Writer’s block Society

Of love, lust, and death in Calcutta

Every time I visit Calcutta — I prefer to use the old name when I look back fondly at a recent visit — there is something I do without fail. I take a taxi to Kumartuli, where idol-makers are at work round the year, stroll through its lanes before walking along the river up to Baghbazar, where I get into a ferry bound for Howrah station. The boat, carrying anywhere between 100 to 200 passengers at any given time, goes under the iconic bridge to get to the station, where I walk around aimlessly for a while before taking the next boat back.

This is my way of paying tribute to Calcutta, my most favourite city in India, because it owes its existence to the river: it was near Baghbazar that Job Charnock dropped anchor in 1690, and soon Calcutta, the British city, came into being. The best part is it costs next to nothing: one-way fare, until recently, was five rupees, now it is six. The trip invariably takes place at dusk, and most of the time I have company.

So last week, before the roads could get clogged up by Durga Puja festivities, a friend and I arrived at Kumartuli in a yellow taxi to watch the Durga idols being carried away by parties of able-bodied men representing different neighbourhoods of the city. My friend watched the spectacle awestruck: she has lived in Calcutta for 20 years, but this was her first visit to Kumartuli, whereas I started exploring the city as recently as in 2011, and knew much of old Calcutta like the back of my hand.

Before she could take enough pictures her phone died, so I led her through the narrow lanes to the riverbank. We watched the sun — now a gentle orange ball — slowly lower itself behind the buildings on the opposite bank. Once it was no longer a circle but just an orange smudge, we sat on a concrete bench by the river. Conversation is meaningless at such an hour, in such a place — when the day slowly melts into night, and when the river that gave birth to Calcutta changes colours — all you can do is sit in silence and watch the spectacle unfold. But silence was impossible at the moment. We happened to share the long concrete bench with four other people — two men and two women. Since they had identical ID cards hanging from their necks, it was clear that they all worked for the same company. What was equally clear was that they had come on this outing as couples, but it was difficult to decide who was whose girlfriend. One moment it appeared that Ms. C was Mr. A’s partner, but the very next moment it seemed Ms. D was Mr. A’s girlfriend. And then suddenly Mr. B put his arm around Ms. D.

What aggravated my confusion was the conversation (it is so easy to eavesdrop on Bengalis) I could overhear: they were talking about hotels that asked no questions when a man checked in along with a woman — or a woman checked in along with a man.

“Next time you are in Pune, check into such-and-such hotel,” one of the men advised the rest of the gang.

“That hotel?” one of the women retorted, “but they asked me for my entire family history before I could check in.” “How silly of you,” the man rebuked her, “You could have just shown your ID card.”

Precisely at that moment, something came floating down the Hooghly and everybody’s attention turned to it. All along, things had been floating on the river: the ferries, the hyacinths, nobody gave a second glance. But right now, all eyes were fixed on that something — a human body, bloated and skinless — floating down the river.

Crows sat on the body as it glided downstream, pecking on whatever they thought was still edible. Suddenly, I found the silence I was looking for, as the men and women who flirted with lust now contemplated death.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 4:53:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/Of-love-lust-and-death-in-Calcutta/article15544095.ece

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