Variously accused of being a thinker, smoker, antisocial and married woman, Sucheta Dasgupta works in an Indian newspaper, is cared for by a kind person and, predictably or not, wants to change the world.
Forty and full-bellied, or, How I became a man
In 1999, the iconic Charminar came at four rupees a pack. It was 9.30pm. I was striding along SN Roy Road from the street-corner shop to my grandma’s where I put up while I did my computer course and job-hunted in the city, the newly-purchased Charminar and matchbox buried deep inside the left pocket of my trousers, purse folded in sure hand. As I turned the corner from the sodium-lit thoroughfare into the neon-lit street where her house still stands, a motorcyclist appeared out of nowhere a couple of metres behind me and braked next to my side. A genial-looking young man was seated on it. He was tall and broad shouldered with a gentle paunch. He greeted me and said he wanted to be my friend. I was quick to decline. I said I don’t really live here as I am only job-hunting and will go where my work takes me and that I really don’t have the time of day or mind-space to be with him; therefore, I cannot be his friend. It was forward of me to say all of this at first sight but I wanted to be blunt and I am kind and I wanted to also minimize the interaction so as not to give out any false signal as I had been bred and had bred myself to—given the right occasion—do, so not many words passed between us. There was no double entendre, but there was also no humour. At least, not expressly—though this curious routine of mingling of opposite sexes that I had known of (till that point) second hand, I had always found amusing in my mind. He was nice about the refusal and I never saw him again.
But that in no way warranted the following experience. That did not imply I had to take the 5.30 local home, ride for four hours with luggage, which comprised mostly books I had stored here that I was taking back because I was sure to crack this interview tomorrow for some software development work near College Street and come all the way back from Durgapur the next morning studying on the 8.30 passenger, not thinking too much about getting soaked in the sudden rain. Hanging from the window of a far-too-overcrowded bus on Howrah Bridge loose—I was seventh on the footboard and actually pushed out on the road for the first and only time in my life (and none too gently) by my co-passengers as I was obstructing traffic and had not even a toehold. Scout out the venue to a dingy backroom in a rickety, old building filled with some clerks catering to a business in spices and sewing machine parts—they said they had diversified though I was in no mental frame to process that information—and present my papers. I remember they asked me to stay for tea after. Someone had called my grandma with this address for a job interview which had put me on this wild goose trail. That someone had clearly played a joke on me and I would later put it down to the guy who had met me in my Behala neighbourhood on that sodium/neon-lit night. When I walked out on the street 15 minutes later in the now nagging mizzle, I remembered it was my 25th birthday.
* * *
The day I turned 18, I was riding home from RE College campus on the back of my father’s moped; worried, bored, angry and listless as I would perpetually be during those times. Reader mine, don’t ask me why. You would be, too, if you were shabbily and ridiculously advertising nonexistent shame in name of conservative dressing (conserving what?), not finding a way to play or watch your favourite sports (I was to miss all the cricket World Cups, Grand Slams and soccer matches for the next decade or so), finding yourself behind the boys you have been pitted against for engineering entrance as their school taught the XIth syllabus in classes X and IX and hating the fact that they all had their own vehicles while you were not even allowed to take the bus or simply walk un-chaperoned after dark. Another forgettable day it was; as I was still having to be escorted to my destination. There were four to five shanties on either side of the road leading out of the college campus exit and we were passing them on our two-wheeler when a stone hit me almost gently on the centre of my sternum, just above my heart. My first thought, it was a good hit. A heartbeat later, I realized it had been flung from the direction of the slum but we were past the spot whence it came from. I would now have to turn around and holler a reply, have my father stop and search for the culprit—but his sociology said I was to blame and he would let that prevail, hence the ride—or let it go. Wait to win your freedom, every dog has his day, but I swear this hope had just then taken one more blow and was far from my mind. So instead of bothering my father, indeed also making him sad on my account, protective, but not angry enough to decide in favour of my logic, I chose the last option. No shame, but no pride. The same moment, I felt a dull pain in my chest. It was very slightly sore, the spot on the top of my heart. It is my 18th birthday, was my thought in that moment of my life.