In memoriam: the Bakelite telephone

You must have seen the squat little thing a hundred times in pre-Technicolor movies: the dumbbell receiver cradled on a truncated pyramid with a round dial for a face, the digits from 0 to 9 written in the holes. Zero used to be right at the bottom, with the dragon’s tooth next to it to stop your finger from dialling beyond that point.

I remember the cloth-covered curly cord connecting the receiver to the main body of the telephone which used to turn stringy and unelastic like a pyjama cord with use, or tie itself up in knots so that you had to bend down and hold an entire conversation in that semi-foetal position before hanging up and finally finding the time to unravel the ruddy thing.

The dialling was an exercise in patience, especially if you were in a hurry, because you could dial the zero fast enough – the zero being right next to the ‘finger stopper’. You could dial ‘1’ with almost equal ease, though this time the dialling finger had to go all the way from the top to the bottom – with the difference that it took several seconds for the dial to come back to the neutral position, making that catarrhal K-r-r-r-r-h sound. And the ‘engaged’ tone did not come right away either. You dialled the whole number and then got the engaged tone. Or you got the wrong number.

That’s what I tell the youngsters of today: the whole fun has gone out of wrong numbers. Today you get a wrong number because the number you have dialled or some other fool has dialled is wrong. In the olden days, you did everything right and still got a wrong number because the girl at the exchange – she used to get into the fray from time to time, asking you to vacate the line, there’s a trunk call coming and so on.

The telephone did not ring all that often in those days, hence the whole household was electrified when the phone rang, with that frantic K-r-r-r-n-g Kr-r-r-r-n-g, pause, K-r-r-r-n-g Kr-r-r-r-n-g noise like a fire alarm on fire! You ran into something and hurt your knee trying to reach the telephone before anyone else – might be your girlfriend ringing up whom your mother dislikes intensely and has been waiting for just an opportunity like this to be nasty to, if only on the telephone. And then it turns out to be a wrong number, someone asking whether this was the hosiery factory, yes, next to the hooch shop? Bless him.

There was only one thing better than wrong numbers and these were the cross connections. Now, don’t look up ‘cross connection’ on Google because they’ll tell you that it’s got something to do with plumbing and/or datacentres. The old-fashioned cross connection was some innocent mutt being plugged into the conversation that you’re having – and Gawd help you if that person is not a mutt but someone like my youngest maternal uncle – may his soul rest in peace – who simply used to wait for the wrong numbers and the cross connections with glee – he used to love creating confusion and Calcutta Telephones’ other name was confusion, so they suited each other to a T.

Telephone rings. Wrong number. Uncle grabs the receiver and says, ‘Speak. What can I do for You?’ (Which is not rude or impolite in Bengali, especially when combined with the respect form of address). ‘Is this the house of Mister So-and-so?’ Uncle puts on a grave voice and says: ‘Yes. Anything else?’ ‘I wanted to talk to him…’ ‘I’m sorry. You should have rung up yesterday, no, even this morning. You could still have seen him, even if you couldn’t speak to him.’ ‘Why? What has happened?’ asks the frightened voice. Uncle turns solemn, and then pious: ‘He had a heart attack last night and we took him to the cremating ground this morning. Just coming back from there.’ Stunned silence at the other end, funereal silence at Uncle’s. Then the timid query from the other side: ‘Are you still there?’ ‘Yes,’ Uncle says, ‘and this is still a wrong number, you twit.’ Cruel? Yes, but fun.

If Uncle ever got a cross connection, again, Gawd help the other two at their respective ends! Uncle could create more confusion with an occasional ‘yes’ or an intermittent ‘no’ than you’d imagine possible. ‘Did you mean it when you said that I’m too fat?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, if it’s that way…’ ‘Wait! Wait! That wasn’t me. There’s somebody on the line…’ They both listen. Uncle listens too. Then the doves start cooing again: ‘Do you really love me?’ the girl seems to be anxious. ‘No,’ Uncle says and so on.

