Sunday, January 28, 2007

Look who’s changing!

“Calcutta’s really improved.”

The first time I heard this, I was pleasantly surprised. It isn’t often that the city which has been your home for almost 36 years and has been run down by almost everyone, including a Prime Minister, is praised.

“Calcutta’s changed.”

By now I was curious – and a bit irritated. I felt cheated because I hadn’t been back to the city in what seemed like ages, except for flying, infrequent visits to check on ailing parents or attend a wedding… moments where the preoccupation of the task at hand prevented me from really absorbing what seemed like a shifting streetscape.

“Calcutta’s looking good.”

Sure, I told myself, there are more shops than I recall, malls and multiplexes are multiplying like rabbits, but have the people changed? Has the चलता है attitude progressed to a दौड़ेगा mindset?

So, on a recent visit that took me back to Calcutta on work and compelled me to stay at a hotel because I couldn’t stay with the family for various reasons, I ended up soaking in the city at almost every level.

“Welcome to the Taj Bengal, sir. Is this your first visit to us?’ whispered Payel at the reception.

“We’ve upgraded you to a small suite sir, enjoy your stay, do let me know if there’s anything we can do for you”, she continued as she escorted me up to Room 303.
303? The Enfield rifle from the Commando comics! Or Jeetendra advertising that virility capsule that almost vanished later thanks to Viagra? Little did I know then that I would soon be waging a war within the precincts of the Taj…

I dump my bags and head off to meet the people I have to meet. And that’s when the mood-change becomes palpable. Here’s an evangelist who’s struggled to get professional and family-run businesses to migrate to the Internet and when you speak to him, you hear not despondency but optimism. He could have been in Bombay or Bangalore – not Delhi mind you, he’s far too genteel to survive there. After protracted negotiations that are going nowhere, we decide to go for lunch – if all else fails in Calcutta, seek out food and much will be forgiven.

Waldorf on Park Street has changed: they don’t make the fried fish I used to get packed and scamper home with in the pre-microwave days so that we could have it really hot! It isn’t even called Waldorf any longer and is now branded as Marco Polo. The food is good, the prices reasonable (presumably) and the buffet has variety. What more could you ask for in a business lunch? A paan perhaps, and even that is just round the corner.

The car makes its way down Chowringhee and you notice someone protesting about the ban that’s been announced on Calcutta's rickshaw-pullers. This is Esplanade, the Hyde Park of Calcutta, once ruled by a sea of red flags protesting at everything that could be considered an agenda. Only this time, there is a small stage, a lone politician making a speech and a crowd of five (that’s right, just five) in attendance. Either there are other, more persuasive speeches being made in the vicinity where the crowds have flocked or the rickshaw-wallah has sensibly chosen to go and earn his daily wages instead of wasting time here.

In fact, the attitude is clearly that of moving on and not wasting time. At advertising agencies, publications, even a Government-run office with an officer swamped in a sea of dusty files jostling for space with two desktops in the same room, the clear signal being sent out is one of catching up with lost time.

Yes, things have changed.

At Oh Calcutta, the celebrated Bengali-cuisine restaurant that opened some time ago amidst scepticism, it is difficult to get a place for five on a Thursday afternoon. The place isn’t just packed; it’s packed with Bengalis stuffing Bengali food down their throats and paying for it through their mustard-oiled noses. Apparently, there’s also a Bhojohari Manna that serves similar fare which is lapped by residents only. We Delhi-ites get a few odd glances – but because we’re the only ones minus any warm clothing while the locals are all huddled up in their winter warmest. The mall where the restaurant is located has a serpentine queue of people booking tickets for Salaam-e-Ishq which will be released the next day. The elevators are crowded with a youngster pushing his way in and a didi-ma (grandma) jostling her way out (if there’s ever an exam before granting migratory rights to Calcuttans seeking a transfer to Delhi, these two will surely be elbowing each other to top the list)… yes, Calcutta’s changed.

