Persephone In Calcutta

In 2013 I was invited to join a team of music teachers on a trip to India.


Part One

As we walk across the garden courtyard of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture towards breakfast, I hear my colleague speak.  “It’s already hot,” she remarks in the hazy morning. I reflect that nearly every hazy morning is aptly named hazy.  The courtyard garden is dissected into struggling patches of lawn, and crisscrossed with cement paths lined with potted plants ranging in size and beauty. Beauty perhaps found in the presentation of an infant leaf to a leaf. Being the end of April, Calcutta’s temperature is starting to heat up; the city is preparing for the monsoon season coming mid or late May.  The airplane from Dubai to Calcutta had very nearly been vacant of passengers.

“I thought I heard thunder last night.” I say from behind.

Her reply: “Yes, they do that every morning.” She gestured at the garden being tended to, generously watered daily by the gardening team. And so it went.  In India everything takes about twenty five times longer than elsewhere and my colleague has been busy handling all matters pertaining to our stay in Calcutta.  Hourly, she was experiencing some communication problems.   I left matters to her capable hands because she, a Japanese national living in the Netherlands, is married to a Bengali and comes annually to India.  She even speaks some Bengali, and herself is a very optimistic, sincere person.  Mostly, she can become quite enthused about India except when she curses out the locals. 


I’ve let drop several times that I lived for a stint in Singapore and I don’t mind the heat.  This information has made little impression upon her.  One morning after breakfast, we walked around a number of large murky ponds in a wonderful park behind the cultural center. I recognized many eastern species of trees and flowers while admiring local families sweating gently in the Sunday morning heat strolling around the peaceful neighborhood park for their constitutional. I remembered my life in Singapore living in a black and white colonial bungalow in a largely wild tropical area of the island, while my colleague chattered to me of the garbage problems.   Yes, one can certainly see hygiene problems are present in India.

“Don’t worry,” she explained to me, “Our pianist is bringing rice.” The pianist is, like her, Japanese. “And I have nori. So if anything happens to your stomach I can always cook you rice.” Ah, all bases covered then, I thought.  I asked her the word in Bengali for banana.  It also might come in handy.  “Boiled egg,” too, was one of my favorite dishes the last time I traveled to India.

“You don’t sweat.” She remarked to me.  No, I rarely break out in a sweat.  I’d turned the air-conditioning off upon arriving and am generally to be found sitting under a rotating fan studying or reading a book.  The cultural center is a heritage building from the 1930’s. It has, as I mentioned, an immaculate garden, and large open verandas and sculpted balconies with lovely high ceilings, in short all the possibilities are available for sitting in the shade in anticipation of an afternoon pot of milky tea.  Tea comes every morning at 6:30 shortly followed the launderer. The newspaper at 8:30 and the sweeper at 9:00.   Clockwork. If anyone comes by with any questions, I refer them to my take charge colleague.

From my oasis at the cultural heritage center, a complex sitting in front of a rotunda accessed by an overpass, I can hear the traffic circling outside.   “We could walk to the music school. They say that it will take fifteen minutes.” My colleague was reflecting her latest conversation at the reception desk.  I thought it best to take a taxi and check out what this fifteen minutes on foot would be like, turning over my last visit to India in my mind's eye.  I didn’t voice this opinion though, I let it slide.  Even with my husband at my side during my first visit to India, my experience of walking around Indian streets as a western woman was not a very agreeable one.  But as anyone, I am aging and perhaps I shouldn’t be so reticent these days, particularly on this trip, however, my silence was not greeted as an affirmation of the latest office wallah plan.

My colleague’s Bengali husband, who had avoided this particular trip to India claiming inclimate time of the year because of the swarthy and burly weather, was adamant that his wife should avoid all milk products, street food and water because of the hot weather.  “Don’t drink the water.” Everyone says this in India.  “After eating,” my colleague says to me in the washing up room just offside the dining hall, “Bengalis rinse out their mouth.” Demonstrating for me, she rinsed her mouth from the tap.  Later, she kindly offered to dilute some rice vinegar in my water bottle.  So far, I’ve resisted on both accounts.  The milk at breakfast is scalding hot and therefore perfect for the cereal, in my case, gluten intolerant, puffed rice.  “Mori,” the gentleman from the kitchen said to me loudly in front of my room having come to find out if that was okay.  What’s up with the nori?  I thought, and referred him to my all knowing colleague.  Maybe she wanted to cook something.  But then mori, the Bengali word for puffed rice was pontificated on and the mystery entirely solved.

Nearing the music school, we descended from the taxi at the wrong address.   The taxi had turned off one street to early.  No street signs on walls, mostly just the stenciled statement “Stick no bills,” and possibly, a thoughtful addition, “Do not spit on wall.” The traffic cop the taxi driver had bellowed at to ascertain if it indeed was the street he was searching for had not been very helpful when he’d confirmed the name.  We then circulated two blocks on foot to find the school.   A wind had picked up and cooled us. “The auditorium is overly damped.” The school’s charming Western style singing teacher explained to me, “But there is a sweet spot. The Russians that came a few years ago found it.”  He gestured at the right hand corner of the stage. As far as I knew we were the first Dutch musicians descending upon the tidy Indian music school. I wondered what else the Russians discovered in Calcutta's School of Music.

Back at base camp and hungry, I was looking forward to dinner.   The staff clangs a bell to announce when a meal service is beginning.  We sat down to our second chicken curry of the day.  “Tomorrow I will order the vegetarian meal.” My colleague reassured me after I half-truthfully claimed that I really didn’t mind eating chicken curry all day.


Part Two
 
 

“I used to go swimming there every day as a child.  My father’s house was nearby.” Mr. C was referring to the extensive public park behind the Ramakrishna Mission. 

“Is the water good?” My colleague asked enthusiastically.  For a moment I thought she might be considering submitting her intestines to undue exercise.

