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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #439
The Holes of Calcutta
David Gunn

On Halloween, 1756, the ruler of the region in India known as Bengal cleverly employed several dozen hand puppets plus a vat of rancid succotash to capture the British garrison that was stationed in Calcutta. All one hundred and forty soldiers were incarcerated for the evening in a suffocatingly small room in the Floozy District known as the Black Hole because its gravitational field was so intense that not even light could escape it. Indeed, some of the soldiers attempted to flee disguised as various types of light--a Roman candle, a glowworm, a Ronco electromagnetic radiation dispenser--but couldn't. A few who chose other masquerades--which, since it was October 31st, were nothing if not plentiful--just waltzed out the door. But most of the men perished simply from being in another's space, which in this case often meant somebody else's latissimus dorsi.

Word of the tragedy quickly spread throughout the city, generating a surprising amount of licentious interest. Scores of masochists clamored to be confined in the Black Hole for a night, often committing egregious acts in front of the nabob himself to get arrested. The Calcutta Stifling Club petitioned to hold its weekly meetings there until it finally ran out of members. Hyperbolized accounts of macabre events in the Hole even inspired a short-lived offshoot of Indian theater: the Dravidian snuff drama. And for sure it piqued the interest of a certain future professor of Calamitology at the University of Hummock-on-Smythe in southwesternmost Lincolnshire.

Calcutta of the mid-18th century was home to other types of holes, too. The Black and Blue Hole was briefly popular as a venue for amateur pugilistic events, and made Punjabi Marciano a household name. The Worm Hole sent East Indian adventurers back in time--at least, that's presumed where they went; no one ever resurfaced to refute the establishment's claims. The Loop Hole provided innovative tax shelter advice that would have allowed the Mogul emperors to hang on to their holdings had they been fluent in Esperanto. The Jackson Hole was an ill-advised ski resort whose proximity to the tropic of Cancer virtually assured it of failure.

Probably the most famous of the lot was the Calcutta Watering Hole, a trendy salon that featured stand-up comedy and performances of jazz music. The Watering Hole was the brainchild of Dame Ethel Hemlicht, a German expatriate who was for a time the personal escort of George Handel, official composer for the British East India Company. Dame Ethel heard in Handel's corporate jingles the syncopated swing rhythms and flattened thirds and sevenths that would make their way to the music of the American South a hundred and fifty years later. Over the objections of patrons who expected to hear traditional ragas and talas, she programmed music that featured bebop, boogie-woogie and call-and-response riffing. The Watering Hole thus attracted a devoted but small clientele--small in the sense that few stood over five feet in height, due, claimed an irate Dame Ethel, to runaway emissions from the adjacent Worm Hole's time engine. The salon's tap finally ran dry when, as a goodwill gesture to its taller patrons, it showcased the East India Sitar Guild. The five-person ensemble played a brand new raga called "Argumentaria" which, as its name suggested, personified not the gods, ascetics or devotees but rather a sense of quibbling and quarreling. As the piece progressed from alap to tala, the sitarists became increasingly belligerent towards one another, intermittently thwacking another player with his instrument. Belligerence begat bellicosity, and soon the sitarists were at each other's throats, rivaling some of the worst calamities the Black Hole ever served up. Unfortunately for the progress of music, the deaf-eared nabob straightaway closed the Watering Hole.

Incidentally, Dame Ethel did indeed invent the almost eponymous anti-choking maneuver. One night, an out-of-tune violist was soloing at her club. Incensed at his musicianshiplessness, she grabbed him from behind, applied a quick but firm upward thrust to the viola, and forced it out of his hands. As she gave the flabbergasted fiddler the boot, the delighted audience gave her a standing ovation.

Standing ovations, although welcome, are not needed to initiate this 439th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, which is to Allhallowmas what succotash, rancid or otherwise, is to Kalvos.