But nothing is as certain a sign of change as Oly’s (or, to the uninitiated, Olympia) the bar on Park Street where the advertising crowd used to be found without fail. In fact, rumour has it that a particular agency almost shut down because its managers would be found at Oly’s from the moment it opened to the time it halfheartedly downed its shutters. At first, Oly’s looks the same: the laminated walls haven’t changed, Dansberg beer is still available (God bless Danny Denzongpa and his Yuksom Brewery), the चानाचूर tastes the same but something’s missing. After a while it hits you: where’s that empty, extra glass that would be plonked down on the table into which would go a copy of every bill recording every round of drinks you’d order just so that you didn’t lose track of your own creditworthiness?! It was a ritual that made Oly’s unique. Now even that’s gone.

You cross the road and notice a new-look Flury’s with the same old hot-cross buns and, worse, the cross waiters who are probably paid a bonus to be surly. Next to it stands MusicWorld and on its steps sit teenagers out of college and office-goers as well waiting for their dates to appear. Calcutta’s looking young.

Somebody wants चाय, someone else is hungry and it’s just 7.30 in the evening. Is Azad Hind Dhaba still around, I ask? The locals look at me as though I’m an idiot – I may as well have asked does KC Das still make rossogollas? So we head off to the dhaba that used to be our haunt after late-night pitches in search of tight-fisted clients in the early 90s. While I was away, MF Husain has been here, I notice, and amidst the red laminated tables, right next to the kitsch Pepsi tiles on the walls hangs an original Gajagamini painting by the eccentric bare-footed artist. This was his gift to Azad Hind Dhaba. Again, nothing seems to have changed except that no one speaks a word of Punjabi or Hindi – all you hear from the waiters is Bengali but, mercifully, the food remains incorruptible north Indian.

By the way, I’m told Nizam’s has been bought by a Marwari whose first initiative was to stop making beef rolls. I’m also told that he’s thinking of renaming it as Agarwal’s! Can someone confirm this please?

Back at the Taj, the Chinoiserie still exists – minus the fried ice-cream though. Instead it has a rat scuttling across the floor. “Can’t be,” I mutter to myself but there it goes again. The waiter apologises and I wonder whether I should continue eating or just retire hungry.

At breakfast the next morning, I find a tiny cockroach under the milk dispensers. I am horrified. So are the chefs. They apologise profusely, the Sous Chef gives me his business card (as though that atones for their sloppiness) and fails to convince me that there is a pest-control operation that happens three times a week. I decide to skip breakfast.

On my last day, at breakfast again, I discover another cockroach in the same milk dispenser – only this one’s bigger. More horror, more apologies but nothing else. Not even a complimentary bottle of wine or meal at some other pest-free eaterie in the chain. Nobody takes me seriously anymore.

Evidently the Taj has changed: they’ve become worse at house-keeping but better at apologising. I tell myself that it must be the proximity to the zoo that keeps bringing in these creatures despite the hotel’s best efforts and wonder if other guests have woken up to find a giraffe looking in through the window.

Has the Coffee House changed? The puchka-wallahs? The roll and chow-mein stalls? The mini-buses? JU?… I don’t know because I have to leave and can’t change my ticket.

But at least, I know that I have to come back. And that won’t change.



Anonymous said...

Hi ! Jack....

read your posting on Bengalis or BONGS ( as they are called in Delhi)..Yup..Cal has changed ..kolkata now has the best of everything including the Software parks!, bangali bhodrolok has been taken over by Aggarwal Saheb, Boro bazar has been repalced by Forum , lovers at Victoria Memorial now throng City 69, but the Bangali has not changed..rabindra- sangeet, adda, college street kichui bodlaini!!
as we say once a bengali , always a bengali...BHALO THEKO..

Anonymous said...


Kolkata is changing colours. Am planning to go there tomorrow. Will stay at least for 10 days. Will give you first-hand report once I'm back.

Delhi Bong

Anonymous said...

