Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Green Shoots or Lotus Bloom in Bengal

[A PTI report says BJP’s membership drive has touched the 10 lakh mark in West Bengal]

In a recent Bengali film “Buno-Haansh”, a young boy from a middle-class home, that had seen better times – gets embroiled with a cross-border counterfeit currency smuggling ring.  In one scene, his Bangladeshi counterpart says:  “Had it not been for corruption on both sides of the border (Bangladesh and West Bengal) ordinary Bengalis like you and me would have starved to death”.  A telling comment on the economic condition of Bengal – lack of industry, employment and income opportunity.

A couple of weeks back I was travelling on the Darjeeling Mail to Siliguri. In the coupe were 2 young BSF (Border Security Force) Officers. One of them received a call from his base-station - reporting a skirmish at the border post the night before that could potentially flare-up. The train was running 5 hours late and he was troubled about not being able to reach the spot early. Even I was feeling holed up and bored. So we got chatting.

The young officers lamented – coming to the Eastern borders for them was like a “punishment” posting. In the Western frontiers the terms of engagement are clear and there is rarely any political interference or fall-out of actions taken in the regular course of duty. But, in the East everything is politically charged and “sensitive”. The high population density, close proximity of the settlements and diffused boundaries add to the complexity.  And, the buck stops with the security forces, which are always at the receiving end from all quarters – whether their administrative bosses in Delhi or local political goons.

In the cross-border transactions  that takes place – the locals are but small pawns. They act as couriers, herdsmen (for cattle) or mere facilitators – but their livelihood depends almost entirely on such illegal activities. The real people behind these operations are big fishes – businessmen and politicians who live many miles away - may be even in other parts of the country. For example, from the breed of the cattle one can easily make out  they are not local and transported from distant  Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in trucks across several inter-state borders – where they could have been easily intercepted – but no one does so  because it’s part of a large inter-state racket. The stakes in the cattle trade itself would be valued in millions of rupees. as imported cattle from India contribute significantly to Bangladesh’ GDP -  in  meat and leather trade both for domestic consumption and exports. Therefore,  any attempts to stop it is going to have huge economic,  political and even diplomatic repercussions and it is unlikely to change irrespective of whichever party is in power.

On illegal immigration – apparently agents have rack rates – from mere ration or election cards (now, probably Aadhar) to Passports. So much so, some ‘think-tanks’ believe it might be a better idea to issue “work-permits” to Bangladeshis to curb illegal immigration. But, either way they put further pressure on the already strained resources of the state – spawning more illicit business and, as some suspect, even terror conduits.

In the backdrop of such dire economic conditions – where there is very little value creation, if a Saradha did not happen it would probably have been invented. With rising cost of living and depleting income – the urban middle class and poor villagers were forced to liquidate inherited property and land.  Chit fund companies dipped into this fund – with the lure of unrealistic returns - duping them of their little remaining savings.

It is hard to believe two Finance Ministers of successive Governments - Ashim Dasgupta of the Left Front and Amit Mitra of Trinamool - both highly qualified Economists - didn’t see these scams taking place under their watch.  Young marketing executives travelling in rural areas were amazed to see army of collection agents employed by these Chit Fund companies to mobilize ‘deposits’.  Sucheta Dalal’s Money Life had carried a series of articles way back in – which was cited even in this humble blog.  (Read here

I agree with Mamata Banerjee on one count – that is, it’s not political parties alone that have benefited from the Saradhas of the world.  These Chit-Fund companies couldn’t have thrived without Media support and they were the main-stay of advertising for many local newspapers and TV channels.  For several years they were major sponsors of Durga Puja and Kali Puja in the state. So much so – they even reached out to the NRI Bengali community in overseas cultural festivals. Many ventured into film production as well.
But, undoubtedly most of the money went into political funding. If there are no Adanis or Ambanis – you needed a Sudipta Sen.  

So where does one go from here? Does the BJPs 10 lakh membership signify a new ray of hope? In ushering in Trinamool people also voted for change. But, after 5 years despondency has set in at least in urban Bengal.

When there is overall decline and decay – it’s difficult to isolate or insulate a few sections of the society from the rot.  Therefore, all institutions are beginning to fail. Once a centre of medical excellence – today a Bengali prefers to travel to Chennai, Vellore or Mumbai for treatment. Calcutta has long lost it pre-eminence in education and special trains are run to Bangalore and Pune in the college admissions season. The population of Bengali white-collar job-seekers has exponentially increased in other cities. One hears much more of Bengali on flights and shopping malls all over the country. Even in art and culture Bengal has long ceased to be in the forefront. The primary market for Bengal artists is also outside the state and abroad.

Calcutta has become a city of senior citizens. Youngsters who are left behind are wallowing in frustration and despair – many sinking into depression. Others either fall prey to nefarious activities like the protagonist in Buno-Haansh or join the gang of “tola-baaz” and local “syndicates” (hafta-collectors).

But, these very young  people when they  visit family members living outside Bengal or travel on vacations -  see how much the rest of India has moved ahead and long for a better life.  It is this sense of aspiration – especially of the younger generation – that Modi and BJP is trying to tap into.  But, whether this too turns out to be a chimera only time can tell.

For 40 years Bengal has chased a mirage. A senior journalist friend says Bengal politics has always been ruled by lumpens.  They only change their team “jerseys” from Red to Green and, which may probably turn to saffron in future.  In the 70s– when the “New Congress (Indira)” was on the ascendant there was a slogan  - “Chilam Naxal Holam, Nabo – Chakri Na Pele Abar Hobo “ (From Naxals – we have turned to Congress. But, if we don’t get the promised jobs – we will go back to our roots again).  So Green may change to Saffron – but only for a while if there is no economic regeneration. But, this time there will not be any more change in colour – the flower will just wither away and Bengal shall become a basket case beyond recovery.

