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Oct/Nov 1998 Fiction

Balancing Act

by Anjana Basu


The black and white lines of nuns wavered in and out of our childhood as they wavered up and the down the white verandas of school. Old nuns bent out of the vertical into inverted vees, muttering and chewing as they passed. We were careful to avoid them when we saw them because they were apt to lash out with their walking sticks at any skirt that they thought was too short. Others were unpredictable. They had been known to spit out little balls of exercise book paper while they stared ahead with fixed devotional eyes, rolling down the corridors as if they had wheels instead of feet. Tultul was fascinated by one with little white wisps of hair sticking out of her chin. "See, see," she'd nudge whenever she saw her, "she has a beard!" And she'd stare at her until Sister Dolores was well out of sight. It was embarrassing for the rest of us because, whatever else was wrong with her, there was nothing wrong with Sister Dolores’ hearing or eyesight, and Tultul could be relied on to say everything in a high pitched squeak that only she thought was discreet.

Luckily for our composure, these accidents of the sisterhood were usually confined to the verandas overlooking the central courtyard where there were few classrooms. However, we always knew they were lurking there like ominous black punctuations to our day. "If you don't get married," said the older girls darkly, "you’ll end up like them," but that was after they had passed through the wanting to be nuns phase and cajoled lace veils out of their parents so that they could drape their heads with them and pretend to be Catholic.

Everyone wanted to be a nun at some time. We collected holy pictures and holographic stickers with appropriate religious fervour, made easier by the fact that the nuns handed them out for good marks in class. You could rummage through most of the desks in class and find a rosary or a luminous plastic statue of the Virgin. Sister Mary Rose, who could easily have been a fashion model, had a following of sighing girls who jostled each other to carry her hymnbooks. Sister Agnes with the grey eyes, who took Moral Science, was declared to be an inspiration and a Mother Teresa in the making. The only problem was the old ones who stalked the inner corridors. "You think they're aberrations? A kind of failure of grace?" Tultul wanted to know, walking backwards down a corridor, staring hard at Sister Dolores. We couldn't answer because she walked backwards hard into Miss Tham and got herself a black mark.

There were the old nuns, and then there was Paulina. To be polite, we called her Sister Paulina. She had apparently stayed a novice all her life, because she hadn't been deemed worthy or hadn't had the requisite balance required of a nun. Sometimes she took singing when Sister Andrea was ill, and we would stare fascinatedly at her fluorescent yellow teeth while she ran up and down the do-re-mi-fa. Because she wasn't a nun, she wore a long blue dress with a heavy silver crucifix, but we were all certain that she belonged in the inner corridors with the strange ones. Perhaps it was the way she bounced down a strip of corridor like an anchorless dirigible, a blundering holy blimp or an airship of grace.

Children fix on a physical peculiarity and allow it to shape their response to a person, and, unlike adults, are not governed by any hypocrisies or niceties of behaviour. We all sang our worst in Sister Paulina's classes, and it was only because we were far too busy trying to catch a glimpse of her yellow teeth or confuse her into dropping her loose song sheets. She was so ridiculous as she scrabbled for them on the floor, completely losing her place in the song, and thereby being distracted for the rest of the period, which, with our help, turned into a paper chase through the school hall. She had this air of moon-faced helplessness that spurred us onto unbelievable heights of misconduct. Our shrieks echoed across the compound from the hall, and, after one of those outbursts, our class conduct chart usually sported a rash of black marks awarded by the other teachers who had given up trying to talk us into reasonableness. Every time we heard one of those, "Now, children, Paulina has led a very unfortunate life..." we shut our ears and looked hard at the compass scratches on our desks.

