If you have ever been to Kolkata, I’m sure you would have been introduced to its favourite street treat – jhalmuri.
I kept hearing a lot about this delight from my Bong friends. I have seen them swearing by it when they debate about how jhalmuri is thousand times better than Mumbai’s bhelpuri.
But during my visit to Kolkata, I discovered why the city is in love with this snack – because the city of Kolkata in itself is like jhalmuri.
A handful of puffed rice, powdered spices, a dash of raw mustard oil (dearly called as kaacha shorsher tel), a splash of tamarind water and a generous squeeze of lime. Roughly that’s what goes inside a well-made bag of jhalmuri.
The muri-wallah mixes these ingredients deftly. The process is no less than a theatrical performance. However, every bite of this perfectly blended potion outperforms the muri-wallah’s skills. Every bite surprises you. Every bite introduces you to a new flavour. Even though the dish is mixed well, not a single ingredient loses its original distinct taste.
Kolkata is just like a cone of jhalmuri.
During the pre-independence era, many people from different cultures, different countries, and different ethnicities have come to this the-then capital of British India, and made it their home.
From World War I onwards, this land has seen cultures confluence and religions coexist. Indians, Anglo-Indians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Muslims; all stay happily together while the rest of the country, or even the world for that matter, struggles to learn the art of coexistence.
And a beautiful testimony to this theory is a quaint corner called Bow Barracks.
Take a stroll around the Bow Barracks, and you will discover for yourself how communities are defying intolerance and living in harmony.
Bow Barracks is a small, red-bricked residential area, built during the World War I for soldiers. Post wartime, some soldiers handed over the keys to the Anglo-Indians, while some decided to stay put with their families. Today their descendants call it their home.
As you enter this tiny community of around 150 households, you will be greeted by a Roman Catholic grotto.
In the quadrangle, you will spot Anglo-Indian boys playing street hockey with their Parsi friends. Early in the morning, a cycle-wallah will be delivering loaves of bread baked in a Jewish bakery.
A Chinese lady will be hurrying towards the Tirretti Market to set up her momo stall, while a Muslim old man will be busy selling marigolds to a Hindu on his way to the nearest temple.
Where there are people from different religions, there is a variety in places of worship too. An agyari, a Chinese temple, a mosque, a mandir, a catholic grotto, a Jewish church; all of these live in peace at a few metres distance from each other.
We must understand that this assimilation is not something that has happened for a day or two under patriotic drives that scream slogans like ‘unity in diversity’ or ‘hum sab ek hain’. This convergence is decades old, and has now become a part of Kolkata’s life, without losing its soul.
This cultural concoction lives in harmony. The people here respect each other, and literally live the saying ‘unity in diversity’.
Over these many years, various cultures from Bow Barracks have finely blended with this city, but their flavours are still fresh and distinct… just like a spicy serving of jhalmuri.