Saturday, May 07, 2005
Kafka Moment #3
It’s been one of those phases when people want me to “speak”, on anything from industrial resurgence to ethics in advertising. (The latter gave me an opportunity to expound on the common occurrence of Googling for Angelina Jolie. Don’t ask.)
Doordarshan (India’s state-owned television channel - I explain merely for the benefit of the teeming millions of non-Indians who visit this site …) wanted me to make up the numbers for a “panel discussion”. On the prospects of the sponge iron industry in West Bengal. Riveting stuff. Should have the viewers welded to their seats. Chance to prove my metal. Yes, well, where was I?
In the cavernous innards of Doordarshan Kendra, Kolkata, actually. I had to negotiate my way through a series of half-hearted barriers. There was a gate wide enough for a carnival float to drive though, but of course it was shut. Entry was through a tiny gate off to one side, then into a hut that evoked déjà vu. I’d last seen it in “The Dirty Dozen”. Donald Sutherland hit his thumb with a hammer building it.
A large middle-aged lady who had more lipstick than good taste asked me why I was there. Beside her, an alarmingly frank gentleman who lacked two buttons on his shirt scratched his intimate regions with obvious enjoyment. Beside him, another man sat in the manner of Borneo’s “man of the jungle”, gravely contemplating his nether regions where his hands cradled his manhood. Neither of them displayed the slightest interest in the proceedings.
Having convinced the Lady with Lipstick that I was not an arsonist or a carrier of the plague, I filtered through to the main lobby. As I left Sutherland’s Folly, the Large Lump of Lipstick fished a smelly substance from beneath her table and bit into it. With a loud squishy champy sound. I held my breath and speeded my exit.
The lobby was dusty and large. Very large. At first glance it seemed to cover the better part of an acre. What with the dust and the distance, I had this vision of Peter O’ Toole and Omar Sharif, canteens held aloft and eyes crinkled, riding out of the far corner.
“Turn left”. Through a door-less frame, past a glass-and-plyboard enclosure where a step-ladder reached into a hole in the false ceiling, down a corridor with finger-prints on walls of indeterminate colour, “through the door we never opened / Into the rose-garden / ‘Quick’, said the bird …”
Corridors stretched to right and left, corridors filled with an echoing silence, with the smell of years of “Polli Kotha” and “Chiching Phaank” and timorous sarengi recitals and “High-Power Transmitters will now de-link for the News”, ominous with the threat of po-faced doctors holding forth on skin diseases or juvenile hysteria.
For some time I “wandered lonely as a cloud”. In that strange place, where dreams seeped into reality and no human voice intruded, I walked what seemed like miles, up one echoing dark expanse and down another. Mid-way down one stretch I had the feeling of being observed. A wary glance over my shoulder spied nothing, till I lifted my gaze and saw It, “perched above a shelf above a frame above a door”. No, not the Raven, but a bearded brown bust that regarded me gloomily.
In Bengal, the default option for bearded busts is Rabindranath. (Tay-gore, for the academically inclined) This one looked more like Alan Rickman about to ask for an aspirin. I passed on before it could clear its throat and broach the issue …Eventually, I wearied of my Long March and started to retrace my steps. Then came the Apparition.
Round a corner it came, with short rapid jerky steps reminiscent of the Egyptian Walk of the ‘80s. Brown trousers and a shirt of a violet hue so virulent as to be actually audible, blue-strapped “Hawaii” sandals that slapped on the dusty tiled floor. At the other end, thick-framed glasses perched on a nose like the Raven’s beak, Adam’s apple jerking convulsively from the strain of concentration. He looked not to right or left. I might have been a formless wraith for all the attention I got.
One arm swung vigorously at his side as he marched forth. The other was held up in a S-curve, ending in outstretched hand, palm upward. Balanced on the palm, saucer, one brown ugly. Balanced on the saucer, pantua (gulab jamun in the rest of India), three numbers …
Violet shirt and the slap-slap of Hawaii sandals receded into the gloom. With the pantua. I resumed my trek to the nearest outpost of civilisation.