Shantanu Mitra couldn’t believe his ears.
“You’re not pulling my leg, are you বোকাচোদা ?” He asked Amit suspiciously, his eyes narrowing, fervently hoping that he looked menacing enough. He had picked up that expression from a movie he’d recently watched. Shantanu was easy to fool, a fact long established among the middle management at British Metals and Minerals Pvt Ltd., a company located on the first floor of a shabby office building on Camac Street, Calcutta since the 1960s. Amit’s pranks had felled many a mighty oak in the office.
“I swear on Ma Kali, boss! Not this time.” Amit Ghosh seemed earnest, for once. But with Amit, you never could tell.
A minor cog in the wheel of a major corporation with a large branch in the city, Shantanu Mitra bore the title of Assistant Manager (Projects) with pride. He was an affable, likeable man in his thirties, born and brought up in a middle-class home in Calcutta. A lover of fish curry, the Mohun Bagan football team and Rabindra Sangeet, he was a simple man, not too ambitious, happy to let good things come his way when they were destined to. The neighbourhood bhaalo chhele.
Now he tried to control his excitement, not doing a very good job of it. What Amit had told him was unbelievable – it was a dream come true!
“But you’ll fly Economy,” Amit added warily, watching his colleague’s countenance to detect any change in expression.
“Oh! Economy? Okay, I see… sure!” Shantanu mumbled dreamily, already up in the air on his way to see The Tower of London and Big Ben. Amit sidled away to torment someone else before it could dawn on his colleague what sitting cramped for 14 hours on a flight to London via New Delhi really felt like.
It happened like this. A delegation had been chosen to visit London. At first, Shantanu had not been considered for it; nor had he held out any hopes. Not till two of the senior executives fell ill at the eleventh hour. Talk about luck! Shantanu, being the only one with a fair amount of knowledge on the issues to be discussed at the London Head Office, was selected as the replacement. The Chairman reluctantly okayed his inclusion but ensured he would fly Economy.
On the tram journey back home that evening, the city passed him by – noble, cultured and yet squalid, splendid in its decay – as it did every day. Bells pealed and conches blew from roadside temples. A couple of fellow travellers animatedly discussed the relevance of Brecht in Bengali theatre. A hurly-burly of traffic and noise. But that day Shantanu noticed none of the familiar sights and sounds. His mind was already wandering overseas, to a distant land, to a metropolis, he’d thought he’d never get to see, to a dream that was actually coming true.
“Shono, do you know where my passport is?” he asked Mitali, his wife, when he reached home after she had brought him a steaming cup of tea with a plate of Marie biscuits, while he changed into his pyjamas.
“Yes, but why do you want your passport all of a sudden?” she asked suspiciously. He smiled enigmatically, not wanting to break the news to her yet.
The passport looked pristine and unsullied by any smudgy stamp of the immigration authorities. Shantanu remembered as he gazed at the booklet that he had planned to go to the Maldives once, but that had fallen through. No other opportunity arose in his humdrum life since then and the passport had remained virginal.
The next day it was routinely dispatched to the British Deputy High Commission from the office with assurances that British Metals and Minerals Pvt Ltd. would be responsible for not only all of Mr. Mitra’s expenses but also his removal from Her Majesty’s United Kingdom in a week. His passport was duly collected along with the other ones of the delegation by the travel agent hired by the office from the Deputy High Commission with the appropriate stamps of approval.
The big day arrived. Shantanu could barely conceal his excitement. With much ado, his large extended family accompanied him in several dilapidated Ambassador taxis to Dum Dum airport to see him off. Even his aged Mejo Kaka and Kakima, and the voluptuous Minu Pishi, for whom Shantanu harboured a secret crush. There was lots of chanting; there were hugs and tears galore though he reminded them he was going for only a week. He managed to break free from their clutches just before the counter closed.
