Home » NSAN NÈWS » 1. Kolkata new impressions, weeks 1 & 2

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1. Kolkata new impressions, weeks 1 & 2

FIRST WEEK

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Arrived Kolkata at 16.40 local time by Air India. Spent seven hours waiting at Delhi airport mostly sleeping, fortunately our luggage – four bags weighing 66 kg – came straight through from Copenhagen.

Picked up by Bubu’s sister Boni and her husband Rana, and don’t believe we headed for some relax, no instead we drove immediately to Nagerbazar by Jessore Road, where cousin Alok Deb, professor and also theatre director, well known to me since many years, living at Northern Avenue close to Tala Park. We were invited to the wedding of is daughter Chitrangada, to be married off to Asijit.

Bengali ladies are certainly the most attractive in the world, according to my judgement, not said only because I happen to be married to one. So many charming women with beautiful faces were here assembled, along with equally nice gentlemen. The bridal couple was of course the luckiest ones with amazing dresses and in focus constantly by photographers and relatives who all wished to be close to them.

If you have seen the film Monsoon Wedding with its depiction of a typical upper-class Punjabi wedding, you would be utterly surprised by watching a Bengali Hindu wedding, with its many rituals taking place during three days, and totally without any consumption of alcohol. Instead waiters go around and serve the guests a variety of non-alcoholic fruit drinks, whereas other waiters serve fried chicken and other delicious snacks before going to the buffet dinner – with lots of food, including several varieties of fish dishes (a must for every true Bengali) – served in an adjacent building. The mood is extraordinary.

Arriving at 6 PM we were surprised not seeing anyone else of my own Munshi family present at their cousins party, but after some hours they all turned out – important guests should always come late. Nice to see sister-in-law Buku with husband Mishtu, daughter Munjini and sweet grandchild Anindini; then the Tala Park residents Polly, Bampa, Banjul, Ivy and Irene, and at last from Salt Lake my brother-in-law Tutu with his wife Tuki. However, so tired after long travel I was only feeling exhausted and longed for my bed at our Sardar Sankar Road residence. Reached there at midnight.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Woke up early, enjoying the cool morning breeze and the rising sun. At 7 AM I was sitting by myself on the roof terrace with a cup of tea offered by my eminent brother-in-law Rana living just below us in he four-storyed building behind Lake mall.

A day to relax, reading my favourite website news channels Al Jazeera, The Hindu, and Sydsvenskan, plus reading Outlook and Times of India paper newspapers. The election results from five Indian states were presented today, and they bring a welcome relief to the more and more disturbing Hindutva orientation that Indian politics has been subjected to since the massive BJP victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Now a revitalized Congress party – that the BJP had predicted to be totally wiped out from the Indian political map – has instead won the state elections in two major North Indian states, namely Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and also in small Chattisgarh. In the newly established Telengana state (Hyderabad being the Capital) in the South the elections were won by a regional party, and the same thing happened in the northeastern state of Mizoram with a Christian majority, bringing an end to speculations that the entire Northeast would be ruled by BJP.

In the evening nice guests arrived to my sister-in-laws flat, a nice couple with a daughter who just passed her BA in Fine Arts from Portland State University in the US. They were eager to inform me, who has spent nearly three years in Kolkata altogether from 1982 and onwards, and seen most interesting places in the city, what new attractions have come up. Most interesting I found the info that a reconverted Kolkata Tram has been set in traffic as a lunch and dinner restaurant. Run by a private company it serves Bengali traditional dishes while traveling in slow motion from Esplanade to Kidderpore. I will definitely try this tram car experience.

Friday 14 December 2018

The day our children arrived in the morning, Mattias and Daniel by Emirates from Stockholm-Dubai and Marie by Jet Airways from Berlin-Delhi. Such nice reunion, it was many years since we were all together in Kolkata. In the evening we went to our near-by South Indian restaurant, the Banana Leaf, and ordered giant masala dosas and delicious coffee.

However, earlier than that, before 7 AM, I woke up and had my breakfast out on the terrace in the mild morning sun, a true pleasure to drink tea and eat toasts with sliced cheese and peanut butter, juice and fruits, and remembering several mornings this style with my dear friend Lars Gerdmar eleven months ago, when we shared our breakfasts on this very terrace.

