It was a windy mid-January evening in Kolkata. The trailing chill of a prolonged winter made it pleasant all the more. And for many Kolkatans, that’s reason enough to binge on a few extra pegs! Now, don’t start judging. This is not just a random journal off an alcoholic’s diary. Sounds legit though. Yet, this is one 2 minutes’ recollection that’s forever etched in my memory. We had a party at one of Ballygunj’s posh RBPs. (RBP: theme Restaurant cum Bar and Pub, all housed in one) I decided to calm the inebriety down at once by walking some distance rather than taking a cab fast home. Where lives one’s parents.
Ballygunj to Rashbehari is a 25 minutes walk for any sober being. For shopaholics and alcoholics alike it may take a few 8-10 minutes extra. I careened my way past the shifting lights, bustling crowd, myriad colors and echoes from packed shops off Gariahat. When I reached Rashbehari I was already less buoyant looking at the serpentine queue for an Auto-ride to Tollygunj. The buses were too crowded at such an evening hour of traffic peak and trams too infrequent to even hope for boarding one. A Long painful wait, but it wasn’t a weather to complain. So I turned on my ipod to electronic trance, to a blaring maximum earphone volume. This part of the street goes so antithetic to that of Gariahat. For its pavements are flanked by open camps of the shelter-less and beggars instead of those loud, encroaching hawkers in Gariahat. Darker in all comparison.
There were urchins crying, running, begging and a handful fighting. One was tugging my trouser at the knee for alms. He was so small; I feared stepping on one of those, carelessly hurrying along in herds. A woman was cooking rice on her stove and keeping an eye on her infant sleeping at a distance. The speckless white boiled rice appeared so uncanny in contrast.
Generally, the sisters are given the charge to look after her kid siblings but today I couldn’t see one around. I averted my gaze to the huge hoardings to glean some fun at their expense. I do this all the time with friends whenever we are stuck in traffic. We try to match the relevance of those with something live off the street. Like when there was once this large hoarding from a popular Bengali tele-soap Maa- that said “will (the kid protagonist named) Jhilik be finally be able to find her mum?”And to its immediate beside there was a yellow,no frills paper pasted, 20% the size of the hoarding, which suggested something like this:
“Shhhhhhh. Get rid of alcoholism in secret. Get vanished from your busy addicted life and spend a month at our private rehab. Nobody will know. Call Mira clinic at 983XYZ…”
Then one of us had to prompt the cue “Jhhilik did you call Mira clinic yet? Just in case she’s on rehab, for TRP’s sake-leave no stones unturned” and those keep building on with every pun in the book.
I was at the front end of the queue now, my turn to board next. When suddenly I saw something I have never seen before, something even beyond my level of imagination. To my right was a woman of early 20’s. For a few seconds my attention was entirely glued to her face, just that face. There was this blatant incongruity of course that got my notions tangled. She radiated in the little light from a far above lamp-post and from those meager, flickering yellow lights from car headlights on the go. Her smooth brown cheek had that new bride’s flush. The thick wide sindoor at the parting substantiated it further. Her even lips were shining plump but achingly somber. Her trimmed eyebrows stretched past the corners of her eyes and donned in between a large red bindi. I don’t think there was anything ethereal about her beauty. Just the fact of it appearing out of place heightened her appeal. Those large kohl-lined eyes were transfixed on something, so distant and defiant of the atmosphere she was in. I had but to pull away the gaze and concentrate on her line of sight. Nothing notice worthy I could reckon in particular.
I removed my earphones to listen intently on what was really happening. There were four more women sitting on the same 6X4 ft wooden makeshift of a bed she was sitting on. I could say they were vying for her attention because all of them who surrounded her were looking at her face only during their conversation. Her hands were on hers ensconced all this while. They were touching her, muttering inaudibly to her ears every now and then. She was too bemused to listen. And those women looked concerned too. As though they were sympathetic, caring of her but unable to believe?
When I looked around I saw a mid-aged man and two of his friends in front of me in the queue, nonchalantly casting covetous glances at her. They were ogling at her shapely stomach in brief view beneath the blouse the red aanchal couldn’t cover. That guy couldn’t contain any longer and mumbled aloud “I told you she’s a total tramp, look how well she maintained her shape and such skin.”
Loud enough for her to stir up and wrap the red shawl tightly around.
“Wonder what got her committed to such abject wretchedness” replied his friend.
And that moment came the auto I had to board in. The last glimpse I had of the place from my Auto window, she was still stolidly preoccupied with whatever we’d never know, and the people taking our place of the queue are now at their turn of staring at her in disbelief and some in lust. The entire journey those letches I shared the auto with contemplated on different versions of her story. That she might be abducted? That she could be a criminal, an illegal immigrant, refugee and what not. But that she’s a whore was the unanimous conclusion as they chortled in chorus. I heard those stories of prurient nature, stories compassionate but speculations none as engaging as the lonesome image was.
May be it’s the disparate nature of her surroundings that made her presence quite the cynosure among the bystanders. May be it’s just human propensity to dig for a story when things aren’t as dull it should appear. But I remember being least judgmental. May be I was growing up finally! But then, that day, I would’ve given all my hours waiting to listen from her. Without opinions, with or without any sympathy or condescension, being just as deadpan in countenance as the woman in the street herself. Her mind numbing stillness and this paradox unanswered notwithstanding, the aberrance of such engaging nature is now well photographed in one of the many images I have of Kolkata, the forever new.