Extracts from a Bengal Diary 1986 by Chinmaya Dunster
(NB translations are given at the end for Bengali words not explained in the text)
Thursday, 2nd October
There is a temptation on landing at Dum Dum airport, after nineteen hours of flight via Moscow, to congratulate oneself on arriving. I should know better (this is my third visit) that this is premature: an hour and a half of bone-crunching road lies ahead still to the city and the only means of conveyance are taxis that look as if they have survived World War Three. They may well have done, but five minutes inside one will assure you that their shock absorbers have not.
Reunion! Swami Krishnaprem (KP), pirate look-alike, re-creator of the English language and noted exponent of the billi (cat) life, and his wife Ma Anurag are at the porch of their block of flats to greet me. There is much hugging, cries of “Welcome Swamiji!”, “Jai Bhagwan!” and tears. In this emotional atmosphere nobody is inclined to dispute with the taxi driver who has seen his chance and is demanding twice the normal fee.
Krishnaprem and me
Three words are vital if you are to make any sense of Calcutta.
The first will be heard as a weary sigh as the fan goes off and the whole neighborhood is plunged into blackness: loadshedding, caused by the city’s chronic power shortage, leaves you fumbling for matches, bathed in sweat and a prey to every hungry mosquito for miles. It can happen for hours at a time and several times a day. I have concluded however, that in KP’s case it may be a good thing. Without it he might never find a good enough reason to move from his mattress. I have never met anyone as good at doing nothing (until I met Samarpan, that is). Loadshedding is greeted with cries of “Oree baba!” (your father), “Sa-laa!!” (wife’s brother), both of which translate as ‘fucking hell’.
The second word, bambu is roughly synonymous with English ‘stick’ (as in ‘she gave me stick for being late’). It is accompanied by a fist gesture suggesting insertion of a bamboo cane into rectum. Bamboo comes in a naturally nobbly state, but after much use tends to become smooth and ‘oily’. Philosophically then, bambu translates as the troubles, of rough to oily intensity, that we must bear in this life.
Hue pare, lastly, means ‘maybe’. We will be hearing plenty of it.
Calcutta street 1984
To Rashbehari Avenue, a pleasant stroll down back lanes from the flat. To the shop of sarod maker Hemen Chandra Sen, where I should be picking up a new sarod, ordered for me personally by Amjad Ali Khan himself. Amidst a chaos of sawdust and half-sculpted wooden shapes sits the master himself in his grizzled anonymity. This is the world famous maker? He looks like one of the labourers. So –via translation – ‘Is my sarod ready?’ “Yes yes” (points at vaguely sarod-shaped form being energetically hollowed out by chisel beside him). “Ready!” Rapid exchanges in Bengali follow and I end up leaving with a temporary sarod on loan and the promise that my own will be finished “Soon”. Did I imagine it or did I hear a ‘Hue pare’?
5am. Darkness. Ma Anurag is calling insistently “Cha, Chinmayaji”. I raise myself groaning -having no experience of jetlag, these people are blind to it- and force down the sickly sweet liquid. Today we are supposed to be leaving for the village house and must get away early if we are to minimize the horrors of Howrah railway station. From the bathroom great sloshing sounds are to be heard, with a lot of throat clearing and nose snorting. This will last another thirty minutes or so: KP is taking a tap bath.
I watch Anurag squatting over her kerosene stove finishing off breakfast preparations. She has probably already been up an hour or more and looks as calm and fresh at this hour as she does all day. She hands me a plate of sugared rice, Parle biscuits and choice Bengali sondesh. I make a big effort to control my stomach. Her eyes are shining with pleasure at the treat she is giving me.
6.30 am. We are still here, packed, breakfasted, and I at least ready. But a subtle energy change has taken place. Ominously KP has not yet exchanged his lungi for trousers. Even more ominously he has started singing. Hue pare is in the air.
Sunday 5th evening
We tried to leave again this morning (yesterday’s failure remains a mystery), but the moment we left the door an unseasonable storm blew up from the Bay of Bengal and drenched Calcutta all day. It is still coming down now, further blackening the shabby tenement blocks we are staying in, transforming potholes into ponds and, most startling of all, almost emptying the streets of people.
Yesterday KP came with me as I re-familiarized myself with the city: its impossibly packed buses, their sides flayed into jagged metal; the simmering heat and fumes of its traffic jams; and the irrepressible courtesy and good-humour of its inhabitants.
