Instead of using the very useful tool called Google search I still go old school, like arriving at a mall without checking first what time it opens. I did just that in Kolkata, when, after dragging my feet for a couple of days, I bit the bullet and went to shop for some summer kurtis for myself. I must have written before that I detest shopping with a passion. I believe it has something to do with making decisions. I have a mental block and the damage is irreparable. I found myself in front of West Side Mall in Gariahat at 10 am because I wanted to beat the shoppers but parking lot seemed unusually quiet. I asked the gentleman guarding the mall, ‘Kota e khulbe? (When will it open)’ I was there right at 10 presuming the whole world operated on US store hours. Well, I was wrong. India entertains its consumers an hour less than they do it here. The mall opened at 11.00 am. I had one hour to kill.
So I decided to walk the streets of Gariahat market, my old stomping ground. I know this area like the back of my hand. I thought I would immerse myself in memories by walking from one end of Gariahat till the other – from Ballygunge Station to Anandamela, cross the intersection and walk back on the other side of the road.
When I lived in Kolkata and walked the streets of Gariahat I always had a purpose. I was either going to Ballygunge Institute library, or going home from the bus stop, buying fish and vegetables or out for puja shopping. I threw myself in the crowd and elbowed my way in to get to where I was going. The events occurring around me did not register at all because I was part of the incessant movement. This time however, I was purposeless, an observer, a pilgrim of sorts, out to pay homage to my past and the place that has seen me grow.
I watched the shopkeepers sprinkling holy Ganges water in front of their make shift shops on the sidewalks of Gariahat road as they opened for business, hoping to appease the gods for a successful day. Some were opening their big bags of ware, slowly taking them out to display. The men seemed to be in no hurry, they laughed and chatted with each other, teased and talked about politics and cricket with their competitors as the items came out from huge gunny sacks.
The store keepers who had legitimate stores had opened slightly earlier. They were sipping their morning tea in small earthen cups, called bhaar, from nearby tea stalls, as they sat comfortably turning the pages of a crisp newspaper. I assumed they were the shop owners and not employees, just going by their demeanor.
The tea stalls and food vendors were busy preparing ghugni, luchi, aloor dam to feed the travelers getting off at Ballygunge Station, the shop keepers and the parents and children from neighboring South Point School, whose elementary section must have let off just then.
Little boys and girls with tired, sweaty faces were being dragged by their mothers. The saree clad, mostly young mothers carried their heavy bags while the children allowed themselves to be gently pulled, almost in a daze. Some mothers bought oranges from fruit vendors and after feeding the children the healthy snack, they said loudly, “Ektu jol din toh” (Please give some water) to the man selling fruit. And then to the kids, “Aiiii, hat bhalo kore dhue ne!” (wash your hands well).
Saree shops, shalwar shops, bindis, costume jewelry, magazine stalls, cake shops, watch shops, luggage shops, plastic toy stores – you have it all on the streets – at a good price, if you know how to bargain.
College boys and girls stood at the bus stop flirting, touching each other at every opportunity they got, playing out the age old flirtatiousness between the two genders, flouting the morality of a repressive society when it came to relationships. I watched the innocent, youthful flirtation and joyous laughter safely hidden behind my shades as I waited for the lights to change so I could cross to the other side.
On the other side of the street was the store where ma and later myself, bought our inexpensive blouses and petticoats. The employees were elderly men and as I passed by the store I saw them still – frozen in age. I wanted to peek into my old library which had kept me entertained throughout my childhood and then youth with dusty copies of Noddy, Famous Five, Nancy Drew, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Rebecca, books by Eric Segal and then Richard Bach, but somehow I missed it as I kept walking. Kolkata changes with passing years, Gariahat, somehow, does not. Even the shopkeepers that I knew from childhood – their structure, their clothes seem to be replaced by the next generation having the same structure, same outfit, same demeanor, same dialogues with customers. This continuity was very reassuring. A little part of Kolkata refuses to step into the contemporary decade. A little part of Kolkata remains incongruous.
I passed a group of boys and I stiffened for just a second till I remembered the confidence that silver hair can provide. As a young woman, when I passed a group of young men, I braced myself against an unwanted touch or some kind of unwanted remark. A lone boy hardly ever said anything, but a group of them was a different matter altogether. I remembered the feeling of apprehension as I passed groups of boys, my eyes to the ground, my pace increased, as I got silently ready for some kind of shame. That day I looked back and felt a little bad for the insecure young woman I used to be. I looked the boys in the eye as they took in my short-cropped hair and shocking pink shoes. I smiled and nodded; surprise registered in their faces, unsure of what their reaction should be. I chuckled as I moved on, peeked in Bharat Shevashram, lamented the loss of trams in the Gariahat area as I took in the construction that was going on to cover up the tram lines there and arrived back at West Side Mall after 11:00. The door man, looking dapper in his navy blue uniform, opened the door for me and smiled an unsure yet happy smile as I looked him in the eye and said a big, smiley “Thank you!”
The feeling of walking the streets of Gariahat is fast fading but as I write these little snippets I travel back to that hour, to that day, to that place. We live so many hours, a few stand out and get etched in memory. This particular hour was one such.