So I’m back from Kolkata or Calcutta, as it used to be and will ever be for some, like me. It was a crowded trip, with remembrance services, weddings, school and college reunions interspersed with sporadic maintenance shopping. ( I’ll have to explain that some other day, that “maintenance” thing.) It was three years since my last visit, so naturally on my way there I’d wondered what changes I would see, other than the omnipresent blue and white paint I’d been warned about, which is, as you can see from the picture, true.
The short answer is: very little has changed.
The roads are in the same state of languid construction as I remember them from 3 years ago. Lane markers, where available, are still used by drivers just like planes use runway centre lights to keep the nose wheel aligned. Trucks on the highway do not use tail lights or brake lights. The highways are generally not lit. All roads are first and foremost the prerogative of pedestrians, vendors and non-motorised vehicles. Motor vehicles, the ones that actually pay the road tax, are considered secondary. Everywhere there are signs asking you to slow down from the 11Kph average speed and to make sure you do there are speed bumps, where the road is smoothish, or naturally occurring bumps where smoothing out was considered unnecessary.
We drove into the countryside to Kalna, the Beloved Bangalan’s mama bari (mother’s brother = mama. Bari = house. Not literally in this case, well, sort of, more generic, a bit honorary, I’ll explain another day…). This was my first trip there as a son-in-law ( actually my first trip there as anything ), so naturally our car was escorted into town by a band. ( I lie. This was due to Saraswati Puja, Saraswati being the goddess of learning, therefore, various bands walked around town playing versions of Bollywood hits from the 1960s.)
Summary: Traffic sucks. Big time.
Many. Most are friendly, still. Especially when they’re not on the phone SMSing someone or taking selfies in the malls. Hmmm… uh… ahhh…
Old school and college friends were friendly and surprising in their newly discovered talents. I wish them luck, I really do. Conversation flowed as before. The years rolled back to the time when we were all a mass of raging teenage hormones incarcerated in an all-boys school.
The inlaws are as I have always remembered them. Disciplined and regimented, helpful and concerned but without an appreciation of what the Beloved Bangalan and I find relaxing. The language barrier still exists as does the life-style and food barrier. <For me, obviously, not the Beloved Bangalan.> Bypassing the fish dish caused concern and, I suspect, some disappointment.
Summary: People are nice and friendly. Quite a few still don’t understand me.
See shopping. The Globe still has movies. The New Empire and Lighthouse cinemas are in a state of major disrepair. I hear there are night clubs, but did not attend any.
Summary: Go shopping, have a meal, maro adda ( chill with friends, Bong style). Unless you can find someone who can provide an alternative.
Malls are as I left them 3 years ago. There is a new one called Quest Mall not too far from my old school. This one is swanky, brightly lit and hosts stores such as Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton etc. It has hardly any shoppers, but plenty of selfie takers. Malls serve as the entertainment districts with well attended food courts.
Another noticeable feature is the number of small boutiques. It seems that every house now hosts a shoppe (yep, with an e) for cushions, cushion covers, other furnishing and decor items, fashion accessories and wearables.
The Oxford Book Store, where I bought so many books last time, has also succumbed to the coffee culture and has built a coffee hangout upstairs. This time I could find hardly any books worth my time. I did not try the coffee.
Summary: The traditional is fast being replaced by Western tastes.
Very good overall, but the coffee was too weak and watery generally, except for the Taj Bengal and Flury’s.
Bongs ( Bengalis, the residents of the state of West Bengal which has Kolkata as it’s capital city) have gone through a sea change in attitudes about eating out. Mod Bongs used to eat Chinese food when eating out, almost exclusively. There was nary a Bengali cuisine restaurant in sight. Suruchi, run by a women’s shelter, and which once hosted Princess Di or Princess Margaret or both and the Dreamland Hotel just off Park Street, where I had many a lunch as a young and impecunious articled clerk, were probably the only ones in South and Central Calcutta. Now, every restaurant is either a multi-cuisine restaurant or specializes in Bengali cuisine. A word about the “multi-cuisine”; any eatery that serves Hakka Chinese, kathi rolls and stuffed patties automatically qualifies for this epithet.
An interesting observation was the number of Lebanese restaurants that seem to have appeared. I managed a large buffet brunch at the Taj Bengal, where the coffee was excellent and the food better than average and very diverse, ranging from the usual cereal, pancake, bacon, croissants and muffins North American fare to South Indian mini-utthapams, all kinds of potatoes, chicken and beef. Also Aloo Parathas made to order. The bacon was a tad disappointing so I only had 2 rashers of it.
I tried Chole Bhature and Sarson ka Saag with Maki roti with old school friends at Kwality, which was excellent. My old kathi-roll wallah was still plying his trade where I left him 18 years ago, so I had 2 chicken kathi rolls with fresh cut green chillies, fresh onions, no sauce and low on the oil. Very good! The Beloved Bangalan took his picture; see pic at right. I also braved a puchka, albeit without the spicy, tangy water.
Went for a Bong lunch at 6/B, where the service was quick, almost too quick. The Fish fry was good as were the luchis. The paturi could have done with some bite. Overall, a 7.5/10. Flury’s has changed it’s decor, cleaned up generally, but the pineapple cake disappointed. The coffee was good.
I thought winter was the season for phool gobi, cauliflower and had been looking forward more of it, especially the phool kopi shingara. (Gobi is Hindi, Kopi is how Bongs pronounce it.) Disappointed to miss out. Mishti doi was conspicuous by it’s absence everywhere. I did have it after dinner at Sonargaon, which was not too bad and a tiny portion at 6/B.
The one thing I’ve noticed about Bong food is that when unable to eat fish or chicken, due to religious or other reasons, the failover option is automatically paneer, cottage cheese. It was paneer pakodas, paneer koftas, and worst of all, paneer mutter etc.
But the over-riding impression of food this time around was the korai shooti, peas if English speaking. Dear lord, they were everywhere! Even the phool gobi curry was not spared. Anyone who knows my history of driving through 1960’s countrysides with my Dad will know exactly how I feel about peas and paneer.