Returning to the narrative begun some days ago, there we were, then, travellers in search of Culinary Paradise or, at least, Paradise as we remembered it, our faltering enthusiasm at seeing how much of that heaven had been eroded by the exigencies of modernity and the new-fangled marketing notions of subsequent generations of owners momentarily revived by the invitation to the first floor, air-conditioned annexe. As the fat man from behind the cash counter, wearing a checked shirt - missing a button at a belly of magnificent proportions - a smarmy smile and a fawning disposition was insistent upon telling us repeatedly, we’d be much more comfortable in the room upstairs, less disturbed by the constant to-ing and fro-ing of a clientele of lower repute (or, as he probably meant, lesser means). A spiral staircase that would have challenged the fitness of the finest athlete and navigational capabilities of the most refined global positioning system took us to a room that, after the neon-lit blaze of the main dining area, seemed entirely engulfed in shadow, the ceiling at a height that had even the shortest among us stooping. It didn't need an IQ of stratospherical proportions to determine that the first floor was not a floor at all but a mezzanine construction, in all likelihood, unauthorized, though we had to concede that the air conditioning was more than perfect even if the lighting wasn’t. Running the risk of a particularly painful form of spondylosis the longer we stood around with our necks bent in supplication mode, as if offered up for decapitation by guillotine, we hurriedly seated ourselves the best we could, unfazed by joined tables of uneven height, concrete pillars that had no business being where they were and a tablecloth of uncertain colour and dubious cleanliness that a waiter of similar traits whisked out of nowhere like a vaudeville magician and covered our tables with, almost simultaneous with his placement of four faux leatherbound menu cards, which, though wrinkled and stained with abuse, he positioned with symmetric precision and loving care. Having already visually sampled the fare on offer and decided on reliving our memories exactly as we’d first created them, we had no use for menu cards however ornate and voluminous, for it was predetermined, nay, preordained, that the sole purpose of this culinary voyage was to revisit Chacha’s famous fowl cutlets - the very same over which many years ago, accompanied by frequent refills of masala tea, some of us had debated politics, others cinema, some existentialism, others ennui, some love, others angst, but all united in the belief that the best of life lay ahead of us if Chacha’s culinary expertise, manifest in the cutlets that carried his name, were anything to go by, although none of us could say with full certainty whether anyone called Chacha actually existed and if it all wasn’t just a potent marketing idea ahead of its time. Suffice it to say, that day, at New Chacha's Hotel, one of the more treasured memories of our college days died and, with its passing, was buried our collective intent to rediscover and retrace the culinary trail of our youth. Chacha’s legendary fowl cutlets, when they arrived, borne as far aloft as the confines of a low ceiling permitted by a waiter with a most unfortunate choice of sartorial style and a completely misplaced sense of joi de vivre, were, in a word, foul, bereft of the ability to trigger anything but remorse and regret, empirical evidence, if empirical evidence were needed, that memories are best left where they are. And if there is a learning, it is this: that a memory, good or bad, isn’t comprised of just one thing even though we tend to recall it that way - as a single, overwhelming experience; in truth, it has perspective, context and relevance, either to a specific time or a specific state of being; its strength and durability lies in its ability to trigger a veritable videostream of events, peoples, places, thoughts and feelings each time it is recalled and when it can no longer do that, it ceases to be a memory.
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 to actually take public transport to these places, which necessity made us do then 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, importantly (b) still featured in their current menus the items we remembered from our college days and tended te.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 and not taken out of context of the specific point in time 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 soup or upended a bowl of rice noodles 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, a red flag in disguise waving a 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 featured the dozen or so items that comprised 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 of the distinction), 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.