Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What did the Lady Really See?

As a child, I saw a program on the telly where a tasty meal was prepared and served upon a plate; the food then was held out toward the viewer offering you the chance of taking it out of the telly and enjoying it. From that time onwards, I’d held a hidden wish that one day someone would buy me a TV like that. Or at least if it wasn’t to do with cooking, I wished that the day might dawn on which a TV story would spill itself out of its electronic box and so come into my life. What I didn't expect was that the time would arrive when this would happen to me, when I was at the tender and highly impressionable age of thirty-five.

It was the mid 1980's, and after a sorry gap of one-and-a-half decades I found myself back in India, having fed on and swallowed the Mahatma Gandhi line with no thought as to how I’d digest the fish that he’d left wriggling on the hook. Caste distinction had gone, and brahmin and road-sweeper could now walk together in the garden of frangipani trees, even if they weren't yet ready to clasp hands or at least link their arms together.

I was staying in Madras (as it was then) as the guest of a merchant I'd met on my first visit, and for a few nights I was to be their guest before moving on into the deeper south. They now had a colour TV and an A/C living room with sofa, and they appeared anxious for me to watch the movie which had just started and, although part of my reason for coming to India was to get away from the telly, I felt unable to move off to the shady garden with a book. A guest was staying with them, a lady with a silent green silk sari who made a waft of scented wind in my direction as she swept by, for she wore fresh jasmine flowers tied into her hair. She was coming from the direction of my hostess's kitchen, bearing a small dish of ice-cubes, on the top of which were set four dark sweetmeats. I immediately recognised them as the Ferrero Rocher chocolates which I'd brought from England as a gift for my hostess. The Green Lady immediately opened the gold foil wrapping and popped one into her mouth, before sitting squarely on my right as she settled her ample bottom down on the settee like a mother hen on a clutch of eggs.

The film related the story of a love affair between a high-caste brahmin lady and a young man from one of the lower castes. Degree by degree the pair were fighting social prejudice and bigotry, their few triumphs and many set-backs musically unfolding in front of us. The vision in cool green had become so transfixed with the proceedings, that she'd returned to the 'fridge to get a few more of the diminishing supply of chocolates, and had even managed to replace the ice. Returning with her replenished dish, she gave me a little grin as she immersed herself in the story, saying: “I expect you're thoroughly sick of these, but for us in India they are a great treat! Mmmm” As I watched her sucking the dark cluster into her orifice, my glance flicked over to the left to where my new friend and object of adoration, Chandru, was standing in the shadow near the screen. Chandru my carer of a few weeks’ standing, was lurking with the look of I-don’t-belong-in-there on his face; Chandru, whose skin was the same colour as the chocolates which the Green Lady was devouring with relish.

In a flash I saw it all: India’s heart had long been torn by class division: when the mad slash of zealotry had taken his life away, Mahatma Gandhi had left his healing message for the Nation ~ the message that untouchability was a sin and a crime. Little by little the message had filtered down to everyone and now this middle-class home, this fan-cooled living room had become a melting pot for that message for me — on my right side the Green Goddess was munching away, and on my left was a young man from the caste of thr lower scribes, who had worked his way into the job of caring for me and had also seated himself in my heart. What more natural than for him to come to sit next to me on the same sofa as the Green Lady, watching a hopeless love affair on the TV, yet knowing that within this very room, racial prejudice was melting as fast as the ice-cubes in the lady’s saucer?

A vision welled up in me, a picture of harmony and peace, goodwill to all men. This very room was to be the melting pot, the microscopic picture of bonhomie which would radiate steadily outwards until it engulfed all of the sub-continent: after all, the ingredients were here, instigated by the very programme we were watching. It had reached the point where the lovers from different castes were being torn apart by family and social prejudices. It was very heart-rending too. The Green Silken lady took the corner of her sari with her left hand and wiped away a tear which had started to run down her cheek, whilst with her right hand she took another chocolate from its bed of ice and crunched noisily. That particular hazelnut must have been a hard one, for I fancied it had put up a valiant fight before getting crushed between her molars.

