‘… the freedom a certain place and time offered those who were willing to grasp it.’ Greil Marcus
The bus pulled away and disappeared into the night and left me standing by a wide empty road lined with massive old stone buildings. Some streetlights worked: yellow reflections shivered on the paving stones of the sidewalk. Wisps of mist drifted by. Like a city in a dream, Calcutta made no sound or movement. India was not supposed to be like this. I’d known my flight would be landing after midnight and it wouldn’t be hot and bright and uproarious, but still, arriving in India was supposed to be wild. It hadn’t been easy dressing for it in a Pan Am economy-class toilet. Now, alone in a pool of yellow neon light, I stood in my mustard-yellow flares and boots for one long moment – long enough for my eyes to get used to the gloom beyond and see that I was not alone. All along the sidewalk, away from the light, people shrouded in white cotton were lying fast asleep next to their cloth bundles and tin trunks.
Two in the morning on January 2nd, 1971: I can see it as I write, though the shapes and colours are sharper than they’d be on a photo that old. All around is the grey of mist and stone, over there lies the humped white row of sleepers; and the only man standing, the neon-lit person with the disordered long hair and flares and fringed jerkin and zip-up boots, is me. On the airport bus, a beat-up clangorous thing, the conductor had told me the ‘foreign tourist hotels’ were in Sudder Street, near here. He was small and dark, in frayed khaki, his hands stained by ticket ink, and when he’d done his rounds he wandered down to the front to gossip with the driver and the police guard. The guard wore a Zapata moustache and a khaki beret and had an old .303 carbine with a dark wooden stock slung over one shoulder and chained round his waist – the same World War 2 gun we’d had in the cadet corps at school. One man and his weapon, a thickset profile in the windscreen as the bus bellowed through the wide empty streets of the city. Now I hefted my holdall and set off around the corner into Sudder Street, my boot heels loud on the paving stones, but nothing awoke except an invisible dog somewhere up ahead in the dark. Here, nearly all the streetlights were out. The dog yelped once and scurried away. The sidewalk was narrow and broken and lined with sleepers, so I took to the roadway.
A sign and arrow on a brick wall directed me into an alley, up to a corner, and as I came up to the iron-barred hotel entrance an old tattered man got up from his string bed in the courtyard inside and let me in. On the narrow unlit stairs, as he showed me up to a room, I slipped and had to grab for his arm: it was thin under the coarse cotton sleeve, like a boy’s arm. In the morning as I dressed I heard birds singing and the room boy whistling as he swept the corridor outside with the big rush broom. Then I felt the rush of happiness I’d expected the night before. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, as the poet said, but to be young was very heaven. A crow was clinging to the window bars: with his black stare and hooked beak and important whiskers he looked exactly like my old headmaster. I laughed out loud, and the crow took off backwards into thin air. A radio played and waking noises rose up from the alley. From Sydney to this bare little whitewashed room: India at last. Nearly broad daylight now, and getting warmer all the time, but even on this new morning I wasn’t going to get the I Ching out, I wasn’t going to think too much or pore over divinations or wonder what things meant. Stay cool and on the beam, Oscar always said – and right now I bet he was sitting crosslegged on the mattress in the King’s Cross house under the graffiti on the wall that read The Wages of Gin is Breath. Your India trip is what you make it, he’d be saying. You are the guru.
Oscar’s India, as he knew it, was a wild vivid place that gave you enough rope. It didn’t judge you and it didn’t put you down: it watched while you did what you did, and if you fucked up, it just went on watching. It was indifferent, like nature. In India you were lost to the world you knew. This made the famous and very hip India trip sound a wee bit grim to the innocent audience gathered around his mattress – but in fact, Oscar went on, it was great to be lost to the world you knew. Then you could change and grow and not get stuck in the mud. Also – to descend to purely practical considerations – the cops cared not at all about dope, no one hassled you for what you looked like and no one ever called you ‘a fag’ – Oscar was American – for having long hair. Many Indians had long hair. Godmen in dreadlocks roamed the land, smoking like locomotives. These godmen were the coolest people for Oscar, they were tough proud free and didn’t give a damn, theirs was the real India – this real India being the trigger for one of Oscar’s unstoppable raps, India the land of peace, poor but good, whose ancient culture beat ours hands down in range and richness and wisdom, and which led the world in nonviolence, Gandhi having led the most dramatic and peaceful of all independence movements into a nationhood which was free of banana republicanism and coca-colonisation and – best of all – free of the Bomb.
