Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

Hooghly & Howrah May 25, 2023

Water – a river, a lake, the seashore – adds atmosphere to a city. Calcutta, or Kolkata as the city’s official name is, proudly hosts River Hooghly. And where there is water, there might be a bridge, such as Howrah Bridge. One of my favourite spots in Calcutta is the beach close to Howrah, where life unfolds in many ways.

According to Association for Asian Studies, “The Hooghly weaves through the Indian state of West Bengal from the Ganges, its parent river, to the sea. At just 460 kilometers (approximately 286 miles), its length is modest in comparison with great Asian rivers like the Yangtze in China or the Ganges itself. Nevertheless, through history, the Hooghly has been a waterway of tremendous sacred and secular significance.”
The river is also a major waterway providing a year-round water supply to the plains of West Bengal. Its water is used for irrigation, as well as consumption by both the public and the surrounding industries. 

I first came close to Hooghly after a visit to Mullick Ghat, the city’s renowned wholesale flower market. After walking through this fabulous place, I stepped through a gate and the Hooghly appeared just in front of me. Many of the people who inhabit the area are engaged on various sacred rituals, the river being the centre of many ritual activities in the Hindu life. Others carry out work related to the flower market, some are simply taking a bath or washing clothes. The atmosphere always seems relaxed void of the usual Indian commotion. In contrast, I have walked along the river bank on a busy, narrow road trafficked by colourful trucks, taxis and auto rickshaws, and the bustling life is also marked by shops and stalls – not at least chai stalls.

Across the river is District Howrah with its magnificent railway station.
Offerings and other sacred rituals take place by the Hooghly. Howrah bridge makes a beautiful backdrop.

The Hooghly has a large traffic flow, both commercial traffic and that related to the tourist industry. You may, not surprisingly, go on midnight cruise, or other types of boat rides.

Right: Many people try their luck with the fishing rod.

Howrah Bridge

Several bridges go across Hooghly river, but the Howrah Bridge, opened in 1943, is one of the iconic landmarks in Kolkata. Howrah Bridge is a cantilever bridge with a length of 705 meter – It claims to be one of the longest cantilever bridges in the world. It’s said to carry 100,000 vehicles and countless pedestrians daily.

Not sure if I had managed 700 meter with this load on top!

I have been one of those pedestrians as well, watching countless people walking fast across for so many reasons. The traffic rumbles in two directions and the barbed wire reminds us of what bridges sometimes must endure – thus the precaution.

My most intriguing memory is that of a man who sat on the railing towards the traffic reading a newspaper. There must be so many other places to sit down and read, my first thought was. But maybe he found the backdrop relaxing …

You can hear it throughout the city, the cries from the conductors at the colourful buses: Howrah, Howrah, Howrah …

Howrah bridge connects Kolkata with Howrah, located on the western banks of the river.  The two cities are known as twin cities. Howrah is an important transportation hub and gateway to Kolkata and West Bengal through its magnificent railway station.

Hooghly river is also known as the Rabindra Setu, named after the great Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.



How I came to like Mishti Doi May 10, 2023

I have always been reluctant towards milk products, I hated milk when I was a child. It took me ages to appreciate yoghurt, especially plain yoghurt. So when I came to Calcutta for the first time, and my landlady Katy urged me to try Mishti Doi, I simply said no thank you. But she didn’t give up that easily …

Mishti means sweet and Doi means curd or yoghurt, translated into Hindi it would be Meetha Dahi. Mishti Doi is a classic, sweet yoghurt variety made of milk, curd culture and jaggery or sugar. It’s a famous and much appreciated Bengali dessert, traditionally set or even baked in earthenware which gives the Mishti Doi an unique flavour and consistency.

It was the pot that did it for me, a little crooked, filled with an -until now – unfamiliar mass with a light, brownish hue. If nothing else, I thought, it will make a good photo …

In Calcutta, you often buy chai from tiny earthenware cups which are smashed afterwards. Shards of these cups are present all over the city. And now a bigger size cup, filled with Mishti Doi, was placed in front of me so I simply gave in and slid the spoon carefully into its contents. The yoghurt attacked my tastebuds and I instantly fell in love! The taste was mild and strong at the same time, but so rich. Velvet might be a good word to describe the consistency.
I still eat it with delight …

