Calcutta: An Expedition to the Plague City

Benefit in Bangladesh

Bengali refugees camped alongside Howrah's train station in Calcutta, Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Calcutta—Well past midnight, the temperature was still in the high 80s. There were five customs officials waiting to greet us and 20 porters sitting listlessly in the airport window sills, though only seven people had come off the plane. The seven were an Indian man with an American wife, a handful of camera-laden tourists headed for Darjeeling, and myself.

An ancient bus was waiting for us in the rain-puddled parking lot. The tourists sat and fidgeted about the bus driver's delay, ranting about their troubles with India's controlled monetary exchange. A window pane quietly slumped out of its frame and shattered on the floor next to the luggage. A young German who was catching a ride reassured the tourists, "It's India. Everything takes a long time in India." Finally the driver came out of the airport building with one last passenger.

Along the asphalt road from Dum Dum Airport the headlight beams picked out a string of palm trees and palm-thatched huts, an occasional temple, and some billboards. One billboard brought me up with a start: Sadhana—A Truly Great Name in the Ayurvedic World. What's that again? Sadhana means "practice, achievement," or as one book explained, "the 'inner-unfoldment' of the Sadhaka (practicer) by means of a 'formula of worship' by which the macrocosm and microcosm may be 'woven' into a 'fabric' of Reality."

Surely a great name in anybody's world, but on top of its greatness, it was a coincidence. One of the reasons I was in India was to see a performance called People's Sadhana, a benefit for Bangladesh. The Sadhana of the billboard turned out to be a brand of medicines. There was an ad for Sadhana toothpaste in the newspaper next morning.

The driver picked his way through the puddles, stopping abruptly for a familiar pothole. Now we could see houses with plastered walls. At least half the houses had political slogans painted on them in Bengali. Lots of hammers and sickles, representing the three different Communist parties in Bengal.

Further on toward town there were more and more white cows to be seen dozing in the streets. More and more people too, homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk wherever there was a roof or overhang. About ten percent of Calcutta is homeless even in normal times, when there aren't nine million Pakistani refugees for India to take care of.

The bus rolled up to the Oberoi Grand Hotel, a Calcutta posh spot. You wouldn't know it was posh from the outside—the entrance was invisible behind a muddy portico lined with shops. On the inside, though, it was obviously a sahib hotel. An officious hotel captain led the way to my room up a promenade staircase, through vast domed halls, dusty and dim. Drowsing servants saluted timidly in every hallway. The captain insisted that he and I take the elevator when we reached it, though it only took us up one floor, while the dark skinny porter with my suitcase took the stairs.

The floor of the room was marble and the shower head in the bathroom was a good eight inches across. Twelve bucks a night. Terrific. A sign warned against drinking the tap water.

* * *

For 12 bucks a night you get a free newspaper in the morning. Page one of the Amrita Bazar Patrika, September 1st: Report on the flood conditions in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh states. A political assassination north of town. Reported cruel beating of a Bengali employee in the Pakistan Embassy in Delhi. Indira Gandhi visits refugee camps. Inside, an Indira Gandhi speech on India's love of peace but readiness to fight in self-defense.

Olivier Boelen, producer of the People's Sadhana show, called after breakfast with an invitation to pack out of the sahib hotel and into the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Gol Park/Bally-gunge, where the performers of People's Sadhana were also quartered. Before going to the Mission, though, the first stop was the Bangladesh High Commission. This had been the Pakistan High Commission in Calcutta before the atrocities in East Pakistan. Three weeks after the Pakistani Army "postponed" the seating of the National Assembly, the High Commision had defected en masse and run up the Bangladesh flag.

The road to the Bangladesh place had a cast of thousands. Hundreds of cars of indeterminate make fought for the road space with oxcarts, handcarts, rickshaws, porters, white cows and the helter-skelter overflow of the thickly crowded sidewalk. There are no traffic lights in Calcutta, the theory being that if a car ever stops moving, it will immediately be stuck behind a parade of crossing pedestrians and cows. Instead of traffic lights there is a constant roar of automobile horns.

The streets were drier than last night, much drier since the flooding last week, but everything smelled like a warm mud puddle. "You see," Olivier gestured at the sidewalks, "Calcutta's not as bad as they say. You see people living in the street, maybe, but this is not a disaster area. You must remember it is possible to live outdoors here. The climate is warm. It's not like being homeless on the Bowery, say." Everyone seemed used to it.