In South America you were a gringo and in Africa you had to stay in the same hotel as the straight tourists. In China you could only go to approved tourist destinations. Southeast Asia had been coca-colonised; in Singapore they cut your hair right there in the airport. True, Cambodia had the Angkor Wat and Indonesia had Borubudur. Oscar had seen Borubudur and done incredible mushrooms there, but India had all this and more, entire abandoned temple cities that were an unbelievable hassle to get to – and therefore free of straight tourists. India, land of the free.
About now, well into his rap, Oscar would pause for breath and someone in the circle would hand him a fresh joint and he would thrust it into his wild Rasputin beard and take a deep toke, expel the smoke, smack his lips and tell us the one about Allen Ginsberg in Benares.
A couple of people swore they were going to India and never coming back, but I didn’t know about that. I was going there to see it and be it as Oscar had seen it and been it, you had to do the India trip like that, but afterwards I was going overland to London. I’d been brought up in New Zealand, but born in London, and that was my nirvana. The cheapest way to get there was to fly from Australia to Calcutta via Hong Kong. So far, I’d got as far as Sydney. My girlfriend, who was also from New Zealand, called Sydney the Last Homely House, as in The Lord of the Rings, because it was on the edge of the known world. Even so, after Auckland, it was pretty exotic. The first night she and I had arrived, a genuine Italian mafioso had been shot dead in the pub across the street. Now we had a room at Oscar’s place in King’s Cross, where American servicemen on R & R from Vietnam roistered nightly in the Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar. They were still jumpy, though: if a passing car backfired, they all dived to the ground.
Down the hill in our house we were all working on New South Wales Government Railways and saving for that giant step off the edge of the known world – a step we were no way going to take without direction from Oscar the living guidebook. We looked after him tenderly. There was, you see, no other guidebook. No one else we knew had been to India. There were books, but they were for people who went there to see tourist places like the Taj Mahal. Oscar had never bothered with the Taj Mahal. It wasn’t on his map, he said.
His name for this map, mental map, was palimpsest. A palimpsest was a medieval book in which new pages got pasted onto the old pages beneath it. Thus, India was a palimpsest. Nothing ever died there or got superseded and finished up in a museum, Oscar said: it merely had another layer pasted on top of it. Centuries didn’t pass, they coexisted. On the very top lay modern India: but through this you could easily see an earlier layer, one your grandfather would have recognised, still full of life. And beneath that, layer below layer, the pattern got older and deeper and stranger and still living. On shiny new diesel trains you crossed Victorian bridges over rivers where people from antiquity performed obscure rituals, you passed temples where tribesmen worshipped stones they called gods. Entire unimagined worlds of revelation lay in wait for us, Oscar said, just as they had for him.
This fascinated and overwhelmed us. We hadn’t been away from New Zealand very long. We rolled Oscar another joint. He was the real thing, we all agreed, and to be the real thing, you had to be American. Oscar came from Montana, where a big sky opened over a big country but there was nothing to do. His brother had already gone off to be a Beat. Then when he was eighteen that same window on freedom opened for Oscar, and he leaped joyfully through it and fled to the Haight-Ashbury, to Monterey Pop, Woodstock, the attempted levitating of the Pentagon, and a few riots. But too soon the window closed again and left Oscar outside. Now he was in Australia, the last frontier, advising draft-dodgers and trying not to mourn. His time had gone, a time that hadn’t been just a time but a cause he had given himself to. The revolution had been betrayed. Charles Manson had poisoned the water. The best people had been done in by the System. And the war – Vietnam, always simply ‘the war’ – was still going on.
The world was never going to change: that was how Oscar saw it in the embattled defiant mood that possessed him now. If you’d ever believed the world didn’t have to be the way it was – sometimes he confused us by calling America ‘the world’ as the GIs did – there was no choice now but to leave it for the Otherworld of India. Oscar’s hopes for his world had been limitless, America-sized, and now he had limitless America-sized Weltschmerz.
