Chinese in Calcutta : Memories Old & Sweet

I was barely 8 years old then.  Come Christmas, my father would take me to a place called Toy Land. This was a small shop located in Brabourne Road, beyond  Writers Building – the Ministers Office. During the Christmas there was a Toy Packet, for distribution among neighbourhood children, sponsored by some benevolent organisation in UK, which was delivered from this shop. It was  perhaps 1962, as I was happily proceeding after collecting the gift packet, I noticed a ground floor office in a paper-lanterns-chinese-new-year-decorations-2large building with broken glass panes and windows… a lot of pedestrians were peeping through the broken windows. I was too short to see much, but nevertheless saw an abandoned office, with deserted office tables, chairs and the sundries. My father explained “this was a Chinese  Bank, once the war started, some people pelted stones.. and the office is now closed and abandoned. .. there is no bank now.”. I  heard that there was a war, but  I was a little confused and asked “But dad, the war is somewhere near the Himalayas …. Why breaking window glasses here …” ? My father did not answer to this but gave me a blank look, and, I was sure he did not approve the idea of breaking windows right here in Calcutta mid-town. Our next place, every year was the China Bazar where we bought some paper-lantern (we had only one variety then)  and some coloured paper. We used to buy them from an old lady from her road-side spread. Those were all home made and there were a few other chinese sellers along side her selling space… there was no formal shop for them. (Last I purchased those was about a decade ago… since then those sellers vanished. In their place there are now stationary shop owners who stock the paper lanterns…… all imported straight from China, available in nicely wrapped packets, and the products are machine made. I surely miss those nice people who made those passionately crafted decoratives.)

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old china bazarIt was late evening. All four of us.. my three elder sisters and myself, were busy preparing our school lessons in our front room when our uncle entered the room. He was working with a paint factory.   “Here is something very special for you” saying this he placed a box on our table. “Try this, this is called Chow Chow….  a chinese preparation…. Very tasty…. Try it.” We all jumped on it and indeed we all agreed that it was very tasty….. our first taste of a Chinese food !

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A decade later I was at a Leadership Camp. It was a camp for university students organized by St. Xaviers College, and, even though I was  studying in another college, I was attending… there were a few more like me from other colleges. During day time there were interesting sessions on leadership, and, in the evening there were cultural exposions.  Singing was my fort, especially hindi film songs, and, obviously this cultural session was my favorite part. There was one Ricky….he played guitar very well who sung many Beatles numbers.. and  he could compose songs instantly. Bangladesh liberation war was on and in one evening Ricky composed a song called “Joi Bangla”… it was a very good rendition and I became his fan. Returning to Calcutta I landed up in his house. His father was a businessman and they lived in a big two storied building in central Calcutta. There after very often I came to his house and we spent good times listening to Beatles on cassette player, and, of course many numbers sung by Ricky live ! He was my first Chinese friend. He explained that their family business is making Electro Magnet, an important component meant  for various industries.

The same year we had a group or Chinese University students, from Hong Kong,  visiting the city on an exposure visit. The entire programme for them was managed by a group of six university students of the city, including myself. We hired a mini-bus for the week-long programme, and, had good fun. We were 16 altogether, 10 chinese and 6 bengalis. Most of us spoke broken English, but we soon realized that language is indeed not a barrier before true friendship !  During the period we went on a long trip to a small village called Khari in Sunderban forest region. The villagers prepared rice and some curries. It was then we realized that our Chinese friends was not used to eat by bare hands, and in any case the villagers did not have so many spoons ! Ranjitda, oneof the villagers, soon worked out quite an innovative way out. He quickly managed to cut nice long thin tree branches, shaped them neatly, and made good chop- sticks, and they all enjoyed the meal !

