Wednesday, May 15, 2013
“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.”
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
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 unfazed 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.”
Sunday, May 12, 2013
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?