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THE BENGAL CLUB

A sulky youth in a grubby uniform jammed on the brakes. We lurched to a stop. He sniffed with contempt at the tip, sat fuming while I got out then sped off. An elderly retainer heaved the front door open.

‘Welcome to Kolkata,’ he snarled.

Sitting behind the reception desk was an Indian woman of indeterminate years who’d eaten rather too much curry. The Lizard Queen sprawled there sweating, both chubby claws splayed out, trapped in her ballooning body under the ceiling fan. She bulged through a bright pink sari as if someone had stuck a bicycle tube up her arse and pumped; arms folded stubbornly over breasts with all the life squeezed out of them, her ruby lips a carnival slash across a face that had seen too much already. There she sat, mute and powerful, gate-keeper of The Bengal Club of Calcutta.

In the forties Lowell Thomas noted that it was:

‘…one of the most cliquey places in India. They dislike the society of foreigners, adventurers, upstarts and natives. You must convince society that you belong to none of these undesirable classes before you can cross the threshold of the Bengal Club – even as a guest.’

Well, Dogster fitted three of the above categories before he’d even begun; he was definitely a foreigner, he liked to think of himself as an adventurer – and one look in his mongrel eyes, you just knew that he was an upstart.

*

The intruder stood meekly before her, apparently invisible. Some distant emotion tried to register in her jaded lizard eyes but gave up, defeated by ennui. Madame Liz relaxed back into her natural emotion; sullen contempt.

‘Sign,’ she hissed and pointed to an enormous ledger.  I was surprised she could lift her arm. Her hand was weighted down with gold; golden rings on every podgy finger, bullion bulging in the folds of flesh around her wrist; I imagined her poor sweating husband adrift at the mercy of those thighs.

I grabbed a pen and did as she demanded. She stared at me with an expression of utter blankness, as if some silent vacuum cleaner had sucked all thought from her brain. Two reptilian eyes looked me up and down, her cheeks dimpled with distaste then, with a rasp, she drew breath.

‘Room Six.’

A row of tarnished brass keys lined up obediently beside the ledger, old-fashioned keys for old-fashioned locks in a labyrinth of airs and graces. Each dangled a small tag with a number. The tag on the key to my humiliation said either 6 or 9, I couldn’t tell – so I took the one between 5 and 7 and hoped for the best.

‘Thank you so much for all your help,’ I smiled, not very sincerely.

‘Ph-h-h-ht,’ she said and returned to her fatness, as if I’d farted in her face.

*

On cue the elderly retainer re-appeared from the shadows and led me away along a dank corridor. We stopped and he wrestled open a grille that led to a small room panelled with dark wood. He stood aside in a slovenly imitation of deference and ushered me in. The grille crashed shut, a button was pressed and we whirred slowly up to the second floor.

‘Right, Sir,’ he wheezed and I did as instructed until commanded to stop below a sign which read ‘Gentleman’s Lavatory’.

‘Left, Sir.’

With sinking heart, I turned towards the Gentlemen’s Lavatory. In an alcove facing me was a dreadful choice – two doors. One led to the lavatory and one to Room Six. Luckily I made the right move. I just knew what was behind the other one.

Room Six was huge; a juicy vomit yellow on the walls, high green ceiling, brown chairs; an ancient bar-fridge gurgled in the corner; a tray, a jug and a cup framed on its laminex top. The red sofa leant sleeping against the wall, a coffee table standing guard in front, four rickety legs just holding up a scratched wooden top inexplicably graced with three lace doilies. On each was an opaque brown ashtray, in each brown ashtray a box of dead matches. A desk and chair stood in the far corner next to long purple drapes that were drawn tight shut.

*

‘Sah! Sah! Let me in!’

It was Bongo, the room-wallah. Thin, wiry and full of friendly contempt, he charged in, nearly turning inside out in his attempt at an introduction. Bongo wasn’t his name, but by this point in my travels, they were all called Bongo. It was easier. This Bongo lived in a box outside the door, ready to leap into action at my every command. He scurried the hundred yards to the other side of the room and threw the curtains open with a flourish.

