The Tide Country
Kanai spotted her the moment he stepped onto the crowded platform: he was
deceived neither by her close-cropped black hair nor by her clothes, which
were those of a teenage boy loose cotton pants and an oversized white
shirt. Winding unerringly through the snack vendors and tea sellers who were
hawking their wares on the stations platform, his eyes settled on her slim,
shapely figure. Her face was long and narrow, with an elegance of line
markedly at odds with the severity of her haircut. There was no bindi on
forehead and her arms were free of bangles and bracelets, but on one of her
ears was a silver stud, glinting brightly against the sun-deepened darkness of
Kanai liked to think that he had the true connoisseurs ability to both praise and appraise women, and he was intrigued by the way she held herself, by the unaccustomed delineation of her stance. It occurred to him suddenly that perhaps, despite her silver ear stud and the tint of her skin, she was not Indian, except by descent. And the moment the thought occurred to him, he was convinced of it: she was a foreigner; it was stamped in her posture, in the way she stood, balancing on her heels like a flyweight boxer, with her feet planted apart. Among a crowd of college girls on Kolkatas Park Street she might not have looked entirely out of place, but here, against the sooty backdrop of the commuter station at Dhakuria, the neatly composed androgyny of her appearance seemed out of place, almost exotic.
Why would a foreigner, a young woman, be standing in a south Kolkata commuter station, waiting for the train to Canning? It was true, of course, that this line was the only rail connection to the Sundarbans. But so far as he knew it was never used by tourists the few who traveled in that direction usually went by boat, hiring steamers or launches on Kolkatas riverfront. The train was mainly used by people who did daily-passengeri, coming in from outlying villages to work in the city.
He saw her turning to ask something of a bystander and was seized by an urge to listen in. Language was both his livelihood and his addiction, and he was often preyed upon by a near-irresistible compulsion to eavesdrop on conversations in public places. Pushing his way through the crowd, he arrived within earshot just in time to hear her finish a sentence that ended with the words train to Canning? One of the onlookers began to explain, gesticulating with an upraised arm. But the explanation was in Bengali and it was lost on her. She stopped the man with a raised hand and said, in apology, that she knew no Bengali: Ami Bangla jani na. He could tell from the awkwardness of her pronunciation that this was literally true: like strangers everywhere, she had learned just enough of the language to be able to provide due warning of her incomprehension.
Kanai was the one other outsider on the platform and he quickly attracted his own share of attention. He was of medium height and at the age of forty-two his hair, which was still thick, had begun to show a few streaks of gray at the temples. In the tilt of his head, as in the width of his stance, there was a quiet certainty, an indication of a well-grounded belief in his ability to prevail in most circumstances. Although his face was otherwise unlined, his eyes had fine wrinkles fanning out from their edges but these grooves, by heightening the mobility of his face, emphasized more his youth than his age. Although he was once slight of build, his waist had thickened over the years but he still carried himself lightly, and with an alertness bred of the travelers instinct for inhabiting the moment.
It so happened that Kanai was carrying a wheeled airline bag with a telescoping handle. To the vendors and traveling salesmen who plied their wares on the Canning line, this piece of luggage was just one of the many details of Kanais appearance along with his sunglasses, corduroy trousers and suede shoes that suggested middle-aged prosperity and metropolitan affluence. As a result he was besieged by hawkers, urchins and bands of youths who were raising funds for a varied assortment of causes: it was only when the green and yellow electric train finally pulled in that he was able to shake off this importuning entourage.
From The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh pages 3-7. Copyright © 2005 by Amitav Ghosh. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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