Sunday, November 22, 2009

The perfect Calcutta meal?

Nondon Bagchi comes up with what he feels is the quintessential Bengali meal. Sample this article from The Telegraph -

"Apologies are a good way to begin just about anything. Having been asked to choose my favourite nine items from Calcutta’s food menu, I am sure there will be acts of commission and omission that will ruffle the feathers of many. There is every chance, given the amazing canvas of culinary bliss we enjoy without realising it, that this would happen even if I had to choose 99.

Before I begin, a few riders that have governed and limited the freedom of choice.

One. Even if I have enjoyed, for example, the most delicious Pan They Khowsuey, a Burmese-style gravy made of pork and with garnishings including shrimp powder, I have had it in someone’s home, so it can’t be on today’s hit parade. Just like so many other temptations not available at city outlets or even through caterers, and even if available, certainly not the best I’ve had.

Two. Despite having indulged in gluttony for decades, there are still delights I have not had the good fortune to have tried; there are some which I do not even know about, especially more recent add-ons to the city’s culinary scene. In a nutshell, today’s hit parade will have items that have been chosen from an extremely personal viewpoint, and they are also ones that have been around for decades. I am starting with starters and snacks, and, like a good Bengali, graduating from vegetarian dishes to non-veg ones and ending with desserts. With due respect for those who might grumble...

1. Phuchka

A symbol of Calcutta’s pride. Of course we think it is better than paani puri (Mumbai) or golgappa (Delhi) but so do many non-Calcuttans. My favourite vendor is Ramesh Pandit near Lake Kali Bari. Sublime is an understatement. Used to eat 33 of them for a rupee, and would even ask for one paise change. Some vendors sell humongous sized ones nowadays, but even the sacred phuchka has changed with the clientele. You can even find them on menus nowadays...

2. Prawn Cocktail

With the exit of Sky Room, the city also lost, arguably, the best prawn cocktail in the world. At least, as good as the best. Good enough to be flown to Delhi almost every week for Mrs Indira Gandhi. Sky Room’s secret must have been in the mayonnaise-based sauce. But One Step Up! on Park Street does a good job, and this piece of Calcutta nostalgia can still be a hit parade.

3. Paper Dosa

Named thus because the dosa is wafer thin and crisp, this is a humdinger with good sambhar and coconut chutney. Personally, I am easy whether there is a potato vegetable stuffing or not. Sadly, sambhar in Calcutta somehow just loses out to sambhar in Chennai, even though the cooks, ingredients and knowhow are from there. Must be the air and/or water. But Prema Vilas, Calcutta’s oldest south Indian place in Lake Market is my place for Paper Dosa.

4. Chop Cutlet platter

Not singling out one item here, because whether it is the mochar chop, deemer devil, fish roll, kabiraji cutlet or the moghlai paratha or any other item from this school of thought and taste, they all are winners. Created and invented by this city in a wave of inspiration, the egg-and-crumbed (or flour-batter-and-crumbed) thrillers can put you into orbit, especially with a good zingy mustard, courtesy Bubai Caterers of north Calcutta.

5. Chimney Soup

Takes me back to 1975 to Eau Chew Restaurant on Ganesh Chandra Avenue. Coal-fired chimney in the middle of a great trough filled with chicken stock, meat and fish balls, gizzard, kidney and other meat and other such goodies cooking in the bubbling stock. Break eggs and poach them in the stock, cook your noodles and greens in the stock, make your meal-in-a-dish and discover what life is all about. Eau Chew is still there, and so is their Hot Pot. Better to phone in and place an order.

6. Chitol Maachher Jhol

How come a Bengali has only one fish dish in the pop charts? Because we usually eat fish away from home with a bit of disdain. But this item, where chitol (featherback fish) is cut right across the mid-riff in one-inch thick steaks, rib-cage bones (almost as thick as chicken bones) and all, and cooked in a serious, thick, garlic-onion-ginger paste and tomato gravy, is almost never done in homes, and my first encounter was in a “pice hotel”. Today, you get a good version at Kewpie’s.

