After 12 months of relentless summer in Chennai, Vaishna Roy discovers the joys of cold weather in Calcutta.
After more than a decade of being acclimatised to the perennial summer of Chennai, visiting Calcutta in December is as much a celebration of winter as it is of the city. We have decided to take the train this year and as it chugs up north, landscapes, temperatures and temperaments change. Inching into the northern stretches of Andhra Pradesh, a slight chill has crept into the air and by the time we reach Orissa we have pulled out scarves and light cardigans. We are now stepping out gingerly onto foggy platforms to grab hot samosas and cups of tea.
Our hot-weather irritability is easing off and we smile at fellow passengers and share travel tips. It’s fascinating to watch the geography of food changing with the contours of the land. We have moved from idli-vadai packages at breakfast to steaming poori-alu, tea-time sees not masala vadai but jhaal-muri in paper cones, and mishti doi in paper cups has started to board the coaches. All the signposts tell us we are getting closer to the city that the world loves to hate. But during this season, Calcutta strangely gives you enough reason to fall hopelessly in love.
It starts, as affairs often do, over food. Come cold weather and the innumerable street-side eateries take on an irresistible charm. Street food has got to be the cheapest, best and most prolific in this city. A single stretch of pavement is dotted with a stunning variety of stalls. Even the ubiquitous phuchka wallahs with their calling cards of red-covered baskets have more on their menu — try the less famous but edgier alu-kabdi and alu-dum. Then there’s chicken and egg rolls and steaming hot thukpa and momos. On a long table you find men rolling out luchis near a huge wok, while opposite is a tiny stall whose roti and inimitable tadka dal are to die for. The eateries are punctuated by innumerable cha shops. Stepping out of the Metro station into the nippy evening air, nothing feels more cheery than perching on one of the planks propped up on bricks to cup freezing palms around a tiny clay pot of steaming tea that smells of wood fire and smoky streets. (Incidentally, Calcutta is the only city I know where roadside cha shops serve cream crackers, doubtless doffing the hat to the erstwhile Bengali brown sahib.)
This is the season of newly minted date palm sugar or patali gur. Golden discs of the stuff are piled all over the markets or sold as molten liquid nolen gur in earthen urns. This is when you should ask for nolen gur rosogollas. Brown, rich and eaten warm, sometimes with a liquid centre, they are incredibly delicious. The white sandesh is now replaced on shop shelves by the golden brown, gur version — the kodapak. Another seasonal speciality is Joynogorer moa, made of puffed rice and gur and traditionally sold by street vendors who claim to bring it straight from Joynogor. December picnics on the lawns of Victoria Memorial or the National Library are incomplete without the chana garam hawkers, in their distinctive white kurtas and topis and white-covered baskets, and the bizarre masala Thums Up, definitely an acquired taste.
The city’s moribund reputation is not helped any by the air of grime it always wears. It’s the fine coal dust, which sticks on buildings and streets, as if a giant child had traced sooty fingers all over his Lego set. The winter smog only makes matters worse, a grey pall hovering over everything. As evening falls, dozens of little fires start up on pavements and street corners, attracting little knots of people who sit on their haunches and gaze into the flames.
At Esplanade, the pavements have gone crazy, choked with stalls of cardigans, stoles, ear-muffs, pullovers and more. The hawkers scream deals into your ears, the crowds jostle and push, the way forward is impassable, and then suddenly one of the peddlers cracks a joke that sets the whole crowd smiling. It’s an infectious sort of goodwill, something only Calcutta seems able to evoke despite its battered reality. The madness extends all the way into the iconic New Market, where winter wear is fighting for space with Christmas tinsel and fruit cakes, punnets of strawberry and bunches of fat yellow chrysanthemums. In the livestock rows, turkeys and duck are enjoying their seasonal 15 minutes of fame while Anglo-Indian women haggle over prices and linger over cold cuts.
We pause for breath on the famous square just outside. The city’s fashionistas are clearly enjoying the weather — they parade self-consciously in tights and high leather boots, in faux fur jackets, Santa hats and stylish berets, an intensely enjoyable pageant that defies the cold, and ups the fashion quotient of the public transport system by several notches. Our jackets and cardigans, pulled out from their moth-balled existence, are hopelessly outdated on this trendy winter catwalk.
One cold morning, we drive out of the city and head down the old Burdwan road. As we leave the urban sprawl behind, the hinterland is just waking up. Tea stalls are getting full, and early breakfasters are wolfing down kachoori-tarkari and hot jalebis from sal leaves. Plump green-violet brinjals, snowy cauliflowers, tiny red radishes like gems, and lush green leeks are being loaded on pushcarts. The smell of wood fires rises in the air and our breath forms little puffs of white smoke. The new Howrah bridge is suspended like a fragile dream, its edges dissolving in the mist, the grey waters of the Hooghly with its black barges more imagined than seen. A tentative sun feebly tries to make its presence felt but the icy wind borne over the waters is much more determined.
As we drive out further, we find the Bengal countryside hunkering down for winter, the paddy fields all brown and marked only by enormous stacks of artistically stacked hay. The pukurs or village ponds still gleam green though, fringed by thickets of date palm and banana and the occasional fisherman braving the cold.
Winter is much more austere here than in the city and we see how much more when we decide during our return to take a detour down Park Street.
Oh how this street celebrates the season! Festooned with lights, filled with crazy crowds, its restaurants overflowing, its shops buzzing… it’s almost as if everybody is just celebrating the idea of celebrating.
Nothing perhaps illustrates this better than when we emerge after a quaint midnight Christmas service at St. Thomas’ Church in Middleton Row to find crowds of revellers gathered outside, funny hats, whistles and all, doing nothing more purposeful than standing about, waiting in the cold for the service to end so that they can send up a shout.