August 8, 2013
When you’re traveling alone at night in your car, as the radio jockey with her sultry voice seductively plays for you one old number after another, life indeed feels like a film; a typical Bollywood film, where you are the hero and the world’s your oyster. It’s night. Late in the night. The eastern metropolitan bypass is smeared in her orange hue; the windows rendered foggy by your car’s AC making everything on your two sides, hallucinogenic in the humidity of this monsoon night. The car is piercing through the rain-drenched smooth road, uninterrupted. The torn flex of the skeletal billboard flutters hysterically behind Captain’s Bhery. You feel like Caesar, on his way home. As you pass by that luxury hotel, your headlights caress that lone figure in her little black dress and high heels, waiting patiently for someone. When your car comes to a halt at the Science City circle, you instinctively fasten your seatbelt. I am sure you had forgotten all about it while returning home from the party; you’re suddenly jerked to consciousness at the sight of the tireless traffic sergeant stopping and fining the men on their bikes. As you drive towards Park Circus, a Domino’s Pizza guy barrels past you in his blue bike. Is he returning home? Or is he on his duty, delivering happiness, you wonder. The rain gods have taken a break for a while, after keeping themselves busy for the whole evening. Youngsters in a naked Jeep drive past you, Gangnam Style blaring out of the speakers. You pump up your speed; you realize you’re lost in thoughts, tonight. You’re happy, actually. Happy in the loneliness of the car. Loneliness is of two types, the good and the bad, like everything else in this world. And in many ways, the loneliness that makes you happy is very similar to the silence that enriches your soul. Every silence, as Italo Calvino once noted, is made up of a network of minuscule sounds that envelops it. And every solitude, as you may have realized by now, is made up of fragmented togetherness that surrounds you: the radio-jockey with her sultry voice and Md. Rafi singing a cheerful Shammi Kapoor song and the lonesome honks of an aged taxi behind you and the put-putting of the bikes vanishing past you and into the darkness far away.
You’ve always loved solitude, haven’t you? During the festival of Goddess Durga, when Calcutta decks up in light, when the whole world seems to take to the streets, celebrating in a mad frenzy for non-stop four days, isn’t it just you, positioning yourself by the second floor balcony, brewing the precious tea in the milky white china; the tea parceled carefully from good old Darjeeling have waited patiently in the cupboard for quite some time, waiting for an ideal occasion to be savored with the greatest of pleasure. But like all of us, you’ve been rather anxious about whether it’d retain its flavor after being in the cupboard for a few months, haven’t you? And you’ve even regretted that waiting for that perfect occasion might actually ruin the whole dream-like experience, just like that precious bottle of French perfume which has languished in your mother’s locker for decades, now rendered useless. Now is the right time and waiting is useless, you seem to conclude rather uncomfortably.
Your mind fleets to that lazy evening in the now-shuttered bookstore in Calcutta, where you had accidentally stumbled across a self-improvement book called The Power of Now while looking for a Geoff Dyer title in the non-fiction section. You’ve always hated self improvement books, I know. But the name of the book has stuck on to your memory for years now. The Power of Now. You never even leafed through the book. Probably it was a conscious decision? To let it remain unexplored lest the mystery wears away? Just like you have refrained yourself from writing to Alec Soth or Don McCullin, Pico Iyer or Aamir Khan, just like you have refrained yourself from confessing your love for someone close to you, just like you have refrained yourself from visiting Dhaka, the city of your dreams, the home of your ancestors. Lest the mystery wear away, just like that illusion of the idealness of Paris, which shattered when you paced up and down Champs-Élysées a few years ago.
You have reached home by now, I suppose. Have taken a hot shower and feeling fresher than ever. It must have started pouring again and I am sure that Vikram Singh Khangura is serenading you with his melancholic songs on Youtube again; it’s been four years since this young man had passed away, yet he remains eternal; he always will be. Death is so strange; stranger than life. One moment, you’re alive. The next moment, you’re gone. While leafing through the newspaper today, I came across a report about a road accident claiming the life of one of my schoolteachers, whom I particularly didn’t have any affections for, while he was alive. He was ritualistically biking towards school from home, when he lost control in the slippery rain-drenched roads and ended up under the gigantic wheels of a bus. Back in those school days, the greatest of joys for us was when teachers were absent and we’d get a free period, good enough to rejuvenate ourselves for the boring classes ahead, engaging in the wildness of pen-fighting. It feels strange, but yesterday at my school, some thrilled school-kids must have rejoiced at having a free period too, like we all did, anywhere in the world.
Do you remember my friend Bobby? We met some time ago, in our usual haunt. There was Julie, there was Niladri, there was Pinki and Sannu too. And quietly sitting in a darkened corner, lost in her world, was Bobby, with a scarf veiling her head. If Bobby was born in Paris, instead of the slum in Panditiya, she would have been a supermodel by now. But alas destiny had other plans for her. ‘Bobby, how’re you? It’s been a long time!’ I said.
‘My father died last month…’ she said carelessly, still lost in another world, ‘Look, they’ve shaved my head…’ she added, stripping herself off the faded pink scarf.
Everything became so clear to me. Why I always thought she resembled a supermodel and never could I figure out which supermodel she resembled. As I stared dumbfounded at Bobby, with her shaved head and big eyes, wearing her pink top and the rainbow sarong, all I could see was Alek Wek, the celebrated Sudanese supermodel with looks to die for.
Our silence was interrupted by Bishwanath, Raju’s elder brother, who had come to Julie’s cigarette shop to buy himself a Flake: ‘Ki ar hobe, bap-er shesh kaj toh kortei hobe; chele boley kotha…what can be done, the father’s last rites must be dutifully fulfilled by the son…
August 15, 2013
What do you call that emotion, when you feel like you’re in love, yet you know not who you are in love with? When a face does not slowly appear in your mind’s eye like a Polaroid, when you are as clueless as the last mathematics exam you sat for, almost a decade ago? Is that what you call ecstasy then, something which is deeply orgasmic? Ecstasy and orgasm unfortunately are fleeting pleasures but then again, they are pleasures because they are fleeting? Once upon a time, someone asked me what the happiest moment of my life has been. Sinking in the depth of her enormous couch, a teabag of Jasmine tea sunk in my cup full of hot water, I felt like Sita being swallowed in the depth of the earth; I kept thinking about the days and the nights and the moments, that has gone by. I ransacked my memories in search of that yellowed moment of ecstasy, much like those family photographs in the albums, which are sleeping peacefully in the womb of the old steel almirah smelling of naphthalene, surrounded by the tenderness of my mother’s silk sarees. The smell of naphthalene is not too familiar a smell anymore; these days, it shatters the walls of the dam in my mind, flooding it with memories of my childhood in the nineties. When you’re young and tender, when you are a child, the smell of your mother’s almirah is a familiar smell; there does not exist a world beyond your mother. The older you grow, the more distance that comes between the two of you; the further the distance you thread, the wider your footsteps are smeared on the bosom of the earth, the closer you are slowly drawn towards your childhood, towards those few people who nurtured you into your adulthood. Until a time comes, when all you are left with is that aroma locked in that ancient steel almirah and nothing more.
What is ecstasy then? Is ecstasy a long forgotten song sung by Akhil Bandhu Ghosh or perhaps a heart-broken Leadbelly singing to his Irene? Is ecstasy probably meeting a long lost childhood friend after a decade or two, amazed at the hint of vermillion at the parting of her hair and realizing suddenly that you’ve grown up? Or is ecstasy all about suddenly hearing anecdotes about a much-respected guitarist from a young friend of yours and realizing that he’s talking about a long-lost schoolmate, with whom you’ve shared the first bench in school, right in front of the cranky teacher, as a punishment for being naughty: and sneezing endlessly as she kept banging the duster on the table to maintain silence in class, a cloud of chalk-dust surrounding you. So, you and me, like all Bengalis, are prone to nostalgia, aren’t we? Something which is celebrated here, something which must be savored, something which determines how deeply we are Bengalis within ourselves? After all, what else but nostalgia are we left with, today? From Tagore rejecting knighthood and Saurav Ganguly celebrating bare-chested after a victory at the Lord’s, everything is in past tense today.
