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.

‘Where do you work, Mr Gokhale?’ Logan asked him, rather irritated by the situation already. ‘Are you ... a teacher?’

Gokhale shook his head, a little wearily. He held a single chipped potato at wary arm’s length. ‘No. No, I am not a teacher. I earn only odds and ends, Mr Logan. Only bits and pieces, that is to say. I mean that I do casual jobs and live very poorly. Sometimes – last week – I had a job for so many days, but other times I have no job at all. Sometimes I have some clerical work with a carpet factory. Other times I just stand about because I have no work to do.’

Logan grew sympathetic. ‘Like today?’

Gokhale nodded, with a grimace. At which Logan guiltily mumbled. ‘And starve? You go without food?’

The Indian nodded again. He seemed patiently puzzled, stupefied by his misfortunes. He explained that his home was a square of mat upon a terrace, the balcony of a hotel belonging to a rapacious landlord who let him sleep there for an exorbitant sum. No, he was not married. For who would marry Gokhale with his prospects? And where would he live with his wife? In a dustbin? he asked without self-pity. Still, he continued in mournful singsong manner, what consoled him was his faith, his devotion to Jesus, that gave him firm hope when all else was hopeless. Logan, attentive as he was, wasn’t quite sure whether this dull little man was as convinced as his declaration tried to be. He thought he detected a slight unction in that devotion. Or he might have dreamt it. How would he ever know for certain? ‘Are you a Christian?’ asked Gokhale seriously. ‘Of course you have to be, in one sense, as an Englishman ...’

‘Without faith,’ answered Logan dryly. ‘Just now I bumped into a leper with his face eaten away. I cried out and ran off. I gave him five rupees but I was scared of him. In fact I was terrified. A fine Christian I would make.’

George looked at him curiously. He said with concern that you could get disease from contact with such men. Logan hungrily finished off his meat cutlet and then asked: ‘Is there no state support? I mean can you get no money from the government to stop you from starving?’

Gokhale scowled with patient puzzlement. ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘there is an office, a place in the city centre, where the destitute may queue for their Social Security. You might queue all day. And the next day. And the next day. And so on. After you have waited there ten hours, the clerk will close the window in your face and tell you to come back the day after tomorrow. He wants to go for his tea. He should come back but no he decides not to come back. Also, he laughs very often in your face. The day after tomorrow of course you will not be in the front of the queue again. Then, if by a miracle you finally get your assistance, it is so very small ...’

Logan frowned and felt painfully gloomy. Then, rebelliously, he ordered the pair of them enormous ice-creams, ones six inches high with cream, fruit and chocolate. The garish sweet plainly terrified George Gokhale yet he waded his way bravely through it. As they sipped their coffees, Logan remarked of his sheepish coughing: ‘Are you ill? What is it that makes you cough?’

Gokhale sucked his coffee hungrily. ‘I think tuberculosis,’ he replied uneasily. ‘But I have no money to see the doctor yet. I don’t know. It stops me doing manual work. With manual work I could eat some days. The days I cannot be a clerk, that is.’

Eventually Gokhale went into a whispering, fervent monologue about his Christian faith and about the love and kindness of his fellow devotees: all poor, all desperate, all struggling. At which Logan squirmed and felt greatly embarrassed. To him it seemed thin rubbish, in the face of no-face Gorgonzola and that child sleeping on a square of mat twelve months of every year. Meanwhile, George was timidly pulling out a crumpled letter, one lovingly handled as if it had been a thousand-rupee note. Instead, it turned out to be a beautifully written letter from a girl in Goteborg, a Danish Christian who had met up with Gokhale in Calcutta and had shared some street excursions and conversations with him. It was a devotional letter, a weird, syrupy letter that made Logan squirm, as all evangelical matters did. There were no rough edges to such matters, no jagged contradictions. Helplessly he felt annoyed, even disgusted with George Gokhale. In his boat he would have hustled, stolen, cheated, done something sooner than starve and walk round with that hangdog all-enduring meekness. That at any event was what he thought as he shovelled down the last of his sickly sweetmeat.

