It is all the same. The roads, the tram tracks, the crowd, the elbowing of people. The same red double-decker buses, the same long trams. The same picture of people in front of you, behind you, and on both sides of you. They are all walking on the sidewalks. Some of them are wearing kurtas. Some wearing shirts. Some have sandals on their feet. Some have shoes. No one is stopping even for a second. No one waiting either. Everyone has moving feet. Feet go up. Feet come down.
Here the sidewalks are crowded. The streets are crowded. The buses are crowded. The stores are crowded. This is Calcutta. At least so it would seem if you look around. The signboards of the stores say so as well. There is no room for error. The same streets, the same shops. The stores have the same names: 'Madhab Cycle Stores', 'New Pharmacy', 'Durga Textiles', 'Beats and Tunes', 'Leather House'. Then there is 'Choudhuri Studio', 'Bishram'. Purabi cinema hall. Aruna cinema hall. The same 'Sraddhanondo Park', with a huge cage in it, and two peacocks inside the cage.
This is Calcutta. And therefore the name of this street is 'Surjo Sen Street'. And, if this is Surjo Sen Street, then there must be a College Street nearby. And if College Street is there, there must be a College Row. If College Row is there, there must be a house on it with the number 27G. And if the house is there, it must be three storeyed. And if it is indeed three-storeyed, then who lives there on the second floor? It must be Rani. I will go meet Rani. I will talk to her. I will kiss her. I haven't seen Rani in a long time.
I come across a barber shop on my way. The name of the shop is 'Chittaranjan Hair Cutting Saloon'. The owner's name is Rabi. He has a long face. He smokes incessantly. I have had hair cuts in this shop on many occasions. I have had my beard shaved. Next to it is a convenience store. And after that, there is the Jubilee School. That was its name some time ago. Now it has been turned into a college.
After a few more steps, I see Kanai Dhar Lane. And after that, Ramkanta Mistri Lane. Then I see Nadia Shawl Repairing House. There is a paan-store next to it. Pushkar is standing in front of that store. He looks the same: a hand-woven cotton kurta, dhoti, glasses with a black frame, and an abundance of hair on his head.
Pushkar does not look at me. He stashes the paan in his mouth and starts walking.
I cannot see Pushkar any more. He is lost in the crowd.
I cross the street. Just at this time, a bomb explodes. The entire street starts shaking. Everyone starts running. The entire area becomes deserted. The stores pull down their shutters. I run and enter the Lakhmi Cabin. Just at the that time, someone shuts the main door. There are a lot of people inside.
A little later, a police van arrives on the street. The door of the van opens and a sergeant gets down. He carries a revolver. A few constables get down from the van. They have rifles in their hands. They start running around. They catch two young men. They put them into the police van. Then they drive towards College Street.
This is Calcutta to the tee. The same old Calcutta. After a little while, everything will become normal. The stores will open. People will flood the streets. And this is exactly what begins to happen. In ten minutes, the stores start opening. People start walking on the street. The gate of Lakshmi Cabin opens. I come out.
If I walk straight on this road, I will reach College Street. There is the Medical College on one end of it. On the other end, there is a Bata shoe store. There is the University on one side of it, and the swimming pool on the other. Presidency College on one hand. Coffee House on the other.
I walk on Surjo Sen Street. There are tall buildings on both sides of the road. Some are three storeyed. Some are five storeyed. There is no seven storeyed building. The buildings have different colors. Some are white. Some are yellow. Some are pink. One does not resemble another. The windows are open in all houses. Some windows have colored curtains. All houses have stores in the ground floor. Convenience stores, pharmacies, tea stalls, paan stalls, cigarette stores. I know these stores. I know all of them. There, I can see the swimming pool. And this is Bankim Chatterji Street. Here, there are cloth stores one after another, and a handful of customers in each store.
Everything is in order. Exactly where they should be. Nothing has changed. I walk into Bankim Chatterji Street. This is the way I should take. First I will go to Coffee House. I will not go upstairs. I will just pass by the front of the building. I will check if Coffee House is carrying on as usual. I will check if my friends are around that building. And then I will go to Rani.
Bankim Chatterji Street has cloth stores on one side and bookstores on the other. One book store after another. They are interrupted only by a store that sells fruit juice. Rani and I have visited that juice store many times. A little later, there is the Visva-Bharati bookstore. I once bought a Gitabitan for Rani from there. The same man is attending the counter still. His hair has greyed.
I encounter the bookstore called Manisha. Radical Book Club after that. I see Kalpataru's betel-leaf shop. University Institute. The same iron gate of the building. The same champa tree by the side of the gate. A few flowers lie strewn on the ground. I do not pick up any of them. I turn left. I step down from the sidewalk. I start walking on the pavement by the road. I see Surajmal Nagarmal's house to my right. On the left, there is Bhagabati Girls' School. Sanskrit College. Hindu school. Then I see College Street in front of me. There is a bus stop. Crowded. A double-decker bus comes from the north. A number of people get down from the bus. Ashis is one of them.
"Ashis!" I call out.
Where's Ashis? He is nowhere to be seen. There is no one. The double-decker bus has left. The bus stop is empty.
The boundary wall of Hindu School is to my left. On my right, there is the Coffee House. On the ground floor of that building, there is Ismail's cigarette stall. I cross the street and buy a cigarette. I decide not to go upstairs. If I do, I will be late. I might not be able to see Rani.
I light the cigarette from the fire at the end of a rope. Just at that instant, Shekhar walks past me. Ashoke walks past me. Achintya walks past me.
I raise my hand and call them. No one hears my voice. I call again. No one looks in my direction. They stand at the bus stop and talk among themselves. They laugh. I start walking towards them. But they hail a taxi and leave.
I start walking down College Street. I go past Kamala Book Depot and DasGupta and reach the Mahatma Gandhi Road crossing. I look carefully on both sides and cross the street. There is Patiram's Book Stall in front of me. There are lots of books in the stall. And various kinds of magazines. Paresh is leafing through a magazine. I stand by his side. Paresh cannot see me. I poke him with my elbow. He moves to the side. He does not look at me. I keep standing. I pick up a book. Paresh puts down the magazine. I put down my book as well. Paresh starts walking towards Coffee House. I am not mistaken. He is not tall. He has thin hair on his head. Blunt nose. A black mark on one arm. I do not feel like calling Paresh again.
A few steps after Patiram's Book Stall, there is an alley to the right. I reach the alley. I turn into it. This is College Row. I keep walking and reach the building numbered 27G. The three-storeyed house, as expected. A calling bell on the door. The corner room on the second floor.
I ring the door-bell.
Rani comes and opens the door. The same tresses. The same eyes. The same nose. The same cheeks.
"Who are you looking for?"
I am startled. I cannot speak. I stand there, silently.
"Who are you looking for?"
I realize that I am mistaken.
"Is Rani there?"
"No one lives here by that name."
The door closes before me. I do not wait. I come back to College Street to start again. I see trams and buses, stranded. The street is bustling. What's that sound? There's a long procession coming from the north. The people in it are carrying red flags.
There are exactly similar processions in Calcutta. The people in those processions carry red flags as well.
Published in Parabaas, January 2016.
The original, titled Fake Calcutta (জাল কলকাতা) by Ramanath Ray is included in his "Collected Stories (Vol.1)" (গল্প-সমগ্র, প্রথম খণ্ড), published by Banishilpo, Kolkata, 2000.