The nearest public access internet was in Tottee Lane, according to the restaurateur whose face lit at his patron’s praise and generous tip.
‘Go that way some blocks,’ he said with authority, ‘turn right for some more streets, and then ask someone.’ His grin was infectious and both Frankie and Shiv laughed with him when he added. ‘Lots of lanes, lots of cars. You will find.’
And half an hour later they did indeed discover a narrow lane with a cracked roadway lined by small businesses devoted to the budget tourist. Faded yellowish stucco plastered with notices and advertisements housed a moneychanger. A guest house resided above a barber shop. A fast food eatery squeezed between the backs of buildings on parallel roads. Motorbikes and pedestrians, interacted amicably in the absence of cars. A puddle filled a dip in the roadway. At the end of the street an attractive tree in full leaf hung over the thoroughfare, bestowing charm on an otherwise grotty little service lane.
Festoons of electricity and phone cables, some high voltage, were draped like black snakes along the walls and hung in great loops just above the heads of patrons entering the Cyber Café. Upstairs toiled a designer of “Day garments and Nightwear”. Next door was a travel agent. A woman in a narrow, green painted, open shopfront, ironed clothes. An air conditioner poking its bum out of the clothing designer’s workshop window above the crumbling cyber café door, piddled on unwary patrons. It appeared that no maintenance had been performed on the exterior of the structure since it was built well over a century earlier.
Inside was clean, fresh and pleasant with cubicles lining the walls, separated from each other by natural wood panels. Up-to-date flat-screen monitors had video cameras mounted, and the keyboards were new and shiny clean. The manager was as charming as everyone else they had spoken to that day. Very impressive, Frankie decided. And very cheap.
About to log in, Frankie suddenly remembered that computers had memories. That the keyboards were wireless and very hackable. That Indians were among the smartest people on the planet. But that didn’t mean they were more honest than everyone else, so instead of logging into his bank account he emailed Ingenio, gave him a brief, very expurgated description of his time in the monastery, omitting its demise. After describing his present whereabouts and excellent health, he asked his father to put ten thousand dollars into his debit account, and to please check daily and keep it topped up, because he was spending more time and money than expected in India, going next to Hyderabad, so please email him Sadu’s address. Promising to reveal more next time, he clicked ‘send’. He beckoned Shiv over and together they made a quick study of Google maps of Kolkata, finding where they were now and how to get to where they wanted to go. After clearing the search history Frankie shut the computer down.
‘That was quick,’ Shiv grinned.
‘Yeah. Just emailed my father to tell him I'm alive in case there’s some mention of the monastery exploding in the papers or on the news and he worries.’
‘You like your Dad?’
‘I love him.’
‘I can’t imagine loving mine, or any member of my family.’ He shook his head in amused despair. ‘Guess how stupid I am. I was looking in the paper for news of the monastery, then realised it was only yesterday, and the other thing was only a few hours ago. It feels as if it happened weeks ago. Is it the same for you?’
‘More as if it was all a dream. If you told me I’d been hallucinating, I’d believe you. Ok, let’s go sight-seeing.’
They continued west until they reached a park with playing fields in the distance and a temple and other buildings that didn’t attract, then turned north on a busy road, from which they escaped by turning west as soon as the park ended. At a bank with an automatic teller, Frankie inserted his card and after what seemed a long wait while the machine checked and approved it, was relieved when ten, two-thousand-rupee notes poked out the slot. Shiv pretended indifference. They continued zigzagging north west, arriving at the colonial magnificence of Government House which they duly admired. A bit further along they stopped and stared at another impressive park-like place with ponds and beautiful colonial buildings, after which they wandered along Strand Road, admired the spectacular domed Main Post Office, then went down to the river. Ferries were plying to and from Howrah, which looked pleasantly treed and calm compared to Kolkata. But then this side probably looked pretty good from there.
Further on, dozens of poor people were standing on a pinkish stone Ghat washing themselves and their clothes, backed by the giant Howrah Bridge. A hundred metres further they were walking through a flower market. Beyond that rose steps that led up to the bridge walkway where they joined hundreds of other pedestrians, some carrying huge loads on their heads, or wheeling bicycles with loads on the back. Scores of Indian and foreign tourists with cameras leaned over railings, took selfies, mingled, and, despite everyone seeming to walk in opposite directions, miraculously avoided collisions.
A fragile looking railing was the sole barrier separating and protecting them from a thundering, everlasting stream of rushing, bustling, tooting, roaring cars, busses, trucks and the ubiquitous orangey-yellow taxis that seemed more numerous than people. The air was thick with exhaust fumes. The noise deafening. The walkway deep in litter, and Howrah was much further than it looked from the bank.
On the far side they followed the pedestrian path in a long zigzag south then back under the bridge, after which they crossed Station road to arrive on the banks of the Hooghly which they followed up river till they came to a wide set of steps leading up to a classic, single storeyed, sandstone temple, it’s plain façade rendered powerful and dignified by wide square pilasters supporting a flat overhang and a type of battlement along the edge of the roof. The entire structure was shaded by a giant tree in full leaf that softened and made the elegant building seem inviting. Two large square window-like openings and a wide doorway welcomed visitors. Two men were standing on the steps talking quietly.
Inside was colourful. The floor polished to a mirror, the ceiling a complex of colourful circles. Dominating the busy space was a sensual, almost sybaritic rendition of Shiva in the lotus position. A cobra and many beads draped around his neck. A golden horn hung from his left shoulder and his luxuriant long, golden hair hung from a topknot down over his shoulder to his waist. A red belt with golden bells, and a black kilt covered his loins, and a heavy golden band encircled his ankle. It was a disturbing image. The eyes of the sensuous, almost smiling face seemed to be looking directly into Frankie’s heart, questioning his intentions and actions, but not judging. Bee-stung lips and a body slightly too well fed created a sexual yet not inviting apparition. Shiva’s raised hand, palm outwards, seemed to be telling Frankie to be careful. Nothing is what it seems.
He was relieved when, after briefly muttering something in front of the god, Shiv took him out to where the river flowed, boats plied, and the noise of the city breathed life into him again.
They walked further up river to a park with large trees where they sat to think and talk in the warm air.
‘The sign on the path said that building was ‘Shiv Mandir’. That’s Temple of Shiva, isn't it?’ Frankie asked.
‘You're called Shiv. Does this temple have a special meaning for you?’
‘You're called Frankie, diminutive of Frank. Would you feel special if you read about the Franks conquering Gaul?’
‘Sorry. That was stupid. And if I was called Peter I’d not feel special entering St Peter’s in Rome. But I have to say you're much better looking than the Shiv inside.’
Shiv laughed. ‘I’m proud to have that name because I reckon basic Hindu philosophy is an excellent guide to living, and Shiva’s attitude to life and death suits me. But I'm not interested in all the decorative bits of Hinduism.’
They lapsed into companionable silence.
‘What are you going to do, Shiv?’ Frankie asked. ‘Where are you going from here?’
‘Back to Amritsar to get duplicate papers, taking great care not to see any relatives. Then I’ll go to Chandigarh and see what’s available. Maybe my old boss knows something.’
‘You know so much and your English is not only almost accent free, but your vocabulary and usage is better than most Australians. Isn't that odd for a kid from a poor neighbourhood?’
‘Very. In my spare time I’ve always read. Anything I could get my hands on. If there were words I’d read them, bus tickets, road signs, newspapers, menus, magazines and books. People throw newspapers and magazines away, so I’d grab them. There was a library that let me go in and read. I wasn’t allowed to take books out, but I didn’t want to because outside I had nowhere to sit. At the restaurant I slept in the pantry on a mat. That was my home.’
They sat in silence for some time, thinking about themselves, their lives and how they had no idea really what they wanted or where they were going. It didn’t worry them, they had their youth and fitness, but they felt they ought to think about it, so they did.
