They don’t do it small in India. Even a regular thundershower is mounted on the scale of a Hollywood disaster movie, shot on 70 mm on the coast of Iceland – apocalyptic grey, green and cobalt blue tones augmented with CGI. The sky looks like an inverted ditch. Films of soot and dry leaves are tossed up in the air. Birds fall off their perch and lie strewn across the road, like blotched berries.
The rain came down in fat droplets, big enough to fill one’s palm. Mini fountains of water rose up drainage wells and filled the streets. Slushy waves spilled over across the tiled pavement, rattling the rusty collapsible gate of the museum every time a cycle rickshaw or a clattery three-wheeled matador van tried to inch forward. The vehicles stuck in this waterlogged street – buses, carts, bikes and yellow cabs – had gotten heavier with the weight of the water, beating down on leaky roofs, seeping in through the cracks and loosening hinges on doors that never shut firmly. At this rate soon we’d be left with only the roofs showing above the water, like candied fruit in a slow-congealing pudding.
It came down in sheets, raking up the trash that had been swept aside, heaped in little mounds along the pavement, choking the drains. Clusters of junk floated like tea leaves in milk. Colour ran off the red swastika marks on the green coconuts perched atop the clay pots on either side of the museum door, dripping and dissolving into the water now lapping against its painted roundness. Bits of shattered earthen cups and brown leaves sewn together and machine pressed in the middle, were churned out from the dark, gunky nether worlds and hurled on the ‘Wellcome’ sign on the doormat. The leafy crocks, now upturned, bobbed on the water. Potato cubes, chick peas, and bits of un-recognisable greens swam alongside.
I had been here before – in this ‘Mecca’ of Calcutta’s street food as Shankar, my chaperon from the Embassy, puts it. Nice man, Shankar. Seems to have an intuitive sense of when he’s needed and for how long, knows exactly where he belongs in the scheme of things. He’s got everything sorted – notes, maps, my travel itinerary, the ballroom in a posh club booked to host a reception for the winners, a day trip to Tagore’s school in Shantiniketan squeezed in between.
Last evening after we returned to the hotel, I said I’d be down by the poolside for a drink, if Shankar cared to join me. He said he would indeed be delighted but couldn’t stay for long as he would have to go back to work. Smart kid. He could sense that I had asked him only out of politeness and wasn’t exactly starved for company.
Good that I had asked him though. They had just about brought the drinks over to our table – it was one of those bamboo and wicker four-sitters painted in muted white, set up under yellow parasols, although there was hardly any sun to protect us from – when this rather busty chick came traipsing by. I won’t know how these Indians do it. They’re probably born with a few extra springs around the pelvic girdle. Anyway, she trilled like a steam engine and rolled her eyes, thrilled to bits, apparently, at running into me so soon again ‘by chance’. (I had met her at the Embassy party the previous evening, she ran a dance school, apparently… sorry I’m crap at remembering names and some of these Indian names could be kind of exhausting. You ask someone her name and end up getting a chapter of annotated social history you may not particularly care for.)
Anyway, this over made-up cow was determined to fasten herself on me, like a dog collar. She still wore stage make-up – thick kohl lines outlining the eyes, ending in small triangles and a strange and complicated squiggly thing on the forehead. I kind of lost my balance and tottered back a few steps when she jumped on me, air-kissing noisily. Her tits showed through the neon yellow bikini blouse. Small scallops of flesh jiggled, spilling out the flimsy cover, each time she threw her head back and giggled like a pre-teen Korean school girl in a sex video.
The styling was a little strange, given that the weather had gotten really cold. It was a windswept evening. It’s been like this since I arrived. I am yet to see Calcutta by daylight. Shankar had told me in an e-mail that October was probably the best time to be in Bengal – the season of ‘fluffy cotton candy clouds floating across a teal blue sky and an intense growth of kaash flowers beneath etc…’ Shankar had, helpfully, explained that ‘kaash’, a flower-plant generic of the Durga festival, was a variant of Pampas grass. I wrote back to him saying the untended garden in my backyard in Islington was growing Pampas grass too this season, which sort of made it imperative that I timed my biz trip to coincide with the Durga festival in Calcutta.
I touched down on a sun-less and drizzly Calcutta last Wednesday. It was only 3.30 pm, but felt like evening. The street lamps were on – their reflected glow ladled out like a dollop of melting butter on the rain-washed streets below. The radio show hostess nattered on about the weather, inviting the audience to phone in with song requests – songs with the potential to shoo away a looming disaster, to obliterate the rain clouds, send the unseasonal low-pressure trough hanging stubbornly over the Bay of Bengal packing, using sheer lung power. Apparently, Met office forecasts predicted the highest rainfall in ten years during the festival week.
