I am one of those self-proclaimed explorers, who always want to take in every hue and colour of her city, but mostly ends up doing precious little. Of late, things have been a little different. I have had quite a few unique escapades, of which an impromptu trip to the dingy alleys of Chattawala Gully turned out to be somewhat of a surreal tale.
Breakfast stalls at Tiretti Bazaar, is perhaps one of the last remnants of the Chinese Community in Kolkata. Even that, according to loyalists and older generations, is on the verge of becoming extinct.
An early morning Chinese breakfast at street stalls was inviting, but the sceptic in me thought otherwise. An idle chat with Jenny (the receptionist at my office) one of these days had given me another idea: a little-known restaurant called Tung Nam, near about the same area, but minus the street squalor and inhuman ‘eating hour’. And yes, dear old Jenny is one of the last few ‘native Chinese people’ still clawing onto Kolkata.
With a rather sceptical- but pork-obsessed- accomplice by my side, I set out in search of Tung Nam, on a capricious late Sunday morning alternating between rain and sunshine.
The cab dropped us off near Poddar Court and sped off. We enquired about ‘chattawala gully’ from a passer by. The enthusiastic fellow gave us accurate directions and we found ourselves walking down a narrow lane, right behind the landmark building. Scrap metal shops, grocery stores with wooden doors and ancient measuring contraptions, haggard-looking men and women, half-naked children, wet filthy dumps giving out horrid stench, all blended into one blurry image……nothing remotely ‘Chinese’ met our eyes.
Roughly 7 minutes later, asking around for ‘Tung Nam khane ka dukan’, we found the run-down eatery with a small yellow signboard standing at a corner. And here-in, stopped my search for the fast-vanishing Chinese community in the city.
A few Chinese patrons were seated inside the large ground floor room with plasters peeling off the wall. There were precisely five heavy iron-framed tables with wooden tops and six plastic chairs around each of the tables. Any standard restaurant with that kind of floor area would shove in at least 15 seating arrangements with no breathing space.
The lone Hindi-speaking waiter standing at the entrance promptly asked “parcel”?
We hesitated, and then decided to sit down at one of the unoccupied tables.
At one corner, right beside the entrance stood a rickety showcase stuffed with ready-to-fry prawn chips. A golden coloured kitty replica waved its left paw tirelessly sitting on the top shelf and few other odd wares stared out of the grimy glass. Heavy metal fans hung from the colonial-era wooden beamed ceiling painted white. The fans groaned and cut through the humid air at a lethargic pace. An aquarium stood nestled at the farthest corner. The fishes ignored the slightly dazed old man in a loose shirt and tailor-made shorts, standing near-by, with ghoul-like eyes. On an abnormally long wooden bench- the kind you would find in schools from at least a decade back – sat another middle-aged gentleman with smallish eyes and a blank look in them. Detailed Chinese paintings and murals lay scattered all over the dilapidated walls, once painted a light sky blue. The weak daylight streamed in, reflecting upon sooty lamp sheds hanging precariously at odd angles…..
As we sat waiting for the food, an old lady in a blue printed silk sleeping suit laboriously scooped out wantons from her soup with chopsticks, flavoured it with a dip and put them in her mouth at a go; two young ladies chattered away in some Chinese dialect and shared a plate of pork noodles; a middle-aged couple had a quiet meal of steaming hot soup and the cash counter was abuzz with delivery orders with a mild-looking gentleman in a red T and bermudas, sparse hair on his head, busy counting the gains. The old man in the tailor-made shorts had changed positions and stood blankly near the cash counter. Nobody seemed to care.
Maybe, all six chairs around the tables are occupied once in a while…maybe not.
A few minutes later, the Indian waiter served us our meal…piping hot pork momos with spring onion garnish and wanton soup without the slightest hint of spice and lots of leafy things. Yes, the non-spicy, ‘authentic Chinese’. My pork-crazy accomplice, who had wrinkled up his nose, during the 7-min search had visibly warmed up by now. So we also packed some pork noodles and side dish (which btw were pretty much ‘Indianised’) for a second course back home.
The fans whirred on with the metallic clink, the lady in the printed sleeping suit was ready to pay her bills, the waiter stood expectantly for a tip, the old man with his ghoul-like eyes stood on aimlessly, the smell of freshly made soup and wanton wafted in the largish room with the humid air….outside it had begun to drizzle….