THE APPEARANCE OF DEATH TO A HINDU WOMAN
To a Hindu woman death appears very easy.
–Bankim-Chandra Chatterjee, Krishnakanta’s Will
The sun set beyond the sea, so says the poet—and when a poet mentions a sea, we have to accept it. No harm in letting a poet describe his vision, no need to question his geography.
–R.K. Narayan, Ramayana
One wishes to please one’s mother. Sushila said her earliest memory was of sitting on her father’s lap, his fingers scratching her head, while her mother told her a story about devotion, a story Sushila would hear many times as a child. It seems one day Parvati said to her children, Ganesh and Murugan, “We’ll have a race. The first of my children to go around the world seven times loves me the most.” Murugan, the very picture of devotion, immediately took off on his peacock, leaving Ganesh in the dust. Ganesh did not panic. He watched Murugan until his beloved brother was out of sight, then he walked around his mother seven times, probably finishing the race even before Murugan had reached the Coromandel. “You are my world,” he told Parvati. And Parvati, Sushila’s mother happily avowed, was immensely pleased. Ganesh was the ideal son. As for Murugan? Presumably when he returned he heard the story and understood precisely what it meant.
A false storm breaks like a waterfall of lies, blows past leaving a few fat drops on the chair in back under the catalpa. The dark clouds feed off each other, gathering like the future, then disperse abruptly, leaving only the resonance of a dry past. The carpet of flowers is brown and torn, and the blossoms still clustered above amid the wide green spade leaves are shrunken in isolate death, like the skulls of Kali’s garland. The white rain of the catalpa over for the year, I return to Kali, voluptuous idol, nepenthic icon. The dog cries out next door, an old hand strengthened by a multitude of petty defeats twisting his tail—one mean victory after another. The dog yelps again as he makes his escape. I hear a thump when he stumbles into the wall. No one has asked me if I’m glad to be back in the States. But now the sun is revealed again, an implacable, dull smile, smiling with Kali at the recurrence of my memories, a soft onslaught: “Gautam,” Sushila would call up these stairs, and if her brother was not home I would answer—and she’d come running up to me; or after I had gone to India and returned, when Sushila was stolen so soon after she ran through the alley with her dress pulled up to her belly—and underneath glowed the moonlight; or, more serene, the summer before I left, maps of South India scattered about, Kanniya Kumari which I never saw, and the stretch of the Coromandel, so utterly lost to me now…Sushila and I lying under the tree, the June rain of white flowers, one like jasmine in her black hair, our plans of a hut in a coconut grove on the Coromandel, a simple life on the Indian Ocean; or that same summer, Sushila and I in the cemetary the afternoon after our wedding, our private midnight ceremony, laying in the cemetary the day after, Sushila still in her white dress, on her stomach, turned toward me with her eyes closed, reciting from the Cilapattikaram:
In Puhar, our town
Seeing bright, spiraled conches and pearls
The bud of the water lily opens
Taking them for the moon with outspread rays
And a cluster of stars
Sushila with her eyes closed as my wife and the thoughts that ran by like golden deer leaping to the notes of a flute hidden in the leaves above, Sushila before we knew the fear and desolation of mortals, the machinations of twilight gods and goddesses, the destitution and bewilderment of mothers in this dark age called the Kali Yuga. Sushila smiling with her eyes closed as if that would stop the clouds from dashing across the sky, as if having been released from a womb was to have been forgiven the burden of the daughter, as if our liberation were somehow already a union greater than Time. Sushila with her eyes closed as if for some lovers there would be no forest exile, or that the forest itself could be a home. I see Sushila smiling even though her marriage will be denied—and I, too, smile, even now, with Sushila back in the dark folds of Dravidia, entombed within the vigilance of mothers. They watch for me, that I not enter again to steal Her daughter. But I will be back, for Sushila and I are inseparable—I will be back and Kali will forgive the lost mothers of the Kali Yuga for not recognizing what love is like in a dark, chaotic age, forgive them for their fear of descent and the utter exhaustion of their ingenuous yearning. Even now as they curse me I smile, and know that Sushila will soon be smiling with me—for she is, as always, my wife.
Call as witnesses the Gandharvas, heavenly minstrels, lovers of Apsarases. Find them in a mirage, the city of the Gandharvas, eating the fragrance of herbs and stagnant water. As the Gandharvas bore witness, Sushila and I were married. By the sixth rite of Manu, Sushila is my wife: “The voluntary union of a maiden and her lover one must know to be the Gandharva rite, consummated by secret sexual union,” which is to say under the eyes of the Gandharvas, eyes presiding over the marriage as stars while veenas are strummed in celebration. Sushila and I were wed, legally, and our union can not be dissolved by mortals. I have been wrongly accused—Sushila’s mother has called me Pisaka, eater of dead flesh: “When a man by stealth seduces a girl who is sleeping, intoxicated, or disordered in intellect, that is the eighth, the most base and sinful rite of the Pisaka.” No Manu, ours was not a Pisaka wedding.
Perhaps that’s been the worst lie of all.