Then I’m not so easily put off. Once I was stuck in a one-room apartment on the eleventh floor in Tirana, with no water, for a whole week. I told Shankar while it’d be great if the vile low-pressure thingy was blown away towards Bangladesh or pushed back to the Orissa coast – as most people I met seemed to be hoping even if some of them hesitated to say so in so many words, so as to not sound like insensitive festival fanatics who didn’t care much if a few hundreds were killed or maimed by the floods not too far away from where they were as long as they were able to go out in their silks and blow-dried hair and have fun – there was no way I would go back from Calcutta without seeing the Mother Goddess in action, even if I had to paddle my way to her abode in a rubber dinghy. Ms Fish-tail Eyes here seems forearmed to tackle just such an eventuality. Should all the roads in Calcutta turn into rivers, all she would need to do is pull off that obnoxious cellophane wrap she’s wearing and take the plunge.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I’m particularly insensitive to women, or to India. I mean I rather like them both. The finger food and booze served at the parties in Delhi are way better than what you would get at an Arts Council-hosted do in Birmingham. Many Indian women I have met so far – back home in London and elsewhere, say Singapore or Auckland – are damned smart. (Come to think of it, Indian women in saris are a franchise, like Starbucks coffee you get them just about everywhere.) And sexy too, yes, some of them certainly are. But I prefer not getting too friendly with applicants when I am in the middle of scouting for prospective grantees, even if the said applicant had an awesome rack and a backside to beat Pippa Middleton’s, which, come to think of it, every Indian woman has, more or less. I met a few of these pushy types at my first stop, in Delhi. They seemed alright, clever even. Most of them had already been abroad and yet didn’t mind openly soliciting for another go at international exposure. It’s kind of sad.
So this woman, who had, supposedly, revived a near-forgotten martial art form, once used to tackle the bandits roaming the forested Himalayan foothills of Bengal, or so she told me, was all set to take charge. It was as if the curacao blue waters of the pool, the lounging chairs, and the bamboo and wicker four-sitter tables, painted in matte white, under the yellow parasols were part of her personal fief. She seemed a bit of a Page Three regular as far as I could tell, from the way everybody from the F&B manager to the bellboys stopped in their tracks, allowing her to pass. I had half a mind to forget about the whiskey I had ordered, go back to my suite, watch The Simpsons and generally be pissed off with myself for the rest of the evening.
Shankar had a brainwave. He told her he and I were, in fact, heading out to check out the street food in … it was another of those unpronounceable names but from the look on Ms Mermaid’s face I could make out that she didn’t particularly fancy eating food served from a roadside kiosk, in the company of a very mixed public. Shankar told her the patrons of that food street were, primarily, the dubious types who ran errands for the people living in the apartment blocks along that road or slept under the portico at night, for a fee collected by the head watchman. And while she was most welcome to join us, Shankar thought it was his duty to let her know that some of the boys also did drugs. Why there was a whole bunch of them who rolled ganja inside their bidi and smoked in a football ground nearby, after the players left and the lights were switched off. There was no saying how they might react, said Shankar, unused as they were to seeing a celebrity like her up, close. They might even badger her for autographs.
I think it was the fear of being groped by a bunch of dispossessed junkies that finally put her off. ‘Alright then,’ she said. ‘I hope you do get a chance to get high. Indian cannabis, as you must know, is the world’s finest. But if I were you, I would go easy on the food.’
She was dead right. The snack was lethal. The heat of raw green chillies was blinding. It stung, dilating the nasal cavities, and kept returning to the space between my eyes like a protracted orgasm. The patrons, standing in a crescent around the food vendor’s basket, forgot to dig into their own leafy cones, as they watched me, bewildered, letting the tamarind juice drip down their elbows. I was crying like a baby.
It was a strange feeling watching the cubed potatoes, onion rings and chick pea again today, floating away in the water. They looked pathetic, tossed over and over again, their lethal properties washed off, surely, in this great deluge. Marigold petals and dog turd floated alongside.
In a flash I remembered the babies I had seen this morning, laid out on the road to be sunned although it didn’t seem there was going to be one in the sky in a million years. Their huge bulging foreheads obscured the tiny torsos, hands and legs curled up and hanging tenuously from the body, like dead foxglove stems. It was almost as if they were still stuck in the pre-natal state, or perhaps waiting their turns to go back to it. They probably got swept down the gaping manholes on Calcutta’s streets by now. A few more hours of heavy rain and who knows if this frigging float of a bus might not get swallowed inside a vicious breach. Who could tell if the first fissures hadn’t already begun to appear, right here, under us, under the layers of mucky water, even as we debated possible ways of getting out of this mess?
