HIT BY THE TRAIN….
One fine day I got a call, rather an SOS call!! It was one of my old buddies from school. The emergency was quite unique too, “a taxi was required from Howrah Railway Station to the Airport for her relations”. Okayyyy!! The next thought that came to mind is aren’t there concepts like OLA / UBER / PREPAID TAXI, blah, blah, blah…. At the cost of sounding condescending, I did ask the same. Pat came the reply, which I thought, (rather snobbishly) predictable….”you know the ‘small towners’ right!! shit scared of the big city, they know all the stuff but, still want a trusted contact booked taxi for the one hour ordeal to the other end of town!” The city sleeker within me was gloating with ego fed to the brim. The job was done.
An after-thought however, punctured the self-gloating / ego / snobbishness (whatever you wish to call it!!) of it all. “Isn’t it ‘only’ three years since I have had this ‘metro life’, who was I laughing at??!! Just because, you are a Kolkatan today doesn’t allow you the liberty, does it??” I could firmly claim by the same evening that, whatever was left of the snob in me, had been, firmly cut down to size. I happened to be on a date, with a true-blue ‘kolkatan’ & she without batting an eyelid, had absolutely no grimaces, to point…. “Kolkatan!!! since when??!! Just because you stayed here for three years??!!” (I guess, stating hereafter, that the ‘date’ remained just a ‘single date’ wouldn’t be an exaggeration, but that’s another story….)
THE INCOMING TRAIN….
Somehow, growing up in a small town that I did, there was this construct, built in the psyche, that this city ‘Kolkata’ is a place which ‘gobbles’ you up, in no small measure, if you aren’t worldly wise & street smart; backed by innumerable stories (credentials disputable!!). Having landed in the city & having had quite a few miles of travel under the belt / intermittent metropolis life to quote from; it was amazing & discomforting to find myself nervous, dealing with the city.
To add insult to injury, I had a separation followed by divorce handed to me in the city. Now how’s that for confidence?! I am almost certain that the folklore is true, Kolkata gobbled me up!!!! But then, the other side of the story wasn’t bad either, my circumstances meant, I am a relative unknown to the city with a lot of time in hand, so where do we start….
You go to any metropolis in India & a shining metro transit network is a given!! all of them better, shinier, cleaner, swankier, faster, bigger & any other ‘er’ you could think of. However, there was one thing about the kolkata metro that one could really be thankful of, at least I was….”it prevented you from being ‘gobbled’ up!!” Here, was this network, which like everything else in the city was overstretched, crowded, limited & the only one which still had non-AC rakes (yes!!!! imagine that, in the middle of a tropical summer!!).
However, it was my route to salvation. The egoist within, had to prove it to himself, that he wasn’t scared (of the lurking demon & didn’t fear being ‘gobbled’ up)….
God knows, I was!!!!
It all began with a conversation & free time. As I started again, dusting-off my camera gear after a hiatus, there was this innate need to document the city, through the lens…. The best place, seemed to be the old city & its innumerable river banks or ‘ghats’ which still breathed, what the city would have been, before being muddled up by decades of neglect. Even more interesting was the realization that most of the places in my bucket list were, either a short travel by auto or a walk from the nearest metro station. There it was, time to face the demon….
It all started with the ghats, a majority of which are infact!! a very short walk from some or the other metro station while a few others, a short boat-ride from one of the ghats itself. At a maximum expense of 20/25 bucks (₹15 for the train & ₹5/10 for the boat), you could literally reach anywhere. No matter, how chaotic & tense the city felt (the demon closing in with jaws wide open!!), the ghats seemed to have, never budged from, the peaceful era they were created in.
You could spend hours without anyone noticing your presence; your stare & thoughts, to be broken, only by the offers of the curt yet friendly tea-seller. Clicking away to sunset seemed effortless as was boating through the Ganges, as civilization went about, with its chores. Being just a face in the crowd, being one with the innumerable struggles & tireless efforts of scores of aspirants, was for a change, very reassuring….the demon was by now ‘resting’ as you passed by. On every occasion it felt as if the return journey on the metro (which more often then not, was an exercise, in wrestling & saving my gear, from the ‘mass chaotic exodus’ if not the ‘mass rapid transit’) was even more satisfying then the onward journey.
