To an outsider, the City of Joy would probably seem to be trapped in a bygone era of trams, hand-rickshaws and derelict old buses painted over with new blue paint. Time hangs heavy and still in Calcutta, humid with moisture and burdened by memory. Yet this is but an appearance. The truth is far more strange and unhomely.
There used to be this man who sat right at the entrance of the lane that led to my Nani’s house. He would squat there, facing the tram lines of Elliot Road, surrounded by many motorcycle and bicycle wheels. His job was to repair those wheels, fix the spokes, bang out the flattened ends. He would always be there, a wheel in his sinewy dark hands, turning it round and round, putting in a new spoke or removing an old one. His hands moved like clockwork, turning the wheel, completing the circle again and again and again. Sometimes he would take a break, smoke a beedi, or have some tea, before getting back to his job. He would always be there, in the mornings when we came, and at night when we left. In his calloused hands he held that most magical of all objects, the wheel, making that magical movement called the turn, where the highest would stoop its head to lovingly caress the ground, the lowest leap up lithely and joyfully towards the sky. At his feet lay hundreds of spokes, shiny glittery things, burnished by the sunlight of summer afternoons.
Every Saturday my mother would pack a few of ours (that is me and my brother’s) clothes into a cloth shopping bag, and we would put in our books and toys, getting ready to go to Nani’s for the day. Our father would get us into a black and yellow taxi to go to Elliot road. Elliot Road was perhaps the narrowest and busiest road in Calcutta. There were two sets of tram lines, on which zigzagged autos, taxis, buses, cycle vans, cycle rickshaws, and even a few hand-rickshaw-wallas, pulling their human load through mazes of traffic. It all made for a delicious jumble of noise and a chaotic spectacle which we gleefully enjoyed ensconced safely in the back seat of the taxi as it rumbled and tumbled over the tram lines. The little lane that led to my Nani’s house was lined by tiny one room flats where lived a diverse group of people, Chinese, Burmese, Anglo-Indians, and even one quiet Bengali family.
My Nani’s house was always on the verge of falling apart. It was hardly much more than a hut, with two rooms and a kitchen, a tiled roof and a ceiling made of cane. Rats(and perhaps cats) scurried across the ceiling at times, greatly disturbing my Nani, who would get a big stick to chase the unseen intruders away. Like the house, my Nani always seemed very old. She was tiny, and frail, like a little sparrow, always wrapped up within the folds of a faded, plain sari. I don’t think I have ever seen my Nani walk; she always seem to shuffle from place to place, in her tiny shoes that would not even fit a little child.
She would speak to us in Urdu that always seemed a bit strange, touched by traces of Bengali. It was always very amusing for us to hear her call joota or shoe, jooti. There were many strange words we learnt from Nani. For example, the man who came with a big leather sack filled with water was called bishti. In the evenings my Nani would hear the call of the makroon man and get us pink and white makroons(or macaroons as my mother called them). We would watch the black and white TV set until we got bored and went out to play with little Mary who lived next door. The three of us would play the livelong day, planting chikoo seeds in the shallow earth around the houses, jumping up and down the stairs, filtering out mosquito larvae from an abandoned bathtub thinking they were tadpoles. There was an old motorcycle that we took turns sitting on, and also a little makeshift kennel where lived Snowy, a grumpy and fierce old dog who always growled when we were nearby. In the evenings, his owner (who we had somehow named Jatta Jogi,though he had no hair on his head) would take him out for a walk. We would hide inside then, watching cartoon network on cable TV until it became TNT after 9 o clock. By then my father would come to pick us up, and we would wait to hear his knock on the tin covered door, knowing that it was time to go home. Sometimes Jatta Jogi, who was a relative, would come by for a chat. He would always ask us the most absurd questions in his loud, booming voice which resounded across the little house and almost shook the ceiling. He would ask us when we planned to get married. Such questions never made any sense to us. We never really believed that we would actually ever grow up, that the circle of time would ever be broken by the coming of history.
Every summer and winter vacation my cousins from Aligarh would come to Elliot Road. Those ten days would be the most exciting days of the year. We would form a little army of children, running around the entire area, chasing cats with toy guns, building model planes from balsa wood, buying lots of chewing gum with which we got free tattoos that we plastered on the walls and our skins. Time was a treasure because it always replenished itself. It was inexhaustible because it always repeated. Every Saturday we would go to Nani’s, every vacation Faraz Bhai and Sarah would come to Elliot road, every night our father would get his rickety old scooter to pick us up and take us back home. Every day was both new and the same, every year both different and identical. My Nani would always be old, her house would always be falling apart, Mary would always be getting yelled at by her father, Jatta Jogi would always ask us the same silly question. The real miracle of time was repetition. That was what was essentially wonderful, and in a way also divine- that time would repeat itself over and over again. Just like the man who sat at the foot of the lane, holding the wheel in his hand, turning it round and round, putting the spokes into the revolution that never stopped.
It’s been a few years since my Nani passed away, and many more years since I found myself thrust into adulthood. After she died, we never really went to the house anymore. Last I heard it had been locked and sealed, probably to await demolition and the construction of a new building. One day I was passing by Elliot road in an auto and crossed the lane that led to my Nani’s house. I caught a fleeting glimpse of the man who used to sit there. There were no more wheels in his hands, nor any spokes strewn at his feet. He was just squatting there, his gaze impassively fixed on the parallel tram tracks that rushed onwards, always together, never meeting.
It was then that I realised that we in Calcutta had not been trapped in time, but had been exiled from it, doomed in our maturity to never repeat the past. We had slipped and fallen into the ocean of history, and the ebb and flow of its waves carried us forth like so much flotsam and jetsam, towards shores unknown and unkind. All that was left to us was to repeat in the cracked mirror of memory, all those things that were now and forever, unrepeatable.