07 August, 2015

Leaves of grass

It was June or July in Calcutta. 2008. I think a part of me still walks around Camac Street in the sweltering heat of a tropical summer, talking glibly of Geurnica, Guevara and Gandalf. It was a time of peace, of dregs of schoolboy humour and many farewells.

We had gone into Pantaloons, you and I, where I could afford to only glance at the Adidas and Nike racks. With an air of appraisal, considering which one to purchase. I couldn't have afforded a single thread. I had left behind thankfully the gaggle of the rest of the chaps with their back-slapping and bonhomie and cricket scores. They would all still be there the next day, the month, the year.

What I did buy, with some prize money that some high-school competition had favoured me with, was a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Why that American poet? Maybe a part of me was wishing to be close to that country, where my best pal since middle school was going for college. A part of me maybe wishing for something far, far removed from this city that I had anchored myself to for the next foreseeable years. The city where once, suddenly now in the past tense (!), we would spend our schooldays traipsing about, bending rules and breaking curfews, entering the girls' school in the next block under the flimsiest of pretexts or being idiot savants steeped in colonial public-schooling at the British Council Library (more idiot than savant, any day).

It was suddenly going to be very grown-up in Calcutta, I realised, after this high school business was finally over. And very solitary Calcutta. A part of me wishing that I had done more and spoken less, had more choices than to stay on in this city that I loved and hated in the same breath. It would be many years until that starry-eyed kid would be hammered enough on the anvil of mediocrity to realize "wishes are like dishes - they both need doing."

The sun was scorching outside, and the stark blinding light through the shop windows cast refraction shards of molten fury on the ceramic tiled floor next to the bookshelves. All show, no business. But on that day, the boy still clung on to the rhetoric and the sound and the fury. Clung on to the last iota of stubbornness, that this was not it, that there was another chance to battle and best that mire of mediocrity.  Inscribed the date onto the first book he had ever purchased with money other than his parents'. Spent the rest of the prize money sending chocolates to his best bud's sis. Considered it a deed well done, straight out of his Bogart-addled teenage.

And in the years that would follow, trudging along a path trodden into mud by my city's countless nameless, faceless others, that book and that day would be a gentle reminder that there remained a path less taken. That lilacs still in the dooryard bloom'd.

 The pages turned yellow very soon, as is wont to happen with Indian reprints. And now it sits somewhere in my parents' flat back in that city, nestling against Nineteen Eighty-Four and Gorky's Mother. I did not bring it with me when I made the journey to Whitman's land. It was needed no more.

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