Why did a pay cheque cost so much? Why could they never live and work in the same city?
It was the usual rush hour at Gariahat Junction in Kolkata. Only, Katha did not feel rushed to go home.
The taxi always got stuck at the same damn place every day — flanked between the two biggest saree shops of Gariahat, Trader’s Assembly on the left and Adi Dhakeshwari Bastralaya on the right. If only the taxi-driver had speeded up a bit, he could have avoided the signal. As it was, he missed it by just a few seconds. His concentration had left him. With his mind half on the squeaky FM that blared the recent Devdas hit, ‘Dola Re, Dola Re’ at an abnormal pitch, and his eyes fluttering every few seconds to the rear-view mirror where Katha’s face was in profile, he was not in his element. Otherwise, he would have got out and knocked the auto-rickshaw wallah black and blue for having rammed into his vehicle — leaving a clear dent on the left-door of the front-seat — and not just barked the predictable galis while remaining in his seat.
Katha normally hated this routine wait — especially when she was caught in a signal for a second’s slip. She did not mind it so much, though, when there was a breeze blowing (even a gentle one would do) or when it rained — be it the intermittent showers of summer or the monotonous downpour of the monsoons. At such times, Katha would lean her head out of the window and let the raindrops fall sharp and hard or gentle and soft on her sweaty cheeks. She loved the fresh, tingling sensation it left on her skin and the coolness that descended on her after the droplets evaporated.
But this was a scorching July day with the temperature at 37OC. Her blouse was drenched in sweat, her clothes were sticking to her skin like glue, and however much she wiped her face with the aanchal of her sari (her hanky being unusable after the first two hours in college), she was unable to wipe it dry. She was, therefore, irritated beyond measure when the taxi could not clear the signal, gave a sudden jolt, and then stood stock-still. Her jute bag had fallen open — the contents spilling everywhere — and the driver kept on mumbling ‘Sorry didi, Sorry didi…’ while she picked them up one by one. Switching off the FM, he was about to say something else, but a pissed-off Katha seemed to ignore his presence completely, quietly settled back in her seat, heaved a sigh and looked out the window.
Two college students were chatting at the more, waiting for a bus. Earlier, while Katha waited for a cab, they’d been bargaining with one of the pavement hawkers about a handbag. It was evident they were not keen on buying — just enjoying the experience of bargaining in Gariahat, quoting the lowest possible price (probably one-third) against the hawker’s first quote. Such bargaining contests could go on for close to half-an-hour if both the parties involved were equally energetic and equally desperate to buy or sell. A successful transaction was usually one where the contestants met half-way, with the hawker invariably assuring his customer that he wouldn’t have done it for anyone else.
Katha had once bought a trinket — her favourite — from the hawker opposite… six years back, she calculated. How she loved shopping in Gariahat with friends. She now kept all the junk jewellery of her maiden years in a carved wooden box that she had bought in Kalimpong, during her honeymoon. Three carefree college years locked up in a small box! Her closest friend was invariably with her on those shopping sprees. They just loved window-shopping — the two of them — loved hopping from one pavement hawker to another, enjoying the colour and magic of their varied displays.
Suddenly, she missed her friends: her three closest ones in particular — Shayonti, Pratyushaand Gitanjali. Missed going unannounced to their houses on her way back from college or university, missed eating delicious junk with them from roadside stalls, missed seeing films together, missed simply chatting and giggling, or walking down a road thoughtfully, holding hands. All of them had left her. The last four years had been a series of farewells as, one by one, her friends left to discover new lives abroad. It was remarkable that all of them should pursue studies abroad — leaving Kolkata in a neat fashion, one every year, as if their farewells had been orchestrated long ago. Shayonti was pursuing a doctorate at Leeds; Pratyusha at Florida; while Gitanjali, her closest, was globe-trotting with her husband and two-year-old son, having settled for the year in Wisconsin.
Now they usually met once a year — though in different combinations, never together. And even that did not seem to happen anymore. Katha no longer looked forward to their annual reunions these days. For her friends’ vacations invariably coincided with the busiest time of the academic year for her; and increasingly, it was becoming an uphill task to meet even once between their hectic socialising and her endless assignments. They no longer had the time to spend long, lazy afternoons in each other’s homes or have a day out — they could just about snatch an hour or two in a restaurant. A far cry from their heydays….
The big multiplexes and malls — which were all the rage now — had not existed then. Nor did they need five-hundred bucks to hang out. Having fun was a relatively cheap affair in the 1990s and it meant going to different places for doing different things, not the boring everything-under-one-roof experience of a McD world. Every place had a distinct appeal, a different role to play in the game of fun. And it came out most fully in the farewell meetings that Katha had with her friends. For it meant re-visiting all the sites of their friendship — chatting in Presidency’s canteen, buying and gifting books to each other in College Street, eating junk food at Esplanade after watching a film at New Empire or Globe, and shopping in Gariahat. The last was their only concession to South Calcutta, as they all lived and studied in the north and could afford all their fun in the central part of the city.
In time, even those farewells became less special — by the time Katha went for a third valedictory meeting in three years, the ritual had lost some of its charm, leaving her sadder and lonelier than the last two. Only one thing remained the same — their promises to each other, that come what may, the bond of their friendship would last forever; and their confidence that nobody else would, could, ever take the other’s place.
The two friends at the junction, too, must be confident of the self-sufficiency of their relationship, Katha mused to herself. She looked at them more closely now. One wore jeans and a lilac Fabindia kurti; the other was clad in a sea-green chikan salwar-kameez. Both had long hair — the former wore it open, while the latter tied it up in a ponytail. Teaching in an undergraduate girls’ college as she did, Katha was used to observing teenage fashion. She could take in a whole appearance — from hair and clothes to shoe and bag — at a quick glance. She did the same here, and found the pair very different.
This generation of students — whether brilliant, mediocre or dull — was definitely more fashion-conscious, more particular about their looks, than hers had been a decade back in the early 90s. In her time, too, most girls wanted to look good, but now they seemed to be obsessed about it. They invested way too much energy and attention to mere appearance, and that bothered Katha. But what attracted Katha’s attention to this pair was the casualness of their style, the intelligence of their looks, the easy confidence of their demeanour, and above all, the joy that emanated from their faces. The expression that came when life was full of promise and possibilities. The girl in salwar-kameez looked very assertive, while her friend in jeans had a softer face that looked charming when it broke into a smile.
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