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Biography
Catherine Fletcher is a poet, an editor for RATTAPALLAX magazine, and the coordinator of the Endangered Languages Initiative, a multi- year project of the New York-based People’s Poetry Gathering. She is the editor of the anthology A MINGLING OF WATERS (Supernova, 2008) and is currently collaborating on projects documenting an oral epic from Sierra Leone and translating verse from the Georgian language.

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FINDING MY WAY IN KOLKATA

- by Catherine Fletcher

“I could murder a pint,” Lloyd told me.  The honking of car horns (Use horn!—as inscriptions on bumpers of buses encouraged motorists to do), the yellows, blues, and reds of buses and Ambassador taxis (a car every mechanic in India knows how to repair), the sheer number of people talking, people darting in and out of traffic, and the pollution hanging in the air had flooded his brain.  After a week in Kolkata, Lloyd—a man who carefully controls his activities in his home city of Cardiff—was a man in need of an escape.  So we ducked into the Peter Cat on Middleton Row to grab a quick drink before our scheduled Krittibas magazine reading.  A dark bar with dark wood and dark carpets, we found a table in the back in the darkest corner we could.  Goutam had taken me there after he and I had visited the Kali temple, my first night in Kolkata.

***

“The city is named for Kalighat.  Its history is linked to the site,” the young guide with the thin moustache stated authoritatively. Barefoot, Goutam and I followed him across the grubby pavement, past stalls selling incense, red garlands, and religious knickknacks, toward the temple. “In the early days, traders stopped here to pay devotion to the goddess.”

Pilgrims crammed onto the temple’s veranda in a long line which spilled out into the street.  Dhoti-clad pandas—temple priests—milled through the crowd, offering their services.

“Looks like they’re still coming—”

“Kolkata used to be the capital under the British,” Goutam added, “but the locals became too educated and caused problems, so they moved the capital to Delhi.”

He ushered us around the side of the building, through a narrow gate, to the garbha griha—the inner sanctum—in the back.

“It is a very famous place for Shakti worshippers within the Hindu religion,” he said.  “Kali Ma is the giver of liberation to human beings, she is life and energy.” 

“We don’t believe in religion,” Goutam responded.

I stood in front of a doorway and peered in at the dark, three-eyed figure of Kali. 

 “They still slit the throat of a goat here every morning, Catherine.”

“The goddess craves the blood.” 

She stared at me. 

 “Perhaps you would like to pay devotion—”

“Naa, naa,” Goutam told the guide, shaking his head.

“You tie a red ribbon to the tree outside.  Pray for what you want.  And later, when the goddess answers your prayers, you leave your sweets as an offering.”  The guide held up the cone of rosogolla that I had purchased at the bakery where we had engaged his services.

I looked toward the idol.  “Okay.”

***

A waiter wearing a Moroccan fez with a black tassel appeared, carrying a big bottle of Kingfisher. 

“Thank Christ!  Sir, you are a gentleman.”  Lloyd reached for the beer while I picked at the plate of fish kebabs in front of me. 

“And I don’t have to stand outside to smoke.”  His cigarette waggled as he spoke.  “This is a proper bar.”

                “Happy then?”

“Yes, thankyouverymuch.  So many events… it’s nice to finally be alone with my wife.”

“Yes.”

“And you got your coffee.”

“I did.”

“We can relax.  No one phoning, no one knocking on the door.” 

I began to fumble through my purse.  “What are you up to?” he asked.

“I’m looking for the invitation.  I forgot what time the event starts…”

“Catherine.”

“Lloyd.  Don’t you want to go?” 

“How about we join the festivities a little later tonight?” 

“What time were you thinking?”

He took another gulp of Kingfisher and closed his eyes, savoring it.  Why had he come to Kolkata?  Why was I here?

I found my borrowed cell phone.  “Hey there, Goutam.  Hi.  We’re not coming tonight...  No.  We need a night off…  Sorry.  Okay, yeah, see you then.  Bye.”  Lloyd smiled slowly.

It was early evening outside the Peter Cat, and the vendors at several nearby food stalls had begun to close down.  Water sizzled and steam rose as one cleaned out his aluminum pans.  Carrying briefcases, office worker after office worker crowded onto the sidewalks.  We paused by a Kentucky Fried Chicken as I studied my guidebook. 

