One morning in the late 1980s, Pinaki Bose, mild-mannered accountant, hen-pecked husband of Rimi, father of 17-year-old Dona and cricket-mad Tuli, looks down from the window of his nondescript home on Kolkata’s J Mullick Road, and sees a sight that will change his life forever. A few minutes, a glimpse of a common enough sight—a man bathing in a courtyard—and a mortified, outraged Pinakibabu makes a momentous decision: that he and his family need to move out of J Mullick Road.
That Pinakibabu’s job at Jalan & Jalan does not pay well, or that his savings will not accommodate the purchase of a plot, the hiring of an architect and labour, the purchase of building materials, and the many other costs that go into making a house, does not occur to a determined Mr Bose.
Throwing discretion to the winds, he goes rushing off to the bitter, failed genius of an architect, Biren, whose shabby office is wallpapered with drawings and designs of buildings imagined but never built. Biren, who is shuffling uneasily between the Tolly Club-going crowd he grew up in, and the asbestos-sheeted little hole out of which friend and confidant Dr Murray runs a clinic.
While Pinakibabu tries to persuade Biren to design his dream house, his daughter Dona finds herself the object of attention for a most unattractive suitor—the very man her father had seen bathing. Kalol Mondal, foul-mouthed and free-with-his-fists CPM minion, is so smitten by Dona that he resolves to change. And where that change will take Kalol, nobody, not even he himself, can tell.
The well-etched characters are among the most memorable elements of The Escapists of J Mullick Road. As alive as these people is the city they live in. Whether it’s the squalor of the poorer parts of Kolkata or the glittering mansion of the unscrupulous ‘Seth’—all are part of Kolkata, and all are woven into this story, forming a believable and compelling backdrop.
The story itself is an engrossing, fast-paced tale of ambition, desire (in different forms), truth and lies. The ‘truth and lies’ angle, especially, is an ever-present element: whether it’s Biren’s façade of being competent enough to merit his arrogance, or Pinaki’s lulling himself into a confidence of financial capability, or Kalol’s lying about his present and his future—there are a lot of lies. Lies, too, which are real because they are the lies each one of us lives with.
Last but not least, there is the wit. It is never enough to turn the story into an outright comedy (far from it; this is eventually more tragedy than comedy), but it is there, often in the form of delightfully apt metaphors: ‘Pinaki scanned the drawings with, thought Biren, the eagerness of a new husband waiting to discover virtues in his bride.’
Worth a read, especially for those who have had the good luck to have ever visited Kolkata. And for those who haven’t, this could be a means of armchair travel.