“I feel I’ve missed out on many of the important aspects of this city.”
I was with a friend at College Street and we had spent the last few hours book-shopping. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry. People live such busy lives. Yet, I felt like I had all the time in the world. Kolkata always fills me up this strange snugness. One thing is certain; it will always be home.
We entered the famous Indian Coffee House around sunset. It was exactly how it had been described to me time and again; not too posh, not too shabby — rather a well-balanced place with a touch of grandness. It took us a while to get a table.
“It’s nice,” I told her over the warm steam of freshly served coffee and pakodas.
“I don’t know how else to describe it.”
“You seem disappointed.”
I wasn’t disappointed at all. I could sense that my lack of enthusiasm was somewhat rude, especially since she went out of her way to give me an authentic Kolkata experience. But it was just a coffee shop to me and I did not have any nostalgic memories related to it.
“It sure feels nice to be in a building that was frequented by so many great people,” I said, “but I’ve had better coffee.”
“No one comes here for the coffee. Or the food.”
“I know. A friend had mentioned that this is like Central Perk to many. He said I need to come here multiple times before falling in love with the place.”
“You can love it right now if you try,” she smiled. “Tell me your current impression.”
I thought for a while. It is always difficult to come up with something proper in such situations. I didn’t want to appear too dense or too cheesy. Ultimately, I decided to go with the truth.
“I think this building has a significant historical value. People feel comfortable sitting here and having a proper adda, and this is where I would’ve hung out if I studied in one of the nearby colleges. But personally, I would prefer someplace smaller and quieter. I don’t feel any special connection as you and most of my Bengali friends do.”
“I don’t feel any special connection either. Stop assuming such stuff. Whatever you just said makes the coffee house unique. There’s nothing more to it.”
To be honest, I felt a little relieved. Maybe I hadn’t been missing out on a lot after all. A tiny trace of doubt remained though, as it remains within the most of us. I decided to put that away for another day.
One of my seniors had said that Kolkata is a miraculous place if one knows where to look — it is filled with such beauty and such sorrow, like a damsel in distress, that one cannot help but fall in love with it. As I recalled this, my mind wandered. What is it about sad women that make them so attractive? Do men wish to be saviors so that they can feel good about themselves? Or is there some deeper reason behind it?
My friend lit a cigarette, distracting me from my thoughts. The smell makes me feel a little stuffy but I don’t forbid people from smoking around me. It’s a little compromise I make. In this particular case, it hardly mattered since the guys at the next table were smoking anyway.
“You know, I take in so much passive smoke these days that I might as well start smoking myself,” I said.
“I’m trying to quit,” she replied faintly. She was staring at her cup and blowing smoke onto her coffee, lost in some distant thought. I focused on eating and let the silence dance around for a while. Spacing out is a common habit of hers. I don’t mind since I tend to run out of small talk easily, and silence is my comfort zone. Sometimes I feel this is the main reason we are friends. It also helps that we tend to like the same stuff. We generally talk about music and literature and weird scientific hypotheses. Occasionally, we talk about ourselves.
“How is your piano practice coming along?” she asked after some time, trying to make conversation.
“Very slowly. I won’t be able to play any of my favorite songs anytime soon.”
“Stick to scales and exercises. It will be a waste of time to learn individual songs this early.”
“I know. I tried learning Our House Below for few days without any satisfactory progress,” I said ruefully. “Remember the song? It’s from Arrietty.”
“Oh yeah! That was such a cute movie. I need to see it again.”
“We should do a Ghibli marathon sometime,” I suggested.
“Yeah. That will be nice.”
We played with the prospect for a while. The topic warmed me up, and soon I was talking about my love for Miyazaki and his movies and how I felt like screaming at the Academy Award judges for picking Frozen over The Wind Rises. It is Miyazaki’s swan song, after all.
“I’ve often wondered why the last movie is called a swan song,” she said, interrupting my monologue.
“It’s something from Greek mythology. They say a swan sings a beautiful song just before it dies.” I get these bits of information from the internet.
“People make up some wonderful stuff,” she observed.
And so, one topic led to another. We talked for hours as the city lit itself up in white and yellow. On the way back home, the winter chill tickled my warm palms and ears. Another year was about to end and I wondered if I’ll ever get to sing a swan song, or any song at all. Probably not. One must be a swan first.