Oops, Kolkata

VICTOR BANERJEE

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SITTING at a hiphop Barista, anywhere in India, surrounded by a slothfully mobile bunch of unisex waifs and wannabe movie stars, will never compare with the good old days of laid back and luxuriant lounging of pukka Bengali and Parsee gentlemen at Flury’s, in Calcutta, over a hot pot of Darjeeling tea, a selection of matchless pastries and warm cup cakes that smelled quaintly of the rear of our Queen’s Mansion.

After an early morning lungful of congress grass gasses (Parthenium, is what it’s called locally) I settled down to a cup of latté at Barista’s in Bangalore, grateful that their clientele, who normally go to sleep when pubs close at dawn, were among the grateful dead at this time of the morning. I had picked up a copy of the Chennai daily knowing it would tell me the truth about Gowda and his cheesy recipe with the nonseculars and was smirking over Manmohan’s foxtrot with Sonia that would culminate in a barn dance of cabinet reshuffle when, over the top of my newspaper, I noticed a tramp walk in. I lifted the paper to obscure the sight of riffraff that seemed to fit the bill for these coffeehouses simply because they could foot it.

‘Excuse me.’ The high-pitched voice came from right behind my sports page. I ignored it.

‘Excuse me,’ it squeaked again, ‘I seem a bit lost… and…’

‘Look mister,’ I said offhandishly, slamming the paper on the table, outraged by the thought of having to communicate with society’s scum so early in the morning.

 

Staring down at me with beady eyes and fluttering lashes above a butterfly moustache was a Charlie Chaplin look-alike.

‘Good morning,’ he said, doffing his dirty bowler hat. ‘Sorry sir, I’ve been given to understand that I am in Carnalkutta in Bengalooru. Would that be right?’

‘You are in Karnataka in Bangalore, or the other way round,’ I said, taken aback by his impeccable English accent.

‘My name’s Chaplin sir, Charles... umm...’ he shrugged and smirked, ‘often known as Charlie Chaplin.’

‘And my name’s Gandhi, Mohandas, often known as Mahatma,’ I retorted.

‘Right,’ he continued with a twitch of his moustache and a quizzical frown, ‘he, Gandy, was to meet me here too; along with Shakespeare, some Thakgore, Netajee, Mother Teresa and Neeru. But I fear I may have got the wrong address because your Yama and my Peter were arguing volubly with their Mohammed about the uncalculated mass influx of Iraqis while I was trying to get directions to an inconspicuous place called Basirhat in Bengal for us to be beamed down to. But, without a GPS system to help us, I’ve been dropped off at Barista in Bengalooru. Am I far off Sir?’

I looked at the tramp with his worn out boots and crooked cane and had had enough of this gag.

‘Look kid, great con, yeah very impressive: but, if you want a free cup of coffee Charlie, you’re knocking at the wrong door. I suggest you vamoose to the tea stall that…’

Suddenly the door swung open and in walked. In walked. Damn it. Was I going crazy at some fancy dress jamboree or was this some kind of jocular nightmare? Wrapped carelessly in a sari was a wrinkly old woman that looked like Mother Teresa, Shakespeare looking like an Edwardian dandy, in uniform was Netaji, in a dhoti and shivering in the airconditioning was the Mahatma, Abanindranath Tagore appeared in a beret with an easel under his arm and Nehru dressed immaculately sported a limp rose in his buttonhole and had no shoes on.

‘All right,’ I said laughing at the well-orchestrated joke, ‘you guys deserve a medal. Have you just come from or are you about to go to a ‘go-as-you-like’ contest?’ I was now laughing hysterically out of control.

‘Sir, may we join you?’ asked Charlie hesitantly. ‘We have a problem that we need someone with your keen intelligence to analyze and help us with.’

What the heck. I decided to go along.

‘Sure,’ I said and then turning to the sales counter caught the eye of the waiter and said, ‘six more coffees please.’ The chap looked at me incredulously and said, ‘What?’ inflected with exclamation marks that wouldn’t fit here.

‘Tea,’ whispered Mother Teresa.

‘How about a pint of lager,’ chirped Willie.

‘Milk?’ said Gandhi. ‘Coffee for me,’ said Netaji, ‘Make that two,’ added Charlie.

‘Three beerista coffees [Willie winked at me], one vanilla smoothie for the fakir and two Assam teas for the painter and for our lady!’ ‘Darjeeling, please,’ she whispered reminiscing I presume on the historic Darjeeling visit that inspired her to set up an order of her own just as we did, politically, in Calcutta.

 

The waiter was looking at me as if I was some kind of nut. I walked up to the counter and paid a hefty sum for my pre-breakfast entertainment and then went back to join these jokers who had begun to discuss something quite animatedly.

‘So what are all you famous people doing in the Information Technology hub of India? Attending an Infosys Board Meeting?’ I choked, coughed and spluttered at my own joke.

‘You are right,’ said the Mahatma wiping fog off his misted bifocals, ‘we need information. First I want to thank you for recognizing us. We were beginning to worry if people remembered us.’

‘Of course we do,’ I said, ‘all your birthdays are school holidays and a billion people are pushing for Benedict’s benediction on your canonization,’ I said looking at Mother Teresa.

‘It’ll take a miracle,’ she said.

‘Ha! Ha..ha..ha!,’ I guffawed at her clever joke.

