Indian Diary – Fancy a Beer? – Jennie Renton
RESTLESS in the early evening heat in the south Kolkata apartment, I head for the balcony and discover two geckos entwined on the floor, their bodies almost invisible against the greeny-yellow linoleum. Startled – but not enough to disentangle – they stare up at me. I take the hint and close the door on their intimacy.
The ceiling fans whirling at top setting do little more than shift the heat around. I go up to the roof, a baking space where someone has created an oasis of pot plants; one has papery blossoms, both pink and white on the same stem. Under the mocking eyes of the conversational crows perched on the top of the building opposite, my partner is pegging his trousers on the washing line. He loses no time in letting me know just how much he fancies a beer … but his trousers are wet. Will I fetch some? I can tell this isn’t going to be simple, but it’s not as if chilled beer isn’t high on my own wish list.
A week earlier, in Pondicherry, there was no such challenge. Wandering the French quarter – boulevards of eighteenth-century villas painted ochre, pink, grey and blue, wrought-iron gates set in walls dripping with bougainvillea offering glimpses of deliciously shaded, ferny courtyards – you soon realise that the architecture isn’t the only thing imbued with colonial influence. Many restaurants specialise in French cuisine rather than masala dosa, bakeries produce morning croissants, and there are off-licences and drinking dens in blatant profusion.
NOT so in Kolkata city centre. At least, not to my untutored Western eyes, to which signs in Bengali, voluptuous curves of letters hung below a straight line (matra), are calligraphic enigmas. Apart from upmarket hotels where the air temperature is as chilled as the cocktail scene, the visible drinking culture of the city involves coffee, chai, lassi and freshly pressed sugarcane juice. We did once stumble on a bar discreetly located off the foyer of an old cinema, where my arrival prompted animated confabulation between waiter and manager. No doubt down to my outsiderness and male companion, I was allowed to stay in what was effectively a men-only bar. Men-only customers, that is. A ravishingly attired string of female entertainers soon emerged, ran the gauntlet of insinuating appraisal and crowded onto the stage to sing songs plaintive as any Highland air, with an inward expressiveness that somehow seemed to insulate them from their surroundings.
HERE in south Kolkata it’s a residential neighbourhood, far from any hotels. On the lane where I’m staying, there’s a man selling clay pots of creamy curds and delicious Bengali sweets shaped in crescents, squares, triangles and ‘conch shells’, some decorated with silvery foil: sondesh rosogolla, made from cottage cheese; saffron-flavoured rabrri; brown pantua drenched in jaggery syrup. At the corner there are puri puffing up in a large vat of bubbling oil outside a shop crammed to the ceiling with air-conditioning units. There is the ubiquitous sound of tailors at work, the scent of incense and something I’d rather not identify, but not a whiff of alcohol.
On the off chance, I try the general store just outside our apartment. Tiny as it is, it stocks every minor domestic requisite, from candles to toothpaste. It reminds me of the village shop in old Newcraighall mining village where, as a kid, I was always being sent for a forpit o’ tatties, a neep, ten Woodbine and a penny Jubilee. It was presided over by a kindly woman who folded the change back into my “line” to take back to my Auntie Nancy and called me “hen”, an inclusive gesture that meant a lot to me because I was marked out from everyone else in the village by my “English” accent. At the annual gala day, I wasn’t allowed to join in the parade or the fancy dress competition because my dad wasn’t a miner.
In similar unflurried style to the woman at the Newcraighall store, and with no recourse to the mediation of bar codes and computers, my Kolkattan shopkeeper can locate every item of stock in a trice, records each purchase plus price in a neat column on a scrap of paper and tallies up with concentrated regard for computational accuracy. As I leave, I ask casually if there is anywhere around here I can buy beer. He effaces his surprise and tells me quietly but emphatically, ”There is not.”
I size up the occupant of the booth next door, where you can make STD international phone calls. Portly, with a lush moustache (which I imagine him combing, trimming, even topiarising), he looks like a man who might have downed a beer or two in his time. I make my enquiry. “Sit down,” he invites, stroking his moustache and indicating a plastic chair. “Would you like some lemon tea?” The local tea-seller materialises bearing an aluminium container from which he swiftly fills two small plastic beakers. “You are my guest. First, please drink,” my host encourages. His premises are the size of a small cupboard, open to the street. There’s no door. At night and in the worst heat of the afternoon he pulls down a metal shutter. The tea is sweet and tangy, so hot I have to sip it slowly. This is a bit different from nipping out to the offie for a swift cairy-oot. When I have finished my tea and made my thanks, a cycle-rickshaw man is summoned from the gossiping cluster on the other side of the lane. He looks incredulous as my host addresses him, with several head wobbles in my direction. (This head wobble, so frequently deployed in India, might be affirmative or negative; the nuance is lost on me, even if I can appreciate the sophisticated cultivation of ambiguity.) “He will take you there and back, but remember, he speaks no English,” I am told with a triumphant beam.