What was I waiting for? There ahead of me was the film, on my right hand was the lady, on the left my shadow-lurking lower-caste friend. Why not call him over to join us and we could all wallow together and end up being friends? Didn’t revolutions begin in the most unlikely of places, and hadn’t I read once that the Indian Mutiny been sparked off by a chapatti? What, in effect, was preventing me from calling him over? Only my own stupid self, I decided. I myself, who could soon be sitting alongside the very Indian waiting in the wings, I could be the spark that starts off a social revolution, if only I could conquer my own inbuilt sense of hesitation; besides, I knew already that these chocolates were a rich source of the euphoric drug theobromine, which was why one gave them as a token of love, didn't one? Deciding that my fears were groundless and that this was, after all, 1985, I patted the seat next to me with my hand and called him to come to sit by me, while making reassuring noises that there was no reason whatever to be afraid.

DSC00020DSC00018Chandru came over and sat beside me cautiously as he took my hand. The woman on the right sharpened her face so that her nose appeared much more angular than it was made to be, and the muscles in her body seemed generally to tighten up; she took one of the two remaining sweets off the melting ice and pushed it in her mouth, not with the lazy relaxed swing of a few moments early, but with an impulsive motion that was almost a twitch. “Oh of course,” she said, “I see he needs to come and help you back a bit” and stupidly I fell in with idea, with Chandru easing me back another inch or two onto the settee; but he carried on holding my hand after I’d become settled. The lady on my right began unwrapping the last clustered chocolate from its melting dish of ice and carried on watching the movie, which was now approaching its melodramatic climax, with plenty of tears and pleadings and tugging at the hamstrings of the heart. Chandru was holding my left hand firmly in his right, and I saw my short stubby white fingers poking out between his long and slender black ones. I looked down with a pang of shame, for I would have wished that mine were as long and graceful and delicately formed as his. He however did not seem to mind or even see the clash of what my eyes saw, for I think he felt another tension hitherto unknown to me. His hand-grip tightened, [DCS00020] but his entire body grew more fidgety, and he said: “Shall I get your bed ready for you to take some rest, dear? You have had a long journey of many kilometres and you should take some rest.”

My enthusiasm of a few moments ago evaporated, and I knew that with Chandru’s announcements, the magic of the dream was melting fast. I was aware of kitchen noises and cupboards being noisily closed. What sounded like a ’fridge door followed by a mallet sound. Soon after this, Milli the daughter of my friend entered with a beaming face and a dish of crushed ice fragments on which were borne more Hazelnut Chocolate Clusters. She looked sorrowfully at the green lady’s pool of water with its fast disappearing lumps and its twisted strands of golden silver paper. “How are you Chandru?” she said smiling. Scanned at [7-15-2010 16-09 PM (5)] “Heavens, look at the time! Night falls so fast in the tropics, and we fear your auntie will be worrying about where you have got to and believe me, you don’t want your bus to become bogged down in the traffic. This is Madras, not a country town you know!”  
Scanned at 7-15-2010 16-09 PM (5)
Chandru’s twitching nerves now had an outlet, and he sprang up as if propelled on a spring. With a hurried thank you, and words of how much he had enjoyed the film, he jerked his limbs in several directions, and picked up his little overnight bag; he mumbled a hurried good-bye to me, and within a few moments he had left. Milli came over and sat next to me, offering me a Ferrero Rocher from its crushed ice-bed. I thanked her, but reminded her that they were a gift, and in England I could get them any time I wanted.

I stared vacantly at the TV and reflected that in distant childhood I'd been watching it and wishing that the magic drama being enacted on the box would spill out into living room. Now it had done that with the granting of my wish. This was my reintroduction to the new India, and I wondered whether I'd be ale to swim the waves without becoming engulfed by them. We all had seen different pictures, different movies, and my attempt to harmonise them marked the beginning of a struggle that was to puzzle me for many years.