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18 Feb

Got started on that list today with the Sunday auction at The Russel Exchange, on Russel Street. As a life-long devotee of take-your-time-with-things, today’s experience ended up being more of a taster, especially as I was with friends who were hungry and less fascinated than I was. We stayed for just under two hours, and the auctioneer had reached lot number sixty something, out of 300?400? plus lots to be auctioned. There was a neat little booklet listing all the items, and a page of rules, that was handed out to participants and watchers on.


We reached at 11, the scheduled time for the auction to begin, but were told that it is closer to 11.30 usually, before the whole thing begins.


Calcutta, Sunday, fair enough. Even the metro has a leisurely start on Sundays-at 9.50AM. So do I, come to think of it!


So yes. One is supposed to inspect the goods for auction the day before, on Saturday, but you’re allowed to touch them and examine them on Sunday as well, before the auction begins. Everything is crammed into a facility that resembles a massive two-story garage or small warehouse; there is nothing ‘curated’ about the display that’s fo’sho! That adds to its charm, if you ask me, because you carry the expectation of a hidden gem popping up in a corner, or in that showcase there, which makes it special. I’m a fan of beauty and chaos co-existing in everyday life and hidden gems in general, so its aesthetic appealed very strongly to me. Much like finding a fragrant, flowering plant in a corner lot piled high with construction debris and detritus, and/or a secret garden.


By the way, ask for permission before you take photographs, especially if you have a hobby camera, like an SLR. They don’t refuse, but ask you to not take a photograph of every item for sale.

Today’s auction was conducted by one of the three siblings who own The Russel Exchange. She sat on a platform with a gavel and a mike, reading out from the list as employees held up the item of the moment for buyers to see.


There was everything from junk that only held value as recyclable garbage (half a helmet!), to items that could be repaired and used (telephone instruments, mixer-grinders), to items that could be used as is (Samsonite suitcases and strolleys), to decorative (carved wooden boats, paintings, china figures, glassware) and more valuable pieces of pottery (that I did not stay back to see). Many of the items were bags full of random things that sold as a collective lot: purses, light fixtures, scissors etc. Some of those went without any bids, some went as low as Rs. 30, and one bag of door locks started at Rs. 20-ish and finally sold for close to Rs. 1000! If you’re the highest bidder for an item, your name is written down and you’re expected to pay 50% of the amount upfront, and the rest can be paid when you collect your purchase (you have till Wednesday 5PM to do so).

You can pick out the pros from the first timers by the seriousness with which they stare at their booklets, marking off the items they intend to bid on, and the casualness with which they make their bids. At the time of bidding, they almost disinterestedly raised half a hand or waved a finger in a half-raised hand to indicate interest, and the auctioneer hiked up the bid by Rs. 5/-10/- or 50/-; I couldn’t figure out the logic or system by which the price was increased. Other than the bag of locks, a Samsonite suitcase attracted multiple bids, ending at Rs.2650. And a carved leather ladies handbag.

I was only present while everyday goods (and junk!) got auctioned off, but that place holds antique-ey items too. Some pieces can be purchased as is, including most of the big furniture, chandeliers, sculptures, carpets etc. You can identify them by the price tags stickered on to them. One old chair with a wooden frame and cane mesh sitting and leaning surface, the kind of chair common to my grandparents’ time, was priced at Rs.11000. I’ve seen them being sold online for upwards of Rs.20,000 by companies that refurbish and resell antique furniture. Other exciting pieces are antique-ey bookshelves with the former owner’s book collection included (often dusty encyclopedias). I say antique-ey as opposed to antique, because I was reading online that there is a problem that gets in the way of selling antiques in India. Anything older than 100 years has to be registered with a government department before it can be sold, and most owners, naturally, can’t be bothered with all that. So it is highly possible to come across antiques that are not certifiably antiques, which makes these auctions even more exciting.

Someone, while writing about this, spoke of how addictive the whole experience is, and I agree. The mystery of the items-who were the previous owners? what’s its story?-the mystery of the appeal of older goods and who bids on what, the collection of spectators and buyers, and the rush of the bids and the gavel falling down to seal a deal warrant a second visit, and a third, and a fourth. And then one should stop, before it becomes pathological ­čśë



A return to origins

11 Feb

Recently, I have been thinking again about being a tourist in the city. As my time here draws to an end (hopefully!) I find there are many things I am yet to do in Calcutta. Things that are easier done as a resident than as a tourist. In no particular order, these include:

  • Attending an auction on Russel Street.
  • Joining a short course at the maritime institute near Millenium Park (I’ve crossed it many times but I cannot remember the name).
  • Visiting the Marble Palace (the name makes it sound all marble-y and palace-y, i.e. very boring, but the now dead owner was a mad collector of a mad mix of things, i.e. a man after my own heart).
  • Making one trip to either Darjeeling or Puri┬áfrom Calcutta.
  • Bishnupur antique market fair, Gangasagar.
  • A morning walk, an afternoon walk and an evening walk around Dhakuria Lake.
  • Once a month, pick an area within the city to get lost in.
  • Chinese New Year celebrations in China Town.


