THEN ONE EVENING, in the autumn of 2010, I found myself in the dimly lit confines of Trincas, the restaurant on Park Street. I was sharing a table—laden with bottles of beer and varieties of kebabs—with two men who were distantly related to my wife and were now my friends. The live band was in attendance, and all eyes were on the singer—a small woman, mildly plump, wearing a black cocktail dress that was short and tight.
‘How old do you think she would be?’ one of my companions asked.
‘Twenty-five, or twenty-six?’ guessed the other.
‘Are you out of your mind? I first came here some fifteen years ago and she was here even then. She couldn’t have been singing here at the age of ten.’
‘Then how old do you think she is?’
We all looked at the woman. Under the soft lights, it was impossible to even guess. We returned to the beer and the kebabs.
Later that evening, as we stepped out of Trincas, I asked the liveried doorman who had just saluted us, ‘That woman singing inside, how old do you think she is?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘Since when has she been singing here?’
‘Since a long time ago.’
‘And since when have you been working here?’
‘Since a long time ago.’
‘I don’t remember the year, sir. When I joined, Usha Uthup was still singing here.’
A long time ago. This was an expression I was coming across often in Calcutta. And the ‘long time’ would invariably be traced back not to a particular year but to the lifestyle indicators of the time.
One waiter I had spoken to at Olypub, also on Park Street, had come from Orissa at a time when one drink at the bar cost Rs 1.75 and a cotton vest was sold in the market for Rs 1.25. A little distance away, on Camac Street, is stationed a cart that sells dal vadas. The joint is called Victoria Vada because the owner had started off by hawking wares outside the Victoria Memorial a long time ago—when the rail fare from Jaunpur, the town in Uttar Pradesh where he had migrated from, was seventeen rupees and a meal could be had for ten annas. And now the doorman at Trincas was telling me that he had come from Bihar when Usha Uthup was still the crowd-puller at the restaurant.
Men like these expected me to do back-calculation on the basis of nuggets their memory could serve. But how was I to know which year a cotton vest cost Rs 1.25? As I prodded them for more clues about how long was a long time ago, I realised that these people have been living in Calcutta, doing the same thing they are still doing, from the time I was born—even before.
They are still around, so are the places. Except the escalation in the cost of living and biological aging, very little change seemed to have taken place in their lives and, by extension, in the parts of the city they were serving. This also meant I still had a chance to make up for not having grown up in Calcutta.
At the same time I could not think of relocating to Calcutta, mainly for the fear that its charm may begin to wear off once I had become a resident. Surely there must be other ways of knowing a city where I could not be born but would like to die—someday—to eventually mix with the soil that had given me my surname?
So that night, even as the age of the singer had remained undetermined, I became determined to write this book. That way I could return to Calcutta soon—and return more often.
By the time I hailed a taxi from outside Trincas, my mind had already begun working on a synopsis—even though I had barely finished researching a book about Chennai I had signed a contract for and was a long away from delivering the manuscript. Looking at one city as a subject had given me the courage to look at another. In a way, I was going to follow the footprints of the East India Company—first in Chennai, then Calcutta.