Also read : Vote Bank Politics has come to stay in West Bengal

Article first published in @DailyO_ (click for link)


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Making haste slowly - 200 days of Modi Sarkar

I was unapologetic about rooting for Narendra Modi  through his Prime Ministerial campaign – though I don’t consider myself to be either a ‘Bhakt’ , as Modi fans are snidely called, or a "Hindutva" die-hard.  Now even after 7 months of his Premiership I still believe he is the best  we could have had.  However, in the same vein, I am not an unqualified supporter of the BJP. In fact, one of the reason for my admiring Modi is that he has been trying to reinvent and re-engineer the BJP for the 21st century – while the Congress and other regional parties have been regressing under the pressure of pseudo socialism, dynastic and identity politics.

Looking back,  I am not at all disappointed with what the Modi government has achieved in 200 days.   Modi’s foreign policy initiatives were well calibrated, as he realized establishing his profile globally would be essential for him to be the leader of an aspiring super-power.  Besides, he needed to build personal rapport and strike a chemistry with his international peers – given the negative image over-hand  he was burdened with (unfairly, I believe).  The criticism about his foreign tours, I think – were more out of envy and for outsmarting both his predecessors and the self-appointed foreign policy specialists of the country.

Also I don’t think much more could have been achieved on the internal front. The quiet progress made on governance – improvement in the government’s work culture, empowerment of the bureaucracy and building of business confidence have gone largely unnoticed by the domestic constituency obsessed with big ticket reforms.  Far from being cynical, I see merit in his ‘making haste slowly’ and even appreciate the so called “U-turns” in policy – which only shows his courage to accept mistakes and eschew election rhetoric  to do what is right for the country and the economy.

Contrary to what popular commentators (for whom there is only Left or Right and nothing in-between) and the opposition still recovering from psychological trauma after their total rout would like us to believe – those who voted for Modi – do not necessarily see him as a Messiah with a magic wand. Credit them with the minimum intelligence to differentiate between election rhetoric and what is practical in a real politik. Therefore,  much to their disappointment,  #Modi is still high on the ratings in post-poll satisfaction surveys.  If further proof were needed, look at the by-poll results of Jharkhand and even J&K.  On the global front – he has made his mark - and  world leaders are falling over each other trying  to woo him. Successive studies have placed him at the top or near the top of the pecking order of high performing leaders in the world today.

Difficult decisions have also been taken keeping them below the radar.  Be it rise in railway fare or neutralizing some of the reduction in oil bills through additional excise duty. His critics have in hindsight seen merit in the way the WTO negotiations were handled. After a lot of deft maneuvering through choppy political waters - the government seems close to passing GST and Insurance sector reforms. Private sector participation in Defence equipment Manufacture and PPP in Railways already cleared. 

While leading foreign policy from the front (as any Prime Minister ought to do) – he has been making good use of Sushma Swaraj in opening parallel fronts (eg with Vietnam and SAARC Countries) and even co-opting the President in Diplomacy. Though not exactly in the realm of "external affairs", holding elections in J & K was hugely significant from a strategic perspective.

The lot getting restless are the industrialists and businessmen who expected quick returns and  the large Lutyens’ Delhi community of media folks and self-styled left-lib intellectuals – feeling ignored by the new dispensation. The latter especially should realize – governments aren’t made or unmade at the India International Centre. Even foreign investors and governments are more patient and willing to give the new regime to settle down and get over the carry-forward legacies of the UPA as well as the present political dynamics before pumping  gas on  the accelerator.

But, my disappointment with Modi lies elsewhere.  Before, the elections – he had loftily said : to win elections you need a majority but to run the country you need everyone’s support. This indicated that he would seek a more inclusive and bipartisan approach to governance. Then came his famous – act of touching  the ground before entering parliament for the first time - calling it the temple of democracy. But,  this spirit has been less evident  in the style he has displayed so far.

Let’s start with the Government first. The unseemly rush to replace UPA appointed Governors was avoidable – especially where professionals (retired bureaucrats or intelligence officers)  with proven track-record were holding the posts and had just a few months of their terms left.  This was followed by the LOP (Leader of Opposition) controversy – where certainly Modi could have shown more grace and a spirit of accommodation. Similarly, one might ask if they really needed to rush through the judicial reforms bill ?

One can always argue these are minor dots in the life of a regime, which are easily forgotten. But, it does sully the atmosphere and made the Prime Minister lose some of the initial goodwill with which he could have started his Parliamentary innings. But, perhaps, it was necessary to send out some early signals that this government won’t be a push-over.

Next was the stand-off with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Surely the Thackerays had to be shown their place but the snub was too hard and for far too long. Abject humiliation – even of an enemy doesn’t help – even if the old adage of grace in victory is now passé.

Obviously, Modi and Amit Shah are working with a road-map and blue-print – which only the 2 of them know and even the RSS can only guess. Part of the plan must be to take advantage of this neo-Hindutva wave and establish a pan-India presence for BJP. Therefore, the vengeance with which the Modi-Shah duo is going into hitherto uncharted territories like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, North East and even J & K – shows they want to free themselves from the clutches of a handful of regional satraps and opportunistic allies.  

Personally, I don’t worry too much about the antics of the so-called “fringe elements”. It’s only a matter of time before Modi brings them under control, like he did with Togadia in Gujarat, as he settles his equations with the RSS. Therefore, winning these states with low RSS presence would also be key to his establishing an unquestionable supremacy. For me – the bigger irritants and distractions are Modi’s own trusted Ministers like Smriti Irani making news for the wrong reasons such as declaring Christmas as “Good Governance Day”. And, I wish he didn’t have to yield to RSS and party pressure in making some patently inappropriate choice of ministers. But, concerns voiced by the self-appointed guardians of democracy – that “secularism” and India’s plurality is at stake are both exaggerated and alarmist.

