54, Chowringhee Lane
In the fork of a branch on the neem tree, a crow's nest: an artless, untidy tangle of twigs, with stray strands dangling in the air; a pair of birds hopping in and out, arranging the twigs with their beaks. So that is what a crow's nest looks like! Must tell G. He had enquired about the nesting habits of the common crow when I had described to him the weaverbird's meticulously crafted, pendulous homes I had seen in a eucalyptus tree in Lalitpur, in Nepal.
It was the crow's nest that had first drawn my attention to the old neem tree, and beside the tree, the house – the house with a quaint fence at 54 Chowringhee Lane, Calcutta.
Stepping out of the medical facility where my brother's MRI was being done, I had looked up, spying first the crow's nest in the tree and then the house. A blue sweater was hanging over the wooden fence at the door-front. A couple of red-oxide-painted steps led up to the door. There were flowerpots on either side, against the ochre-coloured wall: a money plant, some crotons with variegated leaves, a sansviera with tall spikes, a few mums. The afternoon light, filtering through the sickle-shaped, saw-toothed neem leaves, was making delicate filigrees on the red steps.
It was the teal blue, two-and-a-half foot tall, swing-out fence fixed at the front of the door that was most unusual – the first of its kind I had seen here in Calcutta: a number of vertical spikes of wooden shafts, spaced by a couple of inches and nailed together by one diagonal and two horizontal bars. Betty Keyes, the 73-year-old Anglo-Indian lady who lives there and who I would soon get to know, told me that they had the fence made when her husband – Frank Keyes, ex-District Commissioner of the Lalbazar Police Department in Calcutta – had kept a ferocious Doberman named Kimmy.
So it was that I walked up to inspect the open fence that had once kept Kimmy from attacking strangers like me, arriving unannounced at Betty's door. But Kimmy is dead, buried in St. Paul Cathedral's graveyard right across the street. Frank is dead, too, buried in his family graveyard in Lower Circular Road. I did not ask Betty where her only son, who died while still a baby, was buried. When she opened her door to answer the postwoman's knock and saw me sitting on her red steps, I told her that my brother was sick and he was having an MRI done. Betty responded with disarming directness, "I'm sick too – sick of living."
A couple of minutes earlier, as I had sat on her steps watching a couple of cats grooming themselves under the neem tree, a sari-clad woman with a brown bag swinging from her arm had walked up to the house. She knocked on the door, shouting, "Me, postwoman!" When Betty had opened the door, the postwoman had handed her a white envelope. From where I was sitting on the steps below, I could clearly read: To Betty Keyes. 54 Chowringhee Lane, Kolkata. From the stiffness of the envelope, I could make out that it was a card.
"But you just received a New Year's greeting card!" I exclaimed. "There are people who care for you! How can you be tired of living?"
"Yes, I do have people who send me cards. Look!" She opened her door wide and invited me to step in. I stood at the doorway and took in her small, neatly kept living space, softened by depictions of Jesus, a decorated Christmas tree in one corner, and greeting cards strung across a wall. "But who do I live for?" She asked me. "My three cats?" I looked at the two playing under the tree. "That's Whitey, he's Tiger, and Taamu must be somewhere…"
In the showcase, along with porcelain dolls (one of a pensive girl: her face cradled in her palms, her elbows resting on her knees) and a bronze sculpture of a high-heeled shoe ("my mother's; I kept it"), I spied a black-and-white photograph of an attractive young face framed in curls – Betty, in her teens. Now, with a toothless smile and short, grey hair pinned away from her face, wearing a pink t-shirt and faded sweatpants, she still paints her toenails – silver, I noticed. I also noted the feathers on one of the shelves: long, brown ones, some striped white – kite feathers, of cheels, hawks ("my father's, he used to collect them"). Two fluffy toys reclined on one of the four cushioned chairs in the room – a well-worn brown teddy, a grey koala. A printed, yellow curtain at the high window kept out the light. Inside, beyond the tall shelf partitioning the hall-like room, a small, two-chaired dining table sat against one wall. A curtained door led into a bedroom or a toilet. That was all that comprised Betty's home.
Ups and downs
"There used to be many Anglo-Indians living in this area, before the Birlas bought this building," Betty told me. "One by one they all went away. I'm the only one left."
"Did you see Aparna Sen's film 36 Chowringhee Lane?"
"Yes, and she fed the cake to the dogs in Victoria … very moving. You think of me as her?"
"You reminded me," I responded. "That aged teacher's role was so beautifully played by Jennifer Kapoor. At the end, the way she quoted King Lear, 'Pray do not mock me – I am a very foolish, fond old man…' Yes, Aparna Sen paid a touching tribute to the Anglo-Indian community in Calcutta. Have you always been in India?"
"I was born here," Betty said. "My father was in the railways. I got married to Frank in 1946, the year of the Great Calcutta Killings."
"You mean the Bengal riots?"
"Yes. We were then living on Park Street. There were killings on Wellesley Road. The Hindus were killing the Mohameddans and the Mohameddans were killing the Hindus in their areas."
"How has Calcutta changed since Independence?" As I asked the question, I could recall the lines I had seen painted on the coaches of the local trains that were arriving into the Sealdah station in Calcutta: Hindu hai hum. Watan hai Hindustan humara.
"There's no courtesy any more. No respect. Have you noticed how they talk to you on the streets, in the shops, in the buses? No regard for others, even for the aged. The other day I fell down in the market and broke my hand. I can't see in my right eye – the doctor damaged my cornea while operating on the cataract. I can barely manage with the vision that is left in my left eye. I can't cook. So I have to get someone to buy me some food and some for my cats – I spend 30 rupees every day to feed them fish fries. So you see why I'm tired of living?"
"But you seem to have had a good life…"
"Yes, as head supervisor of the Trunk Exchange, and with Frank as DC Lalbazar, we had a good life. Frank was Irish and was very jovial. He was in the police. So he could help many people, you see. Everybody loved him. But our baby died. And India happened. Things changed. We had many ups and downs."
That reminded me of something that had happened earlier that very day. "I was going up the elevator with my 8-year-old nephew today morning," I began, "and I quizzed him, 'What is red and round and goes up and down?' He didn't have the right answer. I said: 'a tomato in an elevator!' He smiled, and then turned and quizzed me: 'Whose life has the most ups and downs?' I didn't have an answer. 'A lift man's!"
That made Betty laugh and show me her toothless gums, where a few last teeth were holding their ground. "It's late," she said. "I need to feed my cats. Will you be sitting here? Can you watch my house? They fry fish just across the street. I'm coming. Okay?"
And she shuffled away, leaving her open house in my custody.