May 12, 2015

Art at the bus stand, offal on the plate

Spotting typos in political graffiti, using GPS to get to the next meal, getting complimented by India's greatest ever footballer: all in two weeks' work in Kolkata

The message is loud and not too clear © Karthik Krishnaswamy/ESPNcricinfo

April 25
Land late at night, get into a cab, and see a familiar pair of fish-shaped, kohl-lined eyes gazing placidly at me as I look out of the window. It's a Jamini Roy painting, and it's on the wall of a bus shelter. I see a few more of them over the next couple of kilometres. I saw an exhibition of Roy's work just the day before, at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, and I find it interesting to see it here, out in public space, for anyone to look at, be moved by, or even - as you might if you're waiting for a bus at the end of a long day - ignore.

April 26
Take a walk down to the New Market area, grab lunch, return to hotel. I'm informed by a member of the housekeeping staff that a fire has been raging in a building in that neighbourhood, not far from where I'd been walking. Smoke continues to pour out of it through the afternoon, and it's still visible from the Eden Gardens when I get into my seat for Kolkata Knight Riders versus Rajasthan Royals. Rain has pelted down for a couple of hours leading up to the match, which is eventually abandoned, but no one has stayed away.

April 27
Solitary dinner at a Park Street restaurant. It's enlivened when the staff change channels and the IPL gives way to a match between the Justice of India XI and the Supreme Court XI. It's at an empty Feroz Shah Kotla, and it's a tennis-ball match in coloured kit. They're showing every ball. Potbellied bowlers waddle up to the crease and deliver wides nearly every second ball. The harried wicketkeeper doesn't dive to stop them, choosing instead to scramble after the ball. Occasionally a ball is in line with the stumps or thereabouts, and a batsman connects with a swipe that doesn't travel very far. The restaurant staff watch ten minutes of it and switch back to the IPL, and the jarringly pleasing sight of M Vijay batting.

April 28
The Municipal Corporation election results are out, and jubilant Trinamool Congress workers buzz around the city on motorbikes, waving flags. This alerts me to the campaign posters and graffiti that I hadn't really noticed over the last couple of days. All of them contain these words: "Press the button on this symbol." Some say "boton" instead.

Opposite a café in the genteel neighbourhood of Gariahat, I see more graffiti, but it has nothing to do with the elections. It's three stencilled silhouettes, with the words "#Those Missing Girls" spray-painted next to them. It's ostensibly meant to provoke reflection about the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by militants just over a year ago, but it induces an entirely different reaction from a woman at the table next to mine. "Why are they spoiling such a nice wall?" she asks her companions.

Paan, and a helping of soulful tunes © Karthik Krishnaswamy/ESPNcricinfo

April 29
Nine days ago, Ankit Keshri, the former Bengal Under-19 captain, died following a collision in a cricket match. The Cricket Association of Bengal and Kolkata Knight Riders have paid tribute to him over the last few days, and posters of Keshri have covered every wall at the Eden Gardens. Now I'm at a condolence meeting for him at East Bengal, the club he played for. I'm early, and I'm nearly alone in the small auditorium. A garlanded photo of Keshri sits on a table near the dais, and sombre Bengali music issues from the speakers. For the first time, the full, overwhelming force of it - of the death of a 20-year-old boy while playing cricket - hits me.

I decide to step out till the meeting begins, and wander to the club ground, where a junior hockey match is on. The sun blazes down. The parents watch from the bleachers. It must have been a difficult week for them, even if they maintain appearances, chatting with each other, holding tiffin boxes for their kids.

April 30
The city is in the grip of a bandh, but the streets around the Esplanade still have a degree of bustle to them. Most of the restaurants are open, and on my way to lunch at one, I'm stopped in my tracks by a bunch of posters on the makeshift walls of a paan shop. Mohammed Rafi, arguably the greatest male voice in the history of Hindi film music, beams out of them all. I'm a fan too, and I'm intrigued. The owner of the shop, Mohammad Muniruddin, says he knew Rafi well and even stayed with him in Mumbai. There's only one voice issuing from his stereo, needless to say, and I spend ten minutes standing there, listening, before hunger pangs take over.

