As I approached the entrance of the so-called guest house, the driveway presented itself in a self-determiningly subtle but conspicuous manner. There were two lines drawn parallelly on the reddish soil of the earth – the width of those two lines barely enough to fit the perimeter of car tyres, and the lines were made out of two inches square of bricks – very red in colour. These bricks were laid on the soil in such a way that the protruded parts were almost geometrically lined up with about one inch above the surface. The worn out tyres of the black and even more worn out Citroen taxi did not like the rough handling underneath and made some uncomfortable noise before stopping in the portico.
I am about to enter the guest house of the presumably safe and secured area of the city of Abidjan. Well wishers warned me not to compromise on the safety feature when I would be travelling to Ivory Coast. Therefore, Bietry was chosen. It was very near the airport and as I was told, generally inhabited mostly by white expatriates. The guest house that I would soon check into was actually a residential house of a French couple who used to rent out three spare rooms on the upper level of their ground-plus-one plush bungalow. The room rent included a breakfast which – as I found the very next morning after I had checked in, consisted of two slices each of white and brown untoasted bread, some butter, marmalade, strawberry jam and a pot-full of black coffee. The cost of the accommodation was a shade less than that of established hotels of about four star facilities. The owner lady subsequently clarified to me that she was offering almost whatever was available in a commercial hotel and in addition, her personal attendance and attention to details. The untoasted sliced breads, I had noticed the following morning, were kept on a milky white bone-china plate that was border-designed with two strands of hair-thin blue lines and the plate was covered with a square piece of white cloth made of pure net with occasional embroidery in sateen.
The calling bell opened the main door and immediately exposed me to a smile that was plucked in two thick-muscled lips that were painted with blood-red nail polish – it seemed (as it appeared that a tiny part of the colouring chemical was kind of hanging from the left hand corner of the lower lip). The owner of those lips was a tall and big and may-appear-attractive-looking white lady in a blue chiffon dress. The French – aha …… all the way from France or wrapped in the moribund impression of a French connection in the soil of Ivory Coast.
‘Bon jour’ – the lady said to me, with the smile still plucked inside the two lips that presently took a horse-shoe shape.
I learnt these two words while studying French some good many years ago as a hobby. So, I responded – I guessed correctly (who cares for pronunciation).
The lady chirped in. I heard her saying ‘vuulll, vuuuul …’ (or something like that).
Gosh – I thought, that was a bit of a big problem. That pronunciation in Bengali means ‘mistake’. Did I commit a mistake in responding to her greeting? And more surprisingly, how would she know Bengali?! After just a matter of a second and a half, I confirmed to myself that she did not know Bengali. Therefore, it must have been that she had said something that I did not understand. I, at that, did what would appear to be the best solution – a naïve smile that perhaps brightens even the face of an angel. And she was only a mortal human lady. I conquered the French without the French! The lady got taken over by English. “Will you please come in” – she said, with the gesture of her hand.
After an afternoon nap, I came out of the room on the first floor by decelerating my pace through eighteen flights of stairs and headed straight to the cute bar that was positioned about three metres from the entrance door on the left. I went to occupy the lone single-sitter sofa at the farthest corner and tanked in to the ten odd inches depth of the plush leather seat. The bottle of the local Flag beer appeared a bit rustic, but the sophisticated arguments of The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen proved a lethal combo. I was intoxicated with the heady mix of the black text in the white cover book and the brown liquid in a dark bottle. And, I was hungry without food for a long period of time.
The menu card was a brief one sheet of paper with the print on both sides and laminated with a bluish tinge all over. It was in French – from the beginning to the end. Disgusting, I thought. Frustrating that I, despite very hard toil in my mind, failed to remember my half-baked French of the college days. And, unprofessional on the part of the Guest House not to have the menu card printed in the universal English language.
I got up and headed towards the door opening into the swimming pool area. Two steps down into the landing area approaching the grassland, I found a photograph of a gentleman covered in a blue photo frame of about three feet by two. About three-fourth of the frame was occupied by the face and the rest part at the bottom was all white possibly of the shirt that the gentleman was wearing. The most striking parts of the photo were two piercing eyes of the man and a huge and thick white moustache falling over and covering almost both his lips. The photo was placed on a chair that was covered by a white table cloth made of net and embroidered in sateen. Two hands of the chair were chained in very thin electric wire starred intermittently by tiny lamps sparking off white, blue and red dim lights. I look around, but no one was to be seen anywhere excepting the barman a couple of dozens of feet away. The final intriguing factor in the whole photograph saga was Marlborough Red cigarette packets. There were heaps of unopened cigarette packets lying over the floor below the photo frame.
I retreated to the bar area and was desperately trying to remember the French connection of the word ‘Red’. However, I could only remember ‘je’, ‘ami’, ‘est’, ‘de’ and just a few others. Therefore, my second glance at the menu could land me up on the border of comprehension to only one item called ‘Poison Cote d’Ivoire’. I chuckled. Poison of Ivory Coast. There must be some underlying message in this phrase. French people, our teacher used to say, have a good sense of literature and art, and are very sharp and sophisticated in their pun. I thought to myself – I cannot let go of this opportunity of testing the pun of poison-taste in the French restaurant of the city of Abidjan. So, I called the barman and pointed my finger at the Poison item.
An air of good feeling was engulfing me about the environment – the cute bar, the Flag beer, the adjacent dinner place. And also, the menu card, the Poison item and above all, the photograph saga. Intriguing atmosphere. I must switch over to my Black Label whiskey.
