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Somnath Batabyal is a Research Fellow pursuing his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and works on news production practices in Indian television.

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hantum loved the September mornings in Kolkata. He always preferred to call the city that - “Kolkata.” Even before the official name change, ‘Calcutta’ never really appealed to Shantum. The city brought out his “bangaliana” his father would say, laughing at his sudden interest in kurta pyjamas and Bengali women. For the rest of the year, he and his friends listened to Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead in school.

He smiled at the memories as he walked past Lake Market. Seven in the morning, with a week left to go for Puja, the place was already teeming with buyers and sellers. The smell of rajnigandha, fresh roses, lilacs, he loved the flower market here. I should buy some for Shumona, Shantum thought. She will be surprised, he laughed not remembering the last time he had tried to woo his wife of eight years.

“Koto kore?”—“How much?” he asked, pointing at the rajnigandhas. “Seventy rupees for 12 sticks.”

Less than a pound. I wouldn’t get a packet of biscuits for that in London, thought Shantum. “Diye Dao,” he said to the surprised boy who was anticipating a bargain. Seeming deprived of a fight, the boy sullenly packed the sticks in a newspaper, before wrapping it with a white thread.

The stretch from Lake Market through Gariahat to Ballygunge station was Shantum's favourite part of Kolkata. As a schoolboy, every summer when he came to visit his grand parents, Shantum would take this walk in the mid morning heat, before taking the metro from Rash Behari to Park Street. He remembered how gratefully he would climb down the steps of Kalighat Metro station, escaping from the sun and welcoming the shafts of wind, which every corner of the underground seemed to unleash. In London, people cower against the drafts, the icy wind chilling the bone and soul, penetrating clothes and mind. In this city, the underground tunnel was nature's way of lending a helping hand when you could not afford air conditioning.

Now as he walked passed the familiar footpaths, yet to succumb to the hawker’s cries, the known signboards, Deshapriya Park and Priya Cinema, Shantum was filled with an immense urge to share this with his five-year-old son.

Today I should take Arghya out, he thought, the same walk, the same restaurant, the kulfi faluda at Rallis on Esplanade. It’s not very hot this time of the year. Arghya loves the sun. Deprived of it in London, the boy spends hours happily in their second floor Ballygunge house, basking in the late afternoon glow with his grand mother.

Ma refuses to leave Kolkata. Even five years after his father’s death, his mother clings to the house. “Sell it, ma, and come with me.” “We can look after you in London,” Shantum had pleaded. But she wouldn’t budge.

She was never this stubborn, thought Shantum as he stepped over the tramlines and turned on to Ballygunge Station Road. In fact, she had been the easy going one in the family, the one who always smelled of good food and love, sweat and joy. Her behaviour was completely out of character, he thought as he walked past the teashops lining the railway station.

The conversations at the tea shops sounded familiar, cricket, the non-inclusion of the Bengali captain in the national team and the coming elections in the state. Shantum looked at his watch. Seven forty. He had time for a quick tea.

“Arre dada, aashun aashun,” a tea stall owner called out to Shantum, seeing him look around. Two men made space for him on the one bench at the stall. More a shack, really, amongst many others that line the Ballygunge station road, made up of sticks and straws, tarpaulin and trauma. Biscuits, cigarettes and tea, basic fare but every teashop had their regular customers each morning. He ordered for a tea. “Dada, cigarette?” Why not, he thought. He hadn’t smoked in several months now, part of the strict routine he had been put on by his doctor and wife.

Again he wondered why Ma had become so obstinate. It made him feel guilty to leave her here. “I can’t come to London to assuage your guilt, Shontu,” ma had quietly told him last night and there the matter ended. It was perhaps in the way she got the house and reclaimed her space in Kolkata that makes her so attached to this place. She had stayed away from Kolkata for too long for her to move again. Not that Shantum wanted to sell the house. He liked it, its oldness. It’s the English in me, Shantum smiled to himself. The love for all things big and old, archaic and colonial.

And then again, why not. He had grown up in two small rooms with his parents and sister in a town indistinguishable from the hundreds which people cross on trains on their way to somewhere else. He remembered the constant fights of the neighbours, the slum across the window, his mother’s tired face. Privacy came at a premium in the house, hiding on the terrace amongst old and worn out furniture and other cast-aways.

This terrace was his own space. A space where a mat could be spread out and the entire sky became accessible. Watching Star Trek serials, Shantum had wanted to be an astronaut, crisscrossing across the Milky Way. It was here on summer evenings his father told him stories of impossible daring, of romances that stretched across the seven seas and the thirteen rivers. These were his spaces.

But reality refused to fade. The two rooms, the incessant noise, the bickering of family, they clawed back. His friends now tell him that most memories of their childhood were inflated, made bigger as time passed. He thought of Anton, his Greek colleague who laughs every time he speaks of his father’s boat, which, as a child to him seemed bigger than the Titanic. Seeing the same boat, thirteen years later, after the ship had been firmly etched in memory, courtesy Hollywood, Anton had been shocked at its smallness. I had no such luxury, thought Shantum. Everything I knew was small, or short, or tiny.

