The new millennium had dawned and we had survived Y2K too. None of it, however, seemed important as I sipped tea from a khuri (kulhad) outside the office of a Bengali daily in Kolkata.
I had been chasing the chief reporter for the past two months to get feedback on an article, which was to determine whether I could freelance with them. He was always too busy.
It was a hot July afternoon and traffic flowed relentlessly on the Prafulla Sarkar street. It was Kolkata’s own Fleet Street, an equivalent of Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.
Across the road was a white building housing the iconic Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP). Barely 100 metres down the street hulked the venerable Statesman House, completing a Bermuda Triangle where countless copies by freelancers routinely disappeared.
“Do you want me to refill your khuri?” the tea-seller interrupted. His diction suggested he was from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. I silently offered my khuri.
ABP had a separate office for their highbrow literary magazine ‘Desh’, which employed virtually the Who’s Who of Bengali literature.
My heart skipped a beat when a veteran Bengali poet stepped out of the office and approached us. I slam-dunked the khuri on the plastic dustbin and moved away. I was worried I might spoil his spotless dhoti-kurta simply by exhaling. In my mind, I was reciting one of his poems which we read in school.
While I didn’t expect the tea-seller to extend a welcome befitting the poet’s stature, I didn’t expect him to treat him the way he did either.
The tea-seller sternly reminded the poet of his credit before handing him a brimming khuri. He then elaborated on the difficulty of doing business in Kolkata with customers like him.
“Hey, chief reporter was wondering if you’re still around,” a cub reporter I knew nudged me.
I began following him back into the newspaper office. Looking back, I saw the tea-seller was still ranting. The poet stood with the khuri in one hand and a lit cigarette between his fingers in the other.
I looked in amusement at them — a faceless migrant and one of Bengal’s greatest living poets. They carried on as if nothing separated them. Except a simmering aluminium saucer of copper brown beverage.Photo by Shantanu.parc (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons