Notes on The Calcutta Metro

Robert Hirschfield
Jun 8, 2010
Robert Hirschfield reflects on his vulnerability to off-chance encounters the further he travels.

THE UNIFORMED woman at the Park Street Metro Station, with the standard issue black Indian braid, tickles my backpack to make sure I am not going to blow up the Calcutta subway system.

Then she smiles, a crescent of supernatural white teeth just inches from my face. Our fighting-terrorism-together moment is already behind us.

Her smile points me to the “booking” window, where the ticket clerk will throw my ticket at me. They have him sitting too far back from the window, so he has no choice but to throw the damn thing.

Before I do anything, I want to say something to this woman about her bag tickling. (I feel I qualify. I am a New Yorker, after all. I saw the twin towers melt before my eyes.) I am trying to imagine what instructions she got in her vigilance class about Westerners with backpacks. Wouldn’t our obvious innocence arouse tendrils of suspicion? Any traveler whose shampoo tube is confiscated at the airport will tell you there is no innocence left in our post-9/11, 7/7, 26/11 world.

Part of me wants Metro security to contemplate: what evil lurks behind this foreigner’s dopey smile? But her rebellion against the gray gong-crashers in our nest fills me with a secret joy. I like her style. Charming, horrifying, taking little holidays from gravitas.

The further East I travel, the more vulnerable I am to the ripple effects of off-chance encounters like this.

I find myself hopelessly drawn to this uniformed woman. (I am usually allergic to anyone in a uniform.) I want to walk with her and her black braid and her white teeth along the Ganga, and tell her things I have never told anyone.

The further East I travel, the more vulnerable I am to the ripple effects of off-chance encounters like this. Once, at this same station, I was stopped by a young Indian man and asked if I was a writer. I said I was, and he said he had a job for me that would earn me good money. I immediately imagined abandoning my flat in New York and taking up residence in Calcutta. I never called him back.

I am tempted to share with the Security woman a sign in the Park Street Metro Station that I like to believe was written by a maligned surrealist poet who donates his work to the Metro Railway company. You shall not carry: skin, hides, dead poultry or game, fireworks, meat, fish, explosives.

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