The women of her mother's village say that if one twin diesby water, the other will die by fire. Renu's cousin Rajeshdied on a train. During the crossing from Madhupur toChombatore, a storm swelled and rode in from the coast,stripping leaves off drenched branches, tangling long-armedbushes and shrubs, uprooting entire palms. The bridge swungback and forth, the rice paddies flooded, and the train, soot-coveredand mud-splattered, trembled its way forward, shuddered,and slipped off the tracks into the water below. Hercousin, the Gogol diving from his pocket, his ugly slipperscrushed, must have spun like a Catherine wheel in the air,tumbling, his glasses flying as the train fell. It took two daysfor the news to reach the family in America, two days forthem to untwist his body from that unholy and anonymousdeath. Renu's mother wept and kept her away from the stoveall day.
They had always said Rajesh was her twin. Renu's motherand her aunt discovered they'd conceived the same day, andwatched over each other's pregnancies. They would untucktheir saris and stand naked in front of the mirror, examiningtheir round bellies, comparing the fullness, the smoothness.When their time came on the same day, they kissed eachother and held hands during the deliveries. "Rajesh and youwere identically wrinkled," said Renu's mother.
When the news arrived, only Renu and her mother were athome. Everyone shouted on the phone. Renu's aunt Chitrasaid one word and began to weep. Aunt Bala took the receiverfrom her to bellow, "It's all so horrible." Grandfather Dasasked about the weather in the U.S., and no one knew whattosay. As Renu watched her mother on the phone, she knewpreparations were being made for a flight out of New York.Soon they'd be back, back in the insufferable heat, back inthe lazy ripple of an afternoon breeze, back on the streetswhich smelled of dung and dirt. They would light a fire, theywould cast her cousin's body on a pile of sticks, a momentaryprince atop a pyramid. But Renu has already left. She's inthe gardens, in the dusty paths between the banyan groves,the cool sleeping mats, the netted beds, the circling ceilingfans of their grandfather's house.
Renu's grandfather's house was named "Nirmila Nivasam"after her great-grandfather's wife, a woman who died on apilgrimage to Benares. Her grandfather, too, wished to dieon holy land, and the minute his throat scratched in an unfamiliarway or his head throbbed in a rhythm he couldn'tidentify, he would demand to be placed on a boat to sanctifiedland. For years, Bala ignored him, administering balms andmedicines. The summer Renu turned ten, though, Grandfathercaught a sickness that would not go away, and someactually spoke of taking him to Benares. Bala said he wasn'twell enough to travel and persuaded everyone to visit as usual.When Renu's holidays came up, the only other guests at thehouse were a distant aunt with her baby, her cousin Anu,and Rajesh. She could hardly wait to see Rajesh, havingmissed him at the last family reunion during Diwali; hisparents had taken him to Delhi and he'd promised to bringhome an accent.
He was waiting at the station, skinnier than ever. He lookedlike a starved stray cat, hunching his shoulders, pushing backhis broken glasses. Renu taught him an Orissan song she'dlearned, and he taught her the words of a new pop tune. Bye,Bye, Miss American Pie they sang in the taxi.
Grandfather Das always insisted they pack their schoolbookswith them whenever they visited, "to review for the newterm." It never did any good to explain that grade schoolwasn't made up of accumulated knowledge, that each yearwas sharply separated. The weight of a previous term draggedRenu's bags to the ground. After their first meal, he summonedthe twins to his sickroom and asked them to namethe principal river systems in India, the important dates inthe French Revolution. Jumna, Godavari, Krishna, Ganga,Renu recited slowly while Rajesh sped through the formationsand dissolutions of assemblies and the major beheadings.Their grandfather listened with his eyes closed, frowned attheir mistakes, and abruptly dismissed them. They left himas he let go of great coughs.
The summer seemed endless, and the stillness of the long,hot days was broken only by their grandfather's coughs; eventhat had an ordered meter of its own. But everything changedat night. It wasn't only the dark that descended uneasily butthe strangeness. Out came the bats, the snakes, the creatureswhose names Renu didn't know, but whose forms she imaginedinto horrible shapes, unfathomable eyes. Nirmila's ghostwas said to visit the garden nightly; she was seen gliding inand out of the trees, the sound of her bangles and ankletsdistinctly jangling. Sometimes there would be snatches ofmusic, of bells and light drums, and the unmistakable noiseof dancers coming from the dark depths of the trees. Theaunts gathered on the porch in the evenings and talked ofdevils and demons who lingered around the earth. They spokeof Kali-worshipers, mad women with matted hair and skullnecklaces, possessed by the powerful goddess. The twins knewthat no matter how much they were interested in the stories,they could not ask questions; even to say the name of thegoddess was to curse themselves.