Or were you delivered to me, Sushila, by Rakshasas? Was the white dress you wore a widow’s sari? Am I wrong, and was I always wrong? Or is this the way a bride is delivered during the Kali Yuga? That afternoon your black hair blown across your brown arm, across my arm, leaving the smell of coconuts, and the air was as clear as the sea—do you remember, Sushila? When the first moments of our marriage rested in groves of tombstones, full green trees waving in the breeze, clouds as white as your dress disappearing into the sea above, all the colors of the flowers on all the graves—and did they remind you of home? Did you see the vermilion blossoms of bougainvillea creeping over the compound wall? The orange blossoms of the mimosa suspended over strangers sleeping in the shade? With what ease you spoke to me over thousands of years….Do you remember the gentle way the sky pressed out against the future? We weren’t even dreaming that day, and your eyes, Sushila, were closed.
You rolled toward the sun and I reached to feel your breast through the thin cotton, felt the warmth of the sun on the back of my hand, and your breast warmed my palm. And it was then you said, “With that I destroy cities.”
And do you remember how suddenly the flame wrapped itself around my hand? When I pulled it away you rolled back onto your stomach.
Was it for the smell of burning flesh?
“Did I tell you about, what do you call, Kannagi and Kovalan?” you asked me.
“No. No, you never did.”
“Shall I tell you about Kannagi and Kovalan?”
“Yes, tell me about Kannagi and Kovalan.”
“It was a long time ago, longlong—”
“Longlong. Before even your country had people.”
“This country here?”
“Yes, that one….Long ago in the city of Puhar—”
“Where—where is Puhar?”
“On the road from Chidambaram, where the Kaveri flowed into the sea.”
“Were there two lovers there?”
“Yes—Kannagi and Kovalan. And the story begins with their wedding…”
“Was it like ours?”
“Oh no. It was, what do you call, the whole city knew about it and they all approved. Kovalan was the most handsome man in the city, and Kannagi was the most beautiful woman. Together they were like Murugan and Valli. And they came from two very wealthy families.”
“Were they virtuous?”
“They were virtuous, like Rama and Sita only before. They were married and they lived happily for many years, until one day at the Festival of Indra, a court—”
“Ah, Indra—that always spells trouble, doesn’t it?”
You opened your eyes and smiled privately. The woman’s response to Indra is always ambivalent.
“Not always,” you said in the way the courtesan is trained to wound a lover.
I did not resent then the tenuous bond made by jealousy, nor despise foolishness. And it was only much later that I found where the pilgrim leaves the path of wisdom.
“But yes, my husband, this time it meant trouble. Bigbig trouble. At this year’s festival the Chola king was honoring a courtesan named Madavi, who was the most talented dancer in all the South and the most beautiful woman in all the land…”
“I thought Kannagi was the most beautiful woman.”
“Madavi had a different kind of beauty.”
And in a moment passed like the dimming of a lamp, you lowered your eyelids seductively and flushed a deeper shade of brown. Your lips on mine, your hair shielded my eyes from the sun. You let your weight rest on me, and you moved your lips to my ear: “Here is what they say in the poem: The billowing sea, her robes. The hills, her breasts. The broad rivers, her garlands. The clouds, her shock of hair. This vast and boundless Earth seemed a woman.”
“But what about the woman? What did she look like?”
You brought your lips back to mine and spoke into my mouth.
“Madavi looked like all the woman in all the poems of all of India. Her eyes were like, what do you call, fish, or night lilies. Her lips were like the bimba fruit. Her nose was a, what do you call, champaka bud—like mine, see?”
You lifted yourself so I could admire your champaka bud nose—and your eyebrows were a curved line of black bees, bees who would mistake your eyes for water lilies…
“And she walked like an elephant.”
“She was fat?”
“No, you’ve never seen an elephant walk. The elephant has a very sensual walk. Don’t I walk like an elephant?”
“Yes, I’ve always thought you walked like an elephant.”
“Madavi walked like an elephant.”
“And Kovalan watched her walk, right?”
“Of course. And she saw him watching and sent her maid to tell him that the man who buys her garland will be her husband. Kovalan rushed over to Madavi’s house and bought her garland and they became lovers.”
“Kannagi stayed home and wept.”
“She didn’t protest? She didn’t set her family against Kovalan, or appeal to the king or something?”
“The poem is, what do you call, obscure here. It is meant only to show how the goodness and purity of Kannagi overcomes evil adversity.”
You laughed at yourself, throwing your head back and trying to push the words back in with your palm. You fell away from me like that, insisting from behind your hand that it was indeed evil adversity Kannagi faced.
“All right—evil adversity—like a husband run off with a whore, which a good Hindu wife endures—”
“The poem is symbolic only. For Kannagi it is the same as Rama’s exile. The real Hindu wife scratches her husband’s eyes off or bites off his lip.”
“Or nose, in the Mughal style.”
Propped on your elbows, your hair covered one doe-eye, and one almond eye assessed me—yet you looked no further for your exile.
“Which is not really at issue here,” I said, and you shook your hair, rolling onto your back and laughing.
“I am the one Kovalan leaves his wife for.”