I would argue that – even if it were not for these ‘red-herrings’ , a recalcitrant opposition would find other excuses for disrupting governance. But, they can continue to do only for a sort while more till BJP populates the Rajya Sabha with their own members from the newly ‘conquered’ provinces.

Till then the government needs to stay its course and carry on with the development agenda – steadily, even if a bit slowly.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

China to Ludhiana

It was Vir Sanghvi who had coined the term Sino-Ludhianvi Cuisine. But, Butter Chicken had reached the nooks and corners of India much before Chow-Mien had meandered across to Punjab, I suspect.

Outside of Calcutta, “real Chinese” was available mainly in some of the 5 Stars – though not all. As a kid we used to hear stories about the Golden Dragon in Taj, Mumbai – which was the first to introduce Sichuan or Szechuan Cuisine (spelt as Shezwan – almost like Kashmiri Wazwan)  in India.  But, that was a distant dream. The closest, we humble Calcuttans managed to get was to The Ming Room on Park Street, which too allegedly served Szechuan Chinese. I remember going there for one of my earliest dates. Many years later – when I had the opportunity to visit China one discovered Sichuan food was nothing like what was palmed off in India and also not as hot as it was reputed to be. Food from other regions – Yunan for example was far more fiery (almost tongue numbing). Indian Shezwan – essentially used a lot of red-chilly powder or even chilli-paste (seldom the original Sichuan Peeper-corn) to make tangier for the desi-palate. In a way, I think this was the inspiration for Ludhianvi or Punjabi Chinese.

Strangely, of all places, Ranchi had small Chinese community and a couple of nice Chinese Restaurants near Doranda. We were told of them by by Ajit-Mama’s partner, Jimu-da (Dr P K Sur) of Allahabad – whose wife Binita-boudi was from Ranchi.  We went there on a road-trip from Calcutta to Daltongunj and still remember the Chop-Suey I had at a place also called Chung Wah. But, now those restaurants are extinct and the Ranchi Chinese people must have also moved elsewhere. On recent visits to Ranchi, I have tried looking in vain for true Hakka Chinese.

(Photo courtesy: Trip Advisor)

Dravidianisation of Chinese

My earliest recollection of a proper Chinese Meal outside of Calcutta was at Shinkow’s in Ooty. It was probably in 1973 or 74 and I was 13-14 then. Those days – people could still take long vacations. Like most Bengalis Abba too would try to club his annual leave with the Durga Puja holidays spilling over Kali-Puja / Diwali, which would give us a cool 4  -5 weeks break when we would go and camp in a place for a month. For these long holidays – we usually teamed up with my Aru-Mama’s family – as he and my Dad (both difficult people in their own way – but extremely methodical and stickler for order) got along famously. In Ooty, we were putting up at the house of A V Ananthakrishnan – a tycoon of the Shipping Industry of Madras and son in law of the legendary Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer    a friend and business associate of Aru-Mama (Captain Ronnie Ghosh), who was in the merchant navy. Like good hosts, the Ananthakrishna’s drove down all the way from Chennai to settle us into the house and took us out for the first meal to Shinkow’s.

At Shinkow’s we were quite amused to find – one had to place the order by writing the item number from the menu card on a chit-pad (a practice which they still follow). We later discovered this was common in South India and Chicken 65 derived its name from being the 65th item on the Menu at Buhari’s restaurant.

Inside Shinkow's and Roast Pork
Contrary to our impression of all “Madrasis” are vegetarian – the Ananthakrishnas weren’t. But, the Chilli Chicken that arrived, much to our surprise, was not brown in colour (as we had expected) but red – much like Chicken 65, I would say. One can possibly call that - the Dravidianisation of Chinese.

Shinkow’s still remain our favourite and a mandatory stop in every visit to Ooty-Coonoor, which has now become quite regular for us. But, now we gorge on the pork and beef more – both, especially the latter, not easy to find in most Chinese restaurants. Shinkow’s have a limited range of cooking style. Most items have the red “masala” – called by various names. But, we like it that way – as  for us that’s what characterizes Shinkow’s or Nilgiris Chinese.

Nelson Wang
After Calcutta – Bangalore emerged as major centre for Indian Chinese. This is partly because of the large Tibetan settlement there. In fact, there used to be a restaurant near the junction of Brigade Road and MG Road – which local legend had it was owned by a sister of the Dalai Lama. Doubt if there was any truth to that rumour – but they made a very good fried acrid chicken, the only other place I had it was Kunga in Old China-Town Calcutta (they also ran the Chinese kitchen at The Calcutta Swimming Club in the 70s). The great Nelson Wang – is also supposed to have briefly worked at a restaurant in Bangalore’s Church Street area before moving to Bombay to make history.

Photo Courtesy: Samil Malhotra

Chinese Tadke-walla

The origin of “Punjabi Chinese” was, I believe, from Nirula’s in Connaught Place (also credited with invention of the Indian “Espresso” Coffee, which - milky and sweet – made frothy and ‘mouth scalding’ hot by injection of steam from a pressure jet -  is nothing like the Italian Espresso ). I first went to the Nirula’s Chinese Room in early 70s. We were on a family holiday in Delhi – when Mesho-babu (Amma’s elder cousin’s husband) was visiting on work from Calcutta and staying there. I was too young to understand – the shades of difference between Calcutta and Delhi Chinese. It was only much later did I realize – Nirula’s had started a whole new sub genre of Indian Chinese.  

That leaves the stories of the 2 Last Emperors of Chinese in India Baba Ling and Nelson Wang - but they deserve more than a chapter.