At Kalighat, near the main temple to the goddess Kali, some of what must be the world’s most innocent-looking whores wait behind the tabla repair shops, giggling mischievously behind their hands at the sight of a foreigner. The corpse being carried on its bed of flowers towards the burning ghats is wearing spectacles. Are they going to burn those too?
A swarm of children surrounds me, whispering “Kamera, kamera..” reverently to one another as I photograph the jumble of half-finished clay images of Kali, whose festival day is coming soon and which wait beside the road outside the potters’ workshops for their coats of gaudy paint.
“A notorious place,” KP comments. “Come, Swamiji, brain will be puzzled if we stay here any longer.” On the bus heading home he tells me of the school for pickpockets at Kidderpore. Lesson One: protect your head.
At the Tourist Information I pick up the best map they have of the city and another of Darjeeling, a Hill Station popular with tourists, where I have a vague plan we might all visit. At the bottom of the (hand-drawn) Darjeeling map is written the following:
NOTE:- 1. Not to scale. 2. Directions Manipulated. 3. Tourists Map Not a Legal Document. 4. Distances Elsewhere
From the Darjeeling map
The accompanying Guide has these pungent observations, which will, I’m sure, be of much use to us should we go:
Education:- Darjeeling has the best schools for affluent class which can convert any Indian child into a brisk international fellow. Then there are schools run on public school pattern having pure Indian homey culture. A new generation of schools are on the way teaching the child to become ultra Indian. There are many ordinary schools educating the street urchin to become a good citizen.
One local peak offering “glorious views of the suburban region“, we are told, is now abandoned because of defense establishments. Readers are advised: “Don’t try to go, you won’t enjoy any thing now”. We are also told the following:
Economy: there is hardly any productive unit except for the candles and dry decorations.”(Tea had been dealt with separately). Rainfall: “Fog is the most annoying object during rains. Rail Links: Shilliguri is connected with Jalpaiguri on the broad gauze line. Prohibition: is not in force but to create public nuisance is not tolerated.
Of course getting to Darjeeling is far from any of our thoughts right now. I’m worrying whether we will even manage to travel the fifty miles to the village.
“What to do, Swami?” I ask KP now in the soggy darkness of another loadshedding, both of us feeling for his kids, who will have been waiting eagerly in the village for us these past two days. He and Anurag and I lie on the double mattress that fills nearly half their cramped living space, limbs akimbo, tired with the effort of doing nothing this whole day long. His face contorts, displaying missing front teeth. “Time is knocking on,” he laughs. “Late-go theory. Nothing to do, Swamiji. Only to witness.”
Monday 6th noon.
I write in a long hall, cluttered with junk and dust and ghosts. Pigeons clatter in and out through the barred windows. From the riot of coconut palms, jungle creepers and banana leaves that threaten to overwhelm this rambling old mansion, comes the sound of more exotic birds. None of them however, nor the slow ticking of an ancient wall clock, have the power to break the vast silence that engulfs this place.
We left Calcutta this morning in darkness in a taxi that was forced to function as a boat once we reached the lower-lying parts of the city, flooded under two feet of water, and through which another early riser was wading his way, brushing his teeth as he went. From Howrah a terminally sick train trundled us an hour and a half northwards through a countryside that couldn’t seem to make up its mind if it was land or water.
“Oily bambu only, Chinmayaji,” KP (perched with five others on a seat built for three) points out, indicating the aisles jammed with standing passengers. Anurag looks pained: “ROUGH bambu,” she dissents, looking to where my long legs are painfully contorted around piles of luggage.
Another hour or so of bus journey (luckily having escaped the fate of latecomers who, simply unable to overcrowd the bus further, had been forced to take their place on the luggage rack on the roof) plus twenty minutes on foot along a track only six inches deep in mud (KP: ” Fine, Swamiji. You should have seen it last year before the villagers improved it with bricks!”) and we are there, standing before KP’s crumbling ancestral pile, unsteady on our mud-caked feet and numbed by the silence.
KPs family house
And there to greet us are an overjoyed Ma Nivedita (19) and Swami Provin Bharti (17), KP’s daughter and son, changed so quickly since I last saw them a year ago into young -and devastatingly attractive- adults. There too is KP’s brother, Bubu and a wizened old mother to be introduced to, who chuckles me under the chin, mutters her seal of approval and, opening her mouth, shows me from where KP inherits his riotous laugh. Plus hordes of relatives and hangers-on from far corners of the state come for the gathering of the clan that will take place at Kali puja, and who are introduced to me thus: “This is my youngest middle aunt”, “This is my second cousin-brother’, “This is Shorbojoya Ma’s sister’s brother’s son,” etc.
Provin and Nivedita
As soon as is decent KP and I escape to this hall upstairs, with sarod and tabla, to make music. Perhaps his company is infecting me. We have both had enough of doing something all day.
This house exists on several levels: on the ground floor womenfolk are chopping mountains of vegetables, lighting innumerable very smoky cooking fires, squabbling and calling at top pitch for the maidservant, Maya. Maya, typically, is under several simultaneous conflicting instructions from one aunt to fetch water from the river, from another to hurry up and clean the fish, from another who wants to know why the saris have still not been hung out to dry, and so on.
Maya at work
Children are constantly emerging from underfoot, tugging at adults clothes for attention and chasing round and round the courtyard playing an unfathomable game called gooly dandi, which involves sticks and a lot of screaming.
On this floor too Bubu has his den beside the front door, where his visitors (for whom the door is exclusively reserved) are received and deals made. Bubu manages to accomplish a lot without actually using his own hands for doing anything at all. Apart, that is, from the delicate art of watch repair on the odd occasion that his brother KP (who’s living appears to me to consist of buying broken antique watch parts expensive and selling them cheap) brings him something worth repairing. Apart from their surprising skill in that field, whenever those massive hands do make contact with any physical body (say a back that needs a slap, or the head of a tabla) they propel further and more dramatically than hammers.
On the next floor the long hall and dusty bedrooms are inviolate the whole day long. Sparrows come and go, flitting between heaps of lumber and discoloured paintings; the uk-uk-uk of pigeons emphasizing rather than breaking the stillness.
Here might be found Nivedita, head down in a book, studying for the accountancy exams she doesn’t want to take. Or singing “Bhagwan your blessings, endlessly shower…” and dreaming of the lonely isles of Scotland, whose pictures in a calendar I gave her last year she treasures. Or humming the Irish ballads I taught her; songs that with her lilting Bengali accent and liquid Indian rhythms she has turned into something quite unique.
Here too might be found, in some inaccessible corner or seldom-used bedroom, Swami Prem Samarpan, Anurag’s brother and Master of Sleeping Meditation, having a doze between his after-breakfast nap and his pre-lunch snooze. A saturnine presence, Samarpan, guaranteed to produce near-asphyxiation in KP whenever he appears (“Unparalleled, Chinmayaji, really!”), liable to explode without warning from his slumber into some zany character impression or manic joke. Whenever not sleeping, invariably restlessly patrolling the corridors, safely out of rain, cold, sun, heat or anything else that might upset his delicate constitution. Excellent company if you want an hour or so off the rails.
Nistapi did with Pai
Perhaps KP and I, interrupted in our practice, will be treated to a peek from Pie, a dangerously pretty five-year old -bossy, impossible and irresistible (and believed to be the reincarnation of KPs father, the dreaded zamindar) making a forbidden foray upstairs before her immaculately groomed mother, Nistapi Didi (whose bindi is changed hourly it seems) comes scolding up to fetch her.
Here KP and I spend hours at our music, grimacing at the hubbub coming up from below. “Tensionous types,” he comments. His misuse (or re-creation?) of the English language is highly idiosyncratic and usually ambiguous: a particularly good song is a ‘dangerous‘ tune; a fine bit of playing is ‘horrible‘.
On top of it all is the roof. It needs a book to itself.
The sun is setting across the river, the coconut palms thrill to the quarrels of bright yellow parakeets, while flat away to the horizon stretch the emerald paddy fields of Golden Bengal. From up here on the roof the whole village can be observed: gaily dressed girls drawing water at the well; a family of monkeys being chased out of the bananas across the rooftops by a man pointing a wooden replica of a gun; giant butterflies weaving their transcendent paths through the treetops; Jupiter and Mars ascending to take their place of supremacy beside the fireflies in the night sky. From here England begins to feel dreamily unreal to me.
At night Jupiter supreme
Chased by Mars
And other new more furious stars
Flies that dazzle and are gone
England or India
Of which am I son?
KP on the roof
As dusk settles the sound of the conch being blown to welcome the dark drifts up from our courtyard below, to be answered in turn from all the other dwellings hidden among the foliage.
