A love of lit­er­a­ture, street food and sweets in Kolkata

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE - Lu­cas Peter­son

Kolkata was made the cap­i­tal of Bri­tish In­dia in 1772, but re­sis­tance to the rule led to Bri­tain mov­ing the cap­i­tal to Delhi in 1911

In­dia’s rivers are cen­tral to the life of its peo­ple, and the Hooghly River, a 250km branch of the Ganges that runs through the city of Kolkata in West Ben­gal, is no dif­fer­ent. In the late af­ter­noon, I walked to Babu Ghat, and onto the broad con­crete slip­way that de­scended into the wa­ter, where a few moored boats bobbed slowly and men and chil­dren bathed in un­der­clothes.

The sticky heat had fi­nally be­gun to break and peo­ple were sit­ting on the banks of the Hooghly, chat­ting, eat­ing, or just watch­ing the sun glit­ter on the wa­ter as it be­gan its de­scent. A young man ap­proached and, apro­pos of noth­ing, asked if I liked Kolkata. When I replied yes, he nod­ded and said, “Kolkata is the heart of In­dia.”

Af­ter four days in Kolkata (or the An­gli­cised ‘Cal­cutta’), the cap­i­tal of West Ben­gal and known by the nick­name, City of Joy, it was dif­fi­cult to ar­gue. Kolkata, a city strongly as­so­ci­ated with Bri­tish rule and the East In­dia Co, has a fas­ci­nat­ing re­la­tion­ship with its colo­nial his­tory. With a rich lit­er­ary tra­di­tion and strong ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions, Kolkata also has a more re­laxed and peace­ful feel than some of In­dia’s other mod­ern me­trop­o­lises. Com­bined with spicy Ben­gali cui­sine and a love of fried street food, it proved a re­ward­ing place to ex­plore - and nat­u­rally, I man­aged to keep my bud­get in check.

My com­fort­able room ( R2,000 per night) in the Bal­ly­gunge area of the city was cen­trally lo­cated and ideal for ex­plor­ing the rest of the city. I rented the room through Airbnb.

My hosts, Saroj and her daugh­ter, Mri­nalini, knew their city well and were happy to of­fer in­sight. They both loved the in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity and open-mind­ed­ness of the city. “Cal­cutta is laid back, old world, colo­nial. Peo­ple have time; it’s a lit­tle eas­ier,” said Mri­nalini. “In Ben­gali cul­ture, women are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered equal,” she added, com­pared to places like Delhi. “In some cases, they’re ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered su­pe­rior. It’s very pro­gres­sive. I didn’t even think about be­ing fem­i­nist be­cause I never needed to be.”

Kolkata’s colo­nial his­tory is on dis­play at the Vic­to­ria Me­mo­rial, a grand mu­seum with at­trac­tive sur­round­ing gar­dens that be­gan con­struc­tion in 1906 and opened to the pub­lic 15 years later. Tick­ets are R500 for for­eign visitors and R30 for lo­cals. I made the 30minute walk from my room in Bal­ly­gunge, dodg­ing taxis and weav­ing be­tween ven­dors sell­ing fresh fruit and chai­wal­las pour­ing sear­ing hot tea into thin, earthen cups.

Within the Vic­to­ria Me­mo­rial’s mag­nif­i­cent mar­ble walls are some in­ter­est­ing arte­facts and ex­hi­bi­tions. On one side of the ex­hi­bi­tion hall, an in­trigu­ing ex­hibit cat­a­logs the time­line of Bri­tish colo­nial rule in In­dia through pho­tos, prints and his­tor­i­cal relics.

Kolkata was made the cap­i­tal of Bri­tish In­dia in 1772, but grow­ing na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment and re­sis­tance to Bri­tish rule led to Bri­tain mov­ing the cap­i­tal to Delhi in 1911. A dev­as­tat­ing famine dur­ing World War II killed mil­lions in Ben­gal - some lay blame for the tragedy di­rectly at the feet of the Bri­tish. A cap­tion un­der one of the last pho­tos in the ex­hi­bi­tion reads: ‘Cal­cutta ben­e­fited from Bri­tish rule more than other In­dian cities, and also paid a greater price.’

