The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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When hunger strikes, post midnight

In the early and mid '80s, we did a number of concerts fronted by vocalist Anjum Katyal. Usually a couple of songs would be done by other members of the band and at one particular concert held at Vidya Mandir I remember singing a Lynyrd Skynyrd song called Honky Tonk Night Time, which I dedicated to the women in the family and it went like this:

'I'm a honky tonk night time man

I can't stand no light

I get my rest in the daytime

I do my running around at night'

A little exaggerated no doubt but there are many occupations like music and other performing arts, journalism, the hospitality and entertainment industry and more recently call centre jobs, which make an increasing number of people burn the midnight oil. Apart, of course, from party animals who do so by choice.

And when hunger strikes, it does not differentiate between whether you chose to be awake or had to. And in a vast city like Calcutta, which is experiencing a boom in the food industry, there is still virtually no place where you can get a decent, affordable meal at say 2.30 am. The coffee shops of the five-star hotels are there, but not many would fancy patronising them on a regular basis.

Finding a good meal in the dead of the night has always been a problem. When we were in university, a regular haunt was Wellesly 2nd Lane where many musician friends hung out. The adda would begin only at about midnight when everyone was back from work and if anyone got the munchies they would have to wait patiently till 3.30 when a tea shop across the street, in Colin Street, opened. Their main clientele were bistis, who delivered water from house to house after filling their leather mussucks at the tubewells. The fare was simple ' breakfast really ' puris, dalpuris, samosas, halwa made from semolina and tea, but sometimes this was so welcome that it tasted better than best.

Another place was not far away ' just off Marquis Street. This place ' Bariwala's ' was open all night and served superb mangsho bhaat, dal and a dry vegetable dish. The rice was always steaming, the grain small and plump, and the meat curry had big potatoes and large chunks of amazingly soft meat. The only thing that deterred us from going there too often was that the clientele here was not exactly what one would call very refined.

It was not unusual for your meal to be interrupted, just as you were digging in to your second helping, by a little free-for-all when some surly customers didn't see eye-to-eye about some burning issue. Few farlongs away on Free School Street, near the Kyd Street turning, there were also a couple of late night places; there were paratha, kebab and chaap outlets.

Then there was UP and Bihar restaurant next to Nizam's, behind New Market, which remained open till late but there was an element of luck involved. I remember once Lew Hilt and I arrived there just after 2 am. They had just gone to sleep; the coal-fired cooking range was still alight, though the massive griddle had been taken off. After some persuasion and emotional blackmail from Lew (Nahin khilayega to hum log mar jayega), they arose, remounted the 15 kilogram griddle and we went home with a couple of dozen kathi rolls for the gang. So even though nightlife was doing very well in those days, when it came to midnight snacking, we were not exactly spoilt for choice.

Back to the present. There are more options now, but not nearly enough. The coffee shops, as I mentioned, are there, which weren't there till about 25 years ago, and then again, only one or two. Now there are half a dozen odd and out in the rest of the city, a few dhabas where we get 'Punjabi' food, but their closing time can depend on the wind and weather. Some of them serve excellent food ' good tarka roti, dal makhani, palak paneer, mixed vegetables, chicken bharta, mutton kassa and so on, but again, this is not exactly a wide range of options, and also perhaps not what the doctor would order in the middle of the night.

One good development, though, is that our friends at Don Giovanni's, who pioneered the home delivery system in the city and are eight years old this year, have recently started delivering round the clock. It does depend on your location, but if the order is big enough they will go farther afield, and have been known to go as far as IIM Joka when a whole bunch of B-School students got hungry in the middle of the night. And they will deliver not only pizzas and pastas, but anything from their Chinese, Thai and Indian selection as well. Business picks up on weekends, and they feel that this has been a good move.

There is no doubt that keeping an establishment open all night does involve questions of security, law and order and considerations of concern to the administration. But in any civilised metropolis where people take nightlife culture in their stride, which we surely do, these are details that can be worked out.

And if someone opened a Chinese place where you could get a few piping hot soups, starters, chow and rice items, I am sure that he or she would be laughing all the way to the bank.

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