*A* is for Apish. This is where the average Kolkatan goes and spends a day
hard(ly) at work. If he is in the Government he will arrive at 10, wipe his
forehead till 11, have a tea break at 12, throw around a few files at
break for lunch at 1, smoke an unfiltered cigarette at 2, break for tea at
3, sleep sitting down at 4 and go home at 5. It's a hard life!
B* is for Bhijon. (As in teli-bhijon) For some reason most of the Bengalis
don't have good bhijon. In fact in Kolkata most people are wearing
spectacles all the time. The effects of this show in the city.
C* is for Chappell. This is the Bengali word for the Devil, for the worst
form of evil. In the night mothers put their kids to sleep saying 'go to
bed, or Chappei will come and take you away.'
D* is for Debashish. By an ancient law every fourth Bengali Child has to be
named Debashish. So you have a Debashish everywhere and trying to get
creative they are also called Deb, Debu, Deba with variations like Debnath
and Deboprotim thrown in.
E* is for Eeesh. This is a very common Bengali exclamation made famous by
Aishwarya Rai in the movie Devdas. It is estimated that on an average a
Bengali uses eeesh 10,089 times every year. (That's counting eeesh and

eeesh-ish words).
F* is for Feesh. These are creatures that swim in rivers and seas and are a
favourite food of the Bengalis. Despite the fact that a fish market has
strong smells, with one sniff a Bengali knows if a fish is all right. If
not, he will say 'eeesh, what feeesh is theeesh!'
G* is for Good name. Every Bengali Boy will have a good name like Debashish
or Deboprotim and a pet name like Shontuda, Chonti, and Dinku. While every
Bengali Girl will be Paromita or Protima as well as Shampa, Champa and
Basically your nickname is there to kill your good name.
H* is for Harmonium. The Bengali equivalent of a rock guitar. Take four
Bengalis and a Harmonium and you have the successors to The Bheatles!
I* is for lleesh. This is a feeesh with 10,000 bones which would kill any
ordinary person, but which the Bengalis eat with releeesh!
J* is for Jhola. No self respecting Bengali is complete without his Jhola.
It is a shapeless cloth bag where he keeps all his belongings and he fits
amazing number of things in. Even as you read this there are 2 million
jholas bobbling around Kolkata- and they all look exactly the same!
K* is for Kee Kando. It used to be the favourite Bengali exclamation till
eeesh took over because of Aishwarya Rai (now Kee Kando's agent is trying

hire Bipasha Basu).
L* is for Lungi. People in Kolkata manage to play football and cricket
wearing it. Now there is talk of a lungi expedition to Mt. Everest.
M* is for Minibus. These are dangerous half buses whose antics would
effortlessly frighten the living daylights out of Formula 1 race drivers.
N* is for Nangtoe. This is the Bengali word for Naked. It is the most
interesting naked word in any language!
0* is for Oil. The Bengalis believe that a touch of mustard oil will cure
anything from cold (oil in the nose), to earache (oil in the ear), to cough
(oil on the throat) to piles (oil you know where!)
P* is for Phootball. This is always a phavourite phassion of the Kolkattan.
Every Bengali is born an expert in this game. The two biggest clubs there
are Mohunbagan and East Bengal and when they play the city comes to a stop.
Q* is for Queen. This really has nothing to do with the Bengalis or

but it's the only Q word I could think of at this moment. There's also
but they never use them in Kolkata.
R* is for Robi Thakur. Many years ago Rabindranath got the Nobel Prize.
allows everyone in Kolkata to frame their acceptance speeches and walk with
their head held high and look down at Delhi and Mumbai!
S* is for Sardarjee whom Bengalis are very envious of because he is born
with a semi-monkey cap on.
T* is for Trams. Hundred years later there are still trams in Kolkata. Of
course if you are in a hurry it's faster to walk.
U* is for Ambrela. When a Bengali baby is born they are handed one.
V* is for Violence. Bengalis are the most non-violent violent people
When an accident happens they will shout and scream and curse and abuse,
the last time someone actually hit someone was in 1979.
W* is for Water. For three months of the year the city is underwater and
every year for the last 200 years the authorities are taken by surprise by
X* is for X mas. It's very big in Kolkata, with Park Street fully lit up.
Y* is for Yastarday. Which is always better than today for a Bengali.
Z* is for Jeebra, Joo, Jip and Jylophone.