It is not food. It is magic. It is purple and gold dusted magic.
You don’t eat in Calcutta. You simply do not. You live it, you love it and you hear it and feel it and see it and smell it because that is what the city is all about.
It is the wooden ice cream stick that you get to stir your “kesari chai” special at Mission Cafe on Ganesh Chandra Avenue. Where you stand and watch the traffic honk and stroll its way towards the Metro station.
It is the clatter of the white plate filled with mutton ishtoo that they serve in New Aaliyah on Bentick Street. The clatter as the plate filled with oily, greasy ishtoo is graciously placed on your table. The ishtoo with pieces whole, uncrushed black pepper swimming in the oil, nestled so silently next to the red chillies and the cardamom and the elaichi.
You don’t just eat food in Calcutta. You stare at it, shamelessly. You stare at that metal spoon balanced so carefully on a glass of daab sherbet. You stare it for a minute as the beads of sweat form on the glass and the milky-white meat floats in the sherbet. And then you stare out at the book stores and the jhola-wala students walking around. And you stare some more.
You don’t just eat food in this city. You hunch and crunch your way onto tiny tables and tiny chairs at Putiraam. You hunch your way under the low ceiling and you dab your kachuri into the sweet dal and you huddle some more because you remember the time when you walked into this place drenched from the rain.
You don’t just eat food in this city, you travel through time. I can see the painted walls at Mocambo and the lovely leather seats feel so re-assuring. The steak is still the same and the angels on horseback are still so indulgent. Oh god, but it was eight, nine (ten?) years ago that I walked through those doors for the first time. The smoky air and the seat by the window. The one large beer shared between two friends. The nearly empty wallet and the joy (just the joy) of getting some extra cash.
You don’t just eat food in this city, you suspend your belief. You sit with your outstretched hands pointed towards the puchka man. You place your trust in his numerical abilities, his uncanny skill in knowing just when each of you have finished their share. His mind-boggling fuckin awesome skill in tempering each of your puchka’s with just the right of flavour that you have asked for. The two (always two) cracks on the shell of the puri, one to puncture it and then the other to shove the aloo and the yummy yum inside the puri.
Oh you don’t just eat in this city. You dip your soul into the nolun gur pedas and the mishti stalls outside the High Court. Where you point at the sweet, oh the sweet, mishti and the man hands the pieces over to you. And there, the man is making deempao on a chula and he is scraping the burnt parts of the toast and lathering it with jelly or butter or whatever your heart desires.
The kathi rolls are to heard. They are to be heard. That first soft pounding of the aatta to make the parantha before it is slid on the tawa. And then the sizzle of the oil dripped onto the tawa’s centre. The crack of the egg and then the sizzle of the fried egg. The paratha viscously pulled to cover the sizzle. Turned over and made to sizzle some more. Stuffed with meat and onions and raw cut chillies and wrapped and handed right to you. The peeling of the tissue paper, that scratchy sound that will always mean there is another bite left.
That first sip of whisky at Broadway. Where the ceilings are so so high and the water is served in old bottles of Old Monk. That buzz, that almost silent chatter that never ends. That thick, buttered bread that goes disgustingly well with a masala omelette. That last, drunken beer that is eaten with fish fingers dipped in that yellow mustard sauce. That bright, mustard sauce with a strong smell and a stronger taste.
This is not a city that you can forget, this is not a city that lets you forget. She is like that first crush, the one you never really want to get over. She is magical and warm and wet and sweet and so many, so many different things. She is a world of crumbling mansions and where people use “baarah aanas”, a universe where trams still run on city streets and where the women are beautiful beyond belief. This is a city that sparks and creates and kills and feels nothing. Or feels too much.
This is a city that I will never, ever forget. That I can’t forget. She is that ugly cousin who only a few worship, secretly at times. Afraid that there love (lust?) may be seen as incestuous. Ok fuck this shit.
Go there. Just go there. And live it.