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Food for Thought

Calcutta Characters

Part II

Farah Ghuznavi

Bengal Club

Having summarily dismissed the latest lunatic in my mother's life during a family trip to Kolkata (for details, refer to http://www.thedailystar.net/ magazine/2010/04/05/food.htm), I must now reluctantly admit that the trip also included some of my own mandatory 'weirdo encounters'. So much so that I was reminded of the time I met a friend's young daughter-aged about 10 at the time-and in an attempt to engage with her, told the girl some funny stories about travel. At the end of it all, she turned to her mother and said, “Can we go for a trip with Farah Khala sometime? She meets such interesting people!” I didn't have the heart to tell her that all too often it's hard to avoid nut-cases, and I'm not sure that 'interesting' is the word I would use to describe some of them.

Along with oddballs, my restaurant (mis) adventures also continued to be a theme of the trip that began with my mother's close encounter with a dangerously unstable NRI returnee. Living in a fool's paradise, I didn't realise that the twin themes would intermingle and come to a head soon enough. In the meantime, having long promoted myself as the sophisticated diner in my family, I came perilously to blowing that reputation once and for all -- even if it had only existed in my own imagination in the first place. After the embarrassment when I accompanied my father and brother to a restaurant which effectively no longer in existence - its new avatar had a different name, décor scheme and menu, i.e. it was basically a different restaurant! I was given the task of ordering lunch for eight people when we went out for a meal with friends.

Given that I had already been, for some time, referring to the restaurant where we were going as the “Ming Room” (possibly the result of some bizarre childhood flashback to the Flash Gordon movies), when it was in fact the “Chinoiserie” - as I discovered after we got there - this handover of authority may safely be considered a foolhardy decision on the part of the others present. But things got worse; much worse. After a con artist waiter persuaded me to over-order, we were served what turned out to be mountains of food. Delicious as it all was, I soon discovered that a culinary roman orgy is much less fun when you have to actually force-feed the participants…

The dying hall inside the club.

As usual, things eventually boiled over at the infamous Bengal Club (no, no, I actually like the place. Honestly). Anyway, during our stay, my brother had been refused entry to the Dining Hall, because he had only brought jeans with him, and no “proper trousers”. So one evening, when he decided to stay in the room and order takeaway pizza, my parents and I ventured down to the formal dining room at the Club. After we had finished our quite tasty dinner, the waiter insisted on serving us some rather nice chocolate mousse even though we hadn't ordered it, because they clearly had made too much of it and there weren't enough diners eating there that night to do it justice. In a fit of madness, or possibly chocolate-induced goodwill, I turned to a woman who had just arrived at the table adjoining us wearing, as I realised in retrospect, a rather oddly-cut, disturbingly stripy dress - and told her that I would recommend she try the chocolate mousse if she liked desserts.

To my horror, this innocuous remark led to her launching into an animated conversation for the next 10 minutes, during which she informed me, among other things, that she was avoiding desserts because she was “already too weighty”, and she needed to become “less weighty". Apparently, her husband had told her that she had to choose between food and wearing western clothing (kapra and khana) because she couldn't have both, but as she said, “You know, I just can't give up food because it gives me a terrible headache”!

After asking where I was from, she even managed to tell me that she had recently met the Prime Minister of Bangladesh at the home of the Finance Minister of India - as it turned out later, oddly enough this was true. She asked my "good name" and told me hers. She was clearly a non-Bengali, married to a Bengali gentleman. The latter appeared, unsurprisingly enough, to have adopted the tactic of sending her to the club at regular intervals - presumably in order to get some peace at home?

In fact her initial response to my suggestion regarding the chocolate mousse was to wave a hand at one of the empty chairs at her table, explaining her own problem about “being weighty”, and adding “Perhaps she can have some chocolate mousse though”. This gave me my first twinge of unease, as I immediately wondered whether the lady was in fact referring to an imaginary friend, since there was no-one else sitting at her table! Luckily, she was joined a few minutes later by another woman, and the other lady's relatively normal appearance briefly lulled me into thinking that perhaps this woman wasn't that weird after all. Wrong again.

As we finally got up to leave, the stripy lady displayed a charming commitment to secular values by bidding us “khudahafiz” - not to be undone, my father responded in a flash with an equally polite 'namashkar'. Anyway, by the time we managed to pay our bill and head off, my mother and I were biting back laughter, and so desperate to escape that we accidentally walked through the door leading to the kitchen, instead of the regular exit!

We sheepishly rejoined my father at the correct doorway, where four of the waiters had clustered to bid us farewell, possibly in appreciation for the fact that we are reasonably well-behaved guests when we stay there. “It's very good that you are leaving now,” the head waiter said conspiratorially, in a low voice, “That woman is crazy -- once she starts talking there is no stopping her. You would have been here for another hour at least!” We'd clearly had a narrow escape from an alarmingly eccentric character. So do believe me when I say I will be controlling my 'helpful' social tendencies for some time to come, and undertaking my chocolate consumption, in whatever form, under controlled- indeed, preferably isolated - conditions…


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