In the month of January in the year 2010, we moved out of the house where I was born and raised, where my little sister staggered to her feet for the first time and took a few steps before falling down and crying endlessly in pain; where I had spent endless winter nights in my childhood trying to breathe in, as my cough-covered lungs made music like a bagpipe, where I had spent a many rainy-holidays setting sail my fleet of paper boats; it was there where I had grown up to watch the wonders of love-making on pirated VCDs, where my grandmother breathed her last. It was there, there, where I had first been amazed by a Don McCullin photograph, my unlikely introduction to photography and there, where I had first been surprised by the sheer fertility of Araki’s women. So, in 2010, we left that place forever, to accommodate ourselves in a bigger and brighter abode, leaving behind that empty flat, full of memories of a past life. But in our new neighborhood, we were not the only ones making a new beginning. A young couple next door had given birth to a baby girl, who was growing up just across my room, in the building next to ours. On sunny mornings in that winter, when the sun would be sweet and warm, they’d take her out on the terrace and let her be caressed by the rays of the sun, massaging her tender limbs with warm mustard oil from a sweet little aluminum bowl. Tell me, my friend, have you ever heard a baby giggling? Isn’t it simply the sweetest of all sounds? Have you ever heard a baby talking to herself in her language beyond our comprehension? Have you? Isn’t it simply ecstatic? In many ways, I secretly had the privilege of savoring her giggles, her laughs, her incomprehensible songs, which altogether sweetened my life, just like the life of Thoreau in the woods, sweetened by the song-birds all around him. These days, she’s going to a lycée and all I hear endlessly are songs of Tagore, one too many generations of Bengalis have grown up singing in their childhood. And the more I hear that Alo Amar Alo Ogo song, the more distant those dreamlike songs of hers, strung together by sweet gibberish seem to be.
One of the best moments in Calcutta happens to be the night time. After ten. In the southern half of the city, that is. Do you know Kalighat? I live a kilometer from there. After Ten moments in South Calcutta is wonderful. Cinematic in the truest sense. At the more important crossroads, a few dozen people prepare themselves to pounce on the next empty bus that will pass by: all pouncing together on the vehicle as it slows down, as slow Tagore songs keep blaring out of the loudspeakers at the signal, in an endless loop, contrary to all the action below. The shops are closing down. So are the road-side hawkers. The shopkeepers are bolting their shops, turning keys into innumerable padlocks. And performing a ritual by lighting a torch of newspaper and caressing the padlocks and the shutters with the fire, as mantras are being uttered to protect their belongings. This is in fact one ritual which brings the hawkers and the big shopkeepers on the same pedestal. All along the sidewalk, all of them are performing the rituals. And those who have already performed their rituals are heading home hurriedly, standing almost in the middle of the road in an attempt to stop auto-rickshaws, buses or taxis. I prefer the word taxi over cab, and taxi-driver over cabbie. In fact, I am very much old fashioned; don’t know the lingo of the people of my age. I know ganja, I know charas. But what’s weed and what’s grass? I once had a girlfriend who was very modern. We were one day sitting in an ancient coffee house, separated by two little cups of black coffee, twelve rupees each. Suddenly, she became hyper and started saying, ‘Soham, let’s go! We need to go home!’ And I was like, ‘Oh no, relax. It’s just 7:30pm. Sip your coffee.’ And she was like, ‘Soham, I am charming!’ and I was like, ‘Oh no, not just charming, you’re enchanting.’ And there she was, ready to kill me. She left the table, returned home. Of course I couldn’t go home. A crispy plate of egg pakoras was waiting to be devoured. And what pleasure it is, when you can have it all by yourself. Remember when you bring lots of wonderful food from outside for a party and a few of the guests don’t turn up and you run to your kitchen after all of them are gone and jump in joy to find that so much is left over to be devoured at midnight? Isn’t it a fantastic feeling?
As you hang from the front of the auto rickshaw, kissed by the strong winds, you see so many people lined up near you, waiting for transportation to carry them home. And the twin sisters, one of them cross-eyed, waiting for customers to devour them: they stand on the main road by lonesome taxis, a tired elderly taxi-wala in each, waiting with equal patience for the men to come. These twin sisters, in their mid-forties, they stand in the same bus-stop as my residence. Our eyes meet every day, yet there seems to be a mutual understanding of silence. Another sight which I dearly love is the sight of the family of six, busy preparing roti and daal on the pavement, by the kerosene-fueled stove, as men in their pajamas flock around the nighttime eatery. The men, they’re all silent, lost in their thoughts, as the matriarch packs roti and daal in earthen cups and hand over to the men one by one, in flimsy plastic bags. Some are bachelors probably living in rented accommodation in the neighborhood. Others have come because their maids have taken a leave today. Even I join them in buying home some wonderfully soft roomali-roti and at nights when I predict that the maid has again made something horrible, I buy myself an earthen pot full of delicious egg-tadka, prepared in the oil scooped from the red, fiery chicken curry. As I walk home through the desolate streets, I find Keshto often, singing to himself, a bottle of Bangla by him and the neighborhood dogs Kalu and his two mistresses barking incessantly behind him. And when I lend my ears to Keshto’s tuneless song tonight, I can probably make out the national anthem suddenly, sung with the greatest of passion, in a highly spirited manner. And strangely, I experience ecstasy again.
October 26, 2013
This year, the rain-gods have lavished you with rain. The dampened walls of your bedroom stand silently like that classmate of yours in the younger years of school, punished by the class teacher for being a spoilt brat, lavished by the love of his parents for being the single child, his spirits getting dampened by everyday encounters in the universe beyond his two-room abode. As autumn journeys towards her last phase, the incessant rains on the other side of the window cease to stop, the drenched mango tree in your backyard perches onto the moist earth silently, like the silent crows on the branches. You had just switched off your ceiling fan, switched her on again, eager to hear her hum for the last few nights, before she hibernates in the depths of your electrician’s warehouse for the next few months. Is there anything more companionable as the humming electric fan, in the solitude of your bedroom at night, made bright by your journeys with Charley, stopping once in a while to gaze at your beloved canine companion, snoring next to you, lost in his dreams. As his body rises and falls with each breath, it feels somewhat like a divine moment, created especially for you. Your gaze suddenly rests on the lone lizard on the prowl, his fortune brightened by the seasonal migration of the lime-green insects by the slender fluorescent lamp, shining brightly tonight. For a few nights, your spirits were down, you knew not why. Everything was perfect, yet nothing was magical. The night was suddenly not sweet enough; nighttime readings, nighttime music and the nighttime ritual of lovingly turning the pages of your picture books were not attracting you anymore – until suddenly, you were plunged into darkness: the old fluorescent lamp finally closing its eyes, dead. As the new lamp floods your room with all the light in the world, you are suddenly so happy; the night , it seems is yours now, like a lover whose heart you had finally won at the end of one of those storms that comes gate-crashing into your life with all relationships close to the heart. By now, another lizard – this one, tailless – has arrived on the scene by your new slender lamp. The door to your terrace is open, a gust of cool breeze makes the room a little cold. As you turn off your ceiling fan, the soundscape of the night becomes multi-layered. On the apartment above, someone is snoring as passionately as an opera singer. From the room across the no man’s land, a strange recurring sound floats in, followed by footsteps and climaxing with the whoosh of the flush in the toilet, which momentarily drowns all other sounds around you.
You think of me, suddenly. Think of all the time we have spent together in the pursuit of what not! Spent together exchanging anecdotes of the craziest sort, of a life bright and colorful, colored by passion and eccentricity, by the sheer joy of experiencing craziness in the city’s most mundane moments, in the brooding boredom of the stinking river banks, in the tea and the froth and the endless flow of rose water of the Baba’s joint, the dark smoke from the nearby crematorium billowing desperately skywards. In another corner of the city, as we sit silently inside the confectionary, two cold samosas giving us company, as we watch the stream of pilgrims passing by, and other men anchoring themselves in the pursuit of a shared primal need, as the angels of Kalighat sit by the numerous meandering lanes leading to their rooms – where love is made, where love is sold – you suddenly feel so much at ease. And don’t you dearly wish that if only there was Farida Khanum singing Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo, it would have been more cinematic than cinema, more poetic than poetry?
