Tag Archives: Bengali

Calcutta Chromosomes – III

This is the third part of the series – by Sampurna Majumder 

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Days passed by. Our bonding became stronger with each passing day. It was K, S and I. Three of us became almost inseparable. Be it bunking classes, or bitching about classmates, or cursing the political system, complaining how back-dated the university is and possibly doing nothing about it…. All this and much more.

Communism has been ruling Bengal for more than three decades. The air around was stiff. We did not even spare that. Cursing the communist rule which possibly ‘ruined’ the state. I could feel the typical ‘Bangaliana’ seeping in to me. I was enjoying every bit of it.

K and S had a fairly good understanding of  the typical Bengali adda. Every time we met it was definitely a treat for me as well as a learning procedure. I learnt that the young Kolkatans had the habit of addressing their seniors as dadas and didis, instead of addressing them by just their first names. I seemed quite funny to me. The idea seemed funnier when they revealed that junior girl students from the departments even dated their so called dadas. I wondered if any of the bhais ever dated their didis or not?

Once we decided to the renowned age old Coffee House. I was quite excited about my maiden voyage to this famous eatery. We walked towards the connector of Bankim Chatterjee Street, where the Coffee House was located. The entry of this grand joint deserves mention. The walls on either side of the staircase seemed to resonate history. History was vibrating form every corner of this building. As we went inside, a completely new world welcomed me. Totally mismanaged  tables and chairs. No one ever seemed to fix them. The place was booming with life. People from all ages and walks of life were to be spotted. K and S told most of the Kolkata aantels, ( a term used to describe the Bengali intellectual) both the ripe ones and the ones in making were to be spotted here.

coffee_houseWe bagged a table and fitted ourselves comfortably. I ordered for a fish kobiraji and not to mention a cup of coffee. I was told that the kobiraji is a must try here. Suddenly I felt a little lost. Despite spending the formative years of my life in this city, somehow these little things were absolutely alien to me. Random thoughts passed through my mind when all of a sudden S pointed towards another table positioned diagonally opposite to us. Five Bengali aantels were engrossed in a serious argument about who is a better romantic poet, Keats or Wordsworth. One argued about Keats’ idea of ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’ while another supported Wordsworth’s views on Pantheism. The third guy emphasized the importance of Keats’ theory of Negative Capability while Wordsworth’s idea of a poem being ‘emotions recollected in tranquility’ scored with the fourth one. K and S turned to smile at me. I was thoroughly enjoying it.

The fish kobiraji had arrived along with the cups of coffee. We three lifted the cups to make a goodwill gesture just as one does before sipping on a drink. It’s never too late to begin. I was on a high with the idiosyncratic Kolkata Kulture.

“Cheers to coffee!”

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Calcutta Chromosomes – II

Sampurna Majumder continues with the series about her stay in Kolkata.

college-street-calcutta

Since the Boi Para or College Para was a new addition in my daily routine, I used to look forward to it, every evening. Reaching the university campus was an adventure in itself for me. For I somehow, always felt the ride to be bumpy all along. Though I boarded the same bus everyday, and got down at the stop nearby, I invariably lost the way, criss-crossing through the by lanes of the famous Kolkata locale.

After much ‘tribulations’ and walking through almost all the by lanes I would finally reach Ashutosh Building. Our classroom was in the first floor. Walking down the long, dark corridor was enough to take me down the stairs of nostalgia. As I entered the classroom and occupied a seat for myself, I found myself sitting amidst unfamiliar faces. Minutes later I saw K and S making their entry. My eyes greeted them and vice versa.

presidency-collegeI always found sitting in the class to be quite boring. Specially the lectures on printing. Though this was a completely new arena for me, I could not help but to doze off in between lectures. I yearned for the break very much so that I could rush down to grab a cup of tea. K and S would invariably join me. Me and S shared a common interest, tea. We both just could not stop having enough of this beverage.

