When people finish writing dissertations, or books, or any long writing project, seldom would one see an acknowledgment to the space where this mammoth task was undertaken. It seems odd to me, because more than any of the people that I spoke to, or the places that I went to, I developed my strongest bond to the one space I went back to every evening – MY table at the Cha Bar in Oxford. So on my last few days here, I want to write about it while I can still touch, feel and remember all the wonderful things this space has given me.
My routine here generally involves this – I walk in and take a deep breath (the deep breath symbolizing my leaving behind and cutting off from the city that I have a strong love-hate relationship with – more hate than love while I’m here). After a quick exchange with the durwan, I walk for about 15 minutes in circles, my eyes adjusting to the daily change in display especially at the middle row of every section. This is followed by a quick stop at the Calcutta section to read the back of the forty-five thousandth new book written on Calcutta and see if anything apart from the Naxals, the Left Front, the British architecture, Warren Hastings, or Jyoti Basu has been written about. Finally I stop to pick up the book I am in the middle of and then, a confident walk upstairs to the corner I love – almost like I own it.
Now the Cha bar in Calcutta is nothing like you've ever seen before. Its not your regular artsy café tucked into a cosy corner of the bookstore. It’s very VERY different. It’s basically a strip of wood that hovers over the entire bookstore almost like a bridge – you can watch people come and go from under it, you can see the entire expanse of books from over it, and most of all, you can see Park Street from the window. This vantage point in fact allows me to see so much, that I’m always surprised I get any writing done here.
I can see for instance the two retired 70-something year old gentlemen who come here everyday, sit on THEIR table and read the Cosmo and the Vogue back to back while sipping quietly on their tall glass of strawberry shake. I can also see the young couples on their first dates here – devoid of THEIR chair, looking for one that is far from the public eye. Their pocket money typically allows a shared iced tea and a shared samosa, which mind you, is hardly inconvenient for them – successful sharing is after all the beginning of many wonderful new things! Then there is the occasional activist and her journalist friend from abroad (they are loud enough for everyone to know their professions, even through their earphones). Not only can they afford the whole nine yards, but they also know the ‘right thing’ to get – the cappuccino or the Ethiopian typhoo with a muffin or even a chicken sandwich if they’re hungry. Besides these regular folks of course there is the excitement of seeing non-regulars, who bring a new story with them everyday.
A final thing to see is the window-cut view of Park Street. A five-lane street, this is probably one of the busiest streets of Calcutta after Gariahat. You can’t see buses or autos – just yellow cabs and fancy cars and so many of them. There’s not a quiet moment on this street, except for a window of exactly two minutes when the entire street goes dead quiet with no cars. These two minutes start at 1 in the afternoon – when the direction of traffic changes on this one-way street – and there’s exactly five of us (that I know of), who wait eagerly and patiently for these 2 minutes – me and four street children. I watch it just to get kicks out of watching traffic zooming until 12:59 in a single direction, then dead quiet, and then again traffic zooming at 1:02 in the opposite direction. The street children however have a totally different agenda. All of them below 5 years old, this is the only time of the day that their mother, (a rag picker who has perched herself at the entrance of Oxford permanently) lets them cross the entire stretch of the street to and fro about 5 times, before grabbing them and tucking them under her expansive blanket again at the sound of traffic. Aah, little joys!
Now you might wonder if it’s ever possible to get any work done in the middle of all this chaos. It IS in fact! Once all has been taken in and some advance has been made on the book picked up – out comes the laptop, plop comes the passion fruit iced tea and fries, in go the earphones and whoosh goes the world! I write and write and write like nothing exists and no one matters – a level of concentration that the quiet corners of the Rockefeller library in Providence could never provide; a sense of ownership of space made possible by the waiters who never intrude and cheerfully accompany me in the act of pretending I’m in MY office; and finally, a brush with nirvana, made possible only amidst the madness that is Calcutta.