Durga Pujo: The Homecoming

Despite being wary of the burgeoning crowd on the roads and queues in front of eateries during Durga Pujo, I would be no where else but in Calcutta during the four days. As the festivities come to a close, I reflect on the reason…

Am I growing old? I’m yet to see pronounced grey hairs. The wrinkles haven’t peeked in. Though I do get breathless on occasions, I’m managing the marathon with my hyperactive five-year-old. And yes, I can still polish off a plate of Arsalan’s chicken biryani, without the acerbic burp an hour later. As a Park Circus girl, I was brought up on biryani, a delicacy I believe Calcutta serves the best (No debate here please)! First, it used to arrive home from Shiraz-the Golden Restaurant. A few years later Zeeshan elbowed it out but the fame was short-lived. One fine day, Arsalan set foot and conquered the hearts and palates of Calcutta. The reign continues. Since then many Aliahs, Alibabas and Royals have mushroomed in the vicinity, but Arsalan continues as the Baahubali of biryani.

Caption: A six-course vegetarian lunch on Oshtomi at my Mamoni’s

But I digress. Even as I tuck into a six-course vegetarian lunch on Ashtami at my Mamoni's, I am mentally cooking up excuses to forego the pandal-hopping my friends have scheduled for the evening. The itinerary involves a dekko of the ten best pujos in the city, peppered with dinner and midnight snacking at 6, Ballygunje Place or Park Hotel. Sounds like a plan. But…

I wonder whether they have factored in the sea of millions that will treacherously impede the traffic on the road. The idea of braving the heat, the humidity and the swarming populace is giving me the heebies-jeebies. This same woman, as a teenager, used to implore her parents to take her out. No amount of reasoning would budge her from the pandal pilgrimage. Today I see myself in their shoes as I reluctantly take my son out to see Maa Durga, in all her glory. Why should the child miss out on the fun, I believe. Life’s come full circle for this once enthu-cutlet…

Caption: Bono during Mahalaya at Mayur Vihar Kalibari…

May be, I will give in. Maybe, it will all be worth it. Because, there is nothing like Durga Pujo for a Bengali. As Mamoni says, “You don’t even have to step out. The sound of the dhak is enough to lift your spirit!” Perhaps, that is the reason why, no matter how hard-pressed I am, I fly down to my homeland during this time every year. I want to be with my family and friends. I want Bono (his name is Malhar by the way) to witness Durga Pujo up, close and personal. To imbibe the heritage and traditions of the festival. He must learn to appreciate why his parents pine for home the moment Birendra Krishna’s Bhadra’s time-tested Mahalaya recitation is aired on AIR. Why, the first sight of kaash phool sends emotions spiraling in the mind. Why this saree lover’s Pujo wardrobe must feature a rustling Gorod or a Baluchori…

Frankly, no matter how wonderfully you spend the festival out of Kolkata, for every Bengali, there will always be a piece of your heart yearning to be here.

Caption: With the Mister … at Ballygunge Cultural just two years after our wedding…

Like when the Mister, whose busy work life unfortunately keeps him away from Calcutta during this time, called me yesterday after witnessing the Durga Pujo in Noida Sec 26 and said, “It was quite good… there were plenty of people and lots of stalls…” I knew exactly what he was missing when the words drifted…

Calcutta undergoes an electric metamorphosis during Durga Pujo. It’s as if someone laces the air with a drug of mirth and cheer. A festive and religious fervor, full of spirituality and entertainment charges the land. Reams of newsprint dwell on how people spend the pujo, the rituals involved, the money spent on fancy pandals and idols and how foodies line up for goodies in famed eateries. I hear that this year, in one popular pandal, Maa Durga sits enveloped in 24-carat gold sari. Another pandal has been crafted out of the banned 500 and 1000 banknotes. Sigh! So that’s where our money is going…

Caption: Mutton Kawsha at Sidheswari Ashram

But, this is no post to lament the discrepancy in our democracy. There are days for that. Even as I pen this mood piece, I start thinking of food, an important ingredient during Pujo. Special menus are rustled up to satiate the discerning palates of both East and West Bengalis, two clans whose love-hate relationship has spawned many a celluloid tale. For instance, West Bengalis prefer vegetarian on most of the Pujo days but East Bengalis gorge on almost everything that moves! During Oshtomi, I crave for luchi, cholaar dal, aloo dum, chaatni and begun bhaja. But my better-half, whose ancestors were from opar bangla, can’t have enough of shutki, ilish, chingri malai curry and kochi pathar jhol. Well, that’s the beauty of Durga Pujo. It accommodates all.

