More adventures in Bengal

'My sarod and I' by Chinmaya Remembering Here&Now

Part 2 of Chinmaya’s adventures as a family member in Bengal

Read Part 1: Kali Puja and other Adventures in Bengal

Calcutta (1986)

Wednesday 29th

Back from a short interlude in Bombay for myself, KP and Provin Bharti to have darshan with Bhagwan, who has just arrived in Juhu. Achieved by means of a 36-hour non-AC train journey each way characterized by the omnipresence of dust. Notable incidents: the moment when Provin Bharti, never having left the plains before, is confronted by the sight of his first hill; and the time when, clambering down from my bunk bed, I accidentally let my lungi slip to momentarily reveal underpants for the rest of the carriage’s occupants to glimpse.

KP: “Ore baba, Chinmayaji. Don’t do any of that ‘therapy’ here!”

And the four-year old boy, Yusuf, traveling with his mother, who as the journey comes to an end, suddenly reveals an ability to speak English and a desire to practice it on me.

Yusuf: “Have you ever been to Africa?”
Me: “No, beta, I haven’t.”
Yusuf: “Have you ever been to China?”
Me: “Yes, beta, I have”.

Yusuf: “Have you ever been ……” to South America, to Russia, to Japan etc, etc for five minutes, impressing me with his geography if not his linguistic range, until finally: “Have you ever been to Guinea-Bissau?”

Rain in Calcutta

Rain in Calcutta

My First Sarod, 1985

My First Sarod, 1985

A wandering Baul

A wandering Baul

Saturday 1st November

The local vendors are getting to know me. It’s amazing what a few words of Bangla can do! The boys in the sweet shop (a daily watering hole for their matchless misti dhoi) can’t get over their surprise and are totally tongue-tied. The fried snacks wallah with his bicycle-back stall extended me credit the other day when I left home without any money, even though I’d never seen him before. He of course had seen me. And the cigarette kiosk holder insists on bawling out a ‘namaste!’ at top volume to me whenever he spies me, however far away I might be.

To a sannyasin woman friend’s clinic today. She is as desirable and crazy as I remember from when I met her in London last year, giving her multitude of admirers love with one hand and bambu with the other. Her clinic is, to outward appearances, an alternative health and therapy center, the only one of its kind in the city, if not the subcontinent. In reality I suspect this is just ‘cover’ for its real purpose: to provide a refuge for every off-beat, harassed, liberated, cranky, struggling woman in Calcutta. It is always full of the most impossible characters, telling even-more-unlikely-sounding stories, and receiving a share of her sympathetic ear and rare imported Scotch.

Typical conversation overheard there: (Renee, a young woman, is on the phone to the Controller of Traffic Police, Calcutta).

“MyhusbandisateaplanterDarjeelingbutwecouldn’tclick reallysosincepastthreeyearsI’mlivingaloneCalcuttathing isI’minloveoneGentlemanhe’smarriedwecan’teverlivetogether
– pause –
MytroubleissomuchthingisatKalipujaIforgottogivehisdriverapresent 100rupeesandsariforhiswifeandnowhecometomeandsayingifIdon’tgive himhewillgotomyGentlemanandsaysuchterriblethingsabout mehewilldropmelikeadeadleafandsayingifyoutellSahibthis Iwillcomeyourhouseandrapeyouandifwemakeanytroubleforhim hewillgotoInlandRevenueandtellallmyGentleman’s taxevasionsheknowswhere-allhekeepshisnumbertwomoney
– pause –
Andhe’salreadyhadthreeRevenueraidsand I’msofrightenedhewillcomemyhouseandkidnap meandhe’ssorevengefulandhe’sgotthisgangofchors goondasusedtobeCPIgangandcouldn’tyouraidthe cafewheretheyspendeveningsandpickhimupso hecanspendnightinpolicecellthenmy Gentlemancangetridofhimquietly…..etc, etc

Monday 3rd

Lunch at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (founded 1829) with Swami Samar Bharti, who I last saw at Heathrow airport a year ago en route back home from the Ranch in Oregon. One of the richest men in Calcutta, he had arrived in London with just fifty pence left in his pocket, relying on me being there to meet him and raise him a loan. A few days later we crated up the fantastically expensive St Bernards pup he had bought for shipment to Calcutta and he departed in tears of anxiety for her safe arrival.

Now he is determined to pay me back in style and insisting on conspicuously spending as much money as possible on me wherever we go. KP, penniless as always, looks a bit bemused by it all, and preferring his billi life, is staying at home and keeping his ear in and his dignity intact by singing the stately Rag Malkauns.

