Thursday, 9 October 2014

Kemon aso, Kolkata! Got some change?


When my husband asked the bored driver of a bright yellow taxi in Bengali if he would take us to Ulta Danga from Howrah railway station, I understood nothing apart from the name of the place our government guest house was situated in. Even that, I did not much understand. Ulta I knew, Danga sounded like a weapon. After getting his feet down from the window of the taxi in slow motion and looking for his slippers near the gear shaft the driver murmured a yes, accompanied by ‘khujra ache to?

No, khujra is not a weapon either even if it was asked for in a tone matching an epee’s point and an eye turned to the big red sticker announcing his membership of a union of taxi drivers. ‘Khujra’ means change. My husband nodded a yes and we both huffed our just-married suitcase between us two, as the driver spent his 10th minute looking for his second slipper. At that point, crossing the Howrah Bridge in the back seat of the taxi, I had no idea how important change is to live, just be and breathe, in Kolkata.  

Ready rattling coins in change!


This was in the December of 2007. While we younglings sat holding on to our singular suitcase for dear life, stealing finger-tip kisses on bumpy roads and bumper-to-bumper braking I looked out the window which had refused to roll up and deliver me from the warm gusts. 


Kolkata did not look like a bride to my visiting eyes. It looked like a woman ageing so charmingly you wouldn’t want it to dye its hair or remove the high-backed, puff-sleeved blouses it insisted on wearing. Still. The quaint windows and ornate jaali on huge buildings seemed to have lived their lives. Paved streets were lined with flower-sellers chit-chatting with rishka wallas taking a breather. Somehow, miraculously almost, tiny plastic cups of afternoon tea were seen in every hawker's hands. A picture which made me enjoy its rustic charm yet wonder if it was free will that made it sit in a time warp or just the times.

I remember getting out of the taxi at our guest house in Ulta Danga and struggling to figure out why the place smelled of a bunch of incense sticks when all my eyes beheld was a tiny post office, an STD booth-cum-provision store, a garbage lined lane leading to the main road choc-a-bloc with traffic and Shona beauty parlour next to a monstrous, hexagonal guest house. I did not obsess with the smell of cheap incense in the air almost everywhere, but in no time I realized how the whole of Kolkata was obsessed with collecting and retaining its khujra.

Yes, obsessed! 

The egg noodles guy in a bright blue shack, whose business boomed just after the sun set when podiums for political stages came up, was obsessed. We would order our plate, sit on two broken plastic chairs, watch him toss into the seasoned wok an extra helping of pepper (was that the secret ingredient that made the chow like no other?) and to the tune of the fish-seller bragging off his wares right behind us dig in. Not a single time did he not ask for loose change, even before opening his drawer to see if he had Rs. 3 to return. While the plate always cost Rs. 7, he never did have change. Neither did the sweet shop which seemed to thrive on the sale of gur rasgullas alone and where I popped a handful to abate the pepper-effect. While my obsession with those faded-yellow delicacies sky-rocketed his sales, not a single coin from his heart melted my way. ‘Khujra dao’ it was, always!

One day, my husband got free from work early. His phone call began 'reach me!' followed by directions on how to take a rickshaw till Shovabazar Station, metro to Maidan and then exit at a certain gate. In the train, I found myself sweating like a pig next to a girl who just could not help staring at me with her big, round eyes. The microphone announced ‘Assplanaad’, I smiled, she didn’t get the humour but we got talking anyway. She couldn’t believe how I was travelling alone in the metro in a foreign city and I couldn’t make her believe how safe I felt here compared to Delhi. While the rickety metro rattled away, she zipped out a cellphone just to tell her friend of the phenomenon that she made me out to be, screaming my name into it with a few extra ‘h’ after the first ‘S’. Then, she noticed a tiny-yet-heavy sac hanging from my belt. ‘Oh! Just loose change. You need it everywhere in Kolkata, don’t you? I’m loaded now!’ I swear to you I saw respect in her eyes for me which was once reserved for just Tagore, as she poked the suggestive looking pouch. I was a girl braving it out, I was loaded with change, all for meeting my lawfully wedded husband at the end of the tunnel. Everything here was in keeping with the character of the city.

The husband bit too. Why I say that?

In a local Kolkata bus we were made to sit separately en route New Market for some shopping. The bus was divided between the sexes right down the middle. My knight implored with the conductor that we were man and wife, 'notun biye, notun biye' but the doubting Thomas's heart of stone refused to budge. So, my love kept looking back from where he sat across the aisle and I kept staring at his head, wondering when the snaking through busy streets and the light drizzle would end. Noticing also how my beau’s black crop was the only one not shining with three layers of oil or his clothes with as much embroidery. ‘Teekate. Khujra dao!’ came the conductor for it was ladies first and a lovelorn I could only say in the crispest of Hindi ‘Khujra wahaan baitha hai! Jao ley lo!’ I was angry. I had spent 45 minutes with a woman whose bags my lap nearly carried while hers remained baggage free, playing with the red and white bangles on the wrist.

