The crows had started cawing in the milky light of dawn.
The noises of the house waking reached my drowsy ears shortly after. The bustle built up just beyond the half-open door of the room in which I lay cocooned in the mosquito net with my children. I was a guest in my ancestral home with no chores to perform for a change. Breakfast was being made, the newspapers had arrived, and the laundry had magically come back clean.
Coaxed out of bed with a cup of sweet tea, I found hot jalebis, fruit, and a luxuriously cheesy omelette in the dining room. Stuffing myself in the hope that we’d soon get out and work it off, I discovered it was nearly lunchtime. The only sensible course of action was to wait for the chholar daal, potoler dolma, kosha mangsho and shorshe ilish. Satiated, I sternly told myself I shouldn’t indulge in that other Kolkata favourite—the never-ending siesta. The kids had seen enough of the easy life. They were all set to explore their mother’s jostling, crumbling city. So we struck out into the great beyond. Into Kolkata.
At the turn of the century, I had left these shores for Blighty. Thirteen years later, I was back on a journey of rediscovery. It would also be an introduction to my former home for my children who were growing up a world away. In the wettest six weeks of the year, I hoped to show them all that I had found to love in two decades of exploring the city. I was excited but anxious. Kolkata’s charms are not the obvious kind. Its beauty is in the sounds and tastes and in the way it makes you feel.
I felt nothing but love for my city until I was six. I loved its mildly nippy winters. Warmed by the sun on the terrace, on our break from school, my cousins and I would help with the day’s cooking by shelling peas and defuzzing baby carrots. We would be rewarded with plump raisins, oranges, and notun gurer sandesh. There were trips to Alipore Zoo with my mother’s clan. The overwhelming animal smell of the place would fade amidst the joys of watching wondrous creatures and tucking into tutti-frutti ice cream.
But closest to my heart is a monsoon memory of my sprightly, large-hearted great-grandfather wading through knee-deep water to entertain me on a dreary afternoon. As soon as he arrived, there would be magic in the air. We would make puppets out of eggshells and scraps, stage shows with our delicate marionettes from behind the dining room curtains, read tales of adventure, and end the evening with philosophical discussions on Feluda, Tintin, or The Little Prince while sharing a slab of chocolate.
The next five years were spent in the Philippines. In the gleaming capital of Manila, I developed new interests. I loved the sea and the balmy weather. I discovered Nancy Drew, Judy Blume, and Bruce Springsteen. The family I had left behind were never far from my mind, but time and distance opened up a gulf between me and my old city. When I returned to Kolkata, my great-grandfather was no more and the unalloyed love I had for my home town had also died. The summers felt searing, the monsoons relentless, and the winters biting compared to the tropical climate I had embraced.
But loving Kolkata is like learning to swim: you never forget how. In the years after our return, at first grudgingly and then with growing enthusiasm, I rediscovered my city. I went on morning walks round Dhakuria Lake with my cousins. My grandmother’s magnificent pot roasts on Sundays were worth moving country for. A couple of times a month we would be in central Kolkata, sampling its cosmopolitan delights—from posh patisseries to roadside shacks selling meaty Mughlai rolls, to little shops in New Market flogging trendy togs, and cavernous cinema halls showing Hollywood blockbusters. There was also the newly instituted Nandan screening cerebral cinema alongside brightly lit new bookstores where you could, for the first time, sit and browse. These things sustained me through high school and university.
When, as a broadcast journalist, I began delving into Kolkata’s cultural riches for our show, I fell in love with my city all over again.
Now I was back for more, with my little angrezis in tow.
We headed for the open spaces the children would enjoy. At Dhakuria Lake, we watched games of cricket, traipsed through green, dripping Safari Park looking for a dry swing, ending up, as always, at the Calcutta Rowing Club. I have fond early memories of the CRC, of its children’s Christmas parties with drawing competitions on flowering lawns, tables laden with cake and strangely slim Santas. The Anderson Club was another childhood haunt. Emerging shivering from an evening swim to warm ourselves with piping hot lentil soup was a weekly ritual. I returned to these clubs so the children could run like the wind, rummage in bushes for lizards, and dig into tubs of Two in One ice cream.
The next day we went further. Victoria Memorial was a breath of fresh air after the choking traffic on the way there. Victoria was her usual regal self. If it soothed me to gaze upon its elegant marble facade after the chaos we had just endured, it pleased the kids as much to spot statues of stately lions, trumpeting angels, and Victoria in voluminous robes.
The children would have spent all day galumphing about on the damp grass, watching kites (of the avian variety) wheel overhead and attempting to pet mangy dogs, had a gusty squall not sent us scurrying in. Inside the dark, cavernous halls, they found other delights. Shadows and echoes became playmates as they pored over centuries-old cutlasses, hoary cannons, and the dramatic paintings of tigers. Rain couldn’t dampen their day.
Back outside, avoiding the swarms of sad donkeys and their manically persistent handlers, we made our way to the Maidan. Despite the sodden ground, there were throngs of people there with the same idea, of escaping the reek and rumpus of the more congested parts of the city. We wandered past ancient trams, football scrums, and vendors advertising their mouth-watering wares in sing-song voices. We stood where the Calcutta Book Fair had been held until the High Court moved it to the E.M. Bypass in 2009 for environmental reasons. It had been an annual pilgrimage for many of us, equally devoted to books and food. For the Boi Mela had been endless lines of bookstalls punctuated with pungent shacks peddling fish fry, chicken roll, and little bhars of tea. And people, shoulder to shoulder, toe upon stubbed toe, passionately going about their business of choosing books and refreshments.
