I was in Kolkata for Christmas. During the rest of the year, I don't mind calling it Kolkata but at Christmas it's always Calcutta for me. Changing times, political climes and tastes have altered Park Street and other Christmassy neighbourhoods but there is still something special - an extra spark in the typically excitable Bengali, at Christmas.
I spent this time mostly in and around Ballygunge, where I stayed. It's an old residential area with a large, bustling (and well known) local market. In the mornings, I walked past old houses that had seen four generations (or more), some spick and span and some old and cobwebby. Vendors walked down the streets, pushing little carts. The much publicised (and oft criticised) rickshaws still plied here, moving adroitly in and out of the narrow streets. Yellow Kolkata taxis honked their way through.
The market was a short walk away. I like to visit it early in the morning, before the traffic builds up. It's always bustling and loaded with fresh produce and seasonal specials. Vegetables are piled high everywhere. On weekends, people come from the outskirts to sell special and unusual local vegetables - ferns, delicate greens, herbs and more.
The fish market is expectedly large and noisy. Glistening fish lie on gleaming steel counters indoors and on wooden planks, ice filled cane baskets or atop fresh green banana leaves outdoors. There is a fish for every meal, occasion or whim!
Individual book shops still survive despite the ubiquitous chains. One manages to get a slightly different selection here, both for adults and children. A particularly nice book I read this time (for children but nice for anyone) was 'The Cloud Tea Monkeys', written by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham and wonderfully illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. It is a story set in the Assam tea gardens during the colonial period.
A visit to Kolkata implies being plied with lots of food - The typical Kolkata fish chops, rice, dal and gandharaj nimbu (a very fragrant and special lime, which I have now planted in my garden). Winter squash, tender radishes, greens, lobster and more.
And sweets! Local sweets can never be forgotten even in the midst of Christmas confectionary and we have a terrific selection of goodies awaiting us at home. We like our tried and tested old sweet shops but every corner has a little one, serving tea, sweets and savouries. This is the season for fresh palm jaggery (notun gur) which imparts a delicious sweetness that is flavourful but not cloying. A very special taste.
Each neighbourhood seems to have new bakeries now, and their standard is quite high. Amongst the many, we discovered Mrs. Magpie, a quaint bakery located near the lakes (we walked around the lakes every afternoon as Nayan peered down to look at the fish, threw leaves in the water and climbed little hillocks that must have appeared like giant mountains to him). This tea shop was always overflowing with people, and had some lovely little cakes, scones and biscuits to offer.
A visit to the local jeweller was a must and this time I ordered a bangle for myself, which he will make and keep for me in iron and gold. It is a very traditional 'marriage' bangle that new shops no longer stock because it is not glittery enough. The wall of the jeweller's shop has a picture of a yogi and fresh flowers are offered to this image every day. Indeed, Kolkata is the homeland of yogis (of course nothing compared to the Himalayas but several enlightened and accomplished teachers have lived here over the centuries and have reached out to many people all over the world). This spirit seems to permeate the very soul of the city - at least that is what I feel and sense each time I visit. In the midst of the noise, grime, dense air, raucous traffic and extra loud human voices, it is easy to forget this, but one only has to look at little streets and corners and close one's eyes - and the signs of strong positive traditions stand out.
This is also the last blog if the year, and with it I send my new year wishes to all of you. I hope that despite the tempests that might swirl about you in the coming year, you are also touched by fragile rainbows, freshly fallen dew, orange and gold sunsets, silvery moonshine and starbursts. By all the beauty that passes through and leaves us with a sense of peace and wonderment, reminding that the world is essentially a good place. Happy new year!