Those Bakelite telephones have eavesdropped on more intimate conversations in their time than the NSA in ours. The Bakelite telephone would burn forever in hell if it was left to mothers like mine – the sweet lady is no more, but some of her choicest sarcasm was reserved for the occasions when I was hanging at that Bakelite telephone chatting to – you don’t really have to know. I used to bring Shall-Remain-Nameless back to her hostel, catch the bus back home and ring up the hostel at once – a girls’ hostel with God knows how many inmates but just that one telephone. ‘She’s in the shower. Shall we call her?’ giggle, giggle. And then an irate Shall-Remain-Nameless would materialise at the other end, though none too pleased, to judge by her voice: ‘Yes, what is it? What d’you want?’ ‘Why, are you in a hurry?’ ‘I’m in my towel.’ Silence. Suspicion at the other end: ‘Are you still there?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then why aren’t you saying anything?’ ‘D’you know they’ll be having telephones in the future where you’ll be able to see the person you’re talking to?’

Our telephone number used to be 4*2*6*. After the ground floor flat on Hazra Road had been ‘vacated’ by all of us as if the girl at the exchange – no, as if we were on the set of ‘Friends’ and the series was over, an unusual thing happened: nobody dismantled the set and nobody lived there either. So the place was locked up for years with the scrub growing in the kitchen courtyard. Me and my youngest brother, we used to ring up 4*2*6* from as far away as Bonn and Ottawa for years afterwards, just to hear that ghostly ring.

I quoted the first lines of Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners to my brother: “‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller” and so on.

My brother, who like yours truly had made the mistake of studying English Literature at a young and impressionable age, quoted Donne right back at me: “therefore never send to know for whom the phone rings; it rings for thee.”


Of cars and the man I sing

People of my generation remember cars as they remember people. Cars were not just a means of transport but used to have a personality, quite apart from the car owner’s or the car driver’s personality. Cars remained long enough in & with the family to turn into old faithfuls & trusty servitors. But the first car in my life was a monument to the glory days of the family as rice lords in a small town in suburban Bengal.

I’m talking about my mother’s family and the family seat sixty miles to the east of the city of Kolkata, whereas the monument in question was a greying automobile gradually turning green in the midst of a mango grove. It was a rag top convertible of sorts – very likely American, a Packard or a Hudson or a Desoto for all I know, from the Roaring Twenties, though it had long ceased to roar. It had curving fenders and foot boards and drum shaped headlights. One couldn’t turn the steering wheel any more, I remember. The tyres were flat & brittle or already missing, the rims or the axles resting on bricks. Every part of the car that could be fiddled with and broken or twisted off had fallen prey to generations of little cannibals like us – that’s me & my cousins – until what remained was the shape & the idea of an automobile, as if someone had been doing a sculpture and not bothering about the details. The undergrowth had shot up through the floorboards, the green tentacles & fronded leaves waving from the open cabriolet like inebriated party folk returning from an excursion. The rusty springs might have been all that was left of the seats – or I might be imagining.

And I do not even know whether the Rag Top (now beginning to look more like a Tree Top) was the first sign & symbol of prosperity & modernity in the aforesaid rice lords family, since a grandaunt of mine used to relate the story how her husband – the corresponding granduncle – insisted on driving to Dhaneshkhali (name changed) in his brand new Baby Austin with his brand new wife (the grandaunt) parked on the rear seat, as was only proper & seemly. Fortunately or unfortunately, granduncle left the trodden/tarred ways and decided to take a chukker of the countryside – with the result that grandaunt had to be brought back to the family mansion sitting in the Baby Austin like a demure bride, while some eight to twelve palanquin bearers carried the Baby Austin on their shoulders, balancing the hapless vehicle on bamboo poles. I’d tag classic Bengali filmmakers Ritwik Ghatak/Ajantrik/1958 and Satyajit Ray/Abhijan/1962 for this scene alone, if I could.

After that I remember the Morris Minor of a lawyer uncle of mine. I shall be eternally grateful to this uncle for introducing me to three pleasures of life at one go: (i) he took me and his son, my cousin, for a ride in his Morris Minor; (ii) he took us to the Globe Cinema to see Sergeants 3; and (iii) he took us to Kwality’s afterwards to give me (at least) my first taste of restaurant food. The Globe was yet to be renovated, so it was still in the Bijou Grand Opera House state, with carved cast iron pillars holding up the balconies. Just my luck that I had one of those pillars in front of me and had to play peekaboo with the Rat Pack for the whole of the show as a result – that’s Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. &co., never knew it was their last movie in that combination. Worse, it’s taken me fifty-odd years to wake up to the fact that Sergeants 3 was a spoof western built on Kipling’s Gunga Deen!

