Calcutta days

New Yorker Bhaskar ('Papa') Menon looks back at the city he grew up in and his entry into JS.

At six, the world is focused on small things, a fragrant mango and a black-handled knife, dripping sweetly onto the dust of a railway compartment, the coal-dust and occasional burning cinder from the steam engine in front, the singsong rise and fall of the telegraph wires, little whirlwinds in the arid fields, shimmering heat pools in the dry distance. Through the shutter cracks, a cow gallops away, tail straight up, the tassel hanging down, parrots wheel in the bronze sky.

In the lower berth my brother lies, breathing hard, restless in his bedclothes, delirious. Double pneumonia Dr Singhi said, his stethoscope held up in warning. Careful. Careful. Medicine bottles in a little basket slide in and out from under the green berth. Quiet in the compartment. All of you be quiet. And keep the shutters down. The little black ceiling fans whir and whir and whir. The train rumbles day and night, stopping sometimes unexpectedly in the still afternoon heat or the stiller darkness. The guard goes by, metal strikes metal as wheels are tested, signals set. Tea vendors calling on platforms. Sudden loud crossings over trestle bridges. Thermometer out every hour. Ama looks grim. Ice packs, soup, low voices. From the upper berth, thoughts of a tiger. One could jump in when the train is stopped. But there's safety in the upper berth. Surely, a tiger couldn't get up there. The thousand-mile journey to Calcutta across the great northern plain dissolves into a thousand little details.

A new rhythm in the wheels, a new swaying, clacking, changing of tracks as they branch and rebranch, cross and recross,  clackety clackety clack, smoothly, the train slides past the yellow sign, Howrah Station, into a vast echoing gloom of pigeons in the air and on the long broad platform, pools of coolies in crimson shirts, food carts and fresh, receiving faces. The train stops with a final shake. Two men from Achan's office await, a thin one with a woman's voice, a fat one all muffled grunts and smiles. They pat us on the head, supervise the coolies with the luggage. Down the emptying platform we scurry, following the crimson shirts, Ama carrying brother, father chatting with the thin man and fat man. "All arranged, sir. Taxis are for the luggage. Temporary housing." A black DeSoto wagon with taxis in pursuit, across echoing Howrah bridge, into the roar of Calcutta.

Strange new place with new rules. Water only for four hours in the morning. Fill up the overhead tanks in the bathrooms. You are not to open the taps till I tell you. You are not to drink water till it is boiled. You are not to eat any fruit till I've washed it! Washing fruit is suddenly a ritual. First soap and water. Then a bath of potassium permanganate. The black crystals fall from a white packet into the enamel basin, swirling banners of purple in the water. Die germs! Everything goes in the purple bath. Fat juicy mangoes, tiny tangy bananas, shiny little oranges, pomegranates lustrous as pearls within, fragrant jackfruit with gorgeous bluebottles humming songs of praise, swat, thock, no flies ever on a fruit. Throw it out! Cholera. There's cholera out there.

At Ms B. Hartley's Elementary School on Lansdowne Road, where we go by rickshaw every morning at eight, the strictures on not eating outside the home fall quickly to the temptations of tangy fireballs of amchur, paper cones filled with mosla-muri, mix of puffed rice, onion, hot chilli, tamarind sauce and mustard oil, and crisp little wafer balls stuffed with spicy potato and watery sauce. We get ill, but not from Calcutta-specific germs. Measles, then chicken pox. As the thunderous monsoon rages outside, there are sulphurous potions in our dank rooms, neem leaves to scratch the suppurating skin, healing turmeric baths. The flooded streets redistribute garbage. Cars stall, buses die. Rickshaws are all that move, and pedestrians hip-deep in dirty water. Street urchins swim and spout the water from their mouths. Will they live the year out?

Permanent housing a year later, in a high-walled compound on Park Street, epicentre once of the departed British Raj. Park Street once led to the Viceroy's Deer Park, rolling expanse of green Maidan now, but still bordered by icons to the past. Ungainly Victoria Memorial, mottled white marble symbol of imperial glory, meant to be evocative of the soaring Taj, but more a Viennese palace, weighed down by its own self-conscious grandeur. Gothic St Paul's Cathedral, strangely at home two miles from Kali-Ghat and the temple that gave Calcutta its name. The Royal Calcutta Turf Club and Calcutta Club (both still then, Whites-only institutions), Ochterlony Tower and Fort William on the Hooghly. At the other end of Park Street, in the British cemetery, lies 18-year-old Rose Aylmer, of whose sudden death Walter Savage Landor wrote:

Ah what avails the sceptred race
Ah what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
Rose Aylmer all were thine.
Rose Aylmer whom these wakeful eyes
May weep but never see,
A night of memories and sighs
I consecrate to thee.

