Natural Learning

John Murray

Logan stood outside the shop which looked like an English funeral parlour, black-painted and all its contents invisible. On the window was inscribed in English in impressive calligraphy LEGAL OPIUM AND GANJA SHOP FOR HOLY MEN. It lay along one of those relatively deserted back streets of central Calcutta, the only wayfarers being the trams and the cadaverous dogs who roamed like wolves in their desperate packs.

This city was certainly an assault on his European nervous system, one both hypnotic and surreal. One minute he was struck by something, some sight or some person colourfully exaggerated, the next by a starkness of miserable humanity so stark, so very miserable, it refused at all to sink in. It stayed on as some bizarre cartoon impression, some graphic, thoroughly unreal stroke of impersonal, affectless design. It so happened that the sight of starvation – especially in children – made Logan crave absurd palliatives like sweets, ice-creams and cakes for himself. He was for ever stopping at those little cigarette stalls to purchase half a dozen boiled sweets, all of which he would swallow within five minutes or so ...

The streets were black and dingy, factories or warehouses they seemed to be composed of, though there was no noise of industry nor population. It was a problem what exactly constituted these streets where only cur packs and speeding trams would roam. Almost as problematic as the errand Logan was engaged in: to wit, to find himself a primer on Bengali. He had got it into his head that he wanted to learn the language of Calcutta and someone somewhere on his travels had recommended a particular text, Sahaj Path, used by Bengalis themselves to teach their infant children. Logan wanted that particular primer and no other. Yet that primer was not to be had. He had been to about six bookshops already and on his way had picked up plenty of second-hand novels in English: Lolita; The Genius and the Goddess (an Indian reprint of the English pundit who had written so sympathetically of matters Indian ...); a fiction by Koestler about a man who had psychically lost the use of his legs ... plenty of English literature in fact, but no sign at all of Sahaj Path.

He decided to return the way he’d come and was just about to take a right turning for a central and spacious avenue, when he bumped headlong into a hustler.

The startled hustler held some thin, colourful necklaces in his hands. He was short, skinny, about twenty-five – meaning middle-aged by street standards – thinly-moustached and almost good-looking. His eyes lit up when they beheld the shy and hungry-looking Logan. At once he seemed to sense Englishness, youth, lack of firm direction, interest in the more selfish personal satisfactions.

‘Sahib, you like some jewels, sir?’

He waved the absurd necklaces before Logan’s eyes. They were garish, tawdry baubles, worth nothing as far as an amateur like Logan could guess. Why on earth would Logan be supposed to want those pathetic, pitiable things?

He shook his head politely and moved on. The hustler moved swiftly backwards and improvised other possibilities.

‘Cigarettes? Very cheap cigarettes? Hashish? Hashish that is not too costly?’

Logan again shook his head and kept on walking. The little man, however, would not give way.

‘Opium? Heroin? Heroin that is not over-costly?’

Logan made no reply. But he was beginning to feel greatly irritated.

‘A woman? You would like a lady, a young, curvy lady, a very young lady, or a very old madam perhaps for sahib?’

‘Sh ...’ began Logan, giving the skinny little man a bit of a push.

‘A man? A boy? A little boy? Who is not very costly?’

‘Oh – bugger off!’ shouted Logan fiercely. That stopped the hustler. His face fell and he looked genuinely grieved. He pointed at Logan and said beseechingly: ‘Sahib, that is no way to speak to me! That is no way to speak to anyone, words like that!’

Logan grunted and hurried on. But the little man’s words gradually sank in and he began to feel ashamed of himself. He felt shame that he was like every other young European dawdling and tramping around Indian cities. After a few weeks of the ceaseless begging, pestering, chasing by the poor-poor, the rich-poor, the starving hustlers, the cracked astrologers, the dealers in drugs, sex, jewellery, temple idols – everything short of cow dung itself – the young travellers all became rude, often self-indulgently scornful. They pushed beggars out of the way, like ancient feudal squires. All of them young and liberal, some politically radical, all compassionate under comfortable domestic circumstances, yet somehow the fierce heat and the sheer population encountered in large Indian cities ... all this was enough to make them as peevish and tyrannical as the haughtiest in creation.