The next car in my life was my uncle’s – the talk is now of my youngest maternal uncle – who used to live in the same house as us in South Calcutta, the house in question belonging to my maternal grandfather and so on – but the point of the story is that my room was on the mezzanine floor, that’s at the landing of the stairs between the ground floor and the first floor, with the garage right beneath. In that garage rested my uncle’s Standard Herald like some past emperor in his grave while I held vigil above. Otherwise the car looked like a tinny, miniaturised, Madras version of the fifties’ Cadillacs and Chevrolets with their tail fins & the rest. My uncle used to look after that Standard Herald like his own son. How he drove it was another matter.

My elder sister bought a second hand Ambassador (car!) when her family was growing and decided to call it Sangram Singh for its sheer battling spirit. Maharana Sangram Singh was none other than the legendary Rana Sanga of the Rajputs, who had led a powerful Hindu confederacy in the 16th century. In the 20th, ‘Sangram Singh’ finally changed hands when our youngest brother bought it as his first car – ‘Sangram Singh’ was slightly younger than him at that point of time, if I remember correctly.

Cut to: Calcutta street scene during the monsoons. My brother is driving down Mayo Road in the pouring rain, yours truly in the passenger seat, the vehicle being none other than Sangram Singh. My brother is saying nonchalantly that the brakes are not working, they never do in the rains but I’m not to worry. I can see the Chowringhee Road crossing coming up, complete with the traffic light, which is on red. Cars to the left of us, cars to the right of us, cars in front – what will happen if the brakes do not hold?

My brother started braking with another fifty metres to go to the traffic light. The car hardly slowed down – oder doch? I had started thinking in German by then, in my desperation! And then I saw. All the other cars were braking too and having trouble with their brakes, just like Sangram Singh, so that the whole moity somehow grinded to a halt just yards before the pile-up of the century.

“You see, Dada, this is Kolkata. Everybody’s brakes are buggered, so nobody’s buggered,” my brother explained, before he turned into Kyd Street. It was not his fault. We used to speak like that in Kolkata.

With memsahibs in India (2): Water of India

When I arrived with my newly acquired ‘family’ at the old family ‘home’ in Kolkata – a ground floor flat in South Calcutta which had just been inundated – the living-cum-drawing-room-cum-my-father’s-chambers-cum-study was a sight (it’s just one room that we’re talking about). The water had seeped up the walls so that they’d had to whitewash the whole room, in blue this time (how can you whitewash something in blue?). But the plaster had retained most of the moisture, which had made the whitewash/bluewash come out all patchy & blotchy (like Itchy & Scratchy in the Simpsons) as if the wall (or the house) had liver problems.

I still remember Kasia’s face when she saw that ‘outer room’ of ours for the first time. It’s not as if she was disappointed: I’d told her all about our ‘residence’ in Calcutta (after having shown her a picture of the Vicotria Memorial as the place where our family summered) – she’d thought that I was only joking and that I had a nice sense of humour. What I hadn’t told her was that you didn’t need a sense of humour if you were from Kolkata, Kolkata being a joke of almost historical proportions. After all, Job Charnock had picked the most unsuitable site he could find for his camp so that the enemies of the British would not be able to approach the ruddy place (did they say ruddy in the 17th c.?) – not that anybody would want to approach such a mosquito-infested swamp where one could catch malaria or kala-azar or dengue the moment one set foot upon the morass. Three centuries later Lenin would be making the sage pronouncment that the road to world revolution would lie over Calcutta. It was just his way of saying that the world revolution would never take place. Hadn’t wanted to sound that pessimistic, I suppose.

‘World revolution? In Kolkata? During the rains? Vladimir Ilyich must have been joking,’ Kasia was not laughing.

