Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cinema Paradiso in Bengali: Kolkata

This was a strange post to write. I lived in Calcutta for 18 odd years after my early years at England and Iran. I did most of my schooling in Calcutta or Kolkata as it is now known. So Kolkata is the city where I grew up. At the same time I have been at Bombay, or Mumbai as it is now known, for close to ten years. So is Calcutta home? Is Bombay home? More importantly can I write about Calcutta from a tourist's point of view? Am I tourist or a visitor in Calcutta?

These are questions one asks oneself on lazy Sundays.

Disclaimer: I have written this post over a week. It is fairly long so keep some time out before you start. Also I lost contact with blogger some million times while closing this so am entitled to a few typos %^&&! I even lost contact after I wrote that line. Grrrr

This post is inspired by a programme I saw on Discovery Travel and Living, Joan Collin's London where she speaks of London from a tourist's point of view. That's what I will attempt to do in this post. This is not a definitive tourist's guide. It reflects how I see the city. It talks of memories which are dear to me from ten years back. Places which are must visits for me when I head back. I know that this could be very different for someone else. It will not reflect a lot of things which have come up in the last ten years. Though I guess food haunts would be common to most Bengalis heading back. What the post doesn't detail out are some landmarks of Calcutta which I will list first. These are must sees. It is just that I have not visited them in the recent past. Some of these are:

  • The Victoria Memorial: the lovely white marble monument for Queen Victoria. It has a museum too which was shut in our last two visits there - Monday, Durga Puja - but has artifacts from the British Raj. It has a pebbled path which I used to love crunching over during school trips. It also has nice gardens which is a favourite spot for lovers seeking some quiet and privacy but could be a nice spot to rest during your travels.

  • The Indian Museum: Like everything good in Calcutta is probably more than hundred years old and was built by the British. Where else in the world can you see two Egyptian mummies, fossils of dinosaurs and Buddhist archaeological relics for less than a dollar or so? If you are willing to overlook the lack of air conditioning, clean loos, good lighting and proper labelling this is a real treasure trove.

  • Nandan Cinema: This came up before the multiplex era but was conceptualised by the great Satyajit Ray. So you get to see a movie the way this Oscar Lifetime Award thought films should be seen
  • Birla Planetarium: the best place to lose yourself in the mystery of the skies and was there well before the 3D domes. And the aircon and dark lights and sonorous commentary make it just the place to snooze if you are tired are are not into astronomy.

  • Elgin Road momo shops: There are a row of tiny Tibetan restaurants. Here where you get lovely momos and home cooked Tibetan food at a very reasonable price. I assume that they still exist. I had last eaten there in the late nineties

The best thing about these is that they are all within the same location in the city and are easily accessible from the Rabindra Sadan Metro Station. The entry fee to most of these places won't be more than a US dollar if at all.

  • Calcutta Zoo/ chiriyakhana - tigers, lions, cross breeds between the two, elephants, 100 year old tortoises, crocs, snakes, giraffes, monkeys, bears - take your pick. Again less than a dollar to enter. Like most of the other places don't expect facilities such asgood toilets, helpful labeling, guides. What you will get are interesting things to see, ample food and enough places to sit and rest. Just be careful you don't read on some cosy couple as most public places/ gardens in Calcutta are popular hangouts for the romantically inclined. Be careful about feeding the animals. Once a drunken visitor had got into the tiger's pit on Christmas in the nineties to garland a tiger... and became the main course for lunch that day.

  • Tangra: This is Calcutta's China Town. The Chinese food here is supposed to be very good. I have been there only once so can't say much

This brings me to Kalyan's Kolkata:

1. Best time to go: This is a controversial one. Many, including Kainaz, won't agree with me, but my pick is Durga Puja. Just about every Bengali I know, except me, is heading there this year which proves my point. Durga Puja is a five day festival for the Hindu Goddess Durga. This is the main festival of Kolkata and happens between late September to early November. It is more a social event than a religious one. It is the time when the city is at its festive best, everyone wears new clothes, offices are shut, the city is lit up in an array of lights, there are amazing pandals (make shift tent like structures) in various forms which over the years have ranged from replicas of Machhi Pichhu of Peru to the submarine in which Netaji Shubhas Bose escaped and there are the clay images of the Goddeess Durga and her children and the demon mohishashur which range from traditional forms to myriad experimental looks.

