Saturday, 13 August 2022

Adding the spice of hope

A Night in Calcutta
Festival Hub, Market Place

AT most literary festival talks, an interviewer asks an author some questions about a book.

The format of “A Night in Calcutta” was somewhat different, as this was billed as a celebration to mark a new partnership between Henley Literary Festival and a similar event in the state of West Bengal in eastern India (a partnership funded with a grant from the British Council). On stage in the Festival Hub were three speakers: the founder of Future Hope, a charity that rescues children from poverty and peril on the streets of Calcutta; the author of Indian cookery book Rice and Spice: A Bengali Food Adventure, who devised her recipes when volunteering at the charity; and the director of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, where the kids from Future Hope performed songs and poetry earlier this year.

Henley Literary Festival director Sue Ryan, who herself grew up in Calcutta, brought it all together by explaining how the three speakers were interlinked and asking about their experiences and favourite places in Calcutta.

After that, each speaker gave a short presentation about their particular area of expertise: Anjum Katyal spoke about the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, an annual event that nourishes Calcutta’s enthusiasm for literature and the arts, and is free for all to attend.

It started in 2010 at the heritage Oxford Bookstore, in the heart of the buzzing, cosmopolitan city centre, and now features a wide range of writers and artists from India and beyond and attracts thousands of visitors every year.

Tim Grandage shared stories of street children suffering from unimaginable poverty, danger and sickness — at night, volunteers from his charity Future Hope pick them up from the railway station where the strong ones survive by begging and pickpocketing.

While working in a bank in Calcutta 30 years ago, Tim started helping street children by sheltering up to 40 at a time in his two-bedroom flat and pulling strings to get them free medical treatment.

His charity now houses, nurtures and educates around 250 children until they reach independent adulthood with skills, qualifications and confidence.

Anna Kochan told us how she got the recipes for her Indian cookery book — she volunteered at Future Hope for six months, watched the cooks working and wrote down their recipes.

Despite the language barrier and the challenge of converting quantities from bulk catering to family meal sizes, more and more dishes were tried, spices were blended, traditional recipes were shared and the kids came into the kitchen to tell her about the foods they liked to eat too — curries, breads, dhals, chicken and vegetable dishes.

Anna returned to the UK with 80 authentic Bengali recipes which, when she tried cooking them at home, turned out remarkably well.

The talk closed with some short video clips of the cooks and boisterous mealtimes at Future Hope, and the children talking about their favourite foods.

It was heart-warming to see the once-destitute kids now laughing, healthy and full of spirit.

All the questions in the Q&A session at the end were about Tim’s charity, which unbalanced things slightly — I wanted to hear more about Anjum’s festival and Anna’s book as well — but overall “A Night in Calcutta” was an interesting and inspiring event.

Alison Stodolnic

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