I still remember the excitement of standing at the bus stop to get on a public bus to go to school by myself. I was in grade 9. After coaxing and cajoling for almost a year, some of us got the permission to use public transport to go to school. We had finally grown up enough to leave the school bus behind. I distinctly remember the beating heart and the clammy hands, clutching the fare. My first step into the world of grown ups, as a semi grown up! I later found out that my dad had followed me the entire way to school, in the same crowded bus on that first day to make sure I did not get lost. You can imagine my indignance at that! He tells the story to my children with much laughter as the children laugh with him.
Anyway, the point of the story is, as far as I can remember I have called the young, lanky bus drivers, auto drivers, taxi drivers as ‘dada’ (big brother). That was the norm. I asked them if they would take me:
‘Dada, jaaben?’ (Big brother, will you go?)
I haggled with them over price and fare.
‘Ki bolchen dada? Dosh taka r ek poishao beshi debo na!’ (What are you saying? Won’t give you a cent more than 10 rupees)
But lately, I realized they look at me strangely when I call them big brother. They see the crow’s feet near my eyes and the silver in my hair and wonder, ‘How old does she think she is, calling us dada?’
When I go back now, I catch myself and use the appropriate endearment ‘bhai’ (little brother) instead of the one I am used to ‘dada’.
How would they know that when I go back, I slip back into that young girl, the fresh faced young woman who felt she owned the streets once upon a time? How would they know that when I go back, I shed the identities that I have accumulated since I left the city – that of a mother, a wife, a lover. I am back to being me again – daughter of India. The daughter who boldly came home in the middle of the night from work without any worries of rape and assault. Perhaps I was lucky, but there was less fear among us. There were the neighborhood boys, dadas, who held vigil even that late at night.
Kolkata does that me. It reduces me to myself. It reduces me to the girl I was before I spread my wings and flew away. And I love being that ‘me’ for a while, luxuriating in the feeling of being just a loved daughter, niece, big sister but alas, granddaughter no more. I walk the much walked paths to bus stops, stores, phone booths, xerox shops which I walked numerous times as a little girl, a young student with a big pack pack, a college kid and then a woman in love. New stores have taken the place of some old ones yet the roads remain the same. Some of the dadas I used to know still keep vigil in the neighborhood. They have whites in their receding hair line, wrinkles in their faces but they are there. The sight reassures me. They keep my childhood intact. My memories remain safe. And as I hail a taxi these days, I remind myself to say: