My 'A' Story

About 3 years back my Father Mr Sakti Gorai (a literary scholar and an avid researcher) published a book called the 100 years of the Coal mining history. It was about India's coal /iron ore/steel belt that thrived around a small town called Asansol (incidentally also my birthplace and where I spent most of my childhood). The twin towns of Asansol and Durgapur (and it's neighboring suburbs namely Kulty and Raniganj ) started the industrial revolution in India and largely contributed to the modernization of the country as we see it today. He lived and worked in this belt for more than 40 years initially as a 'sociologist' and later as a 'town planner' building infrastructure in these two small towns. Being an anthropology student his interest was always studying human history/evolution and habitation of ancient tribes. One day, as I was reluctantly flipping through the pages of his book, my eyes caught a picture of a grave and an engraving on it. Suddenly my mind started racing, my memory flashed and it went back many decades. My mind plays funny games, and déjà vu is an understatement when it comes to my mind and its involuntary memory bank! I had no interest in his work back then as my interest was always art and sports; however I completely owe him my interest and inquisitiveness for human history.

Strangely this page in his book reminded me of a day, many years ago when I was in school, one evening my father had come home after office very excited. He had found, "rather discovered" a grave (tomb stone) in his office complex garden, under the thick green felt of shrubs, which he didn't know existed. He had then told me the story of the grave and the significance of the engraving on it and the community it belonged to. It all came back as a memory flash and subsequently I got reminded of all the small details from my childhood connecting to the grave and people who built it, once the most prosperous community in the eastern belt, now only a handful left.

Asansol and its surrounding small towns were colonized by Armenians almost 200 years back who started the coal mining and built the Iron and steel company(as they were very good with mining and metallurgy). All the suburbs of Asansol were named after Armenian Families- Apkar Gardens, Agabeg Bridge and School, Evelyn Lodge etc (which is where incidentally my Dad's office was and where this grave was found and exists till date). Armenian history dates back to 500 century in India, one of the first white people (Sahibs) who came, settled down and greatly contributed in the building of the country and slowly went missing in oblivion as the unsung heroes post the independence. They were peace loving and the most cultured of the lot (of all the settlers who came to India) and carried their business and food legacy where ever they went. Asansol had thriving bakeries and food joints managed by Armenians till the seventies. Not a single Christmas or new year of my childhood has gone by without a fruit cake from the 'Gir-d Gir..di ' bakery, an iconic institution of Asansol . Only recently, while qprobing, my dad mentioned that it was run by an 'Armenian Sahib named Mr. Gregory (and get's it strange name as no local could pronounce it correctly) and shut down in early 80's after the family migrated to Australia.

I went down the memory lane and realized that I had many Armenian's in my childhood who I vaguely remember now however the one person who I remember very well was my then school Principal of AG Church Asansol 'Mrs Aedinnangze'. I have rarely come across a more elegant and well spoken lady in my life. It was rumored that she had all the 26 letters of the English language in her name. I always wondered how (logic defied) I never gathered the courage to ask anyone. She was the true picture of an Aryan Goddess in her 'Bengali Sari'. I started putting 2+2 together, called my father and every other family that still lives in Asansol to find more about the handful Armenian families that lived amongst us back then. I found that her husband was the GM of the blast furnace of the steel factory in 'Burn Pur' a locality lot of the Armenian's lived and till date a small bakery setup by them, back in 1910 managed to survive. My friends' father who has worked in Burnpur has great fond memories of working under Mr. Aedinnangze! I also found out through my Dad's research about the Armenian families and other cemetery grounds around Asansol (just to get to the bottom or as much as I could find out about this community in eastern India). From my librarian to my music teacher there were many Armenians in school who influenced my childhood. I have casually eaten in restaurants serving Armenian/Turkish food during my travel to other parts of the world but never really paid much attention.

In the last two years I have read through piles of old paper cuttings of my Dad(which were catching dust in my house all these years and my Dad has always hated me as I have never taken any interest in his collection),researched, traveled back to Asansol and Calcutta to find the pieces of the story.

Through the Armenian Church in Kolkata and most importantly the Armenian College in Park Street I have found out a great deal about Armenians, there life, culture and food habits while living in India. How they traveled into India and brought along the oldest oven for baking breads called 'Tonir' now popularly known as Tandoor , and lot of other things we eat in our daily cuisine today like paneer and curd . Even a 'Parbal Dolma' of the Bengali cuisine is a contribution of the Armenian food legacy still left in Bengal (Now it makes sense why there was grapevine growing in my sisters school in Asansol)

While assimilating the Armenian story I have also taken influences of other foreign settlers in Bengal like the Portuguese and the French. My grand mum's solo cookery book from 1938 passed on to my Mother and my Mum's hand written recipe notes have also provided a great deal of inspiration and influence. Due credit goes to my father for holding on to all the old papers like life time treasure thinking it will come in handy someday. Though I have always wondered, but today I am not surprised anymore about my interest in food. My Aunt who is the best cook and my half German Meso , the First family of Asansol needs a special mention as the food and culture in their home was a great exposure and my window to the world growing up in a small coal miners town like Asansol!

This is my life and childhood story wrapped into one. Only recently I realized how deep these roots go. While researching, I also stumbled across the fact that 2015 is the centenary year of the Armenian genocide. All the churches around the world are remembering and commemorating this barbaric incident that happened in 1915. It seemed like a perfect fit to start my first Armenian inspired restaurant as a tribute to the community that has greatly influenced my life and has done so much for the development of my country.

Presenting my (A) Story 'Lavaash(the bread)' a word that has found a permanent spot in the UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage list(incidentally the only food item to make it to the list from around the world) . A word that goes so deep, not just into the food history of the world, but also the culture that Armenia gave to the rest of the world. Till date we are baking Lavash at Kashmir in traditional Tonir's after so many centuries. My small effort to tell a story as beautiful and age old as Armenia, rather Armenian's in West Bengal.

Lavaash by Saby is the fruit of my lost nostalgic past. The initial mood board was made by Chef Megha and I, however it would have been impossible without the great artistic minds and effort of two young designers. 100% credit should be given to Viplov Singh and Svabhu Kohli for making my dream into a reality. Due credit should go to Chef Megha for her deep research in this subject and putting the recipes together and my sister Sarbani for her continues support and for the deft Bengali touches in the kitchen wherever desired.
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