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Sarah Das Gupta


Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/dyPFnxxUhYk) 15.10.2023.



A SQUARE PEG


Stepping down from the aircraft, I was knocked back by the wall of heat! A haze hung over the airport distorting the view across the tarmac. A row of palm trees looked like green feather dusters floating in the air, their trunks invisible through the mist. The airport, then known as Dum Dum, was a sea of humanity. It seemed half of Bengal had shown up to meet or stare at this weird foreign being. Every corner, every cranny was full of people. Babies, the very old, young men in white dhotis, girls in loose trousers, girls in tight trousers, women in colourful saris, veiled women, turbaned Sikhs, Buddhist monks, Christiannuns, Hindu holy men, a moving, chattering, sweating, wedge of people all going somewhere or meeting someone or, as I was to learn, just hanging around the airport.

I followed an elderly woman through Customs who had two large plastic bags of water. As she held them up, I saw fish were swimming languidly around. For a moment, in the humidity and heat, I rather envied them. An improvised swimming pool would definitely have been preferable to trying to grab a taxi in the riotous confusion outside in the scorching heat. I had come to Calcutta to marry my college boyfriend and heat was one of the many things I would have to get used to. S had warned me but this is a city no one can be fully prepared for!

Black and yellow taxis, like a nest of noisy wasps, were lined up, while their drivers touted for clients. Most seemed engaged in heated arguments with potential customers about the fare into the city. Before I had time to think, a turbaned driver, picked up my luggage and headed for the taxi queue. I thought that was probably the last I’d see of it! But no- he put the cases in a battered boot and stood politely opening the door for me.

“Good taxi, I speaks good English,” he announced proudly in the way of mitigation.

We wheezed our way out into the main road as I tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid sitting on the

rusty springs which poked through the plastic covering on the back seat.

The drive from the airport was a slight shock to the system. The driver missed a cow and calf ambling through the traffic by a matter of inches. Rickshaws, piled with vegetables, wove their way between stationary cars, their loads of spinach, bindhis or potatoes swaying at dangerously acute angles. Scooters driven by young men in flashy sunglasses, pretty girls elegantly seated behind, flitted like exotic birds among the brightly painted juggernauts.

“Heavy traffic, very busy,” I rather needlessly commented.

“No not busy. One o’clock. Eating food,” was the somewhat startling response.

Potholes, which if anything seemed to take up more road than the tarmac, were a constant hazard. Our progress was rather that of a drunken swallow, swooping alarmingly back and forth between obstacles.

“Airport road, very good road, very good.”

“Yes, er great, very good.” muttered nervously as we narrowly avoided a bus with passengers hanging off the back.

When we entered Calcutta itself, a warm, chocking smog hugged the city. I soon realised this came from hundreds of chulahs – portable charcoal ovens – which stood on the edge of pavements or in the gutters. Women, squatted down, cooking dhal, rice and common vegetables. They were frantically fanning the stoves with hand-held bamboo fans.

It was this which helped spread smoke through the crowded streets.

The streets were something I had to get accustomed to. In India so much of life is lived on the streets, rather than behind net curtains. Babies are born there. People die there and much of what happens in between, happens there too.

Shortly after I arrived, we were walking down Chowringhee, in the centre of the city, when I felt a prod in my back. I turned to see a pair of upturned yellowing feet, belonging to a corpse, had been responsible. A group of men, chanting prayers, were carrying a body, covered with wreaths and garlands of sweet-scented white jasmine, to the burning ghats by the river. S simply stood aside, putting his hands together in respect, and continued talking.

Attitudes to Western women with Indian men were not entirely unexpected. We had already experienced overt racism in Swinging Sixties London! I had been spat on in the lift in Russell Square and we were always stopped by the customs on our way back from France. In India the attitude varied from over-animated curiosity to barely concealed prejudice. On train journeys in carriages packed with chicken, screaming babies, ancient grannies, cousins x times removed etc., we were usually interrogated in an intimate but well -meaning way.

“How many children have you got?”

“Are you married? (usually in that order)

“Can she cook?”

“Can she control the servants?”

“Will her face get darker?”

