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FEBRUARY 2002 Contents

 Lifestyle

 Ageing - breaking mind barriers!

 'My Secret of Longevity' 
 BC Sanyal
 HD Shourie
 Khushwant Singh
 Raunaq Singh
 MS Oberoi

 Ageing & Performing Artists

 Literature

 New Age Women Writers

 Performing Arts

 The Kuchipudi Reddy Family

 
 
Society

 South Asians in News 2001 
 
 International Recognition and
 National Awards

 
Magsaysay Awards

 
Newsmakers & breakers in
 Cricket

 
Golf, Tennis, Hockey, Squash

 Leadership

 Know Your Leaders
 Arun Jaitley
 Amar Singh
 Abhishek Singhvi
 Omar Abdullah
 Sitaram Yechuri

 

 Feature

 Mango - the King of Fruits

 People

 Abdul Sattar Edhi

 Sports

 Sunita Sharma - India's First  
 Lady Guru of Cricket

 Books

 'Knock at Every Alien Door'
 - Serialization of an
 unpublished novel by
 Joseph Harris - Chapter 2

 Films

 Vasundhara Das - the bride of
 'Monsoon Wedding' 

 Fashion & Jewellery

 Poonam Soni- new look to gold

 

 Editor's Note

 

 

 
the craft shop

the print gallery

Books

Silk Road on Wheels

The Road to Freedom

Enduring Spirit

Parsis-Zoroastrians of
India

The Moonlight Garden

Contemporary Art in Bangladesh

 

 

 

 

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Page  2  of  2

 

'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'

by

Joseph Harris

 

Chapter 2

The Magic Flute

(Cntd.)

 

I soon found myself in the outskirts of Calcutta near the banks of the Hooghly River. The crowds dwindled, and the sounds of the bustling city streets diminished. A more pastoral sound, coming from what direction I wasnít quite sure, filled the air with its luring music. It was the sound of a flute and what I took to be a sitar or eckar. Unaccustomed to Indian music in those early days, I found the sound appealing, and out of curiosity began to search for its source, unaware that I, like Ulysses, should have put wax in my ears against the lure of the Sirens.

I moved along an avenue of sparse and unkempt buildings with the riverbank on my left until the sound of the flute grew louder and more distinct. A tinge of excitement filled me with a kind of poetic rapture as I drew near to the source, thinking that I had somehow stumbled on some ethereal island out of the pages of lost Horizon or Kipling.

But life decrees that all such pastoral raptures be short-lived, and mine ended abruptly with the shout of a gruff masculine voice, distinctly American: "Soldier, canít you read!"

I turned as if struck physically, so unexpected was the intrusion. I must have muttered something to the strapping M.P., neatly uniformed with his girded look and white spats. He stood alongside his British counterpart who seemed to have the faintest hint of amusement in his look. His reply to whatever confused response I made was to point angrily to a sign well above eye level on a nearby building. In bold letters it said: "Off Limits to All Military Personnel." Reading that under the admonition of his pointing finger can only be likened to the words over the entrance to Danteís Inferno. "Despair Ye All Who Enter Here."

I dutifully identified myself by rank and serial number, and with a note of entreaty offered, "I didnít see Ö"

"Thatís no excuse," the M.P. blurted out. "Youíre supposed to look."

"How long you been in India, mate?" the British M.P. asked.

"A little over two weeks."

The British sergeant looked at his companion with what I thought to be a touch of compassion, but to no avail with the ruddy American M.P. who pressed on: "Whatíre you doing down in these parts? Everybody knows this is off limits."

"I was just sightseeing." I decided not to mention the flute and the sitar.

"Yeh," he said, a wicked grin crossing his face, "sure you were."

I was to learn only later the meaning of that grin. In his abrupt, no-nonsense manner the M.P. put an end to further speculation. "I gotta take you in. You can tell the Provost about your sightseeing." He underscored that word with all his disbelief.

I followed the two a short distance to a spot between dilapidated buildings where a jeep was parked. The American motioned for me to get in. With visions of court martial and a possible firing squad racing through my brain, I climbed in the rear of the jeep. I thought then Ė and have become convinced by later experience when on those few occasions a flashing blue light has appeared behind me Ė that police the world over belong to a mystical fraternity. They have supernatural powers, among which is teleportation that allow them to materialize and dematerialise as the occasion demands. They are not like ordinary humans whose comings and goings one can clearly see.

We drove in silence back into the heart of the city, stopping only once at a busy side street where the British M.P. was let out. He gave a kind of mock salute to his American companion. "See you tonight, mate."

"Right," the American sergeant replied. "Eight sharp."

I wondered at the relationship of the two. One seldom saw British and American together, especially in the line of duty. Perhaps the Britisher, an old India hand, was simply showing the neophyte American the tricks of the trade.

My speculation ended when the jeep came to a quick stop in front of what looked like a hotel. The M.P. jumped out and told me to do the same. I followed him through a maze of desks at which sat G.I. clerks engaged in that second front known as the paper war.