At 87 B, we are behind the Park Street Thana, from where, in the still of the night there come sounds like the shriek of distant peacocks. Royintan, skinny eight-year old, says what it is. He knows. His father, drunk, beats the same sounds out of him. The old English lady on the ground floor of 87 C has taken charge of the gardening for the whole compound. Blue eyes rheumy with age, frizzled white hair, loose liver-spotty skin, tent-like frocks, irascible, she leads two stick-thin malis to their work, dig there, water here, Ullu! Jaldi! They bend and scrape at her command, spray muddy Hooghly water (and unknown toxins) onto dusty croton and stunted rhododendron. A donkey strays into the yard, a quiet, meditative animal, interested in the old lady's cherished herbs. She chases it with an umbrella, wheezing. It circles around and comes at the herbs again. She marshals her forces, the old bawarchi (cook), the two malis, her grandchildren visiting from England. The donkey is driven out. The next day we tempt it back in, hoping to ride it. "Junglis!" she yells. "Junglis!" It becomes an English-Indian thing. Ama emerges to fix her with a frigid stare.

A few days later there's fisticuffs between brother and one of the visiting boys. They end up rolling in the dust, wrestling. One of the other boys comes up with a Daisy airgun, object of our envy. "I wish I could use this," he mutters, looking at the grunting stalemate at his feet. "Better not," I warn. The girls run off to tell what is happening. Over the rest of the summer, a hostile truce. Brother gets a Daisy airgun for his birthday. He shoots a tiny bird, and Ama goes stony silent. The gun laid aside, we retreat into compound cricket, the wickets charcoal marks on the wall. Another English boy, Ian, also visiting, is umpire, sucking prunes, fat cheeks, amiable. The hostile English camp would like to join in, but holds aloof, circling on bicycles. In the tired evenings, there is French cricket, the ball thrown to hit the immobile legs, the bat the only defence. Or marbles under the guava tree. The girls play endless hopscotch, tea parties with their dolls, under the hibiscus.

At the height of summer, a cholera epidemic. The permanganate fruit bath is deeper purple, flies are the enemy, sprayed with Flit, smashed with newspapers, caught in mid-air, dashed against the floor. As evening falls one day, the old bawarchi next door is carried out on a charpoy, invisible under a cloth except for a bony motionless hand. There is a stir from the servant's quarters, along the wall in the back, a small crowd gathers round the charpoy, then disappears. Ama is in a quiet boil on the phone. We are forbidden to watch but peer through shuttered windows. Nothing to see in the swift dusk. We do homework in the yellow light by the unused fireplace, pack knapsacks for school next day. The old man is still there, motionless, when we sneak out to look before bed, but gone the next morning. Did he die? Was he taken away. Cholera, says Ama.

New rules for playing outside, new rules against wandering off from the compound. Not without a servant. Ever. Kidnappers are about. The newspaper had an article. They do horrible things to children. Cut them up, make them beg for money. The rules soon relax. We wander all over the neighbourhood, on foot, on bikes. Down to the Maidan, up to the cemetery. Across Park Street is St. Xavier's School and College, its long, flat corridors ideal for roller skates, but white-frocked Jesuits can emerge suddenly with stern commands to disappear. Not far away, nuns in full habit preside over Loreto College, where the girls wear white dresses, black shoes and little red ties. They gather at Trinca's Confectionery, giggling over plates of sausage rolls and chocolate pastry and at Oxford Book House, with a lending library in its back stacks. No one complains if you read in the narrow aisles.

Favourite books: Enid Blyton's series on the Five Find-Outers. Richmal Crompton's William series. Few American books for children here. Nearby, on a side street, by the house that declares itself the birthplace of William Makepeace Thackeray, the Americans dominate the comic book stacks, all with the Dell Pledge to Parents, promising wholesome fun, Donald Duck and Goofy, Superman, Batman and Green Lantern, Archie and Jughead. Only rarely, a British comic book, fustian stories of Biggies, unfunny Norman Wisdom funnies. New comics are a rupee; with the top of their front cover sliced off, they are four annas-25 paise. On Theatre Road the British Council Library, breathing chilled air every time its doors open, has an air-conditioned reading room, lends out books free, and has an amateur theatre group. On the green lawn, on warm dry evenings, the sounds of Henry V, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet. In the larger city beyond our small remnant of Empire in aspic, there is a rich Bengali theatre — Calcutta has more theatre companies than London or New York-but we on Park Street are oblivious. Our world is distinctly post-colonial.

