Friday, September 12, 2008

Nizams' Roll

I am sure Calcuttans of any age will still remember with nostalgia our once famous “Mughlai Paratha”! There is no historical record whether Mughal Emperor Babur or his last known descendent Bahadur Sha had ever tasted this heavenly delight. Their souls must surely be repenting if they didn’t!

Special dough made of flour, water, yeast and oil is stretched thin like a big saucer; a raw egg is then splattered at the centre, a dash of cooked minced meat, some chopped raw onion, green chili and salt added, and then the ends folded to make it to an eight inch square shape which is then fried to a crispy brown color to give the final shape to a Mughlai Paratha! There are, however, too many ifs and buts and I am sure nobody will be trying my recipe.
There used to be a number of local joints but Anadi’s Cabin at Esplanade was renowned to be one of the best. Chowringhee Restaurant, another famous joint, was right next door but we had unquestioning faith in Anadi. Mughlai Paratha with Kasha Mangsho (Bhuna Ghost or Stir fried mutton are only translation but can not match the taste!) at Anadi’s Cabin used to be our cherished heavenly meal!

Unfortunately the process of making Mughlai parathas was rather elaborate, requiring special skills and it could not even be partly prepared in advance. Also it was not possible to eat it while walking. Culinary experts in Calcutta were searching for something which could be equally tasty but could be made in a jiffy and could be eaten while on the move.

The Roll, which could be a fusion cuisine, was thus born to give hot dogs, burgers, and wraps a run for their money.

Succulent pieces of mutton or chicken are marinated for hours in tandoori spices, salt, yogurt, grated green papaya, skewered in thin bamboo or metal skewers and then roasted over a charcoal fire. The wrap is from dough made of flour, water. yeast and plenty of oil. Once the dough gains a certain elasticity it is flattened into the shape of a pan cake and then shallow fried on a flat griddle to make the outer surface slightly crisp. The roasted meat is then lightly fried on the griddle and rolled into the wrap with chopped raw onion, green chili, lemon juice, tomato-chili sauce and rock salt. The whole thing is then wrapped with paper and sealed at one end so that it can be eaten without dirtying your hands. The taste is simply heavenly!

Besides famous joints like “Begam”, “Badsha”, “Bedwin” and “Bawarchi” there are lots of roadside mobile eateries, operating only during evening, which are specialized in different type of rolls like mutton roll, chicken roll, egg roll and their combinations, adding to the gastronomical delight to the Calcuttans.

Though experts may differ, I feel Nizams in Esplanade is one of the best joints for rolls in Calcutta and could also be the pioneer. In the sixties they used to call it “Kati Roll” since the skewers were made of thin bamboo sticks (Kati in Bengali).

I was very fond of Nizams’ rolls for their heavenly taste. In mid-seventies I used to come to Calcutta almost every month and frequented Nizams along with my friend Debu (D. M. Mitra from L&T). We would go for some English movie either in Metro or Light House carrying ”to go” packs from Nizams and open the packs as soon as the lights were dimmed to fill the enter surroundings with the special aroma of Nizams’ roll. The collective sigh of despair “Oh! Nizams’ rolls” from the rest of the deprived audience used to add to their awesome taste!