After their meal George suggested they walk onto the central boulevard where all the biggest and finest shops abounded. There they would be sure to find some copies of Sahaj Path. And it was just outside the café that they passed a huddle of hard-looking, spiv-looking young men. They must, the tourist supposed, be shop-owners, businessmen of some sort, all of them in their middle-twenties. They all looked fairly healthy and gazed fairly contemptuously at Gokhale. They muttered something in Bengali to George and George looked at them most discomfited. They made obscene gestures at their backsides. Logan scowled. The taunting fools, he thought, who aren’t dying of tuberculosis, who aren’t on their way out quite so quickly. The huddle of men kept up their barrage of insults. Logan turned and gave them two fingers and a string of obscenities. They laughed, much amused. But Gokhale quickly took his arm and said to ignore them.

‘I know them,’ he said worriedly. ‘They are corrupt. They are friendly with the police.’ He pointed to a hotel, a dingy-looking facade nearby. ‘You see that place there? If ever you went to get a room there ...’

‘I did,’ interrupted Logan. ‘Last week I did. And it was full. Five times I went back.’

‘It is no hotel,’ the Indian answered dryly. ‘It is a brothel. Run by those men. It is a brothel especially for the local police force. I do not offend such men or they would set the police on me, Mr Logan.’

The tourist shivered.

‘The police of course can do what they like,’ Gokhale continued glumly. ‘To men and families who live on the street or on terraces of poor hotels. No one seems to notice, Mr Logan, if a few families on their mats just disappear ...’

Logan, horrified, felt his blood blaze up.

‘And how often does it happen? That someone just disappears?’

Gokhale shrugged pacifically. ‘No one would know if it did or not. They have no friends. It is a large city. Full of immigrants without name or number. Do you not see the problem, Mr Logan?’

By now, they were arrived at the grand boulevard. It was wide, broad, imperial, the gift of Logan’s distant ancestors. On the other side was a park, on this side some of the most select of shops in Calcutta. At once they were assailed by about a dozen ragged shoe-cleaners: men, boys and virtual babes. Gokhale gestured and shouted at them but Logan insisted that both of them should have their shoes cleaned. As they stood – the Indian a little embarrassedly, sheepishly – the seven-year-old shoe-cleaner pointed dismissively to the eight cleaners who had been turned away.

‘These fellows are all most ignorant,’ he squeaked with a confident grin. ‘They do not know English as brilliantly as I.’

Logan smiled and pulled the little boy’s ear and gave him twenty rupees, an enormous sum. Gokhale frowningly chided him for giving so much. He led the Englishman into a large impressive bookshop and inquired on his behalf for the Sahaj Path. The pert, officious little salesman pretended that there might be such a text in the back, went off for ten minutes, and then appeared with an armful of alternatives. But no Natural Learning. Logan smiled wryly, determined to have that particular book. He bought himself the complete works of Shakespeare instead and offered to buy Gokhale a book if he wanted. Gokhale demurred, politely. They proceeded therefore to another shop and on the way passed a record store. To Logan’s amazement the sounds of Santana, an American jazz-rock group, were booming forth. Excitedly he pulled Gokhale into the store and together the two of them looked through the hundred or so LPs on display.

‘Electric jazz,’ whispered Logan, in a sort of trance. ‘Look, there’s Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew! In Calcutta ...’

Gokhale, who clearly didn’t understand this astonishment of Logan’s, asked politely about this Mr Miles Davis. He stared in great surprise at the bright and startling psychedelic design on the LP cover.

‘You are so mentally different,’ he concluded very earnestly, ‘from us Indians. You Americans and you English.’

Eventually they stepped back into the sunshine. It was a burning sickly heat, by early afternoon. Without fair warning, Logan then had the shock of his life. For he was met by the apparition of the hacked torso of a child. Just a head and a body. No arms. No legs. Rolling ... like some self-propelling barrel down the pavement. A child with all his limbs removed. A human barrel. And behold he was singing. He was singing very gaily, like a bird. In a sweet, sharp, childish voice.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama ...’

There arose tender coos and wondering oohs from the passers-by. Rich Indians stopped for once and tossed paise coins into a nearby cloth. The little ten-year-old torso rolled backwards and forwards, to and from his stationary radial point, his scrappy little collection cloth.

‘Christ!’ went the blasphemous young Englishman, to the Christian’s obvious pained endurance. Logan stood frozen with the pained imbecility of all gauche Westerners. Yet he hadn’t seen quite all. About five yards off sat an old, old man who also had no legs, yet had kept possession of both his arms. The old man gazed at the barrel-child sulkily. At every paise toss he winced. He was moaning something in just audible Bengali.

‘What is he saying?’ Logan asked Gokhale. ‘What’s that old beggar mumbling there, George?’

