Wednesday, 27 June 2012

All my tea…

A major part of childhood was spent with my maternal grandparents. Thanks to the two months long vacations every year, Ma undergoing a surgery and a second pregnancy. For most children, dadu-bari (nana-bari) is a place of unadulterated and endless mollycoddling. No exceptions here.
Like all Bengali households, there would be several tea sessions with friends and relatives and I would consistently insist in carrying empty cups to the washbasin once tea was over and guests were gone. (Yes. Grandparents valued granddaughter’s pleadings more than bone-china cup sets). I remember this one clearly, even though I was barely 6 or 7 then. I will explain. Once tea was over, I would peep into the empty cups. Well, the almost–empty cups. You must have noticed that people drink tea and leave the last sip in the cup itself (why??). Sometimes it would be a few drops, sometimes a gulp. But it would be there…always, unfailingly. And I would look here and there, see if anyone’s noticing and drink that leftover. Leftover tea from cups often used by almost-strangers. That was fun! (20 times more than the first taste of alcohol or the first ring of a cigarette, I tell you). Tea was a forbidden territory for children of my age and drinking ‘eyto’ (ort) was a sin then, now and for all times. If Ma reads this, she would want to wash my whole system RIGHT NOW with DETTOL.
And that was the beginning of an unfaltering love story. With tea. A staunch tea addict that I am, “cha-hunga mein tujhe sham savere” continues to be my national anthem. Pardon me for the horrible joke and lets get down to the real point.
It is said that no one knows their cup of tea better than a Calcuttan. Well, tell me one thing the Calcuttans are not best at!! (dripping sarcasm).  I quite agree however to the tea part. With the city’s close proximity to Darjeeling and Assam, it is quite understandable, no? Being a hopeless aficionado, I choose to babble about my favourite flavours and aromas and not exactly baato gyaan on tea, tea-testing, tea-tasting and other platonic stuff.
I love milk tea. Period. And “office-para footpath tea” tops the chart. It’s not the milk that you put in the tea. It’s the tea that you put in the milk that makes it blissful. Staunch Darjeeling tea-fans would stop reading the post right now. Well, please excuse me then. I am a roadside tea fanatic. Milk, sugar and water mixed in the right proportion and tea added once in a while. I said “once in a while”, because they recycle the same tea atleast 50 times in the day. They don’t use strainers, they use old cloth. Squeeze out the last brown drop (like ICICI loan-recovery team) and again put the same chai-patta into the tumbler and make it boil. And yet, you would sit on those half-broken wooden benches and enjoy your cups (read ‘bhhanr’) with delight. The terracotta cups in which tea is served has a thin film of dry earth which gets combined with the tea and so does the smell of the kerosene stove. What makes office-para tea so heavenly is those glass jars filled with One-Rupee bakery biscuits (which Calcuttans affectionately refer to as biskoot) and Barua Bakery cakes (also called tiffin-cakes). The fun is, you can open the bottles on your own without the tea-seller’s permission, take out biscuits of your choice, dip them and eat. Oh yes, drinking tea from these stalls and not dip the biscuits in the tea is a crime.

Once in a while, depending on bad moods, headaches and work pressure, you ask the tea-seller to add a pinch of ginger or cardamom into the tea to make it stronger. The aroma is orgasmic.  
The tea stalls are humble, often based under a plastic canopy to ward of elements and crow-blessings. It would invariably have an owner who would sit the whole day making tea and a below-14-years-old-Chotu to carry tea to various offices. He would also fit in a Ram-Sita or Hanumanji picture and an agarbati with obnoxious smell. A radio unknowingly attracts more customers, but as I said, he is oblivious of such marketing stunts.

Office-area tea is also served in these white bone-china cups. People whose sole source of sustenance in office para is tea (accompanied by quarter pound breads), know the subtle difference between ‘bhharer cha’ and tea served in these white cups. This is the more sophisticated kind, a little more expensive (5 rupees instead of 3) and is served on bone-china plates. In a hurry, office-goers pour their tea in those plates and drink it directly therefrom. And the ‘slurp’ sound!! A very common sight in Dalhousie, High Court area and Deckers Lane, agree?