Somehow the tea stall down the road just below the university building, had its own charm. Sipping tea from a kulhar (small mud pot) on a busy evening had its own magnetic appeal. Me and S would sometimes bunk classes only to catch a sip of the heavenly tea, or at least it seemed so to us. We would spent hours chatting over numerous cups of tea. We loved each other’s company.

Sometimes we would walk down to footpath lined with bookshops to indulge in shopping which would simply touch our intellect just like a tangent. We would spend hours with the bookseller to reduce the price of a second hand or probably a third hand John Grisham thriller to almost seventy-five percent. Nonetheless we loved it. I was finally experiencing what I possibly missed out as a college going Kolkatan would indulge into.

The hours after class was a welcome change for all of us. We would sit at the staircase of the central library and go on chatting for hours together. We actually indulged into what the Bengalis fondly call an adda session. Finally I was blessed enough to taste the Kolkata College Life or more precisely life at the famous College Para. I was living my young adolescence and of course loving it.

Dilli ki Hawa – 1

How does a quintessential Bengali feel when s/he comes to Dilli for the first time? Sampurna Majumder narrates her experience.

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It is said that you can always take a Bengali away from Calcutta but never the other way round. Well, so being the quintessential Bengali there was no reason behind my not missing the City of Joy. Though I loved gorging on the Dal Makhni, Tandoori Chicken and other north Indian delicacies, I did yearn for the delicious Chingri Maachher Malaikari and Sona Muger Dal occasionally. dsc_01011

Thanks to the south Delhi locale of Chitto Park, my gastronomic longings always found an way out to ease themselves.

It was the month of February. The biting Delhi winters had already begun to subside. The warmth in the atmosphere came as a relief. There was certain feel of festivity in the air; it had to be and why not, after all it was Basant Panchami or Saraswati Puja as it is known as in the eastern part of the country. I called up D a friend of mine who also belonged to Calcutta; asked her what was her plan for the day. ‘Nothing as such.’ ‘Shall we go to Chitto Park and savour our taste buds?’ I asked. ‘Sure thing’ pat came the reply.

chittaranjan-park-kali-mandir-crpark-5_400_300We met at the Central Secretariat metro station, hopped on an auto and headed towards Chitto Park. Just as we entered the by lanes of the locale sign boards and hoardings written in Bengali welcomed us. We went towards the famous Kalibari. The first thought that came to our mind was the khichudi bhog of the puja. D suggested we should try our hand at this ‘royal cuisine.’ I agreed. We went up to the backyard of the temple where it was too crowded. We bumped into  a lady clad in a dirty sari, looking haggard. We asked her which way the bhog is being served. She replied ‘Khaachuri furai gichhe!’

With a sullen face both of us boarded an auto and headed towards Connaught Place and stepped into KFC.

Posto: A Rare Vegan Diet for a Quintessential Bengali

Sampurna Majumder shares her stint with a rare vegetarian dish – posto (khus khus or poppy seeds)

posto 3

Bhaat e Macch e Bangali (Rice and Fish make a true Bengali), so goes an adage. True. Food has always been a weakness for Bengalis. The quintessential Bangali Babu’s meal would be incomplete without these ingredients – bhaat, machher jhol and a bhaja (any vegetable fried, brinjal or bitter gourd/uchhe bhaja). However, Bengali cuisine offers a whole range of vegan delicacies as well.