The questions and discussions would continue for much of the journey.

In city restaurants and hotels, the attitude would sometimes be coldly aloof. White women with Indian men, in some quarters, were seen as at best mistresses, at worst tarts.When I first arrived, I stayed in the YWCA hostel off Park Street, in the very hub of the city. I was shocked by attitudes to Africans, by the hostel workers. A group of Nigerian students was training as nurses. The bearers were Muslims, all from the same village out in the Districts. One girl asked for a second helping of rice at dinner. The bearer began insulting her in Bengali. The gist seemed to be he addressed the Nigerian women as ‘banana-eatingmonkeys from the jungle’. He had not realised that, working in a hospital, they had become reasonably fluent in Bengali. A fight broke out when the bearer’s fellow workers came to his assistance.

At dinner the next evening, there was no sign of the Nigerian girls. I asked the South Indian Superintendent what had happened.

‘Oh, I had to ask them to leave. All the servants threatened to go on strike. I can’t run the hostel without them.’

Many girls in the hostel were a similar age to me and were studying at Loreto College, at the top of the road. Most came from well-educated, middle-class backgrounds. Some, like Srila, were from wealthy, politically powerful families. Her father was a Congress Minister in Bihar, virtually running the coal industry. Her attitude was quite usual among girls of that background. She was desperate to acquire anything ‘foreign’, preferably with a brand name, preferably French or Italian. She would insist on taking me to Fleury’s, a teashop selling Swiss style confectionary. During British rule, it had been run by a Swiss family. By the sixties it had come under Indian ownership. Yet it retained a faded elegance, the ghosts of long dead Memsahibs sipped tea in elegant Edwardian dresses among the current noisy, chattering crowds in bright sarees and salwars. It was in vain for me to tell Shona I wanted to try Calcutta’s street food!

‘My God, it would kill you!’ was her laughing rejoinder, as she elegantly tackled a chocolate éclair.

Within a week of arriving in Kolkata, I was lucky enough to be offered a teaching job at a well-known Catholic school run by an Irish order of nuns. The English teacher had apparently broken her arm. The students were to prove among the most able and industrious I was to meet in a teaching career of over sixty years.

However, such thoughts were far away on that hot, airless day I sat facing the formidable Headmistress. I had never met a nun before, except in Chaucer. In fact, there was something distinctly Chaucerian about this Sister! She was a larger-than-life figure in every way. Her pleasant Irish brogue and round, jolly face were deceptive, as I was to discover. She had a degree in Physics and was a brilliant organiser- a truly formidable woman.

I found the pupils delightful and very responsive. The teaching methods were often old fashioned and very much ‘talk and chalk’. I started using drama while teaching Shakespeare.

The girls proved extremely enthusiastic and talented. We eventually produced full length versions of ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’. For a girl to play the part of Macbeth is in itself ‘challenging’, to say the least. For a Bengali teenager to do so, was remarkable. A very talented girl, Anjum, played Lady Macbeth. Just before a performance, she developed malaria. By the evening she had a high temperature. Anjum insisted on going on with the part. Each time she came off stage, she was being administered the equivalent of paracetamol. By the time she reached the sleep walking scene, she was probably truly slightly ‘mad’.

The teaching staff at the school were very welcoming and helpful in every way. However, we did perhaps differ over ideas about beauty. A pupil in my class was, in my opinion, very beautiful. The other teachers disagreed. They named a girl who was very intelligent and talented but rather ‘plain’. This girl was admired for her ‘fairness’, her porcelain-like skin. The pupil I had mentioned was ‘too dark.’ It brought back memories of the affair with the Nigerian nurses.

I had never worked in a Catholic school before. The Sisters had generally resisted modern fashion. The only sartorial concession made since their foundation in the seventeenth century was the moving back of the wimple, so a few strands of hair made them rather less severe and rather more human. As for the pupils, the majority were Hindus, with a number of Muslims, a few Anglo- Indian Christians and a sprinkling of Jews and Jains.

