It was the rain soaked July afternoon in Kolkata. I was walking towards the bridge that connected the Dhakuria market to the Ballygunge flyover, and under this connector one could see shops after shops selling merchandise to people. I and my sister love street shopping. It has the buzz and charm of finding something extraordinary in unbelievable prices and if you happened to be a great bargainer, you could have the best shopping experience ever, with friends and family.
It’s been three years since I stopped shopping altogether. My sister had left Kolkata to pursue her corporate dreams and I had really clumsy and annoying girlfriends to ever go out or hang around with. All they could talk about was break ups and the sadness of their lives. I did long for a meaningful conversation, something inspiring enough to make me feel good sometimes. But tough luck. So like always, I was headed towards a nearby French café today, to do some reading.
I am a book and all things beautiful nerd, including a never-ending fascination for amazing cafes, coffee and cakes. I would sometimes spend hours reading or sketching in cafes, though the trend over here is not too friendly for their best lovers. The cafes tend to be quite business minded, and even though some cafes claim to be all creative and culture lovers, they would hardly entertain a painter to occupy a seat if she isn’t repeating the orders. Even after calling for a full meal lunch, snacks and cups of coffee, they would keep asking you to order without ever understanding that unlike so many people, my appetite is really low and I am unable to stuff my mouth with food constantly.
So I would keep hunting for a café that could let me work in peace, because to really soak in the ambience and the beautiful feeling of being amidst strangers, one had to be in the moment, embracing the energy flowing inside the artistic spaces. Maybe I liked cafes more because of the buzzing crowd and the noise and the feeling of being alive in that moment. Even one’s own thoughts seem to enjoy the company of those strangers.
Mind is a strange thing though. To completely understand yourself, you have to find a way to understand what your mind demands! And it’s quite a tricky work, as I believe very few people have been able to understand the workings of the universal psyche. I have a really complicated mind which makes me think over things in a suspended loop, until I feel sick and tired of it all.
I passed the four crossing and stood under the bridge until the shower had slowed down. I feel comfortable on the streets, knowing that life continues no matter what one experiences. And such a vivid picture life puts us through, I cannot imagine nor can I fully understand it. Perhaps that is what Life is meant to be.
There is a very special thing about the people living under the bridge and the people who visit the open area under it everyday. There is a chess club that has been operating for some years, where I see shop owners, the street kids and often old forgotten people sitting and challenging a game of chess over cups of nimbu chai. During the rainy season, it is a treat to sit under the Gariahat bridge and just observe things.
But today I was in the mood of dozing off with my nose buried inside a book, while drinking aromatic dark coffee and watching the rain soaked streets. No matter how many times I have had café experiences, I could never get over this fondness. It is hard to describe but once you set yourself inside, in a cozy corner of the perfect French window and order the cinnamon buns, chocolate tarts and a great American cappuccino, you’ll find yourself cherishing that perfect heavenly moment. Those few hours, I forget my worries and everything else in between that life throws at my way often.
Continued in Part 2
After I had found my perfect spot and settled down with my book, the rains had thickened and I could see children screaming in excitement. I took contented sips of my coffee and read this divine book I had unearthed in a sale. Though I always end up spending a lot on books, but great discount meant great joy for a book nerd. My room is packed with more than 2500 books, from my cupboards, to the staircase, to the attic – anywhere I found space, I stored my books. Apart from my art supplies and my paintings, books took a major space of my heart and my room. I often day-dreamt of having a studio with warm sunlight and books,, maybe by a seaside too and I would sit painting there everyday. Dreams are that beautiful to wander in and I am an expert daydreamer.
By now I could see a dozen kids, in their underwears creating havoc, fighting and screaming to get the best spot under the free. The flowing rain spring that came in a hard downpour from the openings of the bridge were meant to drain off the excess water. This water wasn’t clean and neither was the puddle, but to them it was water from the heaven and they just danced in it.
A few of the kids I knew used to study in the open school in Tiljala lanes and lived under the bridge in their plastic stretched tents and cardboard roofs. Most of the families living there belonged to the lower caste of the society, the doms and chamars, who did mostly the jobs of cleaning toilets in homes, drains and often jammed pipelines in the rainy seasons. I had been working with the underprivileged kids in the slums for quite some time, teaching them art and whatever little I knew about life.
It was always a peaceful experience for me, which reminded me less about my problems and more about living life fully, even though I always found them hungry or disoriented with the struggles, but they never forgot to smile. That was the best part about the children, they had innocence and warmth in their hearts unlike the cruel world around them, and I found life to be more meaningful in their presence.
