Black Narcissus

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Kublai Khan: “Is what you see always behind you? Does your journey take place only in the past?”

Marco Polo: “Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.”

Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

You wake, and you have travelled far in the night. Something is altered somehow – you have returned to a truer version of yourself than whoever you were yesterday. And in the half-light of dawn, in the increasingly familiar room, with the cigarette burns on the table and the stopped clock stuck at quarter to four, and the garish painting of a turbanned herb seller under some Moorish archway, you drawn back the curtains and look out on the valley once more, for the last time.

The village assembles itself before you. Wisps of incense smoke coil lazily upwards in shafts of sunlight, through the branches of the tree with leaves glowing green. Sunbirds flit from flower to flower in a soft thrumming of wings. The notes of a flute, a man singing. The booming cow in the stable below. The rhythmic wet slap of laundry on stone, the women crouching at the taps which spout piping hot water from the springs. A bundle of puppies on a sunlit doorstep, paws twitching in sleep. And high overhead the tiny silver glint of an aeroplane, flying north-west. Towards home.


“Hello, room service?”

“Which room number please?”

“Four hundred and two.”

“Kya?”

“Four oh two.”

“I am not understanding.”

“Four zero two. Chaar sau doh.”

“TK. Yes please?”

“Could I have two cups of masala chai?”

“Huh?”

“Chai. Masala chai. Two cups.”

“Small pot chai?”

“Yes, fine. And two cups.”

“Sugar inside?”

“Haan. Same as yesterday. And the day before.”

“Ahh! Four jeero two! Good morning sah. TK, doh masala chai. Ek minute.”

“Thank you very much.”

Ten minutes later there’s a knock at the door. A small, squirrel-like boy, perhaps eight years old, with bright eyes and a cheeky grin, chest heaving with the exertion of running up four flights of stairs. He slops into the room in giant, adult size flip-flops, sets two glasses of sweet, milky tea down on the side and departs again with a shy wave. Namaste Chotu. I greet you from afar. Thanks for all the tea.


In 1947 the acclaimed British film-making duo Powell and Pressburger made a film called Black Narcissus, based on the 1939 book of the same name by Rumer Godden. It tells the story of a group of nuns who take over an abandoned seraglio high in the Himalayas with the aim of establishing a school and clinic. They clean and restore the building, working in the garden to grow fruit and vegetables, and set about establishing their order. But slowly they find themselves seduced by their surroundings. The colours are too bright, the mountains too high, the light too clear. They see too much. One by one the nuns succumb to visions of their past which threaten to undermine their vows. The stoical Sister Philippa, who is in charge of the vegetable patch, is called to account by the Sister Superior, Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, when the planted beds erupt into colourful flowers. “I can’t help it,” she cries, spreading hands which are calloused by labour. “They are just so beautiful!”

Sister Clodagh herself is trying to escape the aftermath of a failed romance in Ireland, and finds herself replaying scenes from it over and over again. The more she reproaches herself and tries to throw herself into her work, the more undone she becomes. Past and present merge in a series of flashbacks: her eyes glow with happiness as she recalls her beloved Con in Ireland, hopeful of their future together, when at the same time Con was dreaming of his future in America – a future, it transpired, which did not include her. Slowly the light fades from her eyes and her face resumes its frozen, inward immobility once more.

The arrival onto the scene of the British Resident Mr Dean, a louche adventurer who has made the area his home, throws the convent into turmoil. The barely-suppressed emotions boil over. Sister Ruth, played mesmerisingly by Kathleen Byron, portrays a woman always brittle but now cracking into full-blown madness, conceiving a violent passion for Mr Dean and an equally violent jealousy for Sister Clodagh, who she sees as her rival for his affections. A young General – played by Sabu, the only Indian actor in the cast – is a foppish, regal playboy, all silks and perfumes; he wears the scent which gives the film its exotic name, ironically importing it from the Army and Navy Stores in England. He becomes besotted with Kanchi, a seductive, teasing dancing girl (played by a heavily made-up Jean Simmons), who has a jewel-studded nose, flashing cat-green eyes and a talent for making people fall in love with her. The old Ayah caws and flaps like a demented crow at the prospect.

Black Narcissus is not only lavishly beautiful in its cinematography, but an extraordinary film in its psychological depth. The central theme is one of repression; by specifically focussing on a group of nuns who are sworn to chastity, and placing them in a strange environment where every sense is heightened, we see the effect of unresolved passion let loose from its moorings. As Sister Clodagh observes the burgeoning romance between the young General and Kanchi we see the return of her repressed past, in the form of her flashbacks to Ireland, and in her stand-off with Sister Ruth over Mr Dean it is the repressed present which haunts her, leading to a continual cycle of re-repression which eventually must break.

But there is much more at play here. The silent holy man who sits meditating day and night on the mountain overlooking the convent expresses the cultural clash between the rigidity of the nuns and the exotic east – the difference between the good works of the nuns by their doing, and his own spiritual framework of being. It is the nuns’ own imperfect resolution of their individual issues that cannot withstand the translocation to another cultural landscape, despite their ostensible spirituality, and at the end of the film, as their small, bedraggled convoy makes its way down the mountain having finally abandoned the convent, the first drops of rain begin to fall on the lush, subtropical vegetation, heralding the onset of the monsoon. There could not be a more apt metaphor for a film released in 1947. The British were leaving India, a country whose colour and chaos and passion simmering away beneath the surface had always defied any attempt at control, and which they had never really understood.


