We spent my tenth birthday in Calcutta, as it was then called, visiting our sprawling extended family. My brother and I spent the long summer days sitting under the slow-moving fans, reading Archie comics over and over again, while waiting for my cousins to come home from school. Nearly every hour, my mother announced in irritation, “power cut,” as the fan haltingly stopped and the lights flickered and died. We ignored the grown-ups as they chastised the corruption and inefficiency of the Bengali government, instead, placidly reaching for the wooden fans that littered the tables and laying on the granite floor to soak the coolness into our bodies. Before long, my long braid sprung into loose frizz that clung to my neck and my newly acquired glasses slipped off my wet nose.
Then, the rains came and my cousins stayed home from school. We spent the days teaching each other advertisements in English and Bengali, playing the simple dice game of palanguri, and watching the sheets of water emerging from the heavens, shimmering like glass. When the rains stopped, the city was unrecognizable. A full three feet of water stood in all directions. We threw tiny paper boats from the sprawling verandah and watched the grown men pick their way across the streets to avoid floating trash and excrement.
Ignoring my grandmother’s constant urging of our favorite foods, we asked for nothing but ice-cold water. The heat lived against our skin, pressing our bodies until our American-fed stomachs revealed the bones of a monsoon diet. When the floods receded, my great-uncle and uncle took me to the crowded market. I waited with my great-uncle in the back of the plaza, searching the masses of men in creamy kurtas and plaid lunghis for my uncle’s signature broad smile. He returned ladened with earthenware pots, made with Calcutta clay and fired with West Bengal coal. The orange pots were filled with the famous Bengali sweets: gulab jamun, rasmalai, roshogolla, sandesh, mishti doi, and cham-cham. For my mother, he bought shingada, triangles of steaming pastry filled with a spiced potatoes and vegetables.
I reached inside a small pot he purchased especially for me and let the round roshogolla made of fresh milk’s cheese squeak between my teeth. For a moment, I forgot the heat, sweat, and rain of monsoon season. I licked the cardamom-scented sugar syrup from my fingers and gave him a smile that matched his: broad, wide-toothed, and open in anticipation.
When You Go…
In 1996, Calcutta was renamed to Kolkata. Sweet shops abound in Kolkata today and can be found on every street corner. KC Dass at 112 Shyambazar Bidhan Sarani, Kolkata, in Esplanade is particularly famous for their roshogolla.
Read more of Akila’s food adventures at The Road Forks, where food and travel intersect.