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Love and belonging in Kolkata

- by Deborah Baker

(In memory of Tarapada Roy)

In February 1990 I married my husband before a crowd of strangers on the rooftop of his parents' house in Calcutta. Among them was the popular and prolific Bengali writer named Tarapada Roy. During the first year of our marriage, we would often go to his flat for dinner. He and his wife lived on the second floor of a big house close to the city center. 
We nearly always arrived in the midst of a power failure. We would creep up the large stairway that wound round the inner walls of the house in complete darkness, my husband carrying a bottle of Old Monk while I tried not to trip on my sari.   
Fluorescent tubes lit up the flat, while ceiling fans rotated weakly, both powered by an assemblage of car batteries wired to switch on during 'load shedding.' There was nothing more dispiriting than the sound of a ceiling fan over your bed stopping in the middle of the night when the batteries finally expired. The mosquito net would heave a final sigh before settling on you like a collapsed lung.
Tarapadababu cut a striking figure. His bloodshot eyes were banded in a darker pigment of skin, lending him a distinct raccoon-like appearance. Most prominent was his belly, which preceded him by some distance, particularly when his dhoti's knot rested atop it, giving his figure a senatorial fullness. He had a bullet head set upon prominent jowls and no discernable neck. Unexpectedly, he vibrated with energy and would periodically explode in barrel-chested laughter. Allen Ginsberg called him 'The Torpedo'. The evenings at his house were spent smoking Gold Flake cigarettes, and drinking tumblers of rum. Both fueled an uninterrupted flow of stories. These stories were apparently funny. My husband would make a weak effort at translation.
When Tarapada spoke English, it came out in short, hoarse bursts not unlike gunfire. The last words were nearly always unintelligible, and I would have to ask him to repeat himself, which naturally exasperated him. Similarly, if I risked a question, I could never tell if Tarapada understood a word of what I was saying. His blank stare signaled either incomprehension, or bored hostility. I could never tell which.  
Mostly I just sat there, resigned to counting my mosquito bites and making minute adjustments to the folds in my sari. At about 11 or 12 at night, Tarapada would send out for khadi rolls from the Astor Hotel. The cylindrical rolls, filled with spiced chicken and tiny green rings of hot peppers, arrived warm, with grease lightly flecking the waxy paper. Their arrival signaled the close of Tarapada's evening and the highlight of mine.
A year before the first Gulf war, I imagined that the pro Soviet/anti Americanism of the Bengalis was more of a salutary practice than a firm conviction, not unlike choosing low fat milk over whole. 
Once, at a dinner party, someone characterised the recent fall of the Berlin wall as a CIA coup. "You can't be serious," I said. This was a mistake. Other equally inane remarks of mine would end up in the newspaper accompanied by a snarky comment. I never got used to this. One evening at Tarapada's, he suddenly turned and spoke to me. He told me that he had known Allen Ginsberg and that he and Allen. Again, the tail end of the reminiscence was lost in an explosion of fearful glottal sounds finishing in a deadly quiet. I smiled and Tarapada glared.
I had met Allen Ginsberg several years before. He was smaller than I had imagined; his stature lost in the cushions of an off white sectional sofa at an upper west side cocktail party. The once full beard was trim and graying, and there were suede patches on the elbows of his jacket.  He carried the weight of his fame lightly, with none of the affectations the young are so quick to disparage. 
He had kind eyes one slightly drooping from an illness we had all heard about behind thick spectacles. I came with several friends, all in our mid twenties, freelancers and junior editors with inchoate aspirations. One friend, a darkly beautiful poet with a voice so fast and low you were obliged to lean close to hear him, approached the couch with the same confidence, I recall thinking, a pretty young woman displays in the presence of an older, moneyed man. Yet that evening, Ginsberg only had eyes for an unknown writer from Calcutta. Patting the sofa, he drew him in from a far corner.
Three years later, settled in a city I never once imagined I would even visit, I realised that it was comforting to be reminded that Allen Ginsberg had preceded me. That he had braved the worst suspicions of an entire cadre of skeptical, wary, and fierce Bengali poets, and had disarmed them and learned from them. That he was able to prove he was not a CIA agent.
In the end, Tarapada and his friends decided he was one of them: a poet in a city full of poets. I could tell that even after thirty years, Allen Ginsberg still had a claim on Tarapadababu's affections, and by telling me of this friendship, Tarapada was opening a door. This was the germ of this book. 

Deborah Baker

Pulitzer Prize finalist Deborah Baker is the author of the recently published A Blue Hand: The Beats in India. The writer Tarapada Roy featured in this first person narrative died in August 2007. Deborah Baker was born in Charlottesville, Virginia and educated at the University of Virginia and Cambridge. In 1990 she left New York City, where she had been working as a book editor, and moved to Calcutta for two years. While there she studied Bengali at the Ramakrishna Mission and wrote a literary biography. In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding (Grove, Hamish Hamilton, 1994) was short listed for the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles and essays have appeared in a range of publications, from The New York Times to The Calcutta Statesmen. For the past 18 years she has returned to Calcutta every summer and traveled extensively throughout South Asia. Married to the novelist Amitav Ghosh, she divides her time between homes in Calcutta, Goa and Brooklyn.