Calcutta ( chapter 11 )

In 1988 I was living in south Calcutta in Raja’s family home. I had met Raja in my early Berlin days. We were both foreign students and soon became best friends. Raja had taken me to his family the year before already and I had immediately fallen in love with everything I came across in Bengal; his parents, his two younger brothers, the food, the music, the power cuts every evening, the showers at the well, the heat, the incessant singing of the frogs from the ponds that were just everywhere…I loved Bengali language, my brain seemed to absorb it all and soon I could read and write pretty fluently. I had started learning through songs and poems from Rabindranath Tagore and I had decided to leave Berlin and go and study in Shantiniketan, the open air University He created in the Bengali countryside.
Raja was back in Berlin. He had more obligations than I had and was pressured to do well, get a degree and a job. I was amazed that even on our first trip to India he had managed to save a few hundred dollars for his family. By German standards we were poor students.
So there I was, somehow taking his place in his home. His family basically adopted me, and I always felt showered with love, treated, and accepted no matter what a hippie I was soon becoming. As Raja kept sending few notes here and then, the tiny house slowly expanded and one extra floor was built. It was an open house, surrounded by other houses, everyone quite close together, but there was a sense of space. Water and ponds were everywhere, and the sounds of insects, birds, frogs and all kind of exotic animals made for a constant symphony, something I really missed when back in the West. Once a week at the most would a taxi find its way in this area. Otherwise the only vehicles on the streets where bicycles and cycle rickshaws. In downtown Calcutta, rickshaws pulled by humans were common, but not here.
The ground floor was a small and dark kitchen where the Bengali women could hardly stand, and a dining area with a small table in the middle. There 4 people could eat while mother would serve and watch and keep refilling the plates. It is also there that Raja’s father would give private English lessons to a couple students twice a week. Raja’s father I called Kaku – Uncle. My Kaku was a beautiful man; he was educated and had spent his life in the Indian railways. He was now retired. He did look like Mahatma Gandhi, was always wearing a dhoti and would never leave the house without his umbrella. He had a very silent heart but he loved to talk about travels, philosophy, French writers and of course Rabindranath Tagore. At night he had a special place on the first floor where we all slept; His single bed was in the corridor next to a window.
The arrangement at night was something so unique and so far from what I had experienced in my life.
Next to the corridor where Kaku slept were 2 rooms, and everything was door less and the windows were always open unless it rained. In one of the room was a double bed where Kakima, my Untie, was sleeping with her youngest son Opu, who was around 17 at that time. Next to them in a small bed was Didu, Kakima’s mother. Didu was a beautiful, ancient looking woman, well integrated in the house. She was the key keeper and the rice cleaner. She always wore a white Sari, a lifelong reminder that she was a widow. She was usually squatting near the entrance, looking frail but radiating an outstanding grace. She was sharp, and when one of the sons wanted the key of the bicycle, or of one of the many padlocks that are parts of any Indian house, she would test him, ask a couple of questions as what he intended to do with the key. She knew the power she had, and yet never abused it. She always gave the key and made sure it came back. She was well respected and she obviously appreciated that.
In the other room was a large double bed where Rana, Raja’s second brother, and I were sleeping.
Every bed had a specific mosquito net that was fitted on the wooden frame that was part of each bed. It was Opu’s job, straight after dinner, to collect the nets from storage and fit them on each bed.
Dinner was late, around 10 pm as I remember, sometimes even later. We had invariably chapattis. I loved chapattis.
Fatima was the lovely maid who came a few hours a day. She was busy going from house to house in the neighbourhood from dawn till night. Here she came first, early morning, and prepared a cup of tea for Kakima while the whole house was still asleep. It must have been before 6. Once Kakima had had her cup of tea, she herself would prepare tea for the rest of us.
Like many Indians Kakima was diabetic. She would have a proper Cha with milk but without sugar. For reasons I never knew Kaku didn’t drink milk and so special black tea was prepared for him. Of course the only tea entering the house was Darjeeling tea, the world famous hilly region in the north of west Bengal.
The rest of us would get up and be served a normal delicious cup of chai, milk tea with sugar, and 2 small cookies.
Fatima would come and go during the day, but she seemed to have daily tasks. She would broom and mop the whole house every morning, would wash the laundry, including mine, she would go and get water for the house from a safe well a few hundred meters away where there was usually a queue, and she would help Kakima in the kitchen.
