“CALCUTTA”

Jodhpur Park, 5: 35 p.m.

The burner was rain-splattered. There was a tear in the blue tarpaulin overhead, which went uncared for unless rainwater plopped into the tea that was slowly simmering. Simmering now; it would boil over soon enough. But Bablu da turned down the knob at precisely the right moment, before it did. 8 rupees for a bhaand.

The burner took a break. Calcutta is a city that often seems to be, to the outsider, on an endless break. You’d be envious of its languid vacation. Men women children yellow cabs mini-buses hand-drawn rickshaws sprawled across the asphalt bed, inhaling the tar and the light blue sky all at once. That’s Calcutta for you. The City of Joy, of culture and heritage and music. To her lovers, Calcutta’s cacophony is music. Hot debates over steaming cha-shingara is an orchestra. The dull hum that sets in every night, as the brown oil-soaked paper covering the egg-chicken rolls sticks to the plates, is a lullaby. Calcutta’s lovers are probably among the most possessive. After all, it’s the city with a soul. Argue with that, and you may subtly or not-so-subtly be labelled vapid.

It was all very laughable for a while. A city with her people and their eccentricities. It was cute, almost. But for how long does one laugh at isolation? For how long do you find yourself amused when you’ve walked the entire stretch from Park Street to New Market and felt nothing but empty and alone?

I was always asked why I don’t say ‘Kolkata’. ‘Kolkata’, ‘shohor’- names given to a city by her lovers. Excuse my gendering of it, but Calcutta to me has always been feminine: the bashful beloved, the cruel mistress, or the cool and aloof singer at the downtown bar. Or it could be conditioning. I don’t know. I haven’t bothered to find out. That is how it has been, you see. My romance with Calcutta, however fleeting, has always felt like a hand-me-down raincoat. Friends who had inhabited this metropolis for years had often resembled condescending, elder siblings. The things they own are simply…better. And now that I have them too, I better value them, love them. The lack of romance, however, was more my own. Never felt second-hand. And that bothered me. I struggled to experience Calcutta. I went to College Street, strolled among the lawns of Victoria, sat sipping cha at Princep Ghat as dusk resisted the night. Calcutta did not become shohor.

Coming back to nomenclature. ‘Calcutta’ is endearing, yet foreign. My relationship with the city has been an exhausting and persistent process of inching closer and shrinking away. I was always heavily aware of being on the outside. Calcutta doesn’t belong to anyone, but her people do belong to her. I yearned for the sense of belonging that I never felt, be it in Maidan, in Coffee House, while flicking the ash off a dying cigarette, or in the by-lanes of Shobhabazaar. Park Street remained a blur of neon lights and Chinese food and debates over the steak at Oly Pub. Despite living in the southern part of the city, it never grew into my go-to place for a night-out. Yellow cabs flitted in and out of sight, from my 27th floor balcony. The world down below with a million people, dreams in their veins and coals in their hands, did not have to make sense to me. If only I could get a little closer.

Romance is Bablu da’s steaming bhaand of perfectly coloured tea in rain. But Calcutta and I were locked in a long-term relationship, and there was no love lost between us. We gave each other space, and too much of it. We were respectful to each other, and did not stop its turning into cold civility. I had typed ‘but’ instead of ‘and’ in the previous two sentences, but hit backspace each time. Because I don’t know if there is any regret anymore. I knew regret. I had seen it on the face of the old manager of Paramount, as a twenty-something abused Lenin, and ordered sweet lime juice instead of daab-er shorbot. Regret was Au Bon Pain in place of Music World. Regret could be spelled out.

How do you spell nothing?

I can be apathetic. I can be distasteful. But I can’t refute Calcutta. Every time the air-hostess welcomes me to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, the city and I greet each other like old lovers who neither accept nor reject one another. We are going to spend some time together now. Struggle, to tolerate, if not love.

Image by Deyasini Chatterjee


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Vagabonding ft. Chai
Ramblings from the life of an insomniac Lit major living by Stevenson’s aphorism: “The great affair is to move”, and trying to make sense of life and its squiggles.

Written by Deyasini Chatterjee

Updates monthly

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Of English, American Cheeses clubbed with Paneer in the Melting Pot

On a low flame, place the non-stick frying pan of the latest quality. With a little butter, add the hunk of rare English Stilton cheese that Chachaji brought for the family from his last Europe tour. As soon as it starts melting, add about five slices of American processed cheese available in your nearest supermarket. The two melted masses should mix into each other, but don’t be alarmed if bits of the American cheese stick out of the goop. It is an inherent quality of the American cheese, especially when cooked with an English one. To give it an exotic and exciting taste, add turmeric, cumin and red chilli powder.

