Asia

The Nostalgia of Calcutta

The days have melted away in a puddle of emotions. I leave tomorrow for Delhi where after spending a day at my in-laws’ place, I head home to my Adi. But there is a feeling of disquiet that haunts me when I walk at night upon the terrace of my childhood home. In the shadow of the coconut trees that stand silhouetted, tall and straight-backed, against the moonlit sky, I cannot help brooding upon the changes that time shall bring. For it always does. It is the one constant in this journey of life. Change. For these trees have been silent witnesses: To the years drifting by as my parents walked in to this home of ours, young, full of dreams and aspirations; time as it slowly whittled down their energy and youth; then us as we grew up, left everything behind to chalk our own paths and took off for distant places to set up new homes. In the shadows of these trees, I cannot help thinking about whether this be the last time that I shall see everything as it should be. Fears of mortality but then there you have the inevitability of living.

Everything has changed so where we live. People have tripled in number in this quiet suburb of Calcutta. Where there were green vacant plots earlier, there stand houses, some not quite aesthetically pleasing. The ones that have not been yet claimed by anyone have been transformed into tiny rubbish dumps. The mayor of our town though is proud about organising various events for the residents, putting together musical events and putting up hideous sculptures of animals in the parks. Who wants to see a python in stone dangling above their heads, eh? Would it not be much better to see those resources pooled in to clear the roads of rubbish and concrete dumped on the pavements?

The old neighbours are no more there. They have all slowly opted out of the race of living. I could not even spot the house of one of my dearest friends because the changes in her alley have been quite remarkable. My early morning cycling yielded pleasure and sorrow in equal measures.

Yet behind these melancholic thoughts are moments strung together by memories. Meeting an aunt who was our neighbour in Oman. Her husband died of a stroke a few years ago but I have memories of his canvases that he painted with great pride and whenever I visited him, bullying him to part with a canvas, he would just ask for a kiss on the cheek in return. The school friend who is married into a conservative family and is happy though she lives within the shackles of her community. Her stories emphasise upon me that India has a long way to go before women achieve their right to even make their own decisions. My hope lies in women like my friend who are pushing the boundaries in their personal lives yet she has to take the permission of her husband to step out of the house.

I sauntered around with Adi before he had to leave and made sure he ate his way through the four days he spent in Calcutta. Chanced upon film sets in the old houses of South Calcutta (the one in the lead photo), railed against the prevalence still of ‘Indian Standard Time’ — everyone likes to be punctual about turning up late, chased food with my brother and his family who have flown back to their home in Lagos, met many cousins and friends, toyed with food at old haunts that soothed the senses with delirious pleasure. Mughlai at Arsalan, Chinese at Bar B Q and Beijing. The old names. Then stopped by new places like Sienna Café where I snacked on organic pesto and mozzarella layered squares of bread with a cousin from Glasgow, sighed with her over lush saris and traditional textiles, caught street food around home – the usual suspects you know. Egg rolls and fish fries, phhuchka (hollow semolina balls filled with tamarind water), samosa and kachori chaat (tangy, spicy snacks), pathishaptas (traditional pancakes stuffed with coconut and date palm jaggery) experimentally stuffed with meats.

But do you know about the winner in this cornucopia of flavours? My mother’s many veggie and fish dishes. She had lost her touch when she took to bed with depression for years but now she is up and about. And boy, can she cook. A strange goodness spreads like a halo around my head as I eat these simple and subtle flavours. Ma has no recipes. I suppose if you go by recipes strictly, you can hardly invent new dishes. With every spoonful of her many veggie and fish dishes, I am overcome. I hope someday I can cook like her. I might not like her stubbornness in certain quarters of life but she is a brick.

Now I cannot possibly put it all down in words because being home is overwhelming but I shall try and present some of these moments through shots captured in the split second.

Doors of Saltlake
The Freemasons’ Lodge in Calcutta is a secretive affair on Park Street where there remains some ancient prints from Jerusalem and one of the original Freemason lodges in London which was destroyed in the great fire.
Oxford Bookstore on Park Street, the bookworm’s delight.
Old-world Chinese in Bar B Q on Park Street
Chilli Chicken
Chicken Manchow Soup
Flurys, a tearoom from the 1920s on Park Street
Spicy egg chicken roll

Misty Days
A strange sight: Recreation of London’s Elizabeth Tower (which you know as Big Ben)
An even stranger thought: They play the national anthem in theatres!!! There I was struggling not to drop my popcorn and drink as I had to stand up suddenly as the anthem was played.
Sweets at Nolen Gur festival. Nolen gur is date palm jaggery that is a popular winter dessert.
More Nolen Gur sweets but experimental ones
Traditional sweets like patishapta (in the foreground) and malpua (the fried flat discs behind the patishapta)
Rabri (condensed milk sweet)
From the verandah of my library room