“Or his mother.”
“I am the Mother.”
“But things did not go well for Kovalan…”
“No. Things went very well for Kovalan, for many years, and during those years of her exile Kannagi suffered patiently, with dignity—”
“And sporadic fits of weeping.”
“Only when alone, and softly. Even though she knew it was only a matter of time. And the time came at the seashore, where Kovalan and Madavi sang each other songs of wicked and doomed love. It began as, what do you call, sport, and ended with each of them believing what the other sang, believing they sang about themselves, so each thought the other was in lover with someone else…”
“So they were fooled by the songs, but really the songs only brought out the truth, for Kovalan truly was in love with another—Kannagi. And Madavi, with her reckless, no restless, courtesan heart, was ready to move on as well.”
“That may be, but no—not like that. For Kannagi and Madavi are one. Kovalan only is acting out his karma from previous lives. His karma decreed that he return to Kannagi having squandered his wealth and needing to take her ankle bracelets filled with precious gems and sell them in the city of Madurai.”
“Why? Why couldn’t she sell them in the fabulous city of Puhar, where the Kaveri flows into the sea?”
“Because Kannagi had a dream that fell on her like a scorpion. She dreamed that Kovalan met with evil fate—”
“Adversity—in the city of Madurai.”
“She told him and he said let’s go?”
“No, the dream pulls the story, the dream is the path of the story.”
“Are we done with Madavi, then? She’s out of the story?”
“She is grieving in the background throughout.”
“And Kannagi forgives Kovalan as soon as she returns?”
“Yes. She’s wasted from grief and also the worry of her dream, but—”
“Wasted from grief…was I like that?”
“You’re like that now.”
Poking my ribs, you moved close to me. You kissed me and sighed, “My skinny husband.”
It was daylight and the Gandharvas watched from behind the fall of the sun.
Your breast still too warm, I slid my hand down past your stomach. Capturing my hand and pushing against it, you whispered, “And Urvashi was condemned to remain on Earth and in her line was Madavi born, her mound of love a hooded cobra.”
When you laughed your teeth were like a string of pearls, your eyes were wet like pearls….
“But we have reached only the beginning of the story—Kannagi has still two breasts. All I have told you is why they are going to Madurai, where the, what do you call, terrible events unfold.”
“Like Kovalan’s death? So what killed him? No doubt the arduous pilgrimage weakened him…”
“Many things, my lover, happen without us knowing about them…”
“The conspiracy of evil adversity?”
“Even now, they may be plotting against you, planning all sorts of chicanry.”
“Chickenry? You mean chicanery?”
Your hand flew up to your mouth, but again it was too late.
“Chicanery? Yes. And so it was with Kovalan. He went into the city of Madurai, and when he found a jeweler he asked him to bring one of the ankle bracelets to the bank. But instead the jeweler took the bracelet to the king, whose wife had only recently had her’s stolen. And Kannagi’s happened to look exactly like the queen’s. So the king asked, ‘Where did you get this?’ And the jeweler told him and led the king and his guard to Kovalan…”
“Who was where, precisely?”
“At a tea stall, waiting for the jeweler to return with his money.”
“Where he received a rude surprise.”
“Very rude. He was arrested and quickly put to death. The king was so angry he violated the laws of his own land. Kovalan was not allowed even to speak….Ask me how Kovalan was killed.”
“How was he killed?”
“Just then an ill-bred out in a frenzy hurled—”
“An ill-bred lout? In a frenzy?”
“You must learn Tamil.”
“This is how you must hear it:
An ill-bred lout in a frenzy hurled
The bright sword in his hand at Kovalan.
It cut him across. The blood that spurted
From his wound rushed in a tide over Mother
Who rolled in agony. The king’s scepter
Turned crooked. Struck down
By his inevitable karma, Kovalan fell…
Good and bad actions by turns bear fruit.
May virtue bless your life forever.”
I was surprised how serious you had become. You looked off to where the cemetary fell away into the marsh, as if for the distance to accommodate the voices of two-thousand-year-old shadows, voices like the moist tremors of leaves swaying in clusters above you and stepping away to the horizon.
I reached for the tear on your cheek and watched it leap to my finger. I knew of people who still suffered the fall of their heroes, and I was sad, too.
“Where was Kannagi all this time?” I whispered.
But you were fine. It was only a silence.
“Kannagi was in the forest with the, what do you call, worshippers of Kadukal. They were performing a round dance in the honor of Kannagi and singing to the goddess:
You stand on the body of your victim
With his head in your hand. The knife
Blade glints in the sun.
Who are we to drink his blood?
But their song became a warning:
The milk in the pot hasn’t curdled. Tearful
Are the eyes of the big humped bulls.
Some evil is about to happen.
The sweet butter in the hanging pot doesn’t
The lambs lie down and don’t romp about.
Some evil is about to happen.
And then a messenger came and interrupted the dance, telling Kannagi what happened to Kovalan…”
“Sushila, listen: the breeze blows but the leaves don’t move.”
“Some evil is about to happen.”
“The big humped bulls are crying.”
“Some evil is about to happen.”