It would be immoral not to mention the quarter pound breads here. As Bongs say it ‘Cha–er sathe Ta’ is a must. In moments of leisure (which Bongs have in plenty), one rupee biscuits are replaced by breads, buttered or jammed. People don’t spare these breads from dipping into the tea, as well. (Replace ‘people’ with a first person, singular number ;))
Since I am talking about tea from the office localities, I might as well mention quickly about the tea served from vending machines in our respective offices. I love the froth, the creamy effect and the cardamom and elaichi flavours. Froth reminds me, when you gulp office tea, you have moustaches!! Tea-lovers get perennially pissed off with such tea. Great glory is attached to coffee from vending machines while foamy tea is looked down upon with utmost disgust. I choose to take its side. Selflessly.
The same taste of mota-cha can be enjoyed in trains and railway platforms, na?

That’s Assam Tea for you. Sinewy, robust and conventional…with milk and sugar. What is a downpour without such tea and pakoras? Its light bodied Darjeeling brethren does not match its standards when you are sitting on your window sill and enjoying the pitter-patter…atleast for the first person, singular number I referred to. :)
And for recommendations. As a good Samaritan it is my duty to enlighten you about one or two favourite tea joints in Kolkata. The twin tea joints of Sharma and Balwant Singh beside the Harish Mukherjee Road Gurudwara (near Elgin Road crossing). Well, I made up that ‘twin’ part. They are very close to each other, almost on each other’s sides, I stand corrected. Sharma Tea Shop serves the typically thick Assam tea and I would recommend a breakfast to follow. Kachuri with dal, alu-sabzi and hot gulabjamun is sinfully mouthwatering. Try it. Same for Balwant Singh Dhaba. Other than their “world-famous in Calcutta” Doodh-Cola in plastic jugs, they also serve amazing tea. You would gladly part away with 10 bucks for a cup, once you’ve tasted it.
The second joint is Dolly’s. Tucked in one corner of Dakshinapon Shopping Complex in South Kolkata it is THE perfect place for aficionados like us (and chatterboxes too). You can finish one cup of tea in an hour. No time limit. It is infested with college students, lovers, antels (Bong intellectuals) and the like. It is tiny and cosy with walls paneled with old tea-chests. What marks it different from other tea-joints, is, it sells a huge variety of teas by kilos, ranging from a modest 400 rupees per kg to 10,000 rupees per kg. The other interesting part is that it is one of those rare places that serve these teas by a small cup allowing you to play a tea-tester/taster and convince yourself with your purchase. Try the Makaibari Oolong, Darjeeling Autumn, Makaibari Silvertips. Oolong is treated with great reverence for its aroma and it is considered a crime to put add milk and sugar in it. Darjeeling teas, fail to excite me so for me, Dolly’s is all about iced tea and their endless variety. Iced tea with a scoop of icecream, orange, watermelon, peach flavoured iced teas are considered juvenile but that’s my kind of poison.

Back to the pavement story, the roadside tea-sellers not only sell their tea for a minuscule 3 rupees, but the glasses, as well. So you get a full set for merely eighteen bucks. I tell you, keep such a set at home. On days of downpours and addas, use this set instead of an expensive Luminarc or Correlle one. And for the tea, get one of those quirky painted kettles. (I will tell you where to get it, unless you paint it yourself). This accentuated with pakoras (read ‘telebhaja’) makes the whole experience magical.
I am being told, “Avoid milk tea. It’s fattening”. Well, all good things are. Chocolates, S**, Alcohol. Do I need to bother? Mallika Sherawat does not have my brains; I might as well spare her a good figure. Hmm?
[photo sources: mostly internet]

Wednesday, 20 June 2012


Time is money. So is your job. With both to maintain, travelling had to be made less time consuming. We tailor our itineraries in a way that the distance between two cities in opposite hemispheres of the country is traversed in lesser time than it takes from Behala to Barrackpore or Colaba to Kandivilli. In the last one year, all I can think of is, two train journeys…compared to innumerable aeroplane rides I had. Two hours flight replaced by 2 whole days in the train is unthinkable. However, Mr. Perfectly Alright and I are ceaselessly in love with train journeys and sometimes make it a point we travel by train. Needless to say, the excitement in travelling by a train is incomparable with any other journey (I haven’t tried space-ships though).

