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Life in Calcutta [Nov. 7th, 2006|04:35 am]
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November 7th

I am still here in India and realise that it is many weeks since I last wrote anything in my blog, letting the world, or that section of it who can get into Live Journal, know how I was getting on. The reason that I have been writing so little is that I really have very little of a positive nature to report and I would hate to be seen as a ‘Moaning Minnie’. However, as I approach the date of my return I thought I should drop everyone a note, no matter what the content may be, letting you know how things were.

First of all, let me deal with my ‘medical’ treatment. This, as I think I mentioned consisted of taking herbal juices several times per day and also taking bhasmas which are tiny amounts of literally ash, each one mixed with something complementary ; one with honey and juice, one with milk and so on. The herbal juice is made by boiling up a concoction of actual herbs for about fifteen minutes which would be fine if it were not for the fact that they are boiling it up in an aluminium pan – an old one at that –hmmm… I am also having a brew each morning made of the inner bark of a particular shrub, scrapped off by one of the several servants. I have doubts about the cleanliness of his finger nails but I have not, as yet, died so it must be OK. I really cannot complain as I have been very well looked after indeed.

I will, of course, find out how effective all this has been when I return to UK and have the dreaded PET scan which will be on the 27th November, the results coming on the 29th. I approach this with a certain apprehension as well as optimism. I do feel that the lung and pelvis cancers are better but I do have this, at times, acute pain in my upper right arm which worries me. On one hand the ayurvedic view is that this is due to being exposed to the ubiquitous ceiling fans to which I am not used and will go away when I return to my own climate. They might have something there are the pain original started in London in August when I was in the habit of sleeping with a fan playing on me. If that is what it was it would indeed be FANtastic. (A bad one, I know) On the other hand my oncologist, with whom I have regular email contact, observed that if something was both persistent and progressive it may well be sinister. It is a classic case of, ‘You pays your money and takes your choice’. I have chosen to stick this out but, as I said, the proof of the pudding comes later this month when we shall see what we shall see. I think I am guardedly optimistic

One problem I did have, which really cut down any activities, was that I developed some kind of infection based around my feet which swelled to the point I could not get them into shoes for about five weeks. They also get covered in large ‘heat’ spots. The locals said that this was a mixture of a climate change (it was very hot when I first came out) and toxins being flushed from my body by the medicine. OK. They may well be right but I sent pictures of my feet back to my GP and a specialist dermatologist in London and the verdict from them was that the spots were infected bites. I am OK now but the truth, I suspect, is somewhere in between. I am still getting what looks like little bites, or getting spots at least, in spite of the best efforts of the household who fumigate the whole building every day as a matter of course, but I am not reacting nearly as badly.

Linked to the medicine, of course, is a very controlled and restricted diet which comprises of rice (of course), ruttis (a sort of savoury pancake thing –quite nice) and lots and lots of vegetables, mostly of the root variety. The diet was OK, if a little repetitious during the first week but I have now been here for nearly three months, eating the same bloody stuff every day. I am told my hostess that it is very special, organic stuff and I quite believe her but I just wish there was a little more variety at times. It does save time wondering what to have for lunch though. Of course, if it were to be proved that it was curing my cancer then I cold eat it for another year but there comes a point that the life you are saving is not worth the living which, of course, opens up a completely new discussion. I can eat more things and, when I am back in UK I will have a more varied diet without breaking the rules laid down my ayurvedic doctor but such options are not available here. It is almost breakfast time and I wonder what I will have for breakfast. I think I know.

My existence here has been circumscribed by the requirements of my hostess and ‘doctor’ who is an elderly lady who retired from her post as Principal of a very important girls collegeonly last week. The period leading up to her retirement was very stressful and I found my self trying to be as supportive to her as I possibly could be, not putting any demands upon her and tolerating the fact that I was simply sitting alone in this flat, day after day. Since she has retired a reaction appears to have set in which I understand completely but at times I felt that I have been in the way, about as welcome as the proverbial cockroach in the curry and have actually asked I had done anything to offend. Of course, I had not but we still go nowhere. I suppose we all have out problems. Any effort on my own behalf to ‘lead a life’ as Dr Mukerhjee, the London contact, originally described is always somehow frustrated and so I am, therefore, having a pretty lonely time and I have found that email and Messenger on Yahoo have been a lifeline to the outside world. I realise now, however, that we humans have a sort of sell by date on us. If we are absent for up to six weeks people do keep in touch but, if the absence is longer people put us on an emotional back-burner. It is not that we are forgotten, no, we just drift off the radar of life for a while. It is natural and I am quite sure I will drift back onto the radar when I return – at least I hope so. I could have written more but, as I said, there was little new to report. However, I think some people back in London will be quite surprised to see me still alive.

However, there is one big issue that I have with Calcutta and India in general and that is the subject of NOISE. Living in India is to be constantly battered by thoughtless and selfish noise that comes at you from all directions. Now, I dare say, that I, given what I do, am a little more sensitive to noise that in the average bloke, but let me take you on a little ‘sound tour’ of my flat, a sojourn through the day, and you might see what I mean.

My room is at the back of the flat that is ‘mine’ for the duration, and the building behind is occupied by Nepalese who even the Indians regard as noisy. They seem to rise very early and want to wash their dishes, themselves and their children in the space immediately between the two buildings. Most of the dishes are metal so you can imagine the clatter. This has got better recently, of perhaps I am just used to it now. It would also appear that most adult males in India appear to ingest an octopus, or at least a small squid during the night. Only this would explain the amount of hawking and spitting that goes on in the morning and, indeed, throughout the day. Determined efforts are made to bring the entire thoracic contents up for inspection. It really can be quite disgusting but it is universal. Another source of morning noise it the water pumps that lift the supplied water from ground level up to the roof tank – there is no mains pressure as such, Calcutta being dead pan flat. Each building has its own pump and the one for this building is directly under my bedroom so, when it goes off, the noise and the vibration would shake your fillings loose. What is more, there seems to be a sort of water-pump union that has decreed that no two pumps, within earshot of each other, will operate at the same time – they seem to take it in turns so the noise is really never-ending.

So I get up and go to the front of the building. I think I mentioned, in an earlier blog, the love affair that exists between the average Calcuttan and his car horn. A car driving down an empty street here will blow his horn for no good reason four or five times in a couple of hundred yards. “Why?”, I hear you ask. “Because that is what we do here”, comes the answer. Each driver seems to have the need simply to announce his presence. It is aggravated here by the presence of a primary school (more of that later) right next door. When the kids are being dropped off or picked up - and, yes, the ‘school run’ exists here too, complete with Chelsea tractors (or Calcutta Tanks more like) – the mothers and parked cars just block the road. This causes a build up of traffic both ways, the drivers involved of course consider it their right to simply sit, stationery, with their hands on their horns. The noise is hellish especially coming, as it does, on top of the screaming sound of 400 primary kids saying good morning to each other. Doubly hellish!!. This reaches peaks at 8.20am, midday, 2pm and 4pm but the sound of the school, only feet away from our windows continues as an intrusive backdrop for the whole day, as do the horns. The day is also punctuated by hawkers all crying their familiar cries. There are probably a couple of dozen local hawkers patrolling the street each day, each with his own distinctive, raucous cry. It is like something out of Dickens and, as I write, another has just yelled from outside. They sell everything from plastic furniture, that they balance on their heads, to green coconuts. I think my favourite is the chap who sells cutlery and, along with his street cry, he shakes his entire stock in time with his stride - a mobile percussion band

Of course, such is the climate here that soft furnishings are kept to the minimum as they would just go mouldy at the humid period (99% humidity) at the end of the Monsoon, as did most of my jackets and trousers. This absence of carpets etc means that any internal sound rattles around the whole building like an echo chamber. I do have a little of my own back here as I have a piano but I wish I had my sousaphone.

