The Albert Hall Coffee House, 1962-65, Part Two

A Country Bumpkin and His Friends

বুড়ো (DEBASIS BASU, Baguiati), did his Intermediate form Presidency, for he had passed the older scheme of school final at the end of class X and took the intermediate exam after two years at college instead of the single year of the then current PU (pre-university). He had dropped a year or two for some personal reason and picked up the thread anew in our physics batch. He was decidedly up to date on the moderns: Kafka (The Metamorphosis), Camus (The Outsider), Donleavy (The Ginger Man), and the likes. বিশাখা had a more classical taste. জয়া was well on to Bengali prose, going back quite a bit and also the very latest (অন্তর্জলি যাত্রা, Kamalkumar Majumdar; গোপালদেব, Asim Roy). Mainuddin was very well read in Urdu, Arabic and French, perhaps Farsi too. I was guided to Premchand’s Godan and Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince by this Maulana Azad (?) genius, who later became a linguist of note and then killed himself.

I was different from all of them, with no special preference for any language (for I barely knew two), nor for a specific author (Sibram Chakrabarti?), nor for a genre (I’d have gleefully said science fiction had someone asked me then). I had grown up reading Carroll, Lear, Nesbit, Tolkein, Arthur C, Clifford D. Simak, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Bester on the one hand, and Eliot, Auden, Cummings, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin on the other, and a host of Bangla authors and poets ranging roughly in the period between Ray Gunakar Bharatchandra (ঈশ্বরীরে কহিলেন  ঈশ্বরী পাটনি)  and Alokranjan Dasgupta (দিদিমনি, তোর নাকের বেশরে আগুন কেন?); and Abanindranath (নালক, বুড়ো আংলা, আলোর ফুলকি), Gaganendranath (ভোঁদর বাহাদুর); and a great deal of history too. A random reader, that’s what I was, and one without any focus whatsoever. And I didn’t have the ability to discuss literature intelligently and never tried to learn the literary theories known so intimately by many of my new friends, urban and suave. Most of the boys in our class were far better read in physics but not so much in literature. The girls in our group were from Presidency, Scottish Church, Bethune and Brabourne, from as diverse disciplines as English, Bengali, history, economics, philosophy and physics; and studious all without exception.

The country lad in me remained a goodie-goodie sort for the first few months in college, topping in the first mid-year examination in every single paper — honours, pass, and the extra-curricular Moral Science, a trait that I was destined never to repeat. [Incidentally, Moral Science was not as bleak as it sounds. We were taught by Fr Pierre Fallon, SJ, well-known in the Calcutta circle of acclaimed intellectuals. He had chosen To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) as a suitable medium to upgrade our rather lax moral standards].

পিটু was not the first ever but eventually my closest friend in college. He introduced himself one day at the Annapurna Canteen, “একটা পকোড়া আমাকে দিতে পারিস, আমি পিটু”. Hiding behind very thick glasses that gave him an owlish countenance with a strong but false hint of immense wisdom, he had no pretence towards literature, or manners, or ethics, but had a good, untrained voice and a formidable repertoire of old Bangla songs, mostly folk: Sachindev numbers: বাঁশি শুনে আর কাজ নাই…, গৌর রূপ দেখিয়া হইয়াছি পাগল…; Girin Chakrabarti: …নিজের বাড়ি নাই আমার…; ভাদু, টুসু and আলকাপ; and many of the বাউল-ফকির genre that I hadn’t heard before or since. He also sang a few Rabindrasangits—হৃদয় নন্দন বনে… and আনন্দধারা বহিছে ভূবনে… — piously, with eyes closed, the latter also to the tune of Come September if the occasion warranted. He sang some of them with each word reversed (দেমোপ্র য়ালিঢা নুদি নম, বুত ণপ্রা নকে দেকাঁ রে). When he sang with abandon, usually sitting under tree number 72 within the Victoria grounds, onlookers of both sexes would gather around us, and partake of মশলা মুড়ি from our cash-strapped selves.

পিটু (Asis Sen) was the youngest son of a famous Kaviraj, deceased shortly after পিটু’s birth. Wealthy without any airs, he lived in their family seat at Kalpataru at the juncture of Chittaranjan Avenue and Vivekananda Road. It was he who had introduced me to the Coffee House in the dying months of 1962. A few of us — পিটু, বুড়ো (Debasis Basu, Baguiati), Ashok Ghosh (Ray Street) and yours truly (Gariahat) — all aspiring to be physicists, usually flocked together, despite the geographical spread of where we lived. We normally went to the Coffee House or our other haunts together, after that first foray with পিটু. Purnima (Presidency), Bishakha (Bethune) and Amit (Vidyasagar) also came to be intimate members of the group. I think it was বুড়ো, with his fertile imagination and command of Bengali a la Tagore, who began to call it the অন্তরঙ্গ group. The others who flocked to our table (mainly because of Bishakha) were, therefore, বহিরঙ্গ.

