Writing an article around Valentine’s Day invariably leads to the celebration of love and such stuff. With the advent of Spring comes Saraswati Pujo, technically on the fifth day of the season, called Basant Panchami. Saraswati, the goddess of Arts and Education is worshipped diligently across my part of the world. From miniature clay idols at home to medium sized idols at various schools and finally the larger versions at the barowari (public) pujo, the goddess is more revered than actually loved. I’ve often perceived Saraswati as the lonelier, geeky goddess among others, akin to the bespectacled girl in school, bypassed for prettier ones (like Lakshmi). My loyalties have been and will remain for the ivory goddess, who I believe has lent me the few words that I can write. Retracing to Valentine’s Day bit of the story – Saraswati Pujo is termed aptly as Bengali Valentine’s Day for the past half-a-century. I think it’s barely been 50 years that Saraswati Pujo began to be celebrated in schools around Bengal. The stern iron gates of each mono-gender school would be open to everyone only on this day, creating leeways for teenagers. Each teenage boy, clad in pressed and clean white or yellow Panjabi-Pajama would peer around Girls’ schools in the neighbourhood for saree clad beauties. Thus began an era of seeing each other, diligently asking for prasad, going out for a date in a group and stealing furtive glances.
Have you heard of Gondhoraj? Of a scent that has allured people all around the globe and inspired restaurateurs to create amazingly fragrant dishes. Gondhoraj is literally ’emperor of aroma’ and there’s not a soul that would refute its nomenclature. Recent articles have termed the Gondhoraj as a distant cousin of the Kaffir lime. While K lime is found in tropical Asia, including India, Gondhoraj originates in Rangpur, Bangladesh. Anjan Chatterjee, founder of the Speciality chain of restaurants, fondly calls it ‘Rangpur Lime’ and asserts that it has failed to grow in climates and regions beyond far-eastern Indian subcontinent. Much has been written about this (sub)lime citrus fruit that has totally ruled Bengal and beyond.
Photo courtesy: Neha Banerjee
I’ll leave behind the history and background of Gondhoraj at this point as I’m not much aware. Growing up in Bengal, it is quite impossible not to be swayed by the whiff and tang of this lime. It represented summer all throughout my childhood, but global warming has made summer the ruler of all seasons in Bengal now. As a result, Gondhoraj is grown all over the year for its use in posh Bengali restaurants and even mid-tier ones that serve Gondhoraj mocktails, while the lime is still available for Rs 5 at Gariahat Market. I haven’t tasted those mocktails, but I’ve had the luxury to use Gondhoraj juice into a pot of tea, chucking the milk. Trust me, it tastes as good as plain lemon tea, and even better, if you’d ask me.
If you have read any of my reviews on Bangla books, you might be aware that Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay is one of my favourite authors. My admiration and awe for his writing cannot be described by just ‘favourite’. The author’s USP is his characterisation – you’d be amazed to get into their psyche peeling off layers from apparently mundane characters. They are people around us, but each with a different story to convey through their eyes or words. Have you ever read an entire novel on dialogues, without a single paragraph of narration? I’ve been learning not only the nuances of fine writing, but more about life in general from this octogenarian author’s works. There’s rarely been a story where he has failed to impress me as a reader.
Jao Pakhi (Fly away, Birdie) is one of the more tender stories with lesser shock value from its characters. It’s the story of a young man named Somen. He’s a rookie just out of college with his dreams still shaping up. His father, a man ruled by his ideals, lives in a village building his own hut and growing his own crops. His mother, however, didn’t leave the city as she raised her two sons and a daughter, married them off and still lives with her family. She wants Somen to begin working and establishing himself in the world like his elder brother Ranen. She wants their father to hand them his money from a policy that is going to mature soon.
Yes, Bengalis are the ones who eat fish. That’s the impression of my race all over India, the quintessential ‘Bangali sirf machhli khata hai,’ (Bengalis eat only fish). The idea is as blasphemous as the accusation that we ignore veggies and everything else in the culinary world. I was reading an article the other day on how Bengali vegetarian fare was monopolised by widows forbidden to consume onions/garlic/meat/fish/red lentils. It is still practised fervently all over the state by widows and a few women who choose to remain in the path of animal nutrition are termed ‘liberal’. Given the arguments for this tradition of widows and the sheer number of indigenous recipes that they conjured with scanty ingredients, vegetarian food is entirely their forte. And yet, I wouldn’t like the rest of India to assume that anyone who isn’t a widow in a Bangla household eats only non-vegetarian items in their daily meals.
A typical Bengali lunch is a perfect example of a balanced diet in terms of its elements – a teto (bitter) item as an appetiser to unlock your taste buds, daal (lentils, though not exactly in a healthy soupy form), bhaja (veggies or fish roe fried in a batter) for the gluttons, one or two vegetarian items like labra/chochhori/dalna/ghonto (and the list is endless), finally a non-vegetarian dish and then a chutney/tawk (literally, sweet and sour) to relieve your taste buds of the previous clique of items. I wouldn’t claim all of these are healthy in the way we cook them, but the menu is a testimony that all we eat is not merely ‘maachh-bhaat‘ as termed pseudo-fondly by Bollywood.