On the day of our arrival @ we’ll leave out the address for the moment and substitute it with #home, Kasia said something to Laura – my stepdaughter – in German. I think I heard the word Armut, which means poverty – upon which Laura asked where we kept the heilige Kuh, which means the holy cow. I’m joking, of course, but in those days most Germans thought of India in terms of poverty & the holy cow. It’s like thinking of Germany in terms of sauerkraut & the pork knuckle, but I’m not complaining.

Kasia was stepping out of the magic circle of poverty & the holy cow for the first time and getting to know the Calcutta monsoon, which is like a dress rehearsal for the deluge. Conscientious as she was and unaware of the fact that even a family as ‘poor’ as ours had maidservants, she had washed a couple of her things and Laura’s things right on the first day & hung them on the clothes line in the verandah (you don’t hang your clothes outside during the monsoon, unless you’re mad or a memsahib) to dry. To dry? She was checking the washing conscientiously every day for the next three days & the washing was just as stubbornly and obstreperously wet – one result of the hundred percent humidity in which you could see the sweat drops appear on your skin like morning dew on rose petals the moment you came out of the shower. Kasia was fascinated.

The joke is that memsahibs do not sweat, having been born with an air-conditioned skin like the expensive upholstery of foreign cars. Kasia and Laura did not suffer in the humid heat of Kolkata as much as the prodigal son, a son of the soil, did. I thought I was going to die in that stifling heat – while the memsahibs laughed. My memsahib, for example, surprised everybody by finding every Bengali dish too bland – I couldn’t explain to the family or to our hosts of the moment that here was a memsahib who ate lettuce – as tossed salad – with chilli pickles. It made me sweat just to look at her, while she remained as cool as if she was used to dining with the Devil over fire & brimstone.

But we had landed in Calcutta in the middle of the monsoon and my memsahibs had had their first taste of flooded streets & open manholes – I’d scared the sh** out of them by telling them how many street urchins got sucked out to the Bay of Bengal through the woolly underground, some of them still alive (I’ll pay for my sins one day, I know). In expiation, I took the memsahibs to Puri and put them up in the Bengal Nagpur Railway hotel, where they were fascinated by the chameleons in the garden & the crows at the breakfast table (in the room, thanks to room service) who pinched the sugar cubes unless you guarded them like the crown jewels – hope they all got diabetes! Laura helped a toad find its way down the long corridor to the steps, hopping like the amphibian all the way. And then there was the nulia, a kiln-burnt, tribal version of David Hasselhoff holding Laura’s hand and leading the blonde & blue-eyed child into the raging surf with the equanimity of an antediluvian Neptune. Meanwhile, a vendor came along rolling his cart on tiny wheels with ball-bearings – turned out to be a videotheque on wheels; the man was asking me with a wink whether I was interested in ‘blue’ films. ‘Wow! They’ve got video carts here!’ Kasia was exclaiming. The word she used was Videokarren, on the pattern of Ochsenkarren, which means a bullock cart in German. ‘There’s India for you,’ I told her, brimming with pride.

A couple of years later there was that trip to Salkia on the Hooghly river where we were having a picnic to celebrate the fact that both my brothers had got married on the same day so that their expat elder brother & his zenana would not miss the fun. The venue for the picnic was a deserted, derelict jute mill right on the river, a caterer providing the food. I’d told Kasia repeatedly that she should go nowhere near the drinking water which had been carried up in barrels, the water consisting of cholera & typhoid germs in equal parts. Kasia had followed my instructions to the ‘T’, except for washing the forks & the spoons – specially brought along for the memsahibs – in the water from the barrel. Oh yes, Keya was with us too, having been born a couple of years earlier.

They nearly died, the memsahibs, all three of them, they were so sick. We had to prepone our flight & return to Germany three days earlier. Kasia has refused to watch Dr. P.C. Sorcar Jr. perform the Water of India trick ever since, saying that it reminded her of the Salkia water and the rainwater on Calcutta streets and every other kind of water in India except aerated water, no, make it coconut water, will you?

I shall.

English Made Me (3)

…Mind you, the fairy tale was our first Rapid Reader. The main English textbooks were of the usual, Indian sort – child or goat could chew through them from January till December and derive as little moisture as nourishment. We had written examinations in each subject thrice a year. And in English the questions were set from those textbooks – there was a separate paper for grammar and a separate tome for it, Hall & Martin, about which later.