Chapattis. In Bengali they are called rotis, and Fatima made the best ones. She would come back after 9 pm to make many of them. She would then keep them warm in a special plastic container. Kaku was very particular about rotis, and when one day, feeling bad to see Fatima come back so late just to make our rotis I convinced Kakima to let me do them. I got my way, and I was very happy with what I did, but we almost had the first drama in the house. Kaku didn’t like my rotis. Fatima was called back and I was never allowed to interfere with the kitchen again.
Kakima always took her food after us. She would stand there while we all ate, checking if we liked it, giving more until she was certain that we couldn’t take in anything anymore. She always looked so happy, proud, shinning with love and devotion. After we had eaten she would sit alone and eat. She was used to this and seemed happy this way. We always ate rice at lunch and rotis at dinner, except for Kakima who only ate rice, for lunch and for dinner as well. I never knew why.
We ate Fish every day. It seemed that everyone in Bengal could afford some kind of fish on a daily basis; poor people would catch small fishes in the ponds, or even in the streams of water that were flowing everywhere between the houses.
Of course we were just right by the Ganga Delta, and even Sundarbans National Park, one of the wildest, most magical places I ever experienced, was very close by, and the variety of fish was certainly overwhelming. At certain times of the year, in those unique waters where the Ganga meets the Sea of Bengal, the very fine, very expensive Illish fish can be found and I was treated a few times.
Apart for a couple of months in winter, life in Calcutta was hot. In our neighbourhood air conditioning was unheard of, and a ceiling fan was one of the most important part of the house. Under them we would eat, sleep, chat, read, rest, gather with friends, have tea….
Invariably, every day at around 5.30 pm as the sun was touching down we would have a power cut that would last till at least 10 pm. For me it was an incredible time. As the night was taking possession of everything, entering every house and every street, the sounds of the frogs and insects seemed to take over. I remember the awe in the air, the sense of magic and mystery, the surrendering to nature, the excitement. Certainly mosquitoes were a serious issue and the heat was often a challenge, but I never heard any real complaint.
At that time, everyone had their unique activities. There was lots of music and singing in our area. The neighbour was giving tabla lessons to one or 2 students every night, across the street girls would gather and practice classical singing, in a mud house nearby a dear friend of the family was practicing Sitar.
At the same time people would gather and meet friends. Women were usually more at home, and would come together in one of the houses. Men typically would go out.
I was hanging out with the boys, Raja’s two brothers and their friends.
Often the 3 of us would get on the one family bicycle and take off to the main road a few kilometres away. After about 20 minutes zooming through the maze of dark and tiny windy streets, we would reach the big, bright and only main road passing through. Diamond Harbour Road. This road went straight south from downtown Calcutta to as far as the land reaches before the start of the immense delta. And here we were living, somewhere on the way, about 20 km out of Calcutta. Diamond Harbour Road rarely had a power cut, even during evening rush hour. We were usually hungry by then and went hunting for snacks. We rarely had more than a few coins to spend, but Opu and Rana knew all the tricks…where to get the best and cheapest omelettes, where to get a free chai, and we would drive like crazy through the traffic to get there. One on the seat, one on the bar between the seat and the handle, and one on the back. Opu was always happy and laughing. I had never come across someone so cheerful, and no matter if the bicycle tire would suddenly get punctured, if the eggs were rotten or if some bad news came, he would always find a positive way to look at the situation. I felt so much love from them both. They were happy to have me here, proud to be my hosts, my brothers. In 4 years in Behala I never met a single foreigner and certainly the vast majority of people here had never seen one in their entire life. Those days I wore a white pyjama and a colourful Punjabi, I had very long beautiful henna coloured hair, big light green eyes, I was tall, skinny and rather handsome. Certainly I soon got used to have hundreds of eyes on me at any given time.
Those evenings were so much fun. Often we would meet other friends and go and hang out, sometimes we would visit relatives, and there we would sit and be given tea and Bengali sweets. When and how to get the message across that I could not eat anymore is one of the most delicate and difficult art I ever had to learn. But somehow I got it and one day I could leave friends’ homes without having offended anyone nor feeling sick from sugar overdose.
Of course I was often the centre of attention. I was such a caricature of a hippy that looking at the rare pictures I have of those days, it is quite outstanding how accepted I was. This tolerance, I came to discover, is a unique quality all over India.
There during those evenings, my Bengali became richer and more fluent, and people loved me so much for not only making such efforts to speak their language but for obviously be madly in love with it. Indeed, I loved it all. Effortlessly I learned Bengali, dressed with everything I was given, ate with my right hand with so much delight; but probably what stole people’s heart forever is when I started reciting poems by Tagore.
