Zerky in Calcutta

February 25, 1968, JoAnne. We finally made it to Calcutta, where we drove around until we stumbled across the Lytton Hotel, which has hot water, baths, and good Western food. The hotel owner’s Alsatian dog is terrorizing us. Tarzan was threatened and Zerky was bitten on the lips. His wound is not all that serious, only five very small punctures and scratches. There are many people live in the streets in this neighborhood.

February 29, 1968, Bill. Oh for the mountains again, this heat is getting to us. After having walked around the city for an hour, we went back to the hotel and collapsed. There are lots of consumer goods in the stores but they seem very expensive. We bought a pair of shoes for 40 Rupees ($5.30 US) but a good shirt costs $10.00 US. How can the people here afford such prices? By and large, the people here appear to us to be much better off than in the villages.

February 31, 1968. JoAnne shocked people today when she carried out our dirty laundry instead of waiting for a bearer to do it for her.

March 3, 1968. Today we walked through the bazaar. Hot! So we came home and took a cool bath, which gave me enough pep to go out into the courtyard and sit down. Then I came back to our room and lay down on the bed underneath the ceiling fan. The only antidote for this heat is ice water, lemon squash and gin.

March 4, 1968, a miserable day and a real loser. We went to the Thai Consulate to find out about Tarzan, but the people working there don’t have the slightest idea as to what their regulations are regarding dogs. Both Hong Kong and Japan put dogs in quarantine.

Zerk has diarrhea but earlier today he played with some kids in a park. Then we took him to a Jain Temple with beautifully landscaped gardens and lots of windows, mirrors, mosaics, colored glass, silver and light.

March 5, 1968. Zerky is learning to talk! Since we arrived in Calcutta, somehow he has managed to pick up several words of English and is using them constantly.

March 8, 1968. We all went to the zoo today, except for Tarzan whom we left in the car. Zerky and JoAnne loved the children’s zoo the best. As for me, I want to burn down American Express, they have not done a thing about finding us a boat to Panama.

March 9, 1968. Dear Zerky, Calcutta is too hot! During the daytime we can hardly bring ourselves to move away from our fans that are always on at full speed. When Bill carries you even half a block, his shirt is quickly soaked in sweat. But they tell us that it is cool now compared to what it will be in May.

March 12, 1968. Zerky has blood in his stool, so we took him to a doctor next door who was billed as a “World-Famous Astro-Palmist.” He told us that Zerky has liver trouble from the heat, but we don’t quite know what to make of this diagnosis. Today it was 98 degrees and very humid. and our bowels have been loose lately, too. Lizards, rats, mice, cats, ants, maggots on eggs and vasectomies. A bus conductor vs. the police and Eugene McCarthy is now in the New Hampshire primaries. I am simply “auntie” to Raju and Camar. When you ride in a rickshaw, the passenger is in charge of ringing the bell!

March 18, 1968, Calcutta, India. Dear Zerky, we have been in Calcutta for about three weeks now and are staying at the Lytton Hotel in a run-down part of the city. Almost everywhere in Calcutta is “run-down.” Calcutta is a very old and crumbling city, but our room is cheap, comfortable, and reasonably clean. We have a 1933 hot water heater with a copper tank that sprinkles burning embers into our bathtub. Who needs hot water anyway? It is sweltering! Our room comes with five meals a day, two of which are morning and afternoon teas. Tea in India comes loaded with milk and sugar—kind of like a hot milk shake. They always serve it with biscuits (cookies).

For the first few days, it seemed to us that Calcutta was seething with anger. You cannot travel around in this immense city without running into mobs of protestors. The giant oil company, Burma-Shell, appears to be the favorite target. Its workers are out on strike and there are pickets marching everywhere. The Communists are also on the march, because automation is a big issue here. Efficiency does not appear to be much of a priority. Nationalization of the banks is another big issue fueling a lot of demonstrations. Yesterday there was an article in the paper about a police van that accidentally ran over and killed a pedestrian, after which a mob set the van on fire. The entire state of West Bengal is now under President’s Rule, a provision in the Indian Constitution that allows the federal government to nullify provincial governments and rule directly from New Delhi. Calcutta is a very unruly place. At first this bothered us, but we soon began to notice how everyone else takes chaos for granted. So now we are too.

Last Thursday was a holiday festival commemorating Lord Krishna’s frolics with the milkmaids. This particular holiday is all about fertility and Spring. People painted their faces and clothes, and then went out into the streets, shooting colored powders and colored liquids at each other. After two days of this, parts of the city were put under curfew, several people were stabbed, and three of them died. The paper attributes it to “too much drinking.”