Baba Ling

Recipe: Cheat-Sheet - Sweet & Sour Vegetable:

  • Mixed Veggies (anything goes)   carrot, rench beans broccoli or cauliflower florets, button mushrooms (the more adventurous can try ribbed gourd or very tender bitter gourd too);
  •  1 medium bell pepper - red, green or yellow, chopped or cut into 1 inch square and finely chopped celery;
  • i medium onion quartered and layers separated;
  • 2/3 garlic cloves, ½ inch ginger;
  • While Vinegar (Or apple Cider); Dark Soya Sauce; Tomato Ketch-up;
  • Blanch Veggies and set aside in cold water to preserve colour (keep the veg stock for later use)
  • lightly fry the onion, garlic and ginger;
  • add the blanched vegetables; 
  • pour the sauce ingredients (soy, vinegar, ketchup - to taste) - add tea-spoon of sugar, salt and a pinch of pepper (can cheat with ready-made chilly-garlic sauce/paste or Tabasco);
  • Mix 2 heaped tsp of corn-flour in half a cup of water; mix and stir (don't let lumps form);
  • add some more vegetable stock if you need more sauce;
  • a pinch of aji-no-moto (MSG) always helps :)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Hakka Route

I was probably all of 3 or 4 then. Remember, the Sunday trips in our grey Morris Minor from Ballygunj to my "Mama'r Bari" in Shyam-Bazar. Abba - my father - would take the slightly longer route via Central (now Chittaranjan or CR) Avenue. On the way up we'd stop by - the now Chandni Chowk Metro Station - to pick up packed Fried Rice and “Chilly Chicken” from Chung Wah - for Amma (my Mother)’s kid sister Tukun – my doting Mashi-moni -  who loved "Chinese".

Chinese Dentist Association
Those were my first memories of Calcutta's Hakka Chinese. Hakka - I later learnt - means 'itinerant' (‘guests’ in the host country) – who migrated out of China. Thus there are ‘Hakka’ Chinese and ‘China Towns’ all over the world. Calcutta's Chinese date back to the late 18th century  and their original Chinese settlement (in Achipur) is believed to be one of the oldest - outside of China. The Chinese of Calcutta led a very insular existence – a Chinese teacher of my school compared themselves to the Amish people of the West. He took pride in claiming they are the purest “Hakka Population” in the world (excluding those in China, of course).

Today, by China Town one understands the locality called "Tangra" – close to the Eastern Metropolitan By-pass behind the ITC Sonar Hotel. But, Chinese Restaurants there are a relatively recent phenomenon. This was the area - where the Chinese had tanneries. The effluent of leather washeries (containing lethal amounts of carcinogenic Chromium)  would flow out into the sewerage grounds of Dhapa close by. A Supreme Court order forced the tanneries to shift out of the city – though many actually shut-shop. Simultaneously, the younger generation of the Indian Chinese started migrating abroad to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Some moved to other cities in India – mostly in the restaurant trade. Those who stayed back in Calcutta discovered an opportunity – almost fortuitously - to convert the abandoned factories to restaurants, sauce and noodle factories.

Till the 80s, Tangra had just a few "Eating Houses" catering to the Chinese owners and staff of the leather factories. When in College - we would go on the occasional adventure in Motor Bikes for lunch to Tangra.

I wrote 'adventure' because Tangra was considered "out of bounds" for the Police and was notorious for crimes. The Opium dens still existed. One evening, I took 2 of my Mamas - Ajit (visiting from Allahabad) and Mukul - to buy dinner from Tangra for an "adda"sessions at our place. Though both of them were quite "dare-devil" (as the Bengali expression went) even they were rattled to see old Chinese Men smoking Opium under gas-lanterns in small shanties and shady characters hanging out. After that, their impressions about their pet 'Bhagne' sure slipped a few notches, but they decided to be discreet at home – afraid that Abba – known for his sharp temper - would blow his fuse hearing about places the son was frequenting.

The Eating Houses were run by the Ladies of the family. The drill was they started cooking only after you placed the order. The portions always had to be large - for example they would only make a full Chicken (usually bought fresh in the morning) as freezers weren't still common. While one waited - Beer or some cheap Whisky were on offer. The Menu was limited to Rice, Noodles (Hakka-Noodles - Chow mein ("Dry") or Chow-chow (with “Gravy"), Chicken and Pork. There were essentially 2 kinds of sauces – the Black Bean (Dark Soya) with onion, garlic and green-chillies or a red sweet and sour gravy with loads of Garlic. All items would have a generous dollop of corn-flour and a large pinch of Mono-Sodium Glutamate (MSG or aji-no-moto) . Fried shrimps balls or sometimes tiger-prawns would be an indulgence -when one was feeling rich.

Prior to this, the “original” or old China-Town was in Tiretta Bazar - the area lying between Bentick Street and the Police Head-Quarters at Lal Bazar on the West and Central Avenue Calcutta Medical College (close to the ‘Central’ Metro-Station – which should have been named old China-Town, if you ask me).

‘Nan-King’ in Phears Lane (which Bengalis thought was “Fears” Lane – as there was quite a bit of ‘fear’ associated with the area which ‘non-locals’  would avoid in the evenings) – was probably the first ‘proper’ Chinese Restaurant of Calcutta – dating back to early 1900
Nanking (Courtesy Rangan's Blogspot)
till it closed down in the 80s. The same area also had Kunga – Calcutta’s only Tibetan Restaurant, (will talk about it someday in my  ‘Momo-affairs’).