7. Kosha Mangsho

One can write an ode to this dish. My best is still from Shyambazar’s Golbari, which has had closures and reopenings, but is up and running right now and that should herald a winter of content. With their secret-formula chapattis which look as if they have only just been rolled out but not cooked, and yet are gossamer soft and done to perfection, Kosha Mangsho might even land you in a divorce case…

8. Gelato

With the advent of Mama Mia! and Italian-style ice creams (the real McCoy), there has been no looking back for ice cream lovers, even though the city has had a good track record with these, with some really good offerings. My top flavour is Forest Berries, with the gelato laced with a syrup containing mulberry, blackberry, raspberry and other potent fruits.

9. Mishti Doi

By Jadab Das. As I said, I am being personal. Mishti doi, available in thousands of outlets, has given rise to much debate, but Jadab Das near Triangular Park is my choice. Pure cows’ milk only, almost pure white in colour, a slight tang and so light and tasteful at the same time that I can put away 700g without batting an eyelid. Its non-rich texture also invites add-ons like warm gulab jamun.

A final note: Many, many dishes not included, including beef steak. Sad, because we have world-class beef in Calcutta shops. Maybe the steak I do myself?"



Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book review: The Story Of My Assassins by Tarun J Tejpal

For inspiration, Tarun Tejpal’s second novel, ‘The Story Of My Assassins’, draws heavily from his own challenging days at Tehelka, the defense-deal sting operation, communalism, the Bhagawad Gita (which seems to be every contemporary Indian writer’s current fetish) and Bollywood and it shapes up to be one heck of a rollicking read. It is a huge challenge to the reader, as it is continually disheartening, depressing and gloomy; offering no hope at all in the end, but by golly, a story of so much misery and hopelessness has never been this heartfelt, passionate, engrossing and beautiful.

The nameless protagonist, a journalist, is informed by the police of a foiled plot to assassinate him. Five suspects are rounded up, jailed and put on trial. But the journalist’s firebrand ‘social-reformer’ mistress, Sara, smells a government conspiracy and thinks that the suspects are victims themselves, victims of their own pathetic and degrading circumstances as well as that of the corrupt collusion between selfish politicos in power and the entire state machinery, which is twisted and turned for profit by the self-conserving political class. She decides, with the help of a couple of smitten lawyers, to investigate the matter herself. The action then serializes to the back stories of the five suspected assassins before closing in on the truth about the attempted assassination.

As we are taken through the lives of the five assassins, we meet our own countrymen that we never meet in real life. People who, like many millions of Indians, are born on the fringes, and silently die there. People who suffer the worst forms of degradation, poverty and state apathy. People who therefore either lose the will to live altogether or murder, kill, rape and steal for the most flimsy and insubstantial causes. People who have absolutely no hope, from the moment they are born to the moment they succumb to their wretched circumstances. The five assassins, Chaku, Kabir M, Chini, Kaliya and Hathoda Tyagi are all such people, each a victim of the everyday violence and horror of an India that exists outside the realm of urban sensibilities. Unlike Balram Halwai, these are no ‘White Tigers’, and in that respect ‘The Story Of My Assassins’ is easily the more definitive ‘other’ India book, even more so than either Mr. Adiga’s, Mr. Chandra’s or Mr. Swaroop’s. At one point, Chaku’s father hopes that his son’s birth will somehow uplift him from penury, but as Tejpal poignantly points out, “in the end it is always just one more mouth to feed”. While structured as a mystery thriller, this is in fact a simultaneously disturbing and moving social and human drama that deserves serious attention.

