[The following is a chapter from my first novel Noton Noton Pairaguli, written in Kidlington, England, over the period 1978-80, serialized in the magazine Desh, Calcutta, in 1981-82, and published from Calcutta in book-form in 1983. It was recently re-issued in a revised version in the omnibus edition of three of my prose works entitled Ei Prithibir Tin Kahini (Chhatim Books, January 2006). The novel is set in an imaginary English location named Norton Hill, half-way between a village and a town, and is presented in the form of letters and diary entries written over a one-year period by Noton Das, a Bengali woman living in Norton Hill with her husband and two young sons. Each complete letter or cluster of diary entries written over a few days (as in the following extract) constitutes a chapter. The name of the novel is taken from the first line of a Bengali nursery rime and can be translated as Those Crested Pigeons. The word noton or loton means a loosely coiled chignon; paira means a pigeon; thence noton paira refers to a species of crested pigeon.
This novel is regarded by many as the first distinctly ‘diasporic’ novel in the contemporary sense in the Bengali language. It reports on the life of a multi-ethnic community in Britain, as observed by Bengali eyes, and contains the first fruits of the feminism of the seventies in Bengali fiction. This particular chapter occurs almost towards the end of the novel. ]
—Hasn’t he asked you to come over to Mexico then?
—Are you crazy? He’s asked me to have lunch with him at the “Green Grass” and to talk about India.
—Can one finish talking about India in one afternoon? I reckon you ought to make a trip to Mexico. Men are so funny. Why don’t they just say outright what they have to say? What’s the point of all this poetic beating about the bush?
—Crumbs! Surely he’ll say something only if he has something to say. He has no other intentions besides having a chat about India.
—An opportunist. He wants to have a discussion about India with you without paying you for it. Why, aren’t there things like Visiting Fellowships in the university over there? He ought to invite you over for three months.
—It would be foolish to spoil the friendship by making requests of that sort.
—Has the guy met Atin?
—Has he understood that Atin’s the kind of bloke who’s always ready to let his wife go to Uruguay or Paraguay or Mexico for three to six months for the sake of her spiritual welfare?
—How the hell am I supposed to guess all that?
In a mood of nervous excitement Erica goes to put the kettle on for tea. Of all the plans that poor Erica has made for my salvation over the past few years, not one has reached the desired maturity. This stream too is bound to lose its flow in its journey across a desert.
Ivan comes home. The discussion moves in another direction. Erica is always a slightly different person in Ivan’s presence. All these couples I’ve known—each person undergoes a change in front of his or her partner. In spite of their proclaimed united condition, they don’t quite reveal their true spiritual identities in front of each other. Mind you, do men ever do that at all? How are we to know what they do among themselves?
‘Hope you’ll throw a big party when Yeranouie and the rest of them come?’ Erica turns the conversation towards one of her favourite topics.
‘Though throwing parties is one of your favourite topics, I must admit that the sheer thought of throwing a party makes me feel exhausted.’
‘Meanwhile, when you lot were away in Wales, Fatima went to see a professional psychiatrist. She seems to have become even more depressed since that event. The lady told Fatima that she must vomit out all the negative feelings that have accumulated within her like poison. After that both her body and her mind will feel lighter and it will be easier for her to reach a well-considered decision about her future course of action. When I heard this, I said to her, “Stuff it, Fatima, you’ve been letting your negative feelings out in front of us for long enough—” ’
Ivan: ‘There’s a difference between vomiting things in front of friends and doing it in front of a specialist. The ghost is not going to be expelled by you lot acting as exorcists. A ritual framework is required. One can always sit at home and pray. Why then do people go to church?’
I was returning from Erica’s and Ivan’s house when a car honked at me. It was Françoise. She was going away, but turned the car round and came to our house.
‘I came to see you. Nobody’s in. Where are the boys?’
One glance at her face and I realize that Françoise has come to vomit her sorrows before me. What a pity, Françoise as well. Is everything I guessed about their life when I went to their house true? I reply, ‘They’ve gone to the playground. Come along. What’s the matter?’
It’s all too true. Françoise shuts the car door with some force and asks with a tired expression on her face, ‘How’re you? And Atin’s business?’
‘We’re coping. How about you?’
Françoise hesitates for a second and then says, ‘Noton, I can’t any more.’
‘I see. Wait a minute. Let me make some coffee. Indian coffee. Sit in the front room, please.’
Françoise pays no attention to my instruction. She follows me to the kitchen. She begins her narration even as the coffee-grinder is making an ear-splitting racket grinding the coffee beans. ‘It isn’t as if we’d decided to put our roots down in Morley for good. It had always been understood that the path to Canada would be left open. But now Sandy’s saying he is never going to leave Morley. He’s totally happy there. His business is established, his garden’s bearing fruit, and his children are growing up big and strong; so he has no prayer that remains unanswered. But what’ll happen to me, Noton, what’ll happen to me? I just can’t go on any more. I feel like crying. I’m the only bloody foreigner in bloody Morley! Bloody hell! I’m not gaining any spiritual satisfaction by being a clerk in Sandy’s bloody business for a salary not worth the name. I’m going crazy—’
Françoise opens the cold tap in our kitchen sink, puts her face under the stream, and switching to French, says, ‘I’m dying. Noton, I’m dying in Morley.’
Stiffening my jaws, I transfer the ground coffee to the percolator. I measure and add the water. I insert the plug into its socket. I switch it on. Then I ask her, ‘Have you started the novel yet?’
Françoise pats her face dry on the towel and replies, ‘No, but I’ve managed to write some short stories. I was wondering whether to send them off to a magazine back home.’
‘Why don’t you go home for a bit with the boys?’
‘But I’ve just been. Without the boys, though.’
‘Is that right? How long did you go away for, then?’
‘For two weeks. My mother’s ill. She’s not going to live long.’
‘Cancer, is it?’
‘She first had it twelve years ago. Then she got better. Now it has come back. And has spread quite a bit. She’s under treatment, of course. But she’s not going to make it this time. My sisters are with her. They’re nursing her.’
‘Why don’t you stay in Quebec for some time? When you are with people you know, you might lose yourself, and then find yourself again, and that might bring some comfort.’
‘But I did. I was transformed. That’s the reason why I’m feeling so restless now. Over there the way of life is so vivacious! A glorious mixture of family joys and social delights! Sunshine, laughter, the flow of humour! Noton, I want to run away! No, no, I’ve nothing against Sandy as such. He’s an ideal husband, an ideal father. Etc. If you look at the surface of my life, you won’t find any flaw at all. But one can’t go on living like this. No matter what one says, one can’t.’
‘Sandy’s sinking deeper and deeper into the soft mud of his rural British life, while you’ve been hit by a sense of alienation and are fidgety: is that it?’
‘Day by day Sandy is disappearing within his British self. He’s not walking towards me at all. It’s me who’s doing all the walking,—towards him. I’m just playing on the surface of his tranquil British life with my French books and a few records of French songs. He tolerates it, but has no active curiosity about it. He doesn’t participate in it or get excited about it—’
Quickly I try to recollect the principles of Ruth Brownjohn’s family welfare group. I ask her solemnly, ‘What effect is this situation having on your intimate life, Françoise?’
‘We seem to have moved away from each other a bit. Of course, Sandy was never a particularly passionate character. And he certainly isn’t one now. I am much more passionate than he is. Even now, Sandy is ready if I want it. But I no longer enjoy making the first move again and again. How the hell can one go on doing that? One needs to have a certain flow of delight in life, a degree of intoxication—’
With a very firm gesture I open a packet of biscuits, arrange some Scottish shortbread biscuits on a red plastic plate, and offer them to Françoise in lieu of delight, intoxication, and similar stuff. We move to the dining room and sit down there. By now the whole house is drunk with the glug glug of the percolator and the sweet-and-sharp aroma of South Indian coffee.
‘How old are your boys now?’
‘Nine and six. If I went to Canada for an extended period, I would have to take them with me. But then Sandy doesn’t like being away from his boys for too long either. In fact, they are the main problem. I know in my guts that if they didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be in Morley today—’
‘What would you have done? Gone back to Quebec?’
