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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 17 April 2024

Truth in a fried dumpling

Gingerly yours | An ode to the famous 'singara' of Calcutta

Chandrima S. Bhattacharya Published 30.04.23, 05:49 AM

Sourced by the Telegraph

Where do I begin? Perhaps around five in the evening, when the Calcutta gloom begins to rise. Wherever you are, you cannot escape it. It rises from the ground, heavy and humid, and slowly fills the air. As if the ghost of ancient swamps, the powerful gloom rises on its feet, looking for other old things such as water and trees and darkness, now vanished and vanishing, resentful of everything it sees. It strikes at everything in its path and breathes itself into everything, so that everything looks a little more dull, and is stamped with a little more stupor.

The famous yellow Prufrock fog that rubbed its back upon the window panes, the yellow smoke that licked its tongue into the corners of the evening and lingered upon the pools that stood in drains seems just a cute animal in comparison.

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You feel the Calcutta gloom seep in sitting inside the snazziest new café, contemplating your pesto and mozzarella sandwich, because you are also looking at the street lit up by LED and, in its unrelenting glare, the most sordid bits of the city float up. (You are also wishing that your drink was a little more foliage-free.) You are desperate to feel pretty, like the café interior with its uniformly spread white light, gluey as the dip, but you cannot, because you cannot ignore the horribly jagged pavement outside and you remember that an elderly relative had broken her knee just when she had stepped out of a similar café, brandishing a packet of cupcakes bought for her grandchildren. The cupcakes survived unharmed. Cupcakes are pretty and pavements are not. Between them, in Calcutta, lies an entire world. That is where the gloom walks.

And will continue to do so, one feels, till there are cracks in the pavements, and people have nowhere to go to in the evening except to eat, and stare at LEDs. As it has been, for a long time. It had walked the city, it seems, forming a dark backdrop to all the excitement and titillation even as Hutom had described the teeming Calcutta evening with its dense streets and seductive flower strands and cruising men and alcohol and promiscuity. And then you hear a mosquito humming in your ear. What chance does a mojito have against a mosquito?

At this point you are filled with a deep craving — for something good, something comforting, something civilised, but not precious, something you can just reach out and have, without having to book a taxi for.

So imagine my shock when I heard one evening that the famous singara of our neighbourhood was no more. This singara was our pride and joy. It was a classic, an example of fine balance. Its skin was smooth and gave in with just the right crunch; its robust conical shape bulged in just the right places; its inside was just the right blend of slices of potato and peanuts and, in winter, cauliflower bits, tossed in a paste of ginger, green chilli and coriander, but lightly, so that the spices retained their character and the potato its edge. The singara carried a hint of sweetness, just enough to please my Bangal palate, not disturb it. When you bit into it, all at once, it released complex and subtle flavours, and at least two singaras had disappeared into you before you even knew.

Our singara — for beginners, a singara is not a samosa — had many legends associated with it. Once a visitor from a foreign land came into the neighbourhood around four in the evening, and the first, overpowering smell of the little dumplings being lowered into the oil drove him crazy, like a deer haunted by its own perfume. He dashed into the small mishti store, only to be asked to come back 10 minutes later. That was the beginning of several journeys, undertaken every 10 minutes, and it was harrowing to see the state he was inin between. After four trips, he got the prize: 10 fragrant, piping hot singaras, which vanished in seconds. Hard work and perseverance always win the day.

The singara was the perfect antidote to our gloom. But its karigars, the craftsmen, custodians of an ancient (alright, almost) art, had left the shop for some reason. This reminded one of other irreparable losses.

I am not even talking about old buildings disappearing to make space for highrises in their place. That is brutal. But to wake up to a beloved flowering tree across the street being hacked to make room for a garage in a new multi-storey building, or to see a neighbourhood park, the only free space around us, filled up with grotesque statuary and LED boards announcing the achievements of the local authorities, or to see old typefaces replaced by blazing glow-sign fonts all around you can feel as damaging. You can, of course, blame capitalism, globalisation, the social, the political and the economic, but what cannot be theorised is how you feel, and you feel that the very fabric of your life has been altered and how you feel does not matter at all.

So with the missing singara, the gloom settled down more heavily.My friend would use a fine Bengali word to describe this gloom: bhoot-bhoote. Literally, the word may mean ghostly, but it carries a sense of asuffocating gloom, and that was what I felt.

But then, things changed, suddenly.

One evening, I learnt that the former singara karigars had started an alternative establishment, not far away, and were frying the singara again. Overjoyed, I sampled them. True, their skin was a little bumpy and the filling a little too smooth, not exactly cutting-edge, but the taste overall was very similar. And this was work in progress. They would get there. As I bit into one, and hit the peanut, something fell into place. Everything cannot be wrong. And at the very same moment, as if on cue, the gentle rain fell on our parched city, like peace from heaven.

At such moments, you feel hope.

Maybe the young of India, after all, will still get to know astonishing things, such as the letter Akbar had written to King Philip II of Spain, complaining that people do not question their own beliefs, as most people follow the faith they were born into, therefore denying themselves the possibility of truth, the noblest aim of the human intellect.

It is extraordinary what the right singara can lead to.

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