The egg roll which helped puncture a filter bubble. Can food be a unifier in an independent and harmonious India?

Breaking bread, Kolkata style.
Fish Kobiraji cutlet, deemer devil and cha.
Dilkhusa Cabin, September 2018

Prisoners of the filter bubble

I was in a Buddhist discussion meeting this morning where we discussed SGI President Ikeda's Peace Proposal. In his proposal to the UN, Dr Daisaku Ikeda quotes Internet activist Eli Pariser who cautions, "in an age where shared information is the bedrock of shared experience, the filter bubble is a centrifugal force, pulling us apart."

The filter bubble, as I understand, refers to our proclivity to stay within the company of those who are 'like us' and shutting those who are not, out of our lives. We are all guilty of that at some level or the other. I know that I am.

Dr Ikeda's concern is with the disharmony that the lack of empathy caused by our being trapped in a filter bubble. To quote him from the Peace Proposal, "research on diversity shows that the dominant group within a society are often unaware that they enjoy freedom from discrimination. Their lack of awareness can compound the claustrophobic social atmosphere experienced by members of minorities." 

On a related note, Bill Gates had the following to say:  "Technologies such as social media let you go off with like-minded people, so you're not mixing and sharing and understanding other points of view ... It's super important. It's turned out to be more of a problem than I, or many others, would have expected."

— Bill Gates 2017 in Quartz[14]

Coincidentally, today is India's 72nd Independence Day and I found the entire discussion especially relevant given the occasion. The modern nation state of India, as we know, was created on 15th August 1947 and its birth itself was in the backdrop of a separation in the form of a partition. There are so many dimensions of heterogeneity that still exist in our country ... caste, language, race (yes), gender, religion, class, education, politics name just a few of the many. It is no wonder that our founding fathers spoke of the ideal of 'unity in diversity,' a lesson that we we were taught in school in political science or civics classes.

I am quite sure that food has helped me transcend some of these barriers over the yearseven though there is a lot, lot more to do. Today I want to share with you a story of how food helped me break one such boundary from my childhood. That of geography. Within the city of Kolkata itself!

Those who know Kolkata, will be aware of the socio-cultural and economic divide that n exists between the south and north of Kolkata. This was accentuated even more when I was in school. The metro was not complete then and travelling from the north to south or vice versa was a daunting idea. As a south Kolkata boy, anything north of New Market and Lindsay Street was 'north of the wall', to use today's Game of Thrones lingo. 

This post is about how food helped me transcend these differences when my world expanded out of suburban Kolkata, where I had spent most of my childhood in Kolkata.

Catcher of the roll

Egg roll lover for life. Zeeshan, Deshapriya Park, July, 2018

One of the most vivid food memories of my childhood in Kolkata centres around our paarar roller dokan. A humble street-food stall with no name.

I used to return home from school every evening back then and head there. The two Bengali brothers, who ran it, would begin the process of opening the shop at 4 pm every evening. I would be there with unfailing regularity, clutching the few coins my mother would have left behind for my evening snack. This was in the late 1980s.

One brother would slice an unending series of onions with a precision that even the legendary chef Marco Pierre White couldn’t fault with. The other would knead the maida dough at one corner while keeping an eye on the korai (wok) in another, and in which a few pieces of mutton would be on their way to becoming kosha mangsho. This in turn would be used to make mutton rolls. I reckon that they probably sold one mutton roll for every fifty egg rolls sold each day.

Prep done, the brothers would finally fire up the paraffin stove and melt a bowl of solidified Dalda on it and the shop would finally open for business. My patient wait for my egg roll for the evening would end. I would munch on it happily and then go off to play in the field nearby. On weekends, when my mom would be home, I would be sent to the stall to buy vegetable chops which my younger brother, mom and I would have with muri or sandwiched within slices of bread as an evening snack.

Rolls from a land far, far away

Nizam's Kolkata. July 2018

My horizons broadened when I joined Presidency College (now University) and ventured out of the cocooned world of deep south Kolkata. Presidency is located at College Street which seemed galaxies away from Bansdroni where we lived. Each day thereafter was one of discovery.

