The Howrah Mail

View from Howrah Hotel

FROM The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

I SAW HIM at Madras Central, near the Howrah Mail, and, from the hesitant way he was standing, he looked as if he were working up the courage to board. His long hair hung like rags in the heat; his clothes were much washed and faded to pastel colours. His suitcase, a canvas affair, repeated his worn appearance and was bursting at the seams. He was a man, perhaps English, in his early thirties, for whom, I guessed, travel had become an exhausting routine: travel can be an addiction and can change the physique, like drugs, to stringy leanness. A beggar was bent beside him, coughing. The young man, paying no attention to the outstretched hand, continued to stare at the train. I avoided him. The trip to Calcutta was too long to begin making friends so soon. I noticed that when he picked up his bag to board he passed a coin to the beggar. He did it without looking at the coughing man, with embarrassed obedience, like handing over a small admission charge.

My taxi driver had been helpful. He had carried my bag, found me bedding, located my berth, and arranged for me to have a spoon included with my meals. He was about to go. I gave him five rupees – too much. He decided to stay, like an anxious bearer with nothing to bear.

‘You have money?’

I told him I did.

‘Be careful,’ he said. ‘Indians no good. They take from your pockets.’

He showed me how to lock the compartment. He glanced around, scowling at the Indians who passed down the corridor. He told me repeatedly to be careful, and he continued warning me in this vein for so long that I began to believe that my trip up the neck of Andhra Pradesh and through Orissa to Bengal was fraught with danger. Perhaps those bandy-legged Madrasis, spitting betel juice through the windows, were waiting for this man to leave so that they could pounce. And when the driver did leave I felt peculiarly exposed, vulnerable to attack. Most of the time I remained happily alone in my corner seat, and only at moments like this, when a casually met person helped me and passed on, did I feel the absence of his attention. The assisting stranger in India served only to erode my competence: his presence made me a sahib; his presence turned me into a child.

But I was glad to be moving. It was the feeling I’d had on the Direct-Orient Express, on the Frontier Mail, on the Grand Trunk Express: the size, the great length of the train, was a comfort. The bigger the train, the longer the journey, the happier I was – none of the temporary suspense produced by the annoying awareness of the local train’s spots of time. On the long trips I seldom watched the stations pass – the progress of the train didn’t interest me very much. I had learned to become a resident of the express, and I preferred to travel for two or three days, reading, eating in the dining car, sleeping after lunch, and bringing my journal up to date in the early evening before having my first drink and deciding where we were on my map. Train travel animated my imagination and usually gave me the solitude to order and write my thoughts: I travelled easily in two directions, along the level rails while Asia flashed changes at the window, and at the interior rim of a private world of memory and language. I cannot imagine a luckier combination.

On my way to the dining car I saw the young man hunched at the window in the passage outside his compartment, breathing the hot dark air. ‘You won’t find much up there,’ he said as I squeezed past. I nodded, and we exchanged the glance of tolerant recognition common to solitary travellers meeting on long-distance trains. I had dinner – the vegetarian special I’d accustomed myself to – and going back I saw the fellow again in the same place. This time, he appeared to be waiting for me. He made no immediate effort to move. He said, ‘How was it?’

‘The usual. I don’t mind – I’m a vegetarian.’

‘It’s not that. It’s the way they eat. It runs down their arms. Puts me off my food. Did you ever see them preparing it? They kick it around, step on it, cough on it. Still, maybe you’ll be lucky.’

We talked about the food; he had brought his own. Then he said, ‘I saw you in Madras, with that bearer. What a hole. Calcutta’s worse. Ever been there?’

I said I hadn’t.

‘Maybe you like that sort of thing. I think it’s a ghastly place.’ He took a last puff of his cigarette and flipped it out the window, the sparks scattering in the dark. ‘Everywhere you look. Horrible.’

An Indian girl was coming towards us. I could have used her approach as an opportunity to pass on, but I waited and we both stepped aside to let her go by. She lowered her eyes and glided along. She had delicate shoulders, dry dusted cheeks, and gleaming hair, and she smelled of some small sweetness like that of a single crushed flower.

‘Pretty girl.’

‘They turn me off,’ he said. ‘You don’t believe me.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I had an Indian girlfriend – prettier than her. That’s why I’m going to Calcutta.’

Is she there?’

