Calcutta Winter Sprinkled With Love
For its endless charms and meandering ways Calcutta remains an enigma. And the winter just adds to the beauty of the city. Due to global warming and pollution in general, the climate has been scrunched big time and the proper seasonal cycle has gone for a toss. But winter is the season to be in Calcutta. It’s a love story.
The temperature is just right for a cuddle-comfort and it is so very snug under the covers on the bed. Then there are the cold mornings and lazy afternoons! And the hazy evenings over steaming hot, freshly brewed natural coffee or good tea. Cozying up is the main idea. On the purple evenings, just pull on those cover-alls and go out for walks in the haze with your favourite brand of music plugged into the head! Single or in a group it is the perfect setting for a month of dream, romance and idling.
Keep those cold medicines handy though, just in case!
But it not just for the romantic charms of fairyland that one remembers Calcutta. It is also for the gregarious funs. When the music festivals are on and various craft and handloom exhibitions fill up the sprawling grounds all over the city, Calcutta looks like a giant cultural churning pot.
Early mornings are most charming moments for this city. In a metro where everyone is called ‘dada’ an occasional voice tears through the fog with group of morning walkers all dada to each other walk past lost in their cocoon of friendly warmth swathed in shawls and monkey-caps. Here and there we see dogs in sweaters being walked by elderly gentlemen. A tea stall has just opened. The owner is still coming to terms with the thick smoke of his charcoal fire mixed in the heavy fog that settles comfortably over the city. Soon he will have a heavy roll-call of customers sipping over a piping hot tea and discussing politics over a piece of vernacular daily. If he finds time, the tea owner will also join in with his opinion. Such is the democracy of hot tea and winter!
The evenings are quite a contrast. The cavernous manchas, stages, theatres, open air pits get thronged with people - for a street play, a musical concert, a poetry session or even storytelling. No city has ever paid so much attention to this part of life like Calcutta. And perhaps no city will. Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Rashid Khan, Bickram Ghose, Bare Ghulam Ali, Pandit Ajoy Chakroborty become household names and people discuss them with as much depth as with which they talk of a Tapan Sinha retrospect or twenty best films of the last century in India. And the winter just adds to the bounce in their spirit with the soft lullaby of the Northerly wind and salted nights of culture.
And what is more heartening is the sight of the number of youths who throng these sessions. It was heartwarming, this desire for music that drive young men and women to stand at the gates and request tickets from those who were leaving. I once passed on our tickets to a young enthusiast after seeing a show during the Kolkata Film Festival, who promised to return it to me at the designated spot after the next show was over. He was thrilled, and shouted for a girl squatting nearby and rushed in. To my amusement, the ticket checker didn’t mind the changing of hands for the ticket and the boy did come back after two hours to return the ticket flashing a famous smile. Such is the warmth and honesty of Calcutta that wraps around you like a warm rug.
It is already dark, even at half past five in the evening. It gets dusky and dark very fast. So the cricket matches start early. I am not talking about professional cricket, but the thousands of local cricket tournaments played with tennis balls. Then there are the balance races, leap frogs, catch-me-if-you-can played out to great glory and competitiveness.
Sunday evenings are special to Calcutta, not for the late night parties, but for another Calcutta pastime: asking questions. Quizzing happens almost every weekend and Sundays at some club or college. They range from corporate, advertisement, finance to general and sports quiz. Typical of a Calcutta quiz, the questions are of a very high standard and so are the rather classy answers. Most interesting of all are the very calculated guesses. As expected, the quiz masters seem fond of bowling out the participants who enviably live up to the master’s surprise with a riposte of his own. At least some of the participants will have a Mastermind India background or Brand Equity Quiz.
If these were not enough then you can walk into any of the art and crafts fair to pick your choose from the tribal to the esoteric. All the states and their craft are on display and people here admire the craft as do they spent money on them. What is lovelier is that articles keep coming out in the dailies about a rare craft and the artisans behind them. So next time one walks into that counter, he is not only seeing an artifact but also the culture, art, pain and sweat behind it. It is this education that makes the winter chill go away in the soft wrap of compassion. If that was not enough flower shows, dog shows, bird shows and now even a slew of fashion shows set the city afire with aficionados enjoying every moment.
The crowning glory of winter is perhaps the book fair. The city has had an affair with books for centuries and the heady gathering at the book fair is just a renewal of faith that the city still loves its books. As the people congregate among the sea of books under a large yellow moon, it is a sight to watch. From young and old, male and female they stretch, stand, sit await and fondle with books. It’s perhaps the most charming affair that sets the city apart from all others.
There is one other aspect of winter that I need to touch upon. The sunset boulevard and its charm; from the South Park Street Cemetery to the highrise of St Xavier’s College, to the tasty pastries of Flury’s, the stretch of road is a livewire during winter. It’s the flashier part of the city with rock bands and stage performers churning out popular covers. Then there are the original composers like the supersonics. They give the city its typical retro-Anglican touch that it has so carefully preserved.
And what about Christmas! The little old women in silk skirts straight out of the fairy tale books scurry in and out of Free School Street and Bow Barracks as the anglo-Indian community gets ready for Christmas. Did I say Anglo-Indian. Well it is all Indian communities. For Christmas in Calcutta is not a Christian Festival, it is an occasion to love and be loved. Stars and angels fill the air! The city is swept away with Yuletide spirit and St Paul’s Cathedral on the Christmas Eve’s mass has people from all religion thronging. Santa Claus is as much a household name for a Mukherjee or a Singh as for a Fernandez or D’Silva. Christmas is special in Calcutta and it is during these last six days of the year that the city shows in its special ways that she loves.
To end the piece I leave a tasty and giant footnote. Food, food, food. Winters are filled with “Natun Challer Nobanno”, “Pithe”, “Payesh” and of course the very own cakes, pastries and cocktails. The ‘nolen gurer sandesh’ comes as a delicacy everyone savours. And you think it ends here!! It is just the beginning! Winter is for Christmas and cakes from Nahoums! Ah those fruit cakes, rich with extra goodness! Plum cakes, cake pickles, mince fruit cakes, simple cheese cakes and all the other assortments that go with it. They make for a lip smacking winter. May the chickens and turkeys never become extinct!
For in winter they have a flavour that is almost unreal.
So welcome to the haze of winter. For its the best time of the year in Calcutta!!