Three sips down the throat, the owner-lady appeared. She was very formally dressed in black georgette gown with a black thick belt and a pair of high heeled shiny jade black shoes. The pearl necklace was matched by the pearl earrings. She seemed to have just arrived for the formal dinner on the deck of the Titanic in the final evening of the ship. The owner-lady came towards me, had a look at the bottle of the whiskey on the bar counter and bowed a little with ‘bon soir’. I remembered this expression, but did not want to reply in French lest she started throwing more French words. I said – good evening, madam. She smiled. I gave her a return. And then she started. She started the Fs and Bs and god knows what, and did not stop for two full minutes. When she was at the peak of her lecture, the calling bell rang and my exasperation relaxed. I saw a procession of about ten twelve people entering the lawn and chirping in voices without any meaning to me. The owner-lady welcomed them and quickly all of them – I presumed French people, made a circle with our lady in the middle. All voices were brought down to a hush-hush level, but I still did not understand what they were talking about. After a while, they dispersed and got themselves seated in and around the bar and dining area. Beer and wine were served to them and packets of Red Marlborough cigarette.
The owner-lady came to me a little later and gestured – I thought, apologising for the crowd and the noise. I stood up and bent a bit forward and drawing up some courage to get rid of the aloneness and to enter into a conversation, said to her – “madam, I don’t know French excepting the term Je t’aime”. She, about ten inches taller than me, leaned forward toward me and asked something like – I thought, “pardon”. I gathered more courage and said to her “madam, I wanted to say that the only French words I know are Je t’aime”. She suddenly froze as a statue for a few seconds and then tears started rolling down her cheeks. I was taken aback with the sudden turn of events and felt sorry and guilty for the unknown problem I had caused. She grabbed my left hand and put my palm on her left breast. My goodness – what was happening! She was murmuring something. The incoherent and incomprehensible utterances sounded like the Brahmin priests chanting some hymns or some old lady crying for a departed soul. All the excitement of the titillation in my brain post two beers and one whiskey started falling down like the mercury settling down toward the base of the test-tube. I could barely say ‘sorry’ to her, twice. Weeping lady to a crying baby, the owner-lady kept my wrist locked in her strong fist. She was shaking all over in her body and finally, gradually collapsed on the floor. First time in my life did I feel as if I was tied to a huge chunk of rock falling down from the cliff of a low peak in the Himalayas. The momentum created out of the owner-lady’s big structure and a slow fall was good enough for me to follow her direction finally, gradually settling down on her lap for a few seconds. The whiskey glass in my right hand gave in with a sharp death-knell splashing the liquid all over the place. In those few seconds, I realised that the owner-lady and I were encircled by the stunned guests who rushed toward us. Two ladies from the team of guests quickly bent down, looked at me while I was still lying on her lap in disbelief, but did not stop the owner-lady from crying uncontrollably with her gorgeous black party dress being crumpled under her own weight. One gentleman gave me his hand to get up and then took me aside.
Both of us sat on a dinner table looking at each other for a few seconds to start a conversation, but realising that we did not know each other’s language, we – as if in a fit of camaraderie, almost simultaneously looked at the floor. At this point, the barman brought in my food.
It was a small silver tray with two small bowls covered with milky white glass plates. The handles of the tray were wrapped in kerchiefs with print of red and white squares. The bowls had three small legs each that were curved in a quarter-moon shape. French cuisine served the French way, I thought. What a presentation of the food! Subtle, unique, intriguing. The Poison that was inside the bowl already turned to be an elixir for me. I could hardly wait any longer. But …
The owner-lady was helped by other guests to be seated on a large sofa. There was pin-drop silence that was only being punctuated by the ticking of the huge hexagonal clock on the wall high above the bar counter. Almost everyone’s glance was fixed towards the floor, but my eyes could not resist from throwing two stolen glances at the tray-full of the French food. I did not know what to do. My one-man rescue party, after a few seconds, gestured at me – I should eat.
I uncovered the smaller bowl. Hot and pure white rice with beautiful aroma. The spoon to scoop rice from the bowl, was silvery. What was grossly missing for this rice was the Bengali ghee, I thought, but quickly settled for the substitute in some butter. But they haven’t offered any butter nor was it congenial for me to ask anyone for anything at that moment. A bit disheartened, I open the other bowl, looking for the French pun of the Poison. The inner side of the bowl was covered by a green leaf and little less than a quarter of the bowl was full with some soup. In the middle of the bowl was a heaped chunk of fish that was covered by a whole lot of tiny pieces of red tomato and white onion of about two square each. Tomato and onion in the raw put on top of a cooked fish that was expertly laid into some soup that was floating around one green leaf cut to fit just the perimeter of the inside of the bowl. That was my food. Arguably the best French food I have tasted ever!
- The word ‘Poison’ was wrongly typed in the menu card. It should be ‘Poisson’ – the French word for ‘Fish’
- The name of the man in the photograph was Pierre. The first Marlborough Red was smoked by him once he opened his eyes in the morning and the second one consumed as soon as the first one was about to be complete. Third one was after he had French breakfast with fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and n-th cigarette one after the other until he finished about his sixtieth or eightieth cigarette of the day.
- Pierre died of heart attack three days before my arrival at the guest house and buried one day prior to my arrival.
- The owner-lady was Pierre’s wife for forty years.
- Just before the death, Pierre managed to reiterate his love to his wife and said to the owner-lady – Je t’aime.