BY MEL MASSEY
Copyright is held by the author.
THE SALVATION Army Hostel was my second choice for a place to stay in Calcutta. It was late in the summer of 1969 and I was looking forward to resting up after the sweltering train ride across India from Delhi. At the first hotel, when I returned to my room from a walk and turned on the light, chunky black cockroaches scuttled out of my open knapsack. In a flash, I was downstairs at the desk turning in my key.
I walked over to the old hostel I had seen on my walk. It was nearby and had a free room in the basement; the two low cots were a few metres apart.
I was going to have a roommate; a Canadian. I was accustomed to sharing rooms that summer so it didn’t even occur to me that bunking with a stranger for a few days could be an issue.
I put my knapsack on the floor next to the bed on the right side of the room planning to sleep with my head opposite the bottom of the other bed. Then I went out to eat. There was an open sewer in the street outside the hostel and over the next days several times I noted water flowing down the channel. I didn’t think it channeled human waste because there wasn’t an unusually foul odour.
My first supper in Calcutta was greasy pieces of lamb on a bed of grey rice.
He was lying on the other cot when I got back, clean-cut with short brownish hair, probably late twenties, looking about a decade older than me. I remember the crease in his pants and his polished boots up on the bed. He was from Vancouver staying in Calcutta indefinitely. It was unclear what he was doing there although I gathered it had to do with drugs.
He spoke in curiously clipped sentences and continued to hold a book in his lap. His speech and the way in his eyes drifted away at intervals in our conversation signalled he wasn’t interested in communicating. The old blue tome had the illustration of a train on the cover. The fellow had a ‘D’ name’; Dexter, Damien, maybe Derek.
He said there were shops a few streets over and they would ship stuff back to Canada. I was looking for something for Linda in Nova Scotia. This casual girl friend had sent flimsy blue aerogramme letters addressed to me at ‘Post Restante’ at several cities across my path from Europe to India. In Teheran, my cousin saw me put one of her letters aside unread and asked “nervous?”
The next morning my roommate was silent, not looking up from his book. He hadn’t shaved when I came down after breakfast.
Over the next days I explored Calcutta energetically, walking through the crowds or taking busses that ran lopsided under the weight of people hanging off the outside platforms. I visited the family of the girlfriend of a friend of mine in a large run-down house.
The girlfriend had visited me unannounced in my room in Montreal. Evidently, my friend had told her I was planning to travel to Calcutta that summer. After chatting for a while I noticed that one side of her blouse had slipped down showing a pale nipple. I didn’t take the hint but wrote down her family’s address in Calcutta.
Several young women in saris sat me at a tiny table in the middle of a room and peppered me with questions. I was ravenous but didn’t give me anything to eat. I thought they were really interested in their sister’s sexual activities. Even at my age of twenty-one it struck me as an unhealthy interest.
A fellow I met somewhere, a tall muscular Frenchman in a tight green shirt without sleeves, asked me to view his penis in the washroom of a restaurant. He was afraid he had caught VD from his girlfriend who worked as a prostitute and bought him gifts like that top. I asked him why she was with him. He replied in French that she said that she loved him. I told him that his member seemed alright but I wasn’t a doctor. It bothered me that he was relying on my opinion.
I got lost one night and the directions I received took me through increasingly dark and run-down areas. Finally, I found a uniformed policeman who led me back to the hostel. I was surprised how far away it was. I tried to tip the man but with a small bill he held up his hands in refusal. However, I saw his open hand behind his back as he walked away. That hand closed immediately on the money but my saviour didn’t turn, just continued walking into the night.
A few days later my roommate was increasingly scruffy, his shirt and pants were rumpled and he was always lying down. He had one of those angelic complexions and smooth faces that appear particularly brutish when unshaven. He scarcely bothered to reply when I asked how he was doing.
Then I met Earl by chance on a nearby street and brought him to the basement room. He was a McGill student I had hitch-hiked with through Europe on the way to Istanbul to meet my brother and cousin on our way overland to India. I didn’t know then that Earl was the son of an Ottawa real estate tycoon who had given him a credit card. After Calcutta, he was able to fly back directly from Calcutta to Europe. No more summer diarrhoea for Earl!
My friend and my roommate seemed to hit it off, sitting face to face on the roommate’s bed smoking dope and making plans to meet later in the evening. I wasn’t included in the plans and didn’t know where they were going.
After that that day, I didn’t understand much of what the roommate said when he did speak. He was either incoherent or monosyllabic. One afternoon I told him I’d try to ‘get on his wavelength’ by smoking some of his hashish. It didn’t help and we ended up completely silent. The railway book wasn’t a topic of discussion. It was an Indian effort from early in the twenties filled with dorky illustrations and stilted English text.
I stopped talking to the fellow. Meanwhile his appearance continued to degenerate and his bristly face seemed wrinkled and much older, something like the character in Oscar Wilde’s classic novel ‘Portrait of Dorian Grey’.
On my last night in Calcutta it had become even hotter and I was reading on my cot, in my underpants, no top. The fan pushed down breaths of warm air from the ceiling.
When I got up to get materials to write a letter I saw my roommate was lying on his side staring at me with unblinking eyes. I continued to ignore him but there was growing tension in my body. Maybe I was showing muscles to frighten him off.
Keeping my eyes to myself, from my knapsack I took out a blue aerogramme form, a pencil and my cheap knife with a wooden handle. I unfolded the single blade and started to sharpen the pencil.
The voice across the distance between the two cots was hoarse and distant.
“That’s a mighty fine knife,” he said.
“I bought it in Herat in a bazaar. It’s good for peeling fruit.”
“Get out,” he grated. It was silent in the underground room except for the slight noise of the fan overhead.
“What are you saying? I paid for this room. I have the right to stay here.” I heard myself start to bluster.
“You’d better get out right now” he repeated. His eyes were fixed on me. I felt exposed in my underpants and bare chest.
I asked him what the problem was and he said something about me and my “queer friends.”
I said I wasn’t homosexual and was undressed only because I was hot. I started scrawling on the letter form, my neck bent but eyes up, monitoring him while I digested the information about my friend.
“Get out of here. I won’t be responsible.”
“Where am I supposed to go at night?” I said.
My fear hit a tipping point then and my mind became frigid cold. I was filled with an almost unbearable rage and tensed-up prepared to fight. I glared the stranger’s blank face and glassy eyes. I don’t know what I would have done in that hot room in the basement of the hostel if he had come at me or even gotten off his bed.
“I’m staying,” I said and put away the incomplete letter and knife. I lay down and pulled the sheet up to my neck.
I don’t know how but I fell asleep immediately.
In the morning, he was still staring at me.
I said I was getting out, stuffed my clothes into the knapsack and went upstairs.
After a breakfast of rolls, jam and milky Indian tea, I went downstairs for my pack. Silently, he looked up at me over the train book, it was upside down.