It was an outrageously funny but simultaneously frightening moment, which in retrospect seems to be the kind of thing you secretly hope for when you travel far away from home.
“Let us stay up all night and then have tea by the river at sunrise,” Kalpan says.
It’s late, and the hazy, orange-lit streets are eerily deserted aside from a few meandering cabs and us: a ragtag clutch of students from the university defying biology and Kolkata’s 2 a.m. curfew. Kolkata is a laid-back city that likes to go to bed early but also likes to get up late, and though we don’t have anywhere to go, being in good company, with bellies full of chicken bharta and naan, is enough reason to stay up.
“Let’s go somewhere,” another friend suggests, and as we make our way towards prospective cabs, he turns around and whispers, “Try not to look drunk!”
After some short negotiations in Bengali, Kalpan beckons. I don’t know where we’re headed, but I step into the cab, and we’re off. Wandering through the city at night is like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs: unexpectedly gratifying but also vaguely voyeuristic, considering how packed the streets are during the day.
The cab driver starts chatting in Bengali with Kalpan, who’s sitting in the front, and switches on the radio. A soaring, sweeping voice erupts from the backseat speakers over the unmistakable, upbeat strains of Bollywood strings and drums.
PARDESIYA-A-AH YEH SACH HAI PIYA
SAB KEHTE HAIN MAINE TUJHKO DIL DE DIYA
I lean back into the seat and look out the window, staring contemplatively but really not thinking about anything in particular. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Kalpan raise his arms and start dancing to the music.
The smile that I grant myself quickly turns into a dumbly paralyzed ‘O’ after the cab driver takes both hands off the wheel. He has joined in the dancing and is synchronously rocking his arms left and right alongside Kalpan, who is either completely unperturbed or unaware of the fact that we’ve gone on autopilot.
To his credit, the cab driver’s gyrations easily match the joyous spirit of the song now echoing raucously off the empty flyovers and closed storefronts. Without interruption of motion, he occasionally jerks the wheel left or right to avoid the roadblocks that are impotently marked “KOLKATA TRAFFIC POLICE.”
After what feels like an hour of passionate Bollywood cardancing, we come to a stop near a brightly lit park. We pay the fare and the cab driver gets out but leaves the music roaring across silent streets. As we start walking away, another cab driver pulls up to join the impromptu roadside celebration.