‘The problem my child,’ said the Mother, ‘is not that we have been forgotten but how we are meaninglessly canonized by municipal corporations throughout the country.’

‘I used to be looking down Park Street,’ shot Gandhi, ‘at all the revelry I had stupidly abstained from, and then was suddenly and unceremoniously lifted out to occupy a street corner from where I can see Subhash in the distance pointing a finger at the sky like an out-of-step soldier and now Jawahar stands looking down Park…’

‘Ahem, I beg your pardon,’ the Mother cleared her throat.

‘Sorry, Mother Teresa Sarani. But that’s my point; she got accolades from everyone in Hollywood to the Pope, died without being assassinated by nuns or beggars and then the most sensual of streets, in India, gets named after her – a champion of the diseased and dying; not shredded jeans, tank tops and leather pants! No one will ever call it that, it will always be known as Park Street just as today no one calls Chowringhee Jawaharlal Nehru Road.’

‘Actually,’ added Nehru humbly, lifting his bare feet off the cold marble floor, ‘the area is called Chowringhee but my street name is quite valid on letterheads.’

‘Hey Ram,’ exclaimed Gandhi, ‘your passive industrialization sponsored by the moneymaking sycophants that oiled their way into the Swadeshi movement happened because even then you couldn’t face facts and identify hoaxes. I really should have stayed with Subhash.’

‘You merrily joined the Khilafat and clubbed it with Swadeshi and made a khichri of… and… and you were scared of the Bongs even though you knew as well as I that it was much more their militancy than your so-called nonviolent passivity born from your inability to either argue or take up cudgels...’

‘Please. Please, we got our freedom: so let’s come to the issue in hand. And, rather embarrassingly,’ added Subhash very nobly, ‘the streets named after me are only known as "N.S." Road which, phonetically, is sometimes rather insolent, if you get what I mean.’

 

It took me a couple of seconds to understand ‘Enness’ could easily be mispronounced to sound terribly insulting. I nodded politely.

‘That’s all very well for you lot,’ yelled Abanindranth, ‘who at least are known, albeit as "M.G." and "N.S." But Shakespeare here, and myself, are completely ignored. Theatre Road remains Theatre Road with one theatre on it and the British Library’s been removed from his sarani to my utterly Bengali domain and my street of pantaloons and markets and street vendors serving flatulent shoppers; it will never, never change from Camac!’ He was frothing over his easel. The spittle dissolving over paints reminded me of the ‘bengal-wash’ paintings he had made so famous.

‘Modern Times, dear chaps,’ consoled Chaplin. ‘Even though I made millions looking like a tramp, those chaps in Calcutta glorified my poverty, tom-tommed my leftism to decry industrialization under their gaslights and after "Shanghaied" felt I was a red book Chinaman instead of a philanderer with the Countess from Hong Kong. And if you Neetajee are worried about crows on your finger and Gandy about bird droppings on your broad shoulders, you want to take a peek at the decrepit theatre they’ve named after me and the trash midst which my statue celebrates communism. And, as for you Mom, your Albanian connections with Russia will mean you will be given respect too. But, just as 100 television cameras representing networks from all over the world converged on the city for your funeral march, picking places snipers seek for vantage when popping off Americans, the world was stunned to see just fifty revellers, in a city of millions, accompanying your body through the streets. Pity. But, I can guarantee you some song and dance in Calcutta, only when you have a halo bestowed on your head from the Vatican.’

There was a moment’s silence.

 

Then, just as Willie was beginning to say, ‘To be or not...’ I felt a chill run up and down my spine as it dawned on me that I might actually be associating with ghouls who had arrived from the haunted and hounded never-never land (and poor St. Michael of Bahrain will never find a children’s park named after him in Calcutta) from whose bourn, supposedly, no traveller returned?

There was a sudden strong breeze that flung open the front door and in walked Shyam Benegal with a bunch of studious assistants who still had not forsaken the Presidency College and Shantiniketan intellectual-look they affected years ago in Mumbai.

‘Shyam,’ I yelled and jumped up from my chair.

‘Victor!’ he replied, and walked across to me. ‘May we sit?’ he asked.

I looked at my table and all the chairs were empty. My companions had vanished.

‘Sure,’ I said, with befuddled alacrity.

‘You’ve got company? Am I barging in?’ he said looking at all the cups and some spilt milk.

‘No. No. Please, no. Sit.’ I said in a daze.

 

They sat behind empty cups. The cups were all drained and none of my illustrious visitors had touched a single one.

Shyam, who along with his actor had just been glorified by the Netaji Institute, said something about now making a film on Mother Teresa.

I looked up at him and with a wink said, ‘Healing the sick in Park Street’s nightclubs and discos? Ha Ha! No sex please, I’m Bengali!’ We all roared with laughter and I knew I would never get to work with him again. Shyam added how Buddhadeb was reluctant to fund it because the government already had one of Shyam’s films in its canned archives and, in spite of the hype, Bengalis really hadn’t taken to the Saint of the Gutters as one of their own.

To wrap up this incoherent experience, in conclusion, like you must be thinking, I too have often wondered about Nehru’s bare feet and felt his shoes had been pinched, as he ascended, by a visionary still waiting to see who outside his bloodline might ever fill them.

Oh, please take me back from Bengalooru, any time, to the simple daydreams at Flury’s, in Calcut… oops, Kolkata.

 

© Victor Banerjee

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