the-south-asian.com FEBRUARY 2002
FEBRUARY 2002 Contents
'My Secret of
at Every Alien Door'
Fashion & Jewellery
Page 1 of 2
'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
The Magic Flute
Few memories are as vivid and persistent as those that bring misfortune. The magic flute I allude to here was assuredly not that of Mozart, but an Indian flute that lured me into the snares of military law during my first innocent days in India.
If Bombay was a shock to my sensory senses, Calcutta was my first encounter with the full impact of cultural shock. It seems always to have had bad press. Kipling called it the city of the Dreadful Night, and even Clive, first Viceroy of India, referred to it as the most wicked city in the world.
It has always been my practice to explore a new place without the prepared literature of a guide, thus inviting the spontaneity of surprise. Freed of such preconceptions, one is at risk to experience the enchantment of the unexpected, which for me is the essence of adventure. It is a philosophy that for the most part has served me well, but on this occasion led to my arrest.
During my first week in Calcutta, I managed to secure a day’s pass, due in part to the small unit to which I was attached and the temporary status of the commander in charge. Ordinarily it was not that easy.
Exhilarated at the prospect to explore the city provided by my newfound freedom, I set off alone to match my textbook knowledge against the reality of the strange new land. Perhaps my first encounter should have been a restraining omen when I went in search of a historic site.
I don’t know what I expected, but the Black Hole of Calcutta was nothing like anything I has imagined. After a long search with dubious and confusing responses to my inquiries, it was, when I saw it, like the Cheshire cat, hardly there at all. An obscure plaque, barely legible through the weathering of time, was all that acknowledged the historic site. Nothing like my boyhood vision upon reading about it, which estimated it somewhere in the dimension of a Krakatao. The plaque commemorated a cell of some eighteen by fourteen feet into which Nawab Sirajud-daulah stuffed one hundred and forty-six English prisoners, of which all but twenty-three perished.
In retrospect, I attributed the almost insignificant plaque to the fact that it represented a British defeat, not a victory. At any rate, it did not measure up to the cowboy-and-Indian scenario of my boyhood memory, in which the Indians always lost.
All this happened in 1756, incidentally the year of Mozart’s birth; which fact has no historical relevance whatsoever except for the title of this tale.
My search for adventure took me down winding narrow ways, past stalls of street hucksters, through teeming markets with foodstuffs of all kind in constant rivalry with the fly-swarm, through a hustle of rattling lorries and rickshaws, and by the ever-present outstretched hands of beggars with the cry of "baksheesh, Sahib" on their lips.
Lines from Sir Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia came tumbling into my mind:
"Seeing the glad and sad things of the town;
The painted streets alive with hum of noon,
The traders cross-legged ‘mid their spice and grain,
The buyers with their money in the cloth,
The shout to clear the road, the huge stone wheels,
The strong slow oxen and their rustling loads,
The singing bearers with the palanquins,
The broad-necked hamals sweating in the sun,
The housewives bearing water from the well
With balanced chatties, and athwart their hips
The black-eyed babes; the fly swarmed sweetmeat shops,
The weaver at his loom, the cotton-bow
Twangling, the millstones grinding meal, the dogs prowling for orts …"
Things didn’t seem to have changed much since those lines were written, and throughout my days in India a growing awareness convinced me that if anything changed the more it remained the same. Nowhere could I find much evidence of that passion which we in the West call progress. And like most things about India that, too, seemed to be a paradox, both a blessing and a curse.
As the day wore on, I continued my wanderings among the madding crowds, stopping only once in early afternoon for tea and cakes at Firpo’s, an Armenian restaurant on Chowringhee at which I was later to have one of the most elegantly-served meals of my life. The place had been pointed out as ‘safe’, since we had been summarily warned by the medical hierarchy that to buy food from street hawkers or Indian-operated establishments was to risk a litany of diseases from amoebic dysentery to cholera. This I was to learn later was a precautionary exaggeration.
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