“The bar at the Broadway Hotel’s supposed to be cheap.  Looks like we can head north on Free School Street.  That’ll take us into BBD Bagh.”  

“Not too far though,” Lloyd said.

“No, not too far.  Just up this street and then we’ll turn left on GC Avenue.”

“Yeah, okay.”

After being cooped up in cars for most of the week, I was desperate for a walk.  Walking is generally the first thing I do when I come to a new city.  It helps me orient myself and brings me closer to a place’s ebb and flow.  I’ve found my way around strange corners in Madrid and Cape Town.  I spent the better of my first twenty-four hours in Paris walking.  But almost immediately after my arrival in Kolkata, the book fair I had come for had been cancelled, and I found myself travelling in private vehicles and taxis to alternative literary activities around the city.  Goutam’s driver, Bhapan, was a regular road warrior—avoiding speeding, overloaded trucks and weaving motorbikes with two and three riders—but I still felt as if a crash were imminent every time I got into the car.  I finally realized why there were so many South Asian taxi drivers in New York; compared to navigating the roads at home, they could drive Manhattan in their sleep.

I had had one chance so far to explore Kolkata on my own during an early morning stroll two days before.  While Lloyd and Goutam and the other writers we were travelling with slept, I left our hotel on the Bypass and walked past the lake where the sound of women pounding laundry had woken me my first morning.  Several boys in shorts were bathing as a man stood on the bank with his bike half-submerged in the water. 

Further down Topsia Road mixers churned cement, and workers moved cinder blocks in wheel barrows.  A boy set up glasses of fresh limes at his beverage stand.  Waiting for the light to change I watched an older woman in a paisley sari redecorate the interior of an auto-rickshaw with her shopping bags.

I followed the direction of the crowd, trying not to stare at any one thing.  I felt like my sunglasses made me inconspicuous, but the looks I was getting while waiting at the traffic signals told me I was not. 

Droves of cars and buses chugged over the Bose Road overpass.  Below, loudspeakers sounded the morning call to prayer from a nearby mosque.  I couldn’t imagine what the roads were going to be like once Tata Motors introduced its $2000 car.  A couple of passing taxis honked their horns—were they honking at me? 

The sun was getting stronger.   When I reached the Park Circus traffic circle, crossing got hairier.  Cars were coming from all directions, and the Kolkata Police’s notices urging cooperation from motorists—“Traffic signals—not just beautiful lighting”—didn’t inspire feelings of pedestrian safety.  I could cross the road, a road, one of the many roads, but, as a white American woman, I had a feeling I was supposed to be in a car anyway.  I scooted up a side street and knocked on the window of a driver immersed in a copy of Anandabazar Patrika.

“Bhalo Shakal.”

“Good morning.”

“Are you free?”

“Free?”

“I need to go to the Landmark Hotel, please.”

“Landmark?”

“It’s a new hotel on the Bypass—Science City?  Will you take me to Science City?”

“Science City.  A-cha,” the driver nodded.

***

Pedestrians spilled over Free School Street’s curb.  It was getting darker.  My eyes searched for other women.  Ahead of us a young mother in orange pushed a stroller; her husband and son travelled alongside her as we passed an English language book shop and a row of hostels.  Still okay for me to be out.  And this time I was escorted.  

                “How about one of those places?” Lloyd asked, touching my arm.

                “The Broadway Bar’ll be more interesting.”

I’ve never made peace with gender-based rules.  Growing up in the American South I was made aware that there were a fair number.  I had a hard time making sense of a lot of them as a girl, and I’ve tended to see restrictions on my movement ever since, whether they exist or not. A trip to Sierra Leone the previous year had reminded me what sort of spaces I was allowed to occupy and what could be considered transgression.  My newly married status had confused me further.  I really didn’t know where the boundaries were anymore.

I watched two girls walk with their father near a row of open shops and the Hong Kong Restaurant. We passed a hardware store.  Next to it was a sentry box, brightly lit from the interior. 

                “Hang on a second.”

I doubled back.  A night black mannequin stared out at me.  Candles burned on a small altar in front of her.  I hadn’t expected to see Kali again.  She looked as if she were standing watch.  I started to study her face, then lowered my eyes.  I took a step closer.  Was it energy I was experiencing?  Or the oddity of a shrine in the middle of a shopping area?  Those white eyes…  I felt a bit confronted.