How to house five people in our small flat? Well, in India everything is possible. But for practicality we bought two thin mattresses to make an extra bed in the flat, and Mattias and Daniel decided to sleep downstairs in sisters house. Boni and Rana also provided us with wonderful lunch, with fish of course.

Saturday 15 December 2018

Another relaxing day, mostly staying in the flat, reading, doing Facebook entrances and nothing more. Well Marie took over my work room to do some internet work. We all borrowed internet capacity from Rana, but in the evening I received my own mobile internet device from the Reliance store in Lake Mall Shopping Centre. Quite a lot of bureaucratic hassle in order to get an Indian SIM card, but easier than a few years back when it was almost impossible. Now it was enough with copies of passport and OCI card plus a personal letter from a relative that I am known. Applied for the device on Friday evening and could collect it 24 hours later.

In the evening Bubu’s second younger sister Buku came for a visit along with daughter Munjini and of course granddaughter Anindini. Our children were happy to meet them again. And a second visitor also came, namely Ritayan who stayed in our house in Lund some years ago and whose Kolkata family are our close friends. We discussed organising a cultural programme on 28th January with music performances by Mattias on Clarinet and Daniel on Viola. 

Sunday 16 December 2018

Visiting Tala Park, our previous home base in Kolkata, still a family Munshi home for Polly, wife of my late brother-in-law Manto, her two sons Bampa and Banjul, plus Banjul’s wife Ivy and daughter Irene. Downstairs on the signboard it is however still written that the flat owner is Kumkum Munshi.

Five people made it necessary to book two taxis, since new rules stipulates maximum four passengers to a taxi. Before it has not been unusual to see taxis filled with 6-7 people or even more. The price for the long journey from Lake Market to Paikpara is still very modest, 200 rupees (= 25 SEK).

At Tala Park we were offered a delicious lunch prepared by Polly, and in the afternoon before heading back to Lake Market we ate fresh singaras (samosas), the best of its kind to be found in Paikpara. 

In the evening the kids, well can you call your children all above 30 years of age for kids?, offered a sweet surprise, namely ordering one delivery of excellent ice-cream with unusual tastes from a shop at Park Street. Daniel learnt to know of this business when he visited Bombay a few years ago, and now the business has spread to Kolkata.

Monday 17 December 2018

Spent the day with the kids, while Bubu remained at home with sister Boni. Marie has had some problem with her hair falling off, and has tried different treatments in Germany, but today she opted for homeopathic treatment by an Indian doctor at  Minto Park in south-central part of town, where the rest of us, Mattias, Daniel and I had to wait for 2,5 hours while Marie had a first treatment. Passed the time with telling the boys of my early India and Asia adventures.

Finally, we were on the move, and had a quick walk northwards towards Park Street, longing for having lunch at Peter Cat restaurant, but found that this popular eatery had a queue for at least half an hour and we were already late for lunch. Instead we continued to my favourite lunch place ever since my first visit to Kolkata in 1982, namely Kwality restaurant located next door to Oxford Book Shop. I ordered as usual their excellent Cream of Tomato Soup, and added to that Paneer Butter Masala. Leaving my other standing favourite dish, Chicken Butter Masala with Nan to the children. 

After completing our hunger for food we continued over to the Oxford store for some intellectual stimuli, strolling along the good selection of books available. Landed up  buying two books, Amitava Ghosh’s ”The Hungry Tide”, an old book by him but which I did not read before, and also the eminent Shashi Tharoors brand new volume ”The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Narendra Modi and his India”. Ghosh is of special interest since I recently learned that some of his books finally will be translated into Swedish language, an initiative by Pernilla Ståhl in Lund. And Tharoor, a sharp analyst of Indian history, economics and politics (and an MP for the Congress), again proves his excellence in a book where he systematically discusses the five disastrous years of Modi government, naturally written with an intention to influence the coming 2019 general elections.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

One week since leaving Sweden, a rainy and cool day, forcing us to eat our breakfast indoors. On top of that, Bubu has caught a cold. I spent most of the day at home, relaxing and reading Tharoor. Whereas the rest of he family went to Gariahat and did some shopping at FabIndia. The boys are positively obsessed with making our flat cosy, and therefore buy new lamps, new tea cups, a sitting room table etc. And yes, it certainly becomes very cosy at home, but from a practical wievpoint it may be little wasteful, since we spend maximum two months a year in Kolkata. The rest of the year, all things have to be magazined, put in cupboards or in original packets because of the highly polluted air and the harmful effects of monsoon.