‘That the child is a very great nuisance. For all the adult beggars ...’

‘Really? Is that all?’

Gokhale bashfully whispered exactly what the legless old man was saying and Logan smiled in a frozen way. He threw two rupees into the cloth of the barrel-child and then walked over to the old man. He put ten rupees into his empty hands. Then there was an indignant cry to his left, for a window-gazing woman had obscured from sight a second old beggar who had relinquished his two arms but kept both his withered legs. Logan walked over and put another ten rupees into his piece of cloth. He received the Hindu benedictions in silence. For some reason he winked as to a grandfather at that second aged beggar.

‘I spent thirty-five rupees on Shakespeare,’ he explained to tutting Gokhale. ‘Where would he have been without his arms?’

Some joke. In fact he was in a state of shock, combined with a weary fatigue at Gokhale’s dreary company. He could not blink out the sight of that rolling torso of a child. Gokhale explained calmly that such beggars had been thus maimed, from childhood, by their parents, a delicate decision when the alternative was for the family to starve. Logan looked about him at the faces of the stretching row of beggars, some merely, merely blind, or a trifle, trifle hunchbacked ... and on all of them that sad, pained but essentially passive and accepting suffering. He was filled with such hopeless gloom that he felt quite mad and quite light-headed. In fact it was just as he felt ready to sit down on the pavement and start begging himself in some obscure mimetic sympathy, that he caught sight of a luscious, enormous Italian cake shop ...

His comforts! In at once he dragged Gokhale, who watched politely as Mr Logan bought them both massive Italian cream cakes. The friendly young baker smiled at them in an admiring, way and bashfully lamented that his Italian cake shop – he was himself a Bengali – was about to close very soon because of lack of customers. No one knew a good cake from a bad cake these days he grieved. Logan guzzled down his sweetmeat in two seconds flat. Gokhale hesitated, then clumsily spread cream and pastry all over his mouth as he nibbled away at a snail’s pace ...

They left Firpo’s and proceeded further in the railway station direction. To their left was a cinema, a large old imperial-style cinema. Idly Logan stared up at the billboards. Then beheld, to his further stupefaction, the sight of two British household faces, two television stars of weary, childhood, Saturday evening excesses, of television gaping.

‘Roy Castle,’ he mumbled to Gokhale. ‘Roy Castle and Alan Freeman. Starring in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors ...’

It was beyond Gokhale, the tourist’s stiff amazement. Logan explained to him the mad incongruity of coming across an ancient English B-movie, the soundtrack in English and no Bengali subtitles apparently, with film stars of the calibre of these television personalities, these children’s favourites. Gokhale nodded politely but it was plain he misunderstood his friend’s surprise. He imagined that Logan was simply touched to see his own country represented thus in such a distant land. Logan by now felt totally indifferent towards George Gokhale’s problems. He reflected drearily that George would be ready to tag along with him for the rest of his stay in Calcutta and not out of any particular leeching or selfish propensity but simply because it was a way of passing his hopeless and infinitely foreseeable time. Gokhale had four limbs but no one wanted to employ them full-time to any advantage. Gokhale’s heart did not bleed for the limbless beggars. No more than the beggars’ hearts bled for the beggars. Logan made out a Naxalite scrawl in English on a distant wall. That was the forbidden word, those terrible demons, assassins whom the police and government were doing their best to flatten into silence. Logan just didn’t know what to think next when faced by all these parallel and never – converging hopelessnesses. He didn’t know what to think next, never mind what on earth to do next. Should he make yet another search for his Sahaj Path?

Let’s go into the cinema,’ he suggested blindly, ‘to see Dr Terror’s House of Horrors! I want to show you our street performers, Mr Gokhale.’

After some hesitation, George assented. They ascended to the balcony – of a truly English cinema – replete with popcorn and ice-cream. They sat and stared for ninety minutes at one of the worst films ever made. Alan Freeman was attacked by a strangulating plant. Roy Castle was seized by the Haitian voodoo. The well-heeled though rather small audience all gasped with horror at the appropriate moments. The Indians it seemed to Logan had a different sense of horror, as well as of eye-contact. Gokhale was frightened as much as anyone. Logan almost fell asleep. Just as he was about to nod off, the little limbless beggar appeared to his inner eyes, this time singing in a cheeky, cockneyed, English television, light-variety manner.

‘Roll out the barrel
Roll out the barrel ...’

