Somewhere between pre- and post-2014, my perception of Kolkata changed. Pre-2014, I would visit Kolkata from the USA where I drove a car and was used to a certain individualistic lifestyle. Naturally, ma and I used to spend most of our time arguing over what mode of transportation to take, sullying the joys of going out together. I refused to take the slow-moving rickety buses, the dangerously-driven autos, or even the metro. My ma does not believe in taking cabs, classifying all cab-drivers as kidnappers, and we would often stand at the bus stop arguing about this. She later grew wiser, so instead of arguing, she would suspiciously nod and agree that we should indeed take the cab, admitting that buses these days are not reliable anymore. However, as soon as we reached the main road, she would hop on a slowly oncoming bus, shrugging and telling me that no cabs were in sight. She would be standing on the footrest motioning to me by vigorously flailing her hands, "Chole aaye, chole aaye, taxi paabi na." or "Hop on, you won't find a cab." The thing is, she didn't even wait for 5 minutes for a cab to show up. I see her innocent face and I know that I have been tricked. So now I can either stand my ground in which case ma leaves in a bus and I stay where I am, or give in and take the bus. At this point, the conductor joins her too in screaming and asking me to board the bus, "Chole asun didi chole asun." I give up, take the bus, and see a broad grin of victory on ma's face. "Shona meye amar, ma'er katha shunte hoy." "Good girl, you must listen to mommy." I promise never to travel with her again.
Post-2014, I am older and wiser, somewhat. I now live in Germany and do not drive anymore. I haven't even renewed my driver's license. I take the public transportation all the time. I know that it is convenient, environmentally friendly, inexpensive, and the right thing to do. So as I board my flight to Kolkata, I tell myself that I am only taking the public transportation. No more cabs for me. If I want to see interesting people, I must take the metro. My ma has never been prouder.
So one evening, I decide to meet a friend in the opposite end of the city. Kolkata metro is fast, convenient, and connects the city north to south. But taking the metro involves walking for ten minutes to the main road, taking an auto to the station, walking under the bridge and hope that no flying missiles from moving trains of the nature of used cloth diapers or flying excreta land on me, and then taking the metro. The humidity is killing me, my clothes uncomfortably sticking to me. I haven't even bothered to put on makeup. I was wearing a light rain jacket in June even last week when I was in Germany. And now, my sluggish sweat glands are working overtime. I take the metro and luckily find a seat in the reserved "Ladies" seat. I get busy trying to read a third-grade bestseller highly vouched for by my sister that was written by a celebrity-wife who clearly did not know what to do with her time. I am trying to focus on page 2, giving it a fair shot before judging my sister. I have a long way to go. The train stops at the next station, and I see a woman walking fast out of the corner of my eye. "Chepe bosun, chepe bosun," she instructs everyone sternly. I am hearing this phrase after such a long time. It means please squeeze in a bit to make space for me, and is said twice for added emphasis.
The thing is, obesity has significantly risen in the last decade or so with the Americanization of Kolkata. The booming "shopping mall culture" is a long rant for another day. While I am old-school and more used to being invited home and fed home-cooked food, people these days prefer hanging out at malls, walking aimlessly and looking at overpriced stores, taking selfies and partaking in Subways and McDonald's. Imagine flying all the way to Kolkata to watch people overdose on American junk food with gusto while I crave for two tiny shingaras, kochuris, and some jilipis. And I continue to embarrass myself in more ways than one. Recently, when someone asked, “Acropilos jaabi? Have you been to Acropolis?" (a recently opened mall in the southern fringes of the city that I had no idea about), I proudly beamed, "Gechi to. I was there last month, that is where I lost my passport." Before this Kolkata trip, I only knew of one Acropolis, the original one in Greece.
Back to my metro rant. While eight voluptuous women easily fit in a ladies seat 10 years ago, wriggling babies and hanging bags and all, the same space can now seat seven women, and a mosquito or two. The others look at each other clueless, feigning an act of wiggling themselves to fake an act of making space for the lady. But there is hardly any space left to make. Our warrior lady is getting impatient. So she screams louder, not even bothering to mask the underlying threat in her voice with courtesy. The other women feel perturbed now. However, I decide to play cool, and instead of looking up, continue pretending to read this horrible book where the writer talks about some first-world problem of her driver not showing up on time and she having to take an auto rickshaw. There is some action going on right next to me with some elbowing, rubbing sweaty arms, and muttering expletives. The warrior lady has made some space for herself finally, all of 2 inches that can barely have her touching her bum to the seat. As if on cue, the driver slams the brakes, breaking her inertia and making her real angry. So she walks over to me, and in that little space we had for 2 mosquitoes, she seats herself. What it means is that she is half-sitting on my left thigh now. And if that is not enough, her right hand, all bare and damp in her sleeveless blouse, comes and rubs mine. I immediately forget my book and with electrifying speed, try to shrink myself to half my width, almost wincing at my physical proximity with another sweating individual (with a fiery temper). As if traveling in a stuffy, sweaty metro was not enough, I now have a woman on my lap threatening me with her "Chepe boshun bolchi kintu!" while the metro sways at speed and makes me conjure traumatic images of getting a lap dance. I am repulsed beyond imagination. I try to think of my choices, or whatever remains of them. My book is long forgotten. I look at the woman on my lap, half-sitting on me and refusing to budge. I contemplate telling her, “Chepe boshte parbo na” (I cannot squeeze in, sorry and thank you). However, I don't think I have the courage to do this. Meekly, I obey her and jiggle myself some more, and when that does not work, go stand and offer her my seat.
After 30 minutes of standing in the crowd, my nose precariously pointed at several armpits jutting from sleeveless blouses women love to wear, I get off the train in one piece, my lap still bearing the traumatic memory of the pseudo lap-dance it had recently received. Thanks to learning yoga for one semester in grad school, I had managed to stop breathing for most of my ride. I still have an auto rickshaw to take before I can reach my destination. I am smelling of 50 shades of sweat, and I do not even know which shade is mine. I try to squeeze myself in the right extreme of the backseat of an auto. However, my ordeal is far from over. A family of man, woman, and child come running, push me aside, and grab the entire last seat of the auto before I realize what is happening. The mustachioed man with a baby face is the first one to get in. Wow! There was a time when chivalrous men used to offer the back seat to women while flanking the driver. People have taken gender equity really seriously these days. So carefully arranging my half-flowing clothes, I seat myself by the auto driver, confident about smelling something new now- perhaps hair oil. In the next twenty minutes, the auto driver becomes a reincarnation of Keanu Reeves from Matrix, squeezing his vehicle in the lanes in between speeding buses and cars, zooming through approaching traffic in T-sections, making me sit even tighter to him, much to my dismay. Given a choice between falling of an auto rickshaw on the road or sitting uncomfortably close to stranger and smelling his hair oil, I prefer the hair oil.
I get off at my destination and try to enter the mall. However, I am stopped by two female security guards who deem it proper to pat my boobs with the metal detector before letting me in. From getting a lap dance to giving one to the auto driver to having my assets patted, my friends will never know the huge price I have just paid to commute from point A to point B. Ever since, I feign a heart attack whenever someone asks me to meet them at a mall during peak traffic. If that does not work, I just tell myself that 5 Euros (my bus fare in Germany everyday) is close to 377.87 Indian rupees. So once in a while, when I am not craving for any sort of adventures on the road, I just take the cab.