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. 


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