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Kandaalethrayum kowthukamundithine, pandu
Kandilla jnan evam vidham kettumilla
How beautiful it is to look at, never
have I seen or heard of anything like it
—Nalacharitam [First Day]
Love. Let us begin with sringaaram.
Do we know other words for it?
Or do we know it by the widening of the eye, the arching of eyebrows, the softness of the mouth that curves, by that swelling of breath from each nerve-end wanting to cup a contour?
We have words for this flooding that can sweep away all other thoughts. Pleasure, longing, lust …we call it by so many names. It is human to do so. To give a name to everything and everybody, to classify and segregate. For only then can we measure the extent of this need to know, to conquer, to hold this wondrous being, this creature that suffuses every moment with a strange and inexplicable yearning.
Look around you and tell me, what else is love?
Could it be this month?
There are flowers everywhere. Balsam and hibiscus. Yellow trumpet-shaped flowers and the tiny, delicate ari-poo in the hedges. Marigolds, chrysanthemums, countless hues that shape our needs. The undergrowth is dense. Snakes slither through unkempt land. This is an untamed month, wild and wilful. Rain pours, so does sunshine.
The harvested fields stare at the skies with a forlorn vacantness: the past and the future. The present is the harvest that lies in homes, in wood-walled manjas, golden and plump. Love lives in the present. All else is memory and hope.
There are no fruits. Neither cashew apple nor jackfruit, mangoes nor palm fruit. Perhaps in some untended part of the garden, a pineapple rests, nestling among ash-green swords. The fruit of the month is paddy. Kernels filled with the sweet fullness of plenty. This is how sringaaram feels.
The skies are lit up with the moon. A night orchestra plays: crickets with malaccas strung on their wings, the frog with the rattle in its throat, the hooting owl, the rustle of palm leaves, the wind among trees.
During the day, high up in the skies, the crested lark sings. The vanampaadi. From heaven’s doors, a trail of the unknown, caressing the soul, stoking desire, propelling needs into words …
Love for the unknown. That, too, is the face of sringaaram.
We walk up the staircase, two to a row. Chris and his cello; Uncle and I; Shyam and the red-shirted railway-porter laden with bags.
Chris pauses at the top of the staircase and then walks towards the railing.
Beyond the railway lines is the riverbank. Or what is left of it. Most of the sand has been carted away to build homes. The river, when it is swollen with the monsoon rain, creeps into the houses that line the riverbank. Mostly, though, the Nila is a phantom river, existing only in the memories of those who have seen it when in full spate, swift and brown and sweeping into its waters all that dared stem its flow.
Chris stands there and takes a deep breath. I try to see the view as he is seeing it: the gleaming line of water, the many pools that dot the river bed, the herons fishing, the treetops and the tall grass that grows alongside the river, ruffled by a breeze, the distant hills and the clear blue skies, and I know fear. Already, in these few minutes of being with him, the familiar is endowed with a new edge.
I look at him. With every moment, the thought hinges itself deeper into my mind: What an attractive man.
It isn’t that his hair is the colour of rosewood—deep brown with hints of red—or that his eyes are as green as the enclosed pond at the resort. It isn’t the pale gold of his skin, either. It is the way he’s combed his hair back from his forehead: a sweep of order that gives up midway and tumbles into disorderly curls. It is the strength of his body and the length of his fingers, that belies what seems to be a natural indolence. It is the crinkling of his eyes and his unhurried smile that throws his face into asymmetrical lines. It is the softness of his mouth framed by a brutish two-day stubble. It is how he appears to let order and chaos exist together without trying to separate one from the other. He looks as if he doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him.
I see Chris turn to speak to Uncle. ‘Philip told me about this view. He said I should stand here at the fourth pillar on the bridge and what I saw would make me want to never leave.’
Uncle goes to stand alongside Chris.
When they had clasped hands at the foot of the staircase, there had been a peculiar silence, resonant with secret words they spoke to each other in a language that neither I nor anyone else had ever heard before. But Shyam, Sham as Chris calls him, broke that moment of grace with a carelessness that is so typical of him.
‘What is this?’ he asked, pointing to the instrument that Chris carried on his back. ‘A violin’s grandfather?’
‘I don’t think it’s a violin.’ I tried to interrupt Shyam before he made an ass of himself. ‘I’ve seen it in films and a few times at musical performances. I can’t remember what it’s called, though,’ I hastened to add. Was it a cello or a double bass? I wasn’t sure.
Chris drew his hands from Uncle’s and stepped into the conversation with the ease of one walking into a familiar room. ‘This is a cello,’ he laughed.
‘A what?’ Shyam asked. ‘Did you call it a cello?’ He turned to include me in the sweep of his joke. ‘When you get to the resort, I’ll show you our cellos,’ he said with a broad wink.
Chris looked puzzled. He searched my face for an explanation. How could I tell him that Shyam was referring to the hot cases that kept the food warm in the buffet at the resort? It trivialized the magnificence of the instrument. I turned away in embarrassment. He wasn’t just a sham, he was an uncouth boor, this husband of mine.