Or, did I not pay for the ticket because I too getting a tad obsessed with my pocket of change?


From the famous puchka walla outside Birla Planetarium to the award-winning Jhalmuri guy on Russell Street; from Giggles (that Archies gallery) on Park Street to Flury’s with its pastries; from museum and zoo ticket booths to the famous Indian Coffee House, everything needed coins. Even dishes were priced with complete fidelity to the idea of how essential each penny is in the larger scheme of things!


The only person who did hand me a one rupee coin was a cobbler who fixed my shoe somewhere on College Street. The glue was all over my Khadims sneakers but who cared any more. He had given me change. Change! I almost bit into it to check if I was dreaming. It was real. 

It turned out to be a lucky coin, indeed.

A coconut walla squeezed the metal out of us because the humidity combined with the long human chain outside Dakshineshwar made us crave coconut water worth a tree's Xylem. And then, I needed to pee! ‘25 p for one use’ said the board outside the public facility. Even in such pressing hurry, I stared. 25 p? Were they not extinct the year I was born? Shock turned to surprise after I bunny-hopped in and breezed out. When I handed over that lucky Re 1 coin I got 75 p back! On this last evening in Kolkata, the sight of three 25 p coins in my hands made me teary-eyed. I couldn't help but wonder - is this a sign that the city has adopted me as its own? Also, is this, the natural exigency to relieve oneself in the right place, the reason behind the whole of Kolkata collecting coin after coin after coin?

On my train back to Delhi later that night I caught myself wondering if after 3 weeks, I was a Roman too. What else could explain the pang of jealousy I felt when I saw how much fuller the toilet minder's coin drawer was as compared to my potli!

Maybe I will go back Bengal-wards one day to find that change is no longer on the most wanted list. However, something tells me that ‘Khujra dao!’ will always be around, just like the smell of incense in the air, no matter how many Park Streets take over Ulta Dangas in this unique city called Kolkata.


[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - Can’t get enough - Have you ever been addicted to anything, or worried that you were? Have you ever spent too much time and effort on something that was a distraction from your real goals? Tell us about it.]


42 comments:

  1. I have not been to Kolkata yet, but I now have an idea of one thing to expect and experience I guess ;) Here in Bangalore, the most "change" obsessed people are the bus conductors. They are so obsessed that once I was made to get down from the bus because there was reluctance to return 4 rupees when I gave a ten rupee note.

    Enjoyed your story Sakshi . made me feel like I was right there in Kolkata. :)

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    1. I have heard this about bus conductors in Bangalore. From you, recently, when I posted the change-fraud post about Delhi? Sounds horrible!
      Good to know I took you there, Leo.

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  2. Kuchra was an issue, at one point. Surprised it was still that big a deal in 2007. Of course, I left in 1997 before the boom and came back as "bilate pheroth" so did not experience it. What I did get was respite from the "Revlon" lipstick sellers in front of New Market. On the other hand, I was clearly marked out as someone who may have dollars, so had "Dollar, sell? Best rate" instead. 28 years in Calcutta washed away... poof!

    What would I be addicted to? Coffee in France earlier this year..... I could have drunk it all day. I'm still writing it up for my blog.

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    1. Kuchra/Khujra was a big deal in 2007. (My husband has lived in Kolkata for many years as a boy, and said it wasn't that bad ever!) What was most surprising to me was when Flury's and Music World next door did not part with their coins. New Market was our Dilli's Sarojini Nagar and Yashwant Place combined. I liked the life there. And the affordability.

      Ah! You seem to have left your Bangla roots behind, have you?

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    2. Didn't have any... Bong wife, no Bong roots. My in-laws are pretty clueless about what makes me tick...

      And my Beloved Bangalan? As I tell everyone (who listens) that my biggest problem is that my wife understands me...

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    3. Don't blame them. Everyone's 'in-laws' sail in the same fishing launch. :D

      "my biggest problem is that my wife understands me..." - I like that. Perhaps, she will also understand if you tell her the girl-in-the-back-seat M&B story. Unless, of course, it was she! :D

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    4. It was not she. And she is aware of the story. It was pretty innocuous, actually. I was between the Coconut Oil and the Date of the Jackal, which should give you an idea how gormless I was then...(am now?)

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  3. lovely account of your Kolkata stint. Loved reading it :)

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    1. So good to see you here. Glad you liked this, Ghata.

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  4. Ha ha, the bus incident. Never knew there was segregation based on gender. I have never been to Kolkatta but this post presented a slice of the city.

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    1. That part was a little surprising. They do have "leddies" seats and they are pretty tough on guys who won't vacate on seeing a "leddy". But I don't remember actual enforced segregation. I've sat with women many times.

      In fact, there was this one time at the back seat of the bus with this girl I read so many Mills and Boons for....

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    2. There was, Alka. In fact, I even remember the route the bus took because I kept looking out at the addresses on the shop boards to know if we are in New Market yet. Perhaps, some untoward bus incident had just happened? No idea! It was the only local bus we took. Glad you liked the post, Alka.

