The Duchess of the Raj

It looked ordinary from the outside, the coffee shop, but then most things do. Look ordinary from the outside that is. I suppose we look ordinary too, from the outside.

Just an ordinary coffee shop, like any faded coffee shop you might see on any street in any town or city in the world. But even out of the ordinary things can often seem plain to our tired way of looking at things, and I, for one, am most certainly tired. Jaded perhaps? Yes most definitely jaded. What did we see when we first saw it? This coffee shop? I suppose we saw its promise of romance; something enticing beyond its slightly bedraggled paintwork.

But then again so often we only see what we want to see. What we expect to see.

In fact what we do is look but don’t see at all. That’s the problem with most people’s lives. I’m sorry if that sounds pessimistic but I think anyone would feel pessimistic from my perspective. Oh, I’m not moaning about my position, just telling it like it is, like it’s always been. That’s all any of us can do really, just tell it like it is, like we see it from our perspective, even if we are lying or telling tall tales. Even if we can’t explain how trapped or blinkered we really are. Or even if it’s the plainest of truths and people don’t believe us because they can’t see the way we see. We only have the capacity, each of us in our own little way, with our own little grasp of language, to tell it exactly like it is.

So, that’s what I’ll endeavour to do.

You see, Wanda had always wanted to see India. Me? I wasn’t so fussed. I knew it would be difficult; I knew there would be beggars and poverty and dirt. Cows crapping in the street and monkeys stealing your sunglasses. People with no legs lying in the gutter and men pissing and spitting wherever they happen to be standing. Not like our usual beach holiday in the south of France. But Wanda insisted; she always had a dreamy rose-tinted version of life. As if she really thought India would be all spirituality and colonial beauty under the brightest of tropical skies. As if she could be a princess in a fairytale or a duchess; the Duchess of the Raj.

It was inevitable she would be disappointed by the scams and the way that even at the Taj Mahal the grime of the city clings to your sweat soaked skin. Disappointed at the sweet faced children rapping on the glass of the cab window for a rupee or two and the inevitability of dirty toilets and ’Delhi belly’ pulling at your insides.

I remember that day clearly. The Taj Mahal. Funny how memory allows you to see some things vividly in your mind’s eye, even through the long distance lense of time, when so many other recollections are indistinct, blurred or completely obscured.

That day Wanda wore a long floating white linen dress and wide brimmed hat as if she were a film star from the 1920s. She’d bought it especially for that day. I think she’d seen pictures of Princess Diana sitting by the reflection pools alone, looking wistful in front of India’s top tourist trap. She had visions of that most romantic of moments at sunrise. Of course, by the time we’d queued up, got our tickets, been through security, fought off the unofficial guides and actually managed to squeeze our way through the red stone arch and past the crowds to see the Taj, sitting there like a massive wedding cake by the river, the sun had already risen.

We stood by those same reflecting pools where Diana had sat, and I could see the disappointment, almost resentment, in her eyes as the crowds jostled next to us trying to get that perfect picture. I suppose in her mind’s eye she saw just us there, looking pristine before the Taj’s white marbled splendour. Instead we sweated in monsoon heat and fanned the flies away. I was impressed by the magnificence of the architecture and the setting. All Wanda could see was the rubbish strewn in the river beyond; plastic bags and filth puncturing her romantic vision.

She wasn’t, though, one to be put off by such disappointment, she wouldnt give up on her dreams that easily. So we headed on in search of what she called ’the real India’. ’The real India’? What she actually meant was ’her India’.

Eventually we travelled on the toy train narrow gauge railway up to Shimla. Shimla was, finally, the place to brighten her mood. Shimla, that quaint ex-colonial hill town in Himalchal Pradesh, the one time summer capital of the British in India. For those of you unfamiliar with Indian geography that’s north from New Delhi in the foothills of the Himalayas. Where the earth has been rumpled like some all powerful Hindu god has kicked up a lush green rug of trees and foliage and the folds and creases grow slowly from hills into mountains as you climb northwards to ever higher peaks.

Shimla, they say, is the ’queen of hills’. The icing on the cake.

A lovely place to live if you have the constitution of a mountain goat, which sadly I do not. It is a place of aching knees and sore calves as you climb steep slopes and descend steps wherever you hope to go. Climbing and descending are unavoidable I’m afraid. Strangely I miss the climbing and descending.

Wanda loved the climbing for it always rewarded us with stunning views. SHe loved Shimla and, I think, Shimla loved her. She marvelled at its pristine streets and alpine feel. She loved the clean air. She loved the Viceregal Lodge, sitting proud like a sorcerer’s castle reaching for the clouds and the haphazard rows of mock-Tudor buildings with tin rooves.

We ambled without a care and she bought a parasol to shade her from the sun. It was, even though I say so myself, idyllic and we even pondered staying a few extra days. We climbed the highest hill to the red Monkey Temple and watched tourist children grinning atop white horses. All very lovely and all very tiring, but it fed Wanda’s dreams and her smiles returned like the sunshine reflected in her eyes.

We were strolling towards the end of Shimla’s famous mall when we spotted it. The coffee house I mean. The ‘Indian Coffee House’ it proclaimed in black letters outlined in pink above its glass doors. Wanda smiled and wafted herself with her newly bought silk scarf. Again she was dressed in her approximation of colonial beauty. A light shift dress and again the wide brimmed hat, like she was attending a social gathering on the lawn of some country house.

“Let’s have a drink here shall we?” she said, all mock poshness and flashing eyes, “it looks the kind of place a duchess might stop for afternoon tea,”

The Duchess of the Raj.