I was mulling over those words when I struck up a con­ver­sa­tion on the street with Arad­hana Ku­mar Swami, a teacher who was pick­ing up his wife and buy- ing sup­plies be­fore em­bark­ing on a 40-hour train jour­ney home in the state of Ker­ala. “No, not at all,” he re­sponded, when I asked if there was any lin­ger­ing re­sent­ment to­wards the Bri­tish. “We have no prob­lem with the Bri­tish.” Some peo­ple, he said, had an is­sue with the op­u­lent Vic­to­ria Me­mo­rial, how­ever. Queen Vic­to­ria, he said, never once vis­ited the city. “That could have been a school or some­thing,” he said, and shook his head.

It’s easy to see where Kolkata’s rep­u­ta­tion as an ed­u­cated city comes from: sim­ply visit the Col­lege Street Book Mar­ket, near the Univer­sity of Cal­cutta.

I took the un­der­ground Metro to the Cen­tral sta­tion ( R5) and cut over to Col­lege Street. I im­me­di­ately heard chant­ing, and came face-to-face with a large group of stu­dent pro­test­ers, wav­ing signs and yelling slo­gans. I asked a cou­ple of peo­ple what the protest was about - they said it was gov­ern­ment-re­lated but wouldn’t be more spe­cific.

The en­ergy from the protest car­ried over to the book mar­ket, prob­a­bly the largest col­lec­tion of books I’ve ever seen in one place. Piles of books of all kinds - from en­gi­neer­ing to Shake­speare to Dan Brown - spilled over from road­side stalls onto the street. I saw one bare­foot ven­dor pre­car­i­ously ne­go­ti­at­ing his wares as if he were a moun­tain climber, look­ing for a par­tic­u­larly hard-to-find vol­ume.

I wanted some­thing by the No­bel Prize win­ner and Kolkata na­tive Rabindranath Tagore, and af­ter ask­ing around, I found a book of his short sto­ries at a shop called Bani Li­brary for just R95. I took my book around the cor­ner to the Col­lege Street Cof­fee House, a favourite hang­out for stu­dents, writ­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als for the past 75 years. The place has an im­me­di­ate shabby charm - wait­ers dressed in green uni­forms with gold belts nav­i­gate the cav­ernous, dimly lit room full of ta­bles packed with peo­ple hav­ing an­i­mated dis­cus­sions. I shared a ta­ble with a young cou­ple and en­joyed a cof­fee with a plate of chicken chow mein noo­dles ( R100).

There is a strong spir­i­tual side to the city, as well. I hopped into an Uber and rode up the Dak­shineswar Kali Tem­ple, north of the Nivedita Bridge (the ride from the city cen­tre was about R250). The beau­ti­ful river­side struc­ture has tem­ples to Shiva and Vishnu, and the sur­round­ing area has a fes­tive, car­ni­val-like at­mos­phere. Ven­dors hawk strings of bright yellow and orange marigolds; oth­ers call out, telling you that they’ll watch your shoes while you go into the tem­ple. Nearby, peo­ple sell­ing snacks and drinks shoo away mon­keys try­ing to steal a quick bite.

Se­cu­rity is tight at the tem­ple - no pho­tos are al­lowed, and you’ll have to check your cell­phone, too ( R3), as well as your shoes ( R2). I joined a long queue of wor­ship­pers car­ry­ing gifts of money and flow­ers and got a peek at the Sri Sri Ja­gadis­wari Kal­i­mata Thaku­rani idol, bright red tongue vis­i­ble and a foot placed onto a man’s chest. I asked a stranger if he could tell me more about the sig­nif­i­cance of the idol, and he sim­ply replied, “Mother!”

