Steel Notes Magazine Spring 2017 - Page 80

Steel Notes Magazine Spring 2017 Journey to India Chapter 7: CALCUTTA Rex Maurice Oppenheimer Full of adrenaline after the miraculous recovery of all my money, visas and passport, which had been stolen a couple of hours be- fore I had gotten on the train in Bombay, I was settling in for the two day train ride to Calcutta. I was as usual in second-class sleeper, smoking hash mixed with tobacco, as India flashed past my window. The myriad manners, castes and faces of my fellow travelers provided a mix of language, dress and countenance that calmed the rolling carriage as it rocked along like India’s beating heart. Excited to be on the move again, heading toward the legendary city of Calcutta, I was also a bit sad knowing that my visa would soon be expiring and I’d have to leave India for six months before I could reenter. With all its difficulties, dirt and squalor, India had been a salve for my soul. There were times on these dusty roads, or cramped in the back of some public transport, or strolling through the vibrant streets, that I felt as though I was living a dream. Life as a traveler suited me. I was independent enough that I could enjoy traveling alone, yet personable enough that I had no problem meeting and forming relationships with people I met, and chameleon enough to survive among both bankers and bank robbers with equal aplomb. I wasn’t alone. There were many others like me. The hippie trail across Asia was full of vagabonds held captive by the same illusions. There were also plenty of characters with illustrious pasts gone dim, or shady pasts well concealed. From smugglers to terrorists, merce- naries to embezzlers, drug dealers to disgraced diplomats, the Asian backstreets offered a route of escape, and it offered me the perfect blend of fantasy and reality. I was a child of the Sixties imbued with a reckless pursuit of freedom and pleasure, yet crippled by the delusion of escaping the very real demands of history, human nature and discipline. Among the dusty roads and primitive structures, the third-world economy and exotic, gypsy-like ways of dressing, I felt free. Dancing a hedonistic waltz along the razor’s edge of pleasure and pain. Calcutta was for me a turning point: I had to leave India, and I got married for the first time. A beautiful Indian woman I’d met on the train from Bombay had recommended a hotel in Calcutta called The Modern Lodge, and that’s where I headed. The streets had gotten narrow, full of people dressed in lungis and dhotis, a rickshaw or two passing by, boys sell- ing the leaf-wrapped mixture of betel nut and spices, called pan, from improvised roadside stalls, as I turned the corner and approached the Modern Lodge. There was a woman, a Westerner, with very light skin and long, dark hair, just coming out. The touts outside had said that the Modern Lodge was full, but they always said stuff like that so they could lead you to where they could get a commission. But the man in the hotel responded to my inquiry with that Indian sideways head nod, “no rooms,” he said. As I exited the hotel I saw the woman talking to the touts in an Indian language I didn’t understand. “What language are you speaking?” I asked her. “Bengali,” she said, adding, “They say there are rooms at the Evergreen, but they’re 60 rupees.” 80 Steel Notes Magazine