Thursday, July 28, 2005

(Park) Circus act

I have become notorious for my ‘surprise’ visits…most of which are known to fail miserably. Last time, my visit to Kolkata turned out to be relatively innocuous- until it was time for me to leave, that is.
Planned well in advance (this time there was no concern about footboard travelling), I was armed with mishti, my backpack and a confirmed ticket- all I needed to take me comfortably to Bhubaneswar. Getting to Howrah station however, seemed to be a more complicated journey (for the rest of the Park Circus household) than crossing a dozen districts and a state boundary.

Orre babaaaa,’M didi (‘didi’ because I was instructed as a child that the conventional ‘dida’ might make the grandmas feel unnecessarily old) said when she heard the thunder outside, ‘Brishti hobe ma go… ,’ making her eyes ridiculously large and clutching at her chest, as though to frighten me into staying back. Windows were ordered to be shut lest the refreshingly wet breeze speckle the spotless floors and bring with it some dreadful unnamed, unidentified disease into our home. I made a big show of sighing and clicking my tongue and talking about building immunity and enjoying the view as I went around the apartment, closing windows and turning on lights.

With each clap of thunder, M didi’s Orre babas got more dramatic and the result was that the panic rubbed off on my mother instead of me.
‘Somika, there was no need for you to come here. Kono mane hoye na- du diner jonne aasha. If you must come for a weekend, you take fifteen days and come,’ Ma reasoned, in her I’m-too-reasonable-to-be-argued-with-so-don’t-you-dare-think-of-trying tone.
Of course, I’ve never been one to stomach hypocrisy, so I reasoned right back at her. Wasn’t she the one who lovingly said that she was happy about me coming to see her on her short break to Cal? Wasn’t she happier still that we could spend some time together after all the ten-minute long distance phone conversations all these months? Wasn’t she overreacting about the rain? Which employer in their right mind will allow an employee to take fifteen-day weekends?

I wasn’t going to miss my train (and confirmed seat- very important, in fact a luxury) if my designated escorts refused to leave the house. I went on about how independent I’ve always been and how I’m living alone and I’m old enough and I’ve travelled in worse conditions than rain and if nobody wants to get wet I’ll go by myself- I know the way, I came alone, I’ll go back the same way.
My angry speech didn’t have the impact I expected.
Beshi paakami…
‘You don’t know what has become of Kolkata- it’s not the same city it used to be. Everyday in the newspaper you read about this person being robbed and that person being killed.’
I could retort that I know exactly what goes into the making of the newspaper proving that everybody likes reading a good scandal over their morning cuppa. There’s a lot more news, but the problem is it doesn’t sell. Nobody’s concerned about tuberculosis and AIDS and starvation deaths- only blood and gore and rape and robbery, so they may be thrown as statistics to young girls who dare venture out in the dark to a (gasp) railway station.
Before I could react to the threats, M didi came and announced that the next door neighbours- two young men- had magnanimously agreed to babysit three grown women on the way to Howrah station. I could barely conceal my outrage, but C mashi, the seasoned traveller-- well acquainted with the fachangs of her own parents and sister-- signalled to me that it was actually quite alright.

Then came another tragedy. The taxi rental service was closed on Sunday. (‘Who asked Somika to choose Sunday of all days to travel. Shotthi!’)
If to catch my eleven o’ clock train, I was being forced to leave at nine (‘But I know how to get there, it doesn’t take so long….’), I was now being advised to leave even earlier to accommodate hail, a taxi breakdown, possible mugging, traffic, flooded roads and divine interventions.

True to the theatrical warnings about our lane becoming flooded during a heavy downpour, we (this ‘we’ included Ma- I’m so proud of her) rolled up our pants and waded through ankle deep water of dubious quality. At the gate, where we expected to see a watery ghost town, we were greeted by kids splashing around in the filth, barefooted rickshaw pullers, shopkeepers making room for impromptu customers and an onslaught of taxis. We had our pick of not one- but three taxis. (This was my first in a series of I-told-you-so moments.)