Posto (poppy seeds or khus khus) is an integral part of Bengali cuisine. The use of posto in Bengali cuisine dates back to almost two centuries. Posto finds its place in Bengali literature as well. Bankim Chnadra Chattopadhyaya’s Kamalanter Daptar (From the Desk of Kamalakanta) is one such example. Written on the lines of De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Bankim’s protagonist remains inebriated most of the time as an aftereffect of consuming too much opium (drug obtained from poppy seeds). Opium dens are known to exist in Kolkata’s China Town as during the 1940s.

posto

The sole purpose of penning this note is nothing but nostalgia buffs. Few days back, the quintessential Bengali in me was craving for some kaancha posto (raw khus khus). I remember way back in the 90s when I was barely a decade old, my granny would pretty often make kaancha posto. She would grind them mixed with water and some salt; then add some chopped onions, green chilies and a zing of strong-smelling mustard oil.

kancha posto

As a kid, my share of the yummy kaancha posto would be devoid of the green chilies. However, as I grew up green chilies made their way to my kaancha posto and thus began my never-ending love affair with this sumptuous vegan Bengali dish. Pretty often I have eaten all my rice with kaancha posto! Yes and it gives me a high till date whenever which is followed by the afternoon siesta which comes as a booty along with it.

A Lifetime Spent

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It was her 25th marriage anniversary. They had decided to throw a party in the evening. But instead of being ecstatic she was in a reflective mood. Thinking, wondering, pondering…a whole series of events and images came to her mind. Not all of them were pleasant but definitely memorable. Sitting with a cup of tea in her hand in the small yet cosy balcony she thought about her marriage to a stranger whom she had eventually befriended.

They had spent twenty-five years with each other. This was unbelievable keeping in mind the first impression she had of him. Their parents had fixed up their marriage. He was thirty-seven years old. She had freaked out when she heard this. How could she marry a man ten years older to her? Her mother consoled her by saying that he was a rich and a self-made man. And although he was not good-looking by normal standard, everyone thought well of him. They were no longer wealthy enough to spend lavishly on her marriage as they did during her sisters’ marriage. Moreover, his family had no demands. They were strictly against any form of dowry.

She was not consoled but resigned to her fate. At five feet and one inch she definitely was not tall. And although her features were not as sharp as a classic Indian beauty’s should be, she possessed a complexion lighter than wheatish but darker than fair and an innocent face which appealed to most people she met. She had another asset – her keen sense of perception.

She had to go to Jamshedpur to meet him. Her relatives wanted her to see the groom once before marriage. She wondered why she was asked to do so since she did not exercise the actual choice of denying him. Perhaps, it did not matter whether she met him or liked him after meeting but that he wanted to see her. This very thought filled her with distaste. Moreover, she did not like the idea of living in a small city after being in Calcutta all her life. She would have to begin her life afresh in a new city, with new people. This terrified her. She would have to resign from her job in the Bengali medium school she was teaching in. There were no Bengali schools in Jamshedpur. How would she ever adjust was the question of the hour.

She met him in the evening. Her initial sense of repulsion, doubt and fear came back. She tried to fight back the feeling of being commodified; something that she always felt when any man came to see her with marriage in mind.

He was pitch dark. About two inches taller than her, his appearance was a far cry from all the good-looking men she had met and who had rejected her on the basis of being too thin or too short. She refused to look at him, partly because she was shy and partly because she was horrified to see her future glaring at her. Through the formal conversation which carried on for about two hours, in which her future was decided for her by her elders, but in which her opinion was not asked, she gauged that this man had a good sense of humour. He smiled quite a lot and made others laugh around him a lot more. Though she would have liked to be an audience to some of his jokes, this would have been unthinkable. So she continued her conversation with her prospective sister-in-law.

The date of their marriage was fixed on 24th April, 1983.

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The days after that passed in a daze. With all the clothes and jewellery shopping, distribution of cards, meeting the bridegroom’s relatives who could not contain their curiosity to see the new bride, she hardly had any time for herself.

On the day of her marriage, she observed the customary fasting ritual. She did not care much for it but with vigilant elders around her, she had no choice. She did not feel the pangs of hunger until late in the afternoon but on complaining she was reminded that she would have to go through it for her and her husband’s well-being since starvation on the big day would guarantee a lifetime of happiness. On inquiring whether her husband would also do the same she was told that it was not incumbent on men to perform these rites. Again the injustice of it all struck her. Everyone seemed to be implying that the welfare of her marital life would solely depend on her actions and her fate. But what about the person she was marrying? Was he not going to share her responsibilities? She helplessly accepted this contention too.

