Fiction: Conrad in Calcutta by Tanuj Solanki

From the shores of Haldia the Tilkhurst could have looked like anything, with lanterns perched at various heights conveying only a meagre outline. But there was no one to see it from the shore. Inside the ship, in a dank cabin beneath the deck, there was a sailor’s feast in progress.

Both the party and the ship’s overnight anchoring off Haldia had been Captain Edwin John Blake’s orders. He believed it better to spend another night at sea before taking the river towards Calcutta. Right now, he was addressing an audience of sailors seated on the floor. Few in the audience were paying heed to the captain’s words about Calcutta and its culture, and those few were amazed in witnessing a complete reversal in their captain’s usually calm demeanour. Józef, the only Pole on the ship, was in this lot, and although he could not entirely comprehend what the captain said in his perfect English, he was nevertheless fascinated, possibly because of the liquor he had had, by the way this complex language, this English, always seemed to open the world—unpacked it, so to say. To Józef, who aspired to one day be called a writer, the choice between English and French was becoming somewhat clearer in the head, though only part of it was due to the unpacking quality of English. He could not really hope to write as well as the Frenchmen did, competition in French would be way tougher, already he knew that Flaubert was inimitable, and so on. To write in Polish was unthinkable anyway. Who wanted to read Polish other than a few Poles?

But the bigger problem that Józef faced on long sea voyages such as this one was that none of his epiphanies, no detail in the progress of his education, could be shared with those around him. The personalities of some in this cabin would be essential to his stories, could be heroes or villains or even minor characters devoid of the notions of good and bad, but none could participate in the process of doubt and resolution. That remained a solitary voyage.

“And gentlemen,” Captain Blake’s voice became louder, “just as in every great city in the world, the ladies here are most generous. Not far from the dockyard is a chateau that hosts some fine Armenian specimens, blessed in talents necessary for quenching sailors’ thirsts…”

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