“The dead have laid down—they aren’t romping about.”
“Some evil is about to happen.”
And still, I believe, you did not see it.
“But this is my favorite part, please. Kannagi brings a grief so great and terrible to the city that she could only be a goddess, and all the citizens of Madurai knew it, they knew a great wrong had been done by their king with the bent scepter—”
“It is the same. And it was bent. And please, this is my favorite, what Kannagi asks in the city:
Are there women here, are there women?
Are there women who would allow such vileness
Done to their own husbands? Are there
Such women here? Are there good people here,
Are there good people who cherish and raise
Their own children? Are their such good
Is there a god? Is there a god?
Is there a god in this Madurai whose king
Erred with his fierce sword? Is there a god?”
You raised yourself to your elbows again, lifting your breasts from the Earth, as you delivered your triumphant lines: “But you see? Kannagi was the god there. The Goddess who enters the godless city to find her vengeance.”
“And what is her vengeance?”
You pulled the strap of your white dress off your shoulder. Your eyes were wide, night-lilies flaming on a dark pool: you were Kannagi again. You exposed your left breast, lifting it slightly as if offering to your child the dark nipple as you sat up, leaning toward me until our faces were inches apart. “This,” you said, glancing down, “This was her vengeance.”
I was afraid to touch your breast.
“Kannagi went to the king and told him to check inside the bracelet, where he would find gems instead of the pearls that were inside the queen’s bracelet. When the king opened the ankle bracelet of Kannagi he saw the gems and realized his mistake and promptly died of shame. His wife touched his feet and died. Then Kannagi went out into the city, tore her left breast from her body, and threw it to the street where it summoned Agni, who burned the city, sparing only Brahmans, good men, cows, chaste women, the old, and children—burning only the wicked….Seeing it was finished, Kannagi became a goddess and rose to heaven, where Kovalan waited for her.”
You fell onto your back, your eyes closed. Your smile was like the silence of your departure, like the ascent of the goddess. You held my hand to your breast, too hot at first, but cooling as you fell into a sleep that opened on the old city of Madurai, where all but the wicked looked up at you; and I looked down at you, and we all witnessed the smile you left as you disappeared.
The smile as the smile of the goddess smiles no more nor less over the fervent incantations of her children for the sanctity of their supplications, no more nor less in benevolence over the weak or the strong or the saints for whom her descent remains unseen as the rage masked by her smile, widening over those of her children such as Sushila—stolen from me—such as I who left Sushila for Madras, where I so benightedly sought pilgrimage amid the chaos of the Kali Yuga.
Too soon I left Sushila behind. Now those who invited me will not repeat their invitation. Banished from the place of my exile, repelled by fate or chance or Maya or Hanuman, I have seen the Bay of Bengal for the last time. I’ll never again see the Coromandel. Like Puhar I have disappeared forever from Dravidian shores. Yet I appeal to you, Kali, that it not be true. You know how I was tricked. How we were tricked. One is invited by the forbidden, for that is how it fattens itself. Welcome, said the Great Deceiver.
Next door to me there is a dog—a gray, potato-shaped cur with toothpick legs. Born to suffering, he made his escape without transcendence, and now it’s a different man cursing and beating him. Because of this dog I see myself back in Madras slipping iddlis to one of the brown manged pariah dogs, the one with a dozen extravagant nipples. She refused the iddlis, twisted her short, fat body, her tail slapping arhythmic from the excitement. She was not hungry, she was only after my affection. How many times did she follow me into the house only to be chased out by the maid or Sushila’s father? She tried everyone’s patience. Gopal, the watchman next door, waved Sushila’s father off, telling him to put the rock down, then he gently encouraged her to run off unharmed. Next day Gopal creased her skull with a flat rock. Next life she would be a buffalo. Why did she choose me?
A car door slams, the dog next door barks and gets another beating.
I saw the Coromandel from airplanes and from trains, but as I recall it now it’s a palimpsest of maps come to life, emerging as a topography of contradiction. The burnt plains, the coconut groves, the rice fields, the brown rocky hills sloping down to dry riverbeds or underground rivers, the ghosts of jungles beyond the elusive Eastern Ghats, even the mangrove swamps further south, collide with the immense inhospitable pulse of the shark-filled bay. The wild beauty of the Coromandel is primal, of great clashing opposites which preceded life and suggest it was a negligible accident. Yet land and sea do not exist entirely in disagreement. Great rivers are offered the Bay, and when the sweating millions add a few degrees to the Madrasi air and the heat seeks to escape itself by rising, it is the slightly cooler breeze from the sea, sucked across the city early in the afternoon, that casts the illusion of relief. Later, one of the Bengal cyclones will stray westward and the sea will snatch another temple from the grateful coast.
A stone idol, Ganesh, looms shipwrecked over my shoulder, a Hindu Gargoyle, testament to the land’s defiance of the sea. When I close my eyes he scatters into a thousand illumined pieces, festering stars over Dravidia burst from her womb, a thousand dripping trumpets, Ganesh.
