November 1973. The dark sets in early in Calcutta winters, so when the Bombay-Howrah Mail glided in at journey’s end it was practically night, even if the hour wasn’t too advanced. Of the three of us on that nightmare-made-hilarious journey from Bombay only one was familiar with this eastern metropolis; the other two were innocents, filled with a vague trepidation and the unease which comes with the unknown. We were therefore virtually in his hands and in his charge. Rightly too, because he was more man of the world than either of us. When he suggested, with a flaneur’s casual flair that we take a cab to the environs of Chowringhee / Park Street and look for digs there we had no opinion one way or the other. It could have been Piccadilly for all we knew or cared.
The cabbie obviously sensed our ‘newness’ with the intuition born of experience, and helped not a little by our conversation exclusively in English and a propensity to view things very much a la Wodehouse (evidently in his experience no locals ever gave way to asinine English mirth every few minutes). He inquired if he might make a suggestion. On being given the ‘by all means’ he offered to take us to a ‘decent place,’ ‘cheap’ (no irony) and ‘very near Park Street.’ “In Kyd ishtreet Saab” he said. “Oh, good! Shouldn’t be too bad” said the Wise One among us, and off we went, rumbling down the cobbles and tramlines on the Bridge. On the right the river was pretty though dark, with boats, barges, what looked like a dredger or two, a few floating buoys with their telltale marker lights, and a couple of ships in the distance: Christmas trees reflected in the water. The far bank was a mass of gloomy warehouses, derricks and cranes. It could have been Edgar Wallace’s London. And it was love at first sight.
Some twenty minutes later we were decanted outside what looked like a slightly run down minor stately home in olde England. A few rickshaws — the Chinese kind — idled outside, their hand bells desultorily rattling now and then. The street was relatively quiet — Kyd Street, a discreet enamel panel on a lamp post announced. We paid the cabbie off, and looked at the gate and the facade. Over the former was a large wooden board with “WAVERLEY” in ornate green script, all flourishes and curlicues. Well, well, we said to ourselves, Kyd Street and Waverley indeed! The nice English ring to both names was reassuring.
Inside, the stately home air was even more pronounced, all English wood and brass, except that it smelt mouldy and musty; and the man who welcomed us in completed the overall atmosphere of seediness. An Anglo-Indian, perhaps pushing fifty, scrawny of build, with rheumy blue eyes and a smile which was disconcertingly close to a leer. His clothes we could tell were strangers to a laundry. There was a vaguely Fagin-like air about him. His whole aspect reeked of decay and dissipation.
He led us rather obsequiously to the rooms, which were large, well appointed, with enormous beds, and handsome bathrooms — again all very English, with tubs and basins and fixtures quite possibly by Royal Doulton (I actually think they were). We liked them, and decided to stay.
However we thought two rooms would be a waste since there were only three of us. The tariff wasn’t much — Rs.100/- a night, b & b — but we felt we could manage in one room: the bed in any case was large enough for four.
We put the matter to Fagin (as we christened him), saying we’d rather share one room even if it meant paying a little over the tariff. At this, his incipient leer bloomed and came into its own. With a ghastly attempt at a wink he dropped his voice and said, “Oh it’s like THAT, is it Sir?!”
S and I (the innocents) were shocked like a pair of mid-Victorian spinsters at the suggestion and the effrontery. But D. the worldly-wise was equal to it. With an easy smile he hastily but courteously disabused him of the notion. Fagin (somewhat crestfallenly we thought) took the hint, but there were no hard feelings. This was Central Calcutta after all (we’d learn the meaning of that ‘after all’ later). We got our single room, dumped our suitcases, and with D in the lead sauntered down Chowringhee to Park Street and the first Chinese meal in our lives at Peiping — delightfully quaint with its blue and white exterior, dark brown wooden interiors and its famous waiter Henry.
It took us a while to notice that a couple of rickshaw-wallahs had been following us, occasionally jingling their bells and muttering a strange litany: “Saab, Chinese, Anglo, College girl…” When S. and I asked D. about them, he said in a markedly offhand manner, “Oh, they’re merely looking for custom, you know. They’re pimps… Don’t look so shocked! This is Central Cal if you please!” Although that didn’t quite explain things, until later in the night.
Sometime during the night — the hour is immaterial — there was a knock on our door. S. and I were half asleep, and when the knocking grew insistent we roused D. to see who it was. We were dimly conscious of the door being opened, and muffled voices, D.’s and very obviously (even in our half sleep) a female’s. The confabulation lasted a few minutes, importunate on the female’s side and firmly but politely resistant on D.’s.
When he returned to bed we asked him what all that was about. “Nothing,” he said, “business as usual in these parts. By the way, any of you fancy a female? She wasn’t half bad, actually. Say the word and she’s yours..” He turned over and went back to sleep, while S. and I pondered this entirely novel situation.
The next day the three of us scattered to our respective first assignments (we were batch mates who had just joined our employer), but not before D. put us wise to the fact that Kyd Street and its sister Sudder Street — indeed all the way down to Lindsay Street, the little lanes like the teeth of a large comb attached to that great bespoke street of iniquity, Free School Street — enjoyed a certain delicious notoriety, a fact about which he was blasé but which somewhat shrivelled our still delicate skins.
Of course, nothing of note really happened at the Waverley, but in our still unsullied middle-class minds I don’t know what we expected then. There was, I think, a touch of Benjamin (from “The Graduate”) about us, and for more or less the same reasons. But its memory is as fresh as it was that distant November evening. If the mist-shrouded river glimpsed through the splendid beams and girders of the Bridge was one’s moment of falling in love with the City, the Waverley — now patina-ed by nostalgia — was a teasing, slightly naughty come-hither glance that sealed one’s fate. One was smitten for good.
Besides, one doesn’t forget the first cathouse in one’s life.