On nearby Moira Street is Hindi High School, founded by Birla the industrialist, to be consciously Indian, a departure from the English convent-school tradition, and it attracts the children of the wealthiest Calcutta families. Classes are filled with Goenkas, Birlas and Dalmias. Every morning we march to the long assembly hall, class by class, two abreast, in step to the rousing tunes of the school band, arms swinging wide. Sarwan Singh, ex-Indian Army, keeps watch. Anyone out of step is given a quick corrective thump on the head. In the hall we line up by house. I am in Jawahar House, which is in close rivalry with Gandhi House and Tagore House in sports, academics and general good behaviour. Behaviour is judged on the basis of Stars and Bars — slips of paper — given out by teachers and school monitors. Every morning, the assembly begins with inspection. The long house lines stand at ease, and monitors pass down their length, stepping sideways. Each student snaps to attention when the monitor steps in front, hands raised to the shoulders. Nails must be clean, school uniform in order: blue shirt with lotus monogram on the pocket, grey shorts, white socks, black shoes. The principal, an Englishman, leaves announcements to the house masters. After that, a Sanskrit hymn to Laxmi; periodically, the diminutive Sanskrit teacher explains what the words mean, but few understand. We mouth the words, march back. The school band plays the same rousing tune every day, year in and year out. Once, I sidle up to the music teacher, a broiled Italian with yellow, red-veined eyes, to ask if I can take up the saxophone or the drums. He tries me out with different instruments, is gently discouraging. To make conversation I ask brightly what tune they play every morning for Assembly. Blue Danube, he says. Long afterwards, in America, I find it was the Stars and Stripes Forever.

Everyone has to study advanced Hindi at Hindi High, and I find it impossible. There is no neuter gender in Hindi; everything has to be either male or female, and the rules that govern the division have many exceptions. I cannot get it right, and without passing Hindi, there is no hope of getting the school to send me up for the public examination. I deal with it as everyone deals with Sanskrit, also a compulsory subject: memorisation. My final year Hindi teacher, a khadi-clad man with a jeering sense of humour, says he had a student once who memorised an essay about coal but had to write about Raja Ram Mohun Roy. He solved the problem by sending Ram Mohun Roy to a coal field. For the final exam, I have four full-length essays memorised from a mug book written expressly for students like me. One of them is set, and I get through.

At St Xavier's College, where I go to enroll myself, the administrative office is under a toothy Dutchman in a white cassock, Father Huart. "Father Huart in Heaven" intones the guy behind me in the line waiting to register. He has an endless series of similar quips. As the line inches forward, and each person gets a number, he asks if he can jump two up in the queue, to be number 50. It is an appropriate number for him, for his name is Hafesji. Father Huart asks what I want to study. English literature. Secondary subject? Economics. It is a choice Achan has questioned. What will you do with English? Characteristically, he does not try to force his view. Anyway, I have known what I wanted to be from about the age of seven. A journalist.

The ambitions of others in the large English (Hons) class vary. Rana, a tubercular young man in frayed clothes, is an object of general wonder. He can barely speak modern English, but sits intently through Father Gomez's enormously erudite class on Old English, scribbling copious notes in a microscopic hand. Why did he choose to do English at the honours level? "I am pasination," he says. At lunch he disappears urgently down the street and reappears two hours later, sweating. Where has he been? "The mills." You work in a mill? Dickensian thoughts. Dark satanic mills. No. He shakes his narrow head. Mills. Mills. He points to his mouth. Meals. He's been home for lunch; cheaper that way. Rana is at the door when the library opens and stays there when most of us are hanging out on Park Street, looking out for Loreto girls. He pores over books which the librarian, Melvyn, is sure he does not understand. "I don't know what he's doing here, man," Melvyn says admiringly, "but you've got to hand it to him." Melvyn, just over five feet tall, wears lizard-skin boots with high heels, "drainpipe" slacks, and combs his hair back in a rakish curve. Occasionally, there are flyers advertising "Uncle Melvyn, story-teller". He entertains at children's birthday parties.