Now I was in Calcutta while he lived on in Sydney, gabbing away to his latest disciples, a White Guru on a grimy mattress, not exactly moving on except for short walks up the hill. In the days before I’d left, I’d noticed that more and more often he was taking his embattled defiance up the hill to the Wayside Chapel, famous for its selfless ministry to the lost and the hopeless, and spending all day in a pew smoking morphine. He had to, we said to each other, he had to fly that freak flag so very high, he was American. The rights to life and liberty were in his Constitution. And more than that. He had to pursue happiness, forever.
It was less exacting for us. We too came from a lucky country in the New World – but a small and retiring one in the south Pacific where only modest eddies had ever arrived of the mighty Sixties deluge that had swept Oscar away. Somehow we felt for him, his rage for freedom. We rolled joints of coarse Aussie weed for him – for a man who had once smoked Panama Red.
I doubt if Oscar was ever in Calcutta. It had never been a freak place, only a landing for flights from the east, from Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. It was a ground-down old Victorian industrial port, Liverpool without The Beatles, rich in culture but notoriously poor and short on glamour. Certainly Oscar had never mentioned armed cops on buses or sidewalks so full of sleeping people that you had to walk in the road. These had never been on his map. And neither were they going to be on mine. I’d arrived there because it was the nearest way in from Sydney, and soon I’d be gone – to Goa for the scene or Rishikesh for the godmen, but definitely to London for the summer.
It was broad day now in my whitewashed room, and warm. Crowds were moving in the alley down below. I sat awhile on my bed looking across the room through the wooden window bars at the barred and shuttered windows over the way, at a cluttered flat roof with a tin hut on it. A man came out of the hut in his underwear and suddenly squatted down on his haunches with his arms out in front of him, supported on his knees, and stayed like that. Then just as suddenly he stood up again and went back in to the hut. Small hawks patrolled the sky. I was spaced. Everything would be new today. Oscar had said the best way to enter India was to step back and treat it like a movie: culture shock was for straight tourists. Later you could plunge in and see it and be it – but only when you were ready.
Where did India begin? In the bathroom. I negotiated the ground-level squat toilet and the rusty tin of water, I discovered a plastic scoop and threw more water all over myself, then dried and dressed and went out for a walk. Baby’s first steps. Down a short crowded street lined with canopied fuming foodstalls on bicycle wheels, and across a square where handcarts parked, I arrived at the New Market. It was a single-storey building the size of a city block, made of stone like the buildings I’d seen last night, and just as old. Our house in Auckland had been a hundred years old but these were much older. Exuberant vegetation sprouted from gutters and ledges above; down below, the walls were hung almost all over with bright advertisements and racks of shirts. Wherever the walls were bare they were tattooed with graffiti – Naxalbari Lal Salaam, Power Grows Out From The Barrel Of A Gun – and stained with red spit. Crowds flowed in and out of many entrances in a babel of talk and hawkers’ cries and screechy music.
Nearby I found a place called the English Dairy and stopped in for some chocolate milk. There were two freaks in there, in baggy white Indian gear – for sure, it was too hot here even in January for my ceremonial velvet and leather and boots, so I went out again and bought baggy white gear and buffalo-hide sandals and a man’s sarong called a lungi, just a cloth skirt like the ones Samoans wore in Auckland, blue and stiffly new with the maker’s name stamped on it in gold. So far, so good for the first frames of this Indian movie, going into shops, feeling the aluminium coins so light in the hand and trying to understand the Indian English, lilting, scraped off the palate and driven along by twisty-wristed gestures.
I didn’t always get it. I went to look in a jeweller’s shop and the next minute I was wearing a silver earring. I’d only asked to look at them. But the sale came on in a rush, the jeweller’s boys giggling and tussling with a can of ether, the can spraying wildly at my head, the jeweller thrusting a sleeper, a temporary earring, through my earlobe. Afterwards I bought something to drink, but it went straight down my shirt front. The ether had frozen me from the neck up, and my mouth was gone; it was like being nuked by a dentist.
