| No horn please
Love it or hate it or both, Calcutta is like a great, unpredictable and dangerous football team. In terms of driving you up a wall, other cities can sometimes be quite one-dimensional, but Cal' Boy oh boy, if it doesn't get you this way it will get you that way, and if not that way then a third or a fourth way. I suppose it's a tad easier if you live in Calcutta and play against it all the time, but not a lot. The only difference, I suspect, is that you don't feel that under-sear of humiliating frustration quite as sharply as the city, yet again, contemptuously flicks a goal past the flailing arms of your sanity. I remember, from the time I was a full-time inmate-adversary, that I had a pretty good post-goal mechanism, a certain (I thought) insouciantly elegant stoicism in the way I picked the ball out of my net and carried it back to the centre-spot and kicked off again the daily lutta.
But, obviously, it is harder if you've been out of training, i.e., if you've spent too much time away from the sharply serrated edge of battle. Coming back this time, the town turned me inside out like a sock. The first thing was the cabs. At first, I thought I had them: the meters were digital, the computation fairly simple, and the traffic-jam, by Indian standards, moving reasonably smoothly. Soon, however, the cost of the same trip from one end of Lansdowne Road to the other, at around the same time, began to creep up like Ricky Ponting's batting average over the last year. What on the 16th of May cost around 27 rupees now, at the end of June, invariably ends up around 34 bucks, and it's not as if I've put on weight or anything.
I was taking a cab with a friend when I complained about this. He explained it to me. 'Do you tell the cab-drivers not to use the horn' he asked. 'No, what's the point' I replied, 'The horn is to them what brown sugar is to drug addicts.' My friend laughed in a hollow fashion. 'I have heard,' he said with authority, 'that recently they've rigged these digital meters to their horns so the numbers go up a tiny bit every time they honk'bhai, horn bajaaben na!' he suddenly said to the taxi driver. The cabbie, who was doing 70 kmph down an empty midnight street at the time, turned around and looked at us in disbelief. 'How do I drive without honking' he demanded, before turning back and letting fly a glissando at a stray dog crossing the road in front of a hospital.
One of the destinations to which I regularly take taxis is the home of a couple who are close friends. Now, when they visit me in Delhi, either the husband or the wife or both, I obviously extend the normal, unexceptional hospitalities to them such as the use of the telephone, the internet and the bathroom, the licence to make tea in my kitchen whenever and however many times the husband wants, drinks, food, fan, air-conditioner etc. Whenever I come to Calcutta, my friends do far more than that for me; given that I usually don't have a running establishment here, I eat at their place practically five days a week, their major-domo shops for me and often goes to pay my bills, their dog constantly pleasures my knee, and they even let me sing in the house. They are, in other words, both of them extremely generous about most things. But when Calcutta strikes it strikes hard and it doesn't discriminate.
One day, I walked into their house and headed, as I often do, towards the computer to check my mail. The wife intercepted me. 'Go down to the net caf',' she said, 'you can't get on-line here anymore.' 'What' I frothed, 'Why not!'!' 'Because this is Broadband.' She replied. 'Good,' I said, 'then it should be on all the time, no' 'No. It costs every time you connect. It costs every time you download mail.' 'But that's not broadband,' I said, 'that's a dial-up!' 'No, it's Broadband,' she said, interposing herself between me and the computer, ' and the bill has come. Eight thousand rupees for this month.' The husband looked up from his guitar, 'The bill was six thousand, the fixed fee is two thousand.' I reeled. 'What were you downloading' Software for the American nuclear submarine fleet' I asked. 'Rolling Stones videos,' said the wife bitterly (she is a Billie Holiday follower).
'But that's lunacy!' I yelped, 'I pay 900 a month in Delhi for a pretty fast 24-7 connection with no extra charges for anything. I'll get you all the Rolling Stones videos from Keith Richards' baby shower onwards.' 'That's between the two of you,' said the wife, 'but you aren't checking your mail here. It's too expensive.' I tried to stay on my feet. 'Look,' I said, pointing to the fan, 'if you were paying rapacious prices for electricity would you stop me from standing under this' Would you stop me from taking water from your fridge' Her eyes widened as she seriously considered this. There and then I decided it was not a good time to ask if I could watch the 8.30 Group C match on their TV and beat a hasty retreat.
Walking around the Park Street area, I'd been pleased to see many establishments festooned for the World Cup. Graphically trumpeting Super Big Screens and Happy Hours with large cut-outs of footballs framing their entrances, the eateries and boozeries looked ready to grab part of the staggering world-wide profits being generated by the extravaganza currently going on in Germany. One evening, another Cal-born-Delhi-based friend and I walked into one of these bar and resto establishments with the intention of watching a match over a few beers. The restaurant manager greeted us. 'Where is the big screen' I asked. 'Over there, sir!' said the man proudly. We looked and found what was indeed a huge screen lit up with the opening ceremony of the match. The problem was the screen was in an odd corner, located behind some plants and placed in such a way that only one two-seater table could get a view of it. That table was occupied by a couple looking deeply into each others' eyes.
'But we can't see this properly.' My friend pointed out. The manager was unmoved. 'You can go to our bar,' he said, 'there is a smaller screen there.'
We went to the bar. As promised, the screen was smaller, and located on a wall above the DJ's station and a small dance-floor, but it was sharp and bright enough, so we settled down and ordered our drinks. The only other customers in the bar were a group of young exec types who were also obviously there to watch the match. For 15 minutes we watched the soccer game develop. Just as it was picking up some rhythm, right after the first serious attempt at a goal, the commentary disappeared and a Bollywood remix began to thump out of the speakers. The mirror-ball began to spin and its beams strobed the TV screen in pinks and blues. I went up to the bar manager and asked him if he could please switch off the disco. 'We cannot do that. This is a pub. Music and lighting, we have to have it.' 'But the only customers you have are here to watch the football.' 'That may be. But we cannot switch off. Some other customers might be coming.'
I went out to the suited-booted chief manager and repeated my complaint. He straightened up and said, 'How can we do that' We have our rules. The pub must have music and lights after 8pm.' 'But outside you have advertised football viewing.' I pointed out. 'Yes.' Said the manager, the waistcoat on his beige three-piece almost bursting with pride, 'But you can see we have a big screen!'
My friend and I muttered Delhi imprecations under our breath, left the place quickly and began a tour of the other football-touting joints on Park Street. It took us six tries and six misses before we found a tiny oasis of sanity where they would let us both watch the game and listen to it as well. We sat down just five minutes before the final whistle, but in gratitude ordered several drinks before, finally, tottering out past the closed internet shops to the waiting taxis. When we told the taxi driver our destinations he demanded an extra ten rupees. 'We'll give you thirty extra!' yelled me and my friend, 'But you can't honk your horn!'