Mishti Doi also comes in plastic containers. On my last visit to Calcutta I walked across the street of Katy’s home, entered the famous sweet shop Mouchak and asked for Mishti Doi, which – it turned out – was now contrary to earlier only found in plastic containers. Disappointed I came back, empty handed. Katy responded by sending her secretary to Bow Bazaar, to another famous sweet shop who makes sure to sell Mishti Doi from earthenware cups, and that in several sizes.
Mishti Doi is a staple dessert in the Bengali culture and available in every sweet shop, but Katy – like many other – has her favourite supplier: Bhim Chandra Nag in Bow Bazaar. So off we went one day, for me to see for myself. The sweet shop is fairly simple but beautifully decorated; a high counter with a variety of other sweets on display and a few tables. But I had only eye for the Mishti Doi in its earthenware cups covered with printed paper paper.

I probably had a spoonful or ten every single day during my stay knowing that it would be some time before I could have more!


From door to door May 3, 2023

Filed under: INDIA — benjamuna @ 4:47 pm
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Let’s call her Asha. She belongs to the third largest group of workers in India, those who work in other people’s homes. Domestic aid includes housekeepers, cooks, sweepers, cleaners, drivers and watchmen – and perhaps more. Agriculture and construction workers reside on top of that list.

Asha lives in small-town India. She is the mother of two young boys whose father left their mother six years ago. Asha and her boys moved to her parents to scrape through, and Asha followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a maid. Now her work is the only source of income while her parents are taking care of the boys while she is at work.

Official figures show that approximately 4.75 million people work as domestic aid in India. But the same organization (International Labour Organization) claims that the number could just as easily be more than 50 million workers. Not unexpectedly, the majority are women and most work is carried out in urban areas.

Asha is a beautiful tall, sturdy woman who presently works for six families every day. She starts at seven in the morning and is rarely home until twelve hours later. The families that Asha works for all belong to the middle class, now she is taking us to Sarika.

The majority of those who work as domestic aid have no education and they’re often illiterate. They belong to the poorest and most exploited workers in India, not protected by any legislation and thus very dependent on their employer’s goodwill. Not everyone is treated well.

Sarika lives in an apartment block ten minutes away. Asha cannot afford to use an autorickshaw between jobs, she walks from house to house and this is the only break she can allow herself. Nor does she always have time to stop and eat lunch at her own home. The amount and type of work may differ. The salary is not regulated by any authority, but we’re told that most maids in the area earn the same for equal work.

Those who work in other people’s homes do so on different terms. Some are staying with their employer on a permanent basis (‘live-in maid’), while others spend a few hours or large parts of the day with the family (‘live-out maid’). Many are migrants from poor states in India, such as Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. They very often belong to low castes or indigenous people and are among the most marginalized and exploited of India’s population.

We knock on Sarika’s door, she’s a young housewife aged 28. She is married and has a five-year-old son. Together with her is her mother-in-law. For us, it is difficult to imagine that the two women, both at home all day, cannot take care of the simple housework that the small apartment requires. But the culture and the social structure in India makes domestic aid a natural part of middle-class families.

Work is traditionally ruled by caste. Often, food is prepared by those of higher castes, while tasks related to eg. cleaning toilets and emptying rubbish are left to people from lower castes. Therefore, you will often find that several different types of help come and go during the day, all with different tasks. But not every Indian family take caste into account and choose to treat people equally regardless of caste and origin.

Asha goes into the small kitchen to do the dishes. The kitchen is badly maintained and feels slightly unhygienic. The piping above the sink has seen better days and it almost feels like a miracle that water comes out of the tap. Afterwards, floors are swept and washed. This is done every day in India due to dust and dirt that creeps in from all directions.

Asha has worked with this family for many years, Sarika’s first maid was Asha’s mother. She tells us that Asha is like a part of the family. Many domestic workers in India are well treated by their employers, they inherit clothes and are given gifts and food during festivals. Some employers support children’s education. But not everyone is this lucky.

Maids and other domestic aid do not always use the same tableware (plates, cutlery, glasses) as their employer. The maid’s tableware has its own place and is almost invariably made of steel. Live-in maids don’t always have their own room and their privacy is limited. However, it is important to remember that variations are large. Many middle-class (and above) Indians have children who live in other parts of the world and see domestic aid as insurance and security in old age – and thus treat their maids well.

Asha is looking for more work and maybe lighter work. But it is difficult with only a minimum of schooling. She has expenses related to her elderly parents and would like to give her two boys a good upbringing and subsequently a good education.