You have to be an into adventure travel if you come at this time. What you will get is traffic gridlocks, huge queues (3-4 hr long) to get into the main pandals, crowded buses and trains, traffic diversions, taxi refusals, sweat, heat, grime, flight rates which are their peaks and outstation trains which are over booked... you will get crushed by the crowd, you could get mugged or will have to be very patient, very tolerant, very strong, very chirpy. What you will get to see is the city at its showy best, some amazing examples of creativity, craft and dexterity in the forms of the pandals, images and lights and a human spirit which is very humbling and yet inspiring.

Last year we met a doctor from New York who had come all the way to see Calcutta during Durga Puja. In terms of efforts it is like scaling the Everest but I can promise you a million memories worth a lifetime. I seriously feel that this is a huge tourist opportunity which is just waiting to be tapped. However, if you do want a more serene time to go then I would suggest January to March when the weather is at pleasantest and when there are various fairs and exhibitions going on.

2. Where to shop? There are a number of interesting places especially if you are looking at handicrafts. Look at Swabhumi near the airport for dirt cheap handicrafts (decorative figurines, local musical instruments, shoes, clothes, vases, tribal paintings, etc) where nothing costs more than USD 10-15 dollars.

My pick for the complete Calcutta shopping experience would be New Market at Lindsay street. You would fine a long list of branded apparel shops there. You would also find book shops, chemists and anything else though be warned that the staff in shops are not always the most enterprising or customer friendly....but that's Calcutta. You will also find a lot of hawkers on the street selling hand sewn tapestry and table covers, brass work, leather slippers, bags, soft toys and even comfortable cotton pyjamas. Heavy bargaining is required, quote half of what they say to start with.

Then there is the 'New Market' itself or Sir Stewart Hogg Market itself which is a covered enclosure, is dark, gloomy, has a strange musty odour, but where you will get just about anything that you are looking for from clothes to suitcases to Chinese shoes to cold cuts to Tibetan junk jewellery to imported food items to soft toys to lingerie of all forms to saris to flowers...quite the old curiosity shop. You can often good bargains here including on branded goods. It has a spider web like layout which could be a bit confusing but the iron cannon at the middle could be a good homing point.

You will never be lost for food here as you will find myriad eating joints across all budgets and food types here. Toilets? Don't even think about them.

3. Best place to shop, the twenty first century way: Calcutta has a number of new malls which have come up. Most would match up with the best in the Far East in terms of the range of brands, cleanliness, huge size, clean toilets (!), food courts. My pick would be the South City Mall at Tollygunge because of the number of times Kainaz and I went during our last trip to recuperate in the air con. You could bump into my Mom there these days as she has certainly become a mall rat who would put a sixteen year old to shame with her energy.

By the way, that's my wife Kainaz, and not my mom in the picture below.

4. Best place to catch the sunset: Go to Outram Ghat which is near Dalhousie at the bank of the Hooghly river. Take a ferry, tickets are roughly Rs ten (25 cents USD), cross the river and go to Howrah where you will be welcomed by the red Howrah Station where long distance trains come into Calcutta.

Cross back and catch the sunset across the river. Would give any 70 mm a run for its money. And the cool river breeze is to die for. The government has a landscaped garden there called Millenium Park where you could rest a bit. Dalhousie Square, which is at the Calcutta side of the river, has an array of majestic buildings from the British rule which gives a very European flavour. The buildings are worth walking around to get a bit of late nineteenth century magic. You also get to see the Howrah Bridge which is the biggest landmark of Kolkata.

5. Best Place to feel scholarly: Calcutta is a city which is often associated with art, creativity, higher learning, scholars and there is no better place than College Street or Boi Para ('book street') to get a sense of this. It is called 'boi para' after the line of tiny book shops here where you can get every conceivable book including some very rare editions.

In this stretch you will find one of India's most famous colleges, my Alma mater, Presidency College. This 185 yr old college has been home to many of India's Nobel Winners, academicians, journalists, writers, film personalities...the list goes on.

The Calcutta University and the Medical College are close by. As is India's oldest management school and another Alma mater of mine, IISWBM. You would find the famous Indian Coffee House here. Many a famous literary and political debates would happen here over endless cups of black coffee and under creaking ceiling fans. Another area which is a prime prospect for heritage walks but unfortunately doesn't have any.

