Calcutta felt like a wedding. Every street dressed up in lights; everyone resplendent in their traditional best; music pouring out of every household; and food stalls at every corner. The entire city was pulsating with celebration, coming together as one, to pray at a festival dedicated to Goddess Durga.
But this is a very romantic notion of Calcutta, one that I only witnessed briefly. If I had visited during any other time I would have come in search of the Calcutta of poets and philosophers, of colonialism and character. And I would have been disappointed to find that these don’t live on its garbage ridden streets anymore. I had come to Calcutta for its famous puchkas and for the puja, and wasn’t going to let the city get in my way.
My first port of call was Aaheli. Every first time visitor to Calcutta should do themselves the favour of a delicious meal and outstanding service at this Bengali restaurant. Even though I was referred to as “single madam” by the entire service team I enjoyed my Bhuri Bhoj Thali of topsey bhaja, begun bhaja, Gobindo bhog, dal raibahadur, bhaja masala alur dum, phulkopi kadaishuti, chingri malai curry, ilish paturi, shorshe bhetki, kasha mangsho, pualo, loochi, kalojam, and doi. My favourite from this feast was the ilish – the magnificent hilsa fish cooked in a banana leaf.
The next day I ate a very similar meal at Kewpies, housed in a restored bungalow. The city’s food lovers seem to be divided between the two. I, unlike the locals I consulted before my travels, am firmly in the Aaheli camp.
Calcutta is an awkward city and most interesting neighbouroods are drives away from each other. The trick was to follow each meal with a walk. So Aaheli was followed by a stroll in the city’s Esplanade area and its absurdly popular New Market; I explored Park, Camac and Russell Streets and Shakespeare Sarani after tea at Flurys; and a much-awaited Calcutta chaat evening was preceded by a walk through Rashbehari Avenue and its innumerable saree shops.
It is true what they say about killing an experience with anticipation. That happened with me and Calcutta’s street food. I ate all the right things at all the right places – jhal muri on Russell Street, dahi papri chaat outside Lighthouse Cinema, puchkas at Vivekananda Park, alur dum outside Dakshinapan – but give me Bombay’s bhel, Delhi’s gol guppas, and Benarsi papri chaat any day.
It wasn’t until I was picking my way through bloody intestines and goat’s hooves that I realised Saturday – dedicated to animal sacrifices to Goddess Kali – was not the best introduction to the city’s revered Kalighat Temple. There is nothing spiritual, or religious about going to most temples in India. There are more shops than devotees, priests sell their blessings for a quick buck, and people like me treat it like a tourist destination. But when I looked past the crowds, and silenced the cacophony of temple bells, mobile phones and mantras, what I was left with was the power of utter devotion.
I saw more of this power at the seven Durga Puja pandals I visited that night. Each one more exquisite than the next. Preparations begin eight months in advance and each neighbourhood puja committees fights for artistic supremacy, but the majesty of their devotion is undeniable.
One of the best meals I had was at Shiraaz – a simple meal of mutton chaap and chicken rezala in a room crowded with families on plastic chairs and laminated tables, takeaway orders, and too many waiters. It was also the restaurant where I was informed by a disapproving cashier that I was their first ever single, female diner. I loved it!
I drove on Howrah Bridge, walked across Dalhousie Square, got drenched in Victoria Memorial Park and paid my respects at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the way to my last stop – mishti at Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy. What I thought would be a quick stop turned into a 40 minute chat with the man in charge – Pranab Nandi. Seeing how lost I was before the sweet counter teeming with sandesh in every shape and flavour, he took pity on me and I was invited to wait in their kitchen. Over limbu cha and a sandesh tasting he spoke about his love for Bombay, of Calcutta’s milk being the best in the country, and how I had the eyes of a Bengali actress.
I had only three days in the city, and so I must come back. For the rolls at Nizam’s, and a proper Calcutta paan; for a tram ride and a drink at the Tollygunge Club; to visit Dakshineswar and a first chai at the Mullick Ghat flower bazaar; a sherbet at Paramount after a stroll down College Street, and an afternoon in Tangra.
I must also come back to give puchkas a second chance.
Will the second chance I give Calcutta be an honest one? Do I really believe in second chances? In life? In love? I’ve had my version of the-one-great-love. Recently, I experienced something different. Something better. But will I free this new future from comparisons with my past? Will he?