A shopping mall in the southern fringes of the city is all decked up for Diwali, showers of fairy lights twinkling atop you, as you lose yourself in the crowd of window-shoppers queuing up to climb escalators, hesitating momentarily before taking the leap, surrendering themselves to modern times. In front of you, a seven year old escalates adventurously, as her mother draped in her flowing saree looks on helplessly from the mouth of the moving staircase, too afraid to climb aboard. The bookstore on the second floor is packed with people, customers it seems are only interested in the fairly lights of a riot of colors. In front of the section dedicated to magazines, a teenager – a nerd, as they would call such boys in school – is engrossed in the pages of a magazine: from whose depth, stares a topless beauty lustily at you, blessed with assets only Gary Winogrand could have appreciated fully. At another end, two young friends have approached the helpdesk with a Wong Kar-wai box-set with a colorful 40% off label stuck onto it. ‘What would be the price after discount?’ one of them asks. In the biography section, Narendra Modi smiles cheerfully, sharing space with Charlie Chaplin. In another corner, three friends are exploring the section dedicated to the innumerable Case Logic products frantically. A mustachioed middle-aged store supervisor in his striped uniform is staring at the boys with faint disdain, lamenting at the freedom window-shoppers are empowered with nowadays. Things have been so different in the nineties, haven’t they? You never entered a store if you didn’t have anything in mind, you never walked in purposelessly. I was in the first year of college, when this mall first opened its door to the public. And in ways, it democratized the whole experience of shopping. I still remember spending endless afternoons bunking classes, sitting in a corner of this bookstore, lost in the mammoth Raghu Rai or the worn-out Steve McCurry books, worn out by penniless folks like me. And I still remember roaming around endlessly in the stinking leather-jacket and the low-rise jeans, head shaved, big dark shades dangling from the shirt and dark circles by the eyes due to extremes of a life-style marked by indiscipline, trying to find a door as others close around me.
As Diwali approaches, the sky is often illuminated in the brightest of fireworks, crossettes in the canvas of the night sky making everything beautiful. As the distant firecrackers explode, two stray dogs pierce through the empty road towards the unknown, terribly afraid, tormented. Golla, my Pomeranian cowers underneath my bed, shivering. Across the street, old Mrs. Biswas worries about the approaching festival, her memories of being hospitalized last year during Diwali still fresh. Nonigopal, the salesman at Capsule Store arrives cycling at her doorstep, a translucent plastic bag dancing and dangling from the handlebar, inhalers resting inside. On the building next to my room, the Nag family is busy preparing for the festival of Goddess Kali. Very soon, their bell-metal gongs and their bells will fill up our whole neighborhood, frantic chanting and thick smoke from the burning incense pot making the night more festive in its dead. The whole Nag family: parents, grandparents, cousin, children will descend on the road below afterwards, the youngest one lighting what may probably be her first phuljhuri, the star-like sparks painting her tender face golden, her eyes shining in joy, the faint fear of her first firecracker furrowing her brows a little. I will look on, as a slice of childhood memory may flash before me: a different me on a similar night, lighting up my first phuljhuri.
But nothing else will probably be clear, not even blurry. What I may think of as memory will perhaps be that glossy photograph from the family album, carefully archived by my mother in her first flush of motherhood.
November 15, 2013
In a dusty corner of a smalltime antique dealer’s tiny shop sits a crumbling ivory replica of a southern temple-complex encased in a cracked glass box. It is one of those beautiful replicas that you might still find somewhere in the depths of old, South Calcutta mansions, covered in cobwebs, forgotten forever; waiting to be homeless soon, as the last few members of the household sell off their past, to settle in one of the glitzy apartments of a Rajarhat condominium. When all is lost, when wealth and youth dwell in the dreamlike anecdotes of a past life, when all a Bengalee can cling on to are the inherited values, when the crumbling mansion resembles the haunted house of our childhood stories – after dark – painted in the moonless night’s blackness barring the lone room in the corner, a fluorescent tube glowing silently inside, it feels lonesome. It feels lonesome in the midst of all the high-rises and all the malls towering all around, built on the same earth where once stood other magnificent mansions, existing now in the sunny memories of some of the old neighborhood people, still holding onto their past in the dusk of their lives. As one mansion after another gets razed to the ground around us, have you ever wondered what becomes of the sparrows nesting in the ventilators of forgotten rooms and the fluttering pigeons whose calls keep alive the old house like the screams of playful children many a decades ago? Some Sundays ago, as I pushed my way through the maze of a wholesale supermarket’s grocery section, its cloud-kissing racks filled with sacks full of rice and lentils, I beheld a most beautiful sight. A tribe of sparrows played overhead, chirping merrily in the midst of the never-ending sea of sacks bulging with their wealth of grains, the sparrows engrossed in an eternal game of hopscotch, pausing once in a while to nurse their hunger. Is it then, do you think, an exodus of some kind, where the refugees are not the familiar helpless faces of a Keffiyeh-tangled photojournalist’s black-and-white photo-essay? Where, the souls rendered homeless are kits of pigeons, colonies of squirrels and bats, as bulldozers keep altering our skyline? Once, you had said, that these old mansions are museums of one’s past lives, history waiting to explode in every corner. But don’t you think, that this city of ours – our beloved Calcutta – it itself is one’s own museum, with carefully preserved memories of ecstasy and pain lurking in her nooks and crannies?
Speaking of museums, did you read the recently published article about haunted places in Calcutta? They seem to churn out these articles periodically when there’s a drought of anything worth writing about. There’s been so much hullaballoo surrounding The Indian Museum, The National Library, The Writers’ Building. But new on the list of haunts this time was the Rabindra Sarovar Metro Station, where the majority of metro rail suicides have taken place in this city of ours. Favorably located beyond Kalighat, the last busy station in the south, it used to enjoy being a heaven for all tired souls until they extended the line till New Garia in the extreme south of the city. Calcutta Metro, with its fading florescent lights and terrible murals, with its television screens all begging you to not toss away your life like that, with its atmospheric gloom and tired faces actually seem to drive you towards your end, in some ways; it is actually a mystery if you choose to not end this life of yours. But then again, why do people commit suicide, have you ever wondered? When I was thirteen, or I may have been a bit younger, one of our neighbors hanged himself from his third floor apartment one windy evening in July. He was a nice man and I was quite fond of him; at times he was annoying in the sense that he spent hours in our drawing room, engrossed in cricket matches on our newly installed cable television when India and Pakistan locked horns. And then, one evening, he was no more: dead. The first sight of a lifeless body being stretchered out by grave-looking policemen amidst grave-looking neighbors excited me beyond limits, the fodder for hushed last-bench conversations during the endlessly tormenting Sanskrit classes at school. But I never knew why he ended his life until much later, when with certain disbelief did I come to know that it was because his twenty-something daughter had to have an abortion that actually drove him to his death. A few years later, one of my distant cousins was fished out of the Dhakuria Lakes early one morning, the reasons apparently for his suicide being his poor academic performance. Somehow, aren’t we all like the family of snails who call your moss-smeared courtyard, their home? The snails move sluggishly like the tired Ganges at her mouth, slowly moving around your courtyard –their home, their world – and retracting in the depths of their shells in the face of adversity and moving on again, when things are brighter. And then one night, your boot crushes one of them in the darkness of a rolling blackout: the frail white candle glowing melancholically not strong enough to prevent your boots from cutting short some more lives. Others move about until another night of blackout.