The latter included very few from our college. পিটু had once sweet-talked Sanatan (who used to commute by train from a distance, and wished to become urbane quick but at the least personal outlay) into joining us. He made the day for Ramu, our favourite waiter, by asking for a cup of tea; Ramu could scarcely hold his laughter for several minutes of his busy schedule. (জনান্তিকে: Someone in our group used to pen Ramu’s intimate letters to his wife, for which he was ever so grateful to বহিরঙ্গ). Gautam, who moved around in a chauffeured, silver Porche, all his own, had also given us a lift there and joined us for a cuppa once, never to return again. [He called us to his sanctum sanctorum for lunch in return, I would like to think: very French, brought all the way from The Grand, complete with chilled bottles of a white wine from his cellar —  “a vin blanc of excellent vintage”, as Gautam referred to it —  and served by a liveried personal valet! He also screened for us that afternoon a blue film — more French than the meal we ate — in his private quarters, undisturbed by parents and other pests. That was our first one ever and, I guess, last for many of us. We didn’t know any French but that didn’t detract us from enjoying the show]. I had dragged Pitambar to the Coffee House once or twice; this North Calcutta boy didn’t evince much interest. Jayanta Maitra, Ranajit Majumdar, Jaydeb (?), Alok Sikdar and a few others were a few other irregular visitors who used to come alone or with other groups but had connections with the বহিরঙ্গ.

There were many others from other colleges, near and far, who had become regular members of বহিরঙ্গ. None of them were distinguished then except in academics, but Subrata had the ability to play reasonable tabletop tabla and had an excellent voice for Hindustani classical which he, unfortunately, discarded later for a distinguished military career. Bichitra did paint very well but had shunned the Art College. বিটু, পিটু’s school chum was so called because his initials were BB. He was in Vidyasagar and a regular for a while; he understood Pauli’s exclusion principle and Maxwell’s maths at ease. I was the only literary luminary in অন্তরঙ্গ and বহিরঙ্গ, having published a few poems and fewer thoughtful (my adjective) articles in some little magazines. But none of us, I’d vouch for that, were much above the common-or-garden class.

WE WENT TO the Coffee House for several different reasons: for a chance to chat freely in a larger group without the need to be careful with our smoking habits ; বুড়ো was interested in picking up lecture notes from other colleges; some went for the chance to get acquainted with girls; and I got hooked by greying Imtiaz, the old-book dealer, who took a pity on me, for I didn’t have enough pocket-money to spare but had the taste. Over the years, well into my working life, I had bought several rare ones from him, including a few first editions, mostly stolen from dead private collectors in connivance with their progeny or lowly paid staff, and from the big house on Belvedere Road, I suspect.

A dream, better described as an ethereal apparition, began haunting me in that vibrant adolescence of mine. No one else knew her, or had even heard her, heard of her, but she passed me by often, eyeing me with kohl-lined eyes full of jest, not just in the Coffee House but in our other haunts too: the Victoria grounds where the trees were numbered in tar on lime-wash (number 72 was reserved for us, come what may, in the afternoons); in the men-only dhaba that sold এটম বোমা — a vegetable croquette of titanic dimensions, also called চপ — and tea with cream floating on top, all for six annas, on the ground floor of the Barlow House on Chowringhee Road; in the Modi’s shop behind SXC to smoke a clandestine fag or two; at Srinivas’s Madras Tiffin (?) off Loreto House; Delkhusha (though we lovingly called it Dilkhush) for kaviraji cutlet once in a blue moon; the tea shop next to নকুড়’s sweet shop; or বনফুল at Bhowanipur — দুটো ডবল হাপ, দুটো মরিচ দিয়ে মাখন টোস্ট; and wherever. I had no way of hiding from her but, despite her ever smiling eyes, she never talked to me or told me her name. I began thinking of her as Sudeshna. Jaya (psychology) was the only one who guessed. “মাঝে মাঝে তুই কোথায় হারিয়ে যাসরে? মানসীটি কে?” I never knew, but she was a bit soft on me, and had given several signals that the other girls read without trying. By the time they decided to tell me, she had already given us each an envelope with a stiff, red-printed card; to all except to my মানসী! And, I, indeed, was too engrossed in Sudeshna to care.

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