Inside was dim compared to the sun drenched street and we must have blinked as we entered. Men in white shirts lined the walls sipping their coffee, waiters in fancy green-belted colonial uniforms with plumed hats floated across the wooden floors. Just the kind of place to rekindle the romance Wanda had for India. Like somekind of old-fashioned gentlemen’s club. Wanda even enquired if women were allowed. The waiter just clasped his hands together in that prayer-like greeting and smiled, nodding.

“Namaste,” he said.

‘Namaste’; my spirit recognises your spirit. What, I wonder, did that waiter recognise? We didn’t notice, not at first, just how dirty his uniform was.

I walked to the back and surveyed the bright view across the valley from the window. A view I now know in every detail, every pine tree and every red or green roof.

We sat at the only free table and she sipped black tea and I black coffee.

For a while we chatted. Now, looking back, I imagine that we whispered and giggled, imagining what these men drinking coffee might do for a living. Perhaps we commented on their clothes. Perhaps we laughed conspiratorially about their hairstyles.

“Look at that man’s moustache,” she probably said, “it’s like something from the 1920s, it’s almost elegant,”

“How about him?” I might have said, “he looks like someone from the 1950s in that suit with a striped jumper. He must be so hot! How wonderful,”

“I love the waiter’s uniforms!” I can imagine her saying,

We probably imagined ourselves as true colonials stopping off for a coffee before returning to our lodge to dress for dinner. Men in the lounge smoking cigars, women in the drawing room sipping sherry. How foolish our dreams are.

The waiter is watching me now as I write this. Pencil scribblings on a paper napkin. I wonder what he’s thinking. I expect it’s something to do with how very fruitless it is for me to write this, but what else is there to do except drink coffee and stare into space? I long since lost any pleasure in drinking coffee. I can no longer taste it, though I have a vague memory of thinking it was good coffee at first. I pause and look up at the poster on the wall proclaiming the desirability of the Indian coffee bean. How long has that poster been there? Always. Its always been there.

Wanda is sat next to me, spoon in hand. She doesn’t take sugar in her tea but slowly stirs it anyway.

After a while I suppose we noticed the state of the waiter’s white uniforms. Not pristine by any stretch of the imagination. No Indian laundry had touched their clothes for years; every dribble and spill from a saucer marking the days passing and giving the white cloth an ingrained brown sheen. As if some pollack-like artist had been dripping things down their fronts, like some form of long drawn out Chinese water torture, to make some arty statement. The green sash at their waist faded from its former satin glory and the plume from their hats not quite folded correctly into a concertina shape like it should be. They must hit it on the ceiling as they descend the narrow stairs to the basement where the coffee is made. I tried to go down there once, but they insisted it was for ’staff only’. Every day the waiters get slowly more grubby and I swear their faces get longer in matching despair at their miserable trade.

We have tried conversing with those waiters but they remain detached, aloof, maintaining the pride they have in their job. To what end they would be proud I cannot fathom. We have tried talking to some of the other customers on several occasions, but that is also a pointless pursuit. They just ask the same dull questions, over and over.

“Is it your first time in India? Do you like it?”

“Where are you from?”

“How long are you staying?”

That last question somehow tickles me. I shouldn’t find it amusing but do and I just want to ask the same question back. How long are you staying? A lifetime? Maybe more? Because that’s what we’re all doing isn’t it? Staying here, on this planet, for a lifetime. One thousand months if we’re lucky some say. Maybe more. But would it be lucky? Would a longer life be good? I can tell you I don’t think so. I know it wouldn’t.

And so we sit, mostly in silence, the tiredness of lifetimes washing over us. So tired we rarely converse. We sit at the same table, drinking the same coffee and the same tea. The waiter comes and takes our empty cups and wipes his hand on the dirty hip of his uniform. Ten minutes later he comes and takes our order, asking us what we would like as if we have just arrived. As if he can’t remember. So we order the same coffee and the same tea. We’ve never paid.

Sometimes I stand at the window at the back and survey the view of Shimla, staring at the same red and green rooftops and distant spiking pines. Has that view changed? I can’t tell. After that there is nothing to do but sit back down and sip the bitter coffee as slowly as I can and watch all the others, doing the same.

Do people come and go? The door certainly opens, the waiters certainly show people to tables but the people remain the same. The sun shines outside but the room remains dim, the air thick, filled with constant heat churned slowly around by the wobbling fans which turn on the ceiling marking time.

How long have we been here? There is no way of knowing. Lifetimes at least, no difference between night and day, winter and summer. We are stuck; butterflies pinned to our fate. Preserved in aspic for the rest of time. Wanda and I are quaint exhibits like all the others. Does our appearance seem oddly old fashioned to any new people who become trapped in this web?

And you are probably asking yourselves why don’t we ever leave? To be quite honest I can’t seem to answer that. Many times I’ve thought about just getting up and walking out of the door. I suppose Wanda must think it too although I’ve never asked her. Would we age as soon as our bodies collided with the fresh air of the outside world? Would wrinkles suddenly appear and our hair go white and limp? Would we shrivel like raisins drying in the sun? Dying in the sun? Who knows? But dare we risk it?

Why am I writing this? Will I be brave and throw these napkins out of the window for some perplexed pedestrian to ignore? Probably not.

How long have we been here? It’s useless to speculate, we cannot know. Has time passed on the outside? What happened to our lives and our families and dreams? I have no real way of knowing. All I can do is tell it like it is.

Wanda turns to me and wafts her face with her hat, like she always does. Her face is pretty but has the white sheen of a wax doll. She smiles like she always does.

“I am the Duchess of the Raj arent I?” she says like she always does…

© 2014 Simon Poore

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