What good a city is, if it can’t offer you some good food, an escape from the high quality mundaneness of home cooked to the gastronomical disaster of eat-outs….
As if this city seemed to have, leaned on to the metro to lead everyone to it. While jostling my way with the all-knowing sage called ‘google maps’, the second realization was, ‘you can access almost all the good food especially street food somewhere near a metro’. Simple, as it may sound, it dawned late on me!!
Be it the juicy mutton at “GOL BARI” (the ultimate yet unassuming destination for some delectable bengali-mughlai mix of non-veg food) or the street food around Esplanade / new market / burrabazar / china town….it’s always about that short little walk from that neighboring station….its been three years &….innumerable eat-outs at ‘God-knows-how-many-joints’ later, the demon sure seemed to be napping with a long burp!!!
If it was the unending desire to see the city with my lens, it was also the reassurance of this chaotic & humid transportation system, that was iconic for the strangest of reasons, hated for the most obvious & yet endearing like nothing else.
If the ghats & the food were ticked-off the list, it was still the innumerable cultural landmarks that ensured that ‘one-more-metro-trip’ every other day….the colonial legacy (Victoria memorial), the multi-religious ethos (the Kali temple & Nakhoda masjid), the revolutionary ideas (the dark yet reverberating ‘Indian Coffee House’), the hallmarks of artistic excellence (Nandan), the everyday travails (Howrah Bridge) or the scores fending for their livelihood (Burrabazar markets), each of them were one big part of the realization as to where the demon was hiding. Each trip back home on the metro was one more effort at seeing the crowd go-by, observing the life in the city, discerning the method in the madness, its been all about where the demon hid himself.
This is where I would sound like the perfect ‘small-towner’ but three years down the line, I think I am proud of the fact that I use a regular commuter’s metro pre-paid access card rather than the one time purchased tokens.
As is the ‘kolkatan’ way of doing things, I never take out the card from the wallet anymore, its just about taking out the wallet from the back-pocket and placing it over the turnstile-reader altogether, all this while, with an urban swag (sounds rather silly!!!!).
If that weren’t enough, the pride swells further, while claiming that, I exactly know the gate to be taken, for the relevant destination on landing at the station.
Mastering the art & skill, to jostle through the crowd, to escape in time through the long queue at the exit gates in another feather in the cap (which is rather good, not spoken of….)
If not for the childish way of describing these trivial accomplishments, what possible way is there to describe these immaturish musings, I am yet to find an answer to that, but, something told me that I did meet the demon in the eye, somewhere, enroute & could well put the “gobbling-up” theory to rest….
A lot had been seen and a lot of this chaotic-beautiful, crowded-culturally rich, dilapidated-accepting, scary-endearing & messedup-loving city was yet to be discovered. From the apprehensive venturing of the alleys to the relishing of the street food….its quite a journey & quite a bit of encountering the demon.
SEEING THE TRAIN LEAVE….
The three years of disappointment & dejection and yet the incredible way of discerning the cultural cauldron named Kolkata leaves me, still with the “small-towner’s” musings, marveling at the incredible feat of not having been “gobbled up” by the city, like the folklore.
Is it then, that the demon has shied away, from my bravado or, is it that the bull has been taken by the horns, once and for all….or is it simply, that the demon is one of the many that encompasses the thinking, that enslaves the initiative or which discourages, breaking the myth.
Is it that I am a pioneer in discrediting a folklore from a non-descript town or is it that I am a laggard who didn’t care enough to prevent what prevented him.
The train speeds away as I watch it go, because, I am not going to exit the escalator till the maddening crowds themselves clear out in a minute….another metro-hack I am proud to declare I mastered…. 😉