6. Best Place to get a flavour of the Indian Independence Movement: Netaji's House near the Forum Mall is the house of Bengal's most famous freedom fighter, Subhash Chandra Bose. He is the biggest icon in Bengal with airports, roads named after him and there exists a political party too which reveres him. You get to see some his personal belongings, his bed, his marble dinner plates, the car in which he escaped, his journals...again marred by poor labelling but still a spine tingling experience.

7. Where & what to eat? Calcutta is the food capital of India. At least we Bengalis believe so. This will therefore be a longish section.

  • Street food: phuchka (hollow semolina balls stuffed with mashed potato, hot spices and tamarind water) at Lindsay Street behind New Empire Cinema or Dakshinapan or anywhere else in Calcutta. Not advised to unacclimatised European or American stomachs as they are not very hygienic.

Rolls (deep fried flower crepes/ wraps stuffed with kebabs or layered with eggs and flavoured with onion and lime). This should be OK as it is cooked in front of you. My picks for rolls would be Badshah at New Market, Hot Kathi Roll (not Kusum) at Park Street or any Bedwin outlet.

  • Continental: Mocambo at Park Street for fish a la diana (betki stuffed with prawns served in tartare sauce) and devilled crabs

  • Bakes & cakes: Here I'll go for Flury's which was started by a Swiss family five generations back. Cookie Jar is a popular place to but the stuff at Flury's is slightly more rustic, tastier and different. The main shop is at Park Street but they have opened franchise outlets at various places now.

  • Bengali Food: While Calcutta has an Oh Calcutta my pick would be for Kewpies which is a restaurant in a house at Bhowanipore outside a mall called Forum. It has maintained a look of an old Bengali landlord's house (Raajbaari) and gives a very quaint feeling. The food is damn good too. Go for the thalis or set meals which give you a sample of various dishes. The kosha mangsho (reduced mutton gravy) is a must have with fluffy luchis (Bengali flour based bread). The prices are quite reasonable and are a lot cheaper than Oh Calcutta in Bombay.

  • Tea: the best place to have tea is without doubt Dolly's Tea Shop at Dakshinapan. This is a shop run by a lady called Dolly and her able female staff. They have a lovely range of hot teas and the most refreshing and orginal ice teas. Kainaz makes it a point to go there as often as possible during our trips. It is a tiny place with 3 to 4 tables and a few more tastefully strewn tea boxes and stools to sit. The prices are ridiculously cheap with no ice tea costing more than one USD or Rs 45. Most are less. Just remember to go easy on the teas though as there are no decent toilets there. They also serve simple and lovely sandwiches. You can buy teas to take home from here. An advantage here is that it is located at Dashinapan at Dhakuria which has a collection of handicraft shops from various states of India. The staff in these government run shops don't look very happy if you want buy anything but you get a great range of stuff from all over India at one place at fixed prices.

  • Food street: Undoubtedly Park Street. Get off at the Park Street Metro (Subway station) and take your pick from (in order of location) the rolls at Hot Kati roll, the confectioneries and bakes at Flurys, the lovely continental fare at the dark, Oriental Express like Mocambo, have some great Chinese fare at Barbecue or Tung Fung or arguably the best biryani in Calcutta at Shiraz which is at end of Park Street. On the way you will cross the Park Hotel with its popular discos and pubs -Tantra and Someplace else, my brother's college St Xavier's College (don't expect a Presidencian to wax eloquent about it but I must admit that it is right up there with the best in the country). A big citizen's protest movement was on last time we were at Calcutta about the mysterious death of one of its student, Rizwanur Rehman, which had the set the entire country talking.

Some other land marks are the Hobby Centre (the first place to serve burgers in Calcutta) and a couple of auction houses for lovely antiques and the rather seed but popular Oly Pub famous for cheap beer, steaks and scurrying rats. Park Street is the equivalent of the Colaba Causeway of Bombay, the high street of Calcutta

8. Best place to glimpse the wonders of the river: go to any fish market and see the mazing range of fish - rohu, eelish, pabda, parshe, prawns - the list goes on. Unlike the markets in Bombay here fish is sold by the kilo and not by piece and it is sold by men and not women. This shot is from the Bansdroni market near my home in South Calcutta. I picked some fish from the man and got it home. I discovered that the fish had rotted by the time I opened it at Bombay!

