By Atreyo Chowdhury
Mr Dutta’s dream of travelling around the world died with him. He was seventy-seven; an old lonely soul, who until the very end, never gave up his desire to see the world.
Like any other day, that morning too, Mr Dutta sat on the balcony with a cup of steaming tea placed within his reach as he witnessed the sky turn bronze. His fading eyes stared fixed at an apartment building across the street. He wasn’t looking at anything in particular; his mind was already engaged.
The images swam in his head.
The Egyptian Pyramids—the mighty structures that housed the tombs of the great Pharaohs stood amidst an undulated sea of golden sand under a clear blue sky. A caravan moved leisurely with the wind breathing against them, bringing with it their presence; the faint tinkle of camel bells in an infinite ocean of silence. Mr Dutta closed his eyes. He inhaled the parched air and smiled.
His mind stretched next to a summer evening in Paris, the sun dipping, the sky turning scarlet-blue. He was in a café at the edge of a narrow cobblestoned lane, where a young couple stood kissing, a musician played the accordion, a group of girls giggled past, and a man walked his dog.
“Bonjour, Monsieur, Merci, Au revoir,” Mr Dutta said aloud, taking his time, articulating each syllable in the best manner he could. This was all the French he knew.
A silly chuckle left his mouth, and he reached forward. His hands trembled as he held the teacup. He sipped the milky-brown liquid with a long slurp and closed his eyes once again. He was now in the land of the rising sun, walking barefoot along a trail flanked by delicate pink cherry blossom trees.
Mr Dutta’s dream was born on a mushy summer evening sixty-seven years ago. He was at his friend’s place, hunched over a photo-album, looking agog at the photographs from across the globe. Every single picture captured his imagination, and in his mind, he began replacing his friend’s father—a stout, balding man having a pencil moustache with a tall, handsome young man, which he had no doubt he would grow to be.
His friend’s father, Uncle Jodu was in the merchant navy. Listening to him speak about his journeys, and watching him bounce about the room like a clockwork toy fetching little souvenirs; a key chain from London, a bottle of Vodka from Russia, a purple hand-fan from Japan, set Mr Dutta’s heart pounding furiously. He felt a flutter in his guts and knew in that precise moment that he had no other option than to join the merchant navy and sail as far as the seas stretched.
Since that evening, all Mr Dutta could do was daydream. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t study or even speak. He was lost in a world of his own; travelling places, tasting exotic dishes, speaking new languages, making friends… Every day, he sat by his window, reading travelogues and maps, scribbling itineraries in a little red notebook, which, when he slept, found its place tucked safely under his pillow.
After finishing school, Mr Dutta went to college, still with his little red notebook in his pocket, and with the photos of that photo-album riveted into his memory. But he hadn’t planned against the misfortunes of life. His father’s business, which was small but sturdy until then, plummeted, and in the process, his father’s health faded too. With his father’s death, after a year of doctors and medicines, Mr Dutta had no other option but to drop out of college.
For months, he wandered through the city with letters of recommendation and found a position in a bank as a clerk. Years tumbled by, and one afternoon, while he sat at his desk chewing the excess of his fingernails, he remembered the little red notebook that had been gathering dust in his drawer all these years. The photographs flashed in front of his eyes like the spring sun, and he jumped from his seat, took out his little red notebook, and went to the branch manager’s cabin, to quit. The branch manager blinked at him curiously. Mr Dutta took a deep breath, and the moment he was about to utter the words, the phone rang. It was for him.
His mother was taken ill, and she had expressed her desire to see her son for the last time. Mr Dutta hurried to attend to his ailing mother, unaware of the consequences. The old lady, breathing heavy, took hold of his hand and whispered into his ear her death-wish. In a week, Mr Dutta was married—with his mother totally recovered, alive, with a mischievous grin.
Mr Dutta had known his wife since their childhood. Their families were close, and as a kid, Mr Dutta had always heard them reiterate how perfect they were for each other. So married life didn’t offer many surprises, apart from the fact that his responsibilities mounted and that he could barely save any money or time for his unfulfilled dream.
A year later, his wife gave birth to a son, and Mr Dutta holding that tiny creature in his arms felt immense joy. But deep within, he was confounded by fear. He struggled from that moment on, juggling his role as a father and simultaneously maintaining his identity as a wanderer. It was exasperating to be rooted and possess a soul that wanted to expand limitlessly. He woke up often in the middle of the night, weeping; thinking of abandoning everything and running away. But something held him back.
As Mr Dutta’s son showed promise academically, he wanted his son to go abroad for higher studies. He revisited his dreams once again and expressed a desire to accompany his son. But the expenses were too high; he had already taken a loan to support his son’s expenditures, besides he couldn’t dream of going without his beloved wife. The day his son left for the USA, Mr Dutta pressed his forehead against the glass window at the airport watching the flight take-off; consoling himself that at least a part of him was off to see the world.
The year Mr Dutta retired, his son completed his education, returned to Calcutta, found a suitable girl, married, and announced his decision to settle in the USA. Mr Dutta had been awaiting the news secretly and knew it was only a matter of time before his son would ask them to join him.
Each evening, as the old couple sat on the balcony expecting their son’s telephone call, Mr Dutta would fetch his little red notebook. He would announce his plans of travelling across the Americas—from Alaska to Argentina—with a must-do list:
- Watch the sunset at The Grand Canyon
- Gamble in a Las Vegas Casino
- Take a boat ride along the Amazon (catch a glimpse of an anaconda)
- Walk barefoot over the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni.
- Experience the lost world of the Incas
- Visit the Galápagos Islands…
His wife would listen, smile assuredly, but make no comments.
One evening, as Mr Dutta extended his plans further south to Antarctica, his wife suffered a stroke. She died a few days later.
At her cremation, his son hugged him and said that it would take another year before he could come and stay with them. He appointed an attendant for the old man and left. Days turned into months, and months turned into years. Mr Dutta’s vision was fading now, and in his knees, gout had set in.
The telephone rang as Mr Dutta finished his evening tea and an extensive tour of the central African rainforest. The attendant received the call and handed it over. Tears trickled down as he listened to his son. He couldn’t speak; so unbound was his joy. Finally, he was going across the Atlantic.
The sun had now set, and Mr Dutta sat still.
In the distance, a figure was appearing out of the mist. Mr Dutta strained his eyes to discern the outlines of it—the Statue of Liberty. He grinned. A flock of seagulls circled overhead, and the waves crashed against the ferry. A crimson sun was dawning against a greyish-orange sky…
Atreyo Chowdhury was trained to be a mechanical engineer and has a postgraduate degree from IIT Guwahati. Besides writing, he shares an equal passion for music and travelling. He can be found at https://atreyochowdhury.wordpress.com/
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