The Dharmatala traffic junction in Kolkata must be the noisiest place in India. At least it is the noisiest that I have ever been to. Taxis,buses,minibuses honk constantly; conductors of minibuses and private buses shout at the tops of their voices to induce customers and bang on the sides of their vehicles,a dozen at a time: Gariahat Gariahat! Behala Behala! A hundred pavement hawkers scream at you,peddling wallets,handkerchiefs,nighties,fake international-brand perfumes and everything else under the sun that can be hawked on a pavement. And this tsunami of sound is completed by some small-time politician/ activist shrieking into a microphone over some issue that one cant decipher in the mad clamour. I am sure if someone measured the decibel level here,it would be the equivalent of what a Boeing 747 sounds like while taking off,with you just 100 m away. I have watched the Rolling Stones perform,standing 20 feet away from the stage with its giant speakers,and trust me,compared with Dharmatala junction,Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are timid wankers.
I flee from there to visit my branch office. Its a heritage Victorian edifice located at the heart of the citys central business district. The Raj Bhavan and the Eden Gardens are nearby. So are the state secretariat and the beautifully restored riverfront. Almost every large corporation has its Kolkata office within a radius of three km. I stand at the gate of our building with a colleague for nearly half an hour,smoking. After about 15 minutes,it strikes me that in all this time,we have not seen a single person pass by who looks upper-middle class. The highest-priced cars that have passed were Indica-s. There is an Innova parked across the road,but that is a car for rent. I tell my colleague this,and he is not surprised-he has noticed it too.
Its end of office hours. But none of the men walking back to catch their bus or ferry look happy. They dont walk,they trudge,their heads bowed,apparently exhausted or in despair. That man you see will now go home,have a bath, says my colleague,pointing to a particularly melancholy trudger. Then he will go over to his nightly haunt-local club or maybe some chai shop-and he will be a different person altogether. He will be lively,he will laugh and joke,all the while discussing Bolshevik poetry or Hugo Chavez,totally useless stuff. Thats what hell do. Hell come back to work tomorrow morning,not do a jot of work,and then walk back again,looking thoroughly depressed,as if the world is plotting against him. My colleague has been asking for a transfer to Delhi for quite some time now. To perhaps fight boredom,the Innovas driver drives it out of its parking spot and then reverses into the same spot.
The Lok Sabha elections are coming,and true to tradition,the Left Fronts slogans and billboards are simple,enjoyable and aesthetic. Pashchim Banglas Nano/Gujaratey Kano/ Manush jabab chai,says a billboard. (Why is West Bengals Nano at Gujarat? The people demand an answer). In comparison,the Congress posters and billboardsat least the ones I saware written in highly Sanskritised Bengali.
On my way back to my hotel,I stop at music megastore Music World on Park Street. Many of the shelves are packed with DVDs of European film classics. Living in Delhi,I didnt even know that these were available in India. As I browse and pick up a few DVDs,a store attendantwho looks like he is in his teenswalks up. Sir,I saw youve taken Fritz Langs Metropolis, he tells me. We have his M also. He finds it,I take it. The next 10 minutes,he stays with me,suggesting a Turkish director I had never heard of,a German film I had been hoping to be able to watch one day,an obscure Argentinian movie. He studies what I choose carefully; the moment I pick up a Renoir,he finds three more Renoirs for me. If I am looking at a collection of Sherlock Holmes films,he is there with a set of Hercule Poirot films. Finally when I smilingly say: Enough,enough, he shoves a Chinese film into my carry-bag: This last one,sir. You must take. My recommendation. In the car,I count the DVDs. Ive ended up buying 15.
Sandipan Deb is the editor of RPG Enterprises weekly features and current affairs magazine,Open