9. Best way to travel: Kolkata has myriad ways of travelling which are inexpensive and politely put, adventurous and interesting. You have the hand pulled rickshaws made famous in Dominique Lapierre's City of Joy, though frankly I feel squealish at another human being pulling me.

You would have over crowded public buses. There are the Ambassador taxis which are look like the quaint cars of the sixites but have creaky seats, churlish drivers, and smelly tapestry.

My favourite is the Metro or the Subway which is clean, cool, fast and is the best way to cross the city distances. Another lovely experience are India's last remaining trams. These eco friendly, electric carts trundle around like lazy elephants and are a good pick if you are not in a hurry.

10. Best gift to take for the folks back home: undoubtedly sweets or 'mishti'. Kolkata is famous for its sweets shops which dot every nook and corner of the city. Sweets are very cheap at an average price of Rd 5 per piece. These milk and cottage cheese based wonders are famous all over India. According to Chitrita Banerjee's 'Eating India' they owe their existence to the Portuguese who ruled India for a short while. Just make sure to carry them properly as they get spoilt if not consumed in 2-3 days. The hard 'kora pak' sandesh's are the most hardy of the lot. You can also get canned rassogollas if you are not flying out. They stay longer but are more expensive. The most famous sweet shops are Putiram, Bhim Nag, Ganguram, K C Das, Banccharam, Mouchak. You can't go wrong with these. I buy my stuff from Sandesh Mahal which is outside my house at Bansdroni.

So there you have, a flavour of my Calcutta, Kolkata, whatever.

A city which is mad, noisy, smelly, dirty, sweaty, lazy, grouchy, nosy, short tempered, exasperating and yet vibrant, colourful, tasty, fragrant, multi cultural, vivacious, warm, passionate, fiesty, memorable, caring, liberal, creative, hosputable, unique and very very lovable!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Row Row Row a Boat: Floating Market, October 2005

Have you ever bought vegetables from a boat? Have you ever gone fruit shopping on a boat?

I hadn't.

I grew up helping my mom shop in Calcutta by going to the fish market and the chicken guy and to the local grocer where I would wait patiently as the shop keeper would make small talk with all the shoppers till he looked at the patiently waiting, pimpled, school boy. Mumbai introduced me to the joy of self service malls and departmental stores.

The floating market near Bangkok was a completely different experience. It is based on Thailand's river civilisation where myriad houses are on the river on stilts and where you have a whole water world thingie going on. People live their lives there, shop there, fish there, grow up, get married...and are probably closer to the river than the fish that live in it.

The floating market was about a couple of hour's drive from Bangkok. I had first heard of it from my ex boss. He is an avid photographer. He told me that he had gone all the way there just to take photos.

I could understand why when we reached there. The place was a riot of colours. A photographer's delight. You had people in narrow canoe like boats selling fruits, vegetables, handicrafts in a fairly narrow canal. The tourists and shoppers move around in similar boats to look around. You hollered out if something caught your eye, both boats stopped as the transaction was made. Strangely enough, there was more order in the chaos than in a typical Indian road as everyone would peacefully and patient manoeuvre around each other in the market. There was a busy buzz which really energised one. At the same time one felt light years way from the daily grind. It was as if one was in a world where life was simple and uncomplicated, a world where there were no bar codes or offers of the day.

It was one of the most vivid experiences of my life which I will never forget.

We reached the market in James Bond boats. These are narrow jet propelled wooden boats which were used in a Bond film. Just the thing to excite a Bond fan like me. I could hear the Bond track play in my mind as we sped down to the market.

Kainaz had her moments of thrill too as we stopped at a snake farm on the way. She took a picture with the snakes while I stood a few kilometers away. She is apparently fascinated by snakes. I don't know what it says about her choosing me then.

The photo below is of two boys in the farm who took the venom out of a cobra in front of us.

Another quaint travelling memory from that day was that of an elderly Pakistani Hindu couple who we met during the trip. They had left their children at home and were having a ball at Thailand. I think all of us enjoyed some company of people from the sub continent after our days in the Far East. I remembered that the gentleman was particularly friendly and boisterous in contrast to his wife who would keep smiling sweetly. Kainaz and I really enjoyed the Indian snack, chiwda/ dalmoth, which they offered us and which was a pleasant break from our favourite Thai curries.
I hope Kainaz and I keep travelling the world without a care when we are their age.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Chilly Crab Trail : The world on a platter at Singapore, April 2008

Have you ever seen a stuffed toy which comes with its own recipe?

