Bannerjee is not squeamish. Bannerjee is not a prude. Bannerjee can get as down and dirty as the next bugger. Bannerjee is actually quite tough. Not only physically but also mentally. He chews up the best, pro head-gamers for pre-breakfast appetiser. He sees four steps ahead even before he opens his eyes, and once he opens them then toh just forget it, he’s galaxies ahead of you, he’s gone and come back before you’ve like started. Bannerjee is a quiet ace. Bannerjee is living proof that if you take a halfway-good Bong out of Bengal and give him a quarter of a chance he’ll out-yoopee any Agarwal, out-path any Bihari psycho, out-Punj any Jjabi, he’ll out-Gujj and out-Ghat, he’ll out-slime any Mallu, he’ll Tam-bam-thankyou-ma’am and pick his teeth to clean the karipatta from the rasam.
You are clear, it’s not that Bannerjee always has a national anthem of sneers running in a constant loop? It’s not that he’s communal, or anti-regional, or even anti-anyone. You understand that these are only facts? Or only, again, that one fact — help a halfway decent Bangali escape out of this mess and you’ll just see what happens. It’s not that Bannerjee is any more competitive than anybody else. In fact much less, much less than others — it’s the others, yes, probaashi Bongs also included, who feel the need to do all this ‘Can-do sir, but can-do better than anybody else, sir!’ business. The other buggers all seem to have a need to compete. And if you say or even convey ‘Better than anybody else’ in Bannerjee’s presence then that’s it! Then you’re asking for, like, trouble, man, you’re asking for... you’re asking to be put in the toaster by the best toast-maker around.
No, but you have to understand properly: it’s not about other communities etcetera. It’s also about this kind of damn dumb city-pride people have, like, ‘I’m from Bombay dude!’ Or ‘Mai Dill-walla hun’, or ‘Hello I’m superior because I’m made in Bangalore and we have the best sanitation.’ Bannerjee can’t stand that. He’s never ever said, ‘I’m from Calcutta.’ And no, not only because they all, all, murder the so-called new name: ‘Oh, ho! Kolgotha, hain?’. Not because of that or anything. It’s just… like… be Indian man! Just say, ‘I’m from India.’ That should be enough. Bad enough but also good enough, no? India, full stop.
Bannerjee has just come out of Olympia Bar and Restaurant and is looking at India. Bannerjee would not normally have gone back to Oly, but all his friends have insisted. “For old times, man! Come on! For remembering when we were all down-market, when we were just starting out.’ Bannerjee’s had eight large rums and, because he is who he is, he is not drunk at all. He is standing on Park Street at a quarter to eleven at night, looking at India.
One of the secrets of Bannerjee’s success in Delhi — actually Gurgaon — is an ability to make very fast lists: accurate, comprehensive, super-quick lists that his people, bosses, team, same-level-colleagues, clients, all can understand. Looking at India, Bannerjee sees the following: a quartet of sallow tourists, foreign rags hanging from emaciated white shoulders, slouching as they walk, exhausted by the street yet not smart enough to get off it into some bar or café. It’s like they are making a joke on all the beggars who harry them.
He sees two girls, Behala types, eighteen, seventeen, not prostitutes at all, but for god’s sake dressed like incompetent hookers, jeans tight in all the wrong places, off-shoulder tops all loose, like penguins in global warming, not looking as they walk straight into the traffic, double mobiles glued to their ears. He sees an old regular Park Street druggie uncle, walking by as he has done for twenty years, his sadness also now looking faded. He feels a tap on his shoulder and turns, and there is this guy, ‘Sahab, any service?’ the pimp bugger reaches under his long shirt and scratches himself, checked lungi moving up and down as he fiddles. Next is two beggar kids running by, one girl holding a baby, having just clocked the slow-moving tourists. Other people, gluttony-victims, families on pre-Puja outing, out-of-town businessmen, all sorts of Park Street variety, all blur as Bannerjee reaches for his mobile.
Bannerjee is not squeamish, he is quite tough. But today one thing got to him. And that thing has sent him knocking into other things that have also got to him because of the first business. What happened was, he went to a friend’s factory for a Bishwakarma lunch. Normal, nothing, office, small shop floor, employee-people in best dress. The friend’s invitees including Bannerjee are shown up to the canteen where the tables are laid, plates are laid out, pink paper napkins in glasses. Everyone sits. All normal.
