Along with the other Fulbright recipients in the area, we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Helen LaFave, Consul General. Ironically, the U.S. Consulate is located on Ho Chi Minh Street. History does have a sense of humor.
I foolishly thought that this was a dressy affair, having been to several dinners at Consuls’ General homes in Chicago (ah, the rules of address…although I’m not 100% about this one.) Things are different here. We were hopelessly over-dressed; my sport jacket spent the evening on a chair.
We met a few other Senior Scholars (that’s us—it has nothing to do with age, if you don’t mind) as well as several young Fulbrighters. Some were teaching, others doing research. Everyone was fascinated with our project. We spent most of the evening with Helen and “JJ” (the Director of the American Center, who is from the midwest) talking about what it’s like to be in the Foreign Service. It really is a different world. Neither woman could ever take the train, because of security issues; both told stories of local security excesses that were hilarious.
The food was spectacular. I imagine a military transport full of turkeys, not exactly an Indian staple. Maybe they were shipped live, filling the cargo hold, gobbling all the way. It also being the first night of Chanukah, we went home and lit candles on a small tin plate, our improvised menorah. There is not a singe American (and to our knowledge only one European) in our entire, large neighborhood. Clearly we are the only Jews for miles, our little colored candles a reminder of a community we’ve temporarily left behind.
The next day was spent registering with the Kolkata police as foreign residents. This was a scene reminiscent of Kurosawa’s ‘Ikuru,’ with piles of paper everywhere, despite the fact that computers were sitting there, hopeful. The ‘FFRO’ is housed in a beautiful art deco building (on the outside.) Inside, the walls were old and yellow; everything was lit by fluorescent lights (Indians seem to have a fascination with these harsh lights); a noisy ceiling fan demanded attention. Foreigners were all waiting, signing never-ending papers, arguing. People kept bringing old wooden chairs to a back room, which must have become jammed, though we couldn’t see who might be sitting in them. At one point, someone brought out a tray full of rubber stamps. It looked like flowers at first, but there were literally dozens of different colored stamps, which an official proceeded to pound onto one paper after another. We managed to get out in an hour and a half, which must be a record.
That evening, we met Alyque Padamsee at the Grand Hotel, a remnant of colonial days (the hotel, not Alyque.) He is the father of Indian advertising, a film and theater director and actor, a political advisor, and a friend of Max’s girlfriend Priya, who had put us in touch. He is best known as Mr. Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan) in Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi.’ He is currently starring as Willy Loman in a production of ‘Death of a Salesman. ‘ Alyque gave us a copy of his book A Double Life: My Exciting Years in Theater and Advertising. He wrote: “To Alan and Jerri—India is not a country—it is an adventure!” This is proving more true as the days go by.
The highlight of the following day was a Moghul feast at the home of Salim Mohammed, from Lake Bluff, who we had met at the airport in Delhi. He and his driver picked us up and took us to their newly constructed 5-story home. We went up on the roof deck, where we met one of his uncles. We thanked him profusely for the honor of their invitation. He extended his hand and said “We must all welcome and respect each other.” I know this is a tenet of Muslim belief, but it is quite wonderful to experience it in person. And experience it we did. We were honored guests and met Salim’s extended family. Vast quantities of magnificent food were prepared in giant bowls, and carried downstairs with difficulty.
Music was filling the air. It was coming from a club only a few doors away, where we had actually been invited–another Fulbright fellow was performing. Despite it containing 14 million, Kolkata is a small town.