Last Tango in Vandre. Two Calcutta to Bombay stories with food as the common thread.

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The purple door

The purple door to Pia’s heart

I set out from our house last evening and walked down a couple of lanes to Pia’s house. I entered her building complex. It is one of those typical old Bandra ones, with a cluster of three to four storey-ed houses in it. The paint outside worn, but not gone.  Wooden windows with iron grills to keep intruders out. In a few cases, nets for mosquitoes and rats. Pia’s apartment is on the ground floor of one of the inner blocks. You walk past the ‘backside’ of the other blocks to reach it. It has a door which opens straight on to the compound. You do not have to enter the lobby, excessively grand as the word might be for a weatherbeaten Bandra building of a certain vintage, to enter her parlour. The way it was for the first apartment the K and I owned Bandra. As if to signal that those who live inside are ‘different.’ And boy, Pia was different. And I am not just talking about the purple coloured door that welcomed you in. Or is it lavender?

Pia is? Pia was?

I am talking of the late Pia Promina Dasgupta Barve, to whose house I had often been invited for meals ever since I first encountered her. I had taken the same route on those occasions. To be welcomed by a table groaning from the bounty of food placed on it. To join an eclectic mix of people over adda (Bengali for free flowing chatter and discussion) and food. She might have moved to Bombay more than four decades back but at her heart Pia was a proud and passionate Calcutta girl.

I took out a photo frame from the bag I clutched in my hands. Took a picture of it with her apartment in the background and then pushed the purple door, which is usually kept unlocked, and walked in. I was greeted by Pia’s husband, whom she called ‘Brave,’ and her son Hrisheet.

Pia passed away on the 21st of July 2022. She was ailing for a while. While she had sent me news of her hospitalisation through a common friend, I was too consumed with my own ill health…pulled down by covid and then herpes zoster and a blood sugar spike …and had not got back to her. What I did learn though is that many others were in touch her…through visits, or the phone and social media. She passed away into the dark one night, knowing that she was loved and with her son and husband looking after her till the end.

I was down with viral when this happened and could not go to her funeral. People from diverse sections of society, some of the many whose lives she had touched, had come to bid her farewell, said Hrisheet.

The theories on what happens after a person passes away differs from philosophy to philosophy and is a question that mankind has delved with from times immemorial. I subscribe to a Buddhist school of thought which says that through our prayers and actions we can bring happiness even to the souls of those who have departed. It gives me solace.

Perhaps this is what subconsciously led me to reaching out to a few friends from the world of food and who were among the many who had expressed their grief at Pia’s passing – Reshmy Kurian, Tara Deshpande, Manzilat Fatima, Madhushree Basu Roy and Anindya S Basu. I hosted an adda around their memories of her on my podcast #foodocracyforher. The podcast is aimed at highlighting the work of women in the food business. Pia was on a break during the pandemic at her son’s insistence. In retrospect it was the right decision to take and she looked visibly younger, fresher and even slimmer in a picture of her taken after she finally took this break from work and spent a few months in Goa with him and Brave. She needed the break.

This is possibly why Pia was not on my radar for the podcast though she was quite the pioneer when it came to women working in the food industry. The podcast is a pandemic baby and my focus has been on what people have been doing since then.

Pia Promina Dasgupta Barve #foodocracyforher Hall of Fame

At the end of the chat I suddenly got the idea to start the  #foodocracyforher Hall of Fame and posthumously named her its first member. At the back of my mind was a comment made in the chat about how Pia often felt that she had not get the recognition she had deserved. This was in response to that.

I felt very touched when Hrisheet called me after I dropped the podcast and told me how Pia always appreciated and valued the feedback I gave her. I learnt this from a few others too, people whom I did not know, who messaged me saying how I was special to Pia and how she ‘ordered’ them (sic) to follow me.

I felt a bit better after his call. And a bit guilty too. 

Did I really deserve her gratitude? I could and should have done more. 

With little Nimki…Gen Zee junior level

The picture frame I took out and photographed was that of the certificate which I designed on Canva in the morning, using a picture I took of Pia when she had invited me to her bakery years back. I mailed the file to Mohan Color Labs to print and then went there, got it framed, and went to give it to Hrisheet and Brave.

‘But she was not one of those you interviewed for #foodocracyforher,’ asked K who had earlier told me that she felt that the panel discussion was a lovely gesture. ‘How could she be part of the Hall of Fame?’

‘Ray did not win a single Oscar. Yet, they gave him the lifetime achievement award,’ I countered.

#foodocracyforher Hall of Fame versus Oscar Lifetime Achievement Award? #DelusionalMuch, as Gen Zee would ask?

It’s a Bengali Gen X thing. Pia would understand!

The Bengali in Bandra’s Bhaiya Gym

Bhaiya gym, July 22

I passed the ‘Bhaiya Gym’ just before I walked into Pia’s compound last evening and smiled when I saw its gate. Its actual name is Bandra Physical Culture Association. It was my PG aunty’s answer 25 years back, when I had moved into Mumbai from Kolkata, and asked her if there was a gym around. It was incredibly cheap and very basic. Meant for people who really wanted to build their bodies. A world far removed from the hipster-ish gyms which came to define the increasingly Tony suburb of Bandra later. Avocado shots and bulletproof coffees were yet to be discovered. Wheat and grass were two different words.

