Friday, May 30, 2008

After the Rain (Calcutta)

The streets at every intersection around Chowringee are rivered up to the knees and long with water. This is not a time for shoes.

A girl in a freshly ironed school tunic raises hers neatly above her head as she wades through sensibly. A cyclist, bare feet lifted to his handlebars, sluices across a shallow lake nearby, clean and fast and free as a bird. I see their pleasure as they look down into the heavens, how they loom across a liquid mirror. Rain turning girl into woman and man into child at play.

The lake that has formed along Sudder Street is breathing, sucking in drops of air. Circles appear and disappear, light parting shots of drizzle after last night’s storm. The torrential downpour has slowed Calcutta down this morning, shutting it off into smaller pieces, distinguishing the pockets of neighbourhood life that make this place a wild jigsaw of villages bucketed together into a makeshift metropolis.

In the aftermath of the deluge, I amble around my own little tourist block with less and less determination, always to another watery dead-end.

A black and yellow taxi scuttles up and down and around the same streets with me, testing the depths, gears cranking forwards and reverse, like a drunken beetle trying to escape the inevitable. There is nowhere to go this morning, nothing to do but wait.

Families are reestablishing themselves on the sidewalk. Hoarding their lives under green sheets of plastic, using raggy strips of material for rope, attaching the plastic to the eaves of closed shopfronts, even a weary looking rickshaw, then securing their newly improved roofing to the ground using bricks and stones, whatever is around. So this is home: shelter for a day.

A young woman with five children gestures towards me with her hands, but I shake my head. No small change today. She nods at me and gestures again carelessly, starts to laugh. No harm in trying. Underneath the plastic she is cooking something in a small pot that steams out of the shadows while her children sleep off the morning and she pulls an ever-falling veil back onto her face, hiding her smile again and again from me.


A young man in a cheap brown suit starts to make a sales pitch in my ear. ‘Very good quality sir. Excellent smoke.’

He flashes a small green parcel bullet bound in Glad Wrap. Gathers it back up into his sleeve again as if a hydraulic system is working his fingers invisibly from the cuff of his jacket. Quite the magician.

I shake my head at him but he won’t give up and starts hassling me all the way down the street. ‘The very best sir. Smoke. Excellent quality, I assure you sir!’

Finally I say ‘nahee!’ so sharply a few people look out from under their plastic homes to see what the fuss is all about. The young man stops and stares at me coldly, a who-the-fuck-do-you-think-you-are? look that makes me tremble. Everyone shrinks back under their coverings and evaporates. Suddenly there is just the two of us in the open, the bitty rain blotching his suit and adding to the aloneness between us.

I escape from the salesman down a side street that turns into an alley and yet another dead-end full of water. Some sodden rubbish stinks it out. This is the dark street I was staring into from my hotel window during last night’s power failure. There’s nothing here except silence. But in the human mania of India, silence moves on you with a distinct presence. It feels bad.

I backtrack my way out into the street again. The salesman is gone. A couple of boys are talking on the corner in Bengali. I point to the sky and smile. They nod, so I ask if it rains like this all the time in Calcutta? They freeze up and just smile back at me. Clearly they don’t understand what the hell I am saying, though one of them knows enough English to say, ‘Hey Shane Warne!’

I nod wearily to this perpetual Indian greeting. It that marks me out as an Australian tourist, forever associated with one of my country’s most famous cricketers, a man who openly detests India and is nonetheless revered across the sub-continent as a hero for his playing skill. His current piggish behaviour – demanding cans of baked beans be flown in for him rather than eat the local muck - makes me feel ashamed of where I am from. A perverse streak makes me feel like putting on an American accent just to escape the low burden of his fame.

A few rickshaw wallahs rap their bells on the wooden handles of their carts to get my attention. The unusually high chassis of their seat carriages makes them an effective means of transport in a flood. They know I have no way out of Sudder Street with my boots on. I’m an easy mark, a likely ride.

Again I say nahee, more happily this time. I’m surprised by the communication inside such exchanges, the humour. It’s a game.

A woman with a child in her arms is shouting at a man who is filling a jug from a street pump. She looks well dressed and walks on, speaking quickly to a parked taxi driver who leans out of his window and starts yelling abuse as well. The man at the pump is indifferent to their anger. He finishes his task and walks off with a huge cask of water pressing down over his shoulders.

What a strange crime in a flood: I can’t interpret it.

I find myself gravitating back to a coffee shop on the corner opposite the Fairlawn Hotel where Lisa and I are staying. She’s still asleep in our room, as if the cool smell of the rain has drugged her. I’ve been up and down all night, disturbed by the storm, writing, then waking at the crack of dawn to go wandering, well, not far at all.

As I take a bench and sit under the café awning, a few raindrops stroke me. Despite my run-in with the marijuana salesman, the morning is very tender.

I notice a sloppy European girl dressed in a sari is with a tight-looking young man, scalp shaved athletically. They exude a queer energy, one that makes you reluctant to breathe the air near them and catch whatever mood it is they relish. An erotic misanthropy, I suspect. Certain travellers can be so intense their physical being stains everything around them. How to escape them?

At the back of the café, an Indian businessman, or maybe just a well-dressed student, reads his newspaper quietly below an advertisement for Titanic. The film poster – an obviously new decoration – features Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet in a swoon that is Indianized like the swarthy, melodramatic images promoting Bombay musicals.

