Of course, Calcutta is now officially renamed as Kolkata. This is the name we have always used in the first place.
Those who have never been to that side of the world would have no way to know how different it is from here in the U.S. It is so fascinating!
Some people might argue that it is too noisy. It is too noisy, yes. Mics and loudspeakers are almost a routine part of life. If there is a festival of any kind, organizers would play some Bengali, or more often Hindi, songs. For those who live there, it is normal. But for outsiders -- Indians from another town or village, let alone a foreigner, the noise could be difficult to deal with.
But it is only more prevalent during festive times, and that too with new regulations, present in certain areas at certain times. Otherwise, even in Kolkata, after-lunch and after-dinner hours could be very quiet, soothing, and settling. One can take a nap in his or her first or second-floor room, and quite enjoy a bicycle passing by with the rider ringing the old-fashioned bell. Or, perhaps a vegetable vendor or some other salesman occasionally oral-advertising his merchandise -- and that too, with a melodious, characteristic tune.
Some people might find it difficult to walk on the streets because it is very crowded. In a big city like Kolkata, it is way too crowded. But that is out on the main streets and arterial roads. As soon as you get off the bus, taxi or electric tram, and enter your own residential alley, it's a totally different solitude. You can walk down that seven-minute-long, winding alley from the bus stop to your home, and in some hours, you wouldn't even find a soul anywhere. You might even catch a game of chess on a sidewalk porch: you can pause a while, and enjoy the never-ending, silent game between two eerily silent players, before you decide to walk back to your place again. A street dog named Kalu may receive you in front of your house; he knows very soon, he will get a few pieces of tea biscuits you'are going to throw from your second-floor veranda.
Photo by Partha Banerjee
Every little corner of the city of Kolkata has its own character. Some neighborhoods are mostly Bengali neighborhoods. Some are predominantly Hindi-speaking. Some are Punjabi. Some are Oriya -- people who came to Kolkata from the neighboring state of Orissa. Oriya Brahmin cooks have always found jobs in a Bengali household, because of their dexterity in cooking. Especially when a mother is ill, or indisposed because of childbirth, Oriya cooks would be temporarily hired, and given responsibility of the entire kitchen. Sometimes, even when the mother comes back, the cook would be kept permanently, because by this time, he has proved to be indispensable for the family. And the man in the house finds his chicken curry unforgettable!
We had one such Oriya cook in our family when I was in high school. Sanatan-da (Brother Sanatan) worked in some store during the day, and came to cook for our large, joint household in the evening. We were at least ten or fifteen people at one point of time in our family: my parents, my father's elder brother with his wife and two sons, and my uncles, nephews and nieces, some of whom were refugees from then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). My father was always the one who would never turn anyone away; everybody knew they could find a place to live for a few months, or a few years depending on their ability to find a job in Kolkata, once they approached my father. He was the key man in our family.
My father was a kind man. But he was also a very strict man, when it came to our food habits. He was a stickler for healthy food. Kolkata is abundant and well known for its street foods -- food vendors, fruit vendors, chat sellers with their burning charcoal oven to deep-fried fritters would roam our streets every evening. But no, if my father is nearby, you wouldn't ever be able to buy anything from them. My cousins and I would sneak out once in a while to get a quick bite of the street chat: pakora, dahi bada, samosa, kulfi malai...and so much more!
We would sit down for our school work in the evening. No middle-class family would allow their children to do anything but study religiously for a few hours, before mother called them for dinner. Occasionally, we would hear a small girl practicing her Tagore songs on a harmonium two doors down.
Father would remind us that exams were coming up, and we should not get distracted by music, cinema, or such things. He would make sure we did not get sick eating junk food, especially before the annual exams.
So much fun were those days!
Summer is fascinating in India.
Yes, it is hot. It could be very hot. In some places, like Rajasthan or Punjab, it is extremely hot. In Bengal or Tamil Nadu, it is more humid than hot. It could be very uncomfortable. And not too many people have air conditioner. The poorest of the poor don’t even have a fan in their home.
That is all true. But at the same time, summer brings out nature’s best gifts for the people in India. It’s the fruits. It’s the vegetables. It's the flowers. It’s the treasure that Mother Nature has saved for the tropics. Those who have never lived in India in summer would not truly understand how much life an otherwise scorching sun can bring.
Solar energy is abundant, very abundant in India. The men, women and children are saved and sustained by the light of the sun. Sun keeps them healthy. By the heat it sends out, and by the blessings it sends down on earth – to produce an incredible abundance of food.
If I didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t believe that only in a place like West Bengal or Bangladesh, you can get at least one thousand different varieties of mango in summer. You can find mangoes in every state, every city, and every village across India -- Benaras or Bombay, Madras or Mysore, Agra or Assam. And they come in so many different shapes and sizes.
Some are big, like the size of a football. Some are tiny – like the size of a litchi. Some are deep red, and people in North and East India call them “sindur aam,” meaning vermillion-colored mango. Some are peach colored. Apricot colored. Some are absolutely beautiful green, even when they are ripe and juicy. And then, of course, you can have green mangoes, when they are green. People in India, especially children, find great pleasure to eat raw mango, with a pinch of salt, or some with a dash of chili powder laced over the pieces.
Mango pickle in the making
Across India, people dry green mango pieces in the sun – mostly putting them out on the roof for a few days, and then they pickle them in glass jars, using incredibly flavorful and enticing spices. Most mango pickles are done in mustard oil. And then, many people make sweet relishes out of green mango – either cooking them very slowly in sugar syrup, mixed with whole mustard seeds, or preserving them in various types of sweet sauce. One of the sweet mango relishes is called chutney – a very popular end-of-the-meal delicacy across India.
