Aloo Posto with Sambar and Rice | Memoirs of a Malayali in Kolkata | FB Live @ Purono Kolkatar Golpo

Inside a Durga Puja Pandal in Kolkata

By: Siddhartha Krishnan . 10 Min Read

I have been away from Kolkata for 14 years. However, I have often wondered why the city is still a part of me and despite not being Bengali, why do I yearn for so many things that are Bengali? So when I received an invitation to do an FB live session on my experiences in Kolkata from the FB group—Purono Kolkatar Golpo (a group comprising of Kolkatans from across the world), I was thrilled, as it gave me a chance to introspect and relive some important moments of my life (YouTube video of the FB live session below. Please skip to 4:40 mins since the talk only starts then).

Most of my memories of the 22 years that I had spent in Kolkata are centered around one place—7A Gokhale Road. They say “Nostalgia is a dirty liar which insists things were better than they seemed.” I agree because I am often guilty of remembering my past with the kind of fondness which I did not exhibit while experiencing them. Picture this—I used to live in a small two room apartment in a 100-year-old building in Kolkata and so, with it came the challenges—space constraints, water supply issues, maintenance problems and every now and then, whenever it rained in Kolkata (in the 90s), the streets were flooded with knee-deep water.

A Pic of Gokhale Road from my last visit in 2018

Thus, I was often found cribbing about my circumstances. However, now when I go to Kolkata and engage in a bit of “Adda” (informal/idle talk) with old friends, I am guilty of saying “Shei Ki Din Chilo! Ekhon aar koi?” (those were the days). What’s more my younger brother’s apartment at Rajarhat, blessed with all creature comforts, does not feel like Kolkata anymore. That to me feels like Whitefield or Electronic city in Bangalore—mundane, boring and lacking “the cultural heritage”. How strange is that? Well, I guess this kind of hypocrisy is intrinsic to human nature.

Nandan Cinema close to Gokhale Road

Since, Gokhale Road is such an integral part of my story in Kolkata, let me help you locate and visualize the place, although I know most Kolkatans would know of it.

So Gokhale Road is a quiet little street located in the heart of Kolkata between Sambhunath Pandit Street and A.J.C Bose Road with the Gol Mandir at one end and the Calcutta Club at the other. On this road the other big landmarks are the Institute of Engineers and the Army’s Recruitment Centre. In the vicinity we have some of the city’s iconic cultural landmarks like the Victoria Memorial, Nandan Cinema, St.Paul’s Cathedral and Netaji Bhawan. These were all within half a kilometer from my house.

Next to the Gurudwara (on Sambhunath Pandit Street) we have two of the most famous eateries of Kolkata – Balwant Singh’s Dhaba (known for its Dhoodh Cola) and Sharma Tea House (renowned for its small kachoris, jalebis and the heritage tea). Just across the road are the much-sought after Gujarati snack shops serving their delectable dhoklas, khandvis and mathris. So this gave an excuse to my father to never leave Gokhale Road and say— “When most people living in the city are dying to stay in this locality, why should I leave this place?”

An early morning pic of Victoria Memorial

Our 100-year-old building— “Krishnapriya Mansions” is in the middle of Gokhale Road. But the name on its façade has all but withered away over the years. However, I vividly remember that in the mid-nineties during a hartal (strike) while we were playing cricket on the street, a friend of mine had hit the ball toward the façade and that’s when I first realized that the building actually had a name! We had become accustomed to calling it the building opposite the police barracks.

Flat no: 24 in the A block of this building is the place is where I stayed. It is the place my grandfather after migrating from Palakkad (Kerala) some 2 years before the independence of India called home. That was a time when many Malayalis like him migrated to Kolkata in search of a better life. Kolkata was the city of opportunity in those days. So my grandfather periodically brought people from his hometown who were looking for a good education and were ambitious and hard-working. He was their support until they managed to settle down in the city. Flat no: 24, therefore, is the place my father, uncles and aunt were brought up and so my brother and I are the second generation in the family to have grown up there. Hence, we owe a lot to this place.

Much of what we are today is a direct result of the culture we have been brought up in. This culture manifests itself in the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the movies we watch and the books we read. And, like everyone else my first point of reference in these matters were my parents. My father who has spent all his life in Kolkata and despite having close ties with his native place in Kerala is more Bengali than many Bengalis I know today. On the other end of the spectrum is my mother, who is what I would call a “Pukka Malayali”. She married very young and came to Kolkata when she was around 20 years old. Hence, much of my childhood I have been witness to the dynamics of their relationship and the clash of cultures. My father at the time of his marriage knew very little Malayalam while my mother knew no other language other than Malayalam. As a result, I picked up the Bengali way of doing things from my father while clinging onto my roots in Kerala due to my mother. However, over the years I have seen my mother evolve and become more and more comfortable with the Bengali culture.