I was on a tour bus, on my way to see the Durga festival by night. Tonight they told me was the big night. Tomorrow the idol would be immersed in the river. End of party until next year.
We had a near all-white presence on board – people from the local foreign consulates and their guests, mostly. The German consul had brought along a tall, dark Indian woman who wore a huge red and amber smudgy circle on her forehead. It glowed in the dark, like a beacon atop an emergency vehicle.
They seemed very thick – the German consul and his woman. She was telling him that the best place to buy beef in Calcutta was ‘a hole in the wall shop somewhere in some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it alley off Park Circus’, if one was looking to serve cold cuts that is. Indian voices tend to carry much beyond the person for whose ears the words are intended. So after a while the rest of the passengers were treated to a lecture on the comparative merits of eating horse pie in Ukraine and donkey tail in some godforsaken province in China where they chopped the thing up into discs and deep fried in batter to look like potato fritters.
The bus had not moved an inch in the last fifty minutes. Not far from us, water, now the colour of burnt transmission fluid, was rushing in a swirling, eddying motion towards what must be a deep cut in the bowels of the road, leading down, right to the centre of the earth. Someone had thoughtfully put a thin, long piece of twig into it, with a red rag tied around the tip.
After a while the pilot asked if we would like to get down and wade through the water, now knee-deep, to check out the idols nearby. The nearest marquee, or pandal, as these are called around here, it turned out, was still at least half a mile away. One of the tour guides had the image on his iPad. Under a decorated dome, lit up by tinkling electroliers, the goddess stood, beautifully, with her family, cordoned off by a watery embankment, accessible only to the very brave or the very reckless tonight.
The Indian woman had hitched up her fuschia and green sari, wrapping its end like a cummerband around her waist. ‘Let’s go then,’ she said. I wouldn’t be surprised if she dug out a pair of fins, scuba harness and cylinders from her backpack.
Her German friend, however, had different plans. He had phoned home a while ago. His car, a black BMW, he said, was coming to pick him up at the relatively-dry Rashbehari crossing, not that far away from where we were. He was pulling out. He broke the news without emotion, as if it were a given. I noticed he did not even ask his companion if she wanted a lift. This was such an abrupt switch from a moment ago when he seemed on the verge of starting a joint venture with her – a co-owned private abattoir, possibly. None of them looked too crestfallen at the imminent separation though.
Suddenly there was a chorus of voices trying to get back to this safety island called Rashbehari crossing. Everyone was on the phone, asking others to come out of their comfort zones – tear themselves from the embraces of their loved ones if that’s what it took – get their wellingtons, waterproof jackets and the sturdiest of vehicles that were equally good on tar and water out and show up at the designated point to escort the caller. A huge Albino guy was trying to teach the driver the fine art of reversing a vehicle, stuck in a close-knit mesh of other, equally immovable vehicles in the middle of a waterlogged street.
Did I say Calcutta seems like my kind of place? They like it a bit messy. People here seem to get a kick out of surviving the chaos they bring on themselves, like our driver, who was now doubling as traffic sergeant. He yelled at the auto-rickshaw drivers behind him who yelled back. The next moment he was acting all smug and superior with a man who looked like Robert Downey Junior driving an SUV. He, of course, seemed untouched by the driver’s overtures and sat slouched against the seat, looking away in the distance, pondering the fate of the future of humanity in the time of a looming apocalypse which seemed imminent. Thankfully there were other, slightly more pliable, people who made an effort to squeeze out a few inches from the ground beneath their wheels. The driver jumped right back inside the bus, went back and forth about twenty times until he could get to a cut to the next lane for inbound traffic. And, before long, we were headed back towards where we came from, on our way to the drop-off point.
My phone rang. It was Shankar. He was bringing a car to pick me up.
‘Please don’t,’ I said.
‘This is madness, you won’t see much this way. The forecast says there’s going to be more rain tonight.’
‘Sounds exciting. Bring it on, I’d say.’
‘You’ve no idea what you’re letting yourself in for.’
‘That’s the point, is it not? Else, why come to India?’
‘This is probably not the best time for adventure. You still have the final round of judging to do, and that’s day after tomorrow.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll be there on Tuesday morning.’
‘You don’t understand. This is an extraordinary situation. Normally there’d be millions of people out all night at this time of the year. But they’ve all gone home tonight. Even pickpockets wouldn’t want to step out in this weather. I’m genuinely worried about your safety.’
‘I can assure you, I’ve seen much worse. I will get by.’
‘At least let me come with you…’
‘Listen Shankar, old chap, you’ve already done enough. Please go home and spend the evening with your family. Happy Durga.’
It was pelting. The bus swam like a motorboat through a turgid river. There were just nine of us left inside it now, still waiting for our first eyeful of the goddess.
The closest we got to an idol was at a traffic island. An elaborate marquee with gold spray-painted love-making couples on terracotta panels of each of its three-tier deck rose from the centre of the triangular green patch, spiraling above the high-rise apartment buildings surrounding it. They used colored filters on the floodlights, lighting up the rain-drenched pi-dogs and people on the street in acid tones of magenta, green and lime yellow. Water poured in convex half-arches from each level of the Aztec pyramid, making it difficult to figure if the goddess inside the pandal on the other side of the convex watery sheet was benign or angry.
‘Excuse me, Sir,’ said a thin, bird-like bloke who had rolled up his white trousers and now stood in ankle-deep water. ‘Doesn’t she look smashing?’ He looked slightly tipsy, but it could have been the rain, running down his temple and James Dean sideburns in tiny streamlets. A pair of shiny tan moccasins hung precariously from the tip of his hooked fingers. The girl standing beside him, like a silhouette against a floodlit street, giggled, flattered and awkward at being put to the scrutiny of a stranger.
‘Well, I hope she spares your heart, if not much else,’ I said, trying to be friendly. I would have asked him to do something about his anachronistic fashion sense but I don’t think he was listening for my response. He threw a limp arm around the girl’s shoulder, and dragged her closer. ‘Hey, get your hands off me,’ said the girl, giggling and tottering like a bone China vase, ready to disintegrate any moment. The man dropped his shoes in the water and put the spare arm around her waist.
I turned round and asked Aparna – the German consul’s erstwhile companion – if the girl might be a streetwalker. She wore a lot of glittery things on her eyelids. Streaked hair hung in wet coils brushing her shoulders. The sari, which also had a lot of shiny stuff sewn on it, looked like it would have to be scissored open to release the woman inside.
‘Not quite, they’re just kids enjoying their moment on a festive night.’
She told me most youngsters here stayed with their families and were asked to follow a set of rules, likely to be relaxed only on a festival night such as this.
‘Have your folks set you a curfew time as well?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. I was talking of adolescents.’
‘But you were one. Not too long ago…’
Aparna smiled. I noticed she had a buck tooth which shone through her thin copper lips. ‘My parents wouldn’t restrict their children, just as I don’t believe in restricting mine.’
‘You have children? Gosh, you look like a college freshman.’
‘Yes, a daughter.’ She pretended not to notice the compliment.
‘I didn’t realize you might be married.’
‘As a matter of fact, I’m not … I lost my husband.’
‘Oh! I’m so sorry.’
‘I don’t see why you should be. I lost him to another woman.’
Whoa, if this Aparna woman is a closet novelist making a pitch for a residency in UEA, I have to say she’s got a thing for cliff-hangers.
‘Er… was it difficult being a single parent?’
‘That’s not so difficult to figure, is it?’ said Aparna. She placed a foot on the step of the bus, gathered the pleats of her sari – which now hung limp, pasted against her legs, like a half-torn orange peel – grabbed the handle with her free hand and pulled herself in. ‘But I am trying to cope,’ she said, swerving round and planting herself on a seat behind the driver’s enclosure. I noticed she had a nice shapely bum, a bit heavy-set, but her height made up for it.
‘And your daughter? Must have been pretty tough on her too?’
‘Well, that was a bit of a given, unfortunately. You can’t expect to have it easy, if you’re born to a hooker.’
I nearly fell! I had just stepped on a piece of broken glass – a thick Amber bauble, slightly bigger than a spectacle lens. I would have landed on my back on this muddied cobblestoned road and spoilt what’s left of my rain-drenched powder blue trousers. But my reflexes aren’t too bad. I slid by a quarter of a metre but grabbed the headrest of a concrete seat on the uncovered porch of a house in good time and pulled myself up.
The headrest contained a tablet. ‘In loving memory of Sarbojaya Devi Chaudhurani: 1856 – 1937.’ Shards of fine porcelain were embedded in the mosaic. I thought I noted a Villeroy and Boch logo somewhere. So recycling was indeed an old Calcutta tradition, unless the master of this house was a C19 upstart who imported fine tableware from Germany only to have them pounded to pieces to decorate the outer walls of his house. Then if they could have spent hundreds of thousands throwing banquets, marrying off cats and dogs, anything’s possible.
‘Would Sarbojoya here have been able to read this?’
‘Well, I don’t see why not if she was lucky to get formal education. If she went to Bethune School, for instance, she would be taught in English.’