Being with Samar is to be at the still center of a cyclone of money. He moves in his Mercedes (the only one in the city), driving it himself (a rare thing in this land of chauffeurs) through the rich men’s clubs of South Calcutta distributing largesse and slapping backs. A veritable storm of banknotes floods to every minion who does him service: Rs5 to the doorman; Rs10 to the bathing attendant; a big one to the waiter who tells us lunch was finished serving an hour ago but rustles up the cook to make something for us; a couple of bigger ones to the manager to jump his name to the top of the list for a game of golf this evening. Anyone with real power doesn’t get paid off on the spot of course.

Their baksheesh – and there are plenty of them who manage to interpose themselves between a big building contractor and his legitimate living in Calcutta – which involves lakhs of rupees, will occur later and in private. Right now in public they get their backs slapped. Through all of this, mala swinging over ample tummy and exuding devil-may-care, Samar moves. We lunch beneath the stuffy, envious portraits of past British Captains of the Club. ‘Doesn’t matter what you want in Calcutta’, they seem to whisper as we tuck in to a fifth course. ‘Imported car, permission to build, your son’s admission to LeMartinier school (a snitch at 65 grand), a whore…. Samar gets you the best!’

Dhobapara Village

Wednesday 5th

The nights are getting colder out here in the countryside and all the relatives, including Bubu and his mother, are gone. The five of us sleep huddled together on the hard floor, KP snoring furiously. Last night a thunderstorm blew up on the horizon. I watched it from the roof, banging its way towards us from out of Orissa, rustling the palm tops threateningly, and felt an empathy for the dread of the local farmers, almost half of whose paddy crops have already been lost to the unseasonable rains. Even the fireflies acted doomed and were flying low and kamikaze. At the last minute the mighty black hole swerved to pass us by with only a few drops of leaden rain, leaving being hungry this winter some other village’s problem.

Thursday 6th

A sadness coming over me: five weeks have passed so quickly. I’m leaving soon.

There is a serious change of mood around here. The excitement of puja time is gone. There are empty hours to pass, and none of us seems to know what to do with them except sleep them away. Even KP’s and my enthusiasm for playing music seems to have dried up like the dead leaves that drift over the pathways in the gusty breeze. I find a place in the outer courtyard of the house amongst the weeds and listen to their whisperings and the squeak on the cog at the village well beyond the gates. There is no other sound to be heard. Under a grey sky vegetation insinuates itself through the ruined arches; lichen patterns itself on crumbling walls scarred by banyan roots. Down the long corridor of broken brick columns a cow and calf chew under a shattered roof. Framed in the remains of a window, I notice a last torn paper decoration that once hung on Kali’s shoulder caught on a branch, swaying in the wind alone.

A poem comes to me as I reflect that this journey will soon be nothing more than a memory:

Spring came, summer went
Now in the autumn of my discontent
I watch beneath a wintry sky
The furious days go sliding by.

Time is quite timeless here, I think. But then I’ve got too much time to think! It’s making me maudlin. Maybe I should rouse the others and do one of Bhagwan’s meditation techniques together? But then again none of us thought to bring a battery-powered cassette player with us when we left Calcutta. I realize that we must all be starting to feel a bit oppressed by the unremitting millennial silence of this place.

Suddenly there is a familiar sound from behind me: that sudden expansion of the lungs, accompanied by a deafening wheeze, followed by a frightening choking and ending up in a fit of coughing, that passes for a laugh. KP has come to find me.

KP: “Mind is always creating heaven and hell, Chinmayaji.”

Provin Bharti: “Oree baba, we must get passes to have Krishnaprem’s darshan tonight!”

Friday 7th

Prem Samarpan has managed to stay awake long enough to regale me with tales of the tantrikas who hang out at a place not far away called Tarapit, doing strange rituals at the burning ghats and performing miraculous – if somewhat idle to my mind – feats, like producing holy mala beads from thin air (or their sleeves). A plan has been hatched for all six of us to visit. I am conscious of the time limit on me now though, and am desperately trying to provoke some decision-making about the trip. Typical conversation after a day or two of jettisoned plans;

Me: “Kal programme, Anuragji?” (NB Kal is both yesterday and tomorrow in North Indian languages)
Anurag: “Hah!”
KP: “We may go tomorrow.”
Me: “Look, it’s very important we leave tomorrow or we won’t have time.”
KP (earnestly): “Yes, we may go tomorrow.”

Next morning. The result is that it’s teeming with rain and impossible to go anywhere even if we had decided to.

Saturday 8th

While swimming in the swollen river today I managed to haul out a woman and her daughter who had got into trouble in the current. Now everyone is saying that I saved one and a half villagers from drowning.

Sunday 9th

Bubu: “You’re like a child, Chinmaya.”
Me: “How do you mean, bhaiya? Do you mean the way I speak Bangla?”
Bubu: “Yes. But the way you move.”

