Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Trip To Kolkata

Kolkata is always an interesting city to visit.  It is filled to the brim with sound and life and incredible street scenes, and overflows with people who are on average more temperamental and vocal than those in many other parts of the country.  Partly because it has not been able to attract much industry, it remains a family oriented city - one sees a lot of middle aged and elderly people moving about (the men often clustered together gossiping in their 'addas', the women bustling in groups or ferrying their children between school and tuition classes or shopping or doing arty stuff!).  Despite the noise and the rush, if one manages to time things correctly, there are quiet spots and peaceful spaces to be found.

My little son and I had developed a nice routine - we would wake at the crack of dawn (the best way to function as Kolkata lies so much to the east that dusk approaches by five in the evening), have a delicious breakfast of local fruit (very hard to find yellow 'desi' papaya, wonderfully sweet and juicy little Darjeeling oranges and more), then head to the lakes.  The lakes and the surrounding parks are very peaceful early in the morning.  There are some morning walkers and a motley group of young men doing miscellaneous exercises - for martial arts, wrestling etc. but in the relaxed Bengali way, stopping every few minutes to rest.  Most of the old men would stop to say, "Hallo dada (older brother)" to my son!).  Policemen stand about, talking about subjects like what a pity it is that little children must be compelled to carry big bags and so on.  The lakes are full of fish; amazingly they are also clubs along the banks that offer very professional training in swimming and rowing.  Regattas are often held in the mornings.

We ate large meals of tender winter vegetables, fresh hill greens and ferns and delicious winter fish.  We would spend the afternoons slumbering - the Kolkata sun (as Bengalis say) is sleep inducing!  The air was still a little cool and we used light quilts, hand stitched, of the softest old cotton sarees, made even softer by decades of washing, their colours surprisingly intact.  These quilts make use of the traditional kantha stitch that now adorns many fabrics, sarees (and even a little cloth elephant in London)!

Evenings were spent in shopping, visiting tea shops or sweet shops or walking by the lakes again- the lakes look very different in the light of the setting sun.  As the weather was still cool, all the sweet shops were filled with notun gur mishti - sweets made from the new (year's) palm jaggery.  Tea shops typically serve Anglo Indian fare - sandwiches, pastry, puffs, pies (and even delicious scones!) along with Darjeeling tea.

We bought various bits of food to take back - the local varieties of rice, which are all very different from what we get in other parts, kasundi (a Bengali piquant mustard paste eaten with fried fish and other such stuff), palm jaggery, pumpkin flowers (or pumpkin blossoms, as my son calls them) which are delicious when dipped into a batter and fried and freshly harvested turmeric and tiny bitter neem leaves.  I have often wondered what to do with fresh turmeric - it's so mild and aromatic but is a pain to peel and grind for every dish.  The wise Bengalis (especially women) eat little nuggets of it raw, along with neem leaves.  My relatives turned up their noses but I quite like it and find it very good for my liver, and my little son also chomps it down quite happily (asking every morning for his meen leaves and haldi)!

One morning we went to the riverside and took a row boat down the Hooghly.  It was peaceful (and not surprisingly - sleep inducing!).  This was how we spent much of our time - outside with flowers, fish, the spring air, the river and at home, with our excitable, endearing Bengali family.

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