But this is not where the list of qualities ends. Tejpal’s characterizations deserve special mention. Each character in the novel is well etched, distinct, real and memorable. The feisty mistress Sara, the self preserving elitist and Kafka-quoting Jai (the protagonists’ business partner), the well meaning policeman, Hathi Ram, the protagonist’s spiritual counselor, ‘Guruji’ (whose oblique wisdom is as the same time confusing and enlightening), the typically wily, but drunk on ‘money-sex-power’ Delhi power-broker, Kapoor Sahib and indeed the selfish, almost nihilistic protagonist himself are all spot on. They all have their indigenous and quirky wisdoms. Sample this – when the protagonist asks the journeyman police officer Hathi Ram if he would like another cup of tea, Hathi Ram responds thus – “One cup is friendship. Two is intimacy. And that is always reductive. As friends we talk about big things, philosophical things and national affairs. But in intimacy we will talk about wives and bosses and the price of milk and vegetables, and we will become small men obsessed with small things. So no more tea, my friend, no more.” It is also to Tejpal’s credit that he manages to infuse a sardonic sense of humor into the proceedings, a necessary trait while dealing with a stark subject such as this. Almost every page offers something genuinely funny, which makes the reader smile and wince at the same time. While taking us through the early years of Kaliya and Chini, boys who grow up on the platforms of Delhi, Tejpal, incredibly, even manages to make death a subject of much mirth.

What Maximum City was to Mumbai, ‘The Story of My Assassins’ is to Delhi specifically and the Hindi heartland in general. Delhi is cut open and all its veins and sinews are opened for viewing, resplendent in all its colors, particularly red, the color of power and blood, and exposed as a city where the nexus of politics, religion, goons, money, industry and power is at its strongest. Tejpal’s observant eye encompasses both grandeur and destitution alike and brings the city, its people and their idiosyncrasies alive amongst the pages like never before in recent memory.

The only trivial objection one can possibly have with the author is that he takes on a multitude of issues, trying to deal with practically everything that is wrong with the country. But the final product still manages to avoid being flippant or preachy.

This wonderfully textured tour-de-force is easily worthy of your bookshelf and it is bound to get better with every subsequent read. India has many realities and here is a chance to look at the more ‘real’ ones, the ones which don’t get played out in ‘chutterputter’ English, the ones which get no media air time, the ones which make our country what it is.



Saturday, November 07, 2009

Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani

I always had a minor gripe with almost all of Rajkumar Santoshi's films. He could never do songs right. Less noble directors than Santoshi, arguably the pioneer of the Bollywood 'item' song, did songs much better. With the possible exceptions of Damini, China Gate and Andaz Apna Apna, Santoshi's treatment of the mood, placement and quality of his soundtrack on film was mostly mediocre, haphazard and random. With APKGK, he gets this bit of the piece mostly right. The effort is not visible with the rest of the film, sadly. He tries his hand at a pure comedy after a rather long hiatus after 1994's cult favorite, Andaz Apna Apna and the final product is sadly middling at best.
Prem (Ranbir Kapoor) is a well meaning no-hoper, scourge of the rather picturesque town he lives in and thorn in his father's life, who hopes the boy will make something of himself one day. One fine day, Jenny (Katrina Kaif) walks into his life and our hero is smitten. What follows is a cute-ish love story and some funny comic set pieces. But Jenny is in love with Rahul (Upen Patel), who's father doesn't want the Hindu Rahul to get anywhere close to Christian Jenny due to political compulsions. But our hero, much like Ajay Devgan's brooding Vanraj from 'Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam', gallantly decides to sacrifice his own feelings to make sure Jenny and Rahul can be together, with Jenny finally coming around to Prem's affections in the end. So you get it. Nothing original in there. It was always going to be about the treatment. And Santoshi appears a bit out of water and fails to create anything more than old wine in a, well sadly, old bottle. You are rarely interested in Prem's life and Jenny's many sufferings appear trivial and contrived, much like the copious amounts of glycerin-tears she sheds. Neither is mood for this intended comedy particularly even, oscillating between comic book caper and serious love story. The bright spot in the piece seems to be the music, Pritam's light and peppy score assuring repeat value.
The film's lead pair carry on as best they can, with Kapoor earnestly trying to make something of his bumbling nice-guy character and Kaif, well, just being herself again, anglicized, wooden and incapable of more than 3 expressions. The rest of the cast are insignificant and mere caricatures, with the exception of Prem's parents Darshan Jariwala and Smita Jaykar, who do well in the scope they get. And as for Upen Patel, he really should have given up 'acting' and returned to England a long time ago.
In the end, a forgettable film, but for a few genuinely funny gags. See it if you must.