The privy was located in the back of the garden, and anolder cousin or aunt used to walk Renu there at night, carryinga flashlight. Renu hated it when Anu walked with her, holdingher hand firmly in her own sweaty one. Anu was theToad Cousin, with a small, squat head and bulging eyes, theugliest girl in town. She studied anthropology at school andrecited aloud from her Tribal Cults of the Western Ghats lateinto the night. She told stories Renu didn't want to hear,stories Renu recounted to Rajesh, adding gory details at will.If a monster had two heads, Renu would give it six andtremble at her own invention.
The summer in daylight blazed gloriously. Even Anu couldn'tstop their happiness. That, though, was checked by the Sanskritmaster. He was their grandfather's idea, but they knewAnu must have had a sneaky hand in it. One day the twinstried to climb coconut trees in imitation of the man who easedup and down the burlap trunks to knock down fruit. Grandfathersaw them straddling a tree, thought they were in needof civilizing, and hired Mr. Ramdas.
There was nothing the twins dreaded more than the soundof Mr. Ramdas's umbrella clacking on the cobbled street. Hisstep was light, quickening as he approached the porch, a swiftfigure in a spotless dhoti with a pinched-in pockmarked face.He was bursting with brains. He permitted only slates, refusingthem paper. They each had their own thin chalk pencilswhich broke as easily as sandstone.
From two to four, when the day was brilliant and inviting,they sat straight-backed and cross-legged on the porch. They'dstart off with the alphabet and then go through vocabularyand declensions while Mr. Ramdas offered interruptions, elaboratingclausal dilemmas and refining pronunciation. As thetwins wrote their lessons, Mr. Ramdas talked god. He spokeof the creation of the world, the creation of death to balancegood and evil in the newly created world, the compositionof the strands of matter, which are good, evil, and passion.He warned them of the anger of the gods when balanceswere disturbed, the celestial wrath that caused the earth tosplit open, fire to consume everything in sight and spit outash, draping the world in darkness. That such terrors couldrun out of his mouth so rapidly without his face losing itsplacid expression filled them with awe.
Comic books provided solace after their lessons. On thecool floor of the storeroom, next to sacks of rice and flour,bins of dried lemons and peppers, Renu and Rajesh spreadtheir comics and read as lizards darted noiselessly across thewalls. Rajesh read with his chin cupped in one hand, thinbangs falling over his eyes. Even at ten his hair was fallingout, a sign Bala said marked him for the gods. Renu's hairwas thick and nothing she did, rubbing bitter roots onto thescalp or merely tugging at it, made it any thinner.
In the comic books, they found a wider range of evil andits manifestations, superbeings who turned cities into powder,sucked away oceans, held back comets and meteors in abreath. This world's laws were defined by Green Lantern'sCode and the Justice League. In their games, Anu, Grandfather,and Mr. Ramdas were adversaries as fierce as BlackWidow, Magneto, and Doctor Doom.
Eventually came the day when Mr. Ramdas had to visitrelatives in another town and classes were canceled. Whentheir aunt told the twins the news, they looked at the groundas if seeking irregular verbs in the grass, but when she toldthem there would be no work to make up in the master'sabsence, they could no longer contain their joy. They racedaround the courtyard in mad circles, shouting "pow!" and"zowie!"
Archery was their passion those days. Grandfather Dashimself had taught them to bend bows from skinny mangobranches. They tied the ends with string and peeled longsticks for arrows. There was nothing like the smell of younggreen branches, a tantalizing moment of expectation, like thefirst anticipated bite into dark, purple sugarcane.
They chased the monkeys off the roof as they clamberedup. The mango and sapota trees trailed their leaves languorouslyover the red tiles and whitewashed walls. The curvedarrows spiraled onto the roof of the porch below while thestraight ones, which they named, clattered on the tiles in frontof the house. The twins began to compete and drew arrowsat the same time.
Renu knew she heard a thump or a thwack, some unnaturalsound. One of the arrows had found a mark. It was a treetrunk, perhaps, or a gold-brown coconut husk, but even atthat distance, even through the clump of trees, they saw thefall, the swift, graceless descent of something unknown.
Hurriedly, they made their way down the house, acrossthe yard. There, at the far end of the courtyard, at the footof the holy jasmine tree, on top of a few crushed flowers, laya monkey. A young monkey, hunched on its knees with itsrear up in the air, much like their baby cousin in sleep.
"It's dead," said Rajesh.
"No, it's just asleep," said Renu.
"It's just hurt."
"It's dead," repeated Renu, for so it was.