“No!” replied Mr. C.  with great verve, and quite charmingly from the divan in his apartment.  We had been kindly invited to dinner by this family, an acquaintance of my colleague.   Mr. C. possessed a warm wide smile, his ears stuck out like those of a school boy, and his eyes glowed from behind his black square thick rimmed glasses.

On my way to my morning practice, I noticed that the large crumbling mansion just before the turn off for Calcutta’s Music School had a name plate on the front gate post.  C. it said, also the name of that evening's host and hostess.  In fact, I had recognized the family name, one that comes up often in Bengali regions, from my interest in India’s history.  Mr. C, very gracious, told of his time in London in the fifties when he drove a Jaguar and spent weekends on the continent for a bit of fun.  At present, it appeared he was living in retirement in somewhat reduced circumstances.  Although, it has to be said, the family confessed to owning a house outside Calcutta to escape the urban hustle on the weekends.   Only two and a half hours by train from Calcutta. We were invited to stay, should we want to beat a retreat from the city.  After mentioning this Mr.  C. poured himself some more whiskey out of a bottle that gave the impression of being a bottle one could get refilled on the corner. He watered it down, waiting patiently for the ensuing discussion.  I’d been on a train before in India. I had not found the ride terribly relaxing.  My colleague was already busy calculating about the possibility of tickets and times via Indian National Railway system. 

“But,” she said, “We’d have to come back.  Do you think we could come back on the same day?”

To my great relief, Mrs. C. soundly assessed the situation, “Better to stay the night.”  I could imagine the train schedule already.  Leaving in the early morning, say 5:30 am, arriving for the heat of the day, returning before dinner.  Five hours on a slow moving Indian train as an excursion to unwind from teaching.  The cockroaches, the curry smell, the vomit in the corridors. 

“Then not possible.” Resumed my colleague sensibly.  At that moment, I sincerely believed that her fear of us missing our return flight kept her wits in tune with the situation. After all she was our leader and responsible for us. Of course, my curiosity would have killed me and I would have agreed to the trip nonetheless, so perhaps she kept me from myself.

Multilingual, my colleague delights in her Bengali vocabulary.  She practices on the taxi chauffeurs.  Left is this and right is that, she recited happy to show off her knowledge, waving her hands over the front seat from the back.  The taxi driver would immediately become confused, do you mean to go left or right here, madam, they asked in a panicky manner.  “No straight! Straight!” she’d yell in English. 

Granted, India can be quickly wearing on a visitor; stepping outside the mission complex becomes an adventure.  From our little walk in the park, my colleague surmised that it would not be best for me to walk to the music school in the morning.  I was, she luckily noticed, more of a liability then herself.  Although I, completely covered from head to toe, had been wearing my wide brimmed sun hat during our promenade, enjoying not making eye contact with anyone, my hatless colleague realized that I was a target or more to the point, a magnet for a large amount of unwanted male attention.

“You are sweating a lot,” Mr. C’s daughter remarked to my colleague who was assembling her next mouthful of food on her aluminum plate with her fingers, Bengali style.  She had been looking forward to the meal, so lovingly prepared for us, and she gleefully accepted the offer of seconds.  As  I slowly chewed my way through two golf balls of fermented sweetened  milk in syrup, Mr. C’s family were casting off a litany of places that my colleague would most likely enjoy to sample Bengali food. 

“Yes, yes!” my colleague’s eyes glowed with happiness at the list of addresses.  “You know my father was a doctor like you,” she started in on a story about her family.

“I was a dentist,” Mr. C. mentioned lightly for the second time. I felt he was no longer going to mention this fact during our dwindling conversation. His teeth were magnificent.

“Yes,  a doctor….” my colleague continued with her story, another curtained antidote.

Doggedly, and she is most determined which is in India an excellent characteristic to possess, my colleague had engaged chauffeur to drive us, all three of us from the music course she was arranging, around the city. “It’s not fair for you,” she said, “The violin teacher has arranged a car, and we are taking taxis.” I was a bit alarmed.  The taxi ride took 15 minutes and cost 30 rupees.  Now she’d arranged a car which was costing 1000 rupees a day.  Ten times the amount she’d otherwise have to cover of our expenses.   “But,” I pointed out, “I don’t mind the taxis.” The breeze in Calcutta was not as poisonous as I had expected, and I rather liked the windows rolled down rattling around in the yellow Ambassadors.  It reminded me of my childhood in Berkeley, California. It was a bit hot, much hotter than California, perhaps, even for the beggars who for some odd reason weren’t living in the traffic dividers like in Delhi.   Then again, maybe the traffic cops in immaculate white uniforms, upheld by winsome shiny black suspenders, kept this situation in hand.

“But it’s not safe for you and the car has airco.” She argued.  I dislike airco.  I thought I shouldn’t protest; she needed the airco. Basically she was asking for me to agree to the extra expense and chip in a third of the cost which came to about 40 Euros.

I offered her the money the next morning in advance to get rid of the issue. “No,” she said, “You misunderstood. I pay you the 2,500 ruppees.”  She’d lost me again, but then everything was working well; I liked our accommodation and I had no complaints. I told her she could have the money if she need it.

 “You complement each other, “ Mr. C. informed us, as we got ready to take our leave. “She talks.”

“Yes,” I replied gamely, “She eats and talks, and I play fly on the wall.”
 
 
Part Three
 

While standing on the veranda outside the dining room inspecting the mission’s uneventful daily menu plan, a gentleman in a baseball cap strode over to me and made inquiries about my origins. A former Indian resident now residing in the states, he was gathering Rabindranath Tagore material in Calcutta.  He flatly and categorically declared Tagore the Bengal Shakespeare. It so happened that the coming week was the anniversary of the great poet’s birth; many festivities were being held in the city the man mentioned, namely a dance recital was to be performed that evening and I knew, upon hearing the words fly out of his mouth, that it was going to be impossible for me to attend.  The information tortured me for the remainder of the day.

