Category Archives: People
When you land in Durgapur, fresh from the sanitised ostentation of Bangalore and the politically charged flag-waving cheer of Kolkata, the sudden quietness of this peaceful small town comes as rather a shock- especially when you realise that this place is going to be home for the next six months. You can no longer complain about there being too many malls in the city, exorbitant auto fares and boring weekends. The numerous trees, clean and well laid out roads and abundant numbers of birds should rightly be more enjoyable than all the trappings of urban living; I admit, then, that three years of living in three different cities have effectively ruined me for a quiet life out on the prairies or the moors (like I’d once hoped to have).
I’d like to conveniently rest part of the blame on living with people my age- you can’t even watch Splitsvilla with your parents, let alone curse the copious amounts of inanity on it- but on the flipside, you don’t have to worry about which take-away your next meal is coming from, so all’s well. Now that I have plenty of time on my hands, I can introduce you to Durgapur. And we begin our virtual tour at Bhiringi More, which opens into a street lined with shops and populated by that portion of Durgapur which isn’t flocking to the newly opened Junction Mall.
The shelves in the display case of ‘Khawa-Dawa’ are lined with metal trays; a man carries in a tray of syrupy brown gulab-jamuns and spills them into a waiting plate. Fingers splayed, he rolls his hand on the sweets, spreading them out, all notions of hygiene thrown to the wind. A customer scratches his ankle with his key before attacking his ras-malai, while his son points to a heap of fly-encrusted squares of mysore-pak. My sanitiser-toting self cringes; but it is a generally accepted truth that food cooked and eaten in unhygienic conditions is delicious, provided you’re prepared to ignore the after-effects.
The lights flicker and go off. Emergency lamps, giving out thin slivers of neon light, are turned on to brighten the dingy interiors of not-so-welcoming hardware shops and restaurants. ‘Kwality Lodge’ next door promises ‘veg., non-veg. & delicious food’ at the restaurant downstairs- quite a choice there- as floral curtains billow on the balcony in the breeze rising gently now, revealing doors behind which perhaps a budding writer is hard at work. (Yes, I am thinking of Rusty!)
In this part of Durgapur, Bhiringi, the roads are chock-full of pedestrians, rickshaws and two-wheelers. Occasionally, the outrageously coloured cuboidal tin boxes on wheels that pass for ‘mini-buses’ lumber by; they are packed with people sitting or holding on for dear life as they press against one another in the narrow aisle. The single door is always half-open, kept suspended in mid-air by the agile body of the conductor who calls out for people to join the merry fraternity within the bus. It lurches to a stop without warning, disgorging and swallowing, unleashing frenzied cries from pedestrians and passengers alike. If you’re on a two-wheeler, you’re sure to be reminded of the “accelerator-clutch-brake” advertisement on TV. Or the “streets are full of idiots” ad.
The shops are colourless, much like one another and uninspiring. Dust lies thick on the plastic sheets clothing stuffed toys and the glass counters displaying knick-knacks. A brand new furniture shop, freshly whitewashed and splendidly lit (and evidently provided with a noisy generator), stands out like a resplendent beacon of hope- of what exactly, I cannot tell at this point. A spooky, vine-covered building hulking in the dark turns out, on closer inspection, to be a school; it could well have emerged unscathed from the 1857 Mutiny. The general vapidity and uniform boredom of the area would make an early twentieth-century Main Street in Oklahoma sound like paradise. Some day, though, this place will awake with a start and spring a surprise. I know I should be revelling in the quiet and that not too long ago I raved over the advantages of small-town life. So I’ll also warn you now about the difficult transition it can be, when you move down from a city that has JustBooks, HRC and a house full of boisterous girls.
As I write, an unseen vehicle mounted with a loudspeaker is passing by, extolling the virtues of Monday in Bengali (or so I think). We’re waking up already!
I have a mortal dread of elevators. No traffic, precipice or liberally-potholed road gives me more jitters than a closed elevator, so cramped and gloomy that the idea of a dungeon with bread-and-water begins to sound like Paradise in comparison. I might have to travel ten minutes or an hour through thick, honking traffic to reach home, but the worst part is almost always the eternity-long journey in the elevator up to my seventh-floor flat. There was a time when I enjoyed riding up and down elevators in shops, but that was when they were scarce- when do we ever want anything once we have plenty of it?
This particular elevator isn’t the most modern of its kind- Elisha Otis himself would have shuddered it, because though physically safe, it isn’t the best capsule for a tired mind winging its way home. Its walls are painted reddish-brown, just a shade lighter than the black on the doors. Profanities (more morally corrupting than the Rani heart-pierced-with-an-arrow Sunil kind) are liberally engraved on the paint, covered over, engraved again with the kind of determination that, if only displayed in more useful pursuits, would have allowed us to bid for the 2012 Olympics. Anyway. The only window to the world in this elevator of ours is the narrow dusty corona between the fan on the roof and the circular aperture it is set in. All you can see through this gap are grey-brown ropes, from this angle looking much too flimsy to be able to support potato-chip-and-soda-nourished weights. The only good thing about this lift is the privacy it affords- so you can pretend to be Vanessa Mae, play air-guitar, or waltz in the arms of an imaginary (or real) partner without fear of being found out. For when the elevator does stop, it does so with a noticeable convulsion- enough time for you to unentangle yourself from those imaginary (or real) arms and put on a poker-straight face, whip out your glasses from the cavernous depths of your handbag and assume the impression of a hardworking, ill-used software engineer with glazed, unseeing eyes.
Visitors to my flat will testify to the unholy claustrophobic gloominess of this elevator, and how it can drive you to hitherto unknown levels of temporary disturbance. (I have been known to talk to the fan in the lift, pitying it for its loneliness, perched up there amidst the grime and grease.) It also has a tendency to halt at the fifth floor for no reason. When it jerks to a stop and the doors slide open in a sinister manner, they reveal, almost always (only because nine of ten times cannot be an unqualified ‘always’) a nothingness, backed only by white walls. I jab frantically at the button to draw the doors shut and retreat into the unspirited safety of my four walls. The ride further up gets progressively eerie, because at half-past four in the morning, the slightest movement in the shadows is an impetus to an active imagination. Two floors up, the doors slide open, the familiar carpet appears and ground underneath- I’m home.
There was one occasion, though, when I was scared out of my wits as I stepped out, singing to myself, only to be confronted by the surly neighbour, who isn’t the genial old ‘Uncle’ of books, but someone who grudgingly responds to your hello through set teeth, eyes boring into you as if you were a vile worm (I’d like to use the ‘If looks could kill…’ line, with a clever comparison, but looks can’t kill, so I don’t see why I should bother). On this particular morning, he was carrying a small brass plate with camphor burning on it, dressed in a dhoti and angavastram, looking askance at me as I almost bumped into him. I mumbled a greeting and walked away- spirits are trouble enough, without having to mention people. I turned the key and walked into my house, to the peace and quiet of wide spaces and large windows.