Back at the Eden for the night game, and thankfully some cricket - Knight Riders against Chennai Super Kings. There are more yellow shirts than purple at the stadium, but the deafening roar that greets every Knight Riders boundary or wicket and the relative silence that follows every Super Kings equivalent show there are far more home fans at the ground. They just don't wear their kit religiously like Super Kings fans do. Or maybe it's because the yellow shirts simply pop out even if they're in a distant stand. It doesn't help that I'm colour-blind, and that the flags waved by the Knight Riders fans look to me like a paler version of the yellow ones waved by the Super Kings fans.

May 1
Two years ago, when I first visited Kolkata, a friend mailed me a list of eating spots in the city and what to try in each of them. Tonight I seek out the mysteriously named kabiraji cutlet. What is it? I don't ask, I simply order. It turns out to be a regular sort of chicken cutlet, except it's dipped in beaten egg before it's fried. The air bubbles crisp up in the oil, forming little beads on the crust. I like it well enough, but I'm disappointed they haven't served it with kashundi, the often nose-tinglingly pungent Bengali mustard sauce that is easily my favourite condiment in the universe.

I go back to the hotel and look up the dish. Kabiraji, the internet informs me, is a colloquial twist on "coverage or cover egg cutlet", a popular dish during the Raj.

New Market snoozes during a bandh © Hindustan Times

May 3
East Bengal and the Maidan, once again. This time I'm there to talk to their players. The sun blazes down while they practise, and a couple of mounted policemen trot by to watch the net session. They're talking about last night's Knight Riders match in Bangalore. For the second time this season, they've lost a rain-shortened game. One of them laments Knight Riders' lack of power players at the top of the order. "Bangalore have Gayle, Kohli, AB de Villiers. Chennai have Smith, McCullum, Raina. We only have Pandey, Monday, Tuesday." He snorts dismissively when I remind him that Manish Pandey won his team the IPL final last season.

In the evening I meet Chuni Goswami, perhaps India's greatest ever footballer. He was the star inside-forward of the side that won the Asian Games gold in 1962, and reportedly turned down an offer from Tottenham Hotspur. He also played for Bengal in two Ranji Trophy finals, captaining them in the second. I meet him at South Club, which has hosted a number of Davis Cup matches, and he tells me he even picked up tennis towards the end of his cricket career. "Good club level," he tells me, "and at the local and handicap level I won quite a number of tournaments." At 77, his memory for details of matches from the '60s remains razor-sharp, and he makes my day by calling me a "charming young man".

May 4
A one-sided match at the Eden Gardens - Sunrisers Hyderabad barely show up, especially with the bat - gives me room to ponder the differences between the crowds here and in Chennai, where I covered a couple of games earlier in the season. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Chennai.)

I notice that while the Kolkata crowd is more partisan - they barely acknowledge the names of David Warner or Shikhar Dhawan when the announcer reads out the XIs after the toss, while Chennai gave them a fairly hearty cheer - they express their support of their own team less creatively. At Chepauk, the crowd use the post-10pm window - when the announcements and music cease - to fill the air with chants that range from player names - "Bravo, Bravo" - to pure onomatopoeia - "gumtha-lakkadi galagalagala, hoo-ha, hoo-ha!" At the Eden Gardens, they hardly ever go beyond "K-K-R! K-K-R!" or "We want sixer!"

May 5
Offal. I love it. I've eaten liver, kidney, brain, goat lungs, and even goat testicles, but the thing on my plate tonight is something different, something specific to Kolkata. It's called khiri, and it's skewered, flame-grilled pieces of cow udder. It tastes like beef but it's milder, and has none of the mineral notes or unusual textures of other offal. I'd heartily recommend it as a starting point for anyone who's curious about offal but is still a little squeamish about eating it.

May 6
Jadavpur University Ground, Salt Lake. East Bengal are playing the second day of a two-day game against Kalighat, and it's their first match since Ankit Keshri's death. It was here that the accident happened. At the end of the game, one of the players points out the spot. Keshri ran in from the deep - memory is a curious thing; some players say he was fielding at deep extra cover, some say sweeper cover, and others long-off - dived forward, and collided with the bowler as both pursued a high catch. "It was near where that dog is sitting now," the player tells me. It could be any ground anywhere, dusting down after a club match. The shadows have lengthened, the ground staff are busy watering and sweeping. Just beyond one of the square boundaries, a flamboyant showers yellow flowers on the edge of the outfield.