Then someone notices the steel plates still have some water on them from the washing. The owner-friend calls for someone to wipe the plates and a guy, like, comes with a cloth. Problem is, plates have a small slice of nimbu each already distributed. Bannerjee reaches to rescue his slice of lime but he’s too late: the guy picks up Bannerjee’s plate first, holding it finger and thumb, keeping the the lime firmly in place with thumb, and wipes the plate with a cloth. Before Bannerjee can react, there is rice, and there is daal trickling on to the slice of nimbu, and there is gobi-alu on top of that, more or less to one side but also on top. And then there is the fish fry and then the fish with jhol, and then the mutton kosha still to come.
Bannerjee has reached his thirty-second year having eaten in all sorts of places, eaten all sorts of food, power-lunches, ni-hai, sushi from the raw sea, all that. So at first he, like, keeps his head. He tries to eat, taking rice-daal from the other side of the plate and avoiding the lime which has been squeezed by that filthy thumbnail. Avoiding the lime-area, he even manages to crunch down the fish fry. But he can’t eat the fish and jhol. When the same guy comes with a second helping of fish-jhol, the cream gravy spilling over the edge of the shallow tray, his thumb deep inside the gravy, Bannerjee’s whole program crashes.
The filthy wiping cloth is, like, under all the food on everybody’s plates, as if it’s been spread out on each and every one and left there to soak up the various liquids. Bannerjee can like taste the filth with his next mouthful. It’s like the catering guy’s thumb is in his mouth and he just has to move.
In the taxi home to his aunt’s house the need to puke passes. No way you can throw up in a factory, especially when there’s a puja on. Past laboratory, past meter room, past machine floor, past boss’s AC-ed first floor office, out into the road, into taxi, all the way out of the industrial area he’s convulsed and held on. And then he, like, just can’t do it. After the Ruby Hospital roundabout, he gets the taxi to stop. He leans out, totally trying in his mind, but nothing coming. Over.
Aunt’s place, Lake Gardens, Bannerjee gets out and tries to pay the taxi-walla. No change, sorry. Meter says 52.00, so double plus Rs2 = Rs.106. Bannerjee gives him a 500 note and the guy gives him 400 back and Bannerjee turns away.
Pryaaanp! Loud horn from taxi. What? ‘Six Rupees’. Bannerjee has no change, none. He can’t believe six rupees, 5.66 per cent of the transaction, is holding them up. Bannerjee is not a scrooge, he’s from Delhi. From Gurgaon actually. He comes from a place where taxi payments minimum happen in hundreds, sometimes in thousands. Wake his aunt up and ask her for six bucks? Walk to the shop half a kilometre down and wake that guy up for change? What?
The driver sees the look on Bannerjee’s face and reluctantly reaches into his shirt pocket. Family jewels, as if. Fiddles and comes out with eighty of the filthiest, used toilet-paper rupees Bannerjee has seen. It makes Bannerjee retch and the retching makes him angry. First, loud horn for bloody six rupees. Then after that wanting debt-cancellation of fourteen bucks. Like —
Bannerjee is a man of control. Sitting in Oly bar, when his girlfriend calls from Dubai for her daily report, he gauges at once that there’s no chance of talking to her in all the noise. Instead of taking her call, he excuses himself and comes out. He’s got a cellphone borrowed from his aunt, his own fancy one giving trouble, and so he has minor hassle accessing the message his girlfriend sends as he’s going down the stairs. Bbee, hu u gtting pally wit tht u nt piking my call?
He comes out, looks around, and texts her back the main thing he’s been wanting to say whole day. So the message swings out all the way to the Gulf: DUCK this town!
Wrong. He tries again, but this phone will only allow one letter of the
‘d-e-f’ button in this context, even with the Predictive function off. But Bannerjee is a confident guy, so, again: I mean Duck this ducking town.
“Sahab, koi seva?” By the time the pimp asks him the question again, girlfriend has replied: Bbee, pl get bak 2 a fone tht cn spell!