‘I thought women were married off when they were still children in those days and spent the rest of their lives in seclusion.’
‘Well, some of them did, but there were also men who would fantasize about making a Mary Shelley of their wives, or, at least, a Mary Wollstonecraft. They would teach their wives to read in secret. In any case, a wife wouldn’t see much of her husband in mid C19, except when they came to bed at night.’
‘Ha ha. Pillow dictionary. They are hardly ever any good.’
‘A few decades later, around the turn of the century, English women widowed or abandoned by their husbands were looking to give language tuitions to girls in elite homes.’
‘See what a powerful thing the Queen’s language is? It can save women from sliding into prostitution.’
‘Or turn them into word whores, like me.’
‘Why would you say that?’
I had done it again – pushed the button setting off a pre-programmed speech. Aparna told me how her waking moments were spent manipulating the English language to attract foreigners who might want to put some of their dispensable cash to support the activity centre for prostitutes’ children which she ran; and how she invested all her energy drafting letters, writing copy for brochures, and trying to create a cute little package of the work they did at the centre so that one or two of the most insufferable people on Planet Earth she routinely met with a begging bowl might be taken by her English to want to donate.
I wished we didn’t have to keep talking all the way – talk the walk, as it were. It was nice walking side by side with a woman who had a skin tone like glazed olives and a face cut like Zadie Smith’s – it wasn’t that much of a resemblance, to be honest, just that both had huge, wide eyes, in which the whites were very white, kind of bloodless. But why on earth did Miss wannabe-novelist-waylaid-into-being-a-social-activist have to leave a narrative hook in every sentence?
So her husband’s no longer her husband. Her daughter’s someone else’s biological child. And now it turns out she thinks she had been prostituting her talent. Then aren’t we all? Why I myself spend the better part of the year visiting some of the most depressing places on earth, trawling for writers and creative types to give away money to when I myself do not write that much worse than a lot of them. I think I can see exactly why Aparna’s marriage did not work. She was never fully convinced why she was in it, in the first place.
She asked if I would like to go visit the centre. It was only a couple of blocks away from where the bus dropped us off, at a crossing. I agreed. Might make for an interesting diversion from this never-ending spiel of complaints against the raging inequities of this world for all I cared. My iPad was low on battery and in any case I couldn’t imagine being able to find my way out of this never-ending, relentlessly-twinkling spider’s web on my own, even with help from Google Maps.
Miles and miles of icicle string lights were hung overhead, on all the roads that branched off from that point. Water accumulated in the un-metalled patches, inside the cracks of broken pavements. The rain came in brief spells every five minutes. Tiny droplets clung to the garlands of fairy lights hung from the buildings, adding an extra bejeweled layer. We passed by the light installations – illuminated boards showing displays of lessons from the Bengali primer, necking dolphins, propeller-rotating helicopters, cautionary images of women in distress being dragged by the hair, followed by that of the handlebar moustache-wearing offender, now placed behind bars made of twinkling blue light bulbs, which was the jail.
It was quite a journey, through a crooked potholed lane, past open sewers and garbage piled in small mounds on either side. Even as I tip-toed on my way to one of Calcutta’s oldest pleasure districts, to a building where women lived and fornicated like rabbits in a rabbit hutch, careful not to step on the muck; through the half-open windows along the lane I could see the white-haired goldsmiths, hunched on their work table, tinkering with their tools by the light of the wick lamp, a cylindrical eyeglass, stuck like an extension Cyclops eye, almost as if the other one did not matter.
Dogs torpedoed through the alleys. Women squatted on the steps, or stood leaning against the door, shuffling the body weight between their feet. Some of them smiled at us, through the mild drizzle, somewhat doubtfully, unsure if they should expose the teeth between their painted lips. Others looked away. One of them, wearing her hair in a huge bun and a thick layer of vermillion powder in her hair parting, made a face. She had made up her mind that we were up to no good.
We came to a wooden staircase, an improvised ladder really, installed as an afterthought. In this building, un-restored, presumably, since the visit of King George V in 1911 (the year was carved in cement above the main door, in an uneven semi-circle, right above a horseshoe, nailed to the door frame) every owner, tenant, occupant and visitor had left his personal imprint – a decrepit wooden staircase, connecting just two floors, presumably to smuggle in people and other dubious stuff; a corrugated sheet awning over the balcony, a sooty wooden rack on the wall carrying an idol of Lord Ganesh.
The power supply had snapped. This was normal during Durga Puja, I was told. The community festival organizers borrowed electricity from the neighbouring houses, overdrawing, almost as a matter of routine, resulting in short circuiting.
