"I thought you would like to go to a meeting tonight," the sergeant said. Mr. Eldridge learns about principles and freedom in Calcutta.
A Short Story by HOWARD FAST
IT WAS one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade but I walked I back to the Press Club because I had principles, and one of them was that I would not be drawn by a man who serves the function of a beast. I had lately come from the north, where sometimes it was one hundred and forty degrees in the shade, but it was dry there, and in an hour you could dehydrate yourself completely, yet never get a drop of moisture on your shirt. It was not dry here; it was wet, and I got wet, underwear, shirt, pants and all. So I plodded along most uncomfortably, only stopping once in a while beside the ghats, to watch the carefree natives swimming and diving. It looked cool and inviting, but I tempered my envy with the superior knowledge that these were the most carefully sponsored disease-breeders on earth. It was good to be a white man, wise and knowledgeable--an American among white men, which is even better--and to be able to shower and shave and put on clean clothes and order a Tom Collins and sit under an electric fan while I sipped it.
There, at a quarter to five, and feeling comfortably cool, I was starting on the second one when the sergeant came along and sat down next to me and asked me what I was doing that night.
"Right here," I said, "I intend to have one more drink before dinner, and then I will have my dinner, and then I will return here and have enough drinks to become pleasantly drunk, and then I will go to bed."
"It's a tough war, Mr. Eldridge," the sergeant said.
"For some it is," I agreed. I liked the sergeant, but he was bound to educate me. He was in Signal Service, and getting over something in the general hospital across the road. Now he was at the end of the cure and able to get out each evening, and he liked the food in the Press Club better than what they gave him at the hospital.
"I thought you would like to go to a meeting tonight," he said apologetically, "because there are some people here who would like to see you and talk to you, because you're an American writer, I mean. I mean, there are some trade union people and some writers, and they would like to talk to you."
"That's fine, " I said. "That's fine."
"I mean you don't have to go if you don't want to go, but I told them I thought you would."
"You told them that?"
"Well, I've been eating on you, so I thought something like this--"
"Look, I walked four miles to get back here, and then I took a shower, and now I feel comfortable and cool for the first time today."
"Why didn't you take a rickshaw?"
I explained carefully and slowly that I did not like to be drawn by a man as by a beast. It was a principle, a very small principle. I explained to the sergeant that I still had to have a principle--just one small principle.
"India disturbs you," the sergeant agreed sympathetically. "Some people are sensitive about the Far East, and then it disturbs them."
"I mean, I'm sorry it should disturb you this way, because there's so much that's interesting about it."
"I don't doubt it," I said. "When I was in Old Delhi, I used to walk past a factory sometimes, and I noticed that the boys who came off the day shift would gather under a lamp-post, and one of them would try to teach the others to read. So I wrote a letter to the commissioner, pointing out how commendable such eagerness for literacy was, and didn't he think he ought to do something about it?"
He never answered your letter," the sergeant said. "Well, neither would Mayor LaGuardia."
"He answered my letter. He said he was having a stronger bulb put in the lamp-post. I suppose you don't believe that?"
"I believe it," the sergeant nodded. "It's a funny land, but very interesting, if you're interested in human nature, I mean. If you don't come with me tonight, I got to go anyway, but you can get a jeep and I can't."
SO HE stayed to eat with me, and I went with him. The Brass who ate at the Press Club were made uncomfortable by enlisted men at the table--which was understandable--but they never said anything about it, and I knew that sooner or later the sergeant would get better, and they would send him back to putting up telephone wires. I had once asked the sergeant how it was that he seemed to know everyone in Calcutta--native people, not Americans or British--and in Bombay and Delhi, and in Rangoon too, and even as far up north as Yenan; but he only answered that he always made acquaintances, and people were pretty much the same anyway, if you were interested in their problems. "I'm interested in the problems," he said.
After dinner, Johnny, who was a native driver, pulled out the jeep, and we got in with two wire service men and a Tenth Airforce Captain. At that time, the lights were not yet on in Calcutta, even though certain blackout restrictions were being relaxed, and there were still very few street signs; but Johnny knew the city the way you knew the palm of your hand, and you just told him where to go and he took you there. We dropped off the other three and then turned into a working-class district of semi-detached houses, driving slowly until the sergeant said:
"Here it is."
