Fire! Fire! Fire!
The man rushed out from the toilet holding onto his pants for dear life.
Year 1990. Freshly out of college, I had just joined my first job at Siliguri. For the uninitiated, Siliguri is a major city in West Bengal and is not only the gateway to exotic hill stations like Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong, Gangkot but also to the seven sisters of North East. Siliguri is located at the foothills of the Himalayas. It has drawn people from Nepal, Tibet, Sikkim, North East, Bihar and Jharkhand. And therefore, it is also a food lover’s paradise. EIish Bhapa, Chitoler Peti, Momo, Thukpa, Littie are available aplenty.
The first few months at Siliguri was spent in discovering the city. Scooting around in the lanes and by-lanes of the city, trying out various new dishes, trying to learn Nepalese, riding on my ‘Chetak’ to Sevoke – that beautiful place where the river Teesta meets the plains.
In spite of keeping myself busy, I felt very homesick, especially during the nights when I was all by myself. You see, I was raised in Kolkata. I missed my Ma, her cooking, her continuous banter. I missed my Baba, the smell of his pipe tobacco and his stern lectures. I missed my friends, the addas, the very smell of Kolkata. Oh, how I wish I could visit Kolkata more often, even if for a few days!
The opportunity presented itself. A four day long holiday and the weekend to boot. I presented myself at the North Bengal State Transport Corporation or NBSTC in short. I was one of the few to queue up long before the counter opened. We had very few options then. Either the buses or the Darjeeling mail, which was always over-booked. The NBSTC buses were then called ‘Rocket’. These buses left at 8 pm and reached Kolkata between 6-8 pm depending on which driver drove faster. Covering a distance of 590 Kms, there was one dinner stop at Dalkhola and one morning tea cum ritual stop at Krishnanagar.
I reached Siliguri bus stand at 7 pm and after devouring 24 pieces of Momos, I took my seat. The small screen was showing some movie which I quickly got bored of and dozed off to sleep.
Sleep! Did I tell you that this is my favourite pastime but comes a distant second after eating?
Sharp at 10:15 pm, the lights were switched on and the conductor issued a stern warning. “Have your dinner and be back by 10:45. Else we leave you and go”. We had reached Dalkhola, the dinner stop. Gorging on 8 chappatis, one full plate of chicken masala, 4 rosogollas and one cup of misti-doi, I was now ready for my second best pastime. Sleeping. Off started the bus and I too went on to conquer the world of dreams, wrapping myself in a shawl.
At 6 am, the next day, I woke up to the voice of conductor once again-, ‘You may use the toilets, have your tea and be back in 20 minutes. Else …………………….’
I don’t drink tea and I don’t get up at 6. However, I am habituated to one thing. I have to make best use of the toilet the moment I wake up. This day was different. I was traveling, it was only 6 am and so I fell asleep again.
I woke up, actually I was woken up by a very disturbing feeling in my belly. I could feel all the Momos, Chappatis, Chicken Masala and others dancing in joy. Kolkata was just an hour away. One hour! I now just HAD to use a rest room. 45 minutes, 30 minutes, 15 minutes and we arrived at Sealdah Rail Station. The bus stopped here as a few passengers living in North or Central Kolkata got down. I immediately picked my suitcase and jumped off the bus. I ran from the road to the public toilet inside Sealdah Station. I was never an athlete and always shied away from difficult tasks like running or walking, unless it was for food. But on that day, I may have broken every kind of record. While running, I started praying that at least one cubicle would be vacant for me. I arrived at the public utility to find all occupied and at least 8-10 persons in each queue.
I did not have time for pleasantries. I dumped the suitcase on someone’s feet and earned some innovative expletives. I threw my jacket onto someone’s face without thinking that I could never see it again. And then, I shouted at the top of my voice- ‘Fire’, ‘Fire’, ‘Fire’!
Out came a person peering through his owl like eyes over his glasses and Oh My God, he was almost naked down below. He was trying to pull up his underpants asking – ‘What happened, brother? Where is the fire?
I took hold of both his hands which was still trying to tie the knot of his underpants and pulled him out. He started shrieking with indignance. As far as the others were concerned, they all evaded their eyes from being blinded by glamour.
I immediately seized the opportunity and rushed in.
* As told to Coena Mukherjee, by a storyteller who wanted to remain anonymous.
** This is a true story.