Sumitra and Ashok Bhattacharyya arrived in Atlanta in the late 1960s, part of a wave of South Asian immigrants settling in the area. India’s independence from Britain in 1947 led to the emergence of a new middle class, who soon began emigrating to countries like the U.S. and the U.K. in search of education and jobs. In Atlanta, some found teaching and research positions, and a lively intellectual atmosphere, on campuses like Emory University and Georgia Tech. What they didn’t find, in the midcentury South, were many of the foods they were accustomed to eating.
So, they made do, placing bulk grocery orders from New York or even the London condiment company Patak’s. And they devised workarounds. Armed with their versatile masala dabba—a multicompartment box that South Asian cooks use to store spices—they transformed Southern vegetables into Indian delicacies. They used Bisquick to make gulab jamuns, a classic dessert of deep-fried dough (typically made with milk solids) dunked in a hot sugar syrup. But this all happened within the home. Even as Indian grocers gained a foothold in Atlanta, newly arrived immigrants continued to hunger for the convenience—and familiar flavors, and sense of community—that restaurants provide.
A civil engineer by training, Ashok Bhattacharyya struggled to find steady work here. But he saw an opportunity in the form of a pizza parlor in Cherokee Plaza in Brookhaven: With a couple old friends acting as investors, Bhattacharyya purchased the business. Hiring two Bangladeshi cooks, he converted it in 1973 into a restaurant called Calcutta—which wouldn’t last forever, but would forever alter the city’s culinary landscape.
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Calcutta was Atlanta’s first Indian restaurant—but, much more than that, it was a community center, a place where South Asians could socialize freely. Some met their future spouses there. Others found the beginnings of a career: The violinist Amitava Sen, who would go on to cofound a musical group called Sangeetkar, recalls playing in the restaurant, riffing on classical melodies and ragas while diners and staff went about their business.
The Bhattacharyyas’ daughter Aparna grew up in a playpen in Calcutta, where her parents served Punjabi dishes like naans and tandoori chicken—different from the Bengali foods they ate at home. Her father brought in a tandoor oven; her mother, an introvert by nature, embraced her newfound place at the center of the restaurant’s social scene. Outside of Calcutta’s walls, the Bhattacharyyas hosted events like Atlanta’s first communal Durga Puja—an elaborate, dayslong celebration of the Goddess Durga—in the back of their home. “If you were Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi, you had a standing invitation to any event,” Aparna Bhattacharyya says.
Calcutta was also a place where young cooks could practice their craft—including Aparna’s brother-in-law, who worked in the kitchen. (He met his wife, Aparna’s sister, at Calcutta.) “I don’t think us daughters learned as much from our mom as my brother-in-law did, from working with her,” Aparna says. Other cooks who cycled through helped contribute to a spate of Indian openings in the 1970s and ’80s, including a namesake spinoff in Little Five Points and, perhaps most notably, Touch of India—restaurateur Mani Roy’s legendary Midtown destination. Whether because of its central location or Roy’s promotional savvy, Touch of India became a magnet for visiting celebrities, from Mick Jagger to Sade to Desmond Tutu.
What didn’t last was Calcutta itself. After a series of bankruptcies—both in Atlanta and related to another short-lived venture in New York—the Bhattacharyyas lost the restaurant in the ’80s. They also lost their house. “We lived in a Red Carpet Inn for a while,” Aparna told me. “There were a lot of tough moments.” Ashok took a job at an Indian restaurant in a Midtown hotel to help keep the family afloat; Sumitra worked in a daycare. The closure of Calcutta, which had consumed so much of the Bhattacharyyas’ time as Aparna was growing up, changed the family in other ways: “Growing up in restaurants, I didn’t get to see my dad,” she said. “Losing the restaurant was a blessing in disguise. I developed a different relationship with my father.”
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Ashok Bhattacharyya died in 1998, and Sumitra in 2002, and many of their generation of Indian restaurateurs have either died or retired. Mani Roy closed Touch of India in 2005. Ramen Saha—a contemporary of the Bhattacharyyas who opened Raja in Buckhead in 1979—died recently, after closing his restaurant in 2017. But, several decades after the original Calcutta, its legacy continues. The restaurant “became a touchpoint for other Indian restaurants,” said Aparna, who now leads the nonprofit Raksha, which provides services to South Asian survivors of violence.
Calcutta strengthened the identity of expat Indians, making it possible for others in successive generations to envision their own versions of South Asian cuisine in the American South. When she opened her restaurant Bhojanic in 2003, Archna Malhotra Becker told me, she “did not want to follow stereotypes of ‘buffet and burgundy’ dining rooms, but something closer to authentic experiences.” Atlanta proved a fertile ground for it, as well as for the vision of Asheville-based Meherwan Irani, who opened a location of Chai Pani—offering an exuberant menu of Indian street foods—in Decatur in 2013. Irani and other Southern chefs of Indian descent also created a dinner series called Brown in the South, aiming to use food as a way to explore their complex immigrant identities.
Today, South Asian cooks searching the metro area for the perfect pod of okra, the tenderest bitter melon, and the freshest curry leaves—I am among those cooks—can go to Cherians or Patel Brothers, or one of many other Indian markets. With the same ease, I can enjoy award-winning regional Indian cuisine, noteworthy fusion, or fare that reflects the cooking of other South Asian countries—Pakistan, Bangladesh. I can shop for trinkets and decor for religious observances and traditional Indian clothes, and even be picky about where I purchase classic Indian confections, and celebrate and worship at one of many Hindu temples, or attend any of the numerous community festivals around the metro. Often, when I do, I think about Calcutta and the sacrifices of the Bhattacharyya family.
This article appears in our January 2022 issue.