Back in 2012, when novelist Amit Chaudhuri was a new citizen of Calcutta — both he and I prefer the older name, it seems — he sang paeans to Ujjala Chanachur, a legendary snacks shop in the south of the city, in a piece in besan papdi, usually consumed in the evening. Nearly half a decade later, Chaudhuri has travelled across the palate-spectrum and eulogised the ubiquitous sweet shops in Calcutta in his second book of poems. This is a sort of culinary cartography of the city.
“The whole universe is here,” writes Chaudhuri in the opening poem of this collection. He is describing the display case of a sweet shop: “Every colour, a few / on the verge of being tolerable. / Every shape as well as minute flourishes / created in the prehistory / of each sandesh by precise pinches.” This could be any sweet shop in the city, presenting innumerable choices behind the glass of its display cases. The book, as its title suggests, is also such a shop, tantalisingly inviting the reader-eater to sample one of its offerings. Sweetness is not one sensation on the tongue but an entire palate — sorry, palette — of tastes.
This is a good time for such a book. In November 2017, the Chennai-based Geographical Indications (GI) Registry declared that rasagolla, had spiked immediately after this. Possibly to celebrate this victory, a Bengali film last year celebrated the life and struggle of Nobin Chandra Das, a 19th-century confectioner credited with the invention of the most famous of Bengali sweets, along with others. Food historians bemoan that while there were once thousands of different kinds of sweets produced in Bengal, now only a few hundred are, but these are a part of the Bengali identity.
Chaudhuri’s book does not travel to the legendary KC Das shop, run by Nobin Chandra’s descendants, but it does make trips to two other famous ones: Nakur and Bhim Nag. Both seem to provide spiritual experiences to the poet. Chauhuri — or the narrator — does not enter Nakur, but stands on the pavement outside, “taking photos on my phone / of you, the grille, the tubelit shade, / and the crowd.” He catches a glimpse of its sanctum sanctorum: “a temple-space, high on whose walls / hung no secular photograph / but mortal or mythic divinities.” Nor does he taste any particular sweet, but “entirely / consumes you and your customers”.
Sweet Shop; Author: Amit Chaudhuri; Publisher: Penguin; Pages: 47; Price: Rs 299
At Bhim Nag, the narrator tastes the famous pinkish doi (curd) and is immediately transported to “the quiet / of Ramakrishna’s room in Dakshineshwar.” The description of the doi is almost sexual: “So uncannily sweet, so close to liquid, / you swallow it as it lies on your tongue.” The ingestion leads to a fountain of experiences, perhaps even an emotional, food-induced orgasm. The poet deftly combines the corporeal with the spiritual, but there is no flurry. Everything is composed, almost like a delicate sweetmeat: “On one half of white sandesh rose petals / rest with funereal simplicity.”
But one cannot eat too much sweet. So, towards the end of the book there is one poem dedicated to telebhaja (vegetables coated in besan and fried). Shops selling telebhaja are also ubiquitous in Calcutta. In 2015, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had earned brickbats and ridicule for suggesting that the economic model of the state depended on these. Chaudhuri also takes a potshot at this: “The main industry / in Kolkata— / real estate / and telebhaja.” He draws a comparison between the manner in which fried vegetables rise in a wok full of oil and multi-storeyed buildings are coming up all over the city.
Humour is the greatest strength of this book, but perhaps nowhere more evident than in the poem “Shyamalda”. At a rural shop, the character eats sweets from a display cases full of ants and flies. When the narrator asks what he would do if there were an insect on his food, Shyamalda replies: “I would flick it off, and eat!” This line might make you laugh out at his unconcern for hygiene or gluttony, but you might also be aware of the relation between the frequent famines of Bengal and the obsession with food.
The writer’s book of poems, Visceral Metropolis, was published in 2017 and his novel, Ritual, is forthcoming this year