The thrill begins when you have a Waiting list or an RAC ticket. Every now and then you track it, with the anticipation that someone’s tickets are cancelled to give way to yours. You apply all your means, connections and bribes to get the tickets done. Especially, for Bengalis, travelling is like politics, adda and Uttam Kumar. Imbibed in their neurons. Life without travelling is equivalent to no life at all. (You see tourists dying in bomb-blasts in Kashmir or land-slides in Kumayun. All of them are Bengalis).

And once your ticket is confirmed, starts the real fun. Packing! There is no 20 kilos weight limit. You can almost carry your 800 sq.ft. home into the train with slight variations. Safety-pins, idols of Ram-Sita, gas burners, packets of puffed rice and Maggi, pickles, blankets, radio sets, pets (non-barking ones) and a range of other useless and useful things tuck themselves conveniently in those huge metal trunks and trolleys (read ‘suitcase’). In the event they cannot tuck themselves so conveniently, children would be asked to sit on the upper-lid, so that the luggage can be closed properly and locked tightly. And, if there is a numeric lock, then each time the luggage is opened (or closed), the person turns a Vinay Pathak in Bheja Fry! (You know what I mean).

One thing I fail to notice nowadays, which was very common when we were small. The owner of the luggage would have stickers bearing his/her initials fixed on the suitcase on two sides of the handle (there was a specific space for doing it). In yester years, suitcases used to come with alphabet-stickers. You choose your initials, stick them and when the luggage is lost, the whole world would come to know that it belonged to you by a mere B.G, C.N or   S.P (as if)!!!!

Once things are packed, starts the first round of counting the luggage while putting them in the boot of a taxi (fondly called “dicky”) and then see for the umpteenth time whether the cab-driver has locked it properly. On the way to the station, at every red signal where the taxi has stopped, check whether the dicky is still locked. The second round of counting starts after reaching the station. The third round follows while handing over the luggage to the Coolie and the final one once you’ve boarded the train. The in-between mental counting goes on while following the Coolie till the train. And of course, keeping a count equally applies to little children, if you are travelling with a number of them (except the dicky and the coolie-part, of course).

For Bongs in Kolkata, like us, I think you would agree, the delight of travelling begins at the very step onto the Howrah Bridge. It is like a lovely trailor to a lovelier movie that lies ahead (unlike the present Yash-Chopra movies). The thrill, the excitement and the boundless joy begins just at the visibility of Ganga, the mightiness of the suspension bridge and the Howrah Station that beckons. And then, the sight, smell and sound of the station make you ecstatic..instantly. You don’t mind the sweat, the loud bustle, the annoying pleadings of hawkers and the relentless bargaining sessions with Coolies.

One more thing I have noticed. Whenever we used to travel in big groups, people would join each other near the “Boro-ghori” (the big clock) in Howrah Station. This was one unfailing landmark for all, I guess. Not only for travellers, it is the greatest rendezvous point for lovers, friends, relatives as well, before they take their respective trains. In the age of no-mobile phones, people who got lost in the railway station, would invariably wait near the “boro-ghori” with the anticipation that their friends or relatives would come here atleast once to look for them. I have heard, office-goers check if their wristwatches match the hands of the big clock during ‘awpish’-time.

And then starts the advent towards the train once the platform is declared. Checking names on passengers’ list (complaining “hey I am 36 years only, they have written 40 against my name”), pushing way thorough mounds of luggage, passengers and porters, dealing with the one who carried yours and ending the bargain with likes of “tang maat karo, tang maat karo, kafi ho gaya, zyada ho giya..” (in sonar kella-style). Achha, have you noticed, we, Bongs always speak to Taxi-drivers and Coolies in Hindi? Why???

