The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tuning in to a new town

6.50 am. The doorbell downstairs rings and I wake up suddenly. It must be Paul, one of our two junior officers at the consulate, coming to meet my husband, George Sibley, the US consul general in Calcutta, to go play squash at the Calcutta Racquet Club.

George leaves and I decide to go to my desk on our verandah to check e-mails on my computer. This will take all the time George is out playing as I receive an average of 15 e-mails a day and try to answer them all so I don’t fall behind in my correspondence. Some news from my Calcutta Hash Group. I’m the Hash Mistress, in charge of sending out weekly information on our Sunday runs, keeping track of the bank account, disbursing funds, handling Hash correspondence, and barking out instructions each week before the 40-member group sets out on its course. More news from my friends in Jordan and their thoughts on the war in Iraq, and some messages from the Internet forwarded by family in the US. By the time I finish, George is back.

8 am. We have breakfast. Our head bearer, Lal, serves it to us on a silver tray upstairs on the verandah. As I’m enjoying the fruit and yoghurt, fresh coffee and bread, I keep the tape running in my head –“enjoy it, but don’t get used to it” – George’s words of wisdom. After breakfast, we move to the sofa for a bit of CNN and to read five English daily newspapers.

10 am. Before I leave for my first appointment, I go over the plans for the evening and for the coming weekend with George’s assistant, Amada. I say a quick “goodbye” to my mom and go downstairs to check in with the house staff about today’s meals and telephone messages. Outside, I greet my driver, Abdul, and my personal security officer on assignment from the police department. Each day, since the war in Iraq began, a different policeman has accompanied me whenever I leave the house. There have been daily marches protesting the war, with as many as 150,000 people walking and holding up anti-US placards. Windows were broken at the American Center, a few blocks from the US Consulate, and rotten eggs were thrown as well. The windows of the Nike shop around the corner from us were vandalised by a group of young men because it was a so-called “American business”. Forget that the employees and the owner of the shop are Indian, that the shoes are manufactured in Asia. Who will give them jobs if their business has to shut down' The protesters' Because of recent events, and the fact that my first appointment is fairly far away in Barisha, there is a police escort jeep waiting for me and we will follow it to the Rehabilitation Centres for Children. I ask Abdul to tell the police vehicle not to go too fast — Calcutta traffic is frightening enough without trying to keep up with a car whose siren is blasting as it speeds past buses, bicycles, taxis, rickshaws and pedestrians …. and cows!

As we ride through the city, I am filled with conflicting emotions. I love Calcutta, love India. I’m so glad we’re here. But it’s strange to have to be escorted by the police, strange to think anyone would want to hurt me just because I’m an American. And I don’t want to hide in my house either. What to do' Be sensible, keep working, stay low, be careful what I say and to whom I say it, live.

10.40 am Because of the police escort we arrive early for my visit, but the reception is ready — some women and a young girl holding a lighted oil lamp to offer me the traditional welcome. I am used to this. The lamp is moved in a circle in front of me, its smoke leaving an arc in the air. Then someone hands me some fragrant lotus flowers and as I bow my head, a dot of sandalwood paste is put on my forehead. Thus I am blessed.

The tour begins. The centre was started by a British lady, Jane Webb, who saw a need for the physically handicapped children of the area, raised funds and opened a diagnostic, medical and surgical centre. Ms Webb died a few years ago, but her work continued and the centre expanded. It now includes a school for the children who are there for surgery and rehabilitation.

The Bengali television news people show up; I sing We Shall Overcome with the kids. Admiring their artwork, I marvel at a teenager without arms who is painting in watercolours with his mouth. On to the prosthetics lab. Slowly and carefully I repeat what I’ve said so often before – “that I love Calcutta and am delighted to be in such a great city”. And how do I feel about the children here at the centre' “Well, I think the work being done is wonderful and important and the children seem very happy”. But … here it comes… I say right to the camera: “I’m frustrated and angry that children are still needlessly contracting polio and that it is the human duty of people in influential positions to encourage vaccinations, not to prevent them.” And then I say that “I’m grateful to the people of Calcutta for bringing me into their hearts” and I smile. Always end an interview smiling. It looks better.

1:15 pm. Hooray! I’m not the last to arrive at the Conclave, the club/restaurant where I’ll meet some old and new friends, Indian ladies trying to make a difference in the world. We are meeting to enjoy a meal and visit with Ruchira Gupta, executive director of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an NGO that among other things rescues women and young girls sold into prostitution by their families.

Back home, I’m given two phone messages. One phone call is from a girlfriend (she’ll call later) and one is from a designer clothing store, asking me to stop by tomorrow afternoon to view the new collection. The last time I was at that shop a photographer took my picture all over the store. The next day I appeared in the newspapers with the caption “Lee Alison Sibley shops here”. Good publicity for them since I’m on the “A List” in Calcutta and people really pay attention to what I wear and how I look. How very strange for me. I, Lee-Alison Sibley, have spent most of my life in jeans and work shirts, and now I’m a “fashion statement”.

6.15 pm: George is waiting for me in his official armoured vehicle with his driver and personal security officer. We’re off to Raj Bhavan, the Governor’s mansion, to attend the final of four lectures/demonstrations on Indian classical music. I have gone from knowing “nothing” to knowing “something”. Indian classical music is so different from Western classical music that even I, a musician, have trouble following the points made by the lecturer at times. During the first lecture, I demonstrated the vocal technique used in Western classical music and people were greatly enthused and anxious to hear me in concert. It gave me a chance to advertise my upcoming performance of Rabindranath Tagore songs.

8.15 pm: Back in the car and late for a dinner in our honour. I think for a moment, weigh my options and decide to abandon George. I’ve had enough.

9 pm: I’m on the sofa, eating a bowl of soup, and watching a bad movie. It feels wonderful.

11:30 pm: Off to bed, to rest and face tomorrow, because tomorrow is another day in the life of the consul general’s wife.

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