Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Kolkata’s Zakaria Street: The taste of community in the face of communal polarisation

The experience of stepping into Zakaria Street in Kolkata is like treading through history. Photo: Samudraneel Guha/Maktoob

The experience of stepping into Zakaria Street in Kolkata is like treading through history. Hidden away within the larger microcosm of north Kolkata and mushrooming around the largest mosque of the city, the Nakhoda Masjid—the street provides and preserves Mughal food and culture.

Haji Nur Muhammad Zakaria was an influential Muslim businessman belonging to the Kutchi Menon community living in Bengal during the British colonial period; his presence in the area during the 1850s is what led to the christening of the street. 

The Nakhoda Masjid, which remains the principal mosque of Kolkata, serves as the axis of the street, connecting the street to Chittaranjan Avenue further in the north. The construction of the Masjid was also helmed by the Kutchi Menon community and Hadji Zakaria was a frequent musallee (devotee) of the mosque.

The Nakhoda Masjid, which remains the principal mosque of Kolkata, serves as the axis of the street, connecting the street to Chittaranjan Avenue further in the north. Photo: Samudraneel Guha/Maktoob

At present day, the street is a long stretch clustered with tall British-era buildings, smaller newly-built compounds, food stalls, restaurants, meat shops, apparel stores, a stream of vehicles carrying goods, hawkers, vendors, and of course, consumers. 

Held together by the Muslim community of north Kolkata, Zakaria Street reflects the ephemeral essence of Islamic history in India. Each shop or stall has an Urdu inscription printed over its wall, verses from the Quran, or quotes from Mirza Ghalib. The street also houses the 82-year-old Presidency Muslim High School, one of the city’s leading educational institutions where the primary medium of instruction continues to be Urdu. A few steps away from Nakhoda, the Salim Manzil still stands tall, where the “first recording superstar of India” Gauhar Jaan once lived.

For the believer and the non-believer, the Muslim and the non-Muslim alike, this street in the capital city of West Bengal becomes the nucleus of celebration during the holy month of Ramazan, concluding in the momentous three-day-long Eid-ul-fitr. 

As the stalls that serve delectable Mughal cuisine, all year long and around the clock, multiply in number during Ramazan, the street beams and overflows with customers—forming a kaleidoscopic crowd akin to Delhi’s Jama Masjid or Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road.

From biryani to sheer korma, haleem to lachha sewai, suta kebab to sheermal, changezi to mohabbat-e-sharbat, the street features every possible Ramazan delicacy. Photo: Samudraneel Guha/Maktoob

The sight of giant kadhais, glittery star-and-moon decoration hanging above, the sound of azan echoing through the speakers of Nakhoda, and a distinct smell, arising from the amalgamation of kebabs and ittar, carries the pedestrian through the various offerings of the street. From biryani to sheer korma, haleem to lachha sewai, suta kebab to sheermal, changezi to mohabbat-e-sharbat, the street features every possible Ramazan delicacy. 

“Ramazan means Zakaria street for my family and me,” says Mohammed Irshad Alam, who has come all the way from Howrah. 15 kilometers away from home with his wife and two daughters, Zahra and Zikra, Alam believes that Zakaria represents what is otherwise fading in the city. “Sometimes we come here during iftar, to breakfast and pray at the masjid. It is fulfilling to participate in this process alongside our community every year, my children are happier praying and eating here than at home, and the spirit of Ramazan is reinstated here for Muslims that feel alienated in their own city.”

Most of the food stalls are etched in history. Adam’s Kebab Shop dates back 105 years; New Lucknow Sweets, established in 1971, holds an equally storied history. While the Ramazan on the street is a magnetic sight to behold for the consumer, as soon as the clock strikes iftar, the cooks and the managers of the shops find themselves breathlessly occupied. 

New Lucknow Sweets, established in 1971, holds an equally storied history. Photo: Samudraneel Guha/Maktoob
Desserts at New Lucknow Sweets. Photo: Samudraneel Guha/Maktoob

“My grandfather started the shop in 1918, we have not changed much of the shop ever since. This is our khandani (hereditary) business. We work all day to satisfy our customers and stay true to our legacy. During Ramazan we need 40 kgs of beef and 15–20 kgs of chicken and mutton,” the 65-year-old owner of Adam’s Kabab Shop, Md. Salahuddin says as the smoke from the ancient charcoal grill hits his face. 

Adam’s Kebab Shop dates back 105 years. Photo: Samudraneel Guha/Maktoob
Beef Suta Kebab at Adam’s Kebab Shop. Photo: Samudraneel Guha/Maktoob

“My ancestors traveled from Lucknow to Kolkata in the 1960s. At that time, most Muslims in the city lived in and around Zakaria Street or Park Circus. They set up this sweet shop as a way of subsistence and today it is a generational responsibility. I took charge of the shop in 2000, and my son will take charge after me. We are a family of sweet-makers, our home is in Zakaria,” says Md. Sadique. “Our shop is the go-to dessert place for foodies after a long day of exploring, they come here for the battisa halwa or seviyan, which are most popular with the customers. Normally we work from 4–9 PM but during Ramazan, our store remains open till 2–3 AM,” he adds. Sadique tells me that his Hindu customers are the ones that stay the latest.

“All Calcuttans come to Zakaria, we don’t know whether Hindu or Muslim,” says Sadique, the head chef of Al Baik. Photo: Samudraneel Guha/Maktoob

At a time when India is grappling with an anti-Muslim narrative, propelled by the BJP-led current dispensation, Zakaria Street stands as a testament to the community. Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali are heard simultaneously in the streets of Zakaria, where food serves as the primary equalizer. 

“People come here to break bread together, people from all parts of the country, people who have not fasted, people from all faiths and all religions come here to celebrate Ramazan. The Masjid has several non-Muslim helpers and benefactors, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians come here to pray. Everyone is welcome at Nakhoda Masjid, it represents the message of Ramazan, and it shows us the path to god,” says Shafique Qasmi, the Imam of Nakhoda Masjid.

“All Calcuttans come to Zakaria, we don’t know whether Hindu or Muslim,” says the head chef of Al Baik. “I have been working here since 2016, I was working at Novotel prior to this, and the sense of community drew me to Zakaria. We all cook together and serve together, we break fast together and pray together. Although the pressure during Ramazan is extreme, it is inexplicably satisfying to serve those who have been fasting for hours, and even those who have not fasted but revel in the spirit of Ramazan.” 

In 2020, Zakaria Street saw massive protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Chants against the anti-Muslim narrative alongside “Jai Hind” echoed from the streets of Zakaria as students and activists organized a sit-in demonstration on the road in front of Nakhoda Masjid. The protesters carried banners that read: “We are all Indians”.

This street of food reaffirms the feeling of togetherness in the face of communal polarisation and divisiveness. It portrays a strikingly different reality from what the Indian citizen is compelled to believe today.

Amarabati Bhattacharyya is a journalist and writer based in Kolkata, West Bengal with a keen interest in global affairs, human rights, and culture. She has written for The Hindu, The Telegraph, PARI, and several other publications.

Amarabati Bhattacharyya
Amarabati Bhattacharyya
Amarabati Bhattacharyya is a journalist and writer based in Kolkata, West Bengal with a keen interest in global affairs, human rights, and culture. She has written for The Hindu, The Telegraph, PARI, and several other publications.
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