In Ten Sentences Or Less [13] – Memories Should Be Left Where They Are – Part One

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Ten Sentences Or Less [12] – Theatre of the Absurd – Act II

With most multinational Companies – past champions of niche events for niche audiences – having fled Kolkata for cities and local governments more friendly to business and less militant in their trade union pursuits, the mantle of keeping English theatre going (though, on the evidence of talent that I was to later discover, why that should be a priority remains one of life’s great conundrums) seems to have shifted to two of Kolkata’s most legendary Clubs, their annual staging of English plays by in-house talent veritable landmarks in the city’s overactive social and cultural calendar. So, in keeping with the competitive, not-always-so-friendly spirit that pervades Kolkata’s club scene, the first night’s performance of “Rumours” was preceded by a fusillade of publicity – lavish circulars, frequent SMS alerts, quarter-page press ads sponsored by the publication itself (the media owner being a respected and influential member of the Club’s executive committee and a past president to boot), seductive, multicoloured posters on bulletin boards and display windows of high-traffic shops on the city’s main street, et al although why such an avalanche of promotion was deemed necessary remains a mystery since entry was free and meant only for the Club’s members and their guests (among whom I featured) unless it was for the aggrandisement of the performers and to help them claim the 15 minutes of fame that Warhol, with great perspicacity, had predicted for everyone 50 years ago.

It was no surprise, therefore, to find the auditorium rented for the opening night – the Club not having one of its own – stuffed to the rafters with the who’s who of Kolkata’s English-speaking elite, which, by that definition, put the median age of the audience at 60-plus and bestowed upon the soon-to-be revealed actors the “young-ness” that an unexpected ceremony preceding the staging was at great pains to stress. The emcee, not to be denied his own share of Warholian renown, started by claiming 15 minutes of stage time and having quickly run out of superlatives to describe the performance to follow paraded before his captive audience, in quick order, the director whose debut effort this was, the president for showing faith in the Club’s intrinsic talent pool (or, more likely, approving the budget for the project) and several distinguished (though indistinguishable) people from the front row of the audience – Club members, all – for their invaluable contributions to the cause of English theatre, inducing from each person another speech of self-congratulation richly endowed with the superlatives he had run out of, not for want of trying nor any sense of modesty but, possibly, because his vocabulary did not extend that far.

Despite leaving no stone unturned to create a positive predisposition towards the performance including a Presidential address that seemed to suggest, with mild but unmistakable menace, that he had a personal stake in the project and any expressed dislike of the performance was tantamount, in a word, to rebellion and a flouting of Club etiquette punishable by debarment, I could not suppress a sense of shock (and awe) when the curtains finally parted and the protagonists were revealed, supposedly young, upwardly mobile, New York  suburbanites but who, in size, guise and demeanour could not transcend middle-aged, under-exercised, over-indulged Kolkata, fed on rich street foods and sweets, drunk on single malts and beer and garbed in dress that glaringly accentuated the unfortunate consequences of excess and intemperance when they were designed to do just the opposite. What followed was ninety minutes of dramatic anarchy as the actors, unrehearsed in their staging (or their memory impaired by years of Bacchanalian excess), stumbled about the stage in complete disarray, missing cues and comedic timing, hamming it up to distract from forgotten lines, addressing each other by the wrong names because of their unfamiliarity with them (Hank becoming Hal, Dick Mick, Jane Joan and Sally Molly), improvising with physical humour – of the sitting-on-a-nail, pie-in-the-face variety – when the playwright’s gems missed their intended mark (as they most often did), slipping accents with fluid looseness between Calcutta and California, New York and New Delhi,  Louisiana and Ludhiana or all three combined in one extended piece of dialogue and screaming like banshees (the women) or hollering like lumberjacks (the men) in moments of dramatic intensity, voice immoderation standing in for voice modulation in a misguided attempt to showcase histrionic ability.

But, if the rapturous, uninhibited, standing ovation at the end of the opening night’s performance was anything to go by, the show was an unqualified success and I the only alienated critic and dissenter, except that, as one of the rare non-members of the Club present in the audience that evening, I can afford to air an adverse opinion without fear of being blackballed or censured, although it’s improbable that another such invitation will ever come my way again (for which small mercy I’m not ungrateful).