Frankie sat up, checked no one was watching, then took from his secret pocket the rest of the money from Wiley’s cupboard and handed it to Shiv. This is yours. I don’t want or need it. You’ll need it for the train, clothes, food, accommodation… I've no idea of prices; is it enough for a month until you get a bank account and I can put more in it?’
Face a mask, Shiv counted it. ‘There are thirty-thousand rupees. With what you gave me before, that’s nearly two thousand Australian dollars.’
‘I know. It’s not much, that's why I asked if you’ll need more.’
‘For the way I'm used to living, and intend to continue, it is plenty. Thank you.’
‘Don’t thank me. Thank Wiley. Now, as we both need to leave this ex capital of the British Indian Empire that I didn’t like a few hours ago, but am already starting to appreciate, let’s go to the station and check train timetables.’
The East Coast Express left for Hyderabad at a quarter to twelve every night, taking about twenty hours. Trains for Delhi and the west were more frequent.
‘I don’t want to leave tonight. I want to spend another day with you,’ Frankie said softly, hoping he didn’t sound mushy.
‘I don’t want to leave you at all,’ Shiv said matter of factly. ‘You are the only person I've met I feel able to talk with about any topic and express any opinion without worrying I'm offending you or you’ll think I'm stupid’
‘I feel very similar. That's why I want to share with you.’
‘You're insanely generous.’
‘Not at all. My motives are selfish. I just need to know you will be Ok. So… will you keep in touch and let me put some money in your bank account?’
‘I will—when I get one.’
They decided to stay the night in Howrah, spend the next day together, then Frankie would take the night train and Shiv the next train to his destination.
‘I need experience in talking to people, so I’ll buy the tickets,’ Frankie said firmly, arriving back half an hour later totally bemused. ‘Did you know that trains are booked out weeks, sometimes months in advance?’
‘Not in second class. That's how I always travel. It’s crowded, but if you're strong it’s Ok. Couldn’t you get any tickets?’
‘At first he told me it was booked out, then said he could check for cancellations but it would cost a bit extra. I said Ok, so he luckily found a seat on something called AC Chair.’
‘That’s comfortable chairs that recline with air conditioning. Better than the wooden seats I always sit in. You're lucky. How much?’
‘Exactly twice the advertised price, in cash.’
Shiv laughed. Now he’ll be able to buy his wife new earrings.’ I hope you didn’t spend that much on me?’
‘Of course I did, here’s your ticket.’
Shiv shook his head and again laughed, realising it was pointless to argue, and not really wanting to.
Howrah Hotel was cheap, not aimed at tourists, and charmingly romantic. Although used and abused for at least a century, it retained an elegance that hinted at its proud beginnings. From the noisy, messy street, the façade boasted a decorated arch between classical pilasters flanked by potted plants, through which appeared a vista of a charming courtyard that Frankie found irresistible. Inside was even more romantic than he’d hoped. A four storeyed courtyard in bright blue with elegant wrought iron columns supporting balconies that surrounded the palm and shrub filled space, replete with fountains, walkways and pleasant seating.
‘This building has made me love Kolkata,’ Frankie announced. ‘It’s taught me not to judge things by their exterior. And it’s so quiet and peaceful, compared to out in the street.’
Their twin room was clean and neat, the beds comfortable and they talked till both fell asleep, waking late, breakfasting on delicious flat bread and tasty sauces, before setting out together to discover the delights of Howrah.
‘Please don’t wait on the platform,’ Frankie said softly when he found his seat. ‘I hate long goodbyes. It’s been a great day. We’ve walked miles and miles, seen so many things and….’ He held out a hand. Shiv took it, pulled his friend to him in a hug, then turned and walked proudly down the platform without looking back.
Wondering why he suddenly felt as if he could breathe freely again, Frankie busied himself organising his water bottles and the food he had packed, having heeded Shiv’s warning about food sold on the train. ‘What a great guy,’ he thought, ‘but… we’re so different. We’d argue forever if we lived together. Anyway, that’d be impossible in this crazy country, and he wouldn’t want to. And perhaps I wouldn’t either. I hope he does contact me, but I've a feeling he’s far too proud to accept a helping hand.’