After the film Logan left Gokhale rather sharply, as his company and his evangelical conversation were getting beyond his pitiful patience. He thought Gokhale might have called something after him but he chose to ignore it. He returned to his hotel, a dusty barn of a place on a tenement’s third floor, essentially one very large room containing a dozen bunk beds. At its far right end was the bathroom, the lavatory bowl always choked with faeces as the water was always being cut off at this time of the year. Sprawled on the dozen beds were various young travellers of both sexes: a rather strange Australian girl who slithered into her nightdress with arousing twists and turns of her limbs; a dour, obese, humourless German called Ruprecht who had his massive left arm in a sling. Alone the fat youth had been around the empty wilds of Kashmir on horseback. Recently he had been hotly pursued over a high brick wall by the Indian police, and hence his broken left arm. Also, a friendly and cynical Canadian called Bill, who had not washed his long taggy hair for three and a half months. And a sitar-playing, pensive young genius called Ad who hailed from Tilburg, Holland.

And the remarkable hotelier, sat at a desk outside the door to the dormitory. He was Anglo-Indian and was burly, handsome and quite crazy. About fifty-five or so, he was a very obvious drunkard and a rabid Hindu nationalist to boot. His voice was regal and superior, his manner rhetorical, bantering and more or less contemptuous. His prices too were exorbitant for the services limply offered.

‘My friend,’ he coughed sardonically, as Logan made to whip past him. ‘You are happily relishing the Calcutta sights? With a clutch of scholarly books I descry? Would you kindly allow me to inspect such treasures?’

Logan halted and warily handed over his Nabokov, Shakespeare, Huxley and Koestler.

‘A wise German,’ sneered Mr Chatterjee of the last.

‘Hungarian,’ corrected Logan heartlessly.

‘Do you speak it?’ bantered Chatterjee with narrowed eyes.

‘Hungarian? No, but I speak a little German.’

‘German I mean of course!’ said the manager with a hiccup. ‘I speak French, German, Italian and ... Swedish.’

Logan pursed his lips, hoping false impressment would hasten his departure from the desk here.

‘Listen,’ said Chatterjee, standing up and flicking his head histrionically, ‘and I shall speak some German for you. “Ish vull gippish bander nikk farden,” ’ ... and a great deal more of the same gibberish followed.

Then. ‘You translate!’ barked Chatterjee like Logan’s old headmaster. ‘I’m afraid I didn’t understand a word,’ admitted Logan expressionlessly. ‘Hah!’ sneered handsome Chatterjee. ‘Clearly you are no great linguist, Herr Logan!’

Not content with proving Logan’s linguistic ignorance, he pulled him over to a painting which hung behind his desk, a framed devotional picture of some Vaishnava saint, who smiled at them both with a smoky-eyed benignity. ‘Chaitanya,’ said wild Chatterjee with tears in the eyes of his very European face. ‘Lord Chaitanya who was the saint of all saints! Do you know that when I stare into the eyes of this picture here, Mr Logan, my eyes start to fill up with compassion, which is to say God in his kindest, most human form. And those tears which wash my soul and purify me thereby cause me to be made like to God’ – here he had to stop himself tottering he was so drunk – ‘And when my soul is thus cleansed I am as pure as Lord Bishnoo’s greatest devotee, Lord Chaitanya ...’

‘So why do you drink so much?’ asked Logan, after a pause.

‘What!’ gasped Chatterjee, staggering. ‘I do not drink! Or ... oh well, yes, to be sure, to your eyes, your naive Western mind it must appear so! But it is not I that do the drinking. It is my body that does the drinking! My body drinks and maybe sometimes it even gets drunk. But I, my soul, the Lord Chaitanya devotee, I am a jeevan-mukta, a released-in-life, the body does not shackle me for I have restrained my senses like a charioteer his horses as is described in the beautiful Gita. And remember, Mr Logan, it is karuna, compassion, which is the essence of my eternal soul.’

So concluding, he sank back, wheezing, into his chair. Logan made to depart. Just as he did, the tea-boy came and asked Mr Chatterjee for some order, and the manager angrily roared and bellowed at him in the unmistakable innocence of his time-bound, drunken, though merely bodily self.