It was an excruciating, endless flight via New Delhi, and the middle-aged, matronly air hostesses of Air India did nothing to alleviate his discomfort. London Heathrow was crowded. His limbs felt numb due to having sat cramped in Economy for half a day. The streams of people in queues at the Immigration counters reminded him of the queues at Esplanade underground metro station that had started operation three years ago – orderly though slow moving. He, like all Calcuttans at that time, was very proud of the metro underground. After all, it was the first of its kind in the country.
His passport stamped, he was soon on his way in a minicab with his colleagues to central London. Enchanted by the vivid green English countryside and the absence of any chaos, he reached the outskirts of the city as the meadows gradually gave way to buildings, traffic and city streets. It surprised him a little that the streets of London were narrower than what he had imagined, not half as wide as the avenues of Lutyens’ Delhi.
The Travelodge was a clean, small budget chain hotel near King’s Cross where the delegation checked in. Shantanu whispered quietly to the young woman at check-in to change his room to smoking, please madam, thank you, without letting the Chairman know if you don’t mind.
A decent man, he had no vices except for a bad habit of smoking cigarettes. Knowing cigarettes in London would be unaffordable on his daily allowance, he had brought a dozen packets of Wills Navy Cut with him to tide him over for the week-long trip.
In his small room on the first floor- Room No.112 – once ablutions were over, he unpacked and lay down on the single bed, hoping that sleep would fall on him like an axe and knock him out. But no, it did not, and he lay awake. The odd sensation of jet lag was bothering him. After all, it was a Sunday summer afternoon in London and daylight was peeping in through the blinds. The city beckoned him. He decided to get out of the hotel and explore it; get some fresh English air in the process.
Before leaving, he took the card of the hotel which had the address and the telephone number from a pack in the card case on the lobby counter, jotted his own room number on it as well, and put it in his shirt pocket. He stepped out into a bright, sunny day and began to walk unknowingly towards King’s Cross underground station. The staid office buildings gradually made way to livelier shops, restaurants and bars. He breathed in the ambience and muttered a silent prayer to the goddess Kali in the heavens for giving him this opportunity. London at last!
He walked and he smoked and smoked as he walked, absorbing the sights and sounds of central London. On lighting his third cigarette of the walk, he discovered however that he had used the last matchstick, and now the matchbox was empty. Aware that here he couldn’t afford to be seen littering, he continued walking till he came to a garbage bin, a huge disposal unit outside a pub. He fished in his breast pocket for the matchbox, flung it into the bin and continued his tour, loving the smells and the noises. An hour later, after having walked several kilometres, he felt sufficiently tired though mentally invigorated and decided to get back and prepare for the meeting next morning.
He then realized that he could not remember the name of the hotel. He knew it began with a ‘T’. Or was it an ‘S’? He frantically searched his pocket for the hotel’s address card that he had picked up before leaving for his walk, but his shirt pocket was empty. There was no such card in his trouser pockets either. Panicking slightly, he remembered the office phone number of his colleague Amit back home, but dialling from the nearest booth would be futile; it was a Sunday. Amit didn’t have a phone at home. There was no one he could ask for directions, as he didn’t know the name of the hotel.
He was truly lost.
After some frantic thinking, it dawned on him that he had just one option. He had to find the address card of the hotel somehow. He realized he must have thrown it away into the disposal unit along with the empty matchbox since both were in the same pocket. He quickly retraced his steps, and to his relief, spotted the huge bin outside a pub which had a sign in green – ‘The Wayside Inn’.
The bin was almost full and smelt ripe. Shantanu stood in front of it and examined it for some time, not unlike a prospective buyer about to buy a new car. He even walked around it slowly once, deep in contemplation. Finally, with a sigh, he rolled up his sleeves and dug in.
Jimmy Rogers, the owner of the pub watched this young Indian from inside and wondered what he was up to. Surely the idiot wasn’t going to empty the contents of the bin on to the pavement, was he? He stepped out.
“Can I help you, mate? Lookin’ for something?”
“Oh … hello! I’m from India. I need to get back to my hotel, but I can’t remember the name. I had the address card in my pocket, but I must have dropped it in this bin by mistake when I passed by earlier.”
