Walking through Old Kolkata, I was looking for a refuge from the crowds of the Burrabazar Wholesale Market. I found myself increasingly drawn to the narrow alleys and crumbling monuments of the old city. More modern areas like Salt Lake seemed so indistinguishable from any urban area anywhere that I'd happily given up plans to go down the Ganges (the river Hooghly) to spend more time in the old city.
Every day I'd set off from my friend's house in the old-money enclave to find new ways through the maze of streets. It was fun enough, particularly watching the action from a nearby little-known caf', but that day there was not a place to sit, the sun was hot .
There was the usual crowd of pushy working girls already hanging just outside the cafe in the blazing afternoon sun, trying to woo the 'single' male tourists. I downed the rest of the tea and briskly walked out, turning the corner to avoid any encounters. Soon the tea and the sun hit me and I began having random thoughts while wandering the already familiar streets and alleys of the decrepit Old Kolkata.
In the midst of my lightheaded rambling, I caught sight of a stunningly beautiful young girl. She was wearing a loose floral mini dress with shoulder straps and flip-flops. She had a delicate, slim figure with beautiful curves and smooth dark skin. But she did not seem to be a original Kolkattan .
Casually adjusting my pace, I began to keep her in sight and lit a Dunhill cigarette, wondering if I would ever have the luck to meet her and if my chances would have been better had I been born and raised in her neighborhood, in one of the dilapidated tenement houses of Old Kolkata.
That's when I stumbled into a lane just off Burrabazar which was curiously peaceful. The high walls of an imposing old building on one side meant it was not dominated by shops, and on the other were old tenements with windows covered by weathered mashrabiyya wooden screens. These are the busy yet laidback lanes of Kolkata.
My eyes were opened up in its ordinary yet intense reality, with squabbling families living one on one on top of the other and men and women looking for ways to squeeze out a living, yet still within the immense oldness of the city and the tensions and passions of its present history.
That day, as usual, Ramprasad who have settled here a few years back from Dwarbhanga in the neighboring Bihar, was offering me a deal, Rs. 500/- for a virgin. "Sure, but right now I want to meet that girl." I said, pointing out the exotic young girl who has just walking away. He shadowed his eyes with his palm and said: "I know her. Her name is Meenaxi. She's from my neighborhood. "
Ramprasad showed me a cozy, literally homey lodge above a restaurant .
That night Ramprasad delivered a box of Dunhill cigars to my room where, to my surprise the enchanting Meenaxi joined.
So after all it was in my destiny to have dinner with Meenaxi. Up close she was radiant and captivating . Her irises were as pitch-black as her pupils. Her ample, cascading black hair flowed onto her shiny bare shoulders. Her tiny, round lips were full like a tulip bulb.
The following Friday, I took her to see a Bengali movie. In the theatre, Meenaxi sat next to me and in the middle of the film she put her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes.
At the guesthouse, we tiptoed to my room. When I turned on the lights she disappeared in the bathroom and took her time in the shower. When she reappeared she was naked. I looked at her silhouette. Then silently she cuddled up next to me and rested her head on my chest for a while.
We made love. She was quiet and tender .
Then she went to the bathroom again for a long time .
Then she turned the light off, snuggled next to me in bed and, drifted off.
When I woke up, Meenaxi was still asleep. Through the small window high above my bed another hot and bright day in Kolkata poured in. That day I took a taxi to the bank of the river Ganges and stared at the blue sky and the low clouds on the horizon.
She came by the house the next day. She was wearing another tight black T-shirt imprinted with the word L o v e in large silver letters. When we went to my room she quickly undressed and, without much hesitation, we made love standing in front of the mirror.
When she woke up, we got dressed and decided to go shopping. Meenaxi took me to a large clothing outlet where she had probably bought all of her clothes. The clothes seemed to have come from some international charity organization.
I thought that maybe a stylish dress would make her happy and I took her to a chic clothing boutique in the lobby of a fancy international hotel. She tried a couple of dresses on fascination.
Finally she put on a blue dress of beautiful silk that fit her well . Feeling exalted, I thought to myself that I too deserved to see her in that dress. The price tag was a reasonable 455 bucks and I decided to pay cash and buy her the dress as a present.
The next day, just before noon, a knock on my door woke me. The house-maid told me that a girl named Meenaxi wanted to come in to see me. When she arrived, she looked somber and sad. She was wearing her kiss print T-shirt again. She sat next to me on my bed, her eyes downcast and said in a sad voice:
" I'm sorry about last night but yesterday I had a big problem at home."
"I could not wear your dress last night. '
"Because yesterday my aunt took the dress back to the shop to got the money for it."
A tear ran down her cheek. She paused silently for a while and said:
"My mother said I could not have that dress when in our house we don't have enough food to eat."
I held her as she broke into a silent sob. I said:
" Please don't cry. Whatever I can do ..."
"I have to go."
She quickly straightened up her back and got up.
The next day I left Kolkata for Karachi, the port city of Pakistan.
It was not until two years later that I went back to Kolkata. Leaving the airport, my backpack was next to me on the back seat of the taxi and the new taxicab zoomed smoothly through the dark and empty avenues of Kolkata.
The taxi driver, a dashing yet old Punjabi, asked: "Where are you from? Malaysia"
"No. I am from this city only, sardarji ."
"Oh. Welcome back to communismo!"
"How is life in Calcutta?"
As we approached the center of town, there was again the familiar scene of curvaceous young prostitutes working the streets and intersections.
"The working girls are still here."
"Ya !" He pronounced emphatically in laughter.
"I heard they cracked down on that business."
"No. It never changes."
In a flash I saw a delicate and beautiful girl running across to the other side of the avenue. I thought I saw her wearing high heels, a short red miniskirt and a black T-shirt with a large red kiss print.
"Oh, ... slow down !" I said to the driver and abruptly turned around on my seat and stuck my head out through the window.
As the cab slowed down and stopped at a red light I focused my eyes again and for a moment I caught a good sight of her from afar as she was illuminated by another pair of approaching headlights. It was Meenaxi.
"You like her, sir ?" The driver asked.
"No.' I replied.
"You can probably have her for 500 bucks, maybe 350 bucks at this hour. I can negotiate for you. You can pay on trust."
Beautiful objects and brilliancy of color are actual means of recovery.
Kolkata still remain distinct for me. Closing my eyes I remember the smell from charcoal ovens made of clay in the old city, turning out the naan-like flat-bread that was piled high on tables for people to take with vegetable curries and pay on trust.
I always make it a point to create an alchemy of making Kolkata less strange to everybody visiting the city, encouraging him or her to go out walking through this city as he or she might have hesitated to as a total tourist. I just want to lift the veil of otherness that comes with the tourist's gaze.