Outings by Outram Ghat Over the Years

Updated: Mar 24

Guest writer for "mynzdream" blog

She sailed out on a tiny white rowboat, alone and at peace. Her boatman ferried her in silence, masticating upon a betel leaf that stained his lips with red juice. She had taken the boat for an hour from Outram Ghat by the River Hooghly, the name under which the Ganges flowed through Bengal. She just wanted momentary respite, to sort out the tangled webs in her mind.

A long-lost memory flashed back at her like a lighthouse beacon as she looked back at the receding shores from the glass-encased façade of what had been an ice cream parlor in the nineties. What had it been called? Scoop? She felt a vague frisson of memory’s tendril engulf as the setting sun lit up the glass in front of the joint.

She was 19 again, slim, almost emaciated, in a candy-striped asymmetrical dress, her black hair an untidy mess from the tram ride, a lion’s mane she tried to push back in vain. Her eyes shone as she watched the setting sun through the glass panes and licked her ice cream cone. Holding hands under the table with her handsome beau, who wolfed down his own ice, and leaped up to order another. A Great American Banana split which sent them both into splits of suggestive laughter, as he burnt a hole into her heart with his smoldering gaze. He had cognac eyes, and an aquiline nose. A cleft chin. And under the table, he took her tiny hand in his huge, warm one, like a promise. A pledge that was kept through summer and fall. But in winter, both gloved their memories of hand-holding and moved on.

She had always loved that best. Having him hold her hand over a puddle, holding hands as they swung through the crowded Calcutta streets, she literally trotting along just to keep up with his lazy leonine lope, his eyes sternly patrolling passer by-s to secure her safe passage.

She was a skinny wisp of a pale, frail thing, and it was always a marvel to hear how no one molested her dignity with even a wayward gaze when she was in his company. Touching her inappropriately was out of the question.

In the hustle-bustle of changing packed buses in Calcutta, she had hated the leering glances of men. Their lewd whispered suggestions had made her shrink into herself.

“Button up your cardigan’” a strange bespectacled youth had once advised her on the metro, “I hate to see you exposed like this.” All this while literally corroding up her hint of cleavage with his gluttonous lava-boiled eyes. Later, she realized covering up a woman was the supreme act of chauvinistic masculine patriarchy. By that act, they conquered, then controlled. They defined her as a property, then reduced her to a possession. At 19 she could not have articulated this thought, yet she felt it in the marrows of every freshly minted bone and blood cell of her body. His suggestion itself was an act of invasion. Of her privacy, modesty, and her liberty. She lifted her eyes in burning indignation, and sat with fire in her cheeks and eyes, as crimson as the cardigan she had left, casually unbuttoned.

Chivalry of a different sort from a young man who looked like Adonis was like an affirmation of her faith in men. And she was wooed over easyily runny at the sides like a freshly poached egg, sunny side firmly up. The summer heat was dispelled occasionally at Scoop, but also in a small mezzanine room, his cozy den, and at that surreal college rendezvous, an afternoon discotheque, where no parental permission was required, to lounge about.

She hoped secretly this fairy tale phase of her young life would last forever. But that was not meant to be. She wanted fidelity and commitment and those are not easy to obtain from young men at that age.

Those were trying years for her young womanhood. They passed like a brief carnival of lascivious delights that move through town and become a cherished memory. Easy on the eye and light on the heart.

The franchise on Outram Ghat changed hands, unknown to her, as soon, she moved to another city, where she met her future spouse.

She returned after many years with two toddlers in tow, her husband on assignment in Dubai. So, she rented a flat next to her parents and put the children into a reputable city school.

And a new phase in her life began with busy schooldays, leisurely Sunday family outings to the lakes, the zoo, or the horticultural gardens of Calcutta.

Her daddy, delighted to be grandpa, meticulously planned these outings, hiring a car to take them to sight-seeing spots, like the Victoria memorial palace gates. Where a horse and carriage were summoned and she, her mother, and the children were sent on a delightful round. Her daddy contentedly watched, and spoke to the chauffeur. As with his broken right leg (from a car accident in the eighties), he was reluctant to get up on a bumpy carriage.

One Sunday, he whisked them away to a surprise destination. It was Outram ghat, sleeker, cleaner, modernized with a children’s toy train track running around it. The erstwhile Ice-cream parlor Scoop had transformed into a fragrant and cheerful fast-food joint. They had pizzas, and she made haste to bag the same seats she had occupied nearly a decade ago. Overlooking the riverfront and gazing into a glorious sunset. The cacophony of her kids fighting over the last slice of pizza, and her delicate mother, who needed assistance with visits to the Lady's room, carving her own slice of pizza and napkins, soon absorbed her firmly in the present. She did, however, momentarily smile at a fleeting memory of the young man who had sat beside her so many, many years ago.

