Tuesday, August 30, 2016


I was wavering between REM and wakefulness and abruptly my eyes opened. The curtains to the French window in front of me were open and the light of dawn was filling the room. I looked out and was startled out of my bed – there right in front of me was the snow-clad peak in its full and complete glory – the knife blade of the summit etched like a stark drawing with a Rotring pen. There wasn’t a speck of cloud, nor any haze anywhere. The mountain had decided to show the little Alpine village of Zermatt every contour on its face. The sky was a pale blue – as it is before sunrise. And etched on the sky was the crowning glory of the canton of Valais – the Matterhorn. Mont Cervin. Monte Cervino.

We had been waiting ever since our arrival at Zermatt to get an unobstructed glimpse of the majestic peak of the mountain. My father told me on phone –“I had skied above Zermatt years ago but the thing to see there is the knife edged peak of the Matterhorn.” So everyday, between various alpine activities, our eyes would turn to the mountain and there would always be wisps of cloud hiding the horn. Today was the last morning before we were to leave Zermatt and suddenly we were blessed with this spectacular view.

I stood in the balcony quietly clicking pictures and thinking how none of these photographs would do justice to the real thing.

And then, like a curtain going up on a wonder, the next part of the show began.

The peak turned a light shade of pink. The sun was rising!

I had read of this amazing sight. “If you are lucky, you will see the peak of the Matterhorn catching the first rays of sunrise and then it will slowly spread down the mountain face” said the guidebooks. And there it was. In a breathtaking show over the next one hour, the mountain was slowly bathed in the light of the rising sun.

Pouring molten gold down its glaciers, the sun slowly rose. It seemed as though today the sun had decided that the only reason it would awaken was to pour yellow metal on the mountain. It did not matter if the meadows caught the sun. Or if the edelweiss opened its petals that morning. Or if the Vispa river sparkled. Nobody noticed if the stained glass windows in the church reflected its multicoloured panes on the stone floors. The Stellisee lake reflecting the mountains was forgotten. For those minutes the Matterhorn was all that mattered – metamorphosing from a geological mass of rock to something other-worldly.

In an hour the Matterhorn had turned a glistening silver as the sun became brighter and the valley was filled with light.

The light of that sunrise entered my heart and filled it with joy. It was as if I had experienced these lines written a century back

How have the sun’s rays in my heart entered this morning!
How have the songs of the morning birds into the dark cave broken!
Who knows why, after long, my soul has woken

Nirjharer Swapnabhango/Awakening of the Waterfall

Returning to the mountains with my family after several years, I could not have asked for a better gift from forces which I consider divine. Maybe these were blessings. Maybe these were just particles of light scattering through the atmosphere and spreading life-giving energy. Whether sacred or profane, in that beautiful valley, in that morning light, the Matterhorn showed us the magic that’s there in living.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


With a smooth swishing action, the finger flicked the red Queen and it glided across the board like a ballerina, nimbly jumping into its resting pocket at the opposite corner of the board. A curt nod by the perpetrator, a quick puff on the cigarette in the left hand followed by a deft click of the thumb to dislocate the inch long ash-head were the only indicators of victory.

Baah! Darun dilen Dada!” exclaimed one of the senior gents observing from the gallery – the wooden bench in front of the cigarette shop. The players gathered around the carrom board responded with mild smiles – after all they had been at the game for a few hours now, shooting and re-grouping the carrom-men over successive games. The light suspended above the board swung slowly as a breeze blew down the Southern Avenue. We sat down on the bench with the other addabaaj’s. The tree-lined avenue, the boom-box in the kiosk serenading with “My heart is beating, keeps on repeating…” and the carefully folded saada paan with meettha masala all added to the fragrance of retrospection.

“Wasn’t there a lady selling phuchka here?” I enquired.

“Yes, a little further down. She died. But the man in front of the Kali Mandir is still there. Go on, try him”

A bit shocked at the relentless cycle of life – translated to phuchkas in this case, I reluctantly made way to the old man.

Banaiye… please make.” Obviously, continuing the tradition of eating phuchkas on Southern Avenue was more important than any residue of grief for the previous dispenser of these spice-filled, tangy delights.

As we popped phuchka after phuchka into the mouth, the old gentleman kept checking – “How is the level of sweetness?” “More chillies?” “ Roast cumin powder to be added?”

He was obviously an artist who appreciated his own art. Encounter the average golgappa-wala in Delhi and you’ll be stonewalled with “we do it like this only, like it or lump it” to any requests of “Bhaiya, thoda teekha aur.” None of that here.