The only light, a thin flicker, came from an undisclosed source upstairs. I could just about see the outline of the staircase, most of which was in the shade. In any case, it looked so worn-out I had doubts if it would support the weight of a grown man. The blasted thing creaked when I took the first step. When I was halfway up, it started tottering like a suspended log bridge on a river. I grabbed Aparna’s arm to steady myself.
‘Watch it,’ she said, switching on a minuscule torch. ‘You’re now inside a brothel in a Third World country. You’ve got to watch every step you take.’
I ducked my head when we came to the door, and then turned sideways to squeeze myself in, suddenly feeling all big and heavy and self-conscious about my somewhat dubious First World origin.
It was even more awkward when I met the children – sallow, dull skin, camouflaged under cheap rouge and lipstick. There were about fifty of them – girls mostly, rehearsing for an opera they were going to put up soon as some sort of a fund-raiser the state governor was supposed to attend. Some of them had tied their scarves diagonally across the chest, like a sash, ready to go into a dry run. Aparna had phoned to say she was bringing a visitor from abroad.
And then something strange happened. A child stumbled in from a dark corner somewhere and wrapped herself around Aparna’s knees. She was struggling to say something which came out in small spurts, muffled by loud sobs. Aparna lifted the child in her arms. At this the girl started bawling and rubbing her eyes even more vigorously. Her face looked like a squelched litchi, dripping with tears and mucous, which now trickled down Aparna’s shapely left shoulder, against the delicate fuschia and parrot green fabric.
And then, a frail woman with abnormally small, tight breasts and hennaed hair appeared. She was so slight she could have passed off for a schoolgirl except that she stood by the door, turning and teasing the bolt, assuredly, while her other hand rested on a hip. It was a dead giveaway. Her anemic fairness was accentuated by the carmine red sari and flashy lipstick she wore. A broad vermillion powder mark shone along the hair part like a pennant on a fancy car, heralding her arrival.
She turned out to be quite a woman, surprisingly feisty. The way she raised her voice, the cartilage on her neck stretched taut, she wouldn’t have been out of place at all in a melodramatic opera, singing soprano voce. The voice rose steadily over the hubbub – un-excited, un-emotional but loud and distinct. Soon everybody else had stopped talking. She was giving it to Aparna who, I could see, was at a loss for words.
Not that I was dying of curiosity but it felt stupid being the only person in the room to be left out of this real-life drama in which the meek gave it back to the mighty, the working class took on the bourgeois. The inverted power equation piqued my curiosity. That’s when one of Aparna’s associates, who I had just met and promptly forgotten the name of, came by to fill me in.
The combative woman, who was the crying child’s mother, had a reason to be upset, I was told.
‘In fact, we all are, you know, somewhat worried about the future of this centre.’
‘What about it?’
‘Aparna is leaving.’
‘Is she now?’
‘She met someone on her last trip to the States, about a year ago. He’s from Sri Lanka. She’ll probably join him in Boston early next year.’
‘What about the daughter?’
‘Oh she’ll take her along, I guess. Aparna’s filed for legal adoption, will probably have to pay off the mother as well.’
‘The girl’s biological mother took a hefty advance from agents of traffickers with links to Dubai. We are dealing with the mafia here, you see. They expect to get their money back, will kill both mother and daughter if they didn’t.
‘Can’t you inform the police?’
‘They won’t be able to stop a paid assassin.’
‘What are the cops there for then?’
‘To be fair, they’re doing their bit, at least as much as is possible to do with outdated weapons and hired cars. See Leela over there? We nearly lost her. She was already checked in, passed off as a new bride in a burqa. But the police got to the airport at the nick of the time, minutes before the plane could take off.’
Aparna had bonded well with the children. One could see that. I thought she was more at home flirting with the German consul though. She was just the kind of rich socialite type who would organize charity dinners in London and invite Tony Blair over. So landing a rich husband in Boston was probably going to be a good fit for her. After all, you can’t expect an absurdly good-looking woman to spend a lifetime teaching sex worker’s children to sing Rabindranath Tagore! That’d be criminal if you asked me! Besides, the idea of setting up a centre like this is to make it run on its own steam, eventually, independent of the founder. I always make it a point to check the potential for self-reliance in a start-up organization before we commit to a grant.
‘People come and go. Why should it be such a disaster? One of you guys could fill in for her, surely?’ I said to Aparna’s friend.
‘You don’t understand. Her dad is a member of the Lower House.’
‘He’s very influential. The police and traffickers would not want to get on the wrong side of him.’
‘What do you mean?’
