a view into the sordid life i lead

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Sajal's World: Chapter 1


What the feck is all that din? It is sometime in the middle of the night or the wee hours just before dawn & some group or another is banging for all their worth (which isn’t much, but they seem to enjoy exaggeration) on that which can only be cookware, accompanied by a croaking, miked voice screeching out Hare Krsna, Hare Rama. This is not a special festival night. It is the usual, “Let’s wake up all the non-believers with our incredibly grating version of God’s names”.

It’s impossible to know what time it is, as we have no clock. We do have a cell phone that I could root around for, but it really doesn’t matter, it’s just too damn early, no matter how you slice it. Not to mention, there’s no guarantee I could locate the specs to see the little numerals on the cell, if I did manage to find it. Now that I’m awake, there’s a choice: do I go downstairs to pee, risking life & limb on the pile of bricks mimicking stairs, quite probably encountering bugs the size of a buick; or do I go pee down the drain on the side of our room& wash it down with the bucket of water brought up for this express purpose? The aesthetic repulsion at this juncture is really only in my mind, as no on in this neck of the village would bat an eye over it. Grossness is part & parcel of life here.

I opt for the life threatening descent & as I round the corner, flipping on the bathroom light as I pass through “the kitchen”, I spy a machete emerging from the downstairs room door. I can’t see who it’s attached to, but I swiftly look to the right where it is pointing to see a pile of monkeys sifting through last night’s Laxmi Puja Prasad. I emit a yell & run back upstairs to grab a bamboo pole & run back down, all the while yelling. I twirl it like a martial artist into the midst of the pack & they scatter. Leaving the remains of the Puja scattered, likewise. I pick up what is not demolished or bastardized by them & put it in a bowl to be washed & distributed to any early morning guests that are sure to be arriving soon.

Good morning Nabadwip!

After the melee, I realize the machete was being brandished by one of the “Misty” (sweet) sisters. The Hanumans had menaced them by chasing them with teeth bared. They usually go for girls, no matter the size or age. Who knows why they reacted to my rushing them, maybe I was not fully awake enough to be scared, just pissed by their bravado. Interestingly, even the smallest of male children can chase off a pack of monkeys, but the girls they’ll attck every time.

The sisters, Mejo & Chota (big & little)are greatly relieved & without missing a beat, get on to drawing water ot heat from the well, accommodating Suzy’s & my bath; and making both garam lebu, ada, madhu (hot lemon, ginger honey) water & a separate pot of cha to awaken Sajal with, who is sleeping in his room across the way, visible from the upper level of our compound.

By the time I’ve finished the teeth cleaning routine (an entity unto itself) the girls have already returned from Sajal’s, mission accomplished, & are onto rinsing out any clothes we’ve left in any pile either upstairs or down.

The bath is by bucket, as may have been surmised by now; and although when we were last here, 2 & a half years ago, we had seized one side of this concrete structure as a bathroom & the other side dedicated to the squat toilet. We’ve since been confined to both the bath & toilet in the same side. Not our first choice on good ideas, but in the long interim of our absence, the “bathroom” side had been encroached upon by Sajal’s rather impressive levels of pack-ratting. We’ve yet to re-claim the acreage & may just forego it altogether in favor of just adding another story on top & making a real usable western style bath/toilet with all the amenities, such ad soap dish, towel bar or hooks (or both).

It takes a certain level of determination to get thru a bath balancing the soap & shampoo on a ledge of the door frame (the only area that might possibly be slightly cleaner than the rest of the nasty arrangement) & thanking the lord above for your fanatic forethought last time here, insisting on a tiny, nearly useless little bar of hooks that’s hanging on the door for dear life in the face of the Indian onslaught.

Emerging from the bath, I find Sajal’s world in full swing. Sajal has arrived in the compound & all are in attendance. One of the Misty sisters is serving him up more chai, while the other is massaging his legs & feet as he reclines on one of the two queen bed sized structures in the downstairs room where he holds court. These structures are mattress free, but piled high with all sorts of unlikely items; bags & bags of things, mysterious; that become known when Sajal is searching for something specific. Two to three minins will begin thrashing through them in earnest at Sajal’s command, spilling the contents of all for perusal.

