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Friday, July 30, 2010


Personal History: Kolkata (Calcutta) Old and New


Chinese Eateries * Streets with New Names*Anglo-Indians

It does not take much to take one back memory lane to scenes, smells and sounds of years past.  In my case, many years past; it was 1969 when I left Kolkata for the west coast of the United States.

Recently, a friend forwarded a link about Kolkata's China Town and it included video clip of the evocative documentary, Legend of Fat Mama,  made by Rafeeq Ellias in 2005 for the BBC. 

The trams at the very beginning of the video made me think of my weekday trips from Park Circus to the office on Old Courthouse Street.

The city fathers of Kolkata ran amok with name changes. For some of us Old Calcuttans it is hard to visualize once-familiar streets with their new names. So, this post contains names as I knew them.  Must confess though that, opposed to America's senseless war in Vietnam, it gave me a vicarious sense of pleasure when Harrington Street, where the U.S. Consulate was located, became Ho-Chi-Minh Sarani.   A few examples of my former stomping grounds, new names in italics.

Old Court House Street - Hemanta Basu Sarani
Camac Street - Abanindranath Thakur Sarani
Lindsay Street - Neli Sengupta Sarani
Free School Street - Mirza Ghalib Street

For some odd reason, unless the web site is incorrect, Park Street and Bentinck Street were spared. 

Although I and my colleagues regularly went to various Chinese eateries in and around the old China Town, to my regret I did not have the pleasure of meeting Fat Mama and enjoying her food.   In the video, one of the characters talks about Fat Mama and her plates of noodle that sold for 4 annas.  That is a clue that Fat Mama plied her business before the conversion to metric currency in 1956, and before my 10-year residency in Kolkata began.

One place we used to go for lunch near the office was nameless (there was no signage) but we called it Hole in the Wall.  It was almost that.  From Old Court House Street, we walked down Waterloo Street and shortly before Bentinck Street made a left turn into a narrow lane. Hole in the Wall was in the second building on the right. The front door was never locked; it  lead to a small courtyard and living quarters of a Chinese family.  There were a few tables and chairs. We took our seats and ordered food from the lady of the house, usually chicken or pork fried rice or chow mein. Watched her cook at the stove.  Between the chores she operated a sewing machine and made garments.  The price per plate was Rs.2.50!  Simple but tasty fare.

Then at the other end of the spectrum was the venerable Chung Wah, now reported to be under management of a Bengali family and with singers to entertain diners in the evening! The now defunct Waldorf on Park Street served Chinese food in elegant surroundings. Somewhat down the scale was Jimmy's Kitchen near the crossing of Lower Circular Road and Theater Road.

Searching the web for Isaiah's Bar on Free School Street I found myself in Abhijit Gupta's Memory Lane. It didn't mention whether Isaiah's Bar where sailors, and others, went in search of ladies of the night, was still in existence but it was a pleasure to find that Kalman Cold Storage was. Remembered the delicious sausages and cold cuts.  In those days calories and cholesterol were not matters of concern. Nearby, Smiley's on Ripon Street was a dingy place that served a decent plate of rice and Goanese pork vindaloo.

Walking down Elliot Road and Royd Street on Sundays and holidays one could smell aroma of  coconut rice and ball curry wafting downwind from apartments occupied by Anglo-Indians.  That,too, is history. The Anglo-Indians left in droves for Australia and Canada.  My Anglo-Indian friends still cook and enjoy coconut rice, ball curry, Country Captain, Mulligatawny, jhal frazee, and vindaloo but most of them now live in single family homes in the suburbs of Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, and Toronto.


"The past, with its pleasures, its rewards, its foolishness, its punishments, is there for each of us forever, and it should be."
----Lillian Hellman


Saturday, July 10, 2010


From Bollywood Sound to Glenn Gould and Johann Sebastian Bach

Music for Lamenting...and for Rejoicing

Watching the superb documentary about Glenn Gould made in 2005 by Bruno Monsaingeon took me back to beginning of my inexplicable love for the music of Bach.

It was almost accidental, my discovery of Bach. Don't have a musical background. I grew up in India listening to film music, now known as Bollywood music. I gave up on Bollywood  decades ago and have no clue about current hits. As far as western music went, I was familiar with the crooners -- enjoyed listening to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra,and Nat King Cole. Later, the sound of jazz began to appeal; I became familiar with the music of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. 

But western classical music was not a part of my world. It was in the 70's when commuting on the freeway from Silicon Valley to my job in downtown San Francisco and playing with the dial on the car radio that I found myself in KDFC, and a new world opened up. I found Bach. The late pianist Glenn Gould is inseparable from Bach. There are many pianists who have recorded Bach, some of the artists are great.  Yet, there is something about Glenn Gould's interpretation of Bach that makes him stand apart -- to  some listeners, if not to all.

I have CDs of Bach's music  performed by Andras Schiff, Yo Yo Ma, Martha Argerich, Helmuth Rilling, Emma Kirkby, Murray Perahia, Nigel Kennedy, as well as interpretations by jazz artists -- Blues on Bach by The Modern Jazz Quartet, and Play Bach, the French trio led by by Jacques Loussier. They are all good but, for me, Glenn Gould is No.1

Glenn Gould was born in Toronto,  Canada, in 1932 and died in that city in 1982.

The audio link, Contrapunctus V, track 5 of the Art of the Fugue from Wikipedia merits special mention.  It was the only organ recording made by Glenn Gould.  See copyright information

Currently, listening to A State of Wonder, complete Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould recorded in 1955  and in 1981.

A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations (1955 & 1981)
© Sony Classics/Amazon.com

MySpace In Music - Blues in H (B), Modern Jazz Quartet
MySpace in Music - Fugue No.5 in Re Majeur Jacques Loussier
MP3 clips available for  purchase


Monday, July 05, 2010


Personal History - Voices and Memories


Small Things

Fireworks displays and picnics are over.  The long, July 4th weekend came and went. And it was warm.  We have not had many such days this summer.

For me, like most septuagenarians, the number of friends from the past is shrinking.  Didn't have many of them to count on in the first place.  But there are friends that one thinks of because memories of the days and events associated with them are pleasant. 

So,  when a 92-year old friend, who made a habit of keeping in touch for decades stopped communicating it was cause for concern......he had not acknowledged two letters and photographs that I mailed.  He lived alone in New Jersey. I thought of calling  him but kept putting it off because I dreaded the thought that no one might pick up the phone or, worse still,  a recorded message from the telephone company that the "number is no longer in service". 

One day, last week I took the plunge and called.  What a pleasure it was when Charlie answered the phone.  Not as strong but it was the same, deep voice I knew.  Said he was in hospital for kidney infection and feels weaker.  Charlie never married. I brought him upto date with news of my children and grand children. Talked about the weather here in San Francisco Bay area and in New Jersey; the shenanigans of politicians, and the dismal outlook for our country.  A voracious reader, Charlie is always surrounded by books (non-fiction) and reads The New York Times.  He can no longer go down and cross the street to buy the newspaper but someone delivers it to him. 

When we ended the conversation I thought of Kolkata in 1969 when I first met Charlie. The  monsoon rains that brought all public transport to a halt.  A bad time for me and my colleagues. Often, a driver of one of the office cars was instructed by Charlie to take us home.

                                        Kolkata - Rickshaw puller on a waterlogged street
                 Source: http://www.corriere.it/Media/Foto/2003/10_Ottobre/07/calcutta.jpg

Then there were days when he ordered kathi rolls from Nizam.  The office smelled of spicy chicken kababs, grilled over flame on skewers,  and onions.  Rolled in greasy parathas, they were a treat.

Time marches on.  American Export Lines, the  steamship company that Charlie and I worked for no longer exists.  The business of shipping has changed, many functions performed by people have become automated, impersonal.  In those days the ships carried crates of tea, rolls of jute, bales of  hide and human hair, from Kolkata to the United States. Now ships carry cargo containers and until one looks at the shipping manifest the contents remain unknown. Progress....in a way, yes.  Being put on hold by a recorded voice and then listening to canned music and required to go though pushing buttons on the key pad is also progress according to the corporations that subject us to shoddy service.  And so it goes.


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