“They have been serving us the Western food!” my colleague exclaimed looking at the menu which I had pointed at as she joined me on the veranda.  I had had my suspicions that we had been served the last of the Raj because the vegetables that accompanied the chicken curry happened to be square cut carrot bits and little rounds of green beans, perfectly assorted to each other’s species in size.  “They are serving fish head today in the Indian dishes! I will have to order that! Very delicious!” I could tell she was planning her day around this upcoming meal.  
It was a little unorganized, that first morning when, alone, I arrived at the school to practice.  Except for the dog dozing outside the front door everyone in the building greeted me politely, that is to say all the caretakers of the building, six of them looking surprised and even slightly alarmed in their blue trousers white shirt uniforms.  “I came to work,” I explained. 

“There’s no one here.” He replied.  “You’ll have to wait to eleven.” It was twenty past nine. I had been officially notified that no one needed the rooms in the morning as there were no classes.  I started teaching in the afternoons, however, it would have been difficult to practice in the short time available before my students arrived, hence my early morning rise and jaunt to the school.

The concierge offered me a seat in the hall and turned on the air conditioning for my benefit.  I decided to study my scores, simply reading them.  I turned the pages slowly back and forth.  The concierge sat across from me reading a newspaper.  After a half an hour I looked up and asked, “May I use a piano?”

“You want to practice?” I nodded to his question.  For the next hour and a half, except for the boy who came to water the plants growing outside the windowsill, I was left alone with a Bösendorfer.

“How heavy was your suitcase?” I asked our pianist who had just arrived from Amsterdam.

“Really nothing, mainly empty.” She offered. She turned to our colleague at the dining table. “I thought that you’d want to use the space.”

“Vegetables!” Our colleague exclaimed, having consumed the front end of a fish. “I want to fill it with Bengali vegetables!”

 Part Four


I was getting slightly worried about my colleague.  She was starting to look a little stressed after picking up the pianist who had arrived in India a few days behind our own arrival.  My colleague’s neck swollen and face belligerent, she was obviously feeling the strain of spending the day arguing with Calcutta cabbies at the airport.  It was a job I did not envy. 


“I think I should make a big stink and then things will get better.” The violin teacher said over dinner at a food court near the school after we finished teaching.   His orchestra rehearsal had been cancelled.   Instead of teaching each of the two orchestras six times, he was getting ahold of the younger one for one Saturday morning and the other for perhaps three sessions.  I wondered about this actually.  His private students that particular day had been reduced to two.  He was going to work three days out of six.  In other words, he was at liberty to enjoy Calcutta to the fullest.


“You are still not sweating.” My colleague remarked to me in between telling me she was going to arrange dhosa, a large lentil pancake, for me.  Soon, she promised, soon.  I had to admit the temperature was rising.  It was a libertine 40 degrees.   Even I felt it.  The haze had burnt away a bit and the sun was stronger.

“Why doesn’t anyone use the sidewalks?  Very strange.” My colleague grumbled.  For one, I thought treading behind her on the tarmac road waiting for a taxi, you’d be intruding upon dozens of happy homes.  

“The violin teacher called.  He said his lunchtime student did not show up. He was very angry.” Why bother, I thought, to get angry in such a climate?  Better go someplace and relax. Have a Scotch, no ice, just straight.  Read a score.  Practice. Wait for a meal.  Call in the cleaner out from his relaxing spot on the veranda to wash the floor.  Think about where you might be able to break a large bill fresh from the cash dispenser without too much grief.

“He wanted to come here, to our place.  But that is not allowed.” It still amused me that my colleague, upon learning the address of a recommended liquor store in the neighborhood, had been planning to buy Indian rum and hold a little party.  “It’s very good stuff!” It appeared that of the two of us, I had been the one to read the rules hanging on the wall of my room.

“You can’t do that in the Ramakrishna Mission!” her shocked Indian friend, so well brought up, had exclaimed.  “Now really!”

The lemon soufflé on the menu one day struck me as rather a good idea, except it was for the residents of the mission and not for guests who had a choice between Western, some variety of chicken curry, or Indian, vegetarian that included a fish option.  Besides the souffle probably had wheat flour in it and was in any case, for me, off limits.  
 
Part Five


 
After lunch getting ready for this holy-day, I had dressed myself in a pair of black baggy harem type trousers recently laundered by Laundry Wallah & Camping Co.  I smelled strongly of Carp Barbeque.  I attempted to imagine where exactly my clothes had encountered a clothesline.  The possibilities were fairly limitless.  Yes, India has room for a little more modernization, however, the country does have cash dispensers.  Apparently the pianist had not been informed, she had brought cash and needed to exchange money.  We were then, having gotten out of the taxi, trouping down Calcutta’s High Street in the middle of the day looking for Western Union.  I had an inkling we wouldn’t find it.  We didn’t find it.  I began to seethe ever so lightly.  Why didn’t the pianist simply pull out her debit card and extract money from one of the machines to be found on nearly every block?  I fought to remain calm.  She had been searching for three days for, of all people, a money changer, a businessman notoriously criminal and risky.  But there was no point in getting angry in this type of heat.  

My colleague was gamely managing, at times difficult, adjusting to everyone’s needs and schedules.  She had broken out in a rash.   “From the heat,” she said scratching the thickened skin on her neck. I handed her a bottle of talcum powder that I had bought on our trip to the mall one day.  I continued to be concerned about her, she was beginning to shout at taxi drivers routinely.  She’d learnt to say “Don’t be such a fucking rupee head,” in Bengali.

The matter of exchanging cash was solved when the violinist said, because he was a paying guest, he could exchange it at his hotel.  His four plus star hotel was located in the city center area of Calcutta, and proved quite luxurious.  A hotel meant for business people: air conditioning, hermetically sealed windows,  carpeted conference spaces, a darkened dining room with no outside views, in short the type of place I personally try to avoid, and in which the violinist was very happy to be accommodated, feeling at home. It had its attractions; he could walk down a block and take in the sights on the High Street at whim without being set upon too much, but then, he was male.  If I were in his place, as a woman, I’d probably never emerge from the hotel, but hide myself away and order room service (I’d really be fighting my antisocial tendencies in such a place).  As it was, I never emerged from the Ramakrishna Mission except in the company of my colleague.

