To Kolkata, With Love—Conversations Over Breakfast
6 AM. It was mid-January. I remember getting off the train at Howrah. It bustled with sounds. I remember manoeuvring past railway platforms lined with passengers in their deep sleep. They were overnight wanderers waiting for their morning train. Perhaps, late arrivers catching some sleep.
Outside the station—a large colonial building built by the British—I had chai. In fact, we had chai. I was with Sahid. For over three months, he’d become my travel companion in India. I’d pinpoint him places on the geographically-vast, culturally-diverse Indian map. On most days, it took him less than two seconds to nod his head, an enthusiastic yes to my travel plans. Some days, though, he would look at me with a raised eyebrow, scratch his head and tell me that it wouldn’t be practical to hop trains from one coast to another within a day. I’d smile, and probably curse India for not being a tiny island stranded in the ocean. In other words, India wasn’t small like the place I hail from. India wasn’t Sri Lanka. On most days, I was glad it wasn’t Sri Lanka.
Outside the British-built colonial remnants of Howrah, my cup of chai in a mildly-cold Kolkata morning gave me life. I had it with two cookies, one costing me three Indian bucks. The previous night, I slept on a top bunk in a sleeper-class compartment. There was little wiggle room to move my head, so I’d make sure to lay straight for the entire night.
When chai was over, I stood on the pavement, WhatsApped Nathan to show Howrah. It’s a ritualistic call. When I travel alone, he lives miles across me, but I carry him in my heart, in my travels and in my words. He’d be on his way to work and I’d scream in joy about a plate of roadside biryani or shed tears because my heart sometimes shatters in pieces, as I try acquiring bits of the Indian cultural landscape.
I remember passing the iconic Howrah Bridge, sitting on a quintessentially Kolkatan yellow taxi. My friend stood in queue for thirty minutes to reserve it. It was more expensive than Uber. I remember mellow rays of the orange sun, slowly kissing the iron gates of the bridge that connects the two banks. They flickered through the stained glass window of our taxi, bringing me joy. I tried capturing the golden ball, gradually raising higher to warm the vibrant cityscape. No phone camera would ever do justice to the earth’s marvels.
On Sudder Street, we walked past people from nearby hotels who screamed ROOM in our face and eventually found a rundown building with colonial chic vibes. Walking inside the unlit hotel felt as I was venturing into a 20th-century ghost building in an Enid Blyton novel. We climbed up the classic old wooden steps, each devising a creak sound. And I giggled. I remember standing on the road outside, looking at our hotel building, where marvelous tree roots decided to run and tangle through dilapidated walls.
I loved every bit of it.
In India, I’d always have two breakfasts. At home in Guwahati, I’d wake up to breakfast in bed: chai with cookies, cake, biscuits or croissants filled with chocolate which come wrapped in a ten-rupee packet. Thirty minutes later, Shaid would make me the real breakfast. Sometimes it’s poha, flattened rice flakes mixed with curd, milk, palm sugar syrup and sliced fruits.
On other days, it’s a mixed veggie fry with toast, and sunny-side-up eggs with notes of tangy tomatoes. Sometimes, there’s toast with honey collected in a subtropical jungle in Meghalaya. In chilly Guwahati mornings, my friend heats the glass bottle to remelt the solidified honey. Thirty minutes later, I’d have another cup of chai with hints of ginger.
In Kolkata too, I’d have another breakfast. We sat on a small roadside bench in an inside alley on Sudder Street. Here, mornings come alive with cups of joy—or, chai served in small clay pots. I remember having two slices of bread toasted and filled with a thick, creamy layer of salty cheese. It was sprinkled with little sugar. There was also a hearty omelette served in a tin plate. Sahid would read The Telegraph, and I, my newest India Today magazine which talks about the food that goes to waste in India, despite millions of Indians going to bed hungry.
We’d read, talk and smile with strangers. We’d watch small kids clinging to their dad’s hands as they walk to school. Their dad, like mine once did, carried their school bag. A group of teenage students sat in a rickshaw, cracking jokes, giggling loudly. Their rickshaw wala smiled. In Kolkata, there’s happiness in the early city air.
Kolkata was love. It’s charmingly old school. Think of men riding their cycle early morning to distribute the daily newspaper. Uncles retreating on roadside benches reading every page with extra attention, filtering each news. They wear thick glasses with a black frame. Another would cycle, carrying hens to the butcher man. Middle-aged desi women hurry to work, dressed up in long kurtis and colourful sarees. A light Indian sweater hugs their body, giving warmth in winter mornings.
Sometimes, I don’t remember the conversations I had. Sometimes, my mind is heavily occupied that it doesn’t remember the words I shared with a friend. Sometimes, I eat in silence. Other times, we laugh, giggle and chatter a lot. But on most days, breakfasts come with joy, just as it did in Kolkata when I visited her this January morning,
Until next time,
PS: My friend Sahid took all these amazing photos.
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