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LITTLE THINGS

 

I don’t know why there are naked Armenian men wrestling on the banks of the Hoogli, but there are. Well, not quite naked. They are all wearing a tiny scarf wrapped around their loins and, without meaning to labour the point, seem to have had their todgers cut off. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth of it. These men might be strong and fit and mean, but they truly have the littlest willies I’ve ever seen. Well, I didn’t really see them. I saw where they should have been. Perhaps dawn wrestling does that to your vitals. It certainly would to mine.

It all came as a terrible shock. I’d found a young man called Ifte; he took on the task of unpeeling Kolkata for me. He was young, keen and hearty, as educated Indians mostly are, newly married and quite in love but, for a large fee, was prepared to leave his beautiful wife at home and escort this eccentric white man on a dash through the early morning streets of the metropolis. I allowed myself to be bundled into a taxi at sparrow’s fart and to be driven into the streets with no idea where I was being taken, consented to be pushed out onto the ghats – and there they were; twenty genitally impaired Armenians covered in dirt.

Well, they probably weren’t even Armenian. For all I know they might have just been grubby young Indians. The ghat was Armenian; an Armenian named Manvel Hazaar Maliyan built it, Armenians paid for it, they were amongst the earliest traders here; then they were known as the ‘merchant princes of India’ – but that was then. Now they have mostly assimilated into the population – there are only about a hundred and twenty Armenians left in Kolkata.

Just under ninety-eight percent of the population in Kolkata are either Hindu or Muslim – add another 0.88% for the Christians and 0.75% for the Jains and you’ve accounted for 99.58% of the people. Of course, in his contrary manner, Dogster wanted to see what the other 0.42% was doing. That’s why he was looking for Armenians at dawn.

This end of the ghat was for men. It was bath time. All the splash and scrub of the river was here this morning, a hundred men dunking in the water, whispering secret prayers, up to their neck in the Hoogli, climbing out, climbing in, washing t-shirts, getting dressed, getting undressed, squeezing, scrubbing, cleaning their teeth with a stick; every intimacy of bathing blithely performed, every orifice cleaned out, every inch of skin scraped clean – all alone in public, just another beginning to another Kolkata day.

If this was the Armenians, this was all of them.

The main wrestling takes place in a dirt pit enclosed by wire netting. For a hundred rupees the master and one of his students put on a bit of show. The older man was a hefty fellow, a steam-roller of a man – his apprentice was, as all apprentices should be, young, supremely fit and half his size. It was a surprisingly even match. They emerged panting, covered in dirt and sat patiently for their pictures to be taken.

‘Hanuman,’ the master gasped.

He was trying to tell me about Hanuman, ever active, never restful monkey god of young men and fitness, athletics and strength. This wasn’t just wrestling. This was prayer.

‘Hanuman,’ he puffed, ‘God.’

It seemed like they definitely weren’t Armenians. The Armenians left behind the first Christian church in Kolkata. No matter. Whoever their god was, I wanted him to give their willies back.

 

The pigeon man distributed his blessing to the flock. He was naked, save for a dangle of pink material hanging limply round his waist, a portly man with thick wire rimmed glasses, a gold wedding ring and an expensive watch. He looked like a solicitor in a sarong.  He was hurling handfuls of seeds, or bread, or whatever it is you feed pigeons – whatever it was, it was working. Around him seethed a thousand birds, wheeling in the air, whirling all around us before settling quietly on the ghat, pecking away like contented rats at the seed. The pigeon man looked approvingly at his children. He sat down on the ground in the middle of it all and smiled a secret smile. He threw another handful. Whoosh! The pigeons scattered. Whoosh! Wings in the air – then a flutter and a feather fall; a swoop and they were back, pecking at the old man’s toe-nails, gathering round at his feet.

We followed the pigeons and hurried away, out past the cremation ghat, up north along the river, over a railway track and into a doorway to a quiet courtyard where two men sat working. One was making hands – the other painting faces. This was Kumatuli. It was a month before Durga Puja. The gods were on display.

Kumartuli is one small section of Kolkata that has been making idols, life-size and larger, highly decorated clay tableaux and images of the gods for four hundred years. It’s a long and intricate process, a prayer and a production, a Durga assembly line. Here a hundred hands in one position, here a hundred more, feet in a pile on the floor; a row of perfect feet – then a house of faces, clay smiles and raised eyebrows. The sculptures are made from clay and straw, slowly completed over time until the houses and lanes are bulging with statues – all building up to these grand few days in October; Durga Puja, when all this hard work will be consigned to the swift flowing waters of the Hoogli, hurled in with a shout and melee. Intricately painted, finely dressed, bejewelled, multi-armed Durgas all heading for the deep.

Splash-h-h! goes a year’s work. Splash-h-h! goes another.

I don’t know why. I don’t know anything.

All I see is sculpture, not story – all the meaning of the goddess, her adventures, her many names, her many incarnations are lost on me as I wander through this Durga Disneyland. Tigers, wild animals, fearsome enemies, faces contorted, man and beast locked in mortal combat, a portly Ganesh standing there, huge ears poised mid-flap. The man making hands barely raised his head. He knew he wasn’t the star of the show. That position was reserved for a broad brown back and mop of curly hair bent over a bright blue Durga. He was the painter of faces – a most important task.