                “C’mon,” Lloyd called.

                I pulled myself away.

Crowds thinned as we walked further into BBD Bagh, and the chorus of street voices diminished.  We reached GC Avenue and made a left, crossing tram tracks.  Kolkata’s trams and its literary character reminded me of San Francisco; perhaps the parallel was heightened due to the fact that I had just come from the contrasting city of Chennai, Los Angeles-like in its beaches and its sprawl.  Still, the mix of 19th century and modern architecture echoed San Francisco.

“Oh, here we go,” Lloyd motioned.

“THE BROADWAY HOTEL,” the sign proclaimed in English.  Through large windows was a bar with high ceilings and a vaguely European feel.  All of the wooden tables that I could see were full.  Of men.  Damn.

“Looks pretty busy, love,” I said.

“Wait here a minute.  I’ll go in and have a nose around.” 

I thought about Sierra Leone and the anxiety I had caused my local hosts by walking around their town by myself.  And about the time I was refused service at a bar in Tunis, despite Lloyd’s presence.  And the evening I was mistaken for a prostitute in New York’s East Village because I was alone and wearing a short skirt.

Lloyd reappeared.

“Any luck?”

“A couple of Germans. Otherwise, locals.  And yeah, it’s almost at capacity.”

“Any women?”

“No.” He started to roll a cigarette while I looked through the window again.  “It’s dead cheap, Fletch.” 

“Could we find somewhere else?” I asked.

“Sixty rupees a beer...”

“Better not.  I think it would probably be disruptive for them as well as me.”

Lloyd licked the paper then stuck the cigarette in his downturned mouth.  He lit up, and we headed down Mukherjee Road. 

“Hey, Lloyd sweets, there’ll be somewhere else around here.”  I hoped.

Kolkata had become much quieter—there were fewer people on the street.  Tram tracks guided my eyes up the road.  At the end was the Writers Building, an imposing Georgian structure and the former home of the British East India Company.  As an American, my national story had always given our Thirteen Original Colonies a special place in British history.  But now married to a Brit, I realized that—from an imperial point of view—America really had been a provincial backwater, a place for them to sell their tea.  The British Army commander, Cornwallis, who surrendered to General Lafayette’s American-French forces at the Battle of Yorktown, left North America and went on to have a successful career as Governor-General of India.  No, it was India that had mattered.  I was staring at a building that proved it.

A grey painted tram screeched and groaned past us down Lenin Sarani, then a green one.  Lenin, Ho Chi Minh… Such street names were evidence of the Communist Party’s thirty year rule of West Bengal.  With the building boom in Kolkata these days the city looked pretty capitalist to me.  I grabbed Lloyd’s arm and pointed.

 “Check out the trams—”

“Awright, train spotter.  Can you find me a bar?”

I scanned the area, “Looks like government buildings, I’m afraid.”

He turned a corner; I followed him onto Central Avenue.  Most shops had metal doors pulled down for the night.  From a side street, jazzy music spilled from the second floor of one of the shuttered buildings.   Lloyd pointed to a yellow sign in Bangla above the windows.

“That place looks open.” 

He disappeared into a dank stairwell.  I leaned against the wall.  A squat man in a striped shirt walked in front of me.

“Hello.” 

“Hi.” 

He smiled.  “You want to hear some music?”

“No, thank you.”

“You’re nice.”

“I’m waiting for my boy—husband.”

He smiled again.  Lloyd came down the stairs.

“There’s about twelve guys, a bartender, and a singer,” he announced, then locked eyes with my new friend. 

“See any women, Welshman?”

Squatty stuck his hand in his pockets and motioned for Lloyd to come closer.  “Ssst, hashish?”

“No thanks, mate.  I’m sorted.”

“How did the place look?”  I inquired.

Lloyd looked back at me.  “It’s okay.  Dark.  Weird stage lighting.  And the only woman’s the singer.”

“What do you think?” 

“I could stay.  Or I could go.”  I couldn’t really read him. 

“Are you messing with me?” I replied.

“No.  There’s vomit up and down the stairs.”

“Alrighty then.”

Squatty crossed the street and hailed an old man in a knit hat dragging a rickshaw.

We continued into Chowringhee.  I slipped my arm through Lloyd’s. 

                “That’s nice.”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I leaned in and whispered.

