Traffic Signal

Short stories are fun to write, they can twist and turn or simply leave you with a mellow sweet feeling. They can be tricky to write if one has to limit the words but the short story is usually an extended moment for the writer. The story is based on a prompt Traffic Signal but it traveled with me from my once upon a time walk in an overcrowded Kolkata street with a lone signal standing aside looking lost. 

Santosh Yadav arrived on Howrah Mail to Kolkata in mid-March to join as a cashier in the Bank of Hindusthan. By the end of April, Kolkata weather and its apathy towards and non-Bengali speaking North Indians had taken a toll on the twenty-five-year-old Unnao boy. Weekends were especially unbearable for Santosh.

“Back home, we are seventeen people living under the same roof, including my 96-year-old grandmother,” he said to Banerjee, the senior accountant. “Now I live in an overcrowded street in an overcrowded city and I am all alone.”

Banerjee smiled. He was the first one who reached out to Santosh in the bank.

“My wife is from Lucknow,” he introduced himself on the first day. In the evening, Banerjee introduced Santosh to Tadi (toddy).

“Living in Boubazar has its benefits, Mr. Santosh. In its overcrowded, sultry underbelly, Kolkata hides some sinful desires to calm the nerves of men like us. Who needs the company of fellow humans when we have nature’s elixir – Tadi!”

And after an hour, Santosh was in full agreement with his new friend.

Santosh lived in a narrow lane which opened into a wider lane, which further opened into the Boubazar main road. But the gully he lived in was so narrow and unnoticeable that someone looking for it would never find it, had it not been for an old traffic signal pole at the intersection. The signal was camouflaged by a series of wires, ropes, worn-out banners of political parties but its head was visible from the single window of Santosh’s room on the second floor of his guesthouse.

The window frame had unceremoniously been blocked by two iron bars which looked fairly new in comparison to the rest of the setup.

“I installed them six months back. The last tenant fell from the window after having too much tadi,” said the landlord. “Don’t worry, the room is not haunted, the boy just broke his leg. The shade of the teashop below cushioned his fall.”

Santosh gave a sigh of relief on hearing the additional information. He did not ask the landlord anything further as he noticed the flicker of the traffic signal.

Over many evenings sitting by the window of his room, Santosh realized that the colonial traffic light pole was still in working condition but was barely noticeable with the layers of time and banners imposed over it. Some rare specimens of people, if ever crossed, would pause in obeisance of the red light. Santosh felt pity for the signal. It reminded him of his 96-year-old matriarch back home. She sat through the day, on a cot, accompanied by a squeaky table fan as she continuously waved her jute hand fan into rhythmic rounds. The other ladies of the house would acknowledge her presence infrequent intervals by serving tea and food but there was no one who had the time to sit alongside her and listen to the tales of her lifetime. Like the traffic signal of this unnamed crossing, she was stuck in one place observing tides of time turning into more and more chaos. There was a crowd around but the old structure stood alone. Guilt crept into Santosh’s head as he could not recall the last time he sat with his grandmother for a chat.

On Saturdays when the bank closed early, Santosh stocked himself with Tadi.  Some evenings he was accompanied by Banerjee or the landlord, but most of the Saturday evenings he was alone, munching jhaalmuri and sipping on nature’s elixir and watching the traffic signal.

On a humid Kolkata style June evening, Banerjee knocked on his door.

“Yaadab” he called out as he entered his young colleague’s room. “Today is special.”

Santosh saw him holding on to a cloth bag dripping water. And before Santosh could ask anything, he rolled the bag onto the table by the window.

“Chilled Beer,” he gleefully announced. “The Mrs. has taken the kids to Lucknow for vacation. He smiled with a sense of achievement.

Santosh smiled. It seemed like a welcome change.

“I have already asked the chap downstairs to send jhaalmoori and vegetable chop,” Banerjee had the smile of a free man.

By the fifth bottle, the beer was no more chilled and both the men were no more bothered. They were in conversation – Gibberish.

Banerjee in absolute inebriation spoke about how his father was the anchor of his life until he ran away with a woman half his age.

“You eloped with a teenager!” Santosh exclaimed.

“Naa… My father eloped with a woman my age.” Banerjee added to the details.

Santosh felt awkward.

“I live in a crowd. If my father or anyone elopes, it will be at least two days before the family realizes someone is missing. But I think she would know.”

“Who would know?” asked Banerjee.

Santosh pointed out of the window towards the crossing.

“The traffic signal would know…” Banerjee looked confused.

Santosh nodded. “My 96-year-old grandmother would know. She watches who comes and goes, who stops by, just like that traffic light. I don’t know if she would tell anyone that father eloped.”

“So did your father elope too?” Banerjee asked, licking the jhaal of the moori from his fingers. The men had now switched to tadi.

“He was there when I left home. But grandmother would know,” Santosh trying to recall.

“What if she doesn’t tell anyone?” asked Banerjee.

“Santosh looked at the traffic light. Night had loomed into the entangled crowd of wires, crossing into the gullies of worn-out cobbled stones and anchoring on the multitude of terraces till the horizon lost itself to darkness.

The traffic light flickered.

It was like his grandmother, the eyes constantly blinking through her high powered glasses, trying to focus in a world that had moved far ahead of her.

Santosh got off the windowsill and stumbled towards the door. Banerjee followed.

“Where are we going?” he asked Santosh.

“To ask grandmother,” he replied.

“What?”

“Would she tell us if father eloped?”

“Is he planning to?” asked the slurring Banerjee.

Santosh shrugged. It is funny what some beer mixed with Kolkata humidity can do… it gives you an accent like the British. Even if one will be speaking the ingrained Rarhi, the Bangla that pours out after chilled beer is British. It must be because of the decades of colonial influence around the Presidency.

But then the question here was not Banerjee’s beer accent, it was Santosh’s grandmother. The two wobbly men managed to reach the crossing without stumbling or crashing into anything. A singular street lamp right behind the traffic light spread a golden tinge across the deserted chaos.

“Grandmother has a halo around her,” Santosh pointed out towards the signal head. The red light flickered.

Santosh held the pole. Banerjee looked on dazed. The tadi and beer fusion was playing games with his head. He saw Santosh hugging his grandmother.

Santosh tried to climb up the pole.

“You are too big to climb on her lap Yaadab,” Banerjee remarked.

“I want to see her face,” replied Santosh.

Finally Santosh managed to reach the head. He removed the banners, ropes, and whatever was around the signal head.

Banerjee cried out loud, “No Yaadab, don’t remove that banner from grandmother. It belongs to the ruling party!”

But Santosh was busy trying to free the grandmother pole. By the time he undid the last string, he lost balance and fell.

Both the men lay on the foot of the traffic pole for a while. Santosh was injured, and Banerjee, well, he was just giving company. When they came to their senses, and Santosh could not bear the pain, Banerjee helped him back to the room.

“It doesn’t look broken,” Banerjee inspected Santosh’s ankle. A fight between two groups had broken out in the area.

“Someone removed the banners of the ruling party, which they had tied over the opposition banners on the traffic pole,” said the landlord, handing over a medicine tube to Santosh.

“Now, the ruling party workers blame the opposition and they have closed down the bazaar. There is a fight going on between the two groups near the traffic signal. You can see from the window.” he added.

Banerjee looked towards Santosh, who dragged himself towards the window. There were men with sticks and stones shouting at each other.

But the traffic pole was completely visible amidst the chaos. The red light flickered. Santosh dialed home on his phone, today he would speak to his grandmother.

 

 

 

 

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