back on.
Put the squash in for just 10 minutes more.

Take it out, open lid and add a squeeze of lime. Serve the squash whole, or scoop out the insides and serve it in a bowl. 




 



Eating Kolkata

Here it is, you lovely bunch – the food, the food. Oh hell, the food.

It’s everywhere in Kolkata. On Ma’s table (she’s one of the finest, most casual cooks I know), on the streets, in conversations, on wooden carts, in smart restaurants and ramshackle ones. It’s a city where gluttony is a pastime. And while we were there, it didn’t feel like no sin.

So here are the spoils of the war we waged over three weeks. Most of the places where we ate were worth their weight in pure nostalgia. A few were uncharted territories. And some were just grabbed off the street, on the way, without a plan.

And thrown in there are the bazaars, the wicker baskets full of fresh produce, the fish market, the local butcher Baba swears by, the street food, the sweet shops. Sweet sin!

Tell me what you think, which ones you like – for this plate is as much mine as it is yours. The list here is by no means complete; just scratching the surface, my friends.

So. If you go to Kolkata for one reason, and no other, let it be fu-hood.

….

First the sweets. It had to be the sweets.
Here are some of my favourite picks.
From Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick: Baked rossogolla, baked mihidana, patishapta (as close as it gets to the homemade version)
From Banchharam: Kanchagolla, aabar khabo, notun-gurer shondesh, pantua (gulab jamun)
From Jadab Chandra Das: Mishti doi (sweet yogurt)

Something to try: A combination that D and I absolutely love, and which was passed down by my father-in-law, is ‘tok doi aar bondey’ (plain yogurt topped with sweet boondi).

S. Sharma & Sons, opposite Saturday Club – a friend took us to this hole-in-the-wall on Wood Street for the most amazing rabri. Rabri would be best described as sweet, thickened milk with a creamy-cheesy consistency. Wonderful.

And you know you’ve got to have jalebis, right? Just after they’ve been fried and dipped in that sweet sticky syrup. That’s right, you’ve got to.

Kulfi, or Indian ice-cream, from this man, here.
Where: Shakespeare Sarani-Wood Street crossing.
My top flavours: Nolen gur, chikoo, santra, sitaphal.

A few must-dos on Park Street, the street where Kolkata eats out:
1. Chelo Kebab in Peter Cat
2. Chinese food (I really should say Indo-Chinese) at Bar-B-Q
3. Breakfast or tea at Flury’s (overpriced though it is).

For Indo-Chinese, outside of Park Street, you can’t leave the city without:
The weekend buffet at Mainland China
And a meal in Tangra (Tangra is Kolkata’s Chinatown, and Kim Fa is the restaurant where People In The Know go now)

Now street food! What can I say. For me, Kolkata is the Street Food City of India. You could have something different every day, and still not run out of options. Start with puchkas, end with chicken rolls, squeeze in some momos in between. Have a chai. Run wild.

Years and years ago, Kookie Jar redefined baking. I’ve eaten cakes in many different cities in the world, but their Black Forest still can’t be beaten. It was D’s birthday cake this year.

The first time we ate in Benjarong was in Chennai. They now have a restaurant in Kolkata, and it’s as good. Go there for beautiful Thai food.

When dinner’s done, start all over with breakfast. Radhabollobi and Alu-r Dom (puris stuffed with lentils that come with a spicy potato curry) from Ganguram in Golpark, or Maharani-Maharaja in Lansdowne, or Tasty Corner in Mandeville Gardens.

Kolkata’s Chilli Sauce is unlike any chilli sauce you get in stores here; maybe the only sauce that can look Sriracha in the eye. Pick up a few bottles of it from this shop – Sing Cheung – in Tiriti Market. They accounted for much of our luggage weight. But so worth it.

For the thirsty: Daab-er Jol, or tender coconut water. And sugarcane juice. Sweet salvation.

Dacres Lane. Now this is a street in Kolkata that stands for decades of good food. They’ve been feeding office-goers for years, and are known for their Chicken Stew. And their Bengali-style Chilli Chicken and Chowmein. And their egg curry. Really, it’s all good.

These bottles of little black salty-tangy balls are a Kolkata thing. Thye’re called Jaina Shipa Mandir, and apparently, they help you digest all the food you shouldn’t have overeaten in the first place. But I eat them because they’re lovely.

Here comes the fish. Fresh from Gariahat Market. Hilsa, prawns, bhekti. Or pabda, tengra and chitol. Fishmongers with their day’s catch.

And then the alleys of vegetables, an absolute mayhem of colours.

