It was good to be back in the normal flow of work, with a day long meeting ending with a red-eye back home. But this time, there was a cafe I wanted to check out close to where we had lunch. In Mumbai a cafe is a misnamed bistro. But in Kolkata, a cafe is exactly it says. When I walked in with two colleagues for a post-lunch espresso, we were a little bemused by the looks of the place. One of them said “It’s name tells you what the colour scheme is.” The illuminated wall opposite the entrance was covered with pink hearts. “Grrrl power,” it proclaimed.
The waitress explained that espresso is bitter. We nodded. The statutory warning was done; clearly the usual clientele has a sweet tooth. We were given a small menu to look at, and decided to share a pastry. The dessert at lunch had been quite satisfactory. There was only one of the lemon strawberry cakes left, we were told. It suited us. The cake was good. The espresso was aromatic and bitter. The cake knew what it should be. The biscuit at the bottom was crisp but not hard. The dome was crackly, the lemon filling was aromatic and sour, and nicely cut through the sweetness of the strawberry. Rentals in Kolkata haven’t gone through the roof, so a small place like this can still survive charging a fraction of the price that you would pay in Mumbai. The experience left a pleasant taste in the mouth.
You remember celebrations by the smiles, don’t you? And the convivial atmosphere. But doesn’t the weather also play a role? From my school days I’ve been conditioned to a long winter break. Those were years when only children had a long break in winter; the adults had a day off for Christmas, and another for New Year. So winter holidays came without travel. Ever since, taking a trip over Christmas has not been on top of my mind. If it happens, it is usually a last minute improvisation.
Kolkata, 2020. Our first flight after a hard lockdown involved masks and face shields, PPEs, enforced distancing in flight. But I was glad we took this trip. We decided to go to Park Street in the evening. Past experience told me that this would be incredibly crowded, but The Family had never been to Kolkata for Christmas. It was the best possible year for us at Park Street. It was festive, there was live music, there were people dressed up, but no crowds. We sat at Flury’s and had coffee and a chocolate rum ball before walking on.
Kochi 2019. We’d just recovered from a bad flu which left us drained for weeks after (we realized half a year later that we had come through a COVID-19 infection), and welcomed a recovery trip. The Nasrani Mappila of Kerala are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, tracing their roots to the arrival of the Apostle Thomas in 52 CE. The western church traditions are a much later, colonial, overlay. We loved the festive look of the ancient port city, and had a lovely time eating out.
Shillong 2018. This was one of our few well-planned Christmas trips. The Clan decided to take a holiday together. You can never get twenty people to agree on anything when you are traveling, so it was a week of delightful chaos. It all started with a discussion about whether to walk down to the neighbourhood church before tea or after. By the time the decision was reached, several rounds of tea were history. The mass was a long time away, but we stood with the throng of people and had the cake and wine. I think the older nieces made sure that the under-age got their sips of the terrible wine.
Mumbai 2017. The Family’s cousin had found a beach house for a party. It was a wonderful evening: a large number of people dressed to the nines, lots of food and drink, a dance floor. I stood with a knot of people watching the sun go down. Below us, on the beach, Christmas was on. A young couple had decided to bring a bag of goodies for the poor children playing there. Why hadn’t we thought of that?
Port Blair 2016. We hadn’t thought of Andaman as a Christmas holiday. We were there to watch birds. But on the eve of Christmas we decided to stay up late and go into the bazaar. Why was there a crowd at this temple? I asked a passerby, and he looked at me as if I was from Mars. “Christmas,” he grunted and went away. Religions are not so distinct; people will celebrate.
Mumbai 2015. “Let’s go to Bandra,” The Family proposed. She wouldn’t be deterred by visions of traffic jams that keeps bears like me at home. We walked through the festive lanes of Bandra, where the old villages of East Indians have become incorporated into the city. Parties were in progress and some spilled out into the lanes. The Family found someone making hampers of the traditional Christmas goodies: kolkol, several kinds of biscuits, mango jellies, marzipan, and the traditional fruit cake redolent of spices and rum. We had to get one.
Lava 2011. This was a birding trip gone wrong. But the day had been lovely, bitingly cold, and with grand views of Kanchenjunga all day. In the evening we reached the then-tiny village of Lava, and found a Christmas procession. A group of people singing carols went from house to house, and were welcomed with something to eat or drink at each. I don’t think they insisted on a figgy pudding.
Mumbai 2008. On Christmas Day the spell seemed to break. The streets had remained deserted even after the terrorists of November 26 were all killed or captured. No one wanted to be out. We went out for a walk late that morning, and found that large numbers of people had come out to exorcise the ghosts of the trauma. The media was clustered around the collapsed remnants of Chabad House. That’s what the photo shows. We walked round to the Taj and its blackened dome and exploded wings. We looked at stray bullet holes in buildings around it. The mood was somber.
Bremen 2005. We’d planned a Christmas holiday in Vienna. We’d bought tickets to two evenings of music, booked hotels and airlines. Then, at the airport in Duesseldorf The Family’s hand bag was stolen. It had her passport. We had to cancel the trip and stay in Germany. Between visits to the embassy and police, we made a few impromptu trips. One was to Bremen, and its warm Christmas market. The week was tense, but we had a lot of support, families I’d known for years invited us home every day, or met up at Christmas markets. Eventually, The Family got emergency papers for the return trip, and the police found her bag, with not much missing.