As you meet more and more people as you tread through life, as more and more of them open up to you, personal tragedies and shattered pasts seem to be as abundant as the stray dogs of our city. Your fifty-something tailor from Diamond Harbour refuses to remarry after his wife passes away, living on with the wealth of happy memories of a past life. A friend of yours fall in love with a younger man, the wound of a dead boyfriend still as fresh as the thorny roses of the flower market, beaming under the golden rays of the rising sun. The sixty-something professor across your home – hushed jokes of her alleged nymphomania still doing the rounds in your neighborhood – still craves for a little bit of tenderness, a few minutes of telephonic conversation, the void in her life hollower than ever with the passing away of her ninety-eight year old father, the one person who never let emptiness overwhelm her after her bitter divorce way back in the seventies. Your father’s classmate Panini has aged beyond his early fifties, the memories of his promising school days and the fading smiles of his dying daughter still comes to haunt him during the monotony of his clerical job on lazy afternoons. As a child, I have fond memories of newly-married couples fighting violently – with my mother ironically between them – trying to bring about peace. My mother would have just one advice for all these men and women: Bachha hok, sob thik hoye jabe. Notun kore shuru koro jibon! All you need now is a child. Start life afresh! An advice, a flickering hope, which itself made life more troublesome for these already-troubled souls. Everyone, including you and me, we’re all so fond of new beginnings, aren’t we? There seems to be so much romanticism associated with a new start. When life corners us, we all tend to seek an escape – in the form of a new beginning – like you used to press the reset button on your locally assembled computer when it hanged in the midst of a newly installed Max Payne game. Yet, when the newfound enthusiasm of a new beginning begins to ebb away, we resume life from where we had left, we hustle on as we have always hustled. These new starts, they are like falling in love: no matter how much we decide that we’d had enough, you and me, we secretly know that we’ll again fall for the same trap shamelessly, sometime soon.
December 24, 2013
With the approaching winter, the floor of my bedroom is littered with envelops of teabags of varied colors; the deeper I go into the night, the more colorful my floor looks like. With the electric kettle at work, my spotless white cup atop the spotless white saucer rattles hysterically until the kettle finally climaxes, ejaculating a restless column of steam. And then, a strange silence. In ways, the empty envelops scattered all over my floor reminds me of another room in another world in another time and memories of those sleepless nights bring tremendous joy to me. As a child, I hated school. As a child I despised school like no other. And I hated most of what they taught us at school. Punished for being a nuisance in class and hence sitting on the first bench right in front of the tremendously bored English teacher, the crises in her life heightened by the end of her monthly cycles, I abhorred Wordsworth like no other: Wilfred Owen was wonderful, leftist poet Sukanta even better, but Wordsworth? The Solitary Reaper was still interesting, she probably being a beautiful woman and anything to do with a beautiful woman is universally loved by most twelve year old schoolboys. But Daffodils gave me the greatest pain, the pain heightened by the fact that you got to stick to the teacher’s pre-historic notes that she’s been dictating to sleepy monkey-capped school children for quite a few generations on early winter mornings inside cold and dusty classrooms, the north wind piercing in through the few cracked glass windows. I never understood Wordsworth until I got much older and tonight, as I type away on my keyboard, the letters and numbers on it no more, the sudden flood of happy memories sparked by the scattered teabag envelops on the cold floor take me suddenly to those cold seven o’clock agonies of a not-too-distant boyhood.
A dear friend of mine – a very dear friend – with a past that’s not been too smooth just like mine, and a present that seems to be rather sweet, once asked me, ‘Do you want to live long, Soham?’ She said she didn’t. I never knew what I wanted to do, until I heard this story a few days ago from another dear friend of mine, quite a rascal even in his advanced age:
An octogenarian wakes his wife up in the dead of the night.
‘Suno, ek bar utho, kuch poochna hai!’ he says, ‘Listen, wake up, need to ask you something!’
The wife in her mid-seventies wakes up panicking, fearing that something must be wrong.
‘Kya, ji?’ she asks, ‘What, dear?’
‘Tumhara naam kya hai ji?’ he asks, ‘What’s your name, dear?’
How old age eats you up. How you live life on a shoestring saving up for the advanced years, leading a tensed life mostly in future tense, leaping and bounding like a greyhound towards the endless road that leads to your life after retirement, whose grass seems to be as green as the rain-drenched tea-gardens of Darjeeling in monsoons. You hustle your way into your old age, only to find the life left behind being a more beautiful one. So, you start counting your days, waking up each day to cross out another day from your life’s calendar.
But is it then only about the future? Is it then never about a present which is only about the present? On sunny winter afternoons, when whole families descent on the open fields of Maidan, uninhibitedly playing badminton in probably the most hilarious of ways, the boundless green fields an exhibition of Bengali vulnerability, it indeed feels as if no one is bothered about tomorrow, at least for a while.
Amit Chaudhuri in his Calcutta: Two Years in the City writes about a Londoner friend of his, liking the Christmas here in Calcutta much more than the one in London, for its lack of the ‘awful mournfulness of Christianity’ and because ‘it is all about Santa’, as Chaudhuri quotes his friend. Men dressed as Santa Claus roam about town: near restaurants and malls and shopping districts, armed with the brass bell which at other times must be used in Hindu rituals, pouncing almost onto young children, grunting ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ and almost giving the little ones a heart attack, before gifting them a bubble-gum or two. From a distance, it looks kind of hilarious, the hilariousness of the situation catalyzed by the stark realities of this poverty-infested city, where impoverished, skinny Santa Clauses paint the town red during this season of cheap fruit cakes and bedazzling belly dancers from Turkey, roasted turkey at Park Street restaurants and agonizing queues of men, women and children wearing Santa caps on their heads (sometimes fitted with twinkling LED lights) waiting outside Peter Cat or Mocambo, waiting to wolf down the same old Chelow Kebab or the Chicken ala Kiev – and – middle-aged Bengali men, high on spirit singing old songs, most probably from Sound of Music, almost forcing you to beat them up. And just in case you dislike the festivities and the parade of mindless joy at Esplanade or Park Street, head out for Academy of Fine Arts or Nandan to be amongst grave and grim men and women and tormented children eating fish fry smeared in kashundi silently in some corner, after a dose of theatre which is bound to leave you depressed for a short while. Once when I was a child, my parents took me to a theatre performance and in the midst of the play, one of the characters threatened another quite intensely, ‘Beshi barabari korle kintu tor pant khule chharbo shobar shamne, lokey bujhbe tui ki jinish! If you cross the line, I will strip you in front of everyone and people will know who you really are!’ and I waited endlessly for when that person would be stripped. An hour passed by, perhaps more. Then, the play ended. And I was left tear-eyed for no one was disrobed that evening.
Last night in a rattling taxi, as I drove past Elgin Road homewards, I witnessed a young woman being battered. Slightly away from an educational institution hosting a college fest, she cried profusely, one of her eyes blackened, a film of tears on her face glistening as the golden rays of the tungsten street lamps fell on her, two girls by her side trying to calm her down as a hunk of a boyfriend with folded arms begged for forgiveness. ‘Bastard, bastard!’ she mumbled, her words almost incomprehensible in her hysteric state. As my taxi pierced through empty streets towards my home, I suddenly remembered Nan Goldin and her ballad, her ode to the failure of heterosexual coupledom in the west. The incompatibility she chronicled seems to have spread everywhere like cancer, in the wake of globalization. But is it then about borders and cultures, is it then about the west and the east? Or is it perhaps a universal truth, suppressed formerly in certain places, exploding finally today, touched by the changing gender equations?
January 24, 2014
If marriage symbolizes beginning and death, end, then, when you walk down the pavements of Golpark in South Calcutta, or perhaps the one by the Lake Market, you will end up finding beginning and end sharing space under the sky blue tarpaulin roof of the roadside flower-man’s little shop: rows of funeral-white wreaths displayed below rows of bride-red bouquets, the winter season ideal for both new beginnings and last breaths. Quite far away, at the Nimtala crematorium, the aged Marwari patriarch burns away on the sandalwood pyre, as shivering drunkards and mad men warm themselves up by the blazing pyre’s soothing heat. They’ve always said that this city of ours, Calcutta, it is the least xenophobic of all Indian cities, the xenophobia smothered by three decades of Communism or perhaps a way older practice of secularism. But aren’t we Bengalis genetically programmed from a tender age to passionately hate the rich Marwari business class? Or racially abuse impoverished Bihari taxi-drivers refusing to take you home perhaps after guzzling down too much beer and wolfing down your beef steak at Olypub? When the elderly taxi-driver refuses to take you home and drives away, your anger knows no bounds and you start screaming, ‘Bihari madarchod! Bihari Motherfucker!’ to your heart’s content, forgetting for a while that inside in that bar, in a serious debate an hour ago, you had discussed the scary possibility of India electing a new government with a xenophobic leader at its helm. Then, when a taxi finally stops and you get in, as you go windingly through the city southwards, a Francis Lai composition punctuating a cheesy, late-night radio show catering to the love-struck adolescent, a part of you hopes that the radio will be turned off or the station, changed. The more the host talks of sugary love, the more you can visualize that young listener craving to be loved, despising the loneliness which is so painful in youth. And from that image of the sixteen year old girl by the radio, your mind fleets to the typical image of the anorexic single woman – perhaps a much-loved aunt or the neighborhood spinster (as they call her) – spectacled, with a pixie cut and with braces, usually in a dark skirt and a colorful blouse, the mischievous smile suppressing the screams of inner agony, as middle age, like cancer eats up her last remains of youth. Are those screams, perhaps like the last screams of the little sparrow being devoured by the crow from its nest? Just like the shrill cries you may have heard as a child from the forgotten ventilator of your grandfather’s old mansion, where sparrows had nestled? Do the childhood memories of helplessness still come to haunt you when you hear similar cries on early mornings? Or have you finally realized that the early morning cries you wake up to – in your new room of the new home – are not of agonized sparrows but noisy, breeding kestrels atop the palm tree by your window?