4 Feb

Calcutta’s volatile temper is a bit frightening. How quickly people come to blows and burn down vehicles. Road accidents are more of a tragedy than usual because the vehicle perceived to have caused the accident inevitably has its driver pulled out, beaten, and sometimes killed on the spot. Is it any wonder then that drivers of said vehicles attempt to flee?

How to comprehend this Calcutta living alongside the Calcutta where old people actually have space to loiter in the city, which has time to laugh and joke with strangers on buses, which enthusiastically patronises telebhaja stalls in the hottest of weathers? Which Calcutta is the real Calcutta? How to reconcile such opposites?

Further remunimunations

2 Nov

I had a brief moment today when I considered applying for a job as a librarian at a community library project in Delhi.

My PhD isn’t writing itself despite having no obligations, work or otherwise, to anybody other than myself at the moment. I’m living alone in Calcutta and it’s no longer the adventure it was back in 2012. Not an adventure, but still, at some level, the space is welcome enough that I don’t want to move back to Delhi without reason. Being stretched by work has, I have seen in the past, been good for my mind and mental abilities even though a part of me resists busy-ness.

So, went my rationale, it might actually be good for my PhD to hold down a 5-day a week job that also paid me for my time. It might leave me with more enthusiasm and motivation to write my thesis than I currently have with a surfeit of leisure. And, money. It’s always reassuring to have a steady influx of funds that comes by dint of one’s own work rather than kind parents who don’t want you to run through your savings.

Even as I wrote asking for more information, I wondered if it was the caffeine from my morning cup of coffee that was fueling my enthusiasm or something more lasting. Was it like the time I contemplated applying for Teach for India? Even before I received the reply to my email detailing the profile of the job, I knew I was probably hankering after it for the wrong reason. After receiving the reply, I knew I wasn’t a good fit. The job required one to be librarian and community organizer. And, reading aloud to kids, which doubtless involves doing voices *shudder*. I’m good for manning libraries, organising activities within, procuring, maintaining and cataloguing books, but am far too much of an introvert to take calmly to the level of human interactions involved in community organising. Not my cup of tea.

Was it escapism-laced with caffeine-that prompted this flight of desire? Very likely. I need to take the bit between my teeth right here right now, and remember again, what a blessing this obligation-free time is. Besides, if I don’t conquer, or attempt to conquer, my demons-academic, mental, psychological-right here, right now, it’s not as if they will go away if I switch streams. I’ve always held there is merit in struggle.

In other matters, I got impatient with the wait for my copy of Bruce Dickinson’s memoir to arrive, and sampled the preview on amazon. I expected it to be good, but it seemed to be more than merely that. There was some serious literary merit in the extract I read.

Additional thoughts

23 Oct

*I feel I was a bit hasty in forming my opinion on #metoo. It seems to have provided an outlet that wasn’t seen to exist before. I withdraw my reservations about it.

*I am deeply fond of soft, creamy cheeses but they are hard to find in India. Brie and Camembert are still found in fancy shops, but what I really give my heart to is frishkaese, which was wonderfully cheap in Germany, especially if you bought an in-house brand. For around Rs.35 I’d have a 200gm tub of herbed frishkaese, which is a fraction of the price of Amul cheese.

The Germans also make a variety of soft cheeses that taste similar to Brie and Camembert, all for under Euros 2. I love Germany, have I mentioned? ­čśë

Cheese is not a viable thing to ingest in the hot climates of either Delhi or Calcutta, the two cities that are home to me. So most of the time the lack of availability or expensive imports don’t bother me. Besides, Philadelphia cream cheese isn’t, in my opinion, half as tasty as your average frishkaese.

Sometimes though, the craving hits, and in winters it is permissible to indulge. It was with great delight that I discovered this year that a home-made substitute exists that is very close to the taste I am seeking. And that is a hung-curd dip that my mother makes. When you hang curd long enough it assumes a texture and taste quite like frishkaese, and when you add in whatever additions appeal to you, like garlic, chopped coriander etc etc, it becomes suitably elevated to divine! A bonus: this is actually healthy and good for all weather consumption.

*Salt and vinegar chips are rather yummy. INOX makes a brand of kettle-cooked chips which delivers this flavour at Rs.40 for 50 gms. It’s quite good, though the chips aren’t as tongue-curlingly sour as I’d like. I am, however, not paying ridiculous prices to try the other brands that offer this in India. When I’m not PhDing, (which seems to be always these days!) I begin to fantasize about making these at home, without the maltodextrin.

*I discovered English Breakfast tea in December 2011, in the panic of MPhil coursework exams. I’ve loved it ever since, but haven’t ever had it with milk, because I prefer my tea without milk and sugar. Today I was craving a milky drink and found it tastes as good, maybe even better, with milk.

*The fridge went kaput yesterday and I will be fridgeless for a week until we buy a new one. I’ve never lived without a fridge, ever. I’m very dependent on it, a reflection of my extreme privilege ofcourse, given how monstrously expensive those things are!, and I’m driven to near panic at the thought of existing without one. (I’m almost as dependent on washing machines.) My neighbours are very, very nice and they will keep my cooked food for me whilst I woman up to the challenge of planning my meals without the cushion of storageability.