We had come to some quieter, less crowded streets. On our right there was a strange pile of geometry—a century-and-a-half-old English cemetery for all the colonial officers who died of tropical diseases in their 20s. The tombstones were shaped like pyramids, Parthenons and Taj Mahals. Not tombstones, really, since stone is rare in Bengal, but plastered brick. The plaster had fallen away in patches and tropical plants were embracing the brick.

We made a turn at a sign recommending everyone to take cholera vaccination and soon we were at the High Commission. It is a complex of three- and four-story buildings behind a sentry gate. Indian soldiers stood guard there, although India has not recognized Bangladesh as an independent nation. Scores of men in shabby sarongs were clustered about on the tree-lined sidewalk. "Refugees," whispered Olivier. "About 500 a week volunteer to be mukti fouj, guerrillas."

We had to wait at the gate a few minutes for the sentry post to pass us. A funeral procession jogged by on the street, carrying a corpse on a flower-strewn stretcher. Finally we were OK'ed to cross the brick courtyard and enter one of the buildings, dingy like the rest with the indelible-looking black mold that grows on everything in Bengal during the monsoon.

Olivier wanted to see Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's ex-press secretary, a Mr. Badsha, about some photos to use in the People's Sadhana benefit show. About seven or eight short dark men with hesitant smiles were gathered in his office. They shuffled around politely to offer us seats and served tea, despite our interruption of what seemed to have been a grimly serious discussion. Mr. Badsha announced he would take me to see his superior.

In a rooftop office with a lazy overhead fan, we met him. He had been a member of the Pakistan National Assembly before the civil war and apparently was the one who regularly saw foreign journalists. He delivered a brief set of remarks about the Pakistani atrocities, the inevitability of Bangladesh victory, and the suspicious nature of US and UN inaction.

There was little surprise in what he said, but he was unexpectedly preoccupied and abrupt. Not, it seemed, merely because of the continual phone interruptions: He asked not to be named, because his wife and family were still in Bangladesh and he was afraid of reprisals against them. If they were alive, that is. His undercover attempts to contact them had been failing for the last two months.

Also not surprisingly, he'd never heard of Rolling Stone, and when the interview was over he asked about it. Olivier described the paper and mentioned that about a million people read it.

"A million," he said quietly, and looked aside. "As many as have died in Bangladesh."

* * *

Kalamandir Auditorium is the largest Western-style theater in India, Olivier said. It was very modern indeed, geometric concrete with rocking theater seats and air conditioning.

The Lila troupe was rehearsing inside. The core of the group comes from the Living Theater: Rufus Collins, Axel Hyppolite, Leo Treviglio, Diana Van Tosh and Alexander Vanderlinden. About a year ago, Olivier said, there was a schism in the Living Theater and these five, the "apolitical" faction, came to India with him to pursue their quest for a spiritual theater. Apolitical is a relative term, of course—here they were staging their Indian premiere, which had already aroused press attention in Calcutta, as a benefit for Bangladesh.

Last-minute changes were being worked through. Purna Das, the famous Baul religious bard, was picking up the exact inflections of the Bangladesh national anthem from a Bengali classical singer we had met in halls of the Bangladesh High Commission. "It's like England," Olivier said. "The law says every performance must end with the national anthem." So they were going to end with "Golden Bengal" instead of the Indian national anthem.

Technically speaking, that could get them in trouble. But in Calcutta? In West Bengal? No way. Not only is there a lot of sympathy for the refugees, but many Bengalis on the Indian side of the border wouldn't mind seceding from India.

Olivier's idea was for slides of Bangladesh to be flashed on the stage screen as the Bangladesh flag was slowly lowered. "And maybe we could have a mukti fouj standing there on stage in uniform, with a gun even," he said.

"No," said Rufus Collins, "no." Eyes on the floor, hands behind his back, he took five measured paces. "No," he said again, vehemently. "Morally ... no, no weapons."

"The Bangladesh flag will be coming down anyway," soothed Alexander. Everybody had the pre-opening night jitters. Still no word from several people who had been invited to the premier. The Living Theater's dramatic style, with which Lila naturally has affinities, was going to be brand new to India and nobody knew how the audience would take it. There might have been memories of the chilly reception Allen Ginsberg had gotten in some quarters a few years back.

Though in this case there was going to be a lot of familiar material for an Indian audience to relate to. Even the name of the troupe: Lila, the "play of the gods," a philosophical term for the illusion of existence. But there was that element of radicalism, as reflected in the Lila slogan: No More Curtain Calls.

* * *

All Bengal, whether on the Indian or the Pakistani side of the border, faces flooding at this season. The very land is soil left by the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers in thousands of years of floods. But this year, the papers reported next morning, Bengal had gotten 20 percent more rain than usual.

