The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman (excerpt)

All dogs long since asleep, I sleep until the dogs are small like rats and when I wake it’s a rat I remember. He had climbed up the drainpipe into the second floor bathroom, where I sat one dysenteric night. When I saw the rat I stood slowly, my lungi collapsed limply at my feet. He was cornered near the door; I was between him and the drainpipe. We approached each other warily, intending no harm, each choosing the wrong direction in a brief, panicked dance of evasion, leaping at the same instant, meeting in the air, fangs withdrawn, violence far gone into fear. He fled down the drainpipe, but we could still feel each other, where our bodies met, and I was surprised how quiet it had been. And I sit in this bloodred chair in which Sushila loved to sleep, her legs drawn up, her chin resting on her knees, a cup of heavily sweetened coffee on the arm. Sometimes her brother Gautam would be playing his guitar. I sit and look at Kali and try to feel Sushila’s warmth beneath me, but it is the rat I feel, and then I refuse not to imagine myself as I once did, a plague rat carrying the disease I desperately fled, unaware that it as well arrived before me to those shores radiating from a Madras throbbing in the heat. Perhaps the series of fevers and dysenteries left this wretched self-image, rendered me incapable of sequential reason, clarity of memory—still, I look back and I do not see much of a man.

The rats flee with a rat’s health, leaving fever. I left here in deliberate pursuit of fever, that Sushila might find me accustomed to her land. I would then wait for Sushila, who could have come here only for me; Sushila, who had left her mother—and her mother, who was not looking for an orphan, an exile, a son; her mother, who unfolded herself like Maya, opening before me a universe of delirium, which Sushila had tried to prepare me for by chanting a mantra of coconut groves, by burning away in her passion the remaining accretions of my own civilization. Now I beseech Mother Kali to take me back, to return Sushila to me. I had had a taste of fever and it was like drinking of desire, like jewels located in a dream held in the palm under the last light of the moon before coming fully awake, the dream gone, the mind still in its sway. Perhaps I left Sushila for Madras certain that in a land where the malady is fever one wakes from the dream without having returned its gifts. Alas, fever is not so generous to strangers. My fevers began almost immediately, increasing in their intensity until the profusion of images that pleased me were flattened into a shifting, hallucinatory dimension, until in the fumbling hands of a more capricious time and space all my nights became a day, a hot day in which past and future were compressed and then stretched to rising horizons enveloping the sky; a drenched, tumid day of temperamental gravity, of faltering geometry, that would burst out of itself like flowers of madness; Sushila’s cool lips covering my burning eyes, shh, she said, like Mother, her susurrations expanding like an approaching train into a roar trapped against the walls of my skull, and she was gone, and the walls of my room mocked me, held themselves at impossible angles, leaning, laughing, in league against me, Sushila again 10,000 miles away; and as I concentrated, endeavoring to focus in vain attempt to take the first immeasurably short step toward comprehension, another day or two passed, a letter arrived from America in response to the one I had sent with the maid that morning, the maid returned, set the letter by the window, then stood before me, her vermilion sari a garment of blood, remaining in flames when she left the room. How may times in those days of fever her face loomed before me, my head oppressed by the weight of the sea, how many times I longed for Sushila’s face, my mind lightened by the attenuation of the desert.

I don’t know how many days were burned up by the sun inside me before the proximity of the sea prevailed, before the sea lifted and a distant, profound will put the smell of salt into the miasmic air of my room, luring me like a sleepwalker from the resignation of fever’s hot equilibrium. The burning was so well attuned to the sultry days and nights, it may never have occurred to me to rise again had it not been for the nearby Bay of Bengal. The waves playing against the coast exerted upon me the influence of a second world, or third, one in which a man could drown or be devoured rather than wither dishonorably in a bed of his own effluvia. I lay in bed, far from Sushila, and the sea was telling me that the death I was ready for was not ready for me.

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