6. a special dinner

Tonight we had dinner at the home of a Kolkata family. Let me tell you how it came to happen.

On a day tour in Cappadocia in 2015, we met a Kolkatta couple whose company we greatly enjoyed. Later back at home in Australia, I had an email from Sanjeev and Gauri inviting us to join them for dinner in their home on our coming trip. Quite overwhelmed by such a generous offer, we accepted enthusiastically. Not only would I have the pleasure of seeing them again, but John and I would have the privilege of visiting an authentic Indian family home.

One small disclaimer: I listened very carefully to everything said to me during the evening, but if my interpretation isn’t correct, forgive me.

So back to the story.

Tuesday evening: Sanjeev and Gauri collect us in the late afternoon in a taxi. I am so glad to see them again and John is delighted to meet them. We are taking a gift of long stemmed tuberoses and dark pink roses (gulab lal) from Bangalore, bought at the Hooghly market that morning, a tea towel with Australian animals on it, and some of my favourite Paton’s chocolate and toffee-covered macadamia nuts.

Not far from our hotel The Oberoi Grand in Chowringee Road, we see Sanjeev’s family’s office building, where Sanjeev (finance) and his cousin Anurag (management) have their administration office. Their business is in manufacturing, with two factories. They live in the north-east of the city in a quiet leafy residential area.

On arrival we meet Anura’s wife Rashmi, Sanjeev’s mother Asher and his father Sushil. Plus his son Saurabh and also Cushi, a young girl who is the daughter of his youngest cousin. We sit in the roomy living area with low-line modern sofas on three sides facing a huge television. There is a very sophisticated lighting system which Saurabh operates to give a subdued effect.

We are treated like royalty. Thought has been put into what we might like to eat. The family is vegetarian. We’re served chaata, or nibbles, as we chat about the family India and its customs, travel, politics, the world economy. We eat samosa or singhara, and papra, round pieces of bakes flatbread topped with onion, potato pineapple and fried angel hair noodles. Both are delicious.

Then rewri, tiny little sesame seed covered discs which originate in a place near Delhi where grandfather was born.

When Sanjeev’s cousin Anurag arrives, the liquor cabinet is opened. Anurag is too hard to pronounce, they say. Call him AA. I call him double-A. They all laugh. John tries pastis, and we both have a delicious margarita.

Sanjeev’s son Saurabh goes to the Jesuit school St Xavier’s College where all the men in the family have gone. He is in year 10, about to take the Board examinations, which are very important to gain access to subjects of choice in the following year. Everything is focussed on that at the moment, and Sanjeev and Gauri will not travel until that is over. Their son is a gentle well-mannered boy with an intent to do well. Neither sport nor cricket is important. Education is everything. Classes start at 6.40am and finish at 1pm, in time for another batch of students to start their day. Saurabh studies 11 subjects and is keen on science. You need very good marks to get into the better colleges after high school.

That's Sanjeev and Gauri on the left with John, Saurabh in the middle, double-A and Rasmi on the right.

Sanjeev’s grandfather started the business. He came to Kolkata and had three sons, working in the industrial sector and doing well. He had three boys, and those boys all had 2 boys each. The extended family live in the four-storeyed family home with large iron entry gates on the driveway, balconies on each floor overlooking a huge mango tree on the street. Gauri says it bears the most beautiful sweet mangoes, coloured from yellow through to orange and red. She also shows me their puja - the word means the act of prayer and also the altar or shrine where the family worships. They are very liberal in attitude. There are religious icons from all over the India and the rest of the world. Sushil says he won’t be surprised if a picture of Jesus appears there after someone in the family goes to a Christian country. I say I love Ganesh, Gauri says she is partial to Lord Shiva.

They have one live-in helper and several others on a daily basis. The wives do not work but look after the house and family. I think Asher as the senior woman is the ‘boss’ but the two wives do the cooking and supervising. The men also direct operations to some extent. For instance, Anurag has a creative talent which he is putting to good use in the renovation of the home.

