Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kali Puja

In Kolkata, the morning’s thick, pink air fills once again with a slowly-building crescendo of blasts and beeps. Much to my amusement, the newspaper features a story on regulations meant to minimize the noise pollution of Kali Puja, when celebrants set off fireworks and firecrackers to serenade the goddess. Firecrackers that generate more than 90 decibels at 5 meters distance are supposed to be banned (for comparison, that’s like a jackhammer at about a meter). The next day The Telegraph reports that almost 800 people were arrested in the night for noise violations. But my question is, aren’t these firecrackers just another note in the city’s cacophonous cantata, just the loudest crash of cymbals at the concert’s end. What’s more, Kali isn’t exactly the type to go in for law and order.

She’s heavily into sweets though. When you visit the temple in Kalighat, the little shops that line the alleys surrounding the temple as well as the cramped courtyard inside sell basically two things. Little sweets made of thickened milk and sugar, some flavored with a few grains of cardamom, and garlands of hibiscus. The goddess is apparently as fond of the blood-red flowers as the sugary snacks. The shops get deliveries of a great mounds of the sweet paste which they then form into disks about the size of a silver dollar. These then get packaged into a dry leaf cone with a few blossoms to decorate the offering. You then line up (for hours!) to present the sweets to the priests.

But I’m getting a little off subject here. Because the sweets for which Kolkata is really known are not considered acceptable to the goddess or any of the rest of the Hindu A-Team for that matter. What Bengal is know for are desserts based on a fresh curd cheese, called chhana in Bengali. It’s made more or less the same as Spanish queso fresco or, for that matter, North Indian paneer, by curdling hot milk with a little acid and draining off the whey. (Curdled milk is considered impure to ultra-orthodox Brahmin and thus the gods.) To make paneer, the curds are then pressed into dense bricks and then typically used in savory recipes. For chhana the milk solids are kneaded to an appropriate consistency and then further processed into a whole menagerie of sweets, the most prominent of which is called sandesh. This can take the form elegant little cheesecake-like pillows or be denser and stuffed with nuts or other fillings. There are also variations that are simmered in syrup or soaked in a saffron-tinted milky liquid. There exist dozens if not hundreds of permutations.

But it all comes down to the kneading, I’m told by Joydeep Chatterjee.

What’s the point of coming to India if you can’t get yourself a guru? And I couldn’t ask for a better one. Not that Joydeep exactly fits the stereotype, he is clean-shaven and modestly rotund. Though not modest in most other respects. When he speaks, whether indoors or out, it is always to the balcony. It turns out he trained as a physicist at Oxford (or was it Cambridge?) with a specialty in chaos theory. (Now that’s something that comes in handy in Kolkata!) These days he mostly works as a journalist and his obsession, as I find out in intricate detail after a two-hour lecture, is the field of Bengali sweets.

Bengalis can’t knead the chhana, he tells me, “this is the kind of job which is not possible for Bengalis to do because the kind of bone structure we have, the kind of anatomy we have, the kind of inner strength that we have with this kind of weather.” No, what you need is a guy from Bihar. And he assures me he knows the best one in Kolkata. “I’ve always told him that if I were the king—or some such thing—in India I would be adorning your hands with diamonds and whatever I have” he says, adding, “He’s such an important man…” Because unless the chhana is kneaded to the right consistency it doesn’t have the right grain. And that, Joydeep insists, is worse than a disaster. I’m promised an introduction to the chhana master on the following day.

You get this really warm and cozy feeling in your stomach when you finally meet your guru, especially when he takes you along to visit his pals.

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