The Mother House of the Mis­sion­ar­ies of Char­ity is an­other es­sen­tial place to visit. Mother Teresa, the Ro­man Catholic nun and founder of the Mis­sion­ar­ies of Char­ity who was canon­ised in 2016, worked and lived pri­mar­ily at the Mother House from 1953 until her death in 1997. On the ground floor, a sim­ple but el­e­gant tomb marks Mother Teresa’s fi­nal rest­ing place, and all are wel­come to pay their re­spects.

I spent hours walk­ing the streets of Kolkata. I worked up a de­cent ap­petite, nat­u­rally, and for­tu­nately found a num­ber of good op­tions right there on the street. A deep love of Chi­nese cui­sine per­vades the city, as is ev­i­denced by the num­ber of stalls sell­ing R30 plates of fried chow mein noo­dles. I walked up and down Cir­cus Av­enue near my lodg­ings and in­dulged in an­other favourite, crunchy fried pakora made from chick­pea flour ( R20) and sprin­kled with spicy salt. Gen­er­ous R10 cups of spicy, milky tea are nearly om­nipresent.

The area around the Hat­i­ba­gan Mar­ket, sev­eral blocks of chaos con­tain­ing seem­ingly any­thing you could pos­si­bly want to buy, is an­other prime area to seek out street food. Nav­i­gat­ing beep­ing cars and buses, gleam­ing dis­plays of wrist­watches and knock­off Tommy Hil­figer shirts, I found a sweet, earthy cup of freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice ( R30 for a large cup). Down the street, I in­dulged in aloo chop, a deep­fried latke-like treat made from shred­ded potato and held to­gether with chick­pea flour ( R20 for four pieces).

A word about street food: Be care­ful. A nasty stom­ach bug can ruin a trip. If you’re go­ing to risk it, look for places to eat that are busy and churn­ing out food - it’s a good way to ensure it’s fresh. Be wary of fresh pro­duce and raw food items, and don’t drink things that con­tain ice. The tea on the street, how­ever, is fre­quently kept at a rolling boil, mak­ing it safer than some of your other op­tions. If you have doubts, don’t eat it.

In­dian street food is a won­der­land of flavour and spice. The use of mus­tard oil dis­tin­guishes lo­cal cook­ing, giv­ing cer­tain dishes a vaguely si­nus-clear­ing qual­ity, like eat­ing wasabi. Jhal muri ( R30) is one good ex­am­ple, and the one I picked up north of the Vic­to­ria Me­mo­rial, a spicy con­coc­tion of puffed rice, chili sauce and diced veg­eta­bles, cer­tainly caused me to break a sweat.

For a more for­mal din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, I went to the up­scale Oh! Cal­cutta in Fo­rum Mall and en­joyed a fresh­wa­ter bhetki (bar­ra­mundi) pre­pared in fer­mented mus­tard sauce ( R675) with a lo­cal gob­indob­hog rice.

But it’s the hum­ble con­fec­tion that might dis­tin­guish Kolkata, and its cui­sine, more than any other food item. The city’s deep love of sweets is demon­strated in the num­ber of shops ped­dling dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of sandesh (made from sweet­ened curd), co­conut-cov­ered cham cham, and mishti doi, a tangy, yo­gurt­like dessert. An as­sort­ment box at Girish Chan­dra Dey & Nakur Chan­dra Nandy, one of the old­est and most revered sweet shops in the city, sells for R270.

It turns out that Kolkata, in ad­di­tion to be­ing In­dia’s cul­tural heart, also has a fierce sweet tooth.

It’s easy to see where Kolkata’s rep­u­ta­tion as an ed­u­cated city comes from: sim­ply visit the Col­lege Street Book Mar­ket

Boats moored along the Hooghly River, which runs through Kolkata

(The New York Times pho­tos)

St Paul's Cathe­dral, an Angli­can church, was com­pleted in 1847

Lo­cals are pas­sion­ate about the street food that is widely avail­able in Kolkata

A water­front prom­e­nade at Babu Ghat, which pro­vides ac­cess to the Hooghly River

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