[from Ghost Factory #2, Summer 2008]
The place doesn’t have a name, but most places in this country don’t. All I know is that 22-ounce bottles of Hayward’s 5000 Super Strong Beer are 85 rupees, 85 rupees is roughly equivalent to $1.75, today is Thanksgiving and Calcutta is a long way from Chicago.
The important places do, of course: the India Gate in Bombay, where the guy at the club informed me that I, outsider and oppressor that I was, should not even bother trying to be part of the glorious beauty of this country I was visiting; the Taj Mahal in Agra, where that guy told me I was foreigner scum and should stop polluting the world with my arrogance and the idea that America was the best; or the Lotus Temple in Delhi, where the group of four young men followed me out to the street, barely containing their spiteful laughter while asking me questions like “America is big, yes? Is tough and strong, yes? You then, big? Tough and strong American, right?”
Sometimes it was hard to nod politely and just leave the situation alone, but the barely-breathable air and mostly inedible food made it even harder to even think of settling things the American way.
I’m sitting in the back of the club, alone. It’s 11:00 at night and still 90 degrees out. All day I have been walking around the city, taking in the sights, sweating profusely and coughing up some of the brown and black stuff I’ve been inhaling thanks to Calcutta’s decades of non-existent air-pollution laws. On every street people either try to sell me some useless trinkets, beg me for money, or both. Apparently people in this part of the world equate a buzz cut and Superman t-shirt with affluence. Or generosity. Or stupidity.
At a table in the center of the club is a man blasted out of his mind on round after round of what looks like some kind of rum. He and his associates are laughing loudly and hysterically at jokes I suspect are about me; I don’t speak Hindi or Bengali, but I do know that pointing out a stranger to your drinking buddies is the closest thing there is to a universal sign for “Hey, look at that pasty-skinned American loser sitting by himself in a Calcutta nightclub!”
Normally I would take offense at this, but not here and not tonight. Tonight I just order another Hayward’s.
On stage, a devastatingly beautiful Indian woman is singing a song. I don’t know what it’s about but, more importantly, I don’t care. She sounds great, her warbled alto playing perfectly off the drums and keyboard accompanying her. Her band plays on, and with each note I can’t help but to be drawn more and more to this siren in knockoff Guess jeans. She wears her long black hair down, the locks flowing freely and gently as she sways in time to whatever heartbreaker she’s singing to us. To me.
At some point she notices the way I’m watching her, notices I’m maybe taking notes on a little more than just stage presence and vocal delivery. She smiles. Her brown eyes beam a little when she does this. I am in love.
The waiter comes over to ask if I need anything and I order another beer even though the one in front of me is still half-full. I ask him about the girl on stage and tell him I’d like to send a drink up to her. The waiter clams up, instead just telling me he would be right back.
The band takes a break and the girl disappears. I check out the label on this booze I’ve been enjoying so much. Product of SABMiller. Six-and-a-half percent alcohol by volume. My brain races to think where I’ve read that before when it hits me: Magnum Malt Liquor. The kind we used to get 40’s of in college. I went to India and all I got was this lousy double-deuce of skid row suds. Outstanding.
The waiter returns and advises me not to ask any more questions about the woman on stage.
“Is she married?” I ask him.
“No, but very well-liked by the man at that table.” He points to the drunk at the center of the room.
“That man, he is very powerful in this city,” he continues. “Very powerful. Does not like people who look at the girl like that. You may not be safe here long, my friend.”
I notice the drunk and his tablemates looking my way, obviously displeased with my affection for my beloved Calcuttan chanteuse. They’re debating something (I can’t tell what) but again, the pointing in my direction at least hints at the topic of their conversation. No laughter this time, just a man and his friends, all deep in their cups and quite vocally weighing the pros and cons of kicking some tourist’s ass. Rather than stick around to find out, it made more sense to just close the tab and get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.
And so I went, the half-drunk tough guy walking off into the Calcutta night realizing he’d flown 8,000 miles just to get hassled by beggars, hide out in some nameless dive, leer at some guy’s girlfriend and scurry away in half-terror before it all degenerated into so much more trouble than most nights out are ever worth. As though this is what’s supposed to happen every time a person leaves the house. As though I’d never left home in the first place.
And for just a moment, there was no other way to look at it: I was the greatest American who’d ever lived.