I can taste her still, even now, her nectar, kamasalila, like in the old days, like the juice from a carnivorous mango, for a while, before it again becomes the sulphurous froth from the fetid River Cooum, that immodest reeking vein laid across Madras, my companion on my pilgrimage from Annanagar to the shore where it is refused by the sea, refused as if the sea has had enough of death; it turns back on itself and the land and the air, blood of gangrenous time, fragrance of moribund space. I looked out from my bedroom window the first morning in Madras: the cock had crowed before dawn and had not yet been silenced, a cloud of forty goats had swept by, buffalo, bullocks, and pigs declaimed or stood mute with lazy dignity, a vendor of fortunes—a dwarf—walked by with his parrot, and my right hand would feed me breakfast—but what of my left? How was it done? I looked out the window and saw precisely how it was done—the dwarf held his lungi up with his right hand, and used his left to scoop the thick brown milk of the Cooum between his legs. And the smell, as of sulphur rotting like flesh under the sun, an odor corporeal and penetrating, outlasting the residues of skin and distance, which at the slightest jolt of memory returns with talons of supernatural strength to force you back under the Cooum, Sushila.
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 must count on 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.
It was during the last of my Indian fevers. On the morning of the day before my pilgrimage, salt from the sea in the air, a funeral procession passed by, foretelling an afternoon that would be long with drums, drums that would come upon me and recede, taunting me in rhythmic allegiance to the fever, a fever of waves breaking on the shore. I heard the drums approaching and listened with the same languid acceptance with which I heard everything from the nasal cry of the jasmine vendor to the hollow stentorian groan of the water buffalo. I lost consciousness for one of those sharply demarcated periods usually enveloping a deep, lengthy sleep, and awoke again to hear the drums just below my window. There was the cadence of Tamil prayers and the slow churn of wooden wheels. I went to the window and looked down at a corpse under a blanket of flowers. Beyond him the Cooum was still. As I stood leaning my weight on the window sill the fever receded like Kaveri floodwaters, leaving the lucid stench of swamped dreams, the malfermentation of so many years spent sifting the misapprehended vagaries of life into the idiocy of narrow intent. I stood at the window watching the funeral parade take the corpse away, one drumbeat a revolution of the wooden wheels and the rhythm of Saivite chants, and I no longer understood why I had gone to Madras, leaving Sushila behind. It should have been very simple. She had a year left in school in America, I had a job waiting for me in India. We would be reunited in a year. But nothing was clear to me as I leaned against the window sill watching the dead man being wheeled away. Where the drums my Indian death? Was the sea in the air Sushila calling to me?
The dead man had been an ineffectual, popular official whose death meant little enough that his mourning was complicated by neither treachery nor fear, and thus the drums beat cheerfully into the evening. During those hours I awoke repeatedly, each time my senses pausing involuntarily to assimilate the faint, insistent pounding of the drums, which had come to a halt somewhere across the Cooum in Arambakkam. Drums evoke through fever guilt by civilization; the white man knows nothing of their mystery, suspecting in them a force he has cheated from himself. I lay asleep and awake absorbed in a sweating symphony of emotions, never more than then a stranger, never more than then an exile from the drums. Yet somehow the very relentlessness of the drums, their suprazealous focus upon a single idea, eventually brought me out of myself. I understood the joke the drums were playing. I flew from my sickly body and hovered a moment between the drums and that wasting ectomorph under the rancid sheet, and when I returned my laughter went off with the drums.
But now that Dravidia has banished me and reclaimed her daughter, now that I have been abandoned by the drums, I dream of lying on the bullock cart under a blanket of flowers, passing under a window from which Sushila looks down upon me.
My laughter continued until the maid entered, followed by Sushila’s father. I knew they feared I was lost to delirium, so I quickly reassured them.
“It’s all right,” I said, “I’m only laughing at these drums drumming all day while I’m in bed sick…funeral drums…I’m all right, though, much better…really.”
Sushila’s father gave me a subtle, avuncular smile.
“Would you like some toast? I think you should have toast. To strengthen yourself.”
“Yes, please,” I said, and only then did I realize that the maid was not Kannagi. Sushila’s father understood and introduced me. Her name was Thaanaakalli, or Thaani. She was dark and sinuous with adolescent breasts, no hips to fill her sari, and though she was already taller than Sushila’s father I guessed she was about 15. Her eyes were shy and alert; it clearly took an unshakable faith in dharma for her to remain standing still over my bed awaiting orders. She may never have seen a white man before. She was like a threatened animal, riveted to one spot, her volition the condensed notion of flight, the first opportunity for which she waited.
When I arrived downstairs, Sushila’s father explained the Kannagi’s husband had come five days earlier. Three days later Kannagi received her pay and left without a word. They found Thaani the following morning at an agency that provided village girls. The agency held their money to keep them from running away.
“You cannot trust these village girls,” Sushila’s mother said. “If we pay them directly they leave. You think they give warning? Chee! This Thaani we won’t pay. Nuh-thing doing!”