In addition to flood news, the papers reported mukti fouj raids on Dacca and assassinations in Sylhet. Also encounters between mukti fouj and the West Pakistani-backed counterinsurgency forces, mostly non-Bengali speakers from Bihar, called razakars.

There were rumors going around that Mujibur Rahman is actually dead, killed months ago by the Pakistanis. The Paks claim to be holding him for trial—a closed-door trial, not yet held—but there are no statements, appearances or even photos in the last six months to give evidence that he is definitely alive. The fictitious trial, so goes the rumor, is just a means to give a phony judicial color to an assassination. What subversive crime the Army could charge against the man who heads the Awami League, Pakistan's largest political party, is also mysteriously vague.

The press handouts from Mr. Badsha started with a pamphlet of atrocity photos, Bangladesh Through the Lens. Fortunately I leafed through the book from back to front. I might not have looked at any of the pictures had I started with the first one in the book. The caption identifies the girl in the picture as "Zohra, raped and shot." Only the head of hair shows that the carcass is human. It is being eaten by dogs.

The Bangladesh people also had copies of A Thousand My Lasic, the World Bank study on Bangladesh that World Bank president Robert McNamara had tried to suppress by declaring it classified. "Inflammatory," he had declared it, and issued a toned-down version. Here is its description of the town of Jessore, where resistance had been particularly high:

"Authorities estimate that the population of Jessore itself is down from 80,000 to 15-20,000. Some 20,000 were killed in Jessore town. The city's center has been destroyed: commerce, obviously, has come to a standstill. More than 50 percent of the shops have been destroyed, all the city's bakeries have been burned (so that bread is unavailable there, as is coffee and butter), only three out of 15 gasoline stations have survived, and only 5-10 percent of the shops that are there have opened.... Jessore is now a male city, with most of the women and children having been sent to the countryside."

This report is four months old. Authorities estimated at the time that half a million people from Jessore District alone had fled to India. For a few weeks Jessore had been a liberated city the Bengalis showed off to foreign journalists. But eventually the Pakistanis completed enough of a troop buildup to go anywhere they pleased in East Bengal, and do what they pleased in Jessore.

There was a weekly paper called Bangla Desh: news of mukti fouj victories, atrocities, international press reaction, statements of Awami League leaders. A regular feature quoted Pakistani press statements and martial law edicts. Here the passion of the freedom fighters flared out in scorching contempt for the Pakistani military mind: "These typically ridiculous orders ..." "To the 75 million people of Bangladesh Yahya's utterances have no more validity than the delirium of a patient preparing for his sojourn in the next world."

And there was a copy of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Six Point Program. After he first announched it in 1966, Pakistani authorities jailed Mujib on charges of treason—selling the country out to India. The six points were the platform of the Awami League last December when it was suddenly found to be the majority party in Pakistan, East and West combined. These are the mildly phrased reforms for which perhaps a million people have died:

• Parliamentary government with supremacy of the legislature.

• Federal government limited to defense and foreign affairs.

• Provisions to prevent flight of capital from East to West Pakistan.

• Federal government to have no authority to levy taxes: to get a uniform percentage of all state taxes.

• Each state to maintain a separate account of foreign trade and have the disposal of the resulting foreign currency. States permitted to place trade representatives abroad in their own interest.

• States permitted to maintain their own "paramilitary or territorial forces to protect the territorial integrity as well as the Constitution."

It scarcely sounds revolutionary. The picture that emerges from between the lines shows the experience the East Bengalis have had with the West Pakistani-dominated government, and the violence with which the West Pakistanis have reacted—including outlawing the Awami League—shows they don't want it any different: Military dictatorship for over a decade. Western sector control over aid and development projects. Economic exploitation and retardation. Martial law administered by an army 95 percent composed of non-Bengalis.

* * *

The Ramakrishna Mission has a rarity for Calcutta, a lawn. The central court, sheltered by a library wing, a lecture hall and two residential wings, is a great grassy expanse lined with red and purple flowers. In the morning there were gardeners trimming the lawn—three men pushing and pulling a single huge lawnmower. Two others were sweeping up the trimming. One man paid special attention to flower petals that had fallen on the lawn or the walks.

It gets up to 90 degrees early and stays there. The fans in the ceilings have seven different speeds. Several people sat around in photographer Tony Kent's room while his wife Suzanne made limeade, which she recommended as a cooler.

