Her long dress is bright amid the sea of black dresses…

It is raining on Park Street. Outside the big plate glass window of the Barista Café, the black tarmac of the street gleams beneath the rush of tyres and bright yellow taxis. People hurry past on the pavement beneath undulating waves of umbrellas. The rain drips gently from an opaque sky. Above the street, beyond the spider-web tracery of power and telephone lines, the white facades of Old Calcutta – British Calcutta – loom: parapets, columns, pediments and pilasters. Black-trunked peepal trees grow along the edge of the pavement, their pale green, oblate leaves silver-glazed with rain. 

A flood of cars – original Morris Oxfords, SUVs, bashed-up Hyundai Micros – stop momentarily for pedestrians. The digital clock on the building across the street reads 09:37. Another wave of umbrellas breaks along the strand of Park Street. Maroon 5 is playing on the café sound system: “this city’s made us crazy and we must get out…”

I finish my coffee and step out onto the street. I am immediately caught up in the flowing crowds: business-people on their way to work in the stone and steel towers louring overhead. After the quiet of the Barista Café, the roaring traffic, blaring horns and jostle of people is jarring. But the human current is inexorable; like a swimmer in a rip I have no choice but to go with it.  

Ahead of me, I see the Lady in Red. Her long dress is bright amid the sea of black dresses, dark coats, grey umbrellas and dark jeans. She is walking with a companion. Both of them are talking into their cellphones. 

There are crows on the power lines overhead. The warm rain drips from the trees. The cracked and broken pavement is littered with shimmering puddles. I pass a derelict building, the skeleton of its brickwork protruding from a skin of grimy white plaster tattooed with Arabic graffiti. The roots of a fig tree are entwined around it like a monster from a Ridley Scott sci-fi. The single, glassless eye of its window is choked with debris.   

The crowds thin to a trickle: a Kolkata trickle, that is, with hundreds of people rather than thousands. The lady in red and her friend cross Dr M.L.K. Sarani Street and disappear into the city. As I lose sight of her I feel like a mariner who has lost sight of a beacon. I am in unknown waters here. But I have my chart and my course is plotted. I turn right across Park Street and into the old cemetery.

Lady in Red.

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