Musings on 'THE CITY OF JOY'
05/04/2014 - 05/06/2014 98 °F
Oh Kolkata! Yes, I mean it that way too but I'm actually talking about the name of a restaurant where I am sitting as I write this post. A fancy, Bengali restaurant. Bengali being of West Bengal, the state where the once capital of India, Kolkata lives. My previous home of Darjeeling lives in West Bengal also. Although, the two couldn't be father away from each other in likeness - this being part of the reason why Darjeeling is fighting to become there own state known as Ghorkhaland.
This weird guy from my train ride told me about Oh Kolkata! He was a young, educated, middle class, single guy in the upper sleeping birth across from me. The only ones traveling solo, so we struck up a nice conversation. I find that this generation of modern Indians are in an interesting place in Indian development. They seem to be roaming around in the middle somewhere - reminds me of the title of a favorite ballet of mine by Wiliam Forsythe called "In the Middle Somewhat Elevated."
They are caught in the middle between Indian traditional way of living and the Western supposed ideal way of living. Somewhat elevated from the poverty of their parents but not to the degree of their Western counterparts. Less consumed with religion but still going through the motions of holy rituals for their parents sake or out of habit. More concerned with making money, most taking over their family businesses but taking it up a notch by making it global or viral; moving away from arranged marriage to find love like all the Bollywood movies say is possible; yet finding that love difficult to find because the majority of the country still favors arranged marriages so the pool of lovers to choose from is shallow. See my FB picture of the Indian Marriage Classifieds for a dose of reality. 'Seeking fair, thin woman. Educated not necessary.'
I happened to run into Oh Kolkata! While checking out the Forum Mall. A decent mall. I bought some pants that I love from Global Desi, the only Indian shop in the mall. The rest were English and U.S. stores selling clothes from 3 seasons ago. I stood looking over the menu and a Sikkimese guy recommended I go in. He had just finished eating and said it was delicious and you get a free King Fisher beer with the buffet. We talked about how fortuitous our meeting was- 2 people -one who just visited Sikkim (me) and the other from Sikkim (him) meeting in Kolkata over Bengali food. He later reappeared, in the middle of my meal, with a friend, I think trying to arrange a "friendly" hang out. But I have my Bengali cooking class in 2 hours and I won't be late! Besides I have mastered the art of eating alone. Don't even take out a book most times.
He was right about the food. It is delicious. The clientele are all upper class Indians. Couples and big families sitting around large circular tables with fancy white tablecloths. The staff seems like they are pretending in their stiff black and white uniforms. Pretending to be sophisticated , quiet, orderly Indians. Yet, I have seen their cousins, uncles and sisters all throughout the streets of this town today and so I know who they really are, from where they came and probably where they are returning to tonight after work.
So far, I absolutely adore this city! I realize it has barely been 24 hours but in that little time I know. I think part of the reason I like Kolkata so much is because of its' resemblance to NYC.
Maybe it's the sea of yellow cabs that flood the streets.
Or the Subway
Maybe the tree lined streets with buildings that resemble the coveted Pre-War real estate in Manhattan. Or perhaps the energy- people moving to and fro as if headed somewhere very important. And yet others, lounging on counters in front of shops talking, laughing or arguing with friends.
I arrived here on last Sunday morning (Blog a bit behind) around 7am. The train station was busy with drivers, rickshaws and cycles trying to make some early morning cash. I offered to share a taxi with the weird guy from the upper birth (who didn't get weird until now) because we were headed in the same direction. He said something that made no sense about it being too expensive for him so he'll catch a taxi outside the train station. So it is okay for me to pay the expensive fare buddy?!?! That was the point of us splitting it weirdo!! Whatever. I paid the overpriced 250Rupees ($4.20) to the cabbie. He dropped me off and had the nerve to ask for a tip! I gave the Indian head wobble and mumbled to myself "I got yo tip brother. Stop chewing that masala betel root! Your teeth are rotting and your breath smells!"
Outside the train station taxi madness, the streets were quiet. Still honking of course but there was a quiet that felt unusual, like the city was still sleeping. As i began to walk around, I could see that they were still sleeping. Literally! As in, they were sleeping on the streets. It wasn't just my vivid imagination, I was actually bearing witness.
I checked into my guesthouse - GUESTHOUSE has taken on new meaning since traveling to India. I used to think of it as a coach house on the grounds of a nicer, larger residence. Small, quaint, charming. Now when I search Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor for a guesthouse, I know what I'm really asking for is a place that is too shitty to be called a hotel but not shitty enough to be called a hostel.
I did not complain. It was a room with a bed and a decent bathroom and only one night umtil I made it Bangalore where I knew my family friend Noelle wouldn't be caught dead staying anywhere like this. Furthermore, as my funds alloted for this trip come closer and closer to $0 so do my bourgeois standards. My champagne tastes can't be supported by my beer bottle pockets! Haa! Jai Ms. Eartha Kitt!