While sampling his entire menu, we watched a stream of people entering and coming out of the temple in front. Floral offerings were carried in. And on stepping out they made a beeline for the various vendors of snacks. Divine intervention would play a critical role in protecting the health of the digestive systems hereon.

A father with his daughter – 6-7 years old – the girl bespectacled and thin, hair tied in braids, in true Bengali tradition, ordered plates of jhalmuri. The girl tucked into her plate of spicy muri, leaning against a parked car, lost in her own thoughts. In this city of foodies, it was obvious that this little girl had partaken of this street delight several times already, it was just another snack. I knew for a fact that if my daughter was to stand here and eat a plate of jhalmuri, she would certainly inspect it closely and either express pleasure or disdain. But no, for this little girl, a plate of a Calcutta delight that appears on food-trail lists, blogposts and TimeOut must-eats was an everyday snack – tasty yet mundane.

That’s when I realized why despite its overwhelming sense of decay, an underbelly of stark poverty on the streets, a perpetual feeling over decades that its dying, Calcutta remains a Mahanagar – a metropolis.

Because its where you can still get an afternoon tea for Rs. 275 with a cucumber sandwich, a tart and a cream cake at Flury’s.

Because Barabazar- the wholesale market – still has rows of shops selling assorted wares like bicycles, art prints, electrical cables and marble temples for Hindu homes. And where on a Friday afternoon be ready to be overwhelmed to see the road next to the Nakhoda Mosque closed to vehicles by the traffic police, as about a thousand devouts kneel on the road in neat rows, answering the prayer call.

Because you can watch a Shakespearean play at Nandan for a paltry price, sitting on wooden chairs

Because an accomplished singer on the radio channels will happily come home with her best student and sing for your entertainment with no monetary benefit – tea and samosas and sweets suffice and she is happy to contribute to the atmosphere, which is beautiful with song and the scent of rajnigandhas in old brass vases.

Because the manager of a canteen run by a women’s group casually asks you to “first eat what you have ordered and then order more, this is too much food”.

Because at Someplace Else you can be one of a skeletal audience on a Sunday evening, listening slack-jawed to a Bengali lady belting out rock classics accompanied by a lead guitarist who can easily contend for the title of one of the best in the country.

Because a permanent carrom board under a tree is a pretty frequent sight in the neighbourhoods.

Because despite copycats all over the country, Nizam’s at New Market still makes the best rolls in the country.

And like that, there is no city in this country which is able to keep these assorted balls in the air and yet give the impression that its dying. Because it isn’t. Its just living on its own terms. And only its citizens get those terms.

For the rest of us Calcutta remains an outlier, a renegade who refuses to comply with the Delhi-Bombay rules of glitz, economy, work-life balance etc. Where we go to ogle and savour this odd lifestyle for a few days, relieved to return to our processed, orderly routines where, strangely, life is defined by deadlines.

I, for one, always come back overwhelmed and a teeny bit jealous.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Ballimaran to Dariba Kalan

Ug raha hai dar-o-deewar se sabzah Ghalib
Hum bayabaan mein hein aur ghar mein bahar aai hai.

Dilapidated with plantation are the walls of  my house Ghalib

They say what a scene but for me it is no more than a forest glib

We stood in front of the wall on which these words were written, in a courtyard once resonating with couplets and ghazals and the aroma of Ghalib’s favourite mangoes and shaami kababs. The gentleman next to us read out the Urdu script from the tomes displayed inside glass boxes.

Ye kahaan ki dosti hai ke bane hain dost naaseh
Koi chaaraa saaz hotaa, koi gham guzaar hotaa

Laughing out loud he looked at us and said “Wah Ghalib saab wah! Who needs friends who are only giving us advice and pious lectures? Friends are those on whose shoulders we can weep and who can comfort us!”

That stumped me for a minute. Is that what this line meant? I had heard this ghazal in Chitra Singh’s honey-soaked voice many times but this gentleman from London, in the alleys of Ballimaran, standing inside Mirza Ghalib’s haveli, suddenly made me look at friendship anew.

As the rickshaw flew through the sudden shower, I looked up at the sky above criss-crossed with a tangle of electric cables and through them glimpses of balconies – propped on brackets, carved years ago.

The need to walk those streets was overwhelming. So we bought an umbrella and strolled through Chawri Bazaar, marveling at the ritual of daily business going on over wedding cards and cups of sweet tea. Mithaiwallahs sat tasting their own recipes of khurchan and at a street corner in Paranthewali galli we sat and talked about old inland letters over kachauri.

