My mouth felt stale. It probably had everything to do with Kolkata’s lack of morning air. I could feel the stagnant files of yellow taxi’s, puffing clouds of black smoke; their rubber tyres melting on the burning asphalt and I could feel the viscous tar clogging the networks that ran under my skin. I could sense it all in my mouth, in every breath that I inhaled; the haze of noxious particles that waited suspended in the air, the clamour in the streets so early in the morning, the loud and unmelodious locals, the cluttered sight that lay before my eyes and the scent of the drab and dull. Even the rays that the sun emitted were rusted but then I thought maybe it was just me fatigued from the dusty overnight travel that had furnished my eyes with the brown tint.
I stepped off the bus at Dharamtala and was immediately encircled by men in strikingly lifeless grey coloured shirts and trousers. Their faces were as comatose as their apparel and so must have been their lives but they had been shown a purpose and it was this purpose that made them breathe, that pushed them on their feet towards me and others who got off before and after me, hailing us into their taxis. They were prostitutes of a different kind and of a different degree.
I ignored the inquiring voices of these men and walked on out of the bus depot. The bus had arrived two hours late and Kolkata had opened its eyes and had begun its panting, as every day. I looked at the roads cluttered with vehicles of different shapes, sizes and colours, inching in opposite directions and I looked at the men and women in them. I looked at those men and women who zigzagged across moving traffic, crossing the roads and clambering over yellow and black striped dividing barriers. I looked at children with ties around their necks. I looked at empty and laden carts being pushed by one and pulled by another. I looked at starving women bent over fire pots, stirring its non-nutritive contents, occupying parts of footpaths. I looked up at the birds flying from electric wires to electric wires. I looked down at the birds hopping cautiously towards the unwanted litter of the non-nutritive stew and I looked at them flutter away when shooed as they got closer and I looked at them return. I crossed across the street just as everyone else, plunging ahead of screeching buses and wild abuses of men who had to get somewhere. I looked at Esplanade flinching. Chaos was everywhere. It was routine. I saw men and women who had sold their souls. I saw children who had been dictated to sell their souls. We were all prostitutes. Some of us knew that. Most didn’t.
I kept walking through the façade that was everybody’s life. It was stifling me and I wished that I could with one swinging stroke of my arm erase all the artificiality that surrounded me. I wished for all of them to be replaced by something of more substance; I wished for yellow but not too bright sunflowers to replace them. Demure sunflowers with gentle and definitely not superfluous amounts of soothing scent, because beyond a certain limit it would only be unnecessary and futile. I wished that they would just be still and not waltz in any breeze. I just wanted tranquil. I needed tranquil. This want, this need made me walk faster. The more I walked to get out, the more I walked in and everyone else was moving but they were not moving fast enough and I found myself pushing through stubborn bodies of flesh and I pushed harder and I walked faster and I half ran till everything around me grew fewer and slower. When I stopped, I had reached somewhere near Park Street. I started walking again, slowly, to Oly.
Oly Pub was a place where I had spent an inconsequential fraction of my life and energy during the time when I was pursuing my higher education. As I stood outside Oly, I looked at its face as it looked at mine. It was the most pitiful block on Park Street; old, dirty, gloomy and unchanged.
I walked in and up the vermillion carpeted stairs. It looked the same – the same cheap tables, the same torn couches, the same peg glasses, the same red tunic waiters, the same monotonous buzz of conversations, the same luminous lighting. I looked for my old spot in the corner. It was taken. There were three girls doing shots. I took the nearest vacant table and plopped myself on the depressed cushion of the chair. I ordered my whiskey and looked around. Amidst all that had remained constant, something had changed apart from the individuality of the rodents that scurried from table to table. It was the faces of Oly’s customers. The broad rimmed spectacles, the white French beards, the flowing gray hair, the wrinkled, the lipstick-less lips, the ironed shirts, the black saris, the silent smokers and pristine conversations had all given way to vests, afros, ponytails, high heels, multi-coloured sneakers, birthday parties, coughing smokers and filthy noise. The alcohol on every table had dimmed the lights of those on the chairs and the couches and their worlds had shrunk into a sphere that encompassed their tables. Everyone was laughing and yelling and abusing and cheering and laughing again. I realized that maybe, it was me. I was wrong; the possibility of that being true shined brightly as I stared deep into the translucent brown whiskey on my table. I envied them. They had purpose and they had happiness. I had neither; I had nothing except for the glass in my hand. I lifted it, downed the whiskey and I was left with nothing. I called for another.