I told Johnny to return at half past ten, and we walked up the steps of a small stucco building, the kind that are almost a basic unit out there, two entrances and divided into four small three room apartments. Before we went inside, I asked the sergeant:
"What are these people--Reds?"
"What do you mean, Reds?"
"I mean, are they Communists?"
"Some are and some aren't. Some of them publish the magazine of the Bengal Literary Society. They're good people, and they want to talk with you."
"It will be a pleasure to talk with them. We're out of bounds, aren't we?"
"Maybe a little."
Then he knocked on the door, and it opened and we went inside, and I wondered how it felt to have your throat cut in a dark corner of Calcutta. But after we were inside, I felt better about that, and saw that they were nice people, just as the sergeant had said. Everyone said hello, and then we sat down, and a girl brought us lemonade, and there was a big tray of cookies and sweet candies that looked like orange-colored pretzels. There was also an old electric fan on the ceiling, and that made it not quite so unpleasantly hot as it might have been.
Besides the sergeant and me, there were eight men in the room--the girl went out after she had passed around the drinks--and all but one of them were Indian. The one who wasn't Indian was a British corporal; his name was Hurley, and he had a Cockney accent, and he had behind him a year and a half in Burma. This surprised me a little, because one of the few things I had learned in India was the measure of hatred Indians had for the gentlemen who ruled them. Hurley was a big rosy-cheeked man of about thirty, and when he talked, his voice boomed in the place. All of the others spoke softly--in that strangely accented English educated Indians use.
THREE of the Indians were trade unionists, and one of them--as I learned later--was the mass leader of the Bengal workers; it was at his house that we were: the other four were literary men, two of them journalists, two of them teachers at the college. But they all had in common that elemental leanness, the fined-down quality of a people who have not eaten their fill for many, many generations. They were all nice people; they were very gentle people, and they were always thinking of the next thing they would say and framing it so that it would not hurt your feelings. They were glad to have me there, they said; there were many things in India that American newspapermen should see.
I told them I had realized that.
"Mr. Eldridge is sensitive about the East," the sergeant explained, smiling at me apologetically. "Things here disturb him."
Our host, whose name was Charjee, nodded understandingly. "Most Americans are disturbed when they come here. It is natural, Mr. Eldridge."
"They get over it," Hurley boomed.
"It's only natural, " the sergeant said. "Before the war, the only dead person I ever saw was my grandmother. They're very careful about those things at home. But my friend here had to stay at Lucknow where they have the plague, and there were seven hundred dying each day and nobody to bury them--I mean they laid them out on the road instead, and it's so hot up there--and then he comes down here for the end of the famine--well, you know what I mean."
"But they get over it," Hurley said, and nobody seemed to notice anything out of the way, and no one was embarrassed, except me. I tried to catch the sergeant's eye and express something of what I thought of him, but he was talking to one of the trade union people and he wouldn't look my way.
They must have noticed that I wasn't too happy about the trend of the talk, because they shifted over to literary things, and they talked about the young writers in India and what they were trying to do, and how a new and vital literature was emerging from the struggle for freedom. They had two million men fighting fascism, and they said how can you keep a people as slaves who lend two million men to the fight for freedom?
"You're still too gentle." Hurley rushed in. "My word, such a gentle people, you've got to learn different."
A mosquito, hurtled down by the fan, fell on Charjee's knee. He lifted it off and placed it on the floor--he was a Communist too, I learned later--and said, a note of apology in his voice:
"Life is an important thing, and civilized people do not foolishly destroy what is important. Europeans become so annoyed at the cows in our streets--at famine time, I mean." There was a sincere note of regret in his voice.
Hurley said to me: "But make no mistake about it. The cows on the street aren't the whole truth. You haven't begun to understand how complicated it is."
I was looking around the room with its bare white plaster walls, its straight dark furniture with reed seats, its case of books, its plain grass rug on the floor.
The teacher of English at Calcutta College said: "We would like you to stay for longer than most people stay here, and then perhaps you can write the story about us as it should be written."
"Mr. Eldridge writes very good," the sergeant said. "He should write about you."
THE girl brought in more lemonade, and we talked about the literature of four lands, and they talked with their mouths full of literature--like honey--and properly for a land where five million out of four hundred million can read or write. The girl had long eyes; with her sari draped around her, you couldn't trace her figure, a habit with us, and you had to content yourself with her regal, erect walk. When she walked, Hurley watched her, but there was only a warm contemplation of beauty in his eyes and it disturbed nobody.
