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Untitled Project


April 2023

By Indrani Banerjee

Creative Nonfiction

What if Kolkata wasn’t called Kolkata?
Have you ever wondered that if Kolkata wasn't called Kolkata, what might have been its
name? An old city where people from all walks of life bond over food, music, art, literature,
travel, intense political debates, deep soulful discussions, and all of it over a steaming cup of
tea (cha or chai) held in an earthen cup called bhaanr? Yes, it would quietly possibly
been called Chai-town.
I am 40; a single, queer, feminist woman from the city, who loves to write, paint, art journal,
dance, and go for solo backpacking trips around the world. Also, as a member of Chaitown
Community, and as I write this article for the 1 st publication of Chaitown Chronicles, I cannot
but marvel at how Chaitown community is a microcosm of this old wise city itself – a bunch
of marvellous people bonding over a cup of marvellous chai!
As a solo traveller and a backpacker I am fascinated by communities that come together and
bond over their food and drinks. Staying at quaint little homestays with local families, strolling
down narrow village lanes nestled in remote mountains, sitting around a bonfire hearing
about old bygone days from the village folks, sharing food, cheering over local liquor,
laughing over incidents that make us so different yet unite us as humans having the same
emotions, is perhaps the best way to feel, and let the true culture and essence of a place
flow in you, through you, and evolve you as a person. My heart then carries a bit of that food
and its history, and my soul, a bit of that place and its people forever, in my overall bigger
journey called life.
So out of all my travel tales, if you ask me which are my favourites in terms of communities
that bond over food and festivities, my top three picks would be these:

Ziro Valley – The land of the tribe that make their own salt!
Ziro Music Festival (ZFM) is one of the most unique outdoor music festivals in the north-
eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, India, and also happens to be the first ever solo trip of
my life! Ziro is one of India’s mysterious tribal lands, a very distant and remote valley tucked
away amidst rolling blue hills and surrounded by the Apatani tribal villages. Till then, I had
only seen photographs of the Apatanis on travel magazines, with their extensively tattooed
faces sporting huge nose plugs. But living in that valley and walking down nearby Apatani
villages back in that year, provided a fascinating sneak-peak into who they are as a
community, and how their food is central to who they are.
Rice, fish, pork, and vegetables form their staple diet, but their extraordinary ways of
sourcing and cooking food, and preserving the ecology has in fact found a place on the
tentative list for UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. But what I found most interesting was their
legendary home-based salt making process! It is said that in old times, due to the scarcity of
salt, the Apatanis were forced to figure out an alternative way to maintain their bodily iodine
requirements. This resulted in each and every family or home making a home-made
brownish salt called ‘tapyo’ using local herbs and grass. This century-old legendary salt
making process is a crucial part of the Apatani food culture and even now many families in
the valley prefer taking ‘tapyo’ separately while eating instead of adding it to the food while
And so there I was, a year after my separation, 10 months after starting therapy, sitting along
the slopes of Ziro valley, listening to the incredible north-eastern rock and folk music,
exploring the amazing local dishes of the region, learning about ‘tapyo’, making new friends,

eating and drinking together, hiking to nearby villages post the festival hours, getting sloshed
and being carried to my tent in the middle of the night – all together marking the beginning of
an era of figuring out and living my life, by myself, for myself, and in my own way!
Kyrgyzstan - The land of the 40 tribes and their national dish - the Beshbarmak (five
Last year I went on a road trip to Kyrgyzstan, the picturesque mountainous nation of
incredible scenic beauty and proud nomadic traditions, located on the old historic silk route
in Central Asia. Through winding routes across the majestic Tien Shan, its pristine valleys
and enigmatic gorges dotted with wild horses and nomadic shepherd yurts, across the
largest and most scenic alpine lakes in the world, in my 8 days of travel, I was in love with
the Kyrgyz – the landscape, the people, the music, the culture, and of course the food!
Specifically, the national dish of the nation, as well as my personal favourite – the horse
Central Asian cuisine is routed in its traditional nomadic past and hence is rich in meat and
dairy products. The word ‘Beshbarmak’ means ‘five fingers’ since nomadic tribes traditionally
eat this meal using hands, from communal platters, shared between several people, usually
in a ceremonial setting. Beshbarmak is made from finely chopped boiled meat (usually
horse, sheep, or mutton), mixed with noodles (usually egg, and handmade), and an onion
sauce called ‘chyk’. I tried all these three variations and was usually served in a bowl at yurt-
restaurants, with a Kyrgyz artist singing traditional songs playing their ancient three-stringed
fretless instrument the ‘komuz’.
But in case of communal ceremonial meals, there is an elaborate serving ritual for this
national dish of the nation. The first course or serving is called ‘shorpo’ which is a rich meat
broth served in traditional small ceramic bowls called the ‘kese’. Traditionally, the animal
head was roasted and served among the honoured guests next. Now, the shorpo is often
followed by a broth called the ‘ak-serke’ which is the shorpo mixed with a fermented dairy
product made from mare milk called the ‘kymyz’. Festive beshbarmak can also be cooked with
the dry and spicy traditional sausages called ‘qazi’ or ‘sujuk’. Next, the majority of the meat is
served and distributed amongst guests, who receive a cut of meat according to their age, gender,
and status in society. This is known as the ‘ustukan’ where the oldest and the most honoured
guests are served the prime cuts of the meat. Lastly, the remaining meat is shredded into small
pieces and mixed with noodles and a little broth, which is served in a communal bowl and eaten
with the hands by the rest of the people– the besh-barmak.
Apart from trying out beshbarmak, pilaf, and all other central Asian dishes that I could lay my
hands and eyes on, another memorable part of the trip was randomly stopping mid-way in
valleys, meeting shepherds, watching them milk their mares, being invited to their nomadic yurts,
sitting on the floor and sharing tales of life and travel over their traditional summer drink ‘kumys’
made of fermented mare milk or a bowl of mare milk itself.
Needless to say, that this roadtrip to this Central Asian paradise was a life changing one. It was
the first international solo trip for me after three years of the ravaging pandemic. Three years of
thinking that perhaps life as we know it will end, and the world will end. And I guess the
pandemic changed all our lives and each one of us at a fundamental level. I saw Las Vegas
getting replaced from my bucket list with Central Asia. And little moments like the one shared
with the shepherd drinking kumys on that Kyrgyz valley perhaps sums up the phase that my life
is in right now – the phase of healing and finding not happiness, but peace.

