Calcutta is often portrayed as a sweltering hell hole - but under the surface, it has much to offer visitors. The city's historical buildings and monuments are reminders of a rich colonial past; its citizens enjoy a cultural heritage of music, theatre, dance, literature and art. For those who once lived in "Cal", much has changed over the years, but paradoxically much also remains the same.

An excerpt from Haunting India



Margaret Deefholts

[The following paragraphs occur half way through the chapter on Calcutta]

"...We amble through the maze of stalls in Hogg Market-popularly known as the "New Market" even though it has been in existence since the early 1900's. Not too much has changed here since I was a teenager, except for a noticeable lack of Anglo-Indians thronging its passageways. Part of the complex burned down some years ago and has been replaced by an upscale air-conditioned mall. We fend off persistent coolies and gawk at the merchandise on display: bolts of vibrant silks and crisp cottons, ready made garments, Bengali handicrafts, costume jewellery, cane furniture, crockery, and glassware, all for sale at a fraction of the price we'd pay here in Canada.

Not for the squeamish, but fascinating nonetheless, is the produce and meat market located in a cavernous building adjoining the main market. Bluebottle flies shimmer around mutton shanks suspended from meat hooks, and entrails such as livers, kidneys, hearts and brains are set out for inspection on marble slabs. The smell of ripe pineapples and papaya permeates the aisles of the fruit section. Noelene and I stop to haggle over a basket of Indian gooseberries. These are small yellow berries covered in a pouch of dry paper-thin leaves, and as I pop one into my mouth, the juice spurts, sweet-sour against my tongue, evoking memories of my mother's gooseberry jam, eaten smothered in fresh cream at tea-time.

Indeed, what can be more evocative than the smell and taste of food relished in childhood? I take the time to drop by Nahum Confectioners in the New Market. The old proprietor has passed on, but his son peers at me and says, "Penn-Anthony? Of course I remember your parents…they ordered Christmas cakes from us for years! And didn't we once make a Birthday cake for you in the shape of a grand piano?" I'm astonished at his memory. Later, as I turn to leave, he comes up to me and says. "Next week is Easter Sunday, so here is something for you, just for old times sake." He grins and hands me a paper bag. Inside it is a small marzipan Easter egg.

Flury's on Park Street still retains its Edwardian ambience: afternoon tea accompanied by a selection of cakes and cream-rolls, is served on bone-china crockery. The Anglo-Indian maitre d' is intrigued to discover that Noelene and I are also Anglo-Indians. In the course of our conversation I casually mention that I wish I could find another well-remembered Calcutta delight-spiced sausages. Not only does he offer to make a trip to the Entally meat market at dawn to buy these on our behalf, but his wife cooks them for us as well, using a traditional Calcutta Anglo-Indian recipe which calls for them to be marinated in vinegar and mustard oil. Only in India is the hospitality as warm as its sunshine!

At the other end of the scale from Flury's elegance, is Nizam's, which has been in operation for over 70 years. Tucked into a dimly lit alleyway in the city's hub, it is a small unpretentious place with ramshackle furniture, neon tube lighting and no air conditioning. But, as every Calcutta-wallah knows, Nizam's kati-kebabs and rotis are fit for a Moghul emperor. They sizzle with dark, mysterious spices that caress the palate like a teasing, smouldering flame. The four of us drop into Nizams one night, and despite the lateness of the hour, there is a steady stream of well-dressed customers driving up in their cars, or strolling in from a nearby movie theatre after the last show. Some things haven't changed at all, even after a forty-five year absence..."

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