Being in the free, some might call it empty, state of body and mind that I often find myself in these days, when someone of a similar persuasion suggested that we embark on a month-long odyssey to revisit the eateries of our college days (at least the ones that still exist) and savour the street food we did then, albeit at, possibly, twenty times the price, I thought it might be fun in both gastronomic and nostalgic terms so long as we kept sufficiently long intervals between visits for our increasingly inefficient digestive systems to recuperate and did not recreate the journey as accurately as having to take public transport to these places, which necessity made us do decades ago when our limbs were more limber and pockets much lighter.
As befitting an odyssey of such momentous consequence, research was key: to track whether (a) the eateries still existed and, more importantly (b) still featured in their current menus the items we remembered from our college days and tended to favour, e.g. Chacha’s fowl cutlets, Golbari’s kasha mangsho, Mitra Café’s chicken kabiraji, Anadi Cabin’s moghlai paratha, Royal’s mutton chaamp, the ubiquitous Calcutta kathi roll, preferably, the double beef version from Nizam’s, Putiram’s telebhaja, Dilkhusa’s Deemer (egg) Devil and, if after all that there was still adventure in our souls, prawn cutlets from Allen’s.
On the sage advise of the senior most traveller among us (our very own Odysseus) that we should proceed with controlled enthusiasm since memories are good (or bad) only when recalled in their entirety, not taken out of context of the specific point in time that they were created, we decided to begin the voyage into our youthful past with caution limiting our first culinary foray to Chacha’s Hotel alone. Undeterred by desk research that gave Chacha’s a 2.5 out of 5 rating on Zomato and should have vigorously waved a red flag in our faces (since its food critics are usually quite generous in their reviews unless a waiter has actually spat into their soups or upended a bowl on their heads to protest a poor tip), we buckled up and set forth on the long trip to North Calcutta, which, to most of us who haven’t seen that end of town for three decades or more, is, literally, the end of the world, though, in Kolkata’s prime and during the famous Bengal Renaissance, it was the beginning.
There is nothing sadder or more disappointing than to discover that a place reputed for its heritage value no longer has it, for the building with the bright red façade (perhaps, the same red flag waving one final warning in our faces before we alighted and took the steps from which there was no return?) and the stark white LED signage saying CHACHA’S HOTEL in aggressive, bold capitals, was a far cry from the diffident, discreet and understated Chacha’s of our youth, the disconnect further aggravated when the interiors revealed an unfortunate choice of colours – browns, reds, yellows, mauves and every conceivable shade in-between – in brazen and chaotic abandon and an eight-page menu that seemed to go on forever and listed an array of cuisines under exotic banners that, like a stripper in the early stages of her routine, revealed much less than it promised: Crispy Hot Pan Starter (under which appeared the dozen or so items that used to comprise the eatery’s entire menu at one time, including Chacha’s Special Fowl Cutlet, now priced at only Rs. 60/- the second cheapest item on the menu, for reasons we were soon to discover), Chinese Food Pagoda (including such gems as Cantonese Soft “Chowmin”, “Amrican” Chopsuey and Mixed Hong “Knog” Fried Rice), Peshawari Gharana (under which, for some strange, inexplicable reason, featured Our Village Fresh), Badshahi Mughal Durbar (as distinct from the preceding Peshawari school of culinary excess but with little or no convincing evidence to offer in support), Uttar Bharatiya Khazana (a culinary school vastly different, no doubt, from Badshahi, Moghlai or Peshawari to merit a banner of its own) and, as the pièce de résistance, Just Chill featuring such unique gems as Vergain (as opposed to Virgin) Pina Colada, Mango Fairy, Blue Logoo, Sharly Temple and Fressh Lime Soda (the additional ‘s’ to either enhance the freshness of the drink or permanently silence its critics).
Overwhelmed by first impressions – loud, conspicuous signage, brazen décor, an endless menu that challenged credibility – that were in complete contradiction to the memories we had of the place, our aesthetic senses assaulted into near numbness and our collective imagination stretched to breaking point, we did a quick huddle to gather our faltering resolve, blanking out the garish walls and flashy furniture, the wary waiters loitering in the periphery of our vision and the sceptical customers paused in their cannibalistic consumption of mutton biryani and champ, till our enthusiasm to see the odyssey through was rekindled, which it was when the kindly manager waddled out from behind the cash counter to inform us that we would be better off – and served – if we were to repair to the newly appointed air conditioned section on the first floor.
Pratik Basu is a prolific and published author who has worn several caps; cook, housekeeper, animal lover, cigar aficionado and most recently, CEO Buena Vista Television and FTV