Bengal, the second day

Day 2 Bengal, Saturday, 24 December

07.45 Indian time, 03.15 Swedish time

Awake bright and early and I don’t feel much affected by the change of time zone. a couple of dips yesterday when I slept for an hour or so at odd times but that was all. West to east usually bothers me more but not this time, perhaps because my body is used to being called into action at odd times.

No stirring of life from the household yet, apart from a chicken cacophony, leading me to peer out of the window, wondering derring-do was required, unarmed combat against a Bengali fox (or worse a snake, whose breakfast I would hesitate to disturb).

Otherwise, nature doesn’t feel threatening although as always in India, I stick to my own revir and don’t beat about the bush. I sleep under a mosquito net, although I have hardly seen any frustrated bloodsuckers entangled in the net. It’s dengue fever rather than malaria, which threatens here.

I spent my favourite morning hours on the veranda yesterday, watching a stork picking its way through the greenery. I felt euphorically relaxed, released from the half-conscious strain of holding a hostile climate at bay. It’s milder than it was last time I was here in the winter, the temperature touching the mid-20s on my day of arrival. It feels strange to abandon my dressing the onion morning routine of layer upon layer, feeling half naked in just a shirt and trousers.

I love these quiet morning hours, even the seven cats associated with the house are quiet, not trying to impress me with tales of woe about not having been fed for months. I have become friends with a sleek black lady boss cat, new since my last visit, very aimable with humans, who won my heart by curling up beside me during one of my cat naps, but who is evidently not to be trifled with in matters of the allocation of space around the food dish.

I am being careful to keep the nature romantic on a tight leash and sit bolt upright at the dining room table instead of trying to be at one with the world on the veranda. After my weeks of preparation, I am looking forward to uninterrupted reading but will wait until Christmas has passed before making a plan of what I want to achieve.

This morning I started the day by skimming an article on Ukraine in the latest NLR, by Volodymyr Ischeno on what it means to decolonize Ukraine, the regime obliterating everything Russian and discussing western dreams of further dismemberment of Russia a la Austro-Hungary.

A brave person although I didn’t grasp the writer’s calls to action. I will read it again more slowly later.

My current reading is Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s “The Final Question”. He lived from 1876 to 1938 and wrote this novel, Shesh Prashna, the Final Question, one of his later works. Unlike his earlier works, where any social criticism is integrated into the plot (similar to say Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles), this is a “dialectical novel”, a category quite clear but which I haven’t used before. It’s set in the Bengali community in Agra (outside Bengal) and consists mainly of a series of dialogues with the “heroine” Karmal who, according to the back cover blurb “is exceptional for her time. She lives and travels by herself, has relationships with various men,,,,and asserts the autonomy of the individual being in the process”, this through the prism of translators at the English literature department of a Bengali university. I should like to find a newspaper and read reviews from the time it was written (it considerably upset more traditionally minded Bengalis). I’m curious about the title “the Final Question” and wonder whether it exactly reflects the Bengali.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a letter of recommendation. I could probably access the material anyway but don’t want to intensify my memory of the library official, too kindly to prohibit access to an evidently harmless silvertop but agonised over breaking the rules, and who hovered curiously and uncertaínly by my elbow as I traced the fate of a nineteenth century Swedish missionary in Bengal (outside my core field of interests but quirky enough to get me to spend an hour or two tracking his career in the sources).

I shall try to get to Chattopadhyay’s birthplace about 20 miles north of Kolkata. You can get almost the whole way by train, it’s probably doable as it’s on a main line. Hopefully there will be an exhibition at his house and perhaps people to talk to who know about him.

I’m reading his book very slowly now and following up all the unfamiliar or half familiar references, getting to know more about Bengali culture in much the same way as a bird extricates a half buried worm, finding an end to pull on and seeing what it brings me, checking the exact meaning of “begum”, wondering who the Jats were/are, reading about the now partly dead Yamona river, and thinking about the relationship between Brahmins and the various “branches” of Hinduism as well as following the dialectic.

I want to restart my studies in the Bengali language too, which were making satisfactory but slow progress until squeezed out in my short period in Sweden.

Now I shall attempt to make myself a cup of coffee, which sounds banal but which involves controlling myself so that I don’t get overwhelmed by the Bengali kitchen. It’s been pedagogically explained to me a couple of times and I think I should be able to drag myself over the threshold. On previous occasions, I’ve felt uncomfortably passive in the kitchen, unable to quietly integrate myself in what’s happening as other members of my extended family do. But I’ve lived in Sweden too long not to feel like a cuckoo opening my beak and saying “feed me” as I sit at the table with my books, not oblivious to my surroundings. But my host who knows me well has a plan to teach me to make dal, which would be of great value to me (even at home) with my increasing distaste for meat. It’s sufficiently limited to prevent me being overpowered by the new. Whether my hosts think it was such a good idea when I start getting confident and producing wilder and more unconventional “dal” for days on end remains to be seen…..

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