Priyadarshini Paitandy walks through Mackay’s Garden, home to Bengalis who come to the city seeking medical care

“Aajke adda ta kothai jombe,” asks a young boy as he cycles past an old man in pyjamas. He wants to know the venue for that evening’s gathering/adda. While most people learn ‘A’ for apple, Bengalis are probably taught ‘A’ for adda. It means conversation among friends and relatives, preferably accompanied with a cup of cha and in Bengal an hour or two of the evening is spent on adda sessions everyday. 

“Greams Gate,” replies the old man pointing to one of the many guest houses lining the Mackay’s Garden area. People from all over West Bengal and the neighbouring state of Assam flocking to Chennai for treatment at Apollo,  Sankara Nethralaya and other medical institutions in the city often choose to stay in this part of town. The proximity to the institutions is one reason while the other is the feel of being at home. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising this neighbourhood is often referred to as ‘Mini Bengal’. No wonder many of the stores and hotels here have name boards and other information in Bengali.

Seventy-one-year-old Anil Kumar Bhowmick has been coming to Chennai for 21 years now. He spends eight months here. “I always stay at Bava Manzil. I accompany patients from rural areas of West Bengal who can’t speak English and come to Chennai for treatment. I help them and take them to the medical institutions and talk to the doctors.” Like Bhowmick there are many others who accompany groups of patients.

But with Kolkata having good medical facilities, why do people still prefer coming here? “It is our belief that when we come here we will be all right. The doctors here lend a personal touch. People often joke that for many Bengalis this is like a pilgrimage,” laughs Mazumdar, who is here from Jalpaiguri for his mother’s treatment.

Along the road, there’s the distinctive smell of macher jhol emanating from the New Bengal Mess. The unassuming dining area is cramped with people busily tucking into their plates of dal, vegetables and rice. Bacquer Iqbal, who started the mess 15 years ago says, “Apart from the mess we also have 25-30 rooms which see 100 per cent occupancy by Bengalis. Our cooks have been brought from Bengal to cook an authentic fare for our customers, some of whom spend many weeks here.”

Then of course there are those who are particular about the way their meal is cooked. A hint of tamarind in their gravy and they pucker their lips and complain, “Ki tok!” (So sour). And this lot is happy cooking its own meal which is why most guest houses allow occupants to prepare food in their rooms. “I have been here for a month. My husband underwent a surgery and has to be here for the review. We had been craving for home food and also eating out everyday gets expensive. So I prefer cooking myself,” says Mandira Sikdar as she fills her bag with vegetables. The man at the nearby fish stall greets her with a smile and speaks in Bengali with a predominant Tamil accent, “Maach chai na?”(You don’t want fish?) “A few more years and I might speak Bangla better than Tamil,” he jokes as he hands her macher muro (fish head).

The stores in the vicinity stock up everything a Bengali needs for his/her meal. The shop assistant at a grocery and general utilities store that gets about 150 Bengali clients a day, says, “Of course there are the pulses and rice, but mustard oil gets sold out really fast. The stores selling utensils earn a quick buck too. A lot of these shops have hired Bengali-speaking assistants.

It’s 6 p.m. and the area is lighting up. Roadside vendors are setting up stalls…toys, household items, knick knacks, food including jalebi, samosa, phuchka… “It’s good to unwind here after a hectic day of running to and from the hospitals. I have to shop for Durga Puja. I’ll be spending the festival here. My family is in Midnapore and it’s just my brother and me. But in Mackay’s Garden it’s like being at home,” smiles Pritam Bannerjee. Meanwhile an acquaintance stops him for a chat “Dada kemon achein?” Here everybody is referred to as dada, didi, boudi and it’s the road where everyone knows your name.