They were dazed with horror. How could one arrow havekilled a monkey, an arrow without a point, an arrow withonly a name? What was to be done with it? Should they buryit or merely toss it on the refuse pile like a dead rat? Theycould not find the arrow anywhere.
"What's happened here?"
Chandran, the gardener, had come upon them so silentlythey were startled.
"It's dead," blurted out Rajesh.
Chandran clucked his tongue sympathetically and shookhis head. Taking a stick, he gently turned the monkey overbut found no wound.
"How did it happen?"
Renu and Rajesh were silent.
"It's not hurtdid it just fall?"
"Yes," said Rajesh as Renu vigorously nodded.
And suddenly, incredibly, Chandran's face began tochange. His eyes widened and his mouth struggled to smileand form an O at the same time. He began to tremble. Heclapped his hands together and shouted for their aunt.
Bala huffed over, her large body heaving under twelveyards of sari. Chandran told her that the monkey had fallenby itself, that the children had discovered it, that it fell nearthe holy jasmine tree.
"It's Hanuman, it's the god himself!" shouted Chandran.
And to the twins' amazement, Bala's face began to changeas well. She underwent the same transformation Chandranhad, and the two of them stood shaking and chanting, theirhands clasped in devotion.
Hanuman! Hanuman the monkey god, big, strong Hanumanwho could carry ten people on each shoulder, whosetail lit up with fire to raze an entire city, who was once sentto fetch a certain herb from a mountainside and brought backthe entire mountainwas this Hanuman whom they'dkilled? Bala ran to tell Grandfather Das, saying that Hanumanmust have meant the young monkey as a sign, and whoneeded Benares when the god himself had come to restorehis health? Renu and Rajesh stood as still as stone, struck bytheir spontaneous lie. They had killed an emissary of thegods.
Word got around that Hanuman had visited Nirmila Nivasam,that the god had enjoyed some fruit from theirgarden. "For who has better mangoes than us?" reasonedAunt Bala. A stream of people came by to see the body, tovisit the holy ground, to touch the walls of the house. Balawas enraged and ordered Chandran to lock the gate, but thatdidn't stop anyone. They, the curious, the enraptured, hungonto the gate to peer through the bars while Chandran repeatedthe story as if it were he who had discovered themonkey. And in that crowd of worship, in that frenzy ofbelief, someone suggested a shrine be built, that the occasionnot be let by so casually.
Renu and Rajesh felt sick at dinner. Bala recalled the timeshe had had a vision of god when young. "I myself have seenKrishna in the banyan grove. He was standing right therewith his little finger cocked and his peacock feather askew.And you know," she said, swallowing a mouthful, "I havenever slept well since." Renu knew then that she too wouldbe plagued with insomnia. Grandfather Das insisted on eatingwith them, declaring he felt better already. "The last timethere was a visit from a god in town was when Sri Venkateswarawalked through the old market, where Lolly's Emporiumis now. That was long before Independence," he said,his voice raspy. Bala finally noticed the twins' flushed facesand sent them to bed. "Too much excitement," she said.
"Why can't we tell them?" asked Renu.
"We killed him, we can't tell anyone," said Rajesh.
They consulted Anu's textbooks and learned that an animal'sunnatural death usually foretold disaster. In some tribes,people were stoned for killing an ox or a goat.
"They won't throw rocks at usthat's stupid," said Rajesh.
"We should run away," said Renu.
Renu slept fitfully that night. She heard her grandfather andher aunt arguing over whether he should be allowed to smoke.She dreamed of being chased by monkeys. She saw Brahmaopening and closing his mouth as cities slipped on and offhis tongue. She dreamed of being whirled away into nothingness,that awful place Mr. Ramdas spoke of. She realizedshe was without hope. Renu shared a room with Anu, whosevery snores sounded ominous.
A collection was taken and builders were contracted. Themasons came over to discuss the type of stone to be used forthe shrine, the color, the texture. It was to be a small one,on the corner of Beena and Victoria, across the street fromRoy's sweetshop. Their grandfather believed that walkingwould help his illness, and stopped to inspect the work everyday. The twins accompanied him on these junkets, urginghim to slow his pace, rest a while, all of which he ignored.As soon as they neared the construction, Renu and Rajeshwould mutter excuses to their grandfather and run on toRoy's store. There they would sit on the ice cooler, suckingat orange Fantas, reading comics until Grandfather Das wasready to leave. But not even the Phantom offered them anysanctuary. That purple-skinned mystic seemed to point a fingerat them as he admonished his readers to turn in thieves,government spies, liars of all kinds.
