It all started at Tangra, Calcutta's China–town, which goes back 200 years or more. Here, cultural traditions have been vibrantly maintained by the cocooned existence of inhabitants who have shied away from merging into the mainstream of their adopted country.
We were there on the occasion of the Chinese New Year. It is celebrated with pomp and passion at the first new moon of February with myriad lights, firecrackers, dragons, and lanterns.
Like many others who venture into the area mostly to savor authentic Chinese delicacies, we entered a restaurant which, some said, was next best to being in China itself.
The exotic food whetted our appetite and taste buds. Afterward, we started frequenting not just the eateries in Chinatown, but also Chinese restaurants on fashionable Park Street.
Soon, my wife, Sarla, and I were familiar faces at these places. But before long we faced a real problem. Because we were not very familiar with Chinese cuisine and the ingredients used, our choice of food remained limited. With so many outlandish items listed on the menu, it was not easy to select and order.
Realizing our predicament, a friendly headwaiter presented us with a bound copy of the menu. It was in English interspersed with rows of Chinese characters. We were grateful for his suggestion that we take the English/Chinese menu home and decide at leisure before coming to dine.
But food wasn't all that was on our minds at that point. The seasons had shifted. There was that unmistakable nip in the morning air, which is the harbinger of Calcutta's short-lived winter.
It was also time for Sarla to pursue her hobby of knitting woolens. She got her designs from Woman's Weekly and other sources, but then she added her own innovations.
So, on an impulse, she deftly fused into the cardigan she was knitting, a full row of Chinese signs borrowed from the menu. These intricate characters – in deep red spanning the front of the sweater's light green background – looked very elegant.
Soon after she finished, the right occasion arrived for her to don the knitted garment. There was an exhibition of Chinese paintings at Rabindra Sadan, the cultural hub of Calcutta. The widely publicized paintings ranged from the Ming and Ching dynasties to 20th- century painters. In the distinguished gathering at the exhibition were a large number of Chinese guests.
As we entered the hall, the smartly dressed Chinese lady who was distributing pamphlets at the gate froze for a moment with her gaze fixed on Sarla's clothes.
She looked quizzical and smiled, but didn't say a word. No doubt it was a silent compliment – or so we thought.
But as we moved around, we noted that other Chinese men and women were looking smilingly at the writing on the cardigan and whispering to one another. Certainly there was something amiss.
We made a hasty retreat. After leaving the hall, Sarla stopped at the gate. Gingerly she approached the young lady who was still distributing pamphlets and politely asked the meaning of the symbols on the cardigan.
The woman could not help giggling as she translated the writing into her faltering English: "sweet and sour delicacy."