On the last day of the visit, it was planned to hold a fellowship dinner. There was a restaurant near our home at Garcha  Road called Kim Wah. My good friend Tarun and self went to the place that morning and met the owner. The Chinese gentle man was quite nice and quickly understood our problem. He explained that Chinese food are not very expensive and there are frequent such programme for college goers in his place, and, that we should not feel nervous about the expenses. In the evening when we all reached there was a nice sitting arrangement. Several tables were joined together to give the look of a very large table…. On top there was a white linen. With chairs around it was indeed a gala show. This was the first time we noticed that the place had nice lamp shades … golden-red coloured. There were a number of songs presented by enthusiasts among us,  before we settled for our meal. The menue was mixed chow, mixed fried rice and chilly-chicken…. Only a few full-plates were ordered but very efficiently shared by the restaurant friends. As promised, the bill was not at all expensive…. (And then on for all our gatherings, even now , we go for the same menue) At the end there was a special performance …. Magic Show by one of us … Raja. Raja was studying science at a city college and all along the trip days Raja was very helpful…. He would get down from the bus every time there is a traffic jam and help us to have smooth ride.  His magic items were simple. Piercing a balloon with a long needle… and the balloon would not burst ! Then he will take out various colour ribbons from his mouth…. real long ones…. And finally his special item. He would gulp a long piece of white thread. …. He would then make a slit on his stomach… and then pull out the thread…. Real blood- read in colour ! Clap…..clap……clap !!  At this point Deborah Chou, the youngest Chinese friend shouted with tears on her eyes “oh no, you should not do this trick again…. You can not hurt yourself like this !”  (Little did she know that it is only a hoax, a pre-coloured thread piece was already pasted on Raja’s stomach with a transparent sticky tape, and, then in a dramatic way he only had to make a slit on the tape, to pull the red coloured thread piece !!!)

The next day when we went to the Airport to bid them good bye we were teasing Raja…”Did Deborah said Good Bye to you Raja “!! Before the departure the team leader of the Chinese students said that there should be more to this…. It was suggested by them that one of us should visit Hong Kong on an exposure trip. We all agreed that Raja should get this opportunity. A couple of months later Raja indeed left for Hong Kong. Within a week Raja’s air-mail letter arrived us…. Yes. He had a good time there…. A special mention was there that he visited Deborah’s house….and that her father was a very nice persons.  By next year Raja married Deborah and they lived happily ever-after !

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wellingtonBy next year I got my first job. It was at Bangalore and every one advised me that I should be well dressed… complete with a nice pair of shoes. As usual my good friend Tarun came to my rescue. He told me that he knew of a place, a shoe store… a Chinese “uncle” sells nice shoes at an affordable price, and the styles are quite good for young people like us. The place was on Wellesly Street near Wellington crossing. There was a signboard which simply said “Any Shoe 14.50”! Yes, Rupees Fourteen and fifty paise. I had Rs.20/- with me and guessed I could afford this luxary ! Uncle showed me a large variety and we settled for deep brown crocodile designed shoe. “You may put on and walk around so that you may know whether it was comfortable”… uncle suggested.

Now I was all ready for a new life….. I have entered the earning line !

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A Wristwatch Named Sona !

Today is a very special day for Deep. The School Final Board Exam starts today. The exam centre is a bit far away, and, he has to catch a public bus which is normally crowded. Hence he has to set out a bit early, so that he can afford to avoid boarding on a crowded one, and try the next one. It is at that moment someone asked “do you have a  wristwatch to carry ?”  Deep did not have one, and everyone agreed that he needed to carry one. There are two exam-papers to appear today. Each of two  hours  duration. One has to calculate judiciously time allocation for attempting each of the six long questions on every session ! Those days the fashion was to write long exam papers, especially on the literature subjects.  Deep’s dad said “ My elder sister had an old watch, let me check if it still works”. Soon he took out the same from a tin trunk. He wound the spring key till the end, and after a bit shaking it started rolling. It was a square dialled wrist watch…. she was a health nurse and Deep did not have any hesitation to wear it. After all the exams were over, about a week later, Deep returned the watch to his father…. after all it is a memory item for his father, and, it was placed back to the tin trunk.

