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    Volume 9 Issue 18| April 30, 2010|

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Food for Thought

'Calcutta Characters'
(Part I)

Farah Ghuznavi

No matter how familiar a place is, you can always find new dimensions to it if you really try. The optimists will say that this is because it's all about how you approach things and that there is gold to be found in even the most well-explored territory if you are willing to look deeper. Cynics, on the other hand, might say that the element of surprise comes from the uncertain nature of life itself. I'll settle for a middle path; let's just say that for me, the people make the place - and it's true that you never know who you're going to run into…

On a recent trip to Kolkata strategically planned so that I could meet up with my parents, who were also there on work I got rather more than I bargained for from what was supposed to be a very familiar place. Part of this was related to hearing about my mother's misdemeanours prior to my arrival. Although I have repeatedly warned her that she has no capacity to recognise odd behaviour in strangers, and must therefore treat them with the greatest caution, she has never taken me seriously with regard to this matter. She is, after all, my mother; and as we know - officially at least - mothers always know best.

So I was therefore somewhat alarmed to hear my father mention that my mother had come across a "Sobhraj type" at one of her meetings. For those not in the know, the original Charles Sobhraj was a medical doctor and, as it subsequently became apparent, also a mass murderer. Acquaintances described him as a charming character, and his modus operandi was to befriend strangers, take them home and then rob and kill them. So I was understandably disturbed by the prospect that my mother had picked up anyone remotely resembling this character. If that wasn't bad enough, this Sujatha person now considered herself my mother's friend, and was in the habit of dropping by the hotel unexpectedly. In the midst of all this, there was also the need to take into consideration the fact that if my mother is ever worried about someone being weird, it says something. She so rarely picks up on weirdness in any form.

The lady in question's dubious credentials were confirmed by another family friend, who was attending the same event and had also been socially mugged, so to speak, by Sujatha Ramanujan. Rather more frank than my mother, this friend told me in no uncertain terms that Sujatha was a few sandwiches short of a picnic:

“You know, we were out on a field trip, and some of the village children were following us around. At one point, we stopped for a rest and Sujatha began chatting to a little girl. She was telling her, 'Why don't you come home with me? I only have two boys, and I would love to have a little girl!'

Anyway, couple of days later I asked her 'So how old are your sons?'

She took great offence at my question and nearly bit my head off, saying 'I don't have any children! Why would you ask me that? Who told you I have children?'

I was really surprised at the strength of her reaction, but I just pointed out that she had mentioned these two boys a few days ago during a field trip. 'I just said that because I was talking to that little girl,' Sujatha replied huffily. But what I couldn't understand was, why bother lying about it at all! She could have just said that she had no children, and would love to have a little girl..."

All this to say that by the time finally met the notorious Sujatha, I had been well-briefed. Nevertheless, she exceeded my expectations. Introducing herself as a medical doctor, like the original Sobhraj, she then informed me that she had (for unknown reasons - I certainly wasn't asking questions) relocated herself from Canada to Delhi after 30 years of living in the West. Her physical presence was quite impressive too. She had a wild mane of hair similar to the famous cosmetics doyenne Shahnaz, and a way of either ignoring totally, or speaking abruptly to anyone who didn't interest her; in this case, my father, my brother and myself, who were clearly irritating distractions when all she wanted was to spend time with my mother.

Reborn as some kind of botanical activist - if there is such a thing - her business card read "Roots are our relatives"! After half an hour of her company, I decided I'd seen enough, and lost no time in informing my mother that her new friend was now officially persona non grata. My only concern was whether it was worth looking into rates for private security companies since we might need professional help to keep her at bay. To make matters worse, on this trip to Kolkata we were once again staying at the Bengal club, which is notorious for its service-related eccentricities. I very much doubted that anyone there was capable of getting rid of Sujatha if she decided to drop by.

A few days after this, tired of lurking surreptitiously around the environs of the club, my father, brother and I decided to venture forth and explore the culinary options provided by restaurants within the vicinity. I took the opportunity (while my mother remained occupied with her conference), to take the two of them to a favourite place of mine, a restaurant known as the Atrium, which my mother inexplicably disliked. I have to admit I was showing off a bit about how familiar I was with the place, the menu etc., but it was nice to feel like the one in charge - that's usually my mother!

It was a different story once the three of us arrived there. The hotel, housing the restaurant had undergone such a radical refurbishment, it was nearly unrecognisable - masses of chrome, glass, black marble and fountains all over the place. Embarrassingly enough, despite directions from staff, we actually managed to get lost twice before finally locating the restaurant that I had so authoritatively been holding forth on.

To make matters worse, both the décor and the name of the place had been changed. And don't even get me started on the menu - all the dishes I had talked up to my family members were noticeable by their absence on the new and improved list of dishes. Luckily both my father and brother were too hungry to notice. The only moment of relief for me came when the server smiled at me and said, “Nice to see you again, Madam”. “Wow,” said my brother, “They do know you at this place!” I didn't have the heart to tell him she had mistaken me for someone else, presumably a regular at the restaurant. One has to hang on to some shred of pride, after all…

(…to be continued)


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