Though, if the grapevine is to be believed (as indeed it should since in-house talent scouting is reported to have begun), its competitive spirit ignited by the “unqualified success” of Rumours, the Club that I am a member of – and hope to continue to be – is seriously contemplating a similar annual event starting with the staging of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, where, in a feat of unique oneupmanship that no other Club can match,  the horses the young protagonist has a pathological religious fascination for will actually come from the Club’s own stables; or so I’m told!

I quake at the prospect.

In Ten Sentences Or Less [11] – Theatre Of The Absurd: Act One

There was a time when English theatre, much like its Bengali counterpart, thrived in Calcutta (as the city was then known) with groups like The Amateurs, SAD (an acronym for the Society of Amateur Dramatics), the Calcutta Players and Red Curtain, among several others, staging plays – Miller to Mamet, Pirandello to Pinter, Stoppard to Simon; from the relentless dramatic suspense of Albee’s Zoo Story to the fantastical, funny, farcical antics of the shockingly surprising characters of Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce – of consistently high standards that, if it were Pinter or Albee, demanded serious acting chops of the main protagonists (who, at most, numbered two or three) to hold a discerning audience in thrall for the better part of 90 minutes without support of elaborate set decorations or frequent lighting changes or, as in the case of Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn, impeccable comic timing from an ensemble cast to keep the action fast, free and furious without overwhelming the audience with the frenetic pace and improvisational style that usually accompanies such productions. That the acting was of such high standard was even more remarkable when one considered that the participants were mostly boxwallahs – not travelling salesmen, with large boxes of clothes and jewellery to peddle door-to-door, after whom the term originated, but mid-level executives of multinational firms that at the time I speak of prodigiously dotted Calcutta’s commercial landscape – who held time-consuming day jobs (albeit not of a particularly taxing nature) and had professional career objectives to fulfill but were prepared to sacrifice quality time with family and friends at the altar of English theatre, pursuing it with a passion that others of lesser thespian talent reserved for golf, except that rehearsals usually tended to aggregate more hours in the four months to opening day than did golf in an equivalent time frame.

At the risk of being facetious, I tend to think that the decline of English theatre started with the change in the city’s name from the colonial ‘Calcutta’ to the countrified ‘Kolkata,’ in January 2001, not, perhaps on the exact day that the renaming happened nor in one all-destroying tidal swoop but the germ of decay, almost certainly, was insidiously planted then, gathering momentum in the years thereafter, growing and spreading, like a raging Trojan virus, unchecked, unstoppable and unrelenting.

Inheriting an incomparable, unparalleled and highly unique legacy like the Great Bengal Renaissance (circa 1872 – 1941), it was no surprise that till the end of the last millennium Calcutta, as I prefer to remember it as, dominated the Indian cultural scene continuing to produce modern giants in the fields of literature, cinema, music, dance and drama with almost monotonous regularity and though their English counterparts, born out of arts borrowed and, at best, only passionate pastimes for those who pursued them, were never in the same league (except for Indian writing in English which, arguably, was of a gold standard), some of the excellence bubbling in the local cultural cauldron must have spilled over to English theatre as well because the plays were staged with exceptional stagecraft and professionalism, some of the more regular actors going on to achieve international acclaim, one, in particular, becoming the biggest movie star India’s ever known.

So, I wasn’t particularly surprised to find on my return to Calcutta after 20 years that the cultural pot was still simmering merrily although the sheer number of people painting, sculpting, dancing, singing, writing books, spouting poetry or staging plays – a veritable tsunami of creative excess and narcissism – should have served as fair warning (if only one had not been blinded by the nostalgia of homecoming) that with everything else in the city in spiraling decline, it was highly unlikely that a second Bengal renaissance was in the making. Any false impressions I might have had in that regard were put to rest with the finality of death when, after nimbly avoiding countless glossy invitations – via electronic mail and maddeningly repeated Facebook posts – to book launches, poetry readings, art and sculpture shows, Bangla-rock band concerts, dance drama recitals, paid movie premieres, et al, one succumbed, in a moment of regrettable weakness, to an invitation to a performance of Neil Simon’s “Tumours” that was billed as a laugh riot, enacted by a cast of Kolkata’s most promising thespians, all members of one of the city’s most prestigious clubs once known – in its long-gone salad days – for its exclusive membership (by invitation only), strict adherence to the snootiest of dress codes, Friday buffets, Chinese cuisine and the extensive library where many of the books – gifts from departing Englishmen returning home after furling the Union Jack – rivaled the median age of the Club’s members.

[To Be Continued]