But, for the middle-class Calcuttans” Chinese meant Chung-Wah on Central Avenue and Peiping on Park-Street until Waldorf appeared on the scene in the late 60s.  Waldorf Food was slightly different from the “Hakka” cuisine and had a Cantonese touch to it. They probably used less of corn-flour than the regular Hakka cooking that was greasy and over-fried  and the sauces were sweeter – which I think appealed to the Bengali palate. For the middle-class Bengali – who could not were intimidated  by the snooty Skyroom, Blue-Fox or Trinca’s (even Flury’s wasn’t quite for the ‘junta’ – except their confectionery counter) – Peiping and Waldorf (and, perhaps, Kwality’s for North Indian or ‘Punjabi’) was as far as they could infiltrate Park-Street.

For us a trip to Waldorf was always an occasion – usually to celebrate some relatives’ Wedding Anniversary (generally from my Mother’s side of the family – her large bunch of cousins for whom she was the favourite ‘sister’) or when my ‘Santa-Claus’ Ajit Mama was visiting from Allahabad and would be badgered (by the same cousins) for a treat – which he’d succumb to after some initial (mock) resistance. On one of those outings, I remember (must have been 7 then ) my Mukul-mama announced Bulbul mami was pregnant. And, a few months later my dearest cousin Tushita was born.

Those days – one never had ‘clear’ soups unless you were sick or had an upset tummy. So people would get split into 2 groups – those who liked Sweet Corn Soup and – the slightly evolved among them – who would go the for more exotic crab asparagus soup (both heavily laden with corn starch). Similarly, there were Noodle lovers and the Rice lovers. It was always Fried Rice – no one would go to a restaurant and waste money on  steamed rice, which one had every day at home. The idea of enjoying the pristine subtle flavours of the food was alien (actually, it still is. Remember many years later I was ticked off by my father-in-law for ordering Steamed Rice at the Chinoiserie in Taj Bengal).

The standard order along with the Rice and Noodles would be Shrimp Balls (more like Pakodas) for starters, Chilli Chicken, Manadarin Sweet and Sour Fish, at times Chicken with Cashew-Nuts. Mutton and Pork - certainly not Beef - was not common on the Menu. The now ubiquitous Darsan or Date Pancakes hadn't yet arrived on the scene - so the meal would end with Vanilla or Tooty-fruity ice-cream with a Wafer wedge stuck on top - that was a primary attraction for the kids.

Vegetarian entrees were hard to find on a Chinese Menu. Credit for Vegetarian innovations should squarely go to Nelson Wang of China Garden fame in Mumbai – who introduced Chinese to the Gujaratis of Mumbai. ‘Veg Manchurian’ is believed to be his invention. The Marwaris of Calcutta were late converts to Indian Chinese.

For the affluent and higher echelons of Calcutta Society - The Chinese Room at the Great Eastern Hotel was popular. Have faint memories of going there only once - after the wedding of Mashimoni (Tukun) - for a dinner in the honour of the 'jamai' and the new "in-laws" by my Mother's Kaka-moni who was the head of my Mamar-bari family.

Chung-wah still exists - probably have changed hands several times - but now has been
converted to a somewhat seedy "cabin restaurant and bar" in the old wing and a sleazy Dance Bar at night in the Sooterkin (Prafulla Sarkar) Street section. But, they still make a mean Chilli Chicken (try the ones with bone - they use only spring chicken not the heavy broilers) and Fried Rice - tho' I wouldn't trust their Pork anymore. Waldorf (probably also with new owners) has now relocated to Russel Street
next to Sutton Seeds across Bengal Club. They run either a Hilsa or Duck Festival round the year - which I find a huge turn off and have never stepped into the place since they closed down their original place on Park Street.

The action has now shifted to Tangra and the "Tangra Style" restaurants all over the city and the more up-market Mainland China and Red Hot Chilly Pepper. But, still a few old gems - like Eau Chew and Jimmy's Kitchen  remain tucked away. But, what's most significant is "Chow-Mein" has become the national food of Bengal - perhaps only after Chicken-Egg Roll and Biriyani - available at every street corner and 
now, even on trains.

Amma’s Quick and Easy  Chilli-Chicken:

 f            - 1 full dressed chicken (without skin) diced into small pieces (less than 1 inch);
-             - Marinate with Dark-Soy-sauce, ginger,  garlic and a sprinkling of corn-flour for                 30 mins - 1 hour;
-               Blanch (par-boil) with a little water and pat dry ;
-             - Deep fry  in boling oil (refined sun-flower) – add diced onion and green-chillies –             and some more soya-sauce with a pinch of MSG (optional);
-             - Serve hot;

 (Recipe can be adapted for fish and Duck – while Fish would require little time for marinating – duck needs to be soaked for 3-4 hours or preferably over-night in the fridge and more of pre-cooking than chicken) 

(to be continued - watch this space)

Daal, Roti and 100 Pipers

I’m basically a Daal, Roti and Scotch person !! 

For long I resisted suggestions and prodding from family and friends to write on food.  I was reluctant because these days I find every second person these days is a Food Blogger and almost everyone is a “Foodie” ( a term I detest – but more on that later). I never fancied myself to be a gourmet and an epicure I am certainly not. I don’t know much about the history of various cuisines nor  “Food Anthropology”  (another fashionable term). I have tried my hand at cooking occasionally with the odd success, that too mostly for the family (and once burnt my hand - literally - with boiling oil while trying to over-turn a whole chicken in a Kadai, a scar I still bear )– but can hardly claim to be a modern day metro-sexual wannabe master chef. I hardly watch Food Shows on TV (which are mostly scams anyway) and read only the occasional food column. I’m deeply cynical of Food Reviews – which I suspect are obtained  either through free-meals and wine – or , at times, simply paid-for (unless it's the Michelin Guides - there are very few food critics like the late Egon Ronay - who always paid for their meals). And, oh – I love Nigella Lawson. But, only for her looks, not culinary repertoire (which I have a creepy feeling they are largely outsourced or crowd-sourced).

