This City, Other Cities

This is the first piece commissioned by Chiragh Dilli, hopefully there will be more, to open up conversations with others who write on and engage with cities in intimate ways. I wanted Sailen to write this piece, even as he was unsure how it would fit into the framework of our blog, for various reasons. One, I thought that it would complement my piece on how to love a city and that it ‘did’ fit in with a key concern of the blog—how does one know and experience a city through its smallness, in its details. The second reason was more personal—of wanting to acknowledge that there was this other city, Bhubaneswar, which was a part of me. My fondest memories of it are less to do with the city but more about particular houses in the city, of swinging on rope swings from mango trees, of watching out for snakes and ghosts lurking in different corners, of playing with mud and sand, of ‘rainy day’ holidays, and of conspiring with my sister to eat chaat and gup-chup without our parents’ knowledge. The happy memories notwithstanding, Bhubaneswar was the city I escaped, and for many years, it has been just that. Over the last few years, every time I visit the city, I grapple with my relationship with it, as someone who is neither an insider nor an outsider, as someone who is familiar with the city but does not belong. I feel disoriented that the tiny patch of earth surrounding my parents’ house is now paved, that the drumstick tree, which I could see from my room’s window, with its trunk always covered with hairy caterpillars, is no longer there, that the pretty narrow park in front of our house is getting paved and concretized as part of the city’s endeavour to become ‘smart’. It is through my walks with Sailen and him showing me ‘his’ Bhubaneswar that has started me on a journey of steering through the nostalgia, resentment and bewilderment that the city evokes in me. Sailen’s piece, for me, is about knowing a city, while it is changing, through the private cities we continuously create within it, what he refers to as ‘crafting’. This crafting is also about crafting our selves and renegotiating relationships, with people and places. Interspersed within this writing of a city, which is Sailen’s, his friend Sidharth’s and theirs, is even the one I am getting to know, as if for the first time, through some photographs from my walks with Sailen in Bhubaneswar. The piece is thus also the crafting of a new genre that moves between memory, poetry and food, located strongly through the entry points of the three characters, Sailen, Sidharth and me.

—Samprati Pani

Image 1
Bhubaneswar continues to be a sleepy, languid place, even as it is rushing to become a smart city. Hidden from this image is the spot from where the photograph was taken, a tea shop brimming with people, small talk and, of course, cha.

This piece is for Sidharth, poet, friend and co-traveller, who drowned and died at the age of twenty-five on 25 February 2017. Many months before his death, we had made a deal. He would write a few poems to me—letters masquerading as poems (or were they poems posing as letters?)—and I had to respond in kind. Sidharth kept his part of the bargain; I, as always, broke my promise.

He wrote three poems for me, two of which are included here. Although his poems do not directly refer to the twin cities of Bhubaneswar–Cuttack in any straightforward fashion, they are suffused with his, mine and our concerns with the smallness of the these twins, and the intimate crafting needed to make their tiny places—road-side cafes, street-food thelas, tiny book kiosks—work for their inhabitants.

This crafting is an ongoing process, it is never complete, never quite finished. It is definitely not a solitary affair. This crafting makes one alert to the changing mores of a place—it allows for the new to come in and the old to retreat and hang on in niches and crevices, waiting for affection to drag it out again. Because this crafting is a form of love (and like all forms of love, a mode of living as well), it makes for endless renewals that make these twin cities live and make them liveable for their citizens. This piece is about this crafting, this love, this life.

Image 2
A ‘tiffin’ thela standing proudly on a dug-up road. The mark of a ‘developing’ city is that it is perpetually dug up, forever incomplete.