It’s true. Compared to them I feel so clumsy and awkward, with my hurry, fidgeting, and knocking into things and people. No wonder Bhagwan developed active meditations like Dynamic to get us back in touch with our bodies! On the other hand, except for Nivedita, who dances to anything set before her with abandon, the rest of this crowd are like a lot of damp flannel when it comes to any of Bhagwan’s meditation techniques that involve movement. KP takes it to the extreme. After a few minutes of cursory shoulder shrugging during the first stage of Dynamic he gives up and sits himself down, commenting: “Nothing to do, Swamiji, only to witness.” From then on, apart from the odd occasion when he’ll raise both arms slowly above his head at some part of the music that he finds particularly inspiring (and, for all I know, muttering ‘villainous’ to himself) he might as well be asleep.

Monday 10th

I decide on another visit to the other side of the river. I’ve had enough of gorging on sickly sweet tidbits from the reputable side and get it into my head to share something with the people of the wrong side of the tracks. KP, after a great deal of hue pare, reluctantly accompanies me as I set off with a box of sweets to share.

The Santals are a tribal people with their own customs and traditions, living in ramshackle huts on the edge of the village. They were long ago evicted from their forest homes and now have to work as impoverished labourers on the Bengalis’ farms. We hear their drumming sometimes at night from our rooftop but otherwise I have had no contact with them at all. The kids greet me first of course, and surprised by my interest in them and smiling at my antics, which have their kids in stitches, a few housewives who are not out working the fields appear from their tiny doorways. KP hovers at a safe distance. These women, who look no different from their mainstream Bengali counterparts across the river, have a very different bearing.

They look me straight in the face and don’t avert their gaze from mine. The sweets I hand out are grabbled at greedily and I make my round of a little circle that has formed until, in the last shady corner I proffer the plate to two beauties laughing together. In an astonishing moment one of them plucks a sondesh from my palm and reaching up to my face, pops it into my mouth. We depart to giggles and waves.

Tuesday 11th

Final morning in the village, the sun rising in glory into the mists as we set off on foot down the mud path.

A lone crane beating west, Out of the growing light;
A frog slipping across the verandah, Into the last shadow of night;
Where the river should be All is white.
At the time of goodbyes.

Dum Dum airport

Thursday 13th evening

Two frantic days of shopping and goodbyes behind me. At the airport all of us putting a brave face on for this absurd forthcoming event which will whisk one of us halfway around the world in the same time it will take the other four to plod fifty miles. Only Provin Bharti seems unresigned to not accompanying me, insisting that he can squeeze into my suitcase. He kept me up into the small hours last night, his questions sketching in a first tentative picture of a world beyond Bengal. How long did it take to get from Heathrow airport to my home? What exactly did they feed you on planes? What time do people in London go to bed?

As for me, I’ve been weeping all over the place. Just as I thought I’d left them all behind me, deep in the heart of the confusing jungle of Immigration, Customs and security checks, I’m hauled out by a man calling himself Airport Manager.

“Follow me,” he says darkly and leads me back past unconcerned security guards the way I’ve just come. He leaves me with a pat on the shoulder, blinking and bewildered, back in the public foyer, clutching my passport and thinking of my baggage winging its way off alone.

And suddenly, there is Samar, beaming like a schoolboy who has pulled off a particularly daring jape and handing me a copy of a book he had promised and forgotten to give me a few days before. And there with him are Krishnaprem and Anurag and Nivedita and Provin and we must go through all our hugs all over again. Palms together in namaste we are all the same: our faces are laughing fit to burst but our eyes are wet with tears.


Baksheesh: alms and by implication also bribe
Banyan: ficus tree whose branching root system entangles anything in its path
Beta: son, used for any child, male or female
Bhagwan: Blessed One. Title given to Shree Rajneesh, later Osho
Bhaiya: older brother, used as a term of respect for familiar men
Bhalohasa: love
Bindi : coloured spot worn by married women on their foreheads
Darshan: being in the presence of a Master or guru
Dhol: drum used in folk music
Dynamic and Kundalini: Meditations devised by Bhagwan that use specific music in their various stages, some of which are very physically energetic
Ghats: steps leading down to the river at the burning grounds
Lakh: 100,000
LeMartinier: Calcutta’s oldest and snobbiest boy’s school
Lungi : light cloth wrapped around waist and loins
Mala: necklace of 108 beads worn around the neck by traditional sannyasins. Also worn (with locket containing Rajneesh’s photo) by neo-sannyasins of Bhagwan
Misti dhoi: Bengali yoghurt sweet
Puja: festival
Sarod: stringed instrument
Shenai: Indian clarinet used at weddings etc
Ranch in Oregon: Bhagwan’s commune in the USA 1991-5
Rosagulla: Bengali milk sweet
Sondesh: Bengali milk sweet
Tabla: drum used in Hindustani classical music
Tantrik: Hindu devotees of Lord Shiva into magic and (frequently) hashish
Zamindar: Lord of the Manor under the now-defunct landowning system of the Raj

Text by Chinmaya Dunster –

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