Then what are my credentials – at all to write on Food ? To be honest, none actually. Like most ordinary people I like to eat.  Hunger is a natural desire we humans have been gifted purely for reasons of survival – embellished with a sense of taste, smell and touch that makes it a pleasurable experience. No wonder someone coined the term 'gastro-sexual' - as enjoying food is very much giving in to the senses. I believe even the most ascetic of individuals – even those practicing strict gastronomical abstinence - enjoy food. That’s why most fasts end with a feast and I have seen spiritually evolved persons of all religions (read - monks, nuns priests  and saints) indulging in the occasional repast with great relish.

I am no different from them. Perhaps, a wee bit more experimental and adventurous – but, certainly not one of those who “live” and are willing “to die for”  food.  For me food is more about memories, company and conversations.  Snapshots stored in the mind’s soft-disk indexed by the taste-buds and aromas.

The posts that will follow are part of that journey that I have taken through highways, by-lanes and alleys of the food trail the meals that I have partaken not only in restaurants, cafes, small road-side eateries, pubs, bars, dhabas - people's homes and clubs that has shaped my own private gastronomical universe. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Winner takes it all..and...'Ekla Chalo Re'

So, Modi is all set to be "crowned" tomorrow - after what may be called a watershed - election. It turned out to be a real "The Winner Takes It All" victory - stunning the whole nation.

In a first of sorts, Heads of Government from all SAARC countries, Maldives and Mauritius will attend the ceremony along with over 2500 Indian dignitaries. Conspicuous by her absence will be the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee.  Earlier it was reported, she had advised all newly elected MPs of her party to stay away from the function. But, on second thoughts - perhaps, she is deputing two trusted emissaries - Amit Mitra, Finance Minister of West Bengal, and Mukul Roy, General Secretary of Trinamool Congress, to represent her at the event.

Most people argue, Mamata Banerjee could have shown more grace on an occasion - which is as much about Modi as it is a celebration of Indian Democracy. But, then - those who know Mamata intimately would say - she's not given to hypocrisy. After the out-pour of bad-blood and vitriol during the election campaign it might have appeared duplicitous to her core-constituents - if she were to give an impression of "all is fair in love and war".

If Modi and BJP's victory at the centre was cataclysmic - Trinamool's performance in West Bengal was no less phenomenal. Insiders reveal, the party's own estimates were nowhere close to 34 seats. In the best case scenario, they hoped to get 26-28 seats. That the Left would be decimated to such an extent was even beyond their expectation. A young Rajya Sabha MP of Trinamool told me, even if allegations of rigging and intimidation are true - it could have given them an additional 4 or 5 seats at best but not such a sweeping mandate. While just like Modi nationally - in West Bengal people voted for Mamata, much of the credit behind the voter mobilisation goes to the organisation man - Mukul Roy whom, some are calling the Amit Shah of Bengal, he shared as an aside. (That begs the question, couldn't the same 'victory' have been achieved without violence and bloodshed that sullied the name of the state - a hark back to the dark days of 'cadre-raj')

The Left in India has lost in relevance - but in West Bengal they've also lost the will to win. The ground has shifted from beneath their feet - TMC has pulled the rug as it were. It was sad to see giants like Basudeb Acharya - with tremendous people connect reduced to dust by a once glamourous diva, now well past her "use by" date (if I'm permitted a sexist dig).  The proverbial grass-root organisation of the CPIM has simply evaporated into thin air and they are left making the same accusations against the ruling party as one used to hear about them till a decade ago.

But, the real story of these elections - even in West Bengal - is the BJP. Many have been intrigued by the disproportionate amount of time Modi devoted to West Bengal during the campaign. Modi held some 7 - 8 rallies in the state. Since, a Gujarati views everything in terms of ROI (Return on Investment) -  the dividend was certainly poor if measured in terms of seats alone. However, if one delves a little deeper another sub-plot emerges. The BJP's vote-share in these elections increased from 6.15 % to 16.8 % precariously close to the Left's 22.7 % and far ahead of the Congress' 9.6 %. In 30 of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies BJP emerged as the No 2 party. In 20 assembly constituencies, including some very high-profile ones, BJP were ahead (Read article).

What does this mean ? If the Modi Government at the centre stays on course and keeps alive the promise of development BJP may well consolidate its strength and emerge as the main Opposition party in the next Assembly Elections (Read earlier post). In his speeches, Modi's main target was the young audience of 18-28. There is no reason to believe - Bengali youth will think very differently from the rest of the country and not opt for development and promise of a brighter future.

It is here that one regrets the "hostility" trap Bengal falls into with successive government over the last 50 years, for which the state (and, more importantly, the younger generation) had to pay dearly. This was one chance for us to get back to the mainstream of national politics - but we once again seem to have missed the boat. There were subtle overtures made by Modi in the beginning which were rudely rebuffed due to local political compulsions (Read Vote Bank Politics is here to stay) .

But, it may not be too late yet to work out a tacit 'understanding' - without adopting a posture of aggressive opposition. Modi is a pragmatic politician, who looks at the longer term. Except for some unforeseen catastrophe, he is here to stay and he knows - that if not today - he might need the Trinamool's support in future and, therefore, be willing to play along. While we may have the example of the much vaunted "Gujarat Model where growth and development was allegedly achieved without support from the centre , we have also seen, in these elections, the case of Bihar, where Nitish spent 10 years fighting in vain for Bihar's "special status". Finally, when he failed to deliver on the promise of development - the voters shifted en-masse away from his party. 

Therefore, "Ekla Chalo Re" may not be the best anthem for all times.....

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The final countdown..

