Harry was on his way to Calcutta, the city of his birth, after nearly two decades. It was like a homecoming for him. Born there on 19 August 1946, Janmashtami as per the Hindu calendar, he was named Haresh. The Bengalis called him Horesh and the Anglo-Indians at his convent school, Our Lady Queen of the Missions addressed him as Harry.
He dreamt of seeing Calcutta assume its premier status once again. For centuries the Grand Trunk Road leading to Delhi used to be the most important highway in the country. Today, the focus had shifted to the industrialised west where Harry had his factories. But with the rapid economic rise of neighbouring Bangladesh, there was hope for his favourite city.
The primary reason for his homecoming was work at Haldia Refinery, where his expertise was required to make the plant BS-VI compliant. And Natasha was the other reason. Unsure about being able to handle her daughter, Swapna had asked Harry to do so. Harry couldn’t help but smile at how times had changed. At one time there were issues between Swapna and him. Now the two of them were together with issues against others to manage.
By the time the aircraft reached cruising altitude, Harry’s mind had raced to Calcutta and the time he was ten. His school, which overlooked the Park Circus tram junction, was a co-ed institution up to class V, after which it was exclusively for girls. One incident that took place outside his school was vivid in his mind to the present day.
The Anglo-Indian youths had made a deep impression on him. In the Park Circus and Park Street areas of central Calcutta, the big boys of St Xavier’s and La Mart’s would ride Indian Chief motorcycles with pretty girls riding pillion, their skirts flaring in the wind to reveal their legs.
At lunchbreak the schoolkids would peek out of the compound gate while feasting on their mutton patties, pastries, cream rolls and Magnolia ice-cream sticks, sold for an anna each by the hawkers permitted inside the compound. The older girls would sneak out on some pretext to be with the rich and rowdy motorcycle boys who would return at school-closing time.
The schoolboys would get their kicks by pushing around the pretty girls and the motorcycle boys. One day ten year-old Harry had to pay for this mischief. He was cornered by three big boys who threatened to run him over. Terrified, he ran to the nearest building. The bikers followed and pinned him down. The growling of the old army bikes drowned out his pleas for mercy.
Just then, he heard a loud authoritative voice calling out to him. “Horesh!”
“Dada!” responded Haresh, and his face brightened up.
The bikers were shaken up and their engines went dead. Worshipped by some and dreaded by others, Dada was a law unto himself. He had once picked up a groom from the wedding mandap, replaced him with the bride’s lover and worked the ceremony through. It was a planned operation and Dada’s gang ensured that no one left the premises until the marriage was solemnised. The couple were indebted to Dada for life.
“Is this the best you have here?” enquired Dada accusingly, pointing at the toughest-looking boy on a red bike. The boys were too scared to speak. They didn’t know what was coming. Dada picked up the boy, lifted him up and threw him at the other two, bringing them down along with their bikes. All in one go!
“Horesh, esho, bosho ekhane,” said Dada to a much-relieved Haresh, pointing to the pillion of the red bike. They drove off in style.
The incident made a big impact on the motorcycle boys. They pleaded with Haresh to recover the bike. It was parked at Buckingham Court on Ripon Street where Haresh lived with his parents in a single-bedroom apartment on the ground floor, overlooking the football ground-size courtyard. The two-storied mansion with a circular façade had several such apartments. Constructed during the colonial era, it was among the several built by the British with a distinct western architecture.
Harry brought them to his house and gave them the key to the bike parked alongside his dad’s Land Master, later known as Ambassador. His mother gave them refreshments and expressed concern about their bandaged arms and legs.
Haresh became friendly with the boys and his popularity in school grew. An Anglo-Indian girl, Nancy, who was four years older, was attracted to him. She got him to do a play in which he had to play the role of a big boy paired opposite her. He felt jittery despite his exposure to the stage during Annual Day and Christmas celebrations. Nancy had a soothing effect on him. Harry recalled the play and some of the lines from it.
There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza / There’s a hole / Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
With what should I fix it, dear Liza, dear Liza? / With a straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
But the straw is too long, dear Liza, dear Liza / Then cut it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
With what shall I cut it, dear Liza, dear Liza? / With an axe, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
But the axe is too dull, dear Liza, dear Liza / Then, sharpen it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
With what should I sharpen it, dear Liza, dear Liza? / With a stone, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
But the stone is too dry, dear Liza, dear Liza / Then wet it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
With what should I wet it, dear Liza, dear Liza? / With water, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
But how shall I get it, dear Liza, dear Liza? / In the bucket, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry
But there’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza / There’s a hole.
The manner in which he delivered the last bit got the entire audience to rise and applaud. He felt extremely proud.
With a perfect body, Nancy was a stunner. He used to admire her secretly. Harry couldn’t help break into a smile at the thought that his Summer of ’42 happened well before the film was made.
It happened when they would rehearse for the play after school. He used to secretly watch her undress in the changing room after the rehearsal. She apparently knew this, but he realised this much later. She, in fact, would entice him, taking her time stripping and then inspecting her firm breasts in the mirror.
Their play was the penultimate item at the Annual Day function. The last performance was a one-act play with a run time of over 40 minutes. After they had finished, she went to the changing room. He didn’t, as he only had to remove the makeup and a false moustache. Everyone else was busy and the last set of performers were expected in the changing room only after 40 minutes. Thereafter, snacks would be served to all performers before they joined their parents at the function.
As Nancy went to change, Haresh assumed his usual position behind the curtain. This time she caught him, as if she knew exactly where he was.
He was terrified, but then, she did not raise an alarm. As he tried to explain, she covered his mouth and then started to undress him. Soon, both were stark naked and she had him sitting on her lap with her breasts pressing his bare back. She fiddled with his tiny one too. This went on for some time until they stopped and wore their clothes.
Harry was so deeply immersed in his thoughts that when the air hostess stopped at his seat and drew his attention, he snapped out and uttered, “Nancy!”
“I am Amrita,” she said, flashing the menu. He chose his breakfast and she went to get it.
Harry’s face turned sad as he remembered that last meeting with Nancy. That was his last day at his school. He had to move to another school for class VI. There was no way to go looking for her, and when he finally did, she was no longer in school.
Harry was now really enjoying his own company and looking forward to the City of Joy, a city full of fond memories for him.
To be continued…