The Tivoli Gardens
THE TIVOLI GARDENS
by Inderjeet Mani
[Note: I have changed the names of two of the characters. Unfortunately, ‘Bunty’ is no longer with us (another suicide). However, ‘Mona’ is still alive.]
It was a little after ten on a Sunday morning when the doorbell rang twice. I drew back the curtains to be greeted by rain over the Sussex downs. Slipping on my jeans, I shuffled downstairs and opened the door.
“Oh, it’s you”, I said quietly.
“Dolente dolore”, said Bunty.
I was tempted to close the door in his face. However, he was already quite drenched, and under his rimless glasses his eyes had a suitably mournful look. A battered suitcase stood by his side. I let him in.
Bunty was not supposed to be standing there in the village of Falmer, Sussex. I had expected him to be in Hampstead, living with his psychoanalyst uncle and aunt. In fact, he was not even supposed to be there – he really should have been in Vasant Vihar, New Delhi, sitting up on the terrace of his parents’ house, drinking Chivas Regal and watching the dust come in over the city.
Dolente Dolore. It was Dante’s bell, echoing somberly through the pages of Under The Volcano. The Consul had just been shot.
“Christ”, he remarked, puzzled, “this a dingy way to die..“ A bell spoke out. Dolente…..dolore. It was raining softly. Shapes hovered by him, holding his hand, perhaps still trying to pick his pockets, or to help, or merely curious……Then a face shone out of the gloom, a mask of compassion. It was the old fiddler, stooping over him. “Companero-” he began. Then he had vanished.
Bunty liked to invoke this bell of hell as a kind of password among friends. I had first met him at college in Delhi. He had dropped out after the first year, but continued to hang around the campus. The senior students taunted him with repetitions of his curious greeting. Thus the tragic world of Dante, reflected through the drunken apocalyptic vision of Malcolm Lowry in Mexico, had reemerged in India as a coarse vulgarity on the lips of fools.
Bunty had trouble adjusting to the land of his birth. His Westernized upbringing had left him confused, unable to appreciate the pulse of India. He felt overwhelmed by the crowds, by the dust rising up on the horizon. They seemed to have a purpose, the people of India, as they shuffled by on the streets, struggling to survive – whereas he seemed to have nowhere to go. There he was, in the wrong place at the wrong time, born into a backward country well past its prime, with everyone else apparently too busy to care very much for him and his rather vague literary aspirations. After a couple of years up on the terrace, he decided to leave.
He managed to talk his parents into sending him away to America. He joined a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, but quit after a semester, pocketing the remainder of his tuition money. He blew it all in a couple of glorious days at the Waldorf. He told me it was the happiest time of his life. When the money ran out he allowed himself to be gracefully deported home.
After another two years sitting up on the terrace of his parents’ house, sipping Chivas and watching the dust come in over the city, he pleaded for a last chance in the West. He reminded them about his literary aspirations. He wanted to live in New York, just for a while so he could get his bearings and make the contacts necessary to publish his stuff. This time his parents sent him to London, to stay with his uncle and aunt.
The aunt and uncle were an unusual couple: orthodox Freudians, and proper Punjabis, alternating between a clipped BBC English and bursts of their lusty native tongue. The husband puffed at a pipe and pored over antiques, the wife was thin and beautiful, wore costume jewelry, and told me that she was often mistaken for a Spanish dancer. In their living room Bunty was introduced to the likes of Stephen Spender and Lucian Freud, as well as an aging and embittered Polish sculptress who took him for long walks in the Kenwood Gardens. He spent the days in the art galleries and the nights locked in his room upstairs overlooking the Vale of Health. He seemed to be enjoying himself, and claimed to be polishing up his novel.
One day the analysts broke into his room and found an assortment of whisky, rum and gin bottles on the desk. Bunty was very still and quiet, as he often became when roaring drunk. He could not recall what he had said, but the next morning he found a note on the kitchen table asking him to pack his bags. After a day’s delay he had decided to pay me a visit.
“Pretend I’m not here”, he told me, calmly lighting up a Gauloise. “I’ll crash on the floor. When you come back in the evening we can get together, maybe go out for a drink.”
“I’m supposed to be studying”, I reminded him. “Psychopathology.” I nodded towards several somber studies of mental illness that lay unopened on my desk.
He began to talk about old times in Delhi. Akhmal, the former student leader, who had been sent by the Communist Party to Moscow to study Marxism-Leninism, was now a lecturer in political philosophy at Nehru University; Ashraf, the Kashmiri poet, travelled the deserts of Rajasthan selling drugs for a pharmaceutical company; and then there was Nutty, who after a brief period as an astrologer in Benares, had apparently run out of options and gone and hanged himself. Dolente Dolore.
Bunty took off his glasses. I told him I was sorry about Nutty. Then we went out for a drink. He drank seven whiskies, becoming very quiet after the seventh, his eyes glazed over into a Buddha-like tranquility.
