Monday, April 30, 2007

Thirty Feet

Calcutta, India

The distance is thirty feet, but it may as well be infinity.

I write this in Room 139 of the Oberoi Grand, the most luxurious hotel in Calcutta. The room is a corner suite, on the second floor, with an entrance hall leading to a main room containing a four-poster bed, a chaise longue, a sofa, a coffee table, two chairs and a wooden writing desk with pigeon holes and drawers of several sizes. The marble-lined bathroom is not one room, but three separate rooms, one for bathing, one for shaving, one for dressing. The suite costs $150 a night, and it has three large picture windows.

Thirty feet away, on the sidewalk across the street, are nine men, between the ages of 17 and 40. Eight are sleeping on dirty white sheets spread on the sidewalk; one is sleeping on the ledge of a fruit juice stand. A few are wearing only loincloths; most have stripped down to an undershirt and what looks like boxers. A rat skitters by but does not disturb their sleep. Four yellow street dogs are also asleep, keeping a wary distance from the men.

Ten feet further away is a water pump, an old-fashioned metal water pump from a Western. Every ten minutes or so, a man will emerge from the dark and approach the pump, removing from his shoulders a rusty three-foot rod from which hang two empty metal buckets. He fills the buckets with water and goes on his way. The sounds of the pump and the water do not disturb the men sleeping on the sidewalk.

A truck trundles down the street. Three men, fully clothed, are asleep on the top of the truck. The sound of the truck does not wake the men sleeping on the concrete sidewalk or the one lucky man who sleeps, above the rats and insects and dogs, on the wooden fruit juice counter.

There are a lot of men on the sidewalk tonight, eight. Most nights, there are three or four. It’s Sunday night; maybe newcomers have arrived in the city over the weekend and will look for work tomorrow morning. The man on the fruit juice counter sleeps there every night; I recognize his blue and white striped loincloth. Perhaps he is a guard of some sort.

I type these words on a $1,500 computer, while eating an $11 cheeseburger that was carried to my door because I picked up the phone and asked for it. The minibar is filled with overpriced alcohol. The bed has eight pillows.

The distance is thirty feet.

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Blogger moi said...

I haven't read much of your blog, but thank you for some interesting reading! I've seen less of Calcutta than you have (and sorry, I don't speak Hungarian, either!), but life is not too different here in "Bollywood", nor any other Indian city. When someone's wages are so low that they can't afford a room and bathroom, it's difficult not to think of the work they do as something akin to slavery.

4:15 AM  
Anonymous Devendra said...

There was a quiet sarcasm and irony about the post,which i really liked.
I am a flourishing writer living in Kolkata and was moved by the way everyday life here was uniquely explained,from a different perspective.It made for a great read.Thank You.

6:31 PM  

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