‘There, Sah! Your personal veranda!’ He spread his arms out wide. ‘Welcome to Calcutta!’ ’

Bongo propelled me out into the crisp Calcutta sun. Kolkata was still Calcutta in the Bengal Club; time had stood still here for years. We toured the veranda extensively; I admired the crumbling view, watched as a hundred black crows swooped on a dead rat in the car-park below, enthusiastically inhaled the distant tang of fresh urine.

Bongo had a calling – his mission in this life was to make me happy. Next stop on that journey to bliss was a tour of my own personal bathroom. Enthusiastically he explained the miracle of running water, the bliss of a ‘pulling-chain’ loo, the mysteries of the hot water system, the black and white tiled shower, even the magic hole where the water went away.

‘Down the plug-hole, Sah,’ he said proudly, ‘down the plug-hole and far, far away.’

Bongo’s father, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father had all looked after Room Six since the dawn of time. I was his newest acquisition, another insect trapped in the net. He ran through the list of services he could offer: the taxi, his friends with a car, the masseur that could come to my room in the morning, the treats he had waiting in store. He stopped somewhere short of a blow-job but I had the distinct feeling that, for a paltry ten million rupees, that was on the cards as well. It was all a question of ‘Sah’s’ wallet and where ‘Sah’ wanted to go.

‘Guest is God, Sah, guest is God. Anything at all, just shout ‘Bongo!’

Then he stopped, stood still and hovered over me.

‘Are you happy, Sah?’ he asked with a frown.

‘I’m perfectly happy, thank you, Bongo,’ I sighed.

‘Perfectly happy?’ he repeated and stood there.

It was a strange frozen moment. I truly had no idea what he talking about. Then it hit me in a moment of clarity. Bongo wanted a tip – and he wasn’t going anywhere till he got it.

The fly fed himself to the spider, in the way that solo travellers often do.

I dragged out one hundred rupees and held it out. He didn’t move. Like an idiot, I took out another hundred rupees and thrust the two notes in his pocket. There was not a flicker of response on his face. He bowed slightly with a smirk and was gone. Now I was a real target – the foreigner was a fool as well.

*

The Bengal Club, as I discovered, is in Russell Street, the site of the largest public urinal in the world – or perhaps Kolkata as a whole is the largest public urinal in the world and Russell Street just a suburban franchise.  Some things we can never know. Quite where they went for their other excretory activities wasn’t obvious – but the briefest of sniffs was enough to tell me it wasn’t far away.

All of life lay before me, spread out like theatre along the street. No hasslers, no hustlers, no beggars, just ordinary people doing ordinary things, living the Indian city life: pumping water just outside the front gate, washing cups and plates from the food-stall right next door: that same stall frying god-knows-what in a rancid pan and selling it to passers-by, the old men sipping chai and sitting on benches, students, smokers, dreamers and jokers – just the normal daily grind. There was nothing special about this scene – it occurs a thousand times a day in a thousand streets in a thousand, thousand cities. It was India.

An ancient tree defiantly grew through the footpath. An old man lived defiantly in the tree. His eyes were bloodshot, his few remaining teeth stuck out like bleached fence-posts after a storm. He was grubby, drunk but friendly – that smile was warm, fuzzy and completely sincere. He looked up at me through cracked spectacles.

‘Welcome my friend!’ he said and smiled broadly, ‘welcome to Kolkata!’

I saw more men take a piss in Russell St. than anywhere else in India; men let fly at every open space of wall they could find; standing, squatting, wizzing out of cars, windows, doors; if there was a clear stretch of plaster, a square inch of concrete – they pissed on it.  Well, now I was in Russell St. They could all piss on me.

 

A middle-aged Indian in a sweat-stained uniform leapt out and blocked my way.