You must get the overall picture first: here’s your native Indian boy setting out in life to learn English. He’s got his textbook, his grammar and his rapid reader. The textbooks had lessons of the ‘Aladdin and His Lamp’ sort in them. The whole game, for the teacher as well as the pupils, was to devise as many questions as possible to each lesson, questions which could be neatly answered by merely quoting a certain number of lines from the text, verbatim. You either underlined the ‘answers’ in the text, or put them in brackets. Bracketing was better, since the answers often overlapped – so you could use the second and the third brackets as well, as in mathematics. The only trick, apart from memorising half the text (if not the whole of it), was to begin your answer by flipping the question over like a pancake or an omelette and getting your cue from it, so to speak. ‘What happened when Aladdin rubbed his lamp?’ Answer: ‘When Aladdin rubbed his lamp’, his arse exploded and his balls fell off and so on, all there in the text for you.

Perhaps the most mindless way of learning a language, trust us Bengalis to have discovered it or devised it, and perhaps not – since the Nobel prize winning German language author Elias Canetti learnt his German in a similar manner, it seems. His parents used to speak German as a kind of secret language and Canetti learnt the sounds, without a clue as to their meaning – that came later, after he had turned twelve – or that’s what I seem to have read. Well, we were slightly better off in the sense that we knew the meaning of the words (in most cases). We could read the language, even understand it, but we could not speak it. We could not form sentences on our own, of our own. That was the crux, that was the nightmare. I was under the impression that one had to memorise thousands of sentences in English to be able to speak the language.

I remember visiting a Japanese ship on the Hooghly with my uncle – they had a closed-circuit TV on it, that was the main attraction. I remember European sailors with tattooed forearms who reeked abominably of sausages and beef – as I discovered later. My uncle spoke to one of them: I remember staring at the pink knees of the sailor and the blonde hairs on his legs, while my heart swelled with admiration for my uncle, who’d learnt all those sentences by heart, and well enough to fish out the exact ones he needed, even in an extreme situation like that. After all, he was talking to a gorilla in its own language, somehow assuaging that sausage-and-beef-eating monster and keeping it in good humour so that it wouldn’t fly into a sudden rage and throw us overboard.

It went on like that right up to class four and then, towards the beginning of class five, Father, in his wisdom, took a foolscap sheet and wrote the word ‘Tense’ on it. Boy, was I tense! The page filled up slowly: Present, Past and Future; First Person, Second Person, Third Person; Singular, Plural; Indefinite, Continuous, Perfect and Perfect Continuous. The verb Father chose was ‘to go’, I’d be choosing the verb ‘to shit’ later, while teaching conjugation to my younger brothers: I shit, you shit, he/she/it shits and so on, right down to ‘I shall have been shitting’, that’s your perfect continuous, I was heart-broken later when they told me that there’s no such thing as perfect continuous: ‘I shall have been shitting’. What do they think I’ve been doing all my life?

All in all, I was formulating my own sentences in English before the end of the term, I can only compare it to learning how to ride a bicycle – you are suddenly released from gravity, from bondage, you take an evolutionary leap forward. You can suddenly pedal from one end of the sentence to the other, from one full stop to another, without crashing or having to put your feet down…

It’s been one of the few miracles in my life.

(To be continued)

A murder of crows

Yes, Mr Corvus of the family corvidae which includes the common crow, the rook, the raven and the jackdaw. To be found in all temperate zones and continents except South America – why? How has South America sinned, or not sinned? And you wouldn’t dare to put Bengal, especially Kolkata aka Calcutta in the temperate zone if you’d lived there for just one summer, with the rains to follow. Just ask the crows. Why ask one, ask the whole flock, what the hell, go and ask a murder of crows – yes, that’s the other collective noun for a group of crows. How fitting.

Crows are now considered to be among the world’s most intelligent animals, Wikipedia will tell you. Now? Has it taken the human race so long to wake up to the fact? In which case I wouldn’t consider the human being to be among the most intelligent animals in the world. Look at me. Did I know that a crow has an encephalisation quotient equal to that of many non-human primates? Did you?

