Science fairs for high schoolers were an annual affair. A large area with a perimeter of school stalls showing off hand-made experiments with charts on the walls, manned by eager young scientists, also contained a refreshment area. It was great place to meet students from other schools. I stood there chatting with a friend from another school when these two girls came hurrying up to him.
I remember the smile that lit up the face of one of them. It was a bright cheerful smile, with lips tinged with pink sugar from the candy-floss in her hand. Introductions were brief, I was acknowledged absently before they were both off, skipping, giggling, hurrying across the field in search of new adventures to be found at the science fair for high school kids.
March 17th the following year was the last day of high school, the last exam. We rushed down the stairs filled with the pure joy of finishing with school, no thoughts yet of the pain and pleasures that awaited us in college. Not that day, no. Soon, however, the ordeal of admissions to college was upon us.
The rainy season comes to Kolkata usually around the 8th of June and it was on schedule. If you haven’t experienced an Indian monsoon, you should certainly try the experience. The dry heat of April and May is broken only by the sudden kalbaisakhis. These violent storms appear with hardly any warning except for a sudden darkening of the sky, the dropping of the temperature by a degree or so and then the first few drops of squally, windy rain as the storm rips through the city. It disappears as fast as it came.
The monsoon is different. The stormy wind is missing for one, replaced by a sultry, sodden air. And it rains almost every day. The monsoons came hard that year and at the height of the season, it rained and rained and rained for days on end, torrents alternating with a grey drizzle. It turned Calcutta into a sea of brown liquid. Down by Taratala more, ground floors were flooded and residents had been accommodated by friendly neighbours in upper floors. Vegetable sellers floated by on makeshift rafts. It was an exciting week, that week! What the The Great Flood of ’78 did was cause entrance exams to all city colleges to be delayed. I was set to write entrance exams at St Xavier’s College, where my three choices in order of preference were Accounting, Economics and English; three different departments, two tests in English and Economics.
Thirty years earlier, one Arthur I Vogel, D.Sc.(Lond.), D.I.C., F.R.I.C., formerly Head of Chemistry Department, Woolwich Polytechnic; Sometime Beit Scientific Research Fellow of the Imperial College, London had published a book. A Text-Book of Practical Organic Chemistry including Qualitative Organic Analysis quickly became THE text book for Organic Chemistry. I was unaware of the good Arthur’s existence, nor was I to know of the singular influence he was to go on to play in my life.
In the midst of this chaos of preparation for the admissions tests two girls were having a conversation, not ten minutes from my house. Candy Floss, of the pink sugar coated lips and the smile, was also preparing for her entrance exams into St Xavier’s College. Her chosen subject was Chemistry, but a meticulous preparation was being hampered by the absence of a good text book for Organic Chemistry. She really needed Professor Vogel’s tome, but it was not be found in the library or anywhere and Candy Floss was at a loss. Her friend, curly haired and resourceful, was helpful.
“I know this family? They have a large set of brothers and sisters. I’m sure one of them must have done Chemistry. One of the brothers is in our batch. Let’s give him a call and see if he’s heard of it”. So the phone call was made.
“Hi, my name is Candy Floss (she gave her real name, you understand?) and I was wondering if you have this book I’m looking for. Would you have it?”
“What is the name of the book? Let me write it down. What does it look like?”, I was polite.
I took down the name.
“I’ve seen it, I’m sure it is around the house somewhere. Give me a day or so to find it and I’ll bring it around”.
“Oh”, said Candy Floss, “Call me and I’ll pick it up”.
“Oh no”, I said, “I’ll drop it off, no problem”
“Ok, thanks a ton! Let me give you my address then”, she said.
“I know where you live”, I replied. (I knew where most of the pretty girls in the neighbourhood lived.)
I put the phone down before she could respond and left the house. I knew every book in the house and exactly where each one lay so I knew that Prof. Vogel’s book was definitely not in the collection. It was imperative that I start a city-wide search with no further delay. I cannot remember now all the places in the city where I looked for Vogel’s Text Book on Practical Organic Chemistry, but I looked.
It took me 2 days to find it.
That afternoon I went over to her flat for the first time, Prof Vogel in my hand. She opened the door at my knock wearing a white skirt with red pimpernels and we chatted for a while. Conversation flowed easily, I found, very, very easily. By the time January 17th of the next year came along, we found we were chatting daily and it was evident that we didn’t need an excuse to be with each other, to talk, to share or just to be with each other.
Today, it is 29 years since we became an organic functional group. And two continents and an ocean away from Calcutta or Kolkata, I cannot think of anyone else I would rather chat with, be with, share with anything, anytime, anywhere than with my Beloved Bangalan, the candy floss eater, the girl with the smile.