‘She’s in Bangalore. Ever been there? It’s not too bad, but I’m glad to be away from it – I mean, from her. Am I keeping you?’

it’s still early.’ So he was fleeing the girl. I wondered why, but I wanted a simple answer. He invited me into his compartment to tell me. Most men, alone, stay up late, lamenting the absence of women. He gave me a shot of Indian gin. It stung my lips but tasted like nothing at all.

He said: ‘She was the daughter of a man I had to see. I don’t know about you, but the first time I came to India I more or less ignored Indian girls. Yes, I found them pretty, but the funny thing about a woman’s beauty is that if you’re absolutely sure you can’t go to bed with her you begin to notice something calculated in her prettiness. I mean, her beauty is completely ineffectual. So she looks plainer, and gets uninteresting until she’s invisible. If she has a good figure you see her as sinister rather than just plain, waiting for you to make a move that’ll land you in jail. You can really develop a hate for these Indian women with their good looks and their useless virtue. That’s why I prefer Muslim countries. They cover up their women and they don’t make any bones about it. No one would be silly enough to tamper with a woman wearing one of those veils. It’s unthinkable. I mean, they don’t even look like women – they look like furniture covered up to keep the dust off. Veils are supposed to be sexy. Veils aren’t sexy – what’s sexy about something four feet high with a sheet over it?

‘That’s how I felt about Indian girls. They were so unapproachable they might as well have had sheets over their heads. The prettier they were the farther away I stayed. I wasn’t interested because I knew they weren’t. You see what I mean? I stopped noticing them. I barely noticed the daughter of this man I had to see. She was padding back and forth, bringing food, tea, the family album, doing the Indian thing. Their name was Bapna, and when the old man left the room the girl spoke up for the first time, asked me where I was staying. I told her.

‘It was about three-thirty in the afternoon. The old man came back. He seemed a bit nervous, but finally got to the point. He said if I was going back to the hotel would I be kind enough to give Primila and her friend a lift? They were going to a film, but it was a long bus ride and they might not get there in time.

‘I said I’d be glad to. The houseboy went and found a taxi. While we were driving into the city, Primila and her friend were talking to the driver, giving him directions and sort of arguing with him about the best route. I said, “Are you school chums?” This made them giggle and pull their saris over their mouths. They were each twenty-two and embarrassed to be mistaken for schoolgirls.

‘Then the taxi stopped. The friend got out and Primila and I drove away. “Where’s this film of yours?” I said. She said it was near my hotel. I asked her what time it started. “It runs all day.”

‘I was just making conversation, and I found that after a few minutes I was talking about a painting I’d bought from a dealer the previous day, a fairly good one, Lakshmi and Vishnu intertwined on a lotus blossom. Primila was so quiet, I became quite talkative. It happens – a person’s reticence makes me talk an awful lot, kind of compensating.

‘At the hotel I said, “I hope you don’t have far to walk.” She said the cinema was right around the corner. I asked her if she had ever been in the hotel before and when she said not I felt sorry for her, as if she’d been excluded from the place because she didn’t have the money. I said, “Want to look it over?” She said yes. We went in. I showed her the restaurants and bars, the newsstand, the curio shop where I’d bought my painting. She was quite interested, walking beside me, taking it all in like a person in a museum.

‘What I think I should have told you first is that about six months ago I was in Madras. I had some time to kill, so one afternoon I visited a palmist, Swami Sundram. He was a leathery old man and his house in Mylapore didn’t have the usual charts and religious pictures and not even many cushions. He sat at a roll-top desk with a pencil and a piece of paper, in a kind of library stacked with mouldy books. He looked at my palm, line by line, then did a diagram on the paper and made notes, circling and underlining them as he went along. He didn’t say a word for ten minutes or so, though he often paused as he was writing to press his forehead, like a person trying to remember something.

‘Finally, he said, “You have been very sick, pains in the stomach, muscle pains, and trouble passing motion.” I almost laughed -1 mean, you don’t have to be a palmist to tell someone in India he’s had stomach trouble. He told me one or two other things, but I said, “Look, I know what’s happened to me – what I want to know is what’s going to happen.”

‘He said, “I see an Indian girl. Classical face, maybe a dancer. You are alone with her.”

‘”Is that all?” I said.

‘ “Not all,” he said. “I see her dancing for you.”

