The traffic had slowed to a spidery crawl near Ekdalia. Rush hour scenario always meant snarling jams near the junctions. Red brake lights blazed and dimmed as the long line of cars interspersed with bulky buses bulging outward inched their way towards the intersection. Thursdays were slow. This particular Thursday in August was especially slag. Chauffeurs fanned themselves as they sat waiting for the signal to turn green. Many were cocooned in air-conditioned coziness with the car stereo blaring the latest cacophony of a song from a Salman Khan blockbuster. Most didn’t notice that amidst all the chaos, old Dutta Babu’s sinewy yet nimble fingers were prying open the back cover of a Titan watch with only a hint of struggle. The young lad – the owner of the timepiece – loomed in front of him watching patiently as Dutta lifted the cover, extracted the old battery, snapped a brand new one from the pack of twelve and with sharp silver tongs in his trembling hands placed it neatly in the quiet alcove inside. The clock ticked back to life.
For a man pushing eighty, Dutta Babu was surprisingly agile. Having spent forty years with Life Insurance Corporation of India, Dutta Babu had saved penny after penny to whisk off to London to see the Big Ben with his wife Gouri. But when one day, Gouri suddenly whispered in his ears, “Amar shamay sesh hoye geche…” (My time is up) and slipped back into eternal sleep, Dutta Babu gave up his dream. They had no children. With his meagre pension, Dutta Babu’s life was more or less sorted. His wants were few. His needs, fewer. Often in his sleep, he would see his Gouri as she was when they first met. “Amay London niye jabe? Honeymoon e?” (When we get married, take me to London for honeymoon). Dutta Babu would smile in his sleep.
His day began early when he would walk over to the tea shop across his house in Swinhoe Street. The chap there would greet him with a resounding “Dadu, kemon achen?” while handing over the earthen pot of tea and two prajapati biscuits. His next stop was the small shack of a shop from where he could watch the world go by. Dutta Babu was an expert watch repairer. He took it up as a hobby fifteen years ago. Hobby turned into passion and soon Dutta Babu, with the help of the local hawker union rep, set up a small two-by-two shop with only a tarpaulin as the roof. Soon, his neighbourhood boys pooled in and his little outlet was buzzing with owners of defunct watches watching eagerly as the deft Dutta Babu picked the back cover open and attended to the details. On rainy evenings, Dutta Babu would don a bright yellow raincoat lest he gets soaked and catch a cold. The 100 watt bulb would be on till way past nine o’ clock when most shops would drop their shutters. Dutta Babu would operate with the precision of a Ninja warrior as he revived watch after watch, clock after clock. If you were to see him at work from across the street, you would notice his frail silhouette against the light bulb. He would almost always be pouring over the details of the labyrinthine interiors of his customers’ watches with a magnifying loupe nestled in his right eye socket. Like Merlin, he would appear and disappear in the acrid black smoke belched by the cars crawling by.
Three years ago, when the Chief Minister of West Bengal announced that she would morph the city to London, Dutta Babu had been suddenly struck by delirious joy. That morning, he stood in front of his departed wife’s photograph and quietly told her, “Shunle? Shohor London hobe. Big Ben ashbe!” (You heard that? The city will turn to London. The Big Ben would be here!)
The Big Ben in London, apart from being one of the most popular tourist spots as well as a backdrop for film shoots, is also the largest four-faced clock in the world that chimes. It was completed in 1858 and is situated in the North end of the Palace of Westminster. When Dutta Babu was working as an LIC officer in his late thirties, a senior colleague had shown him pictures of his recent holiday to London. “Eto boro ghori?” (Such a huge clock?) Dutta Babu had exclaimed. “Ghontao baje Dutta! Kothaye pore acho?” (It chimes as well!) his colleague had replied. It had been Dutta’s dream to visit London since. Maybe a second honeymoon considering when they got married the only option for them to enjoy uninterrupted wedded bliss albeit for a week was Puri.
One day, as Dutta walked over to his ramshackle shed, he noticed a few construction workers gathered at the spot where his tiny shack used to be. Used to be. For right now, the tarpaulin cover, the thin tin rack and the rickety wooden chair were lying in a heap by the side. “Wh-what happened?” Dutta babu tried his best to keep his voice from quivering. “Nothing dadu,” came the reply from Kanai, the lad from the tea shop. “These good men here are going to build a bridge across this place so that it’s easier to get to the other side. And right here, where your shop is…beg your pardon, was, will be one of the foundation pillars supporting a beautiful clock tower. They have agreed to pay us money. You don’t need to sit for hours in the dirt and muck any more dadu. You can retire…” Dutta babu wasn’t listening any more. He looked around vaguely. Yellow tapes had cordonned off the area around where his tiny shelter used to be. Large metal boards with built-in bubble lights said ‘ATTENTION! Kolkata Metropolitan Beautification Syndicate. MEN AT WORK.’ Undersigned was in bold lettering – Memani-Gangwal Construction PVT LTD. Dutta Babu crossed the yellow threshold and fished out the grimy sack where the watches- done and undone- lay tangled in a dismal knot.
Eight months later, the clang-clang of the construction work stopped well short of even halfway to conclusion. The directors of the construction company which had bagged the project from the government had been implicated in a 300 crore scam. The whirring machines imported from Germany coughed, sputtered and let out a long laborious breath before stopping altogether. They remained stationed exactly where they were before the work had even started like man-made fossils of the industrial era. Sniffer dogs combed the length and breadth of the city to hunt down the culprits. The metal sign bearing the company name stood caked in rust.
As the city was lashed in relentless off-season rains, Dutta Babu pulled the quilt closer to his chin as he squirmed in his humble bed at his residence. In eight months, not only had his eye sight weakened, he had developed a niggling heartburn that would haunt him during midnight. His right hand trembled on and off. Almost two decades of hawk-eye manipulation of the nano-details of timepieces had kept his sensory and motor abilities on top of their games. In half a year, Dutta Babu started feeling the ground shift beneath his feet. His shop was gone. He would, on most evenings, lock himself up in his room and tune in to the tiny radio. At nine pm, he would adjust his HMT wristwatch with the announcement of the bulletin and place it by his bedside table. Even tonight, Dutta had followed this routine with meticulous precision. But as soon as he lay himself down to sleep, his right hand started shaking. The heartburn engulfed his skeletal torso. His heartbeat quickened. Dutta started counting. At hundred beats per minute, Dutta’s torso rose and fell under the quilt. Lightheadedness and delirium set in and soon, Dutta found Gouri by his bedside enveloped in an unearthly light. He opened his mouth to talk to her but alas, words failed him. Eighty. Dutta tried to prop himself up on his elbows but in the process, he only made the wave of heartburn rise up to his neck, choking him. Sixty. Dutta raised his left arm to touch the apparition but all he felt was an electric tingle. From a distance he could hear faint chimes of a clocktower in a far away land. Forty. Dutta knew his time was over. He eased his body into the quilt trying to locate the direction of the sound. Thirty. Gouri’s image was fading. It took on a translucent ectoplasmic consistency before imploding into itself. Dutta felt a nauseating sense of peace smothering him. The chimes grew louder.
In London, the Great Bell of the clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster chimed five o’ clock.