Axel Hyppolite came in to share some limeade. Who has shown up for tonight's performance? Allen Ginsberg, he said, was at the Oberoi Grand. Kenneth Anger, the filmmaker, had come from Europe. But a telegram from Keith Richards had begged off, saying Anita and Marlon had the flu. "It's Calcutta's reputation," Suzanne sighed. "The plague city." "It's too bad," said Axel, "las' time she was here, she got so high, for long time after she was like zis"—he rolled his eyes and fluttered his fingers.

* * *

The performance was at six p.m. Until the recent wave of robberies and shootings, Olivier said, he would have scheduled it at eight. These days all performances are scheduled early in Calcutta if they hope to have an audience. An American scholar staying at the Ramakrishna Mission had been robbed one night.

Kalamandir Auditorium was satisfyingly full. Not many foreigners: a few longhairs, two or three journalists, Kenneth Anger, a clean-shaven Allen Ginsberg. Mostly it was educated-class Indians curious about the new cultural phenomenon and sympathetic to the Bangladesh refugees. Indira Gandhi's personal monk was there, indicating some semi-official recognition. An Indian playwright named Karimboy, who had worked with the La Mama theater group in New York years ago, was on hand to interview Rufus for All India Radio.

As the audience filed in, the five actors were performing yogic ritual purifications—inserting a string in the nose and coughing the end out the mouth to clean the nasal passages; swallowing quantities of water and vomiting it back up; pouring water in one nostril and out the other. The house lights went down and the actors opened the performance with a solemn sounding of ritual bells, gongs and conch shells.

As the performance progressed, it was hard to gauge the Indian audience's reaction. The show was actually still in the process of being evolved, and it seemed to move slowly. Olivier thought that would be OK. The Indian audience was used to lengthy music and dance recitals, he reasoned, though the show would be tightened up for performances in the West.

More of a stumbling block might be the abstract theater tradition the Lila Company came out of. When Purna Das sang familiar Baul hymns and two other Baul musicians did their graceful ecstatic dance, the audience was on comfortable ground. Likewise, when the "Work of the World" scene was followed by a Kathakali dance, the Calcutta theatergoer could recognize Krishna encouraging Arjuna to perform his worldly duty. But what were they to make of an abstract ballet representing the trials of meditation? What, most of all, were they to make of the Living Theater heritage of "machines"—dancers making themselves into parts of a cannon, or a digestive system?

They seemed most at home with a scene titled "Maa." (The word functioned both as the Bengali word for "mother" and as a raw scream.) Four-armed Kali, viewing the world in the grip of destruction with cynical, simpering laughter, she had impact. Indeed, Kali is the patron goddess of Calcutta. They could also get into the death scene, where Rufus died with (to put it mildly) great reluctance, and Purna Das sang a famous Baul death song in his almost unbearably rich and sweet voice.

Then the lights went up, the Bangladesh flag came down on stage, and Rufus called for contributions for the refugees as actors and singers passed through the audience. No mukti fouj, and no slides, either, as it worked out. But "Golden Bengal" rang out sweetly, sung by Purna Das,' wife.

Backstage afterwards Allen Ginsberg was renewing old acquaintances. One was Purna Das, whom he was teaching a mantra he'd recently learned. Eventually, after all the reunions were over and the actors were dressed, everybody went off to an after-show dinner at a garish Chinese restaurant called The Waldorf, where the dinner music was bellowing Shirley Bassey records. There was intense discussion on how to tighten up the show, but given its embroying form, it was felt, the reaction had been encouraging. Several diners in the restaurant came up to Rufus Collins during dinner to congratulate him and thank him for bringing his new form of theater to Calcutta. (A week later, though, a newspaper reviewer panned the show.) Between these compliments and bouts with the won ton soup, Rufus punched back at the Shirley Bassey records with a sarcastic vibrato of his own. "Gold ... fing-a-a-a-ah ..."

* * *

The Ramakrishna Mission is bounded on two sides by main arteries. One leads down by a park. In the early morning it was dotted with people: some camped out on the broad sidewalks, some wood carvers, a few little refreshment stands. A scattered few people were living on the central mall. There were solid-looking homes in this neighborhood, two-and three-story places adorned with squat, sensuously round arches and ornaments. Political slogans and monsoon stains on all of them.

This was not a disaster area, as Olivier said, even if there were homeless people. Obviously Calcutta had always been like this, and it was a living city. No big deal if people lived in the street and bathed in the park's lake, not to mention doing their laundry, pounding it on rocks and all. It looked as if some of the squatters in the park had set up little factories where they were turning out clay-lined iron buckets to be used as braziers, and dried dung patties for fuel.

Back nearer the Mission there were more merchant's stalls. One of them specialized in making statues of Kali for the upcoming Puja Festival. The shape was roughed out in straw, covered with blue-black clay in several coats over the course of a few days, and finally given a detailed finish in the face and ornaments.