When I stumbled out of Oly, Kolkata was purple and I was smiling. It wasn’t that I was happy but the whiskey had numbed me to the parody that was being staged around me. I was in actuality shambling down Kolkata’s widening and narrowing and abruptly beginning and abruptly ending irregularly patterned pavements but I felt differently. I seemed at ease and the motion of my limbs felt not just smooth but also genuine and as my eyelids drooped, the scope of my vision inflated and I was one of the many red lights and the green lights and the yellow lights and the blinking neons and the blue lights and the head lights and the tail lights. It was euphoric – a sudden dawning – that arose from the knowledge of being oblivious; from knowing that everyone was shit and not a single one of everyone gave a shit about you. It made me smile wider, the comedy in the tragedy of finding life in death. I wasn’t happy but I was happy, I couldn’t see but I could see and I was hobbling but I was marching through Kolkata’s dizzy streets.
As I followed the brightest lights, I realized I had begun to walk straight with a slight stiffness in my movement and then I noticed the lights had grown fainter and fewer and I could feel existence – mine and everyone’s.
I stopped at the first liquor shop the road led me to, bought a bottle and decided to visit an old friend. In total honesty, he was less of a friend and more of someone who had in adolescence been mesmerized by the aspect of socializing with someone who had of his own accord cast himself out of all fraternities of the society. Orko and I had met during our senior secondary years and had been flat-mates in Kolkata whilst pursuing our respective degrees. We were both drastically differing in who we were but for some reason he had made sure that he towed me along wherever it was that he went. He was a selfish optimist who was scaringly social, frighteningly friendly and in twice those amounts of terror – a conniving cunt. I had guessed that the reason why he needed me was because a man had to at a certain point get tired of all that faking and just be himself and that is where I probably came into the picture for him because I unfeelingly accepted negativity as a part of life, as a part of being human, as truth. I, neither liked him nor disliked him, but I had in a way grown to enjoy his company because he drank like me and I found his derogatory quips – which he had sharpened in my company – about everyone and anyone rather hilarious. That was the founding base on which our acquaintanceship or friendship – as most people saw it – stood on.
I stepped out of the yellow taxi right at the doorstep of the building where I had shared the flat with Orko. I tendered the displayed fare plus a tip which the man in the nondescript grey quickly accepted, folded it into his shirt pocket and immediately before I could turn around, appealed for a higher gratuity. “Dog” – I thought and walked away. He continued to blatantly hold me guilty for whatever deficiency that prevailed in his dreary life till I had entered into the building.
As I hauled myself and my backpack up the narrow stairs to the fourth floor, I wondered if Orko was still living here and even if he was then would he even be home. I didn’t care. I buzzed the doorbell and after a series of clinking and clanking noises, the door parted slightly and two eyes behind rectangular framed spectacles peeped at me for a short while before they registered my face and found an accurate match in their data banks. The door opened completely and the demeanor of the unexpecting host changed instantly.
“Aahhh ha haaa! What iss uppp, brooh! Ha ha. Oh dude…surprise! Surprise. Eh?”
“Heyy…” – I said with a slow tilting nod of my head and he grabbed me and pulled me into a hug. He had enhanced his art. I was clearly stumped as to whether his reaction was genuine or if he was still on the job.
He shut the door but before it would impede all and any throughway, he sneaked a quick glance outside before slamming it and turning all the levers on the back of the door. I walked into my old room which was now his room through the short corridor. Despite the many transformations that indicate the gradual rising of the resident along the professional ladder, the flat had somehow managed to retain some of its original aura. Empty spaces had been filled and items had been replaced. I sat down on the wrought iron bed that had replaced the thin mattress that used to lay there and cracked open the alcohol. It spiraled up towards freedom and it glided around the room in the air before sinking gently to reside over the various items in the room. The room seemed refreshed.