I observed everyone around in the café. A couple sat in the far right corner, all love-dovey, hand in hand and almost stealing hidden kisses from each other. A gang of over energetic girls who had come to celebrate their winning in a dance drama and blow off the money they had earned. In the center sat some heavy men in their mid-thirties trying to discuss serious business matters and throwing ‘how down market looks’ glances at the overjoyed girls’ table. A girl in shorts and hippie shirt, sat scribbling in her notebook and making notes from a big fat book on sculptures. And a woman, same as my age, sitting in silence, almost brooding with a maddening temper.
I could tell she was ready to burst and bring the wrath of the world on the person who was causing her this pain, but I dug my nose back at the window and gobbled my chocolate tart. It is not a very wise thing to dig the pain of others, especially of strangers. One could fall into a trap of sorrow and unearth their own problems making the entire day miserable. I had learned this from my previous experience and decided otherwise, today was a great day for experiencing the great philosophy of life.
The café waiter kept on driving few of the kids from the streets away from the window and soon they were coming back, as if to tell the people that their privileged asses were meant to get off from the cozy chair and chase them in the puddles. I saw it was a fun game for them which they often liked playing again and again. So I got up and asked the waiter politely to not do that.
Continued in Part 3
The Manager did seem annoyed. Who wouldn’t be? The kids were in a pool of dirt and making awkward faces, their mouths stuck to the glass window, trying to lick the image of the food they could see in front of them.
This pained me. I never liked seeing a child like that and a good day demanded to spread some love. So I bought a handful of cakes and invited them inside the café. Some of the kids ran away with the cakes, gobbling it as fast as they could in case it got looted from their feeble hands. One kid in particular stood near the window looking at the cake and thinking about something. I wondered what he wanted, maybe some more cakes to share with his friends.
I asked him if he would like some more cakes. He kept quiet and he kept staring. I knelt down with my umbrella in one hand and the cake box in another, so I could be in the same height as the kid and asked again what was bothering him. He still didn’t speak and quizzically kept looking at me. From the other side of the road, I saw a man coming towards me. He had a strange look, I didn’t feel at ease.
He stood before me and grabbed hold of the kid’s hand, singing a line of slangs I had wished I hadn’t heard and he started dragging him away from me. He might be the kid’s father, I thought and even though I got angry, I kept my temper in control. I explained what I was asking the child. Dealing with the destitute had taught me to be patient because to them, the fine line of upholding respect or living life in a certain way didn’t matter. What mattered was surviving the hunger. They could get violent if not dealt with patiently. So I requested him to not scold the child because I just wanted him to enjoy the good piece of cake.
He was indeed his father. The child’s name was Nontu. He had a lanky figure in shorts and his white teeth jutted out with malnutrition written over his black face. He was crying now hoarsely and struggling to get away from his father’s clutches. The reason his father got angry was because most people gave things to the kids, but there were some people who tried to take away the kids and offer alcohol or other abusive substance. Life on the road was a struggle and Nontu had a speech problem. He hardly spoke and this concerned their parents. Often kids went missing from their area; some were getting into the habit of smoking gum and other solutions to deal with the pain of hunger. Often kids got physically abused, their parents had to be at their wits to keep tracing the children’s whereabouts along with struggling to earn a livelihood.
They were untouchables and were a butt of scorns and remarks. It was too much to bear at times, so the children were kept under constant watch by everyone living under the bridge. I had heard more horrible stories of young girls being burnt alive, boys being abused and dying out of diseases and hunger, Nontu was still in a safer place. Nontu by now had stopped crying and held my fingers tightly. In broken sentence he asked me to come along and meet his friends. I asked his father if I could meet everyone and he agreed. I bought three boxes of cakes and went along with them; they took me through a complicated network of wires and parked cars under the bridge to the thatched tents of the people living there.
The place had an overwhelming stench of urine and feces, with the sidewalks flooded with decaying food leftovers dumped by nearby restaurants and eateries. There was water leaking from the openings and the whole place was under a thick blanket of smog coming out from the stoves that the households were cooking their food in. I saw people talking heartily with each other, some playing cards and other finishing their work.
I met Nontu’s friends, a whole gang of twenty kids with vibrant smiles and teasing nature. They kept on talking and talking, while I asked each one what they wanted to become. For a long time, almost till evening, I stayed with them, narrating the tales of kings and queens to them, as I used to do in my childhood. I was the best storyteller, weaving tales after tales to my cousins while we all slept on the bed of my grandmother when we went to her home during our holidays. Time had made me forget a lot of things which as a child, I loved doing. I felt same with them, as the evening sky darkened with the chirpings of birds returning to their nest and the people returning to their homes after a hard day of work. I walked towards my home, keeping the memory of the homes under the bridge and the kids alive, and I surprisingly I felt peace.