Her aunts tried to force her to go to the beauty parlour in order to look beautiful for her husband-to-be and the guests. She noted that it was not for herself but for others that she was supposed to look good. Immensely irritated by everything that had been happening to her for the first time she vehemently refused to comply. She was never fond of artificial colours anyway. People not so good-looking required make-up, she reminded herself. Her husband would have to accept her the way she was, she thought with some pride.

bouBut she did look enchanting. The lack of makeup heightened the quality of innocence in her face and everyone praised. Some neighbours and distant relatives congratulated the bridegroom’s family for having coveted such a prize. A prize indeed she was and she hoped that they would prize her even after her marriage. Although the stories she had heard from her married sisters about their married life was in no way consoling.

Vermillion was applied on her forehead at 12:00a.m. By the time the marriage ended it was well past midnight. Everyone, including she, was exhausted and in no mood of celebrating. But she had to continue smiling, looking interested and shy, as was expected of her. Next day the journey back to her new home was a tearful one.

A long time would elapse before she could start considering her husband’s home to be her own. Nor did he make any special efforts to make her feel at home. He was too busy with his newly set up business and did not spend much time with her. They did go on a honeymoon which was short but pleasant. She found her husband quite weird. Although he did not give her any reason to complain yet she had no reason to praise him. He never stood up for her in front of his family. He tried to even know her better. In other words, he never bothered himself with her and left her to fend for herself all the time. He did not restrict her movements but being a newcomer to the city she did not know where to go and was inevitably left to the mercy of her in-laws to entertain her.

borShe would escape to Calcutta every now and then. Although her husband did not object to it her in-laws would harangue her about the necessity to serve and care for her husband and her sister-in-law would sarcastically remark that her home in Jamshedpur was more luxurious than her mother’s place. She felt like telling them that the size of the house did not matter to her but the amount of love she found in that place. She felt like telling them that she felt suffocated in this huge house where no one cared for her but where everyone kept reminding her of her duties towards her husband, although none educated her husband of his duties towards his newly wedded wife, which he neglected most of the time. But this would have been blasphemous. So she told them that she was lonely here without friends. This merest self-defence elicited a grunt from her eldest sister-in-law who told her that she had to be friendly person herself to make friends. But later, her younger sister-in-law approached and told her that she would have to adjust despite all odds. This was the fate of all women. Perhaps, she detected a note of empathy in her words which warmed her to this otherwise stoic woman. But she did not get to know her well. The only person who empathised with her in the new household died at childbirth five months later.

She found it extremely annoying that it was her conduct that was always kept under tight scrutiny. No one bothered about her husband’s code of conduct. What was his office like? Why did he not come home last night? Why did he travel so frequently? Why did he not take her along in these long tours? What did he do there? Such behaviour which would normally be considered abominable in a woman remained unnoticed in a man. This irked her. If she came later than usual from the market her sister-in-law questioned her on her whereabouts under the guise of being concerned. If she visited her friend then her mother-in-law would insist that her brother-in-law drop her to that friend’s place. She was self sufficient. She did not need a protector. All she had desired was for a companion and instead of that she found tutors, guides and protectors.

But she was one of the few lucky ones. She realised this on speaking to her neighbours. Finding her a reserved but comfortable companion, some of them confided in her. They told her about the problems in their households. Some of them were regularly beaten up by drunken husbands. Some had mother-in-laws who made them work whole day in spite of the presence of servants. Some said that their husbands had extramarital affairs. Earlier they were quiet about it but on realising the helplessness of their wives, they sometimes brought their girlfriends home under the guise of friends or business partners. There was no way to retaliate against such humiliation.

