August 23 and 24, 2021: There is always a first time

August 23 and 24, 2021: There is always a first time. I am in an industry where the people I have to interact with the most, never change in age. Come pandemic, come conflict, come peace, come whatever, on the first day they are almost all the same age. For nearly two decades. It is as if I am caught in time warp, where my calendar age is going up, the main people around me stay the same, allowing me to ignore my calendar age. This is the cheapest time travel available as every year right around the end of August I enter a worm hole and get transported to a place that seems to stay the same, always. I took a different form of travel many yeas ago on a hot August day when the jet was held in a holding formation over New York. I thought it was a free bird’s eye view of things that were only alluded to in Mad Magazine and seen in the numerous travel agencies that were spread across Chowringhee and Park Street. The Twin Towers. The icon of America – and thus the price paid – was no longer a poster with the blue emblem of Pan Am, that we furtively looked at through the doors of the agencies. Imaginary places. Now I was circling over it. The journey was completed with stops in Bombay, Dubai, and London. And an expedition was beginning. The long march. I looked at the masks in front of me. Onwards I felt. Amused to hear that being in that room with me was the first experience of a college course. Pressure. These were the young ones. Just arrived. A few days ago. That night sleeping in a Hoboken apartment of the sister of a neighbor in Salt Lake, I felt the night was splintered by the Hollywood sounds of police cars and ambulances. Sleep melts away at 3:00 am. A hunger, an anxiety. Why are you in this class I asked. The stock answer: “I heard it is a great course.” “I heard you are a great teacher.” Unknown lands. Safe answers. The journey to the subway was strenuous in the morning – it felt like a night was descending as the Piedmont Airlines Jet landed in a place I had never known of until I saw the name on the ticket when we picked it up from the office in Brabourne Road. Unfamiliar territory. “I will not remind you to do your homework, we are out of high school.” In a masked class, ten magic feet away from the unmasked teacher. The unwritten circle of protection, actually a semi-circle with my back to the wall, that allows me to be unmasked. These were people whose final experience before coming to college was on the screen. Now we are facing each other. The gentleman who was standing at the baggage belt on that hot afternoon in Smith Reynolds Airport faced me with a broad smile that I learnt would be infectious. Are we all worried about the infection? Naah, it will at most be a simple cold. They said. Its OK. Its OK he had said when I apologized for not characterizing him as a teacher, in shorts and a T. First names only. We are informal, we are brave. Call me Ananda. Not even Doctor Mitra? It really does not matter. I am past those niceties. The embarrassment of the niceties that I brought from Calcutta Boys’ School was soon replaced by the bravado of the free and individual culture of the place. A student from a distant land I sat and talked at length in the afternoon. The person wanted to learn about individualistic cultures and collectivist cultures. Look around you – how many are masked here? How many were masked where you were a few days ago? The individual freedom to be a soldier. For the virus. The student looked bemused as the sun hit us in the pit outside my academic building that I call my office. No need to mask outside. Outside the sun did not want to set as the sound of the crickets overpowered us as my newly found bondhu from Wisconsin threw a meat on a portable grill and said “dinner.” There was still blood to be seen. That was then. Today I asked them, “how is the food?” They said it was great. Just wait. There is always a first time. Although it was in a different context, it is always the same as the Foreigner said, “Feels like the first time/Like it never will again/Never again” Never.

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