We went out drinking every evening for a fortnight. In the pubs Bunty would sit quietly, enveloped in a haze of Gauloise smoke, at times so withdrawn that I suspected he might be on the threshold of an important visionary experience. But on the way back he would brighten up, stepping with renewed vigor through the Sussex woods, and he would talk. He told me he was tired of the West, he needed to return and rediscover India. There were places of tremendous beauty and simplicity, like the deserts of Rajasthan, where he had traveled with Ashraf and Nutty.
“Rajasthan is incredible, filled with such elemental beauty. It’s a peculiar light which filters in through the dust, you feel as if you’re looking at the sky through some kind of emulsion. Women go barefoot on the cracked earth, walking miles to draw water from a well. They seem so tragic, those women of rural India, their shrouded forms convey a terrible sadness.”
He became quiet, as if that terrible sadness was about to descend on us. We walked for a while through the damp woods, far from the world of heat and dust, hearing the wind sighing in the branches, and recalling the sights and sounds of the land we had left behind.
“It’s a strange place, everyone seems calm and dazed and hungry. Even the camels. We spent a night near Ajmer, sleeping in a small village. When I woke up I really felt there was nothing out there, nothing for anyone. I came away with the sense of the terrible beauty and hopelessness of existence.”
We talked about the landscapes of rural India. He mentioned that he planned to write a novel set in Rajasthan, inspired in part by the descriptions of Algerian landscapes he had come across in Camus.
“Camus didn’t believe in freedom or hope, but he believed that we have a duty to step forward, to revolt in the face of death. This is the equivalent, for him, of the spiritual impulse towards life. He was dead against suicide. Suicide directly violates this human duty.”
He paused near an old Sussex ash tree. Wraith-like figures seemed to hover in the distance. He turned quickly towards me, and his well-built body seemed suddenly possessed with a strange energy.
“You know, Nutty loved Camus. It was something of a shock when he went out and did what he did.”
Having said this, he turned, opened his fly and calmly urinated against the ash tree. A stream of whiskies came spurting out.
At the end of a month I took stock of things. We had talked a bit. We had talked about the beauty of rural India, about exile, about the search for roots and the understanding of man’s ultimate place in nature. In fact, I had done little else. And I had been smoking two packs of Gauloises a day. It seemed some sort of action was called for.
Meanwhile Bunty seemed in the pink of health. He talked incessantly about India, the deserts of Rajasthan, but also the Himalayas and Kashmir. He praised the smells of India, extolled its dusty roads. He would go back, travel, finish his book…..Just then the term came to an end and summer came to England.
On a summer’s day, in rustic Sussex, I had the urge to rid my mind of extraneous things, to stretch out in the sunlight and read and doze and daydream and watch girls in calico skirts going barefoot on the grass. To lie by a bank where the wild thyme blows, with a hey a ho and a hey nonino. But this vision of a lazy hazy self-indulgent English summer was somewhat marred by the presence of Bunty. Wherever I went, Bunty tagged along, indulging in idle chatter. I began to wonder about his travel plans.
“Let’s go to Amsterdam”, Bunty told me one day, chewing on a blade of grass.
We were up on the Sussex Downs gazing at a herd of cattle. Blackbirds circled in the sky above us, and a small tractor wheezed about in the valley below. A curious drowsiness filled the air.
“Amsterdam”, I said, for lack of any other appropriate response.
“I may as well tell you, I’ve bought a ticket back to India, from Amsterdam. After all, I can’t impose on you forever, can I?”
He offered me a freshly lit Gauloise.
“But first we need to stop over in Copenhagen”, he added.
“A friend of Dad’s lives there – in a country estate. Last time he visited India he said he’d be glad to have me.”
“Bunty, I can’t really come. I’ve got to ..study. I have …my own life. Remember, I’m now on the straight and narrow… ”
“But you must. You don’t know how much I value your company. And I thought you liked traveling. You once called yourself the lightheaded traveler. Listen, you’ve got to come along – I can’t travel alone.”
I was tempted to let him hoof it alone. I found the Sussex Downs very soothing. But Amsterdam was difficult to resist – it seemed like a city very congenial to my personality. And the Danish estate tickled my curiosity. Perhaps a change would do me good – people always worked better after a vacation. The lazy hazy English summer could wait – in any case, sooner or later, it was sure to rain, and Britain would once again turn into the dull, dreary place it essentially was.
“When do you want to leave?”
“How about tomorrow?”, he asked, a broad grin spreading across his face.
I packed my old orange rucksack, and he picked up his suitcase, and soon we were on a train to London. At Victoria station we ran into Ian and Mitou. Ian had recently graduated from Sussex, and was training to be an art auctioneer at Sotheby’s. Mitou was French, wore indigo eye-shadow and was very cute. As luck would have it, they were heading off to Cologne later that week in a multicolored VW Beetle, and they very kindly offered us a ride.
We spent the rest of the day standing in line obtaining visas from rude officials. In the evening we strolled through a gray and desultory Bloomsbury, eventually finding ourselves near Fitzroy Square, a region of lesser embassies, hospitals and student residences. There we came across a sign offering Hot Indian Meals, with an Indian flag waving boldly above it.