Raghu Dahi Bara, Ring Road, Cuttack

There are five of us. Guru bhai, Biswajit, Manoj, Abhiram and me. We are returning from the eleventh-day ceremony after Sidharth’s death. The afternoon is almost gone. The evening is about to rise from the depths of Kathajodi River flowing to our right. Manoj remembers that Raghu Dahi Bara will be on our way out of Cuttack. We have not had anything to eat since the morning, and hunger hits me like a handful of hail dropping out of a Baisakh sky, fierce and sharp. All of us agree to stop. Around a dozen people have already assembled on the roadside after Bidanasi chhaka, where Raghu’s stall materializes for a few hours every afternoon. Raghu only comes there to sit and supervise; it is his grandsons who manage the show now. The family arrives carrying their wares on a small commercial vehicle. An orderly line forms in front of the makeshift stall. We order a bowl of dahi bara–aloo dum each, the whitish brown of the dahi baras a stark contrast with the reddish gravy of the aloo dum. The mix is too hot for my taste. But hunger has no respect for death and has to be fed, and I gobble down the dahi bara, even as its taste fails to please my palate.

I pick up five pedas for twenty-five rupees for the group from a pedawalla peddling his wares nearby. The peda is crunchy and chewy. Its mild sweetness soothes the heat in the mouth, making my eyes water. A young boy on a motorcycle comes around asking for directions to Sati Chaura.

Sati Chaura is an old and famous cremation ground in Cuttack, which houses the remains and memories of poets, politicians, and an air force pilot who died in World War II. The memorial of the pilot has a small aeroplane on top that looks like the forgotten plaything of a giant child. Sidharth’s funeral there took more than three hours, eleven days ago. It is my second funeral in three years, not a large number perhaps, but in my case, two is too many. The first one was Baba’s, at the age of sixty-four in January 2014; Sidharth died in 2017, at the raw age of twenty-five.

What is the right age to die? Sixty-four? Twenty-five? Or seventy-nine? I ask myself these questions sitting on the hot seat of Guru bhai’s car after we troop in. The combination of the flavours of the dahi bara and aloo dum has disoriented me, but I am sure there is a reference somewhere in my memory that can help me ground it. When we are crossing Link Road on our way back to Bhubaneswar, there is a strong smell of vapourized water arising off the hot road mixed with whiff of singidas being fried. The concoction is like the taste of snot, tears and wood smoke from Sidharth’s funeral pyre mixed in my throat when I lay lounging just one memorial stone away from the group of friends hovering around his burning body like a murder of crows. The taste is just like the dousing gust of mild sweetness of the peda, after the heat of the aloo dum. I ask everyone in the car whether any one had been to Sati Chaura earlier. I repeat what the poet Bharat Majhi said when we left Sati Chaura a few days earlier after Sidharth’s body had turned to ash, ‘Sidharth amaku Sati Chaura dekhei dela—Sidharth ended up showing us Sati Chaura.’

Image 3
The petite bara survives in some corners of the city, and Sailen sought this one out for me on one of our walks.

If you quarrel at this hour
by Sidharth Mohapatra

If you quarrel at this hour,
midnight will break in two.
There will not be silence enough;
instead of each other
we’ll find imaginary troubles.
Through a cacophony of endless monologues,
we’ll be the inheritors of other people’s calamities.
Tears will storm your eyes;
they will have traces of lies;
yet you’ll be even more beautiful,
as if a great painter has willed them.

But that will not be enough for me.
We’ll blame unhappiness on each other
till the point, one of us
in a tone, too righteous, indignant,
will announce the date and time and say:
‘Remember this was when you had said this.’

If you quarrel at this hour,
inanities will know no bound.
Instead why don’t you
tell me of the time you dreamt of a classmate
and were sure she was a witch;
or let us give names to the moles on your neck
this morning, I had counted three, again?

Or let us be quiet and think what it is
that we have drowned in this room.
This room that reminds me,
how as a boy I had foolishly waited
for a brief night of inspiration.
Now the night sits in vigil at my window,
as we sit in judgment of each other;
and whole notebooks unburden themselves
of false poems and eager thoughts.

