I could murder a malpoa right now. And that potoler dolma I’ve been drooling over in my dreams, the shorshe illish that dance in my peripheral vision, disappearing like chimera (or Nemo) when I look them in the eye. Some nights I wake in a chom chom sweat, and dig around my kitchen cupboards to find my dalmut hoard sadly depleted. Nor can Tesco’s mango chutney fill the yawning achaar-shaped chasm in my gut.
And when I think of mishti doi- oh boi. I melt into a puddle of yearning. My dwindling pile of panchphoron too, in its steel tiffin box, is not to be sneezed at (what will I have left then?).
It’s been more than a year since we last travelled to Kolkata, the city of my birth, of my parents and oldest friends, of the spices, sweets, books and great memories I bring back yearly, and our stocks are all but gone. Cold turkey they call this sudden, enforced withdrawal, but it’s kosha mangsho for me. As merry as our Sherwood curry may be, there are jhaals, jhols and ombols that can’t be concocted outside Bengal.
Not without an infusion of its tangy winter smog, monsoon winds that roll from the Bay, and Rabindrasangeet saturating the air no matter what the weather. Sniff as hard I might, I can smell none of this now.
Sure sign of Covid you say, but these notun gurer cravings and maacher muthia longings are symptoms of homesickness instead.
Evading the former has unfortunately required the renunciation of the akash, batash, and barir ranna of Kolkata this year. Abetted by inept, often unfeeling governments, the Coronavirus has harvested death and deprivation everywhere.
In Bengal alone so far there are a staggering 216,000 cases, and nearly 5,000 deaths, with Kolkata accounting for 70 per cent of it.
But just for a moment, shall we dwell on the lesser tragedies? Like the suspension of flights to Kolkata from much of Britain and the hijacking of my annual trip home. Since moving to Britain two decades ago, I have returned home for the harvest every year.
Of a very different crop usually; the diurnal glide of crisp blue skies and mellow sun, long addas over favourite foods, slow, smoky evenings with family and friends, and pilgrimages to fondly remembered haunts. Including the biggest and brightest of festivals.
This pandemic has put paid to even that. It has hijacked not just my homecoming but mighty Durga’s too. Kolkata’s Durga Puja is an extravaganza so massive, so magnificent, so, er, mingly, it can only be a shadow of itself this socially-distanced year.
The ocean of humanity that swamps the resplendent pandals and eye-popping illuminations won’t be welcoming the Mother Goddess with their customary rapture this year, because they will, hopefully, stay home to prevent further dissemination of the killer virus. Which is as it should be.
But because it is indeed the high point of the year for many and in these dismal times, a tonic for the soul, some puja organisers have been exploring alternatives, from virtual pujas to portable ones.
Bearing the Devi round in a bedecked palanquin in Jodhpur Park, for people to see from the safety of their homes, is one such I gather. As if Corona Devi, flexing her spiky muscles to demonstrate her might, instructed the good folks of Kolkata — “Koro na!” But Kolkata peeps replied (ccing Durga), “OK tata, but y’ know? Ashche bochor abar hobe!”
The high point of our trip back however is quite another tradition. Timing it so the bulk of our visit is post-puja; quiet and contemplative after the fervour and din, we finish every trip with the tiny, homegrown celebration we’ve come to know as ‘Kumroween’.
It all started with October being the best time for us to visit India, but the kids didn’t want to miss the trick or treating of an English Halloween.
So we devised our own little fusion festival, a best-of-both-worlds hybrid that was all treats and no trick, incorporating an array of Bengali delicacies and bonhomie, with fancy dress, eerie party balloons and trim (on which we had fun scrawling a scary range of faces), and the pièce de résistance - a glowing Jack o’ Lantern carved from an almost invariably misshapen kumro.
Thus ‘Kumroween’, an invariably misshapen but always entertaining tradition was born. Over the years, patched together Gupis and Baghas have rubbed shoulders with Professor Lupin and Harry Potter, a cobbled Captain Hook has sung along with affable, unthreatening crocs, whilst pleasantly plump skeletons tucked into kochuri, aloor dom, and goja.
Most of all, it has given us the opportunity to gather our family and friends round, to say hello, thank you, and au revoir, so quickly do our fortnights in Kolkata fly.
Two splendid weeks of breaking bread, or indeed luchi, with family, catchup addas with friends lasting half the day, and storytime and play for our children with their beloved but rarely-seen Dida and Dadu, coalescing one last time on spooky, sparkling, slightly sad Kumroween night.
There can be no Kumroween this year. No festivities of any sort for us in Kolkata. In fact, no trip at all.
Just sadness and long distance anxiety as every day brings the names and images of people we once knew, or knew of, who have succumbed to the marauding bug. With more to come.
But malpoa, madugga, Mababa, and my mother city; you are on my mind. And if it is OK tata for this year, horn please, because ashche bochor abar hobe....