It’s not everyday that I sit down to write about a Bangla book. There are a few that not only tug a few strings at the heart, but pull them hard enough to inflict pain. Kachher Manush (The Close One) by Suchitra Bhattacharya is an epic work in contemporary Bangla Literature. SB was an immensely popular writer over decades until she passed away untimely last year. Her stories have always been as close to our middle class reality as they could. She wrote almost solely about the average Bengali family, one you’d spot around you daily with all its problems, undercurrents of tension and occasional bursts of joy. Kachher Manush was written in the eighties, quite early in SB’s career and yet it portrays the mastery that she had in her craft. The writing waned later though, stories became repetitive, plots became a little mundane, but she produced occasional masterpieces like Kancher Dewal, Neel Ghurni, Dahan and Parobash. Among the good, bad and ugly ones, Kachher Manush is the one I love the most.
The opening pages are laced with hope and anticipation. Titir, a teenager in full bloom in the eighties Calcutta has just appeared for her Secondary examinations in school. She awaits her alcoholic father Aditya’s homecoming from a hospital. SB does a wonderful, rather wistful job in narrating the ambience around Titir as she waits for her mother Indrani to fetch Aditya home. She lives in a huge house, in a ‘joint family’ that we were so familiar to in the previous century. Titir’s family comprises of little islands, bound loosely together by her ailing grandfather. Her paternal uncle Sudip and his wife Runa have aptly named their son Atom, probably in apprehension that they would live as a nuclear family sometime in future. Aditya’s youngest brother Kandarpa is a wannabe actor who lives in horns of dilemma, tethering between right and wrong. SB describes these islands through the eyes of Titir’s elder brother Bappa, who admits being the smallest isthmus, waiting to sever his ties with the dysfunctional family soon by applying for a sailor’s job.
Carrying forward the tales on mutton this week are insights on the varieties of Sunday curry at both ends of my families. Nature of the curry has changed with seasons and reasons; each person acclaimed as a cook in the family has created their own recipe based on their taste and sensibility. From the homely jhol by mother-in-law, an aromatic kosha by baba, a rich spicy gravy by mashi to a soulful Sunday jhol by M – mutton has evolved in my lifespan as no other food. Let me guide you through a tour of this motley of the enigmatic mutton.
The homely jhol by mother-in-law – Relatively easy to cook than its richer versions, this jhol has often been underestimated. With its unpretentious appearance, the jhol has successfully eluded people about its character. It might look a tad bland, but it is not. At my in-laws’ place, this jhol by mothership is served in a little pressure cooker, the one in which it is cooked. We have tried to replicate the same measures of meat and condiments in the exact cooker, but it didn’t turn out the way mother-in-law makes it taste. Like home. Like a refute from meat dunked in puddles of oil at restaurants. If you look at her silhouette against the slightly dark kitchen, pored over the pressure cooker with left hand rested on her waist to balance, a steel khunti (spatula) in her right hand – you will realise that the jhol isn’t a result of careless work. It is the ultimate level of comfort on a sultry summer afternoon, served with wedges of lemon and extra green chillies on the side.
There is a lesson that the age old Bangla cuisine teaches us – prudence. One might not easily believe it, given the history and evolution of the elaborate Daab Chingri and the uber rich Sorshe Ilish. But it is not every day that you sacrifice puddles of oil to cook Golda Chingri or grind mounds of mustard seeds on your sheel nora (oh, forget that already, there’s the ubiquitous pungent branded mustard powder). It is the daily fare – the humble Rui and Katla that we so lovingly call Kata Pona, omnipresent in the Bangali kitchen in its various avatars. Shove aside the runny machher jhol with potol or a subtle garlic tomato machher torkari that finds its way in the morning platter of rice before heading for school/college or offices. If you live outside Bengal and crave for something fishy and spicy apart from the jhol or jhaal, you’re in for a treat with just three pieces of fish. If you have a kid at home, or an overgrown one like my better half, this will bring lakes of smile on their faces.
Since my father lived away from home and Bengal for a considerable period, the cooking bug in him became fairly active. I’ve heard stories of him quizzing the cook in his college hostel kitchen for quaint Bangla vegetarian recipes. He reproduced them later, and more importantly, taught my mother most of it after marriage. Stationed in Kanpur for twenty years, baba would crave for the crispy hot aromatic Fish Chop (croquette) among other telebhaja that rule our province. Fish or mutton chops weren’t frequent in every telebhaja shop in Calcutta as the non-vegetarianism in them would make the harmless Aloo or Mochar Chop untouchable to a lot of people.