The other important street that ran by the Mission was thickly lined with shops. If you drove a car up the street, all you saw of the roadside was the backs of palm-thatch shops that faced in on the sidewalk, away from the street. From the sidewalk you only caught glimpses of the cars in the street: you were surrounded on both sides by little shops. The shops were arranged in traditional Asian market style, with all the cobblers in one place, all the clothiers in another. Some of the booksellers had broad spreads of used paperbacks, both in English and Bengali, laid out on the sidewalk. It was a good question who was going to buy from the motley selection of titles, yellowed from the sun.

Seen close up, the throng of people on the sidewalks was incredibly various. Turbaned Sikhs, shortsleeved businessmen, ladies in saris, pompous brahmins in white robes, dark-skinned laborers in skinny-strap T-shirts, giggling girl students, wild-eyed Shiva ascetics in loincloths with ashes on their brows, little girls in American-style kindergarten dresses. Not to mention the cows. Flatbed trucks unloaded 70-sack cargoes of charcoal. Part of the divider strip on this road was covered with shops that carried signs that read Special Pre-Puja Sale.

At 6:50 that night the power failed. It had failed at least once a day, killing the fans and leaving every room hot and muggy in the daytime and dark, hot and muggy at night. This night from the verandah you could see a few rooms in the Mission where candles had been lit. A pair of fireflies rambled in the still warmth of the courtyard. A low hubbub came from the "day boys'" wing, where the Institute gives free daily meals to hundreds of impoverished students. When the lights went on again—in a swift pattern flickering from room to room like a strobe light—it turned out that it had not been the hubbub of curry in the dark, but the rustling of rooms full of robed scholars waiting for the evening's lecturer.

* * *

Next morning there was another recital for Bangladesh. Lila (No More Curtain Calls) had done the publicity but it was traditional Indian fare this time. Kuchipudi dance – little known outside India, in fact not well known outside the state of Andhra Pradesh where it originated five centuries ago. After the performance all the Lila troupe and the Westerners were invited to see a refugee camp and meet a Bangladesh dignitary.

This was to be a morning show. The Lila people whiled away the time after breakfast with some very proficient homemade entertainment. Tony Kent demonstrated a repertoire of card tricks left over from an earlier career as a magician. Purna Das was genuinely delighted. "Fun-tah-stic," he said over and over, "fun-tah-stic." Tony's sitar guru, Pramod Kumar, gave a short dazzling performance of a raga, his expression slipping mercurially between smoldering intensity and loose good humor.

Ginsberg by this time had moved to the Ramakrishna Mission. On this his second visit to India he had only two weeks to spend. He was due back in the States to finish editing a 17-record series of his poetry readings, to be followed by an album of Blake songs.

The Kalamandir was much less crowded for this dance performance than for the first night of the Lila show. Too bad—it was spectacular. Kuchipudi is many times more dynamic and dramatic than the familiar Indian classical dance. Sobha Naidu, the female dancer, had flowers woven in her hair, trailing in a spiral down her one waist-long braid. The braid was a rhythmic element in her dance movements. Kamadeva, the male dancer, showed spectacular dexterity, culminating in a dance done on a brass plate which he navigated over the floor by tiny movements and adjustments of balance. "Very sophisticated ancient vaudeville," commented Ginsberg. There was curried popcorn at the refreshment stand during intermission.

After the curtain, the dancers were called back by applause, despite Olivier's shout of "No more curtain calls!" In a pretty gesture they danced over to their dance guru and presented him with garlands.

After the show, and half an hour of inscrutable Indian delay, everybody got in a rattletrap old bus. Bongaon Camp, the refugee receiving center we had been planning to visit, turned out to be flooded and inaccessible by bus. The newspapers spoke of the difficulty making even such rudimentary contact as airlifting food to Bongaon. Instead, much to the disappointment of the Bangladesh representatives, we were going to visit the most accessible camp, which happened to be a model camp: no cholera, no starvation, apple-pie order. The "tourist camp," someone called it. It was raining as we started.

The bus crawled through traffic out past street after street teeming with people. In some places it seemed every spare yard of ground between building walls and street curbs had been appropriated for a palm-thatch shack. The railroad yards have a population of hundreds. Many of Calcutta's beggars live along the tracks, Olivier said.

The camp we were heading for was called Salt Lake. We passed through miles of flat green expanse, a former salt marsh that had been drained to make room for suburban housing. Roads and sewers were already in. A few cows browsed among them. The bus got lost once in the featureless maze of vacant streets.