“That flag says it all”, said Bunty rhapsodically. “Nothing like being back among our people.”
I followed him hesitantly into the building. It turned out to be a rather dingy Indian boarding house. It was the kind of place found in every Western capital, a dismal but affordable hostel catering to the needs of immigrants and students anxious to remain among their own kind, places that come filled with patriotic mementos, serving to remind exiles of the glories of their homeland. Above the foyer was yet another Indian tricolor, along with garlanded photographs of eminent personalities, Nehru, Gandhi, and the like. There was also an injunction engraved in stone, urging the Indian visitor to remain proud of his own land even as he walked among conquerors, to hold his head up high before the white man. It was something of an anachronism in the present day and age, but it no doubt echoed the silent humiliations endured by legions of dark-skinned students from a once self-assured civilization as they tried hard to retain their dignity in the white man’s land. Today, underneath this welcoming sign, serious-looking Indians and Bangladeshis hurried by, most of them apparently thrifty students and budding chartered accountants.
The dining hall was a busy place, full of natives devoutly gulping down their food, its kitchen reverberating with the shouts of Malayali cooks. The meals were hot, as advertised. Bunty ate with great gusto, his fingers plunging in, deftly stripping flesh from bone. We were well into our third helping of a fiery egg curry when I discovered a bespectacled girl staring at us. She looked away hurriedly. When she got up to fetch coffee I noticed she was unusually short, dressed in bell bottoms, with immense eyes and an intense, frank gaze. After she had finished she licked her fingers and started to light a cigarette, and Bunty slid his matchbox across. We sat together gupping, joking, chatting lightly of this and that. Her name was either Mona or Chitra, I’ve forgotten which. She was studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
The talk drifted to Delhi, where she had taken a degree in History. She loved the Delhi scene, she said, but hated being incarcerated in the Miranda House women’s hostel. High fences, barbed wire, and an alert watchman who had to be bribed. After more of this kind of talk I began to feel I was back in a campus coffee shop in Delhi. I was no longer in England; I could smell the dust of the Indian road, the autorickshaw-exhaust fumes tickling my nostrils. The food and tricolor and Indian English accents had done their trick, awakening intense olfactory memories. Meanwhile I noticed the shouts of the Malayali chefs growing louder, as if to affirm this new ethnocentric balance.
Eventually the place started closing up. It was time for Bunty’s evening whiskies, and he suggested an outing to a pub. Mona’s eyes lit up like twin electric bulbs.
“I have a bottle of wine in my room.”
“Just one?”, asked Bunty, doubtfully.
“Actually, there are two.”
We walked out and bought cigarettes and then returned to her room. It was a tiny little garret, with just enough room for a bed and a desk and an oversize poster of Joan Baez. Bunty and I sat on the floor. Mona rattled on about things Bunty and I had cared little for, inter-college dramatics, debating, quiz competitions. She seemed to hark back repeatedly to a rather insipid region of the past, and as she chattered on she brought back more olfactory memories but also impressions of a faraway, somewhat suffocating world, dedicated to the noble pursuit of excelling at the unimportant.
When the two bottles were gone we went out to get more. After another bottle Bunty was silently blowing smoke rings. Mona/Chitra put on a Hindusthani film song, and a shrill mezzo-soprano voice began a plaintive melody of unrequited love. Mona sat cross-legged on the bed, humming along. In a pause between songs she told me that she hated her life. I didn’t respond, and she started humming again. The room had started to swirl around me. Bunty stared at me with glassy eyes. He began to recite poetry. After a while he lapsed into French. It was a poem called the Jinx, with something about biting the golden lemon of the bitter ideal.
Forever hoping to meet the sea,
They traveled without bread or sticks or bowls
Biting the golden lemon of the bitter ideal.
He went on to mention something ominous about the Jinx itself.
No, degraded and dwelling in deserts without a well,
They run beneath the leash of an ill-tempered monarch, the Jinx,
Whose outrageous laughter lays them low.
He gave a sinister laugh, cracking an imaginary whip. Around midnight Chitra took out a bottle of capsules and swallowed three bright green ones.
“I’ve got to take these,” she said, defensively. “I’m a manic depressive.”
She shrugged her shoulders, blowing at the embers of her cigarette. The cassette played on, claiming that in a deep valley in Kashmir, a lamp was burning somewhere, and that somewhere nearby a heart was on fire. Kashmir had a number of deeply romantic valleys, and something like that was clearly possible.
Mania can be infectious. I asked Mona for a capsule and washed it down with red wine.
“Are you an insomniac?”, I asked her.
“No, just a manic depressive. I’ve been that way since childhood, ya.”
I tried hard to imagine such a curse on one’s childhood. I had been melancholy, but never mad. My heart went out to her. I sat next to her and hugged her, and she started to sob.
Bunty walked out for some fresh air. Later I found him studying himself in the bathroom mirror. I tried vomiting, without success. The lithium did not go well with red wine. When I came back Mona/Chitra was fast asleep. She looked sweet and innocent, a short little bell bottomed goddess curled in the foetal position.