Bengal is probably the richest state in India as far as art and culture are concerned, and it is home of some of the very best philosophers, musicians, poets… Bengalis are proud of their culture, and this heritage is present in every home. Rabindranath Tagore is certainly on the very top. It is said that only a handful of people in the world have ever read everything Tagore has written, it is so huge. My Kaku knew such a man, and on one of those evening he took me to see him.
That evening is the very first time I was made to wear the traditional dhoti, a 4 meters piece of white cotton that is wrapped around the waist and between the legs in a unique way. I had been given a few already, but Kakima had kept them locked in her big grey metallic cupboard which was also the safe of the house. Wearing a dhoti is an art, and it certainly takes practice to put one on by yourself. I always wondered how people managed to walk without falling and I never found them very aesthetic, but older men certainly had style and elegance in them. Younger people hardly ever wore them; unless for rare and very special occasions. Today was such an occasion, and it was clear that I was going to surrender. I was made to feel so special and I also became excited. As I recall those moments I clearly see how much I was bathing in an atmosphere of love, how much I was soaking life as it came, how much I had a YES to everything that came my way.
The whole house gathered as I was made ready to go out with Kaku. Rana directed the show as the dhoti was carefully put exactly where it should be. I was asked to take a few steps, and as I looked up I saw a mixture of smiles and wonder. I guess no one here had ever seen a young foreigner wear a dhoti and it was probably a puzzling happening.
Kaku came up, looked at me with a sign of approbation and gave me one of his amused hearty smiles that he had the secret. He handed me an umbrella and said “We are ready, let’s go”.
Unless you drove the bicycle, there were 2 ways to reach the Diamond harbour road; one was to walk for about 30 minutes through the small windy lanes, dotted with one storey houses, some made of concrete like the one we lived in, some made out of mud and cow dung, and also between the houses were ponds, so many of them that it did look like every house had its own private one.
The other solution was to take a bicycle rickshaw and this is what Kaku chose today. The ride would take about 10 minutes and cost 1 rupee and 25 paisa. I sat on the back with Kaku, shy and a bit nervous with my new white dhoti on. I loved this short drive through the villages, so many people doing so many things, such an abundance of colours and sounds and smells. India is still an unequalled festival for the senses. The streets were lined with small houses, and the doors being open you often could glimpse inside into the privacy of Indian families. Small shops were selling everything you need, from soap to sugar to batteries. Chai shops were many, usually just a wooden stove on the street. Chicken and dogs were roaming freely, and people were everywhere. Lots and lots of people.
Arriving on the corner of Diamond Harbour Road was like arriving in town from the village. Such a different world was now opening up. We only had to carefully cross the big busy road and wait for a bus. All of them were heading towards Calcutta.
Well, waiting for a bus actually meant waiting for a bus with space in it. When I was on my own or with the boys every bus had space, and even when it was so full and dangerously leaning on one side under the weight of people hanging, I would always get on board; sometimes actually inside but squeezed to the limit, sometimes outside holding tight on a bar or a window seal, and sometimes on the roof, my favourite spot.
But Kaku needed a minimum of comfort, and so we waited until a relatively empty bus came along. We soon found one where all the seats were already taken, but where we could easily stand.
As I stood there in this by now crowded bus with Kaku on my side, silently wondering where we were going and who was this so special man who had read every word written by Rabindranath, a sense of awe engulfed me. Who was I? What was I doing here, what was this force driving this body through this infinite maze of sensations? I could sense the beating of my heart, I could feel my sweat dripping along the body, and I started to ponder about the infinite number of things going on inside of me. How could I be the doer of it all if I didn’t even have a clue of what was going on inside. And what if the stuff that made my heart beat and the blood flow through my veins was also the stuff that made my brain produce thoughts and even the sense of I ? Without a single break, without mistake and without a complaint, this body was performing an infinite number of actions, day in and day out.
As I was contemplating on the meaning of life, Kaku and I were painfully being squeezed to the back of the bus. An older lady who had come in with a few chickens was desperately trying to get near the door before her stop.
I wondered who she was, where she lived, what kind of a life she had since her birth, and I couldn’t help but imagine what was going on inside of her also. Who was she? Was she different than me? Were we actually one and the same, pretending to be different persons?
The bus kept rolling, stopping every few meters to pick up or drop passengers. I always was fascinated by the ticket collector who seemed to take notice of everyone on board. I watched with amazement how he kept the notes tidily sorted and in order between his fingers and how he every now and again climbed to the roof to make sure everybody paid the ride.
Kaku made a sign in my direction. Our stop was nearing and it was time to slowly move towards the door.

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