The roles our persons play are unclear;
we have only ever felt,
Love thrust like a little bird at our hearts.
If you quarrel at this hour,
Love will travel without us.
If you quarrel at this hour
tell me who will search for
those meaningful absences.

Image 4
For all the flurry of changes the city is going through, it still takes an afternoon siesta.

Cafe Italiano, Chandrasekharpur

My family came to Bhubaneswar in 1987. I left it for Bombay in 2002 to pursue a master’s degree. At that time, Bhubaneswar was an agglomeration of towns and as a city it had no character of its own, unlike say Puri or Cuttack. But it was, for me, a city of street food.

One of the first places that Sidharth ‘showed’ me (after I shifted back to Bhubaneswar from Bangalore in 2013–14) as a part of his city was Cafe Italiano, where you could get a cup of cappuccino for thirty rupees and hang around for an hour.

The roof of the cafe was made of bamboo mats and its sitting area designed tastefully with cane chairs and tables of wood and tyres. Located in Chandrasekharpur and situated on the longest arterial road that joins Bhubaneswar to Cuttack, Cafe Italiano soon became a hangout for me and my friends, where we would often meet for sandwiches and coffee. I got married around the time and sometimes the wife and I would meet up with Sidharth and his girlfriend (who was studying English literature in college like him) there.

Till the age of sixteen, in 1996, I do not remember we as a family ever going out to eat. Even at home, eating together was not a rule as a family. Everybody ate when they felt like it, including Ma, who never waited for Baba. The only time we would eat out together as a family was when traveling to Balabhadrapur, our village in Cuttack district.

Of course buying fried snacks for the ‘afternoon tiffin’ was an indulgence a few times a month. But one bought the bara, singida and piaji and got it home. This was the culture in Bhubaneswar in most families. By the time I started going to college, I had very little pocket money. My gang in college would often eat out, but it was mostly street food. The occasional ‘treat’ would be at Venus Inn (a south Indian restaurant) or at Keyar’s (a multi-cuisine restaurant, the chief attraction of which was an ‘American Chopsuey’), both located in Bapuji Nagar, not very far from college. Since we as a family never ate out together, I had no clue about the options near our home in Chandrasekharpur in north Bhubaneswar.

Since the 1990s, it is Chandrasekharpur that has seen the most amount of concentrated development involving real estate, IT companies and private educational institutions. Bhubaneswar acts as a hatchery for migratory birds from all over the state—the eggs hatch and the chicks soon fly away. People come for government jobs from across the state. Their children go to school and college here and then move out for jobs elsewhere. This is especially true of Chandrasekharpur as a locality within the city. A large part of the population under the age of thirty-five consists of migrants. This segment has access to disposable incomes not seen earlier or in other parts of the city. This has meant a mushrooming of cafes, pizzerias and restaurants that specifically cater to this population. Cafe Italiano, started by Ranjan, is one such place.

The cafe has a cult following with a Facebook page maintained by fans. But more often than not, these fans are people no longer in Bhubaneswar. A large number of them moved to cities like Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad or Pune after completing their studies or because Bhubaneswar no longer had a job that they found fulfilling. Sidharth also moved out after graduation in 2016 to Pondicherry to pursue a master’s degree. His body moved back in February 2017. I never wanted him to leave. The marriage between his Bhubaneswar and my Bhubaneswar was never consummated, Cafe Italiano notwithstanding. For me, his ghost still haunts the place, whenever the wife and I go there. It is a place suffused not with nostalgia but with what Russians call toska—a longing with nothing to long for.

Image 5
A view of Chandrasekharpur, where much of the city’s ‘development’ activity is concentrated and is most visible.
Image 6
Another view of Chandrasekharpur, underlining the intimate everyday lives that continue amidst a changing cityscape.

Glass men
by Sidharth Mohapatra

We make a habit of deformity,
non-meetings in infertile dreams.
No wanderer moonwalks
into your open palm
like a leaf from darkness.
Willed tears serve as water cataracts
in your eyes; you cannot see
love becoming empty
like your days.

