Kolkata is an exuberant city which lives up to its tag – ‘The City of Joy’. From its mouth-watering egg rolls to its romantic boat rides under the Vivekananda Setu, the city is brimming with energy.
As for me, I love the city in particular because it has thousands of stories hidden away in different nooks and corners. In order to explore them, one needs to venture out, get lost in the maze and nomadically traverse hither and thither, in pursuit of directions and material. Google Maps has made the entire task less daunting especially for struggling people like me who have been afflicted with social anxiety. Maps sure does give you decent directions, what happens en route is a completely different story altogether.
Kolkata’s public transport system is iconic, for lack of a derisive word. In fact, Kolkata’s very image in the public’s mind is defined either by the Howrah Bridge, or the blue striped yellow taxis. And we would have definitely started our journey in one of these lovely No Refusal adorning beauties, had the driver obliged to taking me to my destination. Or the next six drivers, for that matter.
So from the blue striped yellow vaahans, I move on to the yellow striped blue vaahans – the classic Kolkata buses. No matter how crowded it is, the over-excited conductor will never refuse you. The conductor has a pet on-board the bus – the driver. The conductor addresses his pet by means of a bell, which he pulls through a string, notifying him to stop, or to resume, depending on the occasion, lest he might go astray.
As a male citizen of a country with a skewed sex ratio, my instincts go right to the corner of the bus where I see the prettiest woman seated. Before I can reach a spot in her vicinity, the next stop arrives, and the incoming throng jostles me to a perfectly sweet and square wet patch under the underarms of an overly sweaty uncle.
The conductor is a man of character. Not only does his demeanour ooze with fake excitement, his body is a museum of all sorts of pollution and humidity samples gathered from multiple rounds of the city. Apart from that, he tries to respect women and children. Obliging to their needs and promoting the fact that women are weaklings, every time a lady has to debus, along with a child, the conductor makes his obligatory announcement to his pet, “Ledeej, Baccha ache!(Ladies and Kids are there!)”
Having experienced multiple underarm odours in a span of 20 minutes, when you get off at your stop, the oxygen really does feel like a gift from the gods.
The next marvel that we visit is the Kolkata Metro. The revolutionary rail system, a first for India, has lost its sheen over time. Although it still is popular, it’s far behind its counterparts in other cities. Yet, the dismal ICF manufactured government coaches manage to create memorable journeys of a lifetime.
For me, it happened quite recently, en route Shobhabazar Sutanuti from Netaji Bhavan. As my mother and I stepped closer to the train doors to entrain, we waited for the doors to open. When they did, we expected people to detrain. We were wrong.
Not only did the people not detrain, the existing crowd left no crevice for entry. As the doors opened, a person’s belly, relieved of the pressure from the doors, popped and oscillated right onto the station, dangling midway between the former and the train. Seizing the tumbling tummy as a perfect opportunity, we pushed right into it, compressed all the air, and made space for ourselves.
A great marvel and a characteristic feature of this purple vaahan happens to be its quick acceleration. As the door shuts, we find ourselves to be a part of an infinite human sandwich with limited oxygen, we realise that our problems have only just begun.
The first issue that people have are pertained to a particular class of people I like to call “The Pehredaars” of the compartment, the watchmen. These are the obstinate ones who get on at a particular station and do not push themselves back with the crowd in order to make space for the incoming and outgoing junta. Instead, they stand obediently at the doors, impervious to the cranky Bengali woman who constantly yells at him to step back and give others an opportunity to exit.
The next breed are the loyalists. These are the people whose love for the compartment cannot be contested. So massive is their love that they cling on to whatever they can grab hold of, as the internal force from the detraining junta tries to break their grit. The public screams, and yells, but they do not budge. These are probably the ones for whom the metro specifically makes an announcement to empty the compartment at the final station.
Last but not the least, you have the Royalty – the ones who manage to find a seat for themselves, and the Limbo Junta – the ones who are neither here, nor there. They hang around in the compartment and spread themselves in awkward shapes to adapt to other passengers. They have the least level of freedom when it comes to movement, and they probably have learnt to live with the fact that they will be able to exit only four stops prior to the one which was intended.
There are two possible scenarios when hell can break loose, and I state them from experience. If you remember my point about the metros’ startling acceleration, you will probably be able to understand that the Limbo Junta is reduced to a chain of human dominoes: the train budges forward and in beautiful compliance with the Third Law of Motion, the dominoes fall on each other in the exact opposite direction. And to say that our education system provides no scope for practical knowledge!
The other scenario is when in that constricted environment with limited oxygen, someone passes a perfect sample of flatulence – silent, yet deadly.
As my station arrived, I stepped out of the beautiful pandemonium, away from the wailing Bengali women, offering my gratitude to the Pehredaars for their faithful, unrequired service, and insulting the incoming public with appropriate words as they entrain without allowing the public to get out. Seriously, sir, we were helping you only; by pushing us further inside, it’s merely counterproductive, you aren’t allowing space to be created for you – something that we were gladly willing to do!
That brings us to our final vaahan of discussion – the hari peeli – the autos that dominate the streets of the city. Whenever there isn’t a proper source of transport, I somehow find myself in the vicinity of an auto stand. The brilliant share auto service and their small circuits connect most of the city and contribute significantly in making commute less of a hassle. Being the average Indian male, it’s expected for one to sit, waiting for the auto to fill up with other passengers and secretly wish that the next co-passenger be a cute woman.
As for me, I got what I coveted. As the auto rickshaw was about to depart, a beautiful, young woman asks for the autowallah to stop, takes the spot right beside me, puts on her earphones, and gets lost in her own world. The full volume of the songs leaks out through her earplugs and I immediately decipher that the girl is an avid fan of Nirvana and Pink Floyd. As we commute, second by second, my affection for what’s-her-name increases, and finally, when the moment arrives, I decide to let go of my social anxiety and open my mouth.
“Dada, please stop the auto right there.”