One of the many joys of writing a food based book is that, it allows you to meander through the cultural and historical perspectives of food. It makes you take a new look at your heritage. At least, that is what food writing has done for me. I have always loved history, and food and culture often helps me put history in perspective.
Last week, I was in Kolkata. My visit, unfortunately, was not to see Durga Puja, but to attend the one year anniversary of my father’s death. We, Hindus mourn the passing of a loved one for a year. This mourning period is symbolized by the absence of formal participation in any festivities and occasions such as weddings. At the end of the year, a religious ceremony is performed where the ancestors of the departed are “fed” and the departed soul is set free to join his or her forefathers. I had gone really to please my mother, but found sitting through the process surprisingly therapeutic. I am not sure how much closure it brought me, but time does eventually heal. This I believe!
I knew, that I had to leave smack in the middle of Durga Puja, although I am grateful that I could stay through a lot of the festivities. This visit, I decided to get close to the source of Kolkata’s history and explore the heart of Old Kolkata, which is located in the northern part of the city. This segment has housed many a great thinker, many a revolutionary and many a bengali gentleman, aka babu.
The term babu, has both negative and positive conotations. It is in general speak, the term for a gentleman, but the bengali babu is also infamous for intelectualism and indulgence at the cost of real work. He often deems several things unsuitable for him, leading to a culture that this rich is knowledge, philosphy and education at the cost of a core work ethic and a comittment to getting things done.
I make no bones about the fact, that being away from India for over two decades, I am not really familiar or facile with meandering through town. I wanted someone to take me through, walk with me and gently guide me.
On a whim, I contacted Calcutta Walks, and was hooked up with Explorer Ritwick. He came wearing the “uniform”, which was a rather whimsical red T-shirt with a yellow cab.
We spent a wonderful afternoon meandering through the old city, in my case, really feeling that I was walking with a friend, rather than a guide.
Being, a quick study explorer Ritwick, quickly dispensed a lot of a “tourist” hype, but led me through the lanes of the old city, through peaceful, sleeping alleys. The morning would be their (the guide’s) preferred time, I had however opted for the afternoon nap hour because I had felt that the city and its alleys would be more peaceful. I found the meanderings through the old city, refreshing, nostalgic and on occasion a little sad.
There is still so much potential in India, potential for preservation, potential for celebration of our heritage. In particular, Kolkata is at the cross-roads of so much Indian history, there is so much character in the architecture, that reflects the myriad influences in this cosmopolitan and very warm city.
Of the beaten path, Ritwick and I chatted about the current state of politics in the city, the state of their operations, life and the profiles of the tourists that he encountered.
I found it amusing to hear about the “business” side of things, true to form I am always curious about how any business venture operates and works. It makes for both trivia and just knowledge.
Meandering on, we then went to Kumartuli, an area of the city that I had been dying to visit forever and I was glad that I was able to stop by at the cusp of the festival. This segment of the city is amazing. It is an entire colony of potters who spend their time, catering to the various festivals of the city. Their work and attention to detail is mind-blowing as is the sheer creativity of the images that they create.
The festival of Durga Puja is a ten day festival, beginning with Mahalaya, where the Goddess Durga, comes to earth to destroy the evil demon Mahishasura. The festival peaks on the last six days. I had gone there, just in time to see people selecting their idols and of course, watching the potters put their final finishing touches on the images, tireless and patient, their attention to the craft was indefatigable. I was rejuvenated and thrilled!
In true Bengali style, we ended the journey with some tea from a road side stall and some sweets. Yes, nothing in Kolkata works without sugar and caffeine. I think most readers of this blog will agree that I do not betray my roots when it comes to being fastidious about tea. If you are planning to visit my city and want to see it, through its alleys and galleys, do consider taking a walk through its old neighborhoods, it might leave you refreshed and inspired.