Boni and Rana plan to go to their summer house in Shantiniketan on 21st, but at least two of us won’t get room in their car but have to go by train. Tickets were however not bought in advance, so therefore we had to procure these today for Daniel and Mattias. We quickly found out that all trains from Kolkata to Bolpur on the 21st were fully booked, so instead Daniel searched the net and found a taxi service, offering the journey for 2 850 rupees, and made reservations for that.
For the return journey there were still tickets available, even though not for the  most conveniant train, the Shantiniketan Express, but for other trains. We tried to make online reservations but failed to complete, so finally we went to a local travel agent on Lake Road, who made bookings as simple as that for an early morning passenger train Bolpur-Kolkata on 26h December.  

In the evening I went with the kids to eat at one of my favourite restaurants, Padmaparer Rannaghar, a restaurant at the Gariahat/Rash Behari crossing specialised in genuine Bangladeshi dishes, that I discovered along with my visiting friend Lars Gerdmar when we roamed around in Kolkata earlier this year. It is a quite simple place and the menu only gives the Bengali names of all dishes, but the taste is super, extraordinary. Besides, the prices are really cheap compared to other Kolkata restaurants serving Bengali delicious specialities. Daniel who loves to surprise people with his good knowledge of spoken Bangla conversed fluently with the staff and made sure we got a full table with perfect spicy hot vegetable, fish and meat dishes typical for East Bengal. We became completely full, in spite of paying only 2000 rupees for the four of s together (260 SEK).

SECOND WEEK

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Nice walk with Mattias and Daniel along the Rabindrar Sarovar (The Lakes) to Dakhinapan. A walk through blocks of charming old houses around Southern Avenue, sadly intermixed with torn-down ones giving space for terrible new 7-8 stories buildings under construction by unscrupulous developers.

With nice sunshine, a pleasant Swedish summer temperature and in good speed we entered the park with the two main water bodies forming Rabindra Sarovar or The Lakes, an oasis of fresh air in south Kolkata. Leaving the park we enjoyed fresh tea in clay cups in a simple tea stall before continuing our walk past the non-impressive Buddhist temple and climbing the stairs to the flyover over the railway tracks to reach our destination, Dakhinapan shopping complex. The boys enjoyed shopping in stores representing all Indian states.

From there we took a taxi back to Southern Avenue, because we liked to eat our lunch at another favourite of mine, discovered during my previous stay. Coastal Restaurant serving food from coastal regions around all India. But to our dismay, we found the restaurant was closed and a sign announced that it had moved to Hindustan Park. No time to go there, we searched the neighbourhood for an alterative eatery and ended up in a quite luxurious place named Marco Polo. Their menu was supposed to reflect Marco Polo’s 13thcentury travels and consisted of mixed European, Persian, Indian and Chinese dishes. In spite of the exclusive  atmosphere the prices were not very high.

Thurday 20 December 2018

Visit to former Danish trading centre Serampore, north of Kolkata, along with dear old friends Miriya Juntunen and Dipak Malik studying the impressive restoration work made possible by the National Museum of Denmark. Details in my 2012 travel report. http://www.larseklund.in/resebrev/57_kolkata2012.pdf

Denmark had control over this charming small town on the Hooghly riverside for 200 years, and since 2012 Denmark has been involved in a project to restore some of the colonial building, a project now almost finished. The church, St Olavs kirke – named after the Norwegian saint (remember Norway share the colonial history since the country was united with Denmark till 1814) – has been fully restored, and work on the government house is in its final phase. Besides, another old building has been turned into restaurant, The Veranda, serving a few Danish dishes among a mixed menu of Indian and Western ones. It was formally inaugurated in February 2018 when all five Nordic ambassadors came to Serampore.

