It’s my first day in Kolkata and I have come to Bomti’s for lunch. My guide Husna-Tara Prakash, the owner of Glenburn Penthouse, tells me Kolkata is best experienced on a full stomach, and nowhere serves better authentic Bengali grub than Bomti’s private residence.
From the moment we enter his apartment, the exquisite aroma of home cooked Bengali food and Bomti’s happy-going demeanour make us feel straight at home. Art-collector, gourmet and socialite, Bomti has an avuncular warmth and a knack for conversation which, in the course of drinking a sweet-and-salt lime-soda, covers the IPL, Bengali art and West Bengal’s mega-festival, the Durga Puja. When the food is bought to the table, Bomti jumps out of his seat and takes great pleasure in telling us what is in store. As he rattles off the names of each dish, I feel like the Mole in Wind in the Willows when Rat goes through the food he has prepared in his picnic hamper. Like Mole, I almost burst with excitement and shout “stop, stop”!
“Bengalis usually start with the vegetables, then go onto the fish and follow up with the chicken” advises Husna-Tara in a manner that suggests there is simply no other way to go about it.
We help ourselves from the table and eat with plates on our laps. The easy-going informality seems the perfect way to enjoy such home-cooked treats. The food does not disappoint. Every dish is fresh, vibrant and distinctly flavoursome. My favourites are shorshe bhekti, a Bengali speciality of mustard fish curry which is packed with all the flavours and qualities of nose-tingling mustard yet does not overpower the delicacy of the fish, and khatta meetha baingan, a delicious mix of tamarind, aubergine and spices to come up with exactly the right combination of hot, sweet and sour.
As the main-course plates are cleared away, more plates follow, piled high with Bengali sweets. Bomti must see something in my face that betrays a moment of hesitation.
“Bengalis have two stomachs; one for main course and one for dessert” he smiles.
I take a deep breath and go looking for my second-Bengali stomach, helping myself to mishti doi, a sweet milk curd and sandesh, a small cookie like dessert made from baked condensed milk mixed with jaggery. As I sit in a hyperglycaemic stupor, Bomti tells me that the only shops allowed to open during the Covid pandemic were the sweet shops, with the owner of one of Kolkata’s most famous declaring “for Bengal, sweets are an essential good.”
As we say goodbye to Bomti, I feel like I have had lunch at a long-lost uncle’s house who cannot only cook, but also has a wealth of fascinating anecdotes to share. With a serious need to burn calories, we venture back out into the city. With some estimates putting Kolkata’s total population at close to 15 million, it is a city that pulses with an unyielding energy, nowhere more so than the city’s flower market.
Dazzling, high-definition colours and intoxicating floral aromas have been constant companions to the Kolkata traders who have been selling flowers for over 150 years at this prime estate location alongside the Hooghly river. Saying it with flowers is the Indian way, and no flower says it better than the humble marigold. Births, deaths, marriages, religious festivals or the visit of an auspicious guest are all justification for a bright orange garland, a showering of golden petals or simply being pelted with marigold flower heads. The vibrant colours are believed to represent the energy of the sun and across the market, mountains of marigolds radiate a vitality that is matched only by the relentless ebb and flow of traders and buyers.
I stand by a stall in the centre of the market and watch the cut-and-thrust amongst the blooms. A trunk-necked man wearing a stained white vest and lungi carries a giant basket of red roses on his head, which he delivers to a young trader. With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, rupee wielding buyers are quick to catch the young trader’s eye and the age-old process of bartering begins. In the opposite direction, a convoy of sun-flowers pass by en-route to the Oberoi I’m told, the lead porter pushing through the crowds with his fellow porters right behind him, quick to take advantage of his slipstream. Among the tumult, a bespectacled trader beckons me over. Time stops for a moment as he shows me a closed lotus flower-head which he meticulously opens, one petal at a time, to reveal its perfect beauty. A harassed porter breaks the lotus flower spell, shouting in Bengali for me to get out of his way as he ploughs through with a fat, white sack of marigold garlands on his head.
We leave the market and head south along Strand Street into the commercial and academic centre of the city. Renowned for being the historic home of great thinkers, polymaths, artists and revolutionaries, Kolkata has an irrepressible spirit. Home to the East India Company in the early 18th century it went onto become the launch pad for the colonisation of India under the British Raj. In 1857, the Indian Mutiny took place in Barrackpore, less than 30 kilometres upstream from Kolkata and as resentment of British hegemony grew, Kolkata became the spearhead of Indian insurrection against British rule.
We walk past the Writer’s Building, which today serves as the headquarters of the Bengali state government. Just outside the building is a statue of three young revolutionaries carrying firearms. On a December day in 1930, Badal Gupta, Benoy Basu and Dinesh Gupta stormed the Writer’s Building, which at the time was a nerve centre for the East India Company, and shot dead a notorious British prison officer renowned for his brutal treatment of political prisoners.
Today, Kolkata is considered a bit of an outlier with the country’s powerbase now further west in Delhi, yet a defiant sense of identity still burns bright; Bengalis are Bengalis first and foremost, proud of their heritage and confident of their future. “What Kolkata thinks today, India thinks tomorrow” reads a large banner in an outstanding exhibition we visit in Metcalfe Hall (above the archives of the Asiatic Society). Bengalis are great philosophisers and love nothing more than ‘adda’- a Bengali word that describes the pastime of spirited discourse with strangers while drinking chai at a street stall.
“With ‘adda’, it is politics first, cricket second” suggests my guide.
To reach Victoria Memorial, we walk through Elliot Park where a multitude of cricket games are in full swing. A rotund batsman takes an agricultural swipe at a long-hop on leg stump and the ball flies over the boundary for six. He removes his cap and points his bat triumphantly towards Eden Gardens, one of the world’s largest cricket stadiums which sits on the opposite side of the park, on the east bank of the Hooghly. We reach Victoria Memorial, and enjoy walking through the immaculate gardens without the threat of a cricket ball landing on our heads. Stretching 103 metres across (just 5 metres short of Buckingham Palace) and rising 56 metres high (more than twice the height of SW1A), the Victoria Memorial is an indelible symbol of British Empire. Built from white Makrana marble, it mirrors the majesty of the Taj Mahal yet doesn’t quite have the same radiance, which I am told is because the memorial was painted black during World War II, to make it less of a target for air raids. When the black paint was removed, a stain was left behind which has never fully subsided.
I leave behind the Instagrammers framing the perfect #VicMem selfie, as inside the building I have heard there is a new mutiny in town. Under the grand dome of the Victoria Memorial sits an exhibition celebrating the life of Subhas Chandra Bose. It was Bose that created the Indian National Army which in 1944 fought the British on the side of the Japanese invasion of India. Housing the exhibition under the nose of the Empress of India is a bold statement that epitomises India’s sense of autonomy and self-confidence in the 21st century. It also speaks of a growing sense of antipathy towards the symbols of a time when Indians were subjugated by Empire. It is telling that a number of statues of British dignitaries that once took centre stage in the Victoria Memorial are now enveloped in mirror cases, no longer visible.
As I stroll past the bronze statue of Queen Victoria (not yet cancelled) to reach the exhibits depicting the life of West Bengal’s most revered revolutionary, I smile at the outrageous juxtaposition of it all. The spirit of West Bengal is in rude health and Kolkata is its beating heart.