The first eye opener happened when I went to Nizam's, one of the Moghlai restaurants near New Market, one afternoon before my classmates and I headed off to watch Schindler’s List at the now shut Chaplin cinema. I ordered a mutton roll as there was a bit of daredevilry attached to that. My mother would always insist back then that I have an egg roll as she was not sure what would be served as mutton in restaurants. ‘Dog meat’, she would exclaim with a sense of finality. Hence there was a sense of rebellion on my ordering one that evening. And discovery too as I soon found out.

This mutton roll at Nizam's was nothing like the mutton rolls that I had grown up on in the suburbs. The paratha was different. It was thin and crisp, not fat and chubby. The mutton (goat I hope) was in the form of juicy but dry kababs and not the sort of curried meat that we got in mutton rolls in the suburbs. And, there were no sliced cucumber with the onions and no sauce either!

And I loved it! This was the roll that redefined rolls forever in my life and made every roll I had come across till then seemed like a lie to me after that one. 

I later learnt that Nizam's is where the kaathi rolls of Kolkata were 'invented' so to speak. My latest visit to them was a bit disappointing to be honest but I am sure they will rise again.

The lure of the corner cabin

Dilkhusa Cabin, July 2018

There was another memorable day of discovery for me which happened on the day of the student union elections in college. That was the only day when the college was shut from us. We could cast our vote inside but would then have to leave due to security. My friends and I were at a loss. We didn’t want to go back home. There was no movie that we could catch and it was the end of the month in any case and funds were tight. That is when someone suggested that we walk down to a restaurant at the end of the road. He had heard about it from his parents. They were students of Presidency too and had met in the college and fallen in love from what I gather.

We went to the restaurant. This is where my memory got a bit hazy. For the love of God, I do not remember if it was Dilkhusa or Basanta Cabin that we had gone to that day. Regardless of which one it was, there is no denying the fact that was as if we had walked into a whole new world when we stepped in to the place. The restaurant was slightly bigger than a garage. It was packed with people. Most around looked like they had long left their student days behind. The crowd was a mixed gender one but more male oriented. Everyone seemed to be having intense conversations over many cups of tea. The 6 of us pooled in our money and ordered a Moghlai paratha and a kobiraji cutlet and shared it while we looked at the parathas and kochuris, the chops and cutlets and mamlets with thick slabs of buttered toast, fly from the open kitchen to the tables, accompanied by cheerful and stained porcelain cups brimming with tea. Most of that was way beyond our budget.

This was our first introduction to the café culture of the cabins restaurants of Kolkata which dated to more than a hundred years back. The cabin restaurants were small eateries which largely dotted the lanes of central and north Kolkata. There were a few to be found in places such as Hazra and Gariahat in the south too. These were places where the middle-class Bengali would catch up for adda over topics spawning from all over the world. Food was a big part of addas and hence the cabins were more a place for grown-ups, than for students who were always cash strapped. The food was inspired more by the diet of the shahebs it seems than that of the Awadhi influenced Mughlai joints, as was evident from the crumb fried cutlets and chops and omelettes and tea with milk (a British introduction) which were served here.

Years later I saw traces of these cabins in the century old cafes in Montmartre, the art district of Paris. There too, the décor and the menu had remained unchanged though in the availability of clean toilets and card machines and free Wi-Fi, it was evident had moved on more subtly moved with the times. The sense of laissez faire in the cabins of Kolkata was rather different from the ‘eat and move on’ culture of the Irani cafes of busy, busy Mumbai but then Kolkata is the city of lyad (slow living).

The hotpot of joy and hope

My first taste of a Moghlai breakfast in Kolkata
Sabir's Hotel, July 2018

Sitting in Mumbai, twenty years later, I realised that it was food that helped me make these transitions through life then. Just as it continues to do even today. Yes, I know that you might think that was the big deal but moving out of even ones neighbourhood, for a child who had lived a sheltered experience till then, could be a daunting affair.

Yet, the shared culture of the kaathi rolls of central Kolkata's Moghali restaurants which made its way to the egg roll of our paarar dokan and the chops, cutlets and Moghali porathas of the cabins of north Kolkata which made it there too, ensured that I didn't feel alone when I was ready to leave home.

This in turn, prepared me for my leaving the city a few years later when I moved to Mumbai. 

If you have stories from your life of how food helped you break your 'filter bubbles,' then do share them with me, no matter how small they seem. Each story gives an important message of peace after all.



My columns on the occasion of Independence Day:

Also of interest: