Traversing the city of joy

Kolkata is a city of contradictions. A city where the local bus conductors scream ‘aste ladij’ (slow there is a lady) when a lady tries to get off the bus; it is also a city where men fall on women in those very buses pretending it was an accident.

“I remember this one man who was standing behind me on the bus. He was very sweaty and smelled like a pig. When the driver applied the brake, he had to fall all over me and then did not have the courtesy of correcting himself. I had to shout at him to get him off me,” says Trishna, a college student.

“It was hilarious actually…it’s like he didn’t expect me to react. He seemed so frightened when I shouted at him.”

As more people from other states come to live in the city of joy, they find it hard to communicate with the locals. “Some people are nice though. When I tell them ‘ami bangla jani na’ (I don’t know Bengali) in my accented almost-Bengali, they smile and speak to me in Hindi. Some even try English.”

Roshni Sharma, a local who takes the bus from Dum Dum to South City every day, has a different story to tell. “I find these bus rides fun. I come via the by-pass…the lakes along the way and the breeze is very refreshing, especially early in the morning. I have made friends with the conductor. He keeps a seat for me behind the driver’s every day. He sometimes yaps about his kids and how the older one (a boy of seven) asked him what ‘bara’ meant and he was left open-mouthed, unable to answer.”

Roshni is best pals with the auto drivers and comments on how everyone is very approachable. “Bengalis are a peculiar breed. They can talk on almost every topic in the world and they have an opinion ready even if it’s on the US elections,” she laughs as she sips on her coffee in the Indian coffee house on ‘Boi Para’ commonly known as College Street to the non-Bengali resident.

Dilip, described by all as a ‘bhalo chele’ (good boy), complains about the city’s traffic and the concept of share autos. “The traffic is horrendous…especially during Durga puja. You should see how the drivers drive at that time of year. Everybody is in a hurry to go. Once the signal turns green, you can see the cars race as if they are racing for their lives. And I don’t understand why we have to share autos with noisy people. Why can’t I have an auto to myself and stretch my leg?”

Kolkata witnesses a constant fight between the pedestrians and the drivers. In places like Gariahat and New Market, one can see middle aged women adorned with more shopping bags than they can handle, break all traffic rules and cross the street with admirable confidence when the signal is bright green. They seem oblivious about the screams and insults thrown at them. After all, it’s their ‘baaper rasta’ (father’s road).

An elderly lady who had broken one of the many fundamental rules of crossing the road when the signal was green, had almost come under a yellow taxi. In the argument that followed, I heard her scream at the driver, “arrey dada ami pedestrian…ami age jabo. Apni dekhe chalate paren na?” (Brother I am a pedestrian…I am entitled to cross first. Can’t you look and drive?)

The metro in Kolkata tells a very different tale. Those who swear by it, say that it saves them from the hassles of the road but at the same time present a very stuffy situation every now and then.

Sayantan, a student who takes the metro from Kabi Subhas to Park Street on a daily basis says, “The conversations you get to hear on the metro are hilarious. Since there is no ladies compartment, even the men get to listen into the darkest secrets of a woman. How bad her mother-in-law is and how the mutton curry cooked by the maid had no potatoes in it, are some of the many things you get to hear.”

“Once a man accused a lady of molesting him in the metro. The poor girl had fallen on him when the train braked and he seemed very upset by that. The conversation that followed got everyone in the compartment laughing. It was a good way to start the morning.”

When you think Kolkata, you immediately picture the tram. A foreign exchange student in my ex-college was very thrilled by the prospect of getting on the tram. He begged me to take him on one. Despite my repeated warnings that that mode of transport was nearing extinction, he was adamant about his decision of getting on one.

“I need to tell my folks back at home that I rode a tram…it is going to make them jealous,” he said.

He was left visibly disappointed after the experience. The heat was too much to handle and to top it all, the turtle like pace got on his nerves. After all, the glamour of the tram does diminish after one has spent ten sweaty and slow minutes on it…especially on a hot May day.

Some of my fondest memories of the city are that of the boat rides along the Ganga. You would remember it with equal fondness if you can manage to catch the sun rise or set while on a boat with Bhatiali music (music of the fishermen) playing in the background.

If you are a selfie freak, then a boat with the Howrah Bridge in the back drop provides the perfect selfie moment. A walk along the ghat in the evenings is equally mesmerizing. One can feel the wind on their face and hear the sound of the goods ship entering the dock.

Kolkata in monsoons is much like Paris in the rains. There is something so romantic about it. Just get an umbrella and Bata chappals on and you are good to go. The smell of the earth just before rains is more noticeable in this city for some reason. If you walk down Park Street and Maidan during that time of year, you notice how the green trees become even greener and the ancient buildings donated to the city by the British start to sparkle.

If you happen to be in Park Street at 1 pm, you realize how proficient the Kolkata traffic police is at their job. The direction of the one way, switches at one o’clock and miraculously, there are hardly any traffic jams.

I find travelling in Kolkata oddly amusing and it makes for some great stories at the end of the day when I am back in the comfort of my bean bag and laptop.

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Memory Lane

They called it the memory lane. Those who went down the street found themselves lost in delirium and were left wanting more. I was a lonely traveler in search of perks. The blue satchel I carried had only a few hundred rupee notes and a bottle of water which had been there for the last few months. As a result my only fluid companion was left undrinkable.

They say every road has its distinct character. However this particular street didn’t seem to follow that rule. The board at the entrance said- ‘Welcome to memory lane. Hope you enjoy your visit.’

The foot paths were smooth and white in some places and in others, were grey and broken. The gravel was uneven and one could easily lose his balance on certain slippery patches. There was also a possibility of losing a foot in the puddles spread across the street like polka dots on fabric.

The buildings on the side walk belonged to different eras and the hawkers had eyes resembling hawks. An old lady with a black umbrella was walking beside me; our steps matching. She whispered, pointing at one of the hawkers who was staring rather rudely in our direction, “they watch everything, they are like the omnipresent souls that fly around in search of weakness. Be sure not to stare for too long lest your eyes be burned.”

The sky was a blur of colors. A sort of confused disco ball emanating all shades of the spectrum. In some places the clouds were blurred as if the careless painter had dropped water on his canvas under the influence of spirits and melancholy. The trees decorating the street were unusually branched as if stretching their hands as a cry of help.

But there was one tree about a kilometer down the road which was illuminated with yellow chrome and sprinkles. It looked happy; euphoric even. It could well be a wise old banyan with its roots to the ground and leaves looking like chirpy school girls in the morn. That tree was bang in the middle of the road and somehow the inhabitants of memory lane had let it be.

Nearing that tree, I heard the chirping of birds, the thundering of clouds and the call of the sea gull all at once. Don’t ask me how, but I did. I could feel my smile emerge from a place I did not know existed in me. My chest felt warm and light weight. I was nearly happy.

Further away, the diverged roads, separated by a barren patch of earth for about a few feet, converged once again. Again the disco colors returned and the hawkers could be seen perched on their porch like vigilant birds of prey. By now I was used to their stare and they had ceased to be an object of concern. They were now just background noise meant to be ignored.

The road turned into the right and scene changed. Now, instead of the hawkers, there were empty stalls and the buildings had been stripped naked. The only color in the sky was grey and the trees were burnt at the bark. I could taste the rust on my tongue. The lady beside me said, “Time is the culprit you know. Look closely and look hard. This is what we all will come to.”

It was scary and thus I increased my pace. I did not want to know the games time played on people and things alike.

The road turned yet again and this time I saw water on both sides of the road. The waves were crashing on my right and a yacht was sailing lazily on the left. The latter was calmer and monotonous whilst the former was exciting and terrifying.

A tumult of emotions overcame me. Truth be told, I did not know what I was doing there. It was supposed to be rejuvenating and refreshing. But I was left with a mixture of thoughts and feelings I could not make any sense of.

Further down the road, a few kilometers walk ahead, my journey ended. The last thing I saw was a green board which said—‘Thank you for visiting memory lane. Hope to see you soon,’ before my alarm clock woke me up just in time for class.

Exile

It was a memory,

so close yet so far.

A ghost of my past;

a whisper in the dark.

 

‘Hi friend’, it said to me,

‘felt my absence, haven’t you?’

It scoffed at me,

i could see its smug.

 

It reminded me of all that was

till play acting became my favourite sport.

And i took to pretence

till i knew myself no more.

 

 

Some of my favourite artists were exiled;

they wrote of their homeland love.

And all the while i thought to myself-

exile can be of different kinds, they have that wrong.

 

Now I wonder whether i will ever be free

from the hands of my memory.

And whether i will ever move on

and build a house to call a home.

 

Onism

Airports are places which have always fascinated me. They are the doorways to different worlds. Airports- a place where one can spend a whole day without getting bored. It is a place where dreams come true and all emotion are present simultaneously in a muddled thought of different people. What are the chances that the guy next to you is not thinking the same thing you are or that the old couple in the seat across yours’ is leaving their son’s family and going home just as you are leaving home to get back to your life in a foreign city. Sometimes I feel lonely when I leave home and seeing those families going on vacation to Ladakh absolutely tear me up. Smiling faces, sad faces, indecisive faces, despairing faces, apprehensive faces, ecstatic faces, scared faces, indifferent faces, all of them together under one roof- a sort of collective thought process, all very different from each other and yet have the same underlying feeling- one of change. No other place is a classic example of how nothing in the world is ever constant. Flights leave; flights arrive; flights get delayed and flight get cancelled. Success, failure, stagnation and death all under one roof called life.

I remember having spent the Christmas of 2010 stranded in the Delhi airport with my little sister. We spent 10 hours sitting on the airport floor observing people around us. During those 10 hours, we ended up speaking to a wide variety of people. I struck up a conversation with a young man, in his early twenties sporting dreadlocks and tattoos. He was from San Marino, a small country in Europe. He had come on a tour of India and was travelling to Amritsar from Delhi. He told me about his country and how it is almost the size of Delhi. We spoke about the way people in his country are different from those we see in India.

He seemed to be intrigued by the idea of eating food using ones hands and licking the dripping curry off their elbow. The way folks in our country start talking to each other on the roads without any proper introduction seemed strange to him but interesting, nonetheless. I grilled him about how to go about travelling the world on a low budget- the dos and don’ts. He was more than happy to answer me. His trip would end in another month and he would go back to university in his country the following year.

He was travelling from west to east and had covered most of the countries. But he had to leave a few. For that, he was sad. That is when I realized that I would never be able to see the world in its entirety. No matter what I do, what job I get, how much I earn, there will be some small corner of this vast world that I would never visit.

This corner would be beautiful and have its own flaws. There would be a new kind of flower growing. The people will speak in a different tongue. They would have breakfast at a different time and might skip lunch. They would celebrate Christmas differently. The horizon would be green instead of yellow. The water would be greenish instead of blue. They would grow coffee beans in their backyard and keep lamas for pets.

So many places to see, so many things to do and I had no idea how much longer I would be stuck at that airport. My only dream is to travel the world. But now that I think about it, I will never be able to travel the world. I will probably just visit the Eiffel tower, Notre Dame, the Pyramids of Giza, the hanging gardens of Babylon and the Big Ben. But what about the rest?

The places not spoken of, not written about and not photographed. Those where no one went and even if some did, they haven’t dared to speak about them. That moment I was attacked by a sensation of impending doom. I could never fulfill my dream. Why couldn’t I have an easier dream? Something like ‘going to Disneyland and posing with Donald duck’ or ‘writing a book’ or ‘opening a restaurant’? Why did my twisted brain have to choose the impossible?

Jules Verne did claim that with the advancement of technology the world has become a smaller place and that man, if equipped with the resources, can go around the world in 80 days. But what of experiencing the very places he visits. Is it enough to have an airport view of the world? Look outside the glass walls of the huge building and see the traffic and the neighborhood. That is seeing but not experiencing.

That Christmas day, sitting on the floor of a packed Delhi airport, talking to a stranger from a foreign land whose name I was hearing for the first time, I realized what Onism was. The realization that I would never experience the whole world and that I would get only a taste of it in my mortal timespan, was a depressing one. It was like being told that Santa Claus isn’t real and it’s mom who has been leaving the gifts all this while. My dream can never be fulfilled and I would have to be content with seeing Moulin Rouge from afar.