Durga sat there, blue as the Kerala sky, mute and blank and dead – then the painter of faces waved his hands and in a day she was transformed. The painter of faces put the soul in her face, the blush to her cheeks and lips, eyelashes, brows, a hint of a smile, the painter of faces brought the bare clay to life – but, of course, he wasn’t just painting, he was praying as well. In a single flick he struck with his brush, a touch of white in the centre of the pupils of her eyes. He leant back. This Durga was done.

That was the first time he noticed we were there. Sleepily his eyes focused on us. The painter of faces was lost to his art, soft, distracted, intense – quite sublime.

‘Durga,’ he said softly, ‘god.’

Stella sat behind her counter, mistress of all she surveyed. Oval faced and quite serene, the last empress of Chinatown was completely at home – dowager of the dump. Chinatown tumbled out all around her, a jagged scrum of rubbish, rats and rickshaws – but inside Stella’s provisions shop on Sun Yat Sen Street all was harmony – in comparison with the streets outside, this was a Zen garden.

Dogster was still searching for that missing 0.42%. He may, or may not, have found Armenians, the jury was still out on that – but he had definitely found the Chinese. Not a lot of them. Well, really, just one – but she was worth the trip.

The back wall of Stella’s shop was covered in a huge cabinet faced with glass-fronted doors. In the cabinet was every single thing in the known Chinese world, neatly labelled and stacked in rows; dried mushrooms, oyster sauce, rice noodles, black bean paste, strange fungus and a lot of stuff I’d never seen before. The counter was clear and tidy. Stella’s abacus lay beside a note-book. On one side was a calendar, a row of Chinese New Year characters blaring red, above them a photograph in an oval frame leaning out from the wall at a precarious angle.

‘Is that your father?’ I asked, pointing up to a serious Chinaman.

‘Grandfather,’ she said, not looking up. This was the man who began the Hap Hing provision shop in 1934.

‘He looks like a fine man.’

‘Very bad-tempered,’ Stella said, ‘very, very bad-tempered. He fight with my grandmother night and day.’ She seemed quite cheerful. None of this was said with the slightest rancour.

‘Are your parents still alive?’

‘No.’

‘Same.’

She looked up and caught my eye.

‘Very terrible.’

‘You cry a lot,’ I agreed, ‘then you cry some more.’

‘Everybody cry,’ she said. ‘E-e-e-v-rybody cry.’

‘Ah, well, Stella,’ I said with a broad smile spreading over my face, ‘now you’re free to marry.’

Her eyes twinkled.

‘O-o-o-o-h, what you think, eh? You and me?’

Everybody laughed.

‘Ahhh, Stella, I’d let you down. I could never be the kind of wild lover a young woman like you needs. I’m an old man. You’re just a child.’

‘Yes,’ she agreed solemnly, ‘I’d eat you alive.’

We would have made an odd couple; a kind of multi-cultural Laurel and Hardy. Stella was a woman of uncertain years – she must have been about my age but her face, unlike mine, still had a youthful freshness. Truth be told, her cheeks did tend to cave somewhat outwards, whereas mine caved right in, her figure may have been a little full, where the Dogster’s hovered on the cadaverous side of thin – no matter, this was a meeting of minds, not bodies. Highly articulate, well-read, well-educated in her own private university of life, Stella was beyond the vanities, she was beyond the big questions; Stella was as Stella does. No guile. No spite. No fear.

‘Tea?’ she said coquettishly.

How could a gentleman refuse?

My hostess was the last of a dwindling breed. There are between three and five thousand Chinese left in Kolkata, a city of fifteen million, depending on your source. What is certain is that those who are left are marrying into the broader Indian community, leaving Kolkata to join their expatriate families in Canada or dying at a rapid rate.

We talked of life and love and secret things. I sat on a packing crate and she on a stool, nattering away. Stella was a most unusual woman. She’d led a rich life; she’d seen a lot, learnt some things and wasn’t shy about expressing her opinions on any topic under the sun in a particularly blunt Chinese way that I found amusing. Stella, it would be fair to say, didn’t give a toss what this latest foreigner thought – nor, it would be fair to say, did I overly care what she thought – that’s what was such a relief.

It’d be nice to think that this unsinkable Molly Brown was representative of her beleaguered Chinese community, that her fighting spirit alone could keep Chinatown alive and thriving – but Stella, I think, is unique. Her shop was exactly as her grandfather made it, her room in the courtyard behind exactly as her parents made it. She clings to her heritage with a benign ferocity. Something in Stella knows that if she changes a thing, the walls will come crumbling down.

This is the clue to it all. Resist change. Repel boarders. Survive.

‘And what will happen to all this when you die, Stella?’

‘This will die, too,’ she said with finality. ‘I will close the doors and lock all the locks and then I will die. I don’t trust anyone around here.’

Ifte sat there quite amazed.

‘Nobody has got that much out of Stella before,’ he gasped, as we hurled away down the street.

‘She was easy,’ I said with a smile.

I’ve met a few Stella’s. I’m a bit of a Stella myself. We are a dwindling breed.

*

PART TWO

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