Unfortunate lives were things related to the children in the poor school, who seemed to do nothing but make endless dusters for our parents to buy. We hadn't even seen the children in the poor school. As for Calcutta, while it whined around our ears at every traffic light and garbage dump, it didn't affect us. Our cars took us from our clean, comfortable homes to our not so clean and not so comfortable but very privileged school. Once in a while our mothers took home the stacks of Sonarpur dusters, and we went around virtuously comparing notes about whose mother had bought how many. Whenever we saw Paulina trailing beggar children down the road from the paan shop, we usually looked very hard at our glassy orange ice cream rockets or lost ourselves completely in our bags of popcorn.

Unfortunate, yes, in a sense that could be used to describe Paulina's life, because it was certainly one of life's unfortunate balancing acts that stranded Paulina in a convent.

 

In the 1930’s, even though it wasn't the second city of the British Empire, Calcutta was still the most exciting city east of the Suez. It was fast, glamorous and incredibly sophisticated. The P&O would deliver letters from England to those unfortunate enough to be stranded at the Venetian Bar in Firpo’s. People would stagger in from the Strand and sink themselves in tall glasses filled with enough ice to sink a battleship and cold enough to help them forget how far away they were from home. Calcutta's nightlife anaesthetized them. Russian refugees flocked there from Shanghai and Singapore looking for quicker overland routes to the Continent. There were princes destined to end their days as waiters, and countesses who propped up the walls at Flury's tea dances, hoping that someone would scrape them off the stucco mouldings and take them home.

And then there was the winter of the Russian Circus. All at once, a strange world unfurled itself under ballooning green and pink and white canvas. There were hungry Siberian tigers, whose roars made the whores on Karaya Road shudder deliciously at night and demand tiger skin coats from their more affluent lovers. White Orlov trotters paced up and down the grassy patches, and huge Cossacks, who claimed to have driven several Tsarinas down the Nevsky Prospect, were found elbowing the crowds aside in the bazaar. It was a world that even the wickedest city east of the Suez found fascinating. For a while, it actually held its breath, distracted the way a child is by a new glittering plaything. Sophisticates jaded by too many races and too much polo rejoiced at the prospect of slumming it on the rough wooden benches, while their privileged heels dabbled in sawdust. Ladies with scarlet tipped fingers exchanged their cigarette holders for puffs of pink candyfloss and laughed at the way the sugar licked their little pointed noses.

The ceiling of that great canvas balloon was hung with spun sugar chandeliers, and under those chandeliers glittered the thin wire of the tightrope walkers. There, every afternoon at three and every evening at seven, Ivan and Irina displayed their precarious art.

There would be a fanfare of trumpets followed by the trembling crash of cymbals, and all at once, Irina would appear on the high wire as if she had slid there down a chandelier beam. She was all flame and gold firebird feathers and stood poised in mid air, held up, it seemed by nothing more substantial than light. Ivan’s appearance was less mysterious. He swung to her on a trapeze and snatched her away as she pirouetted on the tip of one elegant toe. The rest of the act was her struggle and flight. She would somersault away from him back onto the wire, only to be snatched up again.

You can watch a pair of swifts doing the same thing on a summer evening, darting in and out under the eaves, chasing each other, somersaulting with the speed of light and changing direction. But swifts, being birds, have wings. Ivan and Irina did not. And the marvel was that they performed their act without a net. Before the trumpets and the cymbals, the ringmaster would march in and demand absolute silence, because what was being shown was very, very dangerous. Few people realised it, of course, because, like birds, they were effortless, hanging there from the petalled centre of the tent and inviting Calcutta to watch them at play.

On the ground, Irina was very different. She had long arms and legs, but a barrel body and a broad aggressive sweep of nose. You could see her at four-o clock sitting on a box outside her tent, wearily wiping the greasepaint from her face. The only way you could tell it was her was by the firebird plumes that she still wore. At first, seen on her glittering height, she had caused quite a flutter in the hearts of several men who considered themselves well-versed in the ways of the world. The flutter lasted for as long as it took for word of her grounded image to spread; then it was hastily transferred to the blonde sugarplum fairy who put the trotters through their paces.

