26 Days in Calcutta

By John Auchard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 18, 2004

"That's the end."

The third-oldest daughter in a family of seven children had just finished a 25-minute summary of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." She had done so in her home in the "bustees" -- the dense Calcutta slums -- while Rosalie Giffoniello and I sat on two plastic chairs, the only chairs in the room. The room was no more than eight feet wide and no more than 13 feet long. It was the entire home of a Muslim family of 10. The family all sleep together on the plywood platform that takes up the far end of the room. But now the children are big, and the platform is no longer big enough, and so the older boys sleep sitting up, with their backs to the wall. When the season changes to summer and real heat comes, the temperature in the house climbs to 120 degrees. Then the boys sleep out on the streets, but the girls stay inside, where they say the nights are terrible. During the day they all care for an eighth child, the 3-month-old son of the married, working, oldest daughter. The baby, Fardeen, cared nothing for Jane Austen as he sat quietly and grasped the neck of a little chicken the family hoped would turn out to be a hen. I asked if he ever tried to strangle the bird. The oldest son, Mehtu, laughed and said it did not happen that often.

A few days before, I had introduced myself to Rosalie Giffoniello after her healthy Brooklyn accent surprised me at Raj's cyber cafe on Sudder Street. One night five years back, after a divorce had left her lying on her sofa with her hand plastered to her forehead, Rosalie acted on an impulse. She picked up the phone and bought a ticket to Calcutta. Now 55, she has been here since then, and she loves the place.

When Rosalie asked Rumah to tell me what she was reading in school, I expected to hear what kids say, that "Pride and Prejudice" is a story about some sisters who finally get married to their boyfriends in, uh, England. But with a keen talent for gossip, Rumah took delight in relating every inch of the novel. If there was any deviation from the measured expression of Miss Austen, it came when Rumah called the two silly youngest Bennet sisters "wicked,wicked girls!" Her own older sister, Subah, laughed when Rumah described Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and I asked her if Rumah had made a mistake. "No," said Subah as she came to terms with her critical judgment. "She's right, but sometimes her expression is funny." Rumah started school late in life, and so, at around 17 and in seventh grade, she is being taught by nuns in one of the city's Loreto schools. Four of the children have been able to find support for their education -- three of them girls. Two of Subah's brothers have never attended school and do not know how to read.

For my visit, the family had prepared a lunch, and for dessert, Subah had made some sweets that were topped with a dark, suspicious bean. "What's that?" I asked. "It's a kind of cherry," she said, "for garnish." It later occurred to me that she had served those small honeyed sweets -- which we ate off paper plates set on the bed, for they have no table -- in small white pleated paper cups that, in the United States, are used to serve petits fours.

When I asked Subah how old she was, she didn't know. "We know our birthdays," she said, "but my mother is not an educated woman, and she doesn't know in what year any of us were born." As Mehtu held his mother's arm and translated into Bengali, the mother smiled, then actually laughed. Genuinely warm and, despite what anyone will insist, by all signs happy, this cloistered Muslim woman lives in a world that rarely extends beyond her front door. That may be why she has little concern for numbers, for even the shopping is done by her sons and her husband.

But Subah has ambitions. When she was about 14, her father arranged a marriage, but she protested and he didn't force her. Now somewhere around 20, she will soon finish high school, and if she can find a sponsor for the $300 she needs to join the 300,000 students at Calcutta University, she hopes to study law.

When Mehtu led me out of the bustees to Free School Street, he told me to write. I had my doubts about a postal address for such a place, and so I asked if a letter had a better chance of getting there if it went to him or to his parents. "Send it to Subah," he said. "Why Subah?" I asked. "Because she is famous." When I asked why she was famous, he said it was because she was such a clever girl.

A Somewhat English Oasis

The showpiece of the British Raj until its fortunes began to change after the capital was moved to New Delhi in 1912, Calcutta still shows many signs of a long English past -- and the Fairlawn Hotel is one of the best of them, and one of the best places to stay in India. The 218-year-old hotel -- its 18 humble rooms creak around a garden where people sip tea and talk, and then, these days, drink beer and talk -- is owned and run by Violet Smith. She began working there in 1936, and it was in the hotel that she married an English major in 1944. Until Ted Smith's death in 2002, they ran the place together -- he with precision, she with an exoticism evidenced by a genius for colored lights. Yes, the rooms are humble, and the lights, which are fluorescent, often blink, but under the warm lamps of the cluttered public rooms, where Mrs. Smith has heaped a lifetime of splendid mementos to the ceilings, people gather to talk late into the night.

Mrs. Smith looks and sounds like the proper English lady she is. But then again, she isn't. Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, of Armenian refugee parents, she was educated at English schools both there and in Esfahan, Persia (as she calls it). And as I headed out on New Year's Eve, I heard country-western music coming from her veranda. I asked her if she was a fan of the Nashville sound. "Yes, John," she replied, "especially Jim Reeves."

Mrs. Smith runs the Fairlawn with the firmness necessary in a place where the monsoon and the fabulous heat turn everything to rot if you blink your eyes. An Anglo-Indian guest remarked that if I understood Bengali and knew what she said to her staff when she was angry, my blood would turn to ice. Despite her imperious bearing, she cares deeply for her staff, and they understand her ways and care for her. When Norman and Gloria Hutchinson arrived for their annual stay, Mrs. Smith, who loves them, was almost overcome with emotion. Then she stopped herself and did what she does each year when they return for their annual visit. She reached up and slapped Norman on the face.

The Hutchinsons are charming. And they are rich. For 30 years they had a chateau in the South of France, where they drove a Rolls-Royce, and for years they maintained a second home in Highgate in London, where they drove a Bentley. Now living near Bordeaux, they have a mansion with a torture room. When I asked Gloria what Norman meant by that, she said it is the larger of their two drawing rooms, so big that Norman says it is torture for their friends.

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