Another regular in the library is Saha, eyes beady behind bottle-thick glasses, resplendent in dhoti and kurta. His English is only a level above that of gentle, questing Rana, but it comes with an air of self- importance. "I am poet," he announces. Oh yes? Can I see something you've written? Notebooks spill from a cotton shoulder bag. Fountain pen on ruled paper. Tight, curled writing. Long words, sky colours, clouds, heated emotions. I judge it bad, but there is a uniqueness to it, a definite personality, and over the next three years, he makes it into print several times, even gets one picked for inclusion in a Writer's Workshop anthology of "Indo-Anglian" writing.

Professor P. (for Purushottam) Lal, who runs The Writer's Workshop, is the inventor of "Indo-Anglian" writing. Anglo-Indian, the traditional word for the mixing of Indian and British is too loaded with negative emotions, too politial, too de classe in its association with what the British, being no more or less racist than Indians, termed "half-breeds". P. Lal, crewcut, usually arrayed in raw silk kurta, riding a motorcycle with sidecar, holds us spellbound in class with a throwaway manner, a chiding wit, an easy assumption of excellence and elegance. I soon pass from admiration to iconoclasm, challenge one of his statements in class and win a bet he offers. Admitting loss gracefully, he speaks of the ancient Chinese master calligraphers who always made one little error in their work, deliberately, to give readers the satisfaction of finding it out

I am given a Writer's Workshop book. P. Lal is translating the Mahabharata into English, an elegant fascicle every few months, handbound in colourful Indian sari cloth. Sinuous English, particularly Indian, the tales familiar from Achan's bedtime recitals of the Sanskrit. But new detail. Why do you think Bhima ties Draupadi's hair with Dushasana's blood? No one in the class knows. Find out. A book for whoever finds out. Fascinating research. It is because Draupadi was menstruating when, in the Kuru court, Dushasana tries to strip her. Krishna prevents her exposure by making the sari an endless one, but her blood shows through the cloth. P. Lal teaches English, but he instructs in life, the first example I have of an Indian who occupies our shattered cultural world easily, elegantly, comfortable with himself.

  1. Lal welcomes discussion, allows the personalities in his class to be on display, and the most vivid of these is undoubtedly Dubby Bhagat, all scaly skin and bone and bristling military moustache, ostenta tiously and amusingly loud, who everyone soon learns (by what osmotic process of public relations remains a mystery) is the son of General Bhagat, the first person to win a Victoria Cross in the Second World War. I look it up; indeed, he did win the award for clearing mine-fields. The citation speaks of cold courage over an extended period of time. Dubby, sounding rather pleased with himself, says he has been a disappointment to his father in not wanting to follow in the "old man's footsteps", and even more of a disappointment to his mother, of whom he speaks with an even mix of awe and loathing.

Dubby has been expelled from a number of schools, is proud of it, presents himself as an aesthete the world does not understand or appreciate. Soon there is a little group in orbit around him. Jitu, standard-issue brag, but interesting because he dates Margarethe, all soft curves, dark curls and limpid eyes, undoubtedly the loveliest girl in our visible universe. "Gang", spectacled essence of boarding school boy, impeccable manners and just the right well-worn turn of phrase for every occasion. (After college he maintains that persona for a while, rises in the hierarchy of Philips, the transnational corporation, but then decides to be someone else entirely, dumps everything to go wandering for several years through Africa and the Americas, teaching English, returns with an extremely laidback view of the world, symbolised by a pony tail.) Quiet and retiring Jug Suraiya, so into body-building that he is shaped like a genie emerging from a lamp, is entirely unlike Dubby, but the two become a pair, date friends from Loreto, Bunny and Chinky, write a book of poetry, Anguish and the City, an exaggeratedly world-weary paean to their misspent lives. Meanwhile, the Vietnam war is on.

In Calcutta, the Congress party is losing power to the communists, the streets are in periodic turmoil. I start up a satirical magazine, DeBunker, looking quite through the deeds of men. It is an unexpected success, copies go to Delhi, Bombay and even Washington, to the Indian ambassador there from one of his relatives in Calcutta. In the library a new experience: the writings of Tagore and Gandhi. Fresh water. A sudden singing of the soul