With luggage settled beneath your seats and fixed with chain locks available on platforms (as if all that you are carrying are gold biscuits), starts the good-bye session. There would be a throng of relatives, well-wishers, neighbours to see you off, and as Mr. Santosh Desai rightly pointed in one of his books, “waving goodbye till well, after your train had crossed into the next state”. How true!!! Not to miss the assorted advices that follow…that follow you, once the train is on the move. “Eat well”, “Don’t eat from the vendors in the train”, “Don’t accept any food from co-passengers” (with the anticipation that they may put sleeping drugs into your food and steal everything), “Don’t put your hand outside the window”, “Try not to poop in those dirty latrines”, “I pity your seat numbers are 1, 2, 3 and 4..they are so close to the entrance and the latrines. You won’t be able to sleep because of the noise and the smell”, “Don’t pull the chain by mistake” are some of them.  (I have heard that ‘don’t put your hands outside the window’ is such a ritualistic statement, that Bongs say it even when you are travelling in an AC coach or an airplane!!)

And now that your train has started, you have a mixed feeling of fear and frolic. You cross-check the tickets and in case you have a 15 years old Mumpi traveling with a 26 years old Sumana’s ticket (due to last moment plan-change), you teach her to settle in the upper berth as soon as the ticket-checker advents, so that he fails to fathom her exact age from a distance. 

The beginning of the journey is characterised by men putting their sneakers into their bags and pulling out from newspaper-wraps their rubber sandals (which we Bongs affectionately call Hawai-choti), taking off their trousers and slipping into a pair of shorts (also known as haap-paant) or lungi. Yes, Indian men often have a separate set of clothes, one for boarding the train and the other for travelling in it. It is then followed by expert comments regarding the cleanliness of the toilet and pleading co-passengers to use it to their heart’s content with the anticipation that the latrines would soon become soiled and unfit for human defecation.  

As the train moves on, crossing one state after the other, conversations with neighbouring passengers intensify. We soon get to know their whole itineraries including the money invested in the tour. Their aloo-parathas are exchanged with luchis during dinner and upper berths exchanged for lower ones, pleading arthritis (telephone numbers are exchanged too!). Swapping seats with friendly co-passengers is a widely accepted phenomenon. I remember, many years ago, while travelling from Chennai to Kolkata, a couple with 2 kids had waiting list tickets. (In Sleeper class, you are allowed only to board the train with such tickets but NOT to sit). My father had made me sleep with one kid while the other slept with my brother. My parents left their entire berth to the couple. The two sets of parents had kept awake the entire night sitting and talking to each other.   

And no journey however small or big, is complete without the mention of food. The moment one boards the train, I guess, the appetite multiplies infinitely. Tea is had at an interval of 10 minutes, followed by ‘coal-dinks’, jhaal-muri, roasted peanuts, pakora, cutlet and bread-omelette (the vendors have a peculiar way of saying it!). When we were small, the second meal in the train was always from the pantry (the first being home-food). And the enthusiasm of eating train-food was like having a lunch at a 5-star hotel and the excitement as great as turning 18. The pickle, the dahi, the almost-always-arhaar daal and the presence of 2 eggs in the egg-curry (when you had expected one) was heavenly, trust me. It was a feast for eyes and for the stomach.

Train food was punctuated with food from big junctions. Kharagpur signified puri and alu-sabzi (unskinned potatoes, i.e), Bhubaneshwar stood for sweets, bananas and filling of water-bottles, Vizag and Vijaywara for fruit juices, Nagpur for oranges. The stations in South India would invariably distinguish themselves with Vadas (which looked like doughnuts), Dosas, Curd Rice, Egg-Biriyani and onion-raita, all wrapped in Sal leaves.

Filling water bottles in railway stations reminds me how anxious we used to get at the thought that the train may start any moment and leave the station with Baba being stranded there forever. (To be honest, we, as kids secretly wanted this to happen atleast once, so that we could pull the chain. That would have been a lifetime experience).

