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  • Noton Noton Pairaguli: A Book Excerpt [Parabaas Translation] : Ketaki Kushari Dyson
    translated from Bengali to English by Ketaki Kushari Dyson











    An Extract from Noton Noton Pairaguli


    translated from Bengali by the author

    Ketaki Kushari Dyson







    [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. ]



     




    Ei Prithibir Tin Kahini


    1st August



     



         —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?



         —He has.



         —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!



     



    2nd August



     



    ‘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.



     



    3rd August



     



    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.



     



    13th August



     



    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














    Ketaki Kushari Dyson was born in Calcutta in 1940 and educated at Calcutta and Oxford. She has been based in England since ...
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