‘Oh,’ he gasped in horror, ‘you can’t be coming in here, sir, dressed like that.’

Behind him I see a room of epic proportions, a row of crystal chandeliers dimly lighting the ceiling, a gallery of large oil paintings blanketing the walls. Tablecloths that once were white lay pliant over a number of empty tables, each set for four. The ghost of the Raj was having a dinner with a hundred invisible guests. There was not a soul in the Bengal Club Dining Room.

‘The rules, sir.’

‘What rules?’

‘The rules, sir.’

He looked at my feet. His eyes travelled slowly up the length of my body, stopping somewhere short of my neck. He sniffed and sighed. His eyes sank back into his head and both nostrils flared with distaste. I’d come directly from piss in the streets to piss-elegance in the dining room.

‘A jacket, sir, at least’ he sneered, ‘do you have a jacket?’

He was apparently the Maitre ‘D, employed especially to be rude and condescending. What were those words again? ‘Foreigners, adventurers, upstarts and natives…’ Which one was I tonight, I wondered? Something worse, apparently – I was a man without a jacket and tie.

This whole scenario was so bizarre that instead of beating him to a pulp I smiled and actually went up to my room, changed from clothes that cost more than his yearly wage and returned dressed ‘appropriately’ for what had better be some considerable occasion.

A buffet sprawled along a long table at the far end of the room. Eight gleaming bain-maries squatted expectantly in a silver row, polished perfect and eager to be exposed. Occasionally a waiter would leer and wave at the combined magnificence, his face filled right up with smiles.

After I’d returned, been seated with a flourish and sneered at by each waiter in turn, I was led to this row of silver mushrooms. Each lid was whipped off with a flourish, each dish explained as if I’d never seen a curry in my life. This had all been sitting there since six o’clock, just time enough to grow enough bacteria to kill a giraffe.

A lump of horror from each was dumped on my plate and I was escorted with great ceremony back to my table. A napkin was laid altogether too carefully over my groin and, while the whole staff watched attentively, I gainfully attempted to stomach the muck.

‘Beer,’ I mumbled, ‘bring one big Kingfisher Beer.’

Three scuttled off; one to find out what a beer was, one to find it and one to bring it back. Then someone else would bring it to the table, another open it and a third proudly pour it with the biggest and best head of froth he could provide. It was a blizzard of unnecessary attention – then, of course, it dawned. Word has got around. He’s a big tipper.

*

Bongo jumped out at me in the corridor as I was passing the Gentleman’s Lavatory on my way back from dinner. The braised turd in brine sat uneasily in my stomach.

‘Bed tea, Sah?

I knew all about bed tea, a Raj institution, when the servants run in and wake you up, the British being apparently unable to do that for themselves. While propped up by pillows, the groggy Brit would condescend to have tea poured, lie there sleepy-eyed while his two lumps were placed solemnly in the cup, watch as just the right amount of milk was measured into his first flush Darjeeling, the brew stirred, the spoon laid reverently in the saucer as his slave slipped silently away.

‘Sure Bongo. Nine o’clock.’

‘Is there anything else, Sah?

“I’m tired, Bongo – I have to sleep. My shoulders hurt, my arms hurt, my back hurts… let me go to bed.’

He smiled broadly. Some kind of cosmic light-bulb had just switched on his sharp, greedy little mind.

‘Ahhh, I know what you want, Sah. Nine o’clock! I’ll fix everything. Sah!’

*

‘Good morning, Sah!’

With no other warning Bongo appeared. I stirred, looked up, and there he was, holding the tray. I was lying naked in my bed, the covers strewn around me in disarray, bits of Dogster sticking out uncovered, stark, white and skinny – I covered my vitals, still somewhat in shock.

He placed the tray on my lap and moved across the room. With a flourish he whipped open the curtains. All of the glory of Kolkata flooded into the room: he opened the doors to my private veranda so I could get my first whiff of last night’s urine then returned proudly to the side of my bed. I was sitting up by now, probably looking as cadaverous as I felt. One scrawny arm reached for the tea.