“Madam! Spicy?” called out the masala shopkeepers at Khari Baoli. I whipped off my Ray-Ban shades in a futile attempt to encourage hindi conversation with me. And in front of Chunnamal ki Haveli  at Katra Neel we looked at photographs of its courtyards and inner rooms on the internet on my phone.

Past the domes of Jama Masjid and at the corner of Chippi Wada, we browsed in an antique store where covered in dust were painted  portraits of Rabindranath Tagore from 1951 and paan containers in filigreed metal boxes fit for a royal.

I stood at the doorstep of the shop and listened to the Bhojpuri conversation of the workman in the shop across, speaking on his cellphone while his mates cooked rotis and a curry in battered aluminium pots. The twilight of Chandni Chowk and the strains of A.R. Rahman’s “Rehna tu, hai jaisa tu, thoda sa dard tu, thoda sukun” merged with the cowdust hour of a village in Bihar and we went off in search of a cup of tea for ourselves.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


My soul is full of longing
for the secret of the sea,
and the heart of the great ocean
sends a thrilling pulse through me

 ― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 The SS Strathmore was docked at Ballard Pier, Bombay. A crowd had gathered to gawk at the P&O liner -  a sea- veteran since 1935. The single-funnel steamship sailed the UK - Australian route, making port calls at Bombay, Colombo and Melbourne to Sydney. Ship enthusiasts in the crowd would know that in the war years it had served as a troop ship till 1948, and thereafter had been re-commissioned as a voyage ship.

Postcard of the Strathmore issued to passengers

Boarding this majestic liner, in December 1960, was a rookie engineer from Bengal Engineering College, Calcutta, on his first trip across the seas, to distant Sweden. His eyes danced with excitement and anticipation as he waved across the wooden railings to his parents.

His mother’s advice had been practical yet emotional –

1.       Do not be picky about your food, eat everything. Eventually you will like it.

2.       Do not marry a foreigner.

While Advice 2 seemed unlikely on the boat pier right then, he certainly meant to follow Advice 1 diligently.

As for his father – a six-foot plus handsome engineer himself – he was the man responsible for the journey. Having arranged the Swedish employment, he had ensured that the solitary bespoke suit for his son was stitched by the legendary Ghulam Ali at New Market in Calcutta and the passport photographs were clicked by none other than Bourne & Shepherd on Park Street.

The Shome family members maintained their legendary stoicism across the ship’s gangplank, emotions in check, as the Strathmore slowly backed away from the pier and made its way into the Arabian Sea.

Subid checked his ticket details. It was to be a 14 day journey from Bombay to Genoa at the Italian shore. His 1000 rupees’ ticket gave him an upper berth in a four-berth cabin, full access to the three restaurants on board and all the entertainment that the liner had on its calendar for the two weeks. He was excited, no trace of homesickness. It was going to be the biggest adventure yet for this Bengali boy!

Once in his cabin he quickly made friends with his three cabin-mates, all north Indians – friendly and robust. They agreed that these two weeks were to be spent in camaraderie and made memorable in whatever way possible. The cabin itself was below the waterline and being an outside cabin, from the portholes was visible the turbulent waters of the ship’s wake. It was hardly exciting viewing. So the new friends made their way up to the restaurant deck to explore more.

The restaurants were fancy and the fare served left Subid wide-eyed and delighted. Except at his father’s dak bungalow at the cement factory, where the cook served delicious European dishes, he had grown up on Bengali cuisine and the eclectic menu of Calcutta restaurants. Every dish on the Strathmore tasted exotic and a must-try.
As the days passed on board, the sea became gorgeously blue. Often Subid would stand on the deck and watch dolphins somersaulting in large groups. When the Arabian Sea passed through the Gulf of Aden and into the Red Sea, it was announced on the PA system that there would be heavy rolling for at least 24 hours. Passengers were advised to stay away from the decks. But that was hardly a deterrent for the inquisitive Bengali boy on board. At dusk he stood and watched the massive waves attacking the vessel from all sides. The ship pitched and rolled as he held onto the railings, fascinated by this dangerous roller coaster. Later in the evening, as he and his friends sat down for dinner, the restaurant looked strangely empty.

“Where is everybody?”

“Most passengers are seasick sir, we are surprised to see you at dinner as well,” replied the Maitre’d.

“Really? That’s weird,” said Subid, reaching out for the soup of the day and the grilled fish.

For the next two days, while the rest of the passengers retched and lay in their cabins, Subid and his friends ruled the roost at the restaurants. They were untouched by seasickness of any sort and all the rolling and pitching just made the days even more exciting!