That day, we were a little late for a movie and decided to visit Nizams after the show was over. The place was quite crowded but we could locate some vacant chairs near a corner where one guy was already munching a roll with his eyes shut with satisfaction. We quickly ordered two mutton rolls and headed for the vacant chairs.
“Are these chairs vacant?” Debu asked the guy very politely
Most reluctantly he opened his eyes and gestured in the affirmative.
Service in Nizams was extremely fast and we got our rolls nearly as soon as we sat down.
We just managed our first bite when that guy opened his eyes once again and asked
“What type of rolls did you order?”
“Mutton rolls” Debu answered innocently
“Are you really sure? I don’t think they are serving you mutton at that price. It must be beef” the guy stated like a “Mr. Know-It-All” .
Not that we were much bothered about having beef, but we could suspect that he was up to something.
“What type of roll have you ordered?” Debu asked him still sounding innocent.
“I did not take any risk and have ordered Chicken roll” boasted the guy.
It became clear that he was trying to spoil our fun and we decided to retaliate. As usual Debu outsourced the dirty job to me.
“I do not think a reputed joint like Nizams will ever serve beef instead of mutton for fear of communal backlash. Though we don’t mind even if it is beef. It could also be buffalo meat” I said nonchalantly while taking a bite of my roll.
“Why buffalo meat?” the guy asked with surprise, pausing in mid-bite.
“If they serve buffalo meat there will not be any religious backlash. Moreover buffalos are healthier so the quality of meat is excellent.” I explained like an expert.
The guy seemed to be convinced with my argument but was visibly disappointed that his initial move to spoil our fun had failed.
“By the way are you sure you are having a Chicken roll” I asked him with a tone of deliberate suspicion.
“What else could it be?” the guy replied with a hint of suspicion and stopped half way from taking his bite.
“I read some report that population of Cheel (Perrier Kites) near the trash dumping yards are dwindling. People are poaching them and selling them to railway caterings and restaurants. I was told they taste exactly like chicken and nobody could find the difference” I replied casting a doubtful look at the roll he was holding.
The guy made a face as if he was abut to throw up, gave me a dirty look, dropped the partially eaten roll on his plate and ran for the wash basin. We did see him stopping briefly to settle his bill on his way out.
Debu and I were very hungry and went on to order a second round of “mutton rolls”.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The haunted house (Concluding Part)

From the silhouette and the gait I guessed that it could be Bandhu.
“Who is there? Is it Bandhu?” I shouted with as much boldness as I could muster.
“Selam Sab (Sir)! I am Bandhu” the figure in the dark answered in a slurred voice.
“Bandhu?” I gave a sigh of relief. “What are you doing here at this hour?” I enquired

By that time Bandhu crossed the lawn and came up to the gate. He was holding a sickle in his right hand and a small object in his left. He was quite drunk and I could smell Mohuwa Tadi (country liquor). I was a little cautious considering he was drunk and armed. Tribals have a reputation for being temperamental and there have been several instances of unexplained violent actions with the slightest of provocation.

“There is an evil spirit in this house. I had consulted an exorcist in our village and planted a talisman given by him in the kitchen garden” he said. He was barely able to keep him standing. “Since you sacked me, I am taking away the talisman. Don’t blame me, if anything happens to you now” he added and walked away into the dark.

The conversation did not lift my spirit. As I stood there in complete darkness I realized suddenly that I was supposed to enter a house which till the other day no one dared to even look at during the night. “My God! I’ll have to cross about fifty meters to reach the main door, unlock the door and switch on the lights” I thought. Anyway I was able to do all that without fainting.

Once the lights were on, I got back my confidence, at least partially. It was a little warm. So I took a bath, changed and again set out for the club since there was hardly anything to do in the house. I had to go to the club anyway for my dinner.

Conversations at the club also did not go well. All my friends were quite anxious at the thought that I would be spending the night alone in the house but nobody ventured to give me company. All of a sudden I realized that most of my friends were authorities on the paranormal and had several memorable personal experiences with ghosts! By the time I left the club at about 11:00 PM after a few games of Table Tennis and a light dinner I was fully conversant with the modus operandi of ghosts of different kinds!

On reaching home, I dressed for the night and lay down on my bed with a story book in hand. I had the habit of reading at least for an hour before going to sleep. I was engrossed with the book may be for an hour when all of sudden I heard a sound “Dhoop…. Dhoop” as if somebody was walking on the roof with a measured gait! I was tense and had goose bumps all over my body! All of a sudden the sound stopped. After a few minutes again I heard the sound “Dhoop….. Dhoop…… Dhoop” followed by a sound “Garrrrr….Garrrrr” as if something was being rolled on the roof. I also heard some sound as if somebody was moving in the kitchen garden!