She pointed to a girl in a paisley print tunic at the other end of the room, apparently sold off to traffickers by her mother at twelve. ‘She would have landed up in a brothel in Bombay’s Grant Road or who knows even in the middle-east by now, but we acted very fast. There was great pressure on us to drop the case. The sex workers’ board was lobbying very hard for custody…’
‘Hang on a second. You mean to say there’s some sort of a trade union for prostitutes? Hey, isn’t that fantastic.’
‘Yes, but we don’t always see eye to eye. Our mission is to try and rehabilitate the women in this business, stop more minor girls from joining, while the board actually wants the opposite. They have launched a full-blown rights movement campaign now and strength, as you know, lies in numbers. We had to fight tooth and nail to get them to let Mimi go.’
‘You think they would have forced her to join the business, anyway?’
‘Mimi does. She heard them say so.’
‘And you think if it hadn’t been for the political clout of Aparna’s dad, that’s what she would be doing by now?’
‘I’m positive. They have it all sewn up.’
‘What makes you think the gentleman wouldn’t help you after his daughter has left?’
‘Why should he? This is not even his constituency. And in any case, he was never too ecstatic about Aparna “hanging out with whores”, as he calls them.’
‘But that’s what they are, aren’t they? Calling them sex workers doesn’t make their lives any easier. It’s a euphemism coined by activists like you to dignify what you do. Why can’t you guys forget about political correctness for a moment and call a spade a bloody shovel if you have to?’
As if on cue from an invisible stage director to allow greater clarity, see things for what they were, the lights returned. It was a spacious room, with green slatted French windows and a lovely chessboard floor. Portraits of the great sons of India were hung high up on the wall. I recognized Mahatma Gandhi and Tagore who, for some reason, always appeared to be frowning in his portraits – not particularly pleased, it seemed, with what he was made to see.
Might as well try and liven things up a bit, I thought, entertain these poor unfortunate kids who could not be having much fun on a regular day.
‘Happy Durga,’ I said. ‘Did you all get a chance to go see the Goddess?’ I asked through my new-found interpreter.
Of course they had. What a silly question to ask. But nobody said that. They were being polite in the presence of an outsider.
‘So what’s the best most wonderful thing about the Durga festival?’
There was silence for a few moments and then the tap was turned on.
‘Kedgeree meals served at the pandal …’
‘Going out with friends…’
‘Not having to study…’
The answers came in fits and starts at the outset, and then, suddenly, everybody had a personal Durga story which they wanted to share.
The girls giggled a lot, falling over and making eyes at each other as they recalled stories about how one of them, then quite small, had tried to bring back an ice cream stick wrapped in a handkerchief for her friend Salima who was ill and could not come with them. By the time they got home all she was left with was a cold wet orange stain on a piece of white cloth.
Also there was this boy, about eight years old or so – could have been a little older actually. Most of them came only up to my waist, but the facial features gave them away as semi-adults. He said he wished he could jump into the Ganga when they immersed the idol and pull away the goddess’ sari. He had gone to the jetty last year, but the older boys would not let him get near the drowning idol.
‘And what do you think you would do with Durga’s sari? You’re not going to wear it, are you?’
Some of them laughed at this. They had got the drift from the way I acted out putting on a sari and drawing the end over my head. I had picked up the moves from a play about a trans community put up by a South Asian theatre group we had recently funded.
The boy was a bit humourless compared to his giggly friends. ‘Oh, there is so much you could do with a piece of satin cloth,’ he said. ‘It could make a nice cover for the bricks I use to put my books on, or a curtain for the window facing the road. My mother could even make a frock for my little sister. But I think I’d ask her to make a curtain, after all. My sister’s growing up, you see.’
And then Aparna said we’d better get going. It was already past ten, time for the children to go back to their homes – return to their private nooks, tucked away somewhere in this shady alley, perhaps somewhere in this very building. Aparna said she could probably summon her car and reach me to a convenient drop-off point, or we could both go look for the bus that brought us here, if that’s what I preferred.
I had a last parting question for the children.
‘I was just wondering,’ I said, ‘are there any Muslims here?’
This question did not need translating. A girl with her scarf still tied diagonally across the chest stood up, defiantly: ‘How does it matter? We’re all Indians.’
‘Would you share the holy kedgeree with your Muslim friend? Sit down to a meal with him by your side?’
‘Of course! We always go to the pandal together.’
We were out on the road again. It had gotten colder since we went in. A chill wind blew, billowing out my shirt. The buildings on either side of the alley looked so dank and cold, they would probably ooze water if you squeezed them.
