Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Indexed Stories - 7

The room was sparsely furnished and surprisingly tidy except for an unkempt bed partly concealed behind a book shelf. A largish bay window overlooked the river. While making coffee Eva volunteered information about herself. She was just out of university and was working as a translator. “Don’t like it much…want to be a poet! Maybe I should become a nun. Food and bed for free and enough time for poetry,” she said with the hint of a sardonic smile faintly registering on her face.

Eugene wanted to tell her that he too had started off writing poetry, but decided against disclosing much about himself. Coffee finished, he thanked her and left. All the way home he kept wondering what’s with the Blue Girdle?

Photograph by Steve Lovegrove, Australia

A week later, Eugene visited the cobbler’s shop to pick up his shoes and thought he would look up Eva. On his way up he noticed that Eva’s bicycle was in its familiar spot leaned against the wall. He went up and knocked on the door.

After a moment Eva opened the door and without a word of greeting, let Eugene in, as if she had been expecting him. She wore a kind of smock – grey and coarse and the ubiquitous Blue Girdle was still in place!

He opened the brown paper packet and showed her the shoes for her approval. She merely nodded and asked “Coffee?” He nodded. While she was busy making coffee, Eugene went over to the book shelf and scrutinized the spines. They were mainly books of poetry. There was Heiner Müller, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, Günter Grass, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann and a few more. He pulled out a collection by Nietzsche for no particular reason, walked up to the window and flipped it open absent-mindedly. As he turned the pages his mind was annoyingly occupied with the mystery of the Blue Girdle. While his eyes and his mind were vying for dominance, Eva suddenly thrust out a finger and stopped him from flipping the page. She looked intently at the page and then with studied grace walked away to the far end of the room and took up a stance that resembled that of a fencing champion. Eugene was expecting that she would now say “En garde!” but instead with a flourish of her arm she recited...

This is no book: what do books matter!
What do coffins and shrouds matter!
This is a will, this is a promise,
This is a last bridge to break,
This is an ocean wind, an anchor-weighing,
A surging wheel, a steering course,
The cannons roar with white gun smoke,
The sea laughs, the monster —“
Eugene looked down at the page and parried with:
“This is no book: what do books matter!
To these coffins and shrouds!
The past is the prey of books;
Yet within lives an eternal present.”

The Goethe Institut in Calcutta had prepared him enough for this. He felt relieved. But, Eva had other plans. She continued her performance…

“In Basel, I stood undaunted
Yet solitary there — God have pity,
And I cried out: Homer! Homer!
Thus annoying everyone.
They go to church and then go home
And laugh at the loud crier.”

Eugene had read this one before…so he countered…

“Now I no longer mind it;
The finest audience
Hears my Homeric cries
And is quietly patient withal.
As a reward for this exuberance
Of kindness, here is my printed thanks.”

All this while Eva and Eugene is going around in circles like two wrestlers in a ring trying to guess the timing of the first lunge. They are in their elements, poetry flows fast and furious. Their movement around the room is getting frenzied and their recitation more emphatic. The whirligig suddenly goes out of control; the Blue Girdle comes off and with it much more. And then… Ki hoitay Ki hoiya gelo (one thing led to another), the primal sounds of groans and grunts and the rhythmic creaking of a loose floor board replaces poetry…the din they create is so loud that the landlady who has a distinct Anglo-Indian accent shouts from below “Stop your jiggery-pokery men! Or I will call the Polizei!”

Eva and Eugene continued to meet surreptitiously, the Blue Girdle banished forever; they exchange poetry between long stanzas of jiggery-pokery.

Scenario 2:

Eugene’s right hand is in a cast, the heaviness is somewhat reduced by the sling that takes its weight. Not used to using the left hand for everyday chores, he finds it annoying that simple duties are proving to be insurmountable tasks. In the first week after his release from hospital, he decides that making breakfast was too much work. So, he walks to the corner café every morning for breakfast. But, even there he finds it difficult to butter his croissant or pour himself coffee and stir in the sugar. His clumsy attempts are noticed by the owner – a pretty young Fraulien, who decides to help. A few words were tentatively exchanged on the first morning. Gradually, more and more words are exchanged. Then she starts having whole conversations while serving breakfast. Eugene starts to look forward to hearing her daily prattle. The Bangali Bhadralok is now emboldened and asks her out to dinner. That was at the end of the second week. At the end of the third week, while Eugene was trying to type on his laptop with the index finger of his left hand, Fraulien Greta Garbo traipsed in with a bottle of wine and her chatter. It was about three in the afternoon. After a glass or two of wine Greta shed her inhibitions and Bangali Bhadralok shed his armour. Ki hoitay Ki hoiya gelo (one thing led to another)…and after a tumultuous and scandalous affair they finally married and lived happily ever after.