When it drew near the camp the first sign of it was not houses but the sight of hundreds of men and women wandering in the flat green plain. How poetic, out for a stroll—but they were out for a stroll because there is no plumbing in the camp, no toilets.

The bus pulled around a corner past a row of huts and we were plunged into a staggering mass of people, which immediately grew larger with the curiosity the bus aroused. These were farm people, shorter and darker than most of the people in Calcutta. Some had a vaguely oriental or Polynesian cast to their features, and many had handsome faces with high cheekbones and full, round cheeks, so that the upper half of the face seemed narrower than the lower. They were clear-eyed and alert, but curiously quiet. A lot quieter than a crowd of Americans.

The camp opened at the beginning of April, when refugees had just started coming. It had been closed to new arrivals since the end of July, one reason for its relative neatness. We walked through the mud and the warm drizzle to a row of hospital huts run by a European Catholic charity. About 30 people were in each one, lying on mats spread over a foundation of unmortared brick.

Cholera, they said, had been wiped out in this camp. Still on an earlier visit to this camp Ginsberg had gotten a list of medicines in short supply: Chloro-strep and Entero-strep, both needed in suspension form for children and tablets for adults; Guanamycine for suspension: a Terramycine preparation. It seems strange, until you see these people, that cholera, which is just a violent form of dysentery, could be a deadly plague. They are just inches from malnutrition. If their digestion is strained, they have no food reserves in their body.

Everyone in the camp has a ration card which entitles him to rice, lentils, vegetables, onions and cooking oil, with some milk for children. We saw some places where people were lined up for rations. When the supply ran out at that post, they went looking for another. Some of the better-off refugees had set up market places where they were selling odd items like candy, firewood, fruit, foam-rubber sandals, toys and empty kerosene tins.

The camp was unexpectedly huge. It seemed to stretch out to the horizon. Row on row of rectangular huts of bamboo and palm, about four yards apart, with bricks laid down to raise the floor above mud level. We walked what seemed a long way, but I never saw the end of the camp. It disappeared into a mist. There were 175,000 people living there.

"Curntrymahn, curntrymahn, whurt curntry?" I looked around to see who was addressing me as countryman. There stood a barefoot, shirtless man holding an incongruous umbrella. Some remnant of impeached self-respect struggled in his eyes.

"From America," I said slowly.

"Ohhhh. Whurt reason do you come?"

This was developing as the day's big thrill for 20 or 30 bright-eyed children who pressed closely around us.

"To see the camp."

"Ohhhh." He paused, eyes burning with struggle, and then blurted out the information that he had worked in a "law oppice." Now I was the one who could only say,"Ohhhh."

"Bery pretty, bery nice, America," he said desperately. He was not just making conversation. This was a man who could feel the jaws of the trap closing. There's no place for him to go, nothing to do. No land, no jobs.

He and all the hundreds of thousands of others subsist on charity. They don't cost much individually, only about 15¢ a day, but three quarters of that is paid by India, a country which can scarcely afford it. All they can be given is bare survival. Everything they had always relied on is in Bangladesh, where the Pakistani Army has been shooting Hindus on general principle.

We looked at each other helplessly. There was nothing more to say. I didn't even have any rupees to give him, pitiful as that would have been. A drop in this bucket of 175,000 people.

But his crazy hope had faded even before it flared up. He shrugged with his hand, squinted a broken smile and disappeared in the crowd.


Ginsberg had disappeared in the depths of the camp with his tape recorder and lost track of the time. The rest of the party waited in the bus for an hour and finally left him to catch a taxi back to town. Our bus rattled along back the way it came, barking its horn and cracking bones.

We were due at the Bangladesh High Commission to meet Mr. Hossain Ali, the former Pakistan High Commissioner, a man who had served the Pakistan government for 22 years in the Foreign Service before ordering the Bangladesh flag run up.

Over tea and curried vegetable fritters, he gave a firsthand account of the night the Pakistani army began its blitzkrieg. For three weeks the country had been tense but optimistic. In the face of Yahya Kahn's refusal to seat the Awami League-dominated National Assembly—which had been called, originally, to draft a constitution; Yahya has since drafted his own—there had been total non-cooperation. Yahya's appointees, such as the now notorious Tikka Kahn, could not take office in East Bengal. Not a single judge could be found in the country to swear them in.

On the night of March 25th, as he described it, his family suddenly heard volley after volley of rifle fire. It was a demonstration of university students getting mowed down. Shooting went on all night. Local police and the Bengali dominated units of the army, the East Bengal Rifles and the East Pakistan Regiment, fought disorganized battles with the regular army. Yahya had been smuggling in reinforcements from Punjab for three weeks.

