Making meaning in Kolkata


I think it’s a good thing that the internet access in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta for those who missed the name change in 2001) was rather poor, because I wouldn’t have said anything sensible on the first day or two. It seems rather difficult to speak sense when you’re having trouble making sense of your environment. What is so very fitting about this dilemma is that I went to Kolkata to give a paper on cosmopolitanism, in which I argue for the Raymond Williams theory that one must make meaning of things to feel a sense of belonging to them. How true this is when contextualised so graphically…

I landed at about 1am and was fortunate to have a grad student from Jadavpur University pick me up (the lovely Deep). Of course, I wasn’t aware this was arranged, and so organised a pre-paid taxi before stalking determinedly, sans eye contact, out the door towards the cabs (I’d been to India before, you see). A tap on my shoulder and “Are you Tammi?” changed my entire arrival into a stress-free event. (Except for the two pedestrians we saw lying by the side of the road on the way to the uni, who had just been run down by a large truck in the smoggy haze of early morning, which set me on edge in cabs, but more especially, when crossing roads, for the rest of the visit.) Thank goodness Deep picked me up, because the uni gate was locked, the grounds looked haunted at night, and the directions were not as straightforward as they might have seemed on a sterile screen in Melbourne. To bed.

I won’t detail everything here from breakfast to bed, but I will share some highlights. The first day was a ‘free’ day, as the conference began the next morning. So Murray (the only other Australian presenter) and I headed off after breakfast without a map, guidebook or a clue except I remembered from eight years ago that Park Street was in the centre, New Market was meant to be a good one, and College Street was lined with piles of books. Near College Street, which was indeed lined with the same books of my memory, but with the amusing signs to let you know what each stall was selling (eg. English Lit – and then piles of Engineering texts), I stopped to buy some peyanji, a sort of onion and garlic fritter with lots of spice, from an old woman frying them on the street. By the time she actually served me, we had attracted a crowd of about 30 people circled around us. Murray and I were picturing headlines “Giant red-headed foreigner eats peyanji near College Street!” – because apparently it’s news. We later wandered through the New Market, where I insisted we pop into the meat market, being the food-obsessed, self-conscious adventurer that I am. What I recall is a blur of chicken feet, blood, feathers, semi-naked men crouched on concrete platforms amongst animal parts and rivers of blood, and a stench of bile, shit and fear. It makes me nauseous again sitting here in a comfortably middle class home in Singapore just to think of it. We exited stage left. I felt like a failure, but suspect I would have felt worse if I’d vomited in there.

I didn’t mention the cab ride to the centre, which was the really difficult bit. I cannot describe Kolkata traffic except to say the drivers know the dimensions of their cars, the location of their horns and the strength of their brakes better than any cabbies in the world. And pedestrians manage to flow between cars that are no more than a body’s width apart at any time, and if anybody were to thwart the system and hesitate, it would be fatal. I’ll add a short video of this later. The mad driving, coupled with the chaos of people, rubble and rubbish outside, was my initial taste of how little meaning I could make of any of this. And I found it extremely off-putting and alienating that day. But then comes the night…

Four of the uni’s grad students, Deep, Momo, Priyanka and Simon, took me out to feast on the streets that night. It started with phuchka, which is a deep fried orb-shaped cup made from atta flour and semolina into which is placed a ball of potato and veg filling, then the cup is half filled with a spiced tamarind water. Omigoditwassogoodwehadtohavethree. Next, into a cab to a Muslim area for beef kebab rolls that taught me not all chapati are created equal – these were the fluffiest, chewy chapatis I’ve ever had. Onto mishti doi, a delicious sweet curd, and roshogolla, spongy little balls in syrup. Not finished yet, we ventured across Park Circus for haleem, a chunky beef stew that is a Ramadan specialty for breaking the fast, and finished off across the road with kulfi, a sort of iced cream with sultanas and nuts in it. Sated, we went back to Momo’s for a chat and then to bed back at uni by 9:30, an amazing feat given it felt like we’d been all over Kolkata.

The next three days were the conference, Food: Representation, Ideology and Politics. My paper was in the first parallel session on the first day after the plenaries. It went very well and sparked a great conversation about cosmopolitanism, as well as the crucial question, why does food carry this burden of meaning? Also, why do ‘elites’ feel a need to insist upon their cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism – what’s at stake here, how does it contribute to the construction of a hopeful national imaginary, and what symbolic violence might it also do? I’ll be working on those questions, thinking about the ‘essential’ nature of food and the senses, memory and imagination, as well as considering the role of affect in relation to the sensory experiences with food. I also need to work on ideas about ‘authenticity’, which may be so problematic I can’t even use it; ‘ethnic’, which is a word applied to ‘the other’; and of course, cosmopolitan as a philosophical construct and multiculturalism as quotidian.

The final night in Kolkata, I found out (thank you Anindya!!) about a restaurant called “Kewpies”, who call themselves “purveyors of authentic Bengali cuisine”. So I dragged Ira (who did her PhD at LaTrobe and teaches at Delhi University) and Vidya (a divine classical singer, academic and bossy Indian woman) down a dark, smelly alley to where the place is secreted. And there we had the most divine thalis (sort of set meals, with dal, roti, chutney, fritters, papadum, rice and the dishes we added, including chingri malai, prawns in coconut sauce, bhekti paturi, fish in a mustard paste steamed in a banana leaf, mangsho kosha, mutton curry, and doi begun, eggplant in a sauce/curry). It was all finished with mushti doi and a cream-based soft biscuit, as well as paan, which I tried for the first time. It’s a bit hard to chew such a large folded leaf in your mouth, but tasty and apparently a good digestif. On the way to this beautiful Bengali feast, our cab was actually rear-ended by a small car, which promptly drove on. I don’t think the cab was even dinted (they’re tough), and everyone just sort of carried on as though these things happen all the time, which I suspect they do. I sort of felt like maybe it was a bit of luck to have the minor bingle, like it needed to happen before I left (statistically speaking), it happened at slow speed, and the gods were appeased.

Let me return briefly to meaning. In the space of four short days, I went from a sort of brain cloud reaction to the chaos of Kolkata, to someone able to begin to make partial meaning. Some of that meaning is troubling for obvious reasons – how can a place have such a privileged middle class in the face of stark poverty and crumbling infrastructure? But many of those same people, the intelligentsia of Bengal, are passionate, revolutionary, feminist, often Marxist and always leftist, and are doing their ‘everyday’ bit to find meaning and work within the contraints of a very challenging environment. Their students adore them, and they, in turn, shower attention and respect on their students, who are arguably even more self-assured than Americans. The intellectual passion and comradery I encountered in my four days was breathtaking and refreshing. I’m going to keep arguing for knowledge as a way to engender belonging.

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

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