But our Calcutta, this crumbling city, it echoes with the cries of pain and the howls of agony, everywhere during heartbreaking winters, when the other half is having the most beautiful time of their lives. You just got to lend your ears to those silent cries, whether in the depths of the neighborhood garbage vat, by the trapped soul of the stinking dead cat and the unconscious mad man, flies buzzing around them, or in that country liquor bar buzzing with the grumbles of impoverished melancholy drunkards, the stink of urine from the lane leading to the bar and the stink of bangla from the glasses and the bottles and the countless mouths amplifying the atmospheric melancholia. At times, Calcutta seems to be the bleakest of all places. The city, like that forgotten pot of tea, feels so bitter, the tea-leaves resting in the teapot’s womb – like your love for Calcutta – responsible for all the bitterness. But you’re not alone. So many others are bitter. In fact, the majority of Calcuttans are bitter for some reason or the other. Have you ever witnessed a car-crash and its aftermath? You must have seen how the driver of the more expensive car gets lynched mercilessly by an enraged mob, as curious onlookers with smiling faces enjoy the spectacle. The privileged individual begging for mercy is momentarily knocked off from his pedestal by the common man, as showers of obscenities and punches drench him. Or, when you take the metro to work every morning, what seems to be bitterer than the frequent venomous fights between co-passengers hustling for space in the train’s black hole? But is this bitterness just about this city? Isn’t it a national phenomenon, the primetime debates on India’s news channels, testimony to the Indian bitterness?
But not everyone is bitter. Every evening, Yadav sells phuchka on the pavement in my neighborhood, his stall quite popular with tired people in the mood for a light evening snack in between shopping at Gariahat. I also happen to be one of his regular customers, the yogurt-filled phuchkas a lifesaver after a long day of wanderings. Sometime ago, he announced with a big smile that his wife at their village in Bihar had given birth to a baby boy. He said he would shut shop for a few days, travel to his homeland to see their first child. For a few days, by the corner of the crossroads, there was no sign of him. And then, when I walked home last night, there he was again, selling phuchkas to the late-evening shoppers. The sight of him in a cap concealing his newly shaved head sent shivers down my spine. ‘He is dead,’ he said, a sad smile concealing his pain, ‘The doctors kept him in that glass box but even then he couldn’t be saved. It was perhaps His will that the baby died. Maybe god will give me another child, maybe twins next time!’
Another person who’s always hopeful about bright days ahead is Swapan, the neighborhood parking-fee collector. Like all Bengalis, he greets me with a smile every night and pauses for a while to share a slice of his life. During summers, he talks about the agonizing heat and how he is confident that the rains will be here very soon. During the monsoon, he counts the last remaining days of the rainy season, days when he can leave his umbrella back home, ‘They’ve predicted in the papers that monsoon has reached its end. Any day now, the skies will clear up and it’ll be dry once more!’ During the autumn, he talks about the great rush of traffic owing to the month-long festive season and how tired he is all the time, running from car to car, collecting money and how January will save him from this season of rush. When winter climaxes, he’s always found longing for summer and how he is confident that the bitterly cold winter nights won’t last another ten days. At other times, he talks about how he aspires to be a real-estate broker and how everyone seems to be cheating him and how none of his clients have paid him a penny till now for the services he’s provided and how he hopes to get back his due at any cost very soon. Seasons fleet and new deals are made. But Swapan still talks about how he’s yet to recover his dues and how he is hopeful that he’d be successful in another one week. His optimism, in ways is like that of the lamb outside Haji Meat Shop chewing away the hay happily on a Sunday morning, as my father queues up behind a dozen men, with his nylon shopping bag, a translucent plastic bag bulging with onions peeking from it.
February 3, 2014
After spending endless winter nights on your bed, curled under the warmth of the soft quilt, when your dog suddenly wakes up one night, deciding to sleep on the marble floor below, you know spring is running towards you like the typical heroine in a Yash Chopra climax, blazing through the dazzlingly yellow mustard fields towards her lover, after enduring life’s frigidity. In a very Pavlovian way, I tend to salivate at the slightest hint of this seasonal change, spring being traditionally associated in our school days with the ending of the dreary annual examinations and hopes of starting life anew in a new academic year. Buttoning up the newly purchased shirt slowly and with great pride on the first morning of the new session, it always felt cinematic as I prepared for school. In fact, it reminded me of a certain scene in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather where ex-cop Al Neri proudly puts on his old uniform one last time, carrying out an order entrusted to him at the book’s climax by his boss Michael Corleone, the protagonist of Puzo’s first bestseller. I have very fond memories of The Godfather: memories associated with another spring in my life, when I had bolted to the roadside bookshops of Golpark in an attempt to get hold of the novel on the very afternoon my Class X state-level examinations ended. I rummaged through the endless old books spread on the dusty green tarpaulin sheet and finally found a torn and tattered copy of the Mario Puzo novel, moth-eaten and yellowed and smelling wonderfully. Curiously, someone had scribbled inside:
This is all I can give you,
When you take the roads serpentining around the Dhapa Dumping Grounds during what is known as the Kodachrome Hour – right before the sun is about to set, when everything is painted in its golden light – the sights are quite surreal. The lofty peaks of solid wastes around you, the countless crowing ravens blackening the darkening sky, the tiny silhouettes of laboring men, women and children atop the mountains of rubbish heading homewards, the grunts of the muck-covered boars and the suspicious barks of aggressive dogs and the stinging odor of methane: all of them collectively ends up creating a heady atmosphere for the infrequent beholder of these sights and smells. Yet, life is sleepy at Mundapara, one of the tribal settlements by the dump, home to many of Dhapa’s workers. As darkness falls, inside their mud house sits Ratan Munda and his three year old grandson, glued to an ancient little television set fitted with a VCD player, a home-video of a Marwari wedding reception running on loop, salvaged from the dump during the recycle process.
Haven’t used belongings always fascinated you, their seduction irresistible to the few of us, lovers of the past?
Penniless and broke, haven’t you spent hours with the auctioneers at Victor Bros, digging into pile after pile of old film stills and even older photographs of the now non-existent class of Bengali zamindars, as if in search of something specific, yet fully aware that you would surely leave empty-handed barring probably the thick film of dust on your fingers? In the seventies, when my father was growing up, Levis in India must have been inaccessible to the middle class youth; yet, it was probably a shared dream in school to wear jeans one day. In desperation, they’d screen every nook and every cranny of Sudder Street, hoping to get hold of a pair of used denims at a throwaway price (literally) from one of the numerous hippies haunting Calcutta Sixteen. And one fine evening, when he indeed was successful, his euphoria was ultimately marred by his furious mother for bringing home denims of the dirtiest kind, stained and weathered by the seven seas it must have travelled across. Isn’t the greatest risk behind euphoria is the fact that it can be mercilessly murdered any moment, by anybody in this world of ours? Euphoria is that high, high wave at night, crashing with all might onto the big stones and concrete steps lining Digha’s beach – like – how a tragic actress of a 1950s Bollywood film might bang her head on the temple wall after being widowed one night on celluloid. Euphoria is that wild ocean on the other side of which lies Neverland for which you’ve set sail forgetting everything else. The ups and the downs and the euphoric ups again: life seems to be a never-ending evening of seesawing by the sandpit at Safari Park by the Dhakuria Lakes during childhood; the same lake by whose bank you must have grown up one day to lock lips with a long-ago girlfriend, sheltered by the falling sun’s fading light. And then, on a blazing winter afternoon, the sun letting loose all the brightness upon this world, has anything seemed more meaningful in life’s meaninglessness, than taking refuge in the depth of the darkness of a glitzy shopping mall’s basement car park, when loved ones have gone up for shopping?