 “Figures.”

A black Mercedes crossed in front of us, following a driveway through a cream-colored archway and into a courtyard.

“Let’s try that place.  I’m dressed for it.  I’m even wearing a skirt.”

We turned into the Oberoi Grand and marched into its marble tiled lobby, filled with Mumbai and Tokyo business types and a gentleman dressed like an African prince.  A Victorian chandelier dominated the center of the room.  Orchid petals floated atop the water of a nearby trickling fountain.  So this was the Grande Dame of Chowringhee.  I turned down a mahogany panelled corridor toward a heavy door.

                “You can’t in there,” Lloyd warned.

                “Oh, please.”

                “Fletch—”

                “Really, now, Lloyd, I am going to go in here—” I started to push on the door’s brass handle.

                “That’s the men’s toilet.”

                “Oh.”

I went to the other end of the corridor, which boasted one of the most elegant ladies rooms I’ve experienced.  It even surpassed the incongruously opulent green tiled toilets of Cardiff’s Ernest Willows Pub.  I wiped my hands on the linen towel; I began to feel refreshed, aristocratic even. 

Lloyd was wiping dirt off his glasses by the fountain.  “Do they have a bar here?” 

“I think it’s going to be a tad pricey.”

“I HAVE A TERRIBLE FUCKING THIRST!  I NEED A BEER!”

“Sssh.”

“Wife.  Please.”   The Welshman exhaled in a snort.

“How about Sudder Street?”

“MORE WALKING?!”  He began to paw the floor.

“Ssh!!  It’s not far.  Really.  It’s where all the hostels are; I can definitely get served there.”

We found our way past the Bible House and the Indian Museum.  There was a glass booth with a red curtain on the sidewalk ahead.  I noticed a dark figure that looked like a fairground automaton fortune teller encircled by a garland of flowers.  “You again?  Hello.  You must have something to say.”  Predictions perhaps?  No time to think about that.   I had to keep moving.  Past the Tourist Inn, past the Paragon Hotel, past the Super Guest House, towards a blue and white sign.

“Super Pub Bar, Lloyd.” 

“Superpubbar.  SUPER.  PUB.  BAR…  And about sodding time.”

I opened the bar’s door, “After you, my darling husband.” 

The place was lit by dim fluorescents and thick with smoke and American music, European students on gap year, a few Japanese girls, some aging Aussie hippies, and white boys with dreadlocks.  I looked for the Israeli that had crashed one of our parties, but he was nowhere in sight. 

“This’ll do.”

We sat alongside the wall, decorated with fake wood panelling.  A skinny waiter wearing a red vest came over, frowning, and plonked down a bowl of potato chips. 

“Yes?”

“Hiya.  Can you tell me what you’ve got on tap?”

“We have only bottles.”

“What have you got in bottles then?”

“Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob, Michelob Light, Carlsberg, Asahi, Heineken, and Foster’s.

“Any Kingfisher?”

“No.”

“Any Indian beer?”

“No.” 

“Fine.  I’ll have an Asahi.  Please.”

“I’ll have a Diet Coke.” 

The waiter stepped away and returned with beer.

“Sorry, could I have a Diet Coke?”  He frowned at me.  “Please.”

“Hmmph,” the waiter replied and turned on his heel.

 “You made another friend.” 

Lloyd looked around the room and munched on a handful of chips. I could see him starting to study the group of twentysomethings across from us; they were engaged in a form of courtship involving coins, beer, and a load of plastic toy animals.  His preferred mode of travel has always been to park himself in a bar and let the city come to him, even if they were mostly the city’s tourists.  He had met most of the writers in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe that way—or at least the ones that drank.  It was great to see him happy and relaxed.

“I expected to see more Westerners, especially more British.”

 “Yeah, there were a lot more of them in South India.  Seekers, you know, folks on spiritual quests, headed to ashrams or yoga retreats or both.  And business people interested in high tech.”

“Still, there were your two countrymen in Flury’s.”

“And I’m sure the staff were happy to have met them.”

Earlier we had stopped at a tea salon on Park Street.  An American couple were there, both dressed in flip flops, camping pants, and baseball hats.  When their waiter took awhile to bring the young man the fork he had requested, he got up and started rummaging through a nearby cupboard.  He helped himself to the fork as well as some napkins and a handful of sugar packets.

