by Christina Kales
American flags and twisted bits of red, white, and blue paper festooned the shrubs and hung limply in the still, humid air. Crowds fill the garden behind the Calcutta consulate. An amplified cassette player bellowed rock and roll, jarring to my ears after weeks of conditioning to gentle Indian ragas and mullahs calls to prayer. It was July Fourth, far from home, and every Anglo in Calcutta had been invited to the party. Mixing in the sea of pale faces, turbaned waiters balanced trays of iced drinks and a faint haze of blue smoke signaled a barbecue at work. The smell of broiling meat, an oddity in the exotic mix of local odors, turned my head. I had been in India for months adjusting to the melange of foreign sights, smells, and sounds, but now in more familiar company I suddenly felt strangely out of place.
Across the lawn a white-haired woman towered above the crowd, her choker of pearls and shirtwaist dress incongruous in the mix of sport shirts and saris. This was my first encounter with Daphne Bainbridge. Formal introductions came later but I was immediately drawn to the ease with which she navigated, always moving, stopping to exchange a few words in conversation. Daphne fascinated me, like the mesmerizing dance of a hooded cobra. She was a magnet and I was in her orbit. My university sponsor insisted I meet her, shouting in Daphne’s direction.
When face to face, she responded to me with enthusiasm, “Oh good, fresh meat!” And then, she lowered her voice in a warm, conspiratorial tone as she offered her hand and confided that meeting someone new, fresh from the outside world, was cause enough for a party.
Her focus intensified as she questioned my experiences in India. I knew the game. Few professionals sought stations in Calcutta. It was the short straw at the State Department of the World Bank to draw a posting in Bengal. These observers, like tourists, keep India at bay, always separating themselves by a car window or a camera lens. They mingled with Bengali society at the obvious places perhaps politely discussing neutral subjects over gin rickeys at the Calcutta Cricket Club. Experiencing India required a submersion into a different value system without judgment. You opened your intellectual and emotional pores to absorb the differences, then integrated the change and claimed it for your own. This transcendence might permanently alter your lens and this was a process that fascinated Daphne.
“Marooned, darling, I am positively marooned” was the way Daphne later described her Calcutta existence. But her face reflected not despair but a benign amusement. We sat on the terrace of her home overlooking a carefully manicured garden. Kingfishers flew about a lotus pond with wings flashing turquoise and indigo blue, and gardeners moved around the grounds with sweeps of palm branches, smoothing dusty paths and aligning errant cobble stones. Sheer curtains billowed in an early evening breeze, on the sides of the latticed porch. Daphne had sent word to my hotel to come for an impromptu supper. The car, the message said, would pick me up at six. She assumed I would accept.
Being stationed out in India was not without its creature comforts. Daphne’s home combined western functionality with silken East Asian elegance, both a welcoming and comfortable environment. “But it’s all for show, dear,” Daphne explained. “I have a car and driver but nowhere to go. I live wrapped in a silken cocoon.” She tapped her spoon absently against the edge of her cup of tea. “What we need,” she smiled, emphasizing the collective pronoun, “is an adventure.”
And so I became Daphne’s summer project. In late afternoons, as the shimmering heat of the day began to dissipate and a thin haze of bus exhaust choked the downtown streets, a long black Daimler would roll up in front of my hotel. Daphne would wave, motioning me quickly inside, and off we would go to explore temples and ghats, bazaars and marketplaces. We made an odd pair with Daphne’s height and my tanned skin. Bharat, our driver, wore a wrinkled dark jacket and a brimmed cap decorated with gold braids, which occasionally slipped over his eyes. He would guard the car and keep a watchful eye for pickpockets and thieves. If we wandered too far, we would hear his plaintive voice calling after us, “Memsahib, take care, memsahib, please” as if his insistent voice alone might reel us back. Bharat always stayed with the car. He knew his obligation to protect the white memsahibs, but his higher calling was to protect the Daimler and his continued employment as chauffeur.