We staggered out into the London night. Drunks glided past, and a few stars glittered meaninglessly. We wound our way towards Soho. A tired-looking harlot beckoned, and through the window of an all-night Chinese laundry clothes turned endlessly. We strolled down Charing Cross Road, passing a Trafalgar Square emptied at last of pigeons and tourists, and then walked beside the river for a while. Towards dawn we sat quietly by the Tower Bridge, looking over at the grim citadel where so many great souls were forced to part with their heads. The West was a desolate place, and I wondered once more what I was doing there. It occurred to me that I had spent much of my life walking or sitting by rivers.
After several hours of silent contemplation, we walked back along a turgid Thames to Victoria Station, where we recovered our stuff from an aptly named left luggage locker. Then we caught the first train to Ian’s home at Harrow-on-the-Hill.
Ian’s father painted for a living, and his paintings were all over the house, even in the toilet. He painted giant, faceless figures in drab overalls, workers in some nightmarish factory town. His mother also painted, mostly still lives with wilted flowers. Despite their morbid paintings, however, the Hendersons were perfect hosts. There are few pleasures more rewarding than a quiet dinner with civilized people, followed by a sound sleep in a freshly made bed. Cultural distinctions fade away, and one understands the basic needs of all humanity. The next morning, when Mrs. Henderson handed us sandwiches for the way, I felt like kissing her dimpled cheeks.
The road to Cologne passed through Belgium. It was raining in Belgium. For the most part the road was narrow and ran straight as an arrow through dull, gabadine-colored farmland, with the occasional cyclist or truck brushing past in the rain. The Europeans sat in front, the Indians in the back. The sandwiches, wrapped in moist napkins, went quickly. The Rolling Stones provided a dreary musical accompaniment. It was altogether an uneventful journey. They dropped us right under the cathedral at Cologne, and we immediately sat down on a bench to plan our next move.
“It’s great to be back on the Continent”, said Bunty, stretching his arms. Above him, magnificent iron spires stretched out into the soggy sky.
I looked at him warily.
On the train from Cologne to Copenhagen I wondered about Mona/Chitra. We had little in common, apart from a shared experience of an Indian campus and an interest in psychopathology. I wondered what would become of her, whether I would ever meet her again, whether she would successfully battle her mania, or whether she would end up, Dolente Dolore, like Nutty. Like the thousands of other incidental acquaintances of one’s life, I did not expect to cross her path again; I expected that she would become just another face, associated with a bundle of remote and not particularly meaningful memories.
As I was sitting musing about Mona, I discovered that Bunty had vanished. Looking out, I found that the train had stopped, and a body of gray water was moving around us. People were walking back and forth beside the train. I soon discovered that the train had been loaded onto a ferry, bound for the Danish island of Lolland.
There was a cafe on board the ferry, and I found Bunty there in a haze of Gauloises, reading aloud to the deck from Camus’s L’Etranger, a triumphant look on his face. A few Danish teenagers sat gaping at him, and a waiter hovered nervously nearby. I ordered an outrageously priced coffee and a Danish pastry, known to the Danes as Viennese Bread. The sky was shapeless, a spongy gray mass that pressed upon the ocean. It was cold and starting to drizzle. Bunty continued to read aloud, absorbed in his little game. A gull sat on an adjacent table. After a while I returned to my compartment.
An hour later we passed a number of fishing boats and arrived at the Danish port of Rodby. In spite of the drizzle men in thick sweaters were sitting by the water fishing. Others were unloading the day’s catch from small boats. Gulls screamed overhead. Life seemed to be continuing as it always had, at times purposeful, more often purposeless. The train resumed its course, gathering speed, grateful to be back in its natural element. Then the Danish border police, the Rigspolitiet, came on board checking passports.
Bunty was nowhere in sight, and I wondered if he had fallen overboard. He had cultivated the habit of reading while walking – perhaps he had ventured too far on the deck? What would I tell his uncle and aunt? Before leaving London, I had phoned them.
“Take him under your wing”, his uncle had advised me. “Bunty has become very cynical. He needs to move among responsible role models, among forward-looking young men of his own generation.”
Later that day an officer of the Rigspolitiet came back.
“We haf fount a friend of yours”.
“Bunty? Where is he?”
“In Germany. In prison.” He studied my face carefully. “He fas tryink to get into Germany. No passporten, no money. But he mentioned your name.”
A few minutes later he was joined by a colleague, apparently a senior officer of some sort. The other passengers were requested to vacate the compartment. Each one eyed me disgustedly before leaving. The officers made themselves comfortable, after first making sure that the door was tightly closed.
“You’re unter arrest”, said Herr S., the senior officer, smiling brightly.
Thus it was that I was taken prisoner soon after my arrival in Denmark. It had been quite a while since I had been in a cell of any kind, and I did not look forward to it. I protested weakly, but my captors were firm. I wondered what Bunty had really been up to. Why would he return to Germany? Perhaps he had been caught smuggling. The friend of his father’s, with the big estate……it was possible that the friend was under investigation.
