My fall in Calcutta

Calcutta is a big, middle-class, air-conditioned city. My publisher′s chauffeur was waiting for me at the airport. Through the tinted windows of the sedan, the vast traffic jams warned me that, whether I liked it or not, things could get complicated in the city of Calcutta. But otherwise it was enchanting; I had a dream welcome, and an amazing apartment lent to me by my publisher. She was heading for a spa in Switzerland.

I wanted to take a bath in the jacuzzi on the terrace, but she advised me not to – the bacteria count was high. A few simple precautions would allow me to best enjoy Calcutta: never drink the tap water, and use the toilets as sparingly as possible.

I actually never shit. But she was at pains to explain that, despite the luxury of her home, the toilets tended to block up. And finding a plumber in Calcutta is difficult: they are extremely sought-after. Calcutta, like most Indian cities, has a British water mains system. The drinking water pipes follow the same path as the grey water pipes, at first underground, then reaching up to the highest storeys, the penthouse level, which are also the least well serviced – because of the bad water pressure. But the real problem in the Indian mega-cities is that these colonial pipes have aged, and their metal, cast iron or copper, has become porous. The so-called drinking water becomes unfit for consumption, by virtue of its capillary action. 'Capillary′ is an inaccurate term – so says my Bengali publisher, who speaks French with extreme precision. You have to imagine the subsoil of Calcutta as a swamp that never completely dries up: the trenches where the pipes are lying fill up with water that is semi-drinkable, semi-treated, let′s say untreated, and that can back up at any moment, through any old pipe, suddenly and mysteriously.

My publisher left me the addresses of some friends with whom I spent a marvellous week, at house parties and nightclubs, in the hyper-networked city that is Calcutta, drinking only cocktails and never water. She also left me her chauffeur, who was part of the family, and who lived so far away, on the outskirts of the suburbs, that he had managed to get permission to camp out in the sedan. So he was available at any hour of day or night, which was handy for nightclub life.

From time to time, as I looked through the tinted windows, Calcutta made me feel uneasy: half-naked children, one-legged cripples, legless cripples, one-armed cripples and quadriplegics. To my insistent requests to see Mother Teresa, I received the response, between two gin and tonics, that the holy lady had done a lot of harm to Calcutta; Mother Teresa had definitely given a completely false image of Calcutta, but, if I insisted on pasteurising my conscience, there was a rival leprosarium that was much more up to speed with the modern world.

A worldly and exuberant American woman at the leprosarium explained to me the technicalities of hugging – rather than my euros, they were expecting a true gesture of good will. I should kiss these unfortunates whom no one would touch, and give them back their dignity with an embrace. You could only catch leprosy, explained the American woman, if you were malnourished. So I kissed seventy-four lepers of all ages. Then we drank the (boiled) tea of friendship together.

As soon as I was back behind the tinted windows, I rubbed myself frenetically with my alcohol gel. I needed a shower, some antiseptic, some chlorine, some antibiotics! The traffic was terrible, the chauffeur announced innocently, while I was in the middle of dying of leprosy. And right then it started to rain.

The water reached halfway up the tyres within five minutes. 'We′ll have to continue on foot,′ said the chauffeur, guileless and laconic as usual, as he opened the door, locked the car and disappeared with a 'good night′ that seemed to me a bit cheeky.

I was immediately drenched. The water reached my calves. When I say water, it was the untreated type. People were running; I followed the flow. In the midst of the monsoonal din, we reached a little temple which stood out like an island. A cow with long horns, sacred from head to tail, was looking at me, vacantly chewing her cud. It was so picturesque that for a moment I forgot my misery. The temple looked out over the river Ganges, which was black from the rain and the storm, broad and cloudy like a sea. I thought of Duras and sighed. Yes, despite the difficulty I would have in finding a taxi, there was rapture here. I left the shade of the temple to let the hot rain run through me. The opaque water was swirling; I felt like I was falling into an ecstatic trance; and then from beneath my flooded feet the ground suddenly disappeared. I was engulfed by the mouth of a sewer.

I was completely covered in shit; no taxi would ever pick me up. Next morning, when I arrived back at my publisher′s apartment, the concierge didn′t want to open the door to me. As for the chauffeur, he had gone home to bed.

  • Translated from the French by Penny Hueston, Text Publishing. First published in Le Monde, July 2010.

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