Men Bathing on the Street – urban sketches
Those afternoon scenes offer an infinite number of recurring images that are food for my visual mind. I stand beside the window and try to remember the streets of north Calcutta as I used to see them in the 70’s. On my way back home, I would watch men — hard working men — rickshaw and cart-pullers, men who did menial jobs, or worked in factories — having that much-needed afternoon bath right on the streets. They used 501 Half Bar soap. The soap would look like a dark straw-coloured piece of big chocolate in their hands. It was a somewhat crudely-made soap meant for washing ordinary clothes and the men rubbed the soap all over their body. That vigorous action would produce rich foam, something that I could never manage to achieve then as a small boy when I took my bath. The men would even apply the rich foam to their hair and then they crouched in front of the taps that jutted out from a strong round iron pillar solidly fixed on a concrete slab. They would be in their gamchhas. Extending their legs under the water and closing their eyes, their hands moving all over their body in an intense gesture, the men would try to get rid of all the dirt and grime of the day that settled on them. Some of them even kept their eyes open, and I used to wonder if their eyes didn’t burn. The same men would then put their washed dhoti over their makeshift clothes line –a piece of iron wire that hung from two nails solidly dug in on the wall of the graveyard. Only then would the men go to have their lunch of Chhatu(powdered pulses) with a few green chillies, pieces of onion and a pinch of salt. On returning home I would search our bathroom for a 501 Half Bar just to have that strange aroma etched in my memory forever.
The wall where the men would bathe was painted white by political party cadres so they can write slogans on them. Then long after the elections, rainwater would wash away the paint. The bricks would appear from underneath the white painted wall — dark brown bricks with the pores and patches quite visible on them. That rough-hewn patch on the wall would be covered by wet dhotis that would catch the wind on them and attempt to unfurl. I would imagine that the dhotis wanted to fly. But they would succeed only so much in their attempt to be large white birds. Soon, forsaking their newly-acquired freedom, the dhotis would again regain their place near the wall, hiding that strange patch that revealed secrets of the graveyard wall only to a very curious and silent boy who would take in the entire scene in absolute amazement. And I was certain, even at that age, that the lives of those men, under the veil of their dhotis were not much different from the rough wall hiding behind the wet clothes fluttering in the wind. The white-painted portions of the wall would still carry a part of the slogan originally inscribed on them — a word, a name, even a painted sign, an insignia, a symbol — perhaps part of a hammer or a sickle or a cow or an umbrella. The complete imperfection of the scene, its apparent and glaring frailties would disappear and if you have eyes to see, you would find in that mundane street scene, a sense of peace and quiet — a beauty even that would go well with that of the setting sun. Those scenes, so necessary for a boy to get a feel of life, would make him aware of the inadequacies of life, of its struggle, its honesty, the hard labour it demands. He would know that after all that strife, if you survive at the end of the day, you would get a cool bath, the clean scent of the 501 Half Bar soap, a plate filled with Chhatu, and a peaceful sleep on a rope bed.
What do I want to express by all these? That not only the men, but the surroundings, the milieu, the scene with the corporation tap that supplied river water, the broken wall of the graveyard, even the squares drawn on the concrete of the footpath, the now almost illegible hand-painted words on the wall, told their own stories. There was something solid about them. I remember those taps of water even now. It seemed that they were meant to last for as long as the world would. I watched the men. They were so strong that their immortality was written all over their bare chests. The entire scene with the rich flourish of grey river water supplied through the taps, the richness of foam and the solidity under the wall behind its fragile exterior would stay etched in the boy’s memory in this life and beyond…
This is an enduring vignette for me, it reminds me of scenes and places and people who would never return. The love I have for these scenes are a boy’s love. What I express as an adult is his sense of wonder. I think that the wall of that graveyard had no business in revealing so much to a boy and yet it didn’t disappoint me. That wall and the surrounding scenes were my teachers, they made me aware of life.