The road was a smooth ride on a route made suddenly scenic. Flyover after flyover, the maidan and heritage buildings- a beautifully lit, glossy wet Kolkata. We reached in less than half an hour.

Enter the station and every train was delayed. Line failure and floods in some areas just outside the city. Wonderful. I could have enjoyed the extra time by myself, sitting on a platform bench, sipping hot tea and people-watching. Now, I had an enduring mashi and two strangers to watch- plus an exasperated mother to watch over.

The two-and-a-half hour wait for my train seemed decades long. Ma, C mashi and I stood in the middle of a huge throng of people- sitting, squatting, sleeping, standing- trying to find a comfortable corner that would leave us out of the path of people pushing through. Ma would frequently make faces and noises to let us know exactly what she thought of the station and the Indian Railways. ‘Aami jibone onek kashto korechchi, aar koraar dorkaar nei.’
Occasionally the smell of fish rode the strong breeze and hit us as we stood looking expectantly at the list of trains, or while we were straining to hear the garbled statements of a very bored announcer. When this happened, Ma would walk far away from where we stood, her aanchal wrapped around her face. When I went up to her and asked what was wrong after a couple of times, she looked at me and said simply, ‘Gaa gulochche.’

‘What’s that?’ I asked, my deficient Bangla becoming apparent.
‘Nauseated,’ she said, scrunching up her face.

Oh no. I pushed her to the edge of the platform, where we could enjoy a relatively fish-free breeze. All this moving around of course, made our caretakers very concerned. They must have thinking- These women. Such drama queens. Yawning all the while as it got later and later.
We’d have to look around and signal to them that we had relocated every time we moved.

Ma, of course was feeling exceedingly bad about them having to wait endlessly. I was about to point out that they had already been dragged out of their home, made to wade through garbage-y water and had stood around for more than an hour already. The damage was done. No point in feeling bad. But still, ‘Aapnader onek ashubidha hochche, naa?’ I think she felt better every time the obligatory ‘Naa didi, kii bolchchen!’ was thrown back at her.

My feeble attempts to make light of the situation were not appreciated. ‘Ma, see, I get to spend bonus quality time with you. A whole two hours!’
‘Please! This is the last time. Why do you have to do all this? If you must, then you do so without troubling my family. Everybody’s worried about you now. Shobai tension korchche.’
To aami kii korbo? Everybody overreacts. No constructive thinking. Only negative. I told you I’d come by myself, nobody realises that I travel all the time.’
‘From now on, you don’t come. Don’t come or go anywhere. You’re still my responsibility. You’ll stop being my business when you get married.’

Ah. The dodgy marriage issue. Ma’s very confused about this one. She doesn’t want me to get married for fear of the kind of boy I might choose. She wants me to marry because she thinks that somehow she’ll worry less about me. Yeah, right. If only it were that easy. I can already see it now…I’m married, living with my husband in our own cosy little home when the phone rings.
‘Hi mamoni…What’re you doing? What’s for dinner? What did you have for breakfast? Who does the cooking? Who does the cleaning? Why? Why is he only washing dishes when you’re the one cooking?…’
If anything, I only see more causes for concern.

But this time, I used it to my advantage.
‘Okay, so I’ll get married. And whether I travel with or without my husband, nobody will have to worry about me because my hospital bills or my dead body will be sent to another address. Fine?’
‘Fine. Tai koro.’
A proxy husband. Let Somika get married so that she may travel on trains which get delayed when it rains heavily and nobody will be concerned about her safety any more.

So then the long awaited train dragged itself up to the platform, where of course, there were no clear indications as to which coach was which. Finally, my seat is located; I’m given instructions about which side to put my head and when to close the window and when to sleep and what to eat in case the train is delayed for a day or two. Hurried goodbyes, but smiles all around as my entourage departs, exhausted.
Next time will obviously be a surprise visit.