Days went by. The tense and also bored-looking Australian girl borrowed one of Logan’s novels. They became friendly companions of a sort. One evening the two of them smoked some hashish and listened to the Dutchman tell them all he knew about Madhyamika Buddhism. The cynical Canadian – strangely attentive when it came to Indian thought – also joined the circle. Outside their dormitory the landlord was singing a fierce devotional hymn to Bishnoo. Outside their window it was noisy, riotous festival time. The Dutchman talked non-stop for about three hours and, whether it was the effect of the ganja or not, it seemed to Logan that the man from Tilburg was far from being a dilettante. Apart from the sitar, he had taught himself Sanskrit, Tibetan and Old Bengali. His erudition seemed quite phenomenal. He spoke in an English so very articulate it made Ruprecht the one-armed equestrian very obviously jealous.

Just as Logan was about to doze off on his bed, the tea-boy entered and indicated to the Englishman he had a message for him. The servant was bashful, timid of walking into the European circle. Logan staggered his way over and clapped him on the shoulder in a brotherly way.

‘What is it?’

‘A man, sahib. From the streets. He wishes to see you.’

‘Who on earth can that be?’

The boy pointed to the half-open door and there on the stairs sat a nervous-looking Gokhale. Logan flinched with disappointment. Gokhale saw Logan’s disappointment. Logan saw Gokhale watching the foreigner’s antipathy and an infinitely serial shame rebounded between and independent of the two. It was the pitiless deity of embarrassment.

‘Oh ... hallo,’ murmured Logan limply, as he walked out onto the staircase. Mr Chatterjee had finally fallen asleep, handsomer than ever, after his vocal devotions.

‘Hallo, Mr Logan. I came to see you.’

‘Oh ...’ mumbled the Englishman.

Logan was stupefied, the hashish had left him fuddled and brainless, incapable of sober civilities. Gokhale looked frightened and embarrassed. He coughed and this time it was a regal, a full-throated cough.

‘Christ, that sounds bad,’ muttered Logan dopily.

‘It is,’ admitted Gokhale, having winced at Logan’s blasphemy, that name so easily taken in vain. ‘I borrowed a little money to see a doctor. It is tuberculosis, Mr Logan.’

‘Christ,’ said Logan.

‘Hark,’ coughed Gokhale, wincing again at the name so lightly bandied.

‘What ... what will you do?’ Logan stammered. ‘Will you get some treatment?’

Gokhale smiled wryly but unaccusingly. Logan sobered just a little. The salient point was of course cash, the fictive paper that came so easily to Europeans and that so brilliantly eluded the hands of nine-tenths of Orientals. Through his haze young Logan tried to work out whether it was a pecuniary touch or not. Or what the devil was it? What was it? Horrifyingly, even through his dope, even on this slipway to Gokhale’s survival or expiry, Logan found George Gokhale totally boring ...

He pondered incoherently. Even if it was a touch, it was only right, it was only just ... if for example Logan had had TB and no money to see a doctor, then by God he ought to have gone and demanded it off anyone who had money galore, who had rupees and paise by the thousand ...

However, however, he reflected, only this afternoon he had calculated he had just enough money – sixteen hundred rupees – to get himself back to England if he was to travel by train and coach overland. He had exactly ninety pounds in rupees, while the cheapest air ticket cost one hundred pounds. The weary overland haul he viewed with little relish, yet even that he could just afford. If he now gave Gokhale some of his meagre cash he was simply stuck fast here in Calcutta, as penniless as those pathetic French morphine addicts who begged on the streets alongside the native beggars. Unless, fuzzily he thought, he were to have a quick whip-round in the ‘hotel’ here. He turned. He stared at the stoned, tranquil faces all clustered round the Dutchman explaining the Shunya void in all its inexplicability. Somehow ... he somehow thought not.

He changed the subject. He hated George Gokhale and wished he were back in England away from all this bloody death. He talked of the Civic Museum. George did not seem all that surprised, neither by Logan’s druggedness nor his keeping him there at the staircase top. More than anything he looked concerned for Logan, as if fearful at his entanglement with the people there inside the dormitory.

As their conversation trickled out, Logan eventually made some excuses, his fatigue, a hard day of traipsing around the enormous Civic Museum. Mr Gokhale coughed, coughed his death hack, as Mr Logan explained to him his traveller’s fatigue. Gokhale hid his cough as best he might, his skinny face contorted into something as repulsive in its dog-hanging way as it was piteous. The little Christian turned and trudged his way downstairs, forgiving the European all the way down. The European quickly invented excuses, as he followed on, tacitly forgave Gokhale his embarrassment, as he tried to talk both of them out of their grave shames and unspeakable difficulties.

