Kolkata’s micro delights: small family ceremonies for the visiting traveler

There is something about Kolkata that anyone who has visited it finds very difficult to explain. They call it the “City of Joy”. I reckon, it is not all about the people living in apparent happiness. There is the “adda”, which essentially means gossip, but is so much more. It is what siesta is to Spain but when you take it from being just an afternoon, to a full-time day job. I found it to be more of a ritual.

But this post is not about the adda. Nor about how La Nuit Bengali (a Bengali Night) is the only possible exception to the perception of Kolkata as a city of struggle or its many other one-sided depictions. So what’s this post about after all?

Kolkata walks more for culture than for religion © B Debnath

Kolkata walks more for culture than for religion © B Debnath

About Kolkata’s micro delights – those hidden small family ceremonies

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How to find the Kolkata behind that shimmering curtain

Kolkata hoodwinks. The mad traffic, the clamour of earthen ‘chai’ cups, the heave of the boatman under the distinguished Howrah bridge, the cacophony of the incredulous  flower market under that very bridge; of colonial buildings with growing tree roots as decor and where people still live in. Alongside these and a multitude of other signs, Kolkata very easily mesmerizes.

But hidden just beneath, by a shimmering curtain so light that you often wonder how you missed it, is another universe. A universe with tiny little worlds who speak a different dialect. Sure you see just enough signs of this world spilling onto the streets every now and then.

Looking closely © B Debnath

Looking closely © B Debnath

Carrying the messages and ivitations  © B Debnath

Carrying the messages and invitations © B Debnath

Unabashedly gorgeous Bengali women, clad in white sarees with red borders, glint of untold passion in their eyes carrying dishes of sweets across the streets, time-worn gentlemen passing on the offerings to the priest, a conch blowing somewhere in between the tram bells. The fathers of the families with side bags reaching out to distant folks to call them in. And among all this, somewhere, just beside a road which is in such chaos is one single dew drop perfectly preserved right till the afternoon. And once every year, that little world takes on the rest of the universe by storm. That is the time of the Durga Puja.

That little bit of quiet © B Debnath

That little bit of quiet © B Debnath

The offerings © B Debnath

The offerings © B Debnath

The conch blowing grand mothers © B Debnath

The conch blowing grand mothers © B Debnath

A word to the visiting traveler

Take time out for what can very well be one the most rewarding experiences of your life. Plan it out. Usually late October, right after the massive Durga Puja celebrations is the best time. In fact, take a dip into that too. The intensity is often desirable to feel the sequel. Get in touch with a local family. I happen to know some of the oldest families of the city (and with Kolkata, it can be very old). Beg, request, gate crash (okay maybe not that but even this is so easily welcomed by the families there!) into any of the small pujas that come up in throngs in late October to mid November. There is the Lokkhi puja among them. If you can find no better person, come talk to me.

A Durga Puja Idol © B Debnath

A Durga Puja Idol © B Debnath

Age does play - Durga Puja © B Debnath

Age does play – Durga Puja © B Debnath

The Experiences

And then it will rain again

It often still rains at that time of the year. I hail from the wettest part of the world. When you do that, you grow up with rain and there is something that gets etched into your blood which does not lose itself even after ages in arid deserts or Dante’s inferno. But again, there is something to the rain of Kolkata. The streets are going to get mucky. The trains will come to a stand still and you will swear freely.  And then you’ll climb up to the roof, will see the the massive expanse of the city seductively looking at you. Football will resume on the grounds. Bells will toll again. Smoke from the chimneys will again rise. Soot will restart coating the old buildings and your heart might just ache again. But magic can still be seen.

And then it rains © B Debnath

And then it rains © B Debnath

About the chopping

There will be a whole lot of chopping. Massive tumblers full of vegetables, each cut in a particular fashion to complement the others it is going to be cooked with. There won’t be one person doing the chopping! How incredulous! You, my friend, sure have learnt how to use the knife in the west, haven’t you? Or peeled potatoes? The children shell the peas. The even smaller ones peel the bananas. I had not expected it. I kept quiet for a while, and even above all the chatter from the folks (Bengalis can talk. A massive lot. And very loudly too.) there comes this magical little music of chopping, shelling, peeling vegetables.

Something to do with the chopping of vegetables © B Debnath

Something to do with the chopping of vegetables © B Debnath

And something to about making sandal wood paste © B Debnath

And something to about making sandal wood paste © B Debnath

About sweet and savoury

And of course there is the food. Sure, any regional ceremony has its share of gastronomical divination and it would be unfair of me to compare any two. But what I can do is tell you what I saw, heard, smelt and tasted. And boy did I do those! The kitchen is divided into separate sections. There is the place which is cooking the hochpoch, one that is doing the sides, another is taking care of entree and corners of the house converted into makeshift kitchens making desert. Someone is doing the frying, someone the foldings. And you are still not in a master kitchen. You are still in a small family home. There are aromas that delight and fragrances which confuse. Tiny little plates full of surprises keep coming your way by the hands of pretty giggling girls to ask for your answer on “tell me how it tastes?” And of course it all tastes good. There are “won’t you eat anything in between? It will be a good three hours before lunch!” coming your way every ten minutes.

Sweet and flower offerings © B Debnath

Sweet and flower offerings © B Debnath

And the savoury © B Debnath

And the savoury © B Debnath

About the chatter and other things

Family is important. And family is not just defined by blood. It is also defined by acquaintance. It is ever so difficult to find out who’s family and who’s not. There is the old grandmother from next door who’s son is too busy in San Francisco. But there is the young mother with the child who braved rain, flooding streets and came by a yellow taxi. And flies down from Texas. She’s a friend. There’s the adorable old man in all whites. Including the hair. He comes in everyday for the morning cup of tea and newspaper. Nobody really remembers if he’s family or not. It’s been too long.

There’s chatter, worshiping mother-in-laws do not mind breaking the vow of silence to chip in and correct the colour of saree being described by the younger wives. Nothing is sacrilege when there is love, is there?

The correcting mother-in-law © B Debnath

The correcting mother-in-law © B Debnath

And the fire-fanning father-in-law © B Debnath

And the fire-fanning father-in-law © B Debnath

Take the blessing by taking your palms over the fire © B Debnath

Take the blessing by taking your palms over the fire © B Debnath

The friend who braves the rain © B Debnath

The friend who braves the rain © B Debnath

The old man with in white © B Debnath

The old man with in white © B Debnath

The small things

As as with these little gatherings, there are so many other smaller things. Take for instance, the hand-made, hand-held fan. Made from palm leaves. Or the beetle leaf bundles. Don’t throw away the stems now! Even those are used. And of course, there is the dressing to the nines. And the sleeping grandfathers.

Th hand-made fans © B Debnath

Th hand-made fans © B Debnath

Don't throw away the stems! © B Debnath

Don’t throw away the stems! © B Debnath

Dressing for the ocassion © B Debnath

Dressing for the ocassion © B Debnath

The sleeping grandfathers © B Debnath

The sleeping grandfathers © B Debnath

If you’d like to know more about Kolkata

I have not written a lot about the place, but there is some. There is a little talk about exploring Kolkata on foot – the best walking tours over at the mygola blog, if you’d be interested.

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