The streets of Calcutta are home to countless people inhabiting the vacant lots, alleyways and narrow passageways in between the buildings. Not all of homeless people are beggars, however, but many of them are. Many of them are also deformed, some from accidents, some from leprosy and others from a multitude of untreated illnesses. For some weird reason, we have started taking a shine to the beggars down the street from our hotel. Just as she did with her best customers at her movie theatre in San Francisco, your mother has started referring to them as “our regulars.” There is “our little beggar family” composed of a husband, a wife, a two-year-old boy and a tiny baby, “our little boy leper,” a “mischievous little boy,” our “teen-age leper with the limp” and our “pre-teen hunchback with the sweet smile.” At first we only gave alms but now we are finding ourselves feeling proprietary about our beggars. Sometimes I think all this is getting out of hand, because now we are beginning to worry about them when they are not at their stations.

The other day, JoAnne read in the newspaper about young babies in Calcutta being sold while their bones are still soft and pliable so they can be bent and twisted. The paper says that such babies are much in demand because they can be marketed and sold as investment income property.

We were recently stopped on the street by two beggars, one of whom was appropriately humble, the other inappropriately rude. Your mother dipped into her purse and gave some appropriate small coins to the polite beggar, but then stiffed the rude one by giving him only one paisa, essentially nothing. In retaliation, the rude beggar rubbed his leprous shoulder against your mother’s bare arm. Earlier that same day a pickpocket near the bazaar brushed me but didn’t get anything. We all have our little triumphs.

Today we went to a huge open air market where we bought your mother a beautiful sari. I think they are the loveliest garments in the world. Now, if she could only figure out how to put it on.

An Open Air Market in Calcutta

It is with considerable misgivings that I must tell you, Zerky, that we have finally made the decision to go back to the USA. Both China to the north and Burma to the south are closed to foreigners. We had hoped to drive to southern India and put our car on a ship to the Panama Canal, but the American Express travel agent tells us that he cannot find any such ships departing southern India. That leaves Calcutta as the only other seaport on India’s east coast, but fortunately we have been able to locate a freighter that will take our car to San Francisco from here. The stevedores will use a crane to pick up the bus in a sling, and load it onto the ship.

For the past week I have been doing nothing but running around Calcutta getting signatures, permits and other documentation from all the various government bureaucracies whose blessings you need in order to export your own vehicle. India thrives on mindless bureaucracy, and on abstract rules and regulations. The government thinks we should drive our car back to Germany the same way it got here.

Going home is an idea that strikes us as appealing and appalling, there is still too much of the world to see. At American Express the other day we collected our mail for the first time since New Delhi, two months ago, but there was little in it to make us homesick. Our income taxes are higher than expected; Francine Orwitz is having problems with our car; Lorraine Bryant is lonely (no mention of Fred). All in all, not very inspiring. I felt disconnected reading Christmas cards in the sweltering heat.

In a little more than a week, we shall be flying to Bangkok. We plan to stay there for a few days and then fly on to Hong Kong in order to catch a boat to San Francisco via Japan. We are making our reservations.

Two days ago, we had to visit the American Embassy in order to get them to add some more visa pages to our passports. While there, we inquired about adopting an Indian baby but unfortunately there is too much red tape, most of it on the part of our own government. As soon as we get back to San Francisco, we plan to start looking for a baby brother or sister for you, Zerky. No longer will you have to keep trying to make friends out of strangers. You have spent most of your life out of the United States. We hope you will enjoy the USA.

March 21, 1968, from JoAnne’s diary. Thanks to Joan, I have learned how to put on and wear my new sari. Now all I need is somewhere to go. Her Irish husband, Larry, is in the tea business near Sibsagar in Assam and knows Simon Penny and Raj personally. She told us Raj quit two weeks ago and is emigrating to Canada.

We all have diarrhea this week. Zerk probably the worst, but on this last day before our departure, Bill too is miserere sumus! A true martyr, he did a beautiful job of cleaning out the bus and inventorying everything we are shipping back in it. We gave Zerky’s outgrown shirts and remaining jars of baby food to our beggar family outside the hotel, who were delighted.

I took Zerk to the Temple of Kali. A Brahmin who talked in a continual chanting sort of shout latched onto me and showed me:

  1. The tree that bears neither fruit nor flower. Barren women hang rocks on its branches and pray to Kali for children. If in the next year they bear a child, then they dedicate it to the Goddess.
  2. The wild black face of Kali, her eyes and mouth bright red (atavistic).
  3. A Brahmin prayer shawl, with Brahma’s own sacred thread.
  4. The sacrificial yoke for the goats and buffalos that are slaughtered and fed to the beggars around the temple. Just as I was about to leave, the heavens opened up with rain, thunder, lightening and hailstones the size of ice cubes. Zerky and I quickly took shelter in “Brahmin’s Cake Shop” next to a Shiva lingam. Its leaky tin roof almost kept us dry.

Our trip is over. From zero in Munich, our odometer now reads 23,702 miles, about a thousand miles shy of the total distance around the world.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

Fortunately, contrary to what JoAnne says above, our trip was not over. Not yet.


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