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.

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Rain

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.