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Aug 9, 2022
7 min read
3 Kathi Rolls in the Rain - Part # 1
It was drizzling. I was sitting on a lone marble bench out in the open in front of the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. The sky became darker and darker. The wind began to blow stronger and suddenly I found myself caught in a binding rain.
Two local soccer teams struggled in the rain to score a goal. I was in two minds. I had no clue how to manage the situation. After all, the bullet was already fired !
My paternal family would have taken offense if anybody called them foodies. They always claimed to be connoisseurs of food. I too feel so.
While having lunch, we would plan for breakfast the next morning. Food actually played a major role in my upbringing. Not only what we ate but also how we ate mattered as much. And with each recipe came a story. Stories that I still remember. Stories that happened at the dining table.
Our home kitchen was kind of a boiling pot of cultures.
My maternal family was from Lucknow. I was born there too. I was told that when my mother started having labor pain, she for some unusual reason wanted to have kebabs. My grandfather sent his Bawarchi all the way to Chowk from University Road to buy Galawati Kebabs with Ulta Tawa ka Paratha.
Though my mother, maternal uncles and aunts grew up as ‘Bengalis in Awadh’ , their schooling was more Anglo Indian. Their kitchen would serve some brilliant biryani, shami kebab, mutton roast, macaroni in white sauce with shredded ham, duck roast, mutton pasanda, chicken jalfrezi and I could go on.
My paternal family comes from the beautiful mountains of Darjeeling. So when we were growing up, we would spend hours relishing steamed pork momos at Kunga and the finest pork chops at New Dish.
My grandmother was a very strict lady but was one of the finest cooks I’ve ever met. She had the ability to turn everything delicious. Except for ugly minds.
The food in our Darjeeling home, as far as I recall, was always steaming and hot. Be it a stuffed grilled chicken or Bengali style fish filets in mustard sauce steamed in banana leaves. Now how she managed banana leaves in Darjeeling, I know not !
My father went out to sea and gave up the high seas as a Master Mariner. Capt. Sen Gupta, my father, as he’s still known, loved rare ox tongue, oysters, octopus and all that I hated. My steaks still are well done. “You’ll never learn to eat your steaks son”, still rings my ears.
So my home kitchen in Calcutta had embraced cuisines and recipes from various corners of the country and beyond. Even the family who helped us to manage and run our kitchen were from Dhaka. And I have to admit that the magic they created on the dining table remains only as mere nostalgia today.
Our home kitchen would have three kinds of fire. Charcoal, wood and coal and LPG. Different kinds of wood were used effectively to add flavors or not to.
But suddenly, a strong gush of unexpected wind blew dark clouds over the bright tropical sun. Days turned into nights. Nights into nightmares.
Unlike me, my father, despite being a sailor for over three decades, was a complete teetotaler. A completely disciplined man; often to the point of being like Baron von Trapp.
But suddenly, he collapsed and with him collapsed an empire of hope, love and warmth.
We soon found ourselves homeless. My mother went to Lucknow while we brothers had no clue where the next meal would come from. A night at a friend’s house was a luxury. More often than not, we would sleep on sidewalks below a kilometer from the house where we celebrated culture and cuisine from all parts of the world.
Life had come to a point where people who once had built their careers and lives with the support of my family began to avoid us. Closest of friends began to avoid me in case I wanted some money.
Quickly allow me to acknowledge some people who have stood by me in my times of distress. Raju aka Nirmalya Mukherjee, Tuhin Basu Ray, Pinaki Das, Sudeep Ronnie Saha, Vikram Parekh, fellow guitar player’s family and my Aunt.
So this was a time when I was living with a fellow musician whose father chauffeured cars of VIPs at a Government Guest House. It's not the fellow musician who had given me shelter but it was his mother and then, eventually, his father who offered me shelter out of sheer kindness in their one room staff quarters where they were a family of five already.
The lady cooked some brilliant Nepali food. Every Sunday, we would have chicken curry and rice that I still die for. But my fellow guitar player was not too happy with me as in the past I’d thrown his friend out of a band.