Serve with a dash of saffron brought straight from the hills in an airtight plastic bag, available at your nearest supermarket.

Spread on English wheat bread or roti, whatever suits your taste.

As identities around the world get further convoluted with the circulation diverse ideas, some embrace the oncoming change, while for others, it becomes important to assert their authenticity through their “Indian-ness” or “American-ness” in the face of the massive ideological onslaught.

Amidst this tumult of the citizens of the world coming to terms with their hybrid-cosmopolitan identities informed by the chaos of politics, circulating ideas, cultural and religious influences, economic conditions, our movements, restriction of these movements and multiple other factors, the space where these play out becomes very important.

Our food obviously embodies this tumultuous state of our identities while reflecting the metaphorical heat these identities are cooked under. Whether it’s the slight bashing of religion or the tadka of politics, our food reflects the space our identities are created and exist in.

The 2006 Man-booker novel of Kiran DesaiThe Inheritance of Loss puts food and its associated imagery to brilliant use by using it as a literary device which paints a raw, heart wrenching and yet, a satirical picture that encompasses multiple ideas. Though Desai’s work does not reek of the excessive “Indian spice” that Indian-English writers often, in their bid to appear exotic, generously sprinkle —pardon, pour— all over their product, her novel does create a coagulated mass which — though an extremely intelligent and well thought-out one—might be hard to digest for a mundane reader.

Publisher’s Weekly writes about it as ‘…alternately comical and contemplative…[Desai] deftly shuttles between first and third worlds, illuminating…the blinding desire for a “better life”.’

Jemubhai Popatlal Patel, usually known as the Judge throughout the novel, inhabits the identity of a colonial servant—the babu, rendered a foreigner in his own country as he disregards his Indian origins to eat even his rotis and puris with a fork and knife. The novel circles around him and his household consisting of his granddaughter Sai, his cook, and the latter’s son Biju.

The cook, his identity consumed by his profession, has no name or identity beyond his kitchen and the house of his employer. But in an attempt to give his son the dignity and independence that he lacks, he sends Biju to the USA. The novel literally jumps between the First and Third world as it captures the experiences of Biju in America. The Judge’s present day household is caught between the Gorkhaland insurgency and the Judge’s own colonial memories.

One of the most important images that make the relationships between most of the characters in the novel painfully clear is that of the Dining table in the house. A dining table, even in an Indian household much like this one, indicates several things. First, it represents a desire to be Western-ised, for eating at a certain time together on a table, bound by rules and etiquettes, is a western experience passed on to the Indian population during the colonial mission. The Judge’s adherence to the rules dictated by the dining table and his insistence on following all the essential rules related to the etiquette of eating in the correct order of the courses indicate a colonial hangover (which we still haven’t found a cure to).

His treatment of people who do or do not adhere to these rules also indicates his relationship with that person. The dining table becomes a site of his relationship with people, beginning with his wife, Nimi who he detests because of her “uncivilised – Indian” mannerism. His treatment of her is forever documented by the table cloth which still carries the stain of the port wine from the time he spilled it while trying to fling the glass at her for “chewing in a way that disgusted him”.

Meanwhile, his beloved dog, Mutt, despite her status as a “kutti” in the eyes of the world, is the closest to him. This is indicated by her seat not only at the dining table, denied to various human beings like the cook, but also in a position of privilege which is right next to him, which is denied to even his family members. In fact, troublesome times emphasise the animal’s position of extreme privilege, when the dog of this upper class family eats better than the human beings of the household. The Judge bars himself and his granddaughter from eating meat (a privilege never accorded to the cook in the first place) so his dog could eat meat in a time of curfew when supplies are limited.

The last person who has the good fortune of finding a place at the dining table is Gyan, Sai’s lover and tutor. Gyan, by virtue of his education and despite him being from a lower class earns a place there, reminding the Judge of his own humble origins (a reminder that the Judge does not enjoy). Gyan’s unfamiliarity with the cutlery and the food – for which he is scorned by the Judge who is “slicing the meat expertly off the bone” – serves as a reminder of the Judge’s own experience in England during his ICS education, which alienated and humiliated him because of the lack of his English manners. His Indian lunch of puri-sabzi packed by his mother, much like his appearance and lineage, became a marker of shame for him abroad. By the time he returns, he has completely overturned this, alienating himself from his culture to such an extent that from his powdered face to his stew, everything is – or at least ardently strives to be – English, making him the butt of jokes for the English and the Indian community, as he fits into neither.