I did not know what to do till I remembered my mother’s advice that “if you hear an unusual sound, you must find out the source of the sound immediately. Otherwise it will only add to your anxiety”. I thought “If I do not find out the source of this unusual sound, I won’t be able to stay in this house”. I got up from my bed, took a two-cell torch and the house keys from the drawer and proceeded towards the main door. I searched for a suitable stick but could not find one. As an after thought I took the eight-inch blade hunting cum throwing knife which was hanging from a hook behind my bed room door. I was, however, not very sure whether a knife could give any protection against a sprit.

I recalled my mother’s advice and switched on all the lights in our bungalow. There were lights on all the four corners of the house. However, they were partially hidden by bougainvillea creepers, thereby creating a mosaic of light and shadow.

I came out from the main door, locked it and cautiously proceeded along the cemented foot path encircling the house to reach the kitchen garden. When I was going around the corner at the back, a dark object silently went past my head. I was startled and immediately looked up and directed the torch beam overhead but could not see anything. Suddenly from the middle of the kitchen garden which was quite dark, some dark shadows darted past the fencing. I stopped for a moment to compose myself and again proceeded cautiously to check all the trees and surroundings with my torch all the while holding my knife in ready position.

When I reached the guava tree which was at the middle of the kitchen garden, I found lots of partially eaten guavas on the ground with pug marks of dog like animals. I heard some sound overhead and directed the torch beam there to find lots of bats flying! I also got a feeling that somebody must be watching me from across the fence. You will always have this sixth sense if you have any experience of roaming in the forest. I directed the torch beam towards my right, across the fence and could locate the silhouette of a pack of jackals with their eyes gleaming under the torch beam. Though I was scared, I knew they were not going to attack me. I picked up a twig and threw at them and they ran away.

Now I could understand the mystery of the haunted house! The bats were feeding on guavas. Since the guava tree was covering a part of the roof, some guavas plucked by bats were falling on the roof making “Dhoop…. Dhoop” sound. Because of the slanted roof, some of them were even rolling down to the kitchen garden making the strange rolling sound “Garrrrr’. Jackals who are fond of guavas were feeding on the guavas being discarded by the bats. They were fighting among themselves and that was creating the strange sound of foot steps in the kitchen garden. I was sure that these bats were absolutely harmless fruit eating bats and that there were no vampires amongst them! And surely no werewolf among these harmless jackals!

I did not want to disturb either the bats or the jackals during their dinner and returned to my bed feeling satisfied that I had solved the mystery of the haunted house.

Santosh left for Tisco Growth Shop at Jamshedpur after a couple of months. I stayed in that house all alone for quite some time there after. I used to hear all those strange sounds from time to time but that never bothered me ever again.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The haunted house (Part II)

Ajit wanted an early release and left us within two days. We were quite low after Ajit’s departure due to the loss of a good friend and a gossiping partner. Next Sunday at breakfast, while Santosh was having his favorite Alu Paratha (stuffed Indian fried bread), Yogurt and Pickle, I broached the subject.

“Other day Muralidas told me that the so called haunted house will be renovated and offered to the willing bachelors who are not superstitious. He asked me whether we are interested,” I said casually.

Santosh was relishing his Alu Paratha and did not say anything, though I knew he was all ears on the subject.

“I told him that it is OK with me. But I can not take a decision without consulting Santosh who could be superstitious” I added, expecting a violent reaction.

“Partner (his usual address) how could you say that? I am never superstitious!” Santosh was pained. “Tell Muralidas by tomorrow itself, before he talks to anybody else, that we are interested” Santosh was quite empathetic.

Primary goal thus achieved, I immediately switched the topic, lest Santosh’s animosity towards Muralidas got the better of it and he backed out.