Before hitting the road, our team of music teachers gathered together to drink coffee in the dark dining room under the gaze of the screaming television screens at either end of the room, a reminder to me that I certainly didn’t miss rolling, scrolling, hysterical intrusion of CNN at the Mission. The violinist’s car and driver were engaged to take us north to a temple, the Ramina Temple, situated on the Ganges.  I settled myself in the back seat, the trip would take an hour and half through congested traffic, knowing that the driver was going to take good care of us pampered Westerners and laugh heartily at our jokes, at some cost, but then there were four of us sharing the costs.  A day out bonding:  two Japanese, one Dutch, one American, and a driver wallah to make sure no one ransomed our shoes for a too exorbitant price while we visited the temple.  Off we go….
 

Part Six
 
Practicing was proving a strain in the mornings.   Whenever three of us arrived to rehearse at the music school, we made a racket.  We were now being assigned rooms; one piano, one electric piano, one casserole, as the French quaintly call a piano in the process of self-destruction.   The rooms at the school were quite hollow sounding and I had quickly opted to work on, in addition to repertoire that was not too high in tessiatura, singing technique exercises that required singing softly.  This didn’t mean, by a long shot, that I wasn’t audible to the dozens of ears dozing in the shadows.  My colleague had, for one of her pieces, squarely opted for “Madama Butterfly.”

On the Ganges, standing on the wooden fishing boat that was going to take us downriver, it was clear that it was better to simply squat or sit on the planks.  I lowered myself down and faced the prow.  The violinist after much hesitation did the same, except he ended up facing the motor.   I found the Ganges to be surprisingly wide.  People, as to be expected, were bathing in it.  After viewing the temple, the thought crossed my mind to at least put my feet in the Ganges, descending the steps to the water.  No one else in our group felt this temptation despite having been obliged to take off our shoes and walk the lividly hot pavement stones, so dusty red, around the courtyard of the temple complex.   A thinly woven hemp carpet had been strewn from side to side of the courtyard so that people could walk around without burning their feet.  Perhaps, I worried, it was sacrilegious as a non-Hindu to refresh your roasted feet in the Ganges. 

Under the scorching heat in the sacred courtyard, the violinist was telling me about a temple he’d seen on his marvelous trip to Malaysia.  I’d been to Malaysia, I told him waiting for his reaction since he had bothered to ask me whether I’d been to Malaysia, and I stated that I’d Toured the Country On a Motorbike.  He blinked slightly and continued his own incantation.  “So,” I interrupted his recollection of his previous somewhat item ditto Asian experience, “What do you think of this here?” I waved my arms about at the stupas as I stood boiling on the hemp carpet.  The man seemed to be oblivious to where he was at any given time.  He lived in his head, following music, his passion, his obsession, his hobby, the nourishment of his world.   It takes a great deal of training to live in his world and I admire him for it, except that exchanging information was occasionally proving difficult.  I was getting the feeling that should I sing at him, and he play the violin at me, so we could have better conversations.

“Ha!” My colleague spat triumphantly, “They gave us a schedule for the practice rooms!” She’d been after that item since day one when she’d been told there were no rooms available.  I saw the room numbers and realized we’d been given the short end of the stick.  It might have been better, I mused, not to demand the schedule but just to say, “Good morning,” politely and respect each other’s air space.  But then, there was no getting around the fact that the director of the school arrived one morning before 11 am and found her room occupied by a thundering rendition of Puccini’s “Un bel dí” which, perhaps, she’d found disconcerting.  Then the bottom line was that the team of wallahs, forced to listen to us break their peaceful mornings with our “western caterwauling,” had total charge of the place and negotiated their own quality of life by following orders higher up, namely the secretary who clearly disliked operatic voices.  Blockades quickly formed to our requests to practice.  Now we had been given what we requested, and could no longer barter.

Back in a yellow taxi after our morning practicing, stickily ensconced in the back seat of a hot Ambassador on a plastic covered seat, I became entertained at a stop light, watching the tram driver stuck to his rails, inflexible, unlike the cars surrounding him, stick his arm through the handy hole in the grill of the front of the tram and make swatting motions at automobilists with his hands.   It was a pity that the tram line didn’t extend down far enough to the Ramakrishna Mission.  Had it gone a bit farther than the terminal station, a most delightful building despite the dust and dilapidation, we could have avoided all the fuss with the taxi chauffeurs on a straight shot from the mission to the school.   The trams even had, I noticed, specific no molesting seating for ladies.  Then, such double bad luck, the Calcutta metro line does not lend to our needs much service.   I looked out the other side of the taxi, smiling to myself at the tram driver’s antics, and realized that six men were leering at me from out of the bus travelling parallel to our cab, hanging their grinning faces out the windows eyes bulging over their dusty elbows.

“You must become Spartan Woman here.” A Romanian student living at the complex said to me over lunch.   Learn to fight.  “Most women from abroad,” she continued calmly, “Give up in a couple of months.” She’d been living in Calcutta for eight years and was now finishing her doctoral.
 
Part Seven
 

My colleague spent an hour not practicing but yelling at the music school’s building staff in the corridor.  Then she made a phone call.  “The piano in one room is Shit!” she screamed to someone higher up in charge.  I could clearly hear her as I resumed my fourth attempt at number 3 from Schumann Opus 90. A nice, low, nearly Sprechstimme vocal piece in the echo filled practice room so that I wouldn’t deafen myself.  Essentially, I was a soprano hiding out in a resonant grotto.  Why add to the may-lay in this heat?

Handed the score to the opera aria, “Una furtive lagrima,” by a young tenor during class I could barely make out the music.  The score was a computer generated version, and more resembled the attempt at putting a pop tune, the tune an octave higher to lower than normal as pop tunes are notated, to music paper.   I squinted at it.  The vocal line had been cleverly hidden in the piano reduction. There was no stave for the singer.  All likenesses, the bowing, legato, accents, dynamics, to belcanto style had been drummed out of the aria by the parity of the printer. 