I was not sorry anymore that I had come, but only that this strange yet homely evening under the auspices of the Bengal Literary Society was slipping away, and I looked at my watch more frequently.
"He asked the jeep to call for us at half past ten," the sergeant explained.
It was a good evening for them too, I think. Charjee shrugged it away. "Stay and you will have curry with us, and then you can find a rickshaw."
I shook my head slightly, and the sergeant, glancing sidewise at me, explained that his friend did not ride in rickshaws.
Hurley smiled bitterly. The trade union men looked at each other patiently.
"Could I ask why your friend doesn't ride in rickshaws?" Charjee said politely.
The sergeant explained that I had principles. I felt comfortable, because while they were a gentle people, nevertheless men drew them like beasts.
"Principles are fine things to have," Charjee said, "and I respect them." And the teacher of English added, "So many of the Americans have so many principles."
"You see," Hurley said tensely, turning to Charjee, "it isn't so simple with us either." He seemed terribly anxious to be understood.
"Here, in this room, three months ago, we faced a peculiar problem," Charjee said to me, "and I wonder how you would have solved it. It was at the height of the famine, as you may remember, the famine which the British made because they felt that a sick and starving folk would be less of a problem in Bengal. Each morning, they picked nine or ten hundred dead bodies off the streets of Calcutta. It was a very bad time, believe me, Well, at the time I speak of, four of us were having dinner here in this room, my daughter, myself, Shogar of the Central Trade Union Council, and Bose, who is district Party organizer here. It was not a happy dinner; we had a little rice and a little curry--one meal each day. Well, the window was open and as we began to eat we heard the cries of the hungry, women and children--have you ever heard the cries of the hungry?"
"I heard them up the valley," I said. "There was famine there when I came in."
"Then you know what I mean. The window was open. That is the problem. What would you have done if you were eating dinner here that night?"
"It is not a fair question," Hurley said, in his incredibly Cockney accent. "You can't lay his principles alongside of yours."
"I think it's a fair question," I said. "I think I can answer it truthfully enough. I would have given the poor devils my dinner. That isn't heroic or charitable even; I was conditioned that way. Most Americans are."
Hurley smiled again, but there was a sadness in him, a lonely sadness that took the sting from his words. "But they become unconditioned so fast, so very fast. How many thousands of your Americans have I seen here in the East, and almost never did I hear one say Indian or Burmese, or Chinese, but for all people whose skin is one shade darker than theirs, they have one word, waug. They are complicated in their principles, just as my Indian friends are."
WE DID not give them our dinner," Charjee said tiredly, as if the evening had suddenly become very long, too long. "We ate our dinner, and in the morning five dead bodies were on my doorstep, two women and three children."
Then there was silence. I didn't know what to say, and nobody else spoke until Charjee continued, "We are a few who will help lead India to freedom, and in this last famine in Bengal five million people died. Those five would have died anyway, a day later, two days later. They will die like that until India is free. There is always a price put on freedom, and part of the price we pay is to stay alive."
Another insect hurtled from the fan to his lap, and without thought he lifted it gently and dropped it to the ground. The sergeant put his hand on my knee and told me:
"You see, Charjee organized the rickshaw drivers. They are a very good union. They are a very militant union. During the past year, they struck three times, and each time they won their gains. They are a very militant union. You see, they haven't much to lose. I mean the life of a rickshaw driver is only six or eight years after they begin to work, so they haven't much to lose. Some day they will help to do away with rickshaws, but until then--"
The jeep was sounding its horn and we got up to go. Charjee was afraid he had wounded my feelings--a guest in his house. I must not think that Indians were boors. I must come again, and then we would talk more about literature and he would give me letters to other writers in the States.
"I'll come again," I said. "If you ask me, I'll come again."
"You're not angry?" the sergeant said, when we were in the jeep and on our way.
"Who is Hurley?" thinking that surely I had met him before and noticing how the gall in him had turned into an almost womanly sweetness as he listened to Charjee.
"He is away from home too long," the sergeant answered slowly. "I'm glad I'm not married. He has a wife and two kids and it's four and a half years since he saw them. He is a Communist and was a trade union leader back home, and they know it, and they keep sending him into Burma and hoping he will be killed.''
"He looks healthy."
"I think he'll live," the sergeant said. "The East is very interesting, and if you get used to it, you can stay alive, if you want to enough. Too many people are sensitive about the East."