Thus his craze for space! He remembered how much he loved the Enid Blyton stories. George of the Famous Five had an entire island to herself. She and her cousins went to beaches and solved mysteries in lighthouses on stormy nights. He laughed aloud at himself. Every time he saw a lighthouse, he still thought of sinister smugglers.

His sudden laughter shook the cup he held. He felt hot tea on his hand and sat up exasperated. “One more, sir,” the man behind the stove asked. No, it was getting a bit late. Shumona would be up and Ma would soon be leaving for school. He paid and started walking briskly homewards.

Four years since ma retired from the neighbourhood school. But she still goes twice a week to teach the students music. The staff doesn’t mind, and the children love her. Sixty nine this year and she still hasn’t lost an iota of melody.

“My nightingale,” baba would call ma. Her voice would fill up the house, push back the walls, fill up every nook and corner. Even the neighbours stopped their quibbling when ma sang. Baba had many stories of ma singing. He insisted that ma had wooed baba in college by singing him old romantic hindi film songs. Baba was a sucker for old film songs, Shantum thought as he stepped into the bylane leading to his house. “We always went out in groups, you know,” baba would say. “None of this new fangled dating for us. But when your mother sang, I knew she sang for me.” Ma would laugh and say never, it was Arijit whom she fancied. “Bloody capitalist,” baba would retort of Arijit kaku. Baba loved his communist pretensions, along with his love for the English and Nirad C Choudhury, thought Shantum. “More English than the English, you know,” baba would say admiringly of Choudhury.

“That was a long walk. Ma just left,” Shumona said reproaching as he came in through the open door. “I know, I had crossed the Milky Way to get you these”; he said handing the flowers to his surprised wife. “King of overstatements, aren’t you,” she laughed unable to hide her pleasure. A trait I have got from my father, thought Shantum as he went into the shower. “I am taking Arghya out today, we will go and have a kulfi at Rallis,” he shouted to Shumona through the door. She was going to her sister’s place in Howrah for the day. A father and son excursion, thought Shantum happily.

The water was refreshingly cool after the long walk. Shantum closed his eyes. Yes, baba always overstated, he thought. Even the small things had to be magnified, oversold. The same excursion he was about to undertake with his son, his baba and he, they had done the same. How many years ago was it? He must have been around Arghya’s age. Thirty four years.

He recalled his baba telling him the night before about the size of the kulfi. “This big,” baba said, hands at least a foot apart. “Do not eat too much break fast. Otherwise you will not be able to finish it.” Shantum not only refused breakfast, he remembered sitting for an inordinately long time in the loo trying to empty his stomach of every food particle possible. He really wanted to finish the kulfi. Baba had promised it was heaven.

Kolkata in those days were yet to experience the pleasures of underground travel. The bus ride was joyless. It must have been summers, or I could not wait to get to that big kulfi, Shantum thought ruefully.

After more than two hours on the bus, when they finally reached Esplanade and weaved their way through the teeming millions to Rallis, the place was crowded to the point of bursting. Shantum clearly remembered waiting in line to be seated alongwith other people. “Don’t we get a table of our own?” Shantum had asked his father, clearly disappointed at the shared tables. He had conjured up visions of grandeur from his father’s talk. At least the kulfi will be big. Forty five minutes later, when the kulfi came, Shantum was bitterly disappointed. Where was the foot long slab of heaven which his father had promised? What was in front of him was not more than three inches in size. “Kemon,” asked his father expectantly as they both tucked into the ice cream. “Darun, baba” he smiled, unable to deflate his father’s happiness. “Wonderful,” he gushed.

No wonder my entire childhood seemed small, thought Shantum, toweling. Nothing could live up to my father’s talk. Arghya, came running to him as he walked out of the bathroom. “When are you leaving,” he asked Shumona, picking up the still sleepy boy.

“I am out in an hour,” she replied. “Can you please give Arghya his cornflakes and make sure he brushes his teeth first,” she called out from the bedroom. Putting tooth paste on the child’s brush, Shantum handed it to him. “Ma said we are going out baba.” “Yes,” said Shantum. “We are going to have an Indian ice cream.”

“What’s that,” the child asked. “Well, you will see for yourself. I hope you will like it, Shantum said smiling,” watching Arghya brush.

“I hate the underground, baba,” Arghya said. “Why couldn’t we take the car?” “Because your mother had to go in it; the underground doesn’t go to Howrah,” he told his by now slightly sweaty son. “But the underground goes everywhere,” said Arghya. Not here, it doesn’t. Shantum thought.

The Kolkata metro, much vaunted and the pride of the city was just a single track covering a few kilometers of the city. Most people were divorced from its joys, thought Shantum grimacing as he climbed onto a crowded compartment with Arghya.

Shantum was surprised when he came to Rallis. The place wore a deserted look. The crowds which had thronged the place of his child hood had moved on to newer, fancier establishments. Rallis looked positively seedy. Shantum stood outside, unsure. Arghya tugged at his hand and said “baba, can we go somewhere else?”

Shantum picked the boy up. “No, Arghya, lets eat the Indian ice cream and then we will go somewhere else. I promise,” he said. The kulfi, if anything had become even smaller, the syrupy red liquid poured on top of it, looked synthetic and doubtful. “Kemon,” asked Shantum hesitantly to his son. The five year old looked up, mouthful of cream and smiled. “Darun baba, first class,” he replied.


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