I washed the overnight train off in a lukewarm shower which came in handy because it was hot and humid and the AC unit hadn't yet cooled the room. Kolkata had just broken some weather records the previous week with temps over 40 °C/104F. Today it was around 37 °C/98F. I didn't have any plans for the day except my Bengali cooking class and drinks with a friend of a friend from Kolkata. My day was free to roam. I love roaming!
I walked the streets with all intentions of getting lost. I found bookstores, an amazing at gallery, the aforementioned mall complete with a theater, United Colors of Benetton and a Yogurtland. This is also where I found Oh Kolkata! I saw parks with children playing cricket, I experienced the subway system which didn't start running until 2pm. I asked why and a man said "because it is Sunday!" as if it was a dumb question. I also saw this family which warmed and broke my heart all at the same time. They were sitting across the street from the park under a bus stop. The streets were clearly their home but they were laughing and talking with other as if over brunch at Pastis.
When I said Kolkata wakes up slow on Sundays I meant reeeeeeaaaal slow. The whole city looked as if they partied too hard the night before and were now suffering from a most painful hangover. Men were sprawled half naked on the counters of their chai and coconut shops. Some laid on blankets and newspapers, some on their cars or just skin to pavement. By 11am a few were starting to set up their shops hanging t-shirts, sunglasses and random electronics for sale. But not one was in a hurry or really even appeared to caste of they sold one item today. I must have missed a fantastic party last night!
Even on Monday-which was significantly busier than Sunday- I found a shop that I needed to buy something from that was still not open at 10:30am. The man trying to make a commission by showing be around the market said "come back in 30 minutes. Yesterday was Sunday so not open yet.". I laughed out loud! Yesterday was the day spent nursing a hangover therefore it's tough getting to work early on Monday. Definitely been there a time or two. Sounds logical to me.
My cooking class was the highlight of the day. I took the subway to a woman's house named Rajashi. She met me on the main street and walked me a couple blocks to her house which was a 5 story, walk-up apartment that felt like so many walk-ups in Harlem. It was a lesson but also dinner for the family- her mother-in-law, husband and son. Therefore, she did more of the cooking than me. She only handed the spatula to me for foolproof instructions. Stir this, hand me that.
When I arrived she served me the most delicious drink to ever come across my lips! It was a Mango Cooler for lack of a better name. She took green unripe mangoes, charred them over the stove-top flame until burnt, peeled the burnt skin, put the mango flesh in a blender with fresh lime juice and sugar and serves. You can actually taste that the mango has been roasted! It was so refreshing. A definite repeat with our Mexican mangoes in Cali! My roommates are in for some culinary treats!!
Bengali dal which is the most flavorful I've tasted in all of India! Dal is basically lentil soup and the staple of an Indian meal. With my host family in Darjeeling we had it single everyday, without fail. Because it is a staple sometimes it can be a bit bland. Not in Bengal!
Bhindi or okra- not usually a fan but she sauteed it in mustard seed oil and then topped it with a homemade yogurt sauce. The yogurt was homemade y'all! In her house by her! So easy to make she says!
Pouri - a fried dough that I can't really explain except to say it's fried dough so it's delicious! We made the dough, rolled it out and popped it on veg oil. As Ina would say "how easy is that?!" Only my foodies will pick up on that one;-)
Where's the meat I can hear from halfway across the globe?! I requested a Veg Meal. Schoking I know.
She finished it all within an hour and we sat down to the above dinner and wonderful conversation. After this experience I was in love...again! This place felt so familiar. These felt like my kind of people....Interested in art, culture, education and food. Kolkata is not only known as the City of Joy but as the cultural and intellectual hub of India. When I entered Rajashi's home, there was a huge bookshelf made by her architecture husband filled with books...which she had read! Our dinner conversation revolved around the upcoming elections, Indian politics, communism, mother-in-laws, women and children, feminism, Ayuurveda and food of course. And this was no rich family. Middle classes with stable work putting their children through college on scholarships. I almost forgot to pay her because it felt like coming over a friends house for wine and dinner! She reminded me of coure ;-)
And to put the cherry atop my Indian sundae, Kolkata even has Maha (Mother) Ganga! From Kolkata, Ganga flows into the Bay of Bengal and then the Indian Ocean. My flight to Bangalore took off at dusk from Kolkata's airport. Pink skies and contrasting clouds framed the river. I had never seen her from above! From here I could see her shape. The full flaunt of her figure. The twists, the curves. Her expansiveness. How small I am and how big she is. So clear now why she is considered a Goddess by her people. From up here you don't see her trash, ashes or floating bodies. In contrast, you understand why you go to her to get clean. Only her beauty is visible from here.
Thank you Kolkata. I will return so we may get better acquainted.
***I am really behind on my posts (actually I'm always behind but its never mattered til now). I have to tell you all about Bangalore because 1: it wasn't India, it was L.A. and 2: because Noelle did me proper in that city!! But it will have to wait because beginning tomorrow I will officially be IN SILENCE. 10 days people! Pray for me. My Mom told me that my beloved Nanny, Lucille, used to say "that baby talks...she talks so much she gone run out of things to say when she gets older!" Well Lucille ;-) here we are. Signing off until then.