      Slo, you lucky man! (I think my husband will echo my exact sentiment here)

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  5. Awesome post sakshi!!!! Loved it!!

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  6. You brought Calcutta to life with this post. Loved it so much! I've been on long visits to Calcutta as a girl. This made me nostalgic

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    1. So good to hear this, Ritu.
      Thank you!

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  7. Awesome post Sakshi, you defined the beauty of Kolkata in such a nice way :) Don't have words to praise this post. Truly awesome :) It is indeed true that Khujra becomes essential in Kolkata and Kolkata is much safer for women than Delhi...

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    1. I tried to, though a post on Kolkata's beauty will not obsess about change so much. :)
      Thanks for reading, Alok.

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  8. Nicely written Sakshi...loved the way you've portrayed the picture of Kolkata :-) Every city has its own idiosyncrasies which make them unique. As far as safety of women is concerned, I'll vote for Mumbai (though I'm a Bengali and yes, of course, a proud Kolkatan)

    BTW, it's 'khuchro' actually...not 'khujra' :-D

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    1. Well, I have with me today 'khuchra', 'kuchra' and now 'khuchro' from a Bengali? Certainly I give myself pass marks for my Punjabi 'khujra'. Will take my husband to task for this nevertheless.:D
      Thanks, Maniparna. Good to see you here. Yes, Mumbai is extremely safe. More about it in another post, maybe. ;)

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    2. Oh! The latest one is 'khujro'! I guess I will spare the man then. It's quite close. :D

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  9. Never been to Kolkata ; But it was amazing to visit the city through your eyes and words. Very nicely done, Sakshi.

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  10. Nice post! Yes "khuchro" not Khujra the ever compulsory change is the birthright of every Kolkata Entrepreneur. I am in this city for the last seven years and I am a pro at collecting change...Kolkata is the most photogenic city in India. :) And you have potrayed it so beautifully. Follow the news of this region people are assaulted because of lack of Khuchro :)

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    1. Hmph! I should make the necessary correction then and also deny my husband tonight's dinner for this. :D
      Ha ha. 'Pro at collecting change' sounds so cute! it is a beautiful city, indeed. I will be going back just to photograph it one day.
      That thing you say about assaults ... I hope you are joking.

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  11. Beautiful post Sakshi! Your description makes me feel as if I myself was traveling in through Calcutta. That city is still in another era.

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    1. So good to hear that, Aditi. Tried to stick to one central idea but create a picture of the whole city around it. Maybe I will make that my trademark and do more of these! :D
      Another era is so true!

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  12. Articulate and beautifully worded Sakshi! I have been to Kolkata only once and that too when I was a kid and dad was posted in Guahati! It was from there we had gone on a short trip to Kolkata and all I remember of that trip is a tram ride and buying some local handcrafted stuff. I was just five years old! Too long a time ago!

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    1. I found romance in the tram ride, to be honest. Romance which was not in a hurry and taking its own time, literally. I loved it, more for the experience than for reaching places in time. :)
      Thank you for reading, Swati!

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  13. Didn't some wise soul once say, ..."Khujra" is inevitable!
    Lovely read. Enjoyed the ride :)

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    1. Thank you, Amogha.
      Good to see you here! :)

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  14. You took me on a Kolkata ride. I want to visit Kolkata now! Such a delightful post! :)

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    1. Hopefully the ride was a smooth and fun one. ;)
      Thanks.

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  15. Aha Kolkata! The city fascinates me and Loove the pictures..need to book my ticket as you gave me a perk of the city...powerful imagery, new brand ambassador of Kolkata...ek lo Chalo re:)

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    1. Ek lo chalo re! he he. :D
      Thanks, Vishal. Glad you liked this!

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  16. So very well written,I am a Kolkatan and whenever my Husband accompanies me to his sasural who is from North India just teases me with his remarks "see now every one would say 'khuchro nei' and so true(everytime I pray ki iss baar let the taxi driver give some "khucro" to rescue me from my hubby's teasing glance but everytime I have to hear the same old refrain right from the "phuchkawala" to the "shopkeeper" it's like an anthem....though they might have a box stacked with "khucros":) u have actually captured the true colours of the city without actually being a Bong.

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    1. Really? That is so good to know. Some readers were wondering if I was exaggerating all this a wee bit. Now I am patting myself so hard the neighbour can hear me I am sure! :D
      So good to know this post captured Kolkata well. I tried my best to include as many traits of this city as was possible in this post. Of course, a million more remain.
      Thank you so much. You made my day!

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  17. you brought some beautiful memories of Kolkata. It is a city so carefree and full of life. I remember shopping non stop, and the food was just incredible, from puchkas to rossogullas.
    /Khujra wahaan baitha hai! Jao ley lo!’ // hahaha that's is so cute :D

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    1. Yes, yes! Look how you reminded me of shopping and food and the carefree Kolkata wallahs just when I had forgotten all about this post, and them!
      How can you call it cute? Do you have no idea what this newly married me was going through? :(
      Thanks for being here, Rajlakshmi.

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