Bottlebrushes

Sugarcane carts

With my brother at Beijing, an old Chinese eatery in Tangra where the Hakka Chinese started their tanneries when they arrived in the city a long time ago.
New Year’s eve at the Marriott Hotel
Views from the Marriott of life passing by along a busy thoroughfare

Long queues outside Arsalan. Bengalis will do anything for good food.
Mutton biryani, the food of nawabs, at Arsalan
Mutton chops
Chicken malai kebabs with a coating of cheese
Gariahata market
Gariahata Market
Dimer devil (devilled eggs) and Chicken Pakoras at a roadside stall
Park Street on the first night of the new year
After 20 years. School friends.
A noon with relatives and my sister-in-law on the extreme left.
The Glasgow cousin who was also in town. Outside Sienna Café.
Sienna Café
Sienna Café
Baked goodies at Sienna
Apple cake for the soul
At an art gallery
Graffiti project for missing girls in Calcutta to raise awareness about sex trafficking
Doorways of South Calcutta
With my two former flatmates and the cutest two-year-old
S and I
Ella Rose

70 Comments

  • lexandneek

    As I sit reading your beautifully introspective post, I get a coughing fit (from a very bad cold) and I am very reluctant to leave and attend to it. So, I get a little mucus on the keyboard and monitor – That’s what handy wipes were made for. It was really a joy to read and experience your thoughts and emotions about being back in Calcutta. Hope your visit was as good for you as it was for me to read 😉 – Neek

    • Dippy-Dotty Girl

      Bully for the cold, you shall conquer it with wipes and lots of tea. Maybe some hot chocolate too? Thank you Neek for braving it to read my melancholic thoughts. Returning to Calcutta always does it to me even though I find it soothing to be at home. It has been a wonderful trip though I do feel awful about this process of ageing that is so obvious in my parents. xx

  • annika

    Thank you for sharing your trip in such eloquent words and generous amount of photos. Things are changing there quite quickly but you are bang on… not quick enough on the women’s right front.

  • lifeofangela

    It must be strange returning to a childhood home/neighbourhood after being away for a while. Everything would look slightly different from all your memories there. We moved a lot growing up, but everytime I return to an old neighbourhood, I can’t help but think how different everything looks. I love all the photos you shared as always 🙂

    • Dippy-Dotty Girl

      Thank you my sweet. It makes me maudlin — going back home. Bittersweet. Man is conditioned to fight change, right? If you have moved around you would relate to it. I wish things would change for the better you know. But in India, the ever-growing population is a sword, dangling above its neck. xx

  • thewonderer86

    A bittersweet post. But you are blessed to have such a home to return to and so many good connections with family and friends. I was most surprised to see that photo of Big Ben!

    • Dippy-Dotty Girl

      You got that word, Tracey. That it is bittersweet. The feeling will stay on for a few weeks now before it slowly fades away as I go home to my routine. I hated leaving my parents behind this time.
      Big Ben…hah, the Chief Minister of Calcutta is a megalomaniac woman with an odd vision for the city. I bet she would be interesting to interview. xx

  • amindfultravellerblog

    This trip would have definitely bought back memories for you Arundhati. An emotional one no doubt! I loved your photos, felt like I was there with you somehow. Would have been lovely though to taste your mums home cooking again. 😉

  • travelgarb

    Obvious mixed emotions but it’s amazing to have a family and friends gathering from 4 continents! Glad your mum was well enough to cook her delicious meals. I’ve also returned to a childhood location recently. I must write something about it!

  • AJ

    It’s funny you write about change today as I’ve spent the morning thinking about the proposed changes to my small town and thinking about how much I dislike change and how powerless you feel in its wake:(. I hope the change to come is more good than bad for both of us!

  • Osyth

    I say ôtent and brought my children up on the words ‘everything changes, nothing stays the same’. It is bittersweet …. and you capture this hauntingly, beautifully, dreamingly, wakingly in this so touching post. Your words like needles restless in my heart, niggling my own memories whilst bathing in yours. For those of us that live far from our birth families and that place that will always be home however settled and delighted we are with our spread wings lives, I think visits back are the sharpeners to our emotions, emotions that we don’t even realise we carry so carefully and that can upset our equilibrium in a totally innocent way so easily. The sands of time shift and settle again. This is a beautiful piece, DD and I have tears as I write this remark. Xx

    • Dippy-Dotty Girl

      You touch me with your heartfelt remark, Osyth. You do get the right words always and I appreciate the time you take to put them down. It is upsetting to accept changes, but as you rightly emphasise upon it, it is the rite of life, and who are we to deny it? Bisous 🙂

      • Osyth

        It is our path and to be embraced but a little pathos in the way we feel it is entirely acceptable. I guess what I mean is, rather than resisting we must appreciate but that we are allowed to feel the tinge of sadness, sometimes acutely along the way 🙂 xx

    • Dippy-Dotty Girl

      Thank you Jen! Sentiments overwhelmed me as I left and this time around they have been overpowering. I hope it is not a portent. Parents and partners and pets, you should be able to travel with them into the other realm if there is any. xx