To my delight, the trip to the temple and the Ganges had been rather enjoyable.  Observing the crowded streets of Calcutta, I admired the choice of foot apparel of the rickshaw runners as we steady made our through traffic by car; the wizened old man in the Birkenstocks standing waiting at a heap of mostly organic garbage for the next customer to appear, or the young Hermes in the incandescent cream rubber slippers loitering at a bus stop, his curly hair flaming around his head.

“I am now getting into the swing of the taxi cab driver game,” my colleague announced cheerfully, “I noticed,” she added, “that when I wear my sunglasses I don’t have to ask them to turn the meter on.”

I’d have no such luck with sunglasses.  I had trampled around the Victoria Memorial Hall gardens wearing mine and was trailed by gawkers, ogles and lecherous eyes of anything male within a fifty meter radius of my person.  Past my mid-forties, I was covered from head to foot in baggy clothing and busy cogitating a tad morosely, as consolation to my irritated vanity, that maybe in ten years’ time, this wouldn’t be such a problem.  

I requested two boiled eggs at breakfast.  When we first arrived at the Mission, we received two boiled eggs in the morning. Now we were served one and I was quite hungry.  The waiter wallah made, upon my request, a no sign to me. He held up one finger, “One person, one egg.” This didn’t account for the omelet on the invisible menu, quite concrete in the wallah mind, but his reply did reinforce the fact that every one’s lives are subject to wallah whims.  The newpaper wallah hadn’t appeared in a few days.  We made inquiries. 

I discovered a mosquito bite on my hand near my thumb. I was outraged.   Mosquitos generally do not find me very appetizing.  I rubbed anti mosquito cream on my body preparing to sit on a panel to judge the school’s non classical western music end of the year competition at the school.  I pulled on a fresh pair of well smoked leggings.  I wondered if this was an added service by the dhobi wallah: guaranteed (cured) to ward off mosquitos.

 Part Eight
 


I was beginning to calculate that every thirty square meters of any given building was assigned to a service wallah.  If you had sixty square meters, then you had two wallahs, ninety then three wallahs, and so on.  They benignly look over you, control you, extort money from you, and reduce services like an ebbing tide.  You miss them when they do not show up, because you’ve set aside hard won change for them.  Obviously a social scale rotated the shifting wallah world, they were obliged to get along together and, like a pack, every once in a while they’d switch the lead.

For the End of the Workshop Concert my colleague desired that I dress in Indian clothes.  She’d bought me a luxurious outfit.  The clothes in India are beautiful, even sumptuous; on the street few wear Western styles, apart from the occasional pair of jeans replacing the leggings under a long tunic.   I’d carefully considered the matter of wardrobe when packing for the trip.  I bought two long summer sheath dresses of pure polyester (it dries quickly when coming from the heat to the air conditioning and thus I could avoid catching a cold), one pair of leggings, a chiffon wrap around scarf or sarong, and finally I went to my local thrift store and bought three chiffon blouses, all too large, to accommodate the heat and modesty.  I fully intended to abandon the garish blouses in India.   

My colleague’s elbows were covered in mosquito bites.  Her neck, despite generous saltings of talcum powder, continually looked distressed.  She’d also got a case of rummy tummy.  “We need a spot of good old fashion Dutch directness!” exclaimed the violin teacher.  “Clear the situation right up.” When we arrived the first day at the music school, no announcement about our workshop had been posted on any of the school’s billboards.  We’ve felt, in general, almost as if we have been intruders, uninvited, however, in this respect I’ve had better luck than the violin teacher as my contact with the school’s one Western Voice Teacher has been lovely.  Consequently my colleagues have been accepting invitations to visit other schools and establishments preparing for next year's scenario, that is should my colleague want organize another workshop. 

In an extraordinary move, putting us extraneous outsider musicians to use at the school, one of the heads in charge informed us that we would be judging the end of the year competitions.  She made it sound like should clap our hands in glee as if embarking on a kindergarten excursion to throw sand at each other.   Awarded the job of being on the panel for the non-classical western music competition, I was scheduled to listen to exhibitions of young talent on the keyboard, the drums, the guitar and singing with a microphone.  Sitting down at the judging table in the center of the room a few feet from the stage, I was quickly enchanted by the equipment I was being given with which to voice my already decided opinions.  Specifically the “Non-Dust Eraser.” I was immediately inspired to write a poem on the pad of paper.

“The Non-Dust Eraser”

I fear that I’ve disappointed you

And I cannot locate the non-dust eraser

I felt sure I’d bought at the emporium

Before I entered this world.

 

In one great reincarnate push

The essence has remained,

A small green and blue wrapper

Lying about in my bureau drawer.

I must have exchanged the gum

With that trickster, the Grand Pu-Bah,

So remorseful, for some sticky notes.

 

Upon finishing this little miscellaneous thought, the announcement came, quietly Oxford and so beautifully articulated, that the concert was to open with “The Dainty Cha Cha” played on the keyboard. A girl in polka dots stepped out of the wings.

 
I looked rather like a dolled up Polish peasant despite my best intentions to humor my colleague.  I couldn’t possible march out on stage in the Ethnic Indian clothes she’d selected, a ravishingly beautiful pink tunic with gold trim, gold leggings and a gold scarf.   She herself looks lovely in those type of clothes, but then she, being Japanese, is more Asian looking than I and, as she is solidly built, can even pass for a northern type of Indian. 

 

I’d peeked into the ethnic attire shops in the mall where we spent most of May 1, the national holiday otherwise known as Worker’s Day.   The scraggly men I saw on the drive to the shopping center, wearing ragged dhotis, standing on the tarmac in the middle of the road obviously could not resist picking up that pick axe and get outside on their day off to enjoy the sunshine to tear up the road in their flip-flops.  Not quite such a workaholic, loitering at the mall quite aimlessly, I considered buying a lovely, almost Liberty Print, tunic but then I realized the pattern would make me look like I was wearing pyjamas, and probably I would feel too decadent and improper.  India was starting to get into my nervous system.