As Lisa and I travel the country and become aware of Titanic fever everywhere we go, these two actors emerge as fresh gods in the Indian landscape. Sitting in a packed cinema watching the film a few days later, we enjoy a crowd whose biggest laughs are reserved for jokes that involve class barriers and English table manners, such as the choice of knives and forks Leonardo struggles with over dinner. Despite the last gasps of the 20th Century, India’s memories of English colonialism are still fresh and influentially absurd, a thick paste over their own caste system. They laugh as if from inside another time when these things mattered and marked you. Perhaps here they still do.

The tight couple beside me pays up and departs and I am relieved to have the café and the street more or less to myself. A typically Western thought, when the street is so busy. I’m hardly alone here, just culturally distant. What makes me think of it as ‘mine’?

More people, bare foot or on bicycles, are now making their way through the floodwaters. Another taxi driver plunges his vehicle in and out of a narrow section of water, creating a tidal wave that laps over doorways and causes an explosion of words and raised, knotty fists. The driver quickly escapes around the next corner, honking his horn sluttishly.

One of the rickshaw wallahs from across the street hovers nearby, studying me. As I sip my steaming glass he finally approaches.

‘Good morning sir.’

‘Good morning.’

‘It rains very much tonight in Calcutta sir.’

‘Last night? Yes. The lightning was amazing.’

‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘Very good for business.’

He stands there before me, improbably optimistic in a grubby lunghi and a dirty, slightly torn singlet so sheer he must have been wearing it for years.

‘Tell me sir, how much is a glass of Nescafe in Australia?’

Here at the café I appear to be paying roughly US$ 0.40 for an espresso coffee. So I do the calculations, increasing them a little to emphasize how expensive it is for me to live back in Australia. In other words, to let him know I am not a rich man at home.

I finally say that the price is about five times what I am paying here, and go on to explain how this affects me in Sydney. But he is not interested in the excuses for my life. Merely astounded by the price of a cup of coffee. I suspect he already thinks the café is exploiting a ridiculous European indulgence as it is. The madness of the West when one can just drink chai!

He keeps staring at my glass like it might be a pot of gold, so I offer to buy him one. ‘No thank you, I cannot drink,’ he says, holding his stomach to indicate a vulnerability or illness. ‘Thank you for your kindness sir. But I was just curious to know this price.’

He jiggles his head side to side in that bobbing Indian way somewhere between a yes and a no. I look at how skinny he is. Too skinny to be pulling a rickshaw around Calcutta. I picture him straining every muscle to get people, sometimes very fat people and their luggage, from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’.

Yesterday I bargained a rickshaw wallah down from 80 to 60 rupees for a trip, the equivalent of quarrelling over a dollar. Once that was done Lisa and I climbed aboard and watched the rickshaw groan with our weight as the wallah lifted the handles to his waist. Bowing his head, he started to step forward, gaining momentum, sandals thudding down the road till we arrived at our destination some fifteen minutes later. By which time he was heaving with the need to breathe and so drenched in sweat I thought he might pass out. We gave him 100 rupees and ran away ashamed of ourselves for having beat down his asking price. Even our belated generosity made us feel like gluttons gorging ourselves on a false kindness.

Some Europeans won’t take the rickshaws at all in Calcutta – it’s too much like indentured slavery. But the awful truth is they are just denying the poor a few rupees they desperately need. And these are men who are willing to work, who have struggled hard at the bottom of the heap to get this most menial of jobs. Forget the beggars if your conscience is strained by the poverty round here, these guys will give you their backs to ride on. I can’t help but acknowledge some pride, or at least determination, in their efforts. Maybe it’s not so bad to let them rip you off a little.

My new friend stands quietly beside me looking out at the street and the sky. Three more rickshaw wallahs cross the giant puddle to join us, leaving their carts lined and covered by the white walls of the Fairlawn. Most of their customers are shut away inside, still snoring their arses off. Business will be slow for the time being.

The wallahs are equally friendly so I offer to buy them all coffee. But I soon realize there is not the same warmth in their communication - and that they are understandably milking me for whatever I might be willing to give. The Indian café proprietor gives them the evil eye, tolerating, just, their presence outside his door.

As they crowd in around me asking questions about Shane Warne (oh no, not him again) and who my favourite Indian cricketer is (I always say ‘Srinath’ because I love the sound of his name) they push my friend to the back of their huddle. Eventually he saunters away to his rickshaw and sits quietly inside it as the rain continues to sprinkle down. I see that they are much harder, physically and mentally, and it pains my heart to think of him as someone lower on the pecking order.

I start drinking my coffee quickly despite its scalding heat. I don’t like being king of the rickshaw wallahs this morning in a flooded Chowringee street. I am able to step outside this scene and look at it from across the way as if through the eyes of a floating stranger - and I do not like the man I see big-timing himself with a few cheap coffees. So I burn my tongue and refuse entreaties for ‘a tourist ride’ through their watery world. And I walk back to my hotel and a security that threatens to defeat me once more, grieving for a friend I barely know. Praying Lisa will be awake to hold me and help me feel human on a foreign morning. Hand bells jangling in the rain, calling to me in vague hope despite all my refusals. Nahee, nahee.

- Mark Mordue

* Story first published in Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip.

+ Colour image of rickshaw and Ambassador taxi in Calcutta by Ran Chakrabarti

+ Black and white image of Calcutta in 1945 sourced from Brajeshwar

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