Sushila’s parents sat at the table watching me eat. Their solicitation was suffocating. As I slowly chewed my toast and bananas the plans for my pilgrimage were already forming. Sushila was here and I was there, but an inchoate path was unrolling from my confusion to the sea, where I knew I would find her. The Hindu woman takes across the seas her own impenetrable jungle, so her parents think; but a holy Jamuna curved through a clearing in Sushila’s Vrindhavan, and near the banks swarms of bees chased arrows of jasmine. The blossoms fell onto her bed where she lay waiting for me, and the Gopis, Krishna’s milkmaids, were whispering for me to return to her. After so many months living with Sushila’s parents I knew that if I were discovered in that forest I would be hunted down like a solitary tiger. They watched me eat, my existence for them a matter of habitual concern, entirely removed from the verdant seething jungles mingling in comportment with my fever. I could tell them nothing. They would never allow me to be with Sushila. They would do anything for me as long as they knew nothing. I had to escape their kindness, for they would do anything to prevent me from going down. If it were up to them I would never leave the house. I resolved to tell them the next day that I was merely going to visit Nandu and Shyam at the Club—even then they would worry that I was still too weak. Yet it had more to do with presentiment of gathering desperation than strength. The goal of the pilgrim is to arrive at a shrine existing apart from evils, disease, and the web of unforeseen consequences. The temple is the house of the womb, where the final decomposition and dispersion gives way to new life. I was going to walk all the way to the sea; I was already being borne by something absolute, of the same essence as devotion, the same inevitability as action prescribed by the certainty of faith, a vision of a man indifferent to the swarm and press of the exoteric, walking out of Annanagar, down Poonamallee High Road, crossing the Cooum to the sea.
That night I slept like Kumbakharna. If Ravana’s army trumpeted and drummed in my ear, if elephants pulled at me, if I was belabored and cudgeled, I took no notice. The mosquitoes, geckoes, ant and squirrels left me alone. Nor was I cursed by dreams. For the first time since I had fallen ill, when dreams began to bleed from their cells, I slept without visions of the predatory spider, the black, hirsute, terrestrial carnivore that had been stalking my room. If I saw her once, I imagined the scarlet triangle on her back a satin cape flowing behind as she leapt upon her prey. She was above the door in hunting posture, a webless spider after meat; in that instance a rogue black ant nibbling at the remains of a cracker on a plate next to my bed. I knew that she was after the ant and not me, yet I froze like a crippled sambar; my terror, no longer a mechanism of warning, now rendered into a last moment of clarity, a glimpse of horrific, irrevocable truth, a final vision and the most true….The spider rushed down, across the door to the base of the wall, a jagged dash like eight slashing blades descending. The victim remained oblivious, working over the bits of cracker. The spider made her final charge, sending the plate across the floor as it seized the doomed ant. And so the myrmidon must not stray. I watched until she had carried him out the window, until the hem of her cape slid out of sight—and then I groaned, for I saw with excruciating focus that the terror would from then on be the pulsating contour of my fever…the room spinning, lurching, setting me on my feet as I lay enervated on my back, legs like grass in the wind, rampaging heat, shivers and desiccation, utter helplessness in a world of predatory spiders.
When I woke up the spiders were forgotten and I felt strong. I gathered my lungi and went to the window. It was only nine o’clock but the cocks had long been silent and the Cooum was in full agitation. The river was shallow. Strips of mudbank with tufts of wild grass rose like the humped backs of watering beasts. Men from the Kuppam were shitting and cleaning themselves still, each squatting on his own island. A woman in a vermilion sari washed a buffalo with a sponge. She had collected the hem of her sari between her legs and her muscular black thighs shone wet under the precipitate morning sun. It was already close to 100 degrees. Her hips rolled and shuddered as she worked, unable to free themselves of the damp, clinging cotton. She hadn’t bothered with a petticoat. She was taut and strong, her arms bulging out of the tight sleeves of her half-shirt, her breasts swaying and vibrating without vanity. I kept my hands on the window ledge. How far she was from Sushila, yet how she conjured Sushila before me, Sushila in her vermilion sari, made of chiffon, which she wrapped around her sky-clothed body so that her breasts and what little of her hips was covered, every curve under the diaphanous silk, receded in ghostly waves, yet pressed forward heavily in their immediacy, their submission, their offering. Yes, Sushila, precisely as the god who is both there and not there, the disincarnate stealers of men’s wives, the seducers of wicked Brahmins, more present in you than your own adamantine essence or not really there at all, like the thunderbolt splitting the lotus and the moon spilling out, Sushila, who are received only through the chasm of your intense devotion.
I saw children, too, wearing nothing but strings around their waists, chasing bicycle tires on the road, swatting them with sticks to keep them going. Every so often one of them would break off from the others to squat and shit beside the road, always on the Cooum side, for the trunk of a singularly huge mimosa tree rose from our side, just beyond the compound wall, and soon people would gather in its shade, most of them sleeping until the sun let up. That early there was only the man who ironed clothes. Sushila’s parents sent him all my garments. He looked up and saw me watching him and I stepped back from the window.