There is a really thin “electrician” friend here now, smoking a bidi & sipping a cup with Arthur & Suzy to get the day started off on the right foot. I hed upstairs to get dressed & Mejo (big sister) follows me up to make sure I recognize the bowl of “no chini” (sugar) curd they’ve brought & is now sitting on the floor, under my bed, in a plate of water to keep off the piplis (ants). A curious thing about yogurt in West Bengal: it is always sweet. It is one of my least favorite occurances, & I’ve enlisted the sisters to make me special non-sweet batches on a daily basis. Not only are they on that mission, but they are masters of the West Bengal sweet called Rasgulla. I’ve never had better & they began bringing them to me to the tune of 6/day. Luckily, I ran off to Darjeeling for a couple of days, but as soon as I returned, so did the rasgulla. I had to sway them from the path of my supreme obesity by making them promise to only bring them once a week.

When I head downstairs again, there are at least 3 to 4 new characters on the scene. Uma, a short, stocky little loudmouthed dishwasher/general wipedown artist is yelling in her course, hoarse voice at Sajal. There seems to be a crisis surrounding her not getting her breakfast portion of chai & biscuits (the British word for cookies) because the dhutt (milk) has run out & the packet of biscuits is missing. Someone has obviously absconded with it…most likely suspect: Alo Mashi.

Sajal has known Uma & her sister, Minuti since childhood. They are of the Sudra caste, but have a certain level of pride whereas they are up to battling back with a few flinches when Sajal tries pushing them too far. Sajal has a running commentary in English that Uma cannot understand, but she guesses rightly that it’s derogatory, running along the lines of Uma wanting to “bed” Sajal all the time. She explodes in a top volume tirade & hits Sajal hard. He grunts & acts like he’ll beat her, but the tiny little form holds her ground. This is pretty much a daily routine.

Now, Alo Mashi is not going to show up before 10am. She is of a higher caste (Vaisya) & is therefore the cook. Uma does not like Alo Mashi & vice versa; and the Misty’s, who beat it out of here by 7:30, latest, don’t like anyone in Nabadwip, (a very bad village, altogether in their estimation), except their father, brother & Dada (Sajal). They will show up again around 4pm bearing really good samosas that they prepare for their father & brother to sell in the market every day.

Alo Mashi is an enigma. Sajal vacillates between gossiping about her thieving, covetous nature & extolling her virtues, almost bragging about her cleverness & abilities. In all cases, however, she is referred to as “that bloody bastard”. She is approaching 40 years old, but has never been married as she is incapable of bearing children. Get the picture? She is the eldest girl of six sisters & three brothers. Sajal constantly creates the picture of Alo Mashi desiring to entrap him in marriage; and robbing him regularly. He recently had an inspiration while in the throes of some sacrificial ceremony or another by the burning ghat that the only way to assuage her desire was to give her something she could transfer her love to. Shortly thereafter opportunity presented itself in the guise of a puppy. It was a fluffy whit spitz being offered for sale at a deeply discounted price by a neighbor of Mashi’s. She mentioned it to Sajal, who responded that he could not commit to caring for a dog; but then, by divine intervention he realized the import of the moment. He told her he would buy it for her. She said she could not afford to keep a dog, so Sajal promised to maintain all costs. Enter Rajada.

Suzy is an animal lover. She will always rise to the defense of any creature that is not human; those she feels can fend for themselves. As we wend our way throughout India she will distribute many dozens of Marie Biscuit packs to any of the various species of 4-footed citizens of the sub-continent. She is known as “The Snack Queen”. Here in Nabadwip, in fact anywhere in India, people don’t really have a great love for the poor animals. The fact that Sajal has taken on this aspect of Suzy, animal lover, is therefore, a rather interesting development. He did display some leanings in this direction during our last sojourn here, but nothing could have prepared us for what greeted us this time. Rajada is the new love of Sajal’s life. This dog he calls Dada (brother), and the little fellow is allowed, nay, encouraged, to lick the inside of Sajal’s mouth! Sajal regales us with involved stories that at some point I suddenly realize are about the dog.