 Part Nine
 
 

The crow landed on the aluminum tea tray.  I’d finished my morning chai and had placed the tray outside on the veranda’s wide black stone railing.  Dipping its beak in the milk jar, wagging its head from side to side, the bird was relishing his unexpected beverage.   In the haze of the morning I stood, showered, fully dressed, in my new pink leggings.  My two cheap pre-voyage buys, the one teal blue and other one fuchsia, of summer dresses had been a good choice in general, except that I needed to wear leggings under them; Indian women cover their legs.  With only one pair of leggings in my suitcase, teal blue, I had opted to buy a pair of fuchsia leggings to match the other dress.  I inspected the label to my purchase.  “Breeze,” it said, “The ultimate feminine comfort with fashion. For safe skin.” Oddly, being covered from head to toe in 38 degrees was not proving as uncomfortable as having skin exposed.  Perhaps it was the fact the sun did not reach the skin directly thus rewarding modesty.

I pondered about the bouquet of carnations that I’d received as a judge to the music competition.  Would they prefer filtered water or would they thrive within the City Water Board’s criteria? My colleague, in an attempt to secure spare change for the taxis, had bought a pair of flip-flops.  She held them out to me. “What size do you wear?” she asked.  The shoes had rubbed the skin between her big toe and second toe raw.  She’d wrapped her toes up in gauze.  Talcum powdered, her neck glowed less. She’d spent some time recovering from the effects of the last few meals. “I feel better now.” She assured us. 

The truth is if I had had to do what she’s been doing to keep this workshop running, you would have to scrape me off of the marble bathroom floor.  I’d be oozing from every pore.  I felt guilty about her sacrifices, but I’d had to sit up straight, smile and judge “Hotel California” played on a synthesizer.  “Is the level of repertoire suitable for the students?” One of the heads of the school asked me, her dark eyes worried, after the concert.  “Perfect,” I replied shrugging my shoulders in a “hey no-worries” gesture. 

“But you must tell us, if the musical selection is under par.”

Nothing quite like concentrating on how to score a syrupy guitar picked version of something with the lyrics “Going somewhere my love,” without offending the delicate pecking order of the school’s hierarchy. Even the carnations on the table keeping me company, I felt, were wilting at the task.

The pianist had had a hard time adjusting to Indian style driving.  She shuddered and yelped next to me on the back seat of the taxi.  Quite used, over the years, to Asian traffic regulations and avoidance of traffic regulations, I remained unperturbed except for the moment that the taxi, with squeaky Ambassador brakes, appeared to be accelerating towards the back of a stationary black Honda.  I’d lifted a foot and left a perfect dusty imprint of my espadrille wedge heel on the back of the front seat.  The dusty footprint stuck brilliantly to the plastic, reality represented in art. The billboard we daily passed on our way to school said it all, “Where nature’s pristine beauty touched Tagore,” – an advertisement for sparkling glass door rimmed with brilliant white plastic set into a green and blue computer generated outdoor décor. 

“I sit at this table,” the Romanian student at the Mission said to me, “because it’s near the air conditioning units and the cockroaches don’t like the cold. It’s a tactical move on my part.”  We’d often dined in the company of cockroaches scampering about the laminated table top in the dining room.  Not too many at a time, thankfully. 

I hadn’t quite been able to figure out the schedule of the road behind the mission in front of the gate used to access the complex’s courtyard.  Depending on the hour and day, the road changed directions, making it difficult to know from which side to tell the taxi driver to turn.  Should we take a left after the roundabout and then a right?  Or take the second left on the roundabout and then another left?  What time was it?



Part Ten

 

I was sitting in the orchestra rehearsal, listening to one of the personnel of the music school vomit behind the building.   The rehearsal was with the adult orchestra on weekday mornings without the benefit of air conditioning.  The doors and windows were cracked open to let in the breeze but keep out the sun.  Vomiting is a common occurrence in India.  Most of the time my class was full, except occasionally a student would drop out for a few days because of gastric poisoning. 

“Most people eat at home,” I was told by a seasoned guest at the mission, “It’s safer.”

The food at the Ramakrishna Mission is well known for being reasonably hygienic for foreigners and locals alike.  For this trip I had resolved myself to two weeks of careful perusal of whatever happened to be served to me, I was willing to eat Indian cooking, and so I found myself eating starchy meals of lentils, rice and potatoes.  By no means starving, never much of a big starch eater, there is simply a limit to how much rice, many potatoes or lentils, I can manage to ingest in one sitting.  I was obviously losing weight. 

The violinist, who was the guest conductor at the orchestral rehearsal that morning, had been handed a package of yellow tablets.  “These work better than the Dutch ones,” my colleague explained.  I glanced at the back of the foil.  The medicine was Japanese.  The violinist, Dutch, trying to get more specific information about the yellow tablet being offered to him to soothe his rumbling guts, finally gave up, and looking a bit like Alice in Wonderland in his plaid summer shirt, swallowed the medicine dutifully.  Maybe India might become a more placid experience to him, or maybe he was in for another quixotic day.

“I am inviting you to the concert in honor of Tagore’s birthday!” The gentleman from America said to us at lunch.  I thought this was excellent news, time to get out and see some culture on our night off.  It was obvious from the discussions between my colleague and this other guest at the Mission, that they knew people in common.  Bengal’s beloved poet, writer, Noble Prize winning philosopher, Tagore had written thousands of poems and set them himself to music.   Every year, in honor of Tagore’s birthday, a concert is held, billing the top Bengali singers.

