[Editor’s Note: Poila Boishakh, the Bengali new year, is upon us. Like every new year, it’s really as much about looking back with nostalgia at the old year(s) as it is about celebrating the new. Sujan Dutta, our “Very Special Correspondent” tackles the nostalgia of fading traditions in that area of particular esteem in the Bengali heart: food!]
On a hot Wednesday evening at a backstreet eatery off South Calcutta’s Rashbehari Avenue, I waged war. To shake off the torpor of early summer, I had reasoned, a walk through the winding roads would be the best remedy. And then, the appetite for punishment was further whetted by the aroma of fish cutlet being fried in a black iron wok.
People were returning home. They spilled out from the Kalighat Metro Station, jostled by the Melody Music Store and the biryaniwalla-who-always -charged-extra-for-the-boiled-egg, huddled by the many shops selling a mélange of food and I fell victim in the bright light of white LEDs that have replaced the yellow haloes of filament bulbs.
Such was the battlefield scenario in which I thought I was first felled but then rose gallantly to emerge unvanquished and in a victorious rush to get to a loo.
Why not, an IT in the head argued, try something?
DON’T, another IT, said. This is not the season. You are older now. You may still be adventurous in spirit, but no longer in body.
IT no.1 won.
“Dada, ki ki pawa jay?” I ventured into the shack and the thick of the battle.
(Brother, what are you serving?)
“KiKhabenBolunMachherChopDimerDevilChickenCutletBhetkiCutletChopRollAluChop”, he recited the menu at express speed.
The younger man kept stirring the cauldron of hot sizzling oil. Another was serving the fare in aluminium plates. Dada was seated behind two glass boxes, one with the semi-fried stuff that would be dunked into the oil and the other with an assortment of chili, onion rings and little plastic cuboids of a white sauce.
I asked for a fish cutlet.
The war was about to be waged. The ding-ding of a passing tram knew not for whom the bell tolled.
The couple that occupied the wooden bench beside me was young. In their twenties. They were frisky. I overheard they worked at the mall nearby and understood they were longing to get out of their airconditioned market and be together. In these parts of Calcutta, PDA isn’t a big deal. The plates beside them on the other edge of the bench were emptied. Wonder what they had apart from lipstick.
There was no more seating space. I wasn’t giving up mine. The huddle in front of the shack was growing. More couples. More PDA and more jostling.
“Neen”. Take, the young man who was serving proffered me a metal plate. On the plate was a neat, rectangular fry. And next to it a plastic cuboid of the white sauce.
“Eta ki?” What is this?
“Menij”, said the boy. Mayonnaise.
“Kasundi koi”, I asked. Where’s the mustard?
“Ota extra”. That’s extra.
There was something sizzling in the wok. I would have beaten it with my sizzle.
“Kasundi extra”, he replied, raising his pitch. My greying beard probably made him think I was deaf as well. (That I am, but not that much).
I asked the Dada. What is this? You are serving the cutlet without the kasundi and onion rings?
This was a shop I had been to earlier, decades earlier, quite frankly. Things change but yet they remain the same, it is perfectly argued. But then you don’t do away with kasundi for menij!
Kasundi is a Bengali staple with FishChopFishCutletChickenCutletMuttonFry and such other snacks that have shaped the palate. In the years of living in Delhi and Bombay and many other cities, it is one of those things that tickles nostalgia like and old and naughty love.
Kasundi used to be served on the plate, lying like Dali’s melting memories over concentric onion rings, beside crisp fries, often rectangular, always brown, and now also served in what is called “diamond-shaped” chunks.
Kasundi is more than a sauce of fermented mustard seed. It is a sucker punch. It may be used as a dip. But its essence is in the pungency that rises like a helium balloon up the nostrils and explodes in the vault of the cranium. After the explosion, the lava flows out in the tears of the eyes.
I wanted my kasundi. Menij is a dressing, they say.
What passes for it here is an insipid, anodyne blob of white that looks like it has been used for artificial insemination to produce hybrid cattle in bovine farms.
I wanted my kasundi and I would have it.
“Cholbe na”, it won’t do, I told the Dada and put the plate down, the cutlet may be late or not there, for all I cared.
“Cholbe na” are two magic Bengali words. It won’t do. They may be muttered under the breath or they may be shouted in slogans. But there is no mistaking the ring of finality in them.
The die was cast.
Dada was worried.
“Please take it but it will cost Rs 5/- extra”, he said.
No, I said. You have to serve it with the cutlet.
It is a right before you are born that the Bengali will have fries with kasundi. I owed it not only to my dead ancestors but to a whole heritage and culture and history of impotent indignation.
“Ta holey, neen, rakhun, ami chollam”, preparing to leave. Then here, take it, I am leaving.
“Arre, eta ki bolen!”, he was shocked. He was ChatGPT, I was Google. Better still, I was the National Library, a stone’s throw from our battlefield, stately and secure, and he was nascent artificial intelligence taking tentative half-measures.
I knew I had him by the cutlet. He would not be able to sell food that was already served.
And as he grumbled, muttered, and grudged, I took my tentative, half-measures, holding up between the thumb and forefinger a corner of the brown rectangle, breaking it, just flirting it to the kasundi before taking it in followed by a folded onion ring.
“Diye de toh, diye de”, Dada told his server. Just give it. And give up.
The more he grudged, the more I chomped, relishing the relish, sweating the relish, burping it as I wolfed it. It cost Rs 70/- and then gave Rs 10/- to the server.
IT no.2 was now making its presence felt. The sweat was getting profuse. Must be the weather.
I rallied home, victorious in my victimhood even as another Bengali New Year set in.
Shubho Naboborsho, everyone.
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Nice write-up. I could actually experience the ambience and the flavours including the emotions of the warring parties. Thanks for making the Kolkata of my memories come alive
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