Because practically half of the one billion-plus Indian people are vegetarian, and also because Hindu widows are traditionally vegetarian, millions of Indians use mango, tamarind, cauliflower, papaya and berry pickles – both sour and sweet – to eat their rice or hand-made wheat breads, all year long. It is practically impossible to find an Indian household with no mango pickle jars on their kitchen cabinets.
Summer in India also brings out thousands of varieties of flowers. Some of the most fragrant summer flowers are white, and bloom in the night. The famous Indian tuberose or“Rajanigandha” (meaning nightly fragrance), and Jasmine have featured Indian poetry and novels through ages. Our poet Rabindranath Tagore's birthday in summer is incomplete without a bunch of blooming, fragrant tuberose.
Street foods are also special during summer. Peddlers bring out their yummy delicacies, mostly in the afternoon and evening; and in India, they never have any lack of customers. Children, of course, are their most dedicated audience.
Tagore and the Tuberose
I remember, during school days, we would have a long summer vacation when after doing our required one-hour math and handwriting practice session in early afternoon, we would eagerly wait for the street peddlers’ special selling calls. Here comes the blackberry man. Here comes the green mango man. Here comes the pakora-walla. Here comes the watermelon-walla.
Those of us who were fortunate to have rooftop on our own houses, late in the evening, way after the sun went down, we would sprinkle water on the very hot rooftop to cool it down, and then lay out thin mats, where we and our elders would sit and chat for hours. We would have puffed rice laced with mustard oil-made mango pickles, and a generous serving of eggplant or onion fritters.
The moon would jealously look down on us.
Summer is very, very nostalgic.
Memories come back during this festive season.
I grew up in an extended family in Calcutta, with fifteen or twenty people sharing three rooms and a common kitchen. We didn’t complain. We were all very happy. That was our life: not affluent, but very happy.
However, growing up together with cousins, aunts and uncles, my parents and I did not have a lot of quality time to the three of us. So my father, who was always big on eating healthy, made a yearly plan. He took us to a small, then-empty hill station called Rajgir, in the nearby state of Bihar. Rajgir, by the way, is the place where they have relics of the world's most ancient university called Nalanda. Rajgir was full of fresh air with plenty of oxygen, and tons of healthy food. My parents and I would be away from the city hustle and bustle for nearly two months, in the months of December and January.
Mother's day is this Sunday May 10th. I wanted to share a little about my mother and what she meant to me and my family.
My mother and my daughter
My mother seemed like a normal Indian mother, but if you knew her heart you would know she was beyond compare.
Her name was Renuka, or Renu to those closest to her. She grew up in East Bengal, which is now known as Bangladesh. Before the British partition of India in 1947, East Bengal and West Bengal were two parts of an undivided province of Bengal. The two sides of Bengal shared a common history as well as their rich cultural and social heritage for at least one thousand years. A very important part of this heritage was the cuisine.
My mother and her family lived in Dhaka, which the capital city of Bangladesh. Today, it is the tenth largest city in the world, with a population of more than 18 million people. My father and his family also lived in Dhaka, but after the 1947 partition they were forced to cross the border into Calcutta as refugees. Then, as it is now with refugees flooding into Europe and other countries, one can imagine how extremely difficult a time it was. This life-changing experience allowed my mother to be a champion of others who had even less than what she did.
From the time I was young and able to understand my mother she was a key person, both in her own family as well as her marital family. She was the one everyone could count on for help. “Let’s ask Renu,” they would say, whenever they were in need. Both my parents worked for the government. My mom worked in the post office, which did not pay much (some things never change), but gave her some much-needed economic stability. My mother used that peace-of-mind and stability she gained to help out others in all possible and seemingly impossible ways.
One of those ways included, of all things, match-making! It was almost uncanny the way she saw connections between possible brides and grooms within her circle of family members and friends. A middle-class, distant relative’s son and a long-unseen, poor friend’s daughter would suddenly be brought together. This match would ultimately end in a nice little wedding ceremony – my mother being the all-important “cupid” who organized it. Or, a needy cousin and his family members who were suffering so much that they were almost starving. When my mother learned of their plight she showed up at their dilapidated home on a Sunday morning, with cooked food in a large tiffin carrier and money for the starving family. She helped people realize their hopes and dreams as well as helped them to reclaim those same hopes and dreams.
No matter your status in life, she would be there. She even provided support for the people who worked as servants or maids in our home. We were not rich, but were blessed enough to have people who worked for us. That also meant that the people who worked for us were extremely poor. Despite that, they always knew that my mother would be there to save them from hunger and hopelessness.
In 1992, my parents came to the United States to visit us for the first and only time. At the time we lived in Southern Illinois where my husband was doing his Ph.D. at Southern Illinois University, and I was also working in a biology lab at the university. She met my daughter for the first time; she was only five at that time. Mother said it was the best time of her life, those three or four months she stayed with us here in America. According to her, it was "God’s blessing". After returning to India, she spoke and joked about it with friends and family.
Before her passing she often said that when the time comes for her to meet God, she would say, “God, I am very happy and satisfied with my life on earth. I have no regrets. I have even traveled to America, and stayed with my daughter and granddaughter". That always makes me feel special. Even though she was so young, my daughter fondly remembers those days. And I still remember my mother sitting in a swing with my daughter in the small and quiet park of our graduate student housing on Evergreen Terrace.
I miss my mom very much, but for me I still honor her by doing for other people by using my life's experiences to help out any way I can. It's why I love to cook and teach others the benefits of eating the right foods and staying healthy. I would love to hear stories from you about your mother. Leave a few words in the comments about how you remember your mom. What did she like to do? How did she inspire you? How do you honor her today whether she has passed on or is still here today?
Happy Mother's Day,