The Indian bloke’s English was good, and Jimmy was impressed. “Hmmm… there are a lot of hotels around here, mate. I guess we’ll have to find the card, won’t we?” He rolled up his sleeves too with a friendly wink.
There were two on the hunt now as a small mound of rubbish piled up on the sidewalk next to the disposal unit.
Police Constable Bertie Brown was walking his beat, taking in the joy of a rare sunny day when the tableau of an Indian and a Brit elbow deep in garbage greeted him in front of his favourite pub. Recognizing Jimmy, he stopped to observe them for a while. Curiosity finally got the better of him, and he decided this was worthy of investigation.
“Jimmy, what’s going on?”
The predicament was explained to him by both the seekers, with a lot of gesticulation from the Indian and by some choice vocabulary from the Brit.
Bertie, always eager to help anyone in need, said, “Let me join you, lads!”
Then there were three. The efforts of two local Caucasians and one flustered South Asian tourist rummaging in a large disposal unit started slowly to attract a crowd. Murmurs rose to jeers and cheers, only to be silenced by a glare from the burly policeman.
In a eureka moment, Bertie found the grubby, soggy card and showed it to a grateful Shantanu. The tourist’s smile of relief lit up the street. That was not all. With much ceremony, the constable escorted him back to his hotel, while Jimmy put back all the rubbish they had piled up on the sidewalk back into the bin.
The next day, suitably armed with a fresh address card in his breast pocket and a city map under his arm with his hotel circled in bold ink, Shantanu went back to the pub to thank the owner for his help and to share a drink with him. As luck would have it, the policeman was also there. The drinks were on the house, saving Mr. Mitra several pounds of valuable daily allowance. A good time was had by all.
Shantanu dropped in again just before he was due to leave London and insisted that he pay this time for the day’s round of drinks. Which they allowed him to, amid much bonhomie and good humour. Another enjoyable evening ended late, but not before addresses and telephone numbers were exchanged, with promises to meet again.
The years passed as Time hurried on. Shantanu Mitra, well-liked at work, gradually rose in the hierarchy of his organization. With his new responsibilities, his trips to London became more frequent, almost every year. Without fail, he would organize a threesome, more often than not at The Wayside Inn.
Over the years, even the families got to know each other. Mitali and her son were taken to London on a holiday and introduced to the Brown and Rogers families. Bertie agreed to be the local guardian for Sumit, Shantanu’s son when the boy came to London for his post-graduate degree at the London School of Economics. Unfailingly, each of the trinity would remember the other two on birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and New Year’s. With the advent of technology, greeting cards in the snail mail made way for email greetings and international phone calls.
This odd relationship, forged over a garbage bin on a London street, withstood the test of time.
In 2012, at Sumit’s wedding reception at the Taj Bengal, in the city now renamed Kolkata, the 200-odd guests were surprised to see two large Englishmen in traditional Bengali ethnic wear a size too small, in attendance, engrossed in the rituals and enjoying the festivities that followed. They seemed to be very close to the groom’s father.
“So that’s The Holy Trinity? I’d only heard of them till now,” some wag remarked to his coterie among the guests. They had all heard that there would be two foreigners from the U.K. attending, Shantanu Da’s close friends.
When Shantanu Mitra passed away last year peacefully, a wake was held at ‘The Wayside Inn’ near the King’s Cross underground station in London. Two old men, one an ex-policeman and the other a retired pub owner, drank to a grand memory and a fallen friend. Everyone in the pub joined them in raising a toast to a great friendship that had been born from the most unusual circumstances.
If you ever visit London, do drop in for a pint at The Wayside Inn at King’s Cross. On a wall of the pub is a little picture frame. Behind the glass is a grubby little card with an address on it, which is of the Travelodge King’s Cross budget hotel, not far from there. In the corner of the card is a scribbled three-digit number that says 112. But if you ask the young bartender what that card and number mean, he’ll just shrug his shoulders, for he doesn’t have a clue.