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.


  1. Extremely superb diction. �� like. Brilliant. Ready to write serial on Calcutta eng & Bangla in....

  2. Superb. Ready to publish in eng & bangla

  3. Commented in more detail but it vanished. Above comment is also mine. B

  4. Superb article. Write more