3000 nautical miles later, the ship docked at Port Said, Egypt. Taking advantage of the break for a few hours, the four bedouins disembarked and took a bus to Cairo. Taking in the bustle of the Egyptian city and a camel ride later, they saw the pyramids at Giza and stared transfixed at the Sphinx. Was this really happening? Or was it all a dream?

Later, after the Suez Canal, the ship entered the Mediterranean Sea – blue as a legend. It was a sea of dreams – catching fire with the afternoon sun and then again quiet and contemplative, like the curls of pale blue smoke of a woman’s cigarette.

 At Malta as the crew changed, Subid sat and pondered the rest of his journey to Sweden. His voyage was not to end at Genoa; he still had to make his way to Sweden over land across Western Europe. It seemed daunting for him – who had never stepped out of his country before – yet this only made the days ahead more exciting.

The last few days on the SS Strathmore were spent watching the sea turn more azure as the winter sky sparkled. At night the surf rolled in a silvery shimmer. Indoors there was ballroom dancing, musical performances and sports competitions. The four cabin mates exchanged contact details as the day to leave the vessel fast approached. Finally, two weeks after they had left the shores of Bombay, the liner docked at Genoa.

Subid walked down the ramp and waved goodbye to his friends, who were to continue onboard to the United Kingdom. Here on Italian land, his heart filled with joy to have completed this beautiful voyage at the cusp of his adulthood.  As the yellow smokestack of the Strathmore set off puffs of smoke, Subid picked up his two suitcases and headed for the railway station.

Monday, May 13, 2013


I poured the last dregs of wine into the two plastic glasses and handed one to Pranay. The sun had set on the ghats and the water shimmered under the lights of the Vidyasagar Setu. A boat glided past while behind us a group of amateur photographers set up their tripods.

We were in the home-stretch of a fight. As I emptied my glass of wine, and felt the breeze from the Hooghly on my face, the reasons seemed trivial. Here in this city of my birth, where the shadows of ancestors still roamed the old haunts, the world seemed more than the sum of domesticity, possessions, misplaced iphone texts and sulk-fests. Suddenly I was glad that I was sulking in Calcutta.

We walked the promenade of Prinsep Ghat and gravitated towards the pav bhaji stall. And then later dug our teeth into egg sandwiches at Trinca’s where the band played Suzie Q. That little stretch of Park Street seemed to have stepped out of the pages of Chowringhee – old liveried waiters, Black Dog whiskey and chilli chicken.

Over coffees at College Street and the strumming of Manna Dey’s “Coffee House-er  shei adda”, we argued some more but hints of giggles were diluting the ammunition. Instead we rummaged through piles of books and staggered back to the car with children’s ghost stories, a biography of Enid Blyton, Jo Nesbo and Sunil Gangopadhyay amongst many.

By the time we stood for a standing ovation to Oedipus the arguments had run out.  The auditorium echoed with Oedipus’ lament and as I struggled to keep up with the translations for Pranay, Calcutta – with its crumbling mansions, banyan trees shading the graves of dead poets at the South Park Street Cemetery and a montage of Satyajit Ray’s “Calcutta” trilogy – seemed the perfect stage for a Greek tragedy.

In front of Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s epitaph we ended the silly squabble. I read out aloud,

“Stop a while, traveller!
 Should Mother Bengal claim thee for her son.
 As a child takes repose on his mother's elysian lap,
 Even so here in the Long Home,
 On the bosom of the earth,
Enjoys the sweet eternal sleep
Poet Madhusudan of the Duttas.”

“Lets get a last phuchka,” announced Pranay.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Smells Like Teen Spirit or Yesterday!

The strains of the sitar break the dawn as Ravi Shankar’s dhun transforms a sleepy flower people into a mesmerized ovation – his fingers flying on the strings like a hummingbird.

Watch him here:

Monterey Pop
Who could resist the charm of this musician with his dreamy eyes and intoxicating smile? My espresso always runs cold as I watch him build up the crescendo.

Music gives us strong associations – to people we love, to places we have passed through, to warm hearths and kitchen aromas. For me, there are some musical pieces that always echo one or more of these.

On hot summer days, as we ate dosas from around the corner of the boys’ hostel, Gulzar’s collection of Fursat ke Raat Din had a soporific, hypnotic effect. Assignments would stop mid-way to make way for romance. This had to be followed up with the tempo of Pink Floyd or Eagles for the Rotring pens to move faster to make up for lost time.