As a Bengali child growing up in Calcutta aka Kolkata, I grew up with crows. Right from the moment that the fish arrived from the market and the cook squatted down on the inner verandah with the long, mounted knife to cut and clean the fish – the crows would be there, sitting on the roof of the makeshift bathroom built around the cistern in the middle of the courtyard, or on the boundary wall, loudly informing each other of this diurnal opportunity for theft and/or daylight robbery. They’d grab the fish bladder, if nothing else, and then fight over it amongst themselves.

Crows are the punctuation marks of Bengali life, its diacritical marks, if you prefer, its commas and full stops, its interrogation (‘Caw?’) and exclamation (‘Caw!’) marks. Bengalis wake up ‘before crow-crow’, get ‘wet like a crow’ in the rain and look like a ‘crow in a storm’ afterwards – and naturally we have our own word for the scarecrow, kaktarua, I had an uncle who looked like that.

And the definition of emptiness, ennui and vacuity is the desultory caw of a crow breaking the monotony of a long and leisurely, soporific Calcutta afternoon in the middle of the summer holidays – something like this sentence, come down to think of it – ‘caw!’

Otherwise I’m neither an ornithologist nor the Wikipedia and there’s been cases of bloggers being hounded from the Net for stuffing their blog with too much information – whether about crows or about their (the bloggers’) grandmothers – hence I desist from all other details regarding crows except that when I came out West – was sent out West by the GOI in their wisdom – I found at least two old acquaintances who seemed to have accompanied me to my distant exile: the moon and the crows. So that I wouldn’t feel lonely, I suppose.

The moon seemed to be exactly the same as in Kolkata, though now it hung over Boppard-on-Rhine or over Bonn. If they need one witness in Heaven to hang me, it will be the moon, I know – the things it has seen! And the crows who used to live in the mango tree on the neighbouring plot on Hazra Road – next to the motor repairing workshop – the tree never produced any fruit because it had turned infertile, drawing its sustenance as it did from the whitish fluid trickling out of the carbide-heap for the oxy-acetylene – where was I? Ah, with the crows.

The crows are still there, just as the moon is still there. Now they follow me and Mika around on our walks in the Rheinaue, hoping to find the treats that even Mika’s hellhound nose has missed in the grass. Or I can see them from our office building: two large groups of maybe two hundred crows each who have chosen two huge trees – beech, I suspect – to do their communal roosting. So these two gangs of crows straight out of West Side Story return at dusk to their respective trees right next to the Rhine in a noisy ceremony which consists mainly of crowing and bickering and much flapping of wings and even more bad language, I’m sure – all because some crows of the one gang, who look exactly like the crows of the other gang, have landed on the wrong tree.

Can’t tell you how strongly that reminds me of the boys of our block back in Kolkata vis-à-vis the boys of the next block.

Or generally of Bengalis.

Or generally of the world.

So today when I drive to office, I see the crows of the Rheinaue gather for their morning’s conference on the overhead traction wires for the trams right on top of South Bridge! It’s the highest vantage point, with trams below and motorised traffic from all sides on two levels – hence safe as an island. And then I see the crows again towards evening – at least one flock or gang or murder – a fairly large one – who flutter around the glassy Post Tower now dripping in sunset colours. The crows look like a bunch of black handkerchiefs lost by a bunch of absent-minded widows. But they, the crows, do not seem sorry at all. They seem to be having fun, great fun, as a matter of fact – before they settle down in whichever hapless tree for their night’s unrest.

And the crows always have a friendly caw for me as I wait for the bus, which is more than I can say for most primates, human or non-human.

I know, I know, the sticklers among you will be asking themselves: how come he’s waiting for the bus if he drove to office in the morning?

That’s why I prefer crows.

English Made Me (2)

The story will have to be told, I suppose.

I don’t remember learning the alphabet, that must have happened somehow, though I seem to remember the succulent red-and-gold apple illustrating ‘A’ and looking like something Eve had just plucked for Adam – still think of it as Adam’s apple, I do. Otherwise the book was a Longman’s primer, which meant that it had been imported from London, no wonder Eve had been at it.

Nor do I remember anything of the B-A-T bat, C-A-T cat stage, though which Indian will not remember the famous Kishore Kumar song to the effect that if c-a-t cat means billi and r-a-t rat means chuha, what’s the harm in my heart being in your clutches (closest translation)? No wonder we Indians never learnt English.

