Of Prawn Cocktails

Durga Charan Rakshit, a Bengali from Chandannagar near Calcutta, became famous again after a century, among the younger generations. He was the first Indian to have received the Légion d’Honneur in 1896.

Calcutta of the 80’s had some very innovative naming convention for recipes. Funny as that may sound, “Chicken-Smolarek”, a delicious rejig of sorts was introduced after the visit of Wlodzimierz Smolarek, the former Polish footballer. Bengali confectioneries or “mistanna bhandar”s promptly released “Prudential Sandesh” – sweets shaped like the Prudential Cup when India under Kapil Dev won the cricket world cup. But the then French President  François Mitterrand’s penchant for Prawn Cocktail and my insistence of the aperitif at a family get-together dinner at Walldorf Chinese restaurant on Park Street in 1987, was no coincidence.


Légion d’Honneur or Legend of Honour, was created by Napolean Bonaparte to commend civilians when the system of legions was abolished after the French Revolution.  When the seventh Indian recipient of Légion d’Honneur was to be conferred, the then French President François Mitterrand himself had flown in to present the same to Mr. Satyajit Ray ceremonially at the National Library building in Calcutta.

A couple of years before this, the other famous film maker, from the same city and Ray’s contemporary, Mrinal Sen was awarded in France.

Slipping out of office was indeed a big problem, posed my somewhat dodo of a supervisor who as I found had no interest in my hobbies nor idol. Mr. Komolesh NahaRoy wore  faded glasses and carried “tiffin box” to work. He ate soggy ripe bananas, curd-rice and finished off with one cigarette a day, that he smoked after lunch. A regimented personality who almost always remained in my imagination of monsters to be demolished. This day, unlike the other day when I had “bunked” work to shoot in a movie – I simply did not go to work….

When I reached the National Library area in Calcutta, there were uniformed cops all over the place. National Library used to be a regular haunt in my school days and I practically knew every entrance from every corner of the low walls. So I scaled one of those walls, sneaked through the trees and bushes to a closer location from the staircase and perched myself on a high branch. There were these dignitaries who arrived with their larger than life entourages. The then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu sat flanked by Mr. Ray and Mrs. Nabanita Debsen,the famous Bengali author and former wife of Nobel Laureate Prof. Amartya Sen.

I wondered how, due to the almost one foot difference between the two towering personalities of the day – President Mitterand at 5’7” and Satyajit Ray at 6’7”, would the President reach for Mr. Ray’s neck. However, while that wasn’t quite an issue, as Mr. Ray bent almost to his torso, it was the Presidents Aide-du-Camp trying to reach from behind, that looked funny, as he quickly tied it around Mr. Ray’s neck from behind.

The six and half feet tall filmmaker then delivered a vote of thanks in his famous baritone. The following day, newspapers in Calcutta frontpaged the entire event …and rest is history.

While the next thing that happened in my life, is too miniscule to be documented elsewhere, to this day, being present at that one event and subsequently my appointment at 1-1 Bishop Lefroy Road, remains to be a cherished accomplishment amongst all the others that I did accomplish by bunking !!


All rights to images are acknowledged where not specifically mentioned and/or are retrieved from public domain.

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