She felt mad with rage on hearing all this. Sometimes alone at home she would contemplate on such occurrences. Her mind would be clouded by doubt regarding her status in her husband’s life. Even he did not stay at home most of the time. Did he too engage in similar clandestine affairs? And even if he did what would she do to maintain her self-respect? Nothing was the answer. She could do nothing except for raving and ranting in front of him and even that would not help because he was hardly at home.

She decided to look for a job to save herself from such ignominy. She informed her husband about this and was a little surprised to see that he encouraged her whole-heartedly. She had not expected such cooperation. In fact she was banking on a lukewarm acceptance in a slightly disapproving tone since men in the modern days hated to seem outdated and yet preserved the centuries old chauvinist instincts within themselves. His enthusiastic response filled her with joy, moreover so, since her brother-in-law opposed to this decision. He considered this to be an insult to the supposedly hard working men when the womenfolk of the house took it upon themselves to earn a living. Very uncharacteristically and for the first time, her husband opposed to his brother’s viewpoint. Men should not take it on their ego when women try to be economically independent. After all, without economic independence all other form of independence is a farce, he told them. None dared to say anything to her after that.

Very soon she had to face a disappointment. Bengali, her mother-tongue and also the language in which she had been educated proved a drawback. She had to know English or at least Hindi if she wanted a job as a school teacher in Jamshedpur. There was no scope for Bengali and even the Hindi-medium schools were fast disappearing. On hearing this, her brother-in-law gave a triumphant smirk, her sister-in-law made a sardonic remark about the more luxury people get the more demanding they become and her mother-in-law refrained from getting into this whole discussion.

But one thing was clear to her by now – that her husband was not a bad person that she thought him to be all this while. He was a workaholic for sure and also seemed to be a bit insensitive since he never bothered about her needs. Yet he was more humane and broad-minded than any of his family members were. Since she could not meet the professional requirements, she thought of requesting her husband to take her along with him on the innumerable tours he went to. Emboldened by the fact that he supported her once, yet fearful that he would think that she was crossing her limits, she thought of putting this proposal before her husband. Although hopeful, she was not entirely sure of a positive response. She was in for a surprise again. He readily agreed to the proposal.

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In fact she had second thoughts after speaking out her mind. She was not sure whether she would be able to converse with his business partners or mix with the people he socialises with. Her self-confidence received a setback with her rejection in schools. But he husband pacified her saying that the people he socialised with were down-to-earth and nice people, in the midst of whom she would not feel out of place. He had thought of asking her to accompany him long time back but was not sure about her reaction since she seemed so conservative and introvert and a nomadic lifestyle would not suit her, or so he thought. Coward, she thought to herself. Or plain disinterested. How can one ever decide about another person without even trying to know her?

In spite of all her anticipation, she did accompany him to all her tours. It was in these tours that she discovered the person she got married to. She had only seen the serious side of him. Away from home, she saw the romantic side too. He remained busy most of the time. He did have a streak of insensitivity in him. Or maybe his business demanded such dedication from him. But the ogre had assumed a more acceptable and human form for her. He had his own flaws. He was extremely stubborn; always refusing to listen to any suggestions she gave. In spite of all his broad-mindedness, he felt that since she did not have a profession, she should concentrate on the duties of the house and not instruct him about the ways of the world. She thought this was unjustified since she had a strong sense of perception which he lacked and which he should exploit to his best advantage than refute it. Sometimes he would even taunt her for not doing anything and would refuse to understand that household chores were also difficult and deserved to be praised.

