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It is said that happiness is not experienced, it is remembered. Whenever, I think of Durga Puja, I am inundated with memories that light up my being. Where ever I may be, the moment Mahalaya ushers in Devi Paksha or the fortnight of the Goddess, I begin to imagine the white ragged autumnal clouds, the sweet fragrance of shiuli or, the uplifting beats of the Dhaaki. I picture the host of cottony kaashphool, swaying softly in the breeze or the endless rows of gleaming lights, illuminating the city nights. Mostly, though, I conjure up the tantalizing smells, colours, and textures of food and more food. Because, the advent of Ma Durga, from Kailash to her maternal home, is not just an occasion for performing religious ceremonies or indulging in prodigious creative and artistic endeavours, it is also a time to celebrate food and appreciate all that is succulent, flavorsome or, simply divine.

I take particular pride in the fact that we, Bengalis, are known for our enthusiasm for culinary excellence. Even on an ordinary day, a Bengali will make way, unhurriedly, along vegetable shops and fish marts, looking for the freshest ingredients. Like a true artist, he will bring together everything needed to create a veritable gastronomic delight. So, when it comes to bhog or traditional food offering that is prepared in honour of a Goddess, who is also a beloved daughter, it is only to be expected that a Bengali will pull out all the stops to accomplish something quite extraordinary.

Bhog literally means ‘pleasure’ and it is a pleasure to remember the times that I have queued up, in various pandals, just to taste the bhog of the day. It could be khichuri, a dish made with moong dal and gobind bhog rice, served with labra, a mixed vegetable preparation. Or, it could be luchi aloodum, which is fried puffed bread accompanied with spicy potato curry. It could also be mutton kosha, pulao, vegetable navratan korma, even water chestnut curry. After hours of traipsing around the city, shopping and pandal-hopping, my friends and I would parade into our para pandal and not only savour the delicious bhog items but also unselfconsciously ask for second helpings. Unmindful of the heat, the crowd, the crumpling of our starched new sarees while perching on the floor, we would direct our attention solely to the steaming hot bhog in the brimming clay malshas or overflowing shaal leaves.

No matter how great the food at home would be, we would not miss an opportunity to flock at a puja pandal, when bhog was being served. Like bees to honey, we would be drawn to the simple but perfectly cooked dishes and the incredible variety of sweets. The array would be mind-boggling and intensely tempting- the dry mutton liver preparation and cottage cheese curry at the Mullicks of Bhowanipore, the darbesh and motichur at the Debs of Shovabazaar, or, the sweet perakis, gojas and narus at Lahabari. The distinct and delectable flavours of Puja bhog could never really be duplicated at home. And, who could resist the bonhomie and warmth of eating with friends and strangers alike. Be they Jew, Muslim or, Christian, Bengali or Marwari, Asian or European, all got together as if in a great outdoor party. Every time I have bhog, I wonder at the way food can erase all stripes and spots. The way it can transcend religion, class and, other differences, to bring together people for one reason alone- to experience the wholesome goodness of expertly prepared food.

Puja celebrated in rural Bengal also has its particular brand of charm. At some places, Puja has been performed since hundreds of years and I would find it fascinating to be a part of it. The Dey Bari Puja at Bhediya, Basirhat comes to mind. Foodwise too, these Pujas boast of deeply ingrained traditions. Teesta Dey of Dey Bari reminisces about the lobster khichuri that was served as bhog, in the past. Later, due to financial constraints, it was replaced by khichuri or luchi with aloo dum. A village puja might lack the funds and grandeur of a Kolkata one but, it still has plenty to offer in terms of uniqueness and character. And, of course, incomparably tasty food.

No matter how far from Kolkata a Bengali is, he will carry the love for the Goddess and cultural traditions in his heart and try his best to recreate the feel of home, in places all over the world . Even if I am in Mumbai or New York or some other strange city during Puja, I unfailingly come upon a pandal with the gorgeously decorated idols and of course, the wonderful bhog. It is as if a piece of Bengal exists right in the middle of a foreign land. The food may not perhaps be the best that I have ever eaten but it lifts my spirits and takes me closer to my family and friends.

There are so many memories associated with Durga Puja and I could have elaborated on any one of them but my fondest memories are those attached to bhog. As George Bernard Shaw says, “there is no love sincerer than the love of food.” When we partake of bhog, we share so much more than just a meal. We share things like friendship, togetherness and laughter, everything that makes life worthwhile and good.