I know. Some of you’re going: “Enough with the vegetable already. Where’s the bloody Biryani?”
So what is it about Kolkata’s biryani that makes everyone go a little bit mad? It’s the saffrony rice layered with the tenderest meat and the softest, seasoned potatoes. It’s the subtle smell of spices. It’s something that no one can quite put a finger on.
There are two contenders for the city’s biryani-throne: Arsalan and Shiraz. I’ve tried both, and for me, there really is no competition at all. Shiraz wins by a mile.
This is what I would have: chicken or mutton biryani, mutton chaap, mutton shammi tikka, firni.




























I love big vegetarian thalis, especially Rajasthani or Gujarati. We tried a new place this time called Khandani Rajdhani. They were very good.

And then there’s your pick of fresh fruit and street bazaars. They’re everywhere. In wicker baskets and roadside stalls. On your walk, in every colour.

This is the butcher my father swears by.

This is the best place for tea, in a city which knows it tea better than any other. Dolly’s Tea in Dakshinapan Market. I always have their Mint Julep, or the Darjeeling 2nd flush. Dolly’s used to be a regular haunt during my days in Jadavpur University.

There’s the puchka again. Really, it keeps creeping in. I’ve tried the one in front of Dakshinapan, the one in Vivekananda Park, but I’d still vouch for the puchka-wala opposite New Market, in the lane that heads to Treasure Island. 

These are fresh pumpkin flowers (kumro-phool). Just before they dunked themselves in batter and leapt into the frying pan.

And here endeth the food trail; with mishti doi (sweet curd) from a Kolkata institution – Mother Dairy.
Sweet mother!

Was it worth the wait?

Strangers straightened their clothes

We’re back. In a way.

Not wholly back.

Bits of Kolkata came back in our suitcases, and bits of of us stayed back there. Our three weeks wasn’t enough. But then, six wouldn’t have sufficed either. No matter how long you stay, in the end, you feel like you’re cutting the cord all over again.

Four years ago, we’d flown to Kolkata with a four-month old baby tucked into a bassinet. This time, it was with a four-year old who sat in her own seat sipping apple juice, peering into clouds and watching Mary Poppins.

From the minute we landed, Chotto-Ma loved everything. She loved the cabs with seats like trampolines; no seatbelts, no rules. The colours, the sun, the stray dogs. Hours of playtime with Mamma, scratchy kisses from Dada. She ate shondesh in every shape, and puchkas from street corners. She rode an auto, a mini bus, a cycle-rickshaw. She made new friends. Met family she hadn’t met before. She threw herself right in there, and forgot we had to leave.

My photographs can never do the city justice, but here they are as promised. I’m splitting them over two posts – this one diaries the city as I saw it, from dawn to dark. The next, of course, will have to be about the food.

This was the first time I’d ever walked around Kolkata with a camera. The most wonderful thing about taking photographs in India is how much people want to be photographed. Strangers straightened their clothes, smoothed their hair and asked me to take a picture before I could ask them. I had no use for my Anglicised sense of camera-manners, permissions and privacy.

So this is Kolkata. The city, and its people.

I hope the photographs give you a sense of the place, the pace, the people. It’s where I grew up, where D grew up. It’s where we fell in love. It’s where the people closest to us live. And where we’ll always go back.
 


A hollow stage

Autumn in England always reminds me of winters in Calcutta. And of Christmas holidays growing up; the few weeks away from school. School, for me, was a pink building next to a tramline, with a small tiled courtyard stuck in its middle like an excuse.

From the decade that I spent there, what stands out in my mind are stiffly ironed Keralan nuns, a strong smell of phenyl from the toilets that ran along the corridors, and a black piano next to a hollow wooden stage. The lessons were like lessons, the rules were like rules – neither of which I liked to follow. The one time a teacher inspired me to look up a dictionary was when she called me ‘incorrigible’. I might’ve been reading fiction during fill-in-the-blanks, I don’t know. For the most part, School and I did not make much sense together. It might even have been the most incoherent part of my growing-up. A bit like background noise.

What has kept it from fading completely, though, are the friends I made, and kept for good. And that hollow stage next to the piano. Where one day, they discovered that there was something I wasn’t difficult about. Hail Marythe girl sings. And so, I was excused from many a lesson to sing for every Fest and every competition the school signed up for. Singing solos even earned you a few extra hours off chemistry classes, and that’s all that really mattered.

The singing made everything look good – the studies, the classes.  Suddenly I didn’t mind doing any of it. The last few years of school seems like a different photograph in my head: Happy. I was still incorrigible, I’m sure, but they’d gotten used to me by then. And I’d gotten used to them being them. We’d decided to get along.

This time of year reminds me of that time. The black piano and that hollow stage and practising for those interschool festivals that ran through the winter. And it reminds me of the winter-holidays that followed, when there’d be nothing much to do other than read books and eat well and walk along Park Street on Christmas Day. The best kind of holiday, really.