Back in the dormitory, he buried himself in Koestler, the tale about the man who had psychically lost the use of his legs. He wondered dazedly if Koestler had ever thought of making it the ... He, Logan needed to go home. He Gokhale needed to live. He Logan had no rich parents, no rich friends to bail him out of penury. He Gokhale would view Logan’s poor parents, poor friends as millionaires if he were to hear of their circumstances. The banality of it, the mad questions. How could he help every dying Indian when they hacked off their legs and hacked up their babies for ... when the buggers didn’t even bloody mind that they were all starving and dying and all to no purpose?

Logan took pains to avoid George Gokhale for the rest of his time in Calcutta. He paid the tea-boy a few rupees to say to the Christian that he was always out. He and the Australian woman spent a fair amount of time in excellent Chinese restaurants. He checked with the boy, after a week, and discovered that the thin little man, the one who coughed, had been back four or five times, the last time mentioning something about a favour – what was not clear – about something that he needed. Logan flushed and loudly groaned. The tea-boy stared at him. He personally abominated the little rat-faced Indian Christian and would have gladly kicked him down the stairs. Logan explained to the tea-boy that the man was in need of a doctor and had no money and the favour he asked must have been for some money to go and prevent his own death. He was only about thirty-five. Jesus Christ, he exclaimed, aloud to the tea-boy. Thirty-five! The tea-boy’s English was not very good but he smiled politely at the boring explanation. Logan now often took a rear exit from the hotel to avoid the possible approach of George Gokhale. He would have hidden in a dustbin had it been necessary.

He left for Delhi, and further west, on the following Wednesday. Happy to be departing, he took the Canadian and the Australian girl for a meal on that last Tuesday evening. In the restaurant the three of them discussed at length the Madhyamika Buddhism as propounded by Ad the Dutchman. They also talked about Indian cities and the phenomenon of hustling, the eternal bothering for money or for time or for something. The Canadian spoke with approval of the kingdom of Nepal where they were even poorer (the average wage in 1973 was sixty pence a week) but where for some reason beggary was almost nil. The Australian girl remarked that she was flying to Thailand in a week’s time. She had a traveller’s sparkle in her lovely eyes. Both Logan and the Canadian wanted very much to sleep with her but there was no way of doing so in their communal boudoir. Unless it was effected in the bathroom, next to the choked, insanitary lavatory. She had such glorious breasts, thought hungry Logan, she had such trembling brilliant curves.

‘It must be the living space,’ he murmured at last. ‘All that free space in Nepal. They aren’t as frantic, even if they’re poorer. And of course there aren’t so many of them. Here there are millions, millions, millions ...’

The Canadian was still puzzling out Madhyamika Buddhism, the notion of no-thingness.

‘If neither the mind is real, nor what the mind perceives is real. If everything is ideal and only the Void, No-thingness, has any ... reality ...’

‘Then give me these ideal lamb cutlets,’ exclaimed the Australian girl, dabbing at the succulent juices on her plate, her nose twinkling anarchically. ‘And bugger the Void. I don’t mind if they aren’t real. I don’t mind. I don’t give a damn, I don’t really.’

With bloated stomachs they staggered back to the hotel. The tea-boy was there making the sleeping genius, Mr Chatterjee, a refreshing beverage. Logan smiled at the servant and headed for the dormitory. But the tea-boy hastily pursued him, murmuring gently and holding in his hand a paper bag that was wrapped with some raggy-looking string.

‘The favour, sahib,’ he whispered, trying not to awaken Chatterjee from his Vaishnavite dreams.

‘Whose?’ asked Logan, a little drunk himself for once.

‘Krishtian. Krishtian favour.’

Logan all but reeled.

‘Christ!’ – he heard in his head George Gokhale dismally wincing – ‘What the hell is this?’

As if he didn’t know. The tea-boy smiled patiently and went back to his sleeping master. The Australian and the Canadian stared amused at the pathetic-looking package.

‘What is that?’ asked the plump girl in a lively way. ‘Is it some jewels you’ve had cut-price from the King of Sikkim?’

‘No,’ muttered Logan, as he fingered the bindings and the leaves inside the grey little parcel. ‘It’s Natural Learning is what it is. George Gokhale must have found some copies. It’s from George Gokhale and I don’t expect I’ll see him to say goodbye tomorrow morning.’