Kolkata: In times that were, winter itself was a beautiful picnic. Yet the hero of the season was the Sunday picnic, a gorgeous celebration of abundant affections and incurable bonding.
The season of chill in Calcutta is like a guest actor in a blockbuster, significant undeniably but alas short-lived. Therefore, its tenure was exploited with sincere gusto by passionate impresarios, concocting activities that would be alien in warmer climes. Notable amongst many deserving candidates was the picnic, a ritual of ravishing labour and meticulous love. It could well be a family union, an office confession box, the deemed organisational adhesive or simply batchmates across dominions seeking a scent of the hiraeth.
It all started with a date and a ringmaster, the two unified by a glorious purpose. Analogue landlines would be activated with diligence and in the common event of a debilitating system failure, a physical encounter with the marooned invitee would be hastily orchestrated. In times of limited engagements, unless an appointment with Vellore or Belur (the two repositories of Bengali faith), the denials would be majorly modest. Everybody was up and willing to invest a Sunday or a concurrent national holiday for a day out in an impromptu amusement park, no palpable emotion spared a deserving workout.
The preliminary leap of faith was the servicing of the faithful Ambassador, Fiat or the Standard Herald. Notoriously subservient to seasonal chills, such vehicles were reluctant starters in winter, needing a push and several prods to get going, as if negotiating a seaming Headingley turf. No such allowances could be permitted on picnic day, as any delays in departure could lead to banishment from breakfast, the powerplay of the charismatic tidings.
Breakfast, live on venue, was local as well as vocal. Deeply moody Koraishutir kochuri, with the steady percussion of dal and alu dum, the power distance starkly vociferous. Jilipi, elsewhere known as jalebi, would act as the softener or the sweetener, nomenclature up for grabs. Tea was on call, like the Swiggy Zomato nexus of this day, the infusion of milk or the insistence on starkness was mostly a reflection of self-image. For the laggards, deviated by impoverished road maps or delayed kick-offs, the singaras ( samosas) acted as the perpetual Plan B, coated with meaningful substance way beyond maida.
By the time the invitees arrived at the venue, the jury was already out on the proven and aspiring parameters. The green cover had to be persuasive, the coconuts had to be worthy of the Romanov clan, the greenery and shrubbery comparable to the Horticulture Gardens and the last-mile driveway a naturalist epicure’s delight. Further, it had to be adequately staffed, especially with youngsters rejected from the cast and crew of Ray’s ‘Ashani Sanket’, diminished in form and ambition. Elders in the know would compare with the iconic Chabi Biswas Baganbari or even the version of Lord Clive, depending on the state of inebriation or grasp of history. The die was indeed cast.
It was slowly time for the ‘Special’ vodkas to come to the party, or rather, set up the party. Specialness arising from a cheesy merger of camouflage and potency, elsewhere unlikely bedfellows. The Russians were summoned, Bolsheviks and Tsars, and entrusted with the onerous task to embellish the curvaceous coconut, as if fortifying the naval fleet akin to the Bangladesh War. In a matter of moments, the loyalties were firmly entrenched, as both morale and spirits headed Northwards. It was time for the games to begin.
Games usually commenced with Cricket as the Eden Gardens New Year Test match was in the vicinity and everybody was an invitee. The wicket was usually the nearest tree and the balls were mostly rubber, genuine articles having the alarming ability to disrupt fundamentals in more ways than many. Ladies often played badminton, the shuttlecocks being coerced to perform in rhythmic partnership as if an antakshari on the Zee TV network. Others, more speculative in flora and fauna, sought the patronage of the immediate environment, stakeholders of an unified universe. Playing cards could not be excluded as an opportunity, for permanent connections as well as temporary bankruptcies, enchanting whatever be the outcome.
Soon it would be time for lunch, the natural coal ovens on secondment with a lure of permanence. The prima donna was clearly the curried mutton, of pedigree that was equal to multiple Post Graduate degrees. Genteel in disposition, the pieces took time to be perfectly edible, the hungry queries no match for the rigour of the creators. Fish had to be locally lured Rohu or Katla, sweeter than the rasgulla and sharper than paneer, and the crispy deep fried renditions could well have been a benchmark for the Colonel of KFC. Of course,there were rice, dal, veggie conglomerates and the crispy papad, acting as team players with chirpy mandates. Dessert had to be seasonal jaggery and its peers, entitled by the supreme powers to play God in such melodious times.
Oh yes, one more character I must have forgotten or perhaps forgiven. The accomplished party singer, whether a clone of Kishore, Rafi or even Elvis Presley, vocal chords embellished by silkier than Castrol lubrication. Every number, chosen by design or deceit, capable of building pleasing bridges, to pasts that were partially assuaged and futures that reeked with peaty possibilities. The singers in the picnics invariably added, never diminished and in many ways, converted a date in time to a passage from the ages.
Soon, alas much sooner than needed, it would be time to go home, back to the territories of reality. The timing had to be prolonged, extended with pseudo-magisterial empowerment, aided by some prompting by divinity. Darkness, in Eastern climes, arrived sooner than later so sayonara was rarely delayed. Vehicles, seemingly hearses, had to be summoned to duty and just a few would be jet lagged by the events of the days, others benefitting from the sunbathing. The ringmaster, maestro of ceremonies, was by now in the trusted care of otherworldly forces, the unabashed sincerity blending beautifully with the loftiness of skilful cerebral aphrodisiacs.
Truth be told, picnics still happen in this day and age. But then they are loaded with the replicable new age nuances of boring consistency and repelling abundance, both adversaries of timeless indulgences. Most of what happens in the much improved times we live is for the colossal good. On picnics though, I can't be entirely sure.
(This piece is dedicated to my former teacher and permanent inspiration, Leslie D’Gama, whose article on this matter inspired me to write further.)