Mulo diye dal, or red lentils cooked with white radish
A winter dal that my mother used to cook for us, and I now cook for D and Chotto-ma. It’s one of those simple recipes that are good enough to hand down generations.

(My friend Dalia asked me to blog it a few days ago. So, Dalia, here you go.)

A note: Inspite of all the menus you see in restaurants here, there is no such thing as Dhal. Only Dal. Please.

Ingredients

1 cup red lentils (Masoor Dal)
1 long white radish (Mulo/Daikon)
1/2 tsp kalonji (black jeera, which you get in all asian shops)
1 large red tomato, cut into 8 big pieces
1-2 dried red chillies
A bunch of coriander, chopped

 

Trim leaves off the radish, peel it and cut it into big cubes.
Wash the lentils till the water runs clear.
In a large pan, add lentils and radish. Cover it with 2 cups of water. Add salt. And bring to a boil.
Once boiling, lower the heat and simmer till the radish is cooked. The radish should still have a bite, and not have turned too soft. Spoon the radish out of the lentils, and let the lentils cook till they’ve split properly.
In a separate pan, heat oil, add the kalonji and red chillies. When the chillies turn dark, add the tomatoes and stir till the tomatoes soften.
Add the boiled dal and the radishes, more water and salt if needed, and a couple of green chilles. Bring to the boil once, and take it off the heat immediately. Add the chopped coriander.
Serve hot, with or without steamed rice.

My old winter

There was no snow at the door where I grew up. My memories of winters are very different from the ones my daughter is collecting now. Hers and mine are separated by 32 years, and continental drift.

Her winter looks like a stick-armed snowman. A row of buck naked trees. A line of little lost hats. And night-like mornings.

Her winter sounds like a group of blue-lipped carol singers, Silent-Nighting. And wood in the fire, crackling and spitting.

Her winter smells different too. Like wet clothes on a hot radiator. Like a cake in the oven. The heated upholstery of a car.  Chestnuts roasting on street corners.

The winters of my childhood bear no resemblance with hers. They look different. Smell and sound different. When we were growing up, winters in Calcutta were sharper than they are today. And as it approached, thick quilted blankets would be dug out from the depths of deep drawers, and sunned on the verandah. Skin would be oiled before a bath, and sunned on the verandah too. Just like the quilts. Often next to the quilts.

My old winter looks like a taxi-driver in a monkey-cap. It looks like Park Street on Christmas Day. Like a foggy breath; the one that you waited for all year, and pretended was a cigarette.

When I was young, winter was an Anglophile. It demanded picnics in Victoria Memorial. Dickensian musicals on every school stage. And chicken stew with toast. Ma had a red, velvet hot water bag – made in London, and filled up before bedtime. And my brother and I would be dressed in smart sweaters, with diamond patterns, gifted by relatives who lived in the West.

The winter of my memories sounds busy, loud. Like a house full of guests, the clink of whisky glasses, Baba’s anecdotes and a room spilling with raucous laughter.

It smells like Ma’s maroon shawl, and the Diorissimo she would spray on her wrists before going out for a dinner party at Calcutta Club. It smells like a roadside bonfire, lit with newspaper and kerosene. Like fresh flowers from Gariahat Market. And a seasonal table.

In those days, people had a more patient palate. They waited for winter to cook a cauliflower. And to chop fresh, green coriander leaves. And I waited for some of my favourites from Ma’s winter kitchen. Like bhaja mung dal – roasted yellow lentils. Cooked with shrimps, coconut and green peas.

Roasted mung dal, with shrimp, coconut and green peas

The vegetarian version of this recipe is lovely too. Just skip the shrimp.

Ingredients

1 cup mung dal (yellow lentils)
1/2 cup shrimps. peeled and cleaned
1/2 cup green peas
1 tomato, chopped
2 tbs dessicated coconut, or 3 tbs freshly grated
1 inch ginger, finely chopped
1 bayleaf
1 stick cinnamon
1 cardamom
1 clove
1 dry red chilli
1 tsp cumin (whole)
3-4 cups water
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbs oil
Salt

In a pan, dry roast the lentils till it’s a beautiful golden yellow. Pour water, add the ginger, bayleaf, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, tomato, pinch of turmeric and salt. Boil, then simmer till the lentils are cooked.
Now add the coconut, peas and shrimp. Simmer for a few more minutes till the peas and shrimp are cooked. Remove from heat.
In a separate pan, heat the oil. Add the cumin and dry red chilli. As soon as the cumin starts to brown, tip the oil, chilli and cumin into the cooked lentil. Give it a stir.
Transfer to your serving dish, and garnish with chopped coriander.
Serve hot, with steamed rice.