I had no idea where our bus could be at that moment, or how we might trace our way back to it or indeed if it was still waiting for us, somewhere, in a yet undiscovered, unlit alley, un-revealed to the pilgrims who walked the streets tonight. Perhaps it would show up only if we fell by the wayside, unable to walk any further, scoop us up from the sodden streets, to be frozen cryogenically in the interest of the future of humanity.
As the moon rose higher, showing up, sliver by sliver, from behind the dark rain-heavy clouds, the charcoal-blue shadows grew longer, spreading out to cover us completely. The houses on either side morphed into never-ending corridors, arched doorways, termite-infested wooden blinds and saplings cracking their way through the peeling plaster, revealing the lime-coated brickwork on their walls, like white teeth, next to dripping, rusty pipes.
The alley seemed to go on forever. Aparna walked in front. She won’t even know if a gangster or a ghoul – the only sort who could have been living in these houses since the time of Lord Warren Hastings – came and got me from behind. For all I know, that, in fact, may be the very idea. We have been walking for what seems like at least an hour and Aparna has not turned back even once or spoken a word.
Suddenly, a row of cables running between lampposts, from which electric bulbs plastered with garish red and blue cellophane sheets had been strung, crackled and went up in flames above our heads. The alley had widened into a lane that seemed completely desolate. The shutter was drawn on the roadside tobacco shop. A crate of soft drink bottles lay next to a heap of discarded furniture – baskets, stools, plywood boards covered in blue plastic sheets, a cot turned on its side and pressed against the wall.
‘Weren’t we here before, a while ago?’
‘Not quite. But we were near here.’
‘Are we going round in circles then?’
‘We don’t have a choice. There are pandals everywhere, blocking the road. I’m sorry we can’t get out of here without taking a circuitous route.’
‘Ummm… would you say it’s safe around here at this hour? Where have all the people gone?’
Aparna smiled. It was the kind of smile I had seen the gods wear in Indian calendar art – a tolerant, sanguine smile without giving away what their plans were for the recipients of their benignity. Tonight Aparna was my only hope if I were ever to get out of this intricate maze.
‘Quite safe, I’d think,’ she said. ‘You still might get accosted by a pimp, hard up for a client, but you probably won’t get mugged on a Durga Puja night.’
Soon we were walking under rows and rows of fairy lights, strung overhead. We went past a book-sellers’ stand for ‘progressive and Marxist literature’, done up in signature red. A gentleman in white clothes and wispy white hair sat at the table, the whiteness creating an ambient glow. He smiled at us, beatifically, but did not invite us to check out his ware.
The food kiosks were shut. Capacious tin snack boxes mounted on rickety conical bamboo stands were locked up. Pyramids of crispy savouries were covered with blue tarpaulin. The ice cream vans were parked on the roadside, a piece of brick put under each wheel, to prevent the stash of fluorescent frozen lollies from running away and getting lost forever.
There was no food for hungry stomachs on this night of the goddess, only food for thought.
Aparna laughed when I said as much to her. ‘A certain logic does emerge, if you look at the way things have turned out for you tonight,’ she said. ‘You don’t expect to get a ringside view of divinity without going through the rites of passage. In that sense, your being made to keep a fast by default was probably part of the plan.’
‘And the deluge? Was that also part of a grand scheme, locked and put away in the goddess’ own filing cabinet?’
‘Only if you believe in it.’
‘Ha! We’re not in a fantasy novel.’
‘We’ll find out.’
We were walking again, on a rain-swept path, crushing the thin white layer of fragrant blossoms dropped from the Devil’s tree. The smell was intoxicating – a bit sexual if you asked me, kind of snuggly. A couple pi-dogs and urchins with bored faces trailed us now, almost as a matter of ritual, too exhausted to poke me with their long, rangy fingers, to ask for money, too drained of curiosity to find out if I was for real.
The lights came on, suddenly, on the other side of the road, lighting up the festive courtyard. The fountains burbled, lit up in fluorescent pink and green, beside a glittering, blinking, illuminated windmill. It had stopped rotating.
A marquee rose from the centre of the park, now more of a lake, gently rippling in the cool breeze, reflecting the never-ending rows of bulbs wrapped in shiny blue and red cellophane sheets. Inside, under the gold and red canopy, was where the Goddess would be, with the children by her side, keeping a vigil, all night.
CHITRALEKHA BASU writes fiction and literary essays. Her short stories are anthologized in Memory’s Gold: Writings on Calcutta (Viking/Penguin) and First Proof: New Writing from India (Penguin). Her stories, book reviews and literary essays have been published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Independent and The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and most recently in The Caravan Magazine, Asia Literary Review, Open Road Review and The Missing Slate. A short story is due out soon in The Island Review and another in Entropy magazine.