Such simply exciting and excitingly simple were the train rides. In one of my Kolkata-to-Mumbai flights, at the time of getting down from the aircraft, my neighbour asked me “Mumbai?”  I felt like saying “No. Uzbekistan”. In the entire 2 and a half hours flight, I was feeling terribly bored and was waiting to talk to someone, while the man on my next seat had his eyes glued to an India Today. Now that the flight has come to an end, he finds the time to talk! Had it been a train journey, I would have made him play cards and/or antakshari with me, share his lunch and books and knew enough of him to write a short biography.  Exaggerations apart, what I mean to say is that the warmth and the joie de vivre a train journey offers are truly unmatched.

The last time I travelled in a train, I made it a point to collect as much memories I could. I had as much pantry-food as possible, IRCTC tea was had in abundance accompanied by bread-omelette, ludo bought and played but most importantly, soap papers bought in a bundle. This is one thing I miss so much. With the advent of wet wipes and hand sanitisers, that is. When we were kids, wedding feasts were followed by finger bowls (colourful plastic ones) with soap papers in each (instead of lemons, as it is today). And these soap papers were a MUST in train journeys as well.

Well, as I said, in our endeavours to maintain time and jobs, travelling cannot be made a prolonged affair. Flights have thus replaced train journeys in a major way. Simple ways of life has been swapped with faster and more refined ones. Nevertheless, for people like us, whose childhood memories are overflowing with moments spent in the train (sleeper class, to be noted), no journey can ever replace them in terms of the fun had. Hearts are trained that way!!

Sunday, 3 June 2012


No cheating. This is an old post, written almost a year back. Still. I want to show it off here (the second reason being, I AM quite a show-off!!). Months back, while walking down the erstwhile Great Eastern Hotel footpath (erstwhile, because the hotel is been renovated and reincarnated), I chanced upon a small roadside stall which sold everything for Rs.5/- . Amazed at the huge variety of stuff and the incredible customer-friendly price, I stood there for a while. Among safety pins, erasers, rubber bands and 50 other odd things, there was a plastic auto ricksaw. Very tiny, quirky and had a charm almost ten times as much as its size. And that cute little thing encouraged me with the post…a post about my favorite public transport on the Kolkata roads.
The foremost reason for re-posting (you already know the second reason) is, during the 70% sale at Mother Earth, I bought an amazing set of book-ends (worth 799 bucks) at an unforgettable 229 rupees. I was thrilled. Don’t be jealous, some people are born lucky ;)

By the way, here’s the old post in a new blog with a few edits, of course.
The reasons behind the unqualified love and affection for the vehicle are many and some of them are here:-

1.       For auto’s “janlar dhhar” (window seat). It is THE only public transport on the road which has such a cool window seat. I recollect, how on lazy days, I have refused 2-3 auto ricksaws just to get into the one with the coveted seat. No other window seat gives you a 66% body exposure and let you enjoy the breeze at an optimum level. (The last sentence totally sounded like “open the window and let atmosphere come in” but, could’nt come up with a better expression, seriously)

2.       Point No. 1 was meant for the back seat. But I also love the window seats next to the driver’s, especially the one on his right. It remains the most undisturbed seat. No “didi-ektu-namun-to-ei-jonno-bolechilam-bhetore-boshun-ami-agey-nambo”-hindrances. Not that I blame them. They also belong to “love for point No.1 above” category. In recent times of CNG autos, the seat on the driver’s left remains equally peaceful. You don’t have to get down every time the auto stops and the driver pulls that weird rod below your seat unendingly to start the vehicle again. And of course, the seats next to the driver’s give you a 100% body exposure. (I know this sounds bhojpuri-english, but I still could’nt find a better expression).