Three generations of the family live on different floors, with a communal kitchen, dining and living area. Their respective fathers are I think, retired.

The whole system seems to work like clockwork. The life of the house centres around food, looking after the husbands who work hard, and the education of the children. Double-A jokingly announces that his wife Rashmi cannot go for a week without going to the movies twice. Cinema is the most important form of theatrical performance in India, and is backed in most cities by a film industry. We watch a very short Bollywood Holi festival dance and song performance on the television. It’s infectiously funny and catchy.

Eating at home is done casually at a table which seats 6 people. The many people in the house eat in stages, as they wish, sitting with whomever is about at the time. But never before 9pm. Last night John and I ate with Sanjeev and Double-A, Cushi who lives on the floor below, and Saurabh. Mummy sat near me at the table at different times, as did Gauri and Rashmi. They were solicitous of our meal enjoyment. ‘Leave her alone she is not eating!’ ‘John are you enjoying your meal?’ ‘Would you care for some Bengal pickles?’

We are shown how to eat with our hands, pulling pieces of the unleavened flat bread on our dinner plates with our right hand alone, folding it slightly to make a scoop, and dipping it into the bowls of potato curry (aloo matar), cottage cheese with creamy masala sauce (paneer) and raita. It’s important not to eat with your left hand. It isn’t long before John gives up, using cutlery to eat everything on his plate. I join him. Everything is totally delicious. Our main course is a spinach, rice and cheese bake. Double-A opens a bottle of a very pleasant Indian cabernet sauvignon.

Other members of the family come and go. Vijay, double-A’s father arrives, then double-A and Rashmi’s son Varun who has been at the home of a friend, practising the guitar. He plays us a few bars and we clap.

Dessert is served back in the living room on the sofas while the women eat. Bengal is famous for its sweets. We have a delicately flavoured small ball called nolan gur sandesh made from cottage cheese and the molasses of the date palm, which grows in the delta in the mangroves. The sap can only be milked at night, and has to be harvested before dawn, because once the sun hits it, it spoils. It is only available at this time of the year.

Then a bowl of a brown dessert: moong dal halwa which is made of pulses and milk solids.

To end our meal, we are offered a palate cleanser of betel leaf, sweet or savoury. The leaves are folded and treated with lime juice, betel nuts, anise, catech, sugar. The principle is to eat something alkaline to balance acid of stomach. John takes a bitter one and puts the whole leaf in his mouth which causes great merriment. With his cheek sticking out, and everyone laughing uproariously he asks if he should swallow it. More laughter. NO NO. I choose a sweet one and bite off just a little. It leaves an after-taste of sweet musk stick in my mouth.

In India, when a boy marries, his wife comes to live with his parents. A girl must go to live with her husband’s family. Being a girl I imagine would be an intimidating business.

Marriages are arranged, with careful consideration given by the parent to the background of the proposed person. If the marriage is for a son, not only does the son need to like the girl, but the parents and whole family are going to have to live with her, so it’s a very important decision. Gauri and Sanjeev met for only 10 mins before they met again to be married. Sanjeev laughs, ‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure’. Gauri laughs too, and says ‘What do you think Shelley? Does Sanjeev look as if he is repenting? Do I?’ Her eyes dance with merriment. They are obviously deeply happy.

We have an early start the next day for our flight to Goa. Sanjeev and Gauri insist on coming back to the city in the taxi with us, despite our remonstrations that they should stay at home. ‘Would you deprive us of another half hour of your company?’ says Sanjeev. ‘Or our romantic half-hour drive back?’. Gauri smiles ‘With a taxi-driver?’

In the foyer of our hotel, they give us two books: India Five Senses by Raymann Gill Rai. And Kalkatta by Kunal Basu. I'm looking forward to reading them at home.

What a special, special night. We are so grateful, and sad to say goodbye.

That’s enough for today buddies. I’ll keep the flower markets for another instalment. Next stop, Goa!