It certainly made teaching Literature easier. For virtually every student, religious observance was an integral part of life. This made it easier for them to appreciate another culture which shared their approach, if not their doctrine. In the UK, where the vast majority of pupils have little, if any, experience of religious practice, much pre-twentieth century Literature remains a closed book. These pupils understood Chaucer’s Pardoner’s duplicity immediately- ‘Oh, like the Holy Men outside the gates, Miss’.

When the Cardinal Archbishop appeared one day at the back of my class, they were soon asking him about the Medieval Church and Indulgences. I’m not sure he could answer them!

At first religion was a problem for me. Just living in a society charged with many different practices was strange. S had been educated in a Jesuit School but like many Hindus,

he associated Christianity with Anglo-Indians or lower caste converts. His knowledge of Hindu practices was sketchy to say the least. Quite often we had to rely on the children’s Nepalese ayah, Binduma, a baptised Catholic but one who believed in keeping her options open. She refused to eat beef and insisted that any Hindu ceremony must start with prayersto Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. One day she turned up with some expensive trainers, tins of salmon and a rather smart tracksuit. She had been to the Seventh Day Adventist Church who were distributing freebees to ‘the poor and abandoned’. Whoever stands at the Pearly Gates, Binduma definitely had her insurance policies!

I think my experiences made me appreciate people more than doctrine. I worked with Loreto nuns, as well as a close Hindu friend who voluntarily ran a home single-handed, for elderly Anglo-Indians. In each case, their faith played an important part, but as a channel for their humanity.

For woman particularly, dress places an important role when you’re anxious to fit in. In

Kolkata, in many ways a conservative city, women rarely wore western dresses in public. The

only exception was the ubiquitous jeans, especially among teenagers. I quickly found sarees easy and comfortable to wear. I would certainly recommend them in pregnancy- much easier to make adjustments! They are convenient to pack or store, just fold them flat and pile them up on a shelf. I swam in the sea a week before the birth of my second daughter. I would not have done that in a swimming costume!

Most clothes were washed by a dhobi who collected them once a week. He could not be dissuaded from starching cotton sarees which became stiff as a board and hard to tie. I found it difficult to deal with the various people employed to do everyday domestic work.

This was to lead to a serious incident with the dalit.

S’s great aunt, known to all as Pissima, led a quasi-nomadic life. Widowed at twelve, she

wandered from relative to relative. She would arrive unannounced and disappear againwithout warning. As a widow she wore white and her diet was severely restricted. She had become a very talented vegetarian cook with vegetable substitutes that tasted like meat!

She was extremely strict when it came to observing Hindu rules and rituals. S was constantly lectured on his somewhat cavalier attitude. On the other hand, Pissima treated me, quite rightly, as a foreign idiot, whose lunacy could be generously overlooked. This was generally fine by me. All my blunders were forgiven with an indulgent, toothless smile. The case of the dalit was an exception!

He was the man with the unenviable job of cleaning the bathroom and loos, a job only performed by the lowest caste Hindus. When he was paid at the end of the week, he would approach almost on his knees, with his hands covered with the end of his dhoti. I thought this was to avoid contact with me, a foreigner and non-Hindu. S explained it was because hewas forbidden to touch a Hindu from a higher caste, in practice more or less everyone. I found this distressing and hated the end of the week when this elderly man grovelled in front of me to collect his miserable pay. I asked S to explain to him that I would like to pay him hand to hand and I appreciated his hard work. Unfortunately, Pissima appeared from the kitchen one Friday. She suddenly became a tiny ball of frenzy. She shouted at the dalit, who was visibly shaking. She ordered him to take the urns of water lined up in the hall and break them to pieces in the street. Apparently, he had walked past the urns, thereby contaminating the water and the containers. Since I had put them in the hall, I was in fact responsible! I sat on the sofa in tears while Pissima put her arms round me and fed me squares of sandesh.

S, who was severely reprimanded on his return that evening, suggested, since I wasn’t Mother Theresa, I probably shouldn’t tackle the problems of Hindu customs single handed.