We rambled through Calcutta’s crowded Malib Ghat flower market, buying ropes of fragrant jasmine like charms to thread through our hair and handfuls of bright marigold petals. The latter we would lay in respectful puja at the base of some impromptu street shrine, always searching for our favorite god, Ganesha the elephant god of prosperity. Spontaneous stops at New Market saw us disappear into its maze of food stalls to buy coconut lassi and plantain chips.
Daphne’s irreverence masked her discomfort and her wicked sense of humor could disturb Bharat, obediently standing his silent guard. The Ghat Kali Temple was not for the faint of heart. Within its inner sanctuary, bleating baby lambs were beheaded to appease the goddess and the temple walls splashed with blood. We moved through the shrine in a packed crowd turning our heads to avoid the butchered carcasses of that morning’s sacrifices. The air was close and smelled bitterly of warm blood mixed with the cloying sweetness of sacrificial flowers, the marble tiles slippery as we ducked to avoid the overhead swing of a sacred temple monkey. We felt faint, holding hands for courage as the mass of pilgrims kept us moving. We returned to the car, shaken, embarrassed by our foolishness, and Bharat voiced his disapproval with silence.
It was late summer when we made our final foray, this time on a mission of mercy. Margaret Bannerjee, faithful retainer of the British raj, and recipient of a monthly dole provided by the East Anglia Ladies Mission Society had missed her July appointment at the Mission office. Daphne was determined to find her home in Calcutta’s largest slum, Anad Nagur, the City of Joy.
Calcutta’s Anglo Indians lived a difficult existence straddling two equally unfriendly worlds as marginal survivors of the faded glory of British imperial rule. “The old women are always the saddest cases,” Daphne told me as we bumped along rutted mud tracks. “They are so lost, confused, without any footing to make their way. It isn’t the poverty that destroys them, but the abandonment of the promise their former lives held.” I could hear the compassion in Daphne’s face as she spoke and wondered how her own life had shifted beneath her by her husband’s deployment to India.
The macadam road had disappeared and given way to an endless shamble of mud huts and leantos. Block after block of low, crumbling buildings passed, decayed and blackened by mold. Buildings appeared fragile as though the slightest breeze might collapse the pile. The heat was stifling but we kept windows closed to the clouds of dust and litter that blew away from the slums and across the road. The corners of the buildings were stained by the recent monsoons and on some a swath of red paint blazed above the high water mark. Daphne had a rough map that marked the location of Margaret’s apartment. The City of Joy has no street names or numbers and finding a specific location was more a matter of luck than navigation. Assuming you entered at a gateway approximate to your destination, finding landmarks and word of mouth might lead you to your target.
We stopped several hundred feet short of a marked entrance although Daphne urged Bharat to drive closer. He turned toward us with a stricken look and Daphne acceded with a brief nod and dismissive grunt. He carried a heavy basket to the front of the car and settled it on the hood as Daphne pulled on gloves and we both donned wide-brimmed hats against the sun. Bharat straightened his jacket and adjusted his cap before taking his customary place beside the Daimler. We hadn’t walked far when we realized he was stationed behind us, frozen to the spot. “The basket, please Bharat, bring the basket,” shouted Daphne, gesturing impatiently. He continued to shuffle in place and cast about nervous glances but then grabbed the basket with both hands. After fifty feet or so he stopped again, never looking up. Daphne said nothing but walked back deliberatively with long, firm strides. I watched as she placed her hand on Bharat’s arm and spoke with him in quiet tones. His shoulders slumped and he nodded, dismissed. As he turned back toward the car, Daphne motioned to me to help with the basket.
“There’s been typhoid here,” Daphne explained solemnly, her impatience evaporated. She nodded toward the bright red marker on the building corner as we passed into the slum. “The old boy isn’t vaccinated; he was scared. Stupid of me not to realize that.”
We entered a neighborhood teeming with life, immediately enveloped by the noise. It was deafening, closed in by the walls of houses and shops. The slum was abuzz with industrious activity, humming like a bee hive as shop keepers, vendors and passersby mobbed the streets, moving in one, continuous human wave. There was a strong smell of rotting garbage and chowpatti fires, the acrid stench of a tannery and we breathed through handkerchiefs. Vendors passed by with towering baskets of wares. Hoards of naked children played, jumping between the street gutters and garbage piles. Some followed us, sticking fingers in the sides of our basket. Older children mounted piles of refuse, combing through them in search of anything worthy of resale, pausing to follow the two white women with their eyes. And everywhere half starved dogs, ribs protruding, loped along, tongues hanging, eyes darting, alert for any unprotected scrap of nourishment.