‘Without a doubt. I bet we would have been divorced. The rate at which marriages are breaking down right and left—’
‘Marxists say that when the internal inconsistencies within an institution exceed a certain limit—’
‘When it’s proving difficult to hold two individuals from the same country and the same culture within that institution, how can two individuals from two different countries and two different cultures—’
‘Françoise, will you have a piece of Battenberg cake? No, no, not made by me, just from the local shop. Do you want your coffee black, or should it be white? Any sugar?’
‘White. One spoon. Make it a thin slice. Noton, I went to Montreal—’
‘You went to Montreal—’
‘Michel lives in Montreal—’
‘Michel lives there—’
‘Michel’s an old friend of mine, a psychiatrist by profession—’
‘An old friend of yours, a psychiatrist by profession—’
‘I saw him at a time of crisis, sucked into a stressful vortex—’
‘At a time of crisis, sucked into a stressful vortex—’
‘Michel’s marriage is breaking up too. The court is in the process of hearing the divorce case. They’ve two boys. They’ll stay with their mother. Of course, even after the divorce Michel and his ex-wife will continue to live in the same city. So he won’t have any difficulty in seeing his boys from time to time—’
‘He won’t have any difficulty—’
‘Our meeting was after an interval of eleven years. Michel spoke to me so eagerly, with so much interest—’
‘With so much interest—’
‘Sure, I realized that he was enjoying getting my company and sympathy when he was in such a stressful, lonely situation, which was why—’
‘He was enjoying it, which was why—’
‘In the old days I used to hero-worship Michel in a wild way. It was the first real love springing from a young woman’s heart—’
‘The first real love—’
‘So now it was so good to be able to speak to him on equal terms—’
‘It was so good—’
‘In the old days there was no scope for real friendship between us. Now there’s a beautiful possibility—’
‘There’s a possibility—’
‘Michel, his intellectuality, his words like sharp knives—’
‘His words like sharp knives—’
‘If I could see him from time to time,—go somewhere, eat somewhere together, discuss things—’
‘Aha, discuss things!’
Françoise, in French: ‘Not possible?’
‘Discussion is possible only when two people are prepared to listen to each other carefully.’
‘But I am ready.’
‘You may be ready. In the programming of womanhood provision has been made for circuits upon circuits of readiness, tolerance, flexibility, and the ability to go half-way to meet others. But what about Michel? Has he got that readiness? And he’s a psychiatrist on top of that! You know, those specialists have a bad name for being unsympathetic to women’s freedom! Watch it, his own marriage hasn’t survived. Ask yourself why it hasn’t—’
‘Yes, I’ve taken it into account and been a bit worried by it.’
‘Having gone a certain distance with promises of frank discussions and the heart’s full faith, you may well discover that you are looking at his face and carrying on saying many scintillating things with bright ardour, while Michel is shaking his cigarette ash absent-mindedly and staring at the knee of another girl who is doubtless your junior in years: he is not listening to you at all. Then even those wires inside you, of readiness, tolerance, flexibility, and the ability to meet another person half-way, may well burst into flames and burn themselves out—’
‘Yeah, I’ve thought a few times that after walking a few steps with Michel I may return to the same point which I reached walking with Sandy. Perhaps Michel and his wife had reached that point too—’
‘Françoise, we have to admit that the dialogue between woman and man has reached a beach of crisis, that we are really having trouble talking to them—’
‘Yeah, I’ve often thought that,—that it’s getting harder—’
‘The reason being that they’re not interested in listening to what we’re trying to say. They want to evade it. All the time they’re just repeating certain old phrases, not noticing, or not admitting even when they’ve grasped it, that we are saying some new things, that we have listened to a lot of their talk for a very long time, and that it’s now their turn to listen carefully to a few things we have to say—’
‘They keep trying to have us fastened to an old agreement—’
‘While we’re trying to bring a change in that very agreement,—the most radical class-war of human society.’
‘Amazing! Over there in Morley I’ve felt this in my depths, while you’ve felt the same thing in Norton Hill—’
‘Françoise, in this business there’s no difference between Norton Hill and Morley. One can say this much: living abroad may sharpen one’s awareness in certain matters. Seeing that you can’t quite get used to one or two other minor details in your surroundings, you may feel an urge to probe in depth some more serious matters. I’ve heard that the Chinese have a curse which goes: “May you live in an interesting epoch!” You see, Françoise, through the conspiracy of history we live in such an interesting epoch, a period which is not one of stability, but of speeded up change, of rapid evolution. In a sense the curse is inflicted by the Creator himself. He is sitting on the driver’s seat in his omnibus and constantly putting pressure on the accelerator-pedal. Who has the power to apply the brake?’
‘Eeeeeeaow....,’ screeches Françoise, laughing at last, ‘Emergency stopping! Things won’t be saved even if the Creator himself wishes to apply the brake, for he is governed by his self-devised engine. The bus is going to skid and topple over into a ditch—’
‘That’s just what Atin says—’
‘What does he say?’
‘He says that the crisis of dialogue between woman and man that we’re witnessing is a crisis of evolution itself. A sea-storm, which, if we can’t cross it, may cause us to become extinct as a species.’
‘Will you pour me another cup of coffee? My throat feels dry.’
‘Sure. Have another cup. Listen to a French song as well.’
I put an old record on my old record-player. In a voice as deep as thunder Edith Piaf breaks into a lament. ‘My God, let him, let my lover, stay with me a little longer, one day, two days, eight days—.’
‘Watch it, Françoise. See how even that scream is gradually receding from us, becoming historical. What shall we do with lovers whose love runs out in one or two or eight days, who, after such time, have to be kept captive with cunning?—’
‘Many are walking alone—’
‘We have to conquer the temptation to make fragile bilateral pacts with those old-style lovers, and if necessary, walk alone, yes, alone—’
‘But one is left with a need to have a cry—’
‘From time to time you can have a good cry on the shoulders of those others who are around you, who are also walking like you—’
‘Noton, you can carry on a dialogue with Atin, and it’s from that point of vantage that you can say the things you’re saying. My dialogue with Sandy doesn’t proceed very far. There are certain issues which he tries to evade altogether—’
‘Françoise, one has to keep trying. The job won’t be done unless a lot of hard work is put in. Atin and I have made a real effort to listen to each other carefully—’
‘That’s precisely why I’ve driven from Morley to Norton Hill to talk to you, Noton, and not to anyone else. The girl from Quebec has come to the girl from Calcutta—’
‘Thanks to our efforts, Atin and I have been able to build a structure within which it is possible to have exchanges, and have overcome some crises as well. But, Françoise, when we talk about mutual understanding, we don’t mean a peak of stasis, we mean effort after effort, traversing valley after valley.’
Topu and Jopu returned noisily from the playground. Our serious conversation didn’t make much progress after that. Françoise thanked me sincerely and said goodbye with moist eyes. Turning her gleaming maroon car around, she drove off towards Morley.
In the evening I gave Atin a hint of Françoise’s mental state. He said, ‘Hm, I’d long thought that Françoise was too quiet, that her silence was suspicious. I had been wondering when she was going to declare rebellion.’
It’s deep into the night. The combined heady scents of jasmine, honeysuckle, and night-flowering stock burst again and again with the wind’s waves. An indefatigable game of making flowers blossom.1 There’s an affinity between the scent of night-flowering stock and the scent of cinnamon.
How easy and effortless this game sometimes seems from the outside! But that’s only an illusion that we, the audience, have. Day and night in all the cells of their bodies those plants too are working away. Perseverance worthy of emulation! Diligent laboratory! Bravo, bravo! The first class dancer, the prima ballerina assoluta who has today elicited a sea-sonorous applause from the audience, had years of preparation behind one night’s dance-display: from the auspicious limbering-up exercises of mornings to the sleepless rehearsals of lamp-lit midnights!
The mood of Fatima’s latest piece of paper sent by Erica’s hand matches exactly with the feel of this night. Tonight would be just right for its transcreation!
Fatima’s Meditations (Translated)
I return again to the garden. An intoxicating summer night! I have come to see the sky of night, to receive within me the scent of night! There’s quite a difference between the scent of day and the scent of night. The scent of night is secret, warm, sweetish, as if the night has culled the day’s warmth and kept it hidden within its breast! Sacred star-clusters! And that moon there, looking so alluring tonight! O stars, so familiar to me since childhood, twenty or thirty or forty years make no difference to you! As if nothing whatsoever had happened in those years! Nature that pervades all and of whom I am a part churns up my innermost depths! Born in the city, I may well be called a daughter of hard stone streets. Yet, whenever I come in front of nature, my heart overflows with the deepest joy! Isn’t that too one of nature’s ways? Ah, how little does one need in order to be happy, when happiness comes and grabs one in an auspicious moment!
‘Ah, how little does one need in order to be happy, when happiness comes and grabs one in an auspicious moment!’ The sentence sounded so good in the original French, but having done the translation, I sense an unease within me. Now, in this morning light, it seems to me that the statement is not as pithy as it is smart.
An idiom or a point of view dogs us all our lives, torments us with its particular inadequacy, does not let us grow, does not allow us new horizons.
Fatima, Fatima, Fatima, can we afford to sit and wait for happiness to come and grab us at some auspicious moment? In these little lives of ours where’s that endless time to wait? Perhaps that brusque policeman-like happiness will apprehend us and take us off to the prison of long-term sorrow!
Taking a walk in the garden of night, overflowing with the joy of the moment, you poured out the lines. But immediately thereafter, grappling with the problems which besiege one by day, you had to go off to the psychologist’s counselling chamber! How come, sister, that you didn’t get enough sustenance for living from that transient sense of joy? Sisters, be careful, in order to live we need resources which are a bit more reliable than that!
Fatima, what’s an auspicious moment? At an auspicious moment, so we think, the dawn comes, the flower blossoms, the girl menstruates, the woman conceives. But Fatima, Fatima, all these events happen in accordance with nature’s unfailing laws. Behind each appearance there was a massive preparation, and each apparition has arrived totally wrapped up in a sacred shawl printed all over with the name of disappearance.2 We are picking a few waves from the constantly flowing stream and choosing to focus on them, but each event, Fatima, is both an end and a beginning, moving towards its opposite by a dialectical law. Evening is morning’s destiny; the moment a flower blossoms, the arrangements for its fall have also been made; the girl whose body has started to menstruate today has the coded message for the menopause written in her cells; if the child imprisoned in the mother’s womb wishes to live, in due time he must get out of there by any means. O sister, even stars decay; it’s just that the rate at which they decay is different from the rate at which we do. Get to know the different clocks, the different speedometers.
Sad daughter of Constantine, it’s within these durations of twenty or thirty or forty years that we must live. It’s within these spans that we have to make flowers blossom, ripen harvests, rear offspring. Come, Fatima, let’s not wait for the conch-shell sound of the auspicious moment, but get some work done right now. Come, let’s make the smiles blossom on each other’s face, wipe the tears off each other’s eyes. You water my plants; let me cook dinner for your kids. Come, let’s give each other love; there’s no need to queue for that piece of paper which declares the astrologically auspicious moment.
Is it likely, I wonder, that a hundred years hence anybody will be curious enough to poke into my letters scattered here and there, the pages of this diary? Will someone blurt out: ‘Can one believe it,—all these speeches, analyses, injunctions? Were you real people, or actresses impersonating characters on stage? Where did you get your scripts from?’
Investigators of a future age, I hereby inform you that in these days of ours, which will be the olden days for you, this is exactly how, over here in Norton Hill, we used to talk amongst ourselves: myself, Fatima Hutchinson, Erica Gregg, Valerie Rawlinson, Françoise Bennet, Pixie Skinner, and many others. This ocean of words, these stories encased in stories, diaries inside diaries, female consciousnesses enwombed in other female consciousnesses, laments-deliria-dialogues, pearls of tears inside the shells of jocosity: all are the essence of the many-dimensioned truth, the oozing of the blood of reality. We didn’t go out and get the scripts; they made themselves. She who is an actress is a real human being; she who is a real human being is an actress. Time and again it seemed to us that life was like an ongoing play: we couldn’t find any major differences between the two. Acting entered into our living; our acting was infiltrated by our living. They got so thoroughly mixed up that they became one. You can look up Shakespeare.
Impressions of a Party
‘Turn the music up, gur gur, jhug gur lu, gur gur, jhug gur lu—’3 ‘In the other room Judy-and-Eddie, Topu-and-Jopu, Sharifa-and-Nadia, Antonia-and-Eleftheria have opened a disco—’ ‘Ah, let them, this is the time of life to be merry, just a few days and all the fun will have fizzled out—’ ‘Do you see how we are already straining our necks looking backwards and telling our children to have fun—’ ‘Even when driving a car one has to look at the mirror and keep an eye on the traffic behind—’ ‘Yet isn’t it only the other day when we were just like them?’ ‘Jhug gur lu, gur gur, jhug gur lu—’ ‘Tell me, isn’t there an influence of that Baladi dance rhythm of Egypt on this instrumental bit?’ ‘Why don’t you ask Fatima—’ ‘Do you like it? Gur gur, we could play all night, gur gur—’ ‘Fatima, hey, Fatima—’ ‘Antonia! How you’ve grown! It’s time for you to go to college!’ ‘Nonsense, Erica! She has a long way to go before going to college. Antonia is only a year older than Topu—’ ‘Turn the music up—’ ‘Fatima, will you tell us if the instrumental accompaniment to this song has been influenced by Egyptian Baladi dancing or not—’ ‘Jhug gur lu—’ ‘You are quite right, it’s just like a North African rhythm. Look, let me show you—’ ‘Gur gur, jhug gur lu—’ ‘Look, Fatima is showing us how it goes, over there—’ ‘What’s up, why are you giggling like silly things? Auntie Fatima can dance ten times better than you lot—’ ‘Look, look, what a sweet thing that Eleftheria has become! The very image of a Greek goddess!’ ‘Eleftheria wants to be an archaeologist—’ ‘There should be no shortage of jobs in that line in Greece—’ ‘Eleftheria wishes to salvage old things that have sunk beneath the sea—’ ‘Really? She has something in common with Jopu then!’ ‘They have many things in common,—in temperament, in looks,—Noton and I have always observed it,—there’s only a month between them in age—’ ‘Who’s older, then?’ ‘Eleftheria is a month older—’ ‘Alexis, you’re looking just like a distinguished professor, like a departmental head—’ ‘Or like a Greek philosopher—’ ‘But I haven’t got a professorial chair yet—’ ‘You’ll get it, man, what’s the hurry?’ ‘I hope to get it!’ ‘But why did you let your hairs go grey so soon? Makes you look ten years older than you are—’ ‘Do you think I did it on purpose? It runs in the family, you know!’ ‘Though Yeranouie’s head too is filled with white lines, just like Fatima’s—’ ‘We call that state of affairs salt-n-pepper—’ ‘No matter what you say, Yeranouie has changed a bit—’ ‘How? How?’ ‘Before, she had the sharpness of an aristocratic beauty, now she is the tired female professor, with slopes of black shadows under her eyes—’ ‘That’s inevitable, holding a job mornings and afternoons, getting burnt in the sun doing field work, how long can one keep the aristocracy of beauty alive?’ ‘Yet one has to admit that she looks alluring in a high-class way in that blackish-rosy dress of Indian cotton—’ ‘Yeranouie, hey, Yeranouie, has Indian cotton become the trendy thing to wear in Athens as well?’ ‘Why not? Athens doesn’t lag behind in any aspect of trendiness, I assure you—’ ‘Which race was it that civilized Europe?’ ‘Nor are we lagging behind in environmental pollution—’ ‘All those samples of architecture and sculpture that survived unscathed for centuries have yielded to air pollution within a few years—’ ‘Of course, there’s unremitting work going on for their conservation too—’ ‘The union of the Hellenic and the Christian civilizations in one body!’ ‘Yet yielding again and again to military dictatorships—’ ‘Ugh, don’t utter it, that chapter’s closed for now—’ ‘I remember, because Theodorakis’s music was then banned at home, I gave Noton and Atin the long-playing record we had—’ ‘And I’ve been devoted to his music ever since—’ ‘O I’ll survive—’ ‘Listen, listen, this song is my special favourite—’ ‘These black girls really know how to sing,—they are incomparable—’ ‘For seven years we’ve been telling Atin and Noton not to waste any more time looking for such trashy jobs, but to come and open an Indian restaurant in Athens,—they’d be millionnaires if they did—’ ‘Assembled friends, you must always remember that the descendants of two extremely ancient civilizations are present in this room—’ ‘Alexis, you know what, I’ve forgotten all that Greek bad language! Will you teach me all over again, please?’ ‘Greek’s the emperor of slang and swear-words—’ ‘I believe Hindi is a very close rival—’ ‘O human being addicted to self-pleasuring, go and lie down with God—’ ‘Alexis, I can’t find him,—his bedroom door is locked—’ ‘Knock hard—’ ‘No, he’s not answering—’ ‘Slut, go off to Christ, then! Even if God rejects you, Christ won’t!’ ‘O I’ll survive—’ ‘You must always remember the contributions made to world civilization by these two races, and in very ancient times there was that exchange between us—’ ‘Those Graeco-Buddhist sculptures, the tranquil expression on the countenances of those Apollonian Buddhas—’ ‘Heliodorena bhagavatena—’4 ‘When the Irish, with tattoos on their bodies and armed with bows and arrows—’ ‘I say, who’s maligning the Irish?’ ‘And the English were a barbaric wandering tribe—’ ‘Really? When you lot were subjugated by the Turks, we were civilizing people up and down the world—’ ‘Well, why is nobody saying anything about the contribution of the Arabs? Listen, everybody, when Greek civilization was having its siesta, it was the Arab world that kept the flame of knowledge burning in the countries bordering the Mediterranean—’ ‘Dorita’s husband Antonio used to say that it was lucky the Arabs came to Spain, or else Spain would not have been civilized—’ ‘Noton gets up at the crack of dawn and teaches English to a h-u-ge Spanish family,—no, I got it wrong,— under the pretext of teaching them English, she actually learns Spanish from them!’ ‘Atin, could you pass the bottle from Spain this way, please, we wish to drink to the health of international friendship!’ ‘By the way, did you people know that Alexis, Yeranouie, Derek, Fatima, Atin, Noton,— the whole lot were born in the same year?’ ‘They are the offspring of the Second World War! Politics runs in their blood!’ ‘We didn’t at first recognize Atin at all! With his beard shaven off, he looks just like a young chap!’ ‘But I am a young chap! I’m not an old fogey, am I?’ ‘He who has studied physics with care and absorbed its essential substance remains young for ever—’ ‘In a relative sense, in a relative sense!’ ‘It’s Ivan who’s the oldest of us all in age—’ ‘Grandad, why are you guarding the bottle of the red stuff in that way? Why not pass it this way for a change—’ ‘Jhun jhun na jhun, jhun jhun na jhun, jhun jhun na jhun, jhun jhun na—’ ‘I say, who’s putting on a record belonging to grown-ups?’ ‘We’re being careful,—it won’t be damaged,—you all like Spanish guitar, don’t you—’ ‘Hey there, could you pass the olives this way, please—’ ‘Yeranouie brought them, no? No matter what you say, we can never get olives like these in our local shops—’ ‘There’s a shop in town where you can, from time to time, but the price is astronomical—’ ‘But the stock of cheeses in your local shop is really commendable,—so many different kinds—’ ‘Try this one,—it has garlic, beer, and herbs—’ ‘Where’s this from, this cheese?’ ‘From here, it’s British cheddar—’ ‘You’re right, it’s absolutely great—’ ‘Ma, we’re opening another packet of potato crisps—’ ‘What are these?’ ‘Greek fruits in syrup—’ ‘Erica, what’s inside the sandwiches you’ve brought?’ ‘Whatever it is, seeing that the others have eaten them and are still alive, you’ll be O.K. as well—’ ‘Did you hear her style of speech?’ ‘Shush, that sweet girl over there isn’t eating anything,—give her a sandwich—’ ‘Let me introduce you,— this is Erica, this is Yeranouie, this is Fatima’s cousin Soraya,—Erica, we need to know if there’s ham inside your sandwiches, ’cause they don’t eat it—’ ‘There isn’t,—I’m telling you, O.K.?’ ‘We’re very fortunate to have Derek in our house today—’ ‘Yes, you’ve come here after a long time, Derek—’ ‘Your daughters are really great to look at—’ ‘You have to see whose daughters they are—’ ‘You mean whose in the plural, I hope—’ ‘Sharifa looks like her mother and Nadia like her father—’ ‘Nadia’s exactly like Noton’s elder boy in temperament—’ ‘Judy takes totally after her father, both in looks and in character,—she has nothing in common with me at all. Every day she grows more and more like my sister-in-law Sophie. And Eddie’s just like my brother Lapsley,—he has the same obstinacy—’ ‘O yes, Fatima eats everything,—she doesn’t observe the rules, but they do—’ ‘She’s such a young thing,—look, look, how she’s hanging on to her husband’s hand, not letting it go for a second—’ ‘She doesn’t speak much English—’ ‘Hey, Noton, why don’t you say a few things to Soraya in French,—the poor thing’s all by herself—’ ‘Pass them the drinks—’ ‘No, no, they don’t touch alcohol—’ ‘Topu, come here, get the tomato juice out of the fridge, will you—’ ‘Jhun jhun na jhun, jhun jhun na jhun, jhun jhun na jhun, jhun jhun na—’ ‘Take care, I don’t want any scratches on my record—’ ‘Nonsense! Who says they don’t touch alcohol? I’m sure they’ll have it if you coax them a bit—’ ‘No, Ivan, no, they’re really not used to it at all,—they’ve only just come to this country for a visit,—it’ll go to their heads instantly—’ ‘What? Are you saying that they’ll go away without drinking to the health of international friendship with an Irishman?’ ‘Ma, can we put on the record of Gallego songs?’ ‘Take care—’ ‘Gallego?’ ‘Gallego—’ ‘From which country?’ ‘They’re a people in the northern part of Spain belonging to a Celtic group,—Gallego, like Gaelic,—the songs are just like our Bengali songs,—lots of similarities with Scottish and Irish songs too, naturally,—you’ll see when you hear—’ ‘And Eleanor’s elder girl’s my spitting image—’ ‘The same slender nose, the same freckles—’ ‘It’s really great,—where did you get the record from?’ ‘Encarni gave it to me—’ ‘Remember what I said? Noton’s pupil, learns English from her, or rather, the woman from whom Noton learns Spanish—’ ‘The man who’s conducting the music is Encarni’s brother-in-law,—they have a firm for manufacturing records as well—’ ‘Let’s have a look at the sleeve—’ ‘What’s the song saying?’ ‘It’s saying: Noble and sweet is this language of ours from Breogan—’ ‘I say, aren’t Harry and Clara coming?’ ‘No, Harry’s gone home fishing, though he made time to come and have a peep at Yeranouie before going away,—O yes, Yeranouie, it was you he came to see,— having heard so much from us about your unearthly beauty and personality—’ ‘O.K., so Harry’s gone fishing, but why didn’t you ask Clara to come?’ ‘I did, of course! I phoned her. She said: “Everybody thinks that if Harry’s out of Norton Hill and gone off somewhere, they’ve all got to look after me. But I am fine, I can keep myself busy. I’m not feeling lonely at all. Tonight I’m going to see a play. I’ve already bought the ticket.” What more could I say after that?’ ‘Hell! These sound like pretty cutting remarks! What’s up?’ ‘There’s no reason for Clara to get peeved at all. I’ve no idea why she’s in a bad mood. Fiona’s not here either. Don’t know why she—’ ‘Hey, listen, girls, none of you are to flirt with Harry in front of Clara,—it’s just too much bother—’ ‘Friends! we never flirt with Harry either in front of Clara or behind her back—’ ‘Have some more tomato juice, Soraya—’ ‘What a shame, if you’d only coaxed them a bit, they wouldn’t have objected to wine. You aren’t coaxing them at all. Why not just ask them nicely—’ ‘No, no, Ivan, don’t give it to them—’ ‘Look, look, Ivan’s pretty high—’ ‘Haven’t really seen Ivan so merry for a long time—’ ‘Do you know why Fatima has cut her hair so short? It makes her look too severe. See how prettily Soraya lets her hair dangle on either side of her face—’ ‘Aha, that’s to be expected,—one’s unhappy and the other’s a happy woman—’ ‘What was Derek telling you, Ivan?’ ‘A story from his school. I said: “The story sounds familiar. I’ve had it from you before. Tell us some new stories, Derek, some new stories—”—’ ‘Open another bottle of white, Atin—’ ‘What! You have a three-month-old baby? And where on earth have you left it?’ ‘No, no, Noton, you’ve got it wrong,—Soraya hasn’t got a three-month-old baby. The baby’s inside her tummy,—three months old—’ ‘Och. That’s as far as I can manage conversation in French in the middle of such a racket—’ ‘Françoise and Sandy are here—’ ‘Welcome, welcome, why are you so late? You should have brought the boys. They would have found the record session in the next room quite congenial—’ ‘Red for you two, or white?’ ‘White for me—’ ‘Red please, Atin, thanks—’ ‘Aren’t Valerie and the rest of them coming?’ ‘Nah, Jack’s not recovered enough to come to a party—’ ‘Shush, Noton, mind you don’t say anything about Michel in front of Sandy—’ ‘Have you gone bonkers? Go on, have some sandwiches. These have a fish filling. Those are made by Erica,—she’s not telling us what’s inside, but it seems to me to be a purée of hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes—’ ‘Mm, it’s just great—’ ‘But yes, Jack’s a lot better than before,—let me introduce you,—these people you know already,—and on this side are Soraya, Fatima’s cousin, and her husband Ishem, both from Constantine,—they’ve come to Britain for a holiday. And here are Alexis and Yeranouie, both at the Technical University of Athens,—they used to teach at the Poly here once,—two years they spent there,—and at that time they used to live next door to us—’ ‘Where the Islips live now—’ ‘Françoise is from Quebec, and Sandy used to be a colleague of Atin’s once—’ ‘What’s the news, Fatima?’ ‘Françoise, will you please have a little chat with Soraya in French? The poor thing can’t manage a lot of conversation in English—’ ‘Atin’s taking Jack to a conference soon,—it’ll cheer him up,—besides, in these days of unemployment, unless one pulls another up—’ ‘You know that story? A group of people were queueing to go to heaven. At the head of the queue was an old lady. The huge gate was closed. On the top, on a kind of scaffold, sat a porter with a moustache. Dangling his legs, the porter said to the old woman: “Can you recall having done any good deed in your life?” After racking her brains the old woman said: “Once I gave an onion to a poor man who was begging.” Whereupon Mr. Porter tied an onion to a rope and lowered it. The old woman grabbed the onion and the porter started to pull her up. The others raised a hullabaloo. “We want to go to heaven as well,” they said. They grabbed the old woman’s waist in an attempt to hitch a lift to heaven. The old woman got annoyed and said: “If so many people start climbing, the rope will break. This is my onion,—it has been let down for me. Let go of my waist, you lot.” No sooner had she said this than the rope snapped as a punishment for her selfishness—’ ‘Fatima, can you explain the story to Soraya in French—’ ‘By the way, where’s Jerry these days?’ ‘In Indonesia—’ ‘Not in prison yet?’ ‘No, not yet, fortunately—’ ‘And how’s Antony?’ ‘He had a nervous breakdown. Had to give up his job and is on a pension now—’ ‘Oh really?’ ‘It seems just the other day that he was in this room, with a grand party going on—’ ‘Our kids used to go to the nursery school in those days—’ ‘Does Mrs. Skinner still run the school?’ ‘She sure does—’ ‘You used to read that pacifist magazine in those days—’ ‘Soraya and Ishem are laughing in response to that story—’ ‘Hey, did you go the “Green Grass”?’ ‘Yes, and to another place—’ ‘How did it go? How did it go?’ ‘The day we went to the “Green Grass” it was raining. So we didn’t have lunch outside. Instead, Raymond made me sit down on the floor of his room and have bread and salami, while he played me music on cassette tapes—’ ‘What sort of music? What sort?’ ‘Indian, European—’ ‘I thought you were going to have a discussion about Indian religion—’ ‘That’s right. So we listened to Indian devotional songs. He said: “How can you listen so calmly?” I said: “Look, how the hairs on my skin are standing up!”—’ ‘Are you telling me the truth?’ ‘What would I gain by telling you a lie? The hairs on my skin always stand up when I listen to the songs of Meera—’ ‘Meera?’ ‘A sixteenth-century North Indian mystical woman poet,— we’ve got a record—’ ‘I get it, I get it—’ ‘You know what I was saying,—we should all live in a commune, like a big family living in a large house—’ ‘You’ll have to excuse me, Derek, it would be impossible for me to co-exist with your wife in the same commune. We would have a row every day—’ ‘You are quite right, Erica, I too have difficulty living with Fatima—’ ‘I was thinking primarily of the rows you two would have. I can give it to you in writing what would happen: a) you would have rows, b) Fatima would come to us stamping, to cry and complain, c) then she would run away from the commune, and d) we would have to look after Sharifa and Nadia—’ ‘Shush, I don’t really understand why the Hutchinsons don’t get on—’ ‘He hasn’t quite managed to tame Fatima. The breed’s different, right? But I could have. I could bring every woman in this room under my control—’ ‘What a gallant ladies’ man—’ ‘But really, these girls are so full of life, so warm-hearted, so loving,—the real mystery to me is why anybody should fail to tame them. They are just wanting a bit of liveliness and warmth, a bit of love and cuddling. Why not give it to them? I mean it, Yeranouie, I don’t quite comprehend these problems of English society. I am just a plain Irishman—’ ‘You believe in male domination—’ ‘No, Erica, you know that’s rubbish—’ ‘The way you are proudly talking about bringing women under your control shows it. To “bring people under control” is a horrid expression—’ ‘O.K., let’s not quarrel about words. You are an independent-minded woman and I never brought you under my control,—there can be no question about it,—you did everything of your own free will, right? Then tell me why you agreed to marry me.’ ‘I suppose I must have been impressed by your qualities and so forth—’ ‘Tell me, tell me,—which qualities?’ ‘Strength combined with gentleness and politeness, a genuine interest in the welfare of others, which I would call real humanity—’ ‘Hear, hear! Erica Gregg’s actually managed to praise her husband! We need to make a note of it in writing! Where’s the tape-recorder? Undiluted praise devoid of Irish humour!’ ‘How many glasses of booze have you had, Erica?’ ‘Erica, am I a different person now?’ ‘O yes, you’ve changed a bit since you launched your driving school. Now you’re always busy. You haven’t a moment to spare—’ ‘The responsibility of being the bread-winner of the family is what’s destroying us men—’ ‘You’ve nobody to blame for that, ’cause ’twas you lot who arranged things that way—’ ‘We girls need to live in a separate commune, a commune for women only—’ ‘What’s the matter? Do you all want to become lesbians?’ ‘No kidding, quite a few women have really and truly become lesbians, having seen the way you lot go about. And they’re doing fine. The wife of a previous colleague of Atin’s, for instance—. The guy was an artist. But so what? Being an artist doesn’t change your inner nature. Deep down he was a male chauvinist. The wife went through hell and at last ran away. Now the guy’s found himself another woman. This one is a quiet sort of girl, just right for him. She just echoes whatever he says. “Yes, dear! Of course, dearest!” Her smile’s so sugary. But do you know what sort of a girl she is deep down? If your dead body was to be left by her front door today, she would just open the door, walk past the corpse, and go off to work. She wouldn’t even bother to look back—’ ‘In one way life is so full of fun and variety,—so many different kinds of people, so many kinds of exchanges. For instance, just see how many different kinds of people there are in this room right now—’ ‘No, no, there’s too big a portion of suffering in life. The joy evaporates far too fast—’ ‘Look at Alexis and Yeranouie. Just the other day they were so young and fresh, and already the two of them look like Ulysses returned from his travels and Penelope sickened by her waiting—’ ‘Alexis is a first-class chap—’ ‘So? Life’s so brief that even if the people are first-class, life itself never becomes first-class—’ ‘You would need a sabbatical leave to bring every woman in the room under your control, sir—’ ‘And since a driving instructor doesn’t get sabbaticals—’ ‘But Fatima could have tried being a little softer. If she just persevered a bit more, in a sweet sort of way, Derek would have come under her control—’ ‘Now that’s hard for Fatima to do. Some people have so much pain knotted up inside them that they can’t mix all that sugar in. The other person has to add his own sugar, get it?’ ‘Don’t you have the record of a Portuguese song which goes: “Brief is life, and hence we search so keenly”?’ ‘Our lives are as short as summer nights—’ ‘Pass me some of the white, please—’ “But do you know that Fatima’s not going to that villa? Instead she’s going to attend the wedding of an old friend in Paris—’ ‘But you haven’t heard Nanette’s story—’ ‘What’s that? What’s that?’ ‘After Nanette’s husband had gypped her, she decided that she would play the same trick on him as he had played on her. She got herself a boyfriend. Meanwhile Nanette’s husband proposed to his girlfriend. If she was prepared to marry him, he would divorce Nanette at once. But the girl said: “I am a freedom-loving woman. I believe in being an individual and in having a career. It seems to me that you mightn’t be altogether reliable in these matters. You didn’t allow your wife to be an independent woman, you put obstacles in the way of her having a career. I happen to know that there’s a sad spot in her mind because of this. You have a male chauvinistic tendency within you, which would show itself in full colours if we were to get married—”—’ ‘What happened then? What happened?’ ‘The guy collapsed when he heard all that. He had a breakdown. When Nanette got the news, she went to see a woman friend of hers, a professional psychologist. Nanette followed the advice of this woman and wrote her husband a letter full of real good sense. When the guy got the letter, he ran all the way from Paris to Luxembourg: “Nanette, Nanette, my beloved, I didn’t realize before that you had so much worth, so much good sense, so much nobility inside you. I’m telling you the truth. Forgive me, please.” At present Nanette is looking after her husband and treating him with sleeping-pills and tranquillizers—’ ‘Winter nights aren’t that long either—-’ ‘Let’s drink to the health of the couple with the longest marriage in this room—’ ‘To Atin and Noton—’ ‘Now to the couple who’ve been married the shortest time—’ ‘To Ishem and Soraya—’ ‘Derek, here’s to the health of the next five years of your marriage—’ ‘Dearie me! Hope the next five years won’t be as hard as the past five years have been—’ ‘All the things that have been said about love in poetry should be taken with a pinch of salt—’ ‘Salt or sugar?’ ‘Thank you, dear, with salt, I think—’ ‘Thank you, love, with a spoonful of sugar for me—’ ‘An American lady called Debbie Berman used to come to the Arts Centre where Noton and the rest of them go. She had three boys. I think she was the same age as Noton and that lot,—at most two or three years older. After one of their sessions Debbie went to the pub with a guy called Matthew Sharp. Matthew filled her up with lots of booze. Then he took her home to introduce her to his wife, riding in Debbie’s h-u-ge Range Rover, of course. Matthew’s wife Lydia was already in bed. She came downstairs in a dressing-gown, her eyes puffy. She was expecting the birth of her second child any time then, the nine months being nearly up. The older child was about a year and a half. After the exchange of a few words Matthew said to Lydia, “It’s very late. You shouldn’t stay up for the sake of being polite. Go to bed. I’m going to show Debbie my study.” Lydia went straight to bed without a demur. Such a good girl. After that Matthew took Debbie to his study on the second floor. There was a divan there. Debbie just spread herself there and made herself comfortable. On the wall there were some record sleeves,—like they are displayed in shops, you know. As soon as Debbie glanced at them, Matthew put on the music of a Russian composer called Pro-ko-fi-ev. He got books of poetry down. Then he said, “Will you have some coffee?” Debbie said, “Yeah, I don’t mind.” There was an electric kettle in the study. I think it already had some water in it. Matthew switched it on. Then they began to discuss poetry. From the topic of poetry they passed on to the topic of love. At one point Matthew said to Debbie. “Haven’t you got a lover?” Debbie said, “Lover? Nah, I have no lover. I’ve got a husband. I’ve been living in holy matrimony for fifteen years. Ha ha ha ha ha—” Debbie started to laugh with abandon. You know how American girls can laugh? Once they start to laugh, they can’t stop. And of course she was tipsy as well. Matthew sat down beside Debbie, and pretending to be surprised, said, “You’ve been living in holy matrimony for fifteen years? Why? What’s the reason for this self-torture?” So saying, Matthew just got hold of Debbie’s hand—’ ‘Here alone, on the stage tonight—’ ‘Ma, we’re taking some more orange squash, right—’ ‘Who’s singing that one?’ ‘Kate Bush. Sings well, that girl—’ ‘Wow wow wow wow wow ach u-n-be-lie——v-able, dadadum, dadadum, dum—’ ‘Wow! What a song! And then? What happened?’ ‘What happened was that the Sharp baby bawled out loud from the first floor, piercing right through the din of all that Pro-ko-fi-ev. Matthew slid downstairs swiftly. He pacified the baby and returned upstairs. Snuggling up to Debbie—’ ‘I say, hasn’t their electric kettle come to the boil yet?’ ‘They’d had their coffee by that time. Matthew gave Debbie a cuddle and said, “Why not bid goodbye to your fifteen-year-old ennui this very day—” The coffee hadn’t altogether driven off Debbie’s inebriation, but she registered at last that she needed to get out of that room. She then began to think how she might get up from the divan, how, without swaying or falling, she might get to the door, how she might get down the stairs, open the front door, get inside her Range Rover, and drive the vehicle home—. Suddenly Matthew got up and went to the bathroom. One heard the flush being pulled. The noise of the tank refilling began to resound through the house. Debbie became alert. Swaying, she somehow managed to get out of the room and began to go down the stairs. Matthew came out of the bathroom and followed her. He said: “How come you’re going away so soon?” “No, no,” replied Debbie, “it’s very late, I must go home.” Without wasting a glance in any direction, Debbie opened the front door and ran out. She got into the car and started the engine with all her might—’ ‘Dearie me, how did the girl drive home in that condition—’ ‘If the police had got her, she’d have had a heavy fine—’ ‘My mother says that in the days of her youth sexual desire was regarded as a hateful propensity which only women were supposed to have—’ ‘What! I’d heard that in those days the existence of female sexual desire wasn’t even admitted—’ ‘The two of you are referring to two different aspects of the story—’ ‘It used to be thought that girls from respectable homes were above all that, while girls from working-class homes were Satan’s accomplices—’ ‘And men?’ ‘Ah, poor things, they were just disinterested workers working the night shift in God’s factory, oiling the world’s wheel so that it would at least keep turning—’ ‘Bravo, well said, Erica—’ ‘Hallo there, when are you people cutting the plum tart?’ ‘A little later, with the coffee—’ ‘Just look at it, look at that session of female chauvinism going on over there—’ ‘Stop teasing us, Alexis, why don’t you go to the mother of God instead—’ ‘Her bedroom is locked, and within it there is God himself, who is sometimes the lover of that great woman, and sometimes her son—’ ‘Atin had lunch with Raymond Jardine somewhere in town. Raymond said: “Do you believe in telepathy?” Atin said: “I believe in science, so I try to keep an open mind about it. The thing hasn’t been proved false yet.” Then Raymond said: “A part of you seems to be prone to renounce things.” “That’s true,” admitted Atin. Raymond then said: “The part of me that has an appetite for enjoying things bothers me.”—’ ‘Blast it, Noton, you’re making it up. It sounds like a newspaper report on the rendez-vous of two yogis—’ ‘I am not making up the least little bit—’ ‘Next you’ll say that they met at an ashram—’ ‘Why don’t you listen! Raymond said to Atin: “Do you believe in enduring things in the stoic way?” “Yes,” said Atin, “you may call that trait a minor flaw in my character.” “Doesn’t this power of endurance create all kinds of new problems?” asked Raymond. “Certainly it does,” replied Atin, “especially in matrimonial life, because women are basically against stoicism.” Apparently Raymond began to laugh when he heard this. At that Atin said: “It would seem that you are not altogether inexperienced in this matter, and in spite of not having taken a wife, have acquired quite a bit of extra-curricular experience.” Raymond said: “I have an insatiable curiosity about human character. Thanks to that insatiable curiosity, I have acquired all kinds of experience. But my guru says that the desire to gain knowledge is like a forest-fire which is in no way less fierce than the licking flames of sexual desire—”—’ ‘Has he got an Indian guru, then?’ ‘The guru is American. But he has served his apprenticeship in India, of course. Whenever his Mexican life seems intolerable to him, Raymond runs to his guru’s cool refuge—’ ‘When’s the coffee being made?’ ‘Just a minute—’ ‘Why don’t I make it then?’ ‘No, no, don’t, Yeranouie’s making Greek coffee for all of us today—’ ‘Greek coffee? Do you mean Turkish coffee?’ ‘O it’s all the same thing, really—’ ‘Greeks call it Greek, Turks call it Turkish—’ ‘It’s like Algerian coffee in many ways—’ ‘By the way, you said you went somewhere else with Raymond yourself—’ ‘Yeah, to the pub called “The River’s Edge”—’ ‘What did you talk about there?’ ‘About all kinds of things. He told me many stories of his childhood. His paternal grandmother had made a lot of money in India. It’s all been brought over here now. Once during his childhood Raymond was returning to London from Rome with his grandma. The plane got into an air-pocket. The boy Raymond became agitated. His grandma said with a stern face: “If you behave like a coward, I’m going to exclude you from my will.”—’ ‘Good grief! It was with such stuff that the empire was built by them—’ ‘There was an elderly English couple at the table next to ours. The lady had an elegant hat on her head and the gentleman a blood-red rose in his buttonhole. They were listening to our conversation with great attention—’ ‘Were you sitting in the garden, then?’ ‘Yes, it was a such a lovely day. But there was one nuisance: the wasps—’ ‘Really, the wasps have had a population explosion this year—’ ‘Just the other day Alexis went into the garden to hang clothes out and got stung—’ ‘There were at least ten or fifteen wasps buzzing around our table: on a honeysuckle which was over a fence, on the rose in the elderly gentleman’s buttonhole, over our salad-bowl, over the rims of our cider glasses,—everywhere. I began to think how disastrous it would be if a wasp got inside my blouse or stung me on the back on that one-inch gap between the end of the blouse and the beginning of the sari—’ ‘Really, you make me laugh—’ ‘I had a shawl with me. I tried to keep it spread over my back. While devouring his salad, Raymond got on to the subject of Marxism—’ ‘That’s it! That’s just what men are like! It’s either poetry, or Marxism, or spiritualism—’ ‘I was trying to pay careful attention to his line of argument and in doing that I put too much pressure on my plastic fork. It just went snap and broke. Raymond got up and fetched another pair of plastic knife and fork. I began to use the new fork. Raymond commented: “You are a woman with a fierce nature. It’s just as well that it was a mere plastic fork that was at the receiving end—” Hearing that, the elderly couple at the next table began to laugh: the indulgent laughter that old age aims at youth. I too was compelled to laugh. At once the shawl slipped off my back—’ ‘Whoops! You’ve had it—’ ‘I was so scared of the wasps that I became extremely rigid—’ ‘Why the hell didn’t you pick it up?’ ‘How could I? Wasps were buzzing all round my waist then. The least movement and I would have been stung—’ ‘My! What a nasty situation! But funny at the same time—’ ‘What did you do?’ ‘Without looking this way or that way, without moving, I just kept eating with great determination. I hadn’t finished the meat yet. This time I put too much pressure on the knife, trying to cut the meat—’ ‘Ha ha ha ha—’ ‘But listen, can one cut steak with a plastic knife? It was bound to break—’ ‘No matter what you say, you are an expert in such bungling—’ ‘Pushing the other knife forward, Raymond said: “Didn’t I say you were a fierce woman? I knew you would break the knife too in a minute, which is why I fetched both a knife and a fork last time.” Then, wiping his mouth on a napkin—on a paper napkin, that is,—Raymond said with a smile: “I know why you broke the knife—” I said: “Really?” Without saying anything, Raymond put his knife and fork down, and stood up. Picking up my fallen Kashmir shawl and replacing it on my back with a chivalry worthy of the medieval knights, he said: “The wasps were tormenting you—”—’ ‘Wow, Noton!’ ‘Really, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, ach u-n-be-lie—-vable!’ ‘Hey! What exactly are you lot up to over there?’ ‘What difference does that make to you lot?’ ‘O God’s illegitimate daughter, make the coffee—’ ‘O God’s mother’s lover, why don’t you wait a little—’ ‘Nah, get it done, make the coffee, Yeranouie. Your husband is tormenting us—’ ‘Now you know how strong male chauvinism is in Greece—’ ‘Let the plum tart be cut—’ ‘How are your mother and aunt, Erica?’ ‘Thank you, Françoise, they’re kind of O.K., but I’m always terrified that the phone’s going to ring with some bad news—’ ‘Ma, Mr. Steward just knocked on the front window. He says he can’t get his car out because of the way Uncle Alexis’s car’s parked—’ ‘God’s illegitimate son, move your car—’ ‘Golly, I thought your neighbour had come to complain that we were making too much noise—’ ‘Isn’t he the bloke who mends cars all day?’ ‘You’re right, that’s him—’ ‘Hey, bad girl, I can’t find our car key—’ ‘Hell—’ ‘It should be in your trouser pocket—’ ‘It isn’t—’ ‘Then you’ve left it in God’s mother’s room—’ ‘But why go so far? You could have left it next door. Didn’t you go to the Islips’ house this afternoon to ask the gentleman to move his van—’ ‘Was the red light on at that time?’ ‘Red light? What red light?’ ‘The Islips have a red light outside their house. It’s not switched on every night, of course. Only if they’ve a party or something like that—’ ‘Really?’ ‘If you don’t believe me, you may go outside and have a look at the bulb—’ ‘How’s that, though? They’re not embarrassed about it? Don’t they know what the phrase “the red light district” means?’ ‘Perhaps it’s because they know—’ ‘You won’t believe it, Françoise, their front door is always open, and all the unemployed boys and girls and foreign youths of Norton Hill come there day and night, and after some time they leave again. They’ve a mini-bar inside the house, where you can get different kinds of drinks. There’s also one of those machines where you can play those lottery games—’ ‘My!’ ‘Those who’re waiting can have a game as they wait—’ ‘You mean the red light is an advertisement?’ ‘Ach, why are you looking at one side only? The mini-bar and the lottery-machine may have connections with the hair-dressing saloon. The lady cuts other people’s hair at home. She’s a hairdresser with a diploma, you know—’ ‘The truth of the matter is that the house is a multi-purpose institution—’ ‘I’ve got it—’ ‘Thank heaven for that—’ ‘Where was it then?’ ‘In Yeranouie’s handbag, in the compartment for comb and lipstick—’ ‘We could frame an excellent hypothesis. Each of you went next door, one after the other. Alexis had left the key there. Yeranouie picked it up, then forgot all about it—’ ‘Why go for such far-fetched explanations?’ ‘Because otherwise one doesn’t win recognition as an intellectual! I want to be an intellectual, Alexis. I’m sick and tired of being an ordinary woman—’ ‘O uncommon shrew, it’s clear enough that I mislaid the key somewhere in this very house, perhaps left it on a bathroom shelf, and that chain round my feet, that rope round my neck, the three-quarters Armenian bad girl who’s your equal in shrewishness and who’s been giving me no end of trouble ever since I brought her to my house, found it and hid it in a secret corner of her handbag, and wasn’t admitting that she’d done it, inasmuch as tormenting her husband to death is her favourite occupation—’ ‘Go, go, race-proud fascist Greek, go to hell—’ ‘It’s just as well that Soraya’s not following all this bad language, or else she would have gone red with embarrassment—’ ‘Tell me, is this how Greeks talk to each other all the time?’ ‘They use even worse language than this. They’re really not using that much now—’ ‘Every race has its own special sense of humour—’ ‘Yeranouie, are you three-quarters Armenian?’ ‘Didn’t you know? Three-quarters of depravity and one-quarter of facetious humour—’ ‘What’s the one-quarter?’ ‘What d’you think? Hellenic-Christian,—could be Graeco-Buddhist as well!’ ‘You see, the name Yeranouie is Armenian—’ ‘No matter what you say, my mother says that having a brothel next door brings good luck—’ ‘Don’t pay the slightest attention to that. It’s an Armenian superstition—’ ‘When I was young, there used to be a brothel next door to us—’ ‘It was after I got married that I realized from what locality I had picked a girl to come and live with me. I hadn’t realized before—’ ‘It isn’t just that you hadn’t realized it. Why not admit the fact that from our very first year at college you stuck to me like a leech,— the blasted Greek youth clung to me and wouldn’t let go of me, and has been tormenting me to death ever since—’ ‘Ha ha ha ha ha, we’ve got you, Alexis, we’ve got you there! Why d’you like this bad girl so much?’ ‘I’ve to inform you people that the brothel next door was managed by Greeks and not by Armenians—’ ‘Hear hear—’ ‘One day a client got the address wrong and came to our house by mistake. My mother was out—’ ‘I’ve heard the story before. I might as well go and move that car—’ ‘But that plum tart’s just superb—’ ‘The coffee’s excellent too,— whether it’s Greek or Turkish—’ ‘Or Armenian, or Algerian—’ ‘Just a drop o’ whisky and it would become Irish coffee—’ ‘Our maid Heleny heard the bell and opened the door. As luck would have it, I was at that very instant taking a book out of a book-case in the front room, and I had just a slip on. How old was I? Perhaps thirteen or fourteen. Heleny said to the bloke: “What d’you want?” The bloke pointed his finger at me and asked: “Is this lass willing?” Heleny was a very simple girl, from the back of beyond. She didn’t understand a thing. By chance my mother’s sister was visiting us that day—’ ‘And here we must point out that Yeranouie’s aunt is a lady of staid deportment—’ ‘Heleny began to shout: “Auntie! Can you hear me, Auntie?” My aunt was sitting upstairs, sewing and listening to the radio. She came down the stairs with sedate steps. Heleny said: “Auntie, could you find out what this man wants, please. I don’t get it—” The fellow thought that my aunt must be the madam in charge of the brothel. He pointed his finger at me once more and said: “I was just saying that this lass would do.” My aunt, without losing her infinite patience and solemnity, without moving an inch from her Armenian sense of good manners, dropped her voice to its lowest pitch and said: “You’ve made a mistake. This is the home of Dr. Dilsizian. You need to go next door.” My aunt spoke the words in a way that implied that the whole of Athens knew her sister’s husband. Mind you, it was true enough that at that time my father was a noted gynaecologist, but one wouldn’t have thought that that bloke had heard his name. Whatever that may be, the man became very embarrassed and at once apologized and turned his back. After that my aunt closed the door and gave Heleny a good telling off. “If you had the slightest bit of common sense” and things like that. I immediately understood the purpose that was served by the house next door. Afterwards Heleny and I had a deep discussion about this serious social issue, thus adding to each other’s stock of general knowledge—’ ‘No matter what you say, it’s simply hilarious that there should have been a brothel right next to the residence of a noted gynaecologist—’ ‘A profound irony—’ ‘These tamashas of life’ ‘Have another piece of tart, Fatima—’ ‘Nah, Soraya is feeling sleepy. We should be going. Sharifa, Nadia—’ ‘Going underground, going underground—’ ‘That’s enough, we must go home now—’ ‘Already?’ ‘We don’t want to go yet, no—’ ‘Auntie Fatima, why don’t you go home? Sharifa and Nadia can stay here tonight—’ ‘Really? Gone that far? Already?’ ‘Didn’t I tell you?’ ‘Noton, could you please rescue my two daughters from the clutches of your callow sons—’ ‘Going underground, going underground—’ ‘The words of these songs don’t help—’ ‘We must be going too. There’s a babysitter at home, and we’ve a long way to go—’ ‘How far’s Morley from here?’ ‘Seventeen miles—’ ‘No, we mustn’t detain you any longer, really—’ ‘Goodbye! Good night!’ ‘Take care, Françoise, and come again—’ ‘Thank you—’ ‘See you again—’ ‘See you, bad girl of Algeria—’ ‘Bad boy of Athens, d’you want to see the bad girl of Constantine off without a kiss?’ ‘Certainly not—’ ‘Fatima, you’d better give a kiss to your boss as well, or you might lose your job—’ ‘You’re right, Erica—’ ‘What’s that? Fatima, are you omitting the Irishman?’ ‘My dear Irishman, it was never my intention to pass you by—’ ‘Ivan, will you see them off, please—’ ‘Let’s have another cup of coffee—’ ‘Nah, we should be going as well—’ ‘Why? What’s the hurry for you lot? You don’t have far to go—’ ‘Why not sit down, Erica—’ ‘Have another sandwich—’ ‘Have a Greek olive—’ ‘What’s up?’ ‘Soraya’s left her handbag—’ ‘Here it is—’ ‘Bye, Soraya. Bye, Ishem—’ ‘Have a fruit steeped in syrup—’ ‘Have some more tart—’ ‘I can stay if you make some tea—’ ‘Goes without saying—’ ‘You can put the kettle on yourself—’ ‘That’s true. I know this kitchen so intimately—’ ‘Erica, aren’t you just one of us?’ ‘Your mother, your aunt, your father,—I remember them all ever so clearly, Yeranouie—’ ‘It seems the other day they were next door—’ ‘Yeranouie’s father used to ask for chillies as soon as he sat down to dinner—’ ‘If we didn’t have any, we used to get them from Noton—’ ‘Alexis used to grill kebabs and pass them to us over the fence—’ ‘Noton taught me how to make fish curry with onion seeds—’ ‘Yeranouie bought all the spices, packed them in her suitcase, and took them to Athens—’ ‘Fish curry is now well known to our friends and relatives in Athens and much appreciated by them—’ ‘That’s why I say, if only they were to come and open a restaurant in Athens—’ ‘Noton could put on a Benares sari, and with the demure gesture of an Air India hostess—’ ‘Which she’ll never manage, I’m sure of that—’ ‘Atin would have to grow a beard again—’ ‘He would need a turban—’ ‘Topu and Jopu would need those knee-long tunics and waistcoats à la Jawaharlal Nehru—’ ‘People would queue to dine, I’m telling you—’ ‘You see, our styles of cooking are very similar—’ ‘You would be millionnaires—’ ‘There’s not much profit in being an intellectual, Erica—’ ‘There’s too much pressure—’ ‘We get crushed—’ ‘It’s hard being an intellectual, harder being a proletarian—’ ‘It’s you who’re always saying that little lives, little desires, little joys and sorrows are much better—’ ‘The water’s boiled—’ ‘Incredible!’ ‘What’s the matter, Ivan?’ ‘Fatima got in and started the car, as Derek had had too much to drink to be fit to drive. Then Fatima started to steer in one direction, with Derek pulling the other way—’ ‘Really? But that’s extremely dangerous—’ ‘I’ve exaggerated a little. I wanted the picture to be symbolic of the conflict of their married life—’ ‘Thanks to the Arts Centre, even you are becoming a writer, Ivan—’ ‘Every self-respecting Irishman is an artist, a story-teller, a maker of literature in the oral style—’ ‘The tea is excellent—’ ‘You always get good tea and good coffee in the house of these people—’ ‘Having had so much watery tea made by you—’ ‘Say shamrock-tea—’ ‘And what’s that?’ ‘Shamrock’s an Irish plant. You’ve three leaves together—’ ‘Symbolic of the three forms of God—’ ‘The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—’ ‘Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—’ ‘If you steep three leaves, what kind of tea will you get?’ ‘Very weak—’ ‘Therefore, shamrock-tea means—’ ‘Very weak tea—’ ‘Surely shamrock-tea would be better for you, since you down such quantities of tea every day—’ ‘Not only from the point of view of health, but also from the point of view of money—’ ‘You’d be broke if you had Darjeeling tea in such quantities—’ ‘Even an intellectual husband would find it hard to cope with the expense, not to mention a proletarian one—’ ‘Atin, why are you trying to make us feel embarrassed? How can we drink our tea if you start doing the dishes at midnight?’ ‘Surely, if you can drink tea at midnight, I can just as well wash up at midnight—’ ‘We shall wash everything tomorrow,— Noton and myself—’ ‘Leave it, bad girl. Stop pretending that you are a good girl, will you. I’d better go and help Atin myself—’ ‘Yes, Professor. For goodness’s sake, go and do some dishes. Do some good deeds, will you. Or else you might rot in that horrendous indescribable hell—’ ‘The worst inferno—’ ‘Which is at once Hellenic and Christian—’ ‘And Hindu—’ ‘And Muslim—’ ‘Amen—’ ‘I would like to wash this plate as well—’ ‘Irishman, you might as well have the last piece of the plum tart—’
1. A quotation from a Tagore song.
2. Referring to the namabali, a wrap printed all over with the name of a god.
3. Here and a few times subsequently fragments from contemporary pop songs are quoted in English in the original text.
4. ‘By Heliodoros the Bhagavata’; from an inscription on a column at Besnagar, near Bhilsa in central India, circa the end of the second century B.C. or the beginning of the first. The column was erected by Heliodoros, ambassador of Antialkidas, Indo-Greek king of Taxila, to the Sunga king of Besnagar, in honour of Vasudeva, a form of the god Vishnu, whose worshipper Heliodoros professed himself to be.
Translated from the original Bengali by the author.
© Ketaki Kushari Dyson
Published September 20, 2006