“Oh! I want to come too!” a new guest had turned up.  Large, bubbling, a native Bengali left India to live in Australia she was a kindergarten school teacher by profession, now returning for a visit, she had an endearing habit of leaning towards me with her head cocked demanding eye contact.  In short or rather in large, she towered around and above me.  Quite unphazed by anything, she had showed up with me in tow one day to my class and sat through the entire four hours, uncomplaining, while I took students two by two and worked on vocal technique.  My colleague had been delighted to let her handle the cab driver to and from the music school.  The kindergarten teacher could throw her voice like a boomerang and she quickly flashed large vocal flash cards when she wanted something, and easily retracted her ire with a big smile. 

“I will talk to the gentleman and arrange a ticket,” she assured me.   She announced herself loudly to him during lunch, jollying him along, her voice got louder, she flounced out of the room, she flounced back into the canteen in her baggy trousers and tunic, another discussion followed.  We wondered what was up.  “I am coming.” She said finally, “But I am taking a taxi on my own, and will buy my own ticket.”  Needless to say she didn’t buy her own ticket and she didn’t take a taxi on her own.   From the taxi the three of us inhabited, we could clearly hear her annunciate information to the other taxi driver where she sat with the Tagore scholar.  The cabbies delighted in playing tag with each other in the balmy evening.

The concert ended late, we would have to dine outside the mission.  Everyone suggested Chinese.  In Calcutta dining out means eating Chinese food. No one wanted to eat Indian food.  Being gluten intolerant, I have to watch out for the sauces in Chinese dishes.  We had, after our day out on the Ganges, gone to a recommended restaurant for dinner a Chinese restaurant.  I ordered chili King Prawns thinking there was no way that they would come breaded and fried.  I got normal prawns instead, breaded in something, perhaps cornstarch I thought optimistically, put one in my mouth, felt the room slide sideways and immediately drank three glasses of water and finished off the meal, avoiding all the dishes, with plain steamed rice.  

While waiting on the hot driveway of the theater for the doors to open, the kindergarten teacher was, in between hitching up her sari muttering about how everyone would say she couldn’t wear a sari properly, reciting the menu to me from the Chinese restaurant where we’d be going later that evening.  I decided to speak up, “The thing is, because I am gluten intolerant, I can’t eat much from the Chinese menu.” I said.

She leaned towards me, “But sweetheart,” she said consolingly, bending eye to eye with me, making sure I understood the situation, obliterating my objections, “We can’t eat at the mission, we won’t make dinner time.”

Part Eleven

 


“Celsius pattern blocks rain.” Said the title of an article in “The Times of India” just below, “Tempests tamed as clouds lack height.”  The monsoon season will not come for another two weeks, meanwhile the temperature continues to rise.

“You look nice today,” the Romanian student said when I walked in to the dining room.  I had exchanged the Indian tunic my colleague had so kindly offered me for a couple of scarves, enabling me to leave the hysterical chiffon blouses in the closet and, instead, wrap my shoulders and upper body in a more demure scarf.   Indeed, I had cringed at the thought of being photographed in the horrible blouses. 

“They said it was going to rain this past weekend,” my colleague said to the waiter who responded by giving her a “when cows fly” look.  

“The violin teacher is still not feeling well.  The hotel has called the doctor.” The pianist said stirring her cereal.  “He will not make today’s rehearsal and will not be coming to dinner with us.” From all reports his little “Pooh” belly was looking a little smaller.   The waiter handed me an extra banana for breakfast.  I was grateful.  I was even more grateful that I seemed to be holding out, delaying the well-known meet and greet belly woes of India.  

The mystery of the disappearing orchestra rehearsals suddenly was explained.  It was necessary to, from time to time when they didn’t have a paying gig, to pay the adult orchestra out a little money to promote showing up and rehearsing.  The conductor did this from out his own pocket.    

I examined the trial sized anti-acid package that had come with the day’s newspaper, “End fruit salt,” it said, “Coca Cola flavor.”

“Let’s sit out on the lawn.” Oh do, let’s! I looked around the club grounds.  We had been invited to dinner at a posh club.  Smack in the middle of down town Kolkata, the building dated from the 19th century, and, until circa 1970, was a whites only establishment. 

Mrs P., regal in a sky blue bordered sari that perfectly complimented her long grey hair cascading in gentle waves over her shoulder, asked us what we would like to drink.  The waiters were busy fetching an extra table.  She scowled at them.  “What,” she joked, “Indian boy has gone to China?”

Perhaps, I gathered, this is one of her standard witticisms. Cool was the night in comparison to the day’s temperatures.  Indian families were enjoying themselves in the breezy evening at adjoining tables, covered in linen.  My colleague requested an Indian brand of Seven Up.  She was rather fond of this carbonated beverage and ordered it often.  “Sprite is good,” Mrs. P., overriding the local idea.  She turned to her husband, “Tell him what we want.”

The waiter stood at Mr. P.’s elbow, hovering in his bell boy cap as if he hadn’t heard anything.  Mr. P., sighing in exasperation, opened his mouth and waved a hand at the waiter.  He didn’t utter a syllable.  The waiter quietly summarized our conversation, “Two Sprites, one gin and tonic, one coconut juice, one squash.” Mr. P. nodded.  The gin and tonic was mine.

Mrs. P., obviously a beauty in her youth, was still a quite handsome woman.  She spent her days at the club to get out of the apartment and the air-conditioning.  On the board of organizers for the celebrated establishment catering for the wealthy of Calcutta, she snapped at the staff, wrinkled her brow fretfully, berated them, and occasionally smiled at us, but not too often. I guessed we could probably eat anything there.  We inquired, as one must, about the water.  “Only Kinley bottled water,” she gasped at us, “Do you think We want to get sick?” Yes, then the menu was safe with a woman like Mrs. P. at the wheel ordering the staff about.  Heads would roll, should any member fall ill because of the food.  I’ve met ladies like Mrs. P. during the time we lived in Singapore; women who spend their time organizing everyone and managing staff, women who become sharp tongued and quickly irate, demanding service for their husband’s money to qualify and quantify it correctly in society. 