*This post is almost entirely about food.

Year Four

18 Oct


  • Came out of PhD paralysis by going through and making notes from all audio recordings. Some of that shit’s really interesting.
  • With one last round in Calcutta and Delhi, brought the fieldwork part to a close.
  • Prepared and presented a poster in a conference in Hannover.
  • Trying to read the book I have been asked to review for a peer-reviewed journal.

I need to begin the writing part, and for that I need to wade through historical literature. Dipesh Chakravarty was fun, illuminating, and done. Raj Chadavarkar? Making me doubt my abilities severely. Should have had a tentative chapterisation down by September. I dumped the scientific process and chalked out three chapter possibilities-the historical lit, writing down of fieldwork#1 and fieldwork#2. I’m hoping that from there will emerge chapters four and five.

At this point I feel like an outside observer watching my own self with disinterested interest. Will she? Won’t she? Finish the damn thing, I mean. I wonder what the picture will be one year down the line.

There isn’t a whole lot of work that I’ve got down since July. I thought I would find the work frenzy motivated by desperation that happened during the MPhil. But nwope. I’m even getting a tad worried about the book review I said yes to. Sure, book reviews don’t count for anything in an academic’s CV. But a)I don’t do things for the CV (except summer jobs in undergrad-that I definitely did for the CV), b) it’s a new experience, and for a journal I intend to try publishing in, and c) it might get me started on the publication journey.

I’ve been spending almost all my time indoors, and I’m sure that’s not very healthy. Been doing a lot of bad eating-and thought my cooking days were over. Well, I’m still indoors a lot (with a few coffee shop binges thrown in) but as of this month, I’m happy to cook and bake again. Though brownies for breakfast don’t do much for the waistline. Oh, that’s another thing. I can’t seem to abide any exercise. The thought of getting out for a morning walk just makes me roll over and go to sleep. Yoga? What yoga? Consequently, my clothes are getting a bit tight around the middle. But I’ll knock it off post-PhD, won’t I?

Have decided to cancel festivals this year. Post October is always delightful in the Indian calendar. But I decided to skip Durga Puja, Diwali, Bhai dooj. The mother isn’t happy at all. But I feel I need to do this in a bid to force myself to get a sense of urgency and in routine, and sort of like a deny-self-till-achievement-visible.

In all this, my spiritual life has both suffered and not. I’m more mentally fragile, as can be expected from a 30 year old struggling with a PhD and not sure about whether she’ll be able to handle adulthood on her own. I’m trying very hard to develop a routine of twice daily meditations, short though they may be. I kept it up for a month, but am yet to start again for month#2. The only part that hasn’t suffered has been the urgency of my need-that has grown.

Make no mistake-the scary moments are enough to send me into a panic and they do. The level of uncertainty about things grows a lot towards the end of the twenties, I see that now. And my coping habits leave a lot to be desired. I’m reading a LOT of fiction and non-fiction again this year (just not maintaining a log to feel good like last year), doing some writing, doodling. Have in fact joined an online art exploration course that my very talented friend is conducting. ┬á I’ve also, as mentioned in the previous post, been discovering the Russian Army.

What is to be done though? Nothing but keeping on. Keep on keeping on. Even through an excess of detective novels and junk food. And un-scrubbed toilets, and overflowing laundry baskets, and clothes strewn everywhere. And Chandavarkar staring threateningly at me along with the book I have to review but can’t seem to be able to read.



Bye, 2015. And Season’s Greetings!

31 Dec

I’m glad to have made your acquaintance. In many ways you were like 2013: you walked me through quite a journey. In no specific order, some of my favourite things from this year:

*The share autos at Noida City Centre metro station. Because:

1)UPiites (Uttar Pradesh iites) really are polite, even if they burn their women and mutton eaters occasionally. And,

2) In order to extract the crazily parked and inevitably hemmed-in auto you are sitting in (or sitting behind) (filled with a minimum of 10 passengers) the driver will move backwards and forwards, going thud-thud into the autos in front and behind, like dodge’em cars, until there is space to manoeuvre out onto the main road.

*That twice daily meditations did not happen, but routinely longer ones did.

* The Cafe Coffee Day on Barakhamba road. After many misses, I’ve found ‘my’ coffee shop in the city.

* Days that begin at 5.30AM on winter mornings, finish by 3, leaving me the rest of the afternoon and evening for Noida visits and meditation.

* Who’d a thought I’d enjoy being out of the house by 5.30 AM? That I LIKE less sleep when forced into it?

* Goettingen. Lucking out on wonderful people there, both friends and strangers. Especially strangers.

* Uncle Chips. Many, many packets of it.

* Beginning, meaningfully, on field research for the second part of my PhD. I don’t care whether I actually finish or not: the journey thus far has far exceeded my expectations of learning when I began. But I will finish, because the ICSSR has kindly paid me a fellowship thus far.

* Noida, Nurnberg, Dakshineshwar.

Happy New Year, all. Because whyever not?