In the days that followed, Renu was filled with a desperatesense of foreboding. She and Rajesh had tampered with adivine scheme and they would be punished. At first, theyworried about their grandfather, who was determined to recoveras rapidly as possible. One morning Renu heard himbathing without waiting for someone to heat the water. Shebanged on the door, terrified he would collapse to the floor."Go back to bed! The gods are looking after me," he thundered.It seemed they might be, for he did look better. Maybethey hadn't really hit the monkey, maybe it just had had aheart attack. But they had seen it fall, they stepped in by nottelling the truth, they upset the balance, they were causingthe world to totter dangerously. Renu sighed. Nothing couldbe hidden from the gods. What everyone took to be a goodsign she knew signalled doom.
The builders were fast, and in a week the town had a newshrine. Everyone was going to be present at the shrine-initiatingceremony. The house filled with the sound of rustlingsilk as the whole family prepared for the event. Renuhad to have her hair washed and anointed with oil, stand stillas her aunt stretched and pulled it into braids with newribbons.
"Why are you squirming? We're going to Binder's afterthe prayers."
But Renu knew she'd never make it to Binder's Hotel,where they served real American sundaes. Whatever punishmentthe gods meant to deliver would arrive at the ceremony.The twins were miserable on their way into town.
Renu tried to imagine the horror that awaited them. Theearth might break open, swallowing the shrine and them withit, or maybe there would be an awful moment of communaltruth, when all fingers would point to them in anger andoutrage. Maybe there would be something even worse. Shetried to think of something worse as she prepared herself fordeath.
A small crowd had already gathered in front of the shrine.A flat-bellied priest was accepting flowers and fruits for sanctifying.Renu and Rajesh tried to linger behind, but Balagrabbed them firmly by the shoulders.
"Think of it, you're heroes in a way. Don't be shy," shesaid, her grip, falcon talons.
Renu wondered if they were destined for reductive reincarnation,if they'd be turned into moths or spiders. Maybeit would be only Rajesh who'd get into trouble, since he hadlied first, but since they were twins, Renu thought in a rushof loyalty and melodrama, she shared in his fate.
The priest began the prayers. A baby started to cry andher mother shushed her. Renu wondered if they'd be struckmad. "Rama-Rama-Rama," chanted Chandran at the edge ofthe crowd, nearly drowning out the priest's words. Maybethey'd be turned into stone. Rajesh stuck his hands in hispockets and refused to look at her.
Hungry village boys stood in a group, waiting for thecoconuts to be broken so they could steal the pieces home.A woman brought her baby, green with colic, to be cured.A blind woman touched her eyes in silent supplication.Two armless men worked their way to the front of thecrowd where the priest rubbed red powder onto their foreheads.Renu realized the enormity of her crime. The earthwhirled.
"She's dead, she's dead," shouted Rajesh as she hit theground.
* * *
Renu woke to white mist. Bala parted the mosquito nettingand handed her a glass of juice. "It must have been the heatand the crowd," she said.
Renu and Rajesh spoke of the events a good deal that night.They were mystified. They did not understand why the godshad overlooked them. The shrine had not fallen apart, Grandfatherwas still in good health. Despite everything, they couldnot whisper away the sense of imminent doom, the notionthat everything was waiting to explode, that the gods wereonly biding their time.
The shrine remained popular for a while. Anu said that peoplewere god-mad, that they always looked for a new place toworship. The following summer, Renu's family moved toAmerica. She and Rajesh wrote thick or thin letters, dependingon their moods. Once he wrote that few peopleremembered the shrine, and seemed to shrug the whole thingoff. "We were just spooked kids," he wrote. They neverreferred to the incident again.
It had remained with Renu all these years, though. Whenevershe slipped into the American way of life, when she stoppedwearing the red tikká on her forehead, when she stoppedgoing to temple, she could not free herself of the idea thatthe gods were still hunting her, that they were waiting toseek retribution.
Outside, the rain sounded as if it were wearing away theroof, making pools in the lawn, sinking the house. Tomorrowshe would go through the photographs, the lettersit wasenough now to summon up his face. But already the memorywas dim, one minute indelible in her mind, the next minutegone. They would probably not let her see the cremation,believing the sight to be more than unmarried girls couldstand. But she was determined to attend to the rites; shewould say good-bye to her cousin, her childhood companion,her twin. She would brave those flames.
In the kitchen, she heard her mother drop a plate. Theywould eat sparely tonight.
Excerpted from THE JOURNEY by Indira Ganesan. Copyright © 1990 by Indira Ganesan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
By Francisco Rebolledo
Translated by Helen R. Lane
LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 1993 Francisco Rebolledo.All rights reserved.