The town is also famous for its 200 years old college, founded by Christian missionaries who were given permission to do their missionary work here in Danish controlled territory, whereas the British refused them to work in Kolkata. William Carey was the most well-known of these missionaries. Serampore was also the place where the Bible was first translated and printed into several Indian languages. The efforts of the missionaries to convert people was however negligible except in certain places of India, for example in the northeast where three states have a Christian majority or a large minority, namely Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. And interestingly, a large group of the students at Serampore College come from the northeast and the three latest principals of the college have come from Mizoram.

We woke up in the morning at 6.30 and took a taxi to Howrah Station at 7.30. Funny thing with India is that the traffic rush hours are much later than in Europe since most offices and stores open at 10 o’clock. To travel as early as we did meant quick transport. Met our Varanasi friends Miriya and Dipak outside the Food Mall where Dipak was busy eating his morning masala dosa in one of the restaurants. We had decided to visit Serampore together, but I had also had mail contact with my friend Flemming Aalund, the chief architect on the Danish side in the Indo-Danish restoration project asking him about the present status.

Travelled by a local train – crowded but not extremely crowded – soon after 08.30, and reached Serampore 45 minutes. There we took an auto-riksha to the Danish quarters and made a tour around the buildings being renovated, and at 11 we went to the Taverna and had an excellent lunch.

Since there are no trains that departs from Serampore for Kolkata, only through trains that gives no chance for seats, Miriya had found out a perfect idea for the return journey, namely to take the ferry service over to military cantonment of Barackpur on the eastern side of Hooghly river and from there take a train for Dumdum station, and then continue with the Metro down to Kalighat, our nearest metro station. Everything went out fine even though we had to experience a long autoriksha drive from the ferry landing place to Barackpur station crossing the extremely busy BT Road (Barackpur Trunk Road).

We took farewell of Miriya and Dipak, who were supposed to fly to Pondicherry the coming day, but we will again meet in Varanasi in mid-January.

Friday 21 December 2018

Travelling to Shantiniketan by road is not a very pleasant experience due to constant stressful driving by all private car drivers and an intense traffic of lorries, and added to this comes frequent road repair works causing long and time-consuming queues. The trains cover the distance to Bolpur/Shantiniketan in three hours, but our journey today took almost six hours including a lunch break. I have not been car-sick since I was a child but today I again felt the same symptoms, headache and signs of vomiting. Besides I had a running nose, I had taken over the cold from Bubu.

We departed Kolkata at 09.30, the hired car arrived and Bubu, Mattias and Daniel went with that, whereas Marie and I went with Boni and Rana in their car. Halfway, Bubu and I however shifted.

Finally in Shantiniketan and the area of town called Andrews Palli, we could just relax and have a nice time. My Intetnet subscription by Jionet works superb even here and with VPN installed in my Ipad (thanks to Marie) I can even follow my favourite Swedish TV serials at SVT Play, right now the fourth season of the French serial The Bureau. We use approximately 5 GB data every day that means our prepaid 60 GB quickly will be gone and we have to recharge. Luckily, Jionet has a store in Bolpur.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Peaceful day in Shantiniketan, I cured my cold by staying at home whereas the rest of the family went to Amarkuthi and bought shirts and handicrafts. An evening ride with one of the many new electric rikshas – completely replacing the old cycle rikshas – down to the grocery shop in Shantiniketan had to do.

Sunday 23 December 2018

The winter festival, Poush Mela, started in Shantiniketan. Thousands of tourists mainly from Kolkata throng the campus areas and police redirect all traffic to park outside the main parts of town.We visited the mela ground in mid-day after travelling with two e-rikshas from our house. Similar to Kiviks marknad in Sweden but with only Indian locally produced goods for sale, and sugarcane juice, freshly pressed (Bubu’s favouriyte drink), being sold.

The day started however in  much more serious manner. We went to attend the early morning ceremony at the Asrama, the prayer place opposite Tagore’s house, to celebrate Debendranath Tagore’s (Rabindranath’s father) initiation to the Brahmo faith in 1843. The Brahmo Samaj was a Hindu reform movement opposing several negative traits in the Hindu religion, for example the oppressive Caste system. We were not alone, when we arrived at 07.30 the place was filled with people and we sat down on the ground without seeing the choir singing Tagore songs but with a glimpse of the Vishwa Bharati University Vice Chancellor and other prominent persons holding speeches.