Ivan at close quarters was a fairly ordinary man, who happened to move with the fluidity of an alley cat. Even if you didn’t see his face—and there was nothing much about his face to see—you could always pick him out by his walk. It had about it a suggestion of dark nights and dangerous encounters, as if he would suddenly startle on his points, pirouette perfectly and flow up a wall or a tree.

But if Ivan seemed to move as if he had invisible wings on his shoulder blades, that was very far from the truth. Of the two, he was the far more vulnerable, and he was the one who slid through Irina's hands one afternoon, over the heads of a crowd of schoolchildren, to crash on the sawdust of the ring. At first, no one took it in. The noise he made when he hit sounded like an extra crack of wind-whipped canvas. And then there was a gradual realisation that something was wrong, a realisation that spread and widened from a murmur to a scream. Perhaps, after all, it wasn't vulnerability, but luck.

By the time the Russian circus furled its striped tents and rolled out of Calcutta, Ivan's bones still had not knit. They left him beached on the iron bed of one of the charity hospitals with Irina at his side. It might have helped if she had been prettier—there would have been a more generous flow of donations from concerned admirers. However, it was obvious that Ivan's mid-air whirling days were over. His broken bones would never meld into their old, flexible whole. Conferences of doctors shook their heads over his prostrate form and went on to more promising patients.

It was autumn before he could balance himself on two crutches and stagger out into the hospital garden to look at the ripe blue October skies.

Irina, in the meantime, had found herself a job in the can-can line of the Trocadero, Park Street's answer to the nightclubs of Montmarte. Today the Trocadero is a dark fleapit, where the girls from Free School Street bring their customers at lunchtime, and where the advertising crowd goes for a quick, dirty high. In those days it had walls frescoed with scenes from life in Paris, a famous lunchtime buffet, and the even more famous high-kicking frill, animated can-can troupe that was supposed to be the most authentic outside Paris. It was run by a hostess more dark-voiced than Piaf, who wore three coats of mascara even at breakfast. Dominique recognized a kindred spirit in Irina and put her into the chorus line, where she spread herself in endless splits and somersaults. Surprisingly, in her frilled skirt, she managed to look French. Whatever she earned paid the rent on the two-room flat she found in Lindsay Street.

By spring Ivan had joined her in an apache dance, which was publicized on large billboards outside the Trocadero. Dominique had persuaded The Statesman to write a scandalized denunciation of the dance, which brought even more elegant spaghetti-strapped shoulders rubbing against each other in the nightclub. Some nights the place was so packed that there was a crowd on the pavement outside, jostling each other as they peered through the swing doors.

 

You could almost mistake the pictures for Paris: a couple in black-striped jerseys, berets on their heads, one brandishing a knife, with a silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the background. Certainly no one looking at it now would say that it was taken in Calcutta. Ivan and Irina were in demand. The manager of Firpo's tried to tempt them away. The newly renovated Grand Hotel offered them a boite of their own, a sort of Russian Tea Room. But no matter how good the offers, they stayed loyally with Dominique. There was a photograph of Dominique, too, sheathed in black, with eyes that cracked like a whip. And there was a third photograph, a shot of two little girls with sepia splotches of rouge on their cheeks, in what she said was "fairy tale costume with lots of feathers." Three inky studies that were fast turning brown with age. They looked odd, those photographs, tucked in the middle of a brightly coloured jumble of holy pictures, a cheap print of the Sacred Heart, a Raphael Madonna and an autograph of Mother Teresa's.

Tultul found them by accident helping Paulina carry a stack of exercise books to her room. She knew she had done her music exam badly and was hoping to scrape a few grace marks for good behaviour. Costumes and photographs meant nothing to Tultul, who had no sense of history whatsoever. "Is that you?" she'd asked, pointing at the browning Irina, and Paulina had blushed and bridled in a manner both coy and annoyed. "My mother," she had apparently confessed.