In the bathroom I had to wash myself with tepid water that Thaani had brought up in buckets. The water in our sector had been shut off again. In one of the buckets two geckoes were struggling to stay afloat, each trying to climb the other to remain above water. In the midst of a frenzied mating chase they would fall in pairs with surprising clumsiness. The culture had assimilated their antics; an obscure Tamil pamphlet interpreted the fall of the gecko according to where on the Hindu body it landed. If a gecko fell onto a plate of food, the food was said to be poisoned. If while I spoke a gecko geckoed, my words were true. Their toes, comprised of thousands of microscopic suction cups, allowing them to cling upside-down from any surface, were useless on metal when wet. They remained silent as I removed them from the bucket. I told them that Sushila was mine and they still said nothing. I had no idea the portent intended by their dive into my bath water, but that was no time to worry about it. The only rains for months had come from the cyclone that had spared Madras, landing just north in Andhra Pradesh. The sea gave us water and we offered nothing in return. Presumably she remembered and the next year many temple geckoes were drowned.
My breakfast was waiting for me on the table downstairs, cold iddlies and tomato and coconut chutney covered by a cloth. To my relief, Sushila’s parents had gone out. I put five iddlies on a plate, dished some chutney and went back upstairs, through the puja room, and onto the back verandah, where on my first night in India I had suffered the delusion that I had found my home. Perhaps the mystical identification I felt was merely relief, like a warm bed of Kusa grass for Sita after her first long day of exile in the forest. The verandah was enclosed lovingly by coconut palms and papaya trees, their big fruits within easy reach, a cluster of papayas even draped over the wall as if India’s flora were welcoming me my first day. And as the palm fronds swept the cement in the breeze, the darkness closed around Chakra, Sushila’s younger brother, until I could only make out odd angles of his handsome face in the glow when he drew on his cigarette. We kept some of the mosquitoes at bay by burning a coil, but that night it would not have mattered to me if their entire South Indian legions had descended. They were new mosquitoes, the drone of their approach a tambura, and all the other night insects of Madras like the gentle chiming of a santoor. We drank cups of sweet coffee and smoked Gold Flake Filter Kings. His brother Gautam was in America with Sushila and he had not seen him for five years. I told him about Gautam’s affair with a Korean woman, and he told me what he had yet to admit in his letters to Gautam, that he was in love with a woman named Padma, whom he had met at medical school in Bangalore. He was in his third year and had yet to pass an exam. He had no interest in becoming a doctor, but he could not refuse his mother. The trap was set when his father sold their second house, in Mylapore, in order to purchase Chakra a seat. When I had first asked Sushila her caste, she had told me proudly that Daddy never let them know. Now she told everyone she was Scheduled Caste, for they had bribed Chakra’s way into Ambedkar Med School. Eventually I spoke to Chakra about Sushila, about how she was not who her parents took her to be, how terrified she was of her impending arranged marriage. We talked about Sushila a long time. She was having trouble with Gautam, her sensitive brother Gautam, who was constrained by his culture to control her, a task he was emotionally ill-equipped for. She had difficulty concentrating in school, was actually quite lucky to have been accepted into a graduate program. And I told Chakra how lonely she was now; I was really her only close friend…but I could not bring myself to trust him with the whole truth. We stayed on the back verandah for hours. I could feel the absolute difference of place in the air itself, I could see it in a novel arrangement of stars, I could smell it in the sea across the low city. Nonetheless, even then rejection was caressing me beneath the gravid night I had mistaken for a womb—in the morning I was greeted by the sight of red dots, dozens of tiny red eyes, covering my ankles and my feet. What I was assured was a simple dust allergy I am certain now was really the first indication that I was destined to be banished from my home. I am far from anxious to regret any elements of my disaster, yet I cannot help but think that had I allowed myself to be rejected I would never have come to be reviled.
But that first night I only knew that I was finally home; and I shared in the pathos of a family in separation. Chakra seemed to want to extract from me the entire essence of his brother, his fragrance, his thoughts, his desires, as if he were using the cover of darkness to transform my outline into Gautam’s. As we talked, Chakra clung with more and more base and fervent appeal to Gautam, loving me as if I was Gautam, and then loving Gautam, gently brushing me aside, into my own wound from where I fashioned Sushila out of their flickering similarities in the intermittent gasps of weak light. At the airport two or three days or nights before I had turned from her saddened lips with nonchalant resolve, and every time I thought back I was amazed I had been able to go through with it, incredulous as a creature sliced in two and left alive. Upon Chakra, who already bore her likeness with such cruel regality, I bestowed Sushila’s tremulous lips, those lips whose voluptuous glide over words and sighs were ever redolent to me of their encounters with my flesh. During the endless days of subsequent useless accounting I have been able to determine that at exactly the same time I sat in the dark with Chakra she was erupting into this house, this very room in which I now write, looking around in delayed astonishment to find that I was truly not here, that I had indeed left for India, and bursting into tears. As in the same way, the morning of my pilgrimage, I sat on the verandah staring at the remains of a coconut, which I had carved crenulations into, making an ashtray for Sushila; and staring at it felt her as if she had already cupped it in her slender hands—and then I, too, so many lives later, burst into tears.
