Read an Excerpt
It was at the corner of Brigade and Mahatma Ghandi Road that he had the first intuition. Not that he was superstitious, quite the opposite. Over the course of his career, rationality had been his trademark. It rendered him ill-suited to this country, and yet sympathetic to the Indian fatalism that he had grown to appreciate over the years. But he should have heeded the signs.
First this so unexpected thought of “home”: Whenever he thought of this word it was usually in conjunction with the apartment in Bangalore or, more rarely, the town house in Uppsala. But this time a vision of his Vaksala Square neighborhood rose before him. Of course he thought of his childhood street from time to time, but this time the recollection gripped him with unexpected force. He paused, was pushed aside, and came to a halt outside the entrance of a store that sold Kashmir silk.
There was nothing about MG Road that was reminiscent of Uppsala. Absolutely nothing. The intense, almost insane traffic, the eternal honking, and the cloud of exhaust fumes hovering over the street, all this was unthinkable around Vaksala Square. Almost everything he saw was unimaginable on Salagatan; the holes in the sidewalk, some so deep they seemed like portals to another world—a darkness into which to descend. The stream of people, who adeptly veered to avoid the stopped man; the vendors of “genuine” Rolex watches and “police glasses” who avoided him with equal adeptness; the security guard from Guardwell posted outside the shop that promised excellent deals on shawls and saris but that in reality milked Westerners’ credit cards for a couple of thousand rupees extra. No eye-catching sums but enough to ensure that the Mafia from the north made handsome profits. At least that was what Lester said.
He saw the apartment building in which he grew up, the courtyard with the newly raked gravel of Fridays, the neatly edged lawns and plantings of roses and lilacs, the obligatory mock-orange bush and the unpleasant-smelling viburnum by the park down toward the railway tracks. An almost rigid order reigned over the landscaping around the buildings. An impression of immutability that he, at a brief visit many years later, could testify had lingered a surprising number of years. A utility building had been added, poorly placed and completely different in style; the gravel was no longer quite as attractively ridged; the flag post had been removed, perhaps temporarily; but the fundamentals remained, and the substantial lilac trees leaned thoughtfully, heavy with age and with twisted trunks as if they writhed in regret at the passing of time.
All this came before him as he stood on the pavement along MG Road. The guard looked more closely at him, perhaps nervous that the old man was about to collapse and thereby force him to engage.
Sven-Arne smiled reassuringly. The guard jerked his head but remained otherwise impassive.
Was it nostalgia? Could it be called that, although before this moment he could not have been able to imagine returning to Uppsala? But suddenly this dreamlike vision appeared, as when one imagines soaring like a bird or diving into the depths like a fish.
It was most likely the lack of possibility that caused his pain. He even lacked a valid passport. He took a couple of steps, mostly to escape the watchful eyes of the guard, stopped, then walked off in the direction of St. Marks Road.
The next warning came shortly thereafter.
After a few hundred meters, he saw a couple walking in his direction. He was immediately convinced that they were Swedes, even though there was nothing in their clothing or behavior that gave this impression. He walked toward the catastrophe without a thought of slipping into the alley he had just passed. He would have been able to get away, as he had done so many times before when he had had this premonition. But it was as if the learned defense mechanisms that had functioned so well for over a decade had now collapsed after the odd experience outside the silk store. He walked toward them, defenseless.
Their gazes met when they were ten or twenty meters from each other. The woman scrutinized him, her eyes going from his face to his strange clothing (in her opinion, most likely) and then she looked away with indifference. As they passed each other he heard her say a few words to her companion, a man around forty years of age. He was sweating in his suit and tie, one pace behind the woman.
She was speaking Swedish. Northwestern Skåne, maybe Helsingborg, he thought, always childishly pleased with his ability to place a person’s dialect. “I think we should ask Nils anyway.” Her tone was decisive, almost aggressive. Sven-Arne had time to catch the man’s unease. It was clear that he did not want to place a question to this Nils.
Just as they reached each other, the man glanced at Sven-Arne and for a moment the latter thought he saw a subtle shift in the man’s facial expression, as if he recognized him, and Sven-Arne also caught an imperceptible reaction. The man slowed down slightly and lost even more ground to the woman. Was it just an unconscious reaction, an appeal, as if to say, “Help me get away from this woman, distract her for a moment so that she’ll drop the idea of talking to Nils”?
Sven-Arne hurried on his way, without turning around.
* * *
The street noise grew louder the closer he got to St. Marks Road. A rickshaw had collided with a motorcycle, and two men were involved in a heated dispute. A woman standing next to the motorcyclist was crying. Blood trickled down her forehead. The rickshaw driver was screaming out his fury, saliva was spraying out of his mouth, and he was gesturing wildly to underscore his arguments.
The crash had blocked traffic and caused a serenade of honking, from the bellowing of the trucks to the ridiculous high-pitched signals from all the yellow rickshaws trying to maneuver their way through. Sven-Arne slowed down but did not stop. He had his inner crash to sort out.
Afterward, when he had caught his breath at Lester’s, he cursed his own stupidity. He should have interpreted the signs better. Despite the evident warnings, he had continued along the street.
His goal had been Koshy’s, where he returned to eat dinner once a year, for sentimental reasons. It was the only nostalgic act he allowed himself.
One evening in November 1993, disoriented and hungry after having vomited on the plane from Delhi, he had found himself standing outside the airport and had asked a taxi driver to take him to a good restaurant. That had been Koshy’s.
Now he was going there to celebrate the twelfth anniversary of his arrival to the city that had become his home. It was, especially at first, an expression of self-torture, to test his own resolve.
The very first visit had not gone very well. He had burst into tears. Perhaps it was the exhaustion from the painful journey through Europe, the long flights and the extraordinary tribulations that caused him to collapse silently at the table. The waiter became aware of his distress and hurried over, but Sven-Arne waved him away, dried his tears, and opened the menu.
He was a stranger when he staggered out of the airport, and the sense of alienation had grown during the short ride into the city center. At his table at Koshy’s he realized for the first time the enormity of his actions. Until this point he had been acting automatically without any thought of the consequences, from Uppsala to Arlanda airport, at Heathrow, at the terminal in Delhi. He had only one goal: to get away.
The yearly visit to the restaurant was therefore a test. He always sat at the same table. If it was occupied, he waited. Then he recalled in his mind the first experiences of Bangalore, the confusion and indecision, the uncertainty if he had done the right thing. Every year he came to the same conclusion: Yes, it had been the right thing to do. What other conclusion could he come to?
He stepped into Koshy’s, relieved to escape the noise of the street and any possible new unsettling events. He went to the right, to the somewhat more exclusive part, pushed open the swinging door, and set his sights on the table, which was obscured both by a pillar and the maitre d’. The latter had been the same for all these years, a broad-shouldered wrestling type whose hair was growing thin on top but who still had an imposing handlebar mustache, large hands, and a heavy-set, choleric face whose expression could nonetheless lighten at a moment’s notice.
It came as a complete shock. Sven-Arne Persson turned on his heels and fled.
Copyright © 2011 by Kjell Eriksson
Translation © 2011 by Ebba Segerberg