Christmas in Kolkata

Christmas in Kolkata

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It’s hardly Santaland but as Christmas approaches Montoo’s bakery in a dingy lane in central Kolkata is one of Kolkata’s hottest addresses.

The man I ask for directions says there’s no sign outside but you’ll know it from the smell of cakes baking. But when I finally get there it’s more Dickensian than Willie Wonka - a sweat shop for cakes.

The rooms are cramped and dingy, the paint peeling, the passageways narrow. Shirts, trousers and old bags hang from hooks on the wall. Workers squat on the floor briskly stirring mounds of flour with slabs of Amul butter and sugar, cracked egg shells littered around them. Their hands move in a whir as they beat bowls of sunny yellow batter.

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Montoos’ own cakes are legendary – fruit cakes, plain cakes, box cakes, cheap cakes sold in tea shops and the white chhena cake made of ricotta cheese like curdled milk. But come Christmas, Montoo does something the big fancy patisseries in town do not. He rents out his oven and his bakers for anyone who wants their own “home-baked” Christmas.

Shireen Poddar, for example, brought her flour, sugar, eggs, chopped fruits, Old Monk rum and and a little brandy in her red Coach shopping bag. “I am not Christian but I love fruitcake,” she says as she presides over her cake mixing. “Have you washed your hands properly?” she scolds as the worker starts mixing the flour and sugar, She measures out the rum and the rum soaked raisins.

Right before Christmas Montoos becomes practically a 24-hour operation. Above the heads of workers beating the batter, other workers sleep on bunk beds, oblivious to the racket, until it’s time for their shift.
The oven is rented not by the hour but by the kilo of sugar. At about Rs 250 or 4 dollars per kilo of sugar, Montoo’s cakes are still a deal in Kolkata. Rocky Michael D’Abreo has been coming to Montoos for two generations. “Wherever his bakery has moved, we have followed,” he says. And Montoo accommodates everybody he says even if it means he barely has time to sleep.

But Mrs Morris, a formidable woman in a flowered dress with a walking stick, is not happy. She’s been waiting around for hours and she has a lot of stitching to do at home. She complains it’s late afternoon now and she was given the 11:30 AM slot.

But they all wait because Montoo is a master baker. Even the neighbourhood drunk agrees. The local tough barges in, creates a ruckus, curses and threatens and then ultimately staggers around demanding free cake.

Mrs Morris is unfazed. She’s more perturbed about her cakes than drunks. She is afraid Montoo is putting up the heat too much to save time.

“Montoo don’t put so much heat baba,” she says. “Cakes are red on top but pale below.”

Montoo, a grey-haired man in a sleeveless vest, his hands blackened with soot, placates her with tea. He says business is good at this time as he puts another batch into the huge woodfired oven.

His grandfather learned this skill from the British when they ruled India. He was a cook for them. He is the third generation in the trade. And he might be the last. This is back-breaking work especially during Christmas. He says he barely sleeps after the 18th of December. Sometimes he’s so tired that he just wants to lie down on the street.

Sheikh Syed who has been baking here for twenty years says “Demand is up but the number of bakers is down. The children are all going away.”

He says it’s hard to find educated people to go into this kind of old-fashioned baking business anymore. Montoo’s own son is studying hotel management. It’s unlikely he will want to slave over a hot wood-fired oven baking other people’s cakes. But for now as batch after batch of fruit cake comes out of the oven, the butter still bubbling, the sugar caramelized, and are set out on the floor to cool, each one baked with a slip of paper bearing the name of the person they belong to – Shireen, Lucy, Rocky, there’s still home baked wood fired cake as only Montoo can bake it.

And it feels like Christmas in Kolkata.


Sandip Roy is the author of "Don't Let Him Know." The audio version was aired on KALW 91.7 FM.