In a parody of the rules of the English dining culture and those looking to emulate it, Desai inserts an incident recalling the hunting tradition wherein the babus emulated their western contemporaries. The Judge returns to the camp empty handed after every six o’clock hunt and in a bid to preserve his respect, the cook roasts a chicken and calls it a ‘Roast Bastard’ “just as in the Englishman’s favourite book of natives using incorrect English. But sometimes, eating that roast bastard, the Judge felt the joke might also be on him. . . Kept eating as if he were eating himself, since he, too, was (was he?) part of the fun…” (Desai 63) The “roast bastard” hence becomes representative of a class of Indians which can be called the bastards of India themselves, an irony not lost upon the Judge.

Sai, his granddaughter herself inherits this sense of alienation. This is indicated in the incident at the beginning of the book where she is unable to serve the intruders Indian tea. Only English tea is made, because her convent education from Dehra Dun taught her “cake is better than laddoos”. This alienation, along with her familial connection to the Judge, is what binds them together and makes her the only family member that he does not hate for she too, is an outsider in her own country.

Finally, we have the cook who, as mentioned above, is not even thought of as being deserving of a place at the table. And it is here that we shift spaces from the dining table to the kitchen, for the kitchen encompasses every aspect of the cook’s life.

This is the place where he began working as a child under his father. The kitchen becomes a space representing the community in the book, as the cook and Sai bond over cooking, while abroad, Biju [his son] shifts from one restaurant kitchen to another like a fugitive who is, still, connected to his father in India, through the experience of serving those above them and through the same medium.

The kitchen for Biju and the cook represents the source of income, but for Biju it also represents alienation. In chapter five, while cataloguing the restaurants that Biju switches from, Desai highlights the nature of the lives of the immigrants residing abroad illegally, torn as they are from their culture and thrown in a “melting bowl” where their identity disappears under that of the majority culture:

“ …Biju at Le Colonial for the authentic colonial experience.

On top, rich colonial, and below, poor native, Colombian, Tunisian, Ecuadorian. . .

On to the Stars and Stripes Diner. All American flag on top, all Guatemalan flag below.

Plus one Indian flag when Biju arrived”

Not only is the immigrant alienated from his culture, but in a bid to keep some of his principles intact he has to choose between jobs and precepts of his culture like Biju does in the form of cooking for a steak house where he comes to terms with his work by making a “holy cow and unholy cow” distinction. Feuds like the India-Pakistan one have also been kept alive in a dingy American kitchen thousands of miles away from the countries.

The kitchen also becomes a space that differentiates between people of different classes and gender. It is acceptable for the cook to be there because of his class, but insulting for the Judge.

This kitchen also becomes a site of violence where not only the chicken “weak with anxiety” is massacred and roasted, but also unwanted housewives over “accidental” choola fires. Nimi Patel, the Judge’s wife suffers the same fate and the Judge “chooses to believe it an accident.”

Food represents nostalgia on one hand when the cook weeps for his village’s roti, and Biju complains of angrezi khaana, but on the other hand, it also is a site for the articulation of favouritism and belief in the superiority of one’s own group.

We have Lolita aka Lola arguing over the superiority of “Her Majesty’s Jam” over the American alternative with Mrs. Singh, both connected to the nations indirectly through their NRI daughters. We also have Father Booty propounding his home-made cheese in the face of a global movement of packaged cheese where he is rivaled by Amul itself. A major part of the Gorkha movement is to deny Western products like whisky. Gyan, influenced by the movement, and as a way of asserting his superiority over Sai, calls her foolish for mimicking the West by eating cheese toast, chocolate cigars and brandy-doused cake for Christmas, a festival of the West. Sai retorts by saying that he didn’t mind it when he was consuming them, i.e., when he was a part of the privileged class.

Desai in her bid to address multiple debates like Westernisation, the immigrant crisis and the refugee crisis, makes this novel timeless by virtue of its ambiguity regarding these issues. The food in the novel also addresses these issues and several more, including class, privilege, love, poverty, hybridity, colonisation, cosmopolitan identities, and so on, thereby emulating Desai’s message [as the author understands] of ambiguity which allows the reader to choose the path they prefer, indicating that there isn’t any right or wrong. They are just ideas, and one can choose whichever one they want, whether it is to eat your roti with a fork and a knife or sprinkle extra red chilli on your Cheese toast.


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Morsel
Yours Truly is an ambitious young adult who writes about the only thing they are accomplished in: eating.