At two poles of the country, Mumbai and Kolkata, the same thing is known by two different names: masala bhel and jhal muri. I replaced the bhel/muri by roasted chana and peanuts. Kept the chopped veggies: cucumber, tomato, carrots, Shimla mirch (bell pepper). Dropped in a bit of chopped green chili, and ginger. This is the season for fresh turmeric root, so a little of that also went in. I didn’t want any chutneys in it, so I squeezed in half a lime, added a sprinkle of black salt. It was ready before you could say “full toss.” The tea was a bag; I’m too hungry after the weights to wait to steep leaves. A tasty bowlful of protein, fiber, and fats; and rather filling. Just right for after a workout.
I suppose it is not hard to figure out that part of the photo is in black and white. I must snap out of this. Monochrome has its place, but not front and center of modern life.
“Didn’t you want to take a photo?” The Family asked after we’d nearly finished eating our plates of the Kolkata style Hakka noodles which I’d whipped together. Indeed I did. So I dug up the smallest plate I could find, and scraped the last remaining bits off the dish into it for the featured photo. After all, a blog about food is no good without a photo of the food. But then, does a photo with three strands of broken noodles make a good introduction to a blog about noodles? Or is it a little like introducing Hakka people and their culture with a dish that many Indians now associate with Kolkata?
The recipe is simple and quick, as any street food should be. Boil and cool the egg noodles. In a kadhai fry some onions and garlic, and drop the prawns into it. When the prawns are nearly done, add the finely chopped green and red capsicum into it, tomatoes if you like, green beans if you are fond of them, and, finally, a green chili slit lengthwise. All this is done quickly and at high heat, as a stir fry. Now, into the sizzling hot kadhai drop a generous splash of dark soya sauce and, immediately, the noodles. Toss them around, making sure that they smoke and burn just that little bit to add the authentic taste of Kolkata’s eclectic street food tradition. Top it off with a garnish of chopped spring onion. Street food is best if it is served immediately.
The addition of green chili, generous amounts of fried onions and garlic, are Indianization of the cuisine. The Hakka settlers, possibly from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces of China, arrived in the late 18th century CE as traders and labourers to the then-thriving entrepot of Kolkata. They were followed by waves of other Chinese immigrants, whose traces you can find in the Cantonese and Szechuan additions to Indian-Chinese food. I haven’t had Hakka food in China, so I have no idea how closely the Indian Hakka noodles hew to the original. In my student days, weekend trips to Kolkata wouldn’t be complete without visits to the Chinatown in Tangra. Those gave me the impression that the food could be reasonably authentic. I did not realize then that the bustling Chinatown was already a shadow of what it was in the days before the Indo-China war of 1962, and would be largely a memory by the 21st century.
I see the last of the Kolkata and Mumbai Chinese when I visit my favourite Chinese restaurants. Young members of the family have no connection with China; they speak English and Bengali. Now and then you see a visiting Chinese businessman or tourist who would like authentic home style food. An old matriarch will then appear and try to communicate with the customer in her broken Hakka or Cantonese. If you continue to pay attention to such a table, you will notice the eventual appearance of whole steamed fish, stir fried greens, and bowls of rice, not at all what we Indians love to eat in a Chinese restaurant.
Painted rickshaws are common in many parts of eastern India. On recent trips I’ve spent time photographing them in various places: first in Tripura, then in Assam, and most recently, last week, in the outskirts of Kolkata. A folk tradition of art is very alive in this part of the country, and artists make some money decorating things, the most visible of them being this common mode of transport. Interestingly, rickshaws in Kolkata are as bland as the taxis you see in Mumbai. You see these beautiful pieces of folk art as soon as you cross the boundary of the city. I wonder whether it is municipal rules which prevent this style from diffusing into the city. These paintings seem to be of two kinds. One is a panel which is painted and fixed on to the back of the rickshaw. The other is painted directly on to the side of the rickshaw.
The paintings are stylized. The sunsets, the covered boats, snow covered peaks, the calligraphic stylization of flying birds; these are motifs which appear again and again. Interestingly, I saw only one religious theme, and that was a picture of Kali. I hadn’t realized that parrots are a favourite of folk painters, perhaps that is a recent development. One may call the style a modern vernacular, so different from the Kalighat style of the 19th century, and the Shantiniketan modernists of the mid- and late-20th century. I suppose this vernacular must have developed in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, and was the background from which the Bengal school rose in the early 20th century. It is wonderful to see that this folk tradition remains alive even now. Perhaps it will throw up new formal movements in the future.
Kolkata is full of little gems which visitors don’t quite know about. My friend, the Sun King, has always been a very good photographer, and has recently turned to bird watching. He invited me to visit the Chintamani Kar Bird Sanctuary early in the morning day before yesterday. It is named after the noted sculptor who led a movement to turn an old abandoned orchard into a protected area. This sanctuary dates from 1982.
Kolkata is green. I was surrounded by trees. You could hear the sun rise through bird calls. As in all Indian cities, the most numerous were the crows. But the greenery just outside the window meant that you could not miss their activity. In this season it was nesting. It seemed that every crow was in search of long thin twigs with which they build their untidy nests. Crows don’t seem to have a sense of which twig they need, and often try to pull fairly thick twigs out of trees.
I’m briefly in Kolkata on work. It is always interesting to be in this city. There is an initial shock when you come on to the city’s narrow roads: SUVs share the road with rickshaws, bicycles and forty-year old yellow cabs.
But when you think about it, there’s nothing particularly different about this city. The traffic is certainly no worse than in Bangalore, perhaps even slightly better. There is less aggression on the road than in Delhi. Urban decay is no worse than in most parts of Mumbai. There are malls and coffee shops all over town. But there are parts of Kolkata which look the same as they did 30 years back: narrow roads, lines of shops in single story structures. The shops open late, because shop keepers are of the opinion that having a good life is more important than getting richer.
The combination of the bicycle and the locked door of a shop is quintessentially Kolkata.