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 !

Sustaining Life on Rafi !

dsc_0035Those days for our eating out was at Nizam Hotel. The choice was obvious, for,  this was the most economy restaurant for the college goers and during our college days like us, many college gangs used to enjoy Nizam’s food. It was usually rolls of varied types, they were all very cheap and those days green salads was served free. After the food our next stop was Taj Mahal Paan Shop. It was located opposite Elite Cinema, next to Aminia Hotel. The pan (specially made betel- leaf with lots of sweet add ons and areca nuts) was placed on ice- slab and served straight to the customers, ice-cold. The other interest for coming to the shop was Rafi’s song ! Any given time of the day, or night, this shop played Rafi’s choicest songs… non-stop. The shop was decorated with large size photographs of Rafi –  Mohammed Rafi. Most of us were Rafi fans and stayed on in front of the shop for quite a long time, and, like us there were many who would stand on the main road and listen to the songs intently. No doubt the owner was an ardent fan, and had a large collection of Rafi numbers.

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Last evening, decades later I went to the Taj Mahal Pan Shop, to relive the nostalgia. This time accompanied by my two grand children. I was happy that the shop was as it was. Just a few more large photo frames of Rafi were added. Our man was very much there, happily playing Rafi numbers on loudly booming speaker box. He was old now, so do I. This gave me an extra mileage to intrude into his private space to open up  some conversation. His name is Maniruddin. Decades ago he worked in a film studio and met Md. Rafi in person for a short stint, and got mesmerised by his humility, and, of course his melodious voice. Thereafter there was no stopping. He believes his is a gifted voice which can sustain one for life.  I on my part introduced him my grandson who is a Rafi fan. He was visibly happy to know that there are younger ones to carry on the mantle of Rafi fan following.

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