Many years before that, Radio Calcutta would air Suchitra Mitra or some other stalwart’s renditions of Rabindrasangeet between 7.30 am and 8 am. Ma would hurry us up from behind the toaster and as the 8’o’clock Bengali news bulletin started we would make a mad rush out of the door to catch the school bus.

The first signs of “cool” was Nazia Hassan’s psychedelic “Aao Na Pyar Karein” and the rest of Disco Deewane. ( Listen to her here Aao Na). The songs created visions of shiny disco balls even in broad daylight. Sunday mutton curry and rice was followed by dance sessions to these – Dil bole Boom Boom!   ( Boom Boom)
And then in the teens there was Beatles. One of my favourites was Norwegian Wood. Initially it intrigued me with the sitar track. And later the lyrics kind of epitomized a beatnik lifestyle – sexy, naughty and destructive. Who did not want to go there?

Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me
She showed me her room, isn't it good, Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair
I sat on the rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, "It's time for bed"
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh
I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath
And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn't it good, Norwegian wood?
Somehow the teens were the least inspiring food-wise. So I have NO food recollections with this one! Odd.

In a time in between, Cliff Richards came across as handsome (!!) and his songs hit the right notes. All this rapidly became uncool later. But I have to say, in retrospect, Lucky Lips and Summer Holiday were fabulous – like warm popcorn – crackling and salty.

Watch the movie track of Summer Holiday here. Its hilarious.

And the girls screaming for Lucky Lips here :

The list of favourites is endless, as with everyone. There was a time when I loved techno (still do). Somehow Robert Miles reminds me of German cheesecake and Riesling, not necessarily paired together. Maybe because I first heard this genre in the German clubs. We had a dress code for techno-club nights – dungarees and T shirts – to allow maximum cross ventilation when hot and sweaty with dancing!!

Today when I hear Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel, I am reminded of exam preparations, radio nights, power cuts and the fragrance of the Hasna Henna blooms outside the bedroom window. In Bengali the flowers were called that, our mali called them Raat ki Rani.

Here is a vintage unplugged rendition of one such. Don’t miss the introduction by Art Garfunkel.
Sounds of Silence

But what brings all of this together is Rabindranath’s “Purano shei diner kotha” – a song of nostalgia, of friends parting and coming back together. Its chord based melody is supposedly inspired by Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne. The two compositions are steeped in memories, joy and tears. A rough translation of the Rabindrasangeet is here below.

Old times' tale - how could they be forgotten?
Lived through our eyes,
Words spurting from our hearts - sweet memories
Come once again ... to the embrace of the soul,
Sharing joys and woes, gratifying our hearts
We gathered flowers in the dawn, swayed on the swing,
We sang songs and played the flute beneath the bokul tree
Alas we parted then, who knows where we went...

Now that we meet again, my dear friend, lets embrace.

And while Auld Lang Syne has been sung by many iconic singers, I love this Scottish soundtrack of Sex and the City and the ongoing montage of friendship, separation and celebration. Never fails to make me sob stupidly in front of the telly.

Auld Lang Syne

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup !
and surely I’ll buy mine !
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sur le pont d'Avignon

"These colors give me extraordinary exaltation. I have no thought of fatigue; I shall do another picture this very night, and I shall bring it off. I have a terrible lucidity at moments when nature is so beautiful; I am not conscious of myself any more, and the pictures come to me as in a dream."


Starry Night Over the Rhone – Vincent Van Gogh

 We stood on the platform as a train zipped past in a blur of silver. The sky was a forget-me-not blue and the sun bounced off the beautiful vaults of the Gare d’Avignon station. We were waiting for our train that would take us to the coast of Nice but leaving Avignon was like leaving behind a surrealistic canvas and packing a heartache in the suitcase.

Within the walls of the old town lay paths of cobblestone, medieval windows through which wafted the aroma of French Onion Soup and sea bass and fennel and aubergine. We pushed Sophie’s stroller past the gothic walls of the Palais des Papas and into the gardens where a cooling breeze, a quacking of ducks and the sweet-sour taste of oranges stayed with us as we stared transfixed, down at the Rhone - deceptively lazy - and the broken bridge of Avignon.

We listened to the tales of mistral winds, standing on the Pont d’Avignon. The winds whipped Pia’s hair into a crazy mane - framing her sweet, spectacled face as she held the audio-guide close to her ears, her usual diligence concentrating on every word of myth and history. And I kind of knew that this is my only visit to this magical place, so I bought a yellow-blue tablecloth from a shop under the arches of the town, to remind me of Avignon. I could neither paint like a maestro nor write, but the feelings resonated.