Streaked with pink, the sky reminded me we should return home before the mosquitoes came out to feast on young flesh. Their father was due to arrive that night.
He got a day to recover from jet lag before we went exploring again. We headed for Park Street, the home of my television years and my favourite part of the city. At the end of the street is a darkly romantic 18th-century cemetery with lichen-stained headstones and the occasional giggle-inducing epitaph (“Here lies Lisbeth Brewster, undone by a portion of pineapple” or something to that effect). Lost amongst the almost entirely European, generally Gothic, memorials is the tomb of Indologist William Jones. It is a distinctly Hindu edifice with a central dome and black basalt carvings. The structure was an affirmation of his love for India, and I was glad to have found it among the shadows and rivulets of the rain-washed graveyard.
Our next stop was just off Park Street, where my elegant all-girls’ college appeared as it always had, untouched by the hurly-burly around it on Middleton Row. Loreto College had the calm of a nunnery and the sheen of a finishing school for well-heeled women. As I showed my family around the deserted college that holiday, I could hear the whispered stories, shared laughter, and occasional heartbreak of generations of girls in its corridors and classrooms. Right next to Loreto House and College is the tranquil St. Thomas’ Church. It was there before Loreto but has the same stillness about it. When Mother Teresa was laid in state there in 1997, the world streamed in through its doors, disrupting its distinctive hush. A year later I was responsible for disturbing the peace while shooting for MTV there. But on that afternoon it was bathed in the serene glow that the blazing sun emerging after a spot of rain confers on Kolkata.
We’d become so unused to peace in my polyphonic city, we needed a pick-me-up after our sombre tour of cemeteries, churches, and cloistered colleges. At Flurys, the finest tea room in town, we found pastries, savouries, and that gorgeous coffee and ice-cream concoction called Coffee Sprungli. Since it opened its doors in 1927, Flurys has collected a large and determined clientele, my family among them. There was never a trip to central Kolkata that did not involve a visit to Flurys. As I admired the plush new interiors fitted after a fire in 2010, the kids took it upon themselves to pick the pastries for taking home.
With one day left to see the sights, we decided to go off the beaten track. We arrived at the Temple of a Million Mirrors in Maniktolla as the sun set, gilding every square of its cut-glass facade. In a city with lots of character but little awe-inspiring beauty, this was a place I particularly wanted to show my family, and not just at any time of the day. The 19th-century Pareshnath Jain Complex, a group of four temples adorned with mirrored mosaics and stained glass, can appear kitschy in daylight but at sunset it’s dazzling. Its twilit glow exudes a spirituality that touches even the non-believer. So we breathed it in—the sparkle, the serenity, and the faintly scented air.
But it was dinner that promised to be heaven. Dropped off at the entrance to the labyrinthine lanes of the Tibetan Quarter in central Kolkata, we went looking for a little eatery with divine momos that I remembered from 15 years ago. Yet nearly every identical tiny room, crammed with tables, had delectable smells wafting out. With little hope of finding my old haunt, we decided to eat at the busiest, brightest one.
Our last week was devoted to friends and family we wouldn’t see again for months. Alongside pujos and parties at their homes, were tea, digestives, and dalmut (savoury snack) on the balcony with my parents. Lunches of moshoor dal, mocha chingri, and mishti doi with the whole family around the table. Wrapping up each satisfyingly slow day with late night addas after the kids had fallen asleep. The day before we left, I turned 40. As friends from different chapters of my life, most of whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade, gathered at Calcutta Rowing Club with its twinkling lawns and delicious catering, I realised how fortunate I was to have brought them together. Past exploits were recounted with warmth and laughter, absent friends remembered, and the city’s future discussed with equal measures of hope and despair. Blowing out the candles on my cake, I made a wish to keep coming back to the city of my birth for as long as I could.
Appeared in the July 2014 issue as “Reliving remembered joys in Kolkata”.
Shorshe ilish. Photo: Mohammed Anwarul Kabir Choudhury/Alamy/IndiaPicture
For the soul settled far from home, familiar, much-loved flavours can salvage bad days and enhance good ones. Our dark English winters are brightened by slivers of Bengali culinary sunshine. Recreating Kolkata classics with my enthusiastic young family in our Nottingham kitchen, using readily available ingredients, is easy and fun. And the outcome, almost always delectable. My version of the classic shorshe ilish is a Bengal-inspired salmon. A recreation rather than reproduction, it’s different but delicious.
Ingredients We Use
4 salmon steaks
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tbsp mustard paste
2 tbsp mustard oil
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp black onion seeds
1/2 cup water
2-3 slit chillies
Slather the salmon in turmeric-mustard paste, and leave in the fridge for at least 2 hours. Heat the oil in a frying pan and add mustard seeds; when they begin to pop, add cumin and black onion seeds. (Manoeuvre children out of the kitchen before this.) Sear both sides of the salmon in the pan. Add leftover marinade and water, making a sauce which thickens while cooking. Simmer chillies gently with the fish for 5 minutes. Magnificent with rice.
Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.