I haul myself up into the rickshaw. Perched on the narrow seat, which slopes at an angle of 45 degrees, I brace one foot against a metal bar. With a lurch, we’re off. The rickshaw man anticipates pedestrians and avoids craters as if endowed with the radar of a bat. I cling on to something
sharp and metal, try not to think of tetanus. We reach the two-laned Kosba Road. With aplomb, he cuts straight across. I don’t share his graceful readiness to die. The dense, cacophonous and astonishingly variegated traffic slows and slews to accommodate our passage. Then we’re back into a maze of crowded little lanes where goats pose atop inexplicable bollards and lives are lived in full view of all and sundry.
The sight of street families forced to pursue their every interaction on some precarious morsel of snatched space is not uncommon, and it makes me feel ashamed of my love of al fresco napping in India. But the knowledge of their miserable lot still fails to rob me of the joy of dozing, perhaps under the giant banyan tree in Auroville, relieved that none of its po-faced “citizens of the future” was in the vicinity. Or in the park in Pondy, where people lounge around lulled by the sound of giant wind chimes and I stretched out on a wall, instructed myself to ignore the ants, and drifted off. I catnapped in the good company of curled up, saried ladies on a grass verge outside Mysore Palace. Less salubriously, at Bangalore Airport, I kipped in a quiet corner; shortly after I woke up, I watched a dog chase a giant rat right over the spot where I had been lying. When I was a little girl playing in Holy-rood Park I’d often flop down and snooze on the flanks of Arthur’s Seat, which still looks like a big friendly lion to me (although, having read Chiang Yee’s Silent Traveller in Edinburgh, I sometimes just about see it as a recumbent elephant, as he did).
At last the rickshaw pulls up outside a hole-in-the-wall covered with a metal grille. The men on the other side stare at me and I hear myself issuing the unlikely disclaimer: “My husband has asked me…”Three bottles of chilled Kingfisher, 80 rupees each, are swathed in newspaper and poked through the bars. I wonder if this is the first time a woman has bought beer here? As a foreigner, am I absolved from social blame – a bit like being a “black sheep” in playground skipping games. As such, I was allowed to play but when I tripped over my feet and disrupted the cawing of the rope it didn’t count as points against my team. I’ve never quite got over the humiliation.
I secrete the beer bottles in the sturdy cloth bag I brought along through luck rather than prescience; without it, my beer-hunting expedition would have had to be abandoned – you hardly ever see plastic carrier bags here. Despite pollution being so out of hand – a day exposed to the air of Kolkata or Mumbai is supposed to be the equivalent of smoking twenty cigarettes – India is ahead of Scotland when it comes to ecologically sensible shopping receptacles and small items are often packed in bags made from folded newspapers, which work surprisingly well.
I START to think about my appointment the following day at the Modern Book Depot, where the proprietor has consented to talk to me about half a century of life “in the trade”. Little do I realise that this conversation will set me on a trail leading to the business archive of Glasgow University Library, where I will consult the papers of William Collins and Sons to find out more about Mr Stephens, the Collins’ India rep: his generous terms and sound advice enabled the Modern Book Depot to find its feet and establish a Scottish connection – as well as books from the Collins catalogues, they had the first Christmas stock of Beano and Dandy annuals ever to be put on sale in the city.
The Collins archive is a revealing, not to say entertaining, chronicle of the labyrinthine disputes in the early 1950s between Collins and the Indian tax authorities, whose interrogation of the need to remainder or write off particular books matches Porfiry Petrovitch’s sneakiest efforts to extract a confession from Raskolnikov. A single memo from a Collins manager mentions authorisation for Mr Stephens to use his own account to lodge unspecified income, but there is no further mention of this interesting arrangement, which may or may not explain the absence of any mention of the Modern Book Depot among the papers, or it may simply be that the archive is incomplete.
THROUGHOUT the return journey my imagination supplies visions of being cowped out of the rickshaw, a sprawling Alice in a pool of beer, a Titanic amidst ice floes of broken glass. No surprise I’m still thinking of ice. The heat has hardly relented. We jolt, rattle and swerve. With one hand clinging on to the flimsy side-panel of the rickshaw, the other to my precious cargo, I have no choice but to allow the ticklish trickles of sweat to run down my cheeks.
The cold of the beer is seeping into my belly, the comfort equivalent to a hot water bottle in Scotland – or for that matter, in Almora, a small town perched on a ridge high in the Kumaon Hills, where I was one February when blizzards enveloped it. They coated the medieval-looking, carved wooden houses with whiteness so that I half expected to see Hans Christian Ander-sen’s Gerda and Kay peer over a balcony, or his Snow Queen drive her sleigh through the teetering, sandalled populace, none of whom, not even the soldiers at the military base, was above an impromptu snowball fight. Apparently the Indian Army has developed an alternative to CS gas based on chilli pepper. The Snow Queen wouldn’t stand a chance.
Kolkata, Book City: Readings, Fragments, Images, a collection of writing about the Kolkata’s book culture, edited by Sria Chatterjee and Jennie Renton, published in India under the textualities imprint, was launched in Kolkata in February 2009.
Further information from textualities.net.