“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 pigs 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 travelling 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 ascendance 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 descendent 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, or series, of 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.”