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Of puja and pet puja
What non-resident Kolkatans miss the most in the prepujo mayhem of other cities are the delicious food breaks.
Growing up in Kolkata, the months of September and October would be the epitome of all good things in life. The shiuli-scented autumn mornings, the translucent kaashphul afternoons and the dewy jui nights - all symbolised Mother Nature's subtle touches to her wardrobe in a sweeping changing room. And then there were the not-so-subtle mothers all over the city, squashed into retail changing rooms, dressing up their children in the best new clothes that money could buy.
Yes, shopping was a big deal then and an even bigger deal now. But back then it was not just the act of buying stuff for yourself or the house - it was the whole concept of the day out, hopping from one shop to another, from one shopping district to another, bumping into neighbours, classmates, park friends, bus friends, all engaged in picking, choosing, trying on, bargaining, hefting water-bottles and the ubiquitous 'Big Shopper' jute bags.
For a self-styled foodie, the best parts of these outings were the food breaks! Nimbly-wrapped, piping hot chicken rolls, little tubs of Kwality butterscotch icecream, crumb-fried cutlets of benfish with the seriously strong kashundi, and the deliciously thick and sweet, cold-milk drink, Milkos (now long forgotten) were just snacks on the go! Because - and here's another small thing to thank the Goddess for - this was the only time shopkeepers didn't mind your taking a quick bite from the crumbly chicken pattice or a lick from your dripping Chocobar inside the store, while you decided between the flouncy dress and the baggy jeans.
Once done with such critical decisions, it would be time to get some 'real' food, and depending on the shopping area, there were myriads of options. The New Market area was my personal favourite, simply because of the variety it afforded. There was chicken chowmein with Gold Spot float at Ruchika or biryani with do piyaza at Badshaah or Karco, finished off with a sugar-dusted lemon puff from Nahoum's or a masala Thums Up from Globe Cinema lane. In the Gariahat area, you could always count on Bedouin and Bancharam to keep you happily fed with their delectable egg mutton rolls and radha ballabhi, and Ganguram never failed with its smoky clay pot of cold and creamy mishti doi.
Fast forward to today, and Puja shopping in Mumbai is a struggle. Yes, there are almost as many moms wearing that familiar determined expression on their faces, on a SWAT mission to tick off things on their shopping list. And the baida roti at Bade Miya, or the kulfi falooda at Elco Market helps things along nicely. But those snapshots of moms tugging their kids along, porters chasing them with cane baskets, the various stages of the 'art' of heated bargaining, and the wailing tantrums of nagging kids, quieted only by thunderous warnings of "See what I do to you when we reach home!" are purely a part of Kolkata's psyche that lives on in our collective memories, and makes really grumpy shoppers out of us newly-christened Mumbaikars. For a non-resident Kolkatan, of all the grand things that the pujos always promised on and delivered in plenty, those shopping-picnics many years ago are what I miss and yearn for most in the lead-up to the Durga Puja.
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