[I wrote this article for the Good News Tab.]

Copyright © 2012 [Good News Tab]. All Rights Reserved.

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To visit Moulin Rouge or the ‘Red Windmill’ is to remember things past. The very name of this restaurant, in the heart of Park Street, evokes a Parisian world of lights and music, glamour and glitz. It brings to mind not just the romance of fin de siecle Europe but also the savoir faire of Calcutta, during the 1970’s and 80’s. After all, Moulin Rouge is one of the very few nightclubs in our country that, during its heydays, flaunted cabaret artists and jazz musicians and, attracted an exceedingly sophisticated clientele. This is where the legendary Carlton Kitto jammed with jazz virtuosi, in front of an audience that could appreciate good times and feel at home with pure pleasure.

To visit Moulin Rouge is to also experience a sense of decline, an unappeased yearning to recreate a fabled, rose-coloured era. Every aspect of the place, from the lacquered walls and scarlet tables to the ornate ceiling and yellow chandelier, calls up memories of a past that was famously opulent, sensual, and celebratory. And, memories can make us conscious of passing time and diminishing charm.

Hidden away behind the darkened glass doors of Moulin Rouge are the remnants of a more glorious world. One that is a trifle worn around the edges. The tall chairs are vintage but the plush seat covers are somewhat faded. There are giant paintings of can-can dancers but live performances do not take place any more. Well-to-do customers come and go but the fine patrons, who were known for their impeccable social grace and their discerning ear for music, are rarely seen. Even the stewards are hoary-faced and burdened with the weight of years. The piano stands but gone are the people who once created magic with music. Only the genial-looking saxophonist, Paul Mullick, accompanied by keyboardist, Cyril Manual, arrive during the weekends to give a tantalising taste of the days of yore.

Carlton Kitto, who played at Moulin Rouge during the early 1970’s, reminisces fondly of the past. With a hint of nostalgia in his voice, Carlton remembers the French jazz singer, Delilah, and fellow artists like, Julian Saldanah, saxophonist, George Chater, double bass player, Rudy Rodericks, pianist, and, Johnny Edmonds, drummer. “Regulars and jazz-lovers would queue up for hours because there were so many things to look forward to- the cabaret, the can-can dancers, the music, even the food. The Chinese kitchen was extraordinary. I really enjoyed playing at Moulin Rouge,” says Carlton.

At nights, when the red lights are glowing , it is impossible to miss the quaint windmill sign of Moulin Rouge. The menu is an interesting combination of Continental, Chinese, and Mughlai cuisines. Nondon Bagchi, drummer and food enthusiast, remarks, “Moulin Rouge serves good quality, old style Park Street cuisine. Standard Continental favourites like Chicken a la Kiev or Fish Finger with tartar sauce, are prepared well. Overall, the food is decent.” Nondon also recollects that the present Starlit Bar, adjoining the restaurant, was once known as The Bar Barrel. It shared a one-way glass wall with Moulin Rouge, through which the customers at the bar could enjoy old western melodies, playing in the restaurant.

Considering the many dining options at Park Street, a surprisingly large number of customers still frequent this old haunt. Rich, young couples looking for a cosy corner, aged men and women reliving their bygone days, people wishing to partake of the colourful history of Kolkata, all wander in. The soft, sad strains of the piano and saxophone combine, waft out into the street, and cast an enchanting spell perhaps. Sabita Adhikary, a regular customer, states, “I come to Moulin Rouge because of its old world ambience. It also helps to remember that this is where Uttam Kumar and other glitterati once gathered to relax and enjoy the art of entertainment.”

In a changing world, where progress is, at times, synonymous with trivialness and banality, Moulin Rouge has become a symbol of permanence. There is an illusion of everlastingness about a place that refuses to alter with time. However, as one leaves, one wishes that Moulin Rouge would polish up the interiors and restore the paintings to their original brilliance. Most importantly, one wishes for the music, fun and gaiety, that hangs about like a half-forgotten melody. The strength of Moulin Rouge lies in the glory of its past and the road ahead is to embrace this very past, with passion and imagination.

[I wrote this article for the Good News Tab.]

Copyright © 2012 [Good News Tab]. All Rights Reserved.

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