Somehow I found the hotel again, but it took all afternoon to get my head back. I lay on the hard little bed while the shadow of my window bars rose inch by inch up the opposite wall and the guys in the room next door argued over who got to play the new sitar first. Eventually someone won and began trying to tune up. I fitted my fat new Hong Kong headphones to my fat pumpkin head and reached down towards the tape player on the floor for the Play button. First up, Janis, Piece of My Heart. A memorial moment. I’d been been leaving the park in Sydney when I saw the newsstand: Queen Of Rock Dead.
Next morning I woke up feeling great. Bestriding the bathroom like a native, I switched to the proper earring at the cracked mirror and then went out to a hutch-like stall along the alley and bought a cheap cotton singlet with a slit pocket on the front for my tickets, passport and money – the holy trinity – as well as a yellow cotton prayer shawl with Om printed on it. Then I got the guy to unstitch the Mr. Natural patch from my leather jerkin and stitch it to the vest. Back in the hotel I stashed the jerkin away in the holdall for London with the rest of the western stuff. Transformed, an innocent abroad in baggy white gear, I set off again into the great swallowing city.
You never saw such a crowd. The sidewalk was full of people washing, eating, feeding babies and reading the morning paper; the road was full of earnest office-goers and plump housewives. Everyone had black hair. The bikes – Enfields and Czech Jawas – and the old cars and bicycles and thin cows and handcarts just had to creep along with them. This they did, patiently. Imagine the tears of rage in Auckland, in Sydney, if it was like this. I came to the New Market and stepped inside. Oscar’s palimpsest a few layers down: India as advertised, sensory overload, a low-lit Aladdin’s cave packed with stalls selling unheard-of things, stalls and more stalls stretching away in a hum of chat along aisles intersected by more aisles and on into the dim fruit-scented labyrinth. To my left, foot-high perfect cones of coloured powder; to my right, harem pants. Directly ahead, a humped bull calmly eating a banana while the stallholder beat it furiously across the buttocks with a banana stem. In my country, bulls were dangerous – though I saw the man was carefully not beating its pendulous pink scrotum. Stout shopkeepers in white with sculpted moustaches, some with red dots affixed to their foreheads, attended stately matrons in billowing saris as they cruised the stalls, each one followed by a basket-bearing coolie wearing an official big brass coolie badge.
It was somewhere in the New Market, at a stall he calls Shop No. 246, that Cal Teale came unstuck in 1970, a year before I arrived. I met him two years later in Brighton, in England, where he told me his story. It stayed in my head, was one of those stories that made me want to write a book about India one day; and twenty years later it ended up with many other stories in an oral history called “A Season In Heaven”.
‘From the moment I did that deal in Shop No. 246’, Cal told me, ‘I was meat: to be exact, turkey. I was walking away from the New Market, home free, I was walking away, when suddenly I had an idea and turned around and went back. No warning bells went off. Why not? The flaw in that idea should have been obvious, obvious. Even now I can hardly bear to think about it. Each time I do, I am the theatre audience that knows what’s going to happen next: Behind you! But it’s too late. A life-trashing experience is on its way. I go on stepping over discarded banana peels on my way back to Shop No. 246.’
He went back to the shop, to henna-bearded Abdullah, who was among other things a hashish exporter, and gave him a photo of himself, so Abdullah could glue it to one of the fake student cards he kept at home. In those days in India a student photocard got you train tickets for half price. Later that afternoon Abdullah gave the completed photocard to his boy, to deliver to Cal’s hotel; and the boy still had the card on him when he called in at the post office with two kilos of tourist-grade Nepali hash hidden in a pair of wicker stools, properly wrapped up together in parcel cloth with Cal’s home address written on it.
Next day the Customs, damning evidence in hand, turned up at Cal’s hotel, and Cal went down in chains. But that’s another story.
A year later, and my fourth night in India. In the afternoons, I had found, shops closed for siesta. At five they would open again and finally close for the night at nine. It was amazing to see then how the street noise died away and Calcutta became the night-city I’d encountered on arrival, stony, brooding, empty. Unsettling. I was pleased when the Old Student came loping into the courtyard of the Modern Lodge, where I sat in a collapsing chair. I ordered tea.