Sunanda Datta-Ray notices DeBunker in The Sunday Statesman, Smith, the News Editor offers a job, and the day after I sit my last college exam, the English Essay, I report for work. The smell of printing ink is aphrodisiacal. My charmed magic casement leads not to songs of the nightingale but to the thrum of the giant offset presses. From The Statesman's high-ceilinged lobby, a turbaned peon with a red cummerbund and walrus moustache whirs me up in a brass-doored elevator to the second floor. Smith the News Editor tells me I will be getting one hundred rupees as a trainee journalist. I discover later they deduct money for lunch in the Executive Dining Room, and I get about 60 rupees in hand, just enough for a meal for two at one of the restaurants on Park Street. But bonus for me — I would have worked for free. Smith takes me to see Evan Charlton, the editor, a grey Englishman, fatigued but cheerful, then Management, on the first floor, also English, representing the interests of Andrew Yule and Company, the proprietors of the paper. Old Mrs Yule, I am told, takes a personal interest

Six months blur by in alternating weeks of night shifts as Sub-Editor. There are three Chief Subs. Ellis Abraham, an "Armenian Jew" as he calls himself, a steady uncomplicated workhorse, the first person I know in India who defends the American role in Vietnam. "They're fighting our war there!" He declares, munching down the "agram-bagram" — his word for pakoras — and slurping down the numerous cups of tea The Statesman kitchen provides. Sachi Sahay, the other Chief Sub, as darkly convoluted and complex as Ellis is open, expresses opinions in elliptical non sequiturs. The third Chief Sub, N.C. Menon, is again a contrast, filled with bonhomie and good cheer till he suddenly disappears from The Statesman and Calcutta, leaving a complex tangle of relationships behind. Others on the newsdesk include Burra and Chota Mullick, descendents of the Mullick with whom the British struck a deal early in their imperium in Bengal, making him, I am told, Zamindar of a wide stretch of the 24 Parganas.

Dubby Bhagat comes into the newsroom one day, unannounced, smelling of aftershave and curry, to say he is now a Statesman Management Trainee. A week later he returns, scruffy as ever, to say I should meet Desmond Doig, who is starting up a new publication for teenagers, Junior Statesman. Desmond sits on the Management floor, in the Graphics Department, a large, hearty Englishman in a wash-and-wear bush shirt, feet up on a cluttered desk. He swings his feet down when I enter, offers a large pink paw of a hand. Yeshe, a long, cool Tibetan in boots and a colourful shirt, sitting at the side of the desk, does not take his feet off it but swings his chair back to contemplate me. He drives Desmond's car, supervises his household, occupies a special place in his heart. Within a week I join the staff that will put out Junior Statesman, JS, as it comes to be called. A month later, Dubby inducts Jug Suraiya into the new venture

Desmond's conception of the JS is innovative and radical. He tries to marry East and West at their extremes, carrying features about Swinging London's Carnaby Street as well as the Maoist revolution in Naxalbari. This marriage of extremes is not unnatural to Desmond; he personifies it, lives it every day. His apartment, in a new luxury high-rise in Alipore, is resplendent with Tibetan artifacts, Indian art, his own splendid photography and drawings of old Calcutta. It is a thoroughfare of visitors from far and near. Ratan Pradhan and his musical troupe from Nepal perform at his parties, mingle easily with guests that reflect his eclectic interests: Edmund Hillary (with whom he went searching for the Yeti in the snows of Solukhumbu), Shirley Maclaine (who has adopted an orphanage just outside of Calcutta), the editors of National Geographic for whom he has written. He knows Mother Teresa well and takes me to meet her early one morning at "Nirmal Hriday" in Kalighat, the house of the dying. It is the first time 1 face the worst of Calcutta's raw despair and the shock of it chokes me with unspilt tears. Quietly perceptive of my state, Desmond steers Mother and his friend Joy away, allows me time to recover.

Getting JS out every week is fun, and it develops a devoted following. But circulation is never really very high. Management is no longer fully supportive of the project. Andrew Yule has sold its interests, the last English editor has left, C.R. Irani, a local insurance executive, is now in charge, backed with Tata money. Pran Chopra, the Editor of the main paper, is kind but incapable of dealing with Irani, who undermines and then fires him, beginning the process of decline that in a few years destroys the quality of one of the finest newspapers in Asia.

When I leave The Statesman in 1969, Desmond is gloomy. Things are not going his way, either in the paper or in the city. The communist government is paranoid about an Englishman in his position. He is followed everywhere. "I know because all the secret police wear the same colour tennis shoes. Even the egg wallah!" he jokes. From New York, JS has stopped publication. Desmond has moved to Kathmandu. Then comes word of his early and unexpected death. It is a loss I mourn still.

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