Authentic Bengali lunch at Kewpie’s Elgin Road

The manifestation of this clash was seen in all the things that we indulged in. Let me give you a few examples. The food on our plate was clearly an amalgamation of these cultures. It was not odd to find an “Aloo Posto” or “Aloo Chochodi” (typical veg dishes of Bengal) being served alongside “Sambar and Rice” (the quintessential South-Indian fare). Or for that matter a “Rui Macher Jhol” (much-loved fish curry of Bengal) served with a “Beans Thoran” (a humble beans dish eaten in South India). And, while packing a plate of kachoris from Sharma Tea House we would be mindful to pack a plate of “Vada” and Sambar from the Tamilian street food vendor next to the iconic eatery.

The iconic eatery Sharma Tea House

Such examples could also be found in the movies we watched. While I got a steady dose of the satirical Malayalam films of the 80s and 90s on Asianet, I did also get a generous dose of the movies of Ray. By the way closely observing my father explaining the subtle nuances of Ray’s movies while drawing references to English literature and parallels to Malayalam films are some of my fondest memories from childhood. But these discussions were limited to his friends while I remained a silent observer. However, I can safely say today that these experiences have left an indelible mark on my artistic leanings.

One more significant recollection from childhood is that of the “Shaka and Pola”. These beautiful coral and shell bangles from Bengal are now part of my family culture. Ever since my mother has been wearing them, all the women in our family have also been wearing them. They have found a way into the homes of people who have nothing to do with Bengal. This proves how subliminal culture can be.

How all of this has played out with me, shows in my habits. Although I have been away from Kolkata for so long, I do crave for my Kolkata Biriyani, Kathi Rolls, Macher Jhol and Bhoger Kichudi every now and then. But I do have a similar yearning for the quintessential Malayali dishes like Puttu, Aapam, Pazham Poori and Malabar fish curries. Twice a month I look forward to watching a Ray movie on YouTube while the same is true for a Sathyan Anthikad or Padmarajan film as well. And, “adda” with Bengali friends over the weekends is something I wait for eagerly. A call to their wives to prepare a Bengali dish specifically for me before these meetings is something I am not ashamed to admit. However, Bangalore being such a cosmopolitan city getting these things is not a difficult task.

The famous kachoris of Sharma Tea House

But how can any nostalgic journey of Kolkata be complete without a mention of Durga Puja? Those four days of the Puja every year are my favorite memories of growing up in Kolkata. My father, a chartered accountant by profession and usually a very busy man would get these four days off (Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dashami). But on these days he would exude a child-like exuberance which was otherwise absent in him. His office car would be at our disposal for the first half of these days. A cut out from the Telegraph newspaper charting out the route of all the famous pandals across Kolkata would be at our disposal. Each day was dedicated to a certain part of the city and we would start early in the morning around 7 a.m. Day 1 would usually be North Kolkata, starting either at Bagbazar or Kumartuli and driving all the way back to Mohammad Ali Park, thereby pandal hopping all the iconic North Kolkata pandals. This would invariably mean that lunch would be at Park Street, hence, either Chinese delicacies at “Peiping” or Biriyani at “Shiraz”.

Day 2 would be South Kolkata starting at “Ekdalia Evergreen” and ending at “Maddox Square” closer home. This would mean that a Punjabi lunch was on offer at the “Ballygunge Dhaba”. The remaining days were left to explore the award winning pandals of yester years and thus we would venture to places like Bosepukur and Lebutala. The idea was always to outdo our performance of the previous year. If we had visited 100 pandals the previous year, this year the count has to be 101! The crowded evenings on these days were dedicated to pandals in our vicinity and “adda” with friends outside “Gokhale Sporting Club Pujo”, since my father was not much of a crowd person.

Ekdalia Evergreen Durga Puja Pandal of 2012

But perhaps the most resounding memory of Durga Puja is of the day of Dashami when the Goddess bid adieu to us mortals. The memory is of the vermillion game or what the Bengalis call “Sindoor Khela”. On this day married women would throw vermillion on each other and the picture of my mother letting go of all her inhibitions and smothering vermillion on the faces of the Bengali women of our locality with fervor is still fresh in my mind. In return for her favors she would be covered in red herself. But by doing so, for that moment, she had managed to merge with the crowd or should I say merge with that culture?

All the above recollections of Kolkata, however, would not be complete without a mention of my school friends at St. Xavier’s Collegiate School and my “adda buddies” of Bhowanipore and Gokhale Road. The “Shikanji” after a grueling cricket match at the Calcutta Maidan, the ice-candy in the afternoon heat at school and breakfast at “Arun Da’s Canteen” at St. Xavier’s College would not have tasted so good without them. So a big heartfelt thank you to them for making these experiences so memorable and being part of my story in the “City of Joy”.

Gol Mandir at Gokhale Road

I’d like to end by saying that my story may be something new for Bengalis but I am sure that it will strike a chord with so many Malayalis I know who had once or still call the city their home. Hence, I am thankful to the FaceBook group – Purono Kolkatar Golpo for having given me this opportunity to take the trip down memory lane with their FB live and for giving me the chance to explain why Kolkata is still a part of me.

Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of “Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories“. He is also an enthusiastic blogger and on his website www.whatsonsidsmind.com, he regularly puts out his essays, articles, travelogues and film reviews.

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