Scenario 3:

After being released from hospital the managers of the residency arranged things in such a way that he does not have to worry about making his own breakfast or hunting for shoes. So, in the absence of distractions like Fraulien Greta Garbo or Eva Blauen Gürtel, he works on his book with the help of an assistant, who gradually becomes almost indispensible. She takes on more responsibilities including that of trying to infuse Eugene with a zest for life, which the Bangali Bhadralok seemed to lack. In her zeal she teaches him amongst other things how to play poker. One evening after work she invites him to play strip poker. He is uncomfortable and suggests they stop the game after she had lost her blouse. She insists that she will win the next game. She purposefully loses all the games and with it all her clothes and Ki hoitay Ki hoiya gelo…etcetera.

Whatever transpired between Eugene’s breaking his wrist in Basel and the eighteen months or so until his return to Calcutta is anybody’s guess. But, on his arrival, he announced that he was getting married. I was invited to sign as a witness and later to the wedding party. She was a Doctor of Russian descent. There may be stories in here too, but, these are real people with real histories and what led them to the altar is their private affair. I have been to see them in Aachen where they now live with a beautiful baby daughter.

The pair of shoes from Metro Galli had played out its life changing role. Every time Eugene visits Calcutta I tell him in mock seriousness “Have you been there? You must make it your annual pilgrimage!” He just smiles.


On the evening of the wedding I was introduced to his elder sister-in-law who spoke no English and I spoke no Russian. But, we kept up a continuous conversation with hand gestures and doodles on paper napkins. She left a gift behind for me – a bottle of perfume. I showed it to Smriti and asked her what she thought of it? “You must have been stinking that evening…did you shower that day?” was her experienced retort. 


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Indexed Stories - 6

The hospital in Basel was huge and stood surrounded by square miles of greenery and every morning a nurse would come with a menu from which Eugene chose the day's meals. Absolute bliss! The day he was released from hospital, he was “seriously depressed” he confided to me later. This was when the Binoyee Bangali Bhadralok in Eugene took over; he thanked the staff profusely and also sent emails to each individual throughout the entire period of his treatment.

Something must have occurred around that time – that life changing incident that I had mentioned in my last post. But, how did it all unfold? That is where I come up against a stone wall. Eugene is not too forthcoming except responding to all my questions with a sly smile. A smile that said, “Ha-ha baba…dekhley hobey? Khorcha achhey!”

My quandary is similar to a song by Harry Belafonte that I remember:

“When I was a lad of three-foot-three
Certain questions occurred to me,
So I asked me father quite seriously
To tell me the story 'bout the bird and bee.
He stammered and he stuttered pathetically
And this is what he said to me.

He said, "The woman piaba and the man piaba
and the Ton Ton call baka lemon grass,
The lily root, gully root, belly root uhmm,
And the famous grandy scratch scratch.

It was clear as mud but it covered the ground
And the confusion made the brain go 'round.
I went and ask a good friend of mine,
Known to the world as Albert Einstein.
He said "Son, from the beginning of time and creativity
There existed the force of relativity
Pi r square and minus ten means a routine only when
The solar system in one light year
Make the Hayden planetarium disappear
So if Mt Everest doesn't move
I am positive that it will prove

That the woman piaba and the man piaba
And the Ton Ton call baka lemon grass,
The lily root, gully root, belly root uhmm,
And the famous grandy scratch scratch.

Etc, etc…”

So, I went and asked a good friend of mine, known to the world as Kunal Basu, “How do I write this story?”

Trapeze Artist, 1926, William Johnson 
“Simple! Write that the woman piaba and the man piaba…”

No, I am joking. He actually didn’t say that. Kunal said, “Simple! Write that Eugene is forlorn and a little disoriented. With his arm in a sling and unable to write he thinks the world is coming to an end. That is when some of his friends wanting to cheer him up, take him to the circus one evening. That is where things happen. There he sees this “heavenly body” in a spangled leotard negotiating the trapeze with flawless precision and oodles of oomph. Every tiny movement, every bold leap, every somersault seemed to hold a special meaning for Eugene. He sits there mesmerized. While he gapes at her with his jaw open, she swings her way into his heart…and after a tumultuous and scandalous affair they finally marry and live happily ever after.”

