‘Nothing else?’ Swati quickly fetched him a glass of water from Dalim’s pitcher.
Draining his glass, Satyen said, ‘Quickly now. Let’s go.’
‘But… I was thinking…’ Swati said.
‘About what your father will say?’ Satyen guessed right – half right… ‘He’ll be back any moment. All offices have been closed.’
Swati’s face brightened. ‘Then… can’t we wait a little bit?’
‘You’d rather tell him before you went?’ Satyen finally understood, and was jolted. Couldn’t the rules be broken even on a day such as this? Couldn’t the daily compulsions be forgotten even for once? Did the same things as on other days have to be considered? But he had not; winding his way out through the crowd, he had run off to take a bus all the way from Jorasanko to Tollygunge, meaning to rush back to Jorasanko from Tollygunge immediately. But why had he?
The question died as soon as it had risen in Satyen’s mind; he was in no state of mind to quiz himself, nor did he have the time. ‘Your father won’t mind, I know.’
‘So do I.’
Swati didn’t reply.
‘Then you’d better stay. But I can’t anymore.’
‘No, I’m going too,’ said Swati at once.
She rushed inside, wrote a two-line note for her father and handed it to the maid, changed her clothes and shoes, took her handbag, and, stepping out on the road with Satyen, the first thing she noticed was that the day was still just as joyous and gorgeous and luminous.
The bus filled before they reached Kalighat. Still people kept getting in; college students, schoolboys, shopkeepers, the unemployed, young men who chatted with one another all day. The bus was so crowded she felt suffocated. But the seats reserved for women, one of which Swati occupied, were safe – and she was seated by the window, staring out fixedly. The roads were full of typical late-afternoon crowds, schoolboys in groups, but without their boisterousness; several older people wandered around aimlessly; groups of people gathered at any shop where the radio played; and there were small crowds at every street-corner, hoping to board any bus or tram that came by. Cinema posters were covered in black; the doors shut. Women stood in verandahs, at windows, their hair open, children in their arms, taking in as much of the road as they could. Everyone’s eyes, everyone’s mind, were trained on the road.
The day became cloudy, it started raining by the time they reached Chowringhee. But when the bus came to a halt at Esplanade, the sun was shining again, brightly; and in that moistsoft light, Swati saw an extraordinary swirl in the crowd, extraordinary even for Esplanade. The office-goer in a suit, the lawyer in his black coat, middle-aged clerks with umbrellas in hand, thin young clerical workers, Englishmen, Chinese, Madrasis, priests, Parsis – they were all rushing to and fro between Chowringhee, Dharmatalla, Curzon Park, Corporation Street, but without any specific destination, seemingly a little bewildered; many of them seemed to have forgotten the axiom that you go back home when the office is closed. No matter how fragmented they looked, Calcutta’s crowds were never aimless; everyone usually knew where they were going and why; but today they had all forgotten the destination, the certainty of a destination – and that was why these crowds were unusual, extraordinary.
Some people just stood stiffly, staring straight ahead, some just walked around, some seemed to make up their minds and walk a few steps, only to stop suddenly, some read the papers, each with two or three more peering over their shoulder. The special edition had just hit the streets, disappearing in a sea of hands.
Sitting behind Swati, Satyen reached out through the window to buy a newspaper, handing it to her after a single glance. Swati gave it just one glance, putting it on her lap. The girl of about fifteen sitting next to her took it without asking for permission, her eyes moved from the top to the bottom, and from those eyes tears fell on the newspaper with words printed on it in black, washing away the still-wet ink fresh from the press.
The bus all but emptied out at Jorasanko. Everyone ran towards Dwarakanath Lane, but, about to cross the road, Satyen paused. When he had left there had been a barrage of people – what had happened to them? Where was everyone? – ‘Have they taken him away already?’ the words escaped his lips.
‘Yes, they have – if you want to see him go to College Street…’ answered someone as he passed.
Swati had never been to Chitpore before; she watched with amazement the jostling trams and buses on a street that was more of a lane; even more of a lane further down, dark, twisting; tall buildings, cheek-by-jowl, shutting out the sky; strange crowds on the pavements and in makeshift roadside kiosks selling peculiar things. She almost forgot why she was there; remembering only when Satyen said, ‘They’ve taken him away already. Let’s go to College Street. You can walk quickly, can’t you?’
They walked swiftly, silently along the nominal pavement, avoiding brushing against other pedestrians. After a few minutes they turned left, entering Muktaram Babu Street. All these Calcutta neighbourhoods – Swati felt – were like a different land, a different world; the light, the air, even the smell was different. She looked around her, but couldn’t see anything clearly because of the pace at which Satyen-babu was walking.
The long, dark, serpentine Muktaram Babu Street ended at Cornwallis Street; and the crossing of College Street and Harrison Road appeared soon afterwards.
Satyen stopped on the covered pavement in front of the College Street market, climbing the steps of a shoe-shop. Many more people stood there, mostly college students. They were heard saying, any moment now.
‘Did the walk tire you out?’ Satyen asked.
‘Do you wish you hadn’t come?’
The conversation ended there, both of them were silent again. Some people stood on the dangerous bare roof of a shop on the opposite side of the road, their cameras aimed; women and children thronged the first-floor balcony next door; there wasn’t a single window nearby without three or four faces peering out of it, and no one moved on the road, everyone waiting. Satyen felt the weight of that waiting, that mute waiting, on himself again.
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