It’s strange, how some lost moments of life are often imprisoned in trivial things. A song that brings back the memory of a face long forgotten, a taste that reminds you of a person, of a dinner together years ago- forgotten details but deeply etched fragments- or a fragrance that takes you to a night, a wild youthful night of a life lost somewhere in the constant juggle of duty, responsibility and parenthood. That was the smell of Frangipani, I later learned, a flower that never stops blooming. She was Frangipani, blooming majestically in the dark corner of Sonagachi, where people flocked to dip themselves in the sweet nectar, to don the unforgettable fragrances- Frangipani, Jasmine, Gardenia.
It was early nineteen seventies. Calcutta was burning in its own diabolical politics when I first set foot on the mobbed platform of Howrah station. Walls of the city were painted red with radical propaganda and images of Mao Tse Tung by the Naxalbari communists and the streets were turned into scaffolds by the dour instruments of the state. People were angry directions- left, right center. And amidst such polarity there were people, lot of indifferent people who were more concerned about a secured future than the continual clash of ideology. With a satchel by my side I joined the sea of people coming out every morning to sit in a dark corner, to struggle with balance sheets, burying their dreams to shape the dreams of their children. For me, I did not know what I wanted to be, but the nights when I sat down with my friends in the gloomy interior of my one room apartment, the whisky often spoke about lot of things that I could have become. And one such night, a friend told me about Sonagachi, a place where I could buy what my charms and chivalry denied so long. That day he painted a picture of beauty, and his stammering words could not stop me from visualizing a world that was as much stranger to me as a palace to a pauper.
It was tough. Fetid streets, hollering vendors and puddles of dirt water made me nervous but the excitement kept me going. The agents, scavenging on the trade, and their blatant promotion of variety made me constantly doubt my decision. There were women standing on either sides of the streets like the mannequins at the old British store in Park Street. The slurred words of Ausotosh hurled me forward, making me completely ignore my hypocrisy and I walked inside that old rickety house which was ironically called Premkamal- lotus of love.
When I entered the house, the glossy interior took me by surprise. Violet light gazed down complementing the tawny skins that were abundant everywhere. Suddenly the abhorrent association that had been entrenched so deep in my moral senses turned into something very enthralling. Air was moist with a strange pleasant smell, a mixture of perfume, toiletry and sweat. I kept walking, hypnotised by the magnificent manifestation of desire. My mind drifted to an old English class where the teacher recited Kubla Khan to a transfixed class. If there was Mount Abora anywhere, I thought, it could not be any place else.
The floors were like layers. With every level I crossed, I was welcomed into a world growing more and more surreal with time frozen statues of Khazuraho. I walked in incredulous steps while trying constantly to push my ethos and morality under carpet. I kept moving. Then wafted hat intoxicating fragrance. It numbed my senses blocking everything else around the room. She was wearing a sari, the fragrance of Frangipani sprinkled all over her. Her lips quivered, slightly hesitant, and I felt an emptiness in my stomach, like in the time when my uncle took me to the merry go round in the village fair.
A simple admiration of beauty was a blasphemy if money did not follow. I looked at those deep eyes again all the innocence I saw a moment back was gone.
It was a different world inside Glossy radiance was replaced by gloomy incandescent lights and foul smell of urine. With the obnoxiously slow clock, every minute seemed like eternity. Later as I walked back, every eye, I felt, was scanning me, holding me responsible for the ugly streets of Sonagachi, for the orphan children selling condoms by the road side. I saw a drunkard bargaining with a women in a crude tongue, and the realization that I was no better burned me with self-guilt. I walked swiftly, promising myself never to see this place again.
I tried to bury every frame of that misjudgement but that fragrance was everywhere. I was annoyed at the beginning, I changed my bed sheet, threw away the clothes I wore that day, but I could not remove that galling smell from my nostrils. Days went by, rain came and gone and I did not realize exactly when, I started longing for the smell again. I forgot the streets, I forgot the orphans. Defying all logic and ethos, I fell in love with Frangipani.
I left Kolkata, the bellbottoms I wore were replaced by simpler and milder formals. I became a father, I grew a belly but only constant that remained in my life was a bottle of perfume, bought at the foot-path of Free-School Street, replaced periodically by a mail order. Frangipani became my odour. I woke up to the smell of Frangipani and I closed my eyes mustering scattered scenes from a distant memory, reliving a moment of past, freezing a segment of life.
My son settled in Kolkata, and the indolence of my retired life brought me back to the place where I weaved my dreams. Kolkata of my memory, of my dreams had changed beyond recognition. I never forgot to admire the Jazz bars of Dharamtala or the intellectual felony of photocopies in the College Street. In the warm air of Calcutta, frangipani became a stronger connection to my youth. I would often go for long solitary strolls in Park Street, idle saunters in esplanade, impulse transactions with booksellers. Every night when I closed my eyes in the arms of Frangipani, couple of feet away from my wife, I became young again, drifting fragment by fragment to that gloomy room taking with me the scenes of new Calcutta across time.
Just like all other days, I took a taxi to esplanade. The walk from Oberoi Grand to the busy lanes beside Newmarket was my favourite. I joined the moving crowd. I walked towards the underground market, turning right, making way through receding crowd. I was tired but I had to get my bottle of Frangipani. The shopkeeper gave a familiar smile, he was roughly my age. He took out the hour glass shaped bottle and wraps it in an old newspaper. He carefully folded the sides, in an artistic way making the paper stick to the bottle like a skin. I took out my money and handed it over. A familiar fragrance wafted towards me. Smell of Frangipani filled the air making my olfactory nerves numb. I felt my heart speeding looked back is it possible? I saw a face, a remote imprint of the portrait I engraved so deep in my mind. The shopkeeper flashed that customary smile again and extends a similar red bottle that he packed for me a moment back. I was thunderstruck, unable to believe, this was the woman I carried for 30 years in my mind! Her face had grown plump reducing her once beautiful eyes into two thin lines and her mouth was overflowing with spit from the betel juice she was chewing and a thin line of red spit dripped from the corner. When she smiled at the shopkeeper her teeth with yellow tobacco stains devastated the parallel life I had guarded so carefully in my mind for thirty long years.
“Business is dull these days, this stupid internet thing! Just these cab drivers and street vendors are keeping the business running. But my girls don’t want to get involved with them.”
She says spitting a gust of red spit on the pavement.
She sniggered at me flashing her stained teeth again.
“Hey Rina, he is a gentleman, don’t bother him, Moshai don’t listen to her”
I turned away. All these years I had frozen a moment in my mind. It had been frangipani that constantly helped me to beat the nefarious plots of the mirrors to make me old. I could not let this fortuitous contamination ruin my youth any more. I walked fast, in an attempt to flee from the sudden realization. I crossed Park Street and kept walking. I felt my breath struggling to keep pace with my legs. I sat on a bench in St Paul Cathedral and tore the newspaper, the shopkeeper packed so carefully and opened the bottle of frangipani. I closed my eyes, in a last feeble attempt to hold the image of a young me and that image of Sonagachi and Frangipani. Like Rip Van Winkle, I felt, I woke up from a long slumber just to find every bone in me turning old and rickety. A strong feeling of self-abhorrence engulfed me. I walked slowly, taking all the time to let the shock settle down. The bottle of frangipani lay on the bench, quietly, while the dry summer wind slowly annihilated the fumes like a pyre smoke and carried it away to some other place, to another youth waiting to be rescued from the tedium of lonely existence.