An obscure relative, Lallu, appears, numerous tantrik malas around scrawny neck, and tucks himself into a hidden corner to prepare himself a chillum. Half his time is spent in a deathly speechlessness. The other half occurs unpredictably day or night, when he will harangue anyone who will abide it at peak volume. Luckily for my tranquility this evening he seems to be into the first half.
I get a prize view too of the proceedings outside the little Durga temple on the village green outside the house (the villagers, like most Bengalis, favour the goddess Durga over KP’s family deity Kali, but both festivals happen around the same time). All week the preparations have been under way -meaning chiefly that more and more male villagers have taken to hanging around there, hanging up strings of lights and taking them down again, moving large electrical items connected with a venerable generator to and fro from one place to another and back again. This morning a group of hired musicians ensconced themselves below our compound wall and all day long have given us a raucous, sinuously rhythmic and often inspired rendition on shenai, harmonium and dhol.
The family assemble for Kali puja
Other signs of the approach of tonight’s festivities have become visible too. Bubu, in his role as unofficial village bigwig (a Congressman, he will never be permitted to be voted into the official title in Communist-ruled West Bengal) and local Mr Fixit has been humping his enormous girth in and out of the house at unaccustomed speed on obscure errands, and receiving a queue of visitors who borrow things and help themselves liberally to his advice and cigarettes. Provin Bharti too has been nearly apoplectic with excitement, scooting up and down the rickety stairs, tearing back and forth to the shops on the main road on his uncle’s ancient motorbike and disappearing until late at night with his friends.
Most ominous of all the signs though, is that the first firecrackers have been exploding surreptitiously the past few nights, keeping me at least awake. The local product is designed using a kilo or more of gunpowder and with enough power to rock a house. “Oree baba,” KP snorts as we are deafened once again. “This is only snuff. Wait until the night….”
I greeted the morning somewhat surprised to be alive. Last night I thought I must be on the Western Front. It wasn’t only the noise, which resembled an artillery barrage from 10pm until 2am.
The clouds of smoke and smell of cordite; the impenetrable darkness that we live in here after sunset (this whole house served by only five dim paraffin lamps) lit up by garish flashes; and the presence of so much night-time insect life (mosquitoes, giant flying cockroaches, tiny biting ‘puja flies’) conspired together to completely upset my cool. While Anurag held my hand and soothed my brow I lay on the bed and trembled.
Now it’s bedtime and I watch her ascend the stairs by the light of a tiny oil lamp. Whenever I glimpsed her today she was smiling quietly, her face glistening with sweat, surrounded by sizzling pots. All around her a storm raged, shouts and cries, women who seemed to find delight in harsh words moving at the double. She was the unshakable center of this great endeavor from long before I woke until long after dark. We fed over a hundred mouths here at the house today.
Kali is the oddest kind of goddess. Over the past week I have watched her grow from her birth in the potter’s hands as grey clay, through her layers of paint and the addition of jute hair, until her final ornamentation with tinsel and glitter.
Kali in the potter’s hands
I helped carry her and her prone consort Shiva into the fluorescent glare of her dais and joined the shouts of “Jai Kali Ma!” Villagers have come to gawp and pray; a priest has made much of unguents and incantatory mumblings, Ganga water, incense and fire. Piles of food, and heaps of blossom have been laid in front of her, while family members have bumbled around beating gongs and gone through the prescribed motions in a way that seems to me to be both frantic and slightly embarrassed. Yesterdays goings-on culminated in a ceremony in which we all, me included, had to take it in turns to sit in KP’s mother’s bony lap, after which vegetables (a recent substitute, I’m told, for the traditional goat) were beheaded ritually.H
Today was the last day of puja before she is immersed and I went for a final look. Black and ugly, her long tongue dripping blood, garlanded with a necklace of human skulls, she is the object of universal affection in the household. Little children wept: “Ma is gone for another year!” Even KP looked morose and gloomy. Then, when the moment came, amidst more shouts of “Jai Kali Ma!” the whole village turned out to join the family in parading her to the waterfront where, without any ceremony at all, they chucked her in and went home.
Kali on her dais
Valika, old, shrunken, stooped, her sight glazed by cataracts, squats by a pillar in the courtyard to eat her mound of rice alone. Free for a moment from slapping dung on walls to dry, from all the chores she’s had to perform here for sixty years since she arrived in her girlhood as a maidservant to a zamindar’s household. I go to sit beside her, touched suddenly by sadness as I think of the tenuous links of memory that reel back to those vanished days.
I go to sit beside her, touched suddenly by sadness as I think of the tenuous links of memory that reel back to those vanished days.
