“To be lost,” Ray Bradbury wrote, “How wonderful.” Not to be permanently, irretrievably lost, which is like a child running through the mazes of a nightmare that keeps turning into another, turning until the beginning and ending have merged into each other. But to be safely lost is to take a step out of the familiar. To take a turning off a place as familiar as Chowringhee and discover a corner that makes you wonder where you are. To capture the feeling of setting foot on an undiscovered planet without stepping into a spaceship, or even spacesuit.
Big cities offer it more than small cities. Big old cities, that is. Big new cities are full of white concrete blocks, buildings that don’t blink or smile or even beg with a whine. Calcutta offers it more than other cities – Calcutta streets are full of places to be lost in because, in Calcutta, live is lived on the streets.
Take a turn on any summer morning – left, say, or right, or any combination of those. Under the corner tree you’ll find the barber stropping his cut throat razor or beating soap into a froth while his customer squats patiently in front of him and two others squat in line. Around the pump, people are chewing neem twigs or running salt smeared fingers over their gums. Fires are being fanned alight in braziers for toasting thick wedges of bread and warming iron kettles. The tea-seller’s boy is washing the thick ribbed glasses in the hydrant surrounded by wagging mongrels.
On the more important corners near the bus routes are the shoeshine boys with their brushes thumping on their blocks in an insistent semi Fred Astaire rhythm. Neatly arranged in front of them are the circles of their Cherry Blossom polish tins. Once in a while someone stops to stick up a foot and be sent shining to office with a seesaw swish of the cloth.
Later in the morning, the cobblers congregate in huddles of shoes and slippers with their awls and needles. They sprawl in their cloths near tram depots and apartment buildings while the maids brings out the memsahibs’ handbags and stilettos and leave them there to be collected some hours into the afternoon. A sudden spatter of rain only sprouts black umbrellas to cover the leather: the hammering, cutting and stitching continue uninterrupted.
Along a sweep of wall, the puffed rice man sets out his paraphernalia of divided trays of boiled potatoes, nuts and chopped onion. Food has a street life all its own, taking over entire alleyways with boiled eggs, bread, bananas and dough. A central Calcutta street is reserved for the rickshaw pullers who line their pavement edges with their bowls of chattu (sago) and green chillies.
The neighbourhood ironing man trundles his cart into a nearby patch of shade and slowly collects a pile of clothes from the houses while his old fashion iron heats on the coals. He spends his morning ironing saris, petticoats, dhotis and shirts. In the afternoon, he curls up on his ironing board and goes to sleep. He is to be found in his shadow stretch every day between the same hours, running a quick eye over the comings and goings of the neighbourhood, noting suspicious strangers and doing impromptu guard duty along with the laundry.
Stretches like Chowringhee and Park Street, which are closer to tourists, have a more cosmopolitan air to their street life. Fortunetellers materialise with red cloths and oracular parrots trained to pick out the right fortune cards. Booksellers spill their stock of old ‘new’ books, displaying everything from the latest Polish knitting patterns to Spielberg screenplays. Sometimes a tightrope spans a narrow alleyway with a tumbling child acrobat as accompaniment. The child is tossed on the rope by an encouraging father. He then totters across and jackknifes in a somersault off the rope. You can bump into a horse dancer and the city streets can blur momentarily into fields. You can lose yourself in a village that happens to be called Calcutta.
Early spring brings the man with the dancing bear down from the hills and the snake charmer with his sluggish coils. The snake and the bear fall in with the monkey dancers as additional ways of whiling away a morning on the street.
Take another left from the entertainment. You might find a street of postcard writers. People putting down anything from a love letter to a plea to come home, father serious, for those unable to do it for themselves. The more hi-tech versions of this are the pavement typewriters who park themselves with a chair and a narrow table tapping out bio-datas, though they have competition from the slices of shops that advertise email and computerised CVs.
Try a U-turn. You might run into a pair with a stock of patent medicine. ‘Enchanted’ water to drive out a ghost or bring back a lover, or rainbow coloured phials and bottles, most often filled with laxatives that are equally guaranteed to change the course of one’s love life.
Other cities try to drive their street life indoors, to find other means of confined entertainment. In Calcutta, the life thrives from dawn to sunset, to dawn again and stories are written on every street corner. In Calcutta, the buildings hold out tin cups and ask for paisa; where the street dogs yap at drunken revelers at night and judiciously ignore the cat burglars.
You can turn a corner off Beadon Square and wonder in which time warp you are. You can mob an international film unit or, in an elbow off Ballygunge Place, buy hand fans in the pelting rain caught between the stretch of two high walls. People pay immense sums of money to get safely lost. They catch planes and jetset north, south, east, west. They run away from the too familiar, looking for new city puzzles to solves and, most of the time, they solve their puzzles far too easily.
The puzzle of Calcutta’s streets is never easily solved. Some people call it serendipity – others a nightmare, like running into a showing of Dracula at the end of every lane. Some people cover it up and pretend, in the comfort of their airconditioned clubs, that it doesn’t exist, or give it strange names like a disease – ‘Calcutta-it is’ for example. Some people try to cash in on it.
Whatever it is, it is out there on the pavements, waiting.