Durga Pujo brings back wonderful memories related to food. Of times when trips to Gariahat meant a dinner stop at Mayur, where we were invited by the characteristic aroma of Chinese. During one pujo haunt, the rush was so terrible that the waiters failed to serve us on time. Sadly, the experience marred our relationship with the restaurant. But I tasted my first chilly chicken there and nothing can come close to that flavour.

Caption: Fish in Mustard at Bohemian

Mamoni was a ravishing woman in her taant saris, which she bought every year from the Basak boutique near Dover Lane, during the countdown to the festival. If you love Bengal handloom, this is a must stop, but be prepared to jostle for space and holler to be heard. Opposite to the shop lay a tiny eatery called Bedouin, the haven that familiarized me with chicken roll. While a roll shop dots every nook and cranny of Calcutta, the Bedouin variety is legendary. The chicken is chargrilled and seasoned with salt and lemon. The paranthas are crisp yet melt-in-the-mouth. There might be Khan Chachas, Nizams and Rolls King. But Bedouin is Bedouin.

Last summer when I was vacationing here, my friend took me to a place in Ballygunge, near Patha Bhavan School. Bohemian is chef Joymalya Banerjee’s tribute to a Calcutta foodie. A veritable hole in the wall, this little eatery surprised me. The food was quintessentially Bengali, with regulars such as bhetki, kolmi saag, mutton, chicken and so on, but the taste was fancy, experimental and unique. Everything had an interesting spin and the cuisine was jazzed up beautifully. If you want to skip the rice, the chef offers a delish variant of dalia (grained wheat). Talk of innovation!

Caption: Delicacies at Sidheswari Ashram

That triggers vignettes of Sidheswari Ashram near New Market, where we ate pretty regularly. In the age of fancy décor, artisanal crockery and gourmet meals, this hotel wouldn’t pass a muster but if you are serious about food (read Bengali food) do try and locate it in the busy market area. The hotel, as restaurants are often referred to in Bengali, serves authentic Bong food, and for a price that will put many eateries to shame. Every year, while shopping for Pujo in New Market, this is where we ate. Also during the times when ma was too tired to cook, we zoomed to Sidheswari Ashram, and returned sated. You get a huge variety of indigenous preparations here. Like, dal cooked with smashed fish head, saag made with hilsa head, king prawns, mutton kosha, rui maacher kaalia, paabda jhaal, a host of vegetarian curries, chutneys and much, much more. The interiors might not be fabulous but the food is.

Caption: Chinese buffet in Tung Fong

I discovered Tung Fong in Park Street during college days, and it didn’t take much time for me to be sold on their scrumptious Pujo lunch buffet. Some of the best dishes I recall are the steamed corn and bok choy, the chicken chilly gravy, the tom yum soup and the fish in lime coriander sauce. As a lifestyle writer, I eat at some of the best Chinese eateries in Delhi-NCR but Tung Fong will always be special. Those days pocket money was sparse and conversations flowed like a brook between friends. The giggles and the gags made the food tastier. Another such eatery was the neighbouring Peiping that served the best gravy chowmein and duck. Sadly, it had to make way for a mediocre restaurant serving random North Indian fare…

Caption: Devilled crab at Mocambo

My boyfriend (who is now the husband) and I frequented Mocambo during our courtship. I often boasted about knowing the owner (a raven-haired lady who wore outlandish clothes while dropping her daughter to our college) and he listened unfazed. While I vouch for the Fish muniere, his vote goes to the Deviled Crab (a cheesy crab dish) and the Baked Alaska (a perfect hot and cold dessert). We discovered these beauties before Big Chill happened. The dim lighting, the steady buzz and the warm service made it such a wonderful place. Especially, for young lovers!

I wonder if Peter Cat’s reputation was only because of their famed chello kebab, a dish that brilliantly marries succulent chicken kebabs, buttered rice and a sunny side up. The last time I went there and ordered the old favourite, I was a tad disappointed. It did not taste the same as when we college friends saved up to lunch there after final exams got over. Was it really the food that time or the excitement and the anticipation?

Caption: Puchka

Every time the train from Delhi chugs into Sealdah station, I make a mental note of eating puchka. The best ones are to be had near Lake Kali Bari. The crispies are huge and the potato mash is to die for. But if you are near Russel Street do try the puchkas there. The vendors mix both tamarind and mint in the water, which explodes magically in the mouth with every bite.

Durga Pujo for me is a kaleidoscope of memories. Recollections that are raked up every time I come to my homeland, to Mamoni, my friends and family. And, to the Goddess. For me, these mental souvenirs are the best part of the homecoming…

*Published first at www.wherelse.in on October, 2017


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