The hospitality kit at my hotel at Singapore had just that. A tiny red stuffed toy in the shape of a crab. It had a ‘Uniquely Singapore’ label attached to it. The label read ‘Chilli (sic) crab – one of the most famous dishes you can savour in Singapore, where the world comes to feast’. It also had a recipe of a dish called ‘chilly crab’. This was apparently the national dish of Singapore.

Just the welcome gift to make a foodie feel at home.

I set off on my quest for chilly crab. My first night was with some Indian friends who took me to an Indian restaurant at Clark Quay. Clark Quay is the redeveloped river front in Singapore which is its food Ibiza. You will find many restaurants from all over the world. The food ranges from Mongolian to Thai to Italian and of course good old desi curry. The architecture is quite hip with glass, chrome and laser lights. It is quite an awesome and glitzy place.

Now here’s the thing. I never have Indian food when I am abroad so good bye to the telecaller Mr 22 nights/ 23 days Europe Darshan with Indian Maharaj. I must admit that the channa masala, naans and tikkas in the restaurant were fairly good. But the fact that I don’t even remember the name of the restaurant reflects what I thought of it.

So night one was Indian with no sign of chilly crab. The next afternoon I disassociated from my friends who wanted to go malling and as I went to Museum Of Asian Civilisation (that’s the part of me which we Bengalis call aatel or intellectual). The museum was right in front of Boat Quay. Boat Quay was another reclaimed river front at Singapore. It is far more like the simple sister of Clark Quay. It has an array of open air restaurants facing the river front but doesn’t have the glamour and scale of Clark Quay.

I came fairly close to chilly crab here. I ordered the national dish here only to be told that there were no small crabs and the larger ones would be too big for not so little me. I left the place after having the most amazing prawn sambal there. They had done this dried red chilly based Indonesian dish to perfection with a few cubes of raw tomato giving just the right balance of tanginess. I had this with a fried rice which was not very different from what you get in Mumbai. So much for those who run down ‘Indian’ Chinese.

After Indian and Indonesian my next meal was Persian. I went with some folks I met at Singapore to Clark Quay one night where we went to a Persian restaurant called Shiraz. We had the most amazing feta cheese salad, the world’s best kebab platter which had a mix of venison, quail, fish, lamb and the most tender chicken ever. There was belly dancer there who through the haze of smoke and fumes of wine seemed to smack of Mebooba Mehbooba and Sholay.

The Singaporean national dish eluded me in my next meal too which was in a ‘hawker centre’ – Lau Pa Sat. The hawker centres in Singapore are food courtyards with an array of food stalls where you place your order and then eat in a central area. The dishes are fairly cheap and are popular with office folks, tourists and locals. Here I had an amazing Pilipino pork dish which had delectable chunks of pork in a creamy coconut sauce alone with some sticky rice. I also tried their pork satays which had a slightly tandoori’ish taste in comparison to the Malay version which is flavoured with crushed peanuts.

Our next dinner was hosted by a local Singaporean which was at the BIcentre. So would the revered chilly crab give us an audience? Missed again! We had some deceptively spicy clams, a stingray which was cooked partly in a lime marinade and partly in a red sambal paste, spicy prawn noodles. But no chilly crab!

It all came together in the banquet of the conference which I was attending. This was at a quaint restaurant called ‘No Signboard Restaurant’. The nine course dinner promised chilly crab at the end. I soldiered through the very soft and tantalising goose entrails, clams, prawns, venison cooked in a Chinese sauce and countless glasses of wine which the waitresses were refilling the way attendants replenish your glass of water in an Udipi.

Most at my table gave in by the time the chilly crabs appeared. I was the last man standing. Not for long though.

The chilly crab was a bit disappointing. The meat was a bit too ‘fish like’ for my taste. I did like the red sweetish gravy and dunked the sweet Chinese buns which come with in the gravy and quite enjoyed it. But overall, I think I would clearly prefer the butter pepper garlic crab at Mahesh in Bombay any day.

As my Singaporean sojourn came to an end it was clear that THIS was the food capital of the world. You get just about every cuisine there.

The national dish, chilly crab? Not hot and spicy enough for Indians I guess. I preferred the chilly crab that welcomed me to Singapore to the cooked version.

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