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Gourmet’s choice, under Marx or Mamata

“Hello Sir, a long time, about five years?” a waiter quietly asked me as I was ordering my food in one of Park Street’s notable dining institutions. Taking delight in my look of utter astonishment at this recognition, he then enthusiastically informed me that I had put on quite a bit of weight in the intervening years! Nothing like the diagnosis of a waiter to make you think twice about ordering a second round of roti!

It isn’t only my kilo-count that has changed over the last five or six years — much has changed in Calcutta, some very obvious, while others more subtle. One of the biggest changes to someone returning to the city is the retreat of the comrades from Calcutta’s walls, conversations and newspapers.

Five years ago, the Left Front’s domination of politics in West Bengal was total: consummated by a thumping win in the state elections in 2006. From this seemingly unassailable position, the hammer and sickles have faded from public view to a remarkable degree. What was once a central part of Calcutta’s aesthetic and political life, at least to the casual visitor, is gone; Marx replaced by Mamata.

A second, more subtle but important change is in the increased security at virtually all public places — no doubt a legacy of the Mumbai attacks of 2008. Rather like America post-9/11, every aspect of public safety seems to have notably tightened up since I was last in Calcutta. X-ray machines and metal detectors are ubiquitous, even in some restaurants, and police are far more attentive to the to-ing and fro-ing in the Metro stations than they once were, setting quite a different tone for travel around the city.

I was sorry to miss Puja and Holi, both of which I have great memories of. I had never been in Calcutta for Christmas, so I was intrigued to see how prominently it would be in the city’s affections.

Needless to say, the whole of central Calcutta resembled Oxford Street in London at the very peak of the Yuletide frenzy, festooned with lighting and Santa hats being the must-have headwear for many. Any reservations I had about missing out on the Christmas feel were swiftly dealt with!

One of the most interesting aspects of returning to Calcutta has been experiencing the place as a tourist, as opposed to five years ago, when I saw the city through a very different rhythm. Curiously, I found Calcutta to be a city that is in some respects easier to live and work in, than to be a tourist in!

After I had acclimatised to living in the city several years ago, I always used to chuckle to myself as I saw thunderstruck tourists emerging from Sudder Street, besieged by beggars, rickshawpullers and various professional chancers. Now I have joined that very legion of wide-eyed visitors, albeit with a bit more knowledge of the city!

News broke on the morning of our last day that the victim of the shocking, violent rape in Delhi that shook India had succumbed to her injuries. We had already seen one demonstration about the rape earlier in the week, with scores of students marching across Esplanade.

St. Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve. (Sayantan Ghosh)

In the evening after she died, we attended a subdued, dignified gathering next to Birla Planetarium. I had seen people react to previous outrages before in India, and this was a unique case. Unlike, for instance, terrorism which directly affects comparatively few, but sits uneasily in the minds of many, this was a single incident that, one way or another, touched on the everyday experiences of every single Indian. We arrived at dusk, when a handful of people were present and by the time we left, scores more had stopped to light a candle.

I was worried that the Calcutta that I had such fond memories of might have somehow gone missing in a five-year absence, but much has stayed the same: it is still the phenomenally raucous, ever-riveting city that feels on the move, even when it is standing still.

It is still in my opinion one of the best cities for dining I have ever visited. All my friends in the UK seem to labour under the misapprehension that you lose weight when you visit India. I returned once having bucked that trend, and I’m sure I’ll do so again this time!