It took some years for the stranger to become her friend. And their friendship consolidated with a birth of a daughter after two years of marriage. She had wished for a girl who would grow up to be her friend and companion. Her husband, laconic as usual, did not voice his opinion. So all her prayers to God would be a request for a girl child, which was indeed granted to her in December of the very same year. This gave a complete new turn to her life and filled the void that was created due to a very busy husband and lack of profession. Some of her neighbours expressed their sorrow on giving birth to a daughter but she was ecstatic. Her ecstasy was doubled when her husband’s reprove quietened the crowd who came to see the child and expressed grief in return. She had decided to live her life through the child, to give her every opportunity that she lacked in her life, to make her self-sufficient and in a way, make up for the shortcomings in her own personality. Many a time she had thought of breaking all the bonds that her marriage had imposed on her but she lacked the courage and even the financial means to do so. She was determined that her daughter would not go through the same trouble that she herself faced. And even if she would then she would also have the means to escape. She had reconciled to the fate that her elders had chosen for her but her daughter would decide her own fate. She was sure about that.

Twenty-five years seemed a long time ago but she still felt as young as before. She had not just adjusted but also adopted the culture of the place. Jamshedpur became her home. She never worked henceforth in spite of all the coaxing that her husband employed on her so that she would tutor students at home atleast. She decided that her profession and vocation would be to bring up her child. In spite of occasional bickering with her husband and the verbal clashes with her in-laws, she rated her marriage as reasonably successful although she was not sure if she was completely happy. Perhaps, she would have been if she could convince her husband to move out of a joint family and live separately and peacefully because the family never forgave her touring round the country with her husband. But her husband’s stubborn nature stood in the way of her happiness.

Twenty-five years later she was dressed up and still waiting for her husband, not for him to return from his business trip but from the other room where he was on the phone conversing with the organisers about the evening party. She was tired of waiting. After all she had waited all her life…for everyone and everything. At the moment she was eagerly waiting for the arrival of their beloved daughter from Delhi. They would have to go to the airport to receive her. So instead of waiting any longer she decided to call on her husband.

Celebrating the Day of Love – the ‘Bangali’ Way

Saraswati puja

As a community, the Bengalis have always been associated with the finer things of life. Aesthetics defined their very existence. For example, adjectives like gourmet and connoisseur of music and art are very commonly associated with them. Since music, art and scholastic are highly regarded by Bengalis, it’s no surprise that Saraswati Puja, the Goddess of Wisdom is widely celebrated by them with much pomp and pleasure.

There goes a traditional saying in Bengal – Baaro Mashey Taro Parbon, literally translated as Thirteen Festivals in Twelve Months. Well, true, from Poush Parbon in January to Bhai Phota (Bhaai Duj) in November – every festival is celebrated with much fervour.

Basant Panchami or Saraswati Puja is usually celebrated sometime in the month of February. Incidentally, the festival often coincides with Valentine’s Day. An interesting fact about Saraswati Puja is that, it is often considered to be the day where everyone has the full freedom to flirt around. Often young couples are spotted roaming around the para hand in hand dressed in new clothes. By the way, let me be more precise, the dress code is also somewhat defined – pyjama-punjabi (kurta) for the tougher sex while the fairer sex dawns a sari usually in various shades of yellow. This phenomenon has earned the day the sobriquet – Bengali Valentine’s Day.

And yes, even if Saraswati Puja means worshipping the Goddess of Wisdom with much devotion, as mentioned earlier, the gourmet Bengali will fish some lip-smacking vegan delicacies on this auspicious day.

Special menu for the day comprise khichudi, labra, beguni, papad and chatni – somewhat simple as compared to a usual elaborate meal a typical Bangali Babu would prefer having.

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The rice used for a typical Bangali style khichudi is Govindbhog. Other items include potato, seasonal vegetables (cauliflower, carrots), paanch phoron, tej patta and dried red chillies for those who like it hot.

Khichudi is accompanied by labra which is a medley of assorted vegetables; beguni – slices of brinjal deep fried after dipped in a batter of gram flour, fried papad and of course the sweet accompaniment at the end – kuler chatni.

A sumptuous meal of the bhog would wind up the day, while the fun quotient would still continue.

Though in the present times DJs belting out tunes of Honey Singh has long replaced the traditional Bengali ones, the essence continues to enthrall all and sundry.

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