I’m at the Kolkata book fair and it’s like a riot in slow motion, 52,347 people pressed into a crumbling, garbage-strewn fairground the size of a city block, my ears crushed by music and voices screaming through screechy loudspeakers.
The sky is as dark as the sky over a city of 14 million can get, a smoggy ceiling glowing dull orange. Hundreds of booksellers’ booths are shouting bright yellow streams of light that spill out of their doors onto rivers of people.
An old woman in a green sari shoves me aside without noticing that I am a person, intent on getting to a stand selling soda and fried fish. A young man in an “Only in Tulsa” t-shirt and two friends sit on the edge of a fountain, staring at my incongruously pale face.
I squirm through a crowd of bargain-hunters into a stall advertising books for 30 rupees, rather than the usual 300-400 rupees, and shuffle through battered Tom Clancy and Tony Hillerman paperbacks. I find two thin volumes with nice covers — one red (The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules) and one green (I Speak for the Devil) — that I think my wife will like.
The man at the doorway demanding payment looks at my book of poetry and my novella and declares, “Ek sho,” 100 rupees. I point to the sign on the wall indicating that he’s overcharging me by 40 rupees. He smirks, and reaches his hand across the door frame, blocking my exit.
I argue, but he doesn’t budge. I could tell him he’s an asshole and walk out without the books, but then I’d be both angry and book-less. So I tell him he’s an asshole, pay the Rs 100 and walk out with the books — just angry.
I duck into another doorway. I am examining a copy of Leave Me Alone by Murong Xuecun and wondering how to pronounce the author’s name when a well-dressed young man hands me a business card so crowded with text in various fonts that I can’t figure out where to start reading.
“My father was a lawyer,” says the youth, whose height matches my six feet or so. He sighs theatrically. “But he’s gone now, and I am just trying to get by on my own in this city.” He looks at the floor and frowns, really hamming it up. He looks at Leave Me Alone and says, “I’d really like that book. I think it would advance my education, but I can’t afford it.”
I tell him lightly: “I’m in the same spot.” I open my wallet to show him a 50-rupee note and two 10-rupee notes, which don’t add up to enough to pay for this full-priced book. But he doesn’t give up.
He keeps telling me his story of trying to make it in this city of Hobbes’ nightmares, where 13.5 million or so people live lives that are nasty, brutish and short, forced to fight even for a decent place to sleep on the sidewalk, one that isn’t too close to a gutter full of piss or a pile of garbage.
I am sympathetic. I am sure his life is far harder than mine. But I am also unemployed since I quit my job at the newspaper. I am not poor, but I am feeling poor and don’t have the cash on me to buy him the book.
“You’re asking the wrong guy,” I tell him, gripping him gently by the shoulders, trying to seem friendly. “Go find someone with a job.” He looks at me sharply, no more slow movements, no more theatrical expressions. “Give me my card back,” he snaps. I do. He walks away.
Among all these thousands of people, I am sure he’ll find someone else who will buy him a book he can either read or resell to raise enough cash for his supper. After all, Kolkatans love to say their city has a heart, unlike Delhi or Mumbai. If you fall in the street, someone will help you up, I’ve been told by six different Kolkatans.
That wouldn’t happen in other big Indian cities, they said. It doesn’t always happen in Kolkata, either. I see people nearly every day who are sprawled on dog-shit smeared sidewalks alone, with pedestrians stepping over them complacently.
The truth of Kolkata’s heart is that, if a well-educated, well-bred Bengali sees someone like him who has fallen, he might well stop to help. But if he encounters an “other” – a dirty, poor-looking man passed out drunk on the sidewalk near the curtain that serves as the door to the basement moonshine den across the street from my apartment building, for example – he will likely just keep walking.
After a few rounds of shouting into our cell phones over the din of the book fair crowd, my friend Chandan and I agree to meet in front of the Bangladeshi books display. I stand there looking over the heads of the thousands of people milling around, confident he will be able to pick me out. He does.
I browse books with Chandan then, unmolested for a half-hour or so. He buys one at the listed price with no argument. Then he calls his driver to bring his car around and pick us up. We settle into the back of sedan, the windows protecting us from the chaos, dust and exhaust outside. Chandan scrolls through work emails on his iPhone as we talk.
“I was talking to my immigration lawyer,” he says. “He told me that, under my current category, it’ll be 65 years before my greencard application is approved.” Chandan’s family is Indian, but he’s spent most of his life in the US and likes it there. He’s planning to move back.
He continues: “‘Sixty-five years!’ I said. ‘I’m 25 now. By then I’ll prob’ly be dead!’ He said if I apply under this other category it’ll only be a 35-year wait. ‘By then I’ll be retired!’ I told him.”
The lawyer proposed a way to speed up the process, though. Chandan’s family’s company could simply invest $500,000 in starting a subsidiary in New York and declare Chandan the CEO. Problem solved.
Chandan’s driver pilots us to my home, a one-room apartment in a six-story building in central Kolkata. It’s a nice place, colorful and cozy. My only complaints are that the lack of glass in its windows means black soot coats everything inside, and that there’s a fault in the electrical system so, sometimes, when I reach to turn on the shower, I get electrocuted. Our landlord gave me a voltage detector and advised me to test before I touch.
I thank Chandan for the ride, and climb out of that safe glass-and-metal box, back into the jungle. A little girl grabs my arm. She is only waist-high and she’s not wearing any pants – just a long, grimy t-shirt. She holds out her hand mutely. I shake my head and walk toward my building’s front door, looking at the ground as I walk to make sure I don’t trip or fall.
Sam Tranum is a journalist and author from North Falmouth, Massachusetts. Among other things, he has written the travel memoir Daily Life in Turkmenbashy’s Golden Age and edited Life at the Edge of the Empire: Oral Histories of Soviet Kyrgyzstan, Lat Does Not Exist: Oral Histories of Development-Induced Displacement in India (forthcoming from Earthcare Books), and the short story anthology Love on the Road 2013 (forthcoming from Malinki Press in December). His book Powerless: India’s Energy Shortage and Its Impact is forthcoming from Sage in December. He lives with his wife in Dublin, where’s he’s working on a novel.