Kolkata with my Eyes Closed…


We experience so many sensations when we visit a place. Some dazzle us with their visual appeal, some delight us with their melody, some flatter our taste buds with their strong or subtle flavours. And then there are those that refuse to leave us when we have long left the place. Today, I’m going to talk about some sensations that have attained a state of permanence in my subconscious. And most of these are deeply linked to the distinct scents they carry.

Of all the smells that my olfactory faculties sense, those originating in Kolkata remain the most powerful. Last year, my mum and I booked our tickets, packed our bags, and set off to “the city of  joy”. Here’s the first meal that greeted us:-

A full Bengali meal

A full Bengali meal

The inviting aroma of warm mung dal drew me out of my room and I decided I should unpack later. Before me was a large plate full of Bengali delicacies. Food so flavourful is eaten with hand! The hot meal was spiced with asafoetida and turmeric, but there was a perfect balancing element – the sweet dish. The blood-red tomato-chutney was subtly sweet and tempered with black sesame seeds. But my favourite dish was mishti doi, the famous pink-tinted yogurt which is sweetened with khejur-gur (date-jaggery). Served in a small earthen urn, mishti doi always manages to tranquilize me with its delicate scent of succulent dates that mixes with the smell of  baked earth.

Horse-carriages from an era bygone

Horse-carriages from an era bygone

Kolkata feeds not just your body but also your mind. On our way to Victoria Memorial, we walked past a string of royally embellished carriages drawn by handsome Arab stallions and English thoroughbreds. I don’t know what the 18th century smelled like, but to me it smells like fresh paint blended with hay from horse stables. This unusual odour is so potent, it makes one dream of the times one only reads in History textbooks.

Human cart

Retirement? What is that?

When one thinks of the olden times, one cannot help but notice old age. I walked around the streets to find several rickshaw pullers awaiting their customers. Quite a few amongst them were well past their middle age; their hair, a snowy shade of white; their salt-and-pepper beard, more salt and less pepper. In the damp air, I smelled their spirit and strength to carry on with work and let age only remain a number.

The 'sisters' at the annual procession

The ‘sisters’ at the annual procession

Kolkata is full of noises – the bleat of a cycle-rickshaw horn, the holler of a bag-seller, the ringing bells of a tram, the creaking of a rickety State-bus and the constant shuffling of feet. But I found peace amidst the noise – several nuns (from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity) walked quietly through the streets at their annual procession. If peace has a smell, it’s most certainly that of starched cotton.

Nepalese momos in Calcuttan streets

Nepalese momos – Calcutta’s street surprise!

This city can start feeling like home in a few days. The Albanian Saint Teresa stayed back in Kolkata for many years and so have people from various other countries. The intermingling of different tongues has also brought about a revolution in the Bengali food circuit with the introduction of many cuisines. The momos, every other Bengali’s favourite, are actually from Nepal. For only 20 rupees a plate, these momos are a steal! The stuffed, steamed dumplings come with a spicy dip and a bowl of piping hot soup. I take one long whiff of this street food and my brain instantly declares Chinese! But I bite into a tender momo and know this is definitely not Chinese.

The Bangali puchka

The Bangali puchka

Once enamoured by a street-snack, I can’t help but dig into some more. I reach a puchka-stall and order a round of serving. The ellipsoid puris are like nothing I’ve seen before! These flour-crisps are bigger and longer than the regular spherical puris one sees in the rest of India. The smell of tamarind in the puchka-water makes me ask for another round of puchkas!

Ever been invited for a Bengali tea break?

Ever been invited for tea at a Bengali’s?

Eating in Kolkata doesn’t only happen outside. In fact, it mostly happens in the homes of the locals. The snack-spread in Bengal is slightly different from the elaborate lunches and dinners. Tea time is an intimate moment of reflection and discussion on all matters that affect the world. Friendships are forged over the aromatic Darjeeling tea or the malty Assam tea with some sugar-coated biscuits on the side. Bengalis drink tea like a European would wine. Tea is first tasted with the eyes as one discerns whether the colour is strong or translucent. The teacup is then brought to the nose to appreciate its aroma. It is finally sipped and gulped with some knowledge of the flavour.

I can distinctly smell Kolkata when I close my eyes, every fragrance becoming clear to me. Do you ever notice the smell of a new place? Has any place left a scent in your soul?

Sauntering through Salt Lake City


I spent this morning sitting on rows of bamboo-rods, gazing at the vastness of the waters of Nalban, as the breeze caressed my hair. I wondered how this place could be so cool in contrast with the heat that radiated from Bengali fishermen who cycled to this place.

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Fishing area at Nalban

Kolkata – a metropolis famed for its fresh water fishes, has a popular satellite city called ‘Salt Lake‘. They say it’s a posh area where residents seldom speak to their neighbours. That explains the tranquil airs that transmit little other than the sounds of chirping birds. Salt Lake is known in the football-circles for its famous stadium. But the multicoloured bungalows that line every street are what catch my eye. The houses that start from a single storey and go up to 5, are painted in all colours imaginable to mankind. These are alternated by some very rustic buildings that have weathered the monsoon and cried their paint out.

A colourful bungalow in Salt Lake City

A colourful bungalow in Salt Lake City

I noticed at some distance many old ladies in salwar-kameez and sneakers brisk-walking out of a park, and instantly decided to walk in. This was Banobitan University Park, or more poplularly, Central Park, a sprawling enclosure of green and purple flora that are ornamented by white egrets. At the centre of this park is a lake that is opened for boating from 10am to 5pm.

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A tree house inside the Banobitan University Park

Bengalis, by nature, tend to exaggerate most things. They scared me into carrying woollens and a scarf to this trip. But I discovered that the light chill in the air didn’t warrant warm clothes. Most pedestrians, however, wore chequered sweaters, mufflers and wrapped embroidered shawls tightly around themselves. I noticed also that the locals love their cotton. They will wear multiple layers to insulate themselves from the cold but will never part with their cotton-clothes.

Cotton sarees hung out to dry

Cotton sarees hung out to dry

In Kolkata, there will be new streets, new metro-corridors, new flyovers and even multi-storeyed office-buidings, but some things will never change. The Ambassador is one of them. These taxis from the last century still ply on the narrow Culcuttan streets alongside the quintessentially Bengali rickshaws.

An Ambassador (taxi) and a cycle-rickshaw

An Ambassador (taxi) and a cycle-rickshaw

The only thing more enchanting than the places and vehicles in Calcutta are the people. They are loud when they scream and sell their wares, yet soft when they invite you over for a meal; frustrated with the traffic and the political scenario, yet glad to live in their jonmobhumi (birthplace). Their faces hold a million expressions at the same time – anger, joy, pride, disgust, relief, fear, despair, frenzy, abhorrence and love. Perhaps this rare quality of holding so many emotions and still not losing their equilibrium makes Bengalis so beautiful to behold.

A cane-furniture vendor making his way through the crowd

A cane-furniture vendor making his way through the crowd

I have been visiting this city every year for more than two decades now. But this time, my eyes see what they’ve never seen before. Stay tuned for more posts in the Kolkata-series, as I take you through the heart and soul of my jonmobhumi