  • crystalsandcurls

    Beautiful photographs! You painted the picture of nostalgia and the tangible feeling of time passing by so well…. it’s scary how much can change and how quickly. In the past 5 years alone, a lot of the buildings I grew up with in my area have knocked down, a new shopping centre has opened up and skyrises have gone up. The world just keeps changing! ;-l; xxx

    • Dippy-Dotty Girl

      Thank you, my lovely! It is so unsettling, the change that comes with time, Mia. I can empathise with your mixed feelings as the old melts down before your eyes and the new shoves its way in. For those times, when you feel that twinge of discomfort and yearning for what was, hugs. xx

  • Pooja @lostinprettyeurope

    Wow what a beautiful post. You wrote everything that I often feel when I visit my hometown, Kathmandu, the way I never could. You have a gift for writing! Love all the photos too – I never knew that Calcutta was such a vibrant, colorful city. But then again, what big city in India isn’t right?
    Chili chicken and everything else looks scrumptious! We have a slightly different version of it in Nepal – and so far my home-made version of it has been the most preferred Nepalese dish among my foreign friends, hehe.

    • Dippy-Dotty Girl

      Thank you Pooja. Going back to Calcutta always makes me emotional and this time it was particularly so because I had time enough to feel the various emotions and let them seep in. Calcutta is a kind of a fruit punch. You either love it or hate it. But it has colour and drama in spades.
      I bet your friends love your version of Chilli Chicken. If you have ever had Indo Chinese, that particular style of cooking belongs to the Chinese community in Calcutta. xx

  • TheresaBarker

    “A strange goodness spreads like a halo around my head as I eat these simple and subtle flavours.” Loved this. LOVED it!

    I laughed at the photo with Adi looking like he wanted to be somewhere else … 🙂

    Oh! the photo from your library room. And the one peeking framed by the window. So interesting!

    Thanks, Dippy-Dotty Girl! So many travels. I was exhausted just reading where and what you did! xx

    • Dippy-Dotty Girl

      Hah Adi does look as grim as when he is in the grips of hunger 😉 Oh how I miss this moment of us just walking around after he had a solid snooze in the afternoon.
      I love standing on the verandah of my library room for there is a frangipani tree in front of it that in summer flowers fragrant. Earlier there used to be a pink bougainvillea too which climbed all the way to the top of the house but then it started corroding the iron grill around the verandah and had to be taken down. Memories. Sigh. You brought them tumbling by just commenting about the frames there 🙂 xx

  • afoodiehousewife

    So moving this one and I COMPLETELY understand what you have said and also, what you have not. This time when I visited home (Indore), I was devastated to see that the old banyan tree in our neighborhood, under which an old mechanic used to sit pumping air in my red bicycle, while I sat on the nearby rock chatting with him….had been chopped off. They will construct a multi-story on that land they said, and I am sure if I would have been present at the time of chopping, I would have done everything but climb up on the branch to protest against it. There are no kids who play in our building’s veranda nowadays..all are busy on their phones and i-pads. I stand at the balcony and see my youngs elf and my friends looking for suitable stones to play ‘langdi-taang’ around the pit of sand across the road. Gone are those days love, but those memories will always be safe in our hearts!

    FYI, I really want to visit Calcutta some day and contrary to the popular belief, it is not only to see how a ‘phuchka’ is different than a ‘golgappa’! 😉 😀 😀 Your pictures are making me salivate. So glad that you had such a nice visit home! Lovely post! xx

    P.S- hubbys seem hilarious for days after our return home, isn’t it? Mine did everything but push me inside the kitchen straightaway, to make him a decent meal after days of eating out!! 😉

    • Dippy-Dotty Girl

      I am snickering here and thinking how the scenario here was the very twin of yours in Ireland. Working backwards here, Adi was whining about the waning number of frozen food boxes in the freezer and could I please get back asap. Such love.

      You will love Calcutta because it is the king of good (and importantly cheap) food. And old-world hospitality is still at work there. Phuchkas might just steal your heart but hey a disclaimer: they do it quite inadvertently 😛

      An old banyan tree, memories of you chatting with the mechanic and the routine of your childhood — it sounds so disarmingly simple and charming. I am sorry to hear that the pleasure of its presence has been lopped away. How dare they? I often end up talking about how we mastered the art of idling away our time with seemingly silly pursuits instead of having to rely on man’s many electronic inventions. We are stars 😉 xx

  • sunshinysa

    You have captured Calcutta so well. You have a beautiful way with words, I travelled right along with you.
    I hate when we look for our older loved ones and they are no longer there.
    Hate the miserable looking “modern” houses and flats that come up.
    I love the colours, rangoli patterns, ornate ornamental displays and marigold patches.
    What to say, typical Indian here 🙂

    • dippydottygirl

      Hello Kavita, thank you for your lovely words. The changes that come along with time are unsettling and those bittersweet feeling can overwhelm us. I love everything old and I believe at times that I am 360 years old. How can an Indian not be typical? 🙂

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