And then I was put in the kindergarten section of the South Point school in South Calcutta – as if it could be North Point! The school was situated in Mandeville Gardens off Swinhoe Street. A green gate and a high wall, behind which there was a largish bungalow complete with a tiled roof. The patch of ground in front must have been the lawn but had been trodden bare by the time I was coralled, don’t remember having seen a single blade of grass. We called our English teacher ‘Miss’ instead of ‘Didimoni’ (literally, ‘jewel of an elder sister’) since it was an English medium school. She was the first woman I ever fell in love with. Remember, we’re talking about the mid-’fifties – not her age, silly. She must have been around thirty and dressed and did her hair exactly like one of those educated ‘Brahmo’ ladies in Tagore’s tales – she might even have been one, for all I know.

She used to sit at the piano in her pale blue sari made of some billowy stuff called georgette, as I seem to have gathered even at that tender age, though not why georgette, what georgette, did it have something to do with King George? No, it was invented by an early 20th century French dressmaker by the name of Georgette de la Plante – which it has taken me another century to find out. In any case, Miss used to sing us nursery songs, English nursery songs, accompanying herself on the piano. One black high-heeled shoe worked the pedal while her eyes steamed over behind her fashionable, gold-rimmed spectacles. I believe she used to use (now, what kind of English is that, Dakoo?) lipstick, I’d seen stains of it on her dazzlingly white, slightly horsy teeth.

I was Miss’s favourite pupil – women always reciprocate true love. And of course I learnt my lessons better and faster than the others. So when our class had to put up a show for the annual prize distribution ceremony, she invented an act just for the two of us. On stage, she’d hold up various cards each bearing a verb like ‘run’, ‘sit’ or ‘jump’, and I’d enact the verb, so to say. There were a couple of microphones hanging low for some group-song to follow and I ‘ran’ into one of them with such force that it sounded like a clap of thunder over the loudspeakers. I was seeing stars (though not stripes, being British to the core) and there was a buzzing in my ear for the rest of those excruciating five minutes. But I did not let ‘her’ (that’s why Rider Haggard called his novel ‘She’) down. I ‘sat’, ‘jumped’ and ‘threw’ with alacrity all for her sake, only for her sake.

And then they wanted to give me a double promotion (ahem) directly from cagey one to class one, which my father thought was outrageous. So I was taken out of South Point and put in a much larger cattle pen called St. Lawrence High School – still in South Calcutta, crossing Ballygunge Circular Road/Richie Road – wouldn’t think we Bengalis ever had anything to do with Calcutta if you looked at the street names, in those days.

In any case, it was the end of my very first love affair and the beginning of a second, unbeknownst – this time with the English language. Take our English story-book, class one (designating the first year in the primary section, silly, not ‘class’ in terms of quality as in the EU agricultural norms). It – the book – was a fairy-tale. Again, freshly imported from England, beautiful white pages, beautifully printed and beautifully illustrated. There were gnomes and fairies in it, cottages and flowers and trees. The fairy-tale world with every imperfection removed: not just from the pictures – those shitless dogs and dungless cattle – but also from the paper, from the print, from the binding. I was most impressed by the print: large letters that did not smudge at all, you could admire even the commas and the full stops. And if there’s one smell that women should aspire to, it’s the smell of a new book – not an Indian book, printed in Kolkata or Kanpur or Delhi, where you can smell the gum in the binding, especially if it’s damp. And in those days, the gum would often have a smell like food that is rotting since it was not gum at all but just cooked rice, crushed and smeared, same stuff that we repaired our kites with. But the ink at least smelt good. And the paper, even Indian paper. Paper always has that crispy feeling when it’s new, like the starched sari of an Indian woman – georgette be blown.

And you thought we were talking about English?

(To be continued)


How old was I? Ten? Eleven?