But, that is Kunal’s penchant for fiction on overdrive! I can only attempt to concoct possible scenarios.

Scenario 1:

After that stumble down the stairs that broke his right wrist and friends taking him to hospital, Eugene realized that his pair of Metro Galli shoes – the culprit of the piece had gone missing. So, after being released from hospital his first priority was to find himself another wear- them-with-everything kind of pair, that too within a budget. Being new to the city, he had no clue about where to begin his search and to make matters worse; there is no Metro Galli in Basel.

He started looking in the market places that he had often walked by. He had not noticed earlier that the Market Place (Marktplatz) with its’ colourful Rathaus (Town Hall) only sold groceries and vegetables. The Flohmarkt in Petersplatz had a few stores selling branded shoes. They were either too expensive or not the kind he wanted. His search was getting him nowhere and the added discomfort of walking in borrowed shoes made his task that much more onerous.

One day he finally spotted a pair of shoes that he liked. It had some kind of a fur lining. Though he was not too keen on fur, the prospect of wearing ordinary shoes in the icy winter ahead banished his initial resistance. He walked into the store and asked the salesman to show him the pair. The salesman went away to find the right size and Eugene surveyed the shop. In one corner a young girl was trying on some knee-length boots. She wore blue cycling tights and a white tee. She was obviously riding a bicycle as was evident from the lock chain around her middle (the kind encased in plastic) – it was blue and accentuated her slim waist. Fraulien Blauen Gürtel (Blue Girdle) Eugene thought to himself. The salesman arrived with the pair and helped Eugene put them on. He walked a few steps gingerly, examined it closely and remarked that the fur was too stiff and bristly. “No thank you, this will not do” he told the man and left.

Exiting the store he hung around for a while thinking about where to go next and was surprised when Fraulien Blauen Gürtel suddenly appeared by his side and told him, “Take the pair. It’s a real steal.”

Before Eugene could repeat what he had said to the salesman about the bristly fur, she said, “I know a cobbler who could fix the lining.”

“But, where do I find him?”

“His shop is on my street, I can take you there, but not today. Meet me at four on Saturday at the corner café at Munsterplatz,” she said mounting her bicycle.


“I am Eva,” she shot back pedaling away.

Eva Blauen Gürtel! Sounds like a good enough name Eugene chuckled to himself. He went back inside and bought the pair of shoes and waited it out till Saturday.

Eugene was five minutes late to the designated rendezvous, Eva was not. She looked at him disapprovingly and without further ado, beckoned him to follow. She wore the same kind of clothes as last time and the Blue Girdle was still on her. She walked in long strides with her bicycle beside her and Eugene fell behind a couple of times, not because he could not keep pace, but, because he was quite taken with her swaying, cat-walking hips! She was sensuous. The Blue Girdle however was puzzling. It was always around her waist and never seen being used as the designer had intended it to be.

He noticed that they were walking along the south bank of the Rhine and in about fifteen minutes were in the locality of Breite. “Here we are” she said breaking the silence.

Cobbler's shop, Basel
Eugene had never been to this part of the city before. It had a mix of the new and the old and along the main street were small shops – florists, hairdressers, a second-hand store and a scooter shop, a few cafes, a bar and tucked away between all of these was the cobbler’s shop. Not exactly Metro Galli, but, a multi-racial neighborhood that made Eugene feel comfortable in. It did not take long to transact business with the genial elderly man who ran the shop. “Delivery next Saturday, same time”, he said.

Eva and Eugene walked out of the shop and she made it clear that the deal was done and mounted her bicycle. A befuddled Eugene stood there not knowing how to react. “Coffee?” she asked suddenly.

“Umm, yes good idea! I am parched.”

“Follow me”, she commanded.

She pedalled slow speed, zigzagged the street to accommodate his walking speed. She turned in on the third left turn and when he got to that point too, Eugene realized that the street ended on the river front. It was a short street that ended with a low wall with a pathway to the right that led to a flight of stairs to the top floor of what looked like a four storied tenanted house. Eva leant her bicycle against the wall and climbed up the narrow staircase. Eugene followed. She lived on the uppermost floor. She unlocked the door and invited him in.

To be continued…

Listen to Harry Belafonte sing “The woman piaba and the man piaba…”