A woman with the potential to make it big. It is not that she cannot: she simply will not.
The closest anyone has come to being an adopted daughter.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Kolkata in 10: Illusions

This was posted first on The Heat and Dust Project — something that is going to take the world by storm sometime in early 2015. The post also has a background, which is the USP of some of the coolest posts in the history of mankind. Backgrounds are awesome.

There is this little devil called Devapriya Roy, who, despite being a reputed author, asks me to pull off near-absurd feats. She has somehow acquired an amazing photographer who goes by the name of Sambit Dattachaudhuri, a man who uses a double-surname without a hyphen or a space as a separator.

Now, what did this miniature monster do? She sent me fourteen brilliant photographs captured by Sambit (all of them shot in Kolkata), and asked me to write something — one piece — connected to at least ten of them. Hmph.

It took me time, but eventually I did manage to pull it off. The write-up is obviously a bit forced: but then, how is one expected to pull off something like that without being a bit forced? So much for the imp and her devious ploy! 



She sat there, alone in a crowd, confused. She could hear loud voices all around her, buzzing with excitement — voices that fed off others’ happiness.

Today, they were basking in what was supposed to be her happiness. They were having the evening of their lives, and she was supposed to have the same.

Only that she did not.

She could hear her father: or maybe she did not.

No, she could not have. That was preposterous. He’s dead, is he not?

She looked around herself in a helpless frenzy of sorts. Almost all the faces were familiar. She could remember a few of the others as well — albeit very vaguely.

The evening had culminated into the climax they have all been waiting for. She had been waiting for it too. Or maybe she was not.

Maybe she was.

Kolkata had been harsh this summer. She had been relentless and unforgiving. Even the nights had served no respite. When she had reached the house that morning the first thing she instinctively did was to peek out of the window.

There they were, scattered across the courtyard of the ancient house; they could have been mistaken for a flock of pigeons. They could have been there for generations, sleeping peacefully in the sun when their patrician counterparts shuddered at the very thought of turning the air-conditioners off.

How could they sleep, blissfully unaware of the world around them? She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hands; her sleep-deprived eyes burnt at the touch of her parched skin. She knew that the woman from the parlour would make her look pretty in a matter of a few hours; she would also get rid of the dark circles, and more.

They would not be able to get her back to sleep, though: the blissful sleep of those men, lying in the courtyard, sleeping, oblivious of phrases like “sun-stroke”, without a care for redundant words like “tomorrow”.

A year earlier

It has been ages since she had slept properly. She remembered that afternoon only too vividly: it was one of those afternoons when time comes to a halt in her city. The spring afternoon had faded into dusk, almost unnoticed; the waters of The Hooghly were too tranquil for Kolkata to realise that the sun was about to set.

She noticed the toddler. The parents were keeping an eye from a distance. The brother, having just reached the age where he could walk, was trying his level best to put the pram into motion. The little girl did not seem the least bothered. She was probably not old enough to know emotions like  fear.

She wished she had not known fear either.

She wished she had an elder brother.

She wished a lot of things.

She sat there, staring at the river from her favourite vantage point. There were places around the Hooghly when the cell-phone connections refuse to work irrespective of the service provider. There are rumours that Fort William has a hand in this, but nobody can say for sure.

She drank the serenity with her eyes; she inhaled it, almost swallowed it down with her hands cupped around her mouth. She detested the trill of her cell-phone: she tucked it away safely in one of the inaudible nooks of her handbag, brushed the brown dust off her jeans, and took lazy steps back to what they call humanity.

The men on the boat watched her leave. Then they vanished into the shadows of obscurity.

She walked around her city aimlessly. She sought the calmness of dusk with desperation in her eyes. It was one of those dry spring afternoons where you feel the mildest tinge of cold as the last drop of daylight kisses the city on its way out.

She almost purchased a cigarette.

She took the tram that took her home.

She looked up.

There it was — a monstrous structure of concrete that had taken away, almost brutally, the sky which she had declared herself to be the owner of. She still remembered the day when she had come back from college to learn that they would take away her sky.

And then they started taking it away, bit by bit, day by day.

She made sure her cries were muffled by the pillow every night.

