fiction

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
- Anjana Basu

She was the first Frenchwoman most of us had ever seen. Everything about her from her blue eye shadow to her tapered black stiletto heels was exotic. The fact that our mothers were equally swamped with Elizabeth Taylor's plucked arches in Cleopatra didn't cause a flicker on our faces. We could cheerfully have let the whole lot of them and their seven coats of mascara sink in a gilded barge down the Nile.

Monique was a chanteuse – we learnt that word years later at the Alliance. She presided in a black cocktail dress over the hazy interior of the Cafe de Paris, by common consent the most Frenchified nightclub in all of Calcutta. Her rasping voice lent every song she sang a touch of heartbreak. Years and years of tears had worn their grooves down her vocal cords; lost loves had trickled away like smoky scotch and her nights had smouldered blue grey like the ash of a Gitane. In short, she was BAD — and that was all in capitals.

Our mothers warned us about her in hushed voices, bringing us home from school in the afternoon. "Don't be like her, don't even think about her, or you'll become as bad as she is!"

The problem was Colette. Colette was Monique's daughter and she was in class with us. Colette had thick white skin that looked as if the sun never got to it and hair the colour of jute sacking. She was only half French — the nuns would never have let her into school with a pure French chanteuse ancestry. Her father was a short, stocky Bengali businessman with a surname that had our mothers sniffing up their highbred Bengali, Parsee and Punjabi noses. "Aikat? Who on earth has heard of an Aikat? Scheduled caste nishchoi." The nuns pocketed Mr Aikat's money and ignored Monique's nocturnal activities.

Not many of us were allowed to play with Colette. Usually, the ones who went home with her were the ones with Anglo Indian surnames like De Cruz and Xavier. They sported an air of superiority the next day and talked airily about pancake make up and thick eye shadow sticks like crayons of emerald green and turquoise blue. Sheila De Cruz smirked so much about it that she almost got slapped in the playground.

However, there was one day when everyone was allowed to troop over to the Cafe de Paris. That day was Colette's birthday. Unlike most of us, Colette invited the whole class to her birthday party. "Aikater taka aachey, must be black money," sniffed the mothers, as they went into huddles over what we should wear. It would never do to dress down to Monique's Parisian elegance, bad as it was. All our frilly petticoats came out and were starched till they scratched our legs and waists.

It was the age of the can can petticoat, made of layers of ruffles and net. The stiffer they were starched, the wider our party frocks stood out above them. The more boisterous girls in the class had a habit of flicking the back of your skirt in the air when you weren't looking, so that the light organdy clung to the air and your can can was exposed in all its white scratchy stiffness. For Colette's birthday, those can cans were frilled and flounced to an inch of their lives. We walked dutifully through the plush carpeted interiors of the Cafe de Paris with our party frocks swinging like bells around us. Monique was waiting for us at the foot of the stairs with shrieking pink cheeks and staring blue eyelids. She was joined by an equally pink and blue Colette wearing a navy blue tunic. "Such a plasair to see you all," Monique rasped at us. "Colette is so 'appy!"

'Hello, Auntie Monique, Happy birthday, Colette,' we all chorused, as our mothers had sternly coached us. Then we were seated on rows of velvet banquettes with fizzing glasses of coca cola or Fanta in front of us. That moment of quietness lasted barely fifteen minutes. Then the ring leaders piped up one by one. "Please may I go to the toilet?", "Please may I be excused?"

The Cafe de Paris had its own mirror-ringed ladies' toilet. It was as plush as the restaurant, with velvet covers on the commode seats and a deep white dish of talcum powder. But that was not where we wanted to go. Colette was in the secret. One by one, she led us up the stairs to their flat and into their bathroom. It was that we all waited with bated breath to see. It might have been, and it probably was, a shabby, wet bathroom, but by the commode it boasted a real pink ceramic bidet. Colette had shown it to each one of us the first time we had stepped into her home. To her, it was the crowning proof of her mother's Parisienneness. "That's called a beeday," she told each one of us importantly. "You wash your bottom in it." And she showed us the hot and cold water jets with a consequential flourish.

To us it seemed the height of unimaginable luxury and wickedness that the French could have a basin just to wash their bottoms in; and every time we came to Colette's, we had to renew our thrill by visiting it. We all tried it out, with varying success. Suchandra drenched her can can and had to spend the rest of the party in borrowed clothes, while we rustled and giggled behind her back. Then the cake was cut and Monique in her blue eye shadow came into her own. "Zis afternoon," she purred, "Colette, Zizi and Fifi will perform for you a can can." A clash of cymbals endorsed her statement. We sat on the edge of our banquettes wriggling excitedly, the Fanta rumbling in our stomachs and setting an ache in our bladders.

Colette must have disappeared sometime after cutting the cake because she now materialized from behind the orchestra stalls in a frantic wave of Offenbach. Behind her came Zizi and Fifi in a vortex of restrained frills. We knew Fifi too. She was two classes junior to us and she never ever had a bath. She looked like stretched pink wax when she did the splits. "That must hurt," Sujata muttered. "She has tears coming out of her eyes." We strained to look. It was true. The tears were drawing grey lines down Fifi's rouge.

Zizi, Fifi's elder sister was doing the splits too, but hers looked effortless. She just stretched her leg back out into infinity. Colette didn't even attempt it. "I don't have to," she told us later snootily. "I'm not going to make a living through cabaret."

Our excitement was heightened by the clash of the cymbals and the sticky, fizzy gulps of the orangeade. At some point in the afternoon's proceedings, Colette's father would put his shiny bald head into the restaurant and blink at us mildly over the rims of his thick glasses. Monique would swish over to him effusively and link her braceletted arm through his. "The beauty and the beast," one of the more precocious of us would mutter unkindly.

