I must admit that I am quite confused about how to string together my story of the day. When I first thought about writing this story down, it appeared to be quite simple and small, but as I thought about it a little more, it became a jumble of many little stories in a massive knot. I do want to narrate this story and let my readers enjoy it. I shall try to untangle the knot and present you with the threads laid out in an orderly fashion.
Let me begin on a very wet September evening of 1959 on Park Street Kolkata. We were in a big crowd in front of the Prince Restaurant. The awning on the footpath was not saving us fully from the rain but we were unable to get inside the restaurant; there was no room for the huge group that we were in. Me, my wife Leena my cousins Bhaskar and nine-year old Sharmila, Leena’s cousin Smarajit, my eldest sister Chitra, her husband and two kids Deepa and Ratna aged nine and seven, my second sister Hashi with her husband, her two sisters in law in their early twenties, her two kids Anjan and Ira aged 5 years and ten months respectively and a nephew Chandan aged ten, my Monida (aka Squadron Leader Ashateeta Chakravarty or Chipmunk Chaks) and his younger brother Chanu. It was indeed a big and diverse group. It was the evening of Ashtami Puja, two days prior to Dassera. The plan was to eat and then go out sight-seeing at night. Every one was well dressed and hungry. And I had been unanimously elected as the person who would stand the treat!
But, what was I doing there in Kolkata any way? Wasn’t I supposed to be in Tambaram on duty?
- I was on the posted strength of the Flying Instructor’s School Tambaram I had got married in the month of May, but my father had got paralysed through a stroke just before my marriage. I had left my very young bride with my parents at Deoghar and had gone back to rejoin duty. I was lonely, unhappy and fretful and my boss knew about it. Good soul: my boss Wing Commander Kishen Lal Suri. Sending me on a ferry flight to Kanpur was his idea. He gave me four days of casual leave en route that could be added to the Dassera holiday and asked me to go and lookup my family. That is how the story had begun.
- In view of inclement weather I had to plan for a night halt at Hyderabad. I chose Hakimpet for the night halt; I had more friends at the Fighter Training Wing Hakimpet than I had at the Transport Training Wing Begumpet.
Fate works in mysterious ways. Chance visits and meetings often have far-reaching consequences.
- At Hakimpet I met my friend Flight Lieutenant KK Sen (Koko to his friends). Koko had just been posted to 12 (Bengal) Air Squadron NCC; something he immensely disliked. I had on the other hand been trying to get to any unit in the Kolkata area so that I could look after my father who was ailing. We sat together and generated an application for mutual exchange of posting so that I could go to Kolkata and Koko could replace me in Tambaram. At Hakimpet I also learnt that Chipmunk Chaks had just been posted as OC 2(Bengal) Air Squadron NCC at the University of Calcutta. I thought of looking up Chipmunk at Kolkata if time permitted.
- From Hakimpet I went to Kanpur, deposited the aircraft there, got on to the Toofan Express by the evening and reached Deoghar next afternoon. I had four days in hand and I wanted to spend all that time at home. That was the plan that I had made, but I also had a surprise plan-killer waiting for me at home. It was lunch time when I reached home. The elders had sat down for lunch. Apart from my parents my father in law was also there partaking lunch. He had come to take Leena back with him to Siliguri for the Puja days. My mother in law was keen to perform certain functions on the Ashtami day with Leena by her side and my parents had agreed to the request by Leena’s father. With my unannounced arrival, my father-in-law could no longer take his daughter away straight away. At the same time my mother in law had told him very firmly that she wanted her newly married daughter next to her when she offered her Puja on the Ashtami day. My poor FIL could not ignore such an injunction. The elders then began a negotiation for a revised plan of action while Leena and I slunk away from their prying eyes into the small kitchen store to say hello some what intimately.
- As we re-appeared in public we were amazed to find that the elders had sorted the program out in this very short time! The FIL would go back alone for the time being, it was decided. I was to take Leena to Kolkata on the following day which happened to be the Saptami. I was then to put Leena on a flight to Bagdogra on the morning of the Ashtami, spend a day at Kolkata with my siblings and return to Madras by Dassera.
