by Alex Paikada

Library of Congress Control Number: 2008930889

Front Cover Photo: India at Night, courtesy of NASA



Chapter 1         

Chapter 2         

Chapter 3         

Chapter 4         

Chapter 5         

Chapter 6         

Chapter 7         

Chapter 8         

Chapter 9         

Chapter 10         

Chapter 11         

Chapter 12         

Chapter 13         

Chapter 14         

Chapter 15         

Chapter 16         

Chapter 17         

Chapter 18         

Chapter 19         

Chapter 20         

Chapter 21         

Chapter 22         

Chapter 23         


Such Stuff We Are Made Of is a classic coming-of-age story. The difference between it and others is one of epic proportions in that an entire nation—India, the largest country in the world with more than a billion people (much larger than China and, unlike China, continuing to grow at a booming double digit rate)—comes of age and takes its rightful place among the leading nations of the world. Yes, India has gained entry to the exclusive group of nations with nuclear weapons, but far more important in terms of development is the fact that India is a democracy with a vast reserve of labor, much of which is English speaking, for the global market to exploit. For in India, like everywhere else in the developing world, capital is created by the sweat equity of millions of poor farmers who toil willingly from sunup to sundown in an effort to coax cash crops from the soil. It is on their strong backs that the rest of the country is carried forward. Were it not for them, the cities would starve, and emerging industrialization would come to a screeching stop.

Why should the Western world care about India? Because we depend far too much on communist China. India makes a much better friend because we share a common bond of language and British colonial heritage. It's common sense to diversify, and India is the best way to go. As a foreigner, you cannot travel anywhere in China without a communist “keeper”. The Chinese do not trust us as individuals and they do not like democracy. In our private lives, we choose our friends carefully. The government would do well to follow our example.

Fred Dungan, publisher, Dungan Books

Chapter 1
Banished, but not yet finished

The venue was undoubtedly a seminar hall of a major university in India, most likely in Delhi. The geographical identity was evident from the pseudo intellectuals who had just deposited their stiff and seemingly attentive physical bodies on the orange plastic chairs and then gone out ethereally wandering in the shopping malls in the midst of the city. The time also could be worked out with a little bit of observation. Because some people were attempting to make calls from bulky mobile phones, it had to be the last decade of the previous millennium.

The first to show up on the rostrum was Karl Marx himself, the man who had made the twentieth century, depending on one's perspective, either an experience in revolting or a revolting experience. International communism's founder and architect viciously stared at the audience from behind his full and flowing beard, as if it was all the fault of the petrified audience.

“Who gave you permission...,” he growled, “who gave you permission to read more into what I had written?”

Rama Murthy intervened. He too was there with the great ancient men, it was revealing. Next time he deserves more respect, the devil in him. “Utter not a word more,” Rama Murthy threatened, his slender face fuming to a hibiscus, “say not a word more. You said all you had to say in your time. The rest of what there is to say will be said by your interpreters. Leave some space for the future so that what you have written can be revised to fit the times.”

So clever of him, ancient men should not barge in and spoil the show.

Marx ignored his detractor with deserving disdain.

“Do you know my problem? My problem was my inferiority complex. I was a Christian Jew, you see, neither a Jew nor a Christian—a Christian Jew. Then I was bitten by Hegel, and possessed by poverty. There was fire in my entrails; there was hunger in the eyes of my wife and children. I had only the British library to feed on. That was my problem, gentlemen. The Teutonic industrial inferno and the sooty little devils that operated it are no more. Wrong I was, my magna culpa. But woe to those who drag me out from the dead centuries and prostitute my ideas. Woe to you. Man's drive transgresses the route map laid down by the economists. Hope you got it,” Marx slumped to the corner like a deflated gunny bag.

Stalin came to the lecture stand, twirling his masterpiece mustache.

Marx got up a head of steam and shouted out to Stalin from the floor: “Oh, you, I did not write and dream my dreams for the Slav peasantry, I did it for the Anglo-German proletariat. I belonged to my times, drag me not to your times,” he threatened. With the steam drained from him he again slumped to the floor.

Stalin ignored the outburst and addressed the assemblage, “Can you imagine gentlemen, the consternation of a demagogue who chose to marry his own daughter? You must strain to imagine it, and then you will understand me. Do you know the insecurity of a little man? If you can, you will forgive me.”

Stalin stalked into the wall and disappeared. Then came the dreaded Satan followed by Ahasuerus. Satan belched fire and twirled his arrow sharp tail. Ahasuerus twitched his Ho Chi Minh goatee and trained his sharp ancient eyes on the great evil.

“What news wandering Jew?” Satan asked him.

“I've been busy scuttling between the source of time and the great ocean, covering the shadowy roads watered by sweat, blood and tears.”

“You are getting wise these days.”

“No chance, man is the same. The first man that blinked at the universe and the last man going to whimper into obscurity are one and the same.”

“Well, what brought you here after such a long stretch of time?”

“I am not coming to this hell. It is very much a part of me, inside me. Oh, how it burns! At times I take a look at it. Now, I must be on the move; no rest for the wicked. My curse must be fulfilled.”

Satan hollered, “He is our pawn and he will continue to play the game. He is humankind; he must roar and growl as communities and nations; he must wail and sob like a monsoon gale. He will act out his incoherence in the form of Cyrus, Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tymoor, Napoleon, Hitler and thousands of others. He will sigh away his days as did Spartacus, Sisyphus, Prometheus and Aswathama.”

Machiavelli came in, bored to the bones, “I am tired of my life in Hell.”

“You demanded it.”

“I am all alone here, there is nobody else. I hoped to at the very least to meet the Popes and emperors here in hell.”

“If need be, I shall deport you to heaven.”

“And you are going to liquidate hell?”

“No, idiot, there is no heaven without hell, there is no light without darkness.”

Then a fat and swarthy man in his sixties entered. “My revolutionary greeting to Satan,” he began, then turning to Machiavelli, “greetings to thee, great master.”

“But you are not from Florence, who might you be?” the great Florentine asked.

“You do not recognize me? How very sad. I am the flashing sword of the working class, I am the vibrant voice of the third world, I am the nightmare of evil capitalists and their running dog imperialist reactionary forces, I am the born enemy of the bourgeoisie elements. No doubt you have heard of my revolutionary zeal. I am the adored and venerated socialist democratic dictator of Janganadesh.”

A rustic middle-aged villager rushed in, storming at Satan, “You—Evil Incarnate!—I have spent my whole life fighting against you.”

“Strange indeed it is that you have to lock horns with yourself,” the Florentine inferred.

“You roam across time and space looking for yourself,” Satan laughed.

“Shut up, your irrational rhetoric brings out the violence in me,” the villager fumed.

“Our civilizations were the cot of Procrustus, we strain and stretch in it.” the Florentine asserted.

“The masses cannot digest the language of reason. Thus, we leaders must harness their passions,” the obese dictator responded.

Then the villager set his eyes on the dictator. “Oh, divine leader, you are here. I am proud to say that I obtained martyrdom with you. I was in the crowds where the bomb went off.”

“Life is like that, brother,” his leader consoled him, “but tell me, how do my loyal compatriots take my death?”

“The country is in tears, leader. The people are renaming universities and airports after you. They are erecting temples and chapels for you.”

“Congratulations, dictator,” Satan patted the dictator.

“Shut up Satan, I nearly forgot your presence.”

“Cool down, brother,” the leader intervened.

“Venerable leader, we have been fighting against his designs under your able leadership. Is not Satan the one that turned the foreign countries against us? Isn't he the one that perpetually misguides our people? Isn't he the one that prompted us to yield to the imperialist forces across the borders?” The villager was grinding his teeth.

“Had it not been for God and Satan, those who ruled the world would have been in real trouble,” the sage Florentine noted.

“Who is this impudent rascal?” the villager demanded.

“He is master to all of us, brother,” the leader enlightened him.

“Poor fellow,” the villager was all pity.

“Poor fellows,” Satan cut in, “taking the map route to knowledge as knowledge and languishing in the prisons of opinion.”

“I do not get what this Evil Incarnate has to say.”

“No, brother. No need to understand anything; no need to think anything. We, the leaders, will do it all for you. Understanding is the last thing you desire—once you begin to think for yourself, there is nothing we can tell you after that.”

“Something is wrong somewhere. How come we went to the wrong place? Oh venerable leader, let us march our way to heaven.”

Satan intervened, “There is no way to heaven. It is a matter of becoming.”

The villager rattled off his oft repeated lamentation, “Long time ago, a long, long time back, our leaders showed us the rainbows across the horizon. Reaching out to the scintillating spectra, we tread our way, letting the leaders ride on our weary backs. We went forward, gladly bearing the weight of the generations that came before us, gladly bearing the stench of the dirty linen of the centuries.”

“Every man is a Christ on the way of the cross,” the Florentine observed.

“If the people failed to reach out to the rainbows the fault is not with us, the leaders, or with the people. The fault is with the foreign colonial forces that kept us from prospering. And if we have made any progress, it is because of our great vision and planning,” the leader declared.

“It is all over leader. I am happy that at least in death I was able to be at your side. On many an occasion I have wandered around your palace to see how our great leader lived and dined. But now we are together. Now, let us march off straight to heaven and demand our wages.”

The great Florentine laughed, “Now, as our first order of business, we are going to examine the revolutions that resulted in stillbirths, the righteous clerics that look for the black cat in the dark room, the history that flows aimlessly into a dreary desert land, and the carrots dangled in front of the masses. We will discuss today and tomorrow, we will discuss who and what we are.”

Villager blinked, “He speaks strange language. I have no doubts about right and wrong. Our leader has told us all about it.”

“Right and wrong co-exist. They are inseparable twins.”

It was too much for the villager. He flamed into a fury. “We have had enough. Please, no more of his nonsense. It is my sacred duty and right to put an end to this madness.” He lunged at Satan in a rage. However, the fruit of his precipitate action unnerved him, because Satan was only a stuffed cloth, there was nothing inside.

“What a pity, one of the master pillars of our civilization has collapsed,” the Florentine cursed bitterly.

“What are we going to do now?” leader was confused.

“Was it all mere smoke and air, leader?” the villager exclaimed with a wail so passionate that he fell into a fit, twitching and wreathing on the floor.

The Florentine rolled up the cloth that had been Satan into a ball and hurled it into a corner, declaring, “Harken, Ahasuerus will wake up with a start from the dust bin of history. A new sun will rise.” Great Florentine continued, “darkness will be freed from the sanctum sanctorum. Freedom will dawn on those who have nothing to lose. The values subjected to mass rape will stand on their feet. Behold, sermons prostituted at the crossroads, the manipulated marketplaces where conscience is for sale, the filthy meat markets where knowledge is sliced and sold, the scarecrow dances, Ahasuerus crosses it all and comes with the sun.”

The leader was so agitated that in his rage, he, despite himself, gave a strong kick to the villager who was groaning in his stupor, “Traitor of a cur,” he muttered at the villager.

No one dared speak—silence reigned. Then Rama Murthy appeared again and wiped out the ancient characters, saying, “Enough of this nonsense. The marginalized working class demands its due. The moneylenders must pay for their sins. The underprivileged must be baptized into humanity. Ideologies and leaders are not important. The state is of little consequence, culture is not important, God is not important, priests are not important, salvation is not important, socialism is not important, equality is not important, and, what is more, we are not important. Human dignity is what is important. Each should have his share of the sun.”

Rama Murthy had grown so great. Who could have imagined that the dreamy slender fellow had so much of substance in him? See how he hobnobs with the men of substance. Next time around he would deserve a different and respectful treatment.

He heard announcements. The train had pulled into Secunderabad. The passengers were busy packing to get out. He opened his eyes. He was done with the latest edition of his systematic dream. He wondered whether it was possible to take snapshots of his nightly journeys. If only he could arrange video coverage of his dreams…. Do we wake into a dream and sleep into the life or do we wake into the life and sleep into another spell of a dream? He wondered and laughed. Darkness lingered in the cabins. There was sleepiness in the eyes of the passengers. They looked too tired to take on the world in this slowly awakening city that might have passed for an open air sauna had it not been for the fact that they were being fried to a crisp by an unrelenting tropical sun.

It was getting to be morning, the hot sweltering summer morning of interior Andhra. The three-tier sleeper compartment was nearly empty. He sat upright on his berth, dispelling the latest in a series of dreams. His trip to Delhi had been a grinding success. Sir would certainly be happy for him. The delegates from all over the world had liked his concept. The train moved again. He looked out into the white crowd of concrete buildings that the twin cities were part of. The cycle rickshaw men were already on the roads. When the orange sun climbed in the sky, it would be unbearably hot. He would contact sir immediately after arriving at the Hyderabad railway station. He would be happy and proud that his ward was making it. After contacting sir he wanted to hurry to his lodge for a rest. He had some washing to do. He had plans to go for a leisurely visit to Golconda in the evening with Rama Murthy if he was available. His plan was to catch the evening bus to Thadepalligudem to visit his mother, a visit which was long overdue.

The train pulled smoothly into the first platform foregoing the usual lurch. The platform was already crowded. Simhadri Express from Visakhapatnam had just pulled in; he flexed his lean body across the multitude to the nearest coin box, inserted a one-rupee coin and dialed Professor Bhattacharya's home phone number.

“Sir, it is me,” he began.

Sir spoke swift English. He took particular pleasure in trying his Telugu upon his students, his Telugu with an overt Bengali twang with his v always slipping to b, vasanth becoming basanth and viplav biplab. “Well my boy, stay where you are. Do not leave the station; make yourself as inconspicuous as possible in the crowd. Do not make any more calls. Wait there till I send somebody to you. They might be tapping the phone. Good bye.”

The connection was gone. He was surprised. Something was terribly wrong. He was tall and fair, it was difficult to melt into the hustling masses. He found a seat amidst the crowd, and sat there pretending to read.

He tried some wild guesses, sir had his own problems. He was a lonely man. A couple of years back his son had been abducted by the police. Later on he was found dead in the outskirts of the city with a bullet wound in his skull. He was an ardent People's War Group activist. The police had a special way of dealing with PWG activists and sympathizers. They would not register the arrest of the victim; they would not register a case. They would not let him escape into the labyrinth of endless delays that resulted from overburdened judicial processes. For every policeman ambushed and killed, they made sure that at least two of the activists were killed in false encounters. They would take their victim to a deserted field at night. Once they grew tired of venting their anger on him for the sake of their uniformed compatriots, they would let him free only to shoot him from behind. Then they would place a smoking country gun in the quivering hands of the victim. Next day the local dailies would publish the photograph of a dreaded terrorist killed in a shootout with the police. The modus operandi was nearly always the same. A bloody lurid lynch court saves a lot of trouble and does not strain the brain.

Sir was indifferent albeit defiant. He soon returned to his books and yoga with a vengeance. He did not complain. The People's Union for Civil Liberties took up the case, but what he had lost was lost forever. His wife perfectly performed the traditional rites due to the deceased and then declared to the students and her husband that she was going to fast until she passed away. He did not intervene and made no attempt to dissuade her. It was her life, her will and her reason. Twenty-one days later, he cremated his wife without any display of emotion, almost as if it was an everyday occurence. He had no worries, he had no points to prove, no tears to shed. Again he returned to his studies, meditation and patient academic activities. He did not even once mention his son or wife during his discussions with his research students. He would walk around campus with his tussled and flying snow-white hair, his sharp intelligent eyes fixed on infinity, his loose shirt, too big for him, dancing to his body movements; his long and prominent nose sniffing out unseen meanings, his soul flying high in the serene firmament of Carnatic music.

Professor Bhattacharya was like the majority of his countrymen in that he wasn't particularly for or against revolution. However, he had a soft spot in his heart for the revolutionaries not because they were correct, but because they loved humanity, and they selflessly sought to ease the suffering of the downtrodden masses. But his field was different. His world was mathematics, music and philosophy. All three fused into one in the astral heights. He was in real trouble in his widower's life. His wife was constantly attending him, making sure that he dressed in clean clothes, that he put the buttons in their right holes, that he had his food at the right times and amounts, that he put on his footwear, and that he combed his long flowing hair. Such trivialities were far beneath him. He had promised her that after his retirement they were going back to Burdwan. But that was the past, and it had all become irrelevant now. Their life in Andhra had given them a brilliant son, and that same Andhra had taken him back. That same Andhra had taken his wife back. No, he was not going anywhere.

Indeed his son had been a PWG activist at the medical college. Sir had known it and had done nothing to dissuade the young man. He was too refined to interfere in anyone's reasoning. Why should such an ascetic appear so worried?, he wondered. He thought of making some more phone calls. But he chose to wait for a while on the chance that sir's envoy might turn up.

Sir's life was like a symphony in that it was detached from the harsh and prosaic realities of this world. Music was his world; mathematics was his field. Beyond that the world ceased to exist for him. His life was so simple that one could represent it by regular staff notations. He had no fat in his body; a lanky lightness he had always around him. In his presence you would strain your mind to remember a song long lost in you. A music that has no language. Though he had no reason to worry about his daily bread, in many respects he was like many of the wandering maestros of South India. Andhras has a very rich musical tradition. Telugu and Sanskrit, the prevalent languages, being somewhat lyrical in tone, fuse easily into music. On settling in South India Professor Bhattacharya dived into Carnatic music like a fish into familiar waters. He was well versed in Rebeendra Sangeet; though being from the north, Hindustani classical music was not very familiar to him. Once immersed in the culture, however, the classical music of southern India proved irresistible to one whose imagination knew no bounds.

Music, he concluded, puts people in harmony with God. There can be no music without piety. Music springs from your attunement with God, and music turns you to God. Music appeals to the soul, skipping the checkpoints of reason. We are exposed to the fears and hopes that we haven't been hitherto bothered by. Music appeals to snakes, children and animals; music appeals to all that are pure in thought and deed. Music emanates from the musician when he becomes music—when he becomes the flute of God—when he becomes the earthen harp. Professor Bhattacharya was deeply moved by the lives of the masters from the fifteenth century onwards. In particular, he studied the lives of Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Deekshither and Syama Sasthry, who lived in Tanjore, and Swathithirunal, the king of Kerala in the early nineteenth century. These men were extremely rich in the absence of worldly goods because they enjoyed heavenly happiness in the tranquil depths of musical heavens, where the deity and the devotee fused into one, where the creator and the creation fused into the oneness from which new ragas are created. The professor was familiar with the hundred and fifty southern ragas and their effect on man. The research project he had embarked upon with his dear student was a bold and subtle one, in which musical traditions and higher mathematics fused into one. In his personal life, the external events did not ever eat into the swara-raga-sruthi of the astral music he was. This way he could fuse into eternity, when he knew that it was time to do so. That also would happen in regal dignity, he knew.

After half an hour, sir's envoy, Rajan Babu, finally turned up. Rajan Babu was a fellow research scholar, two years his junior.

“What is it all about?” he barked.

“Shhh!” Rajan cautioned and looked about, “I avoided the main entrance because they might be watching.”


“Who else other than the sleuths thirsting for your blood?”

“Why should they crave my blood? I have not crossed their path.”

“We shouldn't discuss it in the open, should we? Let's move to the edge. They won't arrest you from the railway platform; this property is Indian Railway's territory.”

They moved to a safer place.

“Now tell me what is this madness.”

“Rama Murthy was taken a few days ago. His bullet-ridden body was found in the dreary desiccated wastelands of Rayalseema. They have ransacked your room. They seem to have unearthed some incriminating evidence. Plain-clothes men are hanging around to round you up. They are waiting for you outside the station also. Wherever you may choose to go, they have painstakingly arranged a reception committee for you. I would guess that our sir has very red underwear, I don't know. But it is his problem. And this is your problem. It is your fault that you associated with shady characters. If you associate with men who shit their pants, you will also stink. The men in khaki will not listen to your protestations; and with a cunningly cold smile they would just as soon place a bullet in your brain. The gory scene of another terrorist in the throes of his accursed death. That is what we will read in the dailies.”

“Poor Rama Murthy, he did not deserve it,” he was shocked and troubled to hear the news.

“It was his fault. It is presumptuous of you to try in vain to lift the world. The world has its own mechanisms and manages quite well by itself.”

“Life is the ever-present misunderstanding that dwarfs all the lesser misunderstandings. The tree blooms away its gloom; the free go looking for their doom. This is the room where we act out our dream. We should hurry lest we are shut away into another room well before we are ready for it. Life can be lived away easily, we cannot afford to Tom and Jerry across the course of life.”

“I do not subscribe to the revolutionary philanthropists parading about sloshing their little brains. Only fools burn their bridges to warm and warn the lesser beings. Either you have you or you have nothing. When the police pull out your bones one by one and smash your skull, the underprivileged will not come lamenting and put your bones back in place nor will they restore your pulped brain. You will not get to congratulate yourself for having sabotaged your brilliant future. You could have moved west with a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship. Look at me, I will never be in the wrong company. Bungle you must, but when you bungle, you must bungle by yourself.”

“With but and if we rationalize why we have not achieved our goals in life and postulate that those who oppose us are to blame,” he reminded Rajan. He suddenly became thoughtful. We engineer our own doom and maliciously lay the blame at our neighbor's doorstep. I flutter into the flame and in complete confusion blame you. “Thank you for the sermon. No more homilies needed. Let me tell you, my dear friend, worldwise you are wise. But I don't hang out with bad people, and I will never regret or bang my head for being a friend of Rama Murthy. I don't think he was wrong. Nor do I think that you are wrong nor that anybody else is wrong. When you are strong, nothing is wrong. And I, for one, haven't lost anything. I will be at home wherever I am. What does sir say?”

“He seems disturbed, despite himself, that you have been pulled into this vortex. I could not get into your room, as it is under surveillance. So your certificates and papers I could not gather. But here is a certificate of our sir for you. Sir asked me to give you this. And also this money. He wants you to board the next train to depart Andhra. You would fare better by going north. There people like you can easily find breathing space. And here is your ticket. Under sir's instruction I booked it two days ago. On the reservation chart you are Muhammed Riyas, aged twenty-five. There you are. The rest of the matters we will arrange when you reach the shores of safety. Now remember I haven't seen you and I do not know you. Good bye.” Rajan got up to go.

No, it would not help to stop the junior man. Social questions went over the heads of self-centered snobs such as Rajan who would not do something unless it stood a chance of turning them a profit. Their social relationships were strictly limited to suit their purposes. Rajan knew instinctively where to relegate people of no consequence while bending over backwards to be of service to those whom Rajan considered to be his betters. Rajan would not read a word more than needed; shutting out all the complexities of the world that were not directly connected to the immediate purpose. So it would be of no use to attempt to detain Rajan Babu. Nor was Rajan inclined to be seen with a dangerous fellow.

He did not like others taking charge of him and taking decisions for him. But sir cannot go wrong. Life did not seem precious, but he wanted it to be precious as long as it is pitted against a world very vicious. Again he did not want to be a sitting duck for the cops. Let them take the trouble of hunting him down. Once out of Andhra, the police would not take pains to look for him because they would have to register a case, his arrest would have to be recorded and the victim could seek anticipatory bail. In other words, the quarry would escape their dragnet. So he was game.

The death of Rama Murthy had been a shock to him. When they had first settled into a lodge outside the university, he had not had any idea that the gentle Andhra Brahmin was a revolutionary. They chose the lodge because rooms were not immediately available at the hostel. They both were against joining the hostel as a guest until further arrangements could be made. The lodge was more autonomous and comfortable. It was incomprehensible that such a young man was no more. He wondered how very fragile was the concept of the state that he, a research scholar in Mathematics, could pose a serious threat to its very existence. It was not exactly the state, rather it was the power structure that was being threatened. Power easily panics; those in power cannot trust anything or anybody. Power is a pestilence, once you are affected you are nervous, vulnerable and base. Power poisons the nobility in you. You become edgy, epileptic and ruthless.

He had no sympathy for the revolutionaries. He would be the last person to wait on the highway with a garland to receive the revolution when it came. He was not against revolution; it was just not his field. He was happy with mathematical abstractions. There is no common justice. Be just just as an individual. The unpremeditated twists in vicissitudes are to be taken with a grin. Nothing can go wrong with you as long as you do not go with the events. Every event is unique, conjured up from the remains of a million other events spread across numerous space-time segments. The personal dimension of an event is experience, and it is rooted in infinity and it spreads into infinity. Every event delivers a good many trophies and rolling heads. But you cannot ever go wrong because you are not alone. You are part of a greater all encompassing wholeness. Dubiously bestowed trophies and rolling heads don't count for much when we are part of the dimensionless wholeness.

Then for an instant he thought about his mother. She would wait for him. She would wait deep into the night. Andhra would be celebrating Ugadi next morning, the day when spring officially settles in the fields and orchards. Mother would wait for him with her panacea made of neem flowers, mangoes, bananas and other fruits, flowers and juices. It is supposed to keep you healthy all through the year. For her sake he should keep his soul and body in one piece, he thought.

Late that afternoon when he crossed the parched and sunbathed border and entered Maharashtra state, and moved to the huge railway station at Chandrapore, he emerged from his jumble of snapshot memories and started to begin life afresh. He left behind his past and got a hurried divorce from the future. He was trying out an existence that defied all definitions. The political and social coordinates that defined a man tumbled and collapsed around him. Being an Indian, being a Madrasi, being a Telugu, being a Hindu, being a Khamma, being a man—all pointers vanished like the reflections in water when suddenly disturbed. We reflect the heavens when we are still; we are a disorder when we are disturbed. At Wardha, in the geographical center of the Indian sub continent, he walked away from the train bent on celebrating his non-entity. He was walking out on revenue records, local administration records, voter's identity cards; from life insurance policies, from all that he had been associated with and been justifiably proud of. Slowly, ever so slowly, we slough into another life, another existence. Metempsychosis can happen here and now. There is moisture in our sorrows, in our love, in our raptures and in our dreams. We are fried into a dry desolation in the absence of hope. When the prospects are grim, just refuse to swim and remain afloat. A moment's neglect can catapult you to the bloody short work of a lynch court which will red card you from life before you can lodge a protest.

It mattered little that he was a misspelt word, which had egregiously distorted the meaning of the text of his life. Words are formed by a seemingly random configuration of letters—put them in order and you can tell us your sorrowful story.

Chapter 2
Resolutions and revolutions

He sat down on a deserted concrete bench at the geometrical center of the Indian sub-continent. He could potentially have chosen any one of the infinite numbers of radii which led to the remote corners of the country. In spite of the modern day altercations taking place in the cities, the basic cultural common denominator would ensure his survival wherever he happened to be in the countryside. But he had no reason to hurry. The lurid evening fought its losing battle against the invincible armies of darkness. The sleepy village that housed Wardha Ashram, one of the launching pads of Gandhi's politico-religious renaissance, was shortly engulfed in gloom.

Ideas seek a tongue to find expression. Possibilities seek and pick individuals to try themselves out on.

Brain and fortune seldom meet/Rain and sun so seldom meet, he rhymed silently.

He was fighting with the reality that Rama Murthy was no more. The world without Rama Murthy certainly seemed less beautiful. Such selfless champions of humanity made the world a better habitat, not because they made or would make the world more livable, it is simply that, amidst the fury of life, they make us stop and think sometimes. He might have faced his end with dignity and grace, like all the great men before him who, when their time came, marched off into eternity across the pylon of guillotine, scaffold or bullet. He contemplated the intrepid integrity of the young who resist corruption to stand for the ideal world he earnestly held to be right. He thought about the mysteriously silent rural masses for whom Rama Murthy had laid down his life; the poetically sad silence of the villages, eternally on a pilgrimage, unobtrusively walking to the cadence of the marching seasons, sowing, planting, weeding, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, threshing, winnowing and seeking the lost rhythms, infinitely dancing to an ancient tune. You can kill an idealist but not an idea.”

“I am for the restless rural masses,” Rama Murthy had once told him, “for they are the nation. We dare not drive them into the clutch of the moneylenders and kulaks. We cannot leave them any more to the whims and fancies of the predators who inhabit the cities.”

He, too, had a passion for the marginalized working class. “The kulaks were part of the vulnerable peasantry before the synergy of hard work and ambition smiled on them,” he had told the revolutionary, “we cannot live without exploitation; it is part of life. Somebody has to be at the shit end of the stick. Have you ever heard of a proletarian paradise? Are the people happy in Cuba and North Korea? Were they happy in the erstwhile Soviet Union?”

“We are not out to ape Cuba or North Korea. The peasantry and the landless poor will ultimately get their due; they will decide the destiny of the nation.” Rama Murthy declared.

“Do you think we can safely entrust the destiny of this country into the hands of stomachs on legs?” he had asked the martyred revolutionary.

“You settle into the you that you think you are. The God you create settles into the attributes you think God should have. They will be charged with a great vision when they are given a chance to burst forth from the molds the centuries have molded them into. The country survives by them, on their sweat, their blood, their fears.”

“The landless laborers also live a complete life, the same as everyone else, working, hoping and snarling at each other. They too have their little pleasures. Haven't you noticed that when you fail to be somebody, you become a peasant? The peasantry, for all practical purposes, is a weak amalgam of life's luckless losers in search of a catalyst. Good for nothings have been known to become politicians, but only if they have the initial capital of a loose tongue and a thick hide,” he said.

“You have been programmed by the capitalist press. You should visit the villages. Seeing is believing,” Rama Murthy whispered with a wry smile, his brilliant eyes focused gravely on his roommate.

“One of these days you will probably accuse me of receiving funds from the Central Intelligence Agency,” he replied, and they had laughed together.

“The problem is not the CIA; the problem is us. The fault lies with us and not with outsiders,” he asserted.

“CIA or no CIA, it is evident that you are against the working class,” Rama Murthy alleged.

“No Rama, I am not against the working class. I have lived with them. But you cannot impose a revolution. You cannot push revolution down protesting, unprepared throats. Man's problem is not necessarily physical. A daily dose of nourishment, rest and sex will not always leave him happy and beaming. Life is much more than that.”

“It is our duty to be on the side of the exploited. Your precious higher mathematics will not save humanity. I know the people and I know their worries. The impact of globalization upon the rural economy is my field of research. India will collapse like a stack of cards were it not for our villages, without the silent contribution of the villagers. When the villages demand their due, the urban elite will flee helter-skelter. Without the produce of the villages, the currency notes of the urban elite would not have value. The pernicious silence of the villages provides opportunity for a good many urban hedonists.”

“The salvation of a community lies in itself, you cannot violently kick people to enlightenment. And if the whole nation is spirited away from the placid agrarian life only to add to the urban epiphyte, it will be the death knell of the nation. Villagers are used to privations and compromising situations in life, the urban chocolate boys are not,” he warned.

“Yes, you had the rectitude to admit it. The towns and cities must not be eternal helminthes, surviving on rural fortitude. Every bureaucrat is corrupt, corrupt even to his semen,” Rama Murthy congratulated him with a wink.

“We play the fool. We rarely ever think of the poor rich men held prisoner by their wealth.”

“The idiot who is at home with his idiocy is not an idiot at all,” Rama Murthy observed.

“Nobody works for others. Everybody works for himself. Everybody belongs to the working class. Even the serf works not for his master, but for himself. Loyalty and honesty are merchandise put for sale, when and where they can be marketed. Honesty is not a national hobby; as a general rule, honesty is a facultative opportunism. Hence we don't have to mull over the glorious values of gullible rustics. Given a chance, they too can be nasty bullies. But remember, this diatribe is only to make your stance robust and seasoned. Although I cannot overtly support you, I cannot oppose you because you have a noble dream. But the charm of proletarian solidarity is a total sham; as you are alone in your shame, so you are alone in your fame.”

“Thank you for the harangue. We are the world champions of hypocrisy. Our perfunctory bureaucracy, our polity steeped deep in malversation; we are skin-deep jingoes. A bureaucrat lackey is corrupt—even to his semen he is corrupt. Our country is the home in which we live. Other matters are arrangements of convenience.”

“Yes, Rama. We are a mosaic of nations. The rural poor constitute a nation. They form the foundation on which the power structure was built. Our goal is to level the pyramids of power and promote their lateral dissemination. Power is a sedative that steals your thunder; satiation is a sedative that kills your illusory rainbows; and ennui is a laxative that revolts against your luxuries as it rekindles your hunger. Our goal is to spread all these evils thin.” Having gained Rama Murthy's undivided attention, he felt obligated to continue. “You cannot unite the yeomen and the backward classes. Even if you could manage to crown them as the new ruling class they are not going to be at home with the new dispensation. Expatriate syndrome will take them by the horns. The rural farmer is a fiercely independent loner. Consequently, he lacks the ability to immerse himself in human generality. The village farmer is a pugnacious wretch, his sexistential pleasures are limited to the oblique sadistic process of reassuring himself that everyone else is as bad as he is.” Rama Murthy encouraged him with a patient smile, which was all it took to get him to go on. “Then, it follows that it is ludicrous to attempt to devolve happiness through the public distribution system. Man cannot be socially engineered into constant happiness. The fault is not with the ideology placed on the state pedestal and openly fornicated. It is the essential symptom of our expatriate syndrome. A happy man simply does not advertise his happiness. Happiness is a state of mind, which is inimitable. Each and every man can be happy in his own way by fine tuning himself. Jubilation is not an expression of happiness, rather it expresses dormant sadness.”

At this point Rama Murthy intervened with a fury. “Our brazen inequalities are not helping us to survive. The socially backward classes must be brought to the frontline of nation building. You cannot advance the nation by means of a despicable alms-giving culture. Alms givers produce alms seekers and both are sick.”

“Ha!, again the perfidy of equality,” he was irritated. “We share the same sun, wind, and rain, yet we have to be different. It is the cataclysmic fallacy imbued in our species by the godfathers of socialism and western religions. The world is more than the epileptic incoherence of the prophets. Men are not born equal. It is impossible, even in the fever of socialism, to distribute poverty equally, misery equally, dreams equally, hopes equally, needs equally, and, for that matter, power equally. You may distribute events equally, but you cannot distribute experiences equally. There will always be a ruling class, there will always be a silent majority in place to buffer the shocks on the national economy.” Rama Murthy blinked and, being on a roll (so to speak), he pushed on. “And, although it's hard to get anyone to admit it, when the potentates of power relax, the glorified systems relapse into market economy, imbibing its own instincts of survival and betterment.”

“You are lampooning the very core of the tenets my life is rooted in,” Rama Murthy accused. “You are on the side of the lazy armchair philosophers. Although I was born to Brahmin parents, I have experienced how the people languishing in the margins of social life live their days away. I cannot hide behind theoretical cacophony. The social anomalies are too near to me to look the other way. And I do not hold the view that democratic processes have the will and dynamism to address the real problems of the underprivileged.”

“You can better the world by bettering yourself. The world is neither good nor bad. Some are always married to poverty and squalor. In squalor values look better,” he teased.

“Squalor is not the birthright of the underprivileged sectors of society. The oppressed and the humiliated people are not Indians or Pakistanis, they are the oppressed nation, a nation that was born at the dawn of civilization, a nation imperceptibly growing across the boundaries of nations. Even after four and a half decades of freedom, they are not an inch better off than they were under the colonial government. Human beings are a racial cocktail with a common gene pool. Certain open ends—unlike our sessile cousins and green brothers, unlike our hairy, feathery, or leathery roommates—riddle man's life. Hence we are pestered by ineffable doubts. Other species get on with the business of life without making a fuss. The cherished kingdom of God—Rama Rajya, eternal life, salvation, the Islamic heaven of carnal pleasures—these are all confessions of the collective escapism of woe-stricken humanity. We have to attack the very root of the institution of religion; for that matter I, as a committed economist with leftist moorings, can assure you that there is no such thing as religion. There is no sociology, no history, no politics, no diplomacy, no nationalism, no philosophy, no theology and no other ology. There is only economics. All the others are beating around the bush,” concluded the revolutionary economist.

“You cannot make love to an ideology; ideology is not lovesick. And look, action has never been our forte, in an English sentence the verb does not come last, whereas in Indian languages the verb timidly squeezes in near the full stop,” he said with the fury of a masochist.

“But we cannot let the global monopolies monopolize the interpretation of truth,” Murthy rationalized.

“Our leaders cannot be any better than we are. No doctrine and no leadership can navigate us to a glorious shore. Humanity by and large is stricken by an expatriate syndrome. We pine for the other shore; we brood on the lost Jerusalem. We part with the hope ‘until we meet beyond the shining river’—we look deep into the heavens trying to figure out how we came into this mortal grossness. All revolutions, all struggles, and all aspirations for sweeping changes are the spillovers of this inner restiveness. Justice? Justice is nothing more than the interest of the middleclass. At the sight of a superman, justice flies squealing with its tail tucked between the hind legs. Myopia keeps it from bothering the marginal people; where communism slackens communalism barges in and consumerism thrives,” he concluded.

“You can easily hide behind the translucent wall of magniloquence. However, I have a mission. I cannot leave my Sreenivas to obscurity, I cannot forget my parents, I cannot forget my sister. My life comes to naught if I turn my back on them. It is not cheap feminine sentimentalism; it is sheer realism. They exposed me to the stark realities of life at the grass roots level. To be frank, I am not an advocate of the commonly held belief that the ruling class can be inveigled into laying power at the feet of the oppressed. You can have your computerized academics, classics, bureaucrats, machines orphaned by common sense; you can have your air conditioned rooms and revolving chairs, however, not a single grain of rice is produced by polished looks and proud books. Fishwives and yeomen feed us all. Sophistication is an expression of decadence. A country with its leaders wallowing in luxury and the people languishing in poverty is a terminal case.”

He did not bother to question the revolutionary, rather he changed track with the following statement:

“We differ because we differ in our shades of ignorance. When pride dies, differences dissolve and disappear,” he stated in an attempt to devise a philosophical way out of the imbroglio.

Rama Murthy's father was a poor priest at a temple in his village, Sitavaram. Life had progressed smoothly with the studies of the children and his regular poojas and temple fairs. When Rama Murthy's elder sister had come of age, his father had arranged a suitable boy for her to marry and the marriage came to pass in the traditional fashion. The problem was that he had borrowed some money from a local moneylender. The compound interest rate outstripped the paltry installments he painfully remitted on a monthly basis. As the years passed by, the pot-bellied moneylender became restive. He threatened that the priest's house and little tract of land were going to be confiscated. The old man ran from pillar to post, and then the moneylender came to him with a proposal. The drastic actions could wait; the old man and his children could keep on living in the house that was not their own anymore as long as they wanted, provided his younger daughter was consigned to serve the shylock in his home. It would have shattered the family. To save their dignity, Rama Murthy's father vacated his ancestral house and moved into a rented one room tumbledown shack in the nearest town, Rajamundry. His father barely eked out a living giving tuitions and doing poojas. Rama would ask why, given his experiences, should he have faith in the existing system?

Many times over Rama had told the story of Sreenivas. Sreenivas was Rama's classmate and close friend. Sreenivas belonged to Khamma community, the most enterprising and industrious section of Telugu society. There are many self-made men among them. Sreenivas, like Rama Murthy, was from very poor circumstances. After high school they both came to a solid pact, Rama Murthy should go ahead with his studies and his friend would take to farming. They had promised to build a life together with the goal of accomplishing something beneficial to the nation. India was their passion; in the evenings, they would recline on the sands of the holy river Godawari, sharing the wonderful things that were going to happen to India. But, as destiny would have it, after high school they had to part.

“I will meet your expenses,” Sreenivas promised Rama Murthy, “you must reach the celebrated temples of knowledge for me, for our country. I will toil in the sun, I will work miracles in the soil, this good earth will never fail us. I will work and plan with pleasure for you, for me, for this, our country.”

“I cannot let you do this to you for my sake, for my country's sake. You deserve better options.”

“I would have none of it. Farming is the noblest profession. Farmers feed the workforce. No country can survive without food; without food there can be no industry. I am proud that I am contributing something to my country. I am going to feed a nation. As for you, I am not spending money on you for nothing. You will have to pay every paise back. Not now, but when you are a man of consequence, when the world listens to you with bated breath. You are going to take the name of our great country to the corners of the world.”

Thus, the young farmer financed the impoverished Brahmin. As he had promised, he worked miracles in the soil. The tropical sun singed him, but he was proud. His pumpkins, groundnuts, sugar canes, food grains, vegetables, milk and fruits helped to flood the markets. The money appeared to be flowing in and Rama Murthy studied with a fury for his rustic compatriot. But during his Masters at SV University he got the shock of his life.

Sreenivas committed suicide. He had run himself out. The banks were closing down on him. They had been only too happy to finance his prosperous horticultural enterprise. They offered to finance him to expand his industry by taking more land on lease. The very fertile farmlands on the Godawari inebriated him. However, he was spread too thin for a one-man band. Crops failed him in succession. To cover the losses he borrowed more and more and eventually sank neck deep into debt. Bankrupt and broken, he journeyed to Yanam, the picturesque coastal plain where the Godawari spends itself into the Bay of Bengal. It was that sleepy village, a former French colony, known for its riotous palm groves that the young man's eyes surveyed last. The soft babble of the estuarine segment of the great river was what his ears heard last.

No, Rama Murthy had no reason to have faith in the existing system. Rama Murthy bet his continued existence on his ability to bring about meaningful change in the social and political infrastructure. He had no faith in the current version of democracy. The mobocracy at the mercy of religious and caste supremos, twisted and highjacked by mafiosos and robbers as was happening in the northern plains, or dazzled and enchanted with matinee idols as was evident in certain southern states. Democracy is the tyranny of a frugal minority against the vast silent and indifferent majority. The pathological do-gooders are incorrigible. Like the dejected youth of Palakkad who chose to record the taste of potassium cyanide even in the throes of his death, they can't help but do good to the unfeeling world. Then there are congenital givers. They know the value of nothing. They do not expect their beneficiaries to be grateful to them, rather they are grateful to the receptors of their generosity for being there.

People are right in their own ways. When we are true to the music inside us we know we are truly living. The life of Thyagaraja Bhagawathar had a particular appeal. He had been concentrating on the pieces of Thyagaraja and Swathithirunal. When true to ourselves, we break into music. We nearly cross the threshold of life—like a song—oblivious of the change of stage; happy that we are the song we wanted to sing and contented that we have no deals left unattended. We flit from one exquisite forgetfulness to another.

The saddening side of life is the real side of life; there you stand closer to the absolute. The lugubrious silence of the villages against the predacious ruling elite is a consequence of life. He remembered the high pitch of revolutionary spirit that stormed the campuses of Kerala in the 1970's. The long night of emergency when state-sponsored terrorism attained new heights; the long wait of the parents for their dear ones forever lost became a lingering question mark on the dormant conscience of the nation. The cold and reassuring luminance of eternal Hinduism that can forgive anything and contain anything, the lofty idealism—pristine youth, longing for a beautiful world where nobody has any reason to be miserable; he felt sorry for all the wasted hopes and dreams of the lost generation.

Deep within the passageways of his tortured mind resided pleasant vignettes of Venugopal Menon. Menon was a regular visitor at their lodge. He had fled Regional Engineering College, Calicut in the seventies, leaving behind his studies. Two decades later, people like him frequented the campuses of Andhra to rekindle the revolution that had burnt out in Kerala. Kerala divorced the romance of revolution because its economy had an entirely different texture. The working class was very united and militant, so militant that it scared away all potential investors. Kerala lacked a powerful capitalist society to meaningfully meet the fury of the proletariat. Petro dollars and a high rate of literacy preempted the prospect of an oppressed class. The moneylenders, learning from the revolutionary reactions in the seventies, assumed a human face. Kerala is too smart for revolutionaries to set up shop. Subsequently, the mainstream communist parties, placated to the sobering effect of parliamentary democracy, with access to regular crumbs of power, co-opted the chances of building up social tensions to a conflagration, which could potentially leave behind a socialist paradise with the social obesity necessarily whittled down to size.

Andhra, on the other hand, had many advantages. Beyond the iridescent glitter of the cities, the villages were groaning under the weight of the anomalies heaped upon them. The backward classes were unorganized, rudiments of feudal psychology prevailed in many ways. The yawning hiatus between the haves and the have nots, between urban and rural, between the creamy classes and the malnourished masses was very disturbing. Such inequality necessarily led to desperate political maneuvers. Enlightened people from Bengal and Kerala came to join forces with the local comrades. The dream was of an egalitarian society, an India done with her spiritual past. These were the scions of well-to-do families. They strove for the empowerment of the oppressed, the true future of India.

He, for one, had no faith in an egalitarian society. India is different; its spirituality is its identity. Spirituality is the bond that holds the country together, a spirituality embedded in a chaff of absurdities. No foreign influences could dilute or obliterate the subtle spirituality that is fused into the culture.

History failed in India. History becomes absurd when it fails miserably to record events. Experiences are not events. He recalled the royal harlequins who played the fool in a miserable tussle with a spirituality that was too big for them. Poor Lakshman Sena! When Muslim marauders were pillaging and ravaging Bihar, he thought that Bengal was safe. As long as the sanadhana dharma and the mystic powers were in his custody he was safe from barbarians. The king trusted his posse of priests to do the poojas to destroy the invaders. The enchanting mantras, the jingling of the bells, the holy fire, the spiraling holy smoke, the holy waters sprinkled, the flung petals loaded with wonderful divine powers and the mysterious words rolling out from the venerable priest were supposed to petrify the invaders. It is immature of us to lament what man has made of man. Man could but be man.

Instead of the expected armies, just two dozen Muslims poured into Bengal, armed with their sword and faith. King Lakshamn Sena took to flight through the back door and the priests followed suit. Conquerors of various faiths came and went, but the silent villages remained intact, indifferent and unaffected. The Indian rural mindset is too reserved and individualistic to be gregarious, to struggle for collective salvation. The ripples and waves at the administrative levels, in the shady corridors of power nearly never filtered out to the serenity of the villages. Famines and pillaging marauders could not disturb the inner peace.

The current fad of proletarian democracy will also run out of steam in the difficult terrain of the Indian psyche. Certain sections of the society were mesmerized by the leitmotif proletarian democracy, the catchword of the revolutionaries. In all probability they failed to read deep into the psychology of India. It did not react violently to socio-political stimuli. And it was indifferent to the ravages of the past; except for certain stray localized disturbances.

When attacked via the Khyber Pass centuries ago, hundreds of thousands thronged at the temple, beseeching Lord Somanadh to intervene directly so as to avert the impending destruction. The Hindu priests carried out elaborate and confident poojas; the temple town reverberated with prayers, hymns and mantras. The Muslim conquerors butchered fifty thousand devotees in the corridors of the huge temple, like burning a well-stocked beehive. Then they looted the wealth stored in the coffers of the temple, pulled out the idol of the ruling deity and made the priest carry it on his frail shoulders to Samarkand, where it would be utilized as a stepping stone for a mosque. Yet India survived. And India would silently survive many more ravages. A specific geography—a certain geo-biological setting—can only support a certain type of culture. In the long run India always assimilated the alien cultures that poured in across its borders. You cannot defeat an adversary that is not inclined to fight. The vastness of India easily absorbed lesser cultures.

Rama Murthy was impatient with the dispiriting pacifism of the country. He romanced over the Telingana Rebellion, the dream that ended in a nightmare. And to think that thousands had traded their lives for that beautiful dream. A page of history furiously obfuscated by the state propaganda machine. Rama Murthy asserted that PWG would redeem the dreams of a gone and failed generation. The Naxalite infested belt from Andhra to Nepal, according to Rama Murthy, was going to sculpture the destiny of the country. Proletarian democracy was the only right course for a progressive nation. It was, according to him, the pinnacle of social evolution.

The concept of the ‘only right course’ irritated him immensely.

Right? What does right mean? Everything straight is right, but things that don't appear to be straight can also be right. You cannot right the rights that are already right. He wondered whether a socialist revolution would make things better. It would turn tables; it would create new social boundaries, and it would recruit new imaginary enemies. We are at the feast and we are feasting on each other. Fish don't have morals or ethics. They prey on the lesser fish and in turn are devoured by greater predators. That is your feast, the Feast of the East. And it was your last feast before the lust of the west bested us all. But the classical culture cannot go astray nor can it run into dreary desolation.

As long as the tribe of Thyagarajaswami thrives, India will survive with no pretensions of being the conscience of the world. He had fond plans to visit Tanjore and attend the annual music festival at Thiruvayyar. The lush fertile plains of the Cauvery seemed somehow familiar to him, although he had never been there and in all probability he would never visit there. Nonetheless, he could easily visualize the vast vistas of plantain orchards, cane fields, paddy fields, and palm groves. His early life in the alluvial plains sculptured by the Godawari and Krishna rivers made it easy for him to imagine life in the fertile plains of the far south.

Thyagaraja had lived and died on the Cauvery. He had breathed on the Cauvery like a beam of moonlight in the dark of night, light as a feather and seemingly detached. And he slipped out of life like switching over to another raga. He was never possessed by any material possession, never bothered by the uncertainties of a tomorrow taking shape in the womb of time, not a bit scared by the uncertainties involved in obtaining his next meal. He lived gleaning the deserted golden stubby fields after the harvest, living his music—making the rain dance with him, making the sun shine with him. New ragas ceremoniously brewed up in his serenity; his life was a tune that merged into the exalted depths of divinity. People like Thyagaraja experience events from a different angle, from a different plane. The material body becomes a weightless wisp blessed with a musky fragrance, as in the case of dedicated Sufi mystics who live and breathe Islam. Superficial eddies notwithstanding, India will live undisturbed in the depths with the later day editions of Thyagaraja, he thought. Visiting distant villages with disciples, creating more kritis in praise of God, reflecting the grace of God. We muddle through because we are too thick in the head to make the necessary adjustments. Your life cannot be any better than you are.

Again he turned to the axioms of Rama Murthy.

There will be no let up in our struggle, no truce, and terrorist tactics are a brutally honest expression of our inferiority,” Rama had proclaimed to the utter dismay of less dedicated comrades.

Truce is a diplomatic word for admitting truth. We take our domestic disturbance to the society, your problem is your life back in your village,” he taunted.

It is oversimplified. I cannot remain insulated from the anomalies without. We create the world around us. The world is not wrong; we are, if it does not agree with us. The ink for writing new pages of history is blood. Blood is the blood right of revolution,” Rama Murthy exerted.

At least in the Indian context it is going to be a wild goose chase. India is not impressed. It whispers to you, sift out if you can a grain of sense from the heap of nonsense we have burrowed ourselves into.

Ass you are,” Rama Murthy teased.

As you are,” they laughed.

If life is a struggle, we should have a reason to struggle. I do have reason to struggle for. I stake my destiny to that of the silent masses. I, being merely a mortal man, will fail in my sacred endeavor, but generations to come will continue the relay race. We will not rest until we have redesigned this unfairly distributed world. Then, the generations that come after us can concentrate on mankind's other problems. Blow the bubble of your trouble, and you will deprive yourself of your right to struggle and strive.

Life is what you make it. As long as you struggle, life is a struggle. As long as it is music to you, it definitely will be music. Struggle you must, and churn out some semblance of a meaning to your life. The world is not bleak and white as the Puritans would have it, nor is it black and straight, as the radical insurgents would have it. It is a dynamic harmony, balanced in all respects. But then look, I am going to be nice to you,” Rama Murthy remarked.

“You want to be wise? You must practice telling lies. You go to the capital, I to the labor, you to the music of numbers and I to the root cause of whimpers. I knowingly march regally to a graceful disaster.

They resided in a sleepy muggy alley, with small cubicles on either side. A common tap and a common latrine served them all. Students and employees of the bottom, low-income group occupied all cubicles. All of them dreaming of their villages, parents, and the sex bombs that filed before them on the movie screens. He gave sufficient privacy to Rama Murthy. He rarely visited their cubicle—tactfully leaving ample space for Rama Murthy and his comrades to put their heads together by spending all his time at the university. Revolutionaries and visionaries from remote regions of Andhra came to meet Rama Murthy surreptitiously. Venugopal Menon turned up there at times. Ulpalendu, from Bengal had also paid his respects. Back then, they all had dreams of better tomorrows glistening in their eyes. He respected them for the consummate dream they cherished for the marginalized majority.

Venugopal was in his mid forties. He had fled Kerala during the Emergency. The police were conducting a witch-hunt to track him down. It was a hot and sultry night in March and he had gone out to lead an in camera study class. When he returned deep at night, he learned that many of his classmates had been arrested and taken to the police camp, some of them never to return. That night, Venugopal left Kerala with his beautiful dream intact. He still moves around, hoping that his day will dawn someplace, sometime. He was very patient; he didn't care if that day dawned many generations from now. Ultimately, the working class would accede to rule. Revoltion is in fact a misunderstanding. The concept of nation building itself is a misunderstanding. We vociferously lampoon each other in the peripheries of understanding.

Rama Murthy, personally, did not believe in a final solution. There is not an ultimate solution which encompasses all lesser solutions. A rebellious equality imposed upon an unimpressed nation will not be a lasting panacea. Diversity is the art of life. The world will settle into multiple equilibria, regardless of what the social engineers of history contrive. Our anthropocentric and earth centric philosophies cannot conceive of a final solution. And in the final reckoning, this anthropocentric world with its thin icing of eastern mysticism, its ruthlessly honest western experimental science, and isolated islets of tribal cultures whose identities are in danger, cannot survive a nanosecond longer then its ecological platform. Rama Murthy was the firefly that squandered its brilliance in an indomitable night.

The life and legacy of Swathithirunal had a certain charm, he thought. For Swathithirunal who was an ascetic for a king, life was a hymn, sweetly fusing into the universal music. Swathithirunal's compositions ran into the tens of thousands, transcending many languages, and had been squeezed into a life span of thirty-three years. The most auspicious time to part with the art of living is while one is still young, like Jesus Christ, like Adi Sankaracharya, and like Alexander the Great. When we live long, we prolong an accident.

Art is the expression of man's residual yearning to reach out to effulgence and perfection. Art is a rhythmic expression of colors, forms, and/or sounds. Art reaches its highest form in music. All rhythms in their most refined form, transcend languages, races, regions, religions and reason—graduating into music. In much the same manner, he believed that mathematics is the exalted form of all sciences. Every science evolves into mathematics at its most refined level. This gross world, in every aspect of its rarified abstractions, is a fragile balance of mathematical infallibilities. He was interested in the marriage of the crowning levels of the language of the soul and the soul of all science. His paramount ambition was to chart and explore the sacred extraordinary territories of musical mathematics. Professor Bhattacharya had approved of his concept. In many respects they were on the same transcendental plane Social inequalities and/or inconsistencies were not of his making, nor were they his concern. Consequently, the inner peace he experienced was ineffable.

Why not put new political philosophies to the test? Set parameters and see if they can do what they think they can. Let the fads try themselves out—other untried solutions will barge in at the most appropriate moment. There is only one way to kill an idea: let it have its way.

The perfect recipe for a rewarding life, he believed, was to use one's mind in a positive manner. Nothing else matters.

Chapter 3
Mother, all the dreams have fled

Parvathy waited for her son in the small hours the night. He was like that, he showed up on her doorstep unannounced at times of his own choosing. However, because mother and son were somewhat alike, she always knew when he was coming. He had told her that he had imagined her seated in the seminar halls doing her best to understand the foreign language he was speaking, anxious to see that he was not making any mistakes, a proud mother making sure that the erudite audience was all praise for her son. He was special. He was the masterpiece in her mothering career. She had four sons older than him. He put the full stop to her regular pregnancies, as if she had been waiting for him to close up the baby business. He was different in many ways. He was slender, precocious and capable of seeing the subtle little things that others gloss over and refuse to see. We only see what we look for. We see but we do not observe. He was pale and slim and almost lived like a spirit. He was not possessive, the bullies in the school pinched away his things; he did not care. He was not brilliant in his studies, but he was not troublesome. Teachers tolerated him. He moved like a feather, lightly, hardly touching the ground.

But when he reached high school, he began to prove his mettle. The bullies that had plagued him before now left him to his own devices, and it gave him the freedom he needed to recover from his inferiority complex. Teachers noticed him; he was turning studious. Mathematics was his field. The anxious mother who had molly-coddled him with a passion knew that he was going to make a name. All mothers of the world speak the same language, irrespective of temporal linguistic and geographic distinctions. A son is raised to be the man the mother wanted to be, and a daughter is the woman she desired to be. Pavarthy knew her son inside out. Consequently, he did not have to tell her anything; being his mother, she intuitively understood.

His elder sons were molded from sturdy stuff. They were bursting with energy to swallow the entire world, very industrious and having a pronounced knack for business. They hailed from a small sleepy village off the main road connecting Bhimavaram and Thadepalligudem. Parvathy's husband was an ancient man with few needs. If not exciting, he was at least reliable. Kesava Rao was married to the soil. Life was invariably regular. He would get up at four in the morning. After his regular prayers and a cup of tea, he would go and milk the cows. His servant would then take the milk to the market at the crack of dawn. Next he would go and visit his poultry pigsty and goats. Early in the morning he would march away to the distant farmlands. His servants would follow him. In farming also there was a striking regularity.

Kesava Rao had a miraculous ability to read deep into the climate and weather changes. He had the horse sense to predict how much precipitation a certain month was going to have. By observing the subtle cycles in nature, he knew precisely when to start a particular activity. The crippling illiteracy of Rao and his wife was a problem for the social scientists, because illiteracy did not ever stand in their way. He could read the language of the clouds. The honeydew that flashed lapis lazuli on the blades of grass told him the nature of the days that were to dawn on him.

If it rained on a certain phase of the moon in a certain month, Kesava Rao could predict how many rains a particular month was going to have. He had a personal relationship with all of the plants that grew under his loving care.

He was an ancient man, very angular and exceedingly rough. He didn't say much because there wasn't anything worth speaking about. Parvathy knew when to do what, and she did it. The fury of the sun had turned his face copper, and his eyes were sunk. On meeting him one would think that he was coming from a distant exotic world, weather hardened and tarnished by the dust of the road.

Parvathy was not overly enamored with him. He failed to fill into the frame of a man she wanted and desired him to be. And he had no inclination to be the man of her dreams. His husbandry was his crops. He would return from the field late in the evening. Then he would take a long and fussy bath, in the lukewarm water prepared by her. Parvathy kept the house spic and span. She washed the floor, swept the courtyard, and watered the plants. She watched her children grow. Childbirth had become cyclical, occurring with dependable and efficient regularity.

At the first symptoms of winter, Rao would make a formal vow to go on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. Thereafter he would cook his own food. He would put on black dhoti and shirt. Moreover, he would abstain from all sorts of beverages and would sleep in a separate room of their ancient house. In early December he would embark. Most of the pilgrims would go by special buses or train whereas Rao would purposely go on foot. He would do nothing that conflicted with the traditions of his ancient religion. He would be away for at least two months. He would walk patiently in the sun and mist of the winters. At night he would sleep in the temple premises after an elaborate bath in the temple pond. He had a regular route, covering all the important temples on the way including Thirupathi Venketeswara temple, and the chain of temples of Tamil Nadu. After visiting the mountain shrine of Palani he would cross the border into Kerala. His next destination was Guruvayoor temple. He avoided bituminised motorway. His naked feet did not agree with the scalding heat, din, and the dust of improved roads.

Also, Kesava Rao steadfastly avoided the towns and cities. Villages were cool and safe. The horrors of modern life scared him. And the villages invariably received low budget pilgrims such as himself with respect and warmth. They would willingly respond to his prayer: 'swamiye saranamayyappa' (Swami Ayyappa you are my refuge and salvation). The last leg of the pilgrimage was the most trying. Since the region is without villages or rest stops, the pilgrim has to trudge through the thick mixed tropical forest twenty-four hours at a stretch. There is a footpath beaten by generations. The journey involves steep hills and precipitous down slopes. Once across the verdant woods, the next day he would arrive at Thriveni, the confluence of two mountain rivers. It was a difficult place for him. The town was a notorious hideout for criminals and pickpockets who were the scourge of the southern states. The riverbanks were replete with human excreta. The river water itself was disgusting. Having long ago spent its original purity and quality, the river proceeded languidly. Were it not for gravity and inertia, it would not have flowed at all.

Crossing the river again, the pilgrim enters the thick woods. Because motor vehicles are not allowed on this side of the river, the pilgrims must proceed on foot. Pilgrims too obese or too old to follow the steep path, can hire palanquin bearers. The mountain path will be teaming with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over south India. Waiting for another fifteen to twenty hours in the inching serpentine queue on top of the hill, the pilgrim reaches the holy eighteen steps. Each step is an ordeal. The jostling pilgrims, armed with a double bundle separated by a knot in the middle, representing the sins and virtues of life, scramble up the steps to stand before the glorious presence.

There is no deity like Swami Ayyappa anywhere else in the world. Swami Ayyappa is the fruit of the union of Siva and Vishnu, and at the crowning point of the trying pilgrimage one realizes ‘thou art that.’ You are the one whom you have been searching for. The devotees, the devotion and the deity become one and the same. There is no difference. Language, race, and cultural differences melt away in the black uniforms and the unifying mantra. The idol itself when viewed in the dark cell of the sanctum sanctorum is too small. The flood of pilgrims pushes you away before your eyes get adjusted. There, Kesava Rao offers the money he saved up over the year. Since Swami Ayyappa was Rao's sleeping partner; the Swami necessarily shares in his good fortune. Then he returns breaking his coconuts, offering the ghee, paying obeisance at various lesser shrines.

Rao's usual practice was to take a roundabout route home. He would move south again on foot, visiting more temples, eating a little bit of his disciplined ascetic food consisting of fruits and vegetables. In another two weeks he will reach Cape Comerin, the southern tip of Indian sub continent. There too he will visit temples, especially Kanyakumari and Sucheendram. He bows to the overarching concept of India and the traditional culture that is India. Then he turns back home, via Tanjore and Rameshwararm temples. After many weeks, he comes back to his Ithaca, lean but healthy. On the way back, he would shave his head and face at Thirumala temple, symbolically offering himself to the will of God. Parvathy and children will be waiting for him. His arrival home, like the migratory birds from Siberia, was instinctively conducted with clockwork precision.

That evening he takes an elaborate bath and after many months again eats the food prepared by his wife. At that point the upcoming season's agricultural operations commence and the new fiscal year begins. After performing his pooja and saying his prayers, Rao moves to his wife's chamber. She is ready for him. As if by a tacit understanding, she will have already cleaned herself so as to be presentable to him. He enters her room and dutifully enters her. By planting his seed in Parvarthy, Rao symbolically accepts his responsibilities for the impending year. Thus, childbirth occurred with almost precision timing in alternating years.

Parvathy longed for her life to be more colorful. She wanted to live, to feel, to see movies and have more pleasures in life. Rao, unlike most Telagus, did not care for cinema. Pavarthy seldom went to town. She bitterly strove to give her children a better life and made certain that her sons obtained a good education. They would be able to experience what the world had to offer. Her plans concerning her children were underscored by the arrival of an English medium school in her village.

The opening of the Christian school was unlike anything that the villagers had ever experienced before. They detested it on the grounds that the introduction of a strange religion into the midst of a peaceful Hindu community would disrupt their way of life. The strange looking priests in their flowing cassocks were a sight to behold. They were out to convert and/or subvert the traditional cultural values of the villagers. The peoples' fears were justified in that the missionaries coming from the Syrian Christian families who inhabited the mountainous tracts of Kerala had a time-tested modus operandi. First, they open an English school with a Catholic chapel. English schools under Christian management are welcomed in the rural countryside. Once the school is well established, the missionaries open an outpatient health clinic, which in time evolves into a full-fledged hospital. The villagers have been steeped in traditional medicine. In the case of simple ailments like colds, they kill them by ignoring them. When modern medicine supplants native holistic medicine, it initiates the villagers into the monetary way of life where they are constantly on the lookout for quick cures and easy comforts. Simple ailments are immediately dealt with. More medicinal toxins induce more sickness, and the spiraling process bolsters the Western medical business. In the next phase an orphanage is established. Once the primary school has proven itself, then a high school or junior college would be in the works and a more spacious church would be required. Thus in the very heart of an innocent Hindu village a sprawling and affluent Christian bastion would take root.

Rao did not like the shape of things to come. But he did not care. He had no need for the education imparted by the beefeaters. Nor was he ever sick. He did not have time to be sick. Sickness was a fitting luxury for fat cat bureaucrats weighed down with obscene obesity. Rao's body had an autonomous system to ward off germs. Nor was Parvathy fully supportive of the debut of an English medium school in the village. It threatened them in many mysterious ways. The oddly dressed priests might trick them into the new faith. They might even popularize the unseemly practice of eating flesh. Like other housewives in the community, she was, however, enticed by the prospect of giving a better education to her sons. They must go and live in the sophisticated cities, leaving behind the travails of an agrarian lifestyle in a remote village.

The school was under construction. Students to the primary classes were being enrolled. Parvathy went there to enroll her two elder sons aged eight and six. A small church, much larger than many of the temples of the village, had already been completed. She observed the signatures of the exotic religion introduced by a priest from Kerala. She, like others of her village diagnosed it as a cancerous growth in the very core of the serene and peaceful village. She tried to comprehend the curious things that were assaulting her keen eyes. She watched the Roman cross with INRI inscribed on it. The self same INRI that stands sentry to an intimidating citadel.

Then Pavarthy saw the blonde priest the first time. He was around thirty and quite happy with his state. He had a charm natural to a man not used to the rigors of life and not acquainted with the burning fury of the sun. His eyes were brilliantly bright and his clipped and dressed beard clean and healthy. His skin had a golden sheen. With no extra fat on his body, a youthful exuberance surrounded him. She was intrigued (and somewhat enamored) by his hypnotizing presence. The priest, seated amidst a heap of books, invited her in with a disarming smile.

A handsome man bears his masculinity with grace and dignity, whereas a gorgeous woman carries her femininity with poise and humility. Thus, beautiful human beings march to the brink of life with bold integrity.

“Come in, sister, come in,” he invited.

“You are the master of the school?” she asked feeling somewhat intimidated in his presence.

“So you want to put your children with us,” he smiled encouragingly, “it is a wise move, lady. The younger generation has to be educated along western lines in order to survive in an increasingly competitive world. Mastery of English will be their passport to the modern world. English is the magic key which unlocks thousands and thousands of unseen doors to the storehouse of knowledge accumulated by mankind throughout the eons.”

She did not comprehend much of what he said. But Pavarthy got enough of it to know that she was headed in the right direction. “Yes, brother,” she said, having no idea how to properly address a priest. Pavarthy hoped that the Christian complex being briskly erected in the village was a sample of the positive changes that were beginning to take place in the developing world. She could not put him out of her mind. Back in the relative safety of her own home, her fatal attraction to the pale handsome young priest would continue to eat at her soul.

Father Joseph Cheruvil was pleased with the new assignment. Under his care and planning a new Christian fortress was coming into being. He was going to transform the village, deo valorem. His mission was to educate the masses. He was one among the thousands setting out from the Christian families of Kerala to share the word of the Lord with seldom seen people in the farthest corners of the earth. His church had played a significant role in rendering Kerala a 91 percent literate state. The young men and women joining the missions involved in education, health care and social work had, for the most part, worldly mundane motives for taking up the work of the Lord, i.e. they lacked better prospects at home. The missions offered a challenging world, and an eternal respite from the grim compromising perils of poverty. In the early 1970's tens of thousands who graduated from the high schools and colleges of Kerala joined the burgeoning system. Taking the vows of the order paved the way to better educational prospects. One could pursue higher studies in prestigious institutions of higher education for free. And if the call of the Lord did not prove strong enough, they could walk out on Him armed with a wondrous educational degree, fully capable of taking on the outside world.

Syrian Christian priests and nuns spread worldwide exploiting the spiritual vacuum that prevailed in post World War II Europe. As a result, the standard of living improved remarkably in the Christian community in Kerala. Money was being sent home from far flung parts of the world. Some left the order to support their parents at home and a few unscrupulous others chose the easy route of misappropriation and embezzlement. Thus, a portion of the money given to the foreign missions to support humanitarian missions in remote parts of India was diverted to improve the situation at home. As conditions improved at home in the 1980's and 1990's this tendency declined remarkably. With better education and an improved standard of living, family planning came to be practiced by nearly every progressive Christian family. Prior to the 1970's, most families had eight, nine, or more children. In the 1980's the level diminished to three or four and in the 1990's it fell to one or two. Consequently, the rich vein from which the missionaries are being mined is fast running out.

Having committed to the cause, Father Joseph was not an opportunist. He was charged with the desire to transform the facade of rural India. A literate villager was less likely to be exploited. Nor was Father Joseph corrupt. His family didn't depend upon him for support. His parents were deceased; his brothers and sisters were either in the church hierarchy or better off in various parts of the world, with the exception of one or two black sheep whom they had long ago written off. His was one of the most illustrious families in his community, vociferously claiming to be the descendents of St. Thomas the apostle who visited Kerala in 52 AD. Most of the Syrian Christian families claimed the lineage of St. Thomas or would go all the way to prove that they were the descendents of Brahmins baptized by the apostle himself—the irony of which was that there weren't any Brahmins in Kerala two thousand years ago.

To believe is everything. If you believe you will live with a meaning. And then, Lo! Life is as safe and sequestered as the silence of a flower. Faith doesn't have to be on talking terms with truth. Truth isn't anxious to barge in through the window; truth doesn't face an identity crisis. Father Joseph's faith was more than sufficient to meet the ordeals of the new mission. He was under the spell that he was doing something important, serving God through his selfless service to humanity. The corruption and hypocrisy rampant in church circles did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm and youthful zest. After having run his race, after having fought his battle valiantly and after having defended his faith to the last, he would stand at the feet of God. Theosophical wrangling did not affect him. Liberation theology prescribed to the developing world, however, had a strange appeal to him. He fully intended to stay on the side of the working class and by doing so he would be helping to save humanity from godless communism. He had been led to believe that communism was straining at the leash in Kerala because of the resistance offered by the Christian community and their infrastructure. Kerala's problem, as the church leaders saw it, was education without economic stability. In the late 1950's and early 1960's, when Father Joseph was establishing his mission to Andhra, Kerala's communist phenomenon was attracting global interest. It was a time when one of the chief ministers of Kerala, A.J. John, declared that reading had to be discouraged, because reading is a process which inevitably leads the reader to the irretrievable grip of communism.

Rao did not wholeheartedly approve of Pavarthy's passion for English education. He was opposed to anything opposed to the natural rhythm of the ancient village. Still his protest did not come to the fore. He was too reserved to kindle a domestic hassle for the sake of a knave from Kerala.

In June 1965, the school facilities became operational. The bishop of Vijayawada and the state minister for education attended the inaugural function. The villagers were dazzled and disturbed by the din and hullabaloo. Soon afterwards, prattling children in clean uniforms were seen marching to the beefeater's school. It was a new event. The local Telugu primary school did not insist upon uniforms. At the local school teaching and learning proved to be two of the lesser activities. But the local school's students did manage to acquire the art of living and survival by immersion without the imperious imprimatur of the frowning teacher, who had other concerns in life.

Parvathy accompanied her boys to the school, taking a suckling child with her and leaving a three-year-old boy with her mother in law. Her eyes would feast on the priest busy with his books. She was too frightened to engage him in conversation. An army of mothers waited in the school compound watching the orderly spectacle of the new school. When the children retreated to the classrooms after the impressive assembly, the women dutifully marched back home, all the while chirping about the new method of education. They would return hours later to receive their wards into safe hands. After a few months into it, many mothers lost the thrill of the daily marching and the women took turns herding and goading their unruly brats to the pen of the school. Turn or no turn, Parvathy made it a point to visit the school whenever she could.

Father Joseph was the man of her dreams—young, handsome, clean, erudite and brilliant. She watched with rapt attention as he gave crisp, jocular speeches to the schoolchildren. His monotone Telugu made him sound as if he was reading a newspaper out loud. Nonetheless she loved his husky masculine voice and could not help but wonder what he would be like without the exotic cassock. Was it possible that he too had the basic biological drives?

Indeed Father Joseph had the same biological drives as everyone else. However, his religious encounters were next to nothing. Discussing the topic of sex had been taboo at the seminary. He was aware that he was handsome. His complexion, his stature, his erudition and his freshness had a curious appeal. He had experienced through the corner of his eyes how women feasted on him. In the socially progressive societies the female attention he received was very overt. Yet he had no real sexual experiences. Every three months, with a grim regularity, he was disturbed by wet dreams, which left behind an accusing white viscous trail on his fair hairy thigh. In his lewd dreams he was not having sex with any woman. Rather he was a child and a bonny buxom nun of his home parish was fondly hugging and codling him with her soft and ample endowments. In actuality, he was playing out a real time experience. A certain nun had been more than fond of him. He took particular care to keep his biological urges in line. The rationalists think with their dry brain, the characterless savages with their sex and he, he believed, reasoned with his heart. Man tends to become lazy when he does not have to worry where his next meal is coming from and woman necessarily makes good use of her charms to coax him back to the soil.

For a woman, her body is her country. Her body is both an asset and a weapon, her home and capital. Her weapon is wielded to achieve maximum social and political leverage. Thus, life becomes a lifelong neurosis.

Every man of action is a sexist. His creativity is his sexuality. Without lust there is no gusto.

During their second year at school, Parvathy gathered her courage and brazenly began to send personally prepared delicacies to her dream man via her wards. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, he accepted them. On special occasions like Sivarathry, Divali, Ugadi and Pongal, the parents would remember Father Joseph with delicacies. Parvathy did not wait for such propitious occasions to give him a treat. By and by she became emboldened and asked him outright if he relished her dishes. He had been sharing them with the children, food was not important to him.

One day she asked what his religion was all about.

“It is about love and forgiveness, lady,” he said.

“So, to love is a virtuous thing in your faith?”

“No lady, misplaced and misconstrued love is sin.”

She was twenty-five, still in the prime of youth. “Your church needs sinners, God doesn't,” she declared.

“Perhaps you are right lady,” he said cautiously, eyeing her with a newly endowed curiosity. “God can get along without sinners, but the church cannot. In the absence of sinners, the church forfeits its locus standi. Religion is instituted on the treacherous slough of sin.”

“Will you guide me into the wonders of your faith?”

“I cannot do that on short notice, lady. You are not ready for it and besides you have no need of it. Spirituality is levitation. I, myself have yet to fully explore the cool deserted heights of the spirit. And it is in many ways detrimental to a committed housewife. You steal a peep into eternity and instantly you become a different person. Your loved ones might then turn you out for speaking a strange language.”

“Then tell me, who was Jesus Christ?”

“He was—and is—the embodiment of truth.”

“Is it true?”

“Truth is true but those who interpret it have at times been less than truthful.”

“Who are these interpreters?”

“Who isn't?”

“Poor God,” he looked at her askance and she explained, “Who will save Him from the people who misinterpret what He has to say?”

Parvathy was subtly getting to him. He was increasingly nervous in her presence. The crude celibacy that had been imposed upon the Catholic priesthood was riddled with inherent contradictions. For a Hindu monk absolute abstinence from temptations of the flesh was a simple proclivity, because the center of gravity of his being would have shifted to the rarified depths of abstractions. A Christian priest, on the other hand, was in the thick of life. Since his diet had not been conditioned for his avocation, his urges strained at the leash. While a Hindu hermit feeds on fruits and leaves, his Christian counterpart gobbles up beef, chicken, mutton, fish, egg and a wide spectra of proteinacious delicacies. If something untoward happens, the locals will gut the whole structure down and he will be summarily defrocked.

The school was closed for Pongal and Rao was on his annual pilgrimage to the south. Parvathy took her meticulously prepared pulav to the school. The teachers had all left and Father Joseph was preparing to leave for the bishop's house. His mission was accomplished; a newly built convent would be taking over the school. For the last time he shared her delicacies. She itched to have him all to herself. Her itch ditched him for a swooning quivering fleshy clammy moment and in trembling darkness life was created. He felt like he was Adam taking the forbidden fruit from Eve. The world was never going to be the same again. He knew it. There were tears in his eyes.

Parvathy's masterpiece, the full stop in her regular pregnancies, emerged in the absence of the priest. Father Joseph never again came back to take stock of his spoils. He was at heart a simple man, anxious to do good. Many years later, she heard from the news on the street that Father Joseph had been arrested and was subsequently imprisoned for having harbored PWG terrorists in his compound. They were terrorists from the angle of the state, extremists to the press, socialist revolutionaries to the academics, and heroes of liberation to the mute supporters. Actually they were a pack of adventurers stung by a fanciful impossible dream. Children survive on dreams alone, youths mix them with an equal dose of realism, and the old survive on realities alone. The trick is in knowing when to move on. No doubt his beliefs were in harmony with those of the liberation movement. Over the course of his career, Father Joseph had been steadily deviating from the tenets and dogma of the church. Eventually, he was defrocked. Then nothing was heard of him. He had divorced himself from all religious premises. Gravitating to the tribal belt of central India, he set up his irreligious ashram. Switching to ascetic food; he dedicated his life to serving the poor and the rejected, teaching them to live the natural way of life the way God wanted life to be.

It takes earnest effort to wean oneself from the opiates of spiritual industry. Once weaned you rise to float above and watch the soiled pens of spiritual squalor. You can bypass all these pylons and move about like a breath of wind, like a peel of mind. And the holy man with his miter and staff, with his bitter grin and hallowed frown, will have to take to truck driving. But that is a long way off. Thence it is utterly butterly.

After Pavarthy's blue-eyed baby boy was born, Rao altered his annual pattern of agricultural operations so as to avoid having sexual relations with his wife. He abhorred womankind. He devoted himself to the world of the sun and life. Life sprouted and smiled in his thick calloused hands. Rao kept the ancient traditional rhythm intact. In 1985, the economic situation in India changed for the better. The autocrat who ruled the country was no more. People now had money. The bursting entrepreneurial skills of Pavarthy's boys was nurtured by a congenial economic climate where it thrived and flourished. Although not inclined towards intellectual pursuits, they could work miracles in business. In order to further their prospects, they moved to Thadepalligudem town. The four brothers pooled their resources and became rice mill owners. Business wasn't just good, it was great. Parvathy and Rao followed their sons to the city. The family bought a large modern house near Punpucheru, overlooking Madras-Calcutta national highway and the railway. Life assumed a new, more modernistic rhythm.

The traditionalist in Rao rebelled. After a few days in the city, he silently returned to his village, vowing never to return. He was quite content to be with his servants, plants and fields. Parvathy was the exact opposite. She was honeymooning with the world of her dreams. There was no work to do other than ruling over the wives of her sons. There were movies on television, and she had money to buy luxuries that weren't available at the village level. Her blue-eyed boy was twenty when they first moved to the town. His obliging brothers had discovered the genius in him and they were happy to support him in his studies. Let him excel in his chosen field; he was going to be their showpiece. His big brothers had political clout. A fledgeling state-based political party founded by a Khamma film star had caught the imagination of the people. Many prosperous Khammas were rallying behind the populist party's political platform. When the new party swept the state elections, Parvathy's sons were poised to cash in on the emerging political climate. Now the youngest son could continue his studies in style. Having received a coveted Masters degree in Science, they could have easily placed the youngest sibling in a lucrative bureaucratic berth or a teaching post. But he would have nothing of it. He was inclined towards research. Regardless of what this research turned out to be, they believed it would bring him prestige and were not inclined to dissuade him. Parvathy was happy because her boy was achieving greatness for all of them.

Pavarthy waited, but there was no news of her youngest son. She overheard a canard that he was somehow implicated in naxalite extremism. She knew next to nothing about PWG. Yet, if he approved of it, she thought there must be some substance in it. For many more years she waited for him, tuning her ears to the subtle footsteps, imagining his dreamy pace in the teeming multitudes that were eternally on the move along the road. You begin with a whimper and end with a simper, you begin with a simper and end with a whimper.

Chapter 4
Fulfillment is death

Final examinations were over and the grades were being posted. Lucy had long awaited this day. For more than three months she had stayed to herself at home, spending hours in the kitchen, setting the house in order, washing clothes, making a little garden around the house on top of the hill, mending old clothes, watching the stray tufts of fog roaming around the valley. Her brother Anthony was living a better life with her there. She took particular care to make sure that his needs were met, cooking regular meals, washing and ironing clothes that made him look clean. Theirs was a deep attachment; whenever she thought of him, her emotions twinged with love and sorrow. Anthony was more supportive of her than anybody else as she scaled the academic pyramid over the exacting years. He had given up his studies after high school to keep the family going. There was no news from their father whose last known location was somewhere in the Persian Gulf. He used to send money occasionally; but when his financial support came, it came too little and too late. Their sole option was for Anthony to assume the burden of supporting the family, which he did with solemn dedication. Anthony became a rubber tapper and in time his slender body became wiry and rugged enough to suit his profession. His limbs always bore traces of sticky sap and his whole person stank of the decaying rubber latex. Yet the family survived in spite of the unpredictable ways of their father.

With little choice but to live vicariously, Anthony was justly proud of Lucy when she did well at school. She was doing it for him and her family; she was living the life he had desired to live. He loved to touch and heft the thick English books that she brought home and took notes on. English was an impossible wonder to Anthony and here was his sister mastering it. Lucy was going for a master's degree in English literature. Anthony's reading was limited to newspapers, which were available for free at the teashop down in the valley. The shop owner had three dailies with which to lure customers: Malayala Manorama, the center-right newspaper known for its affluence, Mathrubhoomi, the center-left paper with a mission, and Deshabhimani the extreme left political organ of the Marxist party. Close by at the grocer's hut Anthony occasionally read Deepika, the daily that catered to the Syrian Catholic Community. Like all the other men in the village this obsession with dailies was his sole connection to the outside world. Dailies were an addiction, when the newspaper had been read from the beginning to the end, Anthony would be sorry that it was over. He would long to read something more. To such a man living in a limited circle, Lucy's English textbooks were a matter of wonder and admiration. He was glad for her. After high school, Lucy might have languished away in the village with a little bit of typing and shorthand like Molly, her sister, shut off from the outside world, dreaming of the good life while she waited miserably for a good husband.

When Lucy graduated from high school with honors, higher education appeared to be a distant unattainable mirage. If only her father were there. But there was no news of him. Her father had been very loving and kind to her when he was around, but that had been years ago, when she was five or six. He would take her on his shoulders, and would tell her she was his precious darling. In her mind he was the paragon of manhood, warm, handsome, polite and charming. But she also had vague memories of how he had made her mother cry. Something had gone wrong between them. Whose fault it was, she had no idea. Her mother said her father was overly jealous and possessive. She still remembers the day when he cut off her mother's wonderful flowing hair while she slept. He did not want her to be beautiful. At times he would drink and rant. He gave voice to cruel things. Still, Lucy loved her father. She fondly believed that some terrible misfortune was preventing him from contacting her, from helping his family out in their time of need.

Higher education demanded money. Her well wishers made her believe that she was brilliant and prevailed upon her to continue her studies. They asked her to join the famous women's college at Palai. But she didn't have the money. Time was fast running out. May had become rainy sunless June. Anthony was determined that she should pursue her studies. But he was only nineteen and earning their daily bread was his first priority. In desperation she wrote a letter to her father:

Dear Chacha,

Where are you now? What are you doing? When we are in distress we would desperately chorus ‘had Chacha been with us.’ During Christmas and Easter when we share the happiness of the parish and buy a little beef, we would again say ‘ had Chacha been with us.’ Mother still sheds silent tears for you. She loves you so, all of us love you Chacha. Mother says that one day all of us will live together. I pray to God every day so that such a day will come. Yes, I pray especially for you, my beloved father, Chacha, you are always in my prayers.

Molly has completed her typewriting course and stays at home. Anthony toils day in and day out as a rubber tapper to keep us afloat. He barely makes enough to get by.

Chacha, your little darling has grown so big and people say that I look like you. I recently graduated from high school with very good marks. Everyone I know says that I should go for higher studies. I also dream of pursuing my studies. Could you possibly see your way fit to help me in this matter? I look forward to your timely intervention at this critical juncture in my life since I am unable to find a way out of the dilemma on my own.

I will always remember you in my prayers.

Your loving daughter,

The pathetic side of the missive was that it was addressed to Mr. Yohannan Cheruvil, Kuwait, Persian Gulf. They didn't know her father's address. Everyone assumed that he was in Kuwait, although he could have been in Abu Dhabi or the oilfields in Bahrain. She waited prayerfully for a reply from him. Her child's mind expected that the letter would make a beeline for him, as if Kuwait was a small house where her father was the master. She watched the postman coming her way without paying any attention to her. Theirs was an isolated family, having nobody to write, having nobody with which to communicate. When you fall below the poverty line, there is no longer a reason for anyone to notice you. Time was running out. Lucy put in her application at a few colleges in the treasured hope that something positive would come up. She wanted to get a good education because she thought it would serve to lessen the burden on Anthony. Lucy wanted to become a teacher. Her teachers had told her that it was important to have ambition. Also, the idea of teaching appealed to her, i.e. she desired to work to improve the future of India. Living in an earthly Philistine world, higher education was by no means guaranteed. Nonetheless it was exciting and enticing. She had the enthusiasm and the ambition, what she needed was the initial push to get going. Somebody had to take the initiative. Lucy was the most brilliant among the three children and she knew it. Anthony and Molly also knew it and approvingly acknowledged it. In tearful prayers she longed to reach out to her long absent father. However, she did not express her hopes and fears to her mother or sister. Anthony encouraged her to go. When the time came, Anthony told her, if nothing turned up, he would work even harder and send her to the temples of higher education. She did not want it; it was too much for her to break his back.

Five years earlier her classmate had tried the same trick, the option of an epistler's solution to her woes. Little Maria wrote and sent a letter to none other than God, as she had nobody else to turn to. The cute letter addressed to God, Heavenly house, laid bare her little worries, that the teachers were pestering her little mind for not being able to abide by the dress codes, her ordeals on account of not having an umbrella, her constant hunger, the horrible way she was being treated at home, the tears and spouts of rage of her mother and much more. A couple of weeks later, God got her what she needed. A stranger came to her hut and offered her a new school uniform and a brand new umbrella too. There was an inscription on the inner side of the umbrella that said “Gift of God.” Shortly her elder brother got a clerical job in Government and her financial worries and the desperate rages of her mother were over. In Lucy's case her father was more real and tangible. Hence, she earnestly counted on a solid positive reaction from his end.

When her hopes were sagging, perhaps by the sheer force of her prayers, a curious thing happened. It was getting on towards evening and the rains had retreated for a while. The valley was buried in thick fog. Lucy had lit the kerosene lamp, mother was in the kitchen, Molly was at work with some embroidery, Anthony was sitting at the verandah, watching the heavens preparing for the next salvo. Then a man came up, however, it was not her father. The stranger was quite young, around twenty-five. He had the confidence and grace of a man accustomed to the luxuries of life, of a man who does not have to worry where his next meal is coming from. The gleam on his face betrayed his inner grace. His rippling healthy youthfulness proclaimed: this world is beautiful; let us enjoy ourselves.

The young man stood in front of the house, wondering how he was going to be received. Anthony came out to greet the gentleman.

“What can I do for you, sir?” Anthony asked with respectful formality. His practical mind judged the visitor to be someone of importance and thus formidable. People of means have the power to make you or break you. He did not care to be around the rich with a servile cringing look painted on his face. He preferred to stay away from the rich. Hassle-free poverty seemed much more reasonable.

“Well, young man, am I standing in front of the Cheruvil residence?”

“Indeed you are, sir, whom did you come to see?”

“May I talk to Lucy?”

Lucy came out, excited and blushing. They rarely had guests. Every visitor was precious. It was a welcome break from an uneventful and often monotonous life. The stranger keenly looked at the little girl who looked to him to be about ten, sickly, pale and suffering from protein deficiency.

“Well young little lady, are you the Lucy girl I am looking for?”

“Yes sir,” she said abashed.

“No need to call me sir, I am Hari uncle and I come to you from the Persian Gulf.”

Her mind was exploding with happiness.

“Did my father send you?”


“Did he read my letter?”

“Yes, he did.”

She felt relieved; Anthony had been teasing her that the letter might never reach him.

“She scored high marks on the examination and was pestering her father to go on for higher education,” Anna dutifully explained to the visitor.

“So, you have graduated with honors from your high school,” he stated.

Anthony invited him to sit on a soiled bench on the verandah. The stranger took him up on it, but not before placing a towel on the bench.

“So after high school you have a good mind to go for higher studies,” he said again, half as a question and half as a statement.

“Yes,” she said softly afraid to offend him.

“I have come all the way from the Persian Gulf to track you down for the sake of your father and those who are anxious about your welfare, because now you need our help. Lucy can study as much as she wants. Funds will not be a constraint. This Hari uncle will support you.”

There was excitement in the air.

Anna wanted to know how the stranger was connected to her husband. He was evasive.

“Do you work together?”

“Not exactly, but I know him, we are neighbors.”

“Did he entrust you to do this?”

“He wants Lucy to get a good education.”

Anna was very worried, they had nothing at home with which to treat him. There was a little sugar and coffee husk. She did not think he would drink their savage drink.

Yet he took a few sips and said that it was excellent. She was pleased.

“God will bless you, my son. He will bless you a thousand times for bestowing your bounty on a poor deserving child,” she declared.

“Thank you mother,” he said, “I will come again next Monday. Lucy, be ready to join the college of your choice. You will stay at the hostel.”

And that is how Lucy got enrolled at a prestigious college. Lucy was not used to the ways of urban life. Her provincial conditioning was not suited to the skin-deep sophistication of the spoiled and rich town girls who were her roommates and classmates. She shied away from the elitist decadent cliques. Besides, the privileged girls refused to accept her into them. She remained unruffled, she had a mission, she had ambition. The immediate trivial realities did not trouble her. Lucy shied away from fashionable trends and exhibitions of wealth. Unlike her classmates and hostel mates, she had no visitors.

Later, Lucy proved her worth by scoring high in examinations. It did the trick—her classmates who had secretly disliked her now openly made friends with her. Lucy reciprocated their gestures of friendship, and but took care not to deviate from her primary mission. They pitied her in that she was attending school on charity and were kind enough to share the delicacies they brought from home.

By the time Lucy joined for Bachelor of Arts in Literature she was one of the old hands at the hostel. The nuns running the hostel and the college liked her. Unlike the rest, Lucy wasn't the least bit troublesome. And, despite her less than enviable condition, the skinny little girl was very jovial. But they did not love her. They love the rich and the beautiful.

In order to obtain a Masters of Art degree, Lucy had to register at the men's college, after having spent five years at the hostel. Even at twenty-one she was mostly skin and bones. But she was attractive, with large eyes, thick flowing hair, and small, well-shaped breasts. To her great delight, she was preparing for what for her would be a significant step up the ladder of life. Because Lucy loved English literature, she made an effort to become intimately familiar with the culture of the lake country in England. Her classmates called her Tauru Dutt, after the nineteenth century English poetess from Bengal. Assuredly, Lucy possessed a poetic mind, whetted by the works of the early nineteenth century Romantics of England. She would go home most weekends but her mind was in the clouds, living her life in the lake districts of England, becoming another Dorothy in the sweet company of Wordsworth. Life rolled away with a dreamy fragrance blessed with graceful fantasies.

Hari uncle was true to his word. He sponsored her higher education with unusual determination. Every year he visited Lucy and encouraged her. After her pre-degree he got married. It did not affect the pact he had with Lucy. There was no mention of her father. He seemed not inclined to discuss it. Yet she would make him confess that her father was doing well in Kuwait. She wondered why he was not coming to see his poor little darling. She desperately wanted her Chacha to be an integral part of the family and vowed to support him once she was properly educated and employed. She had developed an agenda. Her life had spread into the lives of many people: her parents, her poor brother, her sister, Hari uncle and of course Babu, her sweet Babu.

Babu There was a tacit understanding that all ten classmates would assemble at the men's college on the first Monday after the release of the results of the final examinations. Lucy was overjoyed to be back on campus—it was a chance to recapture the most rewarding years of her life. The men's college was an odium where her life settled into a minuet: soft, gentle and rejuvenating—free from the snobbery of which her own sex had perpetrated upon her. The boys boisterously celebrated the rites of passage. It was a case of vive la difference! In her class there were six girls and four boys. Campus had a social aspect. The four male students were in no way disrespectful nor did they entertain snobs. After many years of convent life, it was a welcome change. Men genuinely liked her, not exactly as a minx, she was attractive as a woman of course. However, Lucy was not one of those aggressive feminazis who emasculate men with their feminine endowments. She was a good conversationalist and men felt comfortable around her. Unhappiness seemed to envelop her. Consequently, she brought out the machismo in men. They felt the urge to protect and support her. Babu could not help but love Lucy. Her classmates were well aware of what was going on, but were, nonetheless, overtly supportive of their not so clandestine love affair. Perhaps it is inevitable that taboos have to be tested by each succeeding generation in order to be appreciated for what they are.

Against this backdrop she was anxious to be back at the college. All ten students would soon go on to the uncertainties involved in earning a living. Long years hence they would forget the exquisite moments they shared on campus. Their idealism, romanticism, and political radicalism would eventually yield to pragmatism and realism. They would become strangers to themselves in the course of the struggle for survival. Still, the last few hours the classmates are going to share are precious. Furthermore, she was anxious to see Babu; her heart pined for him. They had not met since before the examination. She wondered how he had fared, whether he remembered her and pined for her. Good girls didn't fall in love because Indian society permitted love solely within the context of marriage. Falling in love meant taking a great risk: a failed love lessens the woman's marriage prospects. Anthony, however, would understand, he would bring her mother around. What worried Lucy was how Babu's family would react when at last they come to know about the muffled affair.

As she had expected most of them were at the college. Only Babu had yet to turn up. It piqued and irritated her. Mark list was not important, he was. She wondered whether his love for her had evaporated. In the Long days of the winter of separation did it wither away? Lucy had confided everything to him. She had nothing to hide from him. Would he ditch her for a rich and fleshy girl, was she just one of his campus jokes?

Her friends consoled her and made light of it, after all, she was the heroine of the day. Lucy was awarded a first class for Master of Arts. It was extraordinary—even a second class was unusual for English literature. Five of Lucy's classmates had failed. Literary criticism was their Achilles' heel. Babu and three others had just managed to scrape though with a pathetic third class. Lucy outshined them all with a brilliant first class. The evaluators were stingy; they gave marks as if they were giving away their ancestral property.

A pass in the examination would certainly have surprised Babu. He was by no means a serious student. He had to travel a good deal due to many other concerns, such as tea estates in the high ranges, a hotel in Cochin, and a rubber estate in the midlands of Kottayam district. All of them wondered how the devil had made it. Lucy was not surprised, she had wanted him to pass, and she had forcefully made him go through the notes she had assiduously prepared.

“Where has your Goliath gone?” somebody teased.

“Did he stray away into greener pastures, ditching our convent lady?”

“Babu will come as promised,” she protested.

“The stuffed muff will turn up; he has irrevocably fallen into the flame of the femme fatale.”

“Do not let him stray too far. If he strays out of your gravitational range, he will no longer orbit around you.”

“It is not gravitational pull, my dear, it is estrogen pull, mind you.”

“If the muff gives you an ungentlemanly buff, remember I am here to provide solace.”

“But you are such a mutt. You use the butt rather than the barrel. If you are at all inclined to fall in love, entrust your common sense to my custody. I shall return it safe and kicking when you are cured of the nonsense.”

“In the meantime you can make a fortune out of it. Make the better of it as you have never had it.”

“Who is going to love you, my dear poor urang otang?”

“What is this urang otang, Mr. Right?”

“Consult your mirror, it will oblige you.”

Lucy pretended to enjoy the gibberish, but she was sad inside and silent.

“Fret not my country lass, ‘there will come a Christian by, will be worth a Jewess' eye.’”

Then they heard the put-put. Her hero was back on his Honda. The black Hero Honda blubbered into a hurried halt and Babu flung himself off. He darted into the classroom where they were assembled. There was a flourish.

“Come big man, your lady love was pining to death.”

“Sorry, I was out of station. I started from Cochin early in the morning.”

“She has only one concern—you. For you she is one among many concerns.”

Lucy looked at him and feasted upon him, slightly pouting, slightly coquettish.

“Love is pain. You pine for being stranded midway.”

“Satiation of love is death,” a male voice reasoned.

“Lucy dear, you can congratulate yourself for the rest of your life for having fallen in love with a gem of a man like me.”

“Thank you,” Lucy smiled.

“How come I got a pass? Who made the mistake and where?”

Another male voice: “Don't count the teeth. If your principles stand in the way, apply for reevaluation, protesting that you do not deserve to pass.”

“Those parsimonious tightwads are so stingy that even William Shakespeare would have flunked the essay on Shakespeare.”

“He did not need it, Hathaway tested him.”

They discussed their plans for the future. Nobody had any immediate prospect of suitable employment. Babu was self-employed in his family's business. The boys were returning to their ancestral acres. The girls entertained thoughts of teaching at home and would be lying in long wait until their parents could arrange a suitable marriage. Some of them entertained vague hopes of finding foreign employment through the good offices of their relations abroad. As for Lucy, giving tuitions was out of the question; she would not get any students in her remote hilly village. Higher education did not land her on the cherished shores of plenty. Canaan was light years away. Then they parted, offering to invite each other for the marriage. With a centrifugal fury they scattered into the modern and postmodern challenges of the world. Girls went away together for a hurried shopping at the ladies center while the men slowly melted away for an afternoon movie. Graduation had come and gone. Now it was time to get on with the business of life.

“What do we do now?” Babu asked her, when they were left alone.

“Ask your soul. We have to get on with our lives. It's of primary importance. I am not about to languish in this no man's land.”

“Indeed we will sort it out my angelic Lilliputian,” he squeezed her wattle little hand; she winced.

“Come, my lady, I am taking you to a mystical enchanted hideaway,” he bowed deeply, motioning for her to ascend his waiting Hero Honda, the two wheeler motorcycle that she had grown to love. With Hero Honda between his legs, Babu had introduced Lucy to the pleasures of the road. She, perched behind him, sitting sidewise, had tasted the modern world and its challenges. They scooted away, deftly dodging the unruly traffic. The two-wheeler fumed and fulminated to the distant hills and woods. Babu took her to a mountain pond, three thousand feet above sea level. It turned out to be an ideal spot for a picnic. Nobody journeyed there in the rainy season. The whole world belonged to them and them alone. The pond was brimming with crystal clear water. The hills and woods were lush and fresh following a long rainy spell. Green grass flourished riotously crowding into the crystalline babble of the mountain pond. Far to the west the towns and villages heaved under the palpitating weight of life.

They went to a small tourist hut that was falling apart at the seams. The grassland all about quivered, as if anticipating another rainy bout while the brooding trees said silent prayers with joined hands. Sun and shadows, rain and sorrows danced over them.

“Tell me what you are going to do with our concomitant lives,” Lucy demanded.

“It is not concomitant lives, lady. It is fused lives; two lives fused into one. As it is written ‘and he will leave his parents and join the woman’.”

“God knows whether it is fused lives or confused lives. I am a woman.”

“Are you? Thank you for the kind information,” he taunted.

“I said that I am a woman and from my angle many things are at stake.”

“So this is a stakeholder's workshop.”

“Cut it out, Babu, we need a hard talk, a soul to soul talk.”

“I made my position clear five years ago. It still holds good. Have I ever breeched your faith?”

“We are a poor family; I haven't the foggiest notion where my father went to. We do not have the kind of dowry to purchase a rich, affluent, high profile chocolate boy like you. Your promises are blowing in the wind. Airy promises do not put food on the table.”

“So my haughty nymph is of the view that I cannot be trusted?”

“No I want you to fulfill your promises.”

“I said I shall do it when the time comes. We have to wait until my sister is properly married. Do not molest me with the regular list of your vulnerabilities. I am not marrying your money, I am not marrying your affluence or, for that matter, its absence.”

“I stand to lose much at the sacrificial stone of our love—my character, my modesty, my integrity and my future. They are all in your hands.” Her face broke into a rain, the very rain that was teetering on the darkening horizon.

“What do you want me to do, dearest? Shall I arrange a suitable marriage for you? I will find a cute little man for you, someone who is not encumbered by riches and intricate business deals.”

Lucy stiffened with fury and her tears abated as quickly as they had come. “I don't want to be a teardrop for you to laugh at in your overstuffed parlor while in the sweet company of your rich, corpulent, and spicy wife.”

Babu was silent for a moment. She knew that she had hurt him to the core. He knew that she was dead serious and desperate. Love was a liability, it made her compromise a great deal more than she thought it was wise to do.

“Then tell me Lucy, what do you expect me to do to blunt your feminine fears?”

“I do not expect you to marry me tomorrow. I can wait until after your sister's wedding. But I want you to moot the process of getting onto the right track. You must come to our house. You must ask for me in marriage. Once the deal is clinched between yours and my people, I shall wait. I shall wait for any length of time. I cannot wait in my lonely mountain abode indefinitely when you are perambulating in the cities with fresh and sizzling challenges. I am too committed to overcome any potential metacyesis. All my eggs are put into one basket.”

“So I should visit you to ask your hand in marriage.”

“Yes, that cannot wait. You must come on the day after. I will wait for you.”

“And if I fail to turn up, will you take it as a heinous apostasy?”

“If you fail me, as I had told you long before, God will punish you for rendering me the Poor Susan.”

“Sorry, poor Susan.”

“So you will not come to our humble abode, officially asking for me in marriage?”

“Lady love is the dictator. I shall try to turn up, gentle monster.”

“Do not come like a fugitive. When you come, come with your mother or sister, it adds gravity and earnestness to the proposal.”

“I dare not involve my sinister sister in this escapade. But I may be able to shanghai my mother into taking this voyage with me. When the matter reaches my father, it must look like her doing so as to keep my father from blowing a gasket.”

“Yes, my darling. I demand nothing more and expect nothing less. Would that you had never pulled me into this maelstrom of stormy possessive passions.”

“Then by chance if I fail to show up before the deadline, how will you handle the situation?”

“I am not going to tell anyone anything about us, hence, if you let me down, I will not be humiliated, nor will my family be embarrassed. But I will do another thing.”

“But what will it be, Empress Catherine?”

“I will wait for you till the day dies blushing and bleeding across the hills. And if I realize that you were working out a cruel joke on me, you will die inside of me. I will give you a proper burial in my mind.”

“You may wait in vain to feel that pain. I shall magnanimously grant you a long period of time for the cherished luxury of burying me. There is no need to assume the role of the sad, rejected heroine. Your knight would transverse heaven and hell to come to your rescue.”

“I am sorry Babu, I had to be crude and uncivil with you because my apprehensions had the upper hand. You don't know what it is like to lie in long wait in the hills. There is nothing else to do, there is nobody else to meet. The same places, the same faces, each day a carbon copy of the last. It is a life shut out from the rest of the world. There is no electricity and no newspaper. It is a stunted life I cannot suffer for long. I require green pastures, the prospect of life with my dearest—along with some fresh air in between.”

“Your share of fresh air will be safe, take my word of honor.”

They returned. A sudden gust of wind peeled off the remains of the soggy hay from the thatched roof of the hut. It was going to rain again. A thick black vanguard of intimidating cumulo nimbus dragged its way across the hills and valleys. A heralding drizzle drenched them. He offered her his raincoat. Man has numerous libidinous possibilities because a woman has a woman's mind.

Maybe it was better that way because it offered Lucy a safe cover from the rain and also from any ogling, leering eyes. Their affair was hardly a secret—she had staked her future on it. She left him at Erattupetta Bus Station. He cut a sorry figure: wet and pathetic, his sodden shirt sticking to his broad muscular body. His musky cologne threatened to smother her.

“See you day after,” she whispered. But he was long gone.

Chapter 5
Sunshine in your eyes, music in your words

On the Wednesday following her let's-get-real talk with Babu, Lucy awoke early in the morning and began her preparations to receive him, taking care to keep mum about the shape of things to come. After scrubbing the floor of the house with fresh cow dung and charred coconut husk, she swept the compound and plucked the uproarious outgrowth of weeds. Next, she washed all the soiled clothes, taking them to the stream nearby, and dried them in the short, unpredictable morning sunshine. Her mother thought that she was expressing her happiness at having made the grade. While Lucy was frantically tidying up the house, Anna rushed to the parish church to inform the priest that Lucy had passed the examination with flying colors. It was, however, to no avail. The priest did not seem to share her enthusiasm.

As for Lucy falling in love, it had been the last thing on her agenda. She had other, more serious concerns. The college and the hostel were an exclusively female enclosure. Boys and sex were a secret hush-hush topic of the rich and brazen. The puritanical nuns would hear nothing of such nonsense. During her undergraduate studies, Lucy had yet to blossom into a woman. She was too innocent to take a keen interest in the opposite sex. The holed up life at the hostel and college further alienated her from the secret pleasures the girls giggled and alluded to. Even in those flat-chested days too she had noticed Babu. She never knew his name or his whereabouts. However, she had noticed him eyeballing her as she went back and forth between the hostel and the college. There were many such swains feasting on them with ugly lolling tongues. But he was different. He watched her only; he ignored everybody else. It would have been frightening had it not been so thrilling. But the attentions she received from him did not eat into her inner peace until after she joined for her Bachelor of Arts. The boys on their way to the men's college took their sweet time passing by the college for women.

The men's college was close by. The boys couldn't help but be attracted by the gaudy butterflies that flitted around the female campus. The girls were familiar with the oversexed characters that were stealing furtive glances. But it was harmless; the young female charges were safe within the confines of the college walls. Hence the girls secretly enjoyed allowing the pubescent beasts to feast on them.

During the two undergraduate years Babu had never ever made a move to talk to Lucy or to draw her out by means of incisive, intended-to-be-overheard comments. Somehow he became an innocuous, somewhat impertinent phenomenon in her drab hostel and even drabber academic life. College girls almost never walk alone; they move about in groups; it is a survival mechanism. During her freshman year, he had tried on many a day in vain to single her out. Out of the corner of her eye, she would see Babu giving her the eye and would smugly smile to herself. Obviously, he found her attractive.

One evening he came boldly to her in the presence of her hostel mates. They were on their way back to the hostel. He walked up to her and introduced himself, “You don't know me, Lucy, but please allow me to introduce myself. I am Babu Joseph, and I am an undergraduate student at St. Thomas. I have been secretly in love with you for the last two years. You would honor me immensely if you could find it in your heart to return my love.”

She was stunned to near petrification. The posse of girls protecting her was even more shocked by the crass audacity of the brazen interloper.

“You do not have to give me an immediate answer. Just think it over and if you come to a positive conclusion go to class tomorrow in your beautiful pink frock and white blouse. Then I will know. If you refuse me I won't keep pestering you. I'll stay away and keep loving you from afar.”

He marched away like a warrior. When he was gone, they giggled. She watched him walking swiftly, never bothering to turn back, bold and impudent. Such developments are pivotal events in the lives of co-eds. That night they discussed it in detail.

Everybody agreed that Babu was handsome. He was strikingly tall, at 6 feet he stood out from his friends. He had a thin athletic body. His eyes had a mischievous laughter in them and his lips were thin and red. His thick mat of hair had a careful carelessness. It is wonderful to love somebody like him. But love can be trouble. Parents will pack you to the moon. Still if she was confident enough to give love a chance her friends were willing to support her with sound advice. The only thing was to make sure that the walking coffins got no wind of it. Next day, she was sure, all of them were sure, that Babu would be waiting on the road, anxious to read the color code. Lucy spotted him from a distance standing thoughtfully beneath the camouflaging canopy of the forest. She experienced shadows crossing his face, darkness filling his eyes. She had come out in a different outfit. They felt sorry for him.

Next day she appeared in her pink and white and wondered whether he would be around. He was not there. She was both disappointed and relieved. For the next few days she put on the same costume in case he came to watch. But there was no trace of him. No news of him. Then at the weekend, she tried her color message for the last time. Again he was not there at the regular place. She moved away from her friends and ventured out into the road. It was deserted except for fleeting cars, buses and a few parked vehicles. Her chest was pounding; she was transgressing the limits. Despondency rained down on her. Giving up hope, she turned back to join her girlfriends. Suddenly, there was loud applause as the doors of a cloud-colored car were flung open. Babu and his buddies jumped out of the car and cheered her. She blushed all over and darted back to the safety of the pack of girls. Thereafter he did not pester her with his presence. She wondered whether he had failed to get the message.

On a holiday she was going home. It was early morning, the bus station was a few kilometers away. In order to save money she walked to the bus station. Then the same cloud-colored car appeared out of nowhere, screeching to a halt so as to block her path. Babu stepped out of the car and approached her with a broad smile on his face. She felt scared.

“Thank you Lucy, the deal between us is clinched. We are going to belong to each other for the rest of our lives, come what may.”
“No, wait, if I am going to love you, you must first meet certain minimum requirements,” she managed to sound masterful and in control despite having been caught off guard.

“Pray, what are they?”

“First you must study more. Getting your degree should be your first priority. Also, you must be honest with me. You need to be as loyal to me as I am loyal to you. And you should not expect or demand anything from me other than pure and innocent love until after we are legitimately married.”

“Done,” he said, “studies are not important to me, but for your sake I will study well. I give you my word of honor that you will be the first and the last woman in my life. Have a nice day and be happy for me,” he speeded away.

Lucy was afraid that he would invite her into the car. He was prudent enough to save her from refusing him.

He was seen no more on the road, nor was his car around. They met on Saturdays, on her way back home. He was not a demanding or domineering lover. She did not have a father to chastise her. Still she was afraid to be seen with him in town. He found a way out. On Saturdays he would come with his Hero Honda and wait for her on the road some distance away from the hostel. They would go to isolated churches or cemeteries where they would share their innermost secrets. Lucy shared all her secrets with Babu. He knew her far more nearer and dearer than her closest classmates and roommates. She had an exquisite tipsiness in his charming presence. He had a heady masculine fragrance. Often she wondered what brand of cologne he wore. His fingers were slender and long. She felt totally safe in his presence. He never even attempted to get physical.

“You can come with me anywhere, anytime, and your virginity will be as intact as if I were your brother,” he had promised her and he was true to his words. Later on she realized that he was a busy man. He had to support his father and assist him in running his business. She had no business to run. If he was free, he would come to collect her on holidays.

In the 1980's affairs of the heart were not fashionable. Campus love could be difficult and troublesome. For one thing, communication was haphazard. Computers were unheard of, email and the internet were beyond imagination. Phones were a luxury and mobile phones were the stuff of science fiction. Hence, love was most often experienced on a lofty theoretical plain. When they were into the second year of their courses towards a degree, he discovered a way to keep in touch regularly. Every day a certain priest went to the women's college from the men's college to give lectures. Babu would attach a message behind the bumper of the priest/professor's car. The priest inadvertently became their panderer and postman. She would religiously collect his long letters, which were anonymous and would put her reply in place. It was a thrilling enterprise. They were taking a venerable man of the cloth for a ride. Had he discovered the deception, the righteously indignant priest would have made short work of their matriculation.
Writing love letters had an advantage, it improved their vocabulary. In the beginning, they wrote exclusively in Malayalam. Later on, she changed over to her unwieldy, albeit serviceable, butler English.

“Malayalam, with its palindromic symmetry is a full-fledged and complete language,” he protested.

“Improving our grammar is a fringe benefit of writing love letters. We would do well not to to reap the academic benefits involved therein,” she advised. Lucy's English had improved dramatically. Love had some unforeseen benefits too.

For her Master of Arts, Lucy joined his college. Now things went smoothly; life was as it should be. Babu was her local guardian. He filled in her application, purchased her books. The class honored and supported their love. She realized how monotonous it was to be at a women's college. They were now grown up, mature adults. Babu had filled out. He was a big man with infinite patience. Frail little Lucy had grown into a lady with a slim waist and graceful bust who was no longer afraid to engage in the give and take of modern life.

On weekends and holidays, he would take her on his Hero Honda to faraway exciting places. Both of them were fond of early Christian churches. Once they visited a church built in the fourth century AD. Babu asked the sexton how old the church was.

“Two thousand years old,” came the prompt reply without batting an eyelid. They thought it a bit odd that the early settlers from the Middle East had been so knowledgable as to have foreseen the coming of Jesus Christ and erected churches for Him a hundred years before his birth.

They also toured the eastern highlands. Babu took her to his tea estates. The blue-green tufts of the exotic plantings fascinated her. Moody thickets drowned in fog in the hollows of the rolling hills loomed like painted landscapes. The rarified air and the gossamer mist made for a heady, dreamlike journey. Like a merry butterfly she floated alongside a flood of vegetation.

He was a rather big man for her. Lucy was conspicuously dwarfed by the imposing shadow of his towering presence. On the campus he was known as Goliath: her Goliath.

“Thank you for giving me such a wonderful day,” she would whisper to him. There was love in her eyes. He was the man any woman would like to be in the company of. A handsome, tall, charming gentleman. Generous and caring, muscular and broad. Her dream boy straight from the pages of Mills and Boon. They went to exotic restaurants in Cochin. He did not have the cheek to take her to his hotel room on MG Road. The raunchy romance writers romance romances much more than real romances are romancing. But they were not living a love story. Her academic priorities prevented her from subscribing to the popular Malayalam weeklies to which the lion's share of the female population of Kerala was addicted. Her love for Babu was pure and true. She was not copying anyone, not even Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose love for Robert Browning had sweetly stimulated her. There was sun in her eyes and silence in her days.

One weekend he took her to Cherai beach, near Cochin. It was one of the most romantic experiences she had ever had. Cherished memories of those placid days still painfully linger in the core of her being. The golden sands basked in the December sun as the ocean rolled, heaved and shared their sweet nothings and the surf seethed with frothy laughter. Babu bent down to scoop it up, but it ran through his fingers. Beyond their vision, far away on the distant horizon, the seas were darkening with infinite sadness.

They moved to a deserted house on the seashore flanked by casuarinas. The trees rustled their silken fleecy headscarf in the sea breeze. Gulmohar bloomed into raging flames. Indian laburnum broke into golden dangling laughter. Elanji swung with her heady sweeping fragrance.

Babu and Lucy cuddled together on the verandah facing the blue sadness of the sea. His soft musk filled her. Softly he kissed her pale cheek and it blushed into a fresh morning rose. Her heart was pounding. She returned his kiss. He hugged her, her slender breasts pressed firmly against his broad hairy chest. They were heading towards a point of no return. He pulled back. She found his usually merry eyes dilating.

“No, not yet,” he said with an effort, gulping and sweating. She loved those moments precious, hallowed moments.

“It is beautiful to die together like this, with you near me, hand in hand.” She whimpered.

“It is beautiful to live together like this, with you near me, hand in hand,” he corrected.

They had no way of knowing that 15 years later the house would be swept away without a trace by a tsunami.

On the following weekend, they sat in the shade of the huge trees in front of the Devi temple at Kodungalloor. Being safely away from where anyone knew them, they were more inclined to display their affection in public. The ancient port city of Kerala, where various nationalities had jostled until the first half of the fourteenth century had dwindled to a sleepy little town. Centuries had washed away cultures, kingdoms and languages.

They sat hand in hand like ardent pilgrims from the old world, contemplating their fate.

“What would you do if we broke up someday?” he asked.

“You jilt me and I shall skin you alive,” she pinched his arm in mock fury.

She was happy that she had met him. It was not her fault that he was unapproachably rich, nor was it his fault that she was dismally poor. He filled every cell of her being, every moment of her existence. Babu was her destination, refuge and salvation.

After a luxurious bath, Lucy waited for him in her best. She tried not to betray her inner turmoil. She paved the winding path with thoughtful eyes and waited nervously for his dear frame struggling uphill. Time ticked and trickled away.

To wile away the remaining hours, she opened her diary. It was full of him. She had recorded many of the short, crisp epigrams Babu had sent her by way of the unsuspecting professor/priest. Reading them heightened the anticipation. She savored each in turn:

“I do not have adequate phrases to praise you dearest, nor am I the gifted scribe to describe you. But you have transmuted my days. They are charged with more colors, more flowers and more fragrance. Lithe muse, is it you who fills the hollows of my mind, probing the dark unfathomed caves of my being? Thank you for the beautiful days you gift me with.”

“I try a thousand million ways to please you. A thousand million and counting . . .”

“I lay half awake until the cool, feathery feel of your purity came to me in the stillness of an uncomfortable night, inducing slumber.”

“As the remnants of the rains assaulted her perch, the nightingale opened her heavy eyes with a start. It was then that I fell asleep embracing your lithe, supple body.”

“The distances that separate hold us close
Tests our mettle, thus we grow.”

“I watch the sadness condense in your eyes
While time crumbles around me, whimpers and dies.”

“The sun tells me you are having a gloomy day
I tell him, hence, I ask him to send some rays your way.”

“Jasmine twines along my windowsill
Jasmine dear, my buxom lass on eastern hill
Keeps my restive mind soothed and still.
And lo! Jasmine blooms bliss
Reminding me of our first kiss.”

“When twilight fades
I recall your fragrant, festooned hair
Buds of jasmine and fair.”

“Love is the music of our orb
It blunts our pride, the standing barb.”

“I travel to distant lands, yet you are nearer to me.”

“Come and dwell in me this earthen bowl
Come dwell in me this empty reed.”

“I breathe new life and rediscover the world around me in a new light: the light you lit in me.”

“When I forget myself in my daily chores I hum a wordless song and gladly I realize that you are the music of my life. And somebody whispered inside me in a soft and teasing rustling murmur: La bella dame avec merci hath thee in thrall.”

“A little bit of caring, a little bit of sharing and walk together we will into our crimson and placid sunset, feeling less the fears our race feared most.”

His words had a charm that the general run of love letters essentially lacked. Far too many lovesick aspiring poets celebrated the anatomy of their beloved, but not Babu. He had class and Lucy appreciated it. She loved his presence and his voice. She fell for him head over heels. We are but ourselves; to resist would have been futile.

Evening settled across the hills. There was no trace of him. By and by evening graduated into a black and eerie rainy night. Her carefully planned world was crumbling around her. He was plainly betraying her. Even if Babu turned up later with a disarming smile and a fitting excuse, she was not going to entertain him the way she would have. He pretended to be too thick to understand her vulnerabilities.

He was playing with her dignity and pride; he was taking her for a ride. She had loved him with all the purity and innocence of a simple, trusting country girl whose heart was all too vulnerable. He was squandering her virtues.

She clutched to her breast his color photograph, so very dear to her. He smiled at her; his mischievous eyes belittled her. “Cheat,” she muttered bitterly. Fury seethed within her. He was plainly taking advantage of her. With trembling hand she scrawled across his handsome face in large, bold letters, ‘PERFIDIOUS TRAITOR’. She then set fire to the photograph from the feeble, reluctant flame of the sooty kerosene lamp. It burnt up from the bottom, the flame gradually consuming his features. Exhausted, she burst into tears and collapsed into her bed.

There came footsteps in the pitch darkness outside. Lucy wiped her tears and tidied herself. Anthony had gone out to wash away the toils of the day. He had been out with Pakkaran, the evil bootlegger. Anna was busy in the kitchen pampering a moody fire that was not inclined to set to work on the soggy firewood.

Lucy came out tidying herself. He was like that; he would turn up when she was about to conclude that he was a traitor. But in this instance it was not Babu. She lifted the kerosene lamp and the flickering light revealed two strangers. She immediately recognized them. They were Babu's friends from town. They appeared to be thoughtful and confused. Her face registered recognition. The strangers seemed very relieved to have found the right house. She invited them to sit on the bench on the verandah. It was drizzling outside.

“Please wait,” she began, “my brother Anthony will return shortly. He has just gone out for a quick bath.”

“We need a word with you, sister, not with him. It is important,” one of the strangers said.

“What is it?” she was suddenly alert. Something was fishy. Again, she vaguely suspected that he was purposely playing a childish trick on her.

“We would have come here before darkness, but it was hard to find your house.” Was this an apology or an introduction? Babu had let slip that this friend's chief talent was the ability to insert a straw in his nose and drink beer through it. Lucy glared at the somewhat bewildered fellow in burning askance.

“Will it be difficult for you to come away with us to Kottayam with your mother or brother?”

“What is this all about? Why can't he come to me?”

“We are very sorry, really sorry. He cannot come any more. He longs to have a word with you. He is waiting for you.”

“Tell me plainly what is wrong,” Lucy shrieked. Anna came out agitated and confused.

And then it came to her. Shatteringly, she understood. She braced herself in an effort to put up a brave face. Her heart raced. Despite the heat and humidity, her skin felt cold and clammy.

“When was the accident?” she asked bravely.

“Day before yesterday, on his way back from you. It was pouring rain, the road was slippery, he didn't have a raincoat, and visibility was practically zero. He was coming out of a turn in the road when he collided with a speeding jeep.”

“Look, gentlemen, there is no need for me to come with you. He cannot have his word with me. He passed away fifteen minutes ago. I killed him.”

Lucy's head was spinning. She fell to the floor in a swoon and collapsed. They carried her to her room and laid her on the bed. For the next few days Lucy teetered in the twilight zone between consciousness and unconsciousness. Anna was terribly worried. She wanted to know what had occurred to her daughter. The strangers refused to divulge much to her. They told her that a friend of her daughter had had an accident. Anna felt something was fishy because they would not disclose the name of the supposed friend. Then it occurred to her that an evil spirit could have taken possession of Lucy. Anna went to the priest who offered to sanctify the house. Subsequently, he paid them a visit, said some prayers and sprinkled holy water in and around their little rickety house. When the priest entered the bedroom where Lucy was sleeping and sprinkled holy water, a branch of the jack tree swaying over the roof snapped and came crashing through the roof for no apparent reason. The broken limb put a large hole in the ceiling before plunging to the floor. Fortunately, nobody was injured.

Lucy suffered with a vengeance. However, it did not make her shy away from the normal course of life. The marriage prospects of a young girl are dim indeed when shadowed by a publicly acknowledged love affair. For such girls the safe option is to escape to a nunnery and bitterly sigh away what remains of life. Lucy refused that option outright. She had had enough of that during her hostel days. It went against the grain of life. Babu saved her a great deal of trouble by making a violent and abrupt retreat. She promised herself not to languish in the past. She would not cow down to the pressures of life. She would take from life what life refused to give her willingly.

Life was an ongoing battle: she dare not surrender because her life had been tempered by the struggle. Another man and marriage were not in the cards. But life had to be given its due. Life has to be lived in its fullest possible amplitude, true to the set wavelength and frequency one is congenitally endowed with. And one has to part from the business of life leaving behind no regrets. Lucy had the right stuff. She had the will and the desire to chart her own destiny. Most people are mute and complacent, acquiescing to that which befalls them. Beaver fever fewer have. Lucy's experiences sobered her. She learned to moderate her pleasures and worries. Death is the sole certainty. It is a simple example of the theory of conservation of energy and mass in a dynamic system. When, where, how, and why—such pathological and philosophical questions are settled by the residual wisdom of our chemistry and our thrifty gospel ministry.

Experiences cannot change you, she discovered, rather they hone a resultant you from the many inherent yous in use in you.

We have sufficient wisdom to make our lives doubly miserable. Were it not for our experiences, we would no doubt settle into a timeless Amish simplicity—doubly desirable—having no machines to preside over our destiny, having no electronics to pilfer our privacy and peace.

The story of her aborted love slowly filtered in from the urban midlands to the pregnant silence of the hills. Anthony had long ago got wind of the affair she had in town. As an over-protective brother he should have pounced on her, he should have crossed swords with the skin-deep Romeo who was out to exploit the innocence of his sister. He did not do that because he wanted her to enjoy life. She was well versed in the modern ways of the world and she knew better than he did what was good for her life. Anthony never once deigned to insinuate anything about Lucy's private life. That would be beneath him. He only wanted her to be happy. Yet Anthony was surprised that Babu had been loyal to his sister to his last breath. But would Babu have foresworn his family to come down from his lofty social perch and marry her? It is better by far that he died in the zenith of his love for her, for only in that manner could he steal into her virgin memories as the evergreen Honda hero—her fearless knight who had laid down his life for his lady love. A song half finished is sweeter by far than a finished song.

Chapter 6
Lure of the wide, wild world

For a little over two and a half years Lucy had been vegetating at home, suffering a bare existence, thoroughly devoid of romance. Her former classmates made it worse by inviting her to attend their weddings. Lucy's friends all felt sorry for her, but Anthony was convinced they were doing more harm than good. Disasters come and go, one does not have to go with them. It was time for Lucy to take on the world. Kerala was supersaturated with scholars sporting impressive academic degrees. In Kerala's bare bones economy, the prospect of finding a satisfactory placement was bleak and mind bogglingly remote. Those who have money to flash can get in through the back door. Also, people who belong to the backward classes can brandish their backwardness until they get in the reservation doors and thereby shed their backwardness once and for all. But Lucy had no money and she had no backwardness to flaunt. Backwardness is a birthright. After many attempts she had given up hope of finding a berth in Kerala, the public sector was beyond reach, and as far as the private sector was concerned, she did not have the human relations, i.e. connections, it took to get hired. When she looked beyond Kerala, there were opportunities. But it could be risky, especially for a girl. Since she didn't subscribe to a newspaper, she had no way of knowing what was available. Hence opportunities passed her by. Quite accidentally she stumbled on an advertisement from a high school in Bihar that needed an English teacher. The interviews were held at Kottayam, the nearest town. After long years of hibernation, she was returning to the daily grind of life. She desperately needed a change of pace. Once she took to the air, she could fly far, high, and away, leaving her sorrows behind.

Babu had by now become a distant pain, an eternal gore dressed up in other engagements. She refused to go to his funeral, she was too sick for that in the first place. Again she did not want to remember him as a heap of masticated flesh, putrefying and sickening. She has a better image of him etched deep, a lively living Babu who gifted her with a hand full of sunny days. She knew that she had no escape from his memories, he will be part of her remaining travails, no matter how much she turned her back on his memories.

Anthony was not amused by her determination. He had accompanied her to Kottayam, and he did not understand much of what went on. He had been secretly hoping that they would not give her the job. After many months of silence the appointment order came looking for her. She was adamant and anxious to go out—it did not matter where, anywhere but her own house. She had been lying low for a long time. Anthony had read a great deal about the north Indian plains in general and about Bihar in particular and it had left him fearful for her safety.

The lethal combination of impoverished classes and Muslims created a solid vote bank and the political pundits and bandits were exploiting that possibility. Private armies clashed in the open. Robbers with many deaths, rapes and abductions of which to boast, were too often seen as heroes by the castes they represented. Elections and power were ransacked by seasoned criminals. The man in the street had little faith in the government because the local criminal element wielded great power and influence. The tensions between Muslims and caste Hindus could reach a flash point anytime, anywhere. Muslims possessed by religious bigotry were pouring in across the porous border. They robbed, murdered, and raped with impunity. No, interior towns of north India were not safe for a girl, Anthony thought. Yet he was averse to veto her decision. It was her life. His words of caution, however, failed to divert her. For Lucy, the position of English teacher in a high school in Bihar was simply the first in what would hopefully prove to be a series of stepping stones that led to where she wanted to go.

It was proving to be an exceedingly dry, soft winter. Down in the valley the skeleton latticework of the defoliated woods stood defiantly. Anthony looked vacantly into the drab grayness of the denuded hills. How could he go about financing the journey? He could sell dried rubber sheets heaped up in bales. But that would take time. He could borrow money from the Shylock rubber dealer, the poor man's bank. But that was beneath his dignity. He would rather ask her to wait for a day or two.

“Lucy, if you are determined to go, could you wait for a day or two, because I have to get the money?” he asked cautious not to irritate her.

“Money is not a problem, how much do you want?” came the familiar sound of a man outside. Pakkaran was standing in the courtyard, with a leering smirk on his face.

“You dirty devil, you were eavesdropping on us,” Anthony angrily insinuated.

“I did nothing of the kind. No, man, I heard you talking while I was passing by.”

Pakkaran was actually a goblin who seemed to be omnipresent. He had no reason to pass that way. It was not a public path.

“So, you need money? I have enough to share.”

“No Pakkaran, I have money.”

“Yes, you have money, but it will take time. Money comes and money goes while I stand straight and firm. You can borrow money from me, and return it when you get a chance to return it.”

“Lucy is going to Bihar to take up a teaching post,” Anthony explained.

“Well, well. She should escape from this dingy, muggy hole. She should conquer the world. She should have an entire cupboard of trophies to show her children and grandchildren in the evening of her life. I will sponsor the trip, and I am going to escort you to the station,” the ingratiating money lender stated with an impudent authority.

“You don't have to do it, but if you really want to help, you can lend us a thousand rupees.”

“Done. Tomorrow you will have the money. And I am coming to see you off, as I have some business in the city.”

Anna was scared, the parish priest would certainly not approve of what they intended to do if he came to hear of it. Any association with the notorious usurer was looked down upon.

“It is very inauspicious to embark upon a mission with three people, you know. Either two or four people, never three,” Anna intervened.

“No problem madam,” Pakkaran laughed, “let the two of them start from here and I will join them at Erattupetta.” He laughed again and disappeared. They wondered where he went. It was as if the dreaded goblin had oozed from the log wall of the house and returned to from whence he came.

Pakkaran was an inevitable evil of the social structure—he thrived in the dark armpit of the world. He had been spawned by the patent hypocrisy of the spiritual and political leadership of the state. Pakkaran lived like a shadow. The ardent and copious curses of the housewives had painted him blacker than his original melanin structure had planned him to be. Prohibition was in place throughout the state. It was a cheap political gimmick to win the support of the female voters. When the state officially went dry, unofficial watering holes cropped up everywhere. The church leaders ordered the laity to abstain from drinking. The political leadership overtly supported them. Although the state exchequer lost millions by prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages, it opened up great opportunities for conniving little men who had no scruples. Pakkaran was born to poverty and rejection. His father was a drunkard and a criminal. His mother had left them long ago. He did not even have distant memories about her. When he was fourteen his father was taken away by the police in connection with a murder case. The word on the street was that the actual murder had been committed by some big shot. Pakkaran's father took the rap and was given a proxy life sentence. He felt relieved that the police had saved him from committing patricide. His father had terrorized their family.

Having been orphaned, Pakkaran turned to hustling. It didn't take him long to learn the art of brewing and distilling liquor from jaggery. He set up his crude distillery in the inaccessible depths of the woods. The entire village was at his mercy. If he did not appear with his magic elixir at fixed points and fixed times, the working class of the village suffered. The rich had access to costly imported liquor supplied by the Beverages Corporation. But in spite of its cost, it was nowhere near as potent as illicit liquor.

Pakkaran's liquor made the village lively and a lovely place to live. The parched workers, after the exacting toils of the day, would queue up at the white can of the shadowy man. Evenings became active with guffaws and shouts by the drunken savages. They quarreled and confessed, they rolled in the gutters, they stormed into their houses and attacked their wives for all that they did and for all that they did not do. They vented their tensions and passions. They sang songs and gave long and raving revolutionary speeches threatening the rich with a red revolution. The firewater being distilled by Pakkaran was consumed in huge quantities during political rallies and meetings. The willing participants attacked the heavens with clenched fists and chanted revolutionary slogans. Without Pakkaran's enlightening concoction, the village would have been as dull as a convent.

The police, forest guards and Excise department benefited immensely from his illicit business. The departments as such did not benefit, it was the corrupt men in uniforms running the departments that benefited. Their agents would show up regularly to pick their cut of the sooty booty. When Pakkaran made one hundred rupees, the men in uniforms representing various agencies of the state took eighty rupees. When he failed to cough up the kind of money they demanded, they would arrest him, register a case and take out their frustrations on his lean stealthy body. The political leaders, though officially opposed to his illicit activities, were at his mercy. They approached him to finance district level and local level political gatherings. In short, the elitist power brokers were contemptuous of—but nevertheless dependent on—Pakkaran's shadowy existence.

Without being asked, he made huge donations to churches and temples, to religious fairs and social events. Pakkaran never struck it rich, money came in spurts and he dissipated it with careless abandon. He collected money from the people and largely donated it to local charities (minus the eighty percent exacted by corrupt officials). The church leaders held the view that he was a social menace. But they never admitted the simple fact that if he was gone many more of his type would emerge to take his place. The drunkards will drink, the hypocrisy of the state and the church notwithstanding. Were it not for the aid of his magic potion the vociferous working class might have become hopeless neurotics.

Pakkaran, experienced with the ways of the world and the corruption of the system (along with the people who ran the system), knew it all and laughed in his wild solitude. He was running the state and its machinery. The sanctimonious Robin Hoods in the urban jungles do not have the cheek to admit it. These are the little quirks of life.

No matter what the watchdogs of religion and morality shouted about him from the rooftops, he never ever felt sorry about what he did. At least he was a grade better than the polished netherworld barons who poison the working class with methylated spirit smuggled in from across the border which often contains banned toxins. His socio-ecological niche was to function as an indisputable agent of psychological social catharsis. Under the spell of his magic spirit some people switched over to English; some gave long sermons to the trees. Some quoted profusely from Gita, the Bible and Marx. Some lead imaginary rallies against the government. Some would become so sentimental and contrite that they would hug unfeeling trees seeking forgiveness for the whole of humanity.

Pakkaran enjoyed it all.

“We are all going to die—might as well enjoy life while you can,” Pakkaran would reason. His sole regret was for the sake of a Ramachandran, who was said to have tried to jump off a cliff and fly after having downed a few doses. It was difficult to keep him from flying to the hill across the valley. Once he did indeed fly and was confined to his bed ever after.

Women cursed and hissed when Pakkaran passed by. He was rarely seen in the light of day. He would appear in the evenings when the timber workers and laborers are ready with their daily wages. When business improved he was forced to expand his one-man band into three by recruiting two more outcasts. They took care of his social responsibilities during his rare absences. Otherwise they were confined to the savage distillery in the depths of the woods beside a mountain stream. His steady clients would never forgive him if he refused to give them their daily dose of liquid courage. Consequently, either Pakkaran or one of his associates would set up shop at night behind a tree, under a culvert or in a deserted quarry.

During elections Pakkaran had to work overtime to meet the burgeoning demand. The election campaigners direly needed this essential in order to face the disillusioned and deeply bored electorate. Temple fairs and church festivals demanded extra cans to spice the glitter of the nights.

The government was playing to the feminine side of the gallery. Many a household had drowned in alcohol. Alcoholism was an important contributor to the upsurge in suicides across the state. But the prohibition of arrack was a cosmetic solution to an eternal problem. It was just like the topsy-turvy policy on sand mining. Without river sand construction work would come to a grinding halt. But sand mining was killing the rivers. The water table was steadily going down. Wells were drying out. The government banned sand mining on certain stretches of the rivers and allowed restricted mining on certain other segments. This soon became a gold mine for the police, revenue and forest departments. The price of sand skyrocketed more than five fold within a few months. Illegal sand mining and its smuggling in the dead of the night became a roaring industry. The government agents were bribed to look the other way. Here also the policy of the government dismally failed to serve the purpose. The workers got very little, just enough to keep them going, the tipper owners too got paltry little, but it was better than lying idle. Eighty percent of the income generated went to the corrupt bureaucracy for looking the other way.

Lucy was pleased that the course of events was finally flowing her way. Anna, however, was terribly worried. She placed her trust in almighty God, who guided His people across the sea and desert, while taking upon herself the duty to prepare the delicacies for Lucy to have on the way. She was going to miss the precocious girl a great deal. Her presence added life to the house.

At night they prayed together, the long prayer of fifty-three beads. Anthony sat with them silently. He had lost faith in noisy prayers which only served to smudge his peace of mind. Idle words of human speech stood in the way. Verbal diarrhea drives away the divine element. Only when noise dies out can music begin.

Early the following morning they reached Cholathadam to catch the bus. The steep mountains stood in long meditation. The deep villages of Kerala's hill districts that slithered away from the mainstream slept defiantly in the cool of the morning.

The lonely villager has no reason to be more than what he is. Megalomaniacs fail to see reason. Autonomous nature does not appreciate the services of the self-appointed managers and undertakers or the diktats of the high profile mandarins deputed by the government. The government becomes a Kafkaesque citadel that the mountain man has little reason to deal with. Urban megalomania was just another impressive expression of the general social miasma.

The carrot of equality fails to attract the imagination of the rural savage who is very much at home with his superiority in isolation. The villager is endowed with a horse sense, which tells him that life is a celebration of social peaks, ravines and plateaus. Processes of agradation and degradation are interrupted by unforeseen events of siesmicity and orogeny. The world is all set for the harmony of inequalities. Plutocracy, which is the least crazy and most simple way to govern, finding expression in diverse ideological pretensions, cannot read away its romances in the absence of a proletarian fabric to recline upon.

The migration of the rural peasantry to the sparsely settled eastern hills had a curious pattern. The lost, the dejected and the rejected moved east, leaving behind the well-to-do and the well entrenched. In the next wave of migration the still more miserable from among them moved further east. The natural process of selective natural dissemination continued until the fertile hills could take no more. The concentric semicircles of demographic waves would look like the patterns formed on a thin layer chromatograph. Yohannan's family belonged to the well-to-do. When he returned from Bombay, in his rebellious bitterness, he moved deep into the hills. After Molly's marriage, Anthony had to move still deeper into the inner hill tracts. The migrations had an essential ethnic overtone. Syrian Christians dominated the process. Ezhavas were not far behind. Caste Hindus refused to follow them because they either did not want to and/or could not afford to leave behind their past. Again, most of them were well placed and well-to-do with ancient moorings.

Next day Lucy and Anthony visited St. George Church at Aruvithura and Blessed Alfonsas's tomb at Bharananganam. As promised, Pakkaran joined them. Pakkaran was a true Hindu unspoiled by the political compartmentalization of the state. All religions of all peoples of the world were his own. He was a candid socialist in the matter of religion. In his hut in the village, which he seldom visited, he had a pantheon of moderate to extremist divinities including Lord Siva, Sree Narayana Guru, Durga Devi, Christ, Gandhi, Buddha and Karl Marx. All were embraced with equal ardor; no stone was left unturned; no deity was left in the out in the cold. He was indeed the classical Hindu yet to be redefined by the apostles of the Hindu nation.

It was Sunday, the buses were not crowded. They boarded a bus going to Cochin at Palai. Kottayam was the nearest railway station. But they chose Cochin because trains stopped there for twenty minutes, and many more trains originated from Cochin. Lucy was seated close to the window, Anthony sat close to her followed by Pakkaran. Modernity pressed in on them from all around. The global imprint had changed dramatically since Lucy's studies at Palai. She had to rediscover the world. Western culture is acquired in installments. The culture below the belt is far ahead of the rest of the anatomy and condoms clog the sewage conduits in the special economic zones and IT parks, those economic havens where trade union barks go unheeded.

“From what I read Bihar can be a terrible place,” Anthony whispered to her. “If you happen to have any difficulty, just drop me a letter. I will come when summoned. You must not suffer alone. Your sorrows are mine as well.”

“Please,” she squeezed his arm, “please leave it all behind. Let us talk about something pleasant—about our childhood, about the little secrets we shared, about the little pleasures we experienced in our special world, about our dreams for the future, something like that.”

“The past is no longer with us, we are done with that,” he rebuked, “all of our childhood dreams have gone sour. They are not that important any more.”

“Higher education didn't better my state. Hari uncle wasted his riches on a girl without connections, necessarily riveted to misery.”

“No amount of Hari uncle's money can change who we are. Either we live with who and what we are or we do not live at all.”

“Whose fault is it that we are what we are?”

“The lamb and the elephant feed on the same diet; the lamb grows into a bleating sheep and the elephant grows into an imposing tusker. The tree is in the seed.”

“The tree is in the seed,” she repeated. “I very much want to help you, at least financially. If this job works out, it will be a change for the better for all of us.”

“I am not our priority, you are. Keep your money. You are twenty-five. It is time that you got married and had children.”

“It is not important, a woman can live alone without being dependent on a husband.”

“It is not like that. One cannot turn the clock back. A woman will be miserable and lonely in her old age without somebody of her own. The role of women has changed. Without a man, a woman's biological urges would rebel and begin hoisting cancerous red flags.”

“Nuns live well and live happily.”

“Nunnery is drudgery. Where there is no life, there is no hope—only a muffled bitterness lingers. Many find refuge in lunacy,” Anthony stated.

“I am not against having a family and children. It is simply not my first priority. If other factors favorable, I will consider getting married. A good marriage cannot be had for less than two hundred thousand rupees.”

Pakkaran was pretending to have dozed off. “I am twenty-seven, and I have no worries,” he barged into their private conversation.

Pakkaran “You don't worry because you cannot fall any further.”

“Only a revolution can save us,” Pakkaran asserted.

“With your booze there is no room left for revolution. The drinking class is too addicted to revolt.”

“I am the kingpin that keeps the system working and pertinent. Both of you are spinning your intellectual wheels while the world takes you for a ride. If you are lenient but valiant, the world will take heed of you, and if you are lenient but irresolute, the world will realize that you are not worth your keep.”

“We cannot change the world and the world cannot change us. We keep struggling with the nagging nostalgia of an expatriate.”

“As long as we are in this universe we have to be true to it.”

“Who says we are in the universe? The universe is within us.”

“Nonsense I entertain, but plain nonsense I refuse to subscribe to. The nonsense you come out with should have the pretense of having some substance.”

“We are restrained by certain faiths. To test the veracity of the nonsense which becomes the warp and woof of our faith is beyond our jurisdiction.”

“Your faith is like your rubber, very elastic. If you stretch it, it tenses into Christianity, if you relax it and let go, it settles smoothly into Hinduism. When you relax you become a Hindu.”

Anthony laughed. The little savage has some substance in him, he thought.

“Faith is not that important,” Anthony said, “man can become mean when he settles on equations, like comfort = happiness, money = power, church = salvation, God = church and the symbol = the meaning.”

“Philosophy is not our field. It is the preserve of the elite. We are in the arena. We have immense opportunities if we look for them. Weeping philosophy is an eerie obstacle. There is no dearth of wealth, even filth can be turned into wealth.”

“For that matter every man is wealthy if he is true to himself and to his country.”

“We are merely pretending to be a nation—the absence of patriotism and dedication in the bureaucracy and polity proves it. Every man is a nation.”

Anthony lapsed into silence. He was not inclined to talk for nothing. Unable to contain himself, Pakkaran continued, “In between we can become human beings for some time.”

“And when does that happen?”

Pakkaran was anxious to volley Anthony's serve, “It happens when we come to our senses and walk out on the ludicrous delusion that we are somehow at war. Outside the bristling pride and flexing muscles, we are just human beings.”

Anthony did not try to correct him. He was not interested in arguments. Even if he managed to vanquish his opponent in the battle of words, it would serve no purpose. We always fail to find fault with us. The bus hurried on with the stereo blaring tunes from the movies:

Memories come to dance
Under the sweet mango tree
In our distant village

The bus had worked itself up into a fury. They were on Kottayan–Cochin motorway. Private vehicles snarled, growled, and vied to save a fraction of a second. The dust and din of the road disturbed them. Each and every trip to the city made Anthony sick. This time was no different—he was nursing a headache.

“Your life also is important. You also must think of a wife and children,” Lucy reminded him.

“I cannot go for such a thoughtless action. With our few cents of land I cannot support a family. If I work hard, I may garner enough money to purchase some more land down in the valley. But I do not have the drive. It is not worth the toil. Your life, however, is important to me. It is the pleasant responsibility that God entrusted to me in the absence of our father. Your two hundred thousand we will have in one more year. When you come home for a vacation, we will find a good man for you.”

It hurt Lucy to laugh. The situation, however, demanded it.

They reached the city at midday. The train to Calcutta was in the evening. There was plenty of time. They decided to visit Fort Cochin. The ancient sea sighed and swayed. The beach was bathed in golden sunshine. They visited the colonial church where Vasco De Gama, the man who triggered European colonization in Asia and Africa, was buried. The city had a different type of Christianity, Christianity imported from Europe. The walls of the fort sported catchy political slogans dreaming of revolution. The Socialist Unity Center of India had inscribed Latin American poems on the walls. SUCI wails in the wilderness.

There was more time to kill. They boarded a boat and moved to the mainland. It being Sunday, the park was crowded. They sat on the granite bund overlooking the backwaters. Soft ripples splashed against the walls and the sun danced on the green oscillating waters.

She took in the backwaters, the islands, the port across the waters, and the ferryboats traveling back and forth. From this ancient southwestern outpost of Mother India, she was heading for the northeastern frontier, to bloody class wars and Naxalite revolutionary armies. She would miss a good many things. Most of all, she would miss her sweet Babu, the source of her secret, sacred wounds that with time and distance would surely heal into battle scars.

The station was crowded. People who had come on holiday were returning to distant northern cities where the work ethic struggled to survive. In Madras, Bangalore, Pune, Bombay and Hyderabad events were in the making. There, dogma was not permitted to stand in the way of economic progress. Duty figured first among the less militant trade unions. Having freed themselves from their political bosses, Keralites fared better outside Kerala,

Cochin-Howrah Express bound for Calcutta was on the platform. Lucy boarded the general compartment and engaged a seat close to the window. She was venturing out of the region where she had been brought up for the first time, that too alone. She hoped it would not prove to be a foolhardy move. Anthony stood at the window, on the platform, holding her frail hand. Pakkaran moved a little ahead, next to the door, leaving them to their privacy.

“You must write as soon as you reach there, won't you? I will be waiting for your letter.”

“Yes,” she said. She felt sorry for the sad business of life: separations, bereavements and new relations.

“Whatever happens, remember we are here for you. Our mother and me. I will do whatever little I can do for you.”

“Yes, my dear brother, I know it. You must tell Molly that I was in a hurry.”

“Sure, she will understand. She has other worries.”

“We have to prove to her that we are solidly on her side.”

The train blared a warning that it was pulling out which a loudspeaker corroborated in three languages. In affirmation, the train lurched forward. “Take care of our mother,” Lucy said.

“Take care of yourself,” Anthony said, keeping up with the train while continuing to cling to her arm. Their eyes were locked and wet. The train picked up momentum and he let go of her. She strained her eyes to have one last glimpse of him in the fluorescent light of the platform. He stood there ravaged by pent-up emotions. Lucy was special to him, and oh so close to him—a delicate gift entrusted unto him by the unseen hand of providence.

Hissing and puffing, trundling and railing, chugged on the millipede, rocking its metallic trunk, burning its Cyclope's eye. A thousand lives its entrails hold, burdened it is by an unseen load—the dreams of a thousand souls. Light they are and heavy too, wild they are and hefty too. They travel to distant cities, crossing the verdant undulations, crossing the ghats. The train becomes a collective sigh, the thoughts run wild and passions run high. The train becomes a collective tear, evoking the sadness of which we fear. Must we leer into the gloom, sigh vacantly into the day to bloom?

Next morning, when she came out of the compartment at Madras Central to get a bottle of mineral water and some food, she noticed it. Near the door a hurried hand had scribbled, ‘I love you Lucy.’ The loose scrawl wasn't anything like her brother's handwriting, but then, who else could have written it?

It moved her. How very caring Anthony was and how very thoughtful he was. Why weren't there more men like her brother?

Chapter 7
The braided flux

January is the coldest month in North Bihar. The crisp air pinches the skin as it bites deeply into the bones. An eerie fog persists at night and most of the day. Whenever the cotton tufts of fog clear away, a quaint silken silence settles across the latticework of the landscape. The denuding woods stand in deep meditation dreaming of the sun and flowers across the debilitating winter. Air sweeps past the orchards and fields gently and gracefully, testing the insulative qualities of the thick fleece of the thoughtful canopies. The mornings are brisk and wonderful to snuggle into the quilt and contemplate.

Tony Bennet stretched his delicate neck out of the warmth of the quilt and yelped, “Hey there, I am quitting.”

The news sank into the strange fugitive from south India, and worked on his consciousness. Indeed it was sad news for him. Together they had joined the public residential school three years back. He had strayed into it from somewhere down south; it little mattered where, nobody knew and nobody had gone to the trouble to find out that he was fleeing the dragnet of the Andhra Police after his roommate, Rama Murthy, had been lynched. Tony was from Prathapgange, North Bihar. Both of them were strange characters. The Madrasi insisted that he had no name and no place to be equated to. He was not burdened with any certificates, hence he did not make any claims about his educational qualifications. Such dubious characters are not usually accommodated at responsible residential schools. Yet they inducted him, because his mathematical abilities were excellent and efficient mathematics teachers were very hard to come across. Another advantage was that he was averse to haggling. His needs were nominal and ludicrously simple, and he didn't complain about whatever little they paid him. He was always available on the campus and was with the students most of the time, breeding a mathematical temper in them. The school management was secretly happy to have such a fool around and his presence added to the commercial viability of the school. Such a gifted mathematics teacher was a prized commodity, especially a teacher who was not at all fastidious and who had little idea what he was worth. He had good communication skills, had a good command over the subject, and really enjoyed teaching the students.

Tony, on the other hand, was not a mysterious figure. He was a curiosity though. In the first place he was the direct descendent of the microscopic European community which had settled on the Kosi river as indigo cultivators in the nineteenth century. He had thick and bushy flowing hair, almost touching his shoulders. At six feet, he was fairly tall by Indian standards. His bearded face had a tranquility that was contagious. In his gentle but commanding presence suddenly one becomes calm; worries and neurosis melt away. He was just out of college, after having completed his undergraduate degree in English literature. He joined the faculty of the school to pick up some real life experience, prior to taking on the real world. Real life was much different from the life at St. Xavier's College, Calcutta. He had his guitar, his music, his charm and his poetry. Tony was a treasured gift to the betterment of the school—a chance for the students to study English directly from an English speaker is a prerogative. The management projected him in the prospectus, hoardings and billboards. They were roommates all through the last three years of their schooling. On holidays they would walk into the villages, enjoying the seasons of the year. Tony will have his guitar. Their distracted sauntering, touring the villages that the dusty roads from Muzafarpur city radiated away into that they became familiar with.

There was no arguing with him. He has his own truths. But they both were complimentary. Tony didn't attempt to pry into his private tragedies. His anonymity did not stand in the way of their friendship. Just a 'hey there' would suffice. For others at the school he was just referred to as math master, and in the timetable he was just m.m. he enjoyed it, the life without a name, without an address, with no socio-political co-ordinates to define him or by which he could be tracked down. He could certainly have begun a new life in cognito, with a new name and new social and geographical co-ordinates. Yet he chose to live the life of a non-entity. The m.m over time, metamorphosed to mm, which settled down to a transverse waveform, emmem, and it secretly amused him.

Having been rudely awakened, it was a while before emmem, the Madrasi, became alert enough to engage Tony.

“We came together by accident and we go away separately by choice,” he said with an icing of sadness.

“It is time for me to burst out of the chrysalis, everything has a season, the clown should not overstay his time on stage,” Tony said with a sardonic gravity.

“You are in the process of becoming, and I am patiently in the process of unbecoming.”

“Every gnat waits for the day of reckoning when it takes to the air. It flies, it soon fails, and it dies. Still it has to fly. Death is the final ecstasy. You always counter with nonsensical common sense. But certain caterpillars refuse to grow,” Tony quipped.

“It is against the grain of nature, against the flux of energy. Energy degrades, it continuously does. All strains of energy are the same, the difference being that they are at various uequal stages of degradation. We trap some of it for some time and let it go. Unbecoming is becoming the whole, zeroing in on a point, i.e. the entire universe collapses on a point,” emmem said fully conscious of the latest realities.

“Don't you realize that you are catapulting us again into the frontiers of imagination? We will brush against the elusive unknown, flap our wings, blink and come tumbling down.”

“You go when you have to go. Wherever we go we necessarily take our destiny with us—in other words, the snail has no other choice than to take along its shell.”

“I am going to shed my cocoon and metamorphose into a journalist. To put it in plain English, I am going to try my luck in journalism.”

“You mean journalism is going to try her luck on you. We ultimately become the idea we ardently toy with. We grow into the frame we set for ourselves. Do you have a game plan?”

“Yes, of course, I have. The first thing I am going to do is to hit home—my home is at Pratapgange, near Madhepura. Madhepura you have heard of many times over, along with the annual market of bachelors that are out to sell themselves to prospective father-in-laws.”

“Bihar, especially North Bihar stays frozen in time.”

“Very true. She is a museum piece, squandering her past glories. The dusty roads, the often moody, erratic and unpredictable electricity grid, the corrupt bureaucracy, the caste tensions, the religious rift and the myopic polity. The social divisions are sharp and barbed. Private armies formed along caste lines incline the society towards medieval inconsistencies. The state that belched forth the Buddha, Mahavir, and Ashoka has become little more than a growling incoherence.”

“Social enlightenment is a passing seasonal efflorescence. And countries cannot bask forever in the glories of the past.”

“Bihar society has strange and bizarre bedmates, together with a grotesque social pyramid. People cannot be equal, but people should have equality of opportunities. The problem is that we do not have a leadership with a vision and a mission.”

“Our political leadership cannot be better than us.”

“Political clowns with caste-conscious fangs. The nation bangs against its own station.”

“The journalist in you certainly has sufficient virgin soil for you to sink your tap root into.”

“I hope so. Our city-bred, tawny Indopeans have only a telescopic vision of India. They approach the burning questions of rural India with pincers and gloved hands. I, on the other hand, breathe with them, live with them, and share their battered, distorted destiny.”

“The weird social parameters of today induce psychological teratogeny.”

“But the state has a working compactness and a savage efficiency. It functions defying time. Once having been set in motion, inertia carries it along.”

“You have experience, you have ideas, all you need now is exposure.”

“I prefer to be a journalist with a difference: committed to rural India, synchronized to the pulse of the universal Indian mind, transgressing the urban rural divide, and sniffing the violence in the air.”

“What did our freedom do to better our squalid condition? Where did the rainbow go? The social rift and ethnic divisions institutionalized the lateral divisions of the social pyramid, carving out mute vote banks.”

“Remember that this so-called plurality has a working morality. Gandhi promised Rama Rajya, the kingdom of God. Gandhi was banished to the innocuous pedestals because he spoke truths in an alien language that the Oxford programmed Indopeans thirsting for power miserably blinked at. But the concept of the kingdom of God itself betrays our vulnerability. We don't even trust ourselves, we have no faith in democracy, no human institution satisfies us. No system is capable of making us live happily and fruitfully ever after. Happiness is a momentary easing of tensions, a fleeting distraction. When you pass an examination with flying colors, you are happy but that does not mean you will remain happy forever. You win a lottery, you are happy for a day, not more than that. Every oblivious peak of bliss is compensated with an immediate nadir of inky nihilism. Happiness is a flashing streak of light in the wailing darkness, which lights our path for a mere moment. Again we lie low in long wait straining our eyes for the next flash.”

“We seek a plausible alibi. We cannot blame the Muslims because we are afraid to irk the minority vote bank, fearing a disastrous backlash in the petrodollar-stacked Arabian Gulf. We cannot put all the blame at the doorstep of the elite upper castes or the gullible lower castes. Vote banks are infallible. All blame is dumped safely at the doorstep of our former colonial masters for all that came to pass and for all that may come to pass in the distant future. We never outgrow our state. We are like the disoriented boozer who wondered aloud in a heavy hangover, ‘who the devil shat in my underwear.’ Fortunately, our leadership has been prudent enough to provide us with imaginary enemies. That saves a lot of trouble.”

“You are wasting your breath uttering useless platitudes. It all boils down to the simple fact that you are joining the privileged fourth estate.”

“We may not be talking for nothing. A flutter in the soggy eerie Bihari air has been known to provoke a tornado in Florida.”

“Yes, your hobnobbing with the fourth estate induced it. I was asking you if you have a game plan.”

“My destination is The Times of India. The hermit in you doesn't see the writing on the wall. Weeks ago I had served notice to the management. Today I go home to brace myself up. By Monday somebody will be here to fill the shoes I leave behind.”

“We certainly had some good times, not to mention that we worked well together. I might even miss you.” emmem said.

“I will miss you a great deal. Wherever you go and what ever you do I want you to remain in touch. You must visit my house too, my father knows you. The school administrators do not encourage send offs for truants that give them the slip. Hence, I will melt away silently. But I would like for you to come with me to the station and see me off. Please see to it that I am safely packed off to Barauni in the next train.”

“In more than one way you are more Indian than the rest of us. But Indians cannot claim homogeneity, the way that our leaders would have us believe. As Jinnah said, ‘Hindus worship the cow that Muslims want to eat, they wash their hands after shaking hands with a Muslim, yes we are two nations’. Muslims are a nation in themselves. Religion is a potent weapon. Fortunately, the monotonous cultural monolith that the industry of religion wants to bring about never happens. People still covet their neighbor's wife, they steal, murder and lie. Each man is a religion unto himself. That alone makes life worth living. The thrill of triumph, the poetry of defeat, the excitement of uncertainties and risks, the diversity, the commensalisms of lambs and psychopaths, the orchestra of lunatics and neurotics. The show is really worth watching. Then there is the north-south divide. The southerners think with their hearts and the northerners with their sinews, and I for one subscribe to none. Thought sweeps past me like a solemn breeze sweeps past a solitary palm tree, waving its acicular fingers against the heavens.”

“Like I was saying, there are people on either side of the Vindhya Ranges, the regular seat of whose thoughts is to be found embarrassingly further deep down. Some people think with their pricks and others devise tricks to keep their alimentary canal in good humor.”

“Our thirst and lust tell us a truth. We protest and pretend to cure our emptiness by acquiring material wealth. At last dejected we cry out: Solon, Solon!”

They hailed a cycle rickshaw when the morning warmed up a little. The aged sun looked at them with the caring love of a grandfather, peeping through his gray brows. The nasty fog hadn't cleared out. Crossing the street of tinkers, they reached the cold and morose railway station. The station was unusually calm and deserted. Tony was to change at Barauni. The ticket counter was surprisingly devoid of travelers. They waited on the cold and shivering platform. They waited for a passenger train whose forte was not punctuality. Waiting for the train, waiting for the stygian horrors, waiting for the mysterious ferryman, waiting seemed perniciously poetic to him.

“As a parting kick, I am going to sing for you on my guitar.” He unsheathed his weapon from the scabbard and fondled its strings. Then he hummed with his fingers:

Unseen cuckoo coos
coos and coos again all her woes
Down the drain of silence.
Unseen cuckoo coos
coos and coos again and woos
the grating breeze, its cadence.

Unseen cuckoo coos
coos and coos again her lonely ooze
For a dreary moon that saddens

Unseen cuckoo coos
coos and coos again audio booze
For a moody brook, it gladdens

Unseen cuckoo coos
coos and coos again, a ruse
To sober the world that maddens.

Unseen cuckoo coos
coos and coos again to fuse
The dithering world to oneness.

Unseen cuckoo coos
coos and coos again the news
That the east again reddens.

Silence settled between them. The freezing platform began to shiver.

“One of these days your train also will pull in,” Tony teased him. Tremblingly piercing the fog, the train pulled slowly into the station. Few disembarked. Tony got into the third class compartment which was ugly and soiled. The floor was strewn with peanut husks, used teacups and paper rags. Ignoring the clutter, they shook hands across the window.

“Come and visit us at Pratapgange,” Tony reminded again.

“Meet you on the columns of The Times of India.”

They smiled.

“You smile in style,” Tony commented.

“I smile as my smile smiles it.”

The train pulled away into the future. He stood there as if the train was still there. There were very few people on the platform, few dejected and pugnacious coolies were huddled up in the corners to pounce on passengers coming with luggage. He settled on a cement bench enjoying the quaint silence and solitude. It was time to brood on the poetic Rama Murthy and himself. The fields of memory bloom crimson at times. A bullet, an official bullet of the state for that matter, solved many problems and gave rise to many more. Silencing Bruno did not necessarily silence an opinion. No polity ever proclaims, Plato is dear to me, but truth is dearer to me, and if at all it does it does not mean it. Every state, irrespective of the color of its ideological pretensions, is conservative. Any threat to the existing system disturbs many a vested interest and demands its due share of rolling heads. No polity is suited to the body politic. Each system necessarily pushes a section of the populace to the shit end of the stick.

The cherished concept of the kingdom of God and the king in God are symptomatic of the frailties in man. To ordinary men God is an extension of the corrupt ministers—nepotic, ill-tempered, and blissfully yielding to sycophants. They try to appease God the way they appease the avaricious megalomaniacs. They bribe God offering their produce and money, their prayers are outright flattery, they procure recommendations from the saints by flattering them. What kind of god is moved by flattery and thawed by bribes? A society has to be mentally sick for the clergy to wallow in the lap of luxury.

Murthy was a political poet, emmem thought. His dreamy revolution might fail to hatch from the fantasies of the educated elite. Social evils will persist, one way or the other. Every victory has a victim. The nation in toto cannot be equally happy. The false notion of equality is a social psychosis. There will always be masters and slaves. The masters will be the custodians of the truth, the truth prostituted, gang raped and hijacked. Every revolutionary dies whimpering and disappointed. Trotsky died disillusioned and dejected. Bobby Sands died like a pathogenic poem. There is no choice for the true revolutionary—somewhere you have to lay down your life for something. But a revolution doesn't change anything; a successful revolution just switches roles. All states are, at the time of reckoning, alike. In order to keep running, the state has to keep the intelligentsia from disturbing its morbid inertia. Revolutionaries there will always be. Although unlikely to undo the evils of the state or the times, they nonetheless serve to remind us of the injustice of social anomalies. The government is a government, albeit the seasonal change of guard—the potbellied government with a new set of dentures, itching to catch you, munching its imaginary foes.

Was there ever such an iconoclast as Rama Murthy? His pellucid and thoughtful eyes had unfathomable sadness in them. He was incapable of resorting to violence, his Brahmin refinement stood in the way of becoming a terrorist. His fingers were delicate and soft, like those of a winsome lass. His empathy for the landless poor, pushed by history to the no man's land of life, was in fact an expression of his refinement. When you become enlightened you become conscious of the unity of life. His own people, his Caucasian sense of noblesse oblige did it all. Even after Murthy, poets will still be coming, to dream aloud a world, which is more deferent to all forms of human life, all forms of life. Society necessarily has to be riddled with contradictions and neurosis for the judiciary and the epiphytes thereof to survive.

In the present state of affairs, emmem wondered where he stood. It is not important, he thought, what you were what you are or what you are going to be. It little matters what you aspire to be, if you aspire to be anybody at all. The debacles of the past, the seemingly shattering disasters or even the most tragic ends do not matter much. As the wise man said today itself is late, the wise lived yesterday (“Who wrote that?” he wondered for an instant). If anything matters it is to feel at home with one's own self. Every moment has to be complete in itself. One should have no scores to settle with the past.

Experience is a combination of numerous elements. His academic endeavors fizzled out because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. But in the absolute sense, he thought, he had come out unscathed. He found it very obscene to be a sitting duck for the Andhra cops. A state pitted against a puny individual—what chance did he have? He was in the game. Let them track him down. The game seemed interesting. Would the world minus him be safer? He smiled to himself. The state is so insecure that it cannot leave anything to chance. You don't have to be seditious, you simply have to have the potential to be seditious. But, it is not exactly the state that set him on the run. The police are such a lot that they are easily inebriated by revenge. The extremists take them to be the symbol of state-sponsored terror, the protectors of an evil structure. They attack the police wherever they can. The cops, very much in the game, make it a point to kill an equal number of extremists. They strike goals at each other's goal post. After every extremist ambush, they pick up an equal number of suspected extremists from among the younger generation burdened by university education, based on discrete tip-offs, raiding the shabby lodgings of student communities. He wondered what would be the reaction of his mother when she reads in the dailies that he, a notorious PWG activist, was shot and killed in a major gun battle. By now they would have searched his lodgings in order to gather compromising evidence to use against him. Complex partial differential equations can look like a code language to an investigator who knows little about math; his correspondence with foreign universities could unearth an international terrorist conspiracy. The situation is ludicrous, he thought.

It is the benign duty of the state to protect itself. To protect itself from real or imaginary threats. Holding an opinion that goes against the grain, and not expressing it, can eventually transform a free man into a servile lackey. No opinion is ever correct or incorrect. Opinions are just opinions. They betray our inner climate, the state of our enlightenment. In his case, he reasoned, he was not possessed by any opinion of national importance. His personal private life was a minute world of abstractions, of music and theoretical mathematics. He thought of the Rajan case, which rocked the nation at the close of the Indira Gandhi era. Many ranking police officers were pulled to the docks; many politicians lost their careers. Rajan, a brilliant student at Regional Engineering College, Calicut was abducted by the police. They tortured, killed and mutilated his body on the vague suspicion that he was involved in an attack on the police station. Long litigation and judicial stricture did not, however, bring back Rajan to his grieving mother and father. Judicial remedies to state-sponsored terror come too little and too late. The state, on the other hand, is immensely patient. Its mill grinds slowly and patiently. The state never losses its temper, hence it is dangerous. At those times when the state overreacts by mobilizing all of its considerable resources in order to swat a puny fly, it only serves to glorify the fly.

But emmem had yet to decide whether or not he would protect himself from the wrath of the state and do what was necessary to protect his skin. He felt sorry for Murthy, his romantic zeal to change the world for the better and also for Murthy's willingness to lay down his life for the cause he believed in. emmem found it exhilerating to have been arrested and falsely indicted for associating with Murthy. He could well have stated his state to the state and saved his skin, but it was beneath him to stand at the pylons of power with his puny molecule of life in his supplicating palms. The modern state functions as an unfeeling machine armed with a residual survival wisdom. His decision to forsake his name, address, and anything by which he could be identified, such as voter's registration card, the rolls of the local administration, the taxpayers' list, passport, property, driver's license, insurance policy and all other cultural snares. He imagined himself to be the only man in the world without an e-mail address and a cellphone. emmem was not ideologically against such innovative technology. He just didn't want it weighing him down. Life becomes far more simple when you are document free, hassle free. Why do you need documents to prove who you are. You really don't need a certificate to elicit your academic achievements. You needn't have to prove anything, you needn't have to substantiate you. Life in its most fecund phase becomes a frantic race to acknowledge the world that you are. You long to leave behind your indelible footprints on the sands of time. He found it all beneath him. Life can be beautiful even without such paraphernalia. We come to the world like the idling fog of winter and cease to be as smooth as we came. Whence we come and whither we go?

We are not going anywhere. A patch of broad smile appeared on his face when this thought struck his mind.

Magadha Express pulled into the station, tired and dispirited after its long journey across the chilling and pensive Gangetic plain. The registration charts were torn soggy and flapping against the wind. The compartments littered with food wastes, paper and cigarettes. Few passengers sprang out of the coaches and darted to the exit. They melted away into the general haze. The lust for life is a wonderful fever, he thought. After a momentary din and exaggerated bustle the station once again relapsed into thoughtful silence. Then a young woman approached him.

In the corner of his eyes emmem had in fact vaguely noticed a woman hanging around, almost like a ghost. She was certainly not a Bihari, her overall appearance told him that the lady was somewhere from the south. Yet she did not belong to the general run of so-called Madrasis. She had a certain degree of Caucasian blood in her. She was colored gold; her lips were thin like a line, as if in deep thought. Her forehead was smooth and convex. The long hair dangled down in double plait. She had a bulky shoulder bag and a puffy leather bag hanging down from her thin little hand. She stood before him thoroughly confused. After looking into her broad eyes, he decided that, being so frail, she had to be protected—so vulnerable and so confused.

She reluctantly cleared her throat. “Would you be so kind as to tell me how to reach Nalanda Public School?”

She was testing the waters. Usually women steered clear of him. His uncouth appearance, and his mysterious profile scared them away. She had, it seemed, approached him because there was nobody around. She is in real trouble, he thought. Trying your English upon the Biharis may not be received well. He had experienced it many times over. Over the years, he had learned to avoid the linguistic barrier whenever possible. The locals might even get aggresive over bombarding them with an exotic language. The cunning rickshaw pullers may take the outsiders for a ride. Nobody's woman is everybody's woman. But she may be very dear to somebody somewhere. A mother, a father or a brother may be praying for her somewhere far down in the warm oceanic south.

emmem smiled invitingly. “Young lady, the school you mentioned is at Paki sarai Chouk, three kilometers from here. But please do not worry, I will take you there.”

There was genuine fear in her eyes. He got up. She surveyed the towering Rasputin. The little wisp of a woman stood in the imaginary shadow of the six foot savage. There was an invisible tug-of-war. She looked deep into his soul via his transparent eyes. She seemed to relax. They walked out of the station.

“It will be difficult for you to find your way in the maze of the city. We will hail a cycle rickshaw,” he said. The tricycles or cycle rickshaws were a curiosity to her— one of the many north Indian curiosities she was not familiar with. Real fear registered on her pale face.

“I have never been on one,” she confessed, very confused.

“That means you are from Kerala. Kerala is a state of hedonists,” he taunted. Lucy was too confused to react.

He got into the two-seater rickety tricycle, and helped her to follow suit. The puller bent his lean wiry body forward and pedaled hard to get the whole thing moving and settled on his seat to pedal off at an easier pace.

“This carriage is very eco friendly, no air pollution, no fuel consumption, no green house effect, no smog and no acid rain. The only problem is that a hapless malnourished worker might die a premature death from consumption or exhaustion.” She was silently saying her prayers. Familiar views of north Indian life seared her eyes. The acrid smell of mustard oil, the fumes of burning coal, and the collective odors of congested urban life accosted her full blast. The journey seemed inordinately long. He was also getting impatient because he was anxious to convince her that her mortal fears were for nothing. She, he noticed, was ill equipped to address northern winter. Nor did she have the lipid reserves to ward off the pinching cold which inches into the marrow. Crossing a towering and spreading banyan tree, they rolled to the gate of the school compound she had mentioned. It turned out to be a white washed quadrangle with a green expanse in front sporting a thick turf of Bermuda grass.

“There you are, young lady. Please go to the office over there. Make it a point not to try your English on the locals please. If you go out, go out in company. Bihar does not get on well with lonely women,” he advised.

“How much is the taxi fare?” she asked, opening her bag proudly.

“That has been paid, lady. As a matter of fact I was coming this way and it would be uncharacteristically rude of me to take advantage of a fine young woman like you,” he smiled.

Taken aback, she stared in disbelief at him. He smiled again nodding his tangled head, which said, “worry not, fine young cultured lady, we are all equally miserable creatures.”

“May God bless you.” She smiled; there was a flicker of light in her eyes. He walked away, dismissing the rickshaw.

It was Friday, the last day of the academic week. He was on leave, he wanted to fill the remaining part of the day with some light engagements. Every parting hurts, and casts a spell of despondency. When somebody parts we do not necessarily worry about the departed, we worry about us, about our uncertain tomorrows. Suddenly we worry about our existence, the course of progress, and the purpose of our being. The mind is a stupendous machine, much larger than the universe, and thirsting for issues to feed on. Every news is a noose to somebody somewhere, if not everybody. When the mind goes blank, the fundamental unity becomes palpable.

emmem moved on like a floating tuft. He made up his mind to call on Shebeer Khan, the Urdu teacher. Over the years he had struck a rapport with him. A nice and softhearted Muslim he was. Since emmem was not branded by any religious stigma, he could go anywhere; he had no need to keep his image intact. Image is an assumed air. A Hindu, especially a caste Hindu does not ever venture into a Muslim street. It is like barging into an alien territory. The high voltage communal tensions throw off sparks which periodically result in horrendous conflagrations. The political wisdom of the state wants it that way. You share food with a Muslim, you visit a Muslim hotel, suddenly you are a pariah, and social ostracism is a potent weapon. Fortunately, cultural and caste divisions were not so pronounced and jealously protected elsewhere in the country.

Chapter 8
The advantage of proving a point

Vivek Mishra had lately been using theatrics to his advantage. He took particular pleasure in surprising the people he regularly associated with. It ostensibly helped him prove himself. He desperately wanted to prove his competence, he wanted to prove that he was capable of startling things, that he was capable of making shattering decisions. When you cannot take revenge on your detractors, you take revenge upon your true enemy, yourself. Vivek Mishra had been, all through his fifty-five years of existence, a pawn in the hands of others. At the thought of it he felt bitterly castrated and humiliated. He, with seething sarcasm, realized that what Manusamhitha said of women was pretty well applicable to men like him:

Kept by parents in childhood
Kept by wife in youth
Kept by children in old age.

No, man does not deserve freedom.

His father was an autocrat to him. A respected schoolteacher in the village, an imperious disseminator of knowledge to the children, and an impatient benefactor of his slowcoach of a son. He wanted his son to be a shining example to the whole village, and Vivek was least inclined to be one. He did not at all like the idea of being an icky element of attention in the village. He had no duties but to be a showpiece, a good student and a good son. He had to follow stringent dress codes and laudable manners. Such imperatives singled him out from the general pack of unruly brats that he longed desperately to be part of. It is advantageous to be inconspicuous. But his scores refused to improve to the levels his father expected of him. Vivek was not particularly a dull wit; the only problem was that he was pressured and thus he got disoriented. By and by his frustrated father instilled in him the feeling that he was a good for nothing. As a teacher he had goaded many young people to the heights of fame and perfection, but his own son, according to him, miserably failed him.

Immediately after his secondary school examination, Vivek made news in the most negative way. He disappeared, deflating his father's furiously guarded pride. Within hours the whole village knew it and secretly celebrated it. It serves him right, they thought, given his self-righteousness and one upsmanship.

Ramachandra Mishra did everything he could to track down his errant son. His son was his trump card, his raison d'etre. His truant absence made the revered schoolteacher aware of how much he was attached to him. His son was his full time engagement. Vivek's hejira made his life unbearably empty.

Through his former students in the police force, Mishra at last tracked down his son at a hermitage in Haridwar, on the Ganges. Vivek had in fact left the scene afraid to face the fireworks following the publication of the public examination results. He had little hope of getting through. But all was unconditionally forgiven. At their reunion, his father came close to crying. Contrary to his expectations, Vivek somehow passed the examination, but by no means was it anything he could take pride in.

Higher education as a general rule follows a ludicrous and disastrous pattern. The most intelligent ones have to, without a choice, opt for medicine, engineering profession follows, others have to choose science subjects. The dull, lesser mortals have to content themselves with literature and humanities. Due to this deeply entrenched psychological absurdity, temperaments and natural flair have little or no role to play. Students condemned to go for arts subjects are often looked down upon, and their intellectual prowess is often doubted. The affluent people find an easy way out to steer clear of this stigma, by buying seats in medical and engineering colleges. Thus the rich pay their way into the professional elite.

Mishra had expected his son to become a doctor or an engineer. Notwithstanding his father's wishes, Vivek was enrolled at a private college to do his BA in History. His college years went past him silently and monotonously. He was reticent, cold, and reserved. However, he was not bad to look at. In fact he was fairly handsome, with soft features, small eyes and golden complexion. After five years he emerged from the college armed with a third class MA in history. But that was not the end of it. His father had connections. Shortly thereafter he became a low profile lecturer in History in the same college. Once his probation period was over, the picture became clearer. He was not appointed in the college for nothing. The manager of the college had a daughter. The subtle understanding between his father and the manager was that Vivek would marry her at the earliest possible convenience.

Everything was taken care of. The newlyweds got a new Premier Padmini car and a furnished bungalow across the river arranged by the bride's father. The spacious house was designed according to the tastes of his father. Vivek's duty was to do the living—eat, mate and sleep—nothing was left to chance. His whole life seemed to be tailor made. He was comfortably insulated from the hot side of life. The squalor and misery of the masses was none of his affair. Days and nights danced away humming familiar tunes, languidly traipsing across the horizon. There were tears in the eyes of dawns and dusks.

The institution of marriage involves certain risks and pitfalls. In the first few days it becomes abundantly clear who drives whom—who is going to be at the helm. In matriarchal tribal societies where culture was centered on simple fertility cults, woman was the central figure of the family and also of the society. When kingdoms and nation states evolved in which psychological and physical warfare, exploration, development, and the battle of nerves were the salient features; man became the dominant element in the nuclear family and the fair sex obligingly—and with graceful submissiveness—played second fiddle. When socio-economic progression crosses the log phase and slumps to an asymptote, both partners become equally important and one or the other at times or always gets a slight wafer-thin upper hand. In the final stage, when the society lapses into decadence, both partners become irresponsible and the central concepts of marriage and family disintegrate. Then the nation will wither away. Fighting spirit comes from a national cohesiveness. When the glue that keeps the individual family members together fails, the nation forfeits its raison d'être.

Sex, procreation and all the agony and ecstasy associated with the show of life are based on a dichotomy. The world is bipolar; there lies the crux of the matter. Human beings are divided into male and female, the earth and other heavenly bodies are characterized by bipolar tension—day and night, God and Satan, good and evil, life and death, positive and negative—the world we live in is a tension of opposites. When the opposite forces collapse, nothing remains. Zero itself is divided into positive and negative entities and that makes all the difference, including the delusion of the world.

Vivek's wife, Jyothi came to his life with certain solid advantages. In all arranged marriages, the bride enters alien territory with all her vulnerabilities. Her in-laws are lurking around waiting to pounce on her. The dowry she brings in, the jewelry she brings with her, the wardrobe she is escorted with, and the parental care she is insulated with—all these factors have to be in place in the most appropriate proportions in order for her to survive amidst the carnivores in underground domestic warfare. The unfortunate ones who are not armored with dowry, not barricaded by jewelry, and not protected by influential parents meet with accidental death in cooking gas explosions. But Jyothi was far better off. In the first place she was not coming to her husband's house. They were to converge at a newly built house provided by her father. Everything was hers—the house, the furniture, the car, her husband's job and even the husband himself. She, for one, chose to take advantage of her position to the hilt. She was brazen enough to boast “my car,” “my house,” “my father's job,” and so forth.

Vivek found the situation base and denigrating. He was a domesticated animal led by a halter. But it had certain benefits too. Freedom brings with it numerous uncertainties and responsibilities. He just had to close the doors and windows of his rebellious mind. To mutiny would discard all the comforts a marriage of convenience is part and parcel to. One does not have to worry where the next meal is coming from. It was absolutely beyond his means to maintain a family. She did it all systematically, because it was all her own. He didn't have a clue as to how to remit telephone bills, electricity bills, house tax, property tax or how to tackle the grocers and fish wives.

After the first pregnancy, their sex life ceased. She resisted him. She never liked his lecherous advances anyway. When their son was born, she changed bedrooms. She had her son, she had her fun, and he had none. She monopolized their son and rapturously melted into him. It appeared that Vivek's role was over. Still they made love far in between, during wedding anniversaries, on her birthdays, and on rare occasions when she happened to wander into his bedroom at night for sundry purposes. One day she cured his libidinous frailties, with a deft simple move. Her son had joined the engineering college, their maidservant had gone home, and, after many years, they were alone. He was feeling lonely and overwhelmingly horny. In the still sultry solitude of the inky night he sneaked into her bedchamber, stretching his furiously erect phallus in his hand. The light was on; she was not asleep. She was worried about their son, spending his first night in the uncertainties of a hostel room. She looked at Vivek's erection first with surprise and then with a seething aversion.

“What good is your puny, pathetic pecker? Get that despicable thing out of here before I spit at it.”

Before their eyes the miracle happened. His penis shrank—like a frightened animal it collapsed into a deflated balloon. Again it shrank, afraid to face the fury of the woman, and it withered into a timid leech sticking to his loins. He lost his virility. Impotently, he fumed and fulminated inside.

His long drive to the college was his daily occasion to excogitate. Never inclined to vary his route, he always passed the self same scenes, the very same cycle rickshaw pullers, the exact same sal trees, the same kiosks and shops. His ancient Premier Padmini eerily swam in the streets amidst sleek modern energy efficient motorcars designed and assembled with imported Japanese or Korean technology. But people ignored him because he had no nuisance value. They ignored him like they ignored stray cats and cows. His existence meant nothing to them. Frequently Vivek would contemplate breaking the spell. For all practical purposes he was her dignified chauffer, her suave chaperone. He had to take her to high profile marriages, bedecked with jewelry and flashy silks, strutting on matching footwear. She had an obsession for shoes and chapels. When it came to fashion and shoes, Jyothi could have given Imelda Marcos a run for her money. He had to be around beaming and smiling when she introduced him to her relatives. She spoke highly of him to her friends and relations. His life was bounded by the classrooms and his house. The ancient sedan stood in between. This car was a curiosity. It never broke down and left them in the lurch. Somehow it managed to wade through the streets without making a scene.

He detested the car, its tenacity and its jovial obedience. One day he thought of rupturing the vicious circle. The intact and impeccable cycle, in which he was an emasculated wretch. He reached the same Gandak River, the same gray colored bridge. The same gray flat landscape, the vegetation that could not react, coact or proact. For an impulsive micro second he had a mad urge to obliterate it all. He drove the car straight against the railing of the bridge and closed his eyes. It was nine in the morning, the rush hour, the bridge was teaming with vehicles. The car with its right corner flattened hung upside down from the bridge. People screamed, vehicles screeched. Somebody tried to pull him out from the jammed car. That did the trick, the car took the cue and dived down to the water. The water was not deep, he was idiotically pulled out of the car and dragged to the banks like a wet hen, shivering and screaming.

Jyothi decided that he was too old to drive. A cycle rickshaw man was engaged to take him to the college and back. Like his hejira to Haridwar, his latest escapade also made him ashamed of himself. He wondered how she would react if she ever came to know that he was the sole author of the compromising mishap. Summing up the entire spectacle, he decided he hadn't accomplished anything other than making a fool of himself.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi marked the end of an era. India emerged from the obscurantist comity of Albania, Burma, North Korea, Cuba and Libya. The rulers that followed her were more democratic, modern and realistic. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the suicide of the Soviet empire further accelerated the severence of India from its medieval moorings. From socialist pretensions and doctrinal obduracy the country eased into a market economy by relaxing its stiff, neo-leftist buffoonery. The economy boomed, and the country was catapulted into such levels that its economic muscle could speak the language that the bullies in the global arena could easily understand. The paroxysms of this economic explosion have had their scapegoats too. Vivek was one among them. He could not adapt to computers and the Internet. He could not even think of driving a car other than his Padmini. So he turned to the ancient glories of India. He believed that India had been cheated. The cheating began with Muhammed bin Quasim and continued through Muhammed Gori, Muhammed Gazni, Tymoor, Mir Jaffar and Robert Clive. He fancied a mutiny in history, to undo the perdition, to avenge the perfidy, to shove down the throat of the world the indelible, inflammatory message of India. He took upon himself the hallowed mission of rediscovering India.

He was an utter failure as a teacher. Since he could not improve upon his knowledge, he had to rely on the notes he had laboriously prepared for his Master of Arts degree. History has a peculiarity, we cannot turn the clock back nor can we fight against our past. Vivek was an inert middleman in the classroom. He let his bored students feed on the notes he had prepared years ago from V.D. Mahajan, Majumdar, Sreedhara Menon et al. The students were mostly from the middle class families out for a nominal degree, or girls out to party away the days between puberty and marriage. Students did not actually abhor him or avoid him. He was not a threat to them; he did not ever bother to intervene in their ways. He was prudent enough to look the other way whenever he could avoid confrontation. Out of the corner of his eyes he had seen students tiptoeing out of the classroom and even students sneaking in just for the fun of making him appear to be an impotent idiot. He was aware of students sharing drugs and sweetmeat while he lectured from his soiled notes. He did not care, and he was pretty well aware of the futility of the whole business. For the students, academic life was a merry pastime. They went on strike for petty impertinent reasons. They took to the streets for the cause of Vietnam, Diego Garcia, Afghanistan, Uganda and even for trivial local events. Any excuse to escape the drudgery of learning. Higher education went to pot in the 1970's.

Education was not result oriented, it was not value added. The teachers got their paycheck for just being there and the students got their degree for just going through the motions. There was no feedback, no stock taking, and paltry little of what passed for thinking. The budding politicians learned and practiced the primary lessons of polytricks on campus; politics had become the major industry of the educated middle class. People like Vivek found the system well suited to their snug and sequestered survival. The state gave them tenure and maintained them in style for little more than occupying their position. This overly dry and perfunctory aping of an obsolete system introduced by the colonial government to suit their immediate purposes haunted higher education and laid waste the generations that emerged after independence.

The early 1990's were marked by a qualitative shift in the philosophy of higher education. Traditional degrees and disciplines lost their sheen and appeal. University Grants Commission made teachers accountable for their performance. Papers published, refresher courses attended, and research experiences were taken into account. The courses offered and the number of hours spent instructing the students were succinctly specified. The students became serious too, and signed up for courses that gave them a leg up on the job market. There were very few takers for traditional courses like history. The synergism of the adverse realities made Vivek's tenure increasingly difficult. He did not have the patience to attend refresher courses. Moreover, he reckoned himself to be too stiff and too old to do serious research.

Finding himself desperately in need of a means of justifying his continued existence, he turned to religion. His father was a worshipper of Lord Vishnu, Vivek on the other hand chose Siva as his favorite deity. Siva, the god common to all ancient cultures, the true pre-Aryan god, the imperious overarching god of destruction, the abode of mysticism, poetic masculinity, and rhythm. Rhythms of annihilation, rhythms of self realization. At home he arranged an elaborate room for doing his poojas, which lasted all night and into the morning. He appeared at the college sporting huge and blaring streaks of holy ash and vermilion. He discovered that world historians did not do justice to India. India, according to him, was the mother of all religions, sciences, discoveries, cultures and schools of thought. The thrifty, crafty West stole their thunder and appropriated for themselves the fruits, which the wonders of India put forth. All that has hitherto been discovered was recorded in the ancient manuscripts; all that is yet to be discovered by humanity is also recorded in the ancient scripts, albeit indirectly. Our duty is to decipher the hidden meanings of the classical texts. With the exception of Arnold Toynbee, William Jones and Max Muller, few Europeans admitted to the significance of India. Vivek took upon himself the seemingly impossible task of righting the wrongs perpetrated upon his brethren by the deafening din of western civilization. The Euro-centric world view of western scholars was a clever ruse designed to obfuscate the fact that India and its pristine spirituality held the keys to the future.

History is subject to various shades of interpretation. Its interpreters seem to prefer to hover on the periphery of truth, thereby avoiding direct contact with facts, statistics, and anything else that might conflict with their preconceived point of view. Interpretations are often influenced by private or vested interests. The gallant fabled freedom struggle of India and the romance associated with it is a complete misrepresentation of history. The presentation of India as an integral political entity is also a misrepresentation. For that matter, the silent masses of India could have cared less who ruled them. Foreign or domestic, it was all the same. Pawns don't seem to fare well in the politics of chess, no matter whose hand makes the moves. The struggle for freedom from oppressive foreign masters was in the interest of the educated elite who had become emboldened by western liberalism. Hence, scholars attempted to interpret history the way that suited them best. The first thing that a sovereign nation does is to approach its own history aggressively. If the goal is to build a nation, it is best to establish colonies—real or fictitious—in the remote past. It is often easier to struggle with the past than with the future. And this vain exercise, more often than not, bolsters our ego.

Now, at the ripe old age of fifty-five, Vivek thought of orchestrating his latest drama to let the world know that he really mattered. One day he went to BA final year classroom only to find that nobody was present. Usually at least a few chirping and giggling girls would be around to oblige him. This time around the girls also found it expedient to make themselves scarce; they would almost certainly have gone to the matinee. That students unceremoniously rejected him was not particularly pernicious to Vivek. Passing or not passing the examination was their problem; if the monotonous recitation of his ancient notes was not fruitful to them, it was also their problem. Nonetheless, it provoked his dormant thoughts back to life. He had long been nursing the fond idea of surprising them all. Blissful indeed it would be to monitor their expressions when he broke the news. His female associates would plead and beg him to retract his actions, and his male colleagues would reason with him; yet he would be adamant.

Slowly, with a steady pace and measured steps, he walked to the department. It was the first hour in the afternoon. His colleagues were busily dozing away the heat of March. He stood before them straight and erect and cleared his throat to invite their attention. Some were as kind as to treat him with a lazy look before resuming their slumber. Others did not even bother to take note of his presence.

“Today I am resigning my job,” he declared and eagerly strained his eyes to relish their reaction.

The hoped for reaction failed to materialize. His bomb turned out to be a dud. The female teachers looked at him with sad sympathy. But all of them silently chorused that they had been wondering why he did not do it long before.

“It is a wise and judicious decision,” the professor who chaired the department said, “you should have long ago realized that you were the wrong person in the wrong place. Your retirement is just a few months away, hence it will not cause any difficulty if you wait for the natural culmination. Of course your son is employed and well placed, and your resignation is not going to produce any problems at home.”

He felt bitter; these blockheads had got it all wrong. He was not resigning because he was a failure. He had wanted to tell them about his noble mission, about how he—through divine spiritual force—would restore India to its former glory, but he had thought it wise to be silent about his plans.

Our successes spontaneously add to the depth of our failures. Success, at best, distracts us for a moment or two. Only failure has a lasting effect. But in order to fail we must first set sail. In addition to run of the mill failures, there are also tailor made failures that seem to have been designed exclusively with you in mind. But all your failures are to no avail because in the final reckoning, all of those failures taken together will bear witness that you had an abundance of hope in you and in the flexibility of the systems that you had to live with.

“They are so worldly, they cannot understand me,” Vivek thought.

As he had burned his bridges, it would have been awkward for him to take back what he had said, despite the fact that his announcement had completely failed to have the desired impact upon the audience.

The principal was also sympathetic. “Alright, alright,” he said, “times have changed. Some people cannot adjust to the changing times. It is very prudent of you to acknowledge your mistakes and bow out. The old order changeth yielding place to new.”

Vivek was piqued, but he managed to keep from spilling the beans.

“I didn't call it a day because I was a flop. I quit a prestigious job because I have better things to do. Instead of being a teacher of history I am going to be the architect of history. But these fools just don't get it. Why be wise where ignorance is bliss?” he consoled himself.

Riven with silent anguish, he came to know that the news failed to have a sweeping effect on the teaching community. He was not even given a warm send-off. It would not be long before he ceased to exist in their memories.

“Society does not appreciate ethics, virtues, and values,” he concluded bitterly, “we just jest the just men.”

The most difficult part of the job was breaking the news at home. He had no idea how she was going to take it. He has never had room to make any decision on his own. Everything was planned and executed for him. He was little more than a domesticated animal that had been toilet trained. A secret pleasure swept past his spine at the thought of defying her. He—and he alone—was going to decide what he was to do with the rest of his life. It little mattered how she took it, the damage has already been done, and the influence and political clout of her family could not put him back in the college. He was triumphing over her. At long last her father's job had gone to the dogs.

Vivek dismissed the rickshaw man and wandered around town all evening. He watched life unfolding before his eyes. He was free at last. He was turning the tables; he would be his own monarch. The dead weight of a lifetime was lifted. Tomorrow he would be on his own. He relaxed on the concrete bench of the park. In the cool of the evening, he strolled along the Gandak, letting the cool breeze gently work against him, the endless landscape scorched and fried by the marching sun spread before him in the evening haze. Let her wrack her little head where the duce he was gone. Let her trouble her friends and acquaintances with her blasted phone.

At night he went home elated—as lighthearted as a winsome breeze. She was reclining on the bed, watching her favorite television serial. His son was sitting in a chair, his shirt open, sipping coffee; he had just returned from work. Vivek's belated presence didn't even catch their attention. She did not even take the trouble to look at him. He was standing in front of them, but their eyes were glued to the screen. She looked at him in irritated askance.

“I resigned my job today,” he declared with a secretive grin which said ‘I don't give a damn what the hell you make of it.’

Jyothi laughed her acidic scathing laughter. “You squandered my father's job (may his soul rest in peace). You are an incorrigible loafer, had anybody else been in your place, he would long ago have become a professor or at the very least the head of the department. I won't let you sit at home doing nothing, eating, snoring and brewing trouble.”

His son smiled at him and offered highhanded advice, “Papa, this time around, do whatever you do with dignity, integrity, and confidence.”

So very presumptuous of the ungrateful little greenhorn bastard. Who is whose father? He wondered defiantly.

Jyothi was not irked or distressed by his reckless nonsense and precipitate action. On the contrary she felt strangely relieved. He was her nagging concern; she took his blunders as her own. She silently suffered for his academic incompetence. Thank God, now it is all over. Over the years she had taken great pains to gloss over his negligence and fussy awkwardness. Still she surmised that her friends might be laughing behind her back. Over the years, Jyothi had steadfastly maintained that her husband was a genius and such people do not give importance to sundry little things. What she hated was that he was not there when she wanted him most, as a father of her son, as a caring man in her life. Little gestures of goodwill, moral support, and the feeling of security in the arms of her husband such treasured pleasures were crudely denied to her. If he is peacefully cooped up at home, she could explain to the world that he was performing serious studies on ancient Indian culture and heritage or that he was writing a book of great importance, which necessitated concentration and solitude. A woman will go to great lengths to boost the image of her own family, especially when it comes to her spouse. The female of the species is, by and large, self-centered fantasy is used profusely to fill in the gaps in order to make her world livable; unpalatable realities are countered with frivolous imagination. Nature has programmed her that way to ensure that the long march of life will not be disrupted despite dangerous and/or stressful situations.

But she had no idea what was up his sleeve. His trump card was yet to be played. He was going to prove who was whose master. Great men take destiny for a ride, they are the masters of destiny. Vivek intended to go down in history as a man of vision and foresight. India would take its rightful place in the world. He—oh yes, and India too—would merit respect.

Asceticism and salvation are the concluding stage of an individual's life. All tentacles of worldly life should have withered away before one takes to renunciation. He has to get over with his dharma, he has to get over with his avarice, he has to be done with his lust for the world and all that. These are the essential qualifications before salvation can be put on the agenda. He has to shed his share of tears; he has to contribute to make others shed their share of tears also. He has to find God's appointment in his disappointments, he has to love, hate, hope, and dream. He has to wait, date, and fume, and at last he has to run out of steam. Cured of libido, cured of vane glories and the black hole of greed, with the fires dying down, sadly satiated and absolutely done with the past, he has to wait tremblingly at the great pylon for the crucial rendezvous. Our greed is our silent admission that life is a separation. However in Vivek's case, it is verily doubtful whether he is qualified to embark upon his overtly quixotic mission. Wherever we go, we take the world with us unless we are done with our past. Indian culture, amongst all cultures, does not need a standing consul, does not need a virulent interpreter. A complex culture—a profound spiritual vision that outlasted and outlived Muslim conquests, carnages, colonial management, and the trying tests of time spread over eight thousand years—India can stand on its own. If a puny little nobody offers to prop it up, it is like a lizard pretending to hold up the master beam to keep the roof from caving in. Fanaticism emanates from an inferiority complex. Deep seas rarely rant and rage. Given the chance, chirping streams often do.

Next day, Vivek played his trump card. He declared to his wife and son that his was the way of the Buddha, he was leaving home on a brave evangelical mission. This time he took her by surprise. “If you absolutely must, go ahead with your nonsense, but you should know where and when to stop,” she fumed in exasperation. Jyothi knew that he was going to make a fool of himself, and her sarcasm made Vivek all the more determined to prove her wrong. The trying task of doing nothing was unbearable to him.

“Let him be, ma,” his son intervened, “if he is determined to risk everything to prove his point, let him have his way.”

“A bungler is a bungler. When you screw up you can screw yourself,” she said almost in a whisper.

“The best way to prove one is wrong is to let one have one's way. The best way to prove an idea wrong is to let it have its way. Untried ideas and unfulfilled desires crop up their ugly heads at the most inappropriate times and places,” his son waxed philosophical.

Vivek figured out the most auspicious date and time to walk out on them, severing his links with the past. Donned in flaming saffron, he euthanized the Vivek in him and Swami Omkar rose—figuratively speaking—from the ashes, leaving behind the bag and baggage of his former existence. You are not qualified to be a panderer of God unless you are blessed with a flowing salt and pepper beard. Icky untidiness did not agree with him. But he had a model to ape well—Swami Vivekananda.

But Swami Omkar was a swami with a difference because he had his provident fund and his handsome pension to fuel his mission. Nothing was to be left to chance. The reincarnated swami calculated that his former relations would be as clever as to guess him to have chosen the Benares-Haridwar-Rishikesh route. He made up his mind to outsmart them all.

“Never,” he muttered to himself, “never shall I permit them to divert me from my goal.”

Chapter 9
Clash of civilizations

He, the nameless Madrasi, sauntered into the Muslim sector of the city, a silent street in the midday sun. People stared at him from behind curtains and casements. Strangers were not welcome here, especially those that did not have overt Islamic insignia. The whitewashed houses basked in the mild sun behind the compound walls. He opened the wicket gate to Shebeer khan's house and softly knocked at the front door. Surely he would be home after Friday prayers. Shebeer khan never goes to school in the afternoon on Fridays, he reasoned. Nonetheless, nobody answered the door. He opened the door and entered the verandah, and called out to Shebeer. Still there was no response. The house had a rectangular central courtyard. They were all assembled there. He opened the half door and called out. The reaction was dramatic. There was a hurried rustling sound and angry grunts. Women disappeared into the cubicles. A man, Shebeer's elder brother, came running, his face red hot with rage.

“Hello, I am from the school, I came to meet Shebeer,” he said meekly, having become distressed by the strange—and to his way of thinking entirely unjustified—reaction.

The uninvited guest looked to be addled or confused. Shebeer's elder brother struggled hard to contain the rage and violence surging up inside him.

“My brother is sleeping, you—whoever you are—please wait outside,” he muttered, making a conscious effort not to raise his voice

Shortly Shebeer appeared at the half door, impatient and disturbed to have been abruptly awakened from his peaceful siesta. “Oh. It was you. I was wondering,” he relaxed on recognizing the visitor. Both of them hurried into the road, and closed the door from behind. In silence, they walked into the thick of the city, crossing the predominantly Muslim areas. The poor vendors perched under the spreading trees looked at them hopefully, hopeful of selling baked maize, boiled ground nuts, baked bread, and fruits brought in from the villages.

“Before anything else I have to tell you an important thing.” He looked at his gentle Muslim friend.

“Are you a Muslim?” asked Shebeer.

“I have only an academic interest in religion.”

“No, if you are a human being, you have to have a religion. Only animals live without religion.”

“If you think so. I have no reason to justify any religion, I am tired of the violence and bloodshed that happens in the name of religion. Perhaps I too have a religion, but it is a religion of my own, and I am not seeking converts to my religion.”

“You seem to know pretty little about the Islamic way of life. Our women may not put on a veil at home. Hence, other men especially infidels are not permitted to enter our homes unannounced.”

“I did not come looking for your women, I came looking for you,” the somewhat taken aback visitor replied defensively.

“Still you may get a glimpse of their uncovered face and hair. My brother forgave you because you are not familiar with our culture, but he asked me to enlighten you about the state of affairs.”

This was news to him. He gave the matter some thought. It seemed that Muzaffarpur was a divided city, half Muslim, half secular—both halves engaged in pointless sectarian bickering.

They walked some distance in silence. emmem did not actually feel affronted, but he was troubled by the impenetrable wall erected between cultures. In Andhra also there were Muslims who refused to speak the language of the state, struggling hard to protect their separate identity, but they did not seem to him to be as jealously protective of their women.

“Please do not feel bad, we have to respect the sensitivity of cultures,” Shebeer said, shooting a worried look at his colleague.

“I was wondering why Muslims couldn't integrate with the rest of the world.”

“Islam is a vilified religion, obfuscated by the vicious western press. You have to love and understand Islam from the perspective of the Islamic press. Islam is not a religion the way other religions are. It is a complete way of life, with an autonomous culture, statecraft, jurisprudence and personal hygiene. Muslim solidarity is complete and unconditional, a Muslim is a brother to another Muslim, even if they happen to be from different parts of the world. Islam does not recognize geographical boundaries. Muslims worldwide belong to a nation which transcends political and geographical boundaries.”

“But that does not explain why Islam is not willing to accept a symbiotic existence with other religions. Why not tolerate others who don't believe as you do? Why should Islam confront the infidels so violently?”

“Islam is a religion of peace and brotherhood. We greet each other, ‘God's peace, God, the benevolent and the magnificent.’ But tolerating infidels, tolerating idolaters, tolerating animists, tolerating anarchists, tolerating atheists, or tolerating heretics cursed by God is equivalent to compromising our religion.”

“India developed its culture thousands of years ago. Each man has his own religion, each nation has its own culture,” he retorted. “Islam, its jurisprudence and culture, were designed to meet the needs of warring desert tribes. Islam's violence and polygamy conflict with India's values. It goes against everything the Indian mind holds dear.”

“There you are wrong,” Shebeer asserted. “Islam is for the whole of humanity. The Indian mind will one day come to realize that there is only one God, benevolent and magnificent Allah. Hindus worship millions of gods and goddesses. They even worship human beings. Hindus worship animals and the five elements. Islam will have nothing to do with it. The idols that Hindus worship are demons in disguise.”

“I am not duty bound to justify any faith. But the outward polytheism of Hinduism is the mechanism by which all faiths can unite under a single banner:

Yajnavalkya was asked, ‘how many gods are there Yajnavalkya?’
He answered, ‘as many as mentioned in the texts, thousands and thousands.’
‘Yes, but just how many gods are there Yajnavalkya?’
‘Yes, but just how many gods are there Yajnavalkya?’
‘Yes, but just how many gods are there Yajnavalkya?’
‘One and a half.’
‘Yes, but just how many gods are there Yajnavalkya?’

“A true sanyasi will treat even a beggar as a god,” he continued. Each and every living entity is an expression of God. From God we come and unto God we return. The relation between Allah and most Muslims is that of master and slave, whereas in the Indian mind, all life—all living organisms from animals to the smallest gnat to bacteria—is composed of molecules of divinity. There is no retribution, no hell fire, no wrath of God.”

“Only savage cultures think so. Hinduism is not a revealed religion; it is a man-made one. I can tell you, my dear friend, Islam is the final religion of the world. One day the whole of humanity will be united under Islam, other faiths will falter, fail and fall. At the end of the long march of humanity, Islam will be the destination,” said Shebeer with a gesture that implied it could be no other way.

“Islam spread violently across the world, obliterating endemic cultures. It eclipsed the fertile Zoroastrian culture in Persia; it hindered the cultural refinement of North Africa; it pushed Eastern Europe into obscurantist darkness for hundreds of years. And, to our great chagrin, Islam did irreparable harm to the centers of learning and culture in India. Islam was merely an excuse to terror, rape, and pillage.”

“You have been terribly misguided and duped, my friend, you are the victim of the corrupt western press. They misconstrued history in order to brainwash the globe. Islam conserved and improved upon the learning and culture of Egypt and Greece. Civilizations progress through violence. No change is accepted without protest. It is the sacred duty of every Muslim to fight for the great cause of Islam. By jihad we get justice,” Shebeer asserted.

He took a new tact: “Islam, to my way of thinking, is at the mercy of infidels. Without infidels to fight against, Islam will fragment, the center will not be able to hold. As long as Islam has an enemy without, it will remain cohesive. Once the whole world has been converted to Islam, Muslims will fight among themselves. Various Islamic countries underscore my inference.”

“An Islamic earth will bring an end to war, declared Shebeer, Muslim brotherhood will inaugurate everlasting peace.”

“Everlasting ubiquitous peace cannot be achieved by such means. As you observed, violence is the heartbeat of civilization. Religion is usually a cause rather than a deterrent in the science of war. And then let me tell you, there is no just war because war always maims and kills. We are at war with the world. War ends only when we are not at war with ourselves. The atrocities perpetrated by Muhammed Ghori and Muhammed Ghazni cannot be explained by Islamic tenets. Cultural diversity is in the spirit of progress. Your so-called Muslim brotherhood envisages a stultifying cultural monolith.”

Shebeer swatted a fly that had been bothering both of them and continued: “I have no reason to convert you. Your intransigence does not keep me from being a friend of yours. The religion of my forefathers is dear to me. It is my hope, my salvation, and my refuge. It has all the essential attributes to make my life serene and beautiful; it fills every second of my time. Islam has spirited and guided the noble mind of many a great man. It has its own aesthetics, pattern, and mysticism. It has a consistent philosophy and a scientific structure. But I am not going to be the vilest champion of Islam. My concern is Urdu language and Islamic literature. Islam is self reliant; discussions such as we are having will not affect it in the slightest.”

“There you are,” he smiled sweetly, “I am for you. I am for Sufism, the sweetest flower of Islamic thought. Islam's intercourse with Indian and Persian wisdom delivered it. Al Hilal Manzoor reached the pinnacle of human thought, non-duality. Sha Noorudeen Wali found God in His most pristine form in nature not contaminated by the lecherous hands of man. They stand very close to the great Indian sages.”

“A true Muslim cannot approve of Al Hilal Manzoor, the heretic. He was stoned to death because he ventured beyond the tenets of Islam. God and man cannot be identical. But as a simple pious Muslim, I am capable of loving all human beings, understanding them, and sharing pain and pleasure with them. Islam is my hope, my refuge, my salvation, and, furthermore, without Islam my life would not have meaning. It helps me live my life with hope, dignity, and a glowing inner happiness. I am not duty bound to justify the atrocities committed by Islamic tyrants. Islam is a very personal experience to me.”

“Very true, very true my dear Shebeer,” emmem patted his friend, “Let Islam glow in the corridors of your enlightened mind. It is wonderful to have hope and faith in something of value. May your days be charged with the halo and charm of Islam.”

The day was fast fading. The streets were crowded; the city dwellers came out in throngs, like moths at dusk fall, to make their evening purchases. They both stood thoughtfully at Kalyani Chouk. The streets radiated away in different directions. Suddenly there flickered a strange gleam in Shebeer's eyes.

“Come with me, my friend, today I shall show you what Islam means to me,” he seized the infidel's hand. They dived into the flood of humanity. Shortly, they entered a dusty street in the commercial wholesale market. It was less crowded, huge trucks growled and wheelbarrows rolled. It was essentially a Hindu street. Wholesale merchants do not have to attract customers; hence the street was not glittering with neon lamps and gaudy frontages. The road was fairly dark, with a few voltage starved sixty-watt bulbs peevishly smiling here and there.

They entered the outlet of a wholesale rice merchant. The huge godown spread backwards, like a darkening tunnel. The proprietor stood up with a beaming smile, and offered them chairs. It was almost as if the shop owner was greeting a son whom he had not seen in years. Tea was ordered; the shop assistants behaved obsequiously. Shebeer made the introductions.

“Anyone dear to Shebeer is dear to us also” the old man said, “do come visit us at whenever you have time.”

The shop owner turned to Shebeer, “Mother was expecting you yesterday. Rahul was disappointed that you did not show up for his birthday.”

“Sorry, I had to go to Patna yesterday.”

When they walked out into the darkness, Shebeer turned to his friend and said, “look he is a devout Hindu and I am a pious Muslim, still he loves me like a son.”

“Yes indeed. Clearly religion did not stand in the way of your friendship with him any more than it stands in the way of your friendship with me. Now explain the alchemy to me.”

“It proves a point, which I am going to explain,” Shebeer said by way of setting the stage for yet another chapter in his tale.

“Yours is a graceful mind, Muslim or non Muslim. Religion should never interfere with being nice. Anyway, let me hear it.”

“It happened a few years ago. Communal tensions were once again running high, there was blood in the streets, and a curfew was imposed upon the city. The day was blushing and dying. Rahul was stranded in our street. He was a sitting duck for the religious zealots who were thirsting for the blood of an infidel. I reached out and pulled him into my house, a shuddering lamb he was. There was no way for me to get word to his family to let them know he was safe. In the morning, I escorted him home. His parents were overjoyed. They had almost given up hope. That was the day that they adopted me into their family. They invite me for family get togethers and I invite them to our religious festivities. Islam is my way of salvation, but my love for humanity is unconditional.”

“A pious, god-fearing man performs good deeds in order to weasel his way into the good books of heaven while the spiritualist does so because of his awareness of fundamental unity. The latter cares for each living being—ant and antelope are all the same to him. Life is short, but living is long. A good mind finds goodness everywhere. A happy man is happy not by virtue of what he has experienced, but rather by virtue of his state of mind. If you have a bad attitude, life can be Hell. Those miserable wretches have ample faculties to belch hellfire all around them. We pay for our omissions and commissions here and now. God has better things to do than sitting in judgment on the likes of us.”

“I cannot discuss theology with you; my faith is my faith,” Shebeer declared.

“Yes my dear fellow, it is not so important which faith, but that one should have faith. But faith has to grow with the times. Religion becomes dead weight when it refuses to go along with the times. Those who march at the head of the evolution of religion are often deemed to be heretics.”

They walked in the encircling gloom. The city retreated into its shell. Shebeer hurried to get back to his home before darkness fell.

“Alright then, see you next Monday, insha Allah,” Shebeer said by way of parting.

The infidel moved on like a floating leaf into the darkness, bothered by the thickening fog. The road, like the inky night condensing and flowing into a river, dived deep into the fog. The silent river reclined across the landscape dreaming its regal glory in the rainy days, its crystal clear water was like the dense January air condensing into the sandy depressions of the fertile flatland. The caring heavens placed tiny globules of pearly mist on the sleeping foliage, to convince the plants that it cared. The whimpering embers of a winter night died away in the distant firmament.

He contemplated the degree to which pantheistic India had been harmed by the introduction of radical monotheistic Wahhabi Arabian beliefs. One cannot violently invite somebody to share the merits of a particular religion. Switching religions does not solve anything. Somehow the quaint myth of the madman of Naranath crossed his mind. The madman was a mystic who did funny things and slept in odd places. One day he reached a crematorium at night with a bowl of rice he had collected by begging. On seeing a dead body burning on a funeral pyre, he chose to spend the night there near the fire. He boiled his rice in the fire and warmed himself in the warm company of the dead body. Late at night, when the rice was almost ready, a pack of terrible demons came to the crematorium to perform a nocturnal dance. They were taken aback by the presence of a human being at such an odd place and time.

“Who art thou, flee from this place before irreparable damage is done to your dear life,” the fire belching demon growled.

He did not budge. “Can't you see for yourselves? I am a human being, and I am not inclined to go away.”

“You will be scared to death.”

“You cannot terrify me.”

The demons tried all their tricks to terrify him, but nothing affected the madman. The demons of the graveyard were ashamed that a wretched human being had slighted them. To save face the leader of the demons decided to reason with the madman, saying, “look strange man, we are here to perform our death dance at the funeral pyre. Please leave this place.”

“I am not going, go dance on the other side of the pyre.”

“No, a living man should not witness our dance, please move away.”

“Then you had better not dance.”

“We have to; it is our custom.”

“My custom is to cook my food where I come across fire and water. Where I cook my food is where I spend the night.”

“Oh great soul, we yield to your determination and are retreating. But when we happen to meet a mortal, we either bless him or curse him. We cannot curse you. Please ask for a boon, and we will most willingly grant it.”

“No boon needed, it is time for me to have my supper; leave me alone if you please.”

“Please, we cannot go without granting a boon.”

“What a pity…then tell me when I am going to die.”

“After thirty-six years, twelve days three hours, five minutes and three seconds,” she said.

“Then cut short my life by one day.”

“Sorry, we cannot do that.”

“If that is impossible extend my life by one day and then get lost.”

“Very sorry, that we also cannot do, please ask for something else.”

Incensed by their ineptitude, the man continued to berate the demons, “You can't do much, can you? What good are you? For that matter, you might as well switch the filariasis in my right leg to my left leg.”

The demons immediately did as he asked and gleefully escaped from the madman.

Switching religions does just that; the essence of the individual is not changed one bit, he thought. We Indians are like lab rats and mice, he thought with a cruel smirk, feeding from the remnants of an enlightened past which provides little nourishment. We sniff it and bite it, roll it and hurl it. The brutally honest western scientists removed the poetic flavor we used to savor from venerable natural phenomena and extracted the divine aura from our native historical figures, reinventing them as ordinary mortals with an extraordinary appetite to take on the world. Gone are the essentials in our diet which we must have if we are to achieve our full potential as a nation.

The night was progressing; his bunker looming large with brazen loneliness was just a few blocks away. The crescent moon appeared on the distant horizon. Winter is beautiful in its own way, he thought. A season of floating dry leaves, dry leaves of the past rustling their soft, sad music. The cold moon was shining innocently across the periphery of the city. A silken sadness was shining on the smooth foliage. A flimsy veil of silence enveloped the enshrined beauty. The blue heavens camouflaged the blue infinity. The blades of grass were freezing and sulking. The night was light, light as light could be. The power supply had once again failed, consequently the city pulsed like a sleeping black lump. The plains of north Bihar sprawled before his eyes in the shabby gray stillness of night, struggling to pull together the wildly spinning social anomalies with a social fabric fragmented by religious and caste divisions and plagued by very palpable social tensions. Possessing a dense atmosphere replete with violence, Bihar, in comparison to the southern states that are voraciously chasing the future, is a caricature of the past.

God is not religious, he thought. God is a very personal experience for those who atone. Language fails there, wisdom and knowledge become impertinent. The one who experiences it cannot share it; he who shares it has not experienced it. He remembered the story of the two sons of a man. Both were sent to a school to study the secrets of the absolute. On returning, the father asked the elder son, “What is brahma?”

The elder son answered his father's question with a long speech, replete with examples, analogies, and fashionably erudite quotations.

Then the father turned to the second son. The second son's answer was silence. The father observed that the first son had never even approached brahma, whereas the second son had become it. The rest is business.

India's sober mind soared the heights and its soul caressed the everlasting and immutable silences, he mused. India realized the common thread of sadness which runs through all living things.

Life in general is a slow process of compromises, we fight and resist for some time and then submissively appease and compromise. It is the climate of your mind that makes you what you are. We remember and become miserable. And there are many things that we cannot remember. That helplessness makes life exactly as it is. Life is a forgetting and a separation. The mind has its own seasons. There will be long spells of drought, desiccating and shriveling, wiping out even the last vestiges of greenery. Then rains come rumbling and thundering. The youthful river gracefully and softly sweeps the mindscape and the willing shoots of grass dance to her persuasive ministrations. Thus man by far is the victim and slave of his own mind. Our moments of merriment are also fringed by a halo of sadness.

The debacles in life add to the meaning of life, he thought, whereas victory takes the victor with it. Days slip between our fingers in succession; we can do nothing about it. Today is merely one more day, slipping silently and surreptitiously into incommunicable oblivion. Life is a misadventure and those who stray into this temporal stunt are free to hold that they are free.

A grim spirit of despondency looms large over our most treasured fantasies. We live because we do not have time to lean back and realize that we are lost in the ranting business of living. With tremulous prayers fraught with wordless fears and a mysterious awe our species, pestered by the dead weight of a feeling of being, wait for our share of the heydays to dawn on us. Waiting and praying. At long last, when the curtain is falling, when our little day is burning away in the western funeral pyre, we sadly realize that our halcyon days long ago came and went. Settle accounts with the past by writing off all assets and liabilities; be true to every moment, he set in words the recipe for his philosophy of life. He felt sorry for the Hindu radical organizations that were hell-bent on undoing the Muslim atrocities perpetrated centuries ago, converting mosques to temples, whipping up fratricidal fanaticism in order to outdo their rivals. Fortunately, the vast majority of Hindus remain indifferent; fanaticism is laudably alien to them.

The fact that we are all deranged makes it worse. Some know that it is all madness, others do not. The effect is all the same. We are subject to an obsessive compulsion to act out our dementia; life appears to be little more than decoding a coded program. A tree is in the seed. In other words, a tree is a seed spread into time and space.

Reason, the blinding consciousness, pushes home half-baked truths. These mind boggling expanses, burning specks of floating globules, the endless distances, waves and silences—as a man one has to watch it all and wonder why. And, had this semi-eclipsed intellect not been there, had this inscrutable witness to the time-space-energy enigma not been there, would it have been altogether futile for these space and cosmic bodies to have existed? Or do they really exist, for that matter do I exist? He broke into silent laughter.

Nostalgia makes one re-live the past. But time has already outlived the old realities. On looking back, it appeared to him that his time at the university had happened in a previous birth. Nowadays, he lives his life to its fullest, without caring about the future, without saving for a rainy day. Memories, however, remain. The thoughts and ambitions of that period seem somewhat ridiculous to him now. This stumbling progress, faltering and flinching, unsure and distracting, wobbling and flagging, is a convulsive necessity.

Nobody will remember me, he thought, nobody will remember me with a deep feeling when I cease to be, because I didn't try to impose my existence on my fellow men. But it had a secret pleasure. Tolstoy to his last breath believed that the yet to unfold may be far more significant than the whole course of life traversed hitherto. One shouldn't run away from one's future. It may unravel the truth that has so far been very much with us, though we did not realize it. If we have to suffer, let us suffer majestically and magnificently. One should either fall back onto the beaten track, or repeat the generations gone by, or strike a new path hitherto untrodden and untried and face the contingencies thereof. When everything is said and done, failure in life is out of the question. Life will reach its mellowed fullness duly and truly, independent of the avocation, independent of the social stratum one is tethered to.

The only certainty in life is that life is not life forever. The truth is silent and indifferent, but life is a helpless trap. When entrapped, one longs to reach out and merge, straining at the wall, trembling on the verge. But life insists on a separate identity. So, the ensnared being devours everything around, as it cannot be the other way around. Children are less sanctimonious and, thus truer to their basic instincts. A child impulsively swallows anything that is beautiful and fascinating. When we mature, we kiss anything dainty and attractive, betraying our dormant desire to fill in the spiritual emptiness.

Suffering has an esoteric fascination. What a tragedy it is that the world has been swept away by dry and shallow western materialism. In an urban setting where noisy machines function, do we ever listen to the music of labor or the harmony of nature? The spiritual fragrance of poverty is being expunged from the world. We forfeited the ultra mundane aura the scheme of things is shadowed by. We fail others; we disappoint each other and inherit a stealthy permeating sadness. What remains after every enterprise is a sadness, no matter what the outcome happened to be, because wisdom is a disease. Geo-biological parameters assign us to various slots where we fidget, fume, fret, and look askance at the world above. Some fail their parents and loved ones dismally and miserably, hopes perish and decay, and perhaps new hopes will take their place for life to feed on.

Perchance I could call out to the world that I am the Universe. There is no mine and thine, no you and me. There has been no creation, only the imperceptible process of becoming. Only life rolls on in myriad forms, there is no succor from beyond. I am the cause and effect. I am my own messiah and nemesis. Yet the doom and the doomed are one.

As Tony had succinctly put it once, all of usimagine six thousand million Christs are on the way to the cross. He fancied the poetic suffering it entails. How many wrongs have been washed away in their perspiration? In the pathless woods of life, how many dreams have been animated by their magic touch? How many flowers bloomed in the pearly purity of their tears? How many vernal days dawned and danced in the silent breeze of their breath? How many bloody flags fluttered high, drinking in their bonny vitality? How many flowers of fire blossomed from the embers they left behind? How many full moons illuminated the paths they had marched past?

As the Greek legend promises, humanity still has the benefit of hope. Hope rains down on us like manna even when we crash against the wall. Somebody, somewhere wrote that man's disappointment is the point of God's appointment. It surrounds us like a honeyed vernal dawn, fresh and enticing, flowering along the path of our private thoughts. It is the ever-elusive mirage, the hidden flower of the wilderness, energizing us with its heady fragrance. It becomes almost a dream, and blossoms in our eyes. Being soaked in its enchanting smile, our inner self cannot help but bloom. With its magic touch, a hollow reed becomes music. Hope is a rainbow that time plants in the rain of tears. We long to hear the music of its dancing anklets, to be the unseen cuckoo in the swaying blue green branches of our mind. To be the ever fragrant water lily in the emerald green pools of our mind. Hope provides the cool shade in the desolate summers of life when we lie low, pondering what went wrong. It lingers like the fragrance of a forlorn spring, prompting us to take one more chance even though we know the odds are against us.

He laughed unto himself as he strode back to his bunker. Saturday and Sunday are not working days. Nonetheless, he had his work cut out for him. In addition to his horticultural pastimes, he was instructing students who couldn't afford to go to college in mathematics and general knowledge at no charge to them or their families. Unlike the frat boys and sorority sisters at the university, these students truly wanted to learn.

Chapter 10
Maternity is a reality

On the windswept eastern flank of a hill overlooking a narrow valley overflowing with rich cultivated fields, Anna looked down the footpath meandering down to the valley where it joins the motorway. The rubber trees stood naked and miserable as winter had taken with it all their rich plumage. Here and there, dust devils swirled and spiraled up the litter. The dry leaves danced and waltzed in the uncomfortably warm breeze. Anna was alone. Anthony had not come home yet from the rubber plantation down in the valley. He would come late in the afternoon, procuring the necessary provisions.

Far below, she could see three specks of heads scrambling uphill. Acutely aware of their presence, she feared the worst. Living up here, they hardly ever had visitors, very rarely. Being a mother, her instinct was to protect her brood. There was no news as yet from Lucy. Anna's fervent prayers had gone with her daughter to the unknown land of Bihar. She ardently hoped that Lucy was in safe hands. Surely she would do something to lessen her brother's already overtaxed burden of supporting the family. If everything worked out properly, God willing, they would live a better life, free from loans, interest payments, and worries about a malignant morrow. But looking at the visitors inching uphill, shadows crossed her mind. In rural Indian villages, outsiders more often than not meant trouble.

As they drew closer, it became clear that the visitors were a middle aged woman and two young men. They are not poor Christians like us, she observed. They are Hindus, well-to-do Hindus, not used to the rigors of life; never having suffered prolonged exposure to the fury of the sun. Not shriveled by the asperities of life, not tormented by the uncertainties, not hardened by the hostilities of the world. There was sophistication about them. The boys seemed to be very excited by the unwonted hardships they were put into. They were sweating and panting, stopping for breath after every ten feet, still they enjoyed the sport. Anna dived into the security her bedroom and peeped out through the slits of the log wall. The boys were nearing twenty and were very muscular. Both of them had curly hair and a dusky complexion. Their faces vaguely tickled her memory, especially the woman's face. She tried to remember somebody and failed. The woman was wearing an expensive silk sari. The sari was virtually steaming her polished body, washing away her cosmetics. The woman did not seem to share the enthusiasm of the boys. She had a suave anxiety writ large on her face. The woman was nearing fifty. They entered the rustic courtyard and surveyed the world beneath. The view was breathtaking.

“This must be the end of the world,” one boy exclaimed.

“The planet Venus cannot be very far from here,” the next boy concurred.

“Shh! Mind your manners,” their mother chided. “Anyone would think you didn't know any better.”

“Too bad we left the camera in the car.”

“It's your fault, as usual. Why can't you ever do anything right?”

Anna was worried, the front of the house was untidy. The hens had dirtied the verandah. The floating dry leaves had imparted the courtyard with an uncouth look. Her next concern was that she had nothing with which to treat the guests. She had homemade coffee, but no sugar; she had tapioca, but only a little bit of rice. Had Anthony been here she could have sent him to the town to get something better.

“Hello, anybody there,” the elder boy hollered. Anna covered the front of her blouse with a soiled towel and came out like a trapped fugitive with only one way to exit. She greeted them with folded hands—whoever they were, they obviously were not from around here.

The woman smiled back at her. They were weighing each other, taking it all in, so to speak. Anna felt starkly naked before them. Her humble abode and the general air of penury deeply hurt her feminine pride. Poverty is a desolating malady.

“I am Sasikala S. Nair,” the stranger introduced herself. She watched the other woman to gauge the effect of the statement. Anna stood there like an idiot, the name did not ring any bells.

“These are my children, Manu and Raju,” she introduced her boys. The boys dutifully bowed and greeted her.

“We are from Bombay,” the woman continued. This time around there was a faint flicker of recognition in Anna's eyes. She guessed as much as that they were somehow connected to her husband. She had a premonition that they had not come with good tidings. It was not for nothing that her left eyebrow was twitching in the morning.

“May God help us all,” she prayed silently. She promised herself that she would go to Bharananganam on the very next Sunday to visit Blessed Alfonsa's tomb for the benefit of Lucymol.

There was a small pathetic bench on the verandah, soiled and apologetic. Timidly she invited the guests to occupy the bench. They very politely declined the offer. It was more comfortable there in the open; they settled on the boulders at the side of the house. There was a moody stream on the right hand side of the house, humbled by the dry winter.

The boys darted to the stream exploring the wild curiosities that it and the small puddles on the rocky slope offered. In fact they had moved away to clear the shore for their mother to get on with her business with the strange woman.

“Where has Yohannan gone?” Sasikala asked fearing the reaction of the woman.

Anna put two and two together. So she was the village beauty that stole his heart, it was her brothers who chased him all the way to Bombay. But it had never occurred to her that this Nair girl also would make her way to Bombay to make the situation worse. For an instant Anna forgot her compromising physical circumstances and the shame writ large on her face.

“Why ask me? My intuition tells me that he joined you long, long ago,” she jeered with cutting sarcasm.

Sasikala opened her mouth to say something; suddenly she thought better of it and closed it with a thud. Silence, an uneasy silence, piled up between them. Anna lapsed into her private thoughts. How and when did my life become so complicated, with so many frailties, entanglements, commitments and emotional baggage?

“Can you forgive him?” Sasikala asked aloud, in fact it was her private thought; before she even realized it, she had said it aloud.

“Who am I to forgive him?” Anna asked bitterly, “I forgave him long ago for all that he did not do for me, for all that he did not do for my children.”

Suddenly Sasikala felt very miserable, very awkward standing before a woman who had bravely thrown the best years of her life away through no fault of her own. Anna stood sadly supreme in this complex game of pride and frailties.

“I did not come all the way here to make your life more miserable,” Sasikala said softly.

“How can I be miserable, I am long dead to all that, Lord knows. He knows His will will be my will. It was His will that I should become Yohannan's wife. For that matter, I had little choice. My father was not rich, and a young woman has to settle for a man before she wilts.”

Something touched Sasikala's soul, a featherlike presence in her inner self, like a breeze softly caressing her coiled tresses, like the moonbeams gently opening the bud of a nocturnal flower, like an unseen hand smoothing the frayed tapestry of her soul. She sat on the weathered boulder lost in a trance.

“Having taken me as his wife, I came to Yohannan's castle, it darn sure wasn't a castle but he let me know who was king. Expecting nothing, I was inured to abject poverty from birth. There were too many at home. When I became Yohannan's legitimate wife, I didn't have a pot to piss in. My life is a complete compromise, a compromise with my unenviable state, a compromise with my own body, with society, and with God. Now in the late afternoon of my life, there is nothing other than my children that matters to me. I pray to the Lord every day to make their lives bountiful. I am happy that such little darlings came to the world through me. I was the medium through which God cared for them. God accomplishes his works through you and me. Now, I am not sure whether my status as a wife and his title as king hold good anymore. Such concepts cannot survive on faith alone. In my context they are past their prime.”

“Anna, dear, everybody carries their graveyard with them. A graveyard of lost opportunities, lost avenues, failed dreams and much more. I am not here to dredge up the past or to make you any more miserable. He is your legitimate husband….” Sasikala couldn't complete the sentence.

“Legitimate husband? What are you saying? I am not armed with any certificates with which to prove my claim, and I claim nothing. He is not mine, nor am I, myself, mine. I split and share myself among my children and among my social responsibilities. Now that I think of it, I believe I do have a certificate of sorts which you, particularly you among all of the people in the world, must see.” Anna went inside. She opened an old trunk, the trunk she was given by her father at the time of her wedding. From under the bundles of old clothes, she pulled out an aged envelope that was wrapped in a transparent sheet of plastic. Then, she came out.

“Here is something far more important than our mutilated nuptial vows, please listen to its contents,” she looked at Sasikala. The visitor looked at her with sincere, yet questioning sympathy.

“This letter he wrote to me twenty-nine years ago, when our first born, Anthony came into this world. Yohannan came all the way from Bombay to see us at my father's house at Thodupuzha:

How softly and smoothly, my dearest, you metamorphosed into motherhood. Our cherished hopes and dreams are materialized in that rosy bonny cherub. And in that nerve wracking process you bled and oozed a part of your own life and at last I saw you to have risen to the level of divinity in your self-sacrificing affection and care. In that oblivious ecstasy the excruciating pain has dwindled to insignificance. You will willingly die, kill, or wither away for the well-being and comfort of our first born. You will stand guard upon our precious visitor from heaven, vigilantly and selflessly.

Many years hence the child will grow to fullness before our eyes and we may remember these moments. And at last we may watch a serene sunset or a mellowed autumn remembering how our fever of life has subsided over the years. Or even if I happen to be a memory for you, only a part of your yesterdays, you may my dear one, see with pleasantly moist eyes, our own dreams in the one you suckled and nursed so diligently and angelically. Or we may stand at last at the feet of our Lord together and all will be forgiven no matter what we did and did not do, what we wanted to do but could not do, because after all we loved each other so much.’

“They are words, words are not equivalent to deeds. Still I keep this jumble of words as a trophy.”

Sasikala felt sorry for her. How difficult it is for people to squeeze out some meaning for their lives from the flood of raving nonsense. Yohannan was a clever devil. He had the charms and the vocabulary to work his way into the kernel of a woman's inner being. She too has many such trophies penned by his clever hand. His letters had had the same thrilling effect as his touch. She had once received his letters as the earth receives the first rain of the year, with a squealing sound, with an exuding fragrance, with a painful ecstasy. How many times had she stalked the garden of sparkling stars on the magic carpet of his mesmerizing letters. She too could read them out loud to score over her poor rival. Anna had failed to secure him to his moorings, she thought with a smile. Yohannan drifted with the tide, whereas Anna was too overbearing to go with the flow.

“We need not compete with each other by such stupid recitations. It does not serve any purpose. If it makes you feel any better, I, too, was duped by that silver-tongued devil,” Sasikala freely admitted. “I came looking for you in order to settle our differences once and for all.”

“Can you undo the past, can you turn the clock back?” Anna asked. “Can you heal our wounds? Can you return the smile back to my son's face, can you return the dreams long lost to my children? Can you restore their father? Can you return the little pleasures we used to enjoy?” suddenly her eyes welled up, she wiped them with the long towel covering her bosom, embarrassed to stage such a meaningless melodrama in front of her husband's mistress. “You cannot do anything. Nor do I expect you to do anything. We are simple villagers. Certain values are instilled, we dare not cross the traditional limits. Your lack of morals and ethics are your problem, not ours,” Anna continued.

“None of your jealously protected values are questioned here. We cannot declare war on our past. I am going to be brutally honest with you. You deserved better.”

“Who needs obsolete truths, truths that are tortured and gang raped? Will it save us from the agony of worrying for nothing?”

“It might. Please listen to me. Perhaps you have heard a little here and there about my affair with your husband. Our love was true. But being from an aristocratic family, my brothers would have none of that nonsense. We did not do anything wrong. He did not even touch me. In a closed society opportunities to meet were rare. We exchanged letters, hundreds of them. I treasured his letters and constantly reread them. I truly loved him. Such a handsome man he was. His eyes had a mischievous smile, his fair face blushed in my presence. One day my brothers ambushed Yohannan, broke his bones and left him by the roadside to die in solitude. He survived, but it made him get behind in his studies at St. Thomas College, Palai, so he dropped out of school, and disappeared. There was no news about him for a long, long time. In the meantime, I completed my studies and accepted a job as a teacher in Bombay. Later, I heard that he had gone back and married you and that he was working as a clerk in Bombay. I made up my mind to track him down. I had contacts. We met behind your back. It was my decision to bear his child. I got pregnant by him to get even with my brothers. In the meantime, you had given birth to two children and a third was due. I went to a town where nobody knew me and gave birth to our child, a baby girl sired by Yohannan. Yours was a still birth. Then he brought our child to you, making you believe that it was an orphan he found abandoned on the streets. You aren't her mother. Lucy is my child.”

Sasikala stopped, waiting to see the reaction to the explosive news. She expected Anna to blow her top. Nothing of the kind happened, Anna did not knit her brows, her pupils did not dilate. She continued to look her opponent straight in the eye.

“From the beginning,” the villager said, “I had suspected foul play. I knew that it was his child. But I never ever thought that you were the cuckoo. I did not even know you were in Bombay. Back to back pregnancies tied me up. But why should you trouble us with your escapades?”

Sasikala's two sons discretely joined them. “If you don't have any objections, we would like to take Lucy as our own. We can give her a better future. My boys are anxious to have her as their elder sister. But we cannot hurt you. If only you think it is a good deal for all of us. My husband is a nice man; he knows about it all.”

Anna was silent for a moment. She experienced a heavy weight weighing down on her. “You have had had it all, you had the pleasure of outsmarting your brothers and the luxury of playing it safe, and I have a surrogate child thrust surreptitiously upon me. What brings you slumming? Do you know what Lucymol means to us? Can you ever imagine how Lucy and Anthony lived? He would most willingly lay down his life for Lucy to be happy. At the very tender age of fifteen he surrendered his studies. Not because he was bad at it. He was a brilliant student. He stopped his studies to look after his sisters and his mother. He became a rubber tapper in order to put bread on the table. He is still a rubber plantation worker. We were living a much better life in town. But in order to provide Molly with an adequate dowry, we sold our house and now we are here in our little world, with our dignity intact. He is working day in and day out to clear the debts. But we married Molly to a good family. Can you do this to my Anthony? He doesn't ever live for himself. He has no pleasures of his own. Twice a year, he goes to the cinema at Palai and for Christmas and Easter we buy some meat. These are our little luxuries; still we are happy. Why do you want to destroy all that my son has worked for? He is working day in and day out to get Lucy married in a decent way. Do you want to kill the sister in her? I will not make a decision on my own. Let's let Lucy decide what is best, I would not want to stand in her way. But Anthony should not know anything about this until after the outcome is clear.”

Anna imperiously stepped to the verandah as if dismissing an inferior. She seemed to have the moral upper hand over the visitors. They stood in the courtyard like sheepish culprits.

“We will go to Lucy's workplace directly and tell her who her real mother is,” Manu offered. Anna was no longer inclined to bring them refreshments. She seemed anxious to escape into the safety of the house, like a peevish school boy. Sasikala got the cue that it was time to depart.

“We are leaving now. For many years I had wanted to meet you. Not only for Lucy's sake, but for your sake too. You are the only one he chose to wed in his life.”

“What good did that do? Please excuse me, I have other things to do.” Impatiently Anna made good her escape.

Sasikala was impressed with Anna's demeanor. She handled the situation with dignity and poise. She never ever lost her integrity or coherence of thought. Anna did not even challenge her claim to Lucy. As Yohannan was not immediately available, it would have been next to impossible to substantiate her claim. Any other village woman would almost certainly have blasted the visitors for making such an outlandish demand.

As they faltered their tedious way down, they were aware of a pair of eyes behind the log walls burning holes into their backs. But all three of them were overjoyed with the turn of events. The chances of winning Lucy to their side seemed almost plausible. The hardships they had encountered on the way were justified by the outcome.

The valley placidly reposed in the shadow of the hills. On the way down they came across Anthony, a wiry suntanned fellow in an open shirt, sweating profusely and carrying a plastic kit. They knew immediately who he was, but conveniently chose not to show it. Anthony also knew that they were visitors, but chose not to recognize them. He had heard about them from the valley. To treat them he had in fact bought some delicacies like bread and bananas. He always felt a little uneasy with strangers, especially strangers from far way places. They made him feel small and insignificant.

“We had some visitors from Bombay, dear. They were our old neighbors,” Anna couldn't bring herself to disclose their true identity.

“Lucy should have been here,” Anthony said. Lucy was educated. She had no trouble mixing with the well to do. There was no news from her yet. He had made enquiries at the post office. He had had his regular diet of boiled rice and dried fish and reclined on his Spartan bed on the floor to take a nap. While other men dreamt of wealth and carnal pleasures, for Anthony every hour spent sleeping was one less hour spent enduring the pain brought on by intense physical labor. Some lusty, muscular men aspire to be working class heroes. Anthony was not among them. Anthony suffered so that others might live.

Anthony was not the simple-minded dolt his mother took him to be. He was the victim of his own mind. After his secondary school examination he took his tapping knife to support the family. They were on the verge of starvation. He could have gone for higher studies, but supporting the family seemed more important. There was no news from father. Invariably Johannan sent too little money, too late. So at fifteen Anthony became a regular tapper on their own rubber plantation, which had only a hundred trees. In time, he began to tap neighboring plots in order to make a decent living. There was little hope for him of resuming his beloved academic pursuits. But the family remained afloat. There was food to eat and clothes to wear. Years came and went. All his classmates who passed the public examination had gone on to higher studies. Later many went abroad, some got suitable placement in the private sector, and others became government employees. He was side lined from the main stream of life. He was ashamed to meet his old classmates. His egregious academic handicap haunted him day and night.

Anthony buried himself in his work, not because he enjoyed it but rather because it was all he could get. The village farmer is a pugnacious wretch, his existential pleasure is limited to the oblique desire of seeing to it that everybody else is as bad as him. Only the most hopeless good for nothings opted to be agricultural laborers. He had to get up well before the crack of dawn; by the time the sun scans the drenched and soggy valley with its mild crimson rays he would have been done for the day. By ten o'clock the latex would have collected in the coconut or poly vinyl chloride shells. Then it has to be collected in buckets and taken to the shed where it is filtered, diluted with an equal volume of water, poured into aluminum dishes, and congealed by formic acid. Later the rubber sheets are taken to the pressing machines where any excess water is pressed out of them. Rubber tapping is a trying job that steals your vitality. The worker grows thin and consumptive in the course of time. Again, the job smells bad. The decaying latex emits volatile nitrogenous and sulfurous compounds. Altogether the tapper cuts a miserable figure. It was too late in life for Anthony to escape the vicious circle. He had no education to seek a better placement, nor had he mastered any other trade.

But this doggerel chore also had its rare moments of pleasure. On foggy mornings the estates become consoling enclaves of silence. There will be thoughtful brooks amidst soothing shade. He could sit unobtrusively in the tranquility of the monoculture. The trees danced to the tune of the seasons. In March they were full of leaves and flowers. With the first rains of the year, the dried bunches of little yellow flowers fell and became part of the debris, which was pushed down the slopes by the runoff. In the rainy months of June and July the trees stood dripping and stooping, sad and melancholy and the streams shoot and holler with trembling fury. In August marked by a brief interregnum in the eerie wet spell, the nuts crack with a chain of fulmination. The entire estate would be reverberating with the sound of nuts cracking open and the shells and seeds raining down. Onam comes, with flowers, harvest moons and occasional drizzles. In November the plumage of the trees changes color. By Christmas all of the rubber trees would have shed their leaves and the skeletal frame of the trees would stand stark against the landscape. In January buds would appear again; purple tender leaves flash against the aquamarine heavens. It was Anthony's private pleasure, his compensation for having voluntarily relinquished any chance of having a satisfactory social life.

Rainy days were wonderful. The rain would dance with a million nimble silken feet across the hazy undulations. Anthony would watch the miraculous process, the heavens nursing the verdant earth. Rain at night was all the more beautiful; it had a pleasantly sad monotony about it. Gently wailing against the thickets, raindrops trickled down from the moody woods. The seasonal mountain streams came alive with shooting streaks of silver. The dormant seeds of the seasonal plants sprout; they come out looking for their share of the sun, ebulliently smiling at the world in fresh innocence. Life expresses itself in infinite forms, shapes, and sounds. Rains, he thought, were the expression of the graceful love of the heavens to the curiosity of life on earth. Water, the enormous flywheel of the global heat engine, has a poetic side also. People like Anthony romanced it in silence. Between the emerald blue cleavages of the hills the cool radiant moon comes reeling up and the quivering leaves flash silver. The stream dreams under the spiraling fumes and unseen feet dance on the moon blanched sands. The nameless bushes tucked deep in the fissures of the rocks tussled and twirled by the shooting fury of the monsoons, bloom their white fragrance, allaying the lingering gloom. The warble of a distant bird becomes a prayer almost. The hollow reed hums a tune, blaming human greed.

In history we read, he rued, the repeating greed of our greed. Why does the lamb bleat sadly, why does the wolf howl loudly? Both are very true to themselves. Despite our cultural impersonations, we must be ourselves once in a while.

Anthony's was a life which had been denied its place in the sun, which had lost its way and drifted into a dreary desert of dormancy. He was tormented by a noble fire, but he lacked the refinement and initiation to streamline it. He stays in the sty however much he tries. The wraiths of thoughts rebelled because he lacked the ability to give them vent. When words fail, we fail to communicate. The impotent fury of a wordless mind—a mind incapable of expressing itself in a meaningful manner—became a gore, a mania, a nagging consternation. He itched to fly high and far, but his imaginary wings failed him. He itched to touch the star, but his imaginary fingers failed him. His conciousness, like a wanton whiff of wind, wanted to kiss the rosy cheeks of a highborn flower, but it lacked development in the verbal and written skills. His mind, like an unseen hand, longed to wipe the tears from the eyes of a lonely water lily, far away on distant shores, but the images failed to materialize. His imagination craved to feel its way up a rainbow to the garden of stars where it would have sucked the nectar like a merry butterfly had it been able to take wing. The biting bitterness within Anthony came from the realization that he was fit for better things, but had been cruelly denied his rightful share of the pie, his chosen place in the sun. Such people, as a rule, cannot realize their ambitions due to an expatriate syndrome that this world is not ours, our world sprawls elsewhere, somewhere beyond the sky. They stare into the heavens and imagine things. It is not our fault that we are who and what we are. Who administers the gene pool? Who engineers our genetic configuration?

Such expatriates stung by an inky nostalgia, have been known to drown their wordless confusion in drink. They drink their way to absurdity and imagine imaginary meanings to a meaningless existence. Such people were numerous around him, the dropouts from the school, the failed dreamers, the social reformers rejected by the very people they sought to help; this species has many subtypes. Many take their own life, a macabre passion Kerala is notorious for. Some even land up in madhouses. All madmen are expatriates. They are romantics, poets, and dreamers. Speaking a language alien to the general run, their reasoning goes against the grain of the universal madness. Anthony did not have any such options. Boozing did not agree with him; insanity was a carrot dangling on the distant horizon. For the moment he is, however, blessed with an obsession in that he lives for his mother and sisters. He is aware that it is a flimsy raison d'etre. To be obsessed, one must wear blinders. Life runs into unwieldy ground should we do otherwise. Cured of obsession we cannot do the stupid things we do now. We take on the world with a blinding work fury. The spectator, who is innocent of such a fury, finds the performance of the obsessed quite ludicrous and base. An ordinary hen cannot understand the fever of the mother hen. Nobody can truly live for anybody else. But Anthony banished reason from the precincts of his private thoughts. Such a fool's satisfaction will suffice for the moment. Once Lucy is appropriately married, a yawning existential crisis is going to develop. Anthony has been imagining various options to address the gorgon round the corner.

Anthony could have easily got involved in politics. He had in fact taken part in the district rallies of the regional political party, a brand of Kerala Congress, (headed by a leader who fondly believed that his speeches resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Empire), held annually at Kottayam. But now he is tired of that. The political leaders require illiterate rabble to flesh out the rallies, to clash with the riot police, and to supply martyrs for the cause. Their hysteria, their simplicity, their earnestness, their penury, their simple concerns about their immediate survival, the leaders are indeed fortunate to have earned the loyalty of poor people with such rich political potential. Anthony could not swallow it as readily as the impassioned bottom tier of the social hierarchy is prone to do.

Nevertheless, political allegiance did offer certain benefits: it is a protective umbrella, it insulates the party member from police excesses, from bureaucratic highhandedness, from the state sponsored psychopaths. It helps the party member in gaining access to state services. An individual with no political affiliation becomes a non-entity in the thoroughly political context of Kerala. But Anthony did not need such protection, nor could he bring himself to associate with dupes and imbeciles.

Another possibility was to try his luck with spirituality. Christianity—that curious breed of Syrian Christians, rooted deeply in oriental tradition, bearing the Asiatic fingerprints of mysticism, reasonless reason, and a penchant for rhythm was the predominant religion of the region. The Syrian Christians, spread into various congregations, and thirsting to devour the world, are an odd conglomerate. Religion for them is only a nominal cohesive force. The laymen spoke the language of money, and they understood each other very well. Unlike Nairs and Brahmins, the other two upper-class communities, Syrians were not encumbered by patriotic altruism and natural piety. Nor were they constrained by culture, faith, or values. They attacked nature with lewd greed and made a thriving business of education, health care and religion. Their fingers extended to all venues where there was the potential for the generation of wealth. The general economic renaissance the Syrian Christians were experiencing vaguely bore the signature of religion.

The shadowy figures like Anthony became an uneasy, disturbing distraction to the boisterous social mainstream. All social dropouts, who failed or were not interested to appropriate for themselves a place in the sun, took to the industry of religion. There are mediation centers and revival crusades meant to whip up the wordless fears of the gullible. Many such people join the bandwagon of spiritual zealots out to inject the other world hysteria into the masses. The engineers of spiritual neurosis had certain advantages. People looked at them with awe and respect. They seemed to have established a hot line link with the president of human affairs. They were a viable pressure safety valve of the common breed of sinners, the poor sinners sin where and when they can, wail and repent where and when they can. The poor God blew hot and cold where and when they sinned or pined. Whose fault is it that the fig tree could not bear fruits, whose fault is that the combination of chemistries conspired to result in its barrenness, whose fault is it that He happened to come its way, whose fault is it that He chose to curse the fig tree for its being what it is? The curse, the cursed and the curser merge into one.

Anthony also had been to Maruthoor, the most famous meditation center. He however, could not make himself swallow all that. Such encounters only contributed to accentuate his expatriate syndrome. Christianity could not, as of now, satiate his curiosities and concerns. He couldn't subscribe to something he couldn't believe. Still of late he had chosen to take religion and spirituality quite seriously. He had regularly been reading the Bible, had been trying to sink into it, setting aside the congenital reason that blinds. He fondly hoped to know God in all His mysteries more dearly, nearly and clearly. Once you are intoxicated with God, once you are stung by ineffable spirituality, you become a floating phantom figure, life becomes an ecstasy, and you are always in the high. So spirituality is one of the serious options he is lately toying with.

Also, he has the option of living the life of an irreligious hermit. This idea dawned on him from Fr. Jacob Chiramel, who was their parish priest many years ago. He was a priest with a difference. He dismissed the regular pack of sinners, hanging around the confessional. Sin is the treasured concept that the religious economy of the world is entirely based on. Dry spiritual obesity and sacramental surfeit efficiently drive us light years away from the most astral, rarified and whispering presence of God. He told the seasoned sinners that sin was a disease. A disease originating from poverty—poverty of the soul. You steal because of your spiritual emptiness. You harm others because your inner world is ruffled. Then there are the simpletons that the religious charlatans and clownish prudes eagerly pounce on.

“Shall I inherit the kingdom of Satan for the reason that I touched myself?”

“Will God forgive me if I happened to have a wet dream.”

“Does God approve of us, light-hearted drunkards?”

If there is anything common to the priest class, it is an insatiable thirst for money. Their exhortations, preaching and words of caring and concern inevitably end up in a single point program—extort money. Money for renovations, money for charity, money to marry away poor girls, money to erect a new belfry, money to build a new parish hall. Father Jacob refused to join them. He refused to extract money, he inoculated them against the pandemic of sin. The church relapsed into insignificance. Without the hefty thrifty spectra of sin religious institutions relapse into insignificance. The bishop transferred him to the sepulchral silence of the high ranges. The new parish was deep in the woods, six thousand feet above the sea level, amidst rolling grasslands, bordered by verdant woods. The parishioners were very poor Tamilians, working in the estates. Most of the estates were under lock out because of accumulating losses. When people do not have money, hospitals become vacant, religious institutions become dormant. Hospitalization is against the scheme of nature; it is a luxury necessitated by luxury and laxities. The people become otherworldly when this worldly concerns are taken care of, or when the stark mundane concerns are past remediation. The parishioners forgot the priest; the bishop also left him to his own devices. He became a happy hermit, self reliant, silent and very nearer to God. The church building and his vicarage were shortly drowned in riotous vegetation. He lived as an imperceptible part of the green mansions. Feeding on whatever little nature offered him, braving the cold and chill, reading and meditating during long spells of rain and fog. Anthony had a genuine liking for him. The path of Father Jacob was one of the options he had in mind.

His last option was to take his own life. It has always been a beautiful option for him. Within a couple of years he was sure to marry away Lucy. Thereafter he will be on his own. His mother can join one of her daughters. In the meantime, he has to settle on one of the three options. He had worked out a romantic plan to escape from his mortal frame. His idea was to go to Anamudi, the highest peak in South India. It appealed to him to melt away into the universal spirit in those serene highlands, looking at the blue heavens, amidst the permeating tranquility. Two more years—the count down has begun to settle on one of the three options.

He got up late in the evening. Had a cup of raw black coffee, took his chopper and walked into the land. It is January, and there is little work in the orchard. Still he walked around, surveying how the plants fared. At nightfall he would take a comfortable bath in the stream to wash away a day's toils. He believed that every day was a rebirth. The night air was arid, at least less humid. Winter spread its winsome plumes—cold and bright. The nocturnal sky was placid in its silken silence.

'This isolation, this birth

This life, this compromise and dearth

Be wise, await the opening of death
,' he hummed, and in an instant he felt that it was all a wrong approach on life. Death cannot be the consolation prize of life. Not only that, but death has the further drawback of being irreversible. Until after a natural solution evolves it is better by far to settle into a bleak and dreary dreamy world of Kafkaesque surrealism.

Chapter 11
They also serve

Having been appointed to a teaching position, Lucy dutifully filled out the necessary forms and then went straight to the hostel room. She was terribly tired, three sleepless days were telling on her nerves. A splitting headache was shattering her brain to smithereens. The fangs of winter were razor sharp. This place was nothing like home. Bihar lacked the lush greenery of Kerala, the sea breeze, the familiar Syrian Christian milieu evolved across two thousand years. She missed the silent carefulness of Anthony, the prayerful concerns of her mother, the fairly compact social structure. From the southwestern coastal strip she had traveled all the way alone to the northeastern frontier of the country. The effect was quite dramatic, from coconut oil to mustard oil, from rice-based diet to wheat-based diet, from firewood to lignite and kerosene, from peaceful rural life to congested and chaotic urban life.

To her mute consternation, the principal mildly scolded her for not having contacted them upon arriving at the railway station. It was crude, temeraneous, and foolhardy of her to have sought the help of an unknown savage. God's grace alone brought her safely to the school, she reminded her. The option of contacting them on the phone was beyond the ambit of a village maid. She had hardly ever used it. Telephone was still a luxury, postal services were still the most popular form of communication, the village postman still remained very dear to many a lover, many a job aspirant, and many a man waiting for higher studies. To live the life away with a choosy classy dignity is not easy for all. It is the vociferous duty of the government to pamper and support the backward classes; they bank on the hardships their forefathers had been through. All governments take from the so-called forward classes and give next to nothing in return except for the elusive feeling of nationhood. For them it is a struggle for survival. The selection is not based on merit. Either you should have the physical resources to buy your way up the ladder or you should have a support base, you should have the right people at the right places. Either way she stood at the loser's end.

She chose the adventurous course of taking the plunge into the medieval uncertainties of Bihar, because her chances of making a career in Kerala were quite grim. The church had its large network of educational institutions. But piety or erudition counted little, money did. No religion entertains wretches. Still she has the sad consolation that they also serve who only stand and wait. The channel of Hari uncle also had run dry. He had kept his word, fully supporting her adventures in higher education. Anthony was a sad poem to her, selfless, caring and demanding nothing, burning away like a candle. She wanted to ease the burden on his head as much as she could. She had nothing to loss, her future had already been stolen. She was mentally prepared to survive in very adverse circumstances too. Then she loved her profession, sharing her love for English literature. She experienced an excruciating rapture explaining the romantic poets of early eighteenth century. The residual sadness in Keats and Shelly profoundly touched her and propelled her to rarified heights where her soul grazed in the cirrus crystallinity.

She did not disappoint her employers. The pupils had overtly enjoyed the energetic and euphoric performances of Tony. She also got into their good books in an entirely different way. Her enthusiasm, her resourcefulness, her love for her profession and her patience did the trick. She fostered their creative energy, nudging and provoking them to come out with their works of fantasy. Once they get started, any puck can pen a line or two. Everyone is a poet during adolescence, that rare phase of life when idealism gets the better of us. Teaching was a pleasant distraction, a beautiful way to forget her troubles. Kerala—and all the inconsistencies it was fraught with—became a poetic anguish for her. The dismal distances smoothened the asperities. Kerala, shaped like a bitter gourd on the map, with its mist, rain, sun, hills, valleys, long and sallow shoreline; Kerala, the blue-green world of autotrophs, churches, temples, temple ponds, politics (a decided overdose of leftist politics), political gatherings, art festivals, Onam, Vishu, Christmas, and Easter—distance made it all the more beautiful.

Yesterdays do not go away. Each day demands and takes its pound of flesh. Even forlorn centuries come back to you demanding their due. The loans cannot be written off, the liabilities cannot be waived, every paisa has to be accounted for. Time is very particular about it. Such a perfect auditor, such a perfect and uncompromising executive time is. You cannot begin from a clean slate.

Months came to pass, winter eased into spring. The skeletons of trees were busy coming back to life, laden with buds and flowers. In Kerala seasons are not very well defined. Tropical Kerala has only two seasons, rainy season and dry season, with shadows of other seasons stealing in and stealing out unobtrusively, with the possible exception of the eastern highlands. Lucy, being a lover of seasons, watched the subtle change of mood in nature. She had read a great deal about the vernal bloom in Europe. Having never been to England and having absolutely no reason to expect that she could devise a way to get there, she was, nonetheless, an authority on English villages and English pastoral life. She could easily visualize the characters of Thomas Hardy. She loved the trees, streams, and blooms of England, for the dear sake of the poets and writers who lived and pined on that sacred soil. Lucy had fallen deeply in love with the northern lake districts. She romanced the life of Dorothy and William Wordsworth. Tintern Abbey and the river Wye lived in her as they were two hundred years ago. In fact, she was more familiar with the climate, living conditions and geography of nineteenth century England than she was with that of present day Kerala. Dr. Samuel Johnson had assumed the role of father figure in her private world; Fanny Brown, Lady Elizabeth Barret Browning and Mary Shelly seemed to be her intimate friends. Hence she thoroughly enjoyed her classes. It was a passion to reconstruct and relive in those wonderful days, and to take the students with her for a pilgrimage to the English villages frequented by Southey, Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge and many other romantics.

Contrary to the points accentuated by prominent literary critics, she believed in enjoying a work of art with the background of the artist in mind. His private life, his tragedies, his emotional disasters, his anguish and ecstasies added to the appreciation of the work. The poem is not independent of the poet, she believed. The poet is not a random medium for a poem to find expression, the poem is the snapshot of the inner climate of the poet at a certain point of time. Therefore, a poem cannot be permanently divorced from the poet for a comprehensive assimilation. Holding this ardent view, she took pains to explain the circumstances that led to the convulsive coalescence of a poem. Also, she recited poems with a peculiar charm, incorporating the emotional premises of the work. Tony's classes were a boisterous celebration emphasized by his eloquent body language. Her words, however, emanated from the innermost region of her soul. She meant what she said, because she became the poem. Fortunately, she would never visit England, and the poetic version of England will ever live intact in her mind.

Beautiful March, with cold mornings and warm afternoons, with blushing evenings when the silent and hazy landscape softly whispers to the deep heavens. She was on melancholy William Cowper in tenth standard.

My fugitive years are all hasting away
And I must ere lone lie as lowly as they
With a turf on my breast and a stone at my head
Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.

There was a cautious knock at the door. The peon cocked in his sprightly head. He was apparently hesitating to break the spell.

“There are visitors for you, miss,” the house servant declared and retreated in a hurry not willing to face her reaction.

Indeed the spell was broken. Lucy was abruptly catapulted into reality. Who would want to visit her in Bihar? Instantly she remembered the letter she had from her mother, the only letter she ever had from her dear mother. Every word and punctuation of the chit she was now familiar with. Anna's miserable tussle with letters was not very promising, but the spirit and motive overshadowed the linguistic flaws:

My dearest,

A good many years have come to pass since I used a pen. Please forgive my linguistic excesses. I am writing this to you only to let you know how I care for you, only to let you know how very dear you are to me. Your sister and brother are also dear to me, but you are dearer, you are the last one good lord blessed me with. You are so precocious, so thoughtful and slender. Anthony, your dear brother is so very concerned about you. Poor dear, you father (God bless him) is gone from us. Lord knows where. But our Anthony took upon his slender shoulders the weight of a family.

But I cannot express my love for him. I am afraid of him. He is so grave and silent all the time. He shuts all of us out of his private world. Often I wish I could share his worries and thoughts. But he can take care of himself. I am not concerned about him. I do not expect him to get married, he is not inclined that way. He doesn't seek company, he is at home with himself. His mind is sacro sanct. He is more at home watching the rains, sadly raining down the roof.

But you are not so my dear. Your sister is married and settled in life. Though you do not tell me anything about your private sorrows, I can understand you my dear and my motherly hand reaches out to you wherever you are. All of you shut me out, your dear mother, from your sorrows. I pray for you all the time. My life is a prayer for my dear ones. What else can an old woman like me do? I have nobody else in my life but you. I hadn't ever had anything in my life, whatever I had I gave away for the little pleasures of the people near to me. Now I stand alone praying for my dear ones. Once you are settled in life, my motherly concerns will be over. May be I will live to see all of you living happily and progressing in life. All through my life, my constant worry was where is the next meal to come from. If you cannot emerge free from that pernicious obsession you cannot do anything constructive in life.

Your mother, my little angel, does not worry anymore. I just watch and pray. I do not anymore need anything. I am mentally packed up for the journey home. May the lord decide when to take me into his caring hands. Mine is a life squandered and vandalized by many people. At my time I was too simple a wench to have my way with the world. Now in the evening of my life I have no worries, because I expect nothing.

My poor dear angel, from the beginning you were different from others, so sensible and sensitive. You blossomed into womanhood before my eyes. God willing you are destined to do great things, you are going to live your life in a different context. Your horizons will be wider and daring. You are going to do us proud. Emotional entanglements should not ever stand in your way when better prospects knock at your door. Few weeks back, some people had called on us to discuss your future. They may visit you one of these days. What ever you decide, your poor mother will be happy for you. Only thing I can tell you is that they are telling the truth. You will always be dear to me for my own sake and also for the sake of your poor father who loved you so much.

God bless us all.

Your loving mother,


P.S. Anthony knows nothing about the visitors.

The letter had for many days been haunting and disturbing her. It hinted many things and failed to elaborate anything. She did not want anything to be kept from Anthony. She would not let him down even for the whole world. The words he always left unsaid reverberated in the corridors of her mind more than the measured words he shared with her. She had been wondering what this hullabaloo was all about.

With mounting apprehension she measured her way to the staff room. It was warm afternoon; the sun and shadows of the swaying boughs were dancing on the floor.

In the staff room Hari uncle was waiting for her, he was accompanied by two boys. Lucy had written to him discussing all the latest developments. But she had not expected him to come all the way to call on her. Certain people love other people for nothing, as if compensating for the dues of a previous birth. His presence worried and surprised her. She wanted to come out with a smile, but nervousness drowned it.

He smiled enchantingly and patted her with his usual warmth. He remained as enigmatic, robust and virile as ever. He still sported that mischievous smile in his shindig eyes. Although Hari uncle had put on some weight, it did nothing to diminish his darling dimple, the trademark of his energetic, boyishly captivating smile.

“So, my teacher girl, we are going to take you out into the sun, you look so pallid as if ghosts were your soul mates. Oh there, that patent questioning look in your cute big eyes. Of course at your expense, now that you are well placed and employed.”

She affected a smile. He had his own ways of taunting her. They walked out, the boys followed. The boys were a mystery, they are not his children, she knows his children very well. She was a de facto niece to Hari family.

Out on the road, he turned to her. “Now meet my nephews, Manu and Raju”, he said, introducing the boys.

The boys offered their hand with overflowing enthusiasm. They seemed to be anxious for that moment. They looked at her imploringly, worried that they were disturbing her peace.

“Now take us dear hostess, to the best hotel in this poor excuse for a town,” he teased her. “When are you going to put some flesh on those tiny bones? Do you feed on air alone in the hostel?”

She had little idea about the geography of the city. Nor was she comfortable with Hindi. She stuttered and wondered where to take them.

“Don't worry, my pretty convent bird, I know the way. And don't rack your cute little brain about the expenses.” He took the lead and they walked into the maze of the city.

She knew that real trouble was brewing up. They settled around the table, the boys ordered fizzy cool drinks for a beginning, Hari uncle ordered coffee, and she followed suit.

“We are here at the end of the world to discuss real business my dear,” he began closely watching her. Her eyes opened wide, her body stiffened in red alert.

“Lucy dear, you must know the truth and truth will set you free. My sister is a lecturer at a college in Bombay; you know that already. When you were fifteen, she came to me with a strange request. She was my mentor and I can never refuse her. She among other things told me about you.”

“About me, how does she know me?”

“She has known you from birth. Her caring eyes were on you throughout your life. Why? Because she is your real mother. She loved your father madly and to perpetuate her love for him they together brought you into this world. She sent me to you after your secondary school.”

“So, you were all playing a trick on me?”

“It was not a trick my dear, it was a necessity. Now meet your brothers who love you so dearly.” The boys looked at her with overflowing love.

“We have come to take you back to us where you belong,” Hari Uncle continued. “Your mother is very much worried about you. I came to visit you time and time again for her sake. You are her first born, her only daughter. She is quite fond of girls,”he asserted. And then, as a confidential aside, in a whisper—as if her brothers could not hear him, he added, “much more than boys.”

“So, she wants to win me back because her marriage is in trouble and she can't have a daughter,” Lucy accused.

“No dear, it is for your betterment. She has the contacts to get you placed in a college. Also, she will marry you to a good family.”

“So, I will get two intelligent and suave brothers, an aristocratic family, a fashionable job and a Mister Right as a husband, all because my so-called biological mother chose it to be so.”

“Please do not put it that way dear, you deserve it. You deserve the very best in life.”

Suddenly, Lucy thought of her mother on a hardscrabble hillside near Palai, living in depravation, suffering silently for all of them. She remembered Anthony—especially his stoicism. Her mind's eye saw her real brother sitting silently on the verandah, watching the afternoon vernal rains. The life-giving rains danced across the valley on a million nimble feet, linking the poor desolate earth to infinity with a billion silken silver strings.

“No, Hari uncle, I do not deserve it. I do not deserve any such prerogative. I did not deserve it in my childhood, when our poor mother took us all to the church to ask God with tears for our father to be good to us. I did not deserve it when I spent my years in the rundown hostel rooms as a wretched orphan living on charity. I did not deserve it when I was tactfully excluded from associating with the affluent high brow college girls. I did not deserve it when I spent many an empty night in my poor bed waiting for somebody who would love and care for me to turn up. We had no visitors to add color to our life. We had nothing to celebrate, nothing to remember. At this stage when my painful shallow life has run into a dry barren and dreary desert land, I do not deserve it any more than I deserved it long, long ago.” Her large thoughtful eyes were red, but there were no tears left to cry. The constant struggle to survive had wrung her frail self dry.

“My poor touchy niece, do not jump to unwarranted conclusions. Let it sink into you. Do not think anything now, let it wait. Later give it some thought; think in the light of reason. You are a sensible girl, your immediate reaction was not unexpected. You are very precious to all of us. My sister's husband is a very nice man. No man in the world would have forgiven her. He understands and forgives. He is most willing to accept her daughter as his own. He also desires to have a daughter. No, do not say anything. Let it wait. Take your time, one month, three months, six months. We will await your decision. Regardless of what you conclude, you will ever be dear to us, precious to us, and you will always be in our thoughts.”

The momentum of the events shattered Lucy. The splitting headache returned with a vengeance. She had a sleepless night. The shining image of her Hari uncle had tarnished. She had come to regard Hari uncle as a selfless benefactor, without any ulterior motive. She had been easily duped. Hari uncle was crafty and cunning. Her roommate slept like a log, often muttering unintelligible words. She thought of her father, he was little more than a vague memory to her. Her childhood, her schooling, her studies in the feeble moody light of the kerosene lamp, her adolescent longing for decent clothes, the less than adequate diet, Anthony's sacrifice to give them a better living she replayed it all. Then she remembered Babu. She missed him. She longed to have somebody to confide in. Her female colleagues seemed to be too shallow to share her most private thoughts. They are light dainty lives, with little loves little worries and little jealousies. Then she remembered him. In spite of herself she smiled into the darkness.

She met him for the first time after their crisp and formal parting outside the school in the pricking chill of winter at the school assembly. She was surprised from top to toe. Standing distracted thoughtful, tall and dreamy. He did not seem to see her, her furtive hooky glances went unacknowledged. When curiosity got the better of her she asked Ms. Valerie Smith, the Anglo Indian Teacher, who he was. Valerie was a dark fat woman from Calcutta, very motherly.

“Why, have you met him before?” she asked back.

“Yes, he was the stranger who guided me to the school from the station.”

Valerie looked at the Madrasi girl incredulously.

“He is emmem. We know next to nothing about him. He is not very communicative. He teaches Mathematics in the higher classes. You are apparently the first woman on the campus to be in talking terms with him.”

In the months that followed they happened to meet on many an occasion. Sometimes his class was followed by hers, or vice versa. emmem did not readily recognize her. Still he smiled at her, his totally trusting, innocent smile. His physical presence immensely consoled her. She fondly hoped that he was from Kerala. He had a southern look, he even looked like a Syrian Christian. He walked as if his feet were not touching the ground, as if he was floating. Then she understood what Babu had commented about her walking, like a bird hardly touching the ground. She felt safe that emmem was around. Some how she felt that he was her male edition. That he was related to her in very many mysterious ways. On the cycle rickshaw she was too frightened and confused to observe him. Her wordless soul reassured her that he was not evil, that he is a rare being, the type in whom you can lay your trust.

One day in the staff room, it so happened that all the other teachers were in their classrooms and they were both left to themselves. It was an ideal opportunity to break the ice. For many weeks she had been anxiously looking for just such an opening.

“Do you remember sir, where and when we me for the first time?” she asked emmem without an introduction.

emmem slowly lifted his head from the book he was engrossed in. He smiled.

“Yes young lady, we met at the railway station.”

“I have a feeling that you are from Kerala,” Lucy brashly declared.

“Probably I am a little bit of everybody.” He smiled nonchalantly.

“Somehow you look familiar to me,” she strained to remember him in connection with something vague.

“I trust that you are very much at home here. Being from a distant place and culture, a transfer can be daunting. But you are young and obviously resilient enough to get over it.”

“There is more than to it than meets the eye,” she laughed mysteriously.

He looked into her eyes; he penetrated her soul; she felt her dark and foreboding private recesses being illumined and examined, but the overall effect was comforting.

“You are sad, ineffably sad,” he stated.

“So are you, there is bottomless sadness in your eyes.”

“My sadness is a comfortable one. I have learned to live with it. I know that there is not much I could do. But if you ever think that I can be of any help to you please do not hesitate to tell me. I am always available to do whatever little I can to make life a little less miserable.”

“Thank you,” suddenly her mind welled up with the force of the moment. She had not expected that much, yet it made her profoundly pleased with herself. It remained a secret between them, a sealed covenant. Thereafter she received her days with augmented confidence and a radiating freshness.

Given the chance, she realized that she would let go and tell him everything. He is the only human being in the whole world worthy of hearing it, she silently decided. Her troubles had only just begun. Next day she went to school lugging the nagging headache with her. She looked like a somnambulist, with sedate eyes. Her melancholy and eloquent large eyes had lost their characteristic sheen. She was too distracted and disoriented to be a very effective teacher. It was during the morning interval, when she was on her way back to the staff room accompanied by a group of students, that she had a vision of herself as a child in Bombay. It was the ugly underbelly of the megapolis she was vaguely familiar with. Men and women casually defecating on the railroad, and a modern suburban train shooting past, indifferent to the obscenities around. The absence of the sun meant it had to be either early morning or late evening. She was standing on the railway track, disturbed and miserable, there were tears in her eyes, then she saw her father sitting thoughtfully next to a fashionably dressed woman in the first class compartment of a fleeting suburban train.

“Chacha come back, your Lucymol is here, come back Chacha, please come back,” she repeatedly yelled in Malayalam, her mother tongue. But the train did not halt and her father did not even look back. She called out to him desperately. The other students were surprised and amused by her strange tongue and excitement. Scores of children surrounded her in their childish enthusiasm. Fortunately, the motherly Valerie pounced on the scene and ushered her to the comparative safety of the staff room. It created a real sensation through out the school. People actually enjoy it if somebody known to them goes bananas or behaves weirdly. Reality must necessarily be sensed, but the sensation is generally shared in common. If someone perceives reality in a radically different way, we proclaim him or her to be insane. Who is to say whether insanity is or isn't a seperate reality?

Lucy was very worn out and exhausted after the spectacular momentary disorientation. Something was pulsing inside her head, sending shooting sparks of shattering pain. She decided to brave it silently. Suddenly it occurred to her that she was all alone in the world, her pains were her own, her setbacks were her own. Back in her room, she tried to say her prayers but was too tired to do so. But she slipped into a rejuvenating slumber within minutes. The next academic day was eventless. She engaged the students more or less normally. Yet she looked emaciated and distraught. In the evening, on her way back to the girls' hostel she had had yet another episode of disorientation. She felt that she was at Vagamon, the hill station near Palai. She was not alone. She was strolling in the deep green meadows across the rolling hills with Babu. Babu was reticent and walking in front, again it was evening. She wanted to recline on the soft tufts of grass and relax for a while, but Babu would have nothing of it. The cool green pastures, where loitering puffs of fog grazed, seemed very familiar. In fact they had been there on many an occasion to cool off. The low hills and rolling meadows were very dear to them, because it was there that they had tasted and shared the most intimate and sweetly absurd nothings.

“We should go back Babu, it is getting late. Mother is expecting me today,” they had left the motorcycle, their Hero Honda, long behind.

“There is no returning, there can be no turning back, we will stalk across the hills, across the horizons,” he said without a glance askance.

A queer thrill convulsed past her spine. The acicular wind scrubbed icy chill on her petit little frame. She strained to catch up with him. By way of assistance, he offered her his cold long and clever hand. Her little wattle thin and brittle fingers got lost within his mighty hand. The day died, the full moon came up across the eastern ridge. The glossy leaves danced flashing silver in the moonlight. They crossed the pastures and entered the shrubs. The aromatic balsam gloss accosted them. They crossed streams, scrambled up mossy shining rocks. She felt very light, almost weightless. She walked her bird walk, nearly going to take off from the ground. Then she tried to remember somebody, and gave up that strenuous effort. There is no need to remember anything, she seemed to be cured of yesterdays. Babu was with her, he was home, nothing else mattered. Shortly they reached the eastern ridgeline. The moonbeams copiously bathed them. Deep and distant valleys basked and dreamed in the moon. A strange silence enveloped them, silken silence. She was too awed to break the spell. New heaven and new earth unfurled before their eyes. She tried to remember St. John's Apocalypse. Babu stood there in deep thought like the statue of Colossus. Time rained down as small beads of dew and settled on both of them. Then she saw snow white little flowers smiling at her in the grass, smiling in their fresh innocence. Smiling in their painful simplicity. Smiling like fallen stars in the moist ground. She stood on her knees, tucked the tail of her flowing saree to her waist, and bent to feel the velvet softness of the flowers. Next instant she had an impulse to pluck a bunch of flowers and put it in her rich jet-black flowing hair, reaching down to her bum.

There is no such thing as absolute reality. We create our edition of reality. And reality dies with us. Nothing exists without us.

Again scores of students gathered around her. The flabby succulent broiler children. She was busy plucking blades of grass from the ground and putting them on her overflowing hair. There was a diabolic luster in her eyes, a pleasurably painful ecstasy in her constitution.

“Oh miss! What are you doing?” the girls chirped.

This time around Meera Sharma, her roommate with her fleshy lips painted bright red as if she had lately been sipping blood, came around to pull her down to the general version of reality. Lucy felt exhausted and idiotic. She dreaded her continuously active mind more than ever. Was she mad, what is madness? She had no idea. Students would suddenly become silent whenever she passed them; girls whispered and giggled. The teachers treated her with sympathy and suspicion. emmem did not betray how he felt, he simply smiled at her reassuringly wherever they met. She longed to tell him everything before it was too late. She could not help but think that one of these days she would completely lose her mind. But she wasn't able to make any headway with him; he was rarely seen in the staff room. He was with the students most of the time. One day she did a curious thing to shake him to reality, she purchased a post card and wrote to him:

Psalm 23: 6

She did not sign it. emmem read it and kept it with a sad smile.

Next day she was caught in her room by Meera Sharma, staring into infinity with a deadly pallor in her face. Lucy was not seeing anything, she just blanked out. Meera prevailed upon her to get admitted to an hospital. What she subtly meant was that Lucy should find refuge in an asylum.

“Not yet, not yet,” Lucy was quick to differ. But deep down she knew that time was getting short.

Days of incoherence dawned and died. Holi break came, most of the students and teachers went home to celebrate. Lucy was left in her surreal solitude. She could not think or write anything. She stopped writing to Anthony. It was cruel of her to disturb the poor fellow with her ludicrous absurdity. Her future looked dim. She knew that ere long she would collapse irrevocably. Our body is really dear to us. A turtle loves its shell; we have an attachment to the house where we live. When we leave home, we take particular care to entrust somebody to take care of it, to protect it from burglars, termites, and rats. We make arrangements to have it painted and repaired from time to time. When the death instinct comes to the fore, every animal seeks a safe resting hole. Human beings seek the company of somebody who cares, somebody in whose lap you can lay your head and leave your body behind and know that in your absence it will not be ravaged or subjected to indignities.

In the stifling silence Lucy felt that urgency. emmem takes no holiday. He must be there in the boys' hostel. She braced her energies to make it up to his door. It doesn't matter what comes next. The boys' hostel was silent, a few students were hanging around, there was dejection of a rejected being in their eyes. Mustering all her energy, she dragged her body to his doorstep. It was open, but nobody was inside.

“Where is he?” she asked a student who passed by.

“He went somewhere yesterday morning miss,” the student informed her.

“But the door is not locked, he must be somewhere around,” she said hopefully.

“He never closes his door miss, even if he goes out for a few days.” He had inadvertently destroyed her last vestige of hope.

She staggered and wobbled out into the open, dragging herself down the staircase. She stepped into the sun, into the road where a two-way flux of humanity thrived. Lucy still sought to find him. Darkness crept into her brain, an icy blue silence descended. The struggle went out of her. Overwhelmed by fear and loneliness, she blanked out with a pathetic groan.

Chapter 12
The soul of a Victorian mansion

emmem, the Madrasi fugitive, took three steps down onto the platform at Pratapgange railway station on a mild vernal afternoon in March. He had long ago promised to spend the Festival of Colors with the Bennets. In need of paint and unkempt, the miniscule railway station had seen better days. The ancient rusting narrow gauge train looked meek and humble. The acrid fumes of coal lingered. He chose to plod along the gray dusty country road to where he was to meet Bennet. Warm and encouraging, the sun was recovering from winter. The overarching trees that bordered the road were breaking awake to the subtle ministrations of spring. Vast fields ran into the distant horizons, waiting for the rains.

'Country roads take us home
However much we roam
Country roads take us home
Amidst the gathering storm
Country roads take us home
Returning our real form
Country roads take us home
Amidst the lingering gloam,'
emmem hummed.
Having no reason to be in a hurry, he took his time and enjoyed the scenery, passing mango orchards, small temples, temple ponds, and small shrines that were sheltered by a vast blue canopy of stilted banyan trees. In the evening, he saw the tall mansion of Bennets amidst the groves, in the midst of intensely cultivated, brooding fields. The villagers looked at the bearded stranger with suspicion. A goon from outside is a potential threat to the status quo. People knew each other in the village—he could feel their eyes upon him—they watched his every action. It occurred to him that he was on the move because of the darkness he was carrying in his soul. Strange birds flapped their wings in protest and floated up from the boughs; dry leaves had gathered at the tennis court in front of the house. The two-story building stood defiantly amidst the deluge of chlorophyll, defying the centuries. White geese floated in the pond in thoughtful silence. Old Arnold Bennet, commonly known as AB, came trotting down the stairs to receive him. AB had been observing the stranger through binoculars from his watchtower. AB looked like a lord emerging from his medieval castle. Though erect and imposing, impairments from varicose veins and the throes of fastidious arthritis had reduced the aging patriarch to a spectre of his younger self.

“I was expecting you,” AB smiled, exposing his yellow teeth. Black Bihari faces flashed by in the kitchen. “Do not take the trouble of introducing yourself. I know you inside out through Tony,” AB continued.

䗨at news?䠨e asked for a beginning.

㉠am busy celebrating the ravages of time. It is fun to yield to the cruel hands of time.䍊

“Is Tony around?” he asked.

“Tony? First you go and take a rest; we will discuss Tony later.”

AB ran rheumatoid fingers along his bald head, as if searching for bygone hair, his gray eyes running to the distant horizon. The visitor was ushered to the first floor. Momentos from the 19th century looked down on him from the Victorian architecture. Muffled sighs of the past puffed in through the rusting window bars. emmem could see the distant villages resigning to the invading night as the chill of the evening was feeling its way down the slope. The little gaudy flowers on the sides of the fields wilted and tumbled with the settling dew. No sooner had he laid upon the four-poster bed, than he began sleeping his fatigue away.

The moonlit night danced on the sands of the river humbled by the desolating spring, donned in flashy robes of sandal hue. The moody meandering river dreamed July.

Somewhere at night it occurred to him that somebody was watching him. Opening his eyes, he saw old Bennet watching him in the timid flame of a flickering hurricane lamp. In the lamplight the old man seemed to have grown older.

“I came to invite you for dinner, then I thought not to disturb you, you were sleeping so soundly.”

“You could have called me out.”

“Sleep gives me the slip. It is months since I have had any sleep. You were mumbling in your slumber. What were you dreaming?”

“I can't remember. I imagine the dream has gone back to wherever dreams come from. I think they get recycled because I pretty much dream the same dreams over and over.”

“Come, let's have dinner. Then we can walk a ways to help our digestion.”

After a grave dinner attended on by servile Biharis, they ventured out into the starry night where the chill was growing. The bowers behind the house were in full bloom. Nightingales warbled their lullaby in the distant groves. The entwined fragrance of a collage of flowers softly wafted in the air.

It was the accursed basin of the Kosi River, a river known for her malicious caprice. She wreaked terror and destruction wherever she went. The Kosi lacked a fixed route. She changed course with a fury shuffling and shattering lives. The waters of the river in spate coming from the ranges of Nepal had a devastating effect. Not a single blade of grass sprouted on its course. Europeans settled in the basin in the 19th century as large-scale indigo cultivators. And the river, at regular intervals, proceeded to obliterate their dreams and hopes with a vengeance. By and by indigo cultivation lost its economic sheen and they switched over to regular food crops. In 1947 all the settlers left for their home countries, Britain and Germany, leaving behind the memories and enterprises spread across many generations. Bennet opted to stay behind. He controlled the locals with whatever worked best, alternately employing his gun and/or rewards as he saw fit. He was a disciplinarian; he did not like the locals taking him for a ride. At night they would steal into his orchards, to romp home with his fruits, vegetables, and birds. From his watchtower he would watch it all. When they crossed a tolerable limit, he would confront them with a loaded shotgun. Again he would pay handsomely for their services. The gray soil of the basin was his life, his mission. And now in the evening of life he had only his memories to comfort him.

They passed many marble slabs, the silent tombs of bygone generations.

“Here lies my wife, Anna Carolyn Bennet, I met her at a church in Yorkshire, my father and also my grandfather sleep here waiting for the summons to present their credentials at the office of our Lord and master. Like any father, I had hoped that Tony would be around when I join them in the queue. The dead lead the dead to the dead.”

“But where is Tony?”

“Somewhere, perhaps nowhere. He was different, his dreams were different.”

Yes he was different, he knew it. Tony the dreamy boy who loved Rosseau and Thoreau. He sat on the cement bench in the garden. The night was starlit and serene. In the sidereal light he saw the scattered wings of a butterfly in the wet turf of grass.

“I know everything about Tony, everything except where he is, if he is anywhere.”

emmem lifted his head and pleadingly looked at the old man who had stolen in from behind.

Bennet continued, “I went to Bombay to track him down like a police dog. You see, I was the one who sent him to Bombay in the first place. In fact I had gone with him up to Barauni to see him off.

His interview at Nariman point was a disaster. They could not gauge his worth. Then he came out onto the street and, keeping his suitcase between his knees, he ordered lemonade at the little shop. While he was sipping his cool drink, somebody pulled out the suitcase from between his legs and disappeared. The thugs that lurk in the dark underbelly of the big cities specialize in seperating the rustic rubes from their valuables.

Lookers on advised him to go straight to Chorbazar. Anything stolen in the streets reappears in the bazaar of the guild of thieves within a short while. And indeed he went to Chor bazaar. There he found his personal belongings put up for sale, including the photograph of his mother.

After the exchange of a few words, a scuffle followed. Shortly, he was thrown out on the street with his pockets empty. Then, he was found wandering on the seashore. Poor boy he was not used to the ugly side of humanity.

When you have no money, people leave you alone. Next day a man from Bihar met him. He claimed that he was once one of my dependents and offered to help my son. The Bihari took my son to his lodgings. Tony was feverish. Next day he was hospitalized. Bihari attended on him at the sick bed. Doctor said that he needed a surgery. Tony promised the Bihari that every paisa he was spending would be returned. Bihari said that money was not important, human values were. A few days later he was released from the hospital. Bihari offered him one thousand rupees and told him the truth. One of his kidneys was stolen. Then he realized what the Bihari was up to. Tony stood there holding the currency bills smelling blood.

There I lost track of him. I reached a dead end. He had sweetly been bested. I have no idea how he reacted and where he went. My contacts and efforts did not divulge anything more.”

A bitter dejection rained down on him. Deafening silence drowned them. He sadly thought that urban culture is alien to India. Cities were built by the colonial masters and Indians degrade themselves to the levels of cannibals in the cities. The basic problem, he diagnosed, is that the urban life is miserably centered on money. Money becomes an obsession, money becomes the passport in the social circles. Urban life, for all practical purposes, becomes the art of living in the sweat of somebody else's brow. The urban creamy layer, like the hawk of Ted Hughes sees to it that the world remains the way it is. The city pretends to be the crown of the province. India is not the painted faces and the urban puppet shows directed by unseen strings running across the geographical borders. And India is much more than indigo plants and the rural economy thereof. But who would skim all our urban scum, he asked himself.

“I am happy that you came all the way to visit us. Tony would be pleased that you visited us,” Bennet said softly.

“Do you still search for him,” he asked to the old man sitting close to him on the cement bench.

“No chance,” I will not do that, “he has taken a decision to make himself scarce and I will be the last person to pry into his isolation. If he is alive it is his duty to report at the doorstep of his father, and if he is not on our side of the world it will be a waste of breath to look for a whiff of wind. I have stamped my foot on my daughters and their husbands not to disturb him.”

Kidney piracy was a raging subterranean business looming large over hospital industry. Modern life took a heavy toll on kidneys. Nephrology and nephrologists have a good time. Agriculture on a commercial basis did the trick. Commerce without manners. All vegetables hitting the markets are saturated with pesticides. Persistant organic pollutants like organo chlorine pesticides steadily accumulate in the higher vertebrates up the trophic chain. Even the less harmful organo phosphorous and carbamates steadily reach the food chain as the farmers do not wait for the applied poisons to degrade in the sun wind and rain. Then the toxic heavy metals lying low in the soil are disturbed by man's industry, and cadmium and mercury find their way to the water sources. The net result is that meat is harmful, vegetables available on urban markets are also harmful.

When towns grow and graduate into cities of consequence they can harm the local water resources with diffuse urban refuse. Hence steps will have to be taken to protect rivers, streams and aquifers. Urban development most often than not leads to population growth, erosion and sedimentation, urban runoff, nitrogen and phosphate influx, groundwater pollution, sewage overflows, waterborne pathogens, toxic metals, pesticides, PCBs and chlordane in fish. A large city is in effect an artificial agglomeration of humanity where the flux of matter and energy is neither balanced nor natural. In primitive villages, circulation of plant nutrients is regular and smooth because whatever is produced is ultimately consumed there. On the other hand, in cities consumables are steadily being imported, used, and discharged. Thus, unwanted wastes inevitably end up in the local water sources. Hence, cities are the sink of plant nutrients, particularly nitrates and phosphate. Much of the rainfall in the villages is absorbed in the porous soils and is stored up as ground water. With urbanization much of the vegetation vanishes and topsoil is replaced by impervious surfaces such as asphalt and concrete. And the rainwater that used to be absorbed into the ground must be collected in storm drains that all too often channel runoff into local streams. These streams are not conditioned by nature to contain urban runoff and flooding and contamination occurs. Urban areas generate both point and general sources of contaminants. Points that impact surface water include industrial and municipal waste discharges and leaky underground storage facilities as well as miscellaneous accidental organic and inorganic contaminants. Groundwater contamination by organic volatile compounds is commonplace in urban settings due to increased use of fuels and solvents.

The city, like any other system, feeds on matter and energy and leaves behind both matter and energy qualitatively degenerated. In a balanced system the flux of energy is unidirectional but matter undergoes circulation. In a city matter and energy are on one-way traffic. The energy refuse of the city degraded as unavailable energy manifests itself in the form of urban heat domes and thermal pollution in the water bodies it relies on. Most of the ecosystems of the world are propelled by the sun and things happen in the earth–atmosphere system during the flux of solar energy from a high energy level to a low energy level and cities also join forces in this process. Hence the oxygen requirement of the aquatic fauna increases with temperature and availability of oxygen sharply falls in urban environment.

For a city fast growing, the influent mass and energy will be more than the effluent, and when the city declines the trend reverses. The city relies mostly on a vast hinterland that it rules over, to draw its sustenance from. The anthropogenic waste load left behind in the environment is directly related to the density of population, the standard of living and the environmental vigilance of the local administration. When the chronic and vicious circle of poverty, population and pollution nags the third world countries, environment often becomes a non-issue as the people are in a frenzy to keep soul and body together, and in such a situation today is more important than an uncertain tomorrow. Externality of livestock agriculture and manufacturing sectors is in addition to this. Urbanization inevitably portents the contamination of water bodies because cities develop in the proximity of perennial water sources. Urbanization is steady accumulation of mass, mostly bio degradable, collected from elsewhere. Every refuse of urban activity, finds its way to the water bodies as leachate, sewage or atmospheric washouts. Hence it would appear that urban activity is antagonistic to itself unless a working mechanism is incorporated to spread the refuse thin into the vast hinterland. Engineering modifications without a long-term perspective further obliterates the inherent potentials of the city to rejuvenate itself. As urbanization is an integral part of civilization man will have to seek the prospects of making each city self reliant insofar as most elemental natural endowments like water are concerned. In place of a culture of use and refuse a new one of use and reuse must evolve.

The marginal people married to abject poverty might be coaxed into selling their kidneys. But that costs big money. It may cost nearly half a million. The smart way is to steal their kidneys. The victim is happy for the free surgery and the middlemen share the booty. The poor cannot afford kidney transplantation or dialysis; they die without a fuss. The rich refuse to die. They borrow a few more years with their bank balance. The thirst for life of the rich promotes the heinous piracy of human organs.

When and where did we go wrong? emmem wondered silently. It is a simple case of overpopulation. Nature's control mechanisms have been stalled by man's managerial skill. We got rid of pandemics. Plagues and smallpox used to regulate the population naturally. If we quit meddling with nature and let disease loose to do its duty, pesticide based commercial agriculture would eventually die out. Agriculture will cease to be an industry with a lewd eye for profit. Traditional farming is almost like a prayer—rhythmic and synchronized to the tune of the seasons, tremblingly at the mercy of the rains. Produce and food grains should not be sold, they are the gift of nature. Inter basin transfer of produce depletes the nutrients in the soil, whereas the traditional, self-reliant agricultural economy guaranteed perfect feedback and an impeccable mechanism to recycle and reuse the nutrients. But, he wondered, who would pay the price of turning the clock back? Culture cannot outlive virtues.

“Probably you are right, taking a decision against the grain of nature does not in the long run pay off,” he said.
“In fact we should not take any decision at all. Decision making is part and parcel to the western system of clinical perfection. The west is least willing to give chances a chance. Whereas the eastern orderly disorder is fairly autonomous because the statistics of the unbridled play of chances and accidents has a sharp and precise central tendency. You take no decision and the natural and psychological parameters will fall into place with a vicarious good will.”

“You are more Indian than the general Indian urban disorientation.”

“India moderates us, prunes our greed and we stand alone freed.”

“We are distracted by thousands of options. But the deliberate process of decision-making involves a certain degree of violence. All options but one are against the music. Man has no reason to make decisions. Decisions have been made since well before the first tick of time. When we make a decision, we do not make a decision, the decision finds expression through us, a decision evolved through the whole course of life, a decision that is destined to haunt the remaining course of life. No decision is innocuous; it pesters the long march of life to the finishing point.”

“Brilliant indeed young fellow. You are class. India behind its grumpy bitterness, teaches us a lesson or two. Many August 15ths went past us and many more will follow. But mind you, India is not free, no nation is free, no individual is free. And no decision is free. The past becomes a despot and the future becomes a distracting mirage bent to distort our decision making process.”

“The wise live in the present because the past will fade into the pages of a leather bound photo album gathering dust—into dog-eared sepias taken from celluloid negatives, sandwiched between sheets of clear plastic lying in the attic waiting for mice to make a nest of them. We get them down and feast on our past when our tomorrows begin to dim.”

“We are so blunt. This bluntness makes our lives a stunt. Life becomes life when it is whetted like a knife. Strop it on the strap of strife. Nothing is at stake. We are not risking anything and we are not fighting for anything. We will let strife strive on us to sharpness. We dream our way into the seams of life streaking across the inky mysteries.”

“Our spiritual guides take us nowhere. We have reached our destination; the time to achieve salvation is here and now.”

“The guide sheds the light; it is up to the disciple to learn by observation while following his own chemistry. The excitements and experiences involved therein are entirely his own.”

“Yes, papa,” emmem said and felt a bit embarrassed to have addressed him so, Bennet smiled. He liked the English speaking Indian. It was wonderfully invigorating to have him around to engage in intelligent conversation.

“Our culture is a culture of vultures, a culture that cunningly cannibalizes what we choose to habituate. There is always an adventurer lurking beyond the horizon.”

“Do Indian experiences depress you?” emmem asked.

“No man is a nation unto himself. I am very much a part of India. India's problem is a nagging refugee complex. The people have been uprooted from their endemic cultural moorings. And the crazy cultural cocktail meted out to them by European colonizers caused indigestion and inebriation. For the most part my countrymen are at a loss as to what to do with the unwieldy life that independence has put into their hands. This disorientation makes them do things men should not do to their fellow human beings. Culture is merely a brand name on the global hypermarket feebly defying the straight jacket pressed on it by cocky techno-imperialism.”

“Man is basically a malicious animal. If he hangs his fangs it is because of the grizzly specter of hellfire; it is because of the faculty of commensalism. Given a chance people will reveal their predatory instinct. Soviet troops were not very civil to the political implosion in Nazi Germany. Nor were the plundering Muslim solicitous and chivalrous to the Indian heartland. Nation should not bother us, nationality should not smother us.”

“Good and evil are not mutually exclusive. They compliment one another. When good and evil merge into one, the result is an equilibrium in which God alone remains. So our empirical aphorisms are the result of multidimensional and temporal bi-polarity. We become evil when we are at home with evil.”

“When you lose faith in tomorrow, you become evil. A dreamy man has many virtues. He will not be allopatric. I cannot dream the dream that you dream. The streams of dreams differ. Dreams that make you scream—dreams that make you beam. The real problem with us is not the inscrutable grain of life trapped within the pulsing machine of our body and silently pining to merge into the wholeness, rather it is the flux of solar energy finding expression in the engine.”

“We are tethered young man,” Bennet declared, “we are tethered. Who knows whether this tether will wither? If it does, whither we move hither? We are a will oft willing to wilt and merge with the universal will. Life, Tony has heard quoting you, is a splendid isolation.”

He fell silent. Shortly, silence swallowed them. They were sitting close, and silence glued them. Words unsaid linked them. The old man seemed viciously and ruthlessly true. Truth is not civil.

emmem thought that no event is completely independent, no thought is independent of other thoughts, and our decisions are very much influenced by previous experiences. He wondered why Tony had chosen to hide behind the vile veil of silence. And he appreciated the dignity of the old man who took it all so gracefully. There is no absolute reason, each person has his own jurisprudence, values, and reason. And our efforts are the psychological reaction to the emptiness we are nagged by. Some snooze and snore the emptiness away; some booze and rave it away. The Seattle chief was very right, he mused, nothing is thoroughly independent.

“I am going back in the morning,” he said, “I shall visit you again later some time.”

“You must,” Bennet smiled against the black silence, “if he turns up one of these days I shall let you know. But I hold no hope that he will turn up. It is finis; he has run his course—all is over.”

They retired to the house as if by an unspoken understanding. He was not sleepy; various sounds of the seemingly endless night greeted him. The vicious and moody Kosi basin was replete with strange stories. Stories of vampires, strange snakes and stranger events. Tony had been anxious to share them all with him. “Myths are not myths, legends are not legends, they are spiced symbols and diluted truths,” Tony used to say.

He had heard of snakes impudently visiting the nursing mothers and forcefully sucking their breast milk, rendering them barren for the remainder of their lives. Also he had heard about fishes that climb up the trees at a certain part of the year when the rains soak the woods. There are regular events of Lord Krishna, a devi or Lord Siva visiting the devotees on very desperate occasions, coming to the devotee as guides or advisers. Without the luxury of these divine visitations life would have been less livable. Irrational events frequent an irrational world. Irrational events shy away from an aggressively rational world.

In the dead hours of the night he decided that it was time to switch over to a different tune of life. He thought that he had over stayed on the theatre of teaching. To teach is to breach a natural law. Understanding is extraneous and artificial, realization is natural, standing and intrinsic. It was time to give up the tools of understanding and the roaring institutions of understanding. You understand a thing when you cannot understand it, you realize a thing when you become it. Understanding stands in the way of realization and becomes an obstacle in the way of becoming. When you understand a poetic work you miss it, when you merge into the work you celebrate it. The industry of understanding he was never more going to be a party to. Teaching is violence of the worst type. Realization is silence of the best type. We do not boisterously celebrate our realization. Understanding is celebrated, the celebration of bamboozling the self.

How honestly we celebrate the secret understanding that every fellow mortal that chances to stray into our attention is not a hair better than us. Understanding is cruel; it is a detached judgment. The clever only flower, the thick fret for the denied fun, the weak pine for the delayed sun. He wanted to be at home with his inner climate, with the peace and solitude he was part of even in the midst of hollering crowds. He was home as a holm away from the mainland, amidst the bubble and babble of the languid waters.

The real heuristics begin with the intuition. We see what we look for. We look for that which is writ large in ourselves. Experiences are complimentary, supplementing the process of becoming. The cultural refugees of the modern world become antisocial elements because the world without fails to mesh with the world within. Suddenly the public schools took on an obscene appearance to him. They teach ideals instead of teaching what is real.

Early in the morning Bennet knocked at his door, he was fast asleep after the bold and silent resolutions of the night.

“Good morning, young man,” Bennet greeted. He got up in a hurry, smiling like an idiot.

“Before you go your way I have a little bit more business with you,” Bennet said with a mysterious grin. “Do come down to the parlor, Tony has entrusted me to give you a certain thing. He knew that you would visit us one of these days.”

The village had no electricity. Half-naked workers served as water pumps, washing machines and grinders. Water had been stored up in the bathroom for him. When the mysterious Madrasi appeared in the parlor ready for the journey back to the school, Bennet was ready for him. At the ancient dining room servants served them food and tea. There was butter, bread and fruits. Bennet ceremoniously read out a few lines from the Bible and thanked God for having provided them with the food that sat waiting for them in the plates. He thoroughly enjoyed it. As for him, he didn't bother with prayers. His was a very irreligious life, bereft of rituals rites sacraments and prayers. He never consulted the almanac, Rahu kalam did not ever detain him.

Back in the parlor, Bennet handed him a guitar. Instantly emmem remembered the guitar—it had been Tony's favorite weapon. It intrigued him that the truant naughty boy chose to give it away. He was never seen without it. His guitar was his guide, it set his tune, it dictated the lyrics. Knowing Tony's sensibilities, he had never taken the liberty of touching (and possibly defiling) the one material thing his friend treasured most.

“Here is a letter for you,” Bennet passed a sealed envelope to him. It was not addressed. He thought it prudent to open the letter in the presence of Tony's father. He tore open the envelope that had waited for him for many months. Looking inside, the envelope contained a foolscap sheet. But, surprising both of them, nothing was scribbled on it. Both of them examined it closely. Not a word was written. It was his last parting joke, the devil in him.

“He was playing a joke on us,” he said folding the paper and putting it back in its envelope. “He is like that, he loves to play practical jokes.”

“Sometimes we are at a loss, we never know whether to cry or laugh. Our laughter is whetted by the moisture of our tears.”

“But I am sorry, I cannot take Tony's prized possession with me. In the first place I am not worthy of it. Western musical instruments are Greek to me. And, also, I will be leaving Bihar in the near future. I am done with the present pursuit. The life of a vagabond appeals to me. I am not going to take anything with me. I accept the great gift of Tony in all humility. But I cannot take it with me. Please keep it here in your safe custody. I could not do it justice. If I practiced for a thousand years, I would not be able to play it anywhere near as good as Tony.”

“Yes,” Bennet said thoughtfully after a moment of tortuous silence, “I'll keep it here for you. It will always be yours. You were Tony's best friend and he chose you to be the recipient of his dearest asset. When you are tired of your wandering settle somewhere and come to me to claim it. In case I am consigned to eternal silence by the time you come looking for me, it will be in the safe custody of my daughters.”

On his way back to the station the language of silence permeated him. The aesthetics of the words that are left unsaid contribute the essential element of poesy. Words are the raw materials of the industry of understanding. Silence is the language of realization. Knowingly or unknowingly, deliberately or inadvertently, Tony had tweaked him to the world of realization. Hie, we strain to fast escape our mortal grossness. One can be perfectly at peace with oneself, even in the midst of ongoing constraints and pressures of the obvious and not so obvious aspects of social life.

Holi, the festival of colors, was sweeping the villages. The puny station was deserted. The way to the station also was deserted. The people were getting ready to come out with a flourish of colors late in the day. Darkness still lingered on the railroad. He sat on the cold cement bench waiting for his train. The narrow gauge train running on steam could drag in anytime like a faltering asthma patient. And it might not come. Nothing is certain. The ancient village murmured like a somnambulist, the heavens melted into thin mist and settled in the thickets and dry empty fields. He tried in vain to make sense of the centuries that made up the past and future, the decades that laid dormant in cyberspace. This earth is beautiful, and everything is good. Scorching summers, prolonged winters and stunted springs hinder development, resulting in a bonsai tree of life, but I shall persevere because it would be unwise to think of it in that way, he thought.

Chapter 13
Father from nowhere

She was incredibly light, as light as her sari. emmem scooped her up in his strong hands, the tail of her sari and her thick cascade of hair dangling down. An old scar behind her neck stared at him. emmem beckoned one of the many cycle rickshaws that were omnipresent in the city. Lucy appeared very vulnerable and delicate. She must be dear and precious to somebody far, far away, he thought. The streets were crowded with celebrants. The people showered them with flowers; using crude syringes they squirted colored water on each other and even on an unfeeling Lucy. They were celebrating the union of Krishna and Radha, the divine union of the sacred feminine and the abstract masculine, uniting nature with the eternal man. For thousands of years, this is the way in which the people of India had celebrated the vernal fecundity of mother earth.

emmem detested the idea of going to the government hospital, into the midst of abject squalor, neglect, dirt, and cross infection. The doctors treated the lower class untouchable patients like they were scum. The caste Hindus would not venture there for fear of pollution. He made up his mind in a hurry to go to Sinha's Hospital, which was at least hygienic. It was many blocks away and the roads were flooded with festive swirling masses. It was vernal full moon day, the day to celebrate, the day to forget. Death and other absurdities could wait.

The hospital also looked deserted. The inpatients also chose to get their treatments and leave as quickly as possible. The doctor was an ancient man, who still held on to classical values of the fabled British Raj. Having only one nurse, Dr. Sinha himself came out to receive them. He had a fatherly charm. From their appearance, Dr. Sinha assumed that the clients were educated and deserved deferential treatment. Lucy was immediately admitted and was given glucose intravenous fluid.

The doctor was of the preliminary opinion that hers was a case of starvation, stress and mental strain complicated by smothering solitude. Low blood pressure was also diagnosed.

“She will be alright my dear young fellow,” the doctor said in his squeaky soprano effeminate sounding voice, “but when she comes around we will conduct a few more tests. It could be that she is pregnant.”

The doctor had assumed that they were man and wife. It is better that way, he thought. She slept beautifully, silently. He took particular care not to disturb her. The day died, a flamboyant night settles across north India, with jubilation and a flourish of colors. A floodlit night, with the lunar disc flooding the great northern plains. He was hungry, but chose not to eat. He hadn't had anything since he left Bennet. He settled on the bench close to her bed and dozed off.

After a long span of time, subconscious incoherence settled to a rational methodic groove. emmem found himself in a regular Indian city. Every Indian urban agglomeration is a heaving, unfeeling ugly animal. All these monstrous animals have the same personality, only the habitats slightly vary. He was standing at a loss, pickpocketed clean. The city seemed to be Vijayawada, on Krishna River in Andhra State, given the proximity to a river and the canals that he had observed. But emmem was not sure. He sauntered along the footpath, close to the road flooded with vehicles. Suddenly the slab he stepped on flipped over smoothly delivering him to the sewage conduit underneath. The whole thing happened in the fraction of a second, with a miraculous efficiency and briskness. He heard the rumbling of the speeding vehicles above. He stood in neck deep sewage, it was pitch dark. emmem tried to alert the world without. His fate was sealed. He waded and half swam through the stinking slurry. He stumbled on something soft and realized that it was a human being. His compatriot smiled broadly.

“No need to hurry; don't squander your energy,” the stranger advised. He looked at the black little man standing close to him. The little man had found a patch of higher ground. In the eerie gloam he seemed to be familiar. He wondered where he had met him.

“There is no way out, we are water sealed,” the stranger revealed.

“How long have you been here?” he asked.

“Just a few minutes senior to you, so between us, I am the boss,” he beamed.

“So we both inherit a dark underworld.”

“Sorry, do not let any imperial ideas get into your head, there are many more here compromisingly senior to us.”

He turned thoughtful. He tried to digest the most unpalatable fact that he had been shut out from the world. Despite the most dismal premises he found the state of affairs curiously enticing. He had barricaded himself from his yesterdays, and he is in a subterranean empire where the state is least interested enough to hunt him down. The state is his state.

“Look my dear fellow,” the stranger invited his attention, “now that we have to make it together, let us settle all scores.” The black man handed him his purse. He looked at it, a substance that did not mean anything to him anymore.

“I shadowed you from Beasant Street, so sweetly pulled out your purse, ran for a hefty day and lo! I landed up here. Now we are one, the victor and the victim.” The professional thief guffawed.

emmem strained to sort out the state of affairs. It is so very easy to slip away from a paranoid world, he thought.

She groaned deeply, his systematic dream was disturbed. He slithered slightly on the broad bench. She groaned again, this time around he opened his eyes and became alert. She was still soundly asleep. He sat on the bench, yawned a relaxed yawn and moved nearer to the patient. She slept serenely. It was the small hours of the morning. He walked out into the corridor. A young man was standing there looking out of the casement, furiously smoking his anxiety away. The stranger smiled at him with a silent solidarity.

He must be an office clerk, he reasoned. All office clerks are pretty much alike, they never stand straight, they have a bluntness about them, and a crafty confidence in their words.

The day breaks beautifully. The cool morning breeze crept in through the iron grill and whispered something. That it kissed the blushing cheeks of a new born flower opening its cheerful freshness into the cool of the morning faraway in the Himalayan heights, that it softly rubbed away the tears from the eyes of a lonely water lily further way down the Gangetic plain, that it climbed up to the garden of stars across a rainbow and feasted on the globules of nectar the little starry flowers offered. He smiled to himself for the hyperbole imagination he came out with.

She groaned again. He went back to the room. He had deliberately chosen a room, the wards are noisy and congested. Rooms offered some degree of privacy. Softly he called out her name. He had never called her by her name. Stiff formality seemed to have thawed. She opened her eyes and tried to figure out what it was all about.

“You will be alright,” he consoled. She turned her large eyes to him asking something.

“You are at Sinha's Hospital, yesterday I met you on the road, you swooned into my hands. Unseen hands goaded me to you at the most appropriate moment,” he informed her.

She redeemed her reason in an instant. She smiled at him very weakly.

“Just relax, take rest for the rest of the day. I shall take care of everything.” A warmth descended on her, she felt like a child ready to sleep in the perfect safety of its mother. She felt better in mind but physically exhausted. She was pleased to have him all to herself.

“Please do not frighten my brother and mother,” she said.

“There is no need, all of your physical problems will be fixed in a day or two. Some more tests are to be carried out. If it is necessary I will take you to Patna; let us see what doctor says.”

“Sir I am happy that you are with me. My physical ailments and cerebral disturbances do not bother me. Probably you and the doctor will conclude that my manifest problems are entirely psychosomatic. You may accuse me of trying to run away from a harsh unsympathetic world. I am not anxious about the outcome of the treatment, I am ever ready to lay down my little life at the feet of the lord with an apology that I could do only this much and this far with the piece of life he had entrusted me with.”

She looked at him with an obvious anxiety that she had offended him. He sat on the bench thoughtfully.

“Just relax, we can sort it all out later on,” he said.
“I want to tell you all about me. You alone must hear it. For many days, I had been looking for an opportunity to take you aside and talk to you.”

“No need to tell me anything, you are sad and you are confused I can understand that. All individuals in the world have the same story to tell, only temporal and spatial differences separate them. As for your confusion, I would rather be true to myself if I were you. You cannot please everybody and you cannot do everything. Doing everything is doing nothing pleasing everybody is pleasing nobody.”

“I am not looking for an adviser in you. Just listen, just pretend to listen that is enough. I know not who you are or what you are, but I know that I am perfectly safe in your presence. I do not know what made you so very dissatisfied with life, so sad and thoughtful. You are not sullen or sulking, there is a cool grace about you. I know there are people skulking in the by lanes of life and sulking with a comfortable indolence. You are not one among them. Whatever your antecedents be, I know that you are not evil.”

“Sure, sure Lucy, I shall listen most patiently to whatever you want to tell me. It will remain a secret that I would sooner die than divulge.”

She told him everything. Her early life in Bombay, life in Palai, her father's disappearance, educational crisis, letter to an unknown father, Hari uncle, college life, Babu, the promises, Babu's death, her exodus to Bihar and the visit of Hari uncle. He listened to her patiently and sympathetically.

“You lived a worthy life, Lucy. Without crises our life is not worth living. We prove our true worth in crises. Your sufferings are your sufferings, I cannot underestimate them. But each person has his own saga. People have to suffer. Without suffering life loses its charm and poetry. I feel the pain—that's how I know I'm alive.”

“Often I think of my father, my family says that he was very fond of me. If he is still in the world, why doesn't he come and see for himself the mess his little girl has made of her life?”

“We are all orphaned, Lucy. We seek ‘our father who art in heaven’, and we seek numerous living or immortal goddesses to substitute for the things that are eternally lost to us. In the growing uncertainties of the world we cannot hide behind the safety of our parents. Our ‘men of God’ exploit the child in us.”

Somebody knocked on the door and opened it. Shebeer Khan stood before them, smiling and fresh. He placed on the table bundles of oranges, apples, and grapes.

“Have them for a beginning, hunger artists,” he said, “students and teachers are coming to visit you, teacher. I, as usual, am the early bird. But how do you feel now?”

“I am feeling better,” she said, apparently moved by his goodwill. She had not been very close with any of the male teachers, yet this nice man had made a point to be the first to come. Men are easy to deal with, women are catty and stingy, she thought.

“Insha Allah, you will be alright. God was certainly with you, otherwise this weeping philosopher would not have been there for you when you fell.”

They laughed. He came closer to her, closed his eyes and said a silent prayer.

“I have told Him everything, the Lord heals and protects the faithful.”

“Then why does He wait for our supplication to take care of us?” emmem teased.

“He waits for our supplication so we will not forget Him. Now I'll go and find some solid food for you. You being a Christian, you can safely take Muslim food, and your philosopher friend, being an incorrigible, irreligious infidel, can take any food from anybody. So wait and I will give you a taste of Bihari Muslim cuisine.” Shebeer Khan left in a hurry. The perfume he had applied after an early morning bath lingered in the sickroom. Nurses flitted in, twittered, and flitted back. The day progressed, the consultancy room was bursting with patients—gullible patients. People get sick when they have nothing better to do. At the other extreme are diseases that come from an outside source—

Modern life makes us sick. The poor cannot afford to be sick, hence they shy away from modern life. He aimed the gun of his thought on the diabolic pharmaceutical industry and the pliable pack of the disciples of Hippocrates. The thriving pharmaceutical industry floods the country with a phalanx of chemicals and coaxes the medics into prescribing them. The doctors most earnestly listen to the language spoken by free brand new cars, free ultra modern refrigerators, free computers, accumulating bank accounts and much more. When you are rich you are impatient with sickness. The doctor prescribes dozens of types of chemicals at a time, and most of them are not at all connected to your sickness. Then they send you to various types of scanning, X-raying and much more. The grateful scan centers will remember them the way they want them to be remembered. The modern society needs a psychological rehabilitation, he thought. Healthy thoughts and healthy food cure us—not drugs. If society turns to graceful thoughts and a moderate diet, the slackers who staff the health care industry would have to work for a living, emmem laughed to himself.

Shebeer's servant brought Lucy some warm food. She had eased into another spell of comfortable slumber. He wasn't into eating meat, but emmem didn't want to seem ungrateful and so he dutifully ate the food they had given him.

In her sleep Lucy saw her father coming to her. He was very tired, but he was all concern for his little one. He had conspicuously aged since she saw him last, his hair gray, many teeth missing, the healthy charm on his face had eclipsed, his dress was careless, threadbare and shabby. His words were not clear, he had breathing trouble too. His body was swaggering. But booze had done a good job on him. After a cup of vine there is no mine and thine and all is fine. You can feel you are healed after a heavenly meal—it heals the feeling that you are who and what you are.

“Where is my precious pearl, the pearl coalesced in my misery? Who the devil made her sick? Where are you dearest? Here I am, your dear chachan...” he kept bantering in Malayalam.

“My dear child, who the hell did this to you? I demand an explanation,” he kept blubbering as he blacked out and fell on her bed. The acrid smell of brandy permeated her consciousness. With an effort she opened her eyes. And there he was, her chachan passed out drunk on her bed. She knew instantly that it was her father, even though he looked like a bum—stinking drunk, worn out, unshaven, haggard, and wretched.

“Chacha,” she lisped unable to believe it all.

“Yes dear, here I am to ask some scalding questions to whoever made you the way you are.”

His dramatic debut excited her and dispirited her. He was a physical and mental wreck. On many an occasion she had proudly looked at the charming photograph of him kept in her mother's trunk box. His rosy cheeks and tomato lips are all gone, his enchanting smile is gone, his thick unwieldy wind blown hair had humbled down to a thin gray mat. Time had been cruel to him.

She turned to her professional colleague sitting sympathetically on the bench. Even though he did not understand much of what they said he could guess who he was. She smiled letting him know that he was not an alien in the get together. Reading her body language Yohannan also became aware of the presence of a stranger.
“Who is this young man dear?” he asked.

“He is my colleague, Chacha, called emmem. He carried from the road and took me to the hospital.”

“Thank you young fellow for your being kind to my daughter,” he said in English, “but what is wrong with you dear?”

“From the preliminary investigation it seems that hers is a case of low tension,” he said.
“These doctors are all braying donkeys. There is no low pressure, there is no high pressure. There is only pleasure. The pleasure of playing the fool. The cool, cool fool. We are fool enough to fool ourselves that we aren't what we are. We are fools to play the tool to make others' lives miserable and complicated.”

He still had the verbosity to charm his way.

“Did you go through bad times, Chacha?” Lucy asked not willing to fuel his high talk.

“I was bad to my times. If you don't have you, you don't have anybody. Everybody is mad in his own way, your madness then becomes your trademark—you are your burden and nobody elseⳮ If you have you, you have everybody. When you become a liability, you are not welcome anywhere. When you are self reliant and upbeat, you are welcomed as a treasured guest everywhere.”

“There is only one solution left to the congenital flop—dissolution into the social amalgam.”

When emmem listened to the aphorisms being distilled by the old man, he thought of Lucy's state. In all probability when she returns to the school, she will not be wanted there. The teacher has to be in the good books of the guardians, and in order to be in the good books of the guardians, one has to be in the good books of the students. The parents won't be very happy when they discover an unpredictable lunatic is conditioning their children. She will be summarily picked up by the scruff and flung outside of the campus walls. It is a selling and buying business. If the commodity or service you are out to sell does not interest us, you are out.

But when she walks out with a tarnished image, she will not be alone. I must also walk out, he thought. This phase of life is over.

“What you said is very true sir,” he said.

“My suffering is my avocation,” Yohannan declared, “I leave me to all the indignities time chisels out for me. For many years I wandered in the deserts of Arabia, I have languished in the soggy steaming bunkers of the motor launch, smuggling hapless Keralites to the prospects of the Persian Gulf. Then, for a good many years I was a prisoner. The Arabs could not, however, imprison my mind—you would do well to mark that.”

“All but human beings still live in paradise. We got ourselves banished from paradise because we wanted to know.”

“The world becomes a wonderful place because it is designed in such a way that we do not suffer equally, and then we, the expatriates, are still on the desperate lookout for the lost paradise,” he said.

“You know young man, in my youth I had a detached sympathy for the communists of Kerala. Their suffering appeared beautiful to me, as Ho Chi Minh with his wonderful goatee put it, they waited for the ‘thunder of spring.’ There was no thunder and there was no spring. Comrades decayed in jails, comrades worked with the working class, comrades committed suicide, comrades became the suffering of the suffering, identifying themselves with the untouchables. And in the Arabian desolation I almost became a communist. But then I cannot be a communist, I am a staunch supporter of inequality. Not because I am superior, not because the traditional working class is inferior. Superiority lies in suffering. From an academic high pedestal I watch myself suffering. I watch how much I can take on. Identity crises are an expensive luxury of the affluent. The need to earn our daily bread drives away such nonsense. The fever of life cures many debilitating abstractions. The rich shut themselves out from the rabble with their mighty compound walls and security, so the rest of the world belongs to us, the poor and the paupers. When you are richer than your own, your riches own you.”

The old manⳠasthmatic chest heaved for a while and he continued, 㴨is day demands its share of follies, it cannot wait for another day. There is no another day in this convulsive obsessive neurosis.䍊

He understood that the old man was much more than Lucy had pictured him to be.

“Suffer we must, sir, for the benefit of the author of our sufferings,” he said.

“I am going to forgive me for all my broken promises, for all my failures. I had long ago forgiven the world for all that it refused to deliver. I forgive all that contributed to my ruin, they are the innocent tools of the author. I can even forgive God,” he swaggered patting his chest, “poor bungling God, his creation cannot be better than him. He created the world and the devil stole his platform. He came to this earth to save the world; his people crucified him and turned him into a commercial commodity. He deserves the greatest ever forgiveness. An irate anthropomorphic god, frowning and thawing to flattery, falling flat to bribery, held prisoner by the hagiarchy. Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost—nay creator, creation and the urge to create. Christ is this world, Christ is us, mortified and lashed to the cross.”

For an instant the room fell silent in the staggering impact of his blasphemous statement.

Nurse came in to collect blood sample from the tip of Lucy's finger.

“Her blood is my blood,” Yohannan declared in the pitch of his inebriation, “my daughter is the heir apparent of my protoplasmic motor.”

“She missed you a great deal,” he said.

“Indeed she did. My poor dear darling. She is my only true child. Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, blood of my blood. She would miss me as much as I missed her. Even in the most difficult moments of my life I have been thinking of you, my dearest. Wondering how you fare, how you grow. You are so thin, thin as a golden tassel.”

Lucy's eyes welled up, tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Are you going to Palai, Chacha, mother waits for you with hopes and prayers.”

“Let her bray her prayers. Your mother is spilt milk. A long time back I stormed out on her because I grew weary of constant domestic storms. Feminine pride demands masculine prostration and masculine pride demands feminine enslavement. When our pride crumbles and collapses, we look at each other and wonder why we bared our fangs and claws. Only then, in the dusk of our day, can we stand together as sexless refugees. But no, I cannot go back to her. I cannot be what I used to be to her.”

“Husbands and wives spend too much time making each other miserable,” Lucy observed with disdain.

“There is a long, long way ahead, my little girl. There is no need to rush headlong into frigid maturity. Have your frailties, have your obsessions, have your blunders. If you want to be wise, then it is best to be wise agewise.”

“Her life has dutifully taught her many standing lessons. She is far too mature for her age,” he observed.

“You know, young fellow, the people of Kerala long ago discovered that much of the strife in the world is caused by yellow metal and femme fatale.”

Suddenly, the old man fell silent, as if the power supply had snapped. His mind wandered to distant Kerala. Her rains, her rivers, her lush green hills, her narrow plains, her babbling shorelines and her people. He painfully thought about the little teashops in the sleepy villages. Each teashop has a half naked shop owner, with a headband and a sweating upper body. There will be a smoky showcase exhibiting neyyappam vada and dosa. There will be banana fruit hanging upside down presiding over the wheeling dealings. There will be two or three black and sooty benches. Inevitably there will be one or two newspapers, often with a center left leaning. The workers and peasants gather there to sip tea to read paper and to forget themselves in heated political discussions. An ancient radio will be blaring old film songs. Sometimes the political discussions will end up in scuffles and bloodshed. When political tensions run high in the state, the shop owner fixes a notice on the sooty wall: 'Political discussions not permitted here.' The wiry sun burnt villagers fight for the remote Cuba, Afghanistan, Vietenam, PLO and for local leaders like EMS, AKG and A.K. Antony. They dissect the Naxalite political extremism of Venu, Varghese, Ajitha, Narayanan and Stephen and forget their own miseries. Human misery is the treasury of the demagogues. They would arrest the flow of a river to convince the world that without them the river cannot flow. Lord Canute cannot be any better.

Then he thought about the next important landmark of each village—the barbershop. There, the barber takes the lead in the discussions. Most barbers are essentially communists. They deftly streamline the discussions in the route they feel is right. From the walls of the barbershop, communist leaders are looking down their noses at us. AKG, EMS, K.R. Gowri, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Trotsky, and to keep the young fellows amused a few posters may be displaying the bewitching wares of popular film stars like Sheela and Jayabharahti.

“What is wrong, Chacha?” she asked. She knew that he was wandering.

“I was on a brief visit to Kerala.”

“Your Kerala is long ago gone, Chacha. Time marches on. There are no more villages; no more time to dwell on political possibilities. The politicians too have lost their market value. Kerala surrendered its old relaxed charm in an effort to speed development. Now, everybody is on his own.”

There was silence, times change, people change. Is life anymore the life life used to be? Does love mean the pain love was meant to be? Do the birds grace the woods we used to see? Do we still strain at the unseen strings and stain our brains?

“But look I am in India, that makes a lot of difference—our ancient, seemingly immortal, come-as-you-are, comfortable and enduring India. Here one can differ, one can dither—here one can live like a dog or one can live like a god. Here you go where you please and do what you want. Here you go your own way without running the risk of being labled a heretic. Here you can be a theist because you are allowed to be an atheist. This India, this tremendous, wonderful, complex India.” He stretched his arms as if to embrace the entire country.

“This ancient country has always offered ample avenues for our inherent characteristics to bloom and perfume. Its original primordial wisdom can contain any thought and every thought. Nothing can surprise India. You might say that we as a nation are constantly experiencing deja vu. Now I must steal a few lines from the poet,” he cleared his throat and warbled in an obviously untrained voice, “The east bowed low before the blast/ in slumber and deep disdain/She let the legions thunder past/And plunged to thought again.” After completing this recitation, Yohannan looked around with childish enthusiasm to see the effect upon his audience.

Lucy felt ashamed to watch her father playing the buffoon.

“Chacha, please,” she pleaded.

“Alright, honey, don't feel ashamed, it is from John Gunther's Inside Asia. You are born to an illustrious father. You must always remember that. I, Yohannan Cheruvil, am the most formidable man God ever created. At last God will ask me, 'Mr. Yohannan what wouldst thou have?' and I will ask Him, 'Mr. God what wouldst thou have?'”

“Chacha, you are tired,” she reminded him.

“I am my mind; it cannot take rest. Dreadfully prudent you are, drably gross I am because I have nothing to lose, and prudence comes from fear and concern. Do you know who and what we are? We are an ancient family, my dear one. We are an ancient family, directly baptized by St. Thomas the Apostle. We were celebrating the mass when today's great nations were wallowing in paganism. God looks down and sees a great man like me flowing with the stream of great Indian humanity as an out and out pauper. No doubt God will ask me 'Where are the talents Yohannan that I sent you out with?' I would jeer back, 'Your talents, my dear God, are the temptations of Tantalus, enticing and elusive, depressing for the most part with an occasional burst of adrenalin that merely serves to enhance the pain and prolong the struggle'.”

He surveyed the room, and his hungry eyes settled on the food Shebeer had arranged.

“Food—food is good when you are hungry, you need food for your soul, for your mind, and for your death. What is food for? Food is for the starving,” and after saying so, Yohannan pounced on the warm packet.

Eating is such an absurdity—we fill what we can fill; still, an uneasy emptiness lingers, defying our fingers and satiable hungers. We struggle in vain to infuse some meaning into life as it meanders through endless listless alleys.

He got up, he thought it better to leave the father and daughter alone. He said he was going to the school. He offered to turn up next day. They both felt relieved when he tactfully chose to melt out of the picture.

Yohannan ate gluttonously, his ravenous fury made her sick. He gobbled up without an iota of decorum. The sounds he made further sickened her. She tried to stick to the charming and youthful image of her father she keeps intact in her soul. India sinks to its stomach.

He appeared a little sober after the food. Like a sick cur he coiled up to the corner of the room and dozed off. She was too stunned to do anything about it. Being a villager it was incredible for her to see that man can degrade to such a bottomless pit. He made strange sounds and convulsed in his deplorable slumber. Then he belched and vomited all around him. Again he slumped into the vomit and comfortably slept. She wanted to move out of the bed and clean him, but her body failed. The nauseous stench filled the room.

Somewhere after midnight she experienced a soft touch on her face. She opened her eyes. It was her father again. He had taken bath, there was a cool freshness. His fingers were remarkably cold. His gray uncouth beard was not as ugly as it appeared on the day before. There was love in his eyes, senile and decrepit eyes that long ago lost their charm and sheen. He was sitting close to her. She helplessly smiled at him.

“I have never forgotten you my dearest. I really wanted to help you, somehow my plans did not work out. I did not fit well in the world where I was. My greatest ambition in life had been to make a good life for you. You are daddy's favorite little girl. You were born to do great things in life.”

She sadly thought of her life, a life that forfeited its charm and appeal, a life that lost its way, a disoriented, incoherent life.

“Mother is waiting for you.”

“Yes dear, she enjoys her role as the heroine in a tragedy. I cannot go to her; I cannot blunt her poetic suffering with the awkward presence of a crumbling, good-for-nothing old man. I cannot go back to her as a spent rocket, run out and empty. I failed to be on your side during your struggle for survival. But I was not free. I was languishing in the jail of a foreign country. But even in my most difficult moments you were in my memories. The first thing I wanted to do on landing up on the dear soil of India was to meet you, you alone. From Bombay I tracked down your whereabouts. I am glad that you are educated and employed—you could not possibly know how proud you have made me.”

“I want you to think nicely of me, I want you to know that I love you, loved you and will keep on loving to my last gasp of air. When you meet your mother please tell her that I loved her also on a different plain. She suffered so much for my sake. I know that I am not worthy of her purity and innocence, which are her armory and magazine. I do not belong to her little world.”

She was carried away by the flood of emotions. Our passions are us. He was not crying, he was very sober and lucid. He sat like a hero of a Greek tragedy, dignified and resolute, divorced from the saucy and inclement world. He got up determined to daddle into the ruck, and again turned to her.

“I want to give you something. Something from your father, something that is yours and yours alone.”

He rummaged in his soiled cloth bag and fished out a bundle and placed it on her sick bed. It clinked and appeared to be heavy.

“This will help you on the unwonted and remote courses of life. This is yours only and it is a clean gift from your father, an honestly earned unblemished gift—all that I managed to save in my lifetime.” He kissed her on the temple and departed into the darkness in a hurry.

The thick darkness devoured him willingly. Well before she could take control of the situation it was all over. She did not even get space to seek his advice regarding the proposal put forth by Hari uncle.

Lucy opened the bundle weighing heavily on the bed. Untying it, she found it contained gold coins, approximately one kilogram, worth around five hundred thousand rupees. Money mattered little to her now, there was a time when money could have done miraculous things for her, but not any more. She thought of her miserable hostel years, always slighted and rejected by the rich and the fashionable. She remembered how she suffered for the fault of being poor—no excursions, no celebrations, no friendships. Plants do not need manure in late autumn. Yet, because it is the gift given to her by her father, it was dear to her. She remembered sadly the remote occasions when he took her out to the tea shop in the village to treat her with delicacies, to the clothing retailer to buy her new gaudy frocks, it was a distant memory riding his loving shoulders along the dusty deserted paths of the mountainous village. Memories remain, few and dear. We accept the I each one of us is with a sigh.

Chapter 14
Adieu adieu forever more

Annette Banc, like certain tribal societies in the distant continents do on New Year's Day, decided to begin life afresh from the ashes of the past. Hers was a creative, healthy happy-go-lucky mind. We are the world; the world cannot be better than us. We created the world and the world dies with us. Annette's world was beautiful. She accepted the world the way it was, with its ups and downs, nights and lights, days and dusks. It never occurred to to take upon her slender shoulders the lofty duty of transforming the world. She found no reason to approach the world without with her chisel and mallet. ‘The world is all right and if it appears otherwise the fault is ours’ was her working philosophy. Nor was Annette religious. She could easily leave God to his own devices. Unlike others, she was capable of living without obsessively rounding Him up, without coaxing Him to look her way. She was by no means an ardent atheist, but enlisting herself in the army of the godists shilling for somebody defying definition was beyond her sphere of interest. Life's little day could be ferried across without all such false scares and alarms. Live the life given down to us happily and at the end of your days leave the life given down to us happily. There is nothing more to it. She was not particularly philosophical, but her long three years of life with Maurice goaded her to settle comfortably into this thread of thought. Set backs, tragedies and bereavements were absorbed into her being with a fresh and pristine goodwill.

Sometimes she wondered whether she was happy and relieved that Maurice was no more. It was a whirlwind life with him. He was war, a war with a messianic fury. His psychosis to elevate the world with the lever of his furious mission had been eclipsing her career too. They were classmates at the school of architecture. They settled in the outskirts of Lyons after passing out from the ecole d'architecture in the hope of building a life and career together. Innovations she liked, new designs she appreciated. But Maurice was much more than that. He was taken over by a ferocious enthusiasm to infuse ancient wisdom lying low across the cultural necropolises of the world. You can safely pay courtesy visits to queer and exotic ideas and options, and they offer welcome therapeutic respite from the monochromatic chronology of life. And if you go with the exotic ideas, the ideas lead you on with your blinkers in place to a la la land of no return.

There are many people impatient with the world. They fall easy prey to new or exotic ideas. The other shore syndrome makes them ardent proponents of the sweeping waves of ideas. Nobody knows what was going to make the business of life worth the candle. Maurice found the rich soil for his husbandry amidst these restive neurotics. For Maurice design was more than geometry and aesthetics. He believed that a house had a life and personality of its own. In his designs each house was designed to have nine doors and nine windows. He was dead against multi-storied buildings, it was like one person placed upon another. Proportions were important, locations were important, topography was important. He insisted that the magnetic flux of a region has to be favourable to the magnetism of the individuals living in a house. There are regions and locations where magnetic flux is against the mental flux. His designs were in such a way as to suit the topography.

He would visit the location to familiarize with the contours of the region and the direction of the natural watercourses. It was important that the natural flow of run off should be in such a way that the flowing water should flow into the right hand of the person standing in front of the proposed site. That is water has to flow from left to right at the frontage of the house. Also it was important that as far a s possible the morning sun should straight fall on the front side of the house on the days of equinox falling in September and March. In other words the house should be oriented east. If the contour of the topography does not allow an east facing house, houses facing north were recommended.

He insisted upon the site of the house to be chosen in a specific way. The plot was divided into four and the northeastern quarter was chosen for the site. Again one eighth of the length and breadth of the plot was left out from the building area on all sides, particularly on the eastern and northern sides. This corridor was meant for the rehabilitation of the spirits uprooted from the building site. In his scheme the kitchen had to be to the north with the chimney facing east. Latrines had to be placed at the diametrically opposite corner of the house. Dining room had to be in the middle. The body of the house was to be oriented in such a way that the imaginary head of the house should be at the northeastern corner and the imaginary stomach in the middle and the bowels at the southwestern extremity.

He prescribed specific dimensions for doors and windows. The perimeter of the rooms had to be within a certain range, and the front door had to be placed at a specified distance—ten feet—from the northeastern corner. Each room had to have a perimeter above fifty-five feet or below forty-four feet. Any value in between invited death. The orientation of streams, rivers and ridges was also taken into account. The direction of flow of a river or stream, when extrapolated into the land, should not arrow straight into the house. The same principle was effective for ridges too. He was fastidious with the location of particular trees and the absence of particular trees. Again, it was very important for him that the shadow of a larger building must not be allowed to fall on the new building, particularly the shadow of a religious building. His specific designs incorporating geographical and local micro realities were deemed to bring about auspicious times to the inhabitants.

The secret of his success was in the trembling apprehensions of the people. He induced the people to believe that the geometry and orientation of the house influenced the mental climate and the luck of the inmates. People came from far away places in France and also from the border towns of Switzerland. People are anxious to live a successful life and are easily disturbed by uncertainties. His architectural mumbo-jumbo had an instant appeal to many of them.

“When our foundation is perfect, we are perfect,” he would tell them.

He traveled extensively, taking particular pleasure in amending the designs of his predecessors. He initiated the demolition of many ancient houses and even modern houses and modified the dimensions and proportions to propitious combinations.

“With science catching the imagination of the moneyed masses our prospects are unlimited,” Maurice promised her.

“Maurice et Blanc unlimited can be the name of our firm,” she teased.

“You wait and see, we are condemned to conquer the French speaking world,” he boasted.

“Amen. And when we are tired of this congenital condemnation we will perhaps start living.”

“You do not seem to be convinced. We are already in the thick of life. We are going to be very strong and powerful,” he tried to win her over.

The stronger you are the weaker you are. When you weaken and denigrate yourself to a non-entity you are as powerful as the whole world. The more powerful you are, the more vulnerable you are. Admitting to a superiority complex is an honest confession of your inferiority. You try to be superior when you are inferior.

One afternoon a stranger appeared at their doorstep. There was nothing unusual about it. Many strangers had been seeking appointment with him through telephone and email. But this fellow turned up without an appointment. He was coming from a village a hundred kilometers up the Rhone in the hills. His body language nd accent accentuated his Swiss origin. He was in his early fifties, there was a haughty confidence in his eyes. His eyes seemed to be telling the world, ‘look this is a very, very absurd world, I know it and you don't.’

When the man with the Swiss accent knocked at the door, Annette opened it; she was used to receiving strangers. He demanded Monsieur Maurice. Fortunately Maurice was around. Actually, Maurice was to visit a plot upriver in the afternoon, but the client had cancelled the program unexpectedly, offering him a rare free afternoon. He thoroughly enjoyed the appearance of every new stranger because of the new challenges it entailed. Everyman has a strange and horrid story that defies our reason. We suffer for no fault of our own; we just happen to be at the wrong place. And who stitches up all the multidimensional sufferings into the fabric of our lives? What purpose does it serve? Maurice had often been asking the same question, and his clients also had in their impotent exasperation been asking the same question. He said it was karma. We prove our worth in hard times.

“Bon jour, I am Guillome Murreale. I came to consult you about a business matter.”

“Tres bien, do take your seat monsieur.”

Maurice liked the stranger, a stout and stocky man who never seemed to lose sight of his presence of mind. When you get the essential nourishment for all of the parts of your anatomy you can afford to be punishingly patient with a rudely insane world. He was very straight and informal. Such people are real sport.

“So let us hear what it is all about.”

“It is about an ancient man, to wit, my uncle.”

Annette joined them to hear the story. Such people would come out with weird and harrowing stories.

“Yes, your uncle—and what is his problem?”

“The problem is not his—he is the problem. My uncle is a well preserved specimen of a generation that is mostly gone. A respected veteran from the era between the First and Second World Wars, a regular museum piece. He lived alone in an ancient house built in the eighteenth century. This house has a story of its own. It was built by a nobleman from Paris in a turbulent decade, the seventeen forties. He needed a retreat, a place where he could relax in safety and enjoy his ill-gotten treasures. In the French revolution that took medieval values by the horns in 1789, it is believed that he died an ignoble death. Anyway, he did not return to claim his possession. During the Napoleonic era, a gentleman from Paris turned up to claim the building. He totally remodeled it. But he didn't live to enjoy it and died in the battle of Waterloo. Many others claimed the exquisite building and its hidden wonders. None of them lasted long. War claimed them. My uncle became the last owner of the house. He occupied it after the Great War, the war to end all wars, which is how we used to refer to the First World War. No war was going to claim him, as he was past his warring phase.

“Old age is not necessarily a bold age. When we start to trust nobody, it is because we cannot trust ourselves. We become our own enemy. When we don't trust ourself, we dare not trust anybody else. Dismally simple equations are inadvertently formed in the evening of life, like money = power = confidence. Our memory works against us and we see imaginary thieves in the shadows. We suspect that our visitors stole the money that we misplaced.

“I had been a regular visitor to my uncle, so I can graphically elaborate the history of his cerebral atrophy. He was a caring thoughtful and compassionate gentle man when he settled in his new house. His servants respected him and cared for him. He was happy with his books gardening and rare social visits. He was happy and showed it whenever I chose to visit him. His degradation began in the late eighties. He dismissed his servants one by one, and at last he dismissed his cook also. Then I knew that he had crossed his limits. Still I kept visiting him. My wife accompanied me to keep the house in order, a little bit of sweeping, washing, cleaning and cooking brought the house back to a civilized order. He was incorrigible, there was no reasoning with him. He refused to have anybody around him. The world was after his money, he insisted. And money he had indeed. He lost faith in the banking system. Money was with drawn from the bank. The old man barricaded himself. He shut the world out. Day and night he kept vigil. He was inclined to congratulate himself for having outsmarted the outside world by keeping his money from them. The wads of currency bills were divided into numerous bundles. They were hidden in random unpredictable places—under the rug, on the dusty mantle piece, on the rafters, under the hearth, in the toilet, below the aquarium.

“He grew reluctant to receive me. He would open the door after many checks and cross checks. My wife was no more allowed in. even if I was allowed in he would follow me with a stiff wretched persistence to find out what was up my sleeve. When your mind becomes ugly and decadent, you impose your decadence on all mortals you come across. It is a sickening experience to be treated like a thief.

“I often wonder why we behave so base and mean. We have to get past such derogatory phases. Across this nonsense, we land up on the shores of realization. ‘I’ is the path truth and life. Without I none reaches the Father, the origin to which one is destined to return. Through the destructive distillation of I, I merge into the origin. Nothing is nonsense, nothing is ludicrous. From the angle of our ignorance we diagnose that those that are carried away by a different level of reason are reasonless. Our reason, like anybody else's reason is reasonless in the final reckoning. A democracy of reasonless ness is the demand of the day. I was happy that my uncle was mad in his own way, it is a full day engagement. Our existence does not run into a dreary no man's land as long as we are mad in our own way. It keeps us brilliantly engaged. And there is sufficient variation for every madman to be mad in his own way.

“A miserable doe is definitely conscious of the fact that the flesh it is endowed with is of great demand, and its full time engagement is to keep its life and flesh together. A decrepit wreck who is held prisoner by his wealth finds himself in the same shoes. We can be poor enough to be noble and noble enough to be rich. To be richer sparks aggression; the violence springing from your congenital penury. It is a psychological disguise, wealth helps us delude ourselves, that our inner black hole has been taken care of. To be poorer by choice makes you noble in voice.

“So, we were discussing my uncle. I was building a philosophical platform on which we could define ourselves. All men are in essence the same, only the details vary. Now, look, my dear friends, a couple of years back I visited my uncle. His telephone and electric supply were severed long ago. I knocked at his door. There was no response. I strolled around the sprawling lawns and took a peep through every window, I knocked at every door and I called out his name. There was no response. Then I decided to go back home letting him have his honeymoon with his newly wed madness. When I was crossing the gate I felt my back burning. I knew that his eyes were zeroed in on me. With a sudden twist I looked back at him. He was scalding me with his hungry eyes under their thick gray bristling canopy of a pair of brows. He was standing behind the glass window. I smiled and waved my hands in the air greeting him to embarrassment. Furiously he dived into the darkness, not interested to browbeat me. That was the last of him I saw. His mansion remained under lock and key ever after. Nobody dared to break into the privacy of the French equivalent of Howard Hughes.

“I knew he was liable to hurt himself. The police were alerted. We broke open the house. There was no trace of him. Franc notes were unearthed from odd places, but he himself was nowhere. One naturally suspected foul play. But the doors were locked stoutly from inside, and there was no evidence of anybody having broken in. He was too clever for us. Most of us fall headlong on the floor when we stumble across an unseen obstacle. My uncle had put invisible steel wires in the corridors so that any intruder would stumble on them without fail. We expected him to have died of starvation. The mansion had many secret cellars and rooms. I guided the police through the labyrinth, over the years I had become somewhat familiar with the layout of the building. The police have ever since been closely observing the building. I guess that there are still many secret cells we have yet to discover. He might have breathed his last in one of the bunkers we are yet to shed light into. Let him stay where he is, and laugh his stealthy bitter laughter against the world without.

“My problem is not my uncle as such, the pursy pusillanimous wretch will hang around for a day or two. Our life has to suffer certain indignities; it is inevitable. Life is a case of res judicata. Oedipus could not change his past nor his future. We are destined to play the fool—there is no way out. The show must go on with ‘ahs and ohs’ with a short repertoire. We will forget it all in the razzle-dazzle of the world.

“After him, the mansion becomes mine. The place is an architectural marvel. You will love its workmanship. But something is fundamentally wrong. Nobody dies a natural death in it. The sheer breathtaking beauty of the location, the lascivious course of the Rhone, and the setting of the blue hills will surprise you. With him or without him inside I want the structure to be re structured to make it place to live, and not at all a place to die. The expenses do not matter; I offer not to poke into your aesthetic or structural deconstruction options. Money is mine and imagination is yours, there will be no dearth for both. Only thing is that life has to spurt and bloom all around it and inside it.”

Maurice was immensely interested. The challenge was exciting. He was undoing the mistake of the past and lost masters. He was engineering past future and present. He offered to visit the site for a preliminary survey. He consulted the diary and a day was fixed. Guillome promised to report at their house with his car for the visit. Because of the mystery and the exotic appeal of the case he invited Annette also for the impending visit.
They started in the morning on a Sunday, Annette and Maurice were in a holiday mood. Guillome was thoughtful. They drove up river in the wet and drizzling October morning.
“The uncle enigma is not an enigma any more,” Guillome declared driving his metallic Peugeot across the overweighing silence.

“Tell us more,” Maurice demanded.

“A police dog sniffed him out in an underground cell, not exactly him; his brittle weathered mortal remains. And that clears the coast for us.” Guillome retorted with a wry smile.

The multi-colored arboreal opulence of eastern France unfurled in front of them. There was no trace of the sun, the sky heaved in a lethal metallic gray. They crossed the river far upstream and moved east into the hills, leaving behind the affluent French farming villages. The blue moody river dividing the blue valley drenched in the dragging rains could be seen as if in a dream. The rich and affluent politicians and industrialists from Paris and other cities of the plains had built proud chateaux on the graceful flanks of the hills overlooking the river. People certainly have a proclivity to turn to the mysterious silence of the hills.

The narrow road was winding uphill across the coloring woods thick and drenching. The river was not any more visible. Endless sierra of blue and hazy hills filled their vision. They spoke nothing, as if by mutual understanding. The road slithered uphill along the wooded and weeping shank of a shooting hill and quite dramatically opened out into a breath taking vista of the luscious blue ribbon of the river meandering its easy course across the mountaingraphy, taking a piece of Geneva with it. It was slightly raining in the valley, frothy streaks of laughter the river flashed here and there. Far afar the mysterious summits of the Alps bordering Italian and Swiss territories stood defiantly putting their heads in the clouds. The brutal isolation of the summits in the eerie frozen dreariness has usually had an awe-inspiring effect on Annette. But the summits were not visible. They were far away in the clouds and beyond the wooded hills and the dark blue horizon.

Annette found the prospect of living a pastoral life in the villages tucked away in the remote hills dangerously enticing. To walk away into the fields at the blush of the morning to see the pomegranates blooming and the vineyards budding, to share the unsophisticated love the way Solomon fancied it. To watch the sweet gentle wind whispering in the ecstatic ears of the new born flower and marching away into the blue mysteries of the distant horizon feeling past the frozen lethal alpine spires. To listen sadly the melancholy warble of a lonely bird, the blessed solitary bard, complaining to the fleecy boughs in the munificent tranquility of the night. To watch the deep valleys of the Alps being bathed in the moonbeams after a rainy evening. Her sanctimonious urban life seemed to be a disparagement, a cancerous depravity. A libidinous lure of the soil became a lurid dream in dark solitude.

The car hushed into a hurried crushing halt. They were in front of a huge iron gate. The Rhone and its course was to the north, the huge mansion looking west looked mysteriously enthralling. It was painted white and looked like a piece of the foggy skies. The trees of the pleasance in the garden also were wet and melancholy. Still the splendid isolation of the settings had a diabolic charm. Guillome opened the creaky grating gate and they stepped into the soft wet mat of grass of the lawn. Annette held the hand of Maurice as they walked into the mansion. It is a psychological reaction. You are assuring your mind that you are not alone, you have somebody more resourceful to share the blame in case anything backfires. The exquisite and minute workmanship of the wooden front door itself told them the shape of things to come. So much of patient days and nights of so many geniuses of vision and fire had gone into the structure. They were stepping into the delicate dreams of the gone generations. In the frailty of the rich lies the creativity of the poor. The eternal signature of the ancient artists such exquisite structures bear.

The edifice was not built as a fortress or castle. It was a pleasant retreat, a hideaway from the whims of the Bourbons. Even though the kingdom was in turmoil when the structure was taking shape the duke had not anticipated a regicidal revolution as such. He had been far sighted enough to foresee turbulent times ahead. He needed a refuge from the political doldrums brewing in the social strata. And he wanted his retreat to be a classy one. Guillome guided them along the winding corridors, parlors, ballrooms, and dining salons. He proudly showed them the murals and carvings.

“Wonderful,” Annette kept whispering. But Maurice was not interested in the minute sculptural details, or in the rooms where the decadent dukes frolicked with their licentious harlots. He pulled out his compass and measuring tape. He settled to his regular business of taking measurements. He business had an advantage. From symptoms you need not have to work up to the disease, from disease you can work down to the symptoms. It is easier by far than one might think. Once the effect is acknowledged the cause can easily be deduced.

Cause can even be the mirror and not the face. Cause can even be your error and your days. But his business was rooted in the art of convincing.

He measured the perimeter of the whole structure and individual rooms. The positions of the doors and windows were also noted. The past masters were not very conscious of the effect of geometry on human destiny, he believed. Their ignorance was his possibility.

“Well,” he said, “The building is an architectural marvel indeed, but it would be even better with some structural modifications. The façade of the building should have been to the north. The original builders meant it to be facing to the west. But practical error skewed it ten degrees to the north. This angular irregularity can be reduced by giving a trapezoidal shape to the foundation. And a new opening can be introduced to the north.”

Guillome nodded dutifully.

“The internal dimensions of certain rooms are to be slightly modified to get rid of certain lethal combinations. It is not surprising that the people who lived in this house were denied a natural death. I will make a list of the changes that should be made.”

“Yes, I understand. But what I want most is for you to rid the place of its Count Dracula overtones.”

“There you are, the entire structure exudes an unnerving Carpathian darkness.”

Annette did not join his architectural voodoos. She explored the musty rooms enjoying the fine detailed craftsmanship. Many generations had come and gone that way, leaving behind their footprints and fingerprints. She discovered graffiti in various tongues on the walls. There were declarations of love along with protestations against the stormy empires. Certain inferences were very lewd and steamy. Suddenly she got frightened, she was alone, and the men were discussing business outside on the lawn. An eerie feeling swept down her spine. She had to get out of the house. She darted out and the misguiding corridors viciously cheated her.

She tried various doors to find her way out. She knew that there was no reason to panic; they will certainly come looking for her. She scolded her not to play the fool and tried to relax. She could hear them discussing somewhere behind the walls. She decided to relax and make herself at home. Claustrophobia is a problem man is born with. We rebel that we have been shut out from the greater realities.

“We have to let in more sun and air into the house. With more sun and air everything will be fair,” she heard Maurice in his pedantic best. She surveyed the room she happened to flit into. It was a bedroom. But nobody had been sleeping in it at least for many decades. The polished Luis XIV furniture was gathering dust. On the dust of the table she scribbled her name with her index finger. Then she proceeded to scribble their common joke, Maurice et Blanc unlimited.

Then she closely observed the table, somebody had violently scratched on the wooden surface. It was a feminine hand, she thought. She blew the dust off the table and strained her eyes. She read: adieu adieu forever more- A.S.

“So we will set to work immediately after you come out with a work plan. We will together wipe out the stigma for the sake of the future generation,” Guillome said gravely.

“Most definitely, we shall of course do what it takes,” Maurice agreed. The rain had gathered momentum. Blown by the wind, sheets of rain were furiously battering against the walls and roof. It was getting dark and cold. They thought of going back, the rain was now interspersed with hail—hail the size of marbles that bounced when it hit the street. Maurice went in to collect his partner in bed and career, Annette. He found her dejected and she rejected his loving attentions. There was no let up in the rain. They waited at the main entrance for a break in the weather. Maurice said that it would be better to get on the road before it got too dark.

The car sputtered and failed to come to life. Guillome tried the ignition again, the engine coughed and died again. The fuel supply had been obstructed, petrol was not reaching the carburetor. They opened the hood and pulled out the fuel hose. With a great deal of sucking and coughing the truant spec was pulled out. Both men got miserably wet and they looked like comic figures after the operation. She would have laughed at them, but her mind was elsewhere. They went downhill. Water swirled and hollered. Visibility was severely restricted.

Some way down she experienced a jolt and heard a thunderous sound.

“Mon dieu,” Guillome screamed. Annette felt a moist warmth. She felt safe, as if she was in her mother's womb. She heard beautiful songs and found herself walking into the dining room of her parents. The old man and wife were having dinner. On seeing her they looked surprised and shocked. They called out her name, she marched past them and melted into the rain. Time lost its order and structure. She came back to herself many hours later. She heard shouts and flashlights. They were trying to trace out pieces of life in the mangled mess of gray metal. She tried to figure out where she was, her dress was very wet and sticky. Then she realized. It was blood, Maurice was shielding her with his body, cushioning her dear life and frame from the rattling trundling course down the sleepy ravine. She was sandwiched between the velvet seat and his cold body. His blood had bathed her, and congealed her dress into stiffness. She tried to push him for a fresh whiff of breath. It was impossible the mangled mish-mash of metal had squeezed them close into a messy piece of flesh.

Physically she recovered easily and smoothly at the hospital. Scars remained, memories too. But she had a healthy mind. She accepted the deaths without any stormy scenes. Her psychological rehabilitation took surprisingly short period of time. Certainly she had loved Maurice, but she knew that he loved his architectural occultism more. She had to begin life afresh. She needed a break from the past. Her doctor and parents prescribed a long tour for her. She found the option enticing. A change of scene is bound to have a therapeutic effect. Her close brush with the final solution of physical dissolution made her live the remaining span of life more reasonably and seriously. Experience is a bitter teacher, but the lessons are not soon forgotten.

She chose to visit India. She had nobody to meet, and no schedule to keep. Her idea was to follow her heart and to take her sweet time to savor the experiences that came her way. She settled for India because through Maurice she had had a taste of its mystic appeal. It would serve the space after the full stop. She did not expect any inexorable spiritual experience that would sweep her by the feet. She just expected a change of scene.

Chapter 15
Ganga Kavery Express

“I have been given the sack, ” Lucy told emmem in the staff room, “they did not actually dismiss me but the effect is all the same, they asked me to go home and come back when I am physically and mentally fit to carry out the duties of an English teacher—a humane euphemism to let me know that I am a burden on the school.”

Euphemisms are a dandy way to reduce the shock of high voltage moments. An old man becomes a senior citizen and death becomes passing away. But in Lucy's case the shock was too much to bear. They might just as well have pistol whipped her.

“Socioeconomic life is a quid pro quo business Lucy, they feed you when they need you, they get rid of you when they are tired of you. Capitalism does not cater to couch potatoes. You have to be as fit as a rat lest you are run over. It does not at all surprise me that you have been shown the door. Everybody else here is in the queue. But it is a blessing in disguise; it is all right to go home and pull yourself together. Being home is a therapy in itself.”

“They wasted their energy getting rid of me because I had already made up my mind to go home. I have had my final words with my students and colleagues. I guess that I owe you a parting word. You have been my mentor and my selfless benefactor. You are somebody I shall remember to my dying breath with a sadness in the silent valleys of my mind. You are one of the few people I really care about. I am too simple to give proper expression to how grateful I am to you.”

“I can easily read the wordless body language of your eyes. Let us not abuse certain beautiful concepts. I am not about to let you sink into oblivion. I'm coming to the station to see you off.”

Suddenly, there was a flash of hope in her forlorn eyes. “Thank you kind sir, thank you. I have been dwelling on the hope that you would come with me to the station. I do not want anybody else around when I say goodbye to Bihar and its contradictions.”

The month of March was fast advancing towards a new season. Spring was sprouting against an edgy heaven. They started early in the morning. The day was breaking into a gray dawn. The cycle rickshaw they had rented creaked and squealed under their weight. A raving lunatic controlled imaginary traffic at the deserted traffic island. He found it very amusing, the agility and enthusiasm of the stranger were striking. The madman lives on another plane, he surmised to himself, and his detractors are not aware that his is a seperate but equal reality. We never realize the fact that there is no absolute reality. Perhaps he is more true to his world than we are in our viciously judgmental sanctimonious world, he thought. Madness is a matter of degree. In spite of the uncertainties ahead, Lucy felt safe for the first time in weeks because he was with her. They had decided to go to Patna, the capital city to catch the train to South India. Well before the equinoctial sun reached its noontide fury they hoped to reach Patna. The gray landscape sprawled before them in the early morning sun. Patna was three hours away by bus.

Crossing the great river Ganga, which literally runs into the minds of a billion people, they entered the bedlam of a city, precariously rooted on an enormous past. The modern capital is built on Pataliputhra, the ancient capital of the Magadh Empire at a time when Bihar had become the theater of enlightenment. It had been a land that nurtured great thinkers, a land that became the base for aspiring atheists such as Mahavir and the Buddha, a forgiving land in which it was possible for Emperor Ashoka to refuse to wage wars and subjugate nations after the massacre of Kalinga. After twenty three hundred years, the exact same location sports yet another urban center to rule over social rift and caste divisions, to preside over a social pell-mell where dacoits, mafia dons, and caste-based satraps rule the roost. What is more, the city is denigrated by a government that hangs to power by appeasing the backward classes and Muslims while turning its back on the educated progressive castes. The upper sections of the society, having lost their faith in the government, have formed their own militias to fight for their interests. Then communist revolutionary organizations wreak terror crusading for the sake of the underprivileged.

The train was to depart in the afternoon. They entered the swarming, humming railway station. Because the Pullman sleeper coaches were already reserved, chaotic general compartment [Editor's Note: general compartment is economy class] was the only viable option. He purchased the ticket for her. Ganga Kavery express would hopefully deposit her in Madras some forty hours later. The general compartment was not particularly crowded, but there were still hours to go before the train was scheduled to depart. Not having anything else to do, they boarded and took a convenient seat near the window.

An aged beggar proudly flaunting his solid investment for a comfortable life, i.e. his gory deformities, tried his best to catch the attention of the passengers and was furious that the passengers were all smart enough to ignore him.

“Thank you for helping me this far and this much. I will not take up any more of your time. You had better go and find your bus back to school before it gets dark.” She looked at him, there was confusion in her eyes.

“There is no going back,” he divulged, “the same way those insensitive school officials dismissed you, I dismissed them.”

“Why did you do that, was it for my sake? I cannot forgive myself if you did it for me.” She was surprised and very confused.

“I am not capable of doing anything to me for anybody else. Even if you were not dismissed I would have gone. This chapter is closed. This stage of my life is over. I gave notice on the day I returned from Pratapgange.”

“What you are going to do now?”

“I will be on the rove until I become penniless and absolutely free.”

We drag our turmoil all along our difficult trail.

You take the trouble of carting your scarecrow anatomy across the country.

Money can honey our puny life. She frowned inadvertently; shadows crossed her mind, “are you going with me to South India?”

“No, that part of India is not where I am going as of yet. For now my destination is north India with its extremities of human climates. But I am going to accompany you as far as Allahabad. I take me dutifully to the beauteous bounties of India. I drag me across the bylanes of life, across the dreary desolation of the frozen Himalayas. I temper me in the fire of life; I season me in the sun of strife; I spread me thin into the multifarious seams of the astral world.”

“You are the last of a lost brigade, a dangerous exile in this sensual world.”

For an instant he thought about the much-discussed expatriate syndrome.

She felt immensely thrilled, long since her sensorium was not under her control. His presence imparted confidence in her.

“Are you worried that my brain will fail me somewhere on the way? No need for you to worry on that score, since I came armed with my medicines.”

“With or without your medicines, you will safely reach your people. My will is your talisman. No harm will come to you even after I part ways with you at Allahabad.”

Her big sad eyes unknowingly got a little wet and she smiled with a dainty gentleness. She had an urge to crush him in an embrace, to disappear into him, to be him.

“Thank you for the boon granted to the devotee,” she said with an effort.

emmem laughed, “Boon? Our lives are our boon, our lives are our bane. But life is never our own.”

She slumped into silence. Out of the blue she remembered how Babu bamboozled his neighbor Raman Nair. Nair had asked Babu to bring a bottle of water for him from the holy river Ganga on his return from North India. Returning empty handed, Babu filled a bottle from his tap at home and gave it to his gullible neighbor. Subsequently the Nair family had had miraculous experiences with the tap water from the house next door. Raman anointed his near and dear ones with the holy water and it had cured bad dreams, headache, fever, back pain, childbirth, troubled stomach and was reputed to be a panacea. It was Babu's—her Babu's—all-time best joke. It was one of the secrets her resourceful Babu had shared with her.

The train was almost packed with soldiers, but Lucy and emmem were so lost in their own emotional doldrums that they did not give it a second thought. The train pulled out with a jerk. They were to steam up river before diverting south. The haphazard city floated back into the past.

“Where is your luggage?” she asked, still unable to believe the twist of events.

“I have nothing to declare,” he declared.

The train stopped at an unfamiliar station. Night was nigh. More soldiers were pouring into the train with a saucy cocky urgency. The soldiers pulled protesting civilian passengers from their seats. Some of the passengers were summarily flung out of the compartment. The military uniform invoked fear; like organized ruffians, they did pretty much what they pleased. They asked him and Lucy to go out of the compartment, but they were less impudent with her, something held them from being rude and crude to a woman.

“My colleague is not feeling well. She has to get to her family in Kerala without any further delays,” emmem pleaded.

“This is our compartment and we cannot allow civilians inside,” one of the soldiers growled while looking at him with surging violence.

“You are wasting your time asking for mercy from such sub human brutes,” she said to him in English so that the soldiers couldn't comprehend what she was saying.

The prospect of being thrown out of the compartment somewhere in the Gangetic plains at night was enervating. To save your dignity amidst the seasoned picaroons on the prowl is a daunting task. As for him, he was at home with misfortunes. He was a perfect host to all twists and turns on the tortuous course of life. But he did not want her to be driven into perfidious situations. He could niggle away the eternity before him perambulating the length and breadth of the country with the little jokes he played on himself and most willingly receiving the experiences peradventure came his way. For the moment she appeared to him to be a precious gift entrusted to him. Precious, pristine, and pure—valuable and vulnerable. She was a fresh rose to him, with pearly drops of sadness settled on its crimson petals quivering. Again, he silently agreed with her that it was beneath them to wheedle the soldiers into accommodating the fellow beings.

“They will not throw us out,” she said softly, “I've prayed to Infant Jesus. I pledged to light candles at the shrine in Palai. They will not bother us anymore.”

He squinted at her. There was confidence in her face. Votary and votive, the desperate negotiations with the unyielding presiding officer, tearful prostrations, contrite appeasements—he found it all strangely intriguing. But what Lucy said came true. The soldiers left them alone. They had their own worries.

The species of military men she was not at all familiar with. She was programmed to believe that they deserved respect and sympathy, they are ever vigilant protectors of the borders of our country. Whose border?, she wondered. She had no borders, she had no wars to wage. She wondered to herself the wisdom of the powers that be to have alienated all its neighbors. Pakistan is our bete noir, we are locked into a terse balance. Chinese dragon growls and belches fire behind the Himalayan turrets. Srilanka fears the gestures of the big brotherly bully in South Asia. The Islamic enclave inside Indian sub continent, Bangladesh, is busy breeding and multiplying. They pour into Indian Territory across its porous borders in millions. They loot where they can, steal where they can, rape where they can and add to the regular urban scum. They are easily recruited by the fundamentalists for militant operations. Naturally billions of rupees will have to be pumped to defend the country along the dreary desolation of upper Himalayas where not a blade of grass ventures to sprout. Naturally we are the regular visitors to the western military hardware markets. But this was her first first hand experience with the defense forces. There are very few soldiers in her village, but they never come to the village in their uniforms. They are all loving sons caring husbands and reliable brothers.

Patriotism had never been their motivation to join the army. The pressures of life, the difficulties at home, the grim prospects awaiting a civilian life and, above all, in an opportunity starved society any opportunity at all is a golden opportunity. But it had never occurred to her that they could be so callously ruthless. She had seen soldiers in Kerala struggling to marry away their sisters and daughters. Struggling to make a solid base for future life. As individuals these brutes also, she guessed, are vulnerable, susceptible to most elemental humane passions and concerns. Worried about the safety of their God, their family and their caste. Worried about the geopolitical maneuvers in the ivory towers.

War is perhaps a necessary evil, as the long march of civilization is not a smooth one. It progresses in neurasthenic jerks and bounds brought about by confrontations. A trigger-happy civilization is a dynamic one. When the beehive is stacked with honey, the bees become most aggressive. When a civilization is past its prime the people become lazy hedonists and licentious drones. Religion stoops to decadence, a sick society weighed down by cultural obesity, and ritualism results. Then we hear rumblings across the border, heralding the imminent arrival of Ahammed Sha Abdali, Tamerlane, Baber, and their ilk, relieving the country of Peacock thrones and Kohinoors. Wars bring out the best in man and the worst in man. So wars are the inevitable bedmates of civilizations; wars covert and overt, wars of nerves, wars unseen and unforeseen, wars waged with a smile. Wars are the wherry to ferry us across mediocrity.

She looked at him through the corner of her eye. The train was furiously plunging into the darkness. He sat there with the perfect composure of a hermit. The casual observers could easily notice that they both are strangers in many ways. A cool confidence radiated from his being, the confidence of somebody who remains unruffled and aloof from the absurdities without. The cleanliness of his cheap, but flabby flannel kurta and pajama exuded an inner purity, a purity that would make you fear the fears that you hitherto bothered not to fear. The transparency of his mind helps you take a peep into the extremities of the world. The confidence of his was not an intimidating one, it makes you involuntarily cringe inside ashamed of the graveyards you carry along. She on the other hand, reminds you of an unpolished pearl. She lacked the refinement and poise expected of a modern girl well versed in the coquettish sweet nothings. She was too plain to dazzle you with her charms. Nor was she well endowed with her pectorals. It had certain advantages, men would not lecherously feast on you. She had an air of higher education around her. A woman in blue stockings does not go well in the world of libidinous madness. The ogling neurotics are happy with the anatomy of an hourglass woman. Hourglass women are extremely conscious of the ups and downs of their body, whereas a woman obsessed with the pinnacles of higher education leaves her body to take care of itself. The feminine charm dries out in her in the long run, she levitates by and by to the rarified circles. An ordinary woman is very self-conscious; her body becomes her weapon, her world, her asset and her liability.

His nonchalance and unruffled serenity are taunting, she thought. He seemed very familiar to her, despite his dignified and detached veneer he seemed somebody dear to her. He, she thought, was pretending to be a non-Keralite. It was pernicious to part with him. She desperately wanted him to remember her even long later. She longed to have something of hers with him. She thought of giving him something having an emotional value.

“Have you ever read the sadness in a lonely flower?” She asked off guard.

He turned to her, his eyes slightly widening. “Not yet, but I will try to do it sometime soon.”

“What will you do when you run out of money,” she asked.

“I will take care of that when the time comes. I do not worry about that, nor should you,” he told her with a cheerful smile. By way of second thought he added, “wherever we go, at the end of the road, God waits for us at the end of the day.”

She knew that they were going to part, within a few minutes. The train would land up at Alahabad before long. She longed to ruffle his composure.

“Your station is nearing,” she reminded him.

“Yes, there begins my self teaching expedition. Well; I do not agree with that terminology, it is not self teaching, it is rather an adventure in the making—an exercise in becoming.”

“Becoming what?”

“Well, to become everything. To be a seasoned monist,” he replied.

“In another thirty six hours I will be at Madras,” she lamented, looking very much like a bird that had lost its song.

“Yes, warm and passionate Madras. If you are fortunate, you can board Steel City Express to Cochin. But if you happen to miss it, try to get a berth on Trivandrum Mail or Cochin Express.”

“There you spilled the beans. I suspected that you had been to Kerala,” she laughed gleefully.

“I have no reason to correct you. But I had been to Madras many times over, and Madras Central station is very familiar to me.”

“Where you employed in Madras?”

“No dear, I went there to attend conferences at the Indian Institute of Technology and Anna University.”

“Well, let it be, I positively refrain from pecking at your private world.”

“It is of no use, I have nothing to declare.”

“Since we probably aren't going to see each other for a long time, I am going to give you something very dear to me,” she pulled out her soiled pocket Bible from her hand bag, “this I am giving to you as a precious gift. This was my constant companion for most of my life. Please do not reject it, you needn't be a Christian to have it. Just read—at times, it will give you peace and consolation.”

emmem hesitated. Any kind of luggage is a drag; it was loathsome. Also, he abhorred the prospect of flinging it behind her back. It appeared awkward that an irreligious brute should carry a Bible with him. But she was parting with something very dear to her. Suddenly, he remembered her quaint post card; also, he remembered the 23rd psalm and its sixth line. Instantly, he received the soiled hardbound book, which had suffered hundreds of feminine kisses and had witnessed many moments of feminine distress.

“Couldn't you use the peace and consolation this divine repository of wisdom is capable of giving you? I know it chapter and verse; now it is yours, no strings attached.”

“You want me to go under the spell of your gospel?”

“No, read it when and where you will. It was wonderful for me. I invite you to find out for yourself how it lifts your spirits and fills the emptiness with divine grace. Carry it with you. It will be your talisman—no harm will come to you.”

“Thank you.”

They looked at each other, he saw impending death in her and she could tell by his body language that something was wrong. Stung by an unexpected disclosure, both diverted their eyes in a hurry. For the desperate death can be the final solution, the refuge, the parachute. She remembered Babu, his insatiated love winding along the corridors of her mind. Where do they all go? Do they ever return from the incomprehensible mystery, the mystery that effectively sobers and moderates man? Suddenly it silences him and initiates him into a state of awful thoughtfulness. How we elect to fill the space between life and death, the plan we choose to act out our role—such things determine social adaptability. God tries himself out through losers and loafers. Harlots, madmen, and seers will fuse into one when the theater shuts down.

Curiously, she remembered the death of Father Abel, the poet lyricist and artist priest who founded Cochin House of Art, which in the years that followed churned out numerous comedians and film stars of consequence. After his daily official chores the priest called one of his disciples to his chamber and asked, “dear child have you ever seen a man dying?”

“No father,” she had said with obvious surprise.

“Then look and see for yourself. It will help you in your career.” Saying so, the priest went to his bed and died smoothly and serenely. He had lived his life completely, then entered another existence and closed the door from behind. She wanted to be done with the world once and for all, not to leave behind any regrets, to close the door from behind with conviction. There shouldn't be any pages left blank. There shouldn't be scores to settle.

As we are not in the know of how the scheme of things will work out, I have to run the race, fight my war, and defend my faith. Shall we come again this way looking for our lost paradise? Shall we again listen with a mute and muffled pain the concert of the nightingales? With a heavy mind shall we again tune our ears to the gentle wind winding its way in the woods jingling its thousand bells? Shall we still wait again in the still hours of the night for somebody dear to turn up. She remembered the sad and silent nights she waited for her father to turn up with gifts, delicacies, and kisses. Will the clusters of jasmine bloom again in our dreams? Shall we again sit back and strain to read the lost and secret language hidden behind the crisp laughter of a child? Will winters again weave its gossamer veil on top of the hills? Will spring spread its multichormatic plumes to the world? Will it work patiently on every dreaming tree with its fluffy fleecy fingers?

Perhaps we are reincarnated, God replicates through us. Lucy thought about her thread of life running its course in its pastoral simplicity. The old temple pond blooms, water lilies dream their moons. The expectant eyes pool up pearly globules of tremulous water. The deadman's tree blooms, its white skeletonous branches spread the heady perfume.
The midnight rains are sad. It weeps against the walls, it seeps into the halls. The melancholy sonorous rain strains against the windowpane. It stains the walls with its tears, venting its pain. The rain rains against the leaves in a moody distraction. The puling rain pools its peevishness into muddy puddles. We watch it sleeplessly staining to remember impossible memories. That is life, the impossible strain to remember.

She remembered the moonlit nights of autumn. It floods the valley with a cold freshness. The moonbeams smile away behind you, the white petals of the moon quiver in the grass.

It occurred to her that she should be very frank with him and at the same time it pained her to discuss her most private solutions and hopes. She sat very close to him, his cool warmth spread into her. Still distances separated them. At the end of the journey the imperious distances should collapse into a point, free of dimensions.

They strained to read the silence settling between them.

The train was fleeting past the moon-blanched landscape. Moonbeams floated and settled on fields and thickets with the background music of inaudible jingles. The moonlit night had the color of death, with its eerie hoary pallor.

She wondered how many cultures, empires, generations and dreamy intellectuals marched past that fertile Gangetic alluvium across the last eight thousand years. She thought of the paroxysms of invasions. The cauldron of faiths and cultures, the melting pot of races and languages. Aryans came pushing the black Dravidians to the south, wave upon wave—Scythians, Bactrians, Mongols, Arabs, Turks, Huns, Greeks, Macedonians, Persians, and many more adventurers poured into the Indo –Gangetic plain. India assimilated them all, sobered them and moderated them. All of them settled into the most natural, prevailing religion of the sub-continent—the Hindu culture. Even Islam moderated its bloodlust when confronted by the unfathomed depths of Indian thought. Sufists became more Indian than many Indians. All cultures and individuals marched into the unfailing hands of the great socialist. An impenetrable veil of silence keeps them from us.

This good earth, this theatre of life, should have many unseen and intangible plains, she thought. There also the dry parched earth may wait tremblingly to receive the first rains of the year, there also the wet glebes may long for flowers, there also the morning beams may dance on the lea. Streams may strain against the unfeeling rocks, the lingering mist may settle on the quivering leaves and feel its way down. Willows may wave their leafy arms against the golden glow of the moonlit night. The cornfields may sleep under the silken blanket of translucent mist.

She was lost in thought, he left her in her own world. He felt sorry for her, he felt sorry for all souls trapped into the mortal grossness. Nostalgia is inertia. We pine for our body, our home. Life is a parting and the whole stretch of life is punctuated with partings. The sweetly sad partings forcefully make us conscious of our fundamental loneliness. In the pale crescent moon the suburbs of Allahabad floated past.

“I have decided to be truthful to you and also to myself,” she told him unexpectedly; he smiled encouragingly.

“I purposely misguided the doctor to a wrong diagnosis. My problem is not stress strain or pain. My CPU is permanently damaged. It is an incorrigible case of brain tumor. I knew it from the beginning; our family has a history of brain cancer. I may live for another three months, four months, five months, maybe more. The sedatives he prescribed will only make the brain lie low for some time. But I can read the writing on the wall. I am not telling you this in order to solicit your sympathies. I have long ago severed all tentacles and tendrils tying me to the world. I have no accounts to settle, I have no regrets.”

Her news did not shock him, there was no surprise, no curiosity in his face.

“Were you aware of this, this fact that my fate is sealed?” she asked.

“Yes,” he nodded, “I surmised that you were veering away into an impenetrable silence. Death is a dissolution, birth is a separation and ignorance rules the roost in between.”

“I did not come out with this to walk out on you as the heroine in a tearjerker. I am laying bare before you all of these pernicious and skinned secrets to seek another boon from you. I do not seek to know where will you be hence. I cannot detain you or divert you. But at the time of reckoning, it would immensely please me if you were around. I will breathe my last with the pleasant awareness that you, among all others, are with me. Is it too much to ask you to turn up when the end draws near?”

“Death can wait. In the meantime, we can prove our worthiness by making others miserable. Also, we can prove our mettle by making ourselves miserable.” He seemed to be tuned to a different mental wavelength.

She sat there lost in thought.

“Remember me and report me if you will—forget me and forgive me if you will,” she made an effort to score over him with a smile, dry sallow shallow smile.

Life is a countdown, distracted by uncertainties.

“I have no idea what is to become of me, I do not know where I will be tomorrow. But if I happen to be the way I am now at the time of reckoning, I shall try to be at your bed.” he took her frail little hand into his and pressed it as if to clinch a deal.

The train pulled to a halt. Even at midnight the station was crowded with pilgrims and hawkers. The night was cold. He gingerly slithered his way across the crowded compartment and ejected himself out onto the platform. Then he moved to the window where she was anxiously waiting for him.

“Thank you,” she said, tears brimmed in her eyes, “thank you for making my days beautiful. For me, you are Bihar—you alone.”

“Thank you,” he echoed, “thank you for making my days meaningful.”

She looked at him thoughtfully.

“There is no reason to worry yourself sick. You will be safe and your life will be under your control until you join your own people.” Without turning back he quickly disappeared into the thick of humanity. Her eyes were glued to him. His tall lean stature could be discerned even in the swirling multitude. He walked like an otherworldly dreamer, as if he was floating—pale, thoughtful and tender. When you go, you take the world with you.

It is easier by far to destroy the universe by simply destroying yourself. The world dies with you and the world is born with you. Without us nothing exists, everything is created with us and everything dies with us.

There is moisture in our sorrows, in our love, in our separation and in our dreams. We are baked into a dry desolation in the absence of hope.

Chapter 16
There are some that shadows kiss

“Dear Anna,” Yohannan wrote to his estranged wife in his characteristic style, jerky acicular and flowery. Her personal associations with him were as barbed as the cuneiform chit he had sent to her from across the years. She was surprised and disturbed to be bothered by him after such a long time of delicate silence. For a second time she read his letter, this time in a meticulous analytical mood. At this stage she would rather have him leave her to her own solitude.

“Dear Anna,” she read, “I reach out to from a distant and war torn shore. I do not know whether you still hold me dear to you, as dear as I had been to you in the youthful freshness. Oft I wonder in my most private moments whether I had given you the love that was due to you. Across the mellowed years and distances, I hope we can love and care for each other on a selfless plain, less demanding, less possessive and less jealous. Yes, jealous I was once. You may still remember the day I stole your cascading velvet cloud of hair in your sleep. I wanted to make you lie low, I wanted to make you less appealing. I juxtaposed my ugly and sinful mind upon yours. On looking back, I guess that you will forgive me. Forgive me if you can, forget me if you can. Perhaps in the inky depths of your desolation you would think that I did not ever love you, that you were an interim arrangement for me. But let me give you my word of honor that I had never stopped loving you. A part of you was always in the core of my mind. On many a moonlit night I have longed for your presence, during the rare spells of rains in this desert land I have queerly experienced your dainty presence. Had you been with me in the pestilential trials of my life perhaps I would have dragged you also into the charybdis I have engineered around me.

It is not that I forgot you and our children. I did care for you, you may perhaps remember that I had been sending small amounts to you during the first few years. I could have sent you more, but I did not want you to live a luxurious life, our children should get hardened to the rigors of life. Later on I stopped sending money, not that I would not rather—I could not. I was a prisoner, it is no use to go into the details. Then came the war, the disaster, Saddam Hussein's men took me to Iraq, there also I languished in confinement. I am not writing this to provoke your sympathy, I am past that stage.

Now in the evening of our life, I hope that we can walk leisurely into our sunset hand in hand. We can watch our days passing by, gracefully and patiently. We can be a prop to each other, we can share the few moments left to us. I know you inside out, you will most willingly forgive me, yes given a chance you will forgive me for all of my omissions and escapades. Unfulfilled vengeance is a carcinogenic toxin.

Often my dear, very often my dear, I wonder how far I have fallen from myself. I, Yohannan, the scion of an illustrious family. Unlike many of the strutting dandy Syrian Christian peacocks, I can tell you that ours really is a great family, with so many doctors, priests, engineers, academics and lawyers. And that I crawl in the shadows of the world. But enough of all the futile tussles with the unwieldy shadows, I am coming home. …”

She felt very bitter and irritated. He expects her to forgive him, as if her forgiveness mattered to him. She had long ago forgiven all those who ravaged her timid life, but she was not going to flaunt her forgiveness for a pat on the head and applause. Across a tortuous span of life will forgiveness undo all the blaring and glaring inconsistencies of the past? He expects her to be the blinking simpleton she was, believing anything and everything, yielding to the plumed lies of the cock bird. The naiveté in her died long back, her skin had turned thick and gross over the years. Hence his affected vehemence was a waste of energy, she thought bitterly.

If he wants to come back come back he must, but she does not need him as a prop, a prop he failed to be in the spring of her life. Her children did not have a father, her family did not have a man. It irritated her more still that he was not cured of his bristling family pride. She had heard it ad nauseum, the glories of his supposedly superior family. She too was a Syrian Christian, but in her case ancestry did not stand in the way. Her family tree was composed of real people, drunkards, madmen, and intellectuals, priests and other criminals. Many were everyday people living by the sweat of their brow, caring for their family, hoping and prayerfully waiting for better climes. His stinking family wasn't any better. This accursed family pride did not serve any purpose, it is not edible, it does not become cloth or shelter. He is impossible like the helical tail of a cur; he is beyond cure. He does not know to live life in a meaningful manner.

She decided not to read any more of the letter. But his missile of a letter served the primary purpose of shattering the tense equilibrium of her family. Hitherto she had been the head of the family. Anthony, although reticent and elusive, never questioned her authority. On family matters hers was the last word. Hers was the first word too— it was as if Anthony lived on another planet. If her husband should enter the picture and offer to preside over their penury and misery, it would upset the applecart.

Anna gave the letter to Anthony and watched the emotions rippling on his face. Yohannan was the black sheep of the family. He had not been a good father to his son. He hadn't even tried. The words of endearment he lavished over his daughters, Anthony had been summarily denied. He found a potential rival in his son, a budding Oedipus. Father was a monstrous terror in Anthony's dreams, and he did not even for a moment miss his father. But the dreadful prospect of his visitation suited Anthony's schemes well. With his father at the helm, Anthony would be free to follow his heart. He did not say anything, he remained cold as ice, emotions never once coming to the fore.

The parish priest plays a crucial role in the lives of the village women. He shared their most intimate secrets, their secret desires, hopes, fears, and sins. The vicar priest saved the little sinners from suicide and/or the mental asylum. He was privy to the paramours and nature and frequency of fornication. He presided over the little sins of the parish. Individual behavior within any given cultural entity is necessarily regulated by law, unfortunately however, the Mosaic laws were not designed with the mosaic of modern social interactions in mind. Yet the poor priests do their utmost to whip up the sinner's hysteria without which the religious bandwagon would run into treacherous grounds. Sin is their bread and butter. Anna, yielding to the predictable proclivity of her sex, rushed to the parish priest to find out what a God fearing woman should do about it. The priest was pompous and frowning. He was tired of the women folk. Although sin was part and parcel of how he earned his bread, he had grown tired of the industry of sin, yet it was his bread. But he brightened up when his reading progressed.

“So your old man is coming back,” he stated with a teasing smile.

“I do not know what he has up his sleeve, father.”

“Why, let him come; he belongs to you. It is the most natural thing in the world.”

“He is going to shatter our peace of mind. Somehow our hearth has its fire.”

“Don't say anything against the will of God. He joined you. When your husband arrives, ask him to come and meet me.”

When the priest made for her the decision she had been hoping not to have to make, she felt relieved. After the regular expressions of her submissiveness, she picked up the letter and was about to leave when the priest motioned for her to come back.

“Look, Annachedathy, he might be coming with the riches of a lifetime spent in a foreign land. You must ask him to marble our Parish hall and he can contribute into the fund for the marriage of poor girls.”

“You priests never change,” she laughed, “we shall cross that bridge when we come to it— first things first.”

Anna's elder daughter Molly was tremendously excited when she heard the news. It boosted her stance, she thought, among her husband's people. Her father coming back from the Persian Gulf meant a great many things; nobody comes empty-handed from the fabled land of riches. Her mother-in-law had for some time been pestering her to get her mother to buy a refrigerator for them. She never had the cheek to approach her mother with such a demand. Her mother did not even have electricity.

The advent of her father into the picture promised many things. She spirited them all to go to the airport to receive him, hailing a jeep taxi. They had seen people going to the airport in stylish vehicles with much pomp to receive their loved ones. There are most times a plethora of thick and pregnant bags, even neighbors help out. A festive mood rains down on the house and its neighborhood. Now, it was their long awaited turn to indulge in the ostentatious pageantry. Molly made elaborate preparations for the day, ironing the clothes, rushing over to her mother's place and tidying the house, preparing special dishes that her father liked—kallappam and beef, Vattayappam, kappapuzhukku and chicken. She seamed new garments for her child. It mysteriously thrilled her to offer her child into the hands of his father when he comes out into the open. Her father was handsome, the most handsome man she had ever set her eyes on. Molly acted the scene many times over in the fantasies that mind.

They started early in the morning. Molly got up at three O'clock to see to the final arrangements for the journey. When the jeep started from Cholathadam, mist of the nocturnal rain still lingered in the valley. The child whimpered and cried not understanding the necessity of the inconveniences she was crudely put into. They chose to take Thodupuzha-Muvattupuzha-Perumbavoor route to reach the airport. Though the road, like a black ribbon, lay across the hilly terrain, this route offers certain advantages. Traffic is comparatively less and Cochin City and its suburbs could be avoided. Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) is an architectural masterpiece built by the people of the state, the first one of its kind in the country. And within a short period of time it graduated to be the fourth busiest airport in the country. Its picturesque natural setting had an unusual appeal. Safely away from the din and bustle of the city, basking in the verdant serenity overlooking the rolling green hills of the east.

The jeep devoured the road in front of it across the green hills. Anthony and Molly's husband were seated on the front seat, close to the driver, a young man who thoroughly enjoyed his job. Young men love guns and vehicles; it is part of their sexuality. Anna and her daughter were uncomfortably seated on the rear seat. Anna was saying her prayers, she hated long journeys and the uncertainties that they presented. Molly struggled to keep the child in good humor. They crossed hills and valleys and three major rivers of central Kerala. In the warmth of the morning sun they waited outside the arrival gate, leaning on the glossy steal railing, craning their head and scrutinizing every gray head, emerging from behind the glass structure. There were hundreds of them anxiously waiting to receive the dear ones. The visitors are to come from beyond the heavens with a cornucopia; you have to be there armed with your glass shoes. Acres and acres of parking area were filled with cars and wagons waiting to radiate away to distant parts of the state, armed with the treasured guest. Anna wondered aloud how to locate their jeep from the deluge of vehicles. Molly asked her to shut up, her husband would do it.

Planes from different countries and belonging to different national airways came and went, following a spurt of emotions. There were hugs kisses and tears. The out coming passengers showed their class and luxury. The flux of humanity continued. The fortunate ones that struck it rich on a foreign soil are back to celebrate their good luck. And those that are not that fortunate are back to lay a solid base to their lives, a solid house, a good marriage, some land—there are many things to have. There are many to pounce on them, to share the riches, to grumble and backbite. They do not get a send off after the vacation as passionate and warm as the one they receive on arrival.

The Kuwait Airways flight on which he was coming had not yet landed. Still they fondly watched each soul emerging. Molly was amused to observe that the electricity sparked during the partings and receptions. Each one was cheered and hailed on appearing at the gate. The visitor coming from far away places and his trolley were taken over by the ebullient reception committee. Molly's husband stood close to her, sharing her enthusiasm. They were in a strange world. Anthony stayed to himself. He left the duty of picking his father out to his mother and sister.

“Lucy would have been happy,” he thought, “she loved their father so.”

His eyes settled on a stranger. He had landed there on an earlier flight. He had seen him emerging from the glass structure, when Anthony was all curiosity. The stranger was still standing on the platform holding his trolley, nobody had come to receive him. He was craning his neck to search for a familiar face; there was none. In fact he had waved his long arm at the crowd in the hope of hearing a faint echo, but nothing of the kind had occurred. Anthony observed the transformation taking place in him. The heat of March did not agree with his coat and suit. First the traveler peeled off his overcoat—it wouldn't impress anyone as there was nobody to appreciate it. Time dragged on. Then he removed his shoes, socks, and pants in the open. He put on chapels and dhoti, slung his luggage onto his back and walked away like an unassuming local. Anthony felt sorry for him. He was denied an ecstatic reception, his impressive —not to mention expensive—impeccable Western dress had come to naught. Life is like that, he thought. Protracted hopes end up in a wet and sad fiasco. Some find themselves perniciously alone when they find themselves at last on the victory stand.

Yohannan also turned up at the airport early in the morning. He slept at Alwaye railway station waiting for the morning. He traveled all the way from Bombay by bus, via Pune and Mangalore. He enjoyed the journey very much. After twenty years, he was visiting his country and his people. The rock hard ice inside him began to thaw on reaching Mangalore bus station. The journey across north Kerala was like a pilgrimage. Yohannan's trembling mind absorbed the people and landscape of Kerala with a painful ecstasy. His land had been transformed while he was away. His countrymen's tastes had changed, the younger generation almost in toto had switched over to Western dress habits, giving up the traditional costumes. From the local newspapers he gathered that the volatile leftist political enthusiasm of the people had substantially subsided over the years. In the late seventies, a proletariat revolution was imminent. Revolutionary units were taking on moneylenders and ambushing police stations. Most of the campuses were red, especially centers of technical education. Now people had too much money to be distracted by socialist dreams. We are perfectly true to ourselves in our selfishness—the fact of the matter is that our ass is the one we care about most.

Money pumped in from the west and Gulf countries boosted the standard of living. With newfound, unearned riches, a Keralite lost his last virtue, poverty. With poverty went his traditional art, his celebrations deeply rooted in nature and the change of seasons. Onam, the harvest festival, became just another commercial celebration complete with plastic flowers, electronic meetings and printed greetings. Food grains and vegetables now came from Tamil Nadu; crops that were not sown did not need to be harvested. July was the most desolating month, a month of rains, rains alone with no sun, no food, and no social activity. The month of August made up for that—August, the harvest month with little sun and bright, crystalline moonlit nights. Now, on the other hand July has less rain and no poverty. The newly formed socio-climatic patterns stole the thunder from the platform of the leftist revolutionaries. They became less warlike and settled into the same rut that the other left-of-center political partys charged with parliamentary ambitions had become stuck in. For the starving wretch, however, existential worry is an unaffordable luxury. With windfall cash and no need to labor, religious enthusiasm became a convulsive passion sweeping the country. The revolutionary fever subsided, and religious adventurism took its place.

Yohannan had no hope of melting perfectly into the existing social amalgam. He was happy to live the rest of his life in Kerala, speaking his own language, breathing his own air, surveying its hills and valleys bursting in lush greenery. He knew that he would be a misfit at home. A finished man like him, with no money to buy his social acceptability, with no parents to lean on, with an alienated son to rely on, Yohannan would never be a welcome guest in his own house. Nobody wanted him and he had no reason to go back home. He knew what he would do with what remained of his life. He would go to Maruthoor meditation center. Thousands of social outcasts have sought asylum there—praying, meditating, helping the sick and counting on a death in God. As far as Yohannan was concerned, neither God nor the sacraments mattered much, but meditation seemed strangely enticing. His prime concern was his body. He wanted to assure a Christian burial for his body. What he needed was a hole, to sleep temporary sleep or permanent sleep, he needed a little food. Booze was not important. When he wheezed with his asthmatic constrictions, he expected a little caring. Enough. Maruthoor meditation center offered it all. It was a spiritual revival center, a center of miracle healers, trying to practice the early Christianity of the catacombs. People gathered there in tens of thousands every Friday, rich and spoiled, sick and dejected, failed and rejected, Christians and non-Christians, to participate in what amounted to a hysteric prayer marathon, in which God frequently intervened with the signature of his miracles. The lame threw away their crutches and walked and cancer patients reentered the world of the living, leaving behind the throes of death. The mass hysteria the divine meditation center assiduously whipped up was going the rounds in Kerala and in other parts of the world where Keralite Christian women had settled in large numbers, especially nurses.

First of all, he intended to have a look at his family. All of his children had become adults and were faring well despite not having the benefit of a father. They no longer needed him, and he hadn't taken care of them when they needed him most. The way things stood, it would be ludicrous for him to encumber them with his glaringly tardy attentions. Early in the morning he boarded the bus in the direction of the airport. Truck drivers were taking advantage of an early morning lull. Huge overloaded trucks whizzed past growling. From the national highway Yohannan had to walk a few kilometers to get to the airport. The modern sleek highway leading to the airport was teeming with automobiles and other vehicles coming from all parts of the state. When he left Kerala, walking had been very much in vogue—Keralites walked long distances to save money. Now the roads were deserted of pedestrians—automobiles had gone from being a luxury to becoming a necessity in the time that he had been away.

His decoy had worked well. They fell easily into his trap. They were there. Anna looked her age, early fifties. But she seemed healthy and a bit overweight. Her hair had thinned out and there were a few streaks of gray. He remembered how possessive he had been of her. He remembered how he had cut off her long, thick hair in her sleep to prevent her from attracting attention from other men. His wife was still beautiful, only she appeared bored. A dispiriting apathy writ large on her face. She was eying the strangers emerging out of the enormous glass door. But she had no enthusiasm. Then he saw Anthony. His son looked wiry, sun tanned and distracted. The lack of refinement characteristic of a rustic was his salient stigma. His son's stature humbly proclaimed that he was innocent of the ways of the city. The city man generally has more fat on him and a confidence of being on the home ground. Apart from his rusticity, he had an other worldly air. He seemed to be watching the show with a detachment. Molly seemed different in that her warmth was still intact. She had been a warm passionate child, who had exacted her full share of love, caring, and pampering from him. Molly's little girl was amused by the flood of humanity. He longed to touch the child. Yohannan moved closer to Molly. The child pulled at her grandfather's thinning gray sprig of hair. He longed to give her something in acknowledgement that she was to carry on the genetic relay race for the forgotten generations that had passed their chromosomes to her.

The landing of the Kuwait Airways airliner was announced in three languages. They craned their head into the corridor behind the glass door. He also craned his head anxious to see him coming with huge promising bags. One by one they emerged, he strained his myopic eyes to find familiar faces. They were all strangers. He had helped many people in Kuwait to get a foothold. They are all better off now, they may not even remember him. We are like monkeys—if a monkey fails when he leaps from one tree to another, the monkey community excommunicates him. If you fail in the battle of life you become a stranger to yourself. Now he stood close to Anna, she too was tiptoeing and craning. People surged forth and squeezed them to the railing. Anna felt miserable, she alone should and would recognize him. It was her duty. She hated to see an admonishing look in Anthony's eyes.

They scalded all aged men emerging with their burning eyes. They also, unable to stand the burning looked back in astonishment and embarrassment. The stream of passengers thinned out.

“Didn't you see him?” Molly asked accusingly.

Anna shrugged with obvious irritation.

“Good Lord, we must not miss him. He must be looking for us in the crowd,” Molly said sadly.

Yohannan softly touched her arm and moved away.

“If he is capable of coming up to Cochin, he can go the rest of the way all by himself,” Anna commented bitterly. He was never straight, this must be one of his regular trivial tricks, she thought. Molly and Anthony surveyed the people waiting with their trolleys. None of them looked anything like their father.

The arrival of another plane was reported. It was of no use to stay there to be squeezed and jostled. They moved away, dejection and concern weighing heavily on them. Anna and Molly were directed to the jeep. Anthony and his brother in law loitered in the crowd for some more time, zeroing on isolated and aged passengers. Shortly they also gave up hope and returned to the jeep.

They retuned home. Yohannan was driving their lives to intricacy. Anthony decided to wait, it mattered little whether he came or not. If he comes, it is well and good for him. If he doesn't, it is all the same. Their old house was sold to marry away Molly and they subsequently moved into a small log cabin in the hills. But if Yohannan is truly interested he can find it. All he has to do is ask around. Anthony was busy with his countdown, there was no reason to compromise on it. But if his father comes back to be the man of the house, the option of a hermitage is to be ruled out. Taking the course of a blindly pious Christian also did not have its original appeal. Since he did not have a high school education, it was unlikely that he would ever gain acceptance in religious circles.

The prospect of taking his own life was steadily gaining preponderance. Anthony was not anxious to bag his share of trophies in the battle of life—the sign posts to convince the people coming behind him that he too had been this way before them, the sign posts for him to remember the past in case he comes this way long after in a different garb, or from a different orb. To get married and to settle in life with his brood demanded a great deal of perseverance and tenacity. For the moment he does not have the essential qualifications for a woman to come to his life as a partner; he lacked a regular income, he lacked a good house, his education was not up to the mark. Moreover, he lacked the drive to project himself as an eligible bachelor. Still he was keeping his fingers crossed, a devotional life does not demand academic qualifications. Theokinesis has its own fulfillment and inner pleasures. He could even transgress the ambience of shallow oriental Christianity, and swim into the vast and deep ocean of timeless Indian spirituality. But he was an alien in that difficult terrain. Fortunately it is a world free of snobs, he thought, everyone is his own emperor. He flexed his inky thoughts into a crude rhyme:

This earth is not mine
Here nothing is fine
I abhor this earth
And this life of dearth.

His first priority is to see to it that Lucy is well off. He expects to have her married by the middle of next year. He had taken a rubber estate on lease for slaughter tapping. If matters work out properly, he will have the resources to do that. Once that is accomplished he will be on his own. He was more attached to Lucy than to Molly. Lucy is more sensible, more delicate, more understanding. He longed for her presence. Life seemed more enjoyable when Lucy was around. It was many weeks since she had written to him. He fondly hoped that nothing was wrong with her. She is too delicate and sensitive to climatic changes, but her will is her wealth, he thought.

It was a hot and sweltering afternoon. The road was dusty and unbearably hot. March, the hottest month of the year, was ravaging the hills and plains. The brooks dried out and yet flashing the fingerprints of a watercourse, swooned in the heat and dreamed of rainy days. “It is going to rain,” Anna aired her ancient wisdom. Augmented heat induced afternoon convectional rains. Heat and humidity spoiled cooked food pretty fast.

“Food must be putrefied by now,” she said to herself.

“If I only had a refrigerator”, Molly lamented aloud, “when Celine went back to her husband with her first born, her father gave them a color television and a refrigerator.”

“Her father is a thief. Putting on his police uniform, he robs both the plaintiffs and defendants. Your brother does not have the mean spiritedness and corruption it takes to garner bribes,” Anna said.

It is very natural, Anthony thought, that she wants to progress in life. One has to be like that in order to survive.

“Don't worry, Molly. You will get your heart's desire,” Anthony pronounced lovingly. Anna looked at him helplessly. She felt sorry for him. He is such a masochist, she thought, his pleasure is to undermine himself. He has no rivals in this godforsaken enterprise. When you strive to progress in life you are greeted by a swarm of rivals. She wondered whether he was courting martyrdom, he was so lofty and detached. His laboring life notwithstanding, he had a laudable dignity.

“Here is the fridge,” everybody was taken aback, even the driver turned back. Everybody thought that the eight months old child had said so. The child was laughing mischievously.

“Did you say something little lady,” Anna asked patting her granddaughter. The infant laughed again and opened her right fist. There was a twenty-four gram gold coin in her chubby ruddy hand.

“Oh good Lord,” Anna crossed herself. It looked like God's gift. God works wonders when He has nothing else to do. Suddenly, the heavy heavens broke into a furious lashing rain. They were inching their way up to Kanjiram Kavala, the large drops splashed into smaller drops against the road. The deep ravines were shortly buried in a white silken haze. Rain bathed the pensive trees. Water swirled and giggled on the road. The calmly meditating brooks were once again shocked back to life, muddy waters hollering down the boulders. Wind whipped the plumage of the trees on top of the hill. The rain rained out as abruptly as it had come in. Everybody was excited. They were rolling downhill on the Kottayam side of the mountain.

“We are not going straight home,” Anna announced, “we are stopping at Aruvithura Church.” Nobody objected. It was an ancient church that was on the way. A church in the name of Geevarghese (St. George). He saved the ancient Christians who came to the savage hills fifteen hundred years ago from serpents and wild animals. He had officiated miracles on behalf of God in the hills. On the day of the annual religious fair the saint approved of the piety of the people by flashing a lonely star in the sky in stark daylight. The saint had a central point in the lives of the dwellers of the hilly terrain.

They had to take a slight detour from Erattupetta town to reach the church. The church looked fresh and beaming after having been blessed with a heavenly shower. There were many parishioners inside the church squatting thoughtfully, venting their inner pressures, and sharing their fears with God. All of them, following Anna's lead, knelt at the altar and said their silent prayers. They felt relieved for having expressed their gratitude to God then and there.

On the way back from the church they had to cross a bridge leading to the center of town. Suddenly, Anthony shouted, “Stop, please stop. Stop!”

The jeep could not be stopped in the thick of the traffic. Again they did not get what was wrong. Anthony jumped out in a mad impulse. He lost his balance and thudded on hard ground. Undaunted, he got up and darted back. Lucy collapsed into his strong bleeding arms. He held her close like a precious gift from heaven.

“What happened to you dearest,” there were tears in his eyes despite himself. There was no answer. Her frail thin body lay in his arms like a damask bundle of clothes, she was virtually drowned in her red sari. He had seen her trudging on in the flux of humanity like a robot. Her bag was gone, she was staring into eternity, there was no life in her eyes.

People gathered to watch the spectacle, Anna came running.

“My child, my child,” she wailed.

“Do not make a scene,” Anthony chided. Anthony carried Lucy to the waiting jeep.

Something very wrong was happening to her Lucy, a mortal chill swept past Anna's frame. Lucy, it was clear, had lost her bag, her academic certificates and herself. Anna was even more pained by the excruciating fact that Lucy had lost her Bible too, the Bible given to her in her childhood by a priest from her father's family during one of his rare visits to Kerala.

“May His will be done.” she thought looking at the crucifix fixed in front of the driver's seat.

Chapter 17
Shadows of yesterdays

His was a low budget tour. emmem's regular bed was the local edition of the English dailies Times of India, Hindusthan Times and/or the Indian Express and his bedroom was almost always under the metallic bench of the filthy third class unreserved railway compartments. In the course of time his rhythmic cycles and his body constitution became so adapted and addicted to this strange mode of life that by night they would scream for the feel of the daily that carried the events of the day before and the unhealthy repetitive ambience of the chugging gigantic iron millipede. Days came to pass softly and placidly, each laying its soft and sure fingers on the tapestry of seasons—somebody softly caresses your cheeks, somebody runs a silken finger down your spine, somebody whispers like the mysterious softness of a black night at the casement of your soul. emmem almost became the feel of the mysterious fingers.

One is absolutely alone in the urban jungles. People are getting wiser as individuals but the opposite is true in terms of social satisfaction. When the dust settles and the din dies down we sadly and unceremoniously realize that we are alone. We are suffering because we cannot cope. We cannot let completely go in the rare spare moments of jubilation because our residual primordial wisdom shrieks that the cord has been cut and we are alone. This nagging loneliness is life; this wondrous sense of separation is life; this confusing interregnum between two isentropic non-dualities. We live our side of life bluntly because we are too thick to wait for the fine-tuning part of the job. Your life cannot be better than you.

The north Indian plains that comprise the Hindi heartland states of Bihar, Madhyapradesh, Uttarpradesh and Jajastan, collectively referred to as Bimaru (which in local parlance means the sick man) was the theatre of his immediate sport. Over the years he had become familiar with their strange ethics and a social pyramid with strong, leakproof horizontal layers. His olfactory organ was now familiar with the unpleasant body odors of the casteless poor; he was awed by the most elemental fears of the politically impertinent numberless members that history pushed to the margins of society. The black sheep among them took to the life of a mendicant, begging and thieving. Those who are unfortunate enough to be better off, vegetate in the safety of their serfdom, sweating for the suave, toiling for the tyrant, and breeding for the big shots, cringing to cruelty, servile to their supposed superiors. The black sheep among the upper echelons took to dacoity, spreading their shady empire in the blood-curdling wilderness. After their stealthy subterranean suzerainty is established, they clandestinely take to politics, leaping up the ladder of power, terrorizing the electorate into dazed stupor. Power reeks of corruption—power is saturated with sectarian gimmicks and myopic ad hocism. As far as they are concerned, the rules are for fools.

Lo, the true India of the Gangetic plains—where the invidious past walks with the elite, inequality invitingly talks to the elite, and decadent traditions stalk the mannerisms of the elite. Men are not born equal, nor are they brought up equal. Equality is not a desirable quality or an attainable goal. Equality is a fast escalating political game plan. Every puny flower quivers patiently waiting in silence for its sun to suck in the drop that it squeezes the whole universe into. No flower is better than the other, a flower is a flower; there is no equality; there is only individuality. Individuality is a cosmic aberration, which also will cease to be when time is done with the spellbinding tantrums. India screams to the whole world gleefully and challengingly; sift out if you can at least a grain of sense from the heaps of nonsense we assiduously heap up. A bit ruefully a bit nonchalantly, the world without looks on. It is impossible to talk sense in this world of ours, because every sense is nonsense in different garbs. Time, like a frowning and seasoned seamstress, displays all the garbs in different combinations and we forget our amnesia, our splendid and precious amnesia. This life, this strife is rife with such distracting garbs, garbs seamed with invisible barbs.

emmem would frequently break into a smile whenever he let loose his mind to browse the rarified highland vistas of rare abstractions. Vaishaly Express was slowly dragging its passenger cars through the sprawling, smelly outskirts of Delhi. It was morning; the ancient city was in a mourning binge, terrified and alert. Terrorists had struck again, conveniently choosing soft targets. Following the senseless demolition of Babri masjid, wounded Muslim pride was busy settling accounts in the capital and nearby environs. The railway station had a disturbing overdose of uniformed men. emmem sensed the tension in the air. He alighted into the warm summer morning of Delhi. The rush hour had begun and thousands of commuters were downloaded into the station, running helter-skelter to make it on time to their workplaces.

The unseen eyes of trained sleuths closely observed strangers. He sauntered into the impatience of the city, growling and gyrating in the heat of the day and in the increasing heat of the subversive activities that the denizens were being subjected to. The urban middle class is such a vulnerable segment of the population. They have many things at stake: their little comforts, their security, their position, their sacred material possessions, the education of their children, the territorial integrity of their self made little world, their faith in the rule of law, and who knows how many other unnerving notions. Every terrorist strike batters the root of their fragile veneer. They shrink immediately into the fancied safety of their shell. They are the champions of status quo, but they are too preoccupied and blase to prove their point. National complacency is the end result and they fall into the prying hands of many a political lobby. Such a middleclass society is the mainstay of the nation. A much pampered privileged stratum celebrating the common urban luxuries of diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol, obesity, polished xenophobia and cancer, such luxuries that the plurality of rurality is alien to. Justice is seen as just solely when it concerns the interests of the middleclass. At the sight of the superman justice skedaddles with its tail tucked firmly between the hind legs and seeks a safe place at which to lick its wounds. Myopia keeps it from bothering the marginal people. Justice is the concern of the mediocre. On the other hand, the rural rabble has nothing to lose and nothing to gain. Since nothing excites them, nothing ever disappoints them. As for the creamy minority, he mused, they are tired of all that they are part of and hanker for something that they haven't ever been. Life lives in the extremities of the social pyramid.

Upper class, middle class, and gutter class—class consciouness is pervasive. It will ever be so. Your class is basically a matter of choice. For the upper class quality matters, quantity doesn't; for the middle class both quality and quantity are matters of equal concern, and for the marginalized class quality matters not and quantity very much does. emmem was slightly amused by his candid and canny generalization. He thought of recording his streak of lucidity, but he lacked the materials. He stood thoughtfully in the eddying flood of middle class mediocrity. Delhi was a city he knew inside out. During his halcyon university days he had been there on many occasions. Delhi, a bustling ancient city, which presided over the destiny of an enormous mosaic of humanity. A city which was being torn apart by various insular ethnic groups, each vociferously condemning the other and pulling in opposing directions—the geopolitics of the tribal belt of the northeast, the Islamic seditious disruptions of the troubled north, the easily manipulated lucrative constituency of the backward classes, heirs imprisoned by wealth, the Andhra M.P Bihar belt infested by communist revolutionaries, the western and southern regions furiously on the march to catch up with the developed world. An ancient city split in two. The old Islamic city entrenched in medieval tradition, and the relatively modern New Delhi essentially European in design and texture, are engaged in an impossible tussle. Five thousand years ago, Indian cultural and spiritual refinement and political values fought a noble battle for this city, which brought forth a noble gift to the world—Bhagavat Gita. In later centuries, Buddhism and Jainism nurtured and bloomed their flowers to humanity on this fertile political platform. Then came the Muslims pillaging and ravaging, looting and carting the booty. Muslims, unlike their predecessors, did not dissolve into the vast Indian cultural ocean. Muslims came waves upon wave, crossing Khyber Pass, across the perils of the Hindukhush ranges. A succession of Muslims destroyed Muslim dynasties. Many a monarch, strutted and fretted, many a monarch slid into history. Indian thought lied low unimpressed by an orgy of faith and religion. Nadir Sha appropriated her splendorous peacock throne, Britain took her Kohinoor and yet the Indian mind was untouched by the ravages of the industrious carpetbaggers, she remained inert to all socio political braggarts who did their damnedest to subvert her. You cannot feed somebody who isn't hungry.

emmem wound up at the train station to go to the Interstate Bus terminal, beyond Ajmeere Gate. City buses are available from New Delhi railway station to ISBT. He let himself be pushed and advected in that direction by the flowing river of humanity. Somebody called out his name from behind. He ignored it; he did not even turn his head. He had settled all accounts with his past. The bus was waiting, a pale green DTC Bus.

Somebody seized his arm and crudely pulled him back from the footboard.

“Gotcha. There, you cannot so easily give me the slip, you—you, my dirty philosopher.”

emmem turned around and saw that Rajan Babu, spic and span, had a firm grip on his wrist. His exotic perfume nearly drowned him.

What to do? He smiled in place of a greeting.

“Come away spooky man, you are my guest today.”

“Well, Rajan, I was on my way to Rishikesh. You can be my host some other day.”

“I most certainly will not. Rishikesh can wait; it will not go anywhere tomorrow or even the day after. You rascal, you were going to try your vanishing trick on me again, weren't you?”

emmem did not much like the idea of joining his academic compatriot; he was used to the life of a listless mendicant, an unsystematic itinerant—no planning, no specific destination, and no time schedule. But it was not like him to refuse an old acquaintance. His body slackened after a few moments. Rajan Babu also experienced his mysterious friend relaxing.

Rajan proudly guided him to the new Maruti.

“I came to the station to see off my wife and her parents. My wife is in an advanced stage of pregnancy, and her parents are taking her back home—it appears that for the immediate future, it's back to bachelor status.”

“What do you do here in the capital?”

“Well, my friend, I am trying out as a junior lecturer at JNU. We live at the University Quarters. It is comfortably furnished, you know.”

emmem knew, he had been there on many an occasion.

“I am happy for you Rajan,” he said, in fact he really was and his serene face said it.

“Yes man, I know that you are happy for me; you cannot house envy as much as a senvy seed.”

“I am happy for me too.”

“Sir was very sorry for you. In due time we will talk about it. I do not want to rush it and take a chance on giving you mental indigestion.”

“Leave alone indigestion, my state is anorexia,” emmem said with a resigned shrug.

The Maruti smoothly floated into the busy road with the stereo softly humming tunes from Chiramjeevi films. Suddenly his yesterdays came running back to him. After four long years, the Telugu language also had become an alien tongue to him.

Rajan was beaming with a radiating feeling of fulfillment. His body was soft and rounded as is characteristic of people not used to physical labor, sun, and hardships.

“What does sir do with his retired life? Does he still travel around giving lectures?”

The stereo sung that the scars of life tattoo us. Every scar reminds us that we took to life in seriousness and honesty.

“Yes, he is retired,” Rajan said thoughtfully, “you were in his memories even when he retired. He has entrusted me to help you out.”

emmem remembered him. He cared a great deal. Sir had asked him to pull Rajan up to the level expected of a research scholar.

“He loved you so much,” Rajan continued,“he loved you more than anybody else on campus. He had great hopes for you.”

emmem smiled ruefully. Sir had expected him to do great things. Sir had projected him as the promise of the future. They were promises languishing—promises unkept.

Rajan's house was well furnished indeed. emmem found the physical comforts offered by the social status and financial security strange and cumbrous.

“Do you feel that you have missed many things in life?” Rajan asked, sitting next to him on the sofa and offering him a cup of steaming coffee.

Your possession possesses you. When you disown even the last of your possessions the whole world is yours. The cloud becomes a cloud as long it is a cloud, and it becomes the infinite world when it melts into nothingness. Despite his string of thoughts, he said nothing.

“You are more gifted than all of the other students that sir had with him. You can still make up for the years laid waste. I can help you out. Sir will be very pleased if I do it for you. Sir has asked me to do it for his sake. You haven't lost anything; you can start where you left off on your work as I have all your notes and papers in my safe custody. I figured that one day I would stumble on you. You need not go to Hyderabad, you can do it right here at this university, the most prestigious university in India. I have the connections. I owe that much to sir and also of course to you. Your colleagues are very sympathetic to you at the university, I suspect they will vicariously do everything to facilitate your migration to JNU.”

emmem sat there quite indifferent.

“Tell me something, you overly intelligent idiot,” Rajan teased.

“I am here only to share your comforts and happiness. Nothing else matters now.”

“Of course you are welcome in my abode any time, any day. My wife knows you almost as well as I do. She is also sorry for you. But that is not the point. Let me tell you the truth; please do not take me wrong. I was desperate for a degree, my years were running out. You remember how I was running from pillar to post to make a breakthrough? At a certain stage I spirited sir into letting me take a desperate step. I worked out a theorem from the loose ends you had left behind. It was selfish of me, but I would rather have done it with your permission. There was no trace of you, there was no news of you. Now, I am approaching you with a bold proposal. You can build on the theorem which I concocted from your records. JNU offers you an excellent platform for such a project. It will be beneficial to both of us. You will be serving my interests, too, hence I will be your solid support.”

emmem was silent. Nobody will approve you unless you are already approved, he thought. When the prospects are grim, just refuse to swim and remain afloat.

“No, do not disappoint me point blank. Please have a good rest, have a nice Andhra dinner, and sleep well. Then it will dawn on you what is good for all of us.”

“My dear Rajan, I have nothing to excogitate upon. But I am happy that my work, spread across many sleepless years has at last been useful to you. You needed it more than anybody else. But I cannot flex my intellectual muscles in the direction I left behind. Anymore, I do not live in the past or future. I am perfectly happy with me, exactly the way I am.”

“Why not take more time to decide, you do not know what you are missing. You have the potential, you have the fire, you have the drive, I can offer you the perfect academic climate and the platform, which will bring out the genius in you. Once you complete your degree a marvelous PDF at a prestigious Western university can be arranged from here. No don't waste your time on those illiterate, venomous Andhra cops. They wrote you off long ago. Those sadists have more than enough victims to vent their venom on. Do you get my meaning?”

“Yes, I do indeed my dear friend, but thou shalt not love thy neighbor as thyself. Your needs aren't necessarily my needs. You can build on the theorem I came up with from different angles. For instance, you can analyze each raga in a specific partial differential equation.”

“You are behaving as if you were your own worst enemy. If you are against yourself everybody will support you in your suicidal enterprise.”

“I do not think I am against me. I am not against anybody.”

“People are necessarily selfish, we help others only to help ourselves. If you are not your own champion, if you are not your own front line fighter, you will have nobody to fight for you.”

“Enough about me. Tell me about you; tell me something about sir.”

“You are impossible. When you turn your back on your talents and the great opportunities that come to you, you do not realize that they won't be there forever. Let them pass you by and there won't be anyone to remember you. You will have nobody to whom you can pass your baton.”

“Things are not as grim for me as they appear. Please, I came here to share your success, your achievements. Do you often speak to sir on the phone? Is he pleased with your accomplishments.”

“He is not so much pleased with my achievements, as he is displeased with your negative achievements. You know what? It was a few days before his retirement. He wanted to meet me, his last student. He asked me to do what it takes to bring you back to the academic fold. He insisted that Mathematics couldn't afford your academic hara-kiri. I for one offered to pull you by your fricking ear back to the rails. Then I joined the university. I was intent on establishing a career, I was laying the foundations of a solid and sequestered life. I looked forward to your rehabilitation as much as he did. But you are too thick to understand.”

“It is all spilt milk. You cannot push a man up a tree—the aspirant has to climb the tree himself. I have no such aspiration.”

Rajan got up flinging his arms in exasperation.

“Thy will be done.” Rajan shrugged and went inside. He quickly came back and apologized, saying that he had some work to do on the computer.

“Would you mind if I go back?” emmem asked.

“No chance, you are my guest today. Tomorrow you can go to the nether world that you are rapturously tethered to. But hell, how do you make a living? Begging is no longer fashionable. Even our great country has stopped begging at the doorsteps of global financial institutions. Do you mind if I ask where you hid your begging bowl? Sorry, bugger, I was just teasing you to whip up some pride in you.”

“Have fun, my dear fellow, innuendoes often choose to go over my head.”

“I really wish you were happy the way you are. Now you make yourself at home when I work on my computer. In the evening, we shall go out for some fresh air. In the meantime you can read, write or watch TV.”

He went in and reappeared instantly. “I did not complete what I was telling you. Sir entrusted me to track down a wild goose, he said I should not let you down. Then in the cool of the morning he went out for his regular morning walk. He walked straight and erect, regal and confident, his soft cotton-white hair dancing in the wind. He walked straight into the train—into Simhadri Express. Thus, he took voluntary retirement.”
Rajan did not stay around to observe the reaction of the news on his guest. He quikly retired to his study.

The news did not shatter emmem. He thought about the cold dignity of sir, how sir could rationally choose to turn the body that housed him for nearly six decades into pulp. He thought of the tragic end of his beloved son Sukomal Bhattacharya and his devoted wife Sushama Bhattacharya. How tragic that they had wilted in the strong sun of their will. Would they have willed to will the things they willed had they been in another space/time continuum? Sukomal waited for the thunder of revolution and the aborted thunder took him with its abortion. This had set the stage for his mother, Sushama, to succumb to the secret pleasures inherent in Eastern despondence. The lofty demeanor of sir had prevented him from reacting in an effective manner when Sushama's sadness started to teeter on madness.

The artificial nature of the air conditioning bothered emmem. To have to live this clean seemed obsessive and compulsive. An inference made by Alexander Fleming popped up inside him. American laboratories are scrubbed clean and sterilized, but in such a clean environment penicillin would have never been stumbled upon.

In the evening emmem politely declined the invitation to go to the city to meet the friends he had long ago forgotten.

Early the next morning he climbed the stairway to the bedroom of his host and woke him up.

“Good morning, my dear friend. I must go now. Thank you for the pleasant company and for the pains you have taken to make your old friend happy. It was wonderful to have seen you again, and I am really happy that you are very up beat. Tell your good wife that I had been here and that I am all good wishes for both of you. Before the sun gets hot I have to be on the move.”

Rajan was piqued, “Why man, wait; we will break our fast together and part. I shall take you in my car and leave you in the self same woods from whence I picked you up.”

“No, my dear friend, I must go at the earliest.”

Thus, they parted. “Whenever you feel like recovering your lost years, if at all good wisdom prevails on you, do come back to me, I can goad you to great heights.”

emmem smiled ruefully and walked out across the door Rajan opened out for him. Actually, he had no reason to rush, and he was not anxious to get to anywhere. Rishikesh was just another place to go. He sat in deep thought at New Delhi railway station and was interrupted by a rough touch on his shoulder. Three uniformed men had surrounded him. He was arrested. A lonely man with a beard is dangerous. They questioned him. emmem did not bother conjuring up a story to save his skin, their threatening gestures and violent interrogation failed to disturb his inner peace.

He told them slowly and distinctly that his name was emmem, a teacher at Muzaffarpur.

They wanted to know where he had gone the previous night. There also he elected to tell the truth. In spite of the heavy dose of unparliamentary abuses he was copiously showered with, something kept the cops from becoming physically violent. Even in their thick and unfeeling minds, he invoked some degree of awe and respect. They searched his body. They could not come up with a compromising route map, sketch of an historic building, phone numbers or evidences of any lethal design. It disappointed them. emmem had a bit of money in the inner pocket of his pajama, but what they really wanted was some script, a diary, or a scrap of paper pregnant with secret words. They were experts in making one sing, but he did not have any beans to spill, nor did he have anything to sing. emmem was deceptively transparent. One of his interrogators pulled a Bible from the pocket of his kurta. Lucy's Bible. He had forgotten that he had it on his person. A Bible signified certain things. First of all he was definitely not a Muslim, secondly he might be a CIA operative. But American agents, do not overtly indulge in terrorist activities. When the Soviet Union committed suicide, India's approach to the western democracies had undergone a change. America was not painted anywhere near as diabolical as it had been during the Cold War years. Thirdly, he must be a Madrasi. Madrasis are mostly peaceful, but they tend to be selfish and crafty. A Dravidian mind is not troubled by religion, caste or cruel notions.

There was a lull. He was left alone in the lockup. Minutes ticked away. He thought of the fragile concept of nationhood. As an individual, he was in no hurry and nothing was going to disturb him. Even if they put him behind bars without a trial, he would not be effected. He could be free even within prison walls. Nobody awaits him, nobody expects him. The national cohesiveness is so delicate that it takes all that everyone can do to keep it in one piece. Several months ago, there had been an incident at New Delhi railway station. He was standing in the queue at the ticket counter and a cocky middle-aged man had squeezed in front of him without saying a word. His measured low-key protest had resulted in a gruff “get lost you bloody Madrassi.” An emotional national integration is a long way away, he thought.

On another occasion emmem was waiting at Barauni railway station when a young man in uniform approached him and demanded that he open his bag. It had only a few books. Then the uniformed man searched his body. It was a denigrating experience. It was a time when he was fresh in Bihar. He was not comfortable with Hindi.

“Why do you speak English to me?” the young man demanded.

“Because people don't usually speak Hindi where I come from,” emmem explained.

His face reddened. “Are you an Indian?”

“Yes, sir.”

“If you are an Indian, speak Hindi. India has only one language, Hindi. If you cannot master Hindi then get out of this country,” the man in uniform threatened.

“You read all this nonsense, your beard tells me that you are a Muslim, are you?”

“I follow no religion.”

“You follow no religion,” he mimicked, “either you are a Hindu or a non-Hindu. Humanity is divided like that. Non-Hindus are enemies of the state.”

emmem knew many humane Muslims whom he considered to be good citizens. He had a special respect for sufi mystics. So detached; so refined; so venerable. They stand at a level where the greatest sages and seers of ancient India stood. Surviving on fruits and vegetables, these mystics experience the essential unity of life—peaceful, pleasant, serene. They too are Indians, he thought.

emmem heard footsteps approaching. When he turned around, Rajan Babu stood in front of him flushed and disturbed. Irritation and resentment were written on his face. Rajan Babu looked at emmem with narrowed, accusing eyes.

“Yes, I know that man, he was with me last night,” Rajan Babu admitted.

“He was my colleague at the university, but he left it midway. But I did not know where he had been and what he had been. Whatever he has become or whatever he has done I do not know nor do I particularly want to know. I am not a party to his antecedents. I ran into him by chance for the first time in four years. Is that enough for you?”

Rajan Babu was irritated at having been drawn into the national security quagmire for no good reason. When someone is arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), they are not eligible for bail. Rajan Babu's PDF application at an American University was being processed. Now this inveterate masochist was making him look like a security risk. In good faith he had invited emmem to come home with him. No doubt emmem was an inadvertent suicide bomber when it came to ambition. Sometimes the simpletons do more evil than those who are conscious of the fact that they are evil. He may be straight and he may have the right to be straight but he had not right to force his straightness on others. But it was not Rajan's duty to right the inflexible straightness of an idiot on a masochist binge.

Rajan was throwing him to the wolves. emmem smiled. At least Rajan was telling the truth. Truth has as many facets as the number of people who approach it. There was a contrite look on emmem's face, which further infuriated Rajan. Our name is our bane, we struggle in vain to acquire the trappings of fame and then we do what we can to hide our shame.

When Rajan marched out on emmem a high-ranking officer went up to him and spoke slowly in chiseled English.

“Look, young gentleman, sorry for the disturbance. Being a matter of national security, we dare not leave this to chances. We have checked you out. We phoned your school in Bihar. As of now you are free to go wherever you want. You know, while I was at Jadavpur University, I too had an urge to take to the roads, to be a modern day Diogenes, but somehow it did not come through. So I can perfectly understand you. I would, however, advise you not to put your faith into that spic and span friend of yours; he intentionally let you down.”

“Thank you sir, for the excellent advice. I am not a bit disturbed by the latest developments. It was interesting to observe the vulnerability and concerns of our country.”

“They are everywhere, out to sabotage the interests of the country. They attacked our parliament, the temple of our democracy; they cannot bear our freedom, our fundamental rights our democracy.”

“Please tell me who you mean by ‘they?’”

“Why, the enemies of the nation, the fifth columns working for the enemies without, the Trojan horses waiting for their night—agents of imperialism, agents of hot blooded Semitic fundamentalism. You name it. Delhi is not the world. Visit the Himalayas. When you see the snow capped turrets of the world, you see India. This is my card, write to me at times. In many ways you are better off than me. Now good bye and please don't forget to write.”

emmem walked away undaunted. If this incident had occurred prior to his having rescinded his political identity, he would have been disturbed to the core; now, on the other hand it is rather fun, he thought. He waded across the ordered disorder of the capital in pleasant contemplation. Time is a wonderful dispenser of justice, he reasoned. The last of the Mogul emperors died a fishmonger; Humayoon crumbled into dust and dirt with a single slip. The five sons of Kunti fled into the woods in the company of a cur when they ascended the throne of Delhi amid blood, smoke, and soot. Ambition knows no full stop, it drags on until the end of time. Ambition is a fault that one should take pains to avoid. And nationalism amounts to collective ambition.

Nationalism is a cleverly polished euphemism—a slightly less threatening term for xenophobia. Transcending the primordial masculine instincts of range and homing, is it possible to have a single world government? Taking the whole VIBGYOR of humanity in its measured stride, and keeping the cultural and racial diversity within the parameters of federalism, such a system, emmem thought, would soon fall apart for want of an enemy. Any system that cannot survive without being locked up in fight against a rival is not a complete system. God must learn to exist without the involvement of Satan. Nations are a necessary but perfidious notion, there is only you, all the rest is a misunderstanding, an obscurantist notion that keeps societies in motion down the season of reason. India should learn to exist on its own without basing its unity on the threats that are supposedly inherent in an Islamist Pakistan. In order to be effectual, a nose must serve multiple functions, i.e. a nose does more than protect the body from foreign elements by channeling a sneeze—however climactic a sneeze may appear to be, we do not sneeze very often. Thus, routine olfactory and respiratory functions are of primary importance.

Geoclimatic cultural nurseries such as China, India, Persia, Egypt and South America have been debauched into utter unabashed decadence. You cannot imitate a culture and you cannot impose a culture. You cannot replace a rain forest and its complex biotic web spread under the sun and rain of the inter-tropical convergence zone with cold and desolate northern tundra. Pogrom is a necessary program in the imperialist recipe, accentuated by the marauders pouring into India across the Khyber Pass. Every imperialist looks for his spoils at the end of the day in the soils that are fertile, in the loins that are luscious.

Chapter 18
Footprints of God

North East Express dragged to a creaking stop. The train was running late. Bodo militants had been disrupting rail and road traffic. emmem peered through a window smeared with bug blood at the sonorous, pensive plains of North Bengal—beautiful, yet monotonous, spreading toward the horizon. He was tired and stiff, but could not sleep. The train seemed not to be inclined to move in the immediate future. The pitiful bedraggled passengers were peering out; some were trudging along the right side of the tracks, having lost faith in the efficacy of the system. He gathered that the train had lost its mobility as it was leaving the hub railway station in North Bengal, New Jalpaiguri known as NJP. Shortly thereafter, news spread that a bomb explosion had ripped off part of the station. As if by covert understanding, the terrorists were tearing apart the places he visited or was going to visit. The punctuations they dutifully added to his willy-nilly travels amounted to unwelcome delays. But lurking in the recesses of his mind was the distinct possibility that they might well escalate into an apocalyptic full stop. They bombed Jammu Station a few hours after his departure on Jhellum Express; they blew apart the southern terminal of New Delhi railway station by the time he reached Caunpur. He remained one step ahead of the terror; they had failed to catch up with him at Ahmedabad station. At Guwahati it was a close brush, a suitcase had exploded on the platform immediately after the train had pulled out. They had perpetrated their carnage before and after him without directly involving him. Terrorists were like that. The psychological damage was intended to do that which physical damage could not do. It was almost as if the toll to people and property was secondary to the damage done to the peace of mind of bystanders. Terrorism is a manifestation of impotency. If you can't take out your frustration on the government, then you might as well take it out on the people.

Unseasonably dry sunny days dawn and die in the west; a freak and decidedly dry Autumn determined to defy the wet and drenched autumns of the past.

I do nothing, he thought, the days go past me. Every dawning day promises to be a facsimile of its predecessor. It had worn him out. No matter how many times the days repeat themselves, little is revealed and life steadfastly maintains its secrets.

As it was already day, he jumped out of the train and walked to the station, as it was just a few kilometers away. They, the police, were waiting to meet him. It seemed as if they had been waiting for him. There was no questioning; he was knocked down and dragged to an interrogation cell. The questioning was crude and physical in the extreme. He did not have a Mongolian look about him, hence the possibility of being a Bodo militant was immediately ruled out. As always he spoke the truth, his version of the truth to the loaded questions they put to him. His beard was uncouth, he was tall, he was fair and, above all, he was alone. However, he did not look like the bored, insignificant vagabond he claimed to be. His eyes were too intelligent. An intelligent youth with Caucasian features couldn't be a gypsy by accident. He was not on a spiritual mission because he did not have any spirituality about him. Spirituality is expressed through certain religious insignia, of which he was absent.

If he was not on a macabre mission, he would have had his family with him, his mother, wife, or children. Such people are harmless. As far as the authorities were concerned, lonely young boors like him were the dangerous ones. emmem fit the profile, albeit remotely, so he suffered the consequences. It was Tweedledee and Tweedledum—the police were no better than the militants.

From Bangladesh and through Bangladesh many jihadi terrorists were pouring into the plains of North India. Sneaking across the border, the militant Islamists gravitated towards the Indian heartland leaving behind a trail of misery, blood and gore. This time around Lucy's Bible did not allay the policemen's fears. They tossed it aside and asked him if he was a Mussalman. emmem swore that he was not. In order to know for certain, a policeman unceremoniously ripped open his pajama and with the tip of the baton, pulled out his penis. It was convincing evidence. He did not carry the stigma of a terrorist. Completely ridiculous, he thought, terrorism lies in your exposed phallus; the lost foreskin takes the pacifist in you with it. Next, they discovered the money that he had tucked away in the inner pocket of his pajama. They counted it and then divvied it up. From his breast pocket they took out the card of an IPS officer with a Delhi address. The card was indisputable proof that he was who and what he said he was. Their ferocious blood lust vanished as quickly as it had come. They took his fingerprints, returned his Bible and a pair of hundred rupees notes and gave him a strong parting blow to keep him from asking for the rest of his money. He was free at last, but almost penniless.

Rejection often leads to dejection. But where is it written that rejection amounts to an accusation that one is inferior or despicable? And our seminal duty is not to prove what we are worth. We are worth more than this revolving earth.

The encounter with the police was the last straw. It was time to stage an exit. emmem decided he should explore the possibilities of being at Siligury, the town closest to the border at NJP.

Siligury is known as the gateway to the Himalayas. The Himalayan hill stations of Darjeeling and Kalimpong are close by. An ancient Himalayan Buddhist kingdom recently acquired by India was within easy reach. It is time to move to the Himalayas, he decided. On Sevoke road he came across a young Punjabi truck driver. He enquired as to the prospect of going to the ancient Himalayan kingdom. The tall turbaned youth had a pleasant face, but he was hesitant. Of course he was going to the ancient Himalayan kingdom but outsiders were not allowed to enter the mountainous state. He did, however, offer to take him up to Pelong, the border post. At least it was a start. He climbed into the cab. The Himalayan highlands were a place he had long been planning to visit. It had a strange and standing appeal. Its flanks sculptured out a philosophy that encompasses all other philosophies of the world. It was a geography that patiently marched into the heavens.

There was no trace of the Himalayan foothills. They drove fast along the smooth wide and straight highway. The great Mahananda River was rolling huge boulders on its riotous course. He watched the muddy waters of the river, knowing full well that they began their long denaturing journey from Himalayan glaciers. Half an hour later the distant foothills came into view on the northern horizon. Shortly, the plains gave way to hills and valleys that seemed to be bursting at the seams with vegetation. The wide highway bordered by towering trees humbled into a short meandering road fit for two way traffic. Then they entered the rich greenery of the hills. They crossed a mountain river, and surged up into the woods. Despite himself, he was very excited. He was entering an exotic world, a world of mysteries, a world that lived with him from his childhood. A wonderful relaxation swept past him. Hills and more hills towered into the heavens. As he had imagined, they were ascending to the heavens.

How far away is my home, read the inscription on the back of the truck.

In the evening they reached Pelong. The driver told him to get out, and he readily complied. “Wait until nightfall if you want to cross the river,” the driver confided with a consoling grin.

“Thank you,” emmem replied as the truck started across the bridge into the mysterious exotic world. The river was full with distant rains that were washing down from the hills and valleys. The sharp blue green sierra seemed to be calling him. He made up his mind to make it across the bridge. Then he began thinking about the other shore syndrome. A man can be happy wherever he happens to be. A change of scenery will not change you nor will it improve your demeanor. He walked aimlessly on the Bengali side of the road to burn time.

At night emmem walked past the bridge. At night everyone looks alike. Usually the pedestrians are locals, the few passenger buses and trucks that brought in aliens alerted the policeman at the outpost. He kept walking along the cascading mountain river. The road was not climbing uphill. It followed the river. In the darkness the mountains stood in front of him like massive unassailable ramparts. The road was deserted. At the crack of dawn he reached a small town bordering the river called Burabazar; a clean, rain soaked town in the lap of the towering hills. It was becoming increasingly obvious that this was an alien culture and way of life. He was delving into the milieu of living Buddhism. Exotic men and women appeared in graceful bakkus and khos who looked like monks of the Capuchin order. The eateries served exotic foods. Nettles, ferns, wild mushrooms, bamboo shoot, cabbage, mumu, chou-chou and ushal roti. Instead of adding sugar, the tea was salted.

From the bus station, which was clean and less crowded, he boarded a bus going to the interior of the state. There was no rush, no swearing, no pushing, everything was relaxed. He found it amusing. The bus stations of mother India are a filthy disorganized disaster with buses competing for passengers and diesel fumes galore. Add pickpockets, peddlers, conmen, beggars, swindlers, and everything disgustingly despicable in human form. Stray dogs, pestering flies, proud and lowing cows at large—nothing is impossible at a bus station in the dusty impatient plains.

The bus crossed the river across a rusting steel suspension bridge and whirred its winding way up the right hand side of the river. On all sides majestic towering mountains, wearing crowns of thick fog, crowded the puny little marine blue bus. By midday they reached a confluence, which was evidently a junction. A few teashops run by Nepalis waited with Mongolian patience for paying customers who were too few and far between. Three or four passengers got out to have a cup of salted black tea. Tea seemed to be the staple drink, coffee was nowhere to be seen. After another half an hour, the bus resumed its journey uphill. The hairpin curves offered passengers a view of the deep ravines and the laughing mountain river. Orange orchards and cardamom replaced the thick woods. Cool air peeped in through the slits between the glass windows. It was raining in the western extremity of the hills.

The mini bus ended its journey at a small town on the precarious bosom of a towering mountain whose top was hidden in floating clouds. The town, not large enough to be a town by Indian standards, was called Kyoling. It had no traffic, no dust no swarming flies, no mosquitoes, no din and no crowds. It was a refreshing new experience. A few shops with tin roofs guarded the small square where the bus was parked. The square had a waiting shed. The shops were mostly run by people from the plains. Village women were selling their wares in the open at the edge of the square—mostly cheese, baked roots, and vegetables. The mountain obstructed what would otherwise have been a breathtaking view to the north and east. The southwestern part was open and one could see the vast expanse of regal orography. He chose to spend the night in the waiting shed. He felt very much at home. Invisible boughs of the salubrious mountain breeze touched him ever so softly. Sleep was overdue. The last vestiges of the sinking sun, painted the metal roofs gold. The huge grandfather tree danced to the tune of the gentle wind. Earlier that evening, he had eaten a big dinner at a Tibetan café that offered inexpensive dishes which he had never tasted before. With a full stomach it wasn't hard to get to sleep.

Nobody bothered emmem at night, and it rained intermittently while he slept. Icy droplets wailed against the roof, a violent gust of wind grated the shed. Somebody somewhere played on the flute in a sadly soulful manner. He strained to hear the faint strains. A black fleecy Himalayan dog lay huddled up next to him. The fluttering commotion of the pigeons woke him up in the morning. The town was still sleeping. The hairy dog with a drooping pair of ears eyed him thoughtfully. Whenever it caught him watching the dog wagged its tail anxious to strike a rapport. The mountain climbing deep into the heavens reminded him what lay ahead. He washed the remnants of the night away in the cold rejuvenating water gurgling from a drainpipe, then walked to a cafe to have a cup of salted tea and pancakes. He was anxious to set off on a long journey. The dog joined him, becoming the self-appointed guide of the bearded stranger from the plains. The road uphill was steep, cold, and wet. The uppermost branches of chestnut trees were locked up overhead, imparting a tunnel like experience to the traveler. He was not in a hurry, and he did not strain to cover as much distance as possible. He had a lifetime left to experience it all, to merge into the music he was inclined to be part of. Being impatient of his patience the dog ran a few yards ahead of him, only to come back to make sure that he was still in the game.

It took a little more than two hours for him to reach the top of the mountain. Pines and olives mantled the ridgeline. The thick undergrowth consisted of barbed raspberries. The huge ancient Buddhist monastery glowed in the gentle sun. Its premises were deserted. In fact the monastery itself was deserted. Riotous vegetation was bursting forth to devour the sacred ground. Then emmem caught his first glimpse of a miraculous, heretofore unknown to him, spectacle. The third highest peak in the world, Kanchenjunga was beaming gold in the sun. It was taking place in front of him, across a narrow dark depression flooded with vegetation. He stood there transfixed. The dog slowly wagged his tail, expressing his honest gratification. Its eyes said, “did I not tell you man what a glorious spectacle I was going to show you?”

The ethereal snow-clad peak was crowned roundabout with a halo of floating silver cloud. The icy steeple had an awe-inspiring grandeur. It seemed to converse with infinity, its silver hands pressed together in prayer. It is detached from the world of reason, safe from the unrelenting world of life and strife. The heavens nursed and nourished it. The temple of hoary silence, with its icy dome straining to reach out of the turbulent troposphere. Transfixed by the glowing golden peak, he stared at it in awe. His life hitherto was spent almost completely in the plains. The plains of the Godawari and the monotonous unbroken plains of the Ganges had done little to prepare him for the awesome sight on which his eyes were now feasting.

In the meantime, his faithful companion had strayed away on some private business, giving emmem some time to ponder. When the dog returned he inquired, “Could we better admire those shimmering peaks up close comrade?”

“Wise, all-seeing munificent man, here we go,” the dog darted forth ebulliently.

They struggled downhill along a mule track, crossing thick weeping woods, cardamom plantations and apple orchards. The slope was too steep, he scrambled down holding on to the stems of various species of hemps. Near the mountain rivulet the track became steeper. There was no sun in the ravine. The waters were furious and hollering. They crashed against the rocks and swooned into the pools. Splashing up as pearly globules, the pure waters roared and thundered. He thought it an auspicious occasion to wash himself clean of the residue of the city that still clung to him. He stepped into the pristine ice-cold water and scrubbed off the polluted muck from his body. Water pinched and pricked him with a thousand needles. His comrade waited patiently, at times frisking a short way to explore the brush and appeared to be thoroughly enjoying his new position after many months of unemployment and spurning rejection.

They crossed the rivulet jumping from boulder to boulder. emmem felt elated at leaving behind what he thought of as a cacophony, i.e. the mad alarms of the modern globalized, disoriented world. The feeble sun was sinking behind the western ridge. Long oblong shadows patiently inched their way along the drenched valley. The dog, his comrade, was his trump card. He would never lose his way. Just as the tortuous ascent began, it abruptly began to rain. Raindrops thumped a million fingers on the blades of grass, the runoff feeling its way down the banks. Comrade shook off the rainwater when it soaked his fur while emmem was of the opposing opinion that there was nothing more soothing than a good soaking. The moisture laden heavens nursed the world beneath. Somewhere a huge boulder came crashing down and plunged into the rivulet right in front of them.

“It was a close brush comrade,” emmem said.

“No problem, mister, it is part of the game,” comrade consoled (at least that is what he read in comrade's eyes).

Darkness coursed through the ups and downs. Speeding steadily along, the silver strings created by the rains whetted his soul as it washed his soles. emmem felt weightless. Late at night they reached a tableland where small villages were scattered here and there. They reached a road. Timid butter lamps flickered against the inexorable darkness. Rain lashed furiously against them and flapped the crude metal roofs of the village. After a few small houses the village merged into wilderness. He thought of reposing. He had strained his body far more than it deserved and it painfully protested the abuse. They saw a lamp winking against the rain in a hut in the midst of an apple orchard and quickly chorused their move to the hut. Water was gushing down from the log walls. He knocked at the violently flapping door made of tin sheet. Having heard no reaction, he opened the door and took a look inside. There was a man with Tibetan features, his wife, and a child huddled beside the hearth. They were frightened to their bones. They were not frightened of thieves or criminals. Such things were unheard of. They were afraid of ghosts and spooks. Too many of them frequented the village. The rarified heights are a favorite haunt of the shadowy beings.

“Excuse me my good fellows,” he introduced himself in Hindi. “We have walked a long way today, would you be so kind as to give us shelter for an eerie night?”

They had a working knowledge of Hindi, most of them had, of course via Nepali, which is very close to Hindi. At night it is impossible to say who was a ghost and who was not. Even gods visit them disguised as strangers seeking shelter. The presence of a Tibetan dog told the man of the house that the visitor was somebody connected to the world beyond.

Tashi delela,” he accosted the visitors. He offered them a couple of planks in the corner of the hut on which to spend the night. The horrendous rain stopped abruptly, which was seen as a positive omen.

“Would you like something to eat?” the confused host asked.

“Only if you have enough to spare.”

The woman offered him fried cabbage smoked beef and boiled rice. The non-vegetarian part of the supper he saved for his comrade.

What remained of the night was spent in restful sleep. In the morning it became clear to him that they were in an apple orchard owned by the king. The man and wife had been engaged by the king to maintain the orchard.

emmem remarked that they were going to the snow line. The wizened man looked at the dog and him in utter disbelief. They appeared strange to him, having no equipment, no preparations.

“May the days be auspicious to you,” he whispered, “if you must leave, then do so, but before you depart, please come and see with your own eyes the sacred footprints of God.”

Their host proceeded to guide him and his comrade to the interior of the orchard.

“Here it is,” he pointed. They saw a flat and fairly large igneous rock floor. On closer look it had a series of depressions, which with copious doses of imagination could pass as giant footprints. Butter lamps and incense sticks were regularly burnt there. Rectangular prayer flags fluttered from tall bamboo poles.

“Om mani padmehum, om mani padme hum,” he chanted.

Agricultural countries survive on the unquestioning bluntness and docile sinews of gullible hicks. Laws are for the low lying. The superman doles down laws. He and his in-laws will share the cake; the rest are considered to be out-laws.

After returning to the hut, their solicitous Tibetan host told them that he would give them a letter, addressed to a certain Uggen Lama, whom he thought would help. Also, he would arrange for them to travel in a caravan which was departing for the heights in the morning. After breakfast they went to the village where a few exotic mountain people were loading yaks with the essential commodities—matches, salt, sugar and various other items—which were trickling down from distant cities. The timing could not have been more fortunate, because once they were gone, they might not be coming back for many months. The mountain men offered to suffer the presence of the stranger from the plains. But they did not like him. The mountain men are such people that they do not know how to conceal their true feelings. Their animosity for him was plainly writ large. The black and fleecy yaks brandished their crescent horns and trotted forward in a single file.

The trees danced Mexican waves in the lazy sweeping wind.

emmem followed the tall tomato cheeked mountain men, duly reticent and cold. Comrade was close by. They crossed the boundary of the village and dived into the deluge of greenery. The mountain stream growled far down. There was nothing to see but the thick vegetation. The trees stood in the way of his view of the horizon. By noon they reached a bridge across a wide mountain river. The river was in spate, green waters clashed against the shores. The caravan halted. The mountain men scattered into the woods to collect fern shoots and pink fleshy mushrooms while he and comrade watched the river. Although both were cold and tired, a wild enthusiasm drove them ahead. The river was slithering into view from behind a towering mountain. The shooting waters whispered that exotic adventure was waiting for them behind the hills. He glanced up at the heavens. The azure sky was clear but for a few threads of white idling clouds. Prayer wheels run by the fleeting water were broadcasting prayers into infinity. He thought it strange that the outside world had not advanced to the point of mechanizing prayers. Prayer wheels were employed wherever possible, harnessing wind energy and water power to placate the myriad deities.

The cattle jerked their bells and suddenly the caravan was on the move. They were negotiating a very hostile gradient. The vegetation underwent a swift transition. Chestnuts and walnut trees gave way to birches and pines. He was struggling hard to catch up with the mountain men. Oxygen supply was not enough to keep him going. The blood red cheeks of the mountain men explained an adaptation. Oxygen deficiency was made up by augmented red blood cell input. In the evening he dragged his exhausted and dragging body into a hut owned by the addressee of the letter he was armed with. The caravan moved uphill.

Uggen had his wife two little girls and his parents with him. He crumbled on a bed made of yak hair. The dog squatted close by, lolling and looking at him with laughter in his eyes. The therapeutic rest of a night restored and replenished him. He was catapulted into the magical possibility of living an autonomous life. Uggen family lived a peaceful life in the riotous greenery. His cattle gave him thick milk and butter, butter was used for burning the lamps, for cooking. The fertile and black forest loam yielded rich crops of radish, carrot, beetroot, spinach tomato, cabbage, and potatoes. The herbal medicines were enough to treat ailments, usually cuts and wounds. There were no snakes, no mosquitoes, no ants, no flies, no politicians, and no dirty water. Air was fresh, water too. They knitted their clothes from the long black hair of the yaks. A beautiful life tucked away in the verdant generosity of nature.

In this way a man can live his life, he thought, without having any complaints or worries. But a man cannot survive on bread alone. Nature is true but we aren't. Our truthlessness shows its ugly head in the form of hypertension, diabetes, cancer, piles and ulcers. Man as an individual can be great and noble but the absence of social life blunts cultural and collective progression.

Came the dawn, emmem set out again on the journey uphill. Comrade was ready and willing to join him. The little girls accompanied them to the last human settlement. The village outpost was shrouded in thick and nagging fog. There were a few scattered houses. In the center of the settlement there was a tchetan [Editor's Note: The tombs of Buddhist saints are often maintained as ornate structures. Their name in Tibetan is tchetan], along with a cluster of fluttering prayer flags. He moved still higher, the girls stood where they were and watched on.

“Will you be coming back?” they asked.

“I'm not sure, but I hope to come back.”

Huge birches devoured them. Silence enshrouded them. The fog graduated into a drizzle. The trees were sad, dripping and drooping. There was no trace of the sun. They were intruders picking their way through the clouds at the top of the world. Comrade seemed to be used to the strange world. He appeared very confident and at home. Hours trickled down along their steps. The trees yielded scrub trees which in turn yielded to bushes sporting glossy colors. In another hour the bushes gave way to shrubs and multi-colored balsam gloss. Flakes of snow came floating down and settled on his jacket and headgear (on loan from Uggen). It was a new experience. The floating snow settled into the ground and grew into fibrous tufts. They were passing through vast rolling meadows; pastures drenched in magical mist; a woven green blanket composed of the thick turf of grass.

The gravity of the situation was beginning to dawn on him. He must find shelter for the night. He stood on top of a hillock and strained his eyes to survey the landscape.

“There is no need to panic, we will beat it,” comrade confided with confidence.

In the distance he discerned a cluster of threadbare prayer flags, soggy and sagging whose glory had evidently faded. That betrayed human presence. They groped in the fog and headed downhill for the barely visible flagpoles. However, when they got there, there was nobody around. But on a distant hillock he thought he saw a shepherd and a large flock of sheep. It was a tantalizing sight. They moved in that direction. Like a clever mirage, now the apparition appeared on another hill. At last they caught up with the shepherd. He too was a Tibetan with little connection with the outside world. Hindi was difficult with him. But rudimentary Hindi alone was the common link.

The night was mobilizing in the distant ranges. Looking askance at the dingy, bedraggled look of the traveler, the wary shepherd refused outright to provide emmem shelter for the night. He said he had no facilities and told them to seek the dormitory built for the mountaineers that was a little farther away. It was quite late, but having no other option they went in search of the dormitory. It was sturdy and warm. But the keeper of the dormitory refused to have him in. He would not even open the door. The keeper only catered to personages with means. It was getting dark and they had to track down the shepherd again. But this time it was fairly easy. It didn't take long for the shepherd to succumb to the pleading of the exhausted Indian.

Sonam Palzor, the shepherd, lived a strange and solitary life. His dwelling was a crude structure, the walls were made of stones heaped one upon the other, with no plastering, no workmanship. The roof was made of planks split manually from pine. Divided into two unequal rooms, the largest portion of the tumbledown structure was reserved for the sheep. The glossy multi-colored balsam being inflammable, he plucked a few handfuls and lit fire in the savage hearth. They huddled near the fire. Flames blazed, spluttered, and fulminated, and solidly settled on the firewood. Comrade dashed out for his evening ablutions and returned to join them. Sonam cooked white rice for them in a large blackened earthen pot set atop rocks in the hearth.

Sonam Palzor was employed by his malik (master) to tend the sheep. The malik, whom he had never seen, the affluent and mysterious malik who lives somewhere on the plains. Every season the malik's agents will come to take away the sheep that have come of age. Sonam had never been to the city and had never been exposed to the modern amenities of civilization. The unseen master, the rolling meadows, the sheep, the shepherd married to rusticity—he found it all wonderfully meaningful. Sonam also had his little pleasures; he loved to hum traditional Tibetan tunes, melodies that tinkled like a melancholy stream in the woods. Sitting on top of the hill with a watchful eye over the sheep, Sonam would dream the great incarnations coming to him, taking him to the mysteries of the universe. For Sonam, life had no complications, days had no concerns, time had no corners.

emmem slept the sleep of a man at peace with himself on the dirt floor close to the fire. Comrade slept tortuously. He whimpered and ground his teeth at night. They got up quite refreshed in the morning. When emmem awoke, Sonam was saying his prayers on the rosary. He went over and opened the door to look outside. Comrade joined him. Quite moved by what he saw, they both ventured out into the open.

“I am seeing this spectacular scene for you too Tony, I am witnessing this site for you also, Lucy,” emmem said with obvious emotion. The vast expanse of the grassland was mantled by a thin and delicate film of fibrous snow. The blades of grass gracefully flaunted the flakes that embellished them. The powers that be had worked overnight to weave this thin film of gossamer on the turf of grass. The sky was a deep immaculate blue; from horizon to horizon the heavenly dome was without blemish. The sun was peeping at them on the eastern horizon, soft and pleasant, projecting diamonds and rubies on the delicate veil of snow. He stood there; he had no language, no words. He had forgotten everything, even himself. He was like Adam, the first man opening his eyes into the visual wonders of paradise. Comrade nuzzled against him and said, “I have myriad more wonders like this up my sleeve, stick with me and you will see.”

Sonam offered him boiled water to drink. Comrade was waiting on wings to take off. He wanted to express his gratitude to the good shepherd who had shared his shelter and had thereby saved them from freezing to death. Language stood in between them like an impenetrable wall. He held the shepherd's rough and calloused hand and looked into his deep and silent eyes.

“Thank you,” he finally managed to say in a voice that wavered between a whistle and a whisper. Sonam smiled innocently. He was very pleased to have elicited such gentle feelings in his guest. They moved into the frosted expanse of the pastures while Sonam looked on. His nearly frozen feet crunched snow in the grass. Comrade trotted in front. They were heading north. Across the pastures he could see the black expanse of a mountain like the impassable walls of a fortress, its rooks and turrets crowned with peaks of blue white snow. There was an opening, a narrow gap in the ancient igneous rampart. Rocks stood out sharp and intimidating, proudly wearing the fur cap of snow. They inched down the corridor of rocks, across the narrow passage. The passage opened out into a valley of breathtaking beauty. It was an emerald green valley with a thick, soft mat of grass. There was a gurgling creek running down the middle of the valley which originated from a glacier further north. Twisted bushes bordered the creek and the grassland was studded with small pools that reflected the blue infinity. On the eastern and northern sides the snow-clad pinnacles pierced the heavens and glowed like flashing columns of silver. On the western side the mountain was decorated with melancholy rows of coniferous trees with icicles. Mother Nature had inadvertently ornamented them for a Christmas that was never going to come.

There was a small shed at the opening to the valley, apparently built to protect travelers from lightning, hailstorms and blizzards. They sat there for a while observing the picturesque valley that no doubt had been sculpted by a glacier. On a wooden bench he chanced to see a message left behind by a previous visitor:

If you happen to come back to this spot that meant so much to both of us and happens to be so very precious to me for your sake, be aware that I returned before you—this time all alone, without you. The sun is behind a cloud and the woods down in the valley are silent.

They struggled down to the valley across the granite formations that were sculptured by snow and hail over the patient centuries. Centuries of freezing and thawing, wetting and drying shaped the rocks into a striking curvaceous geometry. Down in the valley, the grass was soft and smooth, like a woolen blanket. Unable to contain his enthusiasm, Comrade began to frolick, pawing at the grass and tossing the clumps—roots and all—in the air. The shallow pools of water had a paper thin layer of vitreous ice on top. emmem cracked it and watched the cracks spread while Comrade rolled on the grass.

“Isn't it wonderful?” the dog asked with his eloquent eyes.

“Indeed it is,” he patted his dutiful guide.

The gentle sun scanned the valley, slowly tipping over the snowy ridge.

They moved on; their progress was less strenuous now. At the northern end of the valley they crossed a small wooden culvert, which was covered with a thick layer of soft crystalline snow. A pair of booted feet had crossed it recently. The stream was small and gentle. The stream washed the feet of the mountain and danced away, flashing its silver jingles, laughing its pearly laughter. A few yards ahead at the foot of the snow clad peak, the thawing snow felt its way down to the stream. The footpath struggled up a grassy cliff. They were beginning to be affected by the thin oxygen starved air. His nose was running and the fingers on both hands were swollen. Exhaustion was telling on comrade also. Climbing uphill seemed to be an impossible task. But they were not in a hurry. His body weighed heavily on his frail legs. Frost was fast yielding to an unrelenting sun. He collapsed in the shadow of a rock poised high on the way. He lay there and his concerned companion sniffed up and down him while making sounds of encouragement. emmem winked at the dog, “Comrade, it is nothing, I am merely resting.”

They moved farther on. When the sun slipped behind the western ridge, they reached a snowfield high atop a mesa. It had a couple of huts, erected by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. A ribbon of smoke was wafting high at one of the huts. There were two men in the hut. They were not surprised when he showed up.
“There were two of you, where is the other fellow?” the younger sherpa asked.

“There is only myself and the dog,” emmem asserted.

Fortunately, the sherpas who were engaged by the institute to show inexperienced adventurers the ropes, spoke some Hindi.

“We had noticed two men dragging their way up the valley.”

emmem surmised that the sherpas were seeing double due to oxygen deficiency.

“It will be twenty rupees to spend the night here including the sleeping bag. For food and guidance you will have to pay extra,” the elder sherpa declared in advance. He inventoried his pocket. He had 64 rupees and a jingle of coins with him.

“I have a little more than 60 rupees with me and it is entirely yours for a place to sleep and a little bit of the food you prepare for yourself.”

The two sherpas were not inclined to be avaricious—in fact they would have gladly helped him for free because they were tired of being shut in and having to keep their own company. The building's metal roof was heaped with tons of snow. Water trickled down from the eaves, which they collected in small drums.

At night they offered him chapathies and lentils. He shared his meal with Comrade. The dinner was not tasty, but it was better than nothing. At night they were taken to a nearby cottage, where sleeping bags were heaped in rows, and multi-tiered cots were stacked as blocks of darkness. He did not feel sleepy. Comrade was least inclined to stay indoors. He went outside to have a taste of the snowy peaks at night. The moon was rising beyond the snowy ridge. All around, the hills and dells were clad in sprightly snow. In the moonlight the landscape glowed like phosphorous. The eloquence of silence surrendered to him. This is the occasion when eternity whispers to you. This is the time when you comprehend the language of eternity. This is the occasion when you can forgive everybody and everything. This is the moment you thaw into timeless unity. In a heartbeat emmem sustained an ineffable beatitude. In the infinity of an instant you grow into a point. You are attuned to the celestial choir of Creation. A solemn wordless realization knocks at the closed doors of your soul and you almost wake up from your demeaning existence. The silence was from time to time shattered by sheets of snow rumbling down the mountain. With each succeeding fall the ground danced beneath his feet.

You have the semblance of life, but you live in a bustling beehive infested with killer bees who threaten to sting you to death. Are you not aware that you must forfeit your flesh? Then, fool that you are, existential worries cannot haunt you, fundamental questions should not taunt you, and highbrow intellectual pretenses will not want you, he decided.

It occurred to him that somebody was watching him. Something sinister was tracking his every move. Comrade howled and urged him to go indoors. They retired for the night and slept all through the night beautifully. It snowed all night. In the morning they painfully waded their way to the smoking hut. The sherpas seemed to be positively delighted to have him around. “You cannot begin the return trip today because there are tons of snow down in the valley. It will be hours before it melts away to managable levels,” they told him with ill concealed satisfaction.

“What else is worthwhile seeing around here from your point of view?” he asked.

Comrade barked, quite irked by the unnecessary questions. The sherpas described some little known trails, along with unspoiled scenery and adventure. Then they told him about a pond of milk in the lap of a snow mountain. He chose the pond of milk. Comrade chided him, “I am the boss, you know. I know the way.”

The younger sherpa came out to see them off. There were vague footprints in the snow. Large deformed footprints. The sherpa became instantly alert. Pulling a chord from his pocket, he bent over to measure the dimensions of the imprints in the snow.

“It is yeti, the abominable snowman,” he declared and told them it was dangerous to go farther.

Nobody had ever set eyes upon a yeti, those who got too near a yeti never returned to tell the tale. He was not turning back. He surged ahead in cold determination and comrade followed. Life becomes life when chances are not ruled out.

They walked. The journey was tortuous, but he was full of energy after having slept well. The drifts of snow came up to his knees. They followed the hem of a peak and scaled a gravel incline. The pond of milk turned out to be a depression where water never solidified. It had a curious milky hue. To his surprise there was a person sitting there, staring at the pond—a stranger in saffron.

Swami Omkar welcomed emmem while seated in Padmasana on a dry boulder.

“Welcome, my son. I have been waiting for you for centuries across the recrudescent orgy of life. What took you so long?”

The effect was impressive. He had difficulty accepting the implication that their meeting was not just a coincidence and that all of this was preordained. emmem was not searching for a guru. But if the man in saffron with the shaven head was thirsting for a disciple, he was not about to disappoint him provided it would not eat into his own integrity.

Comrade applauded the anointing rite with short crisp excited barks.

Chapter 19
Three women and a kingdom

Captain Karma Lendup Bhutia was a very patient man. Mundane matters could not disturb his inner peace. Though the ancient traditions were crumbling and in danger of collapse, the shock waves failed to disturb the serene citadel of his mind. He was the chief of staff of the Himalayan kingdom. And he was a soldier with a difference. He was spiritual, and his spirituality was stoutly rooted in the hills and valleys which composed the kingdom. The king ruled by divine right. Bhutias were the ruling class. They had journeyed from the mysterious highlands of Tibet to the western Himalayas in the fifteenth century and established a theocratic state. The local tribes such as Tamangs, Gurungs and Lepchas were assimilated into the newly established theocratic Mahayana Budhist state. The hills, rivers and peaks were venerated. Kanchenjunga [Editor's Note: at 28,208 feet, it dominates the border between Tibet and Nepal] became the ruling deity. A dynamic offshoot of Tibetan Buddhism flourished in the verdant hills with devil dances and Tibetan music. The army was largely ornamental. The monks and their monasteries with the king at the apex effectively ruled the theocracy. No colonial or imperial adventurers ruffled their peace. Tibet was a constant source of inspiration and guidance; the Dalai Lama was the recognized pontiff. The geography was their greatest defense mechanism. The towering frozen peaks of the east protected the state from intrigue and invasions from that direction. In the west the empires that came and went in India ignored it because of its insignificance. The colonial masters that forced India to modernize were also inclined to dismiss the Himalayan state.

Captain Bhutia was very modern in most respects. He was educated in India at the prestigious Pune Military Academy. He was in many ways centuries ahead of the rest of his people. He romanced the thrilling fetes of the allied forces and the axis powers. A student of history, he admired the way that pre-war Japan had reshaped the Western model to meet its peoples' needs. There were times when he took off his military uniform and dressed in the black and red traditional costume so as to visit the famous monasteries where lamas and rempoches meditated or practiced various schools of yoga. Being proud of the solid spiritual and cultural foundation of the kingdom, he aspired to build a Himalayan edition of Japan that would propel them into the modern era. The kingdom was Captain Bhutia's life, his hope, and his cultural bride.

The king, like many other hereditary heads of state had married an American wife, seemingly without regard to how his subjects would react; she was unjustly rumored to be a CIA agent. She reveled her newly acquired regal status. Unlike those who have actual experience with monarchies, Americans are fascinated by royalty. She was proud and august in her stature and body language, which many close to the royal family detested. Although hardly impudent or imperious, she was, nevertheless, uncomfortable with the masses. The concept of a human being being worshipped by his fellow mortals was against her grain and social conditioning. Once the glamor of hobnobbing with the royal family faded, she became resigned to her lot and tried to make the best of what she had, a royal husband and a tiny Himalayan kingdom where modernity was very very slowly filtering in. She was not much of an enthusiast for the new religion and culture. Many of the religious practices and rituals tasted medieval and unsavory to her. However, the Buddhist philosophy of non-violence and respect for all forms of life definitely appealed to her. But the fact that animal flesh was an essential part of their diet seemed strange to her. The secret practice of poisoning and killing guests to take away the luck of the victim, a queer and deadly evil practiced in the medieval villages, she found diabolic and unnerving. Whereas demon dances and worshiping strange deities seemed curious in the beginning, in later years it wearied her. Yet she was not a religious or social reformer. She steadfastly strived to be the perfect queen and ruled over the kingdom as if she had been born into it, bearing the children of the divine king and gracing the royal receptions and parties with her charming presence. Indulging in charity works, she took to mothering over the kingdom. Still she remained remote and detached from the general run of life. To put it bluntly, her adopted cultural climate tended to frost her feathers.

Rural life was self sufficient. The land was sparsely populated and the villagers made do with what they had. Because the water was crystal clear, the waterborne diseases that plagued the lowlands were unknown here. Crime was almost unheard of. This being the state of affairs, bureaucracy and corruption was kept to a minimum. The kingdom mostly ran by itself, with an inborn sense of rhythm.

The Tibetan drums beat their minds to modesty and submission. The Tibetan horns honed the primordial spirituality of the laity. Thus, the system functioned with surprisingly simple and amazingly accurate regularity.

At night the moon flooded the valleys with mystic haze. During sunny days, the hills and ravines were rather pleasant. The woods were rich with orchids and edible nuts, fruits, and roots. Here life could be luscious yet simple. When rains come they come to stay, whipping up a thick veil of fog. Rain crawled along steeply sloped roads, rain drooped leaves that would with time droop farther, rain bespoke the sadness of the pining pines, rain evoked the rage of ranting rivers, rain disolved the melancholy of the boundless blue green woods and rain got lost in the bleak and dreary hoariness of frozen peaks. How could all these natural functions have happened without a royal proclamation? Megalomaniacs and their lyre could keep to themselves because this queen was fully capable of smoothly ruling her magnificent miniscule autonomous world.

In the meantime, one of the prominent citizens of the state, one Tsering Dorjee, married a French woman as a result of a visit to France. Her real name had vanished along with her sordid past, which was probably just as well, considering that she was conniving, conspiring, uncanny, and crafty. To the people of the kingdom she was known as sinister Lady Dorjee. When it came to royal parties and official functions, she had been an inevitable presence. Being the second of the two elite female power brokers in the state, she expected the queen to confide in her. The queen remained elusive. The queen was not interested in forming such a caucus as she was playing her life on a safe shore, and there was no reason to risk complications. She had already reached the highest position a woman could reach in the kingdom. Lady Dorjee appeared to be a potential threat, a troublemaker of the worst sort. Lady Dorjee was seemingly crouching in the shadows, waiting for a chance to pounce. With a friend like Lady Dorjee, who needed enemies?

If a woman has an enemy, it will frequently be another woman. Once after a disastrous party, Lady Dorjee decided that the beaming American queen who was with a lofty elusive confidence should be cut to size. She hated the royal family and their brood. Once at a royal party the king told her that he was half divine.

“Which half?” she asked innocently.

Lady Dorjee shared the joke with all the people with whom she associated.

Lady Dorjee was a liberated woman with no inhibitions, she had experienced both the better and the bitter sides of life. She read a great deal, and unlike the queen she did her best to keep the relationship warm and live with all people she came into contact with across the globe. The Dorjee's home at the capital was a center for intellectual discussions and formal gatherings. Having converted to Buddhism, she nontheless kept an open mind, free from many of the imaginary fences erected by traditions and practices. Her husband, an innocuous demagogue with little or no political ambitions, was well respected in the kingdom.

Assuming the role of a latter day Lady Macbeth, Lady Dorjee tried to transform her husband into a revolutionary leader who could bring down the monarchy. Under her instigation and inspiration the seeds of discontent were sown and they grew into a large scale political movement demanding democracy and freedom for the people. Tsering Dorjee had one thing in his favor. For a number of years people from neighboring Nepal had been pouring across the border seeking a better life. Compared to the feudal Nepali kingdom, this new land was more advanced in many respects. Almost before anyone could do anything about it, Nepalis had become the majority community, and yet the aristocratic upper hand of the ruling Bhutia community was never challenged. But Nepalis being Hindus, the divine king did not invoke more awe and respect than dutifully needed to make a living. So the majority Nepali community was destined to become Tsering Dorjee's mass base. The king was startled when a few demonstrations were staged in which people paraded down the streets carrying signs and banners demanding representative government.

Lady Dorjee was not placing her bet on mass protests. These demonstrations were meant to be a ruse. She had better ideas. The masses fall prey to deception; they are for the most part swung by their emotions. You have to pump hope, energy and money into a movement in order to keep it going. Also, you have to be on your guard to make certain some other opportunist does not highjack the movement. Timing is essential, you had better make the right move at the right time. A protracted and entrenched battle is best avoided. It is too expensive and could ultimately prove futile. Come up with a plan and a schedule and go from there.

She knew how people behave—they will lick you to death if they love you and kick you to death if they hate you. It is all the same to them.

The next string she pulled was outside the kingdom. The most influential and respected woman in southern Asia in the 1970's was Indira Gandhi, who was then prime minister of India. Gandhi happened to be a close friend of Lady Dorjee. The two of them had been friends for many years, because Lady Dorjee had a knack for making friends with potentially powerful people. Following a few well-engineered mass demonstrations, 5,000 armed troops from the Indian army took the 237 unarmed palace guards by surprise at night. By morning the kingdom was part of the Indian union and the king was forced to abdicate. Captain Bhutia was arrested and confined to a Spartan cell. The nation was no more due to the unbridled machinations of three women, none of whom had been born there. In the general elections Dorjee was voted to power, and Lady Dorjee anchored her vessel exactly where she had planned to call.

The queen did not stay around to see her rival ruling the state. She cashed in her remaining chips and was on the next plane to her home country. The king reconciled to the changed times with true Buddhist temperment. He died of cancer before long, leaving an imaginary kingdom, a barricaded palace and remaining assets to his son. The army of the king was disbanded and its high ranking officers were transferred to the police force. Some accepted administrative posts. Captain Bhutia, however, would have none of it. He rejoiced in the glorious history of his country, which had never laid down its freedom in the past. Captain Karma Lendup Bhutia was not a religious bigot, rather he was pragmatic and had faith in modern science. He wanted the fruits of science and technology to reach the people without compromising their traditions. In and out of jail, he led the movement for a modern state rooted in traditional values. He encouraged young people to study abroad at Indian and western universities and took to the road to promote pan Himalayan enthusiasm. But, for the most part, he did time behind bars. The central government found his rhetoric to be dangerously seditious. Yet patience was Captain Bhutia's forte. Still healthy and energetic, he stumped the state in his army uniform, with his broad ruddy, clean-shaven face radiating the vitality that comes from living right.

Captain Bhutia's moral rearmament drive was fairly broad based. He was not inclined to reject progressive planks that were not necessarily in line with Tibetan Buddhism. His past was part of him and it proved to be a very potent political weapon. He obviously enjoyed evoking the salient symbols of his culture, a culture that was rooted in the blessings of nature. Mountain lakes had an aura of mystery around them. It was said that the future could be foretold by changes in color. Certain lakes were the abode of ghosts and demons and certain wooded hills and peaks were the silent abode of saints and venerable rempoches. By visiting such lakes Captain Bhutia let the world know that the cultural fingerprints were still very much there. And he was not content playing a passive role. He went so far as to stock ponds and lakes with colorful fish. Tall prayer flags fluttered in the wind at very mound. He was also aware of the well-being that certain mantras imparted to one's inner self and made sure that prayer flags were imprinted with the right mantras. Wherever waterfalls existed prayer wheels were placed. Thus, the kinetic energy that had been formerly wasted on the unfeeling petrology of the high country was channeled into auspicious prayers. Letter was held holy, symbolism reached rarified heights. The atmosphere literally reverberated with inaudible om mani padme hem. He wanted the state to be in the thick of cultural and intellectual activities. The only thing he expected of people was to be dynamic. They were free to practice any religion they wanted. A person could even choose to be an atheist and still be part of the movement, as long as he did it dynamically.

Captain Bhutia campaigned vigorously in every general election. Once elected, he promised to do everything possible to bolster the cultural identity of the Himalayan tribes. Considering that the Nepali majority was unalterably opposed to what he wanted to do, it was an uphill battle all the way. Successive routs failed to daunt him. A true soldier and patriot would rather die than surrender. People listened to him with sympathetic ears, as one listens to a failed romantic hero. However, they tactfully refused to subscribe to his political ambitions. After it became clear that his democratic vehicle could not be steered along the route he had thoughtfully laid out to put himself in office, he redirected his indefatigable efforts towards culture and education. Schools were opened in remote areas of the former kingdom, and free education was provided to the children of marginalized Himalayan ethnic groups. Tourists were amazed to hear crudely clad and sickly children who had never been to a city ardently speaking fluent English.

The average person's lifestyle had improved since the nation was gobbled up by India. Theocratic kingdoms based on classical tribal values are seldom equipped to withstand global pressures. Statecraft is not as simple as it used to be. It has turned infinitely complex and tricky, e.g. the semantics have evolved from philology to diplomatic doublespeak.

Cultures that once thrived under the swaying canopy of royal protection often die when the tree gets felled. Fortunately the endemic culture of the Himalayan state was laid on a strong and stout foundation and was fairly autonomous. Hard times only brushed it to a finish that the abrasive hardships could never have dreamed possible. It had the confidence and the ability to receive modern thought and technology without a fuss. Culture oftimes becomes a cliché, and the cliché of culture can deteriorate until it no longer qualifies to be labeled as a national culture. Le Chatelier's principle [Editor's Note: Le Chatelier's principle is a chemistry principle which states that if a system in equilibrium is disturbed by changing the conditions, the system will tend to shift its equilibrium position so as to counteract the effect of the disturbance] holds good for cultures too, on a very abstract level. Equilibrium struggles to stick to the status quo minimizing the damages introduced by an unwelcome change. When a culture withers and dies, the society forfeits its raison d'괲e and dissolves into the fads of the day, i.e. the madness of the majority takes up the space that the culture used to occupy. However flamboyant it may be, the madness is merely a stop gap born of the synergy of time, climate, natural resources and gene pool. A culture necessarily becomes a casualty when the parameters that defined it become obsolete.

Captain Bhutia did not worry about how much freedom his countrymen did or did not have. Freedom is misunderstood. Democracy assumes that we rule ourselves. Do we rule ourselves? Given the opportunity, won't we rule others? Have we ever been free? Has any nation ever been free? No society has ever been completely free—it all boils down to political cacophony and demeaning polemics. What difference does it make to a poor villager if we rule us, if Britain rules us, or somebody else rules us? Does it make any difference to those at the bottom who rules? Won't the villager still pay the same taxes, have the same worries, and bear the burden of a ruling class? The actors change, characters do not. Over the annealing years, Captain Bhutia had ample time to recuperate from the notion of freedom. We have no freedom from ourselves, from our past, from what we inherit genetically, or from our times. When we take out the fancy festoons, freedom isn't all it's cracked up to be. Free or no, we will act out our madness according to the dictates of our individual and collective ignorance. This is how we are and it will go on until the wheel of life and death runs itself out.

Swami Omkar found that his personal ignorance was far greater than the collective ignorance of others. In fact he could teach them a thing or two about ignorance. Such powerfully ignorant men reach positions of leadership by putting their incompetence to use.

Swami Omkar's spiritual initiative met initially with success. He was wrapped in saffron and had impressive headgear. In many respects he looked like Swami Vivekananda. His wife and son had thought that he would come back home like a prodigal son after some blunders and setbacks. This time he was determined to outsmart them. When spiritual male Hindus go on a pilgrimage, they usually take the Benares-Rishikesh route. He expected that his son and wife would be waiting for him on the regular route with their nasty, villainous butterfly net. Consequently, Vivek chose the route to the northeast, to the land of Buddhist mysteries. He made a favorable impression in the villages he passed through. Most swamis look hungry and haggard, soiled and soggy. Vivek looked very clean and healthy because he, unlike them, did not grow up in poverty. Swami Vivekananda introduced the world to the Hindu religion and Vivek, among others, copied the pattern. Crowds thronged around him at the temple. He dreamt of rapt western audiences standing in line to absorb the words of wisdom that sprung from his mouth. Swami Vivekananda had conquered Chicago, London and continental Europe. If matters worked out, he, Swami Omkar, would go even further. Many Indian spiritualists who had moved west had struck it rich.

The villagers sought Swami Omkar's blessing, which he promptly gave to them. Stories spread like wildfire that Swami Omkar's touch worked miracles. His blessing, according to the marketplace gossips, brought auspicious days. Though he enjoyed the attention he was getting, he refused to stay for more than a day at a village. The servile behavior of the villagers sickened him. The educated modern man in him rebelled. If he was going to be the architect of history that he desired to be, the shallow veneration of the gullible rustics would not suffice. What he really wanted to do most was to impress a discerning western audience.

His successes incensed him. He had been a late bloomer, but now he was making it. He was planning to embark upon a tour that would enlighten the West. He had a contact at Taching, the capital of the Himalayan state. She was a lady in tight-fitting jeans—educated, charming, cosmopolitan and liberated—who practiced Tantrik Buddhism and claimed to have psychic powers. For a fee, she put people in touch with their dead relatives. Dawa Tensing Dolma was her name and she was the hottest thing in the frigid, high Himalayas. Séances were held regularly at her home. Dolma vicariously recommended Swami Omkar to Captain Bhutia.

When Swami Omkar arrived at Captain Bhutia's house in town, the former soldier was eating dinner. The old, imposing building made of wood stood over a sprawling garden. As his wife was out of town, and his children were in institutions of higher learning in Calcutta and Delhi, the Captain was alone. When Swami Omkar announced his presence, Captain Bhutia called out from inside in his booming voice to join him at the table. Swami Omkar entered the dining hall, which was paneled with pine and reluctantly sat down, but politely refused to eat anything that made him squirm and cringe. Instead the visitor insisted on eating simple porridge from a wooden bowl using a wooden spoon and washing it down with vegetable soup from a roughhewn bamboo cylinder.

“Well...?” Captain Bhutia asked.

“I'm a history professor from Bihar,” Swami Omkar, a.k.a. Vivek Mishra, introduced himself, “and I gave it up to pursue a great mission.”

“Yes, I heard as much from Dolma.” Captain Bhutia said flatly.

“My mission is a moral and spiritual rearmament of the world in the light of Sanadhana Dharma.”

“You could have begun it at home, in your home town. I hear that Bihar is far from perfect.”

“For three decades I have been instilling my students with pride in our collective religious and cultural heritage. Bihar is not sufficient. I require a wider canvass. The whole world is my family, the whole earth is my village.”

“How do you intend to change the world?”

“I will do it as it is meant to be done, of course. The way Satya Sai Baba does, the way Osho Rejaneesh did, the way Matha Anrithanandamayi does.”

“They've already done it or are still doing it. And you want to specialize in the same field? Is there room enough for you?” Captain Bhutia enquired.

“I have no need to copy them. I have a philosophy; I have a message for the whole of humanity,” Swami Omkar protested.

“Do you have any concept regarding rhythm and tunes?”

“Well er.. mine is rather a social mission.”

“Yes, yes. But you can't do it without rhythm—and I take it there is none in you.”

“Om is the source of all rhythm,” Swami Omkar declared, “when the rhythms in you cross you see the multiplicity of things, and when the rhythms in you settle into a harmony, it is then that you experience the unity of all things.”

“I am not out to check the veracity of your claim. Nor is it important to me whether you are on the right path. But you should have some substance to add some weight to your dreams,” Captain Bhutia advised.

Swami Omkar was already aware of having some seminal ideas, ideas with an open end.

“Yes, you are right,” Swami Omkar readily admitted.

“I will support anything. I want to make certain that everybody lives with a disturbed mind. Only disturbed shells secrete pearls. When you have an idea, try it out. In order to contribute anything worthwhile, a mind must be more than a necropolis in motion.”

Swami Omkar sat like a truant school boy in front of a teacher. He squirmed.

“Well well,” Captain Bhutia intervened, cutting him short, “no need of commentaries, tell me where do I stand in the frame of your schemes?”

“As Archimedes would have it, I need a place to stand on.”

“And are you confident that you can lift the world? Only a platform is standing between you and the upliftment of the world.”

“Yes,” Swami Omkar whispered, cowed by the weight of the words he was having business with. Captain Bhutia pressed his lips into a red line in between gulping his meal and bloomed into a yellow simper. He remembered inadvertently the catchy slogan of a brand of brassiere: committed to the upliftment of the downtrodden masses.

Captain Bhutia did not believe a word that the carpetbagging simpleton blurted out. Even seasoned idiots can come up with a sprig of surprise when the time is ripe. He was not about to let him down. If a ray of enlightenment was destined to flash on a fool, he definitely did not want to deflect it. Let every flower bloom. But his state was already teeming with local varieties of spiritual adventurers. If one more neurotic staged a lateral entry onto the scene, it probably would not make much of a difference.

In the distant wooded hills the monks subjected themselves to strange religious rites. Some of them would retreat into a cave with essential provisions and would not go out for years on end. They took binding vows resulting in incredible self-molestation. Some practiced levitation and could float in midair; some practiced such improbable tricks as sucking up yak's milk through their penis from a pail and then pissing it back out; some practiced the art of suspending cardiac functions and could remain in suspended animation for hours; some were capable of spiriting away the luck that a man was born with and giving it away to someone else. Again, there are people capable of creating destructive and creative vibrations in the environment at will. The upwardly thrusting peaks protected and nurtured these peculiarities. Psychic acrobatics were best learned in the splendid isolation of the silent woods.

And then there were ghosts—far too many ghosts for this remote, sparsely populated region. Once the curtain of night comes down, the ghosts take over. Sometimes they refused to wait for night and they came to the woods in broad daylight. Once a month, the official exorcist of the state, Jogy, goes all along the country roads in the thick of the night, blowing his conch, chasing and banishing the ghosts that are at large. The locals stayed indoors because anyone who set eyes on the Jogy in his ceremonial robes would forfeit his life. In a place where life and death combined in various proportions, where life and afterlife fused and confused the living, one more spiritual undertaking was not going to hurt anyone. Let this poseur, Captain Bhutia reasoned, navigate this conglomeration of wild imaginations as best he could. He had no intentions of preventing this or any other butterfly from fluttering. Butterflies, like crackpots, come and go. At least this one was more colorful than most.

Every hamlet had a spooky nook, every valley had a dreary look once the sun hid behind the firs atop the hills.

“I need a house and some land on lease for a beginning.”

“That can be arranged, but not on lease of course. It will be for free for the time being. After a year, if you are not cured of your present obsession, we will agree on a standing arrangement.”

“Would you be as kind as to give me an idea as to where exactly it is going to be?”

“Well, I have a villa in the western hills with a garden around it. You will like it. The villa is hidden in the snowy ranges, and you can watch the sleeping valleys all around. I do not care what spirituality you practice there. You have to have ideas, that is all. Do nothing to upset the harmony of nature; you should not disturb the ancient music. So, like Jehovah did, I am setting you free in the garden of Eden.”

“Jehovah? Aren't you a Buddhist?”

“No, I am not. I am a soldier, nothing more, nothing less.”

“There is no need to be humble. People see you as a crusading champion of Buddhism and you are surrounded by Buddhist nicknacks.”

“I am celebrating my share of life while fixing my fiascos. Life, if at all you care to live it, is an inevitable failure. In the stiff sadness of a veteran I celebrate it. Good evening.” Swami Omkar was summarily dismissed and was only too happy to escape from the den of the lion.

Swami Omkar felt relieved. He had not been at ease in the presence of the big man. He had the distinct feeling that the captain was laughing at him behind his back. The interview was over before he could fully explain his plans. Maybe it was just as well because things were falling into place in favor of his plans. In the extraordinary role of Swami Omkar, Vivek Mishra was going to live on his own for the first time in his life. The very next thing he needed was an intelligent and resourceful assistant, a disciple who was reliable, but not overly smart.

The newly vested swami's penchant for orchestrating spectacular drama had not subsided with his new engagements. Earlier, in the villages he had learned that the best way to impress a lesser mortal was to do something mind boggling which defied the imagination of the rube. He bided his time waiting for the right man. When Swami materialized before the pilgrim at the pond of milk, he was staging a well rehearsed scene. The victim was not aware what had hit him. The histrionics had awed and shocked the victim into submission. Even the dog had been impressed.

In fact the anonymous madrasi had not been impressed by the stranger, but the swami's sudden unexpected presence had annoyed him almost as much as his chastely spoken Hindi had confused him. It seemed strange to have traveled all this way to meet a man from the plains.

“I am Swami Omkar, a spiritualist setting out to enlighten the world, about to make the world heed the fears that it hitherto heeded not.”

“And what do you do here in this freezing desolation?”

“The whole world is the same to me,” he bragged, “and I knew that this is the place I have to meet my first disciple. You took all this trouble, my son, to meet me. It is the will of God.”

Swami utterly failed to make a standing impression of himself upon his client. emmem felt pity for the strange swami. Yet emmem could not turn him down outright because he thought it might be interesting to go along with the charade.

Chapter 20
Egotism does it all

Life on top of the hill had halcyon appeal and sylvan charm. The villa faced north and had a garden to rival those of European estates. Regular rains of early autumn nurtured the hills into a deluge of greenery. September rains put forth remarkable beds of dahlias colored violet, red, yellow, and white. Primroses arose from the hem of the woods struggling to be a part of the garden hedge. Ravenous ivies attempted to steal the show. Proud dandelions were about to bloom. By late October they would take over the hills. Bougainvilleas were biding their time. Zinnias, large morning glories, forget-me-nots, yellow marigolds and blue bells waited in trembling hope. Peaches, pear trees, chestnuts and walnuts were nearly ready with their produce for the year. Even if the rains shied away for a day, the soft mat of grass will be wet in the morning with the settling and dripping dew. You could scoop up handfuls of water. Captain had shown them the art of scooping up water. The tiny drops of dew flashed sapphire rubies and mother of pearl in the warm glow of the gentle morning sun. But there weren't many birds because hailstorms chased them away.

Light filters down deep silent valleys and the universe dances in the quivering globules on the foliage. The tree sheds its grateful tears after having absorbed the caressing promise of the crimson rays. The ancient deodar remembers the ineffable and breaks into a shock of bloom. The translucent silken dawn weaves a poem and dies away with the poem.

The pointed copper sheathed roof of the villa had taken on a green patina. Floors and walls were paneled with deodars and pine. Peach and apple trees dragged their laden sagging boughs along the eaves of the metal roof. Captain Bhutia had obviously done a good job of maintaining the building.

Looking north from the balcony over the demure valley, the shadows swung back and forth with the sun. The snow-clad sierra had an exquisite charm. In rainy weather, clouds shroud the view for most of the day. But on sunny days, it was hard to miss the mountains looming in the distance in every direction. The molten silver would languidly flow down the slopes and the crimson rays of the September sun would paint it red. Minutes before the break of dawn, the peaks take on a blue white hue. And before the first rays could penetrate the lesser hills and valleys, the silver steeples would be bathed in the blushing sun. It was a breathtaking spectacle, the sun caressing the snow in the darkness. The spectacle repeats at night also. On moonlit nights the snow-covered ranges would appear from a snugly warm distance as heaps of butter. Swami Omkar's new digs were infinitely more peaceful than the house that he had shared with his wife in the city. The soft amber afternoon light from the distant fireball around which he—and we—revolve worked to soothe his inner sorrows.

Swami Omkarananda ashram was humming with activity. Swami spent most of his time in his pooja room. Ceremonies create a mist that affords room for imagination. The pooja room had colorful pictures of Lord Siva, Goddess Saraswathi and Lord Ganesha. Lord Siva, the most contradictory and elusive of the Hindu Holy Trinity, the God of destruction, was shown furiously dancing. Siva is the God of annihilation, the master of creative and destructive dances, the paragon of masculine glory, the head God of the pre-Aryan cultures that flourished on the Indus, the tremendous presence with the wan waxing crescent moon in his tangled, matted hair, the heavenly Ganges springing from his crown, a hooded cobra hissing from his neck, the bloody hide of a leopard covering his loins and ashes from the crematorium smeared on his person—Siva was indeed a deity steeped in mystery and wonder. This graceful god that offered half of his body to the other gender—voluntarily becoming half woman—watched over the world from the hidden recesses of the frozen Himalayas. This strange God danced with the savages in the woods. Lord Siva is the true primordial God that exists in the rhythmic sounds and movements of tribal cultures. When modern tribal cultures lose their Siva, they lose their raison d'괲e, lose their sense of rhythm and hang around in complete confusion like a swarm of bees whose hive has been ravaged. Siva is the cosmic fountain of mystic experiences. At a certain stage the adept merges into him, dances with him, becomes music himself. There, he reaches a point of no return.

Within Swami Omkar's pooja chamber Siva was in the ecstasy of his cosmic dance—the dance that controls the world; the rhythm that maintains the world—the classic dancing posture perpetuated by the spiritual blossoming of Tanjore. Siva is the symbol of individual salvation. Mystic experiences are purely personal. They cannot be shared, they cannot be shirked, and you melt into them. Swami Omkar squatted there, allowing his mind to drift into the infinite. His mind wafted and floated above the icy mysterious heights. He ate little and spoke less.

With his mind afloat in mental mist, Swami Omkar necessarily left his anointed disciple to his own devises for most of the day. He had emmem read classic tomes written by William Jones, Max Muller, Shopehauer, Radhakrishnan, Krishnamurthi and Sri Aurobindo. When the time came, he would have to be ready to play the supporting role. Also, he was to get provisions and take care of cooking and household maintenance. They talked only at night during supper and sometimes their discussions dragged deep into the night. They ate grains, vegetables, and fruits which were taken in small portions once a day, just before bedtime. Swami Omkar took the bible from him after having agreed that sprinkling some bible verses on his discourses would make them seem less foreign to western minds.

The world is a spider's web, thought the swami's disciple, the more you struggle the more you become entangled. The trick is to relax and watch the show. When you become tired of watching, take pleasure in being watched. He smiled to himself.

When Swami Omar retreated into his cell, emmem experienced God in his own way.

God peeps through the holes and speaks through the walls,
God hides in the malls and dies in the halls.
Godforsaken, we bog down and stall.

Every man creates his own God. When we have squandered a lifetime, he thought, we wonder what it has all been for. Loving and forgiving, blaming and hating, praying and progressing, giving and getting, feeling and doing, life drags on in the gutters while we sputter our incoherence. We do not remember all that has happened to us, that is our bane and our boon. If we had remembered, we would not have erred. When it comes to ourselves, we relapse into abstractions.

Abstraction is a disturbing distraction. Comrade came to visit him on and off. Comrade was disappointed that he chose to live a settled life. Comrade kept hoping that someday the man from the plains would come to his senses and take to the road. ‘Wander, saunter, and now here you are squandering yourself. Why can't you follow my example? It's a pity you are sitting pretty,’ Comrade lamented.

Then he thought about the villagers living deep downhill. They have their millet juice. Fermented millet juice gets rid of your physical pain and worries like a hammer—getting hammered numbs the brain and warms the body. He had seen them going up and down hills, heavy loads balanced deftly on their backs, held in place by a headband. It can be a huge bucket of milk, a conical wicker basket full of cardamom, fruits, roots, tubers, or goods purchased from a market beyond the hills. Poor people who bear the biggest burdens never complain, they never put their loads down in protest or go on strike. They sweat, toil and dream silently and the country pulls on placidly. Patiently they lose themselves in their regular husbandry, tend their plants, care for their livestock, and their people. Their women carry their children on their backs and indulge in daily domestic chores. Their burdens cease to be a burden in the forgetful fever of life. They speak a language the urban elite and urban scum that settle in the decadent underbelly of the cities do not understand. Yet life mellows to its timely fullness on all theatres. The naïve rural masses who value traditional wisdom miss many things and many experiences in life, while the thick and street-smart urbanite misses the graceful poesy pristine nature bounteously showers on man. Yet, wherever you may be, you cannot go amiss in life if you put your God given talents to use.

Over the years, one falls from oneself. The abstract side of the things that we have experienced vanishes. The motley collage of experiences has a spiritual dimension. As we grow older, we are less likely to notice it and, as a result, less likely to reflect on it. Those who land up in this spiritual no man's land cannot take refuge in the same hopes and fears that their fathers relied upon. Those who have faith are happy with their spiritual props. They have no questions to ask and no metaphysical disputes to settle. Days blossom in their childish innocence. Children have vague memories of a lost paradise and bask in their shadows. There are people who understand in the heart and they are blessed. They are blessed because they are not pestered by questions. There are multitudes of social questions without solutions. Even a society bereft of exploitation and inequality is not perfect. Security and well-being do not necessarily guarantee a full and robust life for the individual. And fullness to the point of satiation is a disaster in itself.

emmem was sitting in the tall grass propped against the foundation of the villa, an open book slept in his lap. He had inadvertently sat in such a way that he was obstructing the threshold of the beehive safely tucked inside the foundation. The confused swarm of bees hung around wandering helplessly about unable to return to their hive. Finally, a prudent bee jettisoned the two globules of pollen which encumbered her on the open page of his book. Suddenly realizing what he had done, he got up and went elsewhere. He was reading from T. S. Eliot and the line on which she put down her burden ran: “the awful daring of a moment's surrender which, an age of prudence can never retreat.” Yet again, he had experienced the metaphysical dimension of a material experience. It has a wordless misery. Life, when watched from a somber angle, is a restlessness, a helpless yearning to reach out to something very close to us that, no matter how hard we try, we just can't seem to reach.

A dainty gloom doggedly lingers. Days repeat. The pathless woods of life have been despoiled by your headlong rush. One should take everything easy, he thought, and let pass all innuendoes. There is no need to hurry, nor is it fruitful to worry. When time is up, the hooks and tentacles will be severed. In the interim, one must accommodate certain hostile realities. If everything was alright, what fun would it be to be alive? I plough a lonely furrow, he thought, but everybody is alone unless one willingly drowns in the rabble. We are shut off from the world, everybody lives and dies in his own space. The world is composed of nothingness. Nothing has any meaning. What actually is, is a mysterious dichotomy. Nothingness results from opposing forces. If there is matter, there is antimatter; if there is time, there is negative time; if there is energy, there is negative energy. When taken together, they boil down to a dismal, simple nothingness. But there has to be a primordial cause for this magnificent illusion. We must have been designed to grope in ignorance. If it were otherwise, we would lead tediously drab lives. Millet liquor is the final solution, he laughed.

What the deuce have I done with my share of life, he wondered? Fatalists tend to place all the blame at the doorstep of destiny. When I was in my prime, my time was spent in bootless tussle against shadows. We sit in our little world and dream of obscene luxuries. Only a fortunate few find a way to assert their human identity; the rest mumble and fumble. No one should be blamed for who and what he is. An individual has to work within the parameters of the inner program. All plants work alike—leaves absorb sunlight and chemistry does the rest of the job. The wavelength of life may differ from person to person, but it is essentially the same for all of us. Crises are how our character gets tested. If one is resolute and determined one can follow one's own furrow of imagination and make a dent in the intellectual or social circles. Then they will remember you even when you have become part of the yesterdays. But every life has its merits and virtues. One person's life isn't any better than anyone else's life. We have to be what our inner world directs us to be. DNA schedules the layout. Life is a cul-de-sac. Ultimately, we crash against the wall of infinity at the dead end, and the rest is silence. Power is a crime, it intervenes in the braided stream of life. Every king is a criminal and ought to be treated as such because he subjugated the people by craft, graft, and brute force. And nobody asked him to be what he has designs to be. With smoldering bitterness and sarcasm he displaces our plans with his.

emmem sat out in the open air and watched the sullen September day sweeping across the hills and valleys. The blue shadow of the hill spreads eastward across the mountain stream. The shadow lengthens into the silent woods that dutifully savor the last photons of a faltering day that seemed to stop right after it started. He was fond of watching various shades of whispering shadows. Daylight still crowned the top slope of the eastern peak. As night settles, it shrouds the world in sweet slumber. Another dubious day and another life may be or may not be. To be outside in the darkness is to be a part of it. You become part of the universal void. The flame of a kerosene lamp becomes a stinging obscenity as it kills an exhilarating non-duality. The stream must still be there and the woods too. Stars timidly blink. Shortly along heaven's brink there is a soft phosphorescence, a borrowed brilliance courtesy of the lunar disc. Moonbeams shower the valley. In that hallowed stillness it is the stuff of dreams. Moonlight lay gently on the glossy leaves of arching peach and birch. It drips and flows down into the inky river. The tuft of grass had its riotous dreams and breaks tremblingly into a cold sweat, as if somebody sprinkled holy water on the quivering pasturage. Why not escape? Why must this world, this life, this strife be filled with unnerving dreams and cold sweat?

The pleasantly chilling cold of the moonlit night played on the harp of his soul. A nightingale stopped her song halfway through; the tears of a lonely flower dropped on the blades of grass. A brisk breeze was fluffing the boughs while night whimpered in the leaves. Unseen hands troubled the brooding thickets. He had the distinct feeling that somebody was peeping in the windows of his soul. Something flapped its wings in the nest of darkness; somebody was trying to catch the attention of his half open mind and whispered a caution that he failed to heed. The white flowers that bloom at night had yet to open, but no doubt they could do it without him. emmem got to his feet and went in to prepare the food of the day.

Their food was simple and rich in roughage. It consisted of spinach, cabbage, boiled rice and vegetable soup.

The beasts feed on roots, the peasantry on grains, the freemen on vegetables, and the wise on thoughts. Opportunists are parasites—they feed on the fruits of their neighbors' labor.

“With the grace of Kailasa nadh, we are on the right path. Ere long we will fly out of the chrysalis,” Swami Omkar proclaimed. He was very upbeat. The aspiring swami believed that his assistant was his strongest asset. emmem was unobtrusive; his presence was not likely to disturb the senses, and his character was beyond question. Best of all, his assistant had a quick mind that would aid in accomplishing the mission.

A healthful regimen of meditation and solitude had brought about a welcome change in Swami Omkar's personality. He was no longer the repulsive little man he had been in Bihar. There was a striking serenity in his face. But his assistant was not impressed. emmem knew that to be a true sanyasi one had to free himself from his past. The constant boasting about his lucrative and prestigious academic career was not going to get Swami Omkar anywhere. A hermit takes a new birth, purging his past. This would-be virtuoso had yet to acquire the virtue a sanyasi values most—humility.

“India has an invisible empire, few care to go there,” Swami Omkar continued, “an empire steeped deep in the classical past. We needn't have to invent anything. It is all there, unwonted and unexplored. We will follow the veins of precious gems within the unseen empire. We will squeeze out the juice of a distant glory and dole it out to a parched humanity, the orphaned faithful. Mankind is like a lost child searching for his mother. He has been exploited by opportunists and comes to us asking how to get home. We must help. We will defrock the false prophets. History is in the offing. Wither we go, we are watched. Our mission is to pave the way for those who follow.”

“An ascetic acts without asserting himself and crafts the beautiful mental climate around him. He has no need to possess. Gandhi led by example,” he reminded his master.

emmem was taken aback by a sudden vision of a pious prig engaging in flagellation and self-molestation with the lustful hope that he would feel it heal after he treated himself to a heavenly meal.

“As I told you, when we go, we will not unwatched go. Swami Vivekananda is remembered, Sree Ramakrishna is remembered, Tota Puri is remembered. They were mystics and at the same time they were activists, too. It is possible to do both and do both well.”

“Remembering is part of it, but becoming is the important part of the mission. When we elevate ourselves to the rarified levels, we will go smoothly and unwatched. India must set its own house in order prior to telling the world what to do.”

Swami Omkar was thoughtful for some time. Rice remained in his plate dejected, pallid and unattended.

“Sometimes I wonder my son, who is the boss. Remember, I am your guru, a guru with a divine fire. Now tell me what India has been to you.”

Then quite unreasonably and starkly out of context emmem thought of the I factor. I stand in the way and make all the difference. I have two dutiful eyes that help me eye the world the way I fancy it to be.

He tried to sum up some meaning to the experiences he had while traveling across the ancient country. He had faith in the destiny of India. Nor was he saddened at having inherited a tradition that was choked with weeds and smothered in ivy. It is up to you to weed it; it is your solemn god-given duty to cultivate it. But he had chosen not to subscribe to any faith or philosophy. Indian culture is unique in that it can accommodate any shade of thought. It has space reserved for all schools of thought which will permit them to coexist without destroying the underlying structure of society. He found it strange and pernicious that disharmony and social disorder had become commonplace in the India of his times.

“Tell me, boy, about the India you have experienced.” Swami Omkar prompted.

“India is a harmony of ironies,” emmem replied, “I have witnessed the many faces of India. They have made an indelible impression upon me. I have in the course of my travels seen Muslims refusing to consign themselves to the national melting pot and their counterparts in mainstream Indian society refusing to accept them. Also the dalits and the historically underprivileged being brutalized in the Hindi heartland, refusing them their wages, refusing them their due. They are the true Indians, they were here well before the first invader poured into the plains across Khyber Pass. The disastrous trade unionism of the south and southwest did not sit well with me. By what right do they hijack the ports and roads and hold the whole nation—1,000 million of us—hostage? It is solely because no government has ever had the balls to cut the militant trade unions down to size. But these were not the things that depressed me the most. The nation will outlive these difficulties. Hopefully, we will also survive the massive moral decay and materialism that will result from consumer oriented globalization. Even if we burn out in our own sins, India itself will still be intact because its treasures are unseen and underneath. Political and social paroxysms will not disturb the India that cannot be seen.”

“But you did not tell me the most heinous thing that you came across in India.”

“That you see everyday in the plains of India's heartland. You must have seen the Marvari merchants pressing the money you hand them in their eyes and then lewdly kissing it prior to stashing it into the coffer. Can you imagine a more pernicious spectacle? It turns my stomach to think that such unholy practices are condoned in holy India.”

Swami Omkar was taken aback by most of what his disciple had said. It was not as if he was insensitive—it was simply that having been born into a Brahmin family, there had been no reason for him to view life from the perspective of the unsightly unwashed masses. The feeling he had for Muslims was one of revulsion. And when his protective wife had been his keeper, he had had scant need to engage in business. It was time, he thought, to restructure his frame of mind to accommodate the broader realities of life in India.

“History tells us that no civilization ever survived the machinations of time,” Swami Omkar countered.

“Yes, we know that the ancient Aztec, Inca and Egyptian empires eventually sank into the mysteries of time and went the way of the dodo. India was different in that it yielded to invaders, but would not succumb. Scythians, Mongols, Turks, Huns, Macedonians, early Aryans, Persians, and Semitics turned India into a melting pot of cultures, ideas, and philosophies. But the soul of India remained indomitable, impalpable, and intact. The drawback is that India lies frozen in time. As long as Sanskrit survives, India will survive, come what may.”

“Yes, yes, you are right,” Swami Omkar nodded approvingly.

“China seems to be better off in many respects. It is not a culture frozen in time. Nevertheless, a country cannot ride the crest of the wave forever. The New World Order in which America is the sole superpower constitutes a state of imbalance which will not endure,” emmem ventured.

“Let us come back to ourselves, we are not going to right the wrongs of the world. We cannot declare war on our past. Nor can we consecrate the apostate circumcised temples and Buddhist monasteries into Sanadhana dharma. We can perhaps reclaim the symbols, but we cannot reclaim the minds. Our concern is the advancement of our mission. If we take care of our interests, others will take care of theirs and the results will have the approval of all parties.”

He smiled innocently and indifferently.

“You have a great spiritual future,” Swami Omkar continued, “you are otherworldly.” Swami had watched the way he walked and moved about, ethereally, barely touching the ground, as if he was about to take off and fly.

“Thank you, master. But I am not pressured by any spiritual goals. I am always at my destination. Be elusive to the delusive, while keeping in mind that anything which claims to have a beginning and an end is delusive. The way to conquer the world is to not let the world conquer you.”

“Idealistic yes, but impractical. You will be stung by ambition, I promise you. Kailasa nadh guides us, he cannot go wrong. Great things are in store. You wait and see.”

emmem had no great hopes vested on his master. Nor did he approve of many of his notions. Yet his nonchalance was his armor; nothing affected him, nothing disturbed him. God is not our problem, God is GodⳠproblem. The creation is the creatorⳠproblem; the creator also is the creatorⳠproblem. But we are denied this consolation because creation is an ongoing process and we are not able to perceive things which have yet to be created.

“You will see how Lord Siva answers our prayers. Before either of us were born, our fate was predestined. All of the ingredients for our mission are ready but one. What is missing is the devotee who will be our link to the brave new world we are going to take on—the one who will open Western doors for us. It will be. You wait and see.”

Someone knocked at the door. They had very few visitors. Captain Bhutia turned up once a month to spend the night in his private room. Hindu Nepalies turned up once in a while seeking his blessing. It was highly unusual for someone to disturb them after dark. Receiving a nod of silent approval from Swami Omkar, emmem got up and half opened the garden door. Dripping wet, Annette Blanc stood in front of him in a freezing fog, with a heavy rucksack on her back. In the moonlit translucence, she looked lovely, as if clad in fine wedding silk, a bride of the night come calling. Was this one of the Himalayan ghosts that he did not believe in? A chill came over him and he could not bring himself to move. For the first time in his life words escaped him. What does one say to a vision that could not possibly be real?

Swami rushed to the door with obvious excitement, gently pushing his disciple aside.

“Hello, lady, I have been waiting for you. Even this very instant I was telling my assistant that God was sending you to me.”

“Yes, master, I am the Radha and have come from afar to see you,” she said with dramatic effect. Swami asked him to take her things to the room adjoining the master's room. There was a flutter of excitement in the air. Now, with the necessary ingredients in place they could work miracles, Swami Omkar thought. Here at last was the nucleus. A mesmerized, spiritually awakened western world would gravitate towards this nucleus and begin to orbit around her. Had not Swami Omkar forseen it? It was to be his doing. Lord Siva, destroyer and creator—his will be done.

But Annette merely dabbled at spiritualism, she had come to India solely for a change of scenery. Enlightenment in the eastern sense had not been on her agenda. Yet curiosity had gotten the better of her. Hinduism was currently in vogue in western circles and she did not mind indulging in it when she was not otherwise distracted.

She wanted to have a few exquisitely exotic experiences to punctuate the passage of time. The religion part was really not important to her. Annette was on French leave from life in order to prepare for a new beginning. The dust and din of the chaos that is modern India was a welcome change of pace. Hers was a healthy mind unencumbered by inhibitions. She was flexible enough to squeeze into the opportunities that came her way. Nor did the existential rues that are part of modern day neurosis deter her. A conveniently tolerant attitude enabled her to indulge her voracious appetite for life sans difficulte, ergo her conscience was also on French leave.

Annette awoke to a sparkling, invigorating autumn morning. It was a pleasant experience—not like what she had undergone in the noisy India of the plains. She remembered being on the Ganges at Benares, where the old and feeble from distant parts of the country went to die. There, she had heard an elderly man braying away a melancholy worn-out song to amuse himself above the busy bathing ghat. That evening, she had walked to the crematorium on the river and seen the deceased fume and smolder into their elemental forms. The small ferry boats against the brown evening sun, the prayer lamps set afloat on the babbling river at night and the inexorable flux of ancient Indian life—so many noisy and boisterous commonplace Indian experiences had etched themselves deeply into her memory. Then she had gone to the Himalayan state to explore the rococo monasteries and the mysteries enshrouding them. Her Nepali guide had told her about Omkarananda Ashram and it had caught her imagination. It would no doubt put the finishing touches on her Indian journey. This would be something worth remembering. There was no dearth of spiritual men in India, and Annette had met many of them. They mutilated English (their French was even worse) and looked at her without batting an eyelid as if it was her fault that she could not understand them. According to her guide, Swami Omkarananda was a college professor who spoke perfect English. That had clicked it.

She yawned languidly. Her captivatingly curvaceous body was in its luscious prime—it rippled.

“Hey there. That's right, you!” she called out to the man she assumed was the servant. In over-simplified pidgin English supplemented with gesticulations she told emmem that her soiled clothes heaped up in the corner of the room were to be washed immediately. Then she gave him a list of the things she thought she needed—there were simply some things a lady like her could not do without—and asked him to go to the nearest town and fetch them for her. The self-styled Radha's performance amused him. She had taken him to be her handy boy. Why not play along? It might prove entertaining. This was nothing new to him. Once sir had asked him to accompany his wife to the hospital for her routine checkup. When the examination was over and they were leaving, the aging doctor had asked her in English, “So, madam, is this your latest house servant?”

She was embarrassed by the nature of the question. A younger man would have been loath to bring up the subject.

“He is my guardian angel,” she tried to explain.

“I would not put too much trust into one guardian angel. The dividing line between a devil and an angel is subtle and wafer thin. You would do well not to coddle your servants as they are apt to take advantage,” he advised in a fatherly manner.

There also emmem had been tactful enough to sit there blinking like a Telugu ignoramus who could not comprehend the language that was spoken by the elite. In retrospect, he had enjoyed putting one over on a pompous physician who was a relic of the time when lower caste people rarely got an education.

Swami Omkar altered his routine to keep Annette—the final and most essential ingredient of his recipe to market Hindu spiritualism to Westerners—amused. It was becoming increasingly obvious to emmem that the master was going out of his way to impress her. And, since the swami appeared to be game, Annette found it expedient to ask him everything and anything that she wanted to know. The answers were not particularly important to her, she just wanted to share the questions, and she paid more attention to attitude than to what was said. After all, we are but ourselves. And, despite being aware of our limitations, we strain to reach ideas and concepts which are beyond our ability to comprehend.

“What is the state of perfection?” she inquired, “you said we are obsessed with our wants and frailties. If perfection is the absence of needs, is death perfection? When we know everything there is to know, will that be perfection? Or, when we have had everything we desire to have in life, will that be perfection?”

Swami Omkar smiled with poise, as if indulging a small child.

“Read and meditate on the Upanishads, Radha,” the master advised, “so you will understand why ‘that is complete which is complete, and if you add completeness to completeness, completeness remains; and if you remove completeness from completeness, still completeness remains. Completeness is nothingness; when you remove nothingness from nothingness, nothingness remains; when you add nothingness to nothingness, nothingness still remains nothingness.’”

The answer was brilliant. She liked it. Swami Omkar was obviously a very learned man. She was fortunate to have him as her guide.

“When nothingness resolves itself into positive and negative extremities, imperfect beings that we are, we only perceive the positive side of nothingness. We are incomplete and imperfect because we only see half of what is going on. In order to be complete one must take into account the negative world. Heaven is completed when it fuses into hell. Seeking heaven is imperfection, settling for this nether world also is imperfection. We have no choice. Incompleteness is what we have to live with, breathe with, and die with.”

Some of what the master had said had gone over Annette's head. She hadn't spent much time thinking about what was and what wasn't. Nothing in her background had prepared her for a profound philosophical discussion. “You are brilliant, master. Indeed you are,” was the best she could come up with.

A shadow of sadness clouded Swami Omkar's train of thought. The concept was not really his. He had learned it during a discussion with his disciple.

“Then, master,” Annette was finding this interesting, “what is all this talk about om and what makes it so important to Eastern mysticism?”

“The Upanishads have the answer, Radha. The essence of Creation is earth; essence of earth is water; essence of water is vegetation; essence of vegetation is mankind; essence of mankind is sound; essence of sound is Rig veda; essence of Rig veda is Sama veda, essence of Sama veda is om. Thus, we prove that om is the essence of essences, and therefore it is the most exalted.

“In other words, earth and water trap life and energy in plants. Plants are the source of human existence. Man is his word, be it audible or inaudible. Om is the source and result of the marriage of rhythm and music. Om is the eternal will that creates and becomes the Creation. We merge into it when we escape the hemispheres of bipolar nothingness. Om is omniscience.”

He had her rapt, undivided attention. The Radha hung on his every word.

“How do we do that? Does the merging happen all by itself?” she inquired in wide-eyed wonder.

Om represents the eternal universal and supramundane consciousness. Our destination is brahma, the seminal essence of all, om is the bow and the arrow is our mind. The arrow loses itself in the target. So should you. This occurs by means of meditation and concentration.

“The wise among us never share the secrets of salvation, lest they be vandalized and profaned by those whose greed knows no limit—the stomachs on feet. Should they make an attempt, language fails them. The spirit gives the slip between cadaveric words.”

“The sounds mislead. The shadow of silence that encircles the words tells the truth,” she observed.

It was all so wonderful. She wondered if she had what it took to take it all in. Beautiful days came to pass, cool October days danced before them with the last of the flowers of the year. The black treetops below the snow line were sprinkled with fine snow in the mornings.

Familiarity did what it nearly always does, i.e. it bred contempt. When the obsequious match subsided into ennui, hard realities came to the fore. Swami Omkar pressured Annette with his harebrained plans for the future, most of which she detested. She did not actually snarl at him or bare her fangs at him, because that would cause a commotion. She much preferred to tease him with her feminine charms. Her geometrically perfect, surgically enhanced, outrageously opulent breasts, flashing across the flimsy translucent garb she had chosen to wear in the warmth of their privacy, had left him in doubt of his ability to maintain control. He would gulp and glue his eyes to the wooden flooring.

Swami Omkar was too simple for a woman like her. She could read him inside out because she had long ago found out that men are all the same everywhere throughout the world. The only thing that ever differed was that the vast majority of men have the primordial carnal drive while a few others diverted their energy into mental gamesmanship. Again, his boastfulness about his past glories irritated once it lost its freshness. It was not too difficult for her to diagnose that he was more an opportunist than a spiritualist.

“You should talk to my disciple. He knows a great deal,” Swami Omkar advised the self appointed Radha one day because he was getting tired of her probing his vulnerabilities.

“But how can I talk to him? You know I can't speak the local language,” she pleaded. “I only speak English and French.” When emmem talked to the master, it was always in Hindi. Also she was confused that he was his disciple and not his servant. As time went by, she had come to realize that she had to take care of herself and that the servant was not there to attend to her.

“My disciple speaks English almost as well as you do,” Swami Omkar quipped.

When emmem saw that his guru wanted to get to know Annette, he left them to themselves and made himself busy in the garden. It was wonderful to watch the buds and shoots grow as they flourished under his loving tender care. He had planted the garden in rows of lettuce, spinach, cabbage, radish, carrots and beans. Work seemed to be the best defense against the numbing cold. During midday lulls, he would often go into the woods for his regular bath in the stream and to collect the fruits, nuts, and leaves autumn offered to the occasional gatherer who could tell a herb from a weed.

“What else is he capable of doing apart from cooking, washing, and gardening?” Annette asked.

“Whether a religious promoter was a success or a failure depends on the angle from which you look at it. I have observed the careers of most of the current ones. Their true asset is not their benign, well intentioned ignorance alone, the quirk is in the subtle enhacements made by the person who interprets their messages to sceptical foreigners. That is what he does best. I have anointed him as Swami Prakasananda, but the name didn't seem to stick to him. It slipped away like a drop of water on a fresh lotus leaf. He has substance and depth; moreover, he will transmute my Hindi into visions pregnant with multiple meanings. You know I am not comfortable with English, whereas he is. He will make the language dance before you like a curvaceous lass. I will give my lectures in Hindi and my disciple will transmute them into 24 carat gold. That, Radha, is the foolproof business strategy I have in mind.”

She felt sorry for the self-centered flim-flam guru she had chosen to be her spiritual adviser. She did not want to be the Radha to an impotent opportunist. One of the truly deluding lies is that you love your beloved. In reality one only loves oneself.

Annette decided to play it safe by making sure that she didn't get too deeply involved in Swami Omkar's schemes. She remained non-committal, giving her guru the benefit of the doubt. But in the meantime, she began to take an interest in the disciple, a disciple who seemed to tower over the master. emmem intrigued her. He moved about like a tree projecting its shadow on a meadow, like a burst of breeze probing for gaps in the louvres of a window. emmem seemed too dignified to intentionally deceive someone. It was news to her that he spoke English. Swami had insisted on speaking in Hindi with him in order to monopolize her. Now it was in his interest to thrust her upon him. Through the window, she could see him working in the garden. His fingers were long and pointed, his hands were slender and his wiry frail body twisted and twirled in his threadbare flannel robe as he deftly wielded scythe and spade.

“That's why he is here,” she thought, “the man has no points to prove and couldn't care less about Swami Omkar's stupid scheme. I bet he's just like me, going with the flow until there is someplace better to go.”

Suddenly, like a startled colt emmem became alert. On edge, he stood listening to inaudible words. Then he floated into his room like a fish in water, disappearing into its pooling silence. He looked very thoughtful and concerned. Was there sorrow in his eyes? It was hard to tell from this distance. She wanted deperately to solve the enigma that was the disciple, but that would have to wait because he stayed in his room for the rest of the day.

Chapter 21
We go nowhere

Pakkaran was getting worried. It was raining outside and that slowed the traffic down. He had embarked on the first bus to Cochin from the village early in the morning. The St. George bus usually got to the city limits of Cochin before 10 AM when traffic is at its worst and gridlock occurs. Office workers and students pour onto the roads, headed for Cochin and desperately trying to get there on time. The hospital he was going to was located in the center of downtown Cochin. By the time he entered the fourteen story building, the rain had begun to pour down in earnest. The morning radio forecast had said that there was a cyclonic depression in the Bay of Bengal. The patient he wanted to visit was in the intensive care unit where entry was restricted. Anna, Molly and Anthony were there in the waiting room outside the double doors. Anna looked pale and famished, Molly was excited, and Anthony sat at a distance lost in thought. He had gone through all of the money he had saved over the years for Lucy's marriage. For the hospital to continue the first class treatment he would have to come up with another fifty thousand rupees. And, should something else go wrong, the hospital might demand even more. He thought of going home immediately to mortgage his little tract of land. Since he could not afford to make the payments, he would have to sell it when this was over.

Even while praying repeatedly “Our Father who art in heaven” and “Hail Mary full of grace,” Anna was frantically sorting out her future. Should anything happen to Lucy a great covenant she had with God will run out into impertinence. 'Should anything happen' is a euphemism. They were all resigned to the reality. Long months in various hospitals, painfully waiting outside the closed doors of the ward, knowing death was at the doorstep, having to pawn all of their personal possessions—what could they have possibly done to deserve this? Was God testing her? When would the nightmare end? Anna realized that time was not magnanimous to her. It did not give her anything she could rely on, taking away from her whatever little she had to equate her dignity with. Still she was happy that they did not seek the help of Lucy's biological mother and her affluent relations to treat her. It was her precious vengeance, though fortune ignored her, she was not compromising her dignity and integrity. Lucy was one of the crosses God had entrusted to her. She carried it to the last, she had kept her promise to God. She was washing the sins of the biological mother in her own sweat, blood and tears.

A great question loomed, what would Anna choose to do with the rest of her life after she layed Lucy to rest? Molly has her husband and family and Yohannan, if he is still in the world of the living, has his uppity trophy wife. Only Anna and Anthony stand at the losing end of the game. The burden of supporting the family was borne solely by Anthony; he has no life of his own. Poor boy, if she had had the money to send him to college after he graduated from high school, how very different it would have been. Precocious he was. The sad side of it is that he does not even blame anybody for all the trouble he has been put to. Once Lucy becomes a sad and pernicious memory, in all probability he will slacken up. His prospects do not appeal to him. Her son was not inclined to get married, and Anna was not about to nag him into it. It would not solve anything. It would only prolong his ordeal and ramify his problems.

Anna wanted to avoid having her son take care of her in her declining years. She will not encumber him with her senile dependency. But she was not all that ancient, as she was still in her fifties. And five decades of wear and tear had not done that much damage to her body. Her people aged late. After Lucy was gone, Anna wanted to start anew. She would serve God, after having served man for half a century. She was a scapegoat. From the tender age of five she had been living a stilted, sequestered life, washing, cooking and cleaning for others. Starving and praying, praying to a God who loved suffering. Then at twenty she was married away to a strange man who squandered her. Now that the fetters were gone, she was going to be on her own. Anthony was very aloof; she had no idea what was going through his head. But she knew that she could not be comfortable with him. The most practical option was to serve God. Praying, serving the sick and needy, mitigating the misery of those more miserable than her. Hers was a very soft motherly mind, enjoying the good pain of giving, reveling in the sweet unity of sharing. She was intending to go to Maruthoor Meditation Center. Thousands go there to smooth the ruffled mind and to complete the last leg of their pilgrimage on earth. A living, loving God stretches out His redeeming hand and washes the sins of the contrite and tearful devotees. Yes, Maruthoor would be her final destination.

Pakkaran appeared before them in his dusky enthusiasm. He was a little man with a stealthful wiry body. In spite of all the torture and abuse the police had wreaked upon him over the years, he was still in the pink of health.

“You thought I was in the fortress of Ravana. Lucky for you, they let me out of prison and a mutual acquaintance told me where to find you,” Pakkaran congratulated himself.

They felt a slight relief to see somebody from the village. Seeing Pakkaran was better than seeing nobody at all. Could be he wasn't as heartless as he seemed to be.

“It is raining outside. How is she?” Pakkaran wanted to know.

“Lucy is still in a coma, we are praying for her,” Anna said, showing Pakkaran her Rosary.

“My conscience told me that I should be here, and here I am.”

“Thank you,” Anthony said with his face brightening up.

Pakkaran sat on a chair adjoining theirs. Anthony thought that it was a good omen that Pakkaran had turned up. He was not all bad, and in fact was very helpful to the needy. Although a despicable person to the sentinels of morality, he had been there for them when he was needed. Molly tried her best to paste a smile on her pleasingly plump face, then shot a what's-up-with-you? look at Anthony to attract his attention, but Anthony was lost in thought.

“That simpleton brother of mine is too stupid to read the undercurrents,” she thought bitterly. Pakkaran is scum; he wants to plant his parasitic seed in fair-skinned women, but her gullible brother was too dumb to recognize it. That filthy demon uses his ill-gotten loot to tempt good people like us. Pakkaran was not going, he was making himself at home, smoking his acrid smelling beedi, impudently unmindful of others. That black, ogling savage, she fumed, why won't he leave us alone in our time of sorrow?

She wanted to sit in the chair next to Anthony, but the lecherous creep had already parked his tush there. That cunning bootlegger must know I am onto his scheme. Molly had to warn Anthony about Pakkaran and she knew she had to do it fast.

“Oh, Anthony, look we forgot something, please come here,” she invited Anthony to sit in the chair next to her.

“What is it?” Anthony asked, disinterested in what she had to say. He didn't feel like getting up, but out of respect he went over and sat next to Molly.

“Tell that criminal to get lost. We do not want someone like Pakkaran hanging around at a time like this. Please, Anthony, you are our protector,” she pleaded. “Get rid of him. He makes me sick.”

“Why he came all the way here for Lucy's sake. Not a single Christian Good Samaritan bothered to come, but he did. I cannot drive him away. Pakkaran is all we have right now.”

Molly pouted as she sat there feeling slighted and wounded.

“When will you right the wrongs of the world, Saint Antony?” Molly muttered bitterly. Then she turned to a more pleasant distraction—St. Antony and his shrine. St. Antony was the most popular saint among women. His novena is flooded with tears. Feminine sighs from elusive marriage prospects, from the dear hopes of a job in the city, from the cherished hopes of escaping the muffled sorrows at home. School girls scribbled three letters on top of every page of their notebooks, and on passionate letters penned to their dear ones: SAG (St. Antony is the guide).

Pakkaran stood up and said, “Actually, I better hurry. I have some other business in the city. Before it gets late I must catch the bus to Palai. Don't worry I will be around in case of …”

He went to the door and turned to Anthony, asking him to walk with him to the hallway. Molly sniggered and flapped the tail of her sari around her over the shoulder, double covering her bosom. Anthony followed Pakkaran out. They were on the tenth floor. Pakkaran said that he was more comfortable using the stairs and was not going to wait for the elevator.

“Don't come with me all the way down to the first floor,” he told Anthony when they came to the staircase. “You have to stay close in case Lucy needs you. I wish I could stay a while longer, but I have some business to attend to which cannot wait. But don't worry, I am definitely on your side. This day is crucial for Lucy and for all of us. I know it because this morning Sree Narayana Guru's venerated picture fell off the wall and shattered on the floor for no apparent reason. Then I knew something was going to happen to somebody that I cared about and I thought of you and Lucy. Straight away I came here to see you.”

“That is so very kind and considerate of you,” Anthony was deeply moved.

“Now look, you need money. It is the only language these Shylocks will understand. Do not say anything, do not object, just obey me. For now, I am the boss.” Pakkaran pulled out five thick wads of currency notes and pushed them into Anthony's hand.

“No thanks, Pakkaran, I have money.” Anthony boasted.

“Yes, I know, But this is not my money, it is God's money,” Pakkaran asserted, “I am just the inert conduit. Money flows to me easily and God wants me to share it with the needy. So don't prick your fragile conscience, I did not sweat and fret for this money. We are but a puff of breath. We do what we can for our friends because we can't take our money with us when we die.”

Before Anthony could say or do anything Pakkaran flitted down several steps and suddenly stopped. Anthony was still standing there, transfixed, staring at the money in his hand.

Pakkaran darted back to his friend. “Here is something more, in case of emergency. Nobody cares if you live or die in this concrete jungle.” He opened his handbag and fished out a handful of gold coins. “This is yours straight from God,” he said as he thrust the coins into Anthony's hand and disappeared. When it dawned on him that he was all alone in the world, Anthony examined the coins pinching and clinking in his calloused hand. Exactly the same type of coins God had gifted to Molly's child, the very same seal and the same size and mintmark. He wondered about the ways of God, He has wonderful ways to help out the helpless. God is very much around amidst the wretches, amidst the good people languishing in poverty. God encourages them with His little miracles, with His careful wonders of care. Had it not been for them—the depressed and the humiliated—there would be no worshippers and God Himself would have long ago become destitute.

In a hurry, Anthony ran down and caught hold of Pakkaran who was casually going down the spiraling steps. He seized him by the shoulder. Surprised, Pakkaran turned back.

“Pakkaran, tell me the truth, why do you do this for us, why do you do this for my Lucy?”

Pakkaran looked deep into Anthony's eyes. There was pain, condensing pain, in his black eyes.

“I do this to you,” he said cautiously and softly like a prayer, “I do this for you, I mean, I do this for Lucy because...,” again he hesitated, “because she is the queen of my dreams.”

Pakkaran had half expected Lucy's big brother to throw him down the stairs. Anthony stood silently and helplessly. He said and did nothing, but Anthony looked so very sorrowful and there was pain in his eyes. Pakkaran disappeared in a flash, making an effort to melt into the crowd as soon as he reached the street.

Anthony went back to join his mother and sister. They didn't ask him anything and he mostly stayed to himself.

Then a stranger approached them. He was an elderly man, black and clean-shaven, wearing a dhouti and flowing white shirt. There was a remarkable serenity on his face. He gestured to them as if simply passing by, then seeming to think better of it, turned towards Anna and introduced himself.

“I am Mathai, the humble servant of God,” he said while bowing his head. “I visit with the sick, the dispirited, and all the hapless ones who were left behind and abandoned in the mad race to gain material possessions that supposedly prove our worth. Now, kindly tell me who is inside, my sister or my brother? I am going to pray to God Almighty for his/her deliverance.”

Mathai looked at them.

“She is my sister, she failed to recover from a coma following brain surgery.” Anthony said.

“Was it a brain tumor?”

“Yes,” Anthony nodded.

“God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. He knows what you want before you ask, nor is He stingy with His miracles. Have faith. If you believe He will do it, then it will happen. Praise His grace; you will rise from the depths of despair.”

“Who ordained you unto this ministry?” Anthony asked with all due respect.

Mathai sat on a chair and willingly told them his story. It was an easy task for him because he did it many times a day.

“I was a lineman with the Kerala State Electricity Board. You know what kind of people we are like if you happen to have electricity in your village. I virtually held the whole village of Palamthode as hostage. We linemen are just like the policemen, in that people fear us and loathe us, but they have to pamper us and appease us. Their light and sound was at my mercy, I knew it and exploited the situation to the hilt. People vied to get in good with me. I didn't even have to ask for booze, the villagers knew my preferences and supplied me with more than one man could drink. The country made illicit liquor was the very best, it would burn into bristling psychological worries. A devil incarnate indeed I was. I would cut the power supply to someplace if I even suspected my subjects were not paying me proper homage. When I needed money, I used the same trick and people would come running, swearing their allegiance and asking me if there was anything they could do for me. My government salary was barely enough to pay my rent, but I lived like a rajah on the bribes I forcefully exacted from my fiefdom.

“Hell begins where desires are met and God begins where desires are set. Do not confuse greed with need. I got married at an early age. I married the best woman in town. This prime specimen of the female gender belonged to the Syrian aristocracy—she was fair of skin, docile and submissive. Her family would never permit her to marry a lower class dark skinned man like me. But I needed the best woman in Kerala to fill my bed. I took by force what they would not give me in marriage. First I wormed my way into her heart—I was well versed in that art, i.e. the art of seducing a woman. Then I took her. Believe me, it was almost as dangerous and much more pleasurable than working on a high voltage wire. One night is enough; you take her virginity by hook or crook and she is forevermore yours. Her family will disown her, especially if she walks out on them for your sake. Joining the leftist trade union movement was an invincible shield. Nobody can touch you. Even the department cannot scare you with their specter of discipline. Not many administrators would dare to fire an employee who belongs to a revolutionary trade union. So, I married my lady come what may, daring her brothers to do something about it. God had crafted a beautiful woman and I made her into a dutiful woman.

“ Yes, she was a most trusting, dutiful woman. She loved me heart and soul. Even in the later years of our dysfunctional marriage, she continued to search for something—albeit small as a mustard seed—to love about me. My mission was accomplished. I had managed to successfully tempt her down to my level. So far as I was concerned, the rest was up to her if she desired to make better of it. After a few months of paying attention to her, I dutifully reverted to my customary boozing binges. It did not happen overnight. I took a drink, the drink took a drink, and the drink called for another drink. She was too scared, too docile to lure me away from my alcoholic escapades. I was my own master, the entire village was at my feet, begging me for favors, bribing me with bacchanalian delights. We did not improve in life. We did not have a house of our own, a rented house was enough. She longed to have a house of our own, which never happened. In the meantime I made three children in her in quick succession. She starved—my children starved. I slept in the gutters, pissing my life away.

“I can see the abhorrence in your eyes. Yes, I deserve it dear people. Since I was evil, I deserve nothing better. She was forced to sell the few possessions she had in order to keep the children alive. She sold her blood, or so I was told later, to buy food for our three children. I made her miserable, but she never complained. My wife was too proud to seek help from her family. Nobody knew what was going on between us. My drinking problem grew worse. One day our younger child was laid up with fever. There was no money at home. I went out to get arak and told them that I would be back later that night with money and medicine. Then I went on a binge and forgot all about my responsibilities. Oh God, I did not mean to hurt them. On the third day, I stumbled out of my dingy office—entangled in copper wire, fuses, and insulators. I went to my house in a drunken stupor. Then I saw them in a haze, dead all of them. She had killed the children before taking her own life. It is not news anymore because it happens so often—a disenchanted mother decides to end the pain and suffering by committing suicide en famille. My wife left behind a note for me or perhaps for the entire world to read. It said: ‘I cannot bear it any more, may God forgive me.’

“ How very gentle she was. May God forgive us all, including abusive, subhuman alcoholics like me. Women cursed me with all their might invoking intervention and retribution from the heavenly powers above. My foul mouth readily repaid them in full. I trounced them with stinging gutter language. Somebody hit me over the head with an empty whisky bottle and I blacked out. As soon as I regained conciousness, I had to have a drink. I tried to stop, but no sooner did I recover than I went back to drinking. I drank as if I had a hollow leg that needed refilling. Finally, one morning I could not get up and knew it wasn't just another hangover. Someone dragged me to the government hospital. The doctors told me I was going to die. They diagnosed that I had irrevocably damaged my liver and kidneys. Cirrhosis of the liver and a bladder infection had done me in. Nobody went looking for me. The subjects in my unchallenged fiefdom no doubt felt relieved. They fervently prayed for my speedy death.

“God willed otherwise. He would seek out the missing lamb. I had no prayers. I tried to remember the crumbs of prayers she used to say at night, but it failed. Then I said my silent prayers. I promised God that I would pay dearly for all that I had perpetrated in my past life, that I would pay with every second of the remains of my life. On my deathbed, I repented and begged forgiveness from everyone who had been dear to me, most of all I sought forgiveness from Our Savior, Jesus Christ. When others had shunned me and written me off as an embarrassing encumbrance, Jesus came to me and saved me. He saved me, the lowest of all beings. He whisked me around the horrors of medical science; He protected me from the runaway cell divisions in the lower region of my alimentary canal; He regenerated my degraded liver cells. I walked out on the appalled looks of the medics with a challenging, albeit humble mission, i.e. the mission of the ancient mariner.”

“After ravaging the lives of those who relied upon you, now it is your ambition to steal into the good books of the Lord?” Anthony asked incredulously.

Anthony looked at him pleadingly with a look that said: ‘Say it ain't so!

“No, my friend, I cannot go on being a degenerate because I'm not in control. I don't want free will. Nor do I seek a heavenly reward to compensate my suffering. I don't expect anything nor do I have much to lose. Death, where is thy sting? Salvation is not a solution, dissolution is. I lose myself in Him. I visit the losers, loners, the terminal cases, the sinners. I visit all of the miserable people, people who are unfortunate of their own or on some other's account. I share the love of God with them. I get a little pension from the Electric Board, it is more than enough for me. I help people the only way I know how, I pray for them. My life is mine by lease, God owns me and unto God I shall return. His work I do, and will keep doing it until He tells me otherwise. Thus, I merge unto Him. I go to my village, I travel to all villages and tell the people about the love of God. I work for free. You might say I fix electrical problems. All of us will fuse into God, we are one. With prayers and tears I pay for my lapses of the past. My life, my bread, my health, my days, they are all His gifts and I use them to allay the misery of my fellow man. When I come across an abusive parent, I remember how my little ones starved and died. Suffering women remind me of my angelic wife. I am the humble servant of God and it is my duty—nay, my God given mission—to serve mankind and I will keep on serving to my dying breath. God alone knows when. I have faith. I believe in Almighty God. Therefore, I do not fear death.”

An uneasy silence settled over the room. Moisture glistened in the eyes of those who listened.

“Now will you permit me to pray for my dear sister who is struggling valiantly behind closed doors.”

“No mortal would dare interfere with a divine mission,” Anthony declared. In an instant they were on their feet—the women pulled the tail of their saris over their heads.

“His will is supreme. We can only watch and pray,” Mathai said as he opened his Bible. He read several verses, thrust his arms towards heaven, and beseeched the Lord for Lucy's deliverance. He said an impromptu prayer which brought tears to Anna's eyes. When Mathai concluded the prayer with an “Amen,” all of them made the sign of the cross. The head nurse entered the room, made a notation on Lucy's chart, and put her arm around Anna before leaving them alone with their sorrows. From somewhere in the distance, there came a barely audible, lone peal of thunder, followed by an all-encompassing silence.

“God bless one and all. May He return this dearly beloved daughter to her mother. Praise the Lord, for He works in mysterious ways,” Mathai declared as he exited the doorway, returning from whence he came, spreading the fragrance of the love of God. You become what you believe.

Lucy found herself hovering over her body, a body connected to various imported, cutting-edge electronic instruments, all the while monitoring her functions with annoying beeps and squeaks. Lucy's head was packed into a ball with white cotton gauze. A tired nurse was dozing nearby, comfortably oblivious of the vociferous protests made by the electronic devices. Intensive care is a hoax, it fleeces your family of their life savings and leaves you to die in isolation, beeping and squeaking, trapped within an impressive array of wires and ogling devices. The young nurse that was assigned to attend to the patient is herself impatient because the patient is taking too long to die. Although Lucy desperately needs her mother and brother, neither are at bedside because the doctors consider them useless and have banished them to a waiting room. She is lying there, limply bundled in white bunting, isolated from family and friends. All that remains of our Lucy is the husk.

But then, where is emmem? His mere presence would have made a tremendous difference. Hadn't he promised to turn up when needed? “Where are you emmem?” Lucy bleated. She had no sooner asked then as if by magic, emmem appeared. Sputtering in and out, emmem slowly materialized, floating next to Lucy in his dingy old flannels and smiling his usual sub zero smile.

“I came right on time to see you off,” emmem said.

“I am happy that you came. For among the whole of humanity, I wanted you here with me when I go.”

It is tragic that we find ourselves dismally alone in the moments that most matter in our lives—alone amidst the simmering multitude.

“Here I am Lucy with all the good wishes of a fellow mortal.”

“Where do you think I go, where do you think we go one day or the other?”

“Where do we go? If it we knew that, imagine how different the world would be. Maybe we would even find a way to take our material possessions with us—not really, but there would be some who would try. From the very first day of civilization we have been asking ourselves and each other the same question: quo vadis? If only I had a foolproof answer. Actually, I fondly hold the view that we go nowhere. We are here, if we are not in the net we are in the lake. Although we cannot go elsewhere, we slip into adjacent slots between which there is no communication. We have a congenital nostalgia and pine for a hypothetical paradise. Paradise lies where knowledge dies.”

“Do you think Babu will come to get me? If he comes to collect me in his arms, I won't mind going.”

“Your will is the word. If you long for his presence he will come to you. They that slip past the deluding tapestry of time never return to tell the tale and even if they do in different garbs, amnesia stands in the way.”

“How long do we languish in Limbo, and what purpose does it serve?”

“If only I had an answer! All time bound matters have an end. Creation took awhile, Creation progressed through time. Hence, it has an end. It ends with time. But when will that be? Who can predict with certainty when time is going to run out? But I would rather put it this way, the Creator and Creation will eventually collapse into each other and only a dormant will shall remain.”

“So there is no meaning to the fond refrain, ‘until we meet beyond the shining river.’”

“Time flies; from a single starting point time radiates in every direction towards infinity. Are you insinuating that there is no God, no Creator? Then who flung grains of dust into the black infinity? We are not yet privy to such secrets. When cosmic bodies dissolve, all that remains is empty space; but when space dissolves, what will be left? When the opposing polarities flunk into nullity, the unity will remain. And the unity will be a nothingness. So the shining river and the mysterious place beyond where we shall meet, will be the brief interregnum within the transient space-time-energy parameters.”

“Is it the will of the primordial cell, the will of the single point, that it should expand into the delusion of time and space and then fall back into the dimensionless reality?” asked Lucy.

“Certainly, there does exist a will, and your will will persist. Death cannot smother your will. That part of you will go on and on forever,” emmem reassured her, “the force that we refer to as ‘will’ is your essence, which after death is no longer restricted by artificial boundaries and can therefore accomplish that which could not be accomplished in this life. Your sorrows are not yours alone, they belong to the whole canvass of life. We inadvertently stray into loneliness and isolation and then pray for unity. Every particle of life that goes astray is sad because it suffers from not being nurtured by the whole. There is only one flower and it repeats itself in various places, times, and forms. Life flowers again and again, endlessly repeating, but there is only one life. Wholeness, Completeness, Oneness, Unity—call it what you will—it is the force that drives the universe. ”

“Are you pleased that you are?”

“We are condemned because we know, so says Taoism. And the Bible says that Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden because they ate the fruit of Knowledge. To know that you are and to wonder what life is, is what gets you in trouble.”

“Before my time runs out tell me more about the nonsense of nothingness,” Lucy pleaded, hovering a bit closer to emmem.

“Word defines the world. The wide, wide void, too. We have to go beyond words. We veer nearer to reality when we are on the plain of silence. Given that nothingness is an exoteric experience, it is surprising that we tend to avoid it and it would seem that we much prefer to labor. Expressed mathematically, nothing, i.e. the absence of things, is zero. Zero multiplied by any number is zero. ax2+ bx +c is not equal to zero. Zero is effulgence, completeness, stoic, impenetrable completeness. Zero stands alone because the values on either side of zero cancel each other and collapse into zero. When a 365 exists a –365 also exists. No sooner do all magnitudes collapse, then the phony phantasmagoria projected on the flimsy veil of wisdom ceases to be. 0 is perfect and different ax2+ bx +c is complication. 0=0. log 1 is complication.” Sensing that Lucy did not have much longer, her friend and mentor, emmem was summing up the scheme of things for her, that she might not fear death. In fact death is a beautiful thing. Death is but a segue to what lies beyond.

“Our soul looks forward to a trembling fusion that takes our incompleteness from us.”

“Every drop of water longs for its share of salt. It gathers dirt to fill its emptiness. At long last, after many cycles of evaporation and condensation the drop of water reaches the ocean and claims its share of salt.”

“The salt of life?”

“Yes, the salt of life, which is conservative even across biogeochemical stoichiometry.” Emmem's throat was dry from doing so much talking. He looked around for some water but the plastic pitcher on the tray beside the bed was empty. emmem moistened his lips with his tongue and continued, “The technical details are of no consequence to a layman like myself. If there is anything important, it is that we should bow to the primordial will, subjecting our individual wills to the collective will. Then at last we will have the final consolation of fusing into one. The essential things we need to know are not to be sought afar. This memory is already in our head buried deep within our cerebellum, our collective experiences as a species, i.e. the sum instinctual total of human knowledge. Unfortunately, no sooner do we remember than we forget. This memory can only be accessed when needed and is not readily available to philosophical inquiry.”

“I am very religious, my people are all religious. Is this part of accepted standard theology?”

“The divine spirit is trapped in a human body. The Messiah from Judea and the subsequent obscurantist clergy cut a sad figure. You cannot save somebody who is at home with his state. God is a question humanity is troubled by. God in the manger or dog in the manger—in any case the world is in danger. But even with out a messianic fury the world will run its course. Faith is true as long as faith exists. Faith becomes ludicrously fallacious and empty when the church circumvents the gospel truth. The feverish man experiences the world in many ways different from a normal man. We create the world with our experiences, and we recreate it each and every day. You have to have faith, faith in anything, it helps us act out our life with a passion and a reason. I cannot challenge your faith, or anybody else's faith. Every faith is equally mistaken and unfathomable. You must seek the one that will assist you in merging with the ONE, because for you there is only one faith that will do the job right. Man is certainly different; he asks questions of himself and of the unknown, frequently pulling the answers out of thin air. But then, we are civilized men—when all else fails, we can obtain answers by means of scientific methods. Civilization wipes out the uncertainties and hones up the certainties oblivious to the all-encompassing certainty that underscores uncompromising time. The world lasts for only a celestial yawn. BrahmaⳠone day is as long as a thousand human eons. When his day begins, the world comes into being and when he closes his eyes, the world ceases to be.”

“Come, let's go stand by the windowsill, and watch the city below.” They stood at the tinted glass window and looked out into the open. It was still raining. The city opened out to them to the north where there were tiny houses with red tile roofs. Nearby were tall skyscrapers growing to the heavens. But the structures appeared to fade away into the rainy haze further north. Far below on a congested four lane thoroughfare cars honked and revved. The roads were crowded with impatient motorists. The roads gasped for breath. They were busily burning away the petroleum products that came at great price from the Persian Gulf; they burn away the fossil fuels bought with contract labor—tribute paid to the emirs of the Persian Gulf. No wonder they curse each other in the stifling urban heat.

“I love this rain, this landscape. Sweet rain, almost as if the heavens were nursing the parched earth. In college I used to watch rains from the casement of my hostel room. I romanced it in my mountain home,” she said. Rain strained in pain against the windowpane like a lap dog that had been refused entry.

“This rain soaked country is so very beautiful,” he reaffirmed Lucy's opinion of the view.

“You should have seen the place where we lived in the eastern highlands—talk about being beautiful. It's a pity I won't be around to watch it again. The rains at night wailing at our doorstep. The silver strings of rains directing the dancing leaves. The nimble feet of rain making concentric circles on the water surface.”

“Then go, if you must go, with a satisfied mind; do not leave behind any accounts that have to be settled. We do not want to lose at the end of the day. So stare straight into the storm of strife and smile. We alone among Creation are pestered by ineffable doubts. Other species enjoy life because they never think about how it is going to end. We share the same sun, wind and rain; we feel the same pain, and yet we alone are different. That is why we cannot be as happy as they are.”

“Yes, I have no accounts to settle. I was never at ease in this world. No more will I worry about morrows and the sorrows they are saturated with. Like the marsupials, we carry our future with us,” Lucy postulated.

“We are earthen lamps flung into this world, across the trajectory. When the lamp tumbles and crumbles, where does the flame go? It chutes into the world without, into unfeeling nothingness. Death is dissolution, birth is separation and ignorance rules the roost in between. We become meaningless and absurd when we are happy.”

“Now, tell me, do you ever pray? I know it is rather personal,” admitted Lucy, “I am asking you this because it is going to be a long time before we meet again.”

“I do at times,” he said, “I am a puff of wind, push me where you will, I am a piece of mind, unwind me when you will. That is pretty much how I pray—when the situation calls for it—but most of the time my prayers are punctuated by long silences during which I leave the gods alone. Like the eye of the storm, there is a deep ravine of silence in the thick of our inner commotion. You pray as a prey as the case may be, but the reality is that you are the predator—a poseur at prayer, i.e. a wolf in lamb's clothing fleecing no one but yourself. Prayer generally is an expression of our vulnerabilities.

“Solomon prayed to Jehovah for an understanding heart that he might be a better judge of his fellow man and be able to discern good from evil. He did not pray for long life or great wealth and neither should you. Praying for material wealth is an abomination. Be grateful for what you have—pray for the poor, the hungry, and the destitute. Be the good person that you want others to be.”

“On looking back what do you think life is?”

“It is all experience and perception. I would rather say that life is a harmony of secretions and death is the final excretion. Civilizations perish in their own excreta and so does life. But death knows no discretion. The past is a vast empire transcending numerous existences and corridors that were left behind. Each individual is perched on the tip of an enormous iceberg of his past existences reaching out to the aphotic benthic mysteries. You cease to be along with your perch. Without you, your past and future collapse and cease to be.”

“Also I would like to add that the greatest challenge in life is to live life with dignity. Life is a biochemical tool to try out an idea and culture is a geopolitical tool to try out a doctrine. Life is a game filled with infinite possibilities. But no matter which way you go, the end result will be the same. We all die, it is simply a question of when.”

“It all sounds so melodramatic. I suppose I will have to endure having my entire life flash before my eyes at the time of my death. Really, there are some things in my past that are better left forgotten. Did I hear you say that life was a brief interregnum between two uncompromising infinities? That's not the way Moses describes life in the Bible, is it? Does that mean that you do not believe in the Scriptures?”

“Scriptural ambiguities offer enough space for religious acrobatics. Personally I do not subscribe to them. Yet, it is part of our cultural heritage. Believing in it or not believing in it does not make much of a change in the final result. It puts some fears and constraints in our life. Also, it decides the philosophy of our social commensalisms.”

“Thank you, my friend and mentor, for coming to me when I needed you most. You will forever be special to me. I know you are very much right, always right. I have become a much better person due to your influence.”

“You do not have to be bright to be right, nor do you need to be sane to be right. Hitler, too, was right. You could be right as rain and still be insane. Everyone is right at least some of the time. If you place bets on all of the outcomes in a given event, you are bound to get one of them right. And the fools who give no thought to how they place their bets have the Law of Averages to thank for any that turn out right.” emmem asserted.

“We suffer alone. But our suffering does not go unnoticed.”

“Your faith is your lathe, it crafts your amorphous life to stereotyped shapes.”

“Have we been true to ourselves in the way that we lived our lives?”

“We seek our share of the sun in order to blossom and die—then, and only then can we die a reasonable death,” emmem whispered. “You and I enjoyed our days in the sun. You and I were late bloomers. We were wise to wait for the last of the rays; likewise, it would be wise for us to take our leave now that the race is over.”

“So thank you once again. Until we meet on the faraway mysterious shores, if there is such a shore. But I would rather have breathed my last at home free from all these costly electronic gadgets.”

“Life repeats for no reason whatsoever. It makes no sense. Why all of this pain? Tell me I won't ever have to go through this again. If God loves me so much, why doesn't He leave me alone? I know He means well but it doesn't feel that way,” Lucy said flatly.

“Nothing is repeated in this world—not even birth and death. It is our choices that cause things to happen to us and each is spatially and temporally unique, i.e. it is one of a kind.”

“These expensive foreign machines thirst for their daily dose of human victims. People cannot afford to be sick, nor can the hospitals afford for them to be healthy. These infernal machines have instilled the fear of death in me. I put my faith in God and have little use for machines.”

“You are going to die anyway, but these instruments may prolong the agony for a while. And it requires so much infrastructure, emmem commented authoritatively, “it's too bad that greedy, unethical hospital administrators are allowed to scam the bereaved family members of patients when they are most vulnerable. Corporate criminals deserve public executions. Anyway, you passed through the invisible barrier that seperates this world from the next. You will no longer be tortured by overpaid witch doctors. Beings are composed of stored energy that wants to escape. The flow of energy downslope is the nature of entropy. Throughout our lives, we always wonder but never know which page of life holds the full stop of our ungrammatical sentence. However, now you have passed the point of no return and will not be bothered by these questions. The rest is irrelevant. Have a pleasant and peaceful existence in the imperceptible parallel universe which lies within the living world. Until we meet again on the other side, goodbye sweet Lucy. There is no promise, no big deal. Can people bond and make the relationship last more than a lifetime, perhaps forever? Can you eat your fill and feel full forever? There are no further questions to ask; we float and melt much like an iceberg cast adrift on the sea. Adieu, mon ami, for mortal we be. The one thing of which we are sure is that there is no cure for what ails us—yet we shall not perish in vain. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Thunder pealed close by. The nurse was startled awake from a deep slumber to find that the machines were in a panic. Machines diagnose and decide the time of your death. But you die with your imagination.

Lucy felt immensely relieved that it was all over.

Chapter 22
The Promise

For the rugged woodlanders of the Himalayas, fern shoots are a cherished delicacy. Soon after the snow starts to melt in late autumn, they are seen aplenty in the cold water bogs that serve as the source of the streams, succulent, fleshy, helical and olive green. The local barter economy has a crude autonomous character with its fruits, nuts, roots, tubers, and hydrologic cycle. By maintaining a delicate balance between the trophic strata of the biotic pyramid nature sees to it that this year's new growth does not choke out any vegetation that is already established. And the village farmer, by far, suffers from an Oedipus complex. Nature becomes his mother and also his field of procreation and recreation. The seeds of his dreams find expression in the fecundity of Mother Nature. And the fate that he thought he had been giving the slip, meets him head on in the field of his rapturous creativity.

emmem snapped the stems systematically at the bottom and bundled them into a neat heap. Then he waded into the middle of the breathtaking ice cold stream and sat on a rock to wash his clothes. Crystal clear water merrily fleeted past the smooth, rounded rock, then tumbled into a hole downstream, where it assumed an exotic sky-blue hue. In the blue-black clumps of chestnut trees, protein-rich nuts were beginning to form. One had to wait for noon for the sun to shine on this particular wet and mossy V-groove ravine.

The asram was at the top of a steep hill. When seen from the stream in the V-groove ravine, the mountains, above and around, stood out like challenging ramparts. But seldom had the challenge been taken. There is no better security than to be hemmed in by the highest mountains in the world. Having led a rather peaceful existence for thousands of years, they had long ago beat their swords into plowshares. Geography has always played a dynamic role in the evolution of distinct civilizations. To a lesser measure, it influenced individual lives too. Geography can be either a possibility or a limitation. Isolated civilizations are necessarily rooted in the soil and nature. The towering Himalayas offered people a verdant platform to dwell on their long-term spiritual goals in relative security. What better way to insulate people from the false notion of time? Einstein had later proved that time was relative, but Western social scientists failed to get the message, i.e. time is no more a constant than the earth is flat. Time rolls, reels, and swoons with the choking dust and alarming commotion of the unwieldy and amorphous urban agglomerations of the Indian plains. People tend to go mad after being boiled in their own juices and it is hardly surprising that the largest cities have become raving madhouses. Yes, much of India is still trying to beat time. In complete disregard for their cultural history, they strain and struggle to catch up with Western civilization. Ultimately, this terrible illusion of time will waft away and eternity alone will remain. If one must trade, why not take stock in durable, luxury commodities that cannot lose value like the silence of the hills, the warble of the rills, the swaying boughs in the waltzing breeze, the mossy walls of the stream, and the tunnel vision of the promising blue infinity from the deep riparian hollow? In this manner man himself can become an elemental and unassuming part of effulgent eternity. Better to be what we are than what others would have us be. Global warming and globalization will be the death of us.

When you get pushed to the periphery of mainstream social procession, your inner chaos itches to prove that you are, and that the world around acknowledges that you are. Every man is an unrepentant imperialist. He longs for an empire of his own with vassals and a harem. Instinct and testosterone motivate men to be manly, i.e. they take what they want by force—the biggest ape dominates. Life is violent—its survival mechanism is violent. Thomas Hobbes, an early Western materialist philosopher, declares that in our natural state we grab what we can get—conflict is inevitable. First you struggle to survive, then you struggle to survive with dignity and after that you struggle to survive at the expense of others. Regardless of what you think of it, this is the way of the world. This embarrassingly true and most basic instinct of man shows up in different gaudy garbs. Social life is a high-strung equilibrium by which violence is held in check. Alexander Selkirk was miserable because he was the emperor of all that he surveyed. He had none to acknowledge his suzerainty. Deafening silence had stolen his thunder.

Two imperialist powers cannot coexist. Carthago delenda est, Carthage must be destroyed. When Carthage fell, the enemy without opened shop within. When Macedonia simpered, the world whimpered.

The cunning beast in you must be banished in order to relieve the stress that results from worrying about materialistic concerns. Try melting into the music; you experience eternity in every moment. Then you celebrate the cold glow of an inner harmony. It is not everlasting ecstasy; it is not eternal happiness; it is not a drugged elation. It is the solemn and standing union and nothing else matters thereafter. Man's imperialist greed is his suppressed expression of his quest for union. His libido is his quest for union. We long to feel complete and united. Satisfy the urge to merge into oneness and nothing else matters. It is the end of religion, the end of imagination, and the end of fear.

The cure for life is to take life easy: savor every moment because you are here for a short time and are not likely to be coming this way again.

His laundry progressed with his stream of consciousness. Slender reeds growing near the shaded shore were dancing in the breeze, thoroughly enjoying his playful presence. The agile agitated waters roared with laughter as he thrust his hand yet again, tickling them into oxygen richness. Water is a wonder chemical, the common denominator of the living world. That's why holy men sprinkle water—the universal solvent—to cleanse the sins of the world. emmem lovingly ran his fingers through the water, tracing transitory figures. Wise men are not easily amused. This was an occasion worth remembering.

Inadvertently he broke into a rhyming tune:

Why do clouds sadden and roam?
H2O is seeking its home.
Why does rain rain?
H2O breathes life into the grain
Why does the river flow?
Only to follow yeoman's plough
Why does ocean heave and sigh?
Pining for the clouds running high.

To feel in tune with the orchestra of nature is a great gift, he realized. When you cease to be an aggressor you become an empire. An autonomous empire, which is governed by unfailing hands and designed according to the universal plan in which we play our part. Having access to collective wisdom beats anything you could acquire in a lifetime. Thus you are blessed. The orchestra begins to play—the seasons conduct—and you are the instrument playing the score. You have achieved oneness, there is no more.

As if on cue, emmem tensed his muscles and cocked his head. A whiff of Annette's perfume swept past him. He became fully alert. This rampaging Radha had intruded upon his solitude, the ambience of his beatitude was being disturbed by a different vibration. Observing his lingering confusion she emerged from behind the chestnut tree above him. She was smiling and her smile said: I am sorry, would you allow me to share your treasured privacy? Am I entering enemy territory? Please don't hurt me.

She recalled an ascetic who had welcomed her into a hut saying, “this hut is neither mine nor yours. At present I happen to be perched on this tree and if you are so inclined please feel free to perch on the nearby branch.”

He smiled his patent smile, disarming and transparent—so transparent in fact that one could catch a glimpse of the other side of the universe in its gleam—cute, pleasant, and innocuous. Their communication during the past month had been limited to monosyllables and impatient grunts. He simply did not want to smother her or anybody else with his presence. It wasn't meant to be disrespectful, but perhaps Annette had taken it that way.

“I was eavesdropping on your thoughts,” she said mischievously and cautiously put a foot into the merry rippling waters while collecting her skirt. She was looking askance at him and it occurred to her that Doestevsky would have almost certainly found a God's fool in this man. He smiled again and went quickly over the thoughts that had had a free run.

“My way of thinking must seem abstract to you,” he posited.

“Indeed it is, and original too. It seems to me that the more refined someone is, the more abstract their thoughts are. To hear them speak is music to my ears—sheer poetry, you know.”

“You know about such things better than I do,” he admitted politely.

“How so?” she coyly demurred.

“Because you are charged with a drive to know and I am in the thick of unbecoming. I believe that the first stage of progression is knowing, the second stage is becoming, and the final stage is unbecoming.”

“I figured that you might bring up concepts which would conflict with what I have been taught. But that isn't much when compared to those things on which we agree? I couldn't help but notice how your eyes feast on these hills, dells, and streams. I would venture that you much prefer this pristine setting to the landscapes tainted by man that you have experienced. Here we are harmless to ourselves and also to everybody else. It didn't happen by accident. The Creator meant for us to enjoy this pristine goodness to the fullest possible extent. To waste the opportunity that God has given us would be an unpardonable sin. Have you ever breathed purer air or drank better water? He purposefully spread this feast before us with His unseen hand. Only an ingrate would refuse to partake.”

The thought of a touch from an unseen hand touched his imagination. Mother's finger is the salvation and refuge of the child. Touch gives the feeling of union. Is death a touch of eternity? God's finger touched him and he slept.

Unseen hands touch us, gently reassuring us, unseen hands of religion, society, government, history, and civilization. These unseen hands are meant to remain unknown to us. However, like Pandora we long to have access to knowledge that we have been told is better left alone.

Time is a delusion, space is a delusion. They together concoct an ultra delusion we call life. And in life, time ceases to be, space ceases to be. For the present, it shall remain a mystery. In this life you do not have a need to know; perhaps in time . . . when you merge with eternity . . . . Life ceases to be chaotic when we meet eternity in today. The only thing we know for sure is that you and I are together here and now. Today we live; today the sun shines on our branches; we intertwine. We blossom, the sun bleeds and dies, darkness lays its soft silken gossamer across the fields. Eternity for those who savor is an endless today.

“You are sad because you have seen and learned too much. You felt the pain of others—must you drown in their sorrows? But I must say it definitely adds to your dignity,” Annette averred.

“Am I sad? Yes, it saddens me to hear that you think of me as being sad. What must I say or do to convince you otherwise?”

“Have you ever been in love, if I am not being too inquisitive?”

He loved Mathematics and music. He loved the silence of the hills. He had deep and genuine sympathy for Lucy. Was it love? He knew not. In any case he had never hated anybody or anything.

“The truth is that I do not know, and I am not sure what you meant by that.”

“Do you like women?”

“Yes, I do.” No sooner had the words left his mouth than he began to suspect that Annette was what Lucy wasn't. The urge to flee came and quickly went.

She stepped carefully down and sat closer to him. Her musk enveloped him.

“Have you ever made love to a woman?”

“I thought it would be very crude of me to impose myself upon others.”

“You have to do that at times.”

He looked down at her and he was very much aware that she was a woman. A svelte lady irresistible; with a sweet and promising pectoral projection. Her fragrance tamed his soul. Her copper red hair danced along her exposed shoulders. The blue and profound eyes were submissive and expectant. Her long ivory neck, thin lips and abundant bust tempted him. Tentatively he ran his faltering fingers in the copious cascade of her coif, which had an exotic hue resembling the floating clouds of autumnal dusk. Instinctively she inched nearer to him. The playful waters clapped and giggled.

His fingers felt their way down her face and softly touched her breast. They kissed. This type of excitement was new to him, but there was no denying that he enjoyed it. Desperately fumbling to remove her blouse, he accidentally tore off a button and she, never one to spoil the fun, tore away the rest. Srimati Radharini desired to be ravaged. His amateurish performance somehow appealed to her. Her Krishna sucked on her as if it was his refuge. And indeed it was. Millennia had come and gone. Parakiya-rasa had been alright in its time, but now they wanted more. Govinda-nandini was meant to pleasure Krishna. This was the right time, the right place. Oneness . . . .

The shakti sat them both on the shining rock polished by the feathery hands of fleeting waters across the centuries. He gathered her flowing hair into a silken bunch and peered deep into her blue eyes. Then he noticed the terrible scar, the scar of an old wound just behind her neck. The scar was sad and yet so beautiful. He traced the scar as if completing a hallowed mission. He thought that he was part of a complex system, integral and inseparable. Man as such, can never be free, his mind rediscovered. The same scar in the same place; first on Lucy, then on Annette. It must be fraught with meaning, but he knew not what. It was neither haunting nor daunting—merely a bit disturbing . . . .

“Was the accident too much for you?” he said, artfully spoiling the moment. Self-destruction wasn't in his nature, but the Radha was disarming, his defenses were down, and alarms were going off in his head.

“What?” she asked with a surprised look.

“The automobile accident.”

Her eyes welled up.

“Does he still wait for you?”

“I do not know.”

For each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. As the pressure lessened at the surface, it began to increase two hundred miles beneath them. The compressed molten magma flared hotter, creating a convection current which would eventually affect the lithosphere where the oceanic plate that underlies the Pacific Ocean meets the North American plate causing the former to slip under the latter. A 6.6 earthquake ensued. Of course, it would have happened sooner or later anyway with or without the Radha, but nonetheless her passionate embrace triggered a landslide which sent four Malibu movie star mansions tumbling off a cliff into the sea. Swami Omkar had been proven right—the Radha was a potent catalyst who invariably initiated large scale reactions.

They sat silently holding each other in tender embrace. Her mind wandered. Suppressed memories from her formative years came and went, searching for a meaning in the long travails. The anguish of experiencing rejection, the futility of trying to live on her own terms, the utter loneliness of being one's self, the specter of death, pernicious separation, the agonizing realization that one is basically alone in the struggle for survival, having to make do with inferior mates who did not have a clue about what it took to be a real man. She sat there vulnerably soft and silent. She was all-alone. She was completely oblivious of his presence. He closed his eyes, slowly lifted her skirt and gently fingered the moist silk panties. He quit thinking and did what came natural. Seemingly all at once the floodgates opened and he was awash in her glory. They threw away the last remnants of their dignity along with their clothes—naked as Creation, but by no means cold. Her willowy pliancy accommodated his uncompromising rigidity and the two of them became one. With oneness the wounds healed, the scars vanished and the hurtful yesterdays faded away. His wheatish color contrasted with her creamy skin. He thrust his way inside of her and she met him head on. Theirs was a shuddering simultaneous climax. He virtually swooned into the sacred feminine. Sex, he thought, was a momentary forgetting. A passing feeling of being one. An emotional crest is followed by a blue trough.

For it is written: Among all persons, it is Sri Radha in whose company Lord Madhava is especially glorious, as She is especially glorious in His.

“Do you believe in sin?” she asked, basking in her sedated afterglow.

“No,” he said cautiously and hesitantly. “Since when have you worried about sin? There can be no sin, there is only ignorance. There is no place for sin; when you are truthful, you cannot sin. When a madman commits homicide, is it a sin? When a kleptomaniac shoplifts, is it a sin? When a deeply disturbed person takes his own life, is it a sin? We could but be us, consequently absolutism does not go well with the business of life.”

“Do you repent the moments that we shared?”

“No, why would I repent something which I do not regret? This may well have happened to you and me long ago at a different location under totally different circumstances. All I know for certain is that I am a far better man for having met you.”

“I am happy that I came to India, I am happy that I met you.” she blurted with a giggle. He hugged her and for once in their lives they were truly happy. The crystal clear waters gurgled in agreement.

“My love,” she continued, “You are what I needed. I am emerging from my chaotic past. New blood courses through my veins. As your mythology says a touch by Lord Ram turned Ahalya, the petrified Goddess, back to life.”

She waited for his reaction. Although he chose not to comment, his body language told her that he was compassionate, understanding, and caring.

“I am different from your guru. The master boasts about his past, whereas I am done with the past.” emmem patted her behind and said, “A genuine guru has neither past nor future, he is simply true to whatever moment he happens to be part of.”

“Oui, oui,” there was light in her eyes. “France needs you—I need you! Will you come away with me to France? I will help you set up an ashram in Lyons. My country is in need of a new spiritual initiative. France has unwittingly strayed into decadence. Vive la France. With the right inspiration, France can resume its rightful role in world affairs. Mon coeur pr飩eux, will you show us the way?”

emmem mulled it over: “It's nice of you to offer, but I don't think it would work out. Saving France would be a tall order for someone who cannot even save himself. I have no religion to disseminate, no philosophy to share, no agenda to further. Organized religion is not what it is made out to be. There is no such thing as collective salvation. Religious belief is a highly personal matter. Every Christian has his own version of Christianity, every Muslim has his own brand of Islam and every atheist is an atheist in his own way. The religion of an individual takes shape within the constraints of his knowledge, tastes, and temperament. If Europeans are suffering from a spiritual vacuum, Europe would do better to seek a solution on its own soil. Indian spiritualism is deeply rooted in Indian soil and India's unique gifts of nature. The European edition of Christianity is endowed with all the necessary attributes expected of a full-fledged religion. European Christianity took two millennia to evolve; nothing can substitute for it. Indian culture cannot be superimposed upon Europe any more than the imperialists were able to supplant India's culture with theirs. Proselytizing is wrongheaded. Culture and religion are intertwined. When you import a religion, you import a culture. European culture is deeply rooted in European geopolitics. Transplanting Indian culture into European soil is as absurd as imposing western democracy on India. Local cultures should seek local solutions. Every ethnicity should achieve social and cultural autonomy. Imported religions destroyed Africa, South America, Iran, and many tribal societies in Asia and Australia, catapulting the endemic cultures to a no man's land and upsetting the local economies. As Bhagavat Gita says you are your own enemy and you are the only friend you have. Hinduism is a state of mind and it does not call out for converts. And I am not a Hindu either. I stand a long way away from all that. Man is all the same, first to the last, only the premises and pretexts vary. Homo sapiens is the most miserable species of mammals because we alone doubt, vacillating between ignorance and omniscience. Although God blessed us with a cerebrum, it evidently did not come with instructions because we are constantly abusing it and thereby subject ourselves to stress. The other animals live from moment to moment—no doubts, no worries. They live their lives like a programmed machine. But who programmed them? No doubt, it was just such philosophical questions that engendered religion and fostered belief in the existence of a Supreme Being. But my homespun credo is based on the seasoned conviction that our salvation does not depend on expiation, repentance, secret rituals, pilgrimages, or appeasing the deity. Nor do we need middlemen to interpret for us because we inherit the kingdom of God by keeping our mind pure from evil thoughts and greed. My identity does not depend on social, cultural, and/or political co-ordinates. Consequently, I know who and what I am without having to pay any regard to outside references. Hence, like the Indian sage who politely turned down Alexander the Great, I will have to say that I cannot follow you to France.”

Annette relapsed into thoughtful silence.

He continued: “Oneness in spirit and deed would work to everyone's advantage. Mankind should be one family, one village, one nation. Doesn't the same sun shine on everyone everywhere? Doesn't the same moon smile on all of humanity? Each of us has a slot. The only thing you have to do to fill that slot is to be you—the real you, not the fake you that you would like others to see you as. Be true to yourself and the rest will take care of itself. Apart from the imported religions, India seems not to have an architecturally balanced religion of its own. Spirituality is a sore we are born with. Every swain with a spine pines in vain against his surly little days. The social milieu gives us an excuse to forget many things. Far in between we take French leave from the blasé luxuries of material life and return with a passion to the raving world replenished with a hungry fury. We can't settle anywhere until the sore is healed.”

“When you divest yourself of pride and fear, you can relax and become your natural self. Do like the trees; wait in silence for the ministrations of the sun, the fine strains of the rain, and the softly sighing breath of the breeze. When religion becomes an industry and meddles with geopolitics, it no longer focuses on the spiritual needs of its members. A functional religion is like a well designed airplane in that it is aerodynamic and has a balanced center of gravity. The organized churches are administered by political adventurers. But I assure you that every faceless rustic of rural India has a built-in religion.”

“How do you know?” she asked.

“I shall tell you how an illiterate villager of Gangetic India received the health workers of British India. The name of this brutally straight bumpkin is irrelevant. He is the India of all times. The health workers went to this man's village to vaccinate the inhabitants against a deadly outbreak of smallpox. But when they got to his hut, he resisted them with tooth and nail. So did his wife. With bleeding skin and torn shirts the health officials forcefully inoculated him, his wife, and their twelve children. Afterwards, to their surprise, the villager did an about face and became exceedingly friendly, offering them refreshments and doing everything possible to demonstrate his goodwill. The health workers demanded an explanation for his curious behavior. He said that he had believed them to be gods who came to him in human form in order to test him. Then why did you attack us, the visitors asked. He had resisted them with all of his puny might, he said, because it was his hallowed duty to do so. It is wrong for man to influence how long people live. It is impudent of man to pilfer the jurisprudence of nature. Such is the built-in religion of an Indian rural mind. Organized religion with its stilted clergy often fails miserably to serve its original purpose, i.e. to mask the pain of the downtrodden. Soporiferous sermons and queasy netherworld threats make life anything but easy. The villagers have it right—it's the clergy who don't get it.”

Annette looked at him intently. “Yes, I know, I understand. Your defense is your silence, mine is diligence with a sprinkle of vigilance. I intend to build a new life for myself and I would like for you to be part of it. As soon as possible, I will be going back to Lyons to settle certain matters and sort out my life. I want to disentangle myself from the wonted social, cultural, and fiscal tentacles to stand-alone, free from all encumbrances. But what if at a later stage, I choose to come back to India and settle in the Himalayas? Will you come and live with me?”

She was on the verge of tears. He didn't want to make her cry. There was excruciating expectation in her deep and still eyes. He caressed her cheek; it was soft and warm to his touch. Then he whispered almost inaudibly, with a tremulous reverence, “yes.”

A covenant was sealed, a new meaning imparted. Sexual union always brings about a qualitative change in the texture and content of personal relations. Curtains collapse, defenses diffuse, and the differences between two souls subside. When the sexual organs are mutually acceptable and familiar, the rest of the body follows suit. Until that happens, you are not compatible—your mind instinctively rejects your mate as foreign matter and being together is hell.

Hand in hand, they plodded uphill, squashing thorny raspberries and avoiding stinging nettle. The overarching canopy of chestnut trees shut out the sun and the air was thick with silence. Far across the valley, beneath a shimmering peak of Kanchenjunga, the woods were covered with a thin, milky film of late autumn snow. Winter was inching its way down from the Alpine climes above. Suddenly he remembered Sonam Palzor, living in splendid solitude away somewhere in the distant heights, never complaining, never demanding, satisfied with his hermitic life, loyally waiting for his unseen master. He, being a tropical Telugu, was fascinated with the dance of colors to the tune of seasons in the high country.

“How are you going to explain what happened between us to Swami Omkar?” he asked.

“It is time to have a talk with him. He is pathetic. What I feel towards him isn't awe or respect. I feel sorry for the poor devil. He is so anxious to prove his worth.”

“Those who strain to prove their worth do not understand what worth is about,” emmem commented.

“Swami expects me to finance his ambitious projects. He fancies himself to be another Osho, Satya Sai Baba or Matha Amrithanandamayi with a coterie of rich and spoiled western devotees who are tagging along on a spiritual tour, anxious that they won't come out safe from dabbling in spirituality.”

“And where do you stand in his gaudy bawdy game plan?”

“He expects me to be a later day Margaret Noble or Madam Richards and he, for one, would be my Vivekananda or Aurobindo. But I don't want to be a pawn in his game. That wily wimp isn't going to suck me in. I'm going to swat him before he can fly.”

“Until you came, his harebrained schemes were going nowhere,” emmem lamented. “You were the one who got his hopes up. He expects you to follow through. What are you going to do now?”

“I came to him as a self-styled Radha because I needed to part with my past. I had to begin somewhere and this enchanted place seemed as good as any. He tricked me into thinking he had all the answers. I am not anxious to sit in judgment, but he cuts a ludicrous figure. His words lack substance.”

“I am not surprised. But he cannot fail me because I did not expect anything from him. Nor did I ever take him to be more than what he really was. I went with him because he needed me. Life is not an acid test to prove anything. We just have to be true to ourselves. Life settles into the frame that we want life to be. Set out to be a criminal and you will live the life of a criminal. Set out to be a philosopher and you will live the life of a philosopher. It seems so simple and yet there are lots of people who just don't get it.”

“Yes, dear, we have to be true to ourselves,” she echoed, “but I do not expect a stand off with him. As destiny would have it, he enabled me to reach out to you and for that I am truly grateful. You are my destination and I am beaucoup happy to be here.”

“Your Frenglish is comparable to my English,” he quipped.

She laughed. “And your French is about as good my Frenglish.”

“French is hard to learn. The words are not pronounced the same as they are written and every noun has sex. It makes it difficult to communicate. When I was studying languages in college, one of my instructors said that European languages were purposely designed to be complex so as to impress the natives and keep them in their place.”

“Language is a system of codified sounds,” he paused to pick her a flower and then continued, “its grammar and vocabulary bear witness to the culture it gives expression to.”

“We resist globalization because we do not want our culture to be homogenized, pasteurized, and processed to mesh with the international corporate model. Indians take pride in our freedom struggle and the way Gandhi steered us to the shores of freedom. But the truth is that the British didn't pack up and leave because of our little Gandhi's hunger strikes. That was only part of it. They were horrified and disgusted by the way we butchered the King's English.”

Annette giggled like a schoolgirl. She was thoroughly enjoying the overestimation. “English indeed has regional variations, but in essence it is an international language that has grown bigger than the nation that spawned it.”

Then he remembered a comment made by two American tourists in an English news broadcast on an Indian channel at New Delhi Railway Station: “I'm astonished at how closely the Indian language resembles English. Some words are almost the same.” To which the other tourist replied, “They don't really understand us. They just want our money.”

“Too often language fails,” he thought aloud, “I'm thankful that music and love transcend language because we would be in deep trouble if our communication was limited to words.” He stroked her cheek and she responded in kind. There was no need for words.

Swami Omkar was waiting for her when they got back to the ashram. His narrowed eyes flashed with enthusiasm; eyes that were small and hungry—eyes that devoured rather than saw; eyes that portrayed their owner as a man who often took and seldom gave. Taking Annette by the forearm, he ushered her into his wood paneled meditation room. He proceeded to squat on an elevated platform surrounded by burning incense sticks and butter lamps. In the midst of the evening the scent of the fumes and the halos of the burning butter lamps had an impressive effect. Assuming the yogic posture of padmasana, he closed his eyes. No sooner did they shut than Annette released a pent-up sigh of relief. She sat at his feet enjoying the comic effect of the affected spectacle. The ornate ritual reminded the Radha of the antics of male birds courting their mates. Ceremony creates a mist that invites imagination, but having seen this show so many times before, the Radha unwittingly permitted her imagination to wander beyond the pale.

“Men are all the same, Asians or Europeans, ascetics or lunatics,” she thought.

She aped Swami Omkar's posture and engaged herself in very private thoughts. She thought of Maurice and the empty place in her heart that he had left behind—their unfinished dream projects and their life together at the school of architecture. There had not been any expectation of a fundamental change in her life when she came to India—it was simply someplace exotic to go that would not remind her of her difficulties at home. The mysticism and spirituality of India was of passing interest. In fact Metropolitan France had a surplus of fakirs who made a business out of selling Indian spirituality. There were thousands of them thriving on the interest generated by their predecessors. Annette was already acquainted with Indian legends, gods, myths, and rudiments of religion. But spirituality was not her forte. Even in her wildest thoughts she hadn't expected a shattering enlightenment on Indian soil. The Indian subcontinent was far too dusty and dirty for her taste. Nevertheless it offered an interesting diversion. She watched life unfolding in different garbs with people living out their pathetic lives blinkered by taboos, moving along a mobius strip of tradition driven by faith. Faith flies in the face of reason. It gives hope to the hopeless and makes life bearable for the struggling masses. What good are facts if they depress people and do not make life any better for them? Science can't explain everything; were it not for spirituality, science probably would have gone bankrupt long ago. Whereas facts appeal to reason, faith appeals to the soul. Spirituality nurtures the inner being—it is manna for those without food. Faith is a strangely wonderful panacea. When everything else fails, faith pulls us through.

Annette was trying out an existential possibility. Swami Omkar was her guinea pig. She had joined him with her fingers crossed. In the days that followed she found him to be much too shallow. But the nameless and transparent disciple of the master seemed to possess a large degree of originality. Such an extraordinary individual one rarely comes across in either hemisphere. The true nature of people is selfishness in various forms, conditioned, softened, or camouflaged for sustainable survival. But such a great person, open yet mysterious, selfless yet detached, polite and yet dignified, and above all innocently intelligent is seldom seen. The first thing that differentiates him from others is that he doesn't threaten you. He doesn't demand; he doesn't command; and he doesn't get in your face. Instead, he imparts a feathery cloudlike sensation, as if you have been liberated from your weary body, as if you have melted into the silken silence, blissful and infinitely patient. Nothing worries you; nothing hurts you—let the problems take care of themselves. No words to keep, no tears to weep, and no benefits to reap. Then comes the glow and you know that you are complete and inferior to no one. His presence distills you, defines you, and you are severed from your yesterdays. You have no points to prove, no doubts to clear, and you no longer hesitate because you no longer fear. When you live according to reason, you are chased by doubts, whereas in faith there is no cause for doubt. With faith, reason and doubts together dissolve into effortless tranquility. Thereafter no consumer products chase you and no fashion parades blind you. She had a staunch conviction that she could make it on her own, finding her inner efflorescence and fulfillment in emmem's soothing, supportive presence. Since constraints cause complaints, she would be better off without them.

Slowly opening his eyes after extended meditation, the master emerged, like a bud opening to the gentle ministrations of the sun at the break of day.

“With God's grace, we have worked out everything,” the master said, his eyes carefully reading her face. “You will be my right hand in implementing this divine mission to enlighten the world. We will establish centers across Europe, America, Japan, and wherever people are ready to receive the message of the East. Now I had a vision that we should shift our ashram to Lonavla, on the Bombay to Pune highway. That hill station has a salubrious climate and would be accessible to devotees from all over the world.”

“My dear master, I have told you over and over that I do not have that kind of money. Architects have to work for a living, just the same as anybody else,” she said impatiently, shattering all the solemn air he had assiduously whipped up.

“We know it all my dear, we know it all even before you think of it. Hereinafter you will be the architect in charge of human minds, renovating and rehabilitating the thought processes, showing people in the developed nations how to live happier, more enjoyable lives. You will be my apostle to the western world.”

“Unfortunately I am not driven by a messianic fire and I will not be troubled by the task of setting the world right. The world is already right. Whatever it is is right as long as it is. The problem is not with the world, the problem is that you are a problem to you. Hitler's problem was not Germany, his problem was himself. Leave the world alone, it's you who needs to be cured.”

Throwing his affected airs to the wind, he ogled the Radha intently until she turned away. The revulsion that he saw on her face gave him a thrill. She had grown too big for her britches. It was time for him to put her in her place. “Are you going to bed with that nameless tramp? Why settle for him when you could have me?

“We have much in common and are building a beautiful relationship, but that is none of your business and I will thank you to keep your lewd thoughts to yourself.”

“Let's stop beating around the bush. Do you want out?”

“It amounts to that, more or less. Tomorrow I will be going back home to France. Now I am going to sit down and think about it. We can finish this conversation in the morning.”

She looked straight into his miserable face. She secretly smiled inside with a cruel streak of thought: my dear fellow, I know you inside out. I know that you have been rummaging my bags. I am too smart for you. My travel documents and money bills are stored elsewhere safely. Hence do not get any big ideas in that little head of yours.

Swami Omkar sat there crestfallen, the butter lamps burning away in vain. “You know not what you are missing. I had great hopes for you. You will go down in history as a faceless, innocuous drop, a dropout from the green room of history.”

“Please don't worry on my score. I am happy the way I am. And I wish that you could be happy with the way you are.”

“Would you be so kind as to introduce me to Europe?”

“Surely you are capable of doing it by yourself.”

“You have been my treasured guest,” he reminded her.

“I have been your paid guest. And you are not man enough to be a gracious and worthy host. You would impose your impotency upon the whole world.”

That clinched it. The erstwhile master was losing control. It was all he could do to contain his emotions. “Please leave me alone, I have to meditate,” he pleaded by way of escaping the issue. He could not face the fact that he did not have all the answers and was not the superior, superhuman being that he wished to be. Dejected, ego deflated, he sadly slinks away.

That was the last time that Swami Omkar saw Annette. He knew that it was over. It is high time to part when you start to suffer your loneliness together. There would be other Radhas. On the morrow he would no doubt rationalize his sorrow and begin anew. Annette had been wrong. Swami Omkar was real. He really was a driven man, fearful of failure. Unlike her he would not—absolutely could not—give up. They called him a character, but the truth was he had character that his detractors lacked.

Annette left the ashram silently, in the cool of the morning, not wanting to wake her lover up in his Spartan cell. Though Swami Omkar was dead and buried in her along with so many other things that had died and were buried inside of her, emmem, the nameless madrasi, would always remain in her as a pulsing, pleasant pain. But before she left, she wrote a message for him at his door in her neat and meticulous hand, the hand of an architect:

Oui, le bonheur et la grace m'accompagneront
Otus les jours de ma vie.

Some are poor; some are meek; a few are both. Although it may not be written, they will inherit the kingdom of serenity.

emmem waited patiently to receive the days time doled out to him. He was amused by the essential symmetry of life.

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