Social recognition, I thought.  Mr. P., receiver of an excellent education that included Oxford, had worked successfully in the business world as a negotiator, mainly in India.  He’d weathered traveling around the country over horrid roads.  He was a calm, intelligent man, who didn’t take sides easily and side stepped the lesser issues craftily, directly addressing the more important ones. Nonetheless, because of the era he’d lived in, he’d experienced social discrimination; he’d been careful to avoid the pitfall of the glass ceiling in companies, making sure by pointedly asking about the position for which he was being interviewed whether his ascendence in the ranks would be curtailed because of prejudice.  Born in Rangoon when Burma was still a part of the British Empire, he was a Parsi, that is to say a descendant from the Persian immigrants to India.  Parsi’s are rare in the world, most live in India, and the Indian government has been trying to “breed” more by promoting fertility programs in the Parsi community.  The literacy rate among Parsi’s is in the ninety percentile.

“I don’t know why people go on and on about Tagore,” said the Romanian student at the lunch table.  The scholar, and biggest fan of the nobly born Tagore, occasionally rushed into the dining room, coming over to our table to babble to us about a certain poem, or his ability to memorize twenty four pages of the most epic of the great Bengali bard’s works, so humane, dripping with wisdom, “Why need food when one only needs to appreciate the flowers to live?”

“After all,” the student continued to expound her view on the songs of Tagore, “Every year it’s the same concert and every year the same songs. People, and people exactly like him, are obsessed with Tagore. I went regularly for the last eight years to Tagore’s Birthday Concert, and all my friends at the university told me I was crazy.”

“There weren’t many people in the hall.” I said. 

She raised her eyebrows slightly, “Then people are finally coming to their senses.”

The Tagore scholar had a theory about the absence of a members of the public at the concert.  It was a conspiracy; another Tagore concert had been organized on the same night and the police had blocked the streets so that the theater we’d attended was difficult to reach, in other words people had been forced to go to the other event because of traffic regulations.  Then he talked about some rare video footage he had exclusive rights to from Tagore’s last secretary.

“All the corners here are round,” expounded a German lady, a member of the adult orchestra.  “They never get into the corners.”   My colleague had offered me a cleaning cloth so I could wipe down my room.  The top to the anti-mosquito spray had rolled under the bed.  I wasn’t about to retrieve it.  I simply wasn’t planning to disrupt the grime.  I thanked my colleague, and muttered something about leaving sleeping dogs lie. “We’re in the process of renovating our home.  They can’t do anything right.  For instance, the marble,” the German continued her trials and tribulations of being a long term resident of Calcutta, “In the bathroom.  It’s cracking, because it’s Italian, they said. Why not take Indian marble?” Well, I thought, both begin with an I.  I told her the story about my breakfast egg.  She was delighted and roared with laughter, “You see? They just make things up! I used to go crazy trying to clean, really clean things, but now I give up.”

The Indian Museum, the first ever art museum in India, founded in 1814 by the British, has wonderful specimens, and many sorts or layers of grime.  This grand old building, two stories, built of red brick plastered over to make white columns, cornices, with watchful eyes of monumentally tall wooden doors, teeth of blackened grills and phenomenally large rooms, baking in the heat, under the blackened skylight paneled ceilings, takes one back to the Victorian era, statue of Her Majesty Queen Victoria in marble on upper gallery.  
 
Taxidermy exhibits of moth eaten animals abound, glass cabinets - smeared with brown sticky smudge – wall the rooms where one may inspect murky fossils.  The greatest feature of the museum was most definitely the sculpture room with the Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as placid versions Buddha, all exquisitely rendered in stone, once again showing the indefatigable Indian multicultural dominance over transitory westerners, who left this crumbling mausoleum, straight and true, to the twists and turns of dancing complex deities and Buddha footprints leading the way.  My favorite sighting in the museum, bar the sweet courting couples:  The iron padlock on a folding grill in front of a wooden door, encased in a dirty, indescribable grey or beige fabric “padlock” pouch, the strap looped over the hook of the iron padlock adhering to the body of the pouch by a red wax seal.  Old fashioned, but effective. Who could possibly reproduce the exact same dirt streaked, water stained eccentric piece of equipment such as the little known lock pouch?

The Tagore scholar, wanting to show off his latest Tagore purchase, a 22 carat gold coin minted in honor of Tagore, hurried into the lounge where internet is available, and/or encounters with the mission’s orange clad priests  who impart blessings and wisdom to guests awaiting prayers, suspended in the heat under the fans, immobile until activated by the personnel.  Priests come and go, patient and quiet, as the gardeners, squatting in groups on small stools in the mornings, repairing the lawn with a stick.  Finally, the night before we left, the rains jump started, pouring manna from the thunderous sky, and in the early morning a new vision, the gardeners rolling the lawn, a socially category in their blue boiler suits, pushing the heavy lawn roller.  Monsoon was coming.

“How is the violinist this morning?” we asked. 

“He is about the same but he’s arranging himself to come next year to work in the orphanage in August.” August, not only monsoon season, but dengue fever season.  The orphanage’s youth orchestra participated in our final concert under the baton of the violinist, who was looking clammy and pale.    

We were not anointed or perfumed for our End of the Workshop Concert, as we had been as guests at the Tagore concert, that theater resplendently fragrant with flowers.  Instead, I was reminded of the concert where I had been on the judging panel, “And next up, we will hear ‘Soft Cheese’ played on the drums.”  The staff at the music school padded around in their rubber soles, I performed a Western song with a Tagore text in English after the students of the school’s voice teacher had finished their set, and our two weeks had flown by.

“How are you?” asked the pianist’s daughter worriedly over the phone, the daughter sure, as everyone was sure, we’d be suffering mightily in the heat and grime.

“Fine. Everything is very nice here.”

“Oh.” Disappointment could be heard in the young girl’s voice. 

 “And how are you?”

“When I was sick last week I lost three kilos, it’s cold and raining here in Holland.”

 

 


 
 


 
 
 

 

 

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