"In a matter of days," he joked bitterly, "the Pakistani army did us a big favor—they cleared the slums." They also cleared the universities. Only reluctantly and for the foreign visitors have the Pakistanis patched up the scarred walls of Dacca University. Fortunately for Mr. Ali, he had been assigned to Calcutta and his family could be moved out of the country before the big Pakistani offensive of April 12th.

"The people are with us," he said. "The people are completely with us, and ultimately we will win. But our guerrillas are practically armless. Arms and training facilities are the limiting factor in our struggle."

The urgent message he wanted to convey was the danger of mass starvation in the next few months. Most of East Bengal relies on imported food during the autumn months, and all communications are in chaos now. He naturally did not trust the Pakistanis to distribute food effectively (after their glaring failure in the wake of last year's cyclone). Even the Bangladesh provisional government, he said, couldn't handle the job. Railways and bridges have been destroyed. Boats for local transport have mostly been sunk, commandeered by Paks or used by Bengalis to escape.

"The refugee problem is very severe in India, of course. There are eight and a half milion here and they are currently coming across the border at the rate of 40,000 a day. But no one outside knows the disruption within Bangladesh. I estimate that a third of the country, 25 to 30 million people, are no longer living in their own homes. There are 25 or 30 million refugees within Bangladesh."

Those of us who came down with a high fever the next morning never knew whether it came from visiting the refugee camp, or from the sudden downturn the barometer had taken. It rained off and on for the next two days, while we sweated and squirmed. The fever was uncomfortable enough, but the unnerving thing was that our sweat didn't smell like normal athletic sweat—it smelled like peaches. Rotting peaches.

After two days the Lila Company decided what we needed was to get out of the city and into the pure air of the country. They invited us out to their home in a rural village called Shantiniketan. I'd never had a fever that made my pores mutiny before, so I said sure, fine. Not quite well and entirely horrified with my morbid aroma, I passed the trip mostly in a daze. The train window showed endless vistas of flat land, mostly rice paddies, studded here and there with palm trees and an occasional industrial smokestack. Chaiwallahs strolled through the train at every other stop, hawking tea in unbaked clay cups that could be simply recycled out the window when they were empty. Ginsberg was handling his fever better than I was. He was giving Olivier his suggestions for the play and recommending places to stage it.

Shantiniketan was pretty far out in the country. There were no taxis at Bolpur train station, only pedal-operated rickshaws. The road from there to the village was under about an inch of water a good part of the way. It may have been a little more crowded than usual for rural Bengal because there is a university in Shantinketan, founded by Rabindranath Tagore.

In the Lila house, filled with scattered musical instruments, bowls for ritual cleansing, Indian prints and tantric posters, Rufus Collins stretched out and relaxed on the porch. He was obviously glad to be home. Some Buddhist friends were visiting, and the most over-asked question of the past few days—how did Calcutta like the play?—was asked again.

"The thing that blew my mind," Rufus said, "is that these Indians insisted on treating it all so heavily. All these people asking us, 'What's the ultimate answer?' What's the ultimate answer? We've been in India a year and a half. We're just dramatizing what we've been living, we're only trying to turn people on to the search. It's amazing to me that they would think of asking us for the answer."

Later he called everybody out to see the sunset. It had thrown a spectacular double rainbow over the Lila house with colors growing brighter every second. An old man dressed in white came from the direction of the university toward the little knot of gawking foreigners. Rufus pointed out the rainbows to him.

"It is ... a sign," said the old man.

"Yes? Yes? What kind of sign?" we asked, hungering for some of that ancient Indian wisdom.

"It is a sign ... that the rains have ended."

The light show in the sky finally faded. Soon it was dark and there was a great curry feast going on in the house. One of the Baul singers began a heart-melting devotional song. Ginsberg came in with the new harmonium he'd bought in Calcutta and the evening began to sound with mantras.

* * *

The country air apparently did its wonders. Fortunately, because I was booked on a plane for Thursday. Wednesday morning I caught the first train to Calcutta and scanned the papers. The Statesman reported that Calcutta's tea market was in rotten shape and all the local colleges were desperately underfinanced. Also, the US had airdropped food in some 15 famine-hit districts of Bangladesh. (The stated reasons: "to prevent famine and further flight of refugees.") Also, the refugee camps had cost India 2.6 billion rupees so far.

As for famine, it was one of the big stories of the day. An article in The Lancet, the British medical journal. verified Mr. Hossain Ali's analysis. As quoted in The New York Times, Drs. Chen and Rohde wrote:

" 'East Pakistan now faces, for the first time in recent memory, reduced [food] production in two consecutive years and the largest food deficit since the Bengal famine of 1943.'

