Bijender Singh was following me. I hadn't noticed.
It was my first time exploring Kolkata on my own. Without much of an agenda, I took the Metro to Park Street and wandered around the periphery of the vast Maidan, following the dead tracks of trams that once wheeled around the place. I did not see where I was going, or notice the man who asked me the time. I went on, following the tracks that got lost under a bridge.
I started walking along the edge of the bridge. I was thinking of how I had got here, in Kolkata, of all places, of all the places I had been in before – Vallabh Vidyanagar, Vadodara, Pune, Bengaluru. Switching from one course to another, one job to another, I had given everyone the excuse that the job I had taken up in Kolkata would give a boost to my career.
It was nothing of the sort. I just had to move out somewhere. And here I was, tracing the dead tracks of an outdated mode of transport in a new city.
Someone called out from behind me.
It was the man who had asked me the time. He was warning me that the bridge was not meant for pedestrians. I smiled and turned back. He told me his name was Bijender Singh, a guide who worked sometimes in Kolkata, and during summers in Dalhousie. I smiled again, and told him about my camping trip in Dalhousie; about how I loved the flower-laden valleys and the view of the town from our distant campsite. I was surprised at the ease with which I could talk to this stranger. My well-wishers would have killed me for trying so hard to get abducted, looted, raped, murdered, or all of above.
Now I’m not much of a museum person. But when someone, who’s just saved you from getting run over by speeding cars on a dangerous no-pedestrian bridge, offers to show you around a few boring places, you kinda say yes. We walked across the Maidan, had soft drinks at a stall. Bijender insisted on paying. He tried showing me around the garden surrounding the Victoria House, and blushed to see it infested with love birds of every feather. His stream of conversation dried up inside the Museum, where I busied myself for a while looking at colonial paintings and reading historical accounts, trying to trace the exact point in history where a glorious old city called Kolkata was degraded to Calcutta by ignorant colonizers.
Surprisingly, the little man didn’t ask for much of a tip, but in true Bollywood style, he wanted a souvenir to remember me by. I gave him my pen. He escorted me right up to the entrance gate of the Metro Rail, regretting perhaps, that he could not come right on to the platform and see me seated in the next train, just to make sure I was really going back home, and not just looking for an excuse to get rid of him. He also took my number. Of course, I gave my number to my new Bihari friend—with one digit altered. You see, I am not that trusting, nor very romantic.
But I do wonder at times, if Bijender Singh tried calling me that evening, and in the days that followed. Did it hurt him to realise that I had really just got rid of him? I shall never find out. Outside of the few hours that we spent talking on a day stolen from my routine, our worlds are completely different. Yes, we all grow up with those cute little stories of how two people from different worlds form these sweet little bonds of friendship that go beyond social perceptions. Whether such things happen in real life, and then how often, is one of those questions you don’t want to bother with. What is beyond doubt, however, is that you always take back something out of these little interactions. And so Bijender the Guide went back home with a pen. And I came back with a little story.