If I close my eyes, I can still taste the fuchka; taste the semi-ripe guavas in strong rock salt and the cheap pop corn… I can still hear the busses and their conductors screeching by at evening rush hour on the other side of the road... still see the state busses that rushed through without giving you any chance to wave as much as a finger at them… and the public busses that raced each other dangerously in a bid to draw the maximum passengers… and the mini busses that you could waltz up to and still find waiting patiently for you to the immense irritation of all within its tiny confines. I can still feel the warm evening breeze on my sweat stricken brows… still smell the fetid smoke and dust and sweaty perfumes on the hot sweltering evening in downtown Calcutta. I used to stand at the westward entrance of the Rabindra Sadan Metro station, whispering longing last words to my boy friend after having spent hours with him lounging on the grounds of Nandan and the Victoria Memorial. The year was 2000. The bridge that now shuts off the sky wasn’t there then and you could gaze up from the square cemented tiles of the pavement next to the Calcutta club to catch a glimpse of the pigeons flying by.
Perhaps you have noticed the old man in dirty white kurta and dhoti who sold us the fuchkas then; sporting his dirty white mustache, always on that same spot from right at 4:00 in the evening, selling his wonderfully crisp fuchkas with its delicious potato filling and the divine tamarind juice. The image is etched indelibly in the memory of my youth. The endless nudging of his patrons gathered around him, holding the saal leaf folded like a cup, awaiting his or her turn as the man counted out the crisp balls overflowing with the juice. He would skip you on a round if you were too slow to gulp down your last serving… and he would keep an indubitable count!
Nandan and the Victoria Memorial always swam with people – of all ages, castes and creed... Victoria drew more of the fat middle-aged folks for their brisk evening walks by the lake and perhaps for the covert reason of looking furtively around corners at young couples making out. It was a strangely invigorating atmosphere, with the cool breeze and the beauty of the parks and the white marble palace to feast ones eyes on. But the dirty knowing glances flying around intruded upon one’s intimate moments and destroyed the wonderful feelings intent on appreciating the surroundings or your partner. Inevitably, there were also the hawkers preying upon the young lovers with exorbitantly priced teas, coffees, lozenges and nuts. And the street children smiling and angling the couples for a rupee or two.
Nandan had a slightly different flavor – a more intellectual appeal with the loose white kurta n jeans clad men and women smoking like chimneys. And there was the café Amontron to energize you when you needed it after hours of talk, talk and more talk. There were the artists and the revolutionaries, the film critics and the college goers' throngs, the theatre geeks and the music lovers all sandwiched there in a hapless bundle of endless chatter and more.
We were busy in that midst, a pair of dry leaves driven by a hunger we hardly understood raging in our souls. The physical hunger of youth, the emotional hunger of incognizance and the intellectual hunger fanned by the years at the Bengal Engineering College spent in frustrating emptiness.