Aside from that bit of nonsense, the other surprise awaiting us was Sajal having rescued a tiny kitten from a garbage heap where he was about to become a pack dog’s dinner & brought him home for Suzy to care for.

Snack Queen snapped into action & succeeded in over-feeding the poor tiny soul to the degree of necessary veterinary intervention. She didn’t stop at giving the starving kitten cooked fish every day (who would simply gorge), but living up-to her reputation, supplemented it with milk & sweetened yogurt, just to be sure; never-minding the fact that his little wormy belly would swell immediately to practically double his size.

So, the night before last the crisis of little “King Tut” came to full fruition. Exactly who was responsible in this den of animal torturers for pushing tiny Tut’s nose into the dirt so hard he could neither smell nor breath, remains a mystery. There were a few vague references to a tall 23-24 yr. old, no one recognized as from the area (a clear pack of lies, told to keep Suzy & I from throttling any of the locals) and no one could give account of his whereabouts. Then there was Suzy & Sajal’s theory that one of the little kids, Sajal calls “Devil boy”, from tenant’s row (part of the inherited lands that Sajal & his brothers rent out (another bit of intrigue for later discussion) was responsible for the act of terror.

This very night that King Tut was laid-up, unable to eat or breath through his nose, was accentuated by another visitation. An old friend, Visnu had been called by Sajal earlier in the day to announce that Suzy, Arthur & I were in station. The last time Suzy & I saw Visnu was at Howrah station just before we left the country two & a half years ago. Sajal had given him a call then, as well, & as we waited for our train to Delhi, within half an hour, Visnu had arrived. Prior to that we had seen him in 2001 at the Mahakhumbamela in Katya Baba’s camp, where we all spent a few hellish days & nights to the sadhu chant, “Chai, Chillum, Chappati” & kept from anything that might remotely resemble sleep by the loudspeaker installed just above the tent we were “housed” in. I must keep using quotes in this text, as the description is just so far away from the reality.

Round about 5pm there was a commotion at the back door through the “kitchen”, which by rights should be the front door, but is locked & blocked by a big pile of rocks & a lone plant that bears a lovely white trumpet type flower. Sajal was yelling through the door to someone & I heard Visnu sprinkled in there, so I looked out over our little “terrace” to see what was up. Sure enough, it was Visnu, accompanied by two others I didn’t recognize. This little gang turned out to be the “Calcutta Contingent”; three “free men” (by their own account), that hopped into Visnu’s car in Calcutta immediately upon hearing of our presence & partially drove, then got on a train for the remainder of the trip, arriving here a few hours after Sajal’s call. The other two with Visnu were a doctor of anesthesiology, who remains nameless to us, & Bacchu, a fellow who has given up working for a small pension & spending his time stoned on chillum & chanting at various temples in the Calcutta area. Although I hadn’t met these two before, they were well known to Arthur & Suzy, who’d run up against them with Visnu some years earlier in Calcutta. There was all around hugging of the men (they don’t hug women, unless “Rainbows”), and they were full of tears of joy & much hashish. Sajal, the perfect host, although in the midst of the Sani Sacrafice, (finished for the evening), quickly arranged with his temple to accommodating the three. He also gave them the option of staying in the room downstairs. Over the course of the evening, the three began to add hard liquor to their on-going program of smokables.

Sajal bowed out sometime in the revelry, having abstained from any pollutants (as he would in any case) heeding religious observance & needing rest for the sacrifices that would continue with the new day. Suzy & I had long been asleep when I fitfully rose & headed downstairs to the loo. The three “freemen” & Art were making such a racket that I stopped to question their male-bonding ritual’s position in respect to our windows above. For reasons known to them, they had posited themselves in the courtyard rather than the room below us that could buffer the sound of their drunken chatter that had increased by plenty decibels. I ended up down there twice, as they reawakened me with explosive levels & I figured, “no time like the present to utilize the loo again.” At some point I heard the noise subside & then locking the front door & lights out. I relaxed into slumber.

An hour later the clangers began their reign of terror while the Misty sisters quietly arranged our morning bathing & imbibing rituals.