Tele bhaja is a finger-licking Bengali snack sold at almost every street corner in Kolkata. But add a pinch of ‘rebellion’ and a touch of ‘greatness’, and that’s the recipe served up at this North Kolkata eatery. Before we explain why, let us introduce the snack itself.
– Laxmi Narayan Shaw (Sahu) & Sons was established in 1918
Literally meaning ‘fried in oil’, tele bhaja is a crisp, salty fritter, consisting of potato, onion or a vegetable such as brinjal coated in gram-flour batter and then deep fried, usually in mustard oil. Along with muri or puffed rice and a glass of piping hot tea, tele bhaja completes the classic Bengali evening snack triad. Of course, it’s irresistible!
So why does this particular shop-cum-eatery have a special recipe? Located at 158, Bidhan Sarani, near the Hatibagan area in North Kolkata, Laxmi Narayan Shaw (Sahu) & Sons was established in 1918 and has since been run by four generations of the Sahu family. Its proprietor, Krishna Kumar Sahu, never tires of telling this story.
He goes back to when the great Bengali revolutionary leader Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was a student of Philosophy at Scottish Church College, having been expelled from Presidency College for assaulting Prof Oaten for his anti-India remarks. It was the young student, not the future freedom fighter, who Khedi Sahu first encountered at his shop.
Like many in his class, Bose too was fond of tele bhaja and popped in quite often to grab a bite. “My grandfather sensed there was something different about him when he first saw him, but he had no clue that he would become a leader of great stature,” reminisces Sahu.
Bose would leave for England the following year, but would then resign his Civil Service job and return to India in 1921. This was when his association with the Congress began as he took charge of publicity for the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee. Nine years later, he would be elected Mayor of Kolkata, then Calcutta, but he never forgot his favourite tele bhaja shop.
Khedi Sahu, enamoured of the man who he said had a charismatic personality, became one of Bose’s close confidants. Tele bhaja from his shop soon made its way to meetings of Bengal’s revolutionaries. Along with the fries and puffed rice, Khedi Sahu would carry a kettle of hot tea, which would be served to the men in clay pots.
As he became known to more and more revolutionaries, his little shop slowly turned into a place where secret missives were exchanged, documents were passed from one hand to another, and where information about secret meetings was passed on, safe from the prying eyes of the Calcutta Police.
Late on the night of 16th January 1941, a week before his birthday, Bose gave the police the slip and escaped to Afghanistan, from where he launched his campaign to raise an army to liberate India, first with the help of the Nazis and then imperial Japan. The following year, Khedi Sahu did the rounds of his neighbourhood, distributing tele bhaja for free among all the residents, to mark Bose’s birthday.
Five years later, freedom came to India. The following year, to mark Bose’s birthday, Khedi Sahu announced that on the 23rd of January, he would distribute tele bhaja for free at his shop. It is a tradition that continues to this day. Every year, on the appointed day, a long queue of people waits patiently for their packet of goodies that Krishna Kumar Sahu distributes religiously from 8 am to 3 pm.
Khedi Sahu’s son was a collector of Netaji memorabilia, and at some point the family hopes to set up a museum with his collection. In most parts of India, freedom fighters are revered as being more than just human. But in Bengal, where even Goddess Durga is worshipped as a daughter of the family, it would be fitting to pay your respects to one of Bengal’s greatest sons at a street-side fast-food eatery.