Rafael and Raj: The untold story of a Spanish cafe in Kolkata
Kolkata is probably the only city in India where you could find a completely unexpected story in a neglected lane among a million more and you could go like, "Really? And why haven't I read about this anywhere all these days?" Raj's Spanish Café is located at 7, Sudder Street, near Fire Brigade Headquarters in Dharamtala, which serves freshly and deliciously cooked wood-fired oven pizzas, calzones, empanadas and many more dishes from Spain, Italy and Mexico.
The café cannot get any simpler. Its walls are available for any dreamer, thinker, activist or artist to write, draw or paint their ideas on, other than merely stating you 'were there'. If you order a pizza and wish to see how it's baked in a traditional wood-fired oven, there is a welcoming blue door always open for you to go near the oven to see how the grated mozzarella melts over your pizza.
From this very door, came out a jovial, happy and cute old man, Rafael Callejo Jimenez. Rafael turned 90 on November 8, 2022. Rafael, who hails from Madrid, Spain, has worked in many jobs throughout his life and now is an occasional chef. He comes to Kolkata, stays for three months, then goes back to Madrid, stays for three or maybe four months and then flies back to Kolkata and so on. So, is one's passport really a decider of one's home? For Rafael, quite evidently, no. When he is in this café, he cooks paella, a typical rice dish from Spain, cooked with vegetables and chicken or sometimes seafood.
This year, though, Rajendra Kumar Pal (Raj), the owner of this café, said, "I don't want Rafael to come back again."
That came as a surprise to me. In any guest's eyes, Rafael is the entertainer, the life of the café - his jokes, songs, funny faces, looking here and there - everything about this man is pure, honest, funny and heart-touching. But the next thing that Raj said perhaps makes more sense than what I feel after meeting Rafael for just two days.
"I cannot count the number of times he has come here, you know, again and again. Now he is 90 years old. He comes alone, leaves alone and lives alone, whether in Madrid or Kolkata. He has no family. His son lives in Spain, but they are not close. I just cannot believe that he doesn't feel any pain carrying himself this far every three months. So, it's difficult to see him struggle so much."
Rafael's struggle may be painful to watch for Raj or more people, but perhaps that is Rafael's very display of his will to live, laugh, breathe, cook and eat. For all I see, Rafael might not have yelled so loudly in joy and excitement after blowing out two candles, of '9' and '0', had he been alone in Spain. It's inspiring to a great extent that here is a man from a beautiful European city, who could have lived the rest of his life having wound up his estates in pieces of paper and taking the good Mediterranean sun, but instead, he wants and chooses to be the very sport of this café in an unknown corner in eastern India, fill hearts of its guests, cook great food and tell away stories of his life. Much commendation goes to Raj, who is a great friend to Rafael, bringing him from his Kolkata home every morning and dropping him off in the evening. This chapter of Rafael's passion for this café, seen with Raj's friendship and care for this man, is what makes this café a really unique and special place in Kolkata, which is yet to see a modern café culture at all.
A quick look at the menu: for pizza lovers, a 10-inch Margherita pizza and a calzone come for Rs 330 each, whereas a 10-inch chicken and mushroom pizza (Pollo y fungi) would cost Rs 500. Among Spanish dishes, you get potato tortillas (Rs 100), chicken meatballs (Rs 250) and Arroz a la Cubana (rice with fried eggs and tomato sauce) for Rs 170. The Italian page of the menu contains Melanzane alla Parmigiana (a southern Italian baked dish made with eggplant and parmesan cheese) for Rs 240, vegetarian lasagna for Rs 260 and chicken for Rs 310. The Mexican dishes include chicken empanadas, burritos and guacamoles for Rs 260 each and chilaquiles for Rs 200 only.
I guess it's just to say that the search for a kind of cafe like those in Himalayan towns or western Indian beaches in Kolkata comes to an end with Raj's Spanish Café, with a gem of a story that deserves to be told.
Sourjya Das is a lawyer and the chief editor of 'Vasi Magazine' (@vasimagazine). His email id is email@example.com. Cafe contact through Ernie Lepcha.