The Maidan: where Kolkata comes to play © Getty Images

May 7
I arrive at the e-ticket counter a little later than I usually do, and see people posing for photographs, holding up their tickets. I realise why: because it's the culmination of a long and painful wait in a noisy, restless squiggle of humanity that is a queue only in name. People at the back yell out at stragglers crowding the counter but outside the barricades, imagining they're going to sneak into the line. One man screams "KKR! KKR!" at anyone passing by.

It remains the chorus of the evening as Knight Riders cruise to another one-sided but low-key win, this time over Delhi Daredevils. That's how they like to do it. It isn't fun for the neutral, but their fans love it.

May 8
I decide to trust the GPS on my phone to guide me to lunch. I don't realise that it's set, by default, to "car", and therefore takes one-ways into account and steers me through a longer, more circuitous route than the "walk" option. The longer route is also the more scenic, and I find myself ambling past a crumbling old building with a wall dedicated to the IPL and Kolkata Knight Riders. It has posters of all the winning teams, a fixture list, and is painted in purple (I think), though a paler purple than the Knight Riders jersey, and yellow, which I suppose approximates its gold trim.

When my phone tells me my destination has arrived, I realise I'm nowhere near it. I ask for directions instead, and soon I'm sitting in front of my first plate of Kolkata-style biryani on this visit. It's distinguished by the chunks of potato in it, which have cooked long and slow with the rice and the meat and the spices and have absorbed every flavour. The potatoes are quite possibly yummier than the pieces of mutton.

May 9
Final home match for Knight Riders, and they're playing Kings XI Punjab. For once it's a thriller. For once the crowd is anxious. Manish Pandey shows up on the big screen at the 12-over mark of their chase, cups his ear, and says in Bengali: "Kolkata, I can't hear you." No one responds. Their team needs 98 from 48 balls. Andre Russell and Yusuf Pathan tonk 40 runs off the next two overs, and Bollywood takes over the big screen. Juhi Chawla, the Knight Riders co-owner, smiles. Usha Uthup, one of the most distinctive voices and personalities in Indian cinema, is waving a flag, and it isn't difficult to lip-read that she's yelling "K-K-R! K-K-R!" The crowd explodes once again.

For the last time I walk from the stadium to my hotel, through the Maidan, past the Esplanade bus stand, and onto SN Banerjee Road. I go past all the little eating joints that I had made a mental note to try out. Next time, I tell myself. Next time.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on May 13, 2015, 10:12 GMT

    this is a nice article. many thanks to the writer and specially thanks for writing on Kolkata...

  • Dummy4 on May 13, 2015, 4:33 GMT

    Wish you had watched a cricket match in the Eden Gardens in the 70s and 80s. It used to be a very knowledgeable crowd then; they would appreciate anything cricket irrespective of whether that came from the home team or not. It used to be the most sporting ground in the country. Now unfortunately the cross section of supporters (specially for the IPL) has changed. It is more of a social statement to be seen at these matches - appreciating good cricket is secondary.

  • Iman on May 13, 2015, 4:21 GMT

    Fantastic article Karthik. Loved every bit of it. Especially that "aloo in Biriyani" part. You will be surprised to know that there's actually a history behind it. That's for you to find out. Thanks for making me nostalgic. Miss my city, miss the absolute cacophony of Eden, and more so as any Calcuttan (yes most of us still prefer to be called by this name) miss the aloo. Thanks for the article.

  • Dummy4 on May 12, 2015, 20:25 GMT

    O you devil Nostalgia! Nice write up. Have walked on those streets, played on those grounds, witnessed mammoth matches in that revered ground and walked back all the way to Sealdah to catch a train to go home. Those streets (after India's losses) have seen my tears and on better days (as after Kumble's 6-12), seen me go nuts in celebration. Man, you cooked up the perfect storm in my memory lanes by including two of the most important things in my life in the same article over and over again: food and cricket. O you devil!

  • Dummy4 on May 12, 2015, 8:57 GMT

    Fantastic article on Kolkata and cricket which brought tears to my eyes.

  • Cricinfouser on May 12, 2015, 6:05 GMT

    What a lovely, charming piece. As a cricket-lover, foodie and Kolkatan living in Chennai, I loved this article on multiple levels :)

  • D on May 12, 2015, 4:52 GMT

    Well, the KKR purple is truly a hideous colour. No surprise that Shah Rukh Khan, given the jarring, garish nature of the films he stars in, owns a team that plays in ugly purple! It's not a surprise that a lot of people in Kolkata would not be caught dead wearing that.

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