A Cacophony called Calcutta
Amidst the sea of cars at Esplanade, your yellow taxi comes to a halt. It is a Tuesday afternoon, the rains playing truant for a while. Your driver with his paunch: the back of his grey shirt wet with sweat, wipes his forehead with the red piece of cloth he had purchased at a similar stop on a similar day, some months ago. A vendor approaches you with stale potato chips. You ignore him. A little girl in a torn pink frock comes rushing to you, asking for a coin or two. You ignore her, as she sprints to the red sedan in front of you: BABY ON BOARD, the bumper-sticker declares. A man comes smiling to you: ‘Roses! Red roses! Only Rs. 15!’ he chants, awaiting your reaction. ‘Bhag saala!,’ your cabbie grunts, as the young man dashes to the next car with his bunch of roses. Your cabbie turns to you with a smile, ‘These bastards pick them up from the graveyard!’
The signal turns green and the decade-old taxi neighs to a start. In ten minutes, you’re cruising through Maidan, Calcutta’s very own Hyde Park. As a first timer, the Victoria Memorial Hall never fails to flutter the butterflies deep inside your stomach. It feels like your first kiss. And your thoughts fleet to Neverland. ‘Taj Mahal of Calcutta!’ your driver jerks you to consciousness. Your gaze settles on a young couple, hand-in-hand, walking under the cloudy sky as if it indeed is Neverland. You smile.
Rahul and Sarbani study English Literature at Calcutta’s Presidency College. Two months into their relationship, the couple has bunked classes to enjoy the overcast skies and the moist wind. ‘Shhh!’ Sarbani stops her boyfriend and closes her eyes, ‘Can you smell the earth?’ The clouds roar above and it starts drizzling. ‘Taxi! Stop!’ he screams.
Sarbani giggles. ‘How come you suddenly become so rich?’
‘Climate change!’ he chuckles.
‘Kahaan jana hai saabh?’ the cabbie asks. Where do you want to go?
‘Princep Ghat!’ Rahul replies.
Princep Ghat is one of the most beautiful ghats along the Ganges, built in 1841 by the British. On romantic days like today, the boatmen with their weather-beaten twenty-foot boats make a profit. The skeletal Shamshul Haque, dark as night with eyes like pearl smiles at you and your lover: ‘Nouka-y jaben naki?’ Want to go on a ride?
A few meters away, Kajol is waiting with a smile on her face. A woman in her thirties, life has weathered Kajol beyond her age. The ruby red lipstick cannot make her look youthful anymore. And in a profession where youth is the key to your stomach, Kajol knows that hard days are ahead. A 17-year old kid in blue denims shyly looks at her. Kajol smiles seductively, ‘Jabe?’ Will you come?
The boy hesitates, ‘H-how much?’
‘Do you think I will ask for a thousand rupees? Come, let’s go.’
Old Shamshul Haque smiles at approaching Kajol, as a gust of cool breeze ruffles the teenager’s Dylan-ish hair, shampooed daily with care.
Not too far away, in Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road, Uncle Jerry mans the traffic in his worn-out uniform. In 1997, at age 67, he was forcibly made to retire from the police force after 33 years in service. Since then, Jerrald Durhone has been working voluntarily, assisting police sergeants, constables and home-guards.
Uncle Jerry walks down to the intersection from his Park Lane quarters at 11am sharp and remains on duty till at least 9pm. In between, he takes a two-hour lunch break. Standing in the middle of the chaotic crossroads is outright madness for an 80-year old. But Jerry refuses to see sense, says eldest son Edward. But controlling traffic is Mr. Durhone’s obsession; a reason for survival, perhaps. ‘I can’t sit idle and get sick.’ Uncle Jerry smiles, ‘When I’m on the road, I know I am fit and fine!’
Uncle Jerry blows his whistle to make way for the tram-car on its track. And as you curiously board it, you are in the company of men and women from all parts of the city. In front of you, a Hindu priest is sitting, wearing his flowing saffron robe. A young man is sitting on the other side: with pierced ears, he probably plays the drums in his Bengali rock band. Che Guevara peeps out of his undershirt. The woman in black veil sitting behind him can faintly hear Hotel California penetrating out of the earphones. The tram rattles past the sea of car and auto-rickshaws in its slow pace, as the passengers alight one by one. As it passes Shiraz Golden Restaurant, the aroma of freshly made biriyani fills the whole atmosphere. The conductor pokes you, ‘Ticket!’
Five minutes later, you have arrived at the madness called Park Circus 7-Point Crossing. And as you see the cars, bikes, buses and people move about, your mind flashes back to the ant in your kitchen, which flies into the fire of your gas-burner. And as the cacophony envelops you, you suddenly realize that you’re no longer a stranger to this city. Calcutta has won you over. The traffic and the pollution, the pesky beggars, the stink and the slums and the power-cuts, the women in their nighties and men with their trademark paunch, the lack of glitz and glamour and the pavement full of hawkers cease to bother you anymore. You feel like being at home. You feel just like your tram-car passengers: in peace and in another world. As the last of the yellow street lights create a Wong Kar Wai moment for you, you feel like being in the city of your dreams. You feel liberated. You feel safe. You fall in love. You feel just like the German woman who calls Calcutta home, decades after separating from her Bengali husband here.