After a train ride, they returned upstairs again for refreshments, this time taking seats on the opposite side of the café, overlooking the train tracks. A phase of her life neatly packed away forever in an attic of her mind.

Now the franchise had changed hands. Yet again.

Now, she was in her late forties.

Now her skin glowed with radiant nostalgia. Her hair had started greying noticeably, each silver strand condemning her to an alien territory, where she must no longer be an impressionable, vulnerable carefree girl that still lingered in her memory, but a staid and reliable lady, a diligent, dutiful matron.

Now her ailing eighty-year-old father, confined to his flat in this Covid situation, would no longer take them out to the ghats, or sit indulgently while she rode the toy train with her mom and kids.

Now there was a confluence of boats upon this same river of life, which flowed along so nonchalantly.

A memory prevailed over waves of mental agitation. Her husband and her on a similar rowboat, she, seated with her baby on her lap, he, holding tightly on to their three-year-old rambunctious boy, as the boatman rowed them all the way from Outram Ghat to under the steel grey belly of the elegant second Hooghly bridge. Her husband, eager to take pictures, asked her to hold their big boy too. She put her head down on his lap to confront the underbelly of the imposing bridge and made her son do the same. To quietly look up at the steel monstrosity and then pass out from under its dark ceiling to the aegis of pale, open blue skies. Oh, the vastness of that freedom, and the sweet glorious intake of relieved breath. No, she would never forget it now, with the clammy grey mask clamped upon her nose and lips, soaking up her perspiration.

That had been her family’s goodbye to Calcutta, one last sail upon the Hooghly before moving with her spouse and kids, to a South Indian metropolis for the next ten years.

It had been goodbye to many other things. To parents who were mobile and self-reliant despite advanced years, and to an adored parent permanently in this lifetime. To a Calcutta unmasked, raw, vital, to innocent frolicking childlike play with her tiny tots.

In her next abode, she grew up swiftly with her kids, who now nearly towered over her.

And on this first visit to her home city, since the Covid restrictions on travel, she did not bring her yet unvaccinated children with her. She came, for what remained of her first dear family, an aged widower father who now lived by himself with a maid.

The visit to Outram Ghat on the eve of her departure from Calcutta, was an impulsive gift she gave herself, like the tram ride she had taken the week before. She wanted to be alone this time, on the water of life and love, soaking in her old memories under the Bengal sun.

She wanted to tag these memories, in her mind, with a symbol, and Outram Ghat Outings over the years would suffice.

It had been called Gaylord once, she now slowly recalled. Also, an ice-cream parlor in the late seventies, early eighties, In a Calcutta of a far different hue. A ghat where daddy bought them foreign books brought in by merchant ships, Hamlin encyclopedias, huge glossy white illustrated children’s Nursery Rhymes, hardbound delicious glimpses into other worlds. An Amber motif worked upon black announcing Russian Fairy Tales, a matte white book with gold scrolling, Ukrainian Fairy Tales, (Alas Ukraine, now to read about your distress.) A Masha the Bear picture book, and along with this food for the mind, more exotic soul food, cans of chicken shrimp and duck paste, and an assortment of imported ham, sausages, salami, and bacon. Ripe for the raiding of the fridge at midnight by her and her big brother.

A mandatory outdoor terrace meal at Gaylord, now floated into her vista of fond recollections, chugging in, like a slow-rolling steamboat on the Mississippi, which she had read about in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Her daddy and her young aunty, in a grave discussion over the strange onset of her mother’s illness, the one which would require frequent hospitalization in the years to come. The one, which though they didn’t know it yet, would change their lives forever. Aunt’s tears shone like pearl drops on her powdered cheeks, and the sheen of those tears was forever collected by a seven-year-old girl, under the flickering terrace lamps. As Dina Mashi rapidly wiped her eyes with her powder blue sari pallu, she watches and once again bade goodbye to her little girl self, to a beloved Dina Mashi who passed away when she was in her 12th grade, to the young, concerned father who sat with a world of worries on his shoulder, but still managed to give them such a good time.

The boat of life moved again on the river of time, and she returned to its bank.

The sun had nearly set, and the Peepal and Ashoka tree leaves shivered and quivered in the cool night breeze from the river.

She took out her tiny square of an embroidered lace handkerchief and held it tightly in her palms as her eyes welled. Then up the steps and over the muddy banks of the harbor she lightly leaped up, to hail one of the taxis homewards, to her father. The would-be tears drying in the evening breeze upon her face.

© Amrita Valan 2022


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