Calcutta, By Foot

‘The Cat was right all along, you know,’ he said gravely. ‘Yes, I suppose we would have reached somewhere if we’d walked long enough,’ she retorted. Since that morning, they’d been speaking in Alice-in-Wonderland-ese while they walked through the streets of Calcutta – his city and hers, for many summers now – and her feet were slowly turning an angry shade of redblue.

He was from the northern part of the city, with its hum of harassed vendors squatting by the roadside, its narrow roads crammed with buildings whose paint had long peeled, and breathless bursts of pedestrians trampling over each other to reach the few stray rickshaws that circled edgily around. And she was from the south-est of South Calcutta, where bungalows nestled in wide, tree-lined boulevards and chauffeurs drove you to glitzy clubs and wines flowed and laughter tinkled. If they’d had any sense, they’d have walked away from each other the first time they’d met at a bar during her yearly summer holiday in India and he’d insisted that they walk down to her house which was almost a mile away – taxis were expensive, of course, and he didn’t have a car or even a job for that matter – and she’d struggled into his walksy, wayward life, high heels and all. A quarter of a mile later, he’d proceeded to kiss her very thoroughly and indignant passers-by be damned, until she was drunk on the taste, the touch, the smell of him. After they made love that night, he’d rubbed her swollen feet to the strains of a forgotten Bengali folk song.

‘I’ve always been a street person,’ he confessed the next morning. And so in the weeks that followed, he’d walked her through a Calcutta she hadn’t known growing up, a Calcutta of lazy lanes dotted with tea-stalls and tiny sweet shops and the hot, exciting smells of telebhaja, fried snacks. They went to Mrityunjaya, his favourite Bengali dhaba, and sat on a rickety wooden bench guzzling kachoris as light and buttery as an October sun. They watched a Satyajit Ray play at Madhusudhan Mancha, and held hands and laughed when Potol Babu the protagonist sniffled delicately at an unjust world and flailed his pointy arms about.

Sometimes they walked from under the winding swerve of the Dhakuria Bridge all the way to Tollygunge until, as a concession to her aching feet, he let her chauffeur drive them to Dum Dum, Salt Lake and onwards, where the stars huddled together and the wind whistled mournfully by. And twice they walked to crowded Barasat, to his rented one-room apartment with second-hand furniture, a dog-eared rug and the stench of fish from the nearby fish-market. He showed her his paintings and she could tell he was good with oils. (He was good with a lot of things, but he just couldn’t keep at them long enough.)

The second time they walked to his apartment, she brought roast meats and fancy salads for his near-empty refrigerator, pretty floral curtains for the windows and a sparkly new rug for the floor. ‘You shouldn’t spend your money like this,’ he said quietly. When she smiled and said nothing, he drew her close and ran his fingers through her long hair just the way she liked. But he never brought her home again.

Not that it mattered. The city was full of delicious little nooks and bends, and they never ran out of places to walk to. Over the next few summers, he also showed her the idyllic outskirts of the city. When she saw the green, endless stretches of paddy fields dotted with egret-poised swamps, and just beyond, a river swishing and swirling up in waves to meet a crinkled, crimson-stained sky, she rested her head on his shoulder. Those days, walking hand in hand past sloping ridge and raining hill, through forests falling in thick folds of peepal and jackfruit, she wanted never to return to her nine-to-five corporate job in America. But return she did, at the end of every summer, with just the lingering, unspoken promise of an afterwards.

This summer was different, though. For one, she’d turned thirty. ‘Enough’s enough and you must get married right away,’ her mother had fumed. ‘Not an arranged marriage, Ma,’ she’d protested. ‘Do you love someone then? Someone appropriate?’ her mother had countered reasonably. So when she travelled to Calcutta this year, she got engaged to the son of an old family friend. Like her, her fiancé was also an investment banker in Manhattan, and everyone said she was lucky, for wasn’t her fiancé one of the most eligible bachelors in the Indian-American community? Why, only thirty-two and he already owned a three-bedroom apartment and a couple of cars, and he took care of his parents.

Of course, the engagement meant that she put off meeting, till her very last day in Calcutta, the one person she wanted to see the most. And then, since old habits die hard, they walked while they talked. There wasn’t much to say though, except that Alice was on her way back from Wonderland, and so they spoke of this and that till he eventually suggested he catch the evening train back. When they reached the Metro station close to her house, he ran his fingers tenderly through her hair. ‘Keep smiling,’ he said, before starting to walk away.

From the corner of her eye, she could see her fiancé’s flashy red car turning into the street. Next morning, they were to fly back to Manhattan together, and for a breathless moment, she wanted to shout down the insistent, blasphemous honking and run to another man who lived in a dingy one-room apartment and walked the streets of Calcutta. But that man had already cut briskly across the road and the distance between them was growing by the minute and her feet ached so much that she stood very still, not moving, not moving.

Debotri Dhar