“How much money haf you kott? And how lonk fill you stay in Dan-mark?” enquired Herr S., his eyes small and hard.
“About a hundred pounds – we had hoped to stay a month.”
Herr S. snorted derisively.
“One hundred pounden. Hotel in Kopenhavn kost thirty pounden. For fun night. Where fill you stay?”
“With a friend of Bunty’s. A country estate outside Copenhagen.”
“Does not metter”, said his junior, Herr J.. “You plan to kom to worken in Dan-mark, yaw?”
“Yaw, yaw”, said Herr S., nodding approvingly. Apparently Herr J.’s intuitions lined up with his own.
It was useless to argue. The Rigspolitiet merely shook their heads, grinning with the imbecilic conviction of people who know they are not fooled easily. Perhaps they were given an extra bonus for catching illegal immigrants. They told me about a group of Sri Lankans who had recently been arrested in Rodby. There had been a period of incarceration followed by a hearing, and then they were deported home. I felt sorry for the Sri Lankans, knowing the circumstances which must have driven them to forsake their lush tropical homeland.
Just then I noticed Bunty’s passport, forgotten by the window sill. As symbols of national identity, passports usually unlock a world of pompous and fairly ridiculous bureaucracy. This one seemed touching and quaint, with its slightly cracked blue cardboard cover and its cheap paper imprinted proudly with the Emperor Ashoka’s Lion Emblem and Buddha’s Wheel of Law, insignia dating back to the third and fifth century B.C. respectively. The passport was full of various solemn injunctions; it requested and required in the name of the President of the Republic of India that the bearer be allowed to pass freely without let or hindrance and that he be offered every assistance and protection of which he might stand in need. I read this intriguing request and requirement aloud to my captors.
Herr J.’s plump fingers snatched the passport out of my grasp, and he spent the next few minutes studying its contents.
“Yaw, does not metter”, said Herr J., with a smile.
It was a long ride to Copenhagen. The policemen did not let me out of their sight, even waiting patiently outside the toilet for me. I found myself growing fond of them. They were quite devoted. I asked for a cup of coffee, and they brought me one. I asked for a cigarette, but they shook their heads, their plump fingers lighting up their own.
“Fifteen kroners a packet”, said Herr J. ominously. “You fill need forken many days to buy fun. And ferry bad for you.”
The Danish countryside sped by, a series of low green hills and tiny little cottages with neat hedgerows. A herd of speckled cows gazed down from a verdant hillside, uncomprehending of human tragedy, and a child waved gaily to us. The rails rattled on below.
The station at Copenhagen was very clean and bright, with flower-filled window-boxes everywhere. I was kept locked in a little room at the railway police office. Around sunset Herr J. fetched me a glass of milk. The milk was delicious, sweet and creamy. I handed the empty glass back to him, wiping my lips with my sleeve. I remembered the speckled cows and felt infinitely grateful. I spent the night huddled on a bunk, using my rucksack for a pillow. Trains came and went in the distance. The next morning my captors and I tried calling the Indian Embassy, but no one cared to answer.
I waited for the hearing. Around noon, there was a knock on the door, and Bunty arrived. He greeted me effusively. I was not particularly glad to see him.
“Awfully sorry, my dear boy. A terrible mistake. I had just finished with L’Etranger and gotten back on the train, only to find it was another train, imagine, two trains, on the same boat, and this one, believe it or not, went back to Germany! To make matters worse, it was chock full of football hooligans returning home from a match in Rodby.”
The two-train story was a little hard to swallow. I told Bunty something to that effect, and it looked like an argument was brewing.
“At least you fill haf some kompany”, said Herr S., rather jovially, leaving the cell.
Bunty grabbed him by the sleeve.
“Do not as yet leave us, I beg you – I need to call Herr Ericsson, Chief of Security for Copenhagen!”
At the mention of the name, Herr S. stiffened. Apparently Ericsson was a friend of Bunty’s father, who was now revealed as a man with vast international connections. After a call to Ericsson and much yaw-yawing, our passports were returned to us and we were set free, after profuse apologies.
Outside the station a beautiful day was in progress. The squares were filled with flowers, and the healthy-looking citizens of Copenhagen walked about in clogs with pleasant smiles on their faces. The sky was a deep northern blue, the cobblestones clattered under our feet, and it felt good to be on the road again.
Copenhagen was then a lively, modern city, with a more distinctly cosmopolitan flavour than other Scandinavian capitals, but also less picturesque, lacking the forested northern beauty of Stockholm or the rustic innocence of Oslo. In contrast to the dull and drunken Swedes and the somber Norwegians, the ham-loving Danes seemed colorful and garrulous, exulting in their guttural tongue, their speech sounding to the uninitiated rather like fishermen gargling with mouthfuls of herrings.