- I then made a counter proposal. If I was to go away from my parents with my wife during the Puja, why should I waste a precious day? Let me take Leena by the midnight train and reach Kolkata early on the morning of Saptami. That would give us some time to see Kolkata Puja together for a day. The amendment to the proposal was put to vote by the elders and passed unanimously.
Back at the restaurant the seating manager called us in. Room had been made for us but not quite fully. Including the kids we were a group of eighteen, the space given to us had only twelve seats. The kids had to be squeezed in somehow. A process of pinching chairs and pushing tables began. The kids loved the jostle and found their niche except for little Ira. She had been whimpering for some time, now she decided that enough was enough and set out a howl. My sister found it difficult to handle her and handed the kid to me. I took her out of the restaurant and she slowly quietened down. I came back inside. Some chaos still prevailed there. Animated conversation was in progress between people in small groups. No one had ordered any food. A floor manager came forward to record orders. Chanu from the other end of the table waved his arms and shouted ‘I am very hungry, let us have some starters! How about a plate of fried prawns?’ Ira decided that she did not like the inside of the restaurant and let out a loud wail. Chpmunk commented that one plate would not do, make that order for four plates. I ran back outside with the wailing child.
- We came to Kolkata on the morning of the Saptami, and purchased a ticket for Leena for the next morning. For myself, I found the flight to Madras on the Dassera day to be fully booked. I therefore bought a ticket for myself for the preceding afternoon that is a day after Leena was to leave. The rest of the day of Saptami was spent saying hi hello to various segments of the family. Next day, the flight to Bagdogra was to leave quite early. After our marriage this was to be Leena’s first air trip, and her first ever solo airtrip. She was a bit excited and a bit apprehensive at the same time. The flight was on an unpressurised DC3 aircraft. She was not likely to be very comfortable for the flight. We reached the airport on time. Leena’s cousin Smarajit was there waiting for us to arrive. In those days there was only one airline that flew the Dumdum-Bagdogra route and that was the Indian Air Lines. I found who the Captain of the flight was and got him to meet Leena before Boarding was announced. The Captain was a smart young man of approximately my age. He was happy to meet a fighter pilot and made all the appropriate noises about there being no need to worry about Leena travelling alone; I was to rest assured that she will get all the help she needs etc. As I turned away from the security gate after seeing Leena off I got into an acute sense of loneliness. I went to the booking office of the Indian Air Lines and changed my ticket to Madras to the early morning flight next day; I did not feel like hanging around in Kolkata after Leena was gone. On my way back from the airport, sill feeling miserably lonely, I stopped over at Chipmunks’ house at 10 Convent Lane.
- I had met Chipmunk for the first time at the High Grounds Mess at Bangalore in 1954 when I was with the HAL. There after we had trained together to become Qualified Flying Instructors at the Flying Instructor’s School Tambaram in 1955. For the next five years we had not worked together anywhere but had kept in touch socially. In the process we realized that Chipmunk’s parents were socially known to my Grand Parents. This fact had enhanced our social contact with each other. Chipmunk was about eleven batches senior to me as a pilot and had just become a Squadron Leader. He was a bit too senior to be called Chipmunk by me; I called him Monida in true Bong style. His younger brother Chanu was about five years younger to me. He had just completed his School Final examination and was planning to start his under-grad years with Physics at Presidency College Kolkata. (His debut as an acclaimed Indo-Anglian author Sasthi Brata with his rather irreverent autobiography ‘My God Died Young’ was still eight or nine years away to the future).
- I did not find Monida at home. Instead, I was collared by his mother who set about having a very long chat with me. After some time Chanu came to my rescue. ‘When are you giving me a treat? I have just got the results of the School Finals and I have done well’. I inquired about Monida and fixed up for an RV at the Prince at Park Street at seven thirty for both Monida and Chanu.
I now need to go back to the Prince Restaurant on the rain drenched Park Street to pickup the thread of my narration about the prawns that had been ordered, but should I not clear up the mystery of Leena, whom I had just seen off on a flight to Bagdogra turning up in the gang in the evening? I think I might as well do that; it is a sub-plot that cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, this sub-plot is also rather long.
