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  • Writer's pictureBanerjee

Kolkata- the meni biral and other stories

Updated: Jun 5

Meni biral (the affectionate name for our female cats) sneaking into uttor (North) Kolkata’s ancient houses with their large red-oxide floor balconies and huge ceilings, hoping to get a bite of dida’s rabri dessert (grandmother’s thickened milk treat) that she has offered to the gods on her shrine as she meditates with closed eyes, the hulo (our city’s sexy male feline) waiting on the large brick wall outside with his large, puffy tail swaying charmingly, hoping to seduce and woo the meni right after she escapes with her mouth full of rabri, because who is not in the mood after dessert, only to get his hopes thrashed as the feisty, independent meni puts him in his place with her claws- Kolkata’s stories of romance go far beyond Rabindranath, Victoria Memorial escapades, rastar ghugni (street-side yellow pea curry) in sal leaf bowls that high schoolers buy for their lover with pocket-money after skipping tuition class, Uttam-Suchitra’s forever memorialized on-screen chemistry, Coffee Houser adda (because what is a Bangali without our ‘adda’ or conversations), and more.

Uttor Kolkatar cute meni in 'rod-poano' or 'sunbathing' mode

My mother hails from a home in North Kolkata, her childhood home once my favorite place to visit. I believe one of her forefathers was the diwan of Lord Clive. I have heard some interesting history of the way the intermingling of cultures shaped the family. Bengali affluent families of the past weren’t about riches, although many were prolific businesspeople, but about a rich intellectual history that set them apart, many of their women actively involved with the freedom struggle movement in India and other social movements. These ‘cultured’ or 'aristocratic' families are often referred to as ‘bonedi bari’ poribars (families) and even today during Durga Pujo, many of these bonedi bari pujos are carried out with great care. Women greet you at the door, and call you in because ‘how can you leave our house without eating some sweets and drinking some sherbet?’ Often humble, quiet, and reserved, and yet possessing strong personalities, I have never not been impressed when visiting one of these families during the Pujo.

Thanthania Dutta Bari pujo (a bonedi bari)

My favorite thing to do in Kolkata when I am there during Pujo is to rent a car (because the streets get too crowded and stressful to drive on and park unless you are touring at 4 am, and these households don’t open doors before 8 or 9) and to visit some of their pujos. They might invite you to give pushpanjali (ceremonial offering of flowers to the deity) and will often engage in a ‘not-always-small-talk’ conversation with you if they aren’t busy prepping dhuno (frankincense) or chopping fruits. Most will have akh boli (sugarcane sacrifice), chalkumro boli (gourd sacrifice), and other forms of non-animal sacrifices, but there was once a time when large bulls were part of sacrificial traditions in Shakta worship (worship of the divine feminine). I am glad that is no longer the case in all homes; as someone who doesn’t eat meat for ethical reasons, it makes me frequent these houses without dread. There is an incredibly sweet story about how animal sacrifices came to an end in the infamous Shobhabajar Rajbari Durga Pujo in Baghbajar, which is very close to my mother’s ancestral home. My dad shared this story with me.

Shobhabajar Rajbari Durga Pujo

It is said that during Oshtomi or Nobomi’s boli, the goat came upto the king and put his head on his lap affectionately and he was so moved that since then the king stopped the ceremonial religious sacrifice.

In Kolkata, the woman was often the head of the household, maybe not always ‘working’ like in modern times but this was an unspoken part of the social contract. We have long been a matrilineal society, and women have been held in high regard. Kolkata’s name has often been traced to Kalikata or the land of Kali, and Shakta worship (and thus naturally, Tantra) or worship of the divine feminine, and various esoteric and occult schools of spirituality, have its origins here.

I recently watched the film Dabaru after its release, a movie inspired by the young chess grandmaster Surya Sekhar Ganguly who hails from one of these uttor Kolkata small homes: it is an accurate portrayal of north Kolkata I would say, when it comes to culture, family dynamics, fashion (the way Soura's mother drapes her saree in the film, 'sada sidhe' style, is common to North Kolkata; I have seen my grandmother drape her saree similarly except when leaving the home for gatherings that required a more crisp, professional drape).

