Kati rolls to Cheenapara, a Kolkata diary

Raja Murthy February 2, 2017 3:15 PM (UTC+8)
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Park Street gleams amid golden pools of afternoon sunlight as I walk to Middleton Row for my first kati roll this Kolkata visit. Kati rolls, now gone global to New York and London, are Kolkata’s calling card among the world’s favorite street food — and for me a wrap of special times in one of Asia’s great cities, a reminder of stories within a story.

Officially, a kati roll is a paratha (shallow fried bread) wrap of spiced mashed potato, paneer (cottage cheese) or non-veg stuffing with tangy sauces, slivers of onion, squeeze of lemon. A lazy comparison would be to the Mexican burrito and taquito. A kati roll fits the urban guerrilla lifestyle, work on the move, phone on the move, a happy meal on the move. Or sit, stand still and enjoy the food roll of the gods.

I move past familiar old landmarks — the Asiatic Society, Moulin Rouge restaurant, Flury’s cake shop at Park Street corner — to Middleton Row that once was home and epicenter of friends long gone, in early death, or faraway to New York to Seoul, Mississauga to Phan Thiet City.

My kati roll destination ‘Golden Spoon’ near Peter Cat restaurant has survived the 25 years since I frequented it living in Middleton Row. An order placed, ₹35 (about $0.50) exchanged for a kati roll, I bit into memories.

Park Street’s other popular kati roll stall, near the Asiatic Society founded in 1784

Here in these tree-shaded streets, Kolkata helped a young man reinvent his life circa 1990, and he now completes a journey of thanksgiving. I had just finished giving the first of four lectures to journalism students in The Statesman building, where I started as a journalist 25 years younger. A circle returning where it began, a geometry of gratitude.

My days then centered around Park Street (now Mother Teresa Road), The Statesman, Oberoi Grand, Middleton Row, the sprawling green meadow in Kolkata’s heartland called the Maidan (pronounced my-dhaan).

Sunset at Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial, edge of the Maidan. 

The places we live, the people we meet, things experienced, all become accumulations in the path through the Law of Cause and Effect — the sum total of positives, non-positives leading to the present, this changing, fleeting moment in time we call life.

Jan 24, 2017. A thousand splendid suns

“Where did you come across ‘thousand splendid suns’?” I asked Zoya, daughter of my longtime friends and hosts Ajoy and Sabarni, the phrase a favorite in her 22-year old life.  Zoya smiled, went to her room, and returned with Thousand Splendid Suns — Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 best seller, the title an anguished remembrance of Kabul and a beautiful Afghanistan. Thousand Splendid Suns is a wrap of the pangs of a paradise lost, a Kabul that 17th century Persian poet Saeb-e-Tabrizi described:

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”

Zoya John was born in 1994, grew up in a Kolkata that had its days of grandeur past, once called Paris of the East. I knew not the Kolkata of kings, capital of an empire, I know only of a city warm and welcoming like the Queen of Hearts.

The World in Zoya’s days, and Zoya now in Kolkata. The young I meet of Zoya’s Internet-generation (born with the World Wide Web circa 1994) are more career-focused, responsible, mature than we were around age 22.

Already earning her livelihood, Zoya prepares to leave Kolkata for distant lands, for a niche post-graduate course in fashion culture. Wherever she goes, the spirit of the city of joy travels with her — the inner strength of a thousand splendid suns, being one with the world, like the moon with stars.

Jan 27, 2017. New York kati roll, patterns of life

In travels afar, the loved places we once called home are no more points of geography, but become places in the heart.

“In the heart of Greenwich Village, there is a unique Indian restaurant called The Kati Roll Company,” says the introductory to work of Kolkata’s Payal Saha in New York. “A simple, unimposing place that doesn’t rely on promotions or attention-grabbing sales tactics to promote its food.”

In New York, Saha missed her hometown Kolkata and used Kati rolls as a connecting cure. She raised $250,000 as startup capital from her savings, family and friends, and created a place serving sights, sounds, taste of India, a memory of a kati roll in a Kolkata street. Her Kati Rolls Company has five outlets in New York and London; Kolkata’s signature street food found global fans.

A taste of Kolkata in New York. Photo: The Kati Roll Company

New Yorker Michele Gould usually eats at The Kati Roll Company thrice a week: “I love the spices, the tangy chutney and the paratha bread. Two rolls make a really quick and inexpensive meal.”

“Kati Rolls appeal to all tastes because we use common ingredients but presented in a unique and flavorful fashion,” Payal Saha emailed Asia Times. “With our ever increasing global culture, people are accepting and enjoying cuisines other than their own.” The global village with a world cuisine, with increasingly organic food.

Jan 28, 2017. Rooftop Revolution in New Town

We drive to New Town, Rajarhat, to Ajoy’s rooftop organic vegetable garden project atop a government market building, the largest of its kind in India. This could be the world’s first rooftop organic vegetable garden its size under solar panels.