The weight of the basket slowed us down and it took more than an hour to locate Margaret. We had been walking in circles, trying to locate a teashop from which to take our bearings. A teashop in the Calcutta slums is nothing more than a blackened cook stove fashioned from a discarded can over which sat a battered tea pot. But on this day there was no tea seller; perhaps business had been slow and he had moved on to a different corner.
Our search seemed hopeless, but Daphne fearlessly persisted, charging on and continuing to press passersby for information. “Bannerjee, memsahib Margaret Bannerjee,” she repeated like some ritual yoga chant. We were directed to an outside staircase on a small corner building, then a darkened doorway with only a dirty curtain affording some privacy.
Daphne called Margaret’s name as she bent low to enter the tiny airless space. As our eyes adjusted we saw her sitting against the wall on a roped cot. Her bright eyes flashed from a wizened face with a toothless smile as she seemed to be expecting us. In the dim light I could make out a calendar with Christian images, no doubt from the Ladies Mission Society. The woman I first met at the consulate party emerged, chatting effortlessly with the delighted Mrs. Bannerjee. Two old friends chattered on over cups of tea from our thermos. We left the basket of tinned food, biscuits, and bars of lavender scented soap. Daphne opened her purse and brought out two books, poetry by Calcutta writer P. Lal and a blank journal. Then, perhaps an afterthought, she removed her Montblanc pen and laid it across the letter. I could see an envelope with the monthly dole nestled between unopened pages.
Our mission complete, we retraced our steps and spotted Bharat waving enthusiastically in the distance. He held the door as we entered the car, relief spreading across his face. He handed us cool, moistened towels. “He must have told cook where we were going,” Daphne remarked, confused by this unexpected gesture. “I hadn’t requested these.” She mopped her brow and neck whispering her gratefulness as Bharat nodded in acquiescence.
We rode back to town in silence. Daphne seemed lost in thought. “You found Mrs. Bannerjee,” I suggested as I left her, not sure how to end the day. Daphne and laughed shrilly. “Oh, that wasn’t my Mrs.Bannerjee, no” she shook her head. “That was India’s Mrs. Bannerjee, if that was her name at all.” Momentarily confused I suddenly realized Daphne’s meaning. The woman we visited was an old soul who welcomed us into her home, accepted our offerings of friendship and shared tea with us. We had observed a quiet moment of passing dignity and respect and were each changed.
A nervous Bharat delivered a last note to me days later. He bowed as he handed me the envelope addressed in Daphne’s familiar scrawl. It was bound with a simple strand of woven jasmine blossom, our mutual good luck charm. “Good journey,” he wished me, watching my face intently for dismissal. These were the first words he had spoken directly to me. Overcome, I stretched my arms to embrace him, knocking his lopsided cap askew. He quickly re established his professional demeanor, but as he turned to leave I saw tears in his eyes.
Alone in my room, I read:
When we first met, you told me that you wanted to experience the real India and I fancied myself your guide in a most literal sense. But in Anad Nagur I realized that one can only experience India when prepared to accept one’s own limitations and through that acceptance experience the strength of others. True joy mingles with deepest humility. Bharat and Margaret became my guides, as with Tagore: “the knowledge is there, the revelation is yours.”
I had found the real Daphne in Calcutta.
Christina Kales, a Lawrenceville resident, has been writing creative fiction and short stories for several years. She has traveled extensively and enjoys working her travel experiences into short stories. Kales is a doctoral candidate in humanities at Drew University in Madison, NJ. She is currently working on a novella based on the life of French painter Berthe Morisot.
#b#Editor’s Note#/b#: Due to an accidental omission, the final six paragraphs (beginning "Our mission complete…") did not appear in the print edition of the summer fiction issue.