Street dogs whose cacophony kept night watchmen awake and the police on high alert, mysteriously disappeared after Hillary Clinton visited us, as did the potholes and trenches we were used to circumnavigating, every time we ventured into the street. So now it’s a smooth ride home and a quiet night’s rest for everyone, including those armed to the teeth, left in charge of our safety. But little doggies are making a silent comeback.
A couple of days ago, they installed two more security cameras outside the US consul general’s residence: one to scan the side wall for monkeys and predators and another looking down on people who pass by their front door.
Nemai, our street’s proverbial mentally challenged but precocious resident, who hurls stones and abuse at people who taunt him and whom the Americans and Brits and even Buddhobabu’s and Didi’s honchos could do nothing about but politely tolerate, watched the hoisting of the cameras with beady eyes and a churlish grin. He’d seen it all happen before. All of us Bengalis in Calcutta love to watch people wasting time. That is such a delicious waste of time.
In an age when we are fast losing our sense of humour and paranoically jumping out of our skins at the pop of bubblegum balloons, security on Harrington Ho Chi Minh has to be one of the longest running farces in our theatre of the absurd.
Starting at the head of the street where beside a derelict abandoned construction site that has plenty of room for snipers to take up positions looking in several directions, we walk along a blind alley that leads us to Paikpara’s palace that was once the last bastion of armed Gurkhas who have been replaced by potbellied and beetle-chewing non-beefeating yeomen who shoo away pesky ravens who haven’t learnt they can’t get visas there anymore, and guard the Queen’s plenipotentiary, under the shadows of Metro Plaza’s Towers and a shopping maze of hundreds carrying suspicious bags of kitsch merchandise.
A row of upright tin sheets has long divided the street in half so that walking or driving down Harrington Street is like travelling through a pipette that leads to a burette at the police chowki that has a tap of explosive experts and bomb detectors whose laidback efficiency and assiduous titration is a proven fact of life. They don’t salute and smile like liveried guards at five-star hotels, but they obviously have never missed a trick. I’ve known them for years and they obviously love this posting that shifts them just once a day from west to east, when the traffic turns, and then gives them the night off to watch Vishwaroopam.
I perched myself on a ledge at the same level as the security camera to see if I could take a bird-eye peek into shopping bags and handbags or necklines with spy cameras housed in diamonds. What I beheld was a fascinating Kabariwallah’s junkyard that has everything from gigantic bundles of office waste and broken chairs and bottles and mattresses and carpets and the sort of rubbish that housewives dispose of every day. I saw disillusioned immigrants waiting for their visa photographs to be spat out of computers and stray dogs who have adopted the place as a free-for-all breeding ground because so many grimy roadside foodstalls and some overrated houses of grime sell food whose leftovers are scattered for the poor and mangy to growl and fight over.
Almost every shopper from Pantaloons and Westside whose denting and painting (Ha!) at Habib’s, or scenting and mending at “Juice’s Spa” totters by on expensive worn-out heels, suspending shopping bags from polished nails and cautiously tousling a gay coiffure from whose curly depths wafts of ether evaporate, to make passersby dizzy and anaesthetise assault-weapon-wielding cops perched in concrete bird houses, nestled between gunnysacks of bullet proof sand. No sooner than the swooners wake up from one haze than they doze off again, overpowered by another biochemical onslaught from dolled up and perfumed shoppers flowing eastward, after noon.
Finally, in a leguminously disproportionate city populated by a lentil-consuming vegetarian majority, carefree burps in theatres and elevators is an inevitable risk we have learned to live with. But the last thing we needed, especially in a high-security zone like Ho Chi Minh, was a Mexican restaurant, “Amigos”, selling beans whose digestive results are driving armed guards crazy as they convulse through fumes of Hydrogen Sulphide, searching for sources of rapid firing guns and barrels firing at them from close proximity. Mexican food has had its reverberations in Texas’s heady mindset and now the Americans on the street are adding to the spread of giardia protozoa. Sometimes, life on this street stinks.
And midst all the risks we residents of Ho Chi Minh face every day of our lives, from hoardings scattered all across the city, Mamata’s glossed lips pout naughtily at plebs who’ve been taken for a merry-go-round ride again. And now Buddho, aroused from his omerta, unconsciously confesses (not in as many words of course) that he is being tormented by nests of vipers he cozied up to in times he would now rather forget about, and bury, whose eggs he roasts in nightmares of the past, that are driving him to a proletarian contemplation of death. May I recommend to our erstwhile leader, the sort of soppy Bangaali romantic tearjerker from Goethe, “Werther”, that drove cold and hard Germans to a pandemic spate of much more heartrending suicides. Osamu’s way was Osama’s way; Goethe’s was Sarat Chandrian.
Meanwhile, inside a cold room somewhere, terror analysers behind multiple screens chew sugarless Wrigley’s and gape like gawks at the sight of nutless squirrels scrambling along a parapet and harmless waddlers out in sneakers for a jog; urchins playing marbles; children and old folk ferrying buckets of water from a roadside hydrant to their homes; niftily dressed aseptic Jains off to temples in swank cars; bearded old gentlemen neatly piling rubbish into pyramids; paunchy men and women like an army of pakoras in colourful fatigues, wobbling and stumbling over broken pavements, who emerge at sundown like marauders out to terrorise bhel and paanipuri wallahs.
And along a windswept corridor once constructed to house aspirants for a better life across the Atlantic, sitting huddled in a cubicle, are weary policemen who now have to think twice before lighting a cigarette and putting their feet up to relax. Steely eyes watch an emaciated corporation worker wiggle by with the deafening rattle of a handcart of garbage and of course the endless sway of guys in uniform warding off unarmed friendly immigrants.
In a way I’m glad that you really can’t change a thing in Calcutta no matter how powerful you are, and that the lovable, faithful and hungry dogs of war are back, to wag the street we live on.