Saturday, March 24, 2012

Snapshots from Parnasree, Behala in Kolkata

While most places are dotted with playgrounds and public gardens, Parnasree in Behala, Kolkata stands out because of its public ponds with promenades. The ponds in this Trinamool Congress stronghold have undergone quite a transformation (that means clean-ups, paver-block pathways, lights and potted blossoms) since Mamata Bannerjee became the Chief Minister in 2011. Thankfully, they still haven't painted the railings blue and white, the party's colours! It's a great place for a morning walk (which means you should be out of the house no later than 6 am in summer). Most of the inhabitants of Parnasree are originally from the erstwhile East Pakistan (they came here during the 1971 war that led to Bangladesh's independence). They share with you interesting anecdotes and tidbits of the life on the other side of the border. Their language is a purer form of Bengali than is spoken in West Bengal and they do resist your attempts to speak English. Put on your best dhakais, tangails and make-up and read a lot of Tagore before you take a stride alongside your neighbourhood Mashimas.

A death in a storekeeper's family in Parnasree means a complete shutdown of the Parnasree market. No veggies, no fruits, no milk, no sarees, no fish and no groceries. Notice the number of locks on each door sometimes four, sometimes five, and one had six too. Even then, in a city which boasts of the craftiest thieves and pickpockets in the country, you couldn't be too safe!

A roadside shrine of Goddess Kali and Shanidev (the Lord of  Saturday). The offering of choice is the hibiscus flower.

The local ponds are where some of the catch comes from. Fishermen use thermacol to hold the nets in place in water and then transfer the fish from the nets to huge floating aluminium pots. These are then loaded on bicycles and taken to the closest market. Some morning-walkers get good discounts too. In traditional set-ups, wood is used in place of thermacol — a more eco-friendly way to fish. 

A roadside vendor puffing some rice for jhalmuri at the Parnasree market. He takes a fistful of rice and turns it over in a kadhai that contains hot sand and in just a few minutes the muri is ready. Mix it with some roasted chana (Bengal gram), peanuts, chopped onions, cucumbers, peas, chillies, red chilli powder, lime juice and a liberal dose of mustard oil. Yummm!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Only in Kolkata...

  • will you find a Marwari Mahila Association banner right next to a "pork meat shop"
  • will you find ladies wearing their finest dhakai and tangail sarees and make-up for a morning walk or a trip to the machher (fish) market
  • will an entire market close down because of a death in one storekeeper's family
  • will you put four locks on your front door and still feel unsafe
  • will you find veggies at the rate of Rs 10/kg
  • will you find more ponds than public gardens
  • will you start your day with a mouthful of sweets to go along with some fine Darjeeling tea
  • you could have an hour-long conversation with a neighbour at your gate, without really inviting him/her in or going out yourself
  • will you find streets and shops named after Hahnemann and homeopaths
  • will you  begin the day by reciting Tagore's poems instead of prayer
  • will you be expected to sing at any gathering... and it better be good!
  • will you be able to dig into the most succulent chelo kebabs at Peter Cat
  • will you be discriminated, not on the basis of caste, but on the basis of which football club you support, whether it is Mohun Bagan or East Bengal
  • will you find more hand-pumps than street-lights
  • will you find trams and tramlines that serve no real purpose
  • will you find spacious yellow Ambassador taxis that create more traffic chaos than anything on road
  • will you find minibus drivers who think they are riding in tanks
  • will you find almost no cows
  • is paneer an expensive commodity (because the mithaiwalas stock up all the good stuff)
  • will cha (tea) be the most ordered drink in a coffee house
  • will you realise that Hakka is not just a noodle but a dry Chinese preparation made by a tribe of that name
  • will you find Chinese who speak Bengali fluently
  • will you find ghosts in public libraries and the old governor-generals' residences
  • will you find a pair of handmade boots at a Chinese shoemaker at Bentick Street for Rs 500
  • will you find policemen wearing white uniforms and black boots
  • will there be one Bollywood hoarding among hundreds of Tollywood and Hollywood ones
  • is the rupee called taka
  • will you find streets named after officers of the British Raj
  • will you find men walking around in colourful batik kurtas
  • there are more henpecked men than anywhere
  • not eating fish is really a big deal
  • an afternoon siesta is a must (especially after all that rice you've had for lunch)
  • 7 pm is prime-time for Bengali TV channels
  • you wouldn't be caught dead trying to catch fish at the neighbouring pond
  • you will ditch the peanuts and opt for some jhalmuri to go with your drink
  • cricket matters only when it's played at Eden Gardens or Sourav's in the team
  • power-cuts can extend to upto 12 hours or more
  • embroidery is still a hobby
  • girls wear pants and waistcoats to school
  • reading is still a habit
  • a walk to the market is considered an exercise
  • "adda maara" (a chat or gossip session) is more a necessity than a pastime
  • will you find the most mouth-watering spicy Hungarian sausages at Kalman at Free School Street
  • will people be bothered about what's happening in Dhaka than in Delhi
  • Mamata is "Didi" but Rahul is certainly not "Baba"
  • painting the town red means a completely different thing
  • in spite of all the water around there is little potable water
  • English is the second language
  • no meal's complete without the meat
  • politics is part of life, work an aberration