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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

31 May, 2005

Afternoon mirage

You were leaning against the pillar when I saw you, looking at me. I felt violated in that first instant, but then it didn’t matter after that. You were something new and different. Something that this city offered me every day, and I refused each time. Contradiction in my soul, I looked at you, and I thought you smiled.

And then, you walked up to me, and looked at the book in my hand, the one I was planning to buy from the vendor under the Grand Arcade. I thought your eyes twinkled, but I can never be sure, because eyes rarely twinkle, people do, and you said, “That is a good book. Do you like reading about places in general, or is it only this particular author?”

I’m not used to being spoken to by strangers, unless they’re beggars or they’re policemen, and so my first instinct was to stare through you. I’m not a people person, despite the fact that I come from the City of Joy. I find people intrusive, I find their questions intrusive, I would rather live in a land where no one cares or no one bothers you. So, I shrug, for all that I find you interesting, and I say, “Excuse me, I have to go somewhere.”

There’s a smile again from you, and I smile back, despite the chill in my voice a moment ago. Is that something you do for everyone, I wonder. “He’s an excellent author. One of my favourites. But if you’re a beginner, I don’t think this is the one for you. Here – “

And you fetched that book I had discarded on the pile a few seconds earlier, before I looked up to see you leaning against the pillar, “ – This is a good one. He writes forcefully, almost tragically. If you’re just starting, you may get overwhelmed, and then you may feel that he’s not really speaking to you, but telling you things you don’t really want to know.”

This time, I could not help myself, so the smile broadened, and I say, “I can tell you’re an expert on him.”

“No, not an expert!” sunny laughter, “Hardly an expert. I’m just… someone who knows what I read.”

It might have ended there. It might have ended with me turning back to the vendor who did not really understand who this third person was, but not really concerned since he was getting two books sold in the place of one, and me walking away. I would have turned to you, thanked you for your help, and I would have walked back into my portal of anonymity and secret pavements.

But then, “You’re not from Calcutta, are you?”

That took me back, and I laughed again, for it was so untrue, and it was so expected. “Actually, I am. I’ve lived in this city for twenty-one years. But now, I live in Delhi. I’m settled there.”

“I should have guessed. Yes, it would either be Delhi, or abroad.”

“Is that a judgement you’re passing?”

“No, no… like I said before, I’m no expert. I pass no judgements. It was just… something that struck me. Something I thought. Delhi is a nice place. I’ve been there a lot of times. I have family there.”

I laughed, and thought about that extended family every Bengali has, huddled together in a single locality in South Delhi, unified by its greens, its tangail saris, and its sweet shops. “Let me guess – Chittaranjan Park?”

And you laughed as well, rich and deep, from somewhere I could not fathom. “Of course! But I rarely lived with them! I prefer to stay at this small hotel I know of, near Connaught Place. It’s called – “

“- The Bengal Lodge. Yes, I know about it. It’s like another extension of Chittaranjan Park.”

“But without the hassles of having your family there!”

“I’m surprised.”

“At what?”

“You don’t want to live with your family in Chittaranjan? I mean, you just struck me as so… so... I mean – “

“Typical?” Quiet smile, and I blushed, despite myself. For what on earth did I care?

“I’m sorry, but yes. I would have assumed you would love to soak in all that ambience in Chittaranjan.”

And that was when your brows furrowed, and you scratched your ear lightly before answering, “You know, of all the words I hate, ‘typical’ is the most profound.”

“Are you a Leo?” Was I flirting? “That would explain it!”

Throaty laughter and you clapped your hands in glee, “No, a Scorpio, actually! What does Linda Goodman say about them?”

“That they’re awful people to cross, and you should be wary of them.”

“But isn’t that the truth for everyone?”

“Not really. There are some people who wouldn’t really mind if you crossed them, who would just take it all, and leave it behind somewhere.”

“And, would you be very shocked if I told you that I was one of them?” A hand up to prevent me from interrupting, when I open my mouth - “That’s again a picture you built up about me, isn’t it? Like the fact that I was a typical Bengali who would love to stay in Chittaranjan Park and soak up the ‘ambience’, as you put it?”

“Well, wouldn’t you?”

You stopped, and placed your hands behind your back, and now I look at you. Yes, you look typical. Somebody you see on the roads of Calcutta almost every other day. Frizzled hair, sensuous mouth, mirthful eyes that promise so much behind black rimmed glasses Fashion has suddenly brought back ‘in’ again, plaid kurta that crackles when you walk, open-toed sandals worn well and frayed. I wonder how typical you are, though, when you say, “Of course, I would. But I would still not like to stay with my family. Isn’t that something common between the both of us?”

You took me by surprise, and I stopped. Was I that obvious? Perhaps, I was. Perhaps it was clear that I was wandering, and wondering about my destination. That had nothing to do with the city I had left or the city I had abandoned. That had nothing to do with the lover I had left and the lover I was seeing. That had something to do with a stranger in a familiar city, meeting another stranger who seems to know every word I speak before I speak it. That seems to be about clichés.

So, you smile in an almost gentle way, and say, “Don’t worry so much about it. It’s something a lot of people go through these days. I’m in that stage myself. I can recognise it so well in the people I meet. Don’t worry so much about it. Would you like a cup of tea?”

We had already reached the Birla Planetorium. I hadn’t thought we had walked that far. I didn’t need to travel that far. I should have turned left much earlier, at the Park Street junction, and I hadn’t. So I shook myself inside, and I smiled, despite my discomfiture, and said, “No, thank you. I have to be going. It was nice meeting you. But I have to go now.”

“Are you sure? You don’t want tea? They make excellent stuff here,” you said, gesturing to the little boy who sat under the huge tree, studiously arranging his faded glass tumblers in a neat column that almost reached up to his knees. I smiled, at the sight. I would have liked to see this in Delhi, I thought.

“No. Thank you. It was nice talking to you. I must leave now.”

“Very well. Goodbye and take care. I hope you enjoy the book.”

I laugh, “I’m sure I will.”