"They say that the Bengal famine was 'perhaps the greatest famine of our lifetime,' and recall that it was 'accompanied by complete social disintegration; suicide; selling of children into slavery; banditry; and disruption of existing family structure.' "

"The article continued:

" 'The similarities between the famine of 1943 with the present trends in East Pakistan are striking. Some 2.9 million tons of imports will be required to offset the deficit in indigenous production, but the Pakistan government has failed to acknowledge this crisis, much less initiate effective programs.'

" 'Already, hoarding is taking place and the market price of rice has risen sharply,' it adds. 'Much of the existing food stocks have been taken to the military cantonments to feed the army.' "

Among other news of the day, Yahya Khan agreed to submit his constitution to the National Assembly to ratify it. That's the assembly that was originally going to draft a constitution. The National Assembly will not have an Awami League majority because the generals have "disqualified" about half the Awami League delegates, but still Yahya announced that he would retain veto power over any "unacceptable amendments."

* * *

The US has never explicitly denounced the Pakistani actions in Bengal. The Bengalis think this shows favoritism to Pakistan and are sure the US is supplying Pakistan with arms. It seemed time to get the American Consulate's view of things. The new Consulate is on Shakespeare Street, right around the corner from the old place on what used to be called Harrington Street. It's now called Ho Chi Minh Saranee; some suspect anti-American sentiment in the name change.

Behind the receptionist's desk there was a forgotten Psychedelic San Francisco poster from 1966 or so, complete with a Jefferson Airplane put-putting overhead. An East Totem West poster called "Evening Raga," heavy on the red/blue flash hung on the opposite wall. The place was air-conditioned to a chill.

Upstairs the air conditioning wasn't so bad. The fellow who shook hands there handed over a personal card with the imposing title "George Garrett Byers Griffin, Consul of the United States of America." He was a sympathetic type—young, tired and vaguely pained, as if overworked at a thankless job.

He was glad to tell of the things the US has done for East Bengal: the longstanding program to improve grain production, the US-sponsored International Rice Research Institute; the cyclone relief programs of last year; the $90 million the US has contributed to refugee relief through the UN; the aid being airlifted to East Bengal.

As for Bangladesh, the official position, as he ventured to phrase it, was that our government was concerned about the plight of the refugees, but considered the civil war an internal affair of Pakistan. It's a ticklish matter, the consul pointed out, to recognize a government that does not control a country. It's dangerously close to meddling in the internal politics of the country, to choose sides on any other basis but actual control. And the Pakistani army can move where it pleases in East Bengal, which satisfies one definition of "Political control."

It was hard to disagree with the principle. It's a very noble one. But if we had respected the same principle in Vietnam or Cuba, if we had recognized the People's Republic of China 22 years ago, it wouldn't have the curiously hollow sound it has.

But wait, short of recognizing the Bangladesh government, surely the US could move for censure of Pakistan in the UN, as South Africa was censured over apartheid? American officials in Calcutta suggested that this was being avoided in order to keep "a foot in the door" with the West Pakistani government. It's a foot that hasn't been able to do much of anything about the mass murders.

As for US military aid to Pakistan, US officials in Calcutta said only $2.1 million worth of non-lethal equipment had been sold since March 25th. (Senator Edward Kennedy's conclusion from General Accounting Office figures puts the figure between $8 and $10 million.) To be sure, these items were presumably not bombs and bazookas (and could be obtained elsewhere, maybe even cheaper) but it shows how far the US will go to stay on Yahya's good side, how little it values India's or Bengal's good will.

It was time to catch the plane. Luckily there was a taxi waiting around near Shakespeare Street. The noon traffic looked pretty heavy so I told him to make it snappy. He did, with a vengeance. His horn had a high falling note that sounded a lot like a mama doll.

So he darted through the noon crush, squawking his mama-doll horn at pedestrians. Farewell Mother India, where everything takes a long time. He grazed the fender of another taxi—both drivers checked out the damage without getting out or stopping—nothing to it, zip zip. Barreling along behind a bus puffing clouds of thick black smoke, so thick you couldn't see the road. Weaving through traffic over the road I came in on ten days ago. Workmen were tossing gravel into the potholes my bus had stopped for—now my taxi skimmed over them without slowing down, catching a handful of gravel on his fender. Past the road that leads to Salt Lake Camp, past palm thatch huts, temples, the Sadhana poster, we hurtled toward the airport, one hand on the steering wheel and the other squeezing out "Ma-maaa, mamaaa."