"It can't be her mother," Tultul had declared positively, eyes open wide in indignation. "She was wearing a short skirt." In those days we were convinced that nuns slid straight down from the sky, perfectly attired down to the silver rings on their left hands. That nuns could have mothers, and that those mothers, too, could wear short skirts, had not previously occurred to us.

We decided that Paulina was lying for some unspecified reason, and we chose to take it out on her through the next few singing classes. "A nun shouldn't lie," we told each other virtuously. Sentimental adults and the Bible will tell you that children are tender, innocent sprigs of mortality, who should not be offended in case their spiritual growth is stunted, but there is nothing crueler than a pack of children in pursuit of someone they perceive to be abnormal. Paulina fumbled, blushed, forgot the words of her song and finally had to call Sister Magdalene in from the canteen to help her keep order. We dropped into an instant hush the moment Sister Magdalene's sharp heels tapped into the hall, but that did not save us. She handed out black marks with a liberality that earned us the wrath of our House Captains at the next meeting. We were also summoned to Mother Provincial's office.

To be summoned there was the ultimate disgrace. It only happened at extreme moments, like the time Shyamolima Gupta dressed up the biology skeleton in a paper hat and red skirt, or when Noyona Tagore walked into Assembly with an ape cut and pink nail polish, or when the whole of Class Ten locked Sister Monica out of ethics class. It was not that there was anything especially terrifying about Mother Provincial. She hardly spoke to us beyond acknowledging our good mornings. But she had the weight of distance and authority that terrified us more than anything else. Around her office everyone moved in whispers.

Even then she did not have very much to say. She neither chided us for our disgraceful behaviour nor sent for the board to award us more black marks. All she said was that from now on, Paulina would not be taking us for singing anymore, because Paulina had decided that she could do more good at the poor school in Sonarpur. "The children there will appreciate her talents more than you seem to do. Instead, Sister Dolores will be taking you from now on, with Sister Magdalene sitting in until I decide that her presence is no longer necessary."

And so Paulina and her unfortunate life vanished among the stacks of red and white dusters. And Tultul was doomed to count the hairs on Sister Dolores' chin through every singing class without being able to open her mouth, because Sister Magdalene's presence was a powerful deterrent.

 

Irina and Ivan had two daughters: Alexandra and Ivana. When they were small and supple, they somersaulted into luncheon cabarets at the Trocadero, or, complete with feathers, did a pastiche of the Firebird at tea sessions. Our mothers said that you could hire them to perform at birthday parties, and that they were all the rage among the smart set until the portable cinema screen took over. It was hard to imagine that holy dirigible turning slow somersaults until the tears were squeezed out of her kohl rimmed eyes, and the mascara ran, sporting the tail feathers of a pheasant or some such bird, but we had our mothers as witnesses. Ivan and Irina grew old, and Dominique, finding post-Independence Calcutta a staid, dull place, sold the Trocadero and returned to France. Whatever money there was trickled away like time, like sand, as the engagements grew less frequent. Alexandra, the better looking of the two daughters, took her rouge and eyeshadow into the dark corners of five star hotel lobbies and was arrested several times. Ivana, however, had nothing to commend her beyond her knowledge of music and, as she grew older, a compulsive devotion to her faith. Her parents begged the nuns to look after her, and, in a fit of charity, one of the Mother Provincials had agreed.

Paulina's unfortunate life afflicted us until the Trocadero and the firebird feathers, normally the trappings of a fairy tale, assumed the proportions of red rags flaunted in a bullring. "Let them learn about misfortune," Mother Provincial had apparently decreed to our mothers. You can never teach children about the misfortune of others. They have to learn it for themselves.

The problem was, we never really understood it until we were shamed into some kind of understanding by adulthood, and perhaps not even then. As Tultul said, "Well, she wasn't really a nun after all. I mean they said she didn't have the right sort of mental balance."

 

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