Is heartache then, life’s only assurance? Or is life perhaps that cigarette still burning slowly from the ashtray, the smoker long gone? Surrounded by the corpses of snuffed out cigarettes, are hopes those faint snakes of smoke still rising? It’s been seven years I’ve quit smoking. It’s been several years I’ve been trying to get rid of all my identity statements actually. But I remember this one incident in college, during those grand days of making statements everywhere. Back then, I used to smoke Classic Ultra Milds; it looked nice, seductive – and – it caused comparatively lesser damaged to my asthma-fatigued lungs. It was one breezy autumn late afternoon, right after Diwali and the end-semester examinations were knocking at the door. A group of friends and I, we were wasting away our time on the ledge by our classroom, chatting and lighting up, playing a game of cards and studying in between, suddenly guided by conscience. After taking one last drag, I flicked away a half-smoked cigarette, my lungs giving up finally. It was beautiful: with the breeze, it traveled languidly a distance and then landed dreamily by a professor’s car parked below. A frail, elderly chauffeur got out, looked around, picked it up and vanished into the privacy of the car’s interiors; wisps of smoke curled skywards from inside. In the lightness of those laidback moments, it seemed to be one of those strangely funny moments of life. But the older its memory grows, the more it metamorphoses into a story of hope; about how, after a long, long night, the cacophony of crows welcome the new day. Yes, life is strange, isn’t it? At times, it seems to be like the depressing baubles hanging from the decked-up Christmas tree, long into the staleness of a January night. At other times, it is as wonderful as the sight of pink doves secretly eating grains scattered across your terrace by your aging parent. And then comes times again, when life seems to be as cruel as a winter night’s feverish masturbation. But the lower you sink, the higher you will rise, someday, very soon. And I sincerely hope that you will dearly enjoy your time on top, so that when you tumble down again, you will live without regrets.
15th March, 2014
The separation between Park Circus and Gariahat is not even three kilometers. At ten in the evening, if you take a shared three-wheeler from the 7-Point crossing and head towards Gariahat, it would not take more than seven minutes. The traffic has thinned down, the evening, balmy. Joy, like a sudden gust of cool breeze fills up my heart at the sight of the strange sleepiness that envelops my city. The beggars have fallen asleep under the shade of the bus stand; those looking for buses to go home have stepped onto the road in desperation. Taxis slow down, then drive away, refusing to take home the gentleman with his worn-out leather briefcase and dusty shoes. Two auto-rickshaws are waiting outside the Church of Christ the King, their mobile phones jingling with new Bollywood songs as they wait for their vehicles to be filled up with the four passengers who’ll share the journey at eight rupee each. Quite a few days a week, I happen to travel by this route, returning from the extreme north of the city via Park Street. And quite often, I happen to be ferried to Gariahat in the same vehicle (driven though by a different driver every time), identifiable amidst the alikeness of the fleet by the photograph of a grave looking middle-aged woman pasted onto the dashboard with both-side tape. From her graveness, it is somewhat certain that she is no more; her somberness is shared universally by so many other portraits of dead people. In another corner of the city, David is singing one song after another. He is six feet, ponytailed, looks like a tough guy from the movies. But when he sings in his sugary Cliff Richard voice, you will be left surprised. Bachelor Boy is followed by Jamaica Farewell, Summer Holiday by Homeward Bound. And then, he breaks into Happy Birthday cheered by a group of call center colleagues, one of whom turns a year older. A Michelle and a Yesterday later, he breaks into another Happy Birthday as one of the waiters places a candle and a little piece of cake on the table next to mine, in between a sixty-something gentleman and his grave looking sickly wife. Right behind the buffet spread, you can see the flames of the fire and the kebabs being prepared by the chefs; the sweat and the furrowed eyebrows give a hint of the furnace on the other side of the glass wall. A woman in typical South Calcuttan sleeveless blouse and a silk saree, a huge bindi on her forehead summons one of the waiters, ‘It feels so cold here! Can you turn down the AC or something?’ ‘Ma’am, we’ll be embedding a live-grill on your table in just a few minutes. You’ll be feeling warm very soon!’ the waiter replies. Meanwhile, David has again broken into Happy Birthday, a twenty-something girl in a red dress, hands clasped on her ample bosom in pleasure stands up in awe. ‘Aw, that’s beautiful!’ she says and turns to her friends, ‘Thank you so much guys!’ Everyone everywhere is clapping; some men are even wishing her from other tables. Outside the restaurant, the valets are standing, waiting for people to come out. A man in his early middle ages, overweight beyond hope, a little camera dangling from his neck and an anorexic wife by his side, steps out and hands over a token to one of the valets. A blue Beetle promptly stops in front of him, and then he struggles to get inside, then hands over a hundred rupee note to the Valet and grunts, ‘Yeh leh! Take this!’ The wrinkled-faced man in his uniform refuses smilingly, ashamed, ‘No no, no tips, sir! No tips!’. An airplane flies away, which looks huge, given the proximity to the airport.
Tomorrow, Calcutta will celebrate Dol, the festival of colors otherwise known as Holi all across India. In Lake Market, the hawkers have started selling abir of all colors: pink, red, green being the most popular ones. Huge sacks of colored power are spread all across the shops, the shopkeepers themselves covered in red or pink, left teary eyed by the irritation caused by weighing and selling the powders all day, all week long. Memories of childhood flood my mind, prone to nostalgia as I have always been. As a child, it used to a very joyous festival for me, for in those years, it’d take place right after our final exams in school as spring arrived after bitter winters. Once in a while, the festival would coincide with the final exams and we’d be barred from playing Holi since it involved the risk of getting sick after playing with colored water on the still cold late-February or early-March mornings. During this festival of love, Sudder Street will erupt in joy and ecstasy. Backpackers from all over the world will join together to play with colors; the beggars, the shopkeepers, the drug peddlers and the urchins will join in, some of them with hopes of surreptitiously feeling up foreign women in this one opportunity that they’ll get just once every year. Nearby in New Market, all the mutton shops will be having magnificently long queues, people lining up to buy meat traditionally devoured on this day. It is assumed that everyone’s got their stock of alcohol by now, Dol and Holi being dry days though liquor is an integral part of the celebrations. Late afternoon in Sharma Dhaba, Marwaris smeared from top to toe in colors of all hues will line up in their cars in groups for their glasses of chilled, rich thandai. Twelve year old Chotu – male child workers all across India seem to be christened with this name timelessly – will make quite a lot of money as tips, distributing thandai to the people driving in and taking back the glasses when finished. Loud music will blare out of some of the cars. Irritated Bengalis driving past will probably say amongst them, ‘Bloody Marwaris! They didn’t have anything; they’d wash their asses with sand before they migrated to our state from the deserts! And look at them now!’