Now, he walks to where Uncle and Chris stand drinking in the view, and says, ‘It’s a pity that you can’t see the resort from here. Haven’t you seen enough of this? The view from the resort, I promise you, is even better. But first, I have something to show you. Come along.’
The two men prise themselves away and, with a look that I read as resignation on Chris’s face and as long-suffering on Uncle’s, follow Shyam. He leads them to a yellow board slung on the side of the staircase. ‘Now this is what I can’t tire of looking at,’ he says, flicking a dried leaf off its frame.
‘Near-the-Nila,’ he reads. ‘A river retreat with everything you wished for and more. A/c and Non A/c cottages and rooms. Multicuisine and Kerala Speciality Restaurants. Ayurvedic Massages and Cultural Extravaganzas. Business or Pleasure, Near-the-Nila knows your needs better than anyone else.’ He pauses. And then, darting an earnest glance at Chris, he says, ‘This is what I hope will make you want to never leave. In fact …’
I can’t stomach any more of this Near-the-Nila promotion. I nod to the porter and we begin the descent to the other side of the platform where the car is parked.
‘Who is he?’ the porter asks. ‘Has he come to study kathakali?’ Mohammed the porter is as much a fixture at the Shoranur railway station as the Non-veg Refreshment Room and the SLV newsstand. For as long as I can remember, Mohammed has carried our bags. It is part of the ritual of every journey. When I was a child, Mohammed took our bags, brought the biriyani parcels and then went with me to the newsstand to buy a comic. Later, when I was a grown-up and travelling to Bangalore where my college was, he would guard my bags while I bought a magazine.
These days I hardly go anywhere and seldom come to the railway station. But Mohammed had spotted me as I walked in and had rushed to my side, to fetch and carry as always.
‘No, no,’ I say, suppressing a smile at the thought of Chris studying kathakali. ‘He’s a writer. He’s come to meet Uncle. And he will be staying at the hotel.’
Retreat and resort are words that have no room in Mohammed’s vocabulary.
‘What’s that thing on his back?’ he asks, gesturing towards the cello.
‘That’s a musical instrument,’ I say.
‘How does he play it? Do you know? Does he keep it on a table or does he prop it against a wall?’
The cello is going to be part of many a discussion, I realize.
I smile and unable to resist mischief, I say, ‘I think he holds it between his legs.’
Mohammed flushes and looks away.
‘Here, Mohammed,’ I say, pressing a few notes into his palm. ‘Some tea money.’
Mohammed pockets it carefully. He clears his throat and looks into the middle distance. Both of us know what the money is for.
‘Ah, here they are,’ Shyam says, opening the car door. ‘Porter, put the bags in,’ he orders.
‘So how much will that be?’ he asks, drawing out his wallet.
Mohammed lets the lungi he had hitched up when carrying the bags fall to its proper length. Then he crosses his legs as a measure of humility, and scratches his head to suggest ignorance.
‘In which case, this should suffice,’ Shyam says, drawing out two ten-rupee notes.
For a fleeting second, Mohammed’s eyes meet mine. The twenty I had given him earlier was part payment, paid in advance.
Mohammed’s mouth twists into a half smile. I can see contempt in the curl of his lips and I cringe. He rubs the notes between his fingers and I worry that he will say something caustic. But he holds his tongue and, as if they were five-hundred-rupee notes, he folds the money with great care, thrusts it into the pocket of his shirt and walks back to the station.
Chris looks at the car and asks, ‘How do we all fit in?’
Shyam pats the bonnet of the car. ‘This, my friend,’ he says, ‘is an Ambassador, the first car to be manufactured in India.’
I steel myself to show no emotion. When Shyam set up Near-the-Nila, all the staff who worked there and even I, mistress of the property, though only in name, were given a sheet with all that we were supposed to know. Everything a foreign tourist would ask about: Ayurveda, kathakali, kalarippayatu, Kerala cuisine, the Thrissur pooram, Mangalore tiles and, although the car is manufactured in West Bengal, the Ambassador.
Shyam pauses. He wants me to describe the car’s features. I pretend not to understand. He sighs and begins, ‘The Ambassador, like I was telling you, was the first car to be manufactured in India. It’s fuelled by diesel, which makes for unparalleled economy in running costs. Petrol in India costs a great deal. This car has a fuel tank that can hold forty-two litres. It costs about US $42 to fill her up full tank. Not much by your standards, but that’s monthly wages for a labourer here. The Ambassador has an easy cold start and 9” diameter brake drums for effective braking.’ Shyam mimics with his hand the motion of the brake.
Three more lines and he will be finished. Hurry up, I want to tell Shyam. Can’t you see Chris doesn’t care whether it has a five-speed gearbox or independent front suspension?
‘The suspension is what makes an Amby, as we call it, perfect for Indian roads. Now, I could get a Japanese or a Korean car or even a Ford, but in ten years, while my Amby will still run, these new cars will be scrap.’
Chris wipes his forehead and asks, ‘But how do we all fit in?’
Uncle, who hasn’t uttered a word for a while now, beckons to the driver of an autorickshaw. Chris says, ‘I’ll go with him. Problem solved, right?’
He opens the rear door of