Early next day I contacted Muralidas to give him our consent.

“Good Morning, Mr. Muralidas; Biplab here. Finally I could convince Santosh although it took a lot of persuasion. You must give me kudos for it!”

“Good Morning, Mr. Sengupta! I am really thankful to you” Muralidas was overjoyed

“The house, however, really looks haunted. Hope you will restore it before we move in?” I suggested.

“Oh! Mr. Sengupta! Please don’t worry. I will definitely bring it to its original shape and give it a fresh coat of paint. I will also restore the lawn and the kitchen garden” Muralidas replied with all sincerity.

That afternoon we found a platoon of estate workers working on the house. Within a week it was brought to such a magnificent state that I was wondering whether Mr. Muralidas really had a change of heart. Perhaps he really wasn’t as bad as we had always thought (which was rather difficult to believe) or maybe he was instigating the ghost to take retaliatory action on us immediately on our arrival!

The news that we were moving to the haunted house spread like wild fire and became the main topic of discussion in our club for the next few days. All our Bhabis were against our decision. Even our bosses were worried.

Anyway, we managed to maintain a brave facade although we had prayers on our lips when we finally moved into the haunted house within a couple of days along with “Bandhu” our man Friday.

Bandhu was a middle-aged tribal. With his salt and pepper cropped hair, half-grown beard, four jutting out crooked front teeth, a short dhoti above his knees and a flapping kurta on top, he used to give the impression of a moving “Scare Crow”. Work wise, however, we didn’t have much to complain about.

The bungalow was really magnificent! It was slightly below the road surface. A cemented pathway led to a huge Iron Gate on the left most corner. There was no street light on the arterial roads and the ornamental gate lights (maintained by the estate department) provided a mysterious halo only near the gates. A graveled drive way extended up to an open garage. Just by the side of the garage there was a small swimming pool. A cemented three feet wide footpath encircled the whole house. There were two big bed rooms with a very big drawing cum dining hall with separate servant’s quarters. The roof was slightly slanted towards the rear for the better drainage. The lawn in front was quite big. The kitchen garden at the rear was even bigger with an assortment of big fruit bearing trees like mango, jack fruit, jamoun and a very big guava tree with branches covering a part of the roof. The barbed wire fencing at the rear was also the boundary for our colony. Between the fencing and the highway there was a forest land about three hundred meters deep.

Nothing happened for the first couple of months except our mess bill went up quite substantially, which, we guessed, could not be attributed to supernatural involvement. We discussed the same with Bandhu who could not give any proper explanation except attributing it to general price rise.

After breakfast we used to walk down to our office which was about a kilometer away.

That day we both started for our office together but halfway down I realized that I left an important file at home.

Santosh, I left an important file at home and must fetch it. You please go ahead. I will meet you in the office” I said and hurried back.

While entering the house I heard some noise inside! Bandhu opened the door with a surprised expression. Entering the main hall, I found at least eight to ten kids, eldest may be around fifteen along with a very fat lady were having a great feast. I did not say a word; just collected my file and left.

During a tea break, I informed Santosh about the episode.
“Partner, what Bandhu did is unpardonable. We are already paying Bandhu more than the standard rate. Even when we asked for his explanation for the higher mess bill, he did not tell us the truth. I know, you may be feeling bad, but we must sack Bandhu immediately” said Santosh after thinking for some time while smoking.

We had an unwritten understanding that one will always support the other on such issues and hence the decision was taken immediately. When we came home for our lunch, we released Bandhu after paying him a suitable compensation. Bandhu probably could understand his fault and did not argue.

Same day Santosh went for a tour to Calcutta in the evening.

While returning from office, I went to club for a game of billiard and returned to our bungalow around eight in the evening. The whole house was dark since there was nobody to switch on the lights. While I was opening the gate it made a creaking sound and then I saw a dark figure in white clothing coming from the rear side of the bungalow! I froze! [To be continued]