Welcome to the City of Joy by Nilesh Rathod
India is a republic of laughable samples. With that I mean, people, and in that I mean government. They can construe scrupulous ways to invent obstacles, in places you cannot even imagine they can exist.
Armed with a liberal dose of faith in a resurgent India, I took a flight to the famed city of Kolkata, the erstwhile head quarter of British East India Company. And trust me when I say this, but it still looks like one, and without the necessity to board any kind of time travel capsule. It would have taken less effort to modernize the city, than the energy spent on preserving it to be the museum of historic relics that it is. And even after all this, they still accomplish to drive away anyone who came to the city to relish the chronicles of its history.
I took a flight though; glad there was an operational airport. It wasn’t there in the East India Company days. Unfortunately, that is where the marvels of modernisation ended for me. Nonetheless, I disembarked with optimism. I required going to a place called Salt Lake City. The names of various places in this city amaze you so much; you cannot stop thinking adoring how picturesque they must be. If they can needlessly change Calcutta to Kolkata, did they leave these fancy names to construct pointless trickeries on poor me?
It didn’t take long for me to notice how the folks at the airport dispensed their jobs. They looked destitute, impoverished and deprived. They behaved like bonded slaves but with a lot of brevity. Any labour they actually performed was a favour to humanity, you included. Although far from famished in appearance, they trudge at a pace so slow, and hoping the Divinity would have pity on them someday and discharge them of their despair. Work is misery. With that motto they don’t need any other motivation to get away from it. Thankfully, they have unions and tons of them who harmonize with their agony and fight for the just cause. And that is the one time; one can see them work with honest appeal and without a demur.
I spoke to one elderly gentleman, at least he was in a hurry, unlike the rest of the place. Lingering at the belt to pick up the baggage, I yearned to get a few verses of wisdom from him. Even as the rotating belt screeched crying for oil, I did accomplish to get a few words across. He told me a joke. Better than nothing I thought. He said, “Do you know how many unions there can be between two Bengali’s?” I didn’t know the answer, probably didn’t understand the question too. It was simply incomprehensible why two people couldn’t solve their problems with a dialogue and they actually needed a union to do that. Anyways, he replied “Three” I was amazed, I asked how? “Yours, mine and ours!” He said.
Soon, I was looking for a taxi. I was pointed to a flute board panel that read “Bengal Taxi Association” in Font size one hundred. I could read it from a mile. What I couldn’t read was “Taxis to City Center” written under it in font size twenty. One had to be within striking distance of the guy on the other side of the booth to see that. I genuinely wanted to do that, strike him that is, but I resisted my itch, at least for now. I was happy though, still better than being fished for a pricey sum of money with absolute lawlessness. I stood in a queue, hoped I would get a taxi at the end of it. It took me about fifteen minutes to reach the booth. A guy with glasses as thick as a soda bottle, looked up to me, said nothing, I said nothing too. Finally I gave up, I said “Taxi to Salt Lake City” he asked “Your name” I said “Nilesh Rathod” he quickly typed something on the keyboard and like magic the noisy dot matrix printer started throwing out a receipt, he handed it over to me. The last I had seen a printer like that was like ten years back. “Thank you, Where do I get the taxi but?” He gazed at me in astonishment again “Take the next queue to pay the money first.” he replied out of distress and looked down without giving me a second look.
I looked to my left, there was another queue as large, and everyone was proudly holding a slip identical to the one I had. I was smart, I quickly guessed, that is the taxi line. Another twenty minutes I reached the same booth again, just a few feet to the left this time, and this time the guy did not have soda bottle glasses. It was a lady infact. I was asked to pay Two Hundred and Fifty two rupees printed on the receipt I had. This included a twenty rupee union fee and another ten rupees as service charges probably paying for the guys hurling those receipts and taking the cash. And yes not to disregard the two rupee receipt charges. They actually charged me for a print out from a dot matrix printer. I had nevertheless planned to keep it to show my son how a dot matrix print looks. Soon she said, “Go outside, on your right, cross the road, look for the signs” I was hoping she would say I would get the taxi there, but she didn’t, I was nervous now. I was still trying to decipher the judgment of the bloke who made two queues terminating in the same booth – one for receipts and another for the money. I still carried on.
Soon I succeeded to find the coveted spot, not to a taxi, but another queue! They weren’t done torturing me yet, I thought. This one had a policeman manning it. I was now thinking what a policeman had to do with organizing taxis for passengers. Not to say, it took about ten minutes before I could fish my way to the head of that queue. He had a ruled notebook in front of him, neatly ruled, unfortunately for me, there was no more lines left to write on that page and he turned over. I waited for a full minute before he could complete drawing the vertical lines on that page just to enter my information in it. He was in no hurry whatsoever. Watching him struggle with drawing straight lines, I suddenly realised the dot matrix printer was such an advanced piece of machinery. Anyways, he recorded my receipt number on it, kept one copy and handed another copy with a taxi number scribbled on it. I looked at it, asked “Where do I find the taxi but?” He directed me to a yard just behind me, “You will find it in there” he said.
I turned around to look, at least five hundred taxis, similar looking shades of yellow, at least they were of that color when they were painted first, and all of them were fluffy Ambassadors, how does one find a taxi by number from five hundred identical looking vehicles? I was dumbfounded at their planning. Soon a small lad, about ten years of age, shadowed me for a while, he waited for me to be irritated enough before he blurted, “Should I get your taxi?” It wasn’t going to be included in the ten-rupee service charge I paid. I didn’t bother now, my perseverance was tested enough, sixty exhausting minutes and three queues now, only to get to a yard full of taxis with a number in my hand. It assumed I paid to play a find-your-car-in-the-maze game. He did the job in minutes, I don’t know how, but he did.
I swiftly gave my receipt to the driver, the only copy I had, loaded my bag into the front seat; fortunately I had only one small bag and no kids. I pity some of the families who had at least quarter dozen of each. They still survived to reach here. The taxi itself was a novelty. The rear seat was a full single seat, with the foam puffed high in the center and shrugging deep at all four sides. I almost slipped in the cavity between the seat and the backrest. The slope from the middle of the seat to the edge was drooping at least four inches. Every few seconds, I needed to realign myself to keep my ass where it needed to be, on the seat that is. It would either slip back or skid off. The springs beneath the foam were the only music for your ears, but all that changed, as we drove on everything in the car creaked, building a complete ensemble. The only thing that should have made some kind of noise was the horn, but it didn’t. It simply didn’t work.
I didn’t bother, I was determined, I just looked around, there wasn’t much to revere. Soon we reached half way into our voyage. There was a traffic jam in the distance. He squealed his car to halt in the middle of road and said “Ab hum aura age nahin jayenge” “Kyun Bhaiya, Receipt to Salt Lake City ka hain” “Dhekh nahin rahen aage chakka jam ho rakha hain” “Matlab” I asked “Matlab, kuch nahin, taxi aage nahin jayegi.” I didn’t know what to do or say.
Suddenly sounding like a gospel from heaven he blurted “Lekin Ek Raasta hain, peeche waale raaste se le ja sakte hain, teen sau rupiya aur lagega. Bolo, chalna hain to chal sakte hain.”
I thought Alas. Welcome to Kolkata. The city of joy. Joy it was.