“Last orders!  Last orders!”  The skinny waiter shouted from behind two leathery Aussies.  He slapped the check down on our table and, as an afterthought, a Diet Coke.

“LAST ORDERS?!” Lloyd stood up. “I just got here.”  He downed his pint and went to have a word with the waiter.

I waited outside, looking up and down Sudder Street.  I thought about going back to the Kali shrine, but I knew that I’d cause trouble if I disappeared.  Sometimes the world was so close—a ruin on the other side of a dune, a set of stairs at the end of a cul-de-sac.  Yet someone’s always upset or worried.  I’d never quite been able to get there.

I had had a few adventures, it was true, travelling to the Maghreb, classical sites in the Mediterranean.  But I spent most days like I lived in a museum—looking but not touching.  Not tasting, reining in my odd sense of humor, my passions and intellect.  I had stopped swimming in the sea, rarely rode horses or went dancing.  I’d stood by and watched while my paints, brushes, and canvases were trashed by three separate people who loved me.  

What I had left was movement, restlessness perhaps.  But with time and more exploration that had also become thwarted.  Sometimes it was because of my gender; sometimes there were cultural barriers; other times it was circumstance.  A lot of times it just seemed that I was in trouble for leaving a group and taking a walk by myself.  

I have tried to get used it—IT.  Propriety.  “It’s for your own good,” I’ve been told.  Living behind a pane of glass.  And now I had gone and gotten married—was this going to turn into another set of shackles?  It wasn’t Lloyd himself that worried me (though he can be quite emotionally demanding).  It was the new versions of propriety that had started to creep my way.  “What’s the best way to crack glass?”  I wondered.  “Can you tell me, Kali?”

A girl and a boy from the table of twentysomethings came through the door, intertwined.  Lloyd behind them, grinning.

“Put this in your bag, will you?”  He handed me two bottles of beer. 

                “Aren’t you clever?”

We walked to the corner.  On the left was the English language book store.

“Didn’t we pass this way earlier?” Lloyd asked.

“Uh, let’s get a taxi.”

As we headed toward Park Street, his hands deep in his jacket pockets, he looked almost serene.  It was then I noticed that, behind his hands, he had a bottle of beer in each pocket as well. We hailed an Ambassador.

“Landmark Hotel, please.”  Lloyd instructed.

“Landmark?”

“On the Bypass.”

“Landmark?”

 “Sorry,” I interrupted, “Driver, can you take us to Science City? 

As we left the center of town, our taxi was one of the only vehicles on the road.  Most of the buildings had become silhouettes.

“Odd, isn’t it?” I said.

“What?”

“It’s only eleven-thirty.  Listen to how quiet this city is.”

“Says the New Yorker.”

“It’s that way in LA as well—”

“Not every world city operates like New York and Los Angeles, Fletch,” he said, shaking his finger at me.

I grabbed his hand and wrestled it down to my thigh.  Then traced the outline of his long fingers.  He took my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.  I draped my leg over his.  I felt the car begin to pull over and saw the inverted bowl of the Space Theatre.

“Science City,” the driver announced.

“Sorry, driver, no.  We need to go a little further.  Right on the Bypass, then over the bridge.” 

He groaned.  “Science City.”

“Sorry, mate, we need to go to the hotel over the bridge,” Lloyd replied.

The driver put the car back into gear.  We sped toward the bridge, neon hotel sign in sight.

When we arrived, Goutam was outside leaning against a black Ambassador, laughing with Bhapan.  They looked up as we exited the taxi.

“Ohhawwww!  You guys missed a great reading, great reading.”

“It went well then?”

“Fantastic!  Sunil was—and Nathalie, they really liked her poetry.”

“Sounds great—hey, Bhapan!  How are you?”

He flashed us a smile.  Goutam eyed the Welshman’s bulging pockets.

“Lloyd, my friend—” 

“You can have some if you help me find a bottle opener.”

“Catherine, you guys should have come tonight.” 

“I’m sorry we didn’t make it.  But I found another way to enjoy Kolkata.”

Bhapan slipped an opener into Lloyd’s hand.  Lloyd slipped inside.

“Oh, what have you been up to?” Goutam smirked.

“That’s between me and Kali.”

“What?”

“I said, ‘Let’s get a drink.  You can tell me more about the reading.’ ”