So the campaigning has finally come to an end. Less than 24 hours for the Exit Polls to come out and 4 days for the results. What a journey it has been - not just for those in the fray, the organizers, workers, 'war-room' managers and those who covered it on the ground - but even the likes of me who followed it from the side lines and participated in the dialogue on social media.

Of course, Narendra Modi ran the "mother of all campaigns" in the history of Indian Elections - termed as the 'Maximum Campaign' and beautifully depicted in this graphic 

For the last leg the entire world descended on Varanasi - journalists national and foreign, political commentators and even academics from across the world. Sadanand Dhume, the WSJ journalist, quipped in a tweet to me:  

The credit for permanently changing the rules of the game has to go to one person - whether you like him or not - Narendra Modi. It was truly a 'watershed election' as everyone seemed to agree on Barkha Dutt's 'wrap-up show from Varanasi (watch video here)

The final outcome is not known yet and as some die-hard detractors of Narendra Modi are still hoping against hope that he'll falter at the finishing line (Read this post). Undoubtedly, it is yet a possibility - especially with practically all major political forces of the country lined up against him and even stalwarts of his own party being less than supportive (to put it mildly). Other than Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and a few other second rung leaders - most other big names have been conspicuous by their silence and missing in action (from the campaign trail). But, the fact that he has come thus far is a "phenomenon". Today - it's virtually 'Modi Vs the Rest'. The single point agenda of all parties and leaders of any national standing is how to "STOP" Modi.

Less than a year ago I recall a popular political commentator) pooh-poohing the idea of BJP coming to power. This was in Bangalore and he supported his theory pointing out BJP is likely to draw a blank in Karnataka - the state that had sent the maximum number of BJP MPs in the last elections. Next, everyone came up with dooms-day predictions when Nitish broke-off with BJP over Modi. People said - BJP had axed their chances by giving up old allies. Then came the Advani, Sushma sulking episodes over Modi being appointed in-charge of the campaign Committee in Goa. Everyone went to town talking about the split wide-open within the party almost writing-off its chances. The rest is history now and can't bear repetition. Now, we can only wait for the results and watch how the drama unfolds over the next 4 days.

I for one was one of the early converts on Modi - though I wouldn't like to be counted (and, hope others don't) among the "Bhakts". I'm not blind to his faults and aware of the risks of someone so domineering coming to power. But, I do think - to use a cliche - India needs a strong leader to salvage it out of the mess that the Gandhi family's remote control government - guided only by the interest of ensuring the survival of the dynasty - has landed the country.

The way Modi has run this campaign shows he knows a thing or 2 about organisation and management. In creating a campaign on such a grand-scale he has displayed a vision that is beyond the imagination of any politician in this country - the troika of Mother, Son and Daughter included. He has been accused of being bank-rolled by corporates and engaging the best international PR agency. Even if the same resources were made available to any other party - be it AAP or Congress - none could created something this scale and impact.

Ridiculous arguments have been used as to why Modi is not fit to be PM - from his lack of 'social skills' to his poor facility in English. A case has been made out that - he takes false credit for the success of the "Gujarat Model" tho much of it was either legacy or is owed to the entrepreneurial traits of the Gujarati businessman. Even a first grade student of Management knows that it isn't easy to preserve what you inherit let alone grow it further unless you are particularly gifted. Further, I contest the theory - Modi isn't a team player. The greatness of a leader lies in gathering the talent around him and having the ability to sift their advise and come to the right decisions. If Modi didn't have the ability to do so - he wouldn't have been able to run Gujarat with such aplomb for 12 years or conceive and execute a campaign of this order.

But, the real success of #Modi lies elsewhere. This evening I was surprised to hear the buzz about him and BJP in the Bar of the Coonoor Club among the elite Tamil gentry spending their summer recess in the hills. More than the number of seats he brings to the BJP in the Hindi-heartland, what he'd have done for good is spreading the roots of BJP in areas where they were hitherto non-existent - eg West Bengal, South India and the North East. BJP may not Lok Sabha win many seats in Bengal but they would have sufficiently increased their vote share to be a force to reckon with in the coming Assembly Elections (read this piece by Abhijit Majumder of HT). And, if indeed, BJP forms the government at the centre with Modi at its helm - the equations could change drastically across the country.

But let's wait for a few days more.... till then : Aab Ki Bar Modi Sarkar

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pit stop Uttar Pradesh

Just back from a short trip of Kanpur-Lucknow-Delhi-Mumbai. Normally, I'd be reluctant to draw inferences from fleeting interactions and the odd encounters. But, I find, even journalists tend to to do that and pass it off as ground reports. Therefore, thought of jotting down my quick impressions on - what else but the coming elections.

In Central UP (tho Kanapur-Lucknow is regarded more East than Centre) the pro-BJP mood is palpable in the air. The Samajwadi Party rule of Akhilesh Yadav has been an unmitigated disaster - people regret pinning their hopes on the young politician, who they thought will bring a new vision to a state that has languished for such a long time due to poor governance. Even if these are not state elections - people see a new hope in Modi, not just at the Centre but one that will have a positive rub-off on UP's fortunes as well.

I for one was always skeptical - even till a couple of years ago - about Modi's acceptability in the "Hindi Heartland" ( or the "Cow-belt as one would call it colloquially). But, its amazing how he has captured the imagination of the whole nation. One can argue if that's due entirely to his magnetic charisma or the pits of despair the UPA and Congress have thrown the country in its 10 years of misrule. I had traveled through UP on a road trip - in January 1977 immediately after my school Class 10 (ICSE ) exams. I would compare the "anti-Congress" mood then in many ways to what I saw now. So, if you don't call this a wave - what else is ? 

