By Mark Ulyseas
For The Bali Times
Nothing remains but Time itself
Mocking us from the parapets
Throwing the Past as we go by
Dancing to the song of Life
– Mark Ulyseas, Migratory Birds
The following is an excerpt from my work-in-progress book titled Faded Genes. The spirits of Bali have possessed me to write down for posterity fleeting images from my journeys through life in India. It is a soliloquy of an existence worn by the earth.
Faded Genes is the kaleidoscope of a mislaid life. The myriad faces of the past, the haunting of people gone by, the instances of sudden madness and the sheer will to live. Or lack of it. There are no sequences here, only images. Like a kaleidoscope, changing colors and shapes every time it is moved from side to side.
I recall the refrain of Engelbert Humperdinkâ€™s song Put Your Hand in the Hand wafting from the Assembly of God Hall as I passed on my way down Elliot Road in Calcutta. That was a place for lost souls, homeless and broken people. They took them in, repaired their bodies and souls and shoved them back onto the street.
Many returned as honest, hard-working family people. It was heartrending to see them line up for the Sunday Free Lunch at the hall. Their faces bore testimony to the traumas they had gone through and the hope that they still had. Where they were going, no one knew. But they were happy in their neatly ironed shirts, cheap frilly frocks, permed hair and garish makeup. To me it was a pathetic pantomime, a cruel comedy of life. I was terrified that one day I would be standing in that line. Waiting.
Our neighbors in the building where we lived in Calcutta were the Richcooks. Mr. Richcook was in the police â€“ an inspector, who strutted around in his white uniform, side arms and white helmet like a performing flea. His gait resembled that of a cowboy walking out into the street for a gunfight. To describe him in the words of Clint Eastwood, he was a legend in his own mind.
One day a thief entered their home. Richcook awoke and grappled with him. His son got hold of an iron rod and swung it at the thief. He missed but broke his fatherâ€™s arm. The thief escaped with Richcookâ€™s wallet. Since the incident, Richcook was rarely seen. He would slink into his home without even a cursory glance at anyone.
The Richcooks felt they didnâ€™t belong in Calcutta; their home was really Australia. No one had the heart to tell them that they were the bastards of occupation. They didnâ€™t belong in Australia but India, the country that had given birth to them, nurtured them and offered them a life of equal opportunity. Australia, to which they intended to migrate, was home to another people, who at that time called people like the Richcooks Dingoes. This apparently didnâ€™t matter to them being referred to as wild dogs of doubtful lineage; maybe in their feeble minds they mistook it for a badge of respectability.
To migrate to Australia, Richcook needed the necessary travel documents and money. The documentation was sorted but getting hold of enough money was a bit tricky. So they decided to hire a bus, sell weekend tour tickets to Digha Beach (miles from Calcutta) to unsuspecting customers. They collected all this money, which included the bus fare and â€œhotel bookings,â€ sold the hired bus with the passengers still sitting in it (who were waiting with great anticipation for the bus to start) the same day of their flight and fled to the airport. By the time anyone knew what was happening, the Richcooks were partaking in flight hospitality on their way to Eden.
Elliot Road was home to remnants of a society the English left behind, a place for the leftovers of occupation. People born of an English father and an Indian mother. Most were darker than the natives and yet distinguished themselves by a way of life (English) that was only in their minds and by the names they carried: Cranenbergh, Hilton, Pearsen, Wilson.
They always spoke fondly of going home (a reference to England). Some did get out of the black hole of Calcutta. Some married the â€œnativesâ€ and settled into a life of quiet resignation. Others just faded into penury. You could see them sometimes, walking back from the market in their Solar Topis (hats made from the Solar Plant) and printed floral frocks, wearing wretched faces that bore the horrors of not belonging. A people that people forgot.
Not far from Elliot Road was Park Street, where my college was situated. One day while walking down this street with a priest (of Elliot Road lineage) from my college, we came across an emaciated beggar lying comatose on the pavement. The priest, to my horror, hailed a taxi and promptly proceeded to carry him into the vehicle. He asked me to help. I did with much trepidation. The taxi driver knew where we were going, not me. I was utterly lost by the rotting stench of human flesh and excreta. We drove to Mother Theresaâ€™s Home for the Dying and the Destitute, originally an abandoned Hindu temple that was donated to the Sisters of Charity by the Hindu community.
There we carried him in. He died within minutes of his arrival. The priest said a small prayer and the nuns quickly started cleaning his body and getting fresh clothes to cover him. Quite pointless, I thought. Little realizing that, the centre was created to give the dying and destitute dignity in death. I had lost mine, but not the priest, who belonged to a misplaced people.
This incident rekindled my faith in my Faith. Faith in a God that was kind and who did not see the demarcations we made in our insignificant lives. I have tried to make a life worth living. But women and song drove me to another world, like sirens in a Greek tragedy. To me â€œanother worldâ€ was a metaphor for another dimension. Seeking a meaning to living was a daily exercise. One had first to dislodge the memories to make place for more.
Survival was an inherent characteristic of all the Richcooks and other castoffs of occupation. It was the spirit of Calcutta. Even in the squalid surroundings and abject poverty, people possessed the will to go on regardless, though morals and ethics were a bit elastic. They were like weeds in a pond, growing brightly in stagnant water.
Itâ€™s all gone now. Calcutta has lost that spirit. Itâ€™s too commercial, too â€œwith it.â€ Nothing of the old remains, just the remains of the day left by squatters on roadsides like offerings to the gods – hop, skip and slide down memory lane.
Many monsoons down the line have washed away my memories of Bara Maidan (large field adjacent to Chowringhee Road), Jaal Muri (spicy mix of puffed rice, onions, peanuts and mustard oil) and Puchkas (water puri stuffed with spicy potato, chickpea and tamarind water).
Only the Victoria Memorial stands like a vestal virgin dressed in white, waiting for the day of reckoning.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om