What do you do when you find yourself stuck at a railway station with a first class ticket but no train? You eat. Well that’s what I did.
I am supposed to be on my way to Shantiniketan this morning but my train has been diverted and I have had to get off barely forty minutes after starting from Calcutta. Presently in a tiny station called Bandel, I have no idea when or how am I getting to my destination, so instead of stressing I have resorted to eating.
It begins with a flimsy bowl of rasmalai.
No sooner do I alight from the train, distressed and anxious about the onward journey, I spot a middle-aged man squatting on the platform with a large aluminum vat. Inside it are three smaller vessels. The first has a pale yellow potato curry, the second carries sticky round balls doused in sugar syrup, and the third has tiny but milky rasmalais. He has a tray too, stacked with robust beige balls of chamcham.
In a matter of seconds he is surrounded by over half a dozen men goading him to hand over their choice of refreshment – ekta luchi den, chamcham koto kore? Aye! du ta rosogullas debe. I hear the men yelling at him from all directions. Forgetting all about my anxiety I soon become one with the group and ask for the first thing that comes to mind – rasmalai. The tiny balls of channa doused in thick rabri are handed to me promptly in a flimsy plastic cup. They are a little too sweet but their texture and freshness is unlike anything I have eaten before. I want to sample other things too, but by now the guy is completely inundated with the needs of the hungry passengers so I walk ahead.
Next comes the cucumber.
After having run between platforms, enquiry and ticket counters, and the stationmaster’s office, I am finally settled on a cemented bench waiting for the next train. It is here that I spot the man in the corner peeling fresh cucumbers from a large wicker basket. Even though I want to resist – his methods are not most hygienic – my stomach tells me otherwise. And so, before I know, I am biting off a crisp, cool cucumber laced with salt and chili powder. The cucumber acts as an appetizer and makes me want real food.
You are never too far from food on a Railway Station.
3 for 10/- reads the sign on the stall. It is a handwritten note hung tackily on the shop and seems like an afterthought; the kachauris however are fluffy and fresh. They hadn’t been so when I had walked into the platform but now, with the arrival of a local train, the man in the shop has sprung into action and is frying fresh batches. Not wanting to miss the chance yet again, I quickly seek my share and retreat to my bench, lest I forgo the seat.
Even as I am licking my fingers clean of the potato curry and wondering should I buy another plate of the paper thin kachauris, I spot something completely unfamiliar: a man carrying boxes of a sweet called moa making rounds at the platform. In my 15 years of knowing Bengali food I have never seen something like this. I ask him for a piece. He first insists I buy the whole box but later agrees to give me just one. I expect the laddoo shaped sweet to be made of milk or channa but it turns out to be a rather interesting combination of puffed rice, date palm jaggery, and reduced milk. It is light and chewy and, unlike the rasmalai, is not overtly sweet. As I chew at the moa among the whistling engines and passing trains, I ponder about the seemingly unpleasant situation: but for the diverted train I would never have had the opportunity to sample such beautiful food.
The post first appeared in The Hindu.