Copenhagen was also, as I had long suspected, the porn capital of the world. No matter where we ventured, we were accosted by naked women offering themselves, on billboards, on bus-stops, in ads for toilet paper. The Danes seemed fascinated by the sight of women shaving themselves, by naked flesh in its various shapes and sizes, by flesh-coloured penile appendages. As I strolled through Christianshavn and Kobmagergade, overtaken by lithe, long haired blondes on foot and on bicycles, and later in cafes under the shadow of church spires, watching them talking to plump cigar-smoking men in dark glasses, it was hard not to imagine they were all in the X-rated movie business.
But pornography was not really uppermost on my mind. In fact, for the first time since setting out, I felt free. After our recent ordeal it was hard not to indulge ourselves. By the time we had bought cigarettes and indulged Bunty by purchasing a Danish edition of Kierkegaard and feasting on a sumptuous smorgasbord, we were down to eighty pounds. A trip to the Langelinie Promenade to see the Little Mermaid, set us back even further. The Mermaid herself seemed innocent, a half-caste child gazing longingly towards the city, unaware of the tragedy that awaited her. Afterwards we wandered down the cobbled lanes of the university, and Bunty insisted on visiting various antique bookshops. A chess match was in progress in the square, under a bronze bust of Niels Bohr.
We watched for a while, smoking more cigarettes and drinking more beer. On the chessboard the pawns went on in their sluggish, expendable way, while the castle-shaped elephants stood in the wings, waiting for the opponent to grow weak. The knights mounted quick cavalry attacks, while each king watched idly from a safe distance. Beyond the chessboard, the sidewalk cafes seemed to care little for the world of military strategy. Everyone was listening to the Eagles belting out a song about the Hotel California. And American tourists were all around.
“Hi, baby, wanna come for a walk?”
The baby being addressed was about twenty one and very pretty. She looked up from the chess match.
“Oh, it’s you, Frankie. Sure, why not?”
The next day began on a somber note. We had spent the night wandering among rowdy beer halls in the Nyhavn district, and now, our energies spent, our throats still burning from draughts of fiery aquavit, we longed for the rest that all travellers seek. After breakfast we counted our money, and found we had just about enough left for a fun night in an inexpensive hotel. It was therefore with some trepidation that I urged Bunty to call Dr. G.. He returned from the phone booth with a perplexed look.
“It’s very odd. He doesn’t seem that keen, somehow. Anyway, he’ll meet us at the train.”
I looked once more at Bunty. Why had I followed him here? We got onto a suburban train and set out in the warm sunshine for the country estate of Tulipanhavn. The tickets left us with only a few odd pounds in our pockets. The countryside was predictably quaint and tidily pretty, and after a long and dull journey we found ourselves on the tiny platform of Tulipanhavn station. Dr. G. was there to meet us. He was a tall, rather gangly Indian in a checked suit, with a two-day old stubble on his chin and a harassed look. I toyed with the idea of returning to the train, but it was too late. Bunty was already at his side, vigorously shaking the man’s hand and introducing me with great aplomb.
“You must be very tired”, Dr. G. said, surveying our scruffy faces. He looked at us nervously. “How long are you visiting Denmark for?”
Bunty and I exchanged glances.
“We haven’t decided”, I said quickly.
His car was waiting at the station. It was a small noisy Lada with red plastic seats.
“Cars are highly expensive in Dan-mark”, said Dr. G.. “We have to make do with Russian ones.”
In all fairness, the suburb of Tulipanhavn had its own charms. It was completely self-contained – it came with a brightly painted ultra-modern supermarket, a day-care center for all those Danish working mothers, many of whom appeared to be unmarried, as well as a post office, a primary school, and a number of futuristic eggshell-shaped bus-stops. People seemed well-dressed and content. The women had blonde hair and blue eyes and wore tight clothing. They had firm bodies but dull eyes.
Dr. G.’s house was a small two-bedroomer. He had built it himself, he told us, things being highly expensive in Dan-mark. On the second day, Dr. G. sat us down on the imitation-leather sofa and offered to cut a deal with us.
“You boys can stay”, he said magnanimously. “Until your money comes in, of course.”
He lit up a cigarette, without offering us one.
“But, my dear fellows, you will have to work. Otherwise your minds will rot.”
And work we did. In the mornings we weeded and watered his little garden plot. I mastered the art of pruning rose bushes. And mowing the lawn and plucking strawberries. In a few days my hands were covered with callouses. Bunty seemed not to mind in the least. He performed his gardening chores with the intense concentration of some medieval monk conducting genetic experiments. He was even more withdrawn than before, muttering about golden lemons and repeating lines from Camus. We spoke to not a soul – the telephone never rang – as we worked diligently on in the weak northern sunlight.
In the afternoons we had a brief respite. We listened to Radio Luxembourg for an hour and smoked the one and only cigarette we had for the day. Then we took our showers, making sure afterwards to polish and dry every single tile in the bathroom. Dr. G. usually inspected the day’s work as soon as he came home. If there were traces of anything on the tiles, soap scum, mildew, loose hairs or whatever, we had to start all over again.
“The idle mind”, said Dr. G., wagging his finger at us, “is the devil’s workshop.”