But it was true. Mr Aikat fitted into that rich, sticky Parisian afternoon not at all. He was like an invader from the Calcutta street outside. Not a beast, we said, but a Frog Prince — the kind no one wanted to kiss. Our parents said that he was actually a smuggler — that he'd made the money to build the restaurant on shady underground deals. He'd picked Monique up on the same shady deal, a kind of two for one offer, restaurant and chanteuse in one fell swoop. Colette didn't look anything like him. The only thing Indian about her was that layered olive white skin that never burnt brown or peeled.

How much of all this came down from our parents or our imagination, I don't really know, but we grew up accepting the fact that Colette was not Aikat's daughter, while she was very certainly Monique's. Year after year we went to those parties. Every year, the bidet got a little shabbier, though the plush velvet depths of the Cafe de Paris remained unchanged. Fifi learnt to do the splits without crying and lacquered her eyelids with layers of green and gold. We also accepted the fact that she was almost certainly a lesbian. Monique's hair, originally blonde, became redder by the year. That final year, it was so bright, it could have set the air on fire, while her voice did rasp over our ears like a saw.

School broke up in a smear of inky fingers and blotted papers. To show their emancipation, the nuns held a beauty contest in the great hall. Colette was one of the runners up. The fading photograph still shows her sneering disagreeably while she holds the crown up over Neeta's head. Some of us got married. Most of us went to college. Colette was one of the few who didn't do either. She joined an international airline and flew out of our sphere.

We were almost ready to forget the days of can can and orangeade. Certainly no one ever dropped in to dinner at the Cafe de Paris. It was the place where bad women went after dark and held hands in the shadows with equally depraved men, helped along, no doubt, by the suggestions in Monique's voice. Our mothers would have thrashed us black and blue if we'd ever allowed a boy to take us there. Suchandra ran into Zizi one evening at Freeschool Street — or rather, she ran into her eyes hadow, foundation and rouge walking frenetically up and down the pavement. Zizi pretended not to recognize her.

And then the notice appeared in the papers: The owner of a well known nightclub was found, shot dead, in his apartment this morning by a maidservant. The police are investigating the matter. The grapevine said it was Aikat. An insertion in the obituary column of the Statesman also said it was Aikat — our beloved husband and father of the grief-stricken Monique and Colette.

Colette had shown us the pistol on one of our pilgrimages to the bidet. It was kept in a drawer of tangled nylon stockings and lace handkerchiefs. Flashed like that, it conjured up visions of James Bond and sex and violence. "My mother brought it from Paris," Colette told us. "It's a beretta, a spy's gun." She never had much time to develop the spy theme because we heard footsteps on the stairs and she hastily bundled the gun back into the drawer, just in time to confront Monique's arched eyebrow. We all remembered the gun, a stubby brass pistol. Not a beretta, my father said when I asked him, but probably a regulation police pistol. He had one from his Boy Scout days and he pulled it out to show me. It was the same stubby brass model, falling apart because the screws were falling out. That spoilt it a little for me, even though the image of a pistol against a mesh of filmy stockings still lingered.

Everyone's phone must have rung at least once that day, with a murmur of: "Did you see, Colette's father...." We had called that short stocky man 'uncle' and slipped impatiently past him at least once every year in the past five years. "Colette's father ... Colette's father...."

The police investigation was mercifully short, given our curiosity. A verdict of suicide was passed. "That's what comes of knowing sleazy people," sniffed our mothers. "He must have gone bankrupt." But it wasn't that, because the Cafe de Paris only shut its doors for a week and in that time it was festooned with black ribbons and white mourning wreaths. We knew because we called on Colette, who'd flown down for the funeral.

She received us upstairs in her apartment in stark black that made the most of her white skin. She was composedly triste — I think that's the word. Obviously she knew that the traditional white wouldn't set her off so well. Around her bustled a black-and-white ayah with trays of sandeshes. "Where's Auntie Monique?" one of us asked. "We'd like to say how sorry we are." Colette's face stiffened and a tear trickled out of one eye. "Mama's in Paris ... I don't know how ... you see, she and Baba were getting a divorce...." As we watched wide eyed, her face crumpled altogether. Then her sobs grew louder and louder and her ayah whisked her away.

In a flash, everything was made clear. It wasn't bankruptcy after all. For a second, we were wriggling on the edge of our seats again in ecstasy. The promise of Monique's voice and the dark velvet interiors of the Cafe de Paris had been kept. The tangle of stockings and revolvers had come together in our heads in the ultimate crime of passion. It took us so far back to those afternoons of cream cakes and Offenbach that one of us — it was Suchandra — lunged for the bathroom door and yanked it open.

The bidet was still there. It had dark ugly brown stains down one side, in a pattern of spatters. Rusty stains that we had all learnt to recognise, through months of aching stomachs and sanitary napkins. The stains of old dried blood.

Suchandra shrieked and slammed the door. We whisked downstairs with more haste than manners. Later we heard he had shot himself there beside that one tangible memory of his French wife.

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. Her poems have featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India, and recently by Authorpress. In America she has been published in Gowanus, The Blue Moon Review, and Recursive Angel, to name a few; and in Canada in The Antigonish Review. The Edinburgh Review and The Saltzburg Review have also featured her work. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel, Curses in Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland. Her second novel, Black Tongue, was published by Roli (2007). Chinku and the Wolfboy was also brought out by Roli (2010). She has worked on scripts with director, Rituparno Ghosh for Antarmahal and The Last Lear, and has subtitled several of his films including Unishe April, Dahan, and Chokher Bali. She also subtitled the Rahul Bose starrer, Antaheen.