Since the age of four, I’ve lived in Salt Lake—a neat, modern suburb with a residential thrust. I went to school in South Kolkata, which meant I had to take the highway at least five days a week. The E.M. Bypass is now too often choked with traffic to figure as a typical highway, but in my younger days it did provide an undiluted sense of being in transit. Long distances, four wheelers, the notion of travelling between poles, all soon became familiar to me without once jerking at my consciousness. In fact, I barely moved around by myself within a localized space, be it in the vicinity of school or home.
Life in my schooldays was marked by the looming presence of a schedule. As soon as school was over, I had to board the carpool by a certain hour. The afternoon was devoted to uncoiling myself from around a chain of lessons; the evening was spent in grudging acceptance of the fixity of homework. I was a fairly obedient child, with a somewhat excessive commitment to moderation. I was always social and had a weakness for conversation, but I was content with the gifts of the telephone. None of my friends ever inspired me with wanderlust, and like most female children, I had unconsciously perceived the unspecified dangers of the Outside World. Salt Lake particularly, had a bad reputation when it came to safety. It is not that much ever happened in its largely sanitized space, but that was part of the problem. The lack of a thriving street life meant that a disconcerting hush fell over Salt Lake after dark. The danger was almost always potential—if something were to happen, it easily could.
It is generally agreed upon that the world is an unsafe place for females of all ages. However, safeguards can be imposed upon a minor. So for years, if I went to the park, or to art class, I usually travelled under the watchful eye of a parent or a member of the domestic staff. When I was old enough to be free of constant supervison, I still lacked the motivation to roam. I was content to spend most of my time indoors, sporadically borrowing the car to attend an invitation to a friend’s house. When I went out with the family, it was always by car. Unsurprisingly, throughout my schooldays, my perception of different spots in the city had the same shadowy texture as visions glimpsed at night through the window of a car.
I can think of few places that fit the above description better than Southern Avenue, as I saw it then. The reason for my acquaintance with Southern Avenue was dinner at my cousin’s house—one of those family gatherings that recurred spontaneously from time to time. These were never grand affairs to be keenly anticipated, but they were always welcome and we would set out for them with a familiar sense of pleasure. Familiar, but always novel too, was the sight of Southern Avenue which lay just before the destination. With its quiet roads and cloak of trees, the hazy sweep of Ramkrishna Mission in the corner, the glimmering streetlamps, it created the sense of a ‘darkness on the edge of town.’ More than the sparkle of family reunions, it was the sight of Southern Avenue at night that filled me with excitement. A secret, layered excitement with a tinge of déjà vu, a whiff of primordial romance. I would call it uncanny, except that it wasn’t eerie.
Things are different now. Salt Lake itself is no longer perceived as an island, though announcements that I live there are still invariably greeted by a smirk or a look of consternation touched with pity. My interaction with the city has changed drastically. The lack of guardian figures post school, the diversity of life in college, all prodded me into a slow rebellion against my cloistered existence. My family welcomed my change of heart, knowing that street-smartness was a more stable guarantee of safety than hibernation. I am still nowhere near as well versed with Kolkata as I would like to be, and every now and then while on the move, I lapse into an earnest scrutiny of street names, of unknown twists and turns. But public transport is now a way of life. Asking strangers for directions is a tested, often cheerful ritual, and the thought of setting off alone and unprepared for an unfamiliar location is no longer paralyzing. I now know what Southern Avenue looks like at most times of day, in most kinds of weather. I have even seen it come alive with a demonstration at midnight, and walked through it afterwards as the crowd dispersed.
All of this would previously be unthinkable, just as my past life seems incredible to me now. But despite the paradigm shift, a curious thing took place recently. A chain of reminiscences about those once frequent get-togethers stirred a sleeping memory, and suddenly plunged me into the Southern Avenue of my past. In an instant, I felt around me the old shaded darkness, the timeless orange haze, the silhouettes of walls and trees. And with it, the old dangerous appeal of what was then, to my foggy mind, a city limit. I was stunned by how much of the original feeling I had retained, how easy it was to recall the sensations I had gleaned with a very different mind.
I do not know if only an inchoate acquaintance with the cityscape can give birth to such haunting memories. On the night I participated in the demonstration on Southern Avenue, I had an unsettling experience. I was walking with a friend through the alleys of Selimpur around 1 AM, when a pack of dogs bounded past. By the glow of the moon and a few scattered streetlights, we saw that they were carrying hunks of raw flesh in their mouth, the pieces large enough to evoke a carcass. For the two of us, alone in a web of alleys in the dead of night, our urban environment was momentarily transformed by this primal vision. And yet, for me it didn’t carry the same enigma, the same precipitous thrill that those childhood drives through Southern Avenue would induce. So far, nothing has acted as a trigger for the later memory though there is no certainty that nothing ever will.
My engagement with the city is now distinctly more conscious, and my encounters with it in reality and discourse allow me to frame it in a number of ways. I suspect that as a result, I can no longer imagine patches of the pure unknown within the city. Consequently, I think, my responses to the city have lost the old subterranean quality that is so much a feature of the unknown. At the same time, I am aware of zones that remain unvisited, zones distant and strange enough for my awareness to be both faint and full of wary curiosity. It remains to be seen whether this awareness will one day encounter a new kind of reality and tap into some buried well of feeling.