Language was, of course, a problem. Bengali, like many North Indian Languages, is basedon Sanskrit. Although Hindi is the national language, most Bengalis see it as linguistically and culturally inferior to Bengali which has a rich literature, much influenced by the writing of Rabindranath Tagore. To the European ear, some Bengali characters are very difficult to distinguish, particularly ‘S’ and ‘Sh’. I simply could not hear any difference. I understood why most Bengali speakers prefaced my name with ‘sh’. Part of the problem for a foreigner trying to master an Indian language is the oddly contradictory attitude to English. On the one hand it is associated with the Raj and British rule. Yet on the other hand it remains the ‘court’ language. Most of the expensive, private schools are English Medium institutions. It is the language of privilege and wealth in many communities. My visit to the post office one day proved this point. I wanted to post a parcel to the UK. I had practised with my daughter the night before, asking her to correct my pronunciation. I stood in the inevitable queue, muttering the lines under my breath. I finally got to the counter and started rather well, only to be interrupted by the clerk - “Do you want to send the parcel by first or second-class mail? Please go through the contents in English.”

I scuttled out, red faced and shamed. S simply said,’ You should have known better than to insult a post office clerk by implying he didn’t speak English.’

My most amusing mistake, amusing at least to others, occurred one Sunday afternoon. A group of S’s old school friends were drinking beer and reminiscing. Suddenly Renu, who was a sort of Jill of all trades, helping with cooking, cleaning, washing, looking after the children and anything unexpected which turned up, came and announced my younger daughter had wet knickers. I asked her, in Bengali, to change Lekha’s pants. There followed loud guffaws from all the drinkers. S explained, when the laughter finally subsided, that I had just told Renu to take off her knickers and put on a dry pair! I may add Renu never questioned the order. She had mastered my Bengali rather more quickly than I had mastered the nicetiesof the language.

Death was accepted as an inevitable and often arbitrary end to life. In many ways I found this attitude more straightforward than that in the West. Perhaps this is linked to Hindu ideas of karma and also to the fact that death is a more public event. You see it on the streets and at the burning ghats by the Hooghly. Despite this, my experience of the death of my father-in-law and his cremation is something I cannot forget.

It is a hot summer night. There is an intense stillness. Even the dark river is silent. We have come to the burning ghats to cremate my father-in-law who died today. Only two of us are here. Of all the people he has ever known, it comes down to two.

The body is lying on a rough bamboo stretcher covered with a cotton cloth. He has been ill. His face is dark and finely sculptured. His eyes seem to be resistant to being finally closed.The piles of wood wait patiently. The doms are bargaining with S. about the price. The

pyre is being built. They are uneasy about a woman being there. The frail, wasted body is lifted onto the pyre. The flames flare up with hungry desire. The body is soon glowing as if the fire has been released from that red abstraction within the flames. The dark trees are given new life. They are flickering gold and red in the firelight. By sunrise there will be nothing but ashes and a few bones.

I ask S how long it will take. He says he has never been to the ghats before. We do not have much money. The bargaining continues. This man, who talked, loved, existed, is nothing, nothing at all. He is the smoke which is curling into the air, the grey wisps drifting upstream. We look at the stretcher where the imprint of the body lingers.

The first light of dawn is breaking. Strange, ghostly bodies loom out of the mist by the river. These are the homeless, the nameless. After washing in the river, they have come to dry their clothes by the dying fire. His spirit lives on in the rags of the poor.

This had been a baptism of fire. It was unusual for women to be at the burning ghats.

The rest of S’s family were away in Delhi. In the heat of summer, bodies have to be quickly cremated. I could not have left S on his own.

As the years passed, I suppose I became a little less of a square peg. I think I learnt that people value you for what you are, no matter what you wear or what language you speak. I definitely became more tolerant of beliefs and choices very different from the Surrey village of my childhood. Kolkata has been described as a city of nightmares. It is also, a city of vibrancy and hope – a diamond beneath the dust.


Author about Herself: I am an 81 year young retired school teacher of English living near Cambridge, UK. I have also taught and lived in India and Tanzania. I taught in Kolkata for a number of years and this account is based on being flooded during the monsoon. I started writing a year ago while in hospital, following an accident. My work has been published in over 12 different countries, in many magazines and journals. My ambition is to publish a collection of poetry.

 



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