by Girish Bhandari
When I last visited Calcutta, the thing that struck me was the sartorial preference of the city. Almost all the girls were in salwar kameez and the men in trousers! Unbelievable in a city where the predominant dress was the graceful sari and the milk white dhoti, which was elegantly held in one end. Despite the dhoti not being the ideally suited apparel when running was involved, the bhadralok showed amazing elan and nimblefootedness when it came to boarding the buses, as the evening approached and the great Calcutta offices disgorged their vast masses of babus.
They saw their buses a good 100 yards away, made a dash for them and with dexterity, perfected with years of practice, boarded them, leaving us ~ much younger folk stunned and even, applauding. Then there were feats of crossing the roads, Calcutta-style. One just joined the human torrent and, with it, crossed to the other side of Chowringhee. Try to do it on your own and you would risk losing a limb, if nothing more!
A green horn, I landed in the great city one evening. In the foolish confidence, that is part of youth, I had not booked any accommodation, and had to get one before night fell. I engaged a taxi, driven by an old Sikh gentleman. We went from one hotel to another, from one guest house to another. I was stumped by the charges. We had driven about 50 km and nothing seemed to suit my pocket. I had to stay in the city for about three months, and, what a fool I was, not to have planned my stay. Seeing my plight, the gentle driver suggested that, as the night was rapidly approaching, his house was welcome.
I could not believe my ears but then he was sincere. But I tried to make another and last attempt before I accepted. Fortunately, I got a place in a hotel near the Howrah railway station. Noisy, but clean and modest in charges. After me luggage was unloaded, I asked the taxi fare. The meter had registered 90 km by now. The answer I got, floored me. He said that as I was new to the city and, therefore, a guest of Calcutta, he would not charge anything! I rubbed my eyes in disbelief.
Taxi drivers generally have a notoriety attached to them, specially when they encounter someone like me, new to a big city. I tried to argue with him, but to no avail.
He said the city had been so kind to him when he came to it 50 years back and had consistently been so, that it was time to pay back a bit of his heartfelt gratitude, and there was no better way than to show a little kindness to a distressed first-time visitor to the city. Let the first impression be good. I asked him how could I ever pay back his kindness. He said there was no need. The only thing I ought to do is help anyone in genuine distress and difficulty and I would be paid back more than fully.
He explained that the great gurus had enjoined as much time and again in their teachings and all of them made great sacrifices in the spirit of true service to humanity, without any distinction of religion, belief or caste. I was deeply touched.
Apart from the formal lessons I learnt in Calcutta, this was the greatest lesson of my life that I learnt from a true practitioner