In the evenings, after cooking his dinner, we made tea for him. He had very strict instructions about this. It was to be prepared in the North Indian style, Brooke Bond Red Label tea leaves cooked with milk and sugar. Tea was to be served to him in a specially glazed Royal Porcelain cup. Under no circumstances were we to substitute another cup, nor were we to rinse the cup with a detergent of any kind. He pointed to a rich layer of ochre-coloured sediment along the inside surface.
“I like the taste”, he said with an odd laugh. “It grows on you.”
The evening tea ritual must have been the high point of his life. He had recently been divorced from his Danish wife, and given his circumscribed social world he must have been lonely. It may not have been that bad for him to come home to a favorite cup of tea, with two able young men completely at his beck and call.
It was a difficult period in my life. Dr. G. was a most unworthy host. Unfortunately I had not enough money to return. I had wired my bank in England for more, and they in turn were waiting for a monthly check from home. Until that arrived, I had nowhere to go.
Bunty, on the other hand, had a few weeks to kill before leaving Europe for good. I suppose he could have departed earlier, but he may not have cared to do so – returning home meant a further loss of freedom for him, since he would then be finally at the mercy of his parents – which meant that he would end up sitting up on the terrace of his parents’ house in New Delhi, drinking Chivas, and watching the dust come in over the city.
Oddly enough, Bunty didn’t seem that unhappy in his Copenhagen estate: he went on with his chores, seemingly at peace with himself. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him – here was a man who was completely and utterly divorced from his roots. Unsure of his place in the modern world, he had turned his lonely life into an elaborate farce. I wished something would turn up to give his life meaning – a love affair, an awakening to the sheer joy, however ephemeral, of being alive. But he seemed set in his ways, content with other people’s discoveries, in his case the visions of Camus and company. He talked now and then about a novel, but I never saw him write a word.
I did not so much mind my transformation to the status of an ordinary household servant – for my foolhardy adventurousness I certainly deserved a fate like that. It simply reinforced the intermittent feeling of ridiculousness that seemed to characterize my life in those days. But it was the brief period of promotion to Dr. G.’s companion and confidante every evening which I resented. He came in every evening looking worn out and irritable, eager for his cup of tea. After a noisy susurrus of a sip, he would begin by telling us his favorite stories. There were really only two of them. Both of them ended with a bang.
One had to do with him hunting in the Tehri Garhwal hills of northern India. Once, in the evening twilight, he saw a spectacular sambhar standing on a clifftop, silhouetted against the sunset. He painfully climbed the cliff, continuing to climb while darkness fell. Eventually he reached the top, to find the deer still standing there. Looking him straight in the eye, it advanced towards him. He had never seen such an expression in an animal’s face. The first shot missed. The second shot caught the buck in between the eyes, and it went crashing down into the forest. He tried in vain to find the body. It was the finest sambhar he had ever hunted.
The other story was closer to home. In daily life Dr. G. was, despite his highly frugal existence, the Chief Engineer of the Copenhagen Electric Company. He told us how one of his men had gone down to the power unit one day to deal with a circuit fault. The worker forgot to put on the warning light indicating that he was in there, and just as he was touching a 40,000 volt line, someone threw the switch.
Dr. G. pointed to the wall, his hand lightly tracing the surface.
“Five fingers”, he said, “that’s all that was left of Svensen”.
“You mean his fingers themselves were not burnt – everything else was?”, Bunty asked, feigning interest.
“No”, said Dr. G., shaking his head, shuddering afresh at the terrible memory of the accident. “Only five finger marks. Just like this.”
He dipped his fingers in the ash tray and ran them lightly against the wall, leaving the smudges there for an instant before carefully wiping them off with a napkin. It was interesting to think of this primitive handprint, not on some cave wall but in the heart of a modern power station.
Each evening, we heard the tale of Svensen. Dr. G. was clearly obsessed. I began to wonder if he had not some more critical role in the event – perhaps he had been the one who had flipped the switch? But by the end of our stay the repetitions had taken their toll. We found ourselves caring little for Svensen and his fiery fate; it was now of no more consequence than the fate of a lighted cigarette.
Midway through our stay, Dr. G. invited a friend over for dinner. A fellow Indian, naturally; a Mr. Mehta, an engineer who had arrived with him years earlier. Mr. Mehta arrived with his Danish wife, who sported a smart crew-cut. Mr. Mehta was dressed in a velvet jacket and smoked a pipe and spoke with a thick Danish accent. He hated Dan-mark, yet he had spent twenty-five years there and had married a Danish woman. And from the looks of it, his wife was not particularly fond of India.
“I went there once”, she told me. “It was disgustingly dirty. But I loved the temples. And those sculptures at Khajuraho!”
She rolled her eyes in mock admiration, as if to acknowledge the impossibility of ever rivaling the sexual feats of those figures frozen in stone.
“But Dan-mark is not for young men like you.”, Mehta told us, smiling. “Not even Eng-land. After your studies you should go to Amerika.”