One day their elder son who was training to be a hotelier decided to apply for jobs on cruise ships in the Far East. So the first thing he needed was a passport.
Gradually, the terrible humid summers were overpowered by the dark cumulonimbus clouds. Monsoons had come in.
I’d walk from the Government Guest House to the lone marble bench opposite the Victoria Memorial and sit alone for hours trying to figure out how to sort my life out.
In all the struggle, the memory of food or should I say the habit of eating well and knowing what you were eating was very difficult to give up.
I often would walk to the nearby Post Office to send resumes for a job in music in the US as I was determined not to work in maritime business anymore.
On my way was a kebab joint. Like a hole in the wall who, in the morning, hung marinated meat chunks inside a see-through glass window and by the afternoon he’d set up a charcoal fire and would begin grilling the meat chunks into succulent looking kebabs.
I would often stand opposite the sidewalk and stare at the kebabs for 15-20 minutes. Completely mesmerized. Tsunamis would play havoc inside my mouth. The smell of the bar-be-qued meat with slight burnt edges, dripping with molten butter would rush through my nose creating tantalizing olfactory kaleidoscope.
I can't tell you how I missed home in a time like this. And how much I missed our home kitchen, the dining room with the family chats for hours on a holiday while relishing a meal prepared with a lot of love and care. The habit was too hard to kill.
So my fellow musican’s elder brother requested me to deposit his passport form that he’d filled up and signed. Those days that's how it worked. It was afternoon and the sky was dark. It began to drizzle a bit.
I walked out of the gates of the Guest House. Turned right and again turned right. I thought, I’ll take a short cut and catch the Metro. But suddenly, it began to pour.
I had to save the passport application. So I rushed and the nearest place where I’d save myself from the rain was the kebab joint.
The sound of the kebabs sizzling on fire and the aroma of the nutmeg and mustard oil made the rain drops heavier with lust. Lust for the incredible looking meat chunks on fire.
Just at the same time, a couple of executives entered. Pulled two chairs out of the four. And orders for 2 Mutton Kathi Kebab rolls.
All this while I was standing at the edge of the shop under a very small awning covering the glass window; inside which a man was rolling up the kathi rolls. He first rolled the dough, fried the parathas in deep oil. Like a Samurai warrior, he pulled out the skewers from the fire. It was steaming hot with the sound of sizzle adding to the pitter patter of the rain. He pulled out the meat chunks, layed on the crispy parathas, threw in some pickled onions, added some chopped green chillies and a dash of lime. Then the man rolled them in a white piece of paper.
He put them on a small stainless steel tray with the rolls protruding from both ends and sides of the tray . He threw in some green mango chutney on the side. And that was enough to lure me inside the small hole of a shop.
I was still contemplating if I should take a bite of the apple. The serpent was constantly provoking with desire. But after a long battle between the white saint and the red eyed hoofed and horned devil, I gave in.
I ordered a cup of black tea and two Mutton Kathi Rolls. It began to rain like crazy outside. The lane in front got water logged with car carburetors suffering in the sudden flood like state.
I took the first bite of the roll. The flavors bursted in my mouth. Suddenly after the first roll, I stopped thinking about the consequences. I finished off the second. I wanted the third. I ordered the third. I finished off the third too.
And now it was time to pay the bills. The rain had stopped. First, I thought maybe I should just run top speed.
By this time, I‘d realized that I had made a huge blunder. I didn't have a choice but to pay from the application fee that I was carrying for the passport.
My head hung in shame but it was too late. I didn't know what to do. There was no way I could deposit the passport application nor could I arrange money to pay for the deficit.
The bullet was fired and there was no way it would come back.
I sat through the torrential rain on the lonely marble bench and had no clue how to save my face. I was completely drenched in shame and in the rain.
I sat there till the sun went down lazily over the horizon. The rain had stopped. But I was still wet.
…..to be continued
(disclaimer - images have been sourced from the internet. we don't have any claim on them. used as reference)