How quiet the soul that shines beneath that astonishing wrinkled skin! Such peace I touch as her hand reaches out to rest on my arm! Thank you, Valika, little girl!
A treat today: kitcheree -a hot mush of rice and clarified butter apparently requiring, judging by the hours Anurag spent at it, very careful preparation. We sit as always on the stone floor and eat off banana leaves. Our everyday diet of boiled rice, vegetables and stingingly spicy fish curry I can manage quite daintily by now, but Western fingers just aren’t up to this liquidy porridge. However, since this house is totally devoid of spoons, forks or even knives, I just have to make do.
Another problem made itself apparent soon afterwards. Bubu, who I have seen consume two kilos of rosagulla and the juice of two large coconuts without apparently pausing for breath (though admittedly perhaps a third went down his beard and onto his vast hairy chest) is the first to experience it.
“How do people fart in your country?” he asks me, having by gesture indicated the word he wished to use.
“How do you mean, Bhaya?”
“Well…openly, or gupta-gupta?”
“Oh, you mean do they hide it? Well, different people have different styles, I guess”.
“Here, with some its very hue pare,” KP interrupts pointedly, with a glance at Prem Samarpan. “With others its ‘Saala, monsoon is coming!'”
‘Oh the billi life is the life for me
All I want is to be a billi
I’m a Bengal man, do you take me for a jerk?
I just lie around, my wife does all the work!’
Avuncular Gopalji, with a kindness and humour unmatched under his thatch of grey hair. The first man I’ve seen doing kitchen work, helping make rotis tonight.
wandering Baul in our courtyard
My Bangla is now good enough that I can venture out into the village alone and have three-minute conversations before it runs out, and I’m naturally enjoying being the star of the show wherever I go. Bubu has presented me to the local Cauliflower King, Fish Baron etc, where we are offered the inevitable plates of sweets and quizzed closely on the price of aubergines etc in London. My favourite pastime during such visits is to tell my hosts how a packet of beedies (India’s little leaf cigars) costing less than a rupee locally, fetches a pound in England. This sets them all working out the mark up and, in the resulting astonishment, trying to scheme up export-import businesses with me.
I’ve been told off by KP for flirting with the village women. Actually all I did was stare a bit too long at a woman whose face was an exact match for someone I knew I knew well, but couldn’t remember who! We were on one of our customary visits to some household to pay our respects, and while the conversation in Bangla babbled ahead I had time to consider just whose it could be. Before I knew it I was on some mental journey leading to the conclusion that the only possibility was that I must know that face from a past life. As we got up to leave, she gave me a knowing smile and presented me gravely with an egg. I left in great confusion.
Hither and thither I go
Bringing joy to everyone
Child, thief, fool
I clown your words, break your rules
And entrance your daughters.
Sex is a great unmentionable round here. When forced to the subject KP disparages it with a wave of his hand and a slight grimace of distaste. “How small is this thing, Chinmayaji. Only sex affairs.”
I’ve made a little rhyme about it:
Oh where, where, where is sex
Living in Bengal?
Do men have lust or women cramps?
If they do they show bugger-all!
I have fun teasing Nivedita, despite knowing nothing about her awareness of this ‘small thing’.
Me: “How tasty your ears look, Nita-Nita. I’ll eat them for breakfast!”
Nivedita: “No, no. I will not give them to you!”
Once she covers my hand innocently with hers to draw my attention to a green bird as we sit patch-patching (gossiping) on the roof at dusk. The sky blushes suddenly under its fringe of palm. I too!
To Maya’s house on the further, disreputable, side of the river, past a festival site where in spring I’m told they sacrifice four hundred goats to Sitala, the goddess of smallpox. Mud compound, thatch roof, three sisters sharing a clutch of kids.
Their father is dead, she relates, and their brother killed in an accident. Maya’s husband, together with her married sister’s husband, walked out one day and have never returned. She gave us apples, tea and honey eggs and a taste of the dark deshmol spirits her uncle illegally distills. As she spoke of her osibida -troubles- she laughed happily, proud as a peacock at our visit.
Maya and her sisters
Back from a short interlude in Bombay for myself, KP and Provin Bharti to have darshan with Bhagwan, who has just arrived in Juhu. Achieved by means of a 36-hour non-AC train journey each way characterized by the omnipresence of dust. Notable incidents: the moment when Provin Bharti, never having left the plains before, is confronted by the sight of his first hill; and the time when, clambering down from my bunk bed, I accidentally let my lungi slip to momentarily reveal underpants for the rest of the carriage’s occupants to glimpse.
KP: “Ore baba, Chinmayaji. Don’t do any of that therapy here!”
And the four-year old boy, Yusuf, traveling with his mother, who as the journey comes to an end, suddenly reveals an ability to speak English and a desire to practice it on me.
Yusuf: “Have you ever been to Africa?”
Me: “No, beta, I haven’t”.
Yusuf: “Have you ever been to China?”
Me: “Yes, beta, I have”.
Yusuf: ” Have you ever been ……” to South America, to Russia, to Japan etc, etc for five minutes, impressing me with his geography if not his linguistic range, until finally: “Have you ever been to Guinea-Bissau?”
Saturday 1st November
The local vendors are getting to know me. It’s amazing what a few words of Bangla can do! The boys in the sweet shop (a daily watering hole for their matchless misti dhoi) can’t get over their surprise and are totally tongue-tied. The fried snacks wallah with his bicycle-back stall extended me credit the other day when I left home without any money, even though I’d never seen him before. He of course had seen me. And the cigarette kiosk holder insists on bawling out a ‘namaste!‘ at top volume to me whenever he spies me, however far away I might be.
To a sannyasin woman friend’s clinic today. She is as desirable and crazy as I remember from when I met her in London last year, giving her multitude of admirers love with one hand and bambu with the other. Her clinic is, to outward appearances, an alternative health and therapy center, the only one of its kind in the city, if not the subcontinent. In reality I suspect this is just ‘cover’ for its real purpose: to provide a refuge for every off-beat, harassed, liberated, cranky, struggling woman in Calcutta. It is always full of the most impossible characters, telling even-more-unlikely-sounding stories, and receiving a share of her sympathetic ear and rare imported Scotch.
Typical conversation overheard there: (Renee, a young woman, is on the phone to the Controller of Traffic Police, Calcutta).
Looking down on us while we eat
Lunch at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (founded 1829) with Swami Samar Bharti, who I last saw at Heathrow airport a year ago en route back home from the Ranch in Oregon. One of the richest men in Calcutta, he had arrived in London with just fifty pence left in his pocket, relying on me being there to meet him and raise him a loan. A few days later we crated up the fantastically expensive St Bernards pup he had bought for shipment to Calcutta and he departed in tears of anxiety for her safe arrival.
Now he is determined to pay me back in style and insisting on conspicuously spending as much money as possible on me wherever we go. KP, penniless as always, looks a bit bemused by it all, and preferring his billi life, is staying at home and keeping his ear in and his dignity intact by singing the stately Rag Malkauns.
Being with Samar is to be at the still center of a cyclone of money. He moves in his Mercedes (the only one in the city), driving it himself (a rare thing in this land of chauffeurs) through the rich mans clubs of South Calcutta distributing largesse and slapping backs. A veritable storm of banknotes floods to every minion who does him service: Rs5 to the doorman; Rs10 to the bathing attendant; a big one to the waiter who tells us lunch was finished serving an hour ago but rustles up the cook to make something for us; a couple of bigger ones to the manager to jump his name to the top of the list for a game of golf this evening. Anyone with real power doesn’t get paid off on the spot of course. Their baksheesh -and there are plenty of them who manage to interpose themselves between a big building contractor and his legitimate living in Calcutta -which involves lakhs of rupees, will occur later and in private. Right now in public they get their backs slapped. Through all of this, mala swinging over ample tummy and exuding devil-may-care, Samar moves. We lunch beneath the stuffy, envious portraits of past British Captains of the Club. ‘Doesn’t matter what you want in Calcutta’, they seem to whisper as we tuck in to a fifth course. ‘Imported car, permission to build, your son’s admission to LeMartinier school (a snitch at 65 grand) a whore……Samar gets you the best!’
The nights are getting colder out here in the countryside and all the relatives, including Bubu and his mother, are gone. The five of us sleep huddled together on the hard floor, KP snoring furiously. Last night a thunderstorm blew up on the horizon. I watched it from the roof, banging its way towards us from out of Orissa, rustling the palm tops threateningly, and felt an empathy for the dread of the local farmers, almost half of whose paddy crops have already been lost to the unseasonable rains. Even the fireflies acted doomed and were flying low and kamikaze. At the last minute the mighty black hole swerved to pass us by with only a few drops of leaden rain, leaving being hungry this winter some other village’s problem.
