It was a dark and stormy night… no wait, it wasn’t. It was a typical Calcutta night, the searing heat of the day dissipating into a warmth with just a touch of cool about it. And it was late at night when we got home. It must have been the late ’70s, the turmoil of the bloody Naxalite “revolution” was still fresh in our minds and we still considered ourselves as “outsiders”, not locals. I did not speak Bengali yet, the local customs were still a little quaint to us, Bengali cuisine had not yet made it’s delicious way into my then vegetarian Punjabi diet. The political climate was still a bit volatile.
We lived on the top floor of a 3-level building with the flat or apartment facing the street. At the back the property was hemmed by a high wall which separated it from a set of railway lines. The railway connected the Kidderpore docks and Budge Budge to eastern Calcutta and points on. Apart from the regular rush of commuter service running between Budge Budge and Sealdah, there was, consequently, fairly heavy traffic. The area also served as a marshaling yard, with goods trains shunting back and forth, with much crashing. screeching and wailing. When the commuter “locals” went by in a clackety-clack rush the vibrations would ripple up through the house.
I do remember once when the person I was speaking with on the phone stopped, gasped and said “What was that???”
“What are you talking about?”, I asked
“That, that… noise!”, he said.
“Oh, yeah, that was just a local going by”, I replied.
In later years I was to see this scene in this very funny movie with awesome music and be reminded of that conversation.
On one side of the house was an empty lot, overgrown with weeds that had grown into rather large bushes and this lot was totally open at the street side while at the back the same high wall separated it from the train lines.
By now, you’re thinking either the trains play an important role in this story or this guy is being his usual long-winded self. If this were a survey, I would have to check the “mostly agree” on both counts.
Our building had two garages at the street level with different doors on each. The one on the left, closest to the empty and overgrown lot had double doors in washed-out pink. That was ours and it housed the family car. It was secured by two, one head-height and the other a more conventional waist height.
Twenty feet away to the right was a grille gate that was locked at night and it led to the main staircase up to our flat or apartment (for myreader). Each landing that faced the street had floor to ceiling glass panes, some of which had been lost to various storms but never been replaced, giving the building that lived in and decrepit look so favoured by landlords everywhere in Calcutta at the time. The staircase ended at our front door which was protected by another collapsible grille gate, and then a wooden door with a peephole. A heavy 9-lever padlock on the grille gate and a lock on the wooden door completed the security arrangement.
We were returning late; which in itself is odd. We were not a family that stayed out late or ate out often. The rest of the family had all gone up. My father was driving the car in to the garage and I was waiting at the grille gate for him when a lone taxi came slowly down the street and stopped at the empty lot. No one got out. As my father shut the garage door and started on the locks, three men got out, the driver casually stretching, a little too casually almost. My father and I locked the grill gate behind us and started up the stairs.
The staircase lights were dim and from the street it must have been hard to see us especially at the acute angle. As we reached the second landing we stopped to take another look at the lonely taxi standing in the quiet side street of this quiet neighbourhood.We both froze wide-eyed at the sight. The three men had just taken a corpse out of the trunk and were starting to carry it out into the empty lot. Barely two or three minutes later they were back empty handed. We waited in our place, concealed and congealed, as the taxi drive off.
Safely inside the house, we checked through the window and all we could see was a goods train standing just behind the wall of the empty lot.
The next morning the goods train was gone.