On the eve of Holi, on Southern Avenue by the lakes, men and women will gather to light up a bonfire, the tradition signifying the end of evil. When you peer into the crowd, you may perhaps see thirteen year old Raju helping out the people by throwing their stuff into the fire, to make some quick money. At other times, Raju is usually high on adhesive, sleeping by the road slightly distant from his mother and stepfather. When it is a few hours past eleven at night, you may find the elderly Dhiren Naskar on top of his wife, making love silently, the batik printed second hand bedcover their only privacy out in the open. Somehow, it seems that sex is the only thing that binds this family of three. Other pavement dwellers say that Naskar has got a wife and children in the village, to whom he visits during the weekends, returning during the weekdays to his mistress, Baby Halder, Raju’s mother. Baby Halder says, ‘After my first husband died, I had no one else. He took care of me in those troubled times, supported us beyond his limits. He’s even given my son a plot of land, though we are yet to go and see it. He comes from a big family, got a lot of money. Poor man, he’s all alone in this world. Got no one else.’ Raju interjects, ‘But he’s not my real father, he’s the fake one! Drinks all day! Never gives me any money!’ Baby Halder flares up suddenly, ‘Son of a bitch, always high on dendrite, want money to get fucking high? You get two meals a day, isn’t that not enough? Scram!’ An elderly woman, another pavement dweller says smiling, ‘She’s hot-headed, they call her pagli, she’s a little crazy!’ Baby Halder giggles, ‘Crazy, huh, you old whore! Always pulling my leg!’ Beyond the trees lining Southern Avenue, beyond the tall buildings, beyond Raju by the bonfire, sweating profusely, the crowd behind him, beyond the worshippers at the nearby temple and the evening walkers returning home from the lake, above the fast cars whooshing by and the row of bustling roadside snack joints by the Vivekananda Park, overhead the deranged beggar looking skywards, lost in thoughts, the huge silvery moon on the eve of Holi will shine so bright that it may seem that the street lights are suddenly unnecessary.
April 1, 2014
In a crammed air-conditioned photo studio in the northern part of the city, three grumpy men are sitting behind the counter, handing over enveloped prints to the various people putting forward bills. Some are amateur photographers, some have printed a single photograph of an aged person, soon to be framed, garlanded. A woman, chubby since childbirth is excitedly going through a fat bunch of little prints: photographs of her three year old son: running, making faces, driving a tricycle and playing excitedly in what seems to be the children’s corner in a condominium.
A woman in her late twenties, a camera dangling from her neck, is waiting for the prints from her photo-club’s last weekend outing. She seems to be the tough kind, probably doing her Masters from some less celebrated university, actively involved in ultra-left politics. She too is peering at the child’s countless photographs.
‘Your son? Looks so cute!’ she smiles.
‘Yes, he is three! Very naughty!’ the mother giggles and keeps shuffling through the bunch.
In one photograph, the boy is riding a tiny see-saw, in another, smiling from a swing, in yet other, poking his tiny finger inside a cage full of rabbits.
‘Hey, hey, hey! What’s that!’ the photo hobbyist says, her voice rising in excitement, ‘This cannot be tolerated! Why isn’t there any grass in the park where your child is playing! I am an activist, tell me where this park is and I will go plant some grass-seeds myself! Is there any deprivation worse in childhood than a grassless park? Where do you stay and where is this place? Tell me right now!’
The smile from the mother’s face has vanished, she seems somewhat shaken. Guiltily, she says, ‘But, but this I think is a sandpit!’
Nearby in Rabindra Sarani, nestled in the depth of a decrepit market, an elderly gentleman in milk-white dhoti-kurta is talking endlessly on a phone taking down orders for sweets to be delivered to clients.
‘All aristocrats!’ he proclaims, turning to you, ‘People cannot resist our sweets, it’s an addiction! We have demand from as far as London, can you believe it! We pack them safely, deliver them at the airport right before the flight so that it remains fresh! All our customers are happy, craving for more!’
‘Can I have one of those?’ a newly arrived gentleman smelling of silicon money points in the direction of the hive of chocolate tal-shash in one corner of the huge brass plate full of delicacies.
‘Are you from Calcutta?’ the aged mishti-mafia asks the newly arrived man, dressed in a perfectly tailored suit.
‘Well, I am. But I work in Bangalore these days…’
‘Software? Outsourcing? Been to America?’
‘Married or single? What about parents? Salary good? Do you have a maid servant there?’
The gentleman blushes; being fair, the redness cannot be concealed. ‘No, I am single. Parents live here. Visits me once in a while. And I keep visiting them too, when I have work in the eastern region. But anyway, I used to stay in a hostel during my university days, so, I am kind of used to living alone…’
‘Which college did you go!’ Mr. Ghosh fires another question with the passion of a police interrogator.
‘Jadavpur University…can I have one of-’
‘Oh, you’re educated then! Not from one of those private colleges! Good, good!’ Mr. Ghosh seems satisfied and now it’s his turn to talk, ‘Education runs in our blood! I have two daughters, both brilliant! The younger one is a mathematician studying in Chennai while I am trying to marry off my elder daughter, she is an economist! A gold-medalist too, do you know what that means? Amongst the brightest minds in India! And she’s found a groom finally, the only man eligible to marry her, one in a billion! He is a scientist in America; the country which does not let outsiders in so easily; yet they begged him to shift there and enrich their system, can you believe it! They are saying that in another four years (or it can be quicker), he will win the Nobel Prize! Another son of the soil after Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen! He has even told my daughter to give him some space once in a while so that he can concentrate on his work, that’s called real dedication! I met him, met his family, they’re really nice people, all very educated! And they speak English like foreigners, smooth as butter! I can’t speak English like them, when I went to Scottish Church after school, all my classmates spoke fluent English and that drove me one day to ask our professor whether they were Bengalees or foreigners! He laughed at me, at my naivety! That day, I promised myself that if I ever have a child, I will make him speak fluent English! Even joined a political party so that they could pull some strings and get my daughters admitted to La Martiniere. So, anyway, the last time when I met him, my future son-in-law, I asked him when he’s really thinking about getting the Nobel Prize and he just blushes like you! It’s as if he wants to dig a burrow like a rabbit and hide his head, so humble he is! Greatness and humility, they always go hand-in-hand, always remember that!’
‘That’s so wonderful! You must be a proud man! When he does get the Nobel, I hope you’re gonna treat us with free sweets on that day!’ the young man says, finally relieved that the old man’s finished talking, ‘Can you give me one of those chocolate tal-shash please, I really want to taste it, my friends speak so highly of them…’
‘Of course, of course!’ replies the septuagenarian and screams at one of his workers, ‘Poltu, give the babu one of those!’ and turns to the techie again, ‘Try it! 175 years of history all moulded into this one little piece of delicacy! Great heritage going down your throat!’
A brown elephant-shaped tal-shash is taken out, then handed over to him on a little piece of butter paper.
The phone rings again, Mr. Ghosh receives it. Seeing it as the golden opportunity, the young man walks out, bidding farewell. He paces through the slippery cobble-stoned maze of the bazaar and finally out into the main road, and disappears in the chaos of the countless buses and cars, rickshaws and vans, all heading northwards. A tram from the opposite direction blocks all the traffic as it almost bulldozes through the chaos towards Chowringhee. A man in his forties weathered beyond his age and his nine year old daughter are sitting inside. In an alleyway at the hind side of the red-light district of Sonagachi, a dozen sex workers are waiting for clients, dressed in blouse of the tightest kind, flesh screaming to burst out and jeans hugging to the legs in deathly desperation. ‘Papa, papa, look!’ the girl points in that direction, somewhat amused. ‘Don’t look there, mamoni. Sight for grownups only!’ the helpless father replies, diverting his daughter’s attention to something else, then turning his head towards the women to get one last glimpse.
The tram rattles on slowly, the half empty first-class compartment nearing complete emptiness barring the sleepy conductor and a few elderly men. It passes by Royal, as the cruel aroma of the restaurant’s biryani teases you. The shops are closing down, mannequins stripped off their glittering sherwanis for the night. A deranged woman is talking to herself. Two blind beggars – a couple – are singing a melancholic song with hopes of the last of the coins. In the redness of the night sky, minarets of Nakhoda Mosque stand silhouetted silently. The tram rattles on, then stops by the Police Headquarters at Lal Bazaar. The shifts are changing, the road full of young men and women in uniform returning home. Past the elderly Chinese dentist watching a film on TV, past the albino druggie crossing the road and past the cycle shops closing down, you walk in the direction of Esplanade. A sultry song forces its way out of the thickly padded door of the Mansukh bar, a notice hanging from it, warning its clientele that debit card is no longer accepted. The elderly gatekeeper – one hand on the handle and the other adjusting his underwear biting into his skin – is standing outside, slightly restless. Tonight you won’t see them, you realize: the chubby singer in her red chiffon saree, walking swiftly into the bar for the night with her onstage partner with his Elvis hair and leopard-print shirt. ‘Miyan-Bibi dono perform karta hai bar mein…dusra kaam bhi karta hai. Miyan bahut parishan rehta hai har waqt. Gents log jab kharab gata hai, tab yeh chutiya audience unke watt laga detey hai!’ the young man at the cigarette shop says, ‘They’re married, perform together in this bar…and do other things too. The guy is always tensed; when men perform poorly in the bar, the fucking audience boos them inevitably!’
Near the National Museum, two men are urinating in what is supposed to be a urinal; urine overflows onto the sidewalk turning everything pale yellow. The men, their eyes are fixed on a figure standing alone silently nearby. Draped in a saree which seems to be on the verge of falling off, she stands clutching a yellow bag curiously eying men passing by. Two young guys walk past her.
‘Don’t even bother to look at her, man!’ says the older of the two, ‘Have you seen those crazy paintings of the whores in nineteenth century Calcutta? They were so fucking hot, any motherfucker would cum in his pants, you know! Not like these hags!’
The earth below your feet is trembling, as the last of the underground metros whoosh ahead southwards. In front of Asiatic Society, a crippled beggar is smoking a biri. A tourist, freshly out of Grand Hotel after dinner stops and takes a photograph. ‘Hundred rupees please!’ the beggar says in well-practiced English, as the man walks away into Park Street. On his first day in Calcutta, he must have given alms to every beggar he encountered, hoping to elevate the situation. The next day, he must have been tired of it all and offered to help only the ones crippled beyond hopes. And from the third day onwards, he must have stopped offering alms altogether. As he walks into Park Street for a drink, the pimp by Oxford Bookstore approaches him, ‘Nice schoolgirl, sir? Very, very good!’
Two men dash out of Trincas laughing, ‘Horrible, man! Can’t possibly have a conversation in the midst of this ruckus! Live music was never this bad here!’
‘Need schoolgirl?’ the pimp approaches them.
‘Which school?’ one of them asks jokingly, slightly high.
‘St. Lawrence!’ replies the pimp.
‘Fuck you!’ the men roar out laughing, ‘It’s an all-boys school!’
12th April, 2014
In the magical hour of the night, when most have gone to bed, when just a few are awake, watching television droopy-eyed, a car drives into a narrow road to take a shortcut and screeches abruptly to a stop. The fierce headlights illuminate something of a dreamlike scene in front of the driver and his young wife: a giant vine of Bougainvillea lies collapsed, blocking the road, a riot of purple flowers amidst a sea of green gleaming happily suddenly. A towering villa, freshly painted in hazelnut lies plundered helplessly beside; the strong winds have disrobed it tonight. The sky is clear, stars can even be counted. Even a shooting star can be spotted suddenly; it disappointingly turns out to be an airplane after a while. Planes these days: they seem to have stopped making noises up in the sky, drawing from windows and grilled balconies, curious heads of excited children looking upwards to spot it fly away. From the interiors of the airplane, the first-timer rigidly clasps onto the seat’s handrest, glancing below at my nighttime Calcutta, which like a fading galaxy of twinkling stars, become fainter and fainter. The cars with their little headlights, which could be seen in slow-motion even a few seconds back, can be seen no more. Outside the domestic terminal at the airport, tired uniformed chauffeurs are smoking together, their fleet of white-and-orange airport taxis parked neatly in a line. A message flashes with a beep: GO HOME IF YOU CAN’T FIND PASSENGERS TONIGHT. Some set off for home.
Now, tell me: What is home? Is home that surrounding where you feel comfortable in, where you love to live every moment? Is home that damp mansion in ruins, behind whose walls, your distant relative has rotted for the last thirty years, coming out once or twice outside to pay last respects to the departed, whom he loved greatly in life? Is home that neighborhood street corner, where migrant laborers sleep on the pavement in the suffocating cruelty of summer nights after day-long civic duties? Is home then, that one-half of the bench at the station, where the vagabond sleeps, the other half occupied by a madman constantly poking him for a biri? Or is home that space in-between the four walls of the stuffy apartment, which you know you cannot run away from, withstanding all the drunken late-night fights of a domestic life?
Krishna, the neighborhood laundryman from Chhapra, Bihar always had great stories to regale us kids with, whenever he stopped by our old house to collect clothes for ironing or washing. His stories ranged from anecdotes from my father’s mischievous childhood to lustful gossips about neighbors long-considered old and frail. Every Friday in my childhood, a hand-pulled cart stopped by his place early in the morning and carried away heaps of clothes wrapped in bed-sheets to be washed in one of the dhobi-ghats of Kasba. ‘It’s been there since the colonial times,’ Krishna would say whenever asked about the dhobi-ghat where he sent his clothes away, ‘During the 1930s, there was this sahib who had this huge plot of land. When the situation in India became more and more difficult, time came for him to relocate to England. He thus started to do away with his estates here, one by one. The dhobi-ghat, it used to be a huge land, yes, but then, Kasba was almost in the midst of wilderness back in those days and no one was keen enough to pay a good price for it. The sahib had a caretaker who lived on this land, looked after it. One day, he came to visit his plot with his men and offered to give away as much of it as the caretaker could encircle in five minutes. Ramprashad ran and ran and thus acquired what there is today, which was ultimately turned into an open-air laundry back in the late-fifties, when the southern half of the city started bustling with life.’ My father always wondered how Krishna could live his entire life away from home and family, in his tin-roofed laundry, living and working with a few others who stayed with him, all struggling hard to make ends meet. During the Chhat Puja each year, he’d go back home and stay for a month, resuming work at the laundry around December again. In 2006, he went to visit his family back in Chhapra and never returned to Calcutta again. Since then, hangs a framed photograph of Krishna – in a cleverly photoshopped tuxedo – starring calmly like a Buddhist monk at the camera, from the pink wall of the laundry. The freshly painted blue door now bears the words: Sri Krishna Laundry.
Slightly beyond the calmness of the residential area where Krishna’s laundry is situated, everything is utterly maddening. Millions of men and women of all ages are out on the streets, taking full advantage of the last few days of the end-of-season sale. Little children with confusion and fear in their eyes – streams of sweat crawling downwards slowly through the thickly powdered terrain of the neck and the chest – hold on to their guardian’s hand, as giant figures with huge shopping bags brushes past them. A six year old from her father’s arms, having given up finally, is wiping off her tears with one hand, the other one holding an ice cream cone. Her mother, with an issue of Femina is fanning the child, coaxing the little one to bear another thirty minutes, so that shopping for the coming lunar year can finally be wrapped up. From shoulders of both the father and the mother hangs countless white plastic bags; nighties, sarees, door mats, bed covers and kurtas can be seen within. In front of Bata, there’s a long queue of people waiting to try on new shoes for the upcoming festivities. The AC has surrendered; the otherwise cool interior of Bata is a sauna tonight. Outside, roadside hawkers are screaming violently, ‘Wholesale 200 taka! Wholesale 200 taka! Fixed price! Fixed price!’ The fast food joint Bedwin is minting money, as tired shoppers pause in-between for chicken roll. Two little urchins are pestering them for coins and out of guilt, one ends up handing over her half-eaten roll to a kid, who runs away giggling. At the parking lot nearby, a half-naked child in his worn out red brief is pestering a middle-aged lady to give him ten rupees. The chauffeur, with a smile on his face, is watching from the rearview mirror, his helpless employer trying to ward off the little one. ‘Go away, you won’t get anything here! Go now! Go!’ she is saying in distress, motioning to the driver to start the car. ‘Hungry, ma, haven’t eaten any food for a long time! Hungry, ma! Will starve to death, give me ten rupees!’ the urchin keeps on repeating until finally, the woman takes out a note, which, at lightning speed disappears from her hand. From the car, the boy could be seen sprinting across the street, ducking the numerous cars and buses and three-wheelers bounding towards him. He walks straight to a cigarette shop and produces the note and walks away smilingly with a packet of potato chips. His eyes are twinkling with happiness, the innocence in them still unscratched. Very soon, he will be growing up; perhaps you won’t be seeing him loitering any more around the shopping district asking for alms. Chances are, you’ll find him a kilometer away, near Fillers on Vivekananda Park, late into breezy evenings, blackmailing young potheads – secretly lighting up inside their cars – into giving him money.