3.       85% of autos have radios. Pure awesomeness. This is one of the foremost yardsticks by virtue of which auto emerges as a clear winner over ricksaws, trams, buses, taxis and share-cabs. I know we all have headphones. But the full-blast music, with dhinkchak purple-green-red tiny lights bordering the radio and the interiors remain unparallel entertainers. 
And, the autos perpetually play the radio station you generally like the least, playing songs with “uiamma uiamma” words, songs with double meanings and obscene lyrics or songs sung by Bappi Lahiri (refer to “chirodini tumi je amar, jooge jooge ami tomari...”). But, I don’t know why, I always end up enjoying the whole experience, just at the sight of the immense pleasure the auto-wala gets on hearing those songs.

4.       For the incessant dates we have had in autos. This was in Class 11-12, a decade back. On my way to tuitions, I used to meet him and was perennially gripped by this fear that someone may see us if we sat in a restaurant or a park. So there was this unwritten commandment (from my end, of course) that we would date mostly in the auto. Here too, the auto wins over buses for its “privacy” factor and taxis for the taxi’s “over-privacy” factor (you can have a single friendly co-passenger in an auto, but not in a Taxi!!!).
I remember our Taratolla to Deshapriyo Park auto rides (often to and fro), getting down from one auto and going into another and that’s it. A date consisting of 2-3 arbit auto-rides and bagful of memories.
By the way, on rainy days, auto-walas hang plastic curtains on the sides, as well. ;)

5.       Extreme pocket friendliness. I know many a times travelling the same distance by a bus and an auto costs you the same. When the minimum fare for both stands Rs.5/-, why take a bus? That also reminds me with petrol priced at Rs.78 a litre, very soon auto will rank first not only among my favourite public transports but among private ones as well.

6.       For the funny, heartwarming, insightful conversations I have often had with the auto drivers (Yes, I chat with them too). Whenever I get the front window seat, I invariably end up babbling with the auto-driver. It includes topics like football (where he talks and I listen), traffic jam, price-hike, movies (with special emphasis on Posenjit, Dev and Jeet from his end), his “chhele-meyer schooler tuition fees”, politics and the list goes on. Of course, the hottest topic being our lady CM (where we only talk and do not listen).

7.       The almost cent percent rate of non-refusal, unlike their notorious taxi-brethrens. To add to it, if you and the other 3 co-passengers are friends (preferably female) and you could nag him a little, the driver would even change his route and behave like a cabbie. I remember 3 of my friends and I had taken an auto from Park Circus. The last stop was Gariahat, as known to everyone who belong to the southern hemisphere of this city. However, we convinced him to take us to South City instead, at a meagre fare of Rs.10/- each. How terribly sweet was that!! On many Sundays, I have experienced the same good-Samaritan act (even alone… without female friends).

8.       For its nearly undefeatable way of sneaking past the buses, lorries, taxis and private vehicles at times of utmost urgency (read office-time). They are unparallel in taking short-cuts, taking wrong sides of the road and taking you to your desired destination almost on time.

9.       For the funny messages painted at the back of the auto. They are funny just for their simplicity. Statements like “manusher cheye chhagol dami”, “bhhara rakhun haater kachhe…somoy, jalani dui bache”, “shyekra ke rupo dilam payel kore dilo…driver ke gari dilam pagol kore dilo…”, “dekhle hobe khorcha ache”, “dekhbi r jolbi..luchir moto phoolbi” and the most common “najar lagale juta khabe” and a small rubber-sandal hanging next to it. They are often meaningless, often out of context, but they are still so much better than a bland “HORN OK TATA” or the clichéd “Mera Bharat Mahan”.

10.       On the way back home one day, an Auto-driver asked me “Khuki, kothay nambe?” ‘Khuki’ is a term Bongs use for very young girls. A little amazed (and also flattered), I chose to be honest and told him that I was not a “khuki” any more, was rather a much-married woman on the wrong side of twenties. He made my day with “ema, ami bhablam college e poro” (“I thought you are a college-student!”). In a flip of a second, the utter despair and the eternal disgust of being called Bhabi/Boudi by middle-aged hawkers and Aunty by school children of 10-12 years age group disappeared like magic!!  

And the perpetual bias towards the vehicle auto-matically increased manifold.