Park Street Blues
The Go-Air flight landed at Kolkata Airport at five; two hours late, upsetting my careful calculations regarding the welcome meeting for a workshop scheduled for seven pm. I regretted not retaining my case in the cabin. It was the last to arrive on the baggage belt. The moist heat of a rainy evening added to my frazzled state, as I dragged myself to the pre-paid taxi booth, the laptop bag slapping me on the back with every step. The man at the window handed me the change for R 500/ note wrapped in the voucher for the taxi. Thoroughly anxious by now about being able to reach the meeting on time and needing to register at the Guesthouse in Golepark, at last I managed to catch a taxi. The driver threw a flurry of queries about various routes to avoid traffic jams. I left the choice to him. Only then I opened my fist to find I am short by R 100/. The worthy at the Taxi window had been sanguine that the gasping, nervous passenger will not wait to check her change.
It was 6.45 when I reached the guesthouse. My fellow delegates had all left for the meeting. There was time only for a change of clothes and a wash, before I entered a cab again.
“The Banyan Tree, Apeejay House, near Neotia Hospital, Rawdon Street?” I rattled off all the names from the organiser’s letter. The taxi made its way through office- returning vehicles. There were many stops; I sighed in hopelessness.
Reaching Rawdon Street, we proceeded slowly, watching out for a large sign, announcing either Banyan Tree or Apeejay House. The Driver declared that end of Rawdon Street has been reached, and that Neotia hospital is round the corner. Ahead lay Park Street. Unaware of what Fate had in store for me, I stayed in the taxi, for fear of losing my way in a strange city. It is murky; neither hospital nor Banyan Tree the restaurant (as I imagined) is visible. Calls on the cell phone to the organiser was not getting through; a suave voice told me in Bengali that the number I am calling is wrong.
“Go forward a little”, I tell the driver. Only right turn is allowed. We turn right and stop to ask for directions.
“Oh, you’ve passed it. It is behind you” I am told.
Used to easy chaotic Delhi ways, I told the driver to turn and go back to Rawdon Street. He said it is impossible. He’ll have to drive a long way round to reach Rawdon Street again.
Someone said, “Apeejay House? Why, it is near Park Hotel. Just walk down Park Street. You can make it on foot. Won’t take more than 15 minutes”
Several other voices supported him.
I have my doubts: if Park Hotel is the marker, the organizer would have mentioned it.
Still, who am I to question local knowledge? I hastily take out R 200/ and thrust it at the driver. He looks puzzled. Then he pockets it. He didn’t know that his demented passenger, her nerves in shreds has read the 20/ on the meter through her fogged-up glasses as 200/ - used as she is to Delhi rates. He drove away.
I looked around for a clue as to which way to turn, and now that I am on my feet if I can spot the sign for Apeejay House on the street.
Waiting to cross is a young man holding a child by the hand. I decided he looks as if he might recognize a ‘cool’ place like The Banyan Tree. He too advised me to walk down Park Street and find Park Hotel. Somehow my instincts (poor instincts, so right for once) say that is not the correct direction.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
With terrible emphasis, the young man answered, “Which – part- of – my- sentence- did –you- not – understand? Walk – down- this- Street- till-you- reach- Park Hotel.”
Before he got angrier, I walked quickly towards the direction he pointed .
Park Street was crowded. The part where I was walking was dreary. No famous landmark appeared.
I asked directions from school children, college students, policeman scolding owner of wrongly parked car, pavement hawkers, couple waiting for a taxi at gate of a housing complex, shop assistants at shop doors.
I learn that in Kolkata pavements are called ‘foot’.
I am comfortingly urged ‘ Keep walking down this foot.’
For variety’s sake, I stopped at a pan seller’s shop. I show him my cell. I show the organiser’s phone number. I ask him what could be wrong because I have used this in Delhi. He can’t solve my problem.
The pavement was dark. You have space only two feet wide to negotiate. The number of people on the street had increased. Interesting miniature ziggurats made of stones, bricks, building material dotted the path and every bit of the pavement.
It had rained during the day. The stone piles were interrupted by small muddy pools of water.
Generally, I have great facility in stumbling and falling. I can slip and fall anywhere – smooth streets of the West or on Delhi roads. Tonight, I do not fall. Some malign destiny has more sport to derive from me; it kept me upright.
Adroitly I navigated the stone piles. Athletically I executed a skip over the brown pools. Not a scratch mars my ankle, not a drop of mud touched my sari. Nearing Oxford Book Store, in the back of my mind there came a thought- ‘This is crazy. I am terribly late. Efficient, rational women, the kind I admire and aspire to be, would have stopped this scramble by now and returned to the Guesthouse.’ Good advice, Mind.
But I couldn’t retreat or advance; taxis did not stop.
At this stage, people I accost, answer, “You are almost there. One more block. Big building. That is Apeejay house. No, no. Don’t cross. It is on this side.”
In this long traverse of Park Street, one thing I notice, that no one professes any knowledge of The Banyan Tree, a well-known watering hole as I had assumed.
The pavement becomes wider. There is less crush of passersby. A huge building looms on the right. Before the guards at the gate can check this interloper, I rush up and confirm that this indeed is Apeejay house.
Where is the Banyan Tree located, I asked impatiently? I have a meeting and I am late; I tell them.
The guards display complete incomprehension. This is the Head Quarters of the Apeejay Corporation. There are no restaurants here. They are a harried lot, busy supervising the employees leaving offices.
Is there another Apeejay House? They direct me to Rawdon Street!
I marvel at the reserves of fortitude I possess, that I do not collapse at that moment. For a few minutes I stand on the pavement waving at the bright yellow Ambassador cars which whizz past me, each carrying a passenger.
I am desperate and marooned on the pavements of Park Street – with a misbehaving phone.
I return to the Apeejay guards, asking if they can call a taxi for me. They couldn’t leave their duty.
It is impossible to stop a taxi here I am told. Go to the next crossing, they say.
As if a zombie has taken possession of me, I turn around, walking back the way I had tripped down minutes ago.
I approached The Oxford Bookstore for the second time that evening. It is time to take a breather; contemplate the urgent matter of capturing a cab. Tiredly I clutch an iron railing opposite Firpos.
Between two streams of fast flowing traffic, one coming on straight and the other curving round from the left, on a small island, in the middle stood a man, wearing a blue shirt, directing traffic.
In a flash, without a moment’s hesitation, in the path of onrushing cars, I step off the pavement. I find myself on the traffic island. I grip the blue clad arm tightly, and declare in Hindi,
“Main kho gayi hun. Aur nahi chal sakti. Ek taxi roko. Abhi.”
That is - I am lost. I can’t walk anymore. Stop a taxi for me. Right now.
Miraculously, this wonderful man, without a word steps off his island instantly, spreads his arms out. A taxi screeches to a stop. I fall on to the seat at the back and am carried away in a cacophony of irate car horns.
I who say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ incessantly, have said nothing to him, this saviour in blue. I had not even looked at his face. Nothing had registered but his blue shirt and my iron grip on his arm.
This time the driver just slowed to talk to a guard near the gate of an office, gets his bearings and drives on competently. A feeble voice ensues from me complaining that I had asked 20 people for directions.
The driver answers loftily, “You have to know who to ask.”
This is my evening for meeting masterful men.
Very soon I am at the gate of Apeejay House, on Rawdon Street.
A feeling of anti –climax. All is calm; tree lined softly lit avenue; after the noise, the crowd, the confusion, speeding cars – quiet and peace.
Seven floors up I arrive at The Banyan Tree- a guest house. The door opens, the so far unreachable organizer ushers me into the sophistication of a dimly lit interior and murmurous conversation.
I perch on a table. All chairs are full. It is in keeping with the random things I have been undergoing for the past two hours. I suspect I babble incoherently when it is my turn to introduce myself.
Inside me there is a mild shiver but also a tremendous sense of elation. I feel irrationally happy. How could I have done what I did! What a shock for the poor traffic warden, for so he must have been, to be accosted suddenly on his little island by a gorgon with hair sticking up, sweat sodden sari, demanding madly a taxi, in the middle of peak traffic. What a spot for stopping taxis!
I wonder if I had spoken out in English, ‘I am lost. Can’t walk any more. Stop a taxi for me.’, would he have responded to my desperation with alacrity? Or would he have been brusque like the Apeejay guards.
In English ‘I am lost’, sounded what it was, a statement of fact, of a real situation. I felt that in saying in Hindi, ‘Main kho gayi hun’, I had said something more than just describe my situation at that moment. Against all reason, I felt I had made a profound, metaphysical declaration. It had burst out of my mouth spontaneously.
I know what psychologists might say about my mental state there in that genteel room. It is a reaction to the extreme stress and anxiety, of physical exertion and exhaustion, since I landed in Kolkata at 5pm.The feeling of floating, of excitement, of euphoria kept bubbling inside.
What did I mean? -- “Main kho gayi hun??
At one level, perhaps it meant -
I am lost. I am lost in this world where a ticket seller swipes a R100/- blatantly. I am lost when a taxi driver takes advantage of his passenger’s distress. I am helpless against choleric young men giving wrong information.
The abyss yawns forever between expectation and fulfillment.
Main kho gayi hun.
Kalyani Dutta is a resident of Delhi, a writer, and a Bengali translator. Recently her book Freedom Fables: Satires and Political Writings in Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (2019) was nominated for the Crossword Book Prize in the translation category.
She generally writes on women's education and travel. She has had three books published as well as many translated stories, notably three stories in The Essential Tagore (Harvard edition).