Ajoy’s colleagues Kunal Deb and Arun Ram at their Owlspirit rooftop organic garden firm aim to produce 12 tonnes of vegetables a year, across 7,000 sq feet of terrace area from 800 cane baskets. An artistic basket growing tomatoes will hopefully be a familiar sight in urban houses as the rose plant and croton.

The Owlspirit rooftop organic vegetable garden (above) project with the West Bengal state Urban Development Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry. Kolkata connects to the world’s rooftop revolution. Havana, Cuba, grows nearly 90 percent of its food consumption. Urban organic farms are crucial for safe, non-cancerous, poisonous chemicals-free food. Photographs: Ajoy John

“We plan to convert road dividers and traffic islands into vegetable gardens”, says Ajoy John, a former print media editorial veteran juggling time with his design firm. “Different vegetables and colored leaves can even be arranged to give the ornamental look like a flower garden.” Possible benefits boggle the mind. Besides safe, fresh vegetables, Ajoy points out how Mexico City significantly reduced pollution by covering flyover pillars with greenery in its Via Verde (Green Way).

New Town became the first of India’s Smart City project to include rooftop vegetable gardens in its 21st century plans. With broad roads, new buildings, electric rickshaws, New Town is Kolkata’s version of New Bombay and New Delhi, but looks so different from the original — conspicuously missing Kolkata’s venerable trees, veteran buildings with wooden louvered windows, ancient trundling trams, yellow ambassador taxis, kati roll shops, sweet shops, tea shops, the Gariahat and New Market shops, the gentle bustle of a Kolkata day … New Town stays New Town, and dare not declare itself New Kolkata.

Jan 30, 2017. “Gong Xi Fa Cai” from Chinatown

About 17 kms from New Town, Kolkata’s old Chinatown readies for a major makeover, a truly “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (the Chinese “Happy New Year” starting Jan 28). Rinko Bhowmick’s Singapore-based CHA Project that develops urban communities, plans for her “resurrected, re-imagined, re-energized Kolkata Chinatown” in February.

The People’s Architecture Office in Beijing participates in reviving the oldest Chinese settlement in South Asia, the fading Chinatown in Kolkata called Cheenapara in Bengali. The popular Chinese restaurants in Tangra, the famous Sunday morning Chinese street food breakfast at Tiretta Bazar, get a tech upgrade with neo-trishaws, vertical gardens, recycling station, cleaner eco-efficient neighborhoods, in CHA Project’s Cheenapara Heritage Festival and Night Market.

February 1, 2017. End of the runway

Today I web-checked in Seat 14 F on Air India Flight AI 676 tomorrow back home to Mumbai, next New Delhi, Rishikesh — last stop to my long-term home beyond, the Himalayas.

Today is festival day in Kolkata for Saraswati, goddess of wisdom. I go for a noon time stroll looking to buy marshmallows for Zoya, her favorite, and to have a final kati roll.

I find the famed old 1920s German company Haribo marshmallows (chamallows) at Spencer’s in Rashbehari Avenue, and then see the stunned look on the billing counter staff as I calmly rip out, crumple and throw away two large paper notices on the counter announcing: “We sell hard liquor”. They hand me the bag of marshmallows, jaws-dropping, only breaking the amazed silence to say, “Thank you, sir”. Sometimes, impulsive times, the authoritarian streak in me imperially emerges to live up to the first half of my name — Raja, behave arrogantly like a King.

It’s a royal day in Kolkata. I have never seen so many people regally walking about with rich new shining clothes as I did today: the young, the old, men, women, children smiling, laughing, happily celebrating the day of wisdom with new clothes. Today seems complete antithesis to Mexico’s Day of the Dead — today is Kolkata’s Day of the New.

About 10 days ago in Chennai, I told my old Don Bosco, Egmore, school friends Vivish George, Raj Dharmaraj, Tanseer Ahmed, how life felt like a plane running out of runway — the aircraft had better take off, or else. On January 22, from inside another Air India Boeing to Kolkata next on the runway queue, I had watched Indigo Flight 6E 487 take off to New Delhi — it felt special, because another school classmate Vernon was inside as senior captain piloting that Airbus safely into the sky.

Yesterday, as part of my last lecture to the Statesman Journalism School students, we watched a YouTube video of Larry King, his suspenders in place, chin in hand, explain how asking the simple questions is the secret of his successful career as interviewer: “I asked the pilot, ‘at the end of the runway, do you know if the plane will take off?’ ” And the pilot told Larry King: “you know, no one asked me that question before.”

Tomorrow, another Air India Boeing with this passenger of Seat 14 F is due to take off Kolkata time 09.25 from the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport. Life does feel like the plane running out of runway, to do the real work one is meant to do. A day comes at the end of time’s runway, when it is now or never. Tomorrow morning, at the end of the runway, will the Air India Boeing with an occupied Seat 14 F take off?

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Raja Murthy
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist based in Mumbai contributing to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly for Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.
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