Still questions remain on how much of this enthusiasm will translate into seats. Local BJP politicians, of course, see this as an opportunity of a life-time. They know if BJP doesn't make it this time - then regaining the same momentum would be near impossible in the foreseeable future. By, then the party itself may well disintegrate without the glue of power to hold it together. So, everyone wants to jump into the band-wagon - leaders both young and old, locals and paratroopers who wish to cash-in by exercising their seniority in the party (the likes of Murli Manohar Joshi). Therefore, there are bound to be disaffection on ticket distribution. But, how much of this will lead to under-cutting of votes due to internal factionalism or the overwhelming swing will sail the candidates through is a matter of conjecture.

Modi, of course, is carrying the battle almost singly on his shoulders. Everyone else seems to be riding under his shadow - knowing the limits of their influence. Therefore, much would depend on what the grass-root organisation of BJP and RSS are able to deliver. Realizing that - Modi has placed his trusted aide Amit Shah in-charge of UP. So, if BJP makes a turn-around in UP - as many expect them to - much of the credit shoul go to Amit-bhai.

In one of his rallies in Maharashtra today, Modi remarked - usually in an election one sees political forces realigning against the incumbent government. This time, it seems everyone is rallying together with the sole objective of keeping Modi out (and, tho he didn't say it, that would include some of his own party-men). I would suspect that it's not just politicians and other parties - even other forces inimical to India would be nervous about the ascent of Modi. It is incredible - how this man has been battling against such tremendous opposition to carry forward his mission practically on his own. It is this that makes me say - India hasn't seen another "political phenomenon" like Modi, perhaps, since independence. 

This brings me to Delhi and, where else, than the holy dipping point of political pundits - the IIC Bar. While I can understand - the antagonism of politicians towards Modi and BJP, also the near pathological dislike of the fashionable left-liberal intellectual set - I still fail to entirely fathom the hostility of the main-stream media for Modi. The argument that they are under the "pay" of the ruling party is too glib. If they were, indeed, so easily "purchasable" - the Modi's alleged 'big business' backers could have easily 'bought' their support. Yet, their objections doesn't seem to be so much ideological as political - sometimes even personal. 

Therefore, sipping my 100 Pipers perched on the bar-stool, it's intriguing to hear senior journalists trying to build up arguments against Modi and BJP. At the risk of sounding specious, sometimes I think these people find it difficult to accept Modi after having vilified him for so many years. Therefore, they curiously sound as if they're arguing against themselves.

Another point probably deserves mention. Swapan Dasgupta had written in an article how Modi is an outsider to Lutyen's Delhi (unlike a Vajpayee - who had even co-opted himself into the Club by choosing someone like Brajesh Mishra as his aide). But - equally Modi is alien to the Chanakyapuri circuit. It's well-known the BJP of yore had its benefactors in the foreign diplomatic club - who have their own formidable sphere of influence. "Well-wishers of India" like Strobe Talbott had no hesitation in acknowledging Minister Jaswant Singh as a "friend" at whose invitation he spent a weekend in Jodhpur. Despite the recent thawing of relationship with the US and EU Missions - Modi is still viewed with suspicion by the West - not to mention our immediate neighbours who have greater reasons to be wary of him. And, this is not something that can be wished away.

Despite all these  odds- if Modi still makes it as the next Prime Minister of India - as many of us wish - it will be nothing short of a miracle.

But, borrowing from Paul Coelho.."when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it".

Sunday, March 23, 2014

'Vote Bank Politics' has come here to stay in West Bengal

A news item in 'Ei Samay' the Bengali paper of the TOI Group (Read here) says, the assessment of the West Bengal State Intelligence Bureau indicates, the #BJP will pay a decisive role in 9 out of 42 constituencies of West Bengal in the Lok-Sabha Elections 2014. This is a significant development for Bengal - where BJP has been an almost non-existent party.

According to another report, Mamata Banerjee herself has cautioned her party-workers about the rise of BJP in the state (click here to read). She, of course, refers to BJP as "communal forces" - which is the fashionable political euphemism for the Saffron party.

Historically, West Bengal has, arguably, voted largely on 'secular' lines. Cast also had little role to play in Bengal politics. (Perhaps, an influence of Communism and literacy - also a reflection of society). Equally the Bengali Muslim has, traditionally, been influenced more by political - rather than religious - considerations. All this seemed to change perceptively in the last Lok Sabha elections - when a sizeable chunk of the "Muslim Vote" moved en-masse to the Trinamool Congress. Since then, political parties - have started looking at them as a distinct "vote-bank" - quite similar to what happens in other parts of the country. So, what has changed ?

First, it is the influx of across the border in districts adjacent to Bangladesh. They have brought with them a culture and mind-set, which is very different from the traditional Bengali Muslim community who have been well integrated into the society over nearly 2 centuries. Political parties have indulged them as low hanging electoral fruit - legitimizing their illegal migration and allowed them to spread their tentacles across the community, often by exercising both money and muscle power. 

While the eastern districts of the state have seen infiltration from Bangladesh, the western borders have seen influx from other neighbouring states of Bihar and Jharkhand - who have themselves been afflicted by economic plight.

Simultaneously, as industry has shrunk in the state - trading has been the life-line. The business averse mentality of Bengalis is well known. Therefore, it's no surprise that the dominant trading community are "Non-Bengali", to use a pet term. In a surprising statistics, published a few years back showed nearly 60% of the population of the greater Calcutta and Howrah areas in of "non-Bengali" origin.

In this backdrop - dismissing BJP as a "communal party" - will only contribute towards greater polarisation of the people - which will over a longer term upset the electoral and social dynamics of the state. After that, the answer to that eternal question - which / who came first - the chicken or the egg - will only be of academic interest.

But, it seems "vote bank" politics has finally arrived and come to stay in Bengal. Sad - but true and, probably also, unavoidable.

(Also read: Is Eastern India an important developing Hindu Vote-Bank ?)