The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind … Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. ― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I’m returning from the Old Bus Stand on my Luna. My speed is 25 km per hour or so. I take the route from PMG Square and turn left from Rabindra Mandap. As soon as I cross the side gate of the Mandap, I overtake him. He’s on a Hercules cycle.
My Luna slows down. His cycle too. He turns to look at me. I too. He’s slender, fair and frail. Has a chiseled face—what you’d call ‘high-cheeked bones’ in English. His hair is of medium length, falling till the shoulders. Not curly like mine. Not straight either. Wavy. I probably wouldn’t say he has a beautiful face, but it’s beckoning, ‘Look at me!’ I look. Then look away. And leave.
A few seconds later, I’ve hardly crossed the State Guest House, when I turn back. He’s waiting just before the intersection. I drive towards him and stop by his side. He smiles. Letting go of my shyness, I ask, ‘Where are you going?’ He says, ‘The Mother’s Centre … Will you come?’ I say, ‘Let’s go.’
He starts cycling furiously, leading me on. I follow in my Luna, slowly. Him in front, me behind, we take a right turn before Kesari Talkies, and in a short while, we reach the Centre. I really like it. It’s clean and beautiful, decorated with care, and quiet. The smell of incense wafts in from all sides. He sits down to pray. I sit next to him with my eyes closed. Neither the Mother nor Aurobindo appear before my closed eyes. All I can see is his chiseled face.
We leave in some time.
As he’s unlocking his cycle parked near the gate, he says, ‘My name is Sandeep.’
‘I’m Raja’, I say.
‘What do you do?’
‘I dropped +2 last year and am appearing for the exams this year’, I say, though I’m yet to start my preparation for the exams.
‘Oh, we are the same batch then’, he says. ‘I haven’t taken admission anywhere and am preparing for the engineering entrance. Didn’t get a rank for a government engineering college the last time I appeared.’
I meet him four times after that. The second time at the Centre. But those are other stories.
This one is different.
While returning from college, our vehicles—my Spectra and his Scooty—automatically turned into the Venus Inn lane in Bapuji Nagar. We were supposed to go to the Old Bus Stand to buy magazines. How we’d reached Bapuji Nagar, I had no idea.
Both of us stopped in front of the A.K. Mishra Bookshop. To mark our attendance, we went in and did a quick round. The Legouis and Cazamian he had ordered had not arrived. Neither had the Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters I’d ordered.
As we turned towards Venus Inn, he said, ‘I can’t eat paneer dosa!’
‘I’m not in the mood for Khatta Mitha’s chole bhature!’ I replied.
It was a December evening. The sun was on the horizon. Like our vehicles had involuntarily turned into Bapuji Nagar, our feet too turned towards Jagannatha Tiffin Shop. In those days, Jagannatha had not yet started dishing out snacks without onion and garlic. Just as we reached, Ranjan had probably taken out the singidas and put in the first batch of baras* into the hot oil. Seeing us, Ranjan, without uttering a word, served us four one-rupee singidas in a leaf bowl. No sooner had we demolished the piping hot singidas, Ranjan put two one-rupee baras in the same leaf bowl for me, and a couple for him in a fresh bowl.
After eating and making the payment, as we started our vehicles, he asked our customary question, ‘What did you like today—the bara or the singida?’
Refolding my shirt sleeves, I replied, ‘You’.
‘There’s no one as shameless as you.’ Saying this, he quickly started his Scooty and flew away into the horizon, like a dragonfly in Bhubaneshwar’s unseasonal storms.
The two ends of his scarf were the dragonfly’s wings.
Translated from Odia by Samprati Pani and Sailen Routray
Cover image by Samprati Pani.
The two pieces included in this post are part of a book in progress that Sailen is writing, comprising a series of Odia short stories set in Bhubaneswar. The stories are around the theme of ephemeral and routine encounters of love, or its possibility, located in places that serve as public and private landmarks of everyday life in the city.
Complement these stories with Sailen’s essay, ‘This City, Other Cities’, on how we affectively craft ourselves through small places, such as road-side cafes, street-food thelas and tiny book kiosks, and inhabit the city in and through forms of love.
* Singida and bara are popular street food in Orissa. Singida is a version of the samosa but smaller, around two inches long. The filling is made with diced potatoes cubes, sautéed with the skin, along with peanuts, cumin powder and chilli powder. Bara is a petite cousin of the south Indian vada, not more than an inch in diameter. It’s made with black gram dal, rice and semolina, spiced with grated ginger, finely chopped onions and chilies. A bara, unlike the vada, is flat and doesn’t have a hole in the middle.