The best trips down memory lane, as far as I am concerned, are the ones that involve travelling back to my birth city: Kolkata. Or, as it was called during my growing-up years, Calcutta. Or, more familiarly still, the single-syllable Cal.
To me, Kolkata will forever be Cal, no matter what the official name of the city is. And it is the Cal of my memories I return to every time I make a trip to this most beloved of cities. This time, I was visiting after three years, and I was
there for the best of reasons: to do a session on my new book, Madam Prime Minister, at the Kolkata Literary Meet. The venue of the festival was Victoria Memorial, and there couldn’t be a more effective trigger for my nostalgia.
As I arrived to attend the first day and watch my husband promote his own book, I found myself transported back to my childhood the moment I laid eyes on that iconic dome. The sunny days I had spent in the museum’s cool confines as a school kid, being led around the exhibits by my mother who wanted to improve my mind. The treat after this torture was being allowed to feast on dal vadas and chutney and guzzle Thums Up livened up with copious quantities of masala. My teenage years were misspent on the lawns of this magnificent memorial, when a bunch of us would bunk college and wander aimlessly through the lawns, giggling helplessly every time we came across a courting couple making out in some shady corner (what can I say? We were young and foolish!).
Just sitting in the shadow of Victoria Memorial, lit up in all its glory, was enough to bring all these memories rushing back. And suddenly, I was no longer a middle-aged woman here to promote my second novel. I was a teenager once again, with my entire life in front of me, and the taste of phuchkas in my mouth.
I mean that quite literally as well as metaphorically, because no trip to Cal is complete without a phuchka stop. To me, this is the taste of Calcutta itself: the crisp puri filled with a savoury potato and channa mixture, topped with the green-tinged khatta pani (with none of the saunth nonsense that Delhi golgappas are tainted with). This is what my food dreams are made of; and they can only be fulfilled at the phuckha stops I remember from my growing-up years.
In my college days, my favourite phuchka stop was opposite Lighthouse Cinema. My other regular haunt used to be what we called Theatre Road (Shakespeare Sarani, to give it its proper name), which had some of the best chaat on offer. The best shingharas and jilepis (jalebi to you) were found at the mishti dokaan near my house, which sadly no longer exists. And on every trip back to Cal, I try to find a shop that can replicate that taste, and though some come close, none of them can compete with the memory in my head.
It’s not just food memories alone that need to be indulged, though. There are also the haunts of my childhood—no matter how altered they may be many decades later—that need to be revisited. A walk down Park Street is obligatory, with quick pit stops at the Oxford Bookstore and a detour down the lane to gaze on the frontage of Loreto House, where I spent so many happy years. I invariably take a drive down the Strand, to gaze on the Hooghly and the cantilevered glory of Howrah Bridge.
This time round, my schedule was too tight to fit in the mandatory visit to Botanical Gardens, where I used to frolic as a child among the sprawling expanse of the great Banyan Tree, now sadly barricaded and off limits to visitors. But, as I take a flight out of the city, I console myself with the thought that there is always a next time.
Because when it comes to Cal, it’s always au revoir, never adieu.
Spectator fans, listen up! Seema Goswami’s new book Madam Prime Minister is now on stands.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, April 3, 2022
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