My last night in the slammer (I finally managed to find a hotel close to where I'm working) so I decide a treat is in order. Let's find a nice restaurant.
My first inquiry at the reception desk in Ramakrishna was not well received.
"You are not dining here?" The receptionist was a man of my own age, grey hair and neatly trimmed beard above traditional dress, dancing dark brown eyes - the quintessential Indian.
I felt as if I had insulted national honour.
"No", I replied lightly, "I wanted a change this evening", lying through my teeth. With my upset stomach (is that polite enough?) I hadn't taken dinner in Ramakrishna even once.
He looked down, as much to spare me his withering look, heaved a sigh, then looked up.
"Continental or West Bengali?"
The way the spat out the first choice in such clipped tones - each syllable pronounced with exaggerated clarity - confirmed I had indeed grievously offended national (well, state) honour.
"Oh, West Bengali", I enthused, trying to recover.
He was not impressed in the slightest. A rapid exchange in Klingon ensued (perhaps it was Bengali - for all I knew I was being despatched for a feed of Klingon bloodworms).
"Tero Paarbon" he trumpeted, now my self-appointed restaurant-guru.
I looked blankly. Perhaps it was Klingon.
"I wonder" (John Cleese character emerging - A Fish called Wanda) "would you mind terribly writing that down?"
And so he did. In English and in Bengali. My request for a street address was dismissed with a wave,"just ask any taxi driver".
Out into the humid, sweaty Kolkata evening in search of a Taxi.
The first Taxi driver made nothing of the restaurant - in either language. A second did no better. By the time the third looked at me in the now familiar, quizzical way, a sneaky little thought surfaced: was my guru having a go at me?
I dismissed the thought, chiding myself for such an uncharitable view.
After the fifth hailed Taxi driver was still shaking his head I threw in the towel. "There has to be a half decent restaurant nearby", I consoled myself.
I walked North. I walked South. I walked to points of the compass no one has yet discovered. I passed 7 fresh bread shops, 38 jewellery shops, 163 market stalls, 3,172 street hawkers tempting me with e-coli - I mean lovely street food, 9 sock-sellers, 14 beauty parlours, 911 phone card purveyors, 26 sleepy security guards, and more besides. Not a single bloody restaurant.
My shirt was now having a love affair with my back - a steamy affair you might say. My patience was wearing thin. Desperate measures were required. Even Klingon bloodworms were starting to sound like a possibility if only I could find some.
I flagged down my sixth Taxi and barked the order "Sudder Street" (home of the Fairlawn Hotel - my first port of call in this crazy city). Inevitably I got that irritating nod of the head to one side - the sort my daughter had warned me signified polite agreement, but meant anything from "Maybe?" to "I haven't got a clue".
Tiredness kickstarted the paranoia. "Am I being taken for a ride?" Not just literally? Most unfairly, my suspicious brain distilled my driver in three all-too-easy adjectives: swarthy, sweaty and shifty.
The internal GPS worked overtime. Straight. Left. Right. Left. Right. "Do I recognise that sign?". Eh, no. No circles - yet. What if he misheard me and is taking me to a part of the city I can't get out of?
"This is taking a long time"
"I really don't recognise any landmarks!"
Think of the adventure!
Oh, for God's sake, breathe!
Finally a street sign I recognise! Marquis Street. I tell him this is close enough. (More Statel honour offended - this time I am simply ignored.)
With as much aggression as I have ever witnessed, Mr Swarthy throws the Taxi up a side street filled with pedestrians. Lurching from side to side, accelerating only to brake suddenly, we jerk our way up the narrow street until we are met by a large truck coming the other way. We're talking Snowy proportions.
No way forward, I think. Glancing over my shoulder, the options are non-existent. I consider abandoning the Taxi and leaving him to become a sardine tin. But he is already hurling abuse at a cyclist ahead (not just any cyclist, one carrying 17 parcels of course) and a street hawker on the other side, a permanent resident unimpressed with bullyboy Taxi manoeuvres. To my surprise, Mr Swarthy chooses the "Taxi Gambit" a move so bold, any Chess Master would be impressed.
With unexpected precision, he locks the wheel left and inches forward (dislodging the cyclist from his parked position) taking us within nine inches of a meat counter. The butcher continues to dismember a chicken without missing a beat, hacking the bird deftly with a large cleaver, blood splashing this way and that. The truck now looms ridiculously large on our right. More shouting. A few more inches. The smell of raw chicken attacks my nostrils. The butcher catches my eye for a moment - I try to dismiss the thought of Hannibal Lecter but get an uneasy feeling I may shortly be eating my own brain. Time seems to stand uncomfortably still even as the shouting and horn blowing continues.
And, suddenly, the truck has passed and we are gunning forward in search of new unsuspecting pedestrians.
Within minutes I am outside Paradise. Zarang. One of TripAdvisor's top 10 restaurants inn Kolkata. 100 Rupees Mr Swarthy throws his shifty smile, beads of perspiration running down his cheek. 19 minutes in the Taxi. 38 Rupees showing on the clock. I give him 70 (€1) and call it quits.
Air conditioned. That immediate overwhelming sense of deliverance.
Within minutes a tall glass, a large shot, four decadent slices of fresh lime and oh-so-reliable Schweppe's Tonic. Bubbles pop, inviting. Beads of condensation promise ice-cold salvation.
The best Gin and Tonic for such a long time.
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