The highlight of day was otherwise our usual visit to Professor Asha Mukherjee and her husband Vijay, with whom Bubu and I have a special warm relation. She has been to Lund and has hosted me several times when coming here on official SASNET missions, and last January she organised a seminar for my friend Lars Gerdmar. However, she had not met our children, so that became a pleasant surprise for her, and for Mattias, Marie and Daniel it was at the same time a great time to discover the fantastic garden/forest with an enormous amount of different species of mango trees etc, that Vijay and Asha has made out of a formerly water-sick estate beside the Canal.

We were invited for tea at 16.30, but due to expected demand for rikshas due to the Mela we were advised to depart an hour earlier, which we did. It became a grand visit with several cups o tea and snacks, and nice talk with not only the hosts and their daughter (who has recently returned from one year’s studies in China, now searching for a scholarship for doing PhD in Chinese studies somewhere in the world – I suggested Lund University), but also a visiting couple, Gujarati poet Prabodh Parikh and his Bengali wife Mitra, settled in Bombay but currently staying for a month in Shantiniketan. It soon turned out that Prabodh was invited to Sweden in 1997, and had fond memories from that visit. He was part of the initial phase of the Indo-Swedish Translation project, launched by my friends and colleagues Tomas Löfström and Birgitta Wallin. Prabodh attended the Gothenburg book fair, which I also did that year, and he spent time with Swedish writer Göran Tunström on his island (Fårö). We immediately became good friends, and being a music lover he also invited our musician sons Mattias and Daniel to visit him and his wife in Bombay.

Monday 24 December 2018

Christmas Eve but none of our family missed the Swedish celebrations, but were instead so happy relaxing in the Shantiniketan sun. I read in Sydsvenskan on the net and received enthusiastic messages from Lund friends that the entire Skåne region was covered with snow. Nice photos, but I do not envy being there.

I took a lengthy walk – 17 700 steps it turned out to be, walking strange routes to Bolpur and the Jionet store there, where I recharged our data device with a plan, 28 days with 5 GB to use per day, costs 799 rupees. From there I continued to a seminar, the Debendranath Tagore Memorial Lecture at the Central Library Auditorium at 3 PM. Asha had invited me. I arrived there in good time and got a seat in the front row, which I came to regret since the seminar was all held in Bengali language by a professor from Chennai, I did not understand anything, still I could not leave early… Well, at least it was interesting to see a large group of professors in typical Bengali dhoti/punjabi dress.

Tuesday 25 December 2018/Christmas Day

A remarkable day indeed. We were kindly invited to participate in a Christmas Lunch at Asha’s and Bijoy’s place at Sonarjhuri Palli at 1 PM. A tradition they have since many years to invite all their friends on this public holiday. It should be noted that in India the most important festival days of all recognised Indian religions are celebrated, including Eid for muslims, and Christmas Day for Christians, but for those not being religious these public holidays are just days free from work, and in our Munshi family we often used to go for picnic in the nature on 25h December since the winter climate is so pleasant for such activity.

We travelled by e-riksha from our residence in Andrews Palli and arrived in time for the lunch preparations, Asha and her family and close friends making lots of delicious food, typical Bengali dishes almost like for a wedding dinner. While waiting we had nice chats with Bijoy; Prabodh Parikh and his wife Mitra Mukherjee-Parikh, and other guests. Then food was served on the bridge between the two houses, linen laid out in three rows for everybody, 30 people in all, to sit down on the floor, and being served food in the specific order that Bengali meals are always served, beginning with rice and ghee, then dal and vegetable dishes, followed by fish and meat dishes, to be concluded with a set of sweet dishes, including chutney, paesh (rice pudding), rosogolla etc. A wonderful lunch lasting a couple of hours.

On request from the hosts, Mattias and Daniel brought their instruments to the event and as a nice final activity, they performed in the garden playing Swedish folk songs together, Mattias on Clarinet and Daniel on Viola. A most appreciated performance by the audience. What a fantastic day!