It is because of you, because of me,
our persons become intruders
like words that jar in the scheme of eyes.
Words, that drag through streets, bent,
rucksacks on their shoulders
‘Old things for sale,’ is their pitch.

Who did make us rote by heart,
this joyless wisdom that denies distant hope?
How long have we not known language?
I wonder with a burning head,
I hear
at the doors arrive
men made of glass;
who do not know real love, hate or greed,
but demand to be taken for real.

Men of glass
who claim to have bought
whole populations.

Image 7
This signage on a street-food thela using a combination of Hindi, English and Odia words is perhaps symbolic of the changes in street food that the city is undergoing and the diverse migrant communities it caters to.

Bhagawati Snacks, Chandini Chowk, Cuttack

I had given up on singidas within a couple of years of moving back to Bhubaneswar in 2013–14. There is the north Indian samosa; there exists the Bengali singara; and there is of course the Odia singida. Like many things Odia, the singida bears a resemblance to the singara, but it is a different creature all together. True to a stereotype of all things Odia, it indeed is a poor cousin of the Bengali singara. The singida, like most Odias, is small, almost petite. As a snack, one should be able to eat at least five of these without feeling particularly full. The stuffing consists of only two major ingredients—potatoes cut into perfect cubes of half a centimetre each side and split peanuts, both stir fried with a hint of powdered turmeric, chilly and cumin.

Such singidas are no longer available in most parts of Chandrasekharpur. What is available now is the north Indian samosa, in abundance. One part of the answer might lie in the fact that most of the customers are from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and western Odisa—students enrolled in a dozen or so engineering and management colleges or young workers of IT companies. Other reasons behind the ubiquity of the north Indian samosa might have to do with processes of culinary standardization where the north Indian versions have come to symbolize the Indian cosmopolitan universal. Something called chow mein samosa is also increasingly available—a samosa stuffed with, of all things, tepid, tasteless chow mein. The fugitive singida had become for me a marker for the passage of time and a marker of change in a fast-evolving home town, where everything familiar soon passes into thin air.

And then Bhagawati Snacks happened. I had once gone over to Sidharth’s home in Cuttack for a night out. He had come out for a smoke, and we felt like roaming around the city. It was a late spring afternoon and I had started feeling peckish. We were in the Chandini Chowk area, and Sidharth was insistent that I go and try out the singida in Bhagawati Snacks. He and I had a running feud about what constitutes an Odia singida. I would not flinch from my position that the stuffing had to be stir-fried and that mashed potato stuffing for an Odia singida is an abomination. He hated my singida and preferred the mashed stuffing.

The samosa migrated to Odisa from two directions. It came to coastal Odisa via Calcutta and this meant that the coastal Odisa singida had a stir-fried stuffing. It reached western Odisa via Raipur, and this resulted in the western Odisa singida having mashed stuffing. Sidharth went to school in Sambalpur in western Odisha and grew up on the Sambalpuri singida.

In Bhagwati Snacks, the singida that was sold was Sambalpuri, with mashed potato stuffing. But it was definitely not a samosa. The outer covering had the same flakiness as a singida and the stuffing, though mashed, had cumin as its dominant flavour. If they had added any coriander powder, I could not register its taste. The taste of that singida was like meeting some long lost cousin, and after finishing one, I smiled and ordered one more. I saw my smile infect Sidharth, and with his lop-sided grin he asked me, ‘Jhakas na—Great, aint it?’

—Sailen Routray

Sailen Routray is a researcher, writer and translator. His interests lie in the areas of anthropology of development, anthropology of the everyday state, culinary cultures, contemporary history of Odisa and sociology of literature. He is the managing editor of Anwesha, an Odia quarterly of politics, culture and ideas. He currently serves as the Director of Centre for Human Sciences Bhubaneswar (CHSB).

All photographs © Samprati Pani.

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