‘Your name is Vinay, madam?’ asks a taxi driver, suddenly appearing at my side, he smiles a toothless smile. I nod, noticing his bright friendly eyes, wondering how he knows my name. From the pocket of his shirt he produces a crumpled note, I know you didn't want a driver, please humour me. Have a good day. Sunil. We’d had this discussion the night before. I enjoyed roaming Kolkata, but Sunil wanted me to have a driver - our views on walking differed greatly. Eventually we had agreed to disagree.
Apparently I had a driver for the day.
‘ I'm sorry, what’s your name?’ I ask, smiling. His head wobbles; hands folded in his sarong, his back ramrod straight.
‘Rajesh madam, pleased to be meeting you,’ he replies.
‘Excellent, Rajesh, please call me Vinay. Shall we go?’
‘Yes, madam.’ His head wobbles as he scrambles into his taxi. We weave through a warren of back-streets dodging mounds of smoking rubbish, chai wallahs with tea trays, and scavenging dogs. Honking traffic swarm like hornets, vying for position at the traffic lights, engines coughing and spluttering.
Through the smog the sky is free of clouds. Victoria Memorial stands majestic, her formal gardens, marble domes framed by a halo of pale blue sky. ‘Madam, you can be calling when you’re finished, my number 831 078 568, yes?’ Rajesh hovers as I punch his number into my phone. ‘Madam, that way, yes?’ he points down the long broad avenue stretching from the gates to the front steps a hundred metres ahead.
‘Yes Rajesh, thank you.’ He nods, and disappears into the eddy of traffic.
‘Ticket, madam?’ the guard asks, stroking his moustache. Scrutinising the stub I have handed him, he brusquely waves me through. Away from the traffic I meander, admiring the vast ponds reflecting the tribute to Victoria, the foreign queen. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I glance back, realising that, during my reverie, pregnant rain-clouds had converged overhead. I weigh my options. I’ll run for it, I decide. Gathering my bag, I run, but the faster I go the harder the rain falls. Within seconds I am drenched. I keep going; all I can hear is the splashing rain, and my feet on the gravel. When I look up, I see a crowd assembled under the portico, sheltering from the rain; all eyes were on me.
The people silently part as I stumble towards the entrance. Water is streaming down my face, my now transparent shirt stuck to my skin. The guard steps aside and ushers me through. I can feel their eyes on my exposed back. Inside, I run around the circular atrium, oblivious to the soaring splendour above me, desperately seeking seclusion in which to dry off. But I find none.
Under a window overlooking the gardens, there is a fan. At the touch of the switch, it whirrs to life; I frantically wring out my shirt, trying to hold it away from my body. Twisting and turning, I try to ignore the growing crowd. Wide, unblinking eyes peer through the window, the guards had stopped trying to move people away; instead they joined the throng. At the forefront stands three women, elegant in silk saris, they’d taken a keen interest in my desperate attempts to wring myself dry. The eldest leans forward, hand outstretched. I wriggle backwards, trying to keep (what was left of) my modesty and escape her fingers. They skim my arm, narrowly missing my breast. It’s my turn to look stunned. Her friends titter as barely concealed laughter ripples through the crowd.
My phone buzzes. ‘Sunil!’ I whisper.
I hear his name echo throughout my audience. ‘Where are you? Why’re we whispering?’ He asks.
‘Victoria Memorial,’ I murmur.
‘You met Rajesh then? It’s supposed to be torrential today,’ he replies.
‘Yes I did, the rain IS torrential! I was just in it!’
Sunil pauses. ‘What do you mean, in it?’
‘I was in the gardens. I thought I could outrun the rain, now I’m trying to dry myself in front of a fan, with a crowd…’ Laughter explodes in my ear.
‘What’ll you do now?’
‘I guess I’ll find Rajesh…’
‘Madam! Madam! No phones!’ A guard waves at me, as he pushes towards me through the throng.
‘Gotta run,’ I mutter into the phone. Sunil roars with laughter again. Snapping my phone shut and my sunglasses on, I turn and stride toward the first gallery, trying to pretend that all didn't just happen.
R de Villeneuve