Kolkata has somehow always been the home that keeps secrets from me.
Secrets tucked away in its narrow, busy lanes reverberating with the cacophony of voices, and maybe even lives; secrets lingering behind its red and yellow crumbling walls that fade away in time and take with them the stories that lived within; secrets peeping from the window of the rusting, yellow taxis I always spot taking a sharp curve down the road, always driving away from me.
Secrets I somehow never seem to unfurl.
But I never give up; this city can never be too much for me, I always have something more to find, something more to learn.
I sit in the yellow taxi, not like the ones that discreetly call me to them, but an almost ramshackle one with musty smelling interiors, torn, shredded seats and a derelict stereo. I roll the windows down as the driver turns to me. His face is partially hidden because of the shadows the setting sun casts. From the little that I can make out, I see his bald head and deep-set eyes. “Madam, radio ta on korte paari?”
I smile and nod, a little fazed by the revelation that the dilapidated stereo works and that I understood what he said; two years in this city and there is only a little of Bengali that I can understand. This was fortunately something that was easily comprehensible.
I look out of the window as he revs the engine and the song begins to play, the tune is familiar but I don’t pay much attention to it. The fatigue takes over me and I rest my head against the window, closing my eyes.
“chalte chalte, yun hi koi mil gaya tha,
yun hi koi mil gaya tha, sare raah chalte chalte,
chalte chalte, wahi tham ke reh gayi hai,
meri raat dhalte dhalte,”
The brush of wind on my face comes as a surprise in the sultry Kolkata weather and I open my eyes. The city lights pass me by as the song continues to play in the background. I look into the distance and see how the same wind that plays with my hair plays with the waves of the Hooghly. Something makes me feel lighter, maybe it’s the song, or the breeze, or maybe it’s just the enervation making me light headed. I close my eyes again.
“joh kahi gayi na mujhse, woh zamana keh raha hai,
ke fasaana bann gayi hai, meri baat chalte chalte,”
The streets of North Kolkata are in a constant state of hullabaloo, busier than the entire city is, with their trams and their vociferous jhal murhi hawkers. The noises and the honking horns get me out of my reverie. I open my eyes again, we’re at a red light; I see a little girl stroll towards the vehicles from the other side of the road, she makes her way amidst the cars and moves agilely from one window to another. It’s only when she hops towards my taxi that I see braids of gajra dangling down her left arm. She stands in front of the window, lifts one out of the bunch and smiles at me, saying nothing at all. She looks disheveled, wearing a frock with tattered frills at its ends, and a gajra in her unkempt hair. She keeps smiling and moves her fingers through the gajra, showing me how beautiful it is. I take out a fifty-rupee note and hand it to her, her smile widens as she exposes her broken side tooth. She gives the gajra to me and hops to the next window, still smiling. Silences are sometimes much stronger than hollow words, I think. I smell the gajra and it reminds me of home, of how my mother plucked a few flowers and kept them at the end of her dressing table, of how she hummed the same tune that played in the background whenever she dressed up.
“shabe intezaar aakhir, kabhi hogi mukhtasar bhi,
yeh chiraag bujh rahe hain, mere saath jalte jalte,”
The car comes to a halt again, we’re in front of an old building, and I see a small teashop with a tin roof in the corner, with a brown, cracked, wooden bench in the front. I look at the driver, I can see his face clearly now because of the streetlight. He’s a man probably in his early sixties, with tired eyes that tell tales of a hard life of labor and an aging face with a wrinkled forehead and sagging cheeks. He smiles sheepishly through his yellowing, crooked teeth.
“Aami neeche giye chaa khaate paari?”
I smile back and nod. I would like a cup of tea too, but I’ll make it myself when I get back to the apartment. I watch him as he gets out of the car and walks towards the shop. His tea arrives in about two minutes and he sits on the bench, holding it gingerly in his hands, taking small sips.
I look around the taxi, it doesn’t seem all that unfamiliar now. It looks more like the taxis I’ve been having my clandestine affair with, with this old man’s life and his indefatigable spirit being the secrets they were hiding. I think of the girl I bought gajra from, maybe the secrets of the streets were hidden in her smile, maybe I discovered some of them today. I look at the building that stands tall in front of me, I realize how the stories and secrets that the worn out walls were taking away with them have found shelter in the tiny tea shop that sits at its edge and offers comfort to every tired soul that is slowly fading away in the humdrum of life.
Maybe Kolkata wasn’t keeping any secrets from me, maybe the people were, maybe I unfurled some of them today, yun hi chalte chalte.
The driver comes back and takes his seat. He looks back at me again.
“Madam, radio ta on korte paari?”
I smile and nod yes, leaning my head against the window and closing my eyes.
“chalte chalte yun hi koi mil gaya tha, chalte chalte,”