In 2002, when I was 18 years old, I fell in love with a man who was five years older than me. We met while working in a musical: I was one of the leads, and he had composed the songs. I courted him in the best way I knew how: long letters sent over email. One day, when I couldn’t bear the uncertainty of his affections any longer, I asked him to meet me; and I confessed my love to him over a plate of chowmein at the Max Mueller Bhavan canteen in Calcutta. He said he needed time to think about it. We took a taxi in the rain towards my neighbourhood in Gariahat, and got off near Hindustan Park. I had an umbrella in my backpack, but I thought it would be more romantic to walk in the rain; that way, I hoped, he might look at me as I got soaked, and feel something for me.
We walked past old south Calcutta houses, remarking on their elaborately carved verandahs, before stopping in front of a two-storey house that looked out of place in that row of stately buildings. Painted a buttery yellow, it was a rather plain structure that ran long instead of wide. I fell in love with it instantly, as did he. In that moment, it became our house. A few minutes later, when he had to leave, he told me that he’d like to be with me.
A city always seems to know when your heart is full. It reveals itself to you because, now, you must be worthy of its secrets — now, you have a stake in its story because it has become your story, too. He lived in the north, and I in the south, and together, we traipsed about the city, delighting in new discoveries, sharing old hideouts, and looking at houses all the time. I’d lived in an apartment my whole life, and envied anybody who lived in a proper house; they had a world to themselves and I wanted that for myself, someday. We were still a decade away from glass-and-chrome constructions, and almost all of the houses we were drawn to were brick homes tucked into alleyways, and a little worse for wear, much like the city itself. But we kept returning to that odd-looking house in Hindustan Park; in all our jaunts through the length and breadth of the city, we’d never spotted another one like it.
The next year, we moved to Delhi together, to study. When we visited Calcutta during the summer or Durga pujo, we would walk to our house, to see how it was doing. We talked of buying it someday, even if it sank us into a lifetime of debt. What a joy it was to stand outside its gates, and imagine what it looked like inside, and how we would build a life within those walls. We could never pluck up the courage to knock on the door, to ask its inhabitants to show us the place. It didn’t matter, really, because in our minds, it belonged to us. It was the embodiment of Our House by Crosby, Stills and Nash, a song that we played often for each other, cheesy lyrics be damned: Our house is a very, very, very fine house/with two cats in the yard/Life used to be so hard/Now everything is easy ’cause of you.
Three years after we first saw the house, I ended the relationship; one must, I thought, when one can no longer dream together.
I continued to visit the house, solo, or with close friends in Calcutta, who knew us both. The balcony now had an ugly grill and the rest of it was falling into gentle disrepair. After a while, I stopped going there, because old wounds would open at the seams, and sting.
Perhaps, then, it is only fitting that I saw the place again last week, in a Bengali film about an elderly man, clinging on to old memories as dementia sets in. My breath caught in my throat when his son stopped in front of that house. My house. Now, we both waited to see if anybody would answer the front door. A woman in a wheelchair ushered us in, and the house is just as I had imagined it: red stone floors, a little sitting room and a kitchen in the back; the bedrooms must be on the first floor. He is informed that the person he is looking for no longer lives there, but it had once been her home. In the dark cinema hall, tears rolled down my face. The house had once been my home too.