Golden Hearts and Terrible Tarts
Being Naughty in Calcutta was Easy
It was the scar on her cheek that set her apart from the other women. Adding character to a classic, pretty Indian face. This wasn't an Yves St Laurent fashion show. It was the Chowringhee, Calcutta’s main artery. Sunset on a winter evening. We were cruising along in Sam’s car looking for a little fun. Young and full-blooded. Calcutta in the 60’s – the time when ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive and to be young was very heaven’. And that stretch of road was where the fun was.
I caught her smouldering gaze and was immediately smitten. Sam slammed the brake, a deal quickly struck and we were on our way. We reached my pad on Short Street – a ramshackle bungalow, different parts of which were rented out to a down-and-out photographer, a pair of air hostesses and me – a boxwallah with a British company. She turned out to be a witty, entertaining woman and as they say, a good time was had by all. We returned after dropping her, to an unpleasant surprise. Sam’s gold Dunhill lighter and the latest Playboy magazine, a rare and prized commodity, were missing. We didn't need Sherlock Holmes to figure out who the culprit was. The issue was retrieval.
Two evenings later, we found her at the same place. Why did you steal the lighter and magazine, I asked angrily. Don’t be upset, she said. I only took them on loan to show my friends. I knew we would meet again. I will bring them with me tomorrow. All this while she lovingly stroked my beard. Not knowing whether to laugh at her audacity or cry from relief, I slapped her cheek lightly. But sure enough, the next day Sam’s possessions had been restored. Talk about honour among thieves, what does one say about virtue among women of easy virtue?
Thereafter, she became a regular visitor, listening patiently to our office travails and the ups and downs of our love affairs. Then one day, she introduced us to two of her friends and co-workers. We brought them home and broke a long-standing rule by offering them a drink. An hour later and I realized we were in serious trouble. Their voices had turned raucous and language vulgar. All designed to make us supposedly respectable gentlemen panic. Sam suggested we drop them back before the neighbourhood awoke. This evoked a loud protest, followed by the heftier woman picking up the heavy cast iron gas stove and flinging it to the floor. The proverbial pin drop silence ensued. Some quick-thinking was required. Strong-arm tactics would have led to further commotion. So we hastily struck a deal, promising to pay an outrageous amount if they left quietly.
Just then, Nathan arrived. Realising our predicament, he quickly decided that the women deserved to be taught a lesson. Possibly a dark patch on Orient Row to rough them up a bit. Nathan was the original sharpie and I had implicit faith in his ability to handle crises like this. We got into the car – Sam at the wheel, Nathan with the women at the back and me riding shotgun. As we reached Park Street, instead of turning left, Sam suddenly spun the car towards Park Circus. Sensing trouble, one of the women grabbed the keys from the ignition and flung them out of the window. The car lurched to a halt.
Dear God, said Sam, taken aback at the turn of events. I jumped out to retrieve the keys. Nathan was shouting at the top of his voice. The women had in the melee, jumped out and were screaming obscenities, the likes of which would make even a Punjabi truck driver blush. Calcutta has always been a place where a crowd collects if someone just points up at the sky. I wondered how many would gather on hearing two women scream at this late hour. Pavement dwellers in torn lungis, preparing to read the Riot Act to us. Calcutta – a city known for its chivalry and respect for women – never mind their calling. I searched feverishly for the keys, thanking God that the area was well - lit.
One of the women had picked up a large stone and before anyone could react, flung it at the car. With a loud crash, the left-hand window glass fragmented. My panic-stricken eyes widened frantically. A glint – and thank God ! The keys were in my hand. I ran back. Quick Sam, I said, cutting my hand on the glass in my hurry. Sam twisted the ignition – no response. Again – the silence of death. Christ, he said, it won’t start. Nathan and I jumped out. Push, push. From the corner of my eye, I saw the other woman bend, pick up a stone and aim it at my head. I ducked just in time – it whistled past, narrowly missing the rear windscreen. The car picked up momentum. I felt one of the women grab my shirt. The thin muslin tore neatly along the seams. The cool wind made me shiver involuntarily. Another few yards and the engine came to life. Nathan and I clambered in, landing on broken glass. Wounded in action. Fingers cut, shirt torn. But what the hell. As Charles Kinsgley wrote, ‘ Young blood must have its course lad, and every dog its day’.