The M.P. stopped at a cubicle office, told me to wait, and entered. Although it seemed a long time, Iím sure it was only a few minutes before he returned. He motioned me in. "You can tell the captain about your sightseeing," He walked away grinning.

I entered, stood at attention, saluted and identified myself. I trembled at the prospect of my dilemma. The wooden sign on the desk read: Capt. Orville T. Jarvis.

The captain, overweight and sullen looking, reminded me in appearance of some good ole boys I had known in the Deep South. My heart leapt up when I reasoned that a little regional allegiance might weigh in my favour. But when he spoke, after keeping me at attention an inordinately long time, I pegged his speech as mid-western.

"Whatís this about you being off limits, Sergeant?"

"Sir, I was looking over the city and Ö"

"Yeh," he interrupted. "I was told about you doing some sightseeing. You expect me to believe that?"

"Sir, I give you my word Ö"

"Can you tell me whatís worth seeing in this God-forsaken country? You were going to see something, all right. You mean somebody, donít you, Sergeant?"

"I donít understand, sir."

"The hell you donít. You were headed straight for that place, werenít you?"

"Place, sir Ö"

He looked me over intently. "Youíre either naÔve as hell or stupid, or both, Sergeant." He said, impatience rising in his voice. "That off-limits sign was up there for good reason. You were smack in the middle of the biggest brothel section of this lousy city Ö and donít tell me you didnít know it."

"Sir, I swear I didnít know .."

"You do know a brothelís a whorehouse, donít you, Sergeant."

My silence was that of the lamb led to the slaughter.

"Whoís your commanding officer?"

"Major Billington, sir." Although a temporary commander, I was glad I remembered his name.

"This will be reported to him." The captainís fat hand was busy writing. "Heíll take it up with you." He looked up at me scowling. "How many hours leave you got left?"

"About three."

"No you havenít. You got none left." His voice was harsh and commanding. "You get back to your post on the double. Thatís an order, Sergeant."

"Yes, sir."

"And Sergeant," he said, rising for the first time, and looking shorter than I had imagined, "if you get picked up again, come up with a better story than that sightseeing crap. Now, get out of here."

He didnít return my salute, and I left with a great sense of relief that my fate was less than an instant firing squad. Although relieved, I knew I must still face the judgment of my commanding officer. Yet somehow, I felt that would be a lesser ordeal.

For two days after returning to my posy Ė a small. Makeshift barracks on the outskirts of Calcutta Ė I live din acute apprehension of being called on the carpet by Major Billington. There were only five of us Ė a small medical unit Ė under his command, waiting orders for our final destination. The atmosphere all along had been relaxed and very unmilitary, so a certain natural camaraderie existed in our ad hoc status. In some ways the major seemed the most unmilitary of all; he spent a lot of time away, leaving us on our own. Since he was a good-looking and affable man, this led to a lot of speculation on our part; the consensus being that it was some romantic assignation that occupied most of his time. A few cynics among us demurred, pointing out that in a place like Calcutta the opportunity for such an assignation was nil. But the more imaginative among us countered with the fact of the large British colonial population that existed, among which we argued were bound to be some bored officersí wives. So it was, to while away the hours, we wrote our own soap opera script about the mysterious major.

In my great anxiety I mentioned the incident to Mark, who, instead of sharing my concern, thought the whole thing was hilarious and had only to look at me to break out laughing.

When two days passed without my being called to judgment, I began to relax. Either the sullen Captain Jarvis hadnít reported the incident as he had threatened to do, or the romantic Major Billington, receiving the report, had simply ignored it. Such an action, I decided, would be in character for a man like the Major, who would be most understanding of the dilemma of one of his men being found in a brothel district.

The incident was never mentioned by Major Billington, and I was too grateful to speculate further on the matter. Two weeks later, along with my compatriots, I shook the hand of Major Billington in farewell. He handed us sealed orders, giving knowledge only of the first leg of our journey, a boat trip up the Ganges. Our final destination, he assured us, would unfold as we went along. He wished us well, and we shared a bottle of the resourceful Majorís best wine as a parting gesture.

To journey up the sacred Ganges, except in the pages of literature, was never among my grandest expectations when I came to India. Nor was it the pilgrimage of the Indian who comes to its waters for spiritual rebirth, for nothing in my heritage could prepare me for that, as was vividly brought to my attention one day as I stood on its banks watching the pilgrims bathe.

A Hindu student with whom I struck up a conversation when he noticed a book I was holding Ė essays by George Bernard Shaw Ė promptly told me how much he admired the writer and then proceeded to dazzle me with his general knowledge of literature. We talked for quite a while as we watched the pilgrims at their holy task, some spitting in the water while others washed their filthy rags.

"You are offended, Sahib?" the student said with a smile.

"No," I lied, taken aback that he had so easily sensed my distaste for such sights.

"You Americans," he went on with what seemed like a touch of haughtiness, "bathe for hygiene. For us Hindus it is a sacrament."

For that I had no answer.

But my time on the Ganges afforded me another kind of experience altogether when I encountered the British colonel and the American sergeant, unlikely companions who accompanied us on our journey up the sacred river.

______________________________

 

 

 

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