He pronounced the word as if it was some magical incantation. I had a sudden vision of myself on board a ship for the fabled Amerika, standing on deck looking out for a new land, determined to find my fortune. It seemed quite amusing at the time. Like Bunty and his password, our visitor was assuming a shared world, in which everyone was after the same thing. In fact, a few years later I would be standing on the windy coast of Maine looking out over the sea to Europe. I would travel up and down North America, admiring from a safe distance the madcap culture of the New World.
One Friday, near the end of our stay, Dr. G. arrived home very early, around noon.
“Get dressed”, he told us brusquely. “We’re going out.”
I shrugged, and put on my sneakers. A prisoner does not really care where he is being taken, unless there is the possibility of escape; the prospect of a drive to the ultra-modern supermarket was utterly unexciting. But it soon became clear that we were heading in a different direction. Towards Copenhagen. In fact, to the Tivoli Gardens.
The Tivoli Gardens of Copenhagen are more than an amusement park. They possess a certain youthful innocence, appropriate for a place where the leisured fairs of the old world first met the monstrous mechanical wizardry of the new. In spite of an instinctive distrust for contrived pleasures, I found myself attracted to something there. It wasn’t the rattle and clang of the big rides, nor the quiet marksmanship of rifles and rings and hoops. Nor was it the sight of distorting mirrors or of townfolk pathetically disguised in period costumes, nor the whistles of tiny trains that chugged along past cleverly conceived scenery, nor the bombastic marching bands accompanying endless processions of exhausted toy soldiers; nor was it the sticky sweetness of candy floss or the foaming tankards in singalong taverns, nor even the fountains and pagodas and fairy palaces and fireworks that lit up the stage and sky. It was something else, something closer to the heart of human experience, a sensation of lightheaded satiety which can only be experienced if you lie on a slope under a pine tree and hear the wind and watch the long lines of people shuffling towards the attractions, the children riding high on strong shoulders, the women with bright lipstick glowing with ice cream, the couples and families and solitary visitors shuffling on like refugees towards a horizon filled with the turning of giant wheels.
It was at the Tivoli Gardens that we discovered Dr. G.’s secret: he was in love. A beautiful middle-aged woman with green eyes, very shy and sweet, at the same time rather elegant, much as I imagined Lee Remick to be. Her name was Katerina. We left them holding hands in the candlelight. The next day we found him changed. Flushed with his prize, he began to overflow with kindness. But we could not avail of this new hospitality. Bunty’s flight to Asia was getting ready in Amsterdam. There was no sign of my bank draft, and so, the next night, Bunty managed to coax a reuctant loan out of him, and we at last packed our things and set off after a firm farewell.
Before leaving Denmark we stopped once more at the Tivoli Gardens. It started to rain soon after we got there. A girl came by with a flyer, her hair and T-shirt completely drenched. She was young, sixteen, maybe seventeen, and beautiful, her moist hair the colour of fresh corn, her eyes a deep piercing blue, innocence written all over her dripping face. She held a soggy newspaper over her head, and said her name was Debra and that she was from L.A.., and that she was a child of God.
There was nothing we could do but follow her, our hearts beating faster at every step. She took us down to a little house by a canal in Christianshavn, and there we met the other children.
The Children of God began with the Twenty Third Psalm. They were assembled in a little sitting-room with a bustling fireplace and an atmosphere of feverish sexuality. The Lord is my shepherd, they chanted, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. I was at a loss for words, so Debra snuggled up and shared her book with me, her child’s finger innocently pointing out the text. I looked into her trusting eyes as her tender lips uttered words which were at once simple and powerful.
“I will be your shepherd”, Bunty whispered to Debra around midnight. They disappeared into another room, and I was left to recite the Lord’s Prayer with a group of elderly and apparently neurotic Danish men. When we left an hour later I didn’t bother to ask Bunty what happened, but I noticed Debra bidding him a neutral, unsentimental farewell.
Amsterdam was another world, of quiet water and sleek shadows. We walked by the canals and stood on bridges eating bread and cheese. Boats with waving tourists bobbed gently by like bathtub toys. We sat and smoked in shady corners where the light fell obliquely on the houses of the old Dutch burghers. In the dappled light these rather stolid buildings, reflected in the gently lapping water, assumed graceful, fluid proportions, creating the illusion of a marvelous, parallel world.
Later, we dropped in on the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum, and then walked into the Dam Square. It was an international bazaar. Nigerian pushers tried to sell us dope, and there we met Anurag, a friend of Bunty’s from Delhi who had turned smuggler. He was living with a German woman junkie in the Hague, and had come down to Amsterdam to supplement his income.
“I’ll show you around the dives, man”, said Anurag.
But we were both tired of this kind of talk, and bade Anurag farewell.
Instead we wandered into the red light district, admiring the poise of young Indonesian whores seated quietly by telephones in shop windows. Their colleagues called out to us, inviting us in. I met an American art student who claimed to be supporting herself by playing part-time hooker. Or perhaps she was an American hooker claiming to be an art student. It didn’t really matter.
Eventually I saw Bunty off at the station, bound for Schiphol Airport. The whistle blew, and he climbed up, dragging his suitcase with him.
“Dolente dolore”, he whispered softly.