He passed a penniless family living on a scrap of mat on the pavement. That scrap of mat was their permanent address, a freehold property so to say. They didn’t even bother to beg. They were all asleep, enjoying the poor man’s, woman’s, child’s luxurious solace. They were lain outside a dairy, which sold fresh milk for saried middle-class housewives, as well as chocolate milk for special occasions. Logan hesitated over whether to leave some rupees on the mat. He hesitated so long he ended up feeling foolish and then moved on away leaving nothing. Meanwhile he was looking for copies of his Bengali primer. Then he would be able to tell hustlers to go to the devil in their own tongue. Turning to take a guilty look back at the family on its mat, he bumped into someone, a someone who seemed at that bump sharply to retract and mumble in a man’s voice something strange. Logan turned to apologise ...

But instead cried out ...

Because the man’s face was half eaten-away. It was like a maggoted cheese, exactly so. What should have been a face was like some crumbled Gorgonzola. Yet it was a man. It was a leper. Logan was flooded by the streams from his adrenals. He dived into his pockets and within two seconds had a five-rupees dropped into the outstretched hand of the leper. The hand – he only flashed his eyes upon it – was a leper’s hand, it wasn’t one needing a half-hour manicure.

‘Sahib,’ whimpered the Gorgonzola.

‘I’m sorry,’ gasped Logan, speeding on for his Sahaj Path, almost wanting to weep as a matter of fact, though not specifically for the young leper ...

He stopped several hundred yards on and tremblingly lit himself a Shiv Biri, a rolled tobacco leaf, costing one rupee for a fat pack of fifty. It was nearing lunchtime and he realised he was extraordinarily hungry. He wanted a fried lamb cutlet, potato chips, tomato sauce and an ice-cream for his sweet. And some coffee, some comforting European coffee. He looked about for a suitable restaurant. And just then, as his eyes alighted on one, a skinny little waif of a man approached him.

Logan groaned to himself and flinched. Every approach from every poor-looking Indian was by now a cause of flinching. Such an attitude was shameful – yet why should he disguise it? And yet ... this one ... this little man did not make Logan as distrustful as he might have. This was largely because the little man looked harassed, seemed worried, and because underneath that worry was a basic integrity of expression, something one might have called a simple honesty. He looked like he had a problem, like a hundred million or so other desperate Indians. And Logan moreover felt quite simply and unself-consciously as if he was responsible for all of them, that it was he and his like who had caused all these problems. It was no reasoned political nor sociological analysis had led to this, it was no more than his naivest egotistical instincts.

‘How are you?’ began the runty little man in a capable English pronunciation. His face was thin, anxious and sincere, his eyes gentle, his body undernourished and feeble-looking. He spoke in a simple brotherly way to the tourist. ‘You seem to have some problem. Are you looking for something?’

Logan warily explained that he was searching for a restaurant. Eyeing up the little Indian, the Englishman decided he must be some minor clerk, some small-time teacher or petty official in temporary distress. He was most likely in his middle to late thirties. The little man evidently had a cough, not a violent racking cough, but one persistent and slight. He wore a striped, dowdy-looking shirt and a pair of equally dowdy trousers. He looked both desperate and somehow available, someone stood there to help or otherwise engage a rather directionless European like Logan.

They conversed. The Indian, whose name was George and who was a Christian, immediately desired to help Logan in his search for the Bengali primer. The Englishman did not particularly desire any company, but on the other hand he hadn’t the heart to refuse such an unselfish offer. Yet – he was still ravenously hungry. Therefore, he compromised, by offering George some lunch in the nearby café.

‘I’m afraid I haven’t the money,’ said George.

‘No,’ explained Logan gently. ‘I’m asking you to lunch, Mr Gokhale.’

They entered the café, a striking-looking pair. Inside it was chock-full, but they managed to find themselves a little corner table. Some of the customers looked rather curiously not to say intently at the spectacle of George Gokhale. This was a café frequented by the better-off class of clerk and teacher, the lower-middle-class of Calcutta, those who daily cultivate a specialised taste for such European commonplaces as chipped potatoes and bottled tomato sauce ...

Gokhale with great nervousness ordered a dish identical to Logan’s. His body was bent towards the table, as if he had no right to be there. He looked pained. Logan on the other hand felt defiant and stared back at the other customers as aggressively as he could. Which was a waste of time. Staring has a different, unintelligible language in the East. Our psychologists of eye-contact would have all their graphs made skew in a Calcutta café.

The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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