Thursday, December 31, 2009

That Night

Howrah bridge at night in Calcutta

It was the night of 31st December 1999. I was in Calcutta and the new millennium was just few hours away. The entire city was decorated like an Indian bride. Clinquant and dressed to kill. At the famous Park Street of Calcutta, a giant screen was put up for public viewing and the movie ‘Titanic’ was playing on it. Perhaps they meant only the great love story, and not the doom, and were happy to usher the New Year with a gigantic display of this magnum opus.
We were out to celebrate the eve and our celebration was all about roaming the glittering streets and eating ice cream and cakes in the cafes lining the pavement. Before leaving home we were warned playfully about the over enthusiastic crowd of Calcutta men who just go haywire when too happy or in “High Spirits” and were told to take care of ourselves when the clock strikes midnight, especially when we are out on the crowded streets. ‘Anyone would grab you and kiss you. It’s ‘Happy New Year’ after all. And please take note that the kiss might not be just a kiss…so be careful to get inside the car before the clock strikes twelve’ The Cinderella hour was imposed on us.
My cousins shivered with apparent disgust at the thought of being ‘manhandled’ like this and were adamant that we leave before midnight…
Being a Delhi gal I was not scared of the perceived rowdiness of men from Bengal, knowing very well that the mild tempered Calcuttans are no match for Delhi men who are in ‘High Spirits’ all year round, and Living in a city like Delhi has taught me how to survive the leching and aggression.

Anyways, we were out on the dazzling streets and I was rejoiced to see the true spirit of night in this city after many years. When Delhi sleeps, this city wakes up, surprisingly, although Delhi is the capital city of India and is much larger, the so-called nightlife is insipid in comparison to Calcutta. Perhaps it is due to the law and order situation here, which is always on the precipice of threat. Despite all the daring no woman could imagine roaming the streets at such an hour in Delhi…it is too dangerous.

We walked on with our ice cream cones and caught glimpses of the movie on the giant screen. Many people smiled and wished ‘Happy New Year’ as they passed on, although there were still fifteen minutes left to the midnight. Maybe it was the spirit for the night or the contagious bravado, we decided to stay on the street and truly enjoy the celebration with the surging crowd.
We took care not to wander too far away from our car. If worse comes to worse we would always dash towards the sanctuary of our car.
There were just two minutes left to the midnight hour and nearly all the people had come out from the nearby pubs and cafes and were lining against the pavement’s railing to shout, greet and hug when the new millennium makes its grand entry.
Our group stood a little further and watched the rising fervor. Our hearts were beating due to the infectious excitement and we were ready to rend the night air with our shouts of ‘Happy new Year’ at the stroke of 12.
We had strolled away to stand under a huge Peepal tree. There was a large trash bin at a little distance from us. It was not closed properly, the lid was askew and the stench that was coming out from it was becoming unbearable. I walked towards it to close it firmly. I pulled the lid and tried to position it to place it firmly on the circular bin. Just then I heard a whimpering sound coming from inside. I thought a stray puppy has got trapped inside and since it was a large, man size bin full of trash, it must be finding it difficult to come out. I looked back at my group for help and saw that their faces were shining with suppressed excitement, there was just one minute to go… The streetlight was falling straight inside the trash bin and I raised myself on my toes to peep inside. I froze. But not due to the cold on that December night.
There was a man huddled inside, clad in rags. He was trying to save himself from the bitter cold with torn papers and by huddling deeper into the trash, which was nonetheless, warmer than the street…