Me and my temporary sarod outside the kitchen
A sadness coming over me: five weeks have passed so quickly. I’m leaving soon.
There is a serious change of mood around here. The excitement of puja time is gone. There are empty hours to pass, and none of us seems to know what to do with them except sleep them away. Even KP’s and my enthusiasm for playing music seems to have dried up like the dead leaves that drift over the pathways in the gusty breeze. I find a place in the outer courtyard of the house amongst the weeds and listen to their whisperings and the squeak on the cog at the village well beyond the gates. There is no other sound to be heard. Under a grey sky vegetation insinuates itself through the ruined arches; lichen patterns itself on crumbling walls scarred by banyan roots. Down the long corridor of broken brick columns a cow and calf chew under a shattered roof. Framed in the remains of a window, I notice a last torn paper decoration that once hung on Kali’s shoulder caught on a branch, swaying in the wind alone.
A poem comes to me as I reflect that this journey will soon be nothing more than a memory:
Spring came, summer went
Now in the autumn of my discontent
I watch beneath a wintry sky
The furious days go sliding by.
Time is quite timeless here, I think. But then I’ve got too much time to think! It’s making me maudlin. Maybe I should rouse the others and do one of Bhagwan’s meditation techniques together? But then again none of us thought to bring a battery-powered cassette player with us when we left Calcutta. I realize that we must all be starting to feel a bit oppressed by the unremitting millennial silence of this place.
Suddenly there is a familiar sound from behind me: that sudden expansion of the lungs, accompanied by a deafening wheeze, followed by a frightening choking and ending up in a fit of coughing, that passes for a laugh. KP has come to find me.
KP: “Mind is always creating heaven and hell, Chinmayaji.”
Provin Bharti: “Oree baba, we must get passes to have Krishnaprem’s darshan tonight!”
Prem Samarpan has managed to stay awake long enough to regale me with tales of the tantrikas who hang out at a place not far away called Tarapit, doing strange rituals at the burning ghats and performing miraculous -if somewhat idle to my mind – feats, like producing holy mala beads from thin air (or their sleeves). A plan has been hatched for all six of us to visit. I am conscious of the time limit on me now though, and am desperately trying to provoke some decision-making about the trip. Typical conversation after a day or two of jettisoned plans;
Me: “Kal programme, Anuragji?” (NB kal is both yesterday and tomorrow in North Indian languages)
KP: “We may go tomorrow.”
Me: “Look, it’s very important we leave tomorrow or we won’t have time.”
KP (earnestly): “Yes, we may go tomorrow.”
Next morning. The result is that it’s teeming with rain and impossible to go anywhere even if we had decided to.
While swimming in the swollen river today I managed to haul out a woman and her daughter who had got into trouble in the current. Now everyone is saying that I saved one and a half villagers from drowning.
Bubu: “You’re like a child, Chinmaya.”
Me: “How do you mean, bhaiya?
Do you mean the way I speak Bangla?”
Bubu: “Yes. But the way you move.”
It’s true. Compared to them I feel so clumsy and awkward, with my hurry, fidgeting, and knocking into things and people. No wonder Bhagwan developed active meditations like Dynamic to get us back in touch with our bodies! On the other hand, except for Nivedita, who dances to anything set before her with abandon, the rest of this crowd are like a lot of damp flannel when it comes to any of Bhagwan’s meditation techniques that involve movement. KP takes it to the extreme. After a few minutes of cursory shoulder shrugging during the first stage of Dynamic he gives up and sits himself down, commenting: “Nothing to do, Swamiji, only to witness.” From then on, apart from the odd occasion when he’ll raise both arms slowly above his head at some part of the music that he finds particularly inspiring (and, for all I know, muttering ‘villainous‘ to himself) he might as well be asleep.
KP and me on tabla and my new sarod
I decide on another visit to the other side of the river. I’ve had enough of gorging on sickly sweet tidbits from the reputable side and get it into my head to share something with the people of the wrong side of the tracks. KP, after a great deal of hue pare, reluctantly accompanies me as I set off with a box of sweets to share.