‘Well, naturally, I thought of what Swami Sundram had said when I was with Primila at the hotel. I asked her if she was a dancer, and she said no. Then out on the verandah she said, “I used to do classical dancing when I was younger, if that’s what you mean. But all Indian girls do that.” I suggested tea. She said yes. I said we could have a drink instead. She said “As you say.” I ordered a gin and tonic. She said she wanted rum. I couldn’t believe it. “Real rum?” I said. She giggled, like in the taxi, but didn’t change her mind. When our drinks came we touched glasses and she went silent again.

‘I was barely conscious of talking about my painting, but there wasn’t very much to talk about, and I found I was having trouble describing the thing. Several times, I said, “You should see it.” She said, “I’d like to,” and that annoyed me because it meant I’d have to go upstairs, dig it out, and bring it down. It was in a sealed wrapper because of the dust. I was sorry I’d mentioned it – I’d only done it to keep the conversation going. I could have been having a nice drink alone – relaxing. I need to be alone after seeing people, sort of put myself back together. Lunch with old Bapna had tired me out. I didn’t say anything more.

‘ “Do you have it with you?” she said. I told her it was upstairs and I felt as if I was getting into a corner because I couldn’t refuse to show her. “Would you like to see it?” “Very much,” she said. I said all right, but that it would be a lot easier if she came upstairs. She said fine. “When you finish your drink,” I said. But she had finished her drink. I gulped mine down and we went upstairs. In the room she said, “I hate air conditioners.” I gave the thing a kick and it shut off.

‘We looked at the painting, sitting on the bed – it was the only place to sit – and as she pointed out what was good about it, how the figures were so well done, she reached over and picked it up from my lap. Has a girl ever lifted something from your lap? It gave me a thrill -I felt a surprising voltage in my groin from the light pressure of her hand.

‘She showed me a detail of the picture, and when I looked closer I took her hand, and from the way she let me hold her hand I knew I could kiss her. They don’t show kissing in Indian films. I know why. Because in India there is no such intimacy as a kiss that is not followed by a screw. A tiny particle of affection in India stands for passion, but what amazed me was that the whole thing was her idea, not mine. I had gone to the room with her against my will!

‘I kissed her, and I was so surprised by her eagerness I practically fainted with excitement. I was really happy, and that sort of glee goes against the sex urge, but glee is more temporary than sex, and in a minute or so I was on her. She stayed for about two hours.

Paul Theroux

‘The effect of this on me was incredible, like a conversion. Every woman I saw after that was attractive, and I saw each one as a possible lay. They really turned me on – I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I saw them as coy, clever, geniuses of sexuality who had managed to disguise it all with that busy efficiency Indian women have. I was so assured by what I knew, I didn’t bother to make a pass at any of them. But most of all I began to see some sense in what Swami Sundram had said: “She will dance for you.” Obviously Primila was the girl he meant. I saw her a few more times and I really fell for her – I think even old Bapna suspected something was going on because he asked me a lot of questions about my family, and what sort of work did I do, and what were my plans? Primila talked a lot about leaving India and one day she turned up in a blouse and slacks. She looked insolent in Western clothes, but, as I say, I was beginning to love her and I imagined having one of those fantastic Indian weddings. Primila said she had always wanted to go to England – she had read so much about it, that sort of thing. I could see what was happening.

‘Swami Sundram predicted it, I suppose, so the next chance I got I went to Madras, and to be absolutely sure he wouldn’t recognize me I shaved off my beard and wore different clothes. This time I had to wait outside his house until he finished with another customer, and when I got inside he went through the same business of the diagrams and the notes. I didn’t let on that I’d been there before. Then he said, “Head pains. I see many head pains, something like headache.” I told him to go on. “You are expecting an important letter,” he said. He pressed his temples. “You will receive this letter soon.” I asked him if that was all. “No,” he said, “you have a large mole on your penis.” “No, I don’t,” I said. But he stuck to his story. He said, “You most certainly do.” It amazed me that he should keep telling me that I had a mole on my penis while I was denying it and could even prove how wrong he was. He seemed rather irritated that I should contradict him. I paid him and left.

‘That was yesterday. I didn’t go back to Bangalore. I bought a ticket to Calcutta. I’m leaving – flying to Bangkok. If I hadn’t seen that Swami I might be married now, or at least betrothed – it’s the same thing. She was a nice girl, but I must have bad karma, and I don’t have a mole on my penis. I looked.

‘Pass the bottle,’ he said. He took a swig and said, ‘Never go back to a palmist.’

❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅

Paul Theroux photo by William Furniss
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Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 3:50 PM  Leave a Comment  
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