The bus driver was a cheerful tough with a boxer’s nose that formed a level plane from forehead to determinedly jutting jaw. He was clearly a respected character locally – people at the roadside would often give him a wave or break into a smile as the bus passed. I looked at the fruit stall where we had stopped, not twenty minutes into a 16 hour journey. The owner was a man in his late 40s, wearing a greying singlet. He had hitched this up to expose his paunch, cooling his belly quite unselfconsciously, and sat on a stool directing proceedings. A woman in yellow and blue kurta pyjama sat opposite him, dangling a baby on her knee. She was younger, in her 20s, and pretty, but already there was a knot of worry forming in the centre of her forehead. She would be old by 35, worn out by childbirth and poverty.

The bus’s headlights tracked through the hot night, flicking over a stream of oncoming vehicles. The road was swooping and curving round the mountainsides now, the driver playing a constant tattoo on the horn. As the outlying buildings of a settlement began to spring up, the traffic thickened, and soon we were in a slow line of barely moving cars. Eventually it ceased to move altogether. Gridlock at nine o’clock at night in rural Himachal Pradesh. We had travelled 60km in three hours. Passengers disembarked and stretched, walking up and down the long line of vehicles into the distance, all of them parked with engines off to save fuel. Occasional motorbikes would zoom crazily up the sandy roadside, scattering pedestrians.

A distant rumble, and then illuminated taillights. Drivers restarted their engines one by one, and we began to nose forward again. This was Bhuntar, which we had passed through three weeks before on the motorbike. A solitary iron bridge across the river was the cause of the trouble: it was only wide enough to accommodate one vehicle at a time. On the far bank there was a funfair taking place. The bus crawled through crowds of people who spilled across the road. A band marched by, followed by laughing children. There were shrieks from a fairground ride – a big wheel which hoisted people high into the air. We fought our way through traffic to pull in to a parking lot and take on more passengers – one of them a white woman with a scarf over her hair who looked utterly fed up. I gave a sympathetic smile. We were running four hours late. It took another 15 minutes to get back out of the parking lot and onto the road again.

I woke again at 3 in the morning to the pulse of blue flashing lights. The bus had slowed to a crawl. Sikh police in khaki turbans stood guiding traffic around two crumpled vehicles. At the side of the road the body of a man lay face down. No-one was helping him – he looked far beyond the point of any help. I’d already seen one fatal accident in the road on the way up to Manali; now here was another. It was a reminder of the tenuousness of life in India – how different rules applied, and we all somehow trusted to luck, or the gods, or something. As the bus swept on down the escarpment, round the hairpins, I tried not to look out of the windscreen. There was nothing I could do to control events. I closed my eyes once more and immediately fell asleep.

Blearily I woke again in the light of dawn. We were off the escarpment and passing through the flatlands of Haryana. In the aisle next to me assorted bodies were curled in sleep – the bus crew. A bearded man in long white kurta was using one of my discarded hiking boots as a pillow. His thin brown shins protruded like sticks. We passed enormous hotels that looked perpetually deserted, miles from anywhere. One was called The Sydney and had a neon-lit kangaroo decorating the entrance.

The bus halted at the foot of a mountain composed entirely of rubbish. Several hundred feet high, small fires smouldered across its flanks, around which ragpickers sifted in search of things to recycle and sell on. The rickshaw wallahs crowded around the open doorway. “Airport, Delhi airport!” they cried. A few passengers got off and went with them, buzzing away into the glare. We stayed aboard, waiting for Kashmiri Gate – once the northern gate into the city, built by British engineer Robert Smith in 1835, and named because it marked the start of the long road to Kashmir. Now it was another fly-blown layby with a reeking public toilet nearby. From there it was a short rickshaw ride to Lajpat Nagar, through the strangely deserted streets of Lutyens’ New Delhi – broad, tree-lined avenues and mansions set back from the road. 8am on a Sunday morning.  A group of college kids wobbled by on green rental bikes – the latest transport initiative. A pack of feral dogs galloped past in the other direction. Already the heat was growing intense.

Two days later I passed Kashmiri Gate again, bound for the airport myself – this time in air-conditioned comfort, in the back of a taxi driven by a young Sikh. I had once been driven by his uncle. I mutely set my mind to record, taking in the familiar streets again, deliberately not thinking. A skirling love song played quietly on the radio. Say goodbye to Delhi as she is leaving. Andrews Ganj. Who was he, I wonder? That’s the way to Dilli Haat, where we had momos and fruit “bear” at the Nagaland stall. AIIMS medical centre. Green Park. In 9 hours time I shall be passing beneath another Green Park, if I take the Piccadilly Line, in another world, another life. Vasant Vihar – that strange taxi driver one night who picked us up there and who none of us trusted, driving us through a dust storm in apocalyptic surroundings. Rangpuri – “Full colour”. Unspeakable, impossible city, which infiltrates your dreams at night. I shall miss the cry of the vendors, and the warmth, and the jingling ankle bracelets of the maid as she pads from room to room, the way that everyone is an aunty or an uncle or a brother or a sister so we are all related, and the colours and the indescribable smell of the place, the hard-won acceptance that the city requires, and the sound of distant trains passing in the night. I shall not miss the traffic, the chaos, the overcrowding, the squalor of it all. No, I shall. I always do.


What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

T. S. Eliot – Burnt Norton

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