Everyone called him the Old Student. He’d been at the university, caught TB, couldn’t get a job, and had simply stayed on in his student room for years, unmolested, until a relative got him the hustler’s job at the nearby Shilton Hotel on the strength of his excellent English. His job was to lure arriving foreigners into Reception. Every hotel had at least one of these guys, most of them full of fake bonhomie and always at your elbow when you didn’t need them, but the Old Student wasn’t like that. He wore with dignity the ruined jeans someone had given him. He was straight in the sense of honest and was a fount of the sort of local lore that one day would appear in backpacker guidebooks.
He was of course a stoner, and a fixture in The Take. I hadn’t been in there myself yet, but the sitarists next door said he was in The Take most nights, in search of the kind of high-class literature people carted with them all the way from the west in the hope of finally reading, until they discovered places like The Take and took to reading Furry Freak Brothers comics instead. The Take wasn’t really the place for Proust. It was nothing but a ground-floor dive conveniently near Babubhai’s Corner and discreetly off the street, a low-ceilinged dim room full of wrecked chairs where Indians and foreigners sat all day and night around the record player, listening to Hendrix and smoking up the dope Babubhai’s runners brought in, while Babubhai stayed put on his corner and kept an eye on things. He always sat on a waisted wicker stool like the ones that had once concealed Cal Teale’s doomed stash. Babubhai himself was a barrel-shaped grizzled old thug with no neck, a wide downcurving mouth like a flounder and a cast in one eye. The Old Student said he’d been a wrestler until promoted to street boss, overseer of minor local rackets and payer-off of cops.
The Old Student with his courtly manners thanked me for the tea and went back to his new hobby, German jointmaking. German joints were long, perfectly conical multi-paper spliffs that only Germans could make, but the Old Student’s subtle fingers would get him there one day, you felt, even if all he had for papers were the local Capstans, which had no glue on them to speak of and invariably undid when heated. He crouched over the table, bony hands working away, primping and pasting and prodding; finally he rolled the joint, inserted a cardboard filter, and lovingly licked the whole production from end to end. Now for it. To be perfect, the neat tip of twisted paper at the end of a German joint had to come away in a little cone when lit. The Old Student lit the tip, it came away, the Capstans came apart and their contents dropped into his lap. Carefully he collected up the smoking mix and didn’t even swear. All he said was, ‘I’m off to The Take.’
The other place he hung out was in the Blue Fox in Park Street. Park Street was Calcutta’s Soho and the only place in India, except for once in Goa, where I ever saw a man in a white suit and Panama hat and cane. He was coming out of the Blue Fox as I went in to meet the Old Student. He could get in because he was nicely-spoken, but even unkempt foreigners like me could get into places like the Blue Fox, because Park Street was a little foreign itself. There was Flury’s the Swiss pastry shop, there were Chinese restaurants and drinking dives, and across from the Blue Fox there was the Moulin Rouge with its windmill frontage and doorman in glittery jacket under the flickering neon.
Inside the Blue Fox I found the low red lighting and dark plush seats of the Fifties, and a late-night clientèle hunkered down over tables in shadow deep as shame. A chalkboard at the foot of the little stage gave the name of the house band: Philomena And Her Boys. The air was close and smelled of cheap cigarettes, chicken biryani and old grime. I took a padded corner seat with my back to the wall, ordered the biryani, and as my eyes got used to the dark and could see what lay on the stage, I saw a pink Farfisa organ and a rusty mike stand. So this was the Old Student’s Indian-coterie hangout, as The Take was his foreigner one. Everyone seemed to be local, young or youngish, a real Calcutta mix, I would learn over the coming weeks, of ironical artists, theoretical anarchists, armchair revolutionaries, fierce anti-colonialists, musicians with blues collections they’d got from American sailors, poets who’d met Allen Ginsberg a decade ago, disillusioned romantics, and one or two of those meditative-uncle types that I would meet later in the fiction of R. K Narayan.