- On my way home from Convent Lane I decided to go and meet my cousin Bhaskar whose mother was my mother’s closest sibling. We had lunch, and then the two of us hired a taxi and went about South Kolkata visiting Puja Pandals and seeing the various idols. At the end of our gallivant we returned to my mama’s house where I had dropped my bags on arrival the previous day. As we returned home, my sister Hashi (My Monidi) dropped in with her husband Ajit, two of his sisters, two of his children and one nephew. They were on a similar project of roaming around and seeing idols. My sister suggested that we also call up my elder sister and let her join the gang. It was not difficult to convince her; she joined the gang along with her husband and two children. My mama’s daughter Sharmila also joined in.
- By now it was almost six in the evening. I was having a great time, but I was feeling a bit uneasy. I had asked Monida and Chanu to meet me in front of the Prince and I did not want to stand them up. I therefore suggested that I will come with the gang up to Park Street and then get off to attend to my friends. There was an immediate peel of disapproval. How could I think of splitting from a large family gathering? How could I think of treating the younger brother of a colleague while my own hungry younger cousins missed out on treats? No! If I had to take my friend for a Chinese treat, then the whole gang would be added to that treat!
- While all this commotion was going on inside the house, a taxi arrived at the door and Smarajit emerged from it followed closely by Leena. Her aircraft was apparently unable to land at Bagdogra because of bad weather and she had to return! But how did Smarajit catch up with her? Well that was another story inside this many layered tale.
- When the flight came back from Bagdogra, the captain of the aircraft had come up to Leena and had offered her any help that she might need, but she had felt shy to admit that she was buried under heaps of trouble. She had too much of jewellery on her and too little cash. She did not know the geography of Kolkata except a vague knowledge of Amherst Street area where Smarajit used to stay and was hazy about the address. She was unsure about all telephone numbers. After the captain went away, the intrepid little lady found an old couple who looked trustworthy and collared them. They were also stranded from the same flight. They had called up their son who was to come down from Serampore, about two hours drive from Dumdum. These people brought Leena to Amherst Street where she located Smarajit’s house and was thus recovered.
- Leena and Smarajit were inducted into the gang and we set forth for Park Street. When we reached Prince Restaurant we found Monida and Chanu waiting for me.
I can now get back to the order of fried prawns that were still awaited. The gang was getting itchy. The restaurant was truly overwhelmed. Slowly the consensus grew that perhaps it would be better for the kids if we gave up the idea of having dinner and tried to get back home and the task of getting hold of three taxis for three destinations fell on me. Only a person who has actually tried to hire a taxi on a rainy night in Kolkata would know what a steep task that was. I took perhaps half an hour to achieve that miracle. The main problem was to park and hold one and then a second taxi while I caught hold of the next. Once the miracle was achieved, I went in to get the gang out only to witness the arrival of the much awaited fried prawns. Four heaped platesful. Every one made a grab for it only to quickly draw back. The stuff was piping hot! ‘Sorry guys’, I said ‘the party is over. Taxies are waiting outside. Every one OUT!’ All the faces fell. Chandan and Chanu picked up napkins and retrieved as much as they could, but there was no time to retrieve it all. Little Anjan had not quite followed what was happening. Only when he was being pushed out of the table he let out a wail – My Prawns!’
By all rights, my story should have ended here, the prawn story that is. The evening was however far from over.
- While every one else headed for their homes, Bhaskar had to be dropped back to his home too. On our arrival his mother quickly put a dinner together for him, me and Leena. By the time we got back to my mama’s house it was pretty late. Both of us were to fly out next morning, Leena to Bagdogra and me to Madras. We decided to put our things together before we went to bed. It was then about half an hour past the midnight. That is when I realised that my air ticket to Madras was not in my pocket. Panic ensued. A frantic search of the entire luggage did not help. I then walked back to Bhaskar’s house and searched there for my ticket. It was not found there either. Bhaskar and I then went out to the taxi stand and found the taxi we had used for our afternoon jaunt. It was now close to two in the morning and the driver was fast asleep near his car. He woke up by the commotion we had created and recognized us immediately. ‘Oh sir, you have come looking for your ticket? I have kept it safely. There was no need for you to come. I would have gone home to wake you up and take you to Dumdum myself!’ My relief cannot be expressed in a few words. Both Leena and I flew out next morning as scheduled.
My first Durga Puja after my marriage thus came to an end with high excitement but what every one remembers most even now is the heap of hot fried prawns, paid for but not consumed on that very exciting wet evening!