In Kolkata, I met a man on Park Street who said to me:
"You must go to the Botanical Gardens. Today is a very auspicious day. If you touch the Banyan Tree with your right hand, you can make 2 wishes and they will both come true"
I am not a superstitious person, but this seemed a good way to spend the afternoon. I said that I would go.
"Besides", he continued, "It will be cooler out there. I can see that you are suffering with this heat". We parted company.
He was right about the heat. Park Street was littered with casualties. I walked past a sleeping dog. It lay on its side, tail curled upwards like an umbrella. Further down, outside a classy bakery with doormen outside and air-conditioning inside, a beggar woman dozed on a blanket. Her baby lay next to her, naked apart from a string around his waist. His stomach rose and fell with breaths. In between them, a silver bowl held a few coins.
Taxis lined the edge of the road. Drivers slept in their cabs, leaning back along the seats, heads rolling and mouths open. It was over 40º Celsius and still a month to go before the monsoon began. There was no respite in sight.
It was also lunch time. On Park Street, that meant that the food vendors were out in force. They arrived in mid-morning, pulling their carts along the road from unseen homes. They set out their stalls on the pavement, against the walls of the boys’ school or under the trees. They prepared food: sugar cane juice, fried noodles, round breads, curries on metallic plates, piles of chopped fruit.
Sometime later, people began to filter out of the shops and faceless office blocks. They bought their lunch and ate it, standing around and chatting as they tore bread into pieces and munched on piles of rice. When they had finished, they handed their empty plates to the washing-up men, who squatted next to plastic bowls of water.
Today everybody seemed quieter, more subdued than usual. There was an air of lethargy. I ate some fruit, then looked for a taxi. One driver stood outside his cab.
"How much to the Botanical Gardens?” I asked.
His eyes drooped. "250 rupees"
It was an extortionate fare. I was too hot to argue.
He was visibly shocked.
We took the toll bridge over the Hooghly river and stopped at the booth. I wound down my window and reached out to hand over the money. Heat rose in waves from the tarmac and encircled my arm. We set off again.
I had a good view from the bridge. The river flowed below us, winding its muddy way through the city. Kolkata sprawled around it, row upon row of white block buildings and narrow streets filled with rickshaws, lorries, buses, exhaust fumes and noise.
I knew that eventually it ended. The streets widened, the roads became dirt tracks, trees grew in fields and people walked rather than drove. But from here, the city seemed infinite. It stopped only where a dusty orange haze blurred into the horizon.
It was no cooler at the Botanical Gardens.
"You must pay for your camera" said the man at the ticket desk, so I went across to another office and sat on a plastic chair while a man filled in a form in triplicate ("Which country are you from?"). He stamped it, signed it and took more money from me. Then he examined my camera as if it were an exotic piece of scientific equipment. I grew impatient and the chair grew sticky.
The gardens were quiet, but the sun was high in the sky and there was little shade. I followed an avenue of tall eucalyptus trees and found that a spider’s web of paths criss-crossed the garden. The signs confused me and I quickly became lost. Which section was I in? Sub-tropical or mountainous? Which way was the river? My hands began to swell with the heat. I sat down on a bench and sighed.
To my right, I noticed a small group of trees. They were close together and looked as if they would provide shade. I hurried towards them. Underneath the canopy, it was cool. I breathed a sigh of relief and began to relax.
It took me a few seconds to realise.
This wasn’t a group of trees. This was a single tree. I was under the Banyan Tree. Deep in the centre, one single trunk had started all of this. When it began, it was like any other tree. It grew upwards, spread its branches and then, only then, it played its trump card.
Aerial roots grew out of the branches, dropped down and embedded themselves in the ground. They acted as scaffolding to support the branches, which grew longer and planted more roots. The tree expanded outwards. It was now 140m in diameter and over 200 years old. It was also a miracle of natural engineering.
I almost forgot the wishes. I was walking back towards the eucalyptus trees when I remembered. I ran back, placed my right hand on a root and wished twice.
I took the bus back into town. It was a slow journey, but it was cooler now. Food vendors talked to their customers and laughed, taxi drivers touted for business. Beggars asked for money. The heat was over, at least for today. I was pleased to have met the man on Park Street
And the wishes? Let’s just say that they’re both works in progress.