She took the elevator to the terrace. Kolkata had outgrown herself, trying her level best to catch up with the steadily developing cities all over the country and, as a result, going nowhere. Some office-goers were back after another busy day’s work; others, not as fortunate, had no option but to stay back to attend conference calls from a continent two oceans away. They had to pay off their EMIs.

The incessant motion reminded her of the stagnant waters of the Hooghly she had watched. The yellow taxis ferried the city home in a deafening, seemingly infinite blow of horns. The city had lit up in bright orange, almost golden lights in a feeble effort to match the fire it so sorely missed.

She sighed. Something had scared the city away from her long, long ago.  If only she knew what it was.

She watched evening dissolve into yet another Kolkata night. The terrace was chilly; she remembered the days when her mother would force a monkey-cap down her face despite her vehement protests. She would be ridiculed by her friends, but her mother was adamant.


She used crave for the nights with him: nights of pizzas and massage oil, of unkempt sheets and the musk of sweat, of crumpled shirts and bruised shoulders, of Asterix and Woody Allen. She missed them all.

Nights meant nothing to him anymore.

She hated being alone in her city. It was not music to her anymore. If anything, it was a continuous, seemingly infinite stream of drowning noise with incomprehensible lyrics. It did not soothe her: it made her numb.

Once again she would need a sedative tonight.

She hated Sundays. Her parents would insist she come over, but she always refused. They hated when she remained grumpy throughout the day, and would try to get her into a false sense of cheeriness.

Staying at home was not an option, either. She could somehow live through Saturday, but how could she survive entire weekends, month in and month out, without him?

They would banter over breakfast, bantering in bed till the grease in their fingers dried out completely. Bathing had to be postponed. Getting out of bed was ruled out till well into the evening.

She removed the curtains, letting sunlight bathe her — their — studio apartment. She had half-expected the sunlight to make her squint, but it was too early in the day for that.

She saw the boy from the ground floor going somewhere with the maid. Maybe the boy, too, would grow up to become an artist, just like him. Or maybe not. She almost hoped they never made anyone like him anymore.

 She turned around, returning to the alcove he had insisted on. She had refused point-blank on the grounds that it looked preposterous, but he was adamant. If he really needed a hole to read in peace, why did it have to be a round one?

But he would not listen to him. She had never come across anyone as obstinate as her man. At times she was irritated by him, but the anger would not last. It was difficult for anyone — anyone — to be annoyed with him.

She kept looking at the alcove till her eyed ached. She suddenly felt a strong urge to clean it with a duster and Colin. He would have laughed at her, mocked her, would have said she suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder – but at least her Sunday had meaning now.


They draped her in the Banarasi once the beautician was through with her. She looked gorgeous, her mother and cousins and aunts and neighbours said, as did random women whose identities she was clueless about.

She waited for the car to arrive. It was a Honda Civic. She knew the colour, she knew of the add-ons, of the mileage, of strange words like suspender parts — all of which meant nothing to her.

She sighed. She thought of him, his man, of his bright eyes, brightest, that stood out from a faceless continuum of humanity. She longed to see those eyes.

She wanted to be in control of her eyes.

She had to be careful of the mascara.

She wondered whether the man in the Honda Civic would ever get to know of the eyes behind the mascara.

They blew the conch. They sat in separate rooms, and when they were brought together, the two parties, laughing and frolicking to glory, participating in a strange contest that would result in deciding whether the bride could be lifted higher than the groom.

It was supposed to be fun.

She did not dare to open her eyes. What if Honda Civic’s eyes were measured and devoid of all magic? What if he never believed in magic, in the first place?

Why did she even agree to this marriage? Did the psychiatrist not tell her not to rush? Did he not warn her of actions on the rebound?

She knew she had to open her eyes at some point of time. She had dared not look straight into his eyes all these months, but it could not be delayed any further. They will see to it that she did that.

She opened her eyes.

She had not expected wrath or sloth or envy, and gluttony was definitely ruled out. Honda Civic did not believe in the world of pizzas. If there was lust, it was well-disguised.

There was no greed.

There was no pride, either.

And neither was there any magic.

They were blank eyes – as empty as the studio apartment without him – as vacant as the alcove without his books – as barren as not making love to him on the terrace when it rained – as hollow as the heart since he had been cremated – as emotionless as… as… as… as…