From them I heard that Calcutta was a city of stone the British had built to make money in; and that across the river in Howrah, some of the giant jute and indigo factories that had made the money were still struggling on, but most had gone. Half-free themselves from the story of decline that they told, the Old Student’s friends seemed somehow both underprivileged, because poor, but privileged, because educated. Their clothes were piss-elegant or just plain tatty, but the waiters stayed polite. Protected only by class, the Blue Fox their faded enclave, they shared a beer between four and lived as the Old Student lived, in barsatis – shacks on flat housetops – or in the back rooms of reluctant relatives, or with mothers who would always feed them, come what may. They argued on and on, smoking Cavander cigarettes while the old town crumbled around them.
The radicals argued about revolution, of course: Naxalites, peasant Maoist rebels, were taking over the countryside, and now the bourgeois suburban mansions needed a Gurkha guard outside. The aesthetes argued that India would always prefer astrology to ideology and that inequality was the natural order here. But all of them said that sometimes they dropped coins into the lap of the beggar lady at the corner or into the blunted leathery hand of the leper in the park, and sometimes they didn’t. They shrugged at unchanging and unchangeable India and ignored the obvious. That’s what you had to do, to live.
I’d never met people like this, of course, in the happy isles of the South Pacific; I kept quiet and hoped they’d let me stay. It entertained them to take the callow honky dressed, as they said, ‘as a farmer’ to the Kali temple where goats were sacrificed, and to confront me with Rat Corner. The rats lived in a warren of holes and tunnels at the very southern end of the Maidan near the Post Office, across a busy road from the city’s central administrative buildings. Somehow holy and immune, they were cared for by a sadhu-cum-keeper to whom passersby contributed scraps of food; everyone watched while he fed the creatures as they basked in the sun, fat and confident, or batted paws with their offspring.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, I never planned to, but did end up spending time in Calcutta, and that turned out to be a good thing. The hard city gave no space to the wilder forms of Indo-Romanticism open to young foreigners in those days; it was never going to indulge your inner child. Self-absorbtion and peer-group play of the kind to be found in Goa and the more indulgent ashrams were not on offer. If you saw India chiefly as an enlightenment opportunity, it showed you her actuality. An Asian Liverpool still living the nineteenth century could never deliver the New Age. Apart from the opium smokers (an old tradition: Kipling’s first published story was about an Englishman stranded in a Calcutta Chinese opium den) few foreigners stayed very long in the city. Many more could be found even in the little beach town of Puri to the south.
I stayed in the city for perhaps two months: for someone brought up in New Zealand, this was the new world. But I was running out of money, and soon I would have to begin the overland journey to London, the nirvana I had been so anxious to reach. The day came, and I remember that on my last morning before taking the train to Delhi I went down to the ghats, the banks of the Hooghly river; with the monstrous roaring coat hanger of the Howrah Bridge looming above them, oblivious ascetics did rituals and washed their smalls and laid them on rocks to dry.
This was where Cal Teale came when his case was over, to do penance. ‘I’d been playing games with the toughest city in India,’ he told me, ‘and I got my comeuppance. So, daft as it sounds, I wanted the city to forgive me. A Hindu might speak of withdrawal of favour by the Goddess: and believe me, I well understood this, though at first I hardly knew what to think about the Great Mother of Calcutta. I don’t mean Mother Theresa. The worship of the Goddess, Ma Kali, well, it did seem to involve some weird dark stuff around skulls and tantric doings in boneyards. Let’s just say I was an uninitiate. So I didn’t try to understand: I simply felt I should ask the Great Mother for release. In fact, all I’d got after months of anxious waiting for sentencing was a small fine, plus a manageable habit from those interludes in Fong’s – but still, I wanted forgiveness. That was the space I was in. Influenced, I have to say, by Allen Ginsberg’s new book Indian Journals, which some angel left for me in the Shilton Hotel.
‘How are you forgiven? You propitiate the Goddess. But instead of sacrificing a goat at Kalighat, I did it my way. I cut my hair and gave away my western clothes and books, my Dylan tapes, my I Ching. I offered up my silver ring, a family heirloom that had survived the Battle of the Somme and a pawnbroker in the Old Kent Road. I crooked my arm and flung the ring into the Hooghly. Then after standing for a moment in silent meditation I stepped backwards into a fresh cowpat and fell on my arse.’