How old was I? Ten? Eleven?
It had been raining since the early hours of the morning and Garcha Road was flooded, as usual. I’d heard of Chitpur Road turning muddy at the sight of a cloud, whereas Garcha Road seemed to harbour the secret ambition of turning into a canal some day, like the one in Baghbajar. And Garcha Road fulfilled that ambition every time it rained: the asphalt disappeared under muddy water, starting from the channels next to the cemented sidewalks, till the exciting moment came when the first thin waves swirled over the middle, meeting and parting and revealing the gleaming asphalt every so often like a Hindi film heroine in a ‘wet’ scene on a public hoarding which should have been for Adults Only. – And then the water took over, and filled the road, and filled the sidewalks, and filled the passages between the houses, and filled the space beneath the staircase where the coal was kept, and filled the small courtyard, and threatened to flood the kitchen-verandah as well.
Did the world need so much water? The rain was still gouging the surface of the water when I went out to join my friends. A game of football was in progress on ‘Madcaps’ Lane’, with a floating, bobbing rubber ball. A ride on a bicycle would have been fun – I envied the bicycle-owners who steered through the muddy water on half-wheels, pedalling half in the air and half in the water, the water slurping at the spokes and the chain. Cars were in trouble: I kept hearing things like ‘water in the carburettor’ or ‘water in the silencer’. It was fun pushing stalled cars. The lorries and the double-decker buses came sailing like ships, and people jumped to avoid the wake, and the waves splashed against doors and made them creak.
“Let’s go see how high the water is!” It always ended like that. “I’ll go and see water,” in that vague, unarticled, Bengali way, “water see come”, literally translated. It meant doing a round of the nearby streets and lanes using one’s own body as the measuring rod – not so many ‘hands’, so many knots of the bamboo-pole, but ‘foot-wetting’ deep, up to the ankles, knee-deep, waist-high. It showed that the streets and the lanes and the by-lanes had secrets of their own, some lay deeper than the others, attracted the water and held it longer. The water was cooler in some parts and warmer in others. Water resisted motion, one had to drag one’s feet, and the rubber sandals glided along like submarines and bobbed up if one lost them. And, for once, the water made the soles of the usually dust-caked feet white and soft and spongy, and the skin a wet, glistening brown with the clinging hairs combed this way and that. Old and forgotten sores and wounds showed up against the tender skin. All the wetness somehow reached the scrotum and made it contract like a raisin.
I went down Hazra Road to Ballygunge Fari, inspected the two sides of Gariahat Road, one of which lay at least a couple of feet deeper than the other. Memory guided my feet over the water-covered terrain – the potholes, garbage heaps, forgotten piles of stone chips. There was a traffic jam of sorts, because of all the stalled cars, and the double-decker buses had taken to the grassy tram tracks where their oversized wheels churned up the mud. The bus roared, the rear wheels spun and skidded on the sticky, treacherous surface of mud-and-grass, the passengers jumped down from the footboard and pushed, bells rang from the temple of Hanuman the Ape-God in encouragement. The rickshaw-pullers and the pushcart-drivers were having a field day, though at the risk of breaking an axle because of the invisible potholes.
It was nearly twelve o’clock. It had stopped raining. A burning sun made the city steam, and the water made the light dance on the walls. I had gone as far as Swinhoe Street, where the water was deepest, and was returning by way of Garcha Road, making a detour via Garcha First Lane and Garcha Second Lane, where the water was free of patches of oil and had bits of domestic garbage floating peacefully instead. The lane was empty, I parted the water like Moses and left a V-shaped wake like a duck in a pond as I went, yes, that girl was up there where I’d expected her to be, draped over the railing of the first floor verandah like a lily not caring a damn whether one could see her bloomers or not.
And then suddenly I came upon the open manhole, where the water was surging away in a whirl. One could feel the tug if one stood close by. This was the beginning of another journey, the reverse journey for all that water, through dark, woolly, sewage-filled channels back to the Hooghly, and from there to the sea with the ebb-tide. I watched a paper boat ride the crest for a brief moment before unseen hands beneath the whirl clutched at it and pulled it down to the nether world where unwary children had been known to err. Suddenly I wanted to go home and rub the wetness out of my body and feel the clean, dry touch of dry clothes and run my hand over my own drying, contracting, bleaching skin as I sat wrapped in a bedsheet staring at the crisp pages of my new geography book which, alas, would be limp like everything else before the annual examinations were over.
Another lover and hater of wetness, of dryness, or a Bengali, in short, had been Born.