‘No, no, Sah! Let me do that!’

He leant on the bed, just a little too close, picked up the pot and carefully poured out my tea. I was feeling distinctly uncomfortable: naked, vulnerable, still half-asleep – trapped in my bed by a tray of milky tea, a rack of toast, a chipped plate and a small silver container of butter. Trapped, also, by the constant presence of my room-wallah, for whom this was apparently a perfectly normal part of his daily life.

Think back to that colonial assumption; one’s ‘native boy’ would attend to one’s every need – wake one up, pour tea down one’s throat, butter one’s toast, cut it in four, feed it slowly to one… probably grab their jaw and move it up and down so they didn’t have to exercise a stupid British muscle to masticate their food.

He moved to Sah’s bathroom and briskly wiped the floor, arranged the towels and toiletries then turned the taps on in the shower.

‘All ready, Sah!’

I looked at him through bleary eyes.

‘Shower, Sah!’

Then he stood there, waiting.

I was stark naked under the off-white sheet. Clearly he wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t thinking clearly. What on earth did he want me to do?

Get up – obviously – with him standing there watching.

‘Errrr… ahhh… Bongo… ahhh – I’m a bit trapped here.’

He didn’t understand at all. He was hearing my words, but not my meaning.

‘Ahhh, Sah, sorry, Sah,’ and he leapt to my rescue, flying to my side. He lifted the tray from my lap with great ceremony and stood at attention by the bed, holding it stiffly in front of him.

Bongo wasn’t the only thing standing at attention. The shower beat a tattoo against the black and white tiles; the water was escaping down the plug-hole while stood and waited. Somewhere in the distance a clock struck nine-fifteen and I knew, with all the certainly I could muster, that only a lightening strike could save me. I would have to get up – right now – parade naked in front of Bongo with little Dogster leading the way and make a stately progress across the room to the shower.

‘Well,’ I sighed defeated, ‘you’re a man, Bongo. So am I. Same, same – but different.’

‘Yes, Sah,’ he said and averted his eyes.

*

Shaved, showered, shampoo’d – the dog was fresh and clean. I heard Bongo gaily sweeping the room while I was attending to my needs. I wrapped a damp towel round my waist, opened the door and stepped out to see a pristine newly-made bed – with one rather surprising addition. There, laid neatly on top, was a manky grey sheet.

Bongo stood by the door looking pleased with himself.

‘Here he is, Sah!’ he said, took one step to the right and through the open doorway walked my masseur. As I didn’t recall ordering one in the first place I was just a little taken aback.

‘For your shoulders, Sah, your back – as you requested, Sah!’

Squeeze was a wise-looking man in his late thirties wearing a stained white shirt and blue trousers. Somehow I knew where those stains had come from. His face was calm and serene; a dispassionate face that had seen a thousand bodies, felt a thousand lives melt beneath his hands. He produced a small bottle of oil from his pocket, placed it carefully on the bedside table and stood silently beside the bed.

‘Only three hundred rupees, Sah,’ Bongo said, ‘three hundred for an hour.’ He seemed just a little too excited. I could tell that his commission fee had been negotiated. He moved to the window and closed the curtain.

‘Sah!,’ he snapped to attention, bowed discretely and, with that, stepped out of the room.

My masseur advanced with a glint in his eye. He gestured at the sheet. Obediently, completely confused, I went to lie down, towel still around my waist.

‘No, no, no,’ he said lightly and, as I stood there uncertainly, reached over and gently removed the towel.

‘Ahhh,’ he said and smiled.

I could hear the Kolkata traffic beeping and screeching. In the streets around The Bengal Club life continued apace – the city went about its business: men pissed on walls regardless, the food-stall fried its god-knows what, the students sat chatting with their chai. The old drunk man slept soundly against his tree, snoring quietly through the gaps in his teeth.

Welcome to Calcutta

*

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