Bannerjee looks at the bhadua scratching himself, fake gold watch chinking with each flick, and he can’t take it anymore. He waves out to a taxi and jumps in. He calls and tells his friends he has to go.
The taxi is lurching down Park Street at speed, the driver honking in orgasmic pleasure as he discovers open road after a day trapped at 20 kmph. Bannerjee starts counting how often the driver hits the horn. Like, twice definitely at each crossing: Camac, Wellesley. Loud when turning at Loudon and past the Chief Justice’s bungalow. Once at the gali and loud at Theatre Road. Then before that, there’s the in-betweens, at a slow taxi in front, at a fast Honda City that’s out of reach. Once at the Seventh-Day Adventists building. Once at a dog crossing the road. Once at a dog that’s quietly at the side. After a long riff at Minto Park on Lansdowne, the driver goes into overdrive, keeping up a rhythmic honking all the way on the almost deserted road to Paddapukur, where he takes his hands off the wheel to light a biri, speedometer 65 kmph. Then on again, pryaamp, pryaamp, pryaaaamp, all the way to Hazra crossing. Where, of course, he has to slam on the breaks and hit it again to warn blind traffic. Then again, heading down towards Rashbehari, extra loud past Ramakrishna Mission Hospit... STOP! ,
Bannerjee shouts so loud the guy almost swerves into the road divider. “Ki holo, dada?” Bannerjee is a man of control. Bannerjee is now losing it. Bannerjee is now shouting. Stop using that ducking horn! It’s an empty ducking road! It’s nearly midnight!
Driver shakes his head, “No can do. How can I drive without a horn? Dangerous.”
Now all the honking of the last two days he’s been here washes over Bannerjee, all the late night horns, all the empty afternoon horns, all the full traffic horns, all the stationary, traffic-light horns and the tearaway bus horns, all the rich, air-conditioned car peep-peeps, all the taxi screechings, all the high-pitched mewlings and peckings of two-wheelers. Suddenly every situation has its horn sound, the thumb on the slice of lime, the thumb in the fish jhol, the drivers fiddling for change, the counter girl at the mall who brings out a packet of poshto from a cupboard because middle-class boudis are major kleptos of poppy seeds, the guy in a lane, walking on a narrow rope of a footpath as cars scream past him at high speed, the guy at the coffee stall who won’t give you an extra spoon of coffee powder, the rich lady haggling about two rupees with a porter at Jagubazar, all of them, everything is delineated by horns.
Bannerjee has seen the world, Bannerjee has insights and perceptions. Bannerjee has observations about Bombay — besotted by money, Delhi — enslaved to cars and low-level violence, the Punj needs to throw a punch from time to time (as if, he, Bannerjee doesn’t!), Bhubaneswar — mired in petty sex, Poona — town of constipated, habitual wife-beaters, Lucknow — caught in food and minor crimes, Ahmedabad — mainliners of god, milk, wife-swapping and easy murder.
Bannerjee is critical of the world but he’s not totally blind to himself and his own shortfalls. Bannerjee knows he has a problem, in fact, a few connected problems. In his mind he knows is a block, the glitching of a guy who’s been enveloped in deodorant for so long that he can’t stand normal, healthy human body smells, the cramping of someone who’s so used to driving that he has a problem walking a couple of kilometres, the narrowing of a guy who’s drunk coffee for so long he can no longer taste tea, that kind of thing, and he’s been assuming that his scanning of this city is, like, through that filter. But now he knows he is off-route in his analysis. Bannerjee hasn’t got to where he has without a few genuine smarts, the world is not full of Bong-lovers. Bannerjee hasn’t achieved what he has without occasionally being totally, like, brutally honest with himself. Now he knows he can’t get away from logic. Facts and rational logic will always win the end-game.
As the taxi pulls up to his aunt’s door, Bannerjee has like a clear flash about this hometown, Calcutta. Bannerjee now understands that he comes from a city that is and always will be, where every citizen, whether billionaire, babu or bhikhari, is forever, where every painter, poet and politician is completely, where every bird, lizard and stray dog not-excludable, is addicted, completely, utterly, irretrievable.
Ruchir Joshi is the author of The Last Jet Engine Laugh