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Deep is now in college doing his university studies. He still did not manage to have a watch on his own….. and yes, bringing out the same-old watch during exam days continued during university exams too during next 3 Years. During this period Deep DSCN2682got interested to own a wrist watch….. an Indian brand called HMT. There was a small outlet of this brand on the Park Street in Calcutta, at a departmental store called Hall & Anderson. One has to stand in a queue early in the morning, and, the limited number of pieces was always got exhausted within an hour and a large number of people never got a chance to procure the watches…. they always came back the next day a bit earlier to try their luck again.

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Deep’s first job, right after his university education was  in Bangalore. His office was at a tall building called Unity Building, and, lo behold there was an outlet of HMT watches. Deep never missed to spend time peeping through the show-windows on the various watches. Kamat Restaurant was  on the same building…. so this is how the rest of the lunch break was spent! He was very encouraged to note that there was not much crowd, and, they had enough stock. On the first salary  day he decided to buy a watch.  The salary he got was 265/-. In fact the salary was 300/- ,but, 35/- was deducted as p.f. During that after noon very boldly he entered the show-room and  he was happy that the salesman in the counter very  sincerely showed him various models. Two models he liked, one named Janata…. it was the cheapest available… Rs. 99/-.  Then there was this model  called Sona  costing Rs. 125/-.Deep felt it was a bit costly one, but so what… after all it is his hard earned money any way !

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It is a regular jouney now, to and fro Bangalore. Deep always preferred to have a long bath at the Madras station  on his way from Bangalore to Calcutta. Madras was the change over station.  This trip was not an exception. By the time he came out of the washroom, it was already time to catch the connecting train to Calcutta. He was literally running on the platform…. it was at the time he had a feeling that some one was shouting and was trying to catch up with him behind…. he too was almost running. Deep stopped, and looked behind… and he realised that this gentle man was indeed waiving at him from behind. He came near Deep. He was a dhoti clad middle aged man and spoke good English “ I was at the next wash basin when you were washing your face…. I saw you placing your watch at one corner of your wash basin. And then you hurriedly turned back , started running towards the platform without taking your watch ! Since then I was chasing you…. but I was no match for you…. you were too fast !”  Deep profusely thanked the gentleman, and,  Sona was back to its rightful owner !

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It was a long flight from Bangalore. I was again working at this city after a gap of about 15 years. I always felt  very cold during  a flight and always carried a heavy sweater.  I always put the sweater on before boarding at the craft and seldom took it out.  The flight almost reached Calcutta when I took out the sweater, folded them neatly, stashed it in the carry bag before landing.  When I reached home it was already late night. I took out the coins, a few rupee notes  ( I do not carry a money purse !) from the trouser’s pocket…. it was at this point Pakhi, my wife,  noticed that I have the watch but only the disc ! All the golden dial needles…. even the glass cover vanished…. it is a good for nothing piece now !  Was it at the Bangaloe guest house, that it got broke.. that I must have dashed with the door or something ? No, it could not be…. I checked my watch several times when the  flight had a delayed departure.  “Don’t bother, it was any way an old one…. it is not a great issue to be upset about”- my wife was trying to console me.  Frankly, I felt sorry….. I was sure even if I wanted,  I could not get it renovated……HMT never made those models any more !

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It is winter again ! Time for the warm clothing to show their faces again. Since morning Pakhi  is busy washing sweaters of varied colours and sizes for all the family members. Suddenly she rushed to me in the front room and said “tell me if I give you something very dear to you, what prize would you give me !”  “Well, well may be a dinner in the nearby Chinese Restaurant for all ……. but tell me what it is “ ?  She opened her palm… lo behold…. here they are…..  the  needles of my Sona….. the second-needle…. the minute-needle…. the hour-needle. They look more glittery now with a gentle soap wash.  “They were all stuck in your sweater…… and next time you take out your sweater please remove your wrist watch first”.

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With the advent of mobile phones none of us use watches any more. Not even Sona makes any guest appearance any more, except for photo-shoot for a blog write-up like this !

 

The era of wrist watch is gone. Mobile phone  has replaced it. But Sona lives on…….