There were very heavy rains some weeks ago, so heavy that they flooded large parts of the city, including where the power stations are, which meant that a large part of the coal dust, which powers the aforesaid stations, was washed away. Yes, washed away. This means that we are having ‘power sharing’ which sounds very community minded but actually just means power cuts to you and me. This could be taken as a quaint local custom but we have a bank immediately opposite us and they have an emergency generator which is the loudest, klankiest engine I have ever heard. Sitting in the dark might just be tolerable as the power cuts mean that all the local TVs get silenced, but the silence is always broken by this damned generator from across the road. (Oops, there goes another squid. No, I am wrong – several are going at the one time. The air must be thick with flying squid out there – there must be a squid honking club going past. Dear me!)

Then we come to the drums. I have felt a bit like Quasimodo who ran about muttering, “The bells, the bells”. In my case it is, “The drums, the drums”. It seems like every other day they have a puja, which literally means a festival. The Hindu religion has thousands of major and minor gods and goddesses which means that, if you fancy a day off you claim allegiance to some particular goddess and go out in public and beat your drum – literally. Each locality will organise itself into puja committees, raise money and build a pandal. Some of these are lovely, as I reported earlier. However, all of them are accompanied by the beating of drums. A recent puja, to the goddess Kali, involved the constant beating of very loud drums from around 6am until 11pm – for five days!!! Of course it would be very un-PC to complain about this as that would be ‘anti-Hindu’ and, such has been the rising militancy of the Muslim minority here, the Hindus insist on doing their thing as noisily and as close to Muslim areas as possible. They also insist on dragging images of their favourite gods through the streets behind large and very enthusiastic drumming bands. The noise is incredible, the whole effect being rounded off by some of the loudest fireworks I have ever heard. Really, they sound like artillery shells landing in the street – amazing. The final sting comes after the puja when the committee, by way of giving thanks to the local community, organises concerts of live pop music in the open air. Imagine Muswell Hill Roundabout being taken over, a stage erected and Status Quo being hired to give a concert – that’s about it as far as sound level and inconvenience is concerned. There are a rather nasty overtones of class, or caste, war going on too, the whole thing being extremely unhealthy on some levels. Not nice at all – a sort of militant ignorance, a levelling down, and nothing the do with the god or goddess at all! I am sure that there are many devout people around, of course, but the overall effect, to the lay observer, is like Christmas with firework and artillery thrown in and when all church bells are allowed to ring flat out for five solid days.

Oh, one little thing I forgot to mention – three little things really. Instead of pigeons they have crows, millions of them and all with attitude. They lose no opportunity to voice their opinions, as only crows can, usually on top of the air-conditioning unit outside my window. One of the things they may be agitated about is a hawk, black kite actually, that paid me a visit at 6am this morning. What a glorious creature he was but I can understand the crows taking fright. If I were a crow or a pigeon I certainly would not fancy that beak or these tallons one little bit (or should that be one little bite). Mentioning the air-conditioning leads to the second little thing, that being my a/c unit itself. It died recently, right at the hottest period of course, but a repair man came and revived it eventually. However, it now sounds like a Jumbo Jet at full power being fed backwards through a gigantic meat grinder – interesting. The third ‘little thing’ is the dog population. London has cats, Calcutta has dogs - thousands of ‘em. Now, all it takes is one of these canine teddy boys to wake up in the night and howl against his lot in life and they all decide to join in. It is the wildest and most haunting sound I have heard and the first time it happened it did strike a sort of fear right into the heart of me. It now just wakes me up and makes me wish I had a twelve-bore to hand ; I can understand why I see so many of them lying dead in the street.

In short, I have fifteen days to go and I am counting the hours. It has been quite an experience although more of an inner voyage than and outward adventure. We shall see what the eventual outcome of it is and if my cancer is diminished, or even better, gone, I will be very grateful and not regret a day of it. However, if I am not clear and have sat here in this maelstrom of sound, well………… let’s just say there is a lot riding on this scan. It has been ‘time out’ of life but it is not time to get back to my real world and live the life I am trying to save

Sorry, once again not to have written much over the past month ; I hope you understand why now.