Written by Devika
Updates monthly


Column icon and featured image by Kanishka

SWINDLER’S LIST

“For how long do these two plan to waste my time?” the cranky bookstore owner thought, as he glared at the two men browsing through titles of the same section for the past half an hour. They seemed to be well dressed and conversed in soft whispers, grinning occasionally. He finally heaved a sigh of relief when they walked towards the counter. They nodded at him once and exited the shop, leaving him fuming. He shook his fist at them and turned. Only later would he realize that half of his expensive pen collection was missing.

A cool wind blew past them, spreading earthy fragrance carrying the promise of rain. One of them caught a pamphlet and stared at it until his friend finally cracked and asked.

“Well I’m knackered. This man here looks like you Sanjay, don’t he?” They read and re-read the paper fluttering in their hands and smirked. “Looks like we’ll have some more fun today.”

A light drizzle made them smoothly steal umbrellas from passers-by without a break in their gaits. Soon, they reached their destination. A large tent swayed in the breeze over the trees laden with flowers and fruit. Much of the audience was already seated. The journalists directed their crew hither and thither, arguing with the security guards, trying to secure all angles for the tardy minister. They had a hard time pacifying other dignitaries on stage, most of who claimed to have pollen allergies and grumbled until they received refreshments. The two swindlers adjusted their disguises and delicately coughed at the harried security guards outside the venue.

“Do you realize how long you have made me wait?” Sanjay began his tirade. “I’ve been sitting in my car waiting for God knows who to come receive me. I’ll not tolerate this shabby treatment any longer,” he shouted with an air of unmistakable authority. The organiser profusely apologised for his oversight and led him onto the stage, flattering him all the way until his righteous anger had cooled. As Sanjay delivered a generic speech, peppering it with false promises and unachievable targets, Amar had a field day pocketing purses and accessories. He chuckled when a garland of folded currency was graciously presented to his companion.

The real minister finally arrived with his entourage and shouted at the flustered organiser who was too shocked to apologize. It was almost dusk and tiny stars had already started peeping out of the sky. Sanjay and Amar were long gone. Later when the press reported the incident, one of the people interviewed answered, “What difference does it make?”

 

Written by Tript Kaur
Image by Sanna Jain

Dedications

If you were to write something, would the person you dedicated it to
Be the person who makes you laugh a lot?
Can you tell if someone is being earnest, in jest?
If you can hear the same joke over and over, and still laugh,
If you can hear someone tell the same joke over and over,
And still listen, and still laugh, each time,
Maybe you’ve found dedication,
Because I read a book on the psychology of humour, dedicated
‘To Myra, who keeps me laughing.’

Written by Anushmita Mohanty
Image by Kanishka

I Made a Thing

The making of the thing didn’t happen without provocation. A certain gathering had been made, and people try to impress people in gatherings, particularly those of the elite kind. In any case, the thing being made had intricacy involved, references were made within it, and the overall effect, in the end, was quite funny.

“What did you make?” someone asked the maker, laughing.

“Just a joke, you know,” laughed the maker right back.

Within the community, it was quite a masterpiece of a satire, when all was said and done.

They all chuckled, laughing, grinned, giggled and looked at the thing.

It was a small rock, one populated with green stuff (the maker called them trees). There was a vast amount of blue, and apparently, that was water. Somewhere in the corner of the rock, a species of animal was busy with fire, as if it was the most interesting concept in the world.

When asked, the maker said, “It’s funny now, but give it a few thousand years, it’s going to be hilarious.”

Down on the green rock, the species of animal was busy with the orange flames and the fact that you could grow plants to suit your purposes.

Quite a clever little joke.

Written by Tanvi Chowdhary
Image by Sanna Jain

S’Laughter

My aunt laughs a whole lot,
And half the time it is glad.

A reluctant chuckle at a silly joke,
A grin cracked at her sheepish child,
Laughter that shakes her frame
Dissolving into giggles and breathless gasps.

My aunt laughs a great deal,
And only half the time is it glad.

A self-effacing smile attends her silly little opinion
Which goes out dressed like a sillier, littler joke.
(These are important matters, and she wouldn’t know.)
Prefaced appropriately by one of those softening grins,
The sharp edges of her rage have to be smoothened to a nicety
And the whole thing is so hilarious
That she then joins in, in their laughing away of her,
Dissolving into embarrassment and studied silence.

My aunt ‘laughs’ a great deal,
But she laughs a whole lot less,
And certainly,
Not half as much as my uncle does.

Written by Swathi Gangadharan
Image by Stuti Pachisia