It started with coffee. The foamy kind, where the tiny milk bubbles butt against your top lip like a dam and your tongue becomes a rush of smooth espresso warmth. The taste is charged with the memories of unhurried conversations shared over cups like this back home, in the clatter of cafés and company of old friends. And for a moment I am there…The sun streams in and warms the tiles, and fat Freddy’s Drop breathes kiwiana and coolness in to the room.
I take time to turn over the fresh memories from this morning, when wedged in the back of a tuk-tuk I whirred through colourful lanes to parts of the city undiscovered to me. The rainbow had been spliced and laid out in neat piles by men selling vegetables. Each one busily loaded handfuls of bright pigment in to a swinging basket, and balanced these with weights in another while they shouted and pointed to distracted patrons. Goats bounced and were hurried away to the edges of the lane – the less lucky among them stripped of their hides and hung by their feet in the open windows, next to shirtless butchers with knives that must have been sharper than they looked. Proud white-robed men with beards and matching caps strode alongside women swathed in black, the sunlight dancing from their jewelled noses. Taxi horns blared, bus engines growled and bells climbed over the cacophony.
“Whenever you’re ready, man.” Harry’s voice was a moon that pulled at the tide of my consciousness and dragged me back to the present – not unhappily.
We set out on bikes and and I followed behind Harry, winding through the old cities dirt alleyways, past men pulling carts, and others with precariously balanced loads atop turbaned heads. The sun – by now approaching the height of its arc over the city – beat down heated gravity, pressing the water out of our bodies and on to our skin where it sat; until the beads became trickles that meandered down our necks and our backs and sank in to our already damp clothes. From shop to shop we flitted examining the wares of poker-faced paper merchants for hours it felt like. While Harry had the shop keepers busy mining dusty stacks of card in the recesses of their stores, an old gentleman with delicate, wrinkled fingers poured me hot chai from the blackened spout of an old kettle. His yellowed eyes almost smiled, and he tipped his head to the side in the same way that every body around here seems to. I’m not yet sure what it means, but it’s nice. Not knowing what to do with perfect terracotta thimble he’d given to me to drink out of, I offered it back. He took it brusquely and dropped it where fractured in to pieces in the gutter. My astonished gaze caught his. He shook his head with mild – almost friendly -disdain, then shuffled off the to the next shop, wordlessly. I stared back in to the gutter and saw the broken remains of more than a dozen other cups. I would learn by joining the dots here, even if it made no sense to me.
From the paper market we retreated back to the relative cool of the Croucher’s apartment. Mandy had prepared bread and home-made feta for lunch. My teeth sank in to the familiar soft resistance – how long had it been since I’d eaten bread? I savoured the salty crumbs of feta that clung at the corners of my mouth. A fan whirred overhead, whipping warm creamy air down in an ever-losing battle. We tilled over the events of the morning together – Mandy was bemused by our enthusiasm, but clearly pleased for us as we proudly displayed the card we had gathered from the morning. This week we would begin to design the packaging for the new bags, and it had to be just right.
Outside, on the edges of the built-city, I could hear thin threads of bird-song, and the low-lying shacks and homes rambled on in to the distance until they disappeared in to the haze entirely. It was that sleepy kind of peaceful that belongs to the thickness of the heat, and I could certainly have stayed and enjoyed it longer were it not for the interminable enthusiasm of my colleague. “Ready for round two?” Harry is lean with wide, bright eyes, and an eager posture that almost is always leaning in to the next moment. He has those arty kind of hands too – with nimble fingers, and nails that almost always have a little bit left of what ever he was last working on under them. Mandy laughs, and tells me Harry can never sleep in on Saturdays, because he’s too excited about the things he could make. I smiled at the familiarity of it. It had been many years since I’d known the same feeling, but already in this day I had sensed the beginnings of an uncrumpling of something that belonged to my childhood self – the simple but exultant joy of creating.
Mandy collected what was left of lunch and Harry and I set off on the second act of the day. “Welcome to the densest place on earth!” Harry yelled back to me, over his shoulder. I had to ask him to repeat what he’d said over the hubbub. Above, strings of flags were slung between sooty buildings that almost leaned in to the alleyway – perhaps hoping to relax their hundred-year old muscles from the effort of propping themselves up. We waded slowly, using our front wheels to cut our way through the crowd. There were those who smiled at me from their perches on the backs of carts or truck, and others who scowled. I couldn’t help feeling a little out of place in this Man’s World. When a bus would lurch through beside us, we would fall in to it’s stream, like those little fish who whistle along under the belly of a great whale cruising the oceans. At last we reached the lane where Harry was pretty sure we would find canvas. He’d seen tarpaulins here before, he thought. The morning’s routine repeated itself – Harry floating requests with shop keepers who would then eagerly dive out back to bring forward samples of this and that, while we supped Cha. And I threw my cup away like a local. All together, we found a blanket, a kind of cheese cloth, and a couple of canvasses we were pretty sure had potential.
“Wanna go to the furniture market on the way home?” Harry was optimistic there was more we could squeeze into this day yet! It was an easier ride back, and there was a point where I had a whole road to myself. It was roofed with a canopy of trees and seemed an enchanted tunnel of sorts. I wanted to try taking my hands off the bars as I rode, but my eyes suddenly stung and squinted in the pollution of the air, and I didn’t relish the thought of finishing the day with skinned knees as penance for cycling with no hands and no-looking either. Graciously, the market wasn’t far, and I marvelled at the dressers and shutters and doors that had been painted and repainted as the decades had ticked by. It was all impossibly gorgeous, with rich timbers and delicate inlays that wore their years with the same aged grace as those lines around the eyes of an old woman when she smiles. Roaming through the darkened corridors of forgotten furniture, I was stopped suddenly in my tracks by a white wire of incense suspended across blackness in front of me. It was so beautiful I didn’t want to break it – like the dewed threads of a spiders web in the morning. I didn’t need to go any further anyway – just to the left was a pale blue board, leaning against the wall. Perhaps it was part of an old door, or a window shutter. I tried to feign disinterest in it, but somehow imagination’s glow in my eyes must have betrayed me to the owner, and he knew I saw more potential in it than it had to him. I made out to haggle a fair price for it, lamely, but in the end settled on paying at least twice what it was worth. Nevermind. It would make a perfect desk – it could be next weekend’s project, perhaps.
After dropping the bikes back at the Crouchers, I decided I would walk home, rather than take a bus. Was it just my mood, or had today actually made me younger? I skipped over unlevel cobbles, and enjoyed the light yet unfamiliar feeling that there was nowhere in particular I had to be in that moment. Dusk was settling, and there were a few orange smudges peeking through the thinnest parts of the now grey sky. It was apparent – from the garish and disorienting blend of sounds, sights and smells that I had found myself a very, very long way from home indeed; something that only grown-ups can do. And yet at the same time, Kolkata made me feel more like a child than I could remember feeling in a very long time. It was perfect paradox, and I smiled at the thought of it. I wasn’t too sure what I would do tomorrow, but I was almost certain it would be an adventure.