After that first night Chakra regained his detachment, leading me around Madras like a humorless Arjuna. He was due back in Bangalore after nine days. He would have left on schedule on a Saturday morning had not his father received the news that Uncle Sudhir had accidentally fallen into the well behind his house in Vaniyambadi. On Friday night Sudhir’s family had been watching the news on television, news that revealed nothing startling, when Sudhir rose somewhat mysteriously and left the house. Cousin-sister Mohanna, timidly suspicious, followed him, waiting just inside the back door for him to return. She must have decided he had gone to relieve himself, they said, as if doing it outside would not have been unprecedented for Sudhir. When it became clear he’d been gone too long the family began searching the compound and those neighboring, sending the men down the dark streets. No one said whose idea it was to shine a torch into the well.
The Ramayana teaches that there are virtues superior to truth. The test of truth is harmlessness. Truth should harm no living creature. Thus when Dasaratha died and his son by the wicked Kaikeyi was summoned from afar, the messengers were instructed not to tell Bharata of his father’s death. I could not imagine anyone walking out of his back door at night and accidentally falling into a well, such an oddly quick and guided event. After Sushila’s father told Chakra and I about Uncle Sudhir’s death I left them alone, making my way to the well in back. One of the dogs who did not know me leapt from it when I approached. I leaned over and looked down at the hint of muted reflection. In the days before Alexander, Sage Narada, in his exacting honesty, insisted that he was not an arhat, for he had gained liberation only through wisdom. He was a dry saint, a condition he likened to that of a man lost in the jungle, nearly done in by the heat, on the brink of collapse, desiccated, dying of thirst, who by chance comes upon a well with no rope, no bucket, no means of drawing the water. He looks into the well and has the knowledge of water but he cannot touch it. In the days before the Moghuls, Obeyd e’ Zakani offered sound advice to a populous burdened by the innumerable edicts of grizzled maulvis: Do not throw yourself into a well unless it is absolutely necessary. Was it somehow incumbent upon Uncle Sudhir? Did he have his own private Jallianwala Bagh bullets singing past his ears? Or was he a spiritually starving man for whom the bottom of a well signified attainment of a perfect union between the highest wisdom and action free from ego? What were the imperatives of detachment for a man dying of thirst? Perhaps for Sudhir to remain alive outside the well would have been to dehydrate in the midst of spiritual plenty. Perhaps he calmly dove into the well, quenching his thirst via the one ineradicable proof of detachment—the willful, emotionless plunge unto death.
“It was suicide,” Chakra said from across the well. “We don’t want Mummy to know.”
If it was suicide, as of course it must have been, though such murders are not unknown in India, what of the rest of the story? The well was no farther from the house than any other well from any other house, maybe 10 or 15 feet away. How then could Mohanna not have heard something if she was standing at the door? Would she not have heard the splash? Or do the sounds of life extinguished at the bottom of a well pass the other way?
I should have kept my questions to myself.
“I don’t know,” Chakra said; “fortunately unfortunately she did not hear. He could have walked straight out and jumped directly into the well, before Mohanna even went to the door. It is best no one thinks of these things.”
“Doesn’t it bother you that the story doesn’t quite add up?”
“No. There is never any truth in these cases. I will go to Bangalore on Tuesday.”
Or there are many truths. Consider Mohanna, one of her, how she would be haunted: searching in the dark for her father, her hand on the cool cement of the well to guide her as she skirts it, unaware that below her father is dead, or worse, still involuntarily gasping to extract oxygen from the water. What did Mohanna believe happened when a man died? Did she believe his soul would depart instantly? Did his soul rush by her as she moved around the well? Could she recall uncertainly a sudden chill in the air, being kissed by something lighter than vapor?
The well offered its own pilgrimage, an easier one at that, but I was no dry saint, no kind of saint at all. I was far from attaining a purity of pursuit, and if nothing else the waters of the Bay of Bengal would replenish my tears. I cast the remaining iddlies over the wall for the dogs and went to pick up the coconut. I held the shell in my hand, tears falling until all that remained was artifice. “These are for you, Sushila,” I whispered, and drank of the fruits of my desire.
Today I offer only ashes to this coconut urn scoured twice by Indian ants. I did bring it back for Sushila, but she left in such a hurry. Poitu varein, she taught me, I will go and come, the Tamil goodbye, the lie passed off as a polite formality. With so many comings and goings things get left behind—it’s easy to get used to; disorientation becomes sweeter and sweeter until nothing is more intolerable than knowing where you are. I wear my lungi, but I don’t look out the window. Certain bathroom rituals I maintain, and I have no need for silverware. I cross my legs and concentrate so intently on Kali that I catch myself looking at the walls for geckoes and the double row of red ants, incoming and outgoing. They were a part of my childhood, Sushila said after I told her that twice I woke up to find them crawling over me. The second time I had an open sore on my foot where a blister had broken. When I woke up hundreds of ants were involved in the communal task of feeding on me, clusters of them scourging the wound itself. They feed indiscriminately. Those same ants cleaned the salt remains from this ashtray. I look over the walls for the double row of ants, but of course they are not there…and Kali’s mouth is just a pair of lips painted red.