The Secret Meeting Places of Bengal’s Revolutionaries
If the high ceiling criss-crossed by neat rectangles of wooden rafters and the yellowing photographs of Bengal Renaissance men on the walls don’t transport you back in time, the Dab Sherbat surely will. According to the waiter, the composition of this signature drink hasn’t changed since Bengal Chemicals founder Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy brewed it for his friend, Nihar Ranjan Majumdar, who founded this ice cream maker in 1918.
Mrigendra Majumdar, who took over the reins of Paramount from his father Nihar in 1979, says: “Our shop functioned as a secret meeting place for freedom fighters. » The tables covered in marble at the back are silent witnesses to clandestine meetings of revolutionaries like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, MN Roy and Pulin Behari Das, who plotted strategies to undermine British rule here. “My father was a revolutionary himself, but he never took part in the secret conferences for fear that the police would get valuable information if they questioned him. He preferred to be on the lookout for a raid,” says Mrigendra.
My drink arrives. I take a sip of the delicious concoction. The Dab Sherbat recipe, like other sorbets in the shop, such as Cocoa Malai, Lichi Crush and Green Mango Juice, is a closely guarded secret. The recipes have remained unchanged since the 1940s and 1950s, when they were first created. No synthetic additives are added.
And like its legendary sorbets, Paramount’s interiors also remained unchanged. The slender tables topped with Italian marble, the framed list of luminaries who have come to drink, and the small alcoves housing garlanded idols exude a charm that is both old-fashioned and refreshing. The only change was the logo of a popular food website, adorning a side wall from which the mounted heads of two antlered deer gaze down at the tables. “My father bought them at an auction 85 years ago,” said Mrigendra, 73. “They had belonged to the Nizams of Hyderabad,” he adds.
Bose’s favorite table
A stone’s throw from Paramount, tucked between rows of shops selling antique books and stationery, this tea and toast shop called Favorite Cabin exudes a sense of casualness that betrays a colorful past. This teahouse was the birthplace of a literary movement that changed the course of Bengali literature, the Kallol movement.
“In the 1920s and 1930s, for about fifteen years, this was the daily haunt of the group. The brainstorming sessions of the incendiary literati which included Premendra Mitra, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Buddhadeb Basu and Achintya Sengupta often extended beyond closing hours,” says Mridul Barua, the youngest son of Nutan Chandra Barua, who has founded the tea house in 1918. Nutan and his older brother were active supporters of the Swadeshi movement; a fact which, added to the radical atmosphere of this small outlet, attracted a different breed: the city’s freedom fighters.
The outer lounge led to a rather drab inner chamber where the revolutionaries held their meetings. “There was a small back door near the kitchen. My father, while he was in charge of the cash register, watched the police guards. The back door was the way out for the rebels,” says Mridul, who is now sitting at the same counter.
The staple dish has always been crispy brown toast with a generous layer of butter topped with a sprinkle of black pepper; washed down with tea, brewed with milk and sugar in the North Kolkata Orthodox style. The price of tea is always at an incredible price ₹ 5. “A lot of local residents prefer their morning cuppa at Favorite Cabin when it opens at 9 a.m.,” says Gopal Sinha Roy, a regular since 1965.
I sit at a corner table and sip Darjeeling tea (a latecomer on the menu with few takers). “Legend has it that Kazi Nazrul Islam recited poetry and sang his songs here while a young Subhas Chandra Bose listened to him. Is that true?” I ask Mridul.
“Yes, and they always took table n°4”, replies the septuagenarian, smiling and showing the dusty photographs of the rebel duo hanging above my table.
Secret Meetings at Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel
I walk down College Street along the unbroken corridor of stalls selling second-hand books and take a narrow lane on the left. It is reduced to a small staircase and I climb into a small room where about twenty people are seated around square tables having lunch quietly in the tobacco-colored half-light.
I’m at the Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel, the legendary “pice hotel” that serves delicious Bengali cuisine at less than half the price of its high-end counterparts. The fish curries are as authentic as in a traditional Bengali home, made with freshly ground mustard and cumin seeds. But the signature dish is charchori, a savory mish-mash of vegetables, fish heads and greens. “It was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s favorite dish when, as a freshman at Presidency University, he first came here in 1913. At the time, he was known under the name of Hindu Hotel,” says owner Prahlad Panda, 99. A frail man with a weak voice, his eyes light up when he remembers meeting the legendary revolutionary years later, when Netaji occupied the Mayor of Kolkata Municipality and often passed by with his supporters. It was a convenient place to strategize over a healthy lunch. “The sessions always ended with the resounding shouting of Vande Mataram,” Panda recalls “Once British police raided the hotel while a few rebels were inside. My older brother Mongovinda stood guard at the front door. He was badly beaten but did not move until the rebels left the scene.”
This patriotic legacy continued during the Bengal famine of 1943. For months, Mongovinda and Prahlad organized frugal meals for the starving people who flocked to the city. On August 15, 1947, the outlet was renamed Swadhin Bharat Hindu Hotel and still celebrates the day every year with a fresh coat of paint and free meals for the poor.
I find myself a table and an elderly waiter arrives, hacking off the lunch menu. Affectionately known as Anadi-da by locals, he has worked here for over 40 years. Among the dishes on my plate are a tangy charchori, postor bora (poppyseed fritters) and tangrar jhal (a spicy and tangy catfish curry) but Anadi insists I take my meal a notch higher with a serving of malai prawn curry (made with fresh coconut milk). “It’s the dish of the day,” he smiles. Without further ado, I proceed to eat one of the best Bengali dishes I have ever eaten.
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