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Spice of life: Permanently etched memory of Calcutta tenure

punjab Updated: Jan 05, 2017 19:14 IST
Col IPS Kohli (retd)
Col IPS Kohli (retd)
Hindustan Times
Calcutta

For a gourmand like me, Calcutta was the place to be in. Mutton (Photo: Reuters)

I recall every posting with nostalgia. All were good but Calcutta the most memorable.

March 1990, I arrived in Calcutta from the icy heights of Leh. From minus 10 degrees to a salubrious 30 degrees was a delightful defrost. An even greater delight was Dominique Lapierre’s ‘City of Joy’ located on the banks of the Hooghly. I was a junior major posted to a headquarter crawling with generals.

Calcutta was vivacious with the colonial tint still intact. Horse-racing at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club; hand-pulled rickshaws like the Shimla of yore; an ancient tramway, rickety Ambassador taxis and the laidback attitude of Calcuttans were flavours unique to the city. For a gourmand like me, Calcutta was the place to be in. Mutton biryani and chicken rezala at Shiraz’s, llish Machher Jhol, Kosha Mangsho (a divine Bengali mutton curry), puchkas (golgappas), kathi rolls, and a mind-boggling variety of continental and Chinese cuisine. Tollygunge and Bengal clubs had a definite ‘burra sahib’ flavour as did Flury’s, the legendary tearoom on Park Street where the chicken patties were sinful. The Services Officers Institute at Fort Williams was a place for excellent cuisine that was available at rates on a par with the Parliament Canteen in New Delhi.

Fort Williams, housing the Eastern Command Headquarters, is a lasting edifice of the Raj era. The sight of the then general officer commanding-in-chief (GOCin-C), Lt Gen KS Brar, being driven in a Mercedes car filled every heart with pride. The car was a prized memento. Prior to the historic surrender by the Pakistan Army before the Indian Army in Dacca, it had been the official staff car of Lt Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, the governor and martial law administrator of the then East Pakistan.

The temporary accommodation allotted to me in the officers mess inside Fort Williams was dingy with a musty odour. The army, in its zeal to preserve the fort, had done minimum renovation. Ravages of time were evident. The wiring in the high ceiling room was external. The switch cups were white porcelain with brass toggle levers. Their replacement with piano switches stuck out like sore thumbs.

The bathroom was a problem. The external pipes were so entwined that it was difficult to figure out which pipe went where and why. The geyser had seen better decades. It was non-functional and located above the commode. I would lodge a complaint with the complaint cell every day. The complaints went unattended.

Disgusted, I went and met the garrison engineer. The harassed major explained the difficulty in obtaining spares for the antique fitments. In addition, the few electricians available were barely able to cope with the VIP pressure. He said there was a sweeper in his office who could double up as an electrician and a plumber in a crisis situation. I had little choice and gratefully accepted the offer.

The next evening, I was informed that the geyser had been repaired. I kept it switched on through the night. Next morning after finishing my business on the commode, I pulled the chain to flush.

The burns took two months to heal. Calcutta remains firmly and permanently etched in memory, and elsewhere.

(The writer is a Chandigarh-based retired army officer)

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