It had been raining since the early hours of the morning and Garcha Road was flooded, as usual. I’d heard of Chitpur Road turning muddy at the sight of a cloud, whereas Garcha Road seemed to harbour the secret ambition of turning into a canal some day, like the one in Baghbajar. And Garcha Road fulfilled that ambition every time it rained: the asphalt disappeared under muddy water, starting from the channels next to the cemented sidewalks, till the exciting moment came when the first thin waves swirled over the middle, meeting and parting and revealing the gleaming asphalt every so often like a Hindi film heroine in a ‘wet’ scene on a public hoarding which should have been for Adults Only. – And then the water took over, and filled the road, and filled the sidewalks, and filled the passages between the houses, and filled the space beneath the staircase where the coal was kept, and filled the small courtyard, and threatened to flood the kitchen-verandah as well.

Did the world need so much water? The rain was still gouging the surface of the water when I went out to join my friends. A game of football was in progress on ‘Madcaps’ Lane’, with a floating, bobbing rubber ball. A ride on a bicycle would have been fun – I envied the bicycle-owners who steered through the muddy water on half-wheels, pedalling half in the air and half in the water, the water slurping at the spokes and the chain. Cars were in trouble: I kept hearing things like ‘water in the carburettor’ or ‘water in the silencer’. It was fun pushing stalled cars. The lorries and the double-decker buses came sailing like ships, and people jumped to avoid the wake, and the waves splashed against doors and made them creak.

“Let’s go see how high the water is!” It always ended like that. “I’ll go and see water,” in that vague, unarticled, Bengali way, “water see come”, literally translated. It meant doing a round of the nearby streets and lanes using one’s own body as the measuring rod – not so many ‘hands’, so many knots of the bamboo-pole, but ‘foot-wetting’ deep, up to the ankles, knee-deep, waist-high. It showed that the streets and the lanes and the by-lanes had secrets of their own, some lay deeper than the others, attracted the water and held it longer. The water was cooler in some parts and warmer in others. Water resisted motion, one had to drag one’s feet, and the rubber sandals glided along like submarines and bobbed up if one lost them. And, for once, the water made the soles of the usually dust-caked feet white and soft and spongy, and the skin a wet, glistening brown with the clinging hairs combed this way and that. Old and forgotten sores and wounds showed up against the tender skin. All the wetness somehow reached the scrotum and made it contract like a raisin.

I went down Hazra Road to Ballygunge Fari, inspected the two sides of Gariahat Road, one of which lay at least a couple of feet deeper than the other. Memory guided my feet over the water-covered terrain – the potholes, garbage heaps, forgotten piles of stone chips. There was a traffic jam of sorts, because of all the stalled cars, and the double-decker buses had taken to the grassy tram tracks where their oversized wheels churned up the mud. The bus roared, the rear wheels spun and skidded on the sticky, treacherous surface of mud-and-grass, the passengers jumped down from the footboard and pushed, bells rang from the temple of Hanuman the Ape-God in encouragement. The rickshaw-pullers and the pushcart-drivers were having a field day, though at the risk of breaking an axle because of the invisible potholes.

It was nearly twelve o’clock. It had stopped raining. A burning sun made the city steam, and the water made the light dance on the walls. I had gone as far as Swinhoe Street, where the water was deepest, and was returning by way of Garcha Road, making a detour via Garcha First Lane and Garcha Second Lane, where the water was free of patches of oil and had bits of domestic garbage floating peacefully instead. The lane was empty, I parted the water like Moses and left a V-shaped wake like a duck in a pond as I went, yes, that girl was up there where I’d expected her to be, draped over the railing of the first floor verandah like a lily not caring a damn whether one could see her bloomers or not.

And then suddenly I came upon the open manhole, where the water was surging away in a whirl. One could feel the tug if one stood close by. This was the beginning of another journey, the reverse journey for all that water, through dark, woolly, sewage-filled channels back to the Hooghly, and from there to the sea with the ebb-tide. I watched a paper boat ride the crest for a brief moment before unseen hands beneath the whirl clutched at it and pulled it down to the nether world where unwary children had been known to err. Suddenly I wanted to go home and rub the wetness out of my body and feel the clean, dry touch of dry clothes and run my hand over my own drying, contracting, bleaching skin as I sat wrapped in a bedsheet staring at the crisp pages of my new geography book which, alas, would be limp like everything else before the annual examinations were over.

Another lover and hater of wetness, of dryness, or a Bengali, in short, had been Born.