The Santals are a tribal people with their own customs and traditions, living in ramshackle huts on the edge of the village. They were long ago evicted from their forest homes and now have to work as impoverished labourers on the Bengalis’ farms. We hear their drumming sometimes at night from our rooftop but otherwise I have had no contact with them at all. The kids greet me first of course, and surprised by my interest in them and smiling at my antics, which have their kids in stitches, a few housewives who are not out working the fields appear from their tiny doorways. KP hovers at a safe distance. These women, who look no different from their mainstream Bengali counterparts across the river, have a very different bearing. They look me straight in the face and don’t avert their gaze from mine. The sweets I hand out are grabbled at greedily and I make my round of a little circle that has formed until, in the last shady corner I proffer the plate to two beauties laughing together. In an astonishing moment one of them plucks a sondesh from my palm and reaching up to my face, pops it into my mouth. We depart to giggles and waves.
Final morning in the village, the sun rising in glory into the mists as we set off on foot down the mud path.
A lone crane beating west,
Out of the growing light;
A frog slipping across the verandah,
Into the last shadow of night;
Where the river should be
All is white.
At the time of goodbyes.
DUM DUM airport
Thursday 13th evening
Two frantic days of shopping and goodbyes behind me, including Hemen finally handing over my gleaming new sarod and receiving the remaining balance of the Rs6000 (US$600) cost off me. At the airport all of us putting a brave face on for this absurd forthcoming event which will whisk one of us halfway around the world in the same time it will take the other four to plod fifty miles. Only Provin Bharti seems unresigned to not accompanying me, insisting that he can squeeze into my suitcase. He kept me up into the small hours last night, his questions sketching in a first tentative picture of a world beyond Bengal. How long did it take to get from Heathrow airport to my home? What exactly did they feed you on planes? What time do people in London go to bed?
As for me, I’ve been weeping all over the place. Just as I thought I’d left them all behind me, deep in the heart of the confusing jungle of Immigration, Customs and security checks, I’m hauled out by a man calling himself Airport Manager.
“Follow me.” he says darkly and leads me back past unconcerned security guards the way I’ve just come. He leaves me with a pat on the shoulder, blinking and bewildered, back in the public foyer, clutching my passport and thinking of my baggage winging its way off alone.
And suddenly, there is Samar, beaming like a schoolboy who has pulled off a particularly daring jape and handing me a copy of a book he had promised and forgotten to give me a few days before. And there with him are Krishnaprem and Anurag and Nivedita and Provin and we must go through all our hugs all over again. Palms together in namaste we are all the same: our faces are laughing fit to burst but our eyes are wet with tears.
Baksheesh: alms and by implication also bribe
Banyan: ficus tree whose branching root system entangles anything in its path
Beta: son, used for any child, male or female
Bhagwan: Blessed One. Title given to Shree Rajneesh, later Osho
Bhaiya: older brother, used as a term of respect for familiar men
Bindi : coloured spot worn by married women on their foreheads
Darshan: being in the presence of a Master or guru
Dhol: drum used in folk music
Dynamic and Kundalini: Meditations devised by Bhagwan that use specific music in their various stages, some of which are very physically energetic
Ghats: steps leading down to the river at the burning grounds
LeMartinier: Calcutta’s oldest and snobbiest boy’s school
Lungi : light cloth wrapped around waist and loins
Mala: necklace of 108 beads worn around the neck by traditional sannyasins. Also worn (with locket containing Rajneesh’s photo) by neo-sannyasins of Bhagwan
Misti dhoi: Bengali yoghurt sweet
Sarod: stringed instrument
Shenai: Indian clarinet used at weddings etc
Ranch in Oregon: Bhagwan’s commune in the USA 1991-5
Rosagulla: Bengali milk sweet
Sondesh: Bengali milk sweet
Tabla: drum used in Hindustani classical music
Tantrik: Hindu devotees of Lord Shiva into magic and (frequently) hashish
Zamindar: Lord of the Manor under the now-defunct landowning system of the Raj
Extracts From “Universal Self Bengali Teacher” -‘Indias President Recommends This Book’.
25 You have a nice garden
26 Children are very good looking
41 I have it not
42 He has it not here
44 Has he said no?
46 Has he said nothing?
47 I don’t speak to you
196 Rumour! Strong rumour!
197 Baseless! 198 Just gossip!
209 How are you?
210 Very well 211 Pretty well
212 So, so 213 Tolerably
214 I am not well
259 How happy I am?
266 I am angry 267 He is angry
268 He is very angry 270 She is screaming
271 She is wild with anger
520 The trains are very crowded
521 This compartment is full to its capacity
522 In fact we are packed in it like cattle
523 Even cattle are allowed more space
524 There is not even elbow room
615 The clouds are gathering
616 I hear thunder 617 it thunders
618 It thunders fearfully 619 It lightens