Gym and you FinelyChopped Babu, you ask?

I was quite serious about my fitness back then. I used to go to a gym called ‘Jupiter for men and Venus for women,’ in Calcutta after work before I moved to Mumbai. Working out in a vest and my office trousers! It had no air-condition but did have a mechanical cycling machine. I had come to Mumbai carrying my Bull-worker. Something that I exercised diligently with when I was in high school and college. People who read Archies in the 80s and 90s would remember the ad of the scrawny boy who got sand kicked in his face and then used the Bull-worker to become a guy who would make you disintegrate into sand if he hit you.

I never did become THAT guy. Perhaps because mine was a spurious Bullworker bought at New Market. Cheaper than the actual one that my mama had. After all advertising can never be misleading right?

See Baby Loaf. Daddy Loaf found Mummy Loaf without becoming a body
builder. Now don’t ask me to get you a bull-worker!

The Bhaiya Gym did not have a treadmill. Nor did it have an exercise cycle. 

‘You want to do cardio? Run around the field then!’

Walking back from dinner with friends anywhere in Bandra to my PG by the talav, endless climbs of staircases of Mumbai train station dividers, running up and down the stairs at my office to collect printouts of acetates before presentations and climbing the 3 floors to my PG multiple times every day, was cardio enough for me in the late 90s.

Writing with Baby Loaf

I was fairly slim back then. Bit too much, I believed. I would buy a bottle of Complan or Horlicks and keep it with my landlady. She would make me a cup with milk to have along with bread and jam breakfast before I left for work. And with it, I would take out a Shrewsbury biscuit from the jar I would keep with me and have it. Someone had once told me having this very sweet and milky biscuit is equivalent to having a glass of milk.

I was 23 then. Blood sugar, cholesterol, lipids, weight loss, calories or carbs were not a part of my lexicon!

My PG aunty has passed away a few years back as I learnt of FB from her son, but I take solace in the fact that I had met her one last time after a long gap when I took my cousin to her PG.

Never did I think when I first met her that I would become a Mumbaikar and a Bandra-ite one day. A ‘family man’ with a wife and two kids, I mean cats.

Wait didn’t dada Baby Loaf and Daddy Loaf say that they were working?

PS: It’s good to be writing again. To me ‘writing’ means taking out my laptop and sitting at my desk and keying in furiously. I posted frequently when I was down with the viral last week. And when we were at Paris and Berlin a month back. Short stories from my life that I shared with you, typing on my phone. I am glad I could do so. I know that many more of you would read those than this. Yet, I am happy to be writing again. As is Baby Loaf who has settled beside me while I type. As Dr Nicole had told us a couple of years back, boy cats are more affectionate than girls as a rule but get disturbed if their routine is disturbed.

The podcast:

‘The world of Indian food became poorer on the 21st of July 2022 with the passing away of Pia Promina DasGupta Barve in Mumbai.
There was a spontaneous outpouring of grief from the many lives she had touched. To know about the multifaceted life she led, do read this article by food researcher Pritha Sen…
Many call Pia the pioneer home chef. She was baking from a time when most of us were not even born. She was behind the setting up of the iconic Kewpie restaurant in Kolkata. She moved to Mumbai where she was a lone woman working in the meat industry and she had also worked closely with the agricultural produce sector. Her culinary skills spanned not only her native Bengali cuisine, but that of the Maharashtrian side of her husband, whom she called Brave (from Barve), the colonial cuisine of the British Raj, anglo Indian, Jewish, Iranian (she had fed me tahdig once when she read that I had fond memories of it), Asian and what not; but what was most special to me were the eclairs she would make for my wife, Kainaz Karmakar, because they made K smile like few other treats would.
It is one of my regrets that I was not in touch with her in her last few months. I was going through my own health issues but to be honest, it was nothing that was big enough to stop me from making a phone call or from sending a text.
My little way of making up to her was to reach out to some of the many whose lives she had touched and invite them to speak about her in my podcast. As I listened to Reshmy Kurian, Tara Deshpande, Manzilat Fatima and Madhushree Basu Roy & Anindya S Basu share their memories of Pia, I realised that not interviewing her while I could for the #foodocracyforher is something I will always regret.
Which is why, as I typed this, I decided that #foodocracyforher should have a Hall of Fame and that I would like to most humbly declare Pia Promina Dasgputa Barve its first star.
The award winning #podcast #FoodocracyForHer by Kalyan Karmakar is India’s longest running podcast featuring women entrepreneurs in the food and beverage business. Please share the episode. Please click on like as it helps the video be discovered and please do subscribe to the channel to catch future episodes of the podcast.’

Video podcast: FinelyChopped TV

Audio podcast: Radio FinelyChopped

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