Return to paradise
Many years ago as a child, Benoy loved going to Central Park with his parents on Sundays. He loved the wide open spaces, the stately trees and the brilliant flowers in all the colours of the rainbow. Flaming orange, cheeky yellow, royal purple, brilliant red and even the pastel green flowers of the Devil tree.
But most of all he loved the squirrels. How importantly they would scamper about, busily hoarding their wealth of grasses and nuts, not the least afraid of the uncaring human feet walking by. Just after the monsoons at the end of September or thereabouts, he and his mother would go wild mushroom-picking in the park. What a delight it was to spot the snowy white heads peering shyly amidst the green grass in a shaded nook under a leafy tree! But sometimes he would be puzzled by a pair of unfurled umbrellas lying on the ground with four intertwined legs sticking out. He would ask his mother about it and she would hush him with an embarrassed smile and hurry him away.
Age of innocence
Benoy lived in AD Block and his playmate, Bani, lived a few houses down the road. They were ‘nappy’ friends since the time both would meet in their respective perambulators while being taken out by their mothers. As they grew up, from making mud pies together to ‘skiing’ down the sand heaps by the roadside, to fighting and pulling each other’s hair and going howling home, they did it all.
Childhood friendship deepened as they grew up. The roadside sand heaps extended to riverside excursions and inevitably, Central Park became the closest venue where they could be together, without frowning brows and judging eyes following them around. How much they enjoyed a cup of the hot milky sweet cardamom tea in earthen cups sold just outside the gate. Conveniently, old newspapers could be bought just outside the gates for a rupee – very useful for spreading on the ground and getting comfortable on. They also had to get their own umbrellas!
After school, Benoy took up chemical engineering and Bani won a scholarship to a prestigious university in France, studying Journalism. Parting was painful but both were keen on pursing their chosen fields of study. They met during vacations trips home and Benoy was struck by how much Bani had changed. She was always vivacious with her dark flashing eyes and curly locks but now she had suddenly metamorphosed into a beautiful, self possessed and articulate young lady, quite the Parisian mademoiselle! Benoy fell in love with her all over again.
Bani finished her course with honours and was immediately snapped up by a media house in UK with well- known magazines, TV channels and newspapers under their banner. She was ecstatic with her career and dived head first into the frenetic world of journalism. She was in almost daily contact with the rich, beautiful and famous people — politicians, royalty, film stars and models and she loved her work.
Benoy, was very happy for her. He, meanwhile, took up a job with a chemical company as a researcher involved in developing chemicals for heavy industry. He was doing very well, publishing scientific papers and growing rapidly within the company. He looked forward to the day when Bani and he would be together again for good. In their daily conversations, Bani would tell him how much she longed to be with him. They decided that Benoy would get a job in the UK so that Bani could continue with the career that she loved so much.
Then, one day, there was an explosion in the lab and Benoy, along with several others, were severely injured. Benoy was left with severe disfigurement around the face and his vision was gone for ever.
His company paid his hospital bills and compensation but they had to let him go as he could not work meaningfully anymore. Benoy returned home to Salt Lake, broken in body and spirit. Bani rushed to see him but he refused to meet her. With his disabilities and hideous disfigurement, he knew he would be an enormous liability to her and her brilliant career. Benoy lapsed into the life of a recluse, rarely venturing out.
Then & now
Some thirty years later, it happened to be Valentine’s Day and with a sense of nostalgia for happier times spent with his sweetheart in the same beloved park, he resolved to visit again that magical place of his childhood and young adulthood.
Chaperoned by a kindly old
e-rickshaw driver, Bablu, Benoy set off quite early in the morning. A short ride later on battery-run wheels, they were at the imposing gates of Central Park, or rather Bonobitan.
As they were walking towards the gate, the smell of freshly brewed, sweet milky cardamom tea in earthen cups wafted past, reminding him how much Bani and he used to enjoy that drink. Promising Bablu that they would partake of a cup of this Ambrosia on the way out, they made their way to the gate.
“Pnaach taka, purono khobor kagoj, pnaach taka,” he heard a yell. Inflation has caught up with the rate! But there was one more product on offer. “Plastic sheet, pnochis taka, plastic sheet.” Aah! Progress and prosperity, thought Benoy. Plastic sheets for lovers was definitely new to Central Park!
Squeezing past the same turnstile gate (was it still painted green?), with Bablu’s steadying grip on his arm, they breathed in the aroma of mildly decaying Water Hyacinths rising in a gentle, sun-warmed cloud from the lake. After years of breathing diesel fumes, even rotting vegetation was a sweet flavour for sore nostrils!
A few steps on, a medley of conversation could be heard. Young lads and their girls. “Ei! Amake Valentine’s day tey aaj ki dibi re?’ hoarsely whispered one, full of hope. “Ekta thappor debo, chup kor!” shot back a husky female voice. Other young voices murmuring sweet nothings to each other, making plans for a rosy future overcoming thorns in the way. Smiling inwardly, he thought of his Bani, recalling his own escapades in the dim and distant past. How the best-laid plans of mice and men can be wiped out in an instant! He sighed and trudged slowly on.
Raucous laughter just beyond the fence of the children’s park startled him. Bablu said it was the laughing club getting their early morning dose of brain hormones. He could do with some laughter in his own life, he thought.
He asked about the old dinosaur in the park. Said Bablu: “It’s there, but it’s now a new-look Dino, long hair, slouch and all!” Apparently, the creepers planted to fill out the wire frame of the dinosaur had not been tended in a while and long tendrils hung over the poor old creature’s face, giving it a distinctly 60’s hippie look!
Curving round the path once more, Bablu helped Benoy to a cool stone bench on the edge of the lake.
Oh, what bliss — the sun warm on the face, the cries of a Kingfisher as it dived for a morsel of fish, its jeweled colours flashing in Benoy’s mind’s eye, the aggressive beating of a Jackdaw’s wings as it tried to steal the Kingfisher’s catch, the somnolent buzzing of insects at the water’s edge, the heady perfume of The Indian Devil tree, the excited chittering of squirrels as they scampered about, the occasional drone of aircraft flying overhead, croaking of frogs and chatter of Crickets.
Of course, in February there weren’t any wild mushrooms to pick, but the umbrellas and couples behind the umbrellas were still there as they used to be so many springs ago. Bablu remarked that the Chinese umbrellas were bigger and more colourful than they were in the past. More privacy for the couples, Benoy chuckled to himself!
Soon it was time to return home. Benoy was feeling better than he had been in a long time. This Valentine’s Day visit to Central Park brought home the realisation that the years may pass by but some things stay the same. Such as the pair of unfurled umbrellas and four intertwined legs behind the umbrellas that he almost stumbled upon! Or the hot cup of Ambrosia he sipped on while leaving.
(The author, Anuradha Roy, is a resident of FE Block)