In a flashback

Soumitra Das | Updated on July 09, 2020

Mind games: At a time when buses, trains and aeroplanes are all grounded, transports of imagination are the only mode of travel we can indulge in   -  ISTOCK.COM

You can always escape the strictures of lockdown on the wings of memory. An old parcel of postcards and street guides only makes the flight easier

The Bradshaw was my father’s favourite travelling companion. Whenever we went for holidays he would buy a copy from Newman’s in the Great Eastern Hotel arcade in Calcutta. Much to my dismay, he expected me — never a slave to time’s relentless regimentation — to treat it like a page-turner.

My father died in 2002. Last month, while rummaging an old leather suitcase, we discovered a perfectly packed parcel. My father was a great one for preserving memorabilia, and I expected it to be some such. The contents were packed inside a ragged light blue paper bag with the word Dreyfus emblazoned on it in a bold typeface, and Marche Saint-Pierre written rather inconspicuously beneath it. The address was 2, Rue Charles Nodier. Google said it was a market for fabrics and furnishings. In Paris, of course.

The plot thickened. My curiosity was whetted. What was inside? Somewhat antiquated travel brochures scribbled with notes, business cards of hotels and restaurants, an index of the London Underground, Cooks Map of London, picture postcards of Chamonix, a handout of Galeries Lafayette, Paris’s famous shopping centre, a Bal Du Moulin Rouge, Paris, card, complete with a showgirl draped in a boa, Nicholson’s London Street Finder, a picture postcard of a restaurant in Koblenz, a guide and map of Rome, The Shakespeare Book (obviously from Stratford-Upon-Avon), more London street guides, Oxford in Pictures (for Bengalis, nothing could surpass the academic pre-eminence of the City of Dreaming Spires), and the ancient glories of Rome in 100 images.

Here I was in locked-down Kolkata leafing dated travel literature, and the very next moment I was in London 1972, teleported by this gallimaufry of pictures and words.

It came back to me in flashes as I scanned the material. That trip happened just two years short of half a century ago, when I was in college, and fragments of memories kept floating back to my mind. At a time when buses, trains and aeroplanes are all grounded, transports of imagination are the only mode of travel we can indulge in. Anywhere. Anytime.

I was flying for the first time in October 1972, and I remember the glamorous fleet of Air India Jumbo jets embellished with the traditional paisley motif that looked so modish, the chic sari-clad air hostesses, the roomy seats in “cattle class”, the colognes and moisturisers in the toilets that disappeared in a jiffy, the ‘No Smoking’ signs that came alive every time it was too bumpy or we were close to an airport (yes, smoking was allowed), the noisy Sikh passengers, and — much to my dismay — the salwar kameez-clad women scrubbing the floors of Heathrow airport.

I remember we stayed in a musty hotel in London in a grungy district named Bayswater. The card said it was Pembridge Palace Hotel, Bed & Breakfast. Google showed it had transformed into a swan. It was anything but then. All I remember is the kindly old woman who made breakfast for us — only eggs and preserves. No bacon. Perhaps because we were a typical Indian family. My mother insisted on rice for lunch. A friend in London mailed in response to my query: “Now it is a smart and very expensive neighbourhood! Wasn’t back then I think although it had good houses.”

In Rome, we missed the Sistine Chapel. We were late. But the Papal Swiss Guard is still a canary-yellow presence. Where did we stay in Rome? The card said Pensione Sardegna: Moderna E Completa, Di Tutti i Comforts. So our small hotel was Sardegna, “modern and with all kind of comforts” — my memory is a void. Whenever one googles the name of a hotel these days, Corona warnings precede information. Sardegna drew a blank.

But I do remember that on our way back home after the Continental tour — mostly in a private van, when we drove across the Alps, if I remember correctly, to reach Paris — our flight was cancelled because of bad weather, and we were driven in the dark as it poured to Golden Beach Hotel, which was a lot more posh than any of the hotels we stayed in.

I have vivid memories of the louche neighbourhood in Paris — full of Algerians, I guess, or maybe Turks — where our tiny hotel was located. The card said National Hotel, Faubourg Saint-Denis. A photographer friend added: “...a very busy, Turkish and Pakistani neighbourhood... where I can buy the best mangoes from Multan.”

In Chamonix, visitors were horrified to find two sari-clad women — my mother and aunt — trudging through the snow in socks and sandals. I still have the black-and-white photographs.

Mind travel is like the cable car that took us in a few minutes to an Alps summit 12,602 ft above Chamonix. Only flights of imagination can cut that short to moments.

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

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Published on July 09, 2020
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