A Streetcar Called Perspire By Keith Butler

Perhaps it started earlier that day in 1973, at the gym. I had enrolled to gain weight. I was 26, weighed 52 kilograms and had just come out of India. I envied the girth of Australians. In India weight meant prosperity. There, people would come up to you and not say you looked overweight, but that you looked prosperous. Looking emaciated in India was the norm, looking thin in Australia was the trend. Now I was fashionable but I wanted to look prosperous, so I joined the Ashburton Welcome Gymnasium.

The introductory session was free, and I turned up in my Bombay Bloomers and Bata keds. I tried not to stare at the instructress who almost wore something. She started me on the treadmill, and soon I learnt that in Australia you can run flat out without moving. The rubber under me was like asphalt, and the instructress hovered, telling me to hold on to the bar, while she slowed the pace of the machine to stop, but I simply stepped off the contraption, without falling over. She was impressed. ``Where did you learn that?'' she asked. ``Tram catching, Calcutta-style,'' I said. There were some things I could teach people over here.

A few hours later I was standing outside the Melbourne Arts Centre waiting for the city tram. I had been a year in Australia and saw the Aussie method of tram-catching. It was more like stopping a tram. The vehicle had to come to a dead halt. Then people boarded; politely, efficiently, never touching one another. Stiff-legged, knee creaking, L-shaped, right angle, thigh testing, calf-pulling, toe-pointing, patent leather ascensions by Collins Street.wallahs and check-out chicks, the mini-skirted, the draped and shaped, the suited booted. I thought of Australian personal space and Indian space. Here it was touch-me-not, there it was touch-me-lot. I remembered Calcutta tram frottage, and my girlfriend Sylvia. One day, long ago, Sylvia waited for the Eliott Road tram in Calcutta. As she stepped onto the running board her mini skirt rode up her thigh and the loaded carriage dilated with desire. A man stood behind Sylvia, pressing the inquiring worm of his manliness into her. She felt his eyes writing between her shoulder blades: cho chweet. Thereafter Sylvia traveled by rickshaw.

Now as the Melbourne City W-class swept past me, its sides breathed in, its cheek panels grew hollow, the paintwork spun and the wheels whispered, ``Remember me? Catch me. Remember me? Catch me. Remember...'' and I saw Princess Street bridge change into the haunted bridge over Calcutta Tollys Nullah, and whitewashed Flinders Street Station become the Calcutta Victoria Memorial.

In that stretch of Calcutta only serious tram-catchers operate. Chasing trams can be done at night or day but clear light is recommended in order to see the electric poles near the grass verge of the track. You canít see the tram yet but you know to get ready when you see the sand grains tap-dancing in the track lip. You hear the overhead wires go sheek. You see the tram straightening out of the whiplash curve near the Victoria Memorial. You see it picking up speed for the straight run to the bridge. You start to jog along the grass border beside the tracks. By now you're moving at half speed, and the wind is being pushed by the metal mass swaying behind you, wheels grinding over tracks, thudding over welds, klakety-klak-bang, klakety-klak-bang, now for it, it's just behind you, you're moving flat out, the breeze is combing your hair, the asphalt is saying you're a first class runner, your head is playing pictures of American Lee Evans in the Olympics 400 meter hurdles, you sprout peppercorn side-burns and an Afro hairstyle, you become black, you lift your knees there's no sound left in the world except you breathing, in, out, in, and the Olympic cinder track flicks under your Cuban heels, the carriages are closing, you're smelling the heat of the silent wheels, passengers are pondering whether you'll catch it or die, - oh what a tamasha! The doorway is floating alongside you, you don't want it beating you, the single handle is what you're seeking out of the side of your eye, in the quiet quiet world, it's now or never, right hand extending, always right hand, catching with the left means dying, grasping the bar, tramspeed tweaking you ever so slightly off your feet, swinging onto the running board with the right leg. You're on!

Stand on the podium. The passengers applaud with their eyelids: Shabash! Klakety-klack-bang. A good conductor will then not ask you for your fare. He knows what you've just been through. If you fall under, your skull will be cloven, then the tram will be stopped, the driver will be stoned to death, and the father will sit on the side of the road staring with unseeing eyes at the two half heads. You will always remember such a scene even if you travel overseas, and get married and be happy; it sticks in your mind like a radish, even though the boy with two half-heads was not one of us, you didn't know the people concerned, you never saw them again, you were too funked to go and see the body. A good conductor knows all of that.

And I see again another part of Calcutta, across town, in Eliott Rd. just where the tram curves around Sen Laws Pharmacy, next to the girl's hostel. The show-off tram catchers operate here. Anglo-Indian Presleys, collar up, drain pipe trousers, pointy shoes, Cuban heels, thin black belt snaking around waist, starched white shirt with a middle pleat, side burns, hair Brylcreemed, and flicked forward, Eliott Road boys. They do the two-step, one step to line up the tram, second step on, look, no hands, comb the hair. Wah! Getting off is also an art form. Always alight by the left foot and keep running forward. We khaki sahibs only travelled as passengers; taking a job as a conductor was below our Indian station in life. But when the Eliott Road boys found a new life in Australia jobs were scarce. Many shut their eyes and filled out application forms as conductors on Melbourne trams.

Bang! The Melbourne city tram doors snapped shut, sulking that I had not moved. I am still standing in the tram shelter outside the Melbourne Arts Centre in St.Kilda Rd. The tram moves away. I canít explain why, but I leave the kerb and follow the tram, just hurrying at first, so as not to alarm anyone, then, throwing caution to the wind, and ignoring blurred stares
and honking horns, I chase the tram. I am all running and happy and high knee stepping, my best Calcutta tram-catching style. I catch the tram. I swing onto the running board. I look graciously at the passengers of the Melbourne City tram like an Olympian. I have just demonstrated the classic Calcutta tram-catching style. Thank you very much.

They stare at me. They think I'm an ignorant migrant unable to integrate into Australia; and the tram conductor comes towards me, wanting to charge me with more than a ticket. Our eyes meet; there is a flicker of recognition. I look at his khaki-colored face. He has his collar up, drainpipe trousers, pointy shoes, Cuban heels, thin black belt snaking around waist, side burns, gray hair flicked forward. Hai.

About the author:

Keith Butler was born in Delhi in 1948 and educated in Calcutta. He started his teaching career with the Jesuits in Calcutta, immigrated to Australia in 1972 and obtained a Bachelor of Arts as a mature age student from Melbourne University. Keith launched his career as a writer by winning The Age Short Story competition in 1998 with Sodasi; he regularly contributes feature articles to leading Australian newspapers such as The Age and Good WeekEnd. Keith also features in the recently published Penguin Australian Summer Stories 2 and A Century of Australian Short Stories. He is currently working on his first novel due to be published in 2002.

 

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