Kolkata – The land where food is the main religion!

After having travelled the remote valleys of my country in my 1 st solo trip, to the mountains of
Central Asia in my last one, and a whole lot of incredible places in-between, I finally come
back home – to my own city, Kolkata. There is practically no way I can write an article about
communities bonding over food and music and not mention my own tribe! People say that for
Kolkata, or the Bengalis in particular, the primary religion is food. Everything else comes
later. I cannot really disagree to this stereotype! However, if you are stuck on Kolkata being
just the land of the ‘Rosogolla’, and ‘Durga Pujo’, and the ‘Mishti Doi’, or even the ‘cha’, you
are grossly mistaken.
I often solo-travel around my city as well, exploring nook and corners, lanes and bylanes, old
book shops and new cafes, and it is safe to say that the best way to explore this city is not
via its historic building sight-seeing, but via its food trails. One of the things I find interesting
about Kolkata is that it used to be the British capital when the empire stretched from
Afghanistan in the west to Burma in the east, and as a result this city is like a pot of melting
cultures. Or should I say, a pot of melting diverse dishes?! So the heart of the city is not just
in its ‘Rosogolla’ but also in the lacs of myriad eateries and stalls scattered all over the city
around the ‘pandals’ during the Durga Pujo and thousands of people thronging them 24X7
on those 5 festive days; it is in the home-made cakes and wines brough out on the lanes of
the Bow-Barracks by the Anglo-Indian community during Christmas; it is in the lavish
continental dinners on Park Street all lighted up during the Christmas and New Year week; it
is in the Armenian deoicacies found on Armenian Street and in the Armenian cakes, snacks,
and home-made fruit wines made by the few Armenian families during the Armenian
Christmas on 6 th of January; it is in the Jewish bakeries in New Market;, it is in the early
morning Chinese breakfast made by traditional Chinese families and brought out on the
lanes of Tiretti Bazar in the wee hours of the morning, or in the Chinese dishes in
‘Chinatown’ part of the city during the Chinese New Year in February; it is also in the Bengali
cuisine during the Bengali new year ‘poila boishakh’ amidst the perpetual fight between
people from West Bengal and East Bengal (Bangladesh) over whose cuisine is better
tasting; and ofcourse it is in the year-long, daily ritual of ‘adda’ – or getting together after a
hard day’s work, over the cup of hot tea or ‘cha’!
As an early 80’s kid, and like everyone else form my era, I have a love-hate relationship with
this city. I grew up and witnessed most other India cities zoom past us in terms of job
opportunities and GDP growth. Many of us left the city. Many of us stayed back. Many of us
returned. Many of us didn’t. So for me, at 40, with the priorities that I have in my life, I finally
realise why Kolkata is called ‘The City of Joy.’. I am glad I never left. Because this
community has soul. And this community feels home.
In the world famous book, ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the fox says to the
prince – “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the
eye. That is what the city of Kolkata is about. These are the things that fascinate me when I
travel all over the world. And finally, that is what lies at the centre of Chaitown Community’s
To many more years of building communities and bonding over ‘the essentials’ that might be
invisible to the eye, Chaitown Community, wish you a very happy 1 st anniversary!



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