Those who have memories of their grandfathers spending hours talking about the unforgettable flavour of Padmar ilish, take heart. Kolkata still loves the taste of ilish – be it raw or cooked, fried or steamed – and consumes upto 100 tonnes daily during the peak season around Vishwakarma Puja. A friend in the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission says that such is the craze for Padmar ilish among Bengalis that pithe and sandesh from that country pale in comparison to the demand for ilish items at the Bangladesh fair held in Kolkata every December.
This does not mean that Kolkata hasn’t metamorphosed. The set-top box has subtly replaced the local cablewallah who would arrive every month charging a meagre Rs 200 for beaming a 100 channels into your bedroom. The grindstone used by the randhuni (cook) of yore to crush shorshe has long been displaced by the whirring mixer grinder and the exhaust fan in my mother’s kitchen has given way to a sleek but noiseless chimney. Innumerable trips to the grocer’s or the traditional bajaar is no longer a chore and weekly drives to Spencer’s or Reliance Fresh has taken over our lives. But alas, trips to the old College Street boipara have become rare and Starmark and Crossword now attract the Gen Y bookworm.
Of course, some things about Kolkata never change. You can still have your dose of steaming shingaras, kochuri and kada paker sandesh at the Bangalakshmi sweetshop next door. The innumerable Haldiram outlets are good for kaju barfi and ghee laddoo but if you still want the jolbhora or the gooey nolen gurer sandesh you have to hunt out your Bhimnag and Balaram Mulllick. Though the calorie-conscious, I-Pod toting Bengali youngster pretends to dislike ‘sweets’, few can resist the aftertaste of a well-fried, syrupy malpoa after a hearty meal comprising kosha mangsho and chingri macher malai curry.The charm of the jhalmuri and phuchka has not waned and it is heartening to see the Bengali babu indulging in adda along with muri and jeelepi, sipping on cha from a bhar, before boarding a tram to take him home.
True, the tram is no longer that important to Bangaliana as it used to be when my father grew up here in the 50s and 60s but a young friend of mine recently booked this vintage CTC vehicle to host an innovative breakfast party on the occasion of her boss’s birthday. Wow!
Looking at the city now, much of Kolkata still looks the same – colonial monuments, majestic but run-down bonedi baris, shabby-looking ghats, overcrowded bustees and the river flowing by, symbolising the angst of the city. The rickshaw is there too and with it, the stigma attached to being a ‘poor’ city. But there are new currents in the air. Much of Kolkata lives in its malls nowadays. Pantaloons and Shopper’s Stop – the slightly older format departmental stores – are always over-crowded. It’s Christmas at South City round the year. New snazzy air-conditioned malls are cropping up everywhere and bring with them a new sense of prosperity. From Audi to BMW to Swarovski to Lladro to Jimmy Choo to Burberry – you can actually shop for many luxury brands in this city now.
Then there’s Kolkata futuristic. Drive down the Eastern fringes of the city – especially Salt Lake Sector V – where West Bengal’s IT hub is located – and huge glass and concrete buildings loom over the horizon. Pubs at every corner, mod young things busy in software companies and call centres, this is where Kolkata’s future lies. They may wear the latest fashions but scratch the surface and you find that these youngsters still discuss Newton and Pink Floyd, jazz and Mrinal Sen at Olypub on a Friday evening and even manage to catch a Bergman flick at the Kolkata Film Festival. They probably watch films at the renovated New Empire and not just at Fame South City. A football match at Salt Lake Stadium still inspires this generation to come and watch it live.
They still wear sarees or punjabis and hang out at a local pandal during Durga Puja, singing rabindrasangeet and enjoying arati, bending down for a quick pronam to the next-door mashima and devouring bhog and pithe payesh.
Bengalis still love the theatre. Ray and Sen may have ruled once but Goutam Ghose, Rituparno Ghosh, Anjan Dutt and Anirudhdha Raychaudhury still win national awards. The music of these films still rules the charts. Park Street still lights up for Christmas. Kolkata is still ‘soulful’ and we almost always carry with us a bit of the city wherever we go, once we’ve lived here.