South Kolkata or dakshin Kolkata, where I grew up, has a very different flavor from uttor Kolkata- it is much more “modern” according to textbook definitions. More independently earning women, a greater influence of western culture, more population of bangals as opposed to ghotis (bangals are Bangalis hailing originally from East Bengal, now Bangladesh while ghotis are people of this land), more nuclear families and appreciation for personal privacy, a greater influence of communist or left-leaning philosophies in universities like Jadavpur University which are also highly involved with the cities politics, liberal in some ways but at the cost of being self-absorbed at times. It is fair to say uttor Kolkata is (or was) much more ‘warmer,’ but engaged social groups often don’t see value in individualism or privacy. Speaking of the hilarious ghoti-bangal rivalry, be it over football groups, or shorshe-posto debates (mustard dishes in competition with poppy seed paste dishes), it is fair to say I have seen a bit of both as my dad's family was originally from East Bengal before they migrated while my mom's family have been in the city for centuries. My maternal grandmother's family (ghotis) in uttor Kolkata always added sugar to their curries and I couldn't tolerate the sweetness in the dishes. A sweet childhood memory I have is that of sitting at their dining table (kids were asked to eat first and then adults joined, as the tables often did not have enough spots for everyone to eat together) with my grandmother standing next to me, smiling, her long hair flowing over the Bangali sada-sidhe draped way of wearing saree, smelling absolutely gorgeous (she was always on point with her Pears soap and Nivea moisturizer, and probably had more fragrance secrets!) and pointing to the bowl of moong dal that had been kept aside for me. So, there was the 'big bowl' of dal for the adults, sweetened somewhat, and a small bowl kept for me with no sugar added. Her love, generosity, and attentiveness were unparalleled.

phulko luchi and aloor dom

Speaking of uttor Kolkata’s warmth, my grandmother’s way of serving breakfast was nothing less than a regal ritual. If you were at her home, you would first be served, in a small bowl, exactly two teaspoons of soaked sprouts with some chopped ginger, a teaspoon of Chawanprash, exactly 2 soaked and blanched almonds, a multigrain biscuit, and a warm drink of some kind. This was the ‘boost-your-immunity’ or ‘freshen-up-your-mouth’ bowl or whatever- it was absolutely adorable. An hour after this, came breakfast. Since we often visited during vacations, we got delicious, warm, phulko luchi (hot, puffy flatbread) with alur dom (potatoes cooked lightly with tomatoes, ginger, and cilantro). From what I have heard from my mother, my grandmother did not have these generous allowances for them as a parent except maybe on Sundays, festivities, and so on, and regular days had ‘healthy meals.’ But of course, grandkids get the free passes, right? It did not end here. Heck, it was a three-course breakfast! This would be followed up by a small, cute plate of fruits like lichee, a few pieces of sweet himshagor mango (my favorite kind), and of course the special Sen Mahasay’s sandesh (sweet). Uttor Kolkata’s Sen Mahasay branch is unmatched by any of its other branches: must tries there are pista sondesh, mihidana, and more. During bhai phota, the day after Kali pujo, the sweets get cleared very early in the morning, so unless you race, you are going to miss out. Bhai phota is a Bengali festivity of brothers and sisters celebrating their bond: I remember getting plush animals as a child on this day from my cousin. My love of animals isn’t something of recent years; as a child, I wanted to be a forest officer, and I don’t know how I ended up as an artist! So plush toys were (and are) my favorite. I carried a stuffed fox to the U.S. that my mom gave me so I could snuggle it.

Another very endearing thing I remember as part of my visits to my grandmother’s place is going out with my mother and aunt to buy movie DVDs from the street sellers. These were pirated copies of movies being sold on the pavement, often came as 6-in-1 or 5-in-1 compilations, and your skill was finding the seller whose DVD would work and not be a black screen. This was so much more fun than Netflix and more because there was a fun social prelude to it (getting dressed and going out together, hunting for the DVDs on the street, bargaining, laughing, enjoying soda during this scorching summer heat episode on the street, and huddling up together to watch a movie after returning home) that promoted bonding between people. Unfortunately, despite all its benefits, technology has impacted our social lives negatively to quite an extent. I miss the human connection I saw around me in my childhood.

fuljhuri, 'flower-stick' firecrackers people hold in their hand

Kali pujo was also a big, fat deal during our childhood: burning firecrackers and celebrating with family. I didn’t realize the environmental impact of firecrackers at that age, and have stopped burning them for years now except maybe the occasional fuljhuri. But these were days of burning chorkis (rotating discs), tubris, peyanji potka (the most fun of the lot because it depended on how strong you were and how hard you could hit it against a wall to blow it up- my aunt was a pro), rockets, rongmoshals, and more. I cannot imagine how much harm we caused to the environment with the sounds etc.- birds, animals, and others. I was too young to realize that everyone in Kolkata was partaking in something harmful. These days, everybody is quieter and respectful. You will see oil lamps or the more adorable ‘tuni lights’ hung along balconies and people caring for the environment.

Today, it is a truly wonderful day to be Bangali. Today, we celebrate with great joy. I am forever indebted to this city, to this state, I know as home. A city full of people who are calm and gentle but if you threaten to rob people's freedoms and liberties, they will put you in your place.

There is also no denying the compassion in the heart of people in my city. It can be seen in the smallest of things. Such as how we treat our stray dogs- ohho, with such love and care! Lalu, Bhulu, Kalu, Gholu- yes, all of them. As a poor Bangali man sits at a roadside tea stall, drinking his chaa, he still manages to rummage through his pocket to find a Rs. 5 coin to buy a biscuit for the stray dog sitting at his feet. We never forget to take care of dogs here in Kolkata, and we... know it.

Long live freedom, and long live Kolkata.


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