Orko, being the skilled conversationalist had immediately gotten down to the business of inquiring about the goings-on of my life. I had little to say so I said nothing and instead asked him about his life. He seemed content with my rebuttal as if I had satisfactorily answered his query and the round eyes behind those rectangular spectacles were looking straight at me. He nodded his head up and down as if I had just poured my heart out to him and he was not just immensely interested but also very concerned about it all.
“Aah. Good…good. Great to see you doing good for yourself…Aah…I am doing good. You know? Life. Work and all.”
I poured him a drink; made him a large one against his vague objections to drinking and a few gulps later he began tossing down raw shots one after another. Very soon, he had finished the bottle and was smoking a cigarette, staring into the dogmatic grids of the tiled floor. He had initially started out by publicizing his firm and sneaking in irrelevant incidents that were supposed to make me envious of him. He described how he had swiftly gone from intern to assistant project manager to project manager and yet when he looked back at it, it seemed to him to have been painstakingly sluggish. He felt good about his ascent but he did not know why. The last time I had sat drinking with him, he had dreamed of pursuing a career in journalism and now he was doing something else. In between momentary pauses where he let the whiskey singe his throat and raze his mind, he continuously claimed that he loved what he was doing but I knew that he despised whatever it was that they were making him do. With every peg that found its way into his chest, he became clearer and clearer. He was a project manager for a renowned organization whose prime objective was interconnecting the West to the East. He was an Events Manager of sorts. It was a job that was far from the job that he had wanted to do. The job required him to smile and deal with multitudes of people behind whose backs he verbally disintegrated every aspect of their being. It required endless working hours and he had not been on a single vacation for the past three and a half years. He worked from nine to after nine and from Sunday to Sunday. He planned – hoped – to quit one day and pursue his original dream but the instant he had said it, we both knew he would never quit. His work left him with no time for merry making with friends – in truth, it had left him with no friends – or for love affairs and with minuscule time which he dedicated responsibly but rather bitterly to his family in the other end of the city. This was his job. It was his life. I asked him what it was that woke him up at the one same time every morning, to catch the bus to work and he sighed and mumbled no words. He had accepted that this was what life was meant to be, for him and for everyone and on rare occasions when he met aimless blokes like me, he pitied us and envied us, both at the same time. He had not accepted defeat but instead, for him it was the truth and in his eyes he was winning. He only just did not know how. I looked at him as he jerked the upturned bottle, attempting to drain the invisible drops onto his seeking tongue. He was the lowest kind of prostitute.
While he was burying himself in self remorse I lit myself a cigarette and found my mind twirling in its own misunderstandings and fixations. I looked at Orko and I saw a being, a man breathing and living and dying. I saw his dilemmas and I saw his reasons and I saw his grief and I saw his motives and I saw everything but I failed to understand anything. His actions in daily life were prompted by the wants, the needs, the reality that his mind chose. He had decided. He was the chooser of his life; the maker of it all and yet, he found himself in misery, he found his life lacking. Was it him determining everything or was it that universal lie that this is the universal truth that was running the motions of his life. Why were we so different and unhappy and wanting other lives. Was he conscious when he hopped on to the bus to work every day, when he took notes on his daily planner, when he sat staring at the beautiful depressing two dimensional landscape wallpaper of his computer screen or was he conscious then, when he was sitting, smoking, drinking and accepting the falsity of his life? Was I conscious? Ever?
Orko’s cellphone buzzed. It transformed the person I was sitting with. With great alacrity he picked up the phone, looked at its small screen with equal alarm and flipped it open.
“Hello? Yes Tom. Yes. No no. Not an issue. Yes. Ummm hmmmm. All right. Okay. Yes. Right. Uh huh. Definitely. Definitely. I’ll get to it. Yes. All right. No problem. All right. Okay then. You have a good night. See you tomorrow.”
I watched him quietly as he dissolved in serious thought and then suddenly stood up to make a few similar phone calls and scribble into his daily planner and make a few more phone calls and finally power on his computer in front of which he spent the next three quarters of an hour. I watched him the entire time in amusement for despite being immensely occupied, Orko never quite fell silent. Tom was abused and vulgarized till even after his holes and orifices could take no more. I was being entertained and Orko enjoyed entertaining me.
When he finally put his computer away, he was still cursing Tom with a steady fervor. He indicated that he wanted to drink a little more and that we make a visit to the nearby bootlegger. I was dog tired – my body shattered from the travelling, my brain battered from the drinking – but the proposal of having more to drink was one that could not be declined, so we dragged ourselves out into the night and into the abandoned streets.
We walked around the main roads and into lanes and into narrow paths and into tiny settlements. All of Kolkata had changed. Towers had erupted where there had been none, blocks had been added to blocks somewhere, blocks had been subtracted from blocks somewhere and the paths I had once walked on were now different paths. Industrialization. Civilization. Evolution. Growth. Advancement. Progress. It was all visible in the physical as it had been the ultimate endeavor to make it as evident as possible. But those shanties where our walk ended, they still remained as had been left. Maybe a few of the huts had acquired new worn down roofs but that was all. They had not grown in size but rather the original space divided into smaller individual residencies. They had not been a part of the development.
A lone faint bulb glowed in one of the huts and the crooked door broke open slightly and shut again and broke open slightly and shut again. The atmosphere had changed. The air was still but you could feel it alive and active. Adulterated with the dense odour of the liquid contained in the transparent sticker free bottles, you could feel the flooding movement of the alcohol in the air. Men walked past us, silently, with eyes lowered. A couple of men sat on the dirt conversing, not being too loud not being too gentle. We reached the door and the door opened a crack letting a streak of pale yellow light dissect Orko’s plump structure. A woman just beyond her middle ages was raising her eyebrows at us. I recognized her; she was the wife of the face who I had known as the bootlegger. I wondered if she recognized me and for an unknown reason I hoped that she would and we would exchange greetings and inquire on each other’s lives and she would, propping up the crooked door with her shoulder, pull it open to its maximum. Nothing as such happened and Orko haggled – in a sweet and gentle manner, letting her know that she was doing us an altruistic favour – for what was very cheap alcohol, successfully.
We walked back the same road that we had come on and this time, at a crossing we noticed two constables, one inside the check post and the other on a chair outside. Both were asleep. Orko abused them under his breath. I laughed and we remembered a prank we used to pull when we were younger. We would casually walk up to random police check posts and then hurl abuses at the policemen, make derogatory gestures and scamper away. It would not matter whether it was broad daylight or a moonless night, a crowded road or an empty street, because we soon realized that they hardly followed us for more than a few steps and when we realized that, it stopped being that much fun. I recalled the first time we did it and Orko had said – “That was some brave shit.” It was not brave. And we were not brave. We would avoid being anywhere near the check post we last attacked for over a month. We were cowards; cowards and prostitutes. The prostitutes in Sonagachi were braver than us. I thought about that and I started thinking about Suchitra; and her brother and the marbles and the promise I had made. The night ended silently. I thought silently, I drank silently and I fell asleep silently.
I spent the next few days drunk and asleep. Orko would leave for work at eight and wouldn’t be back till after nine. I would sleep most of the day and when I would suddenly fall off an unseen and unexisting cliff in my trance and wake up to the lethargic rotations of the ceiling fan I would close my eyes again and drift into the solace of a lull where time figuratively ceased to tick tock. In the nights, I would drink while Orko would pensively perceive the display of his computer screen. He had passed on the drinking and I observed his disposition towards me change as he consciously began making his superiority apparent through abstruse expressions and grumbling ‘tsks’. I noticed it when at first he pitied me, and then when he was certain that he pitied me and then again when my detached presence simply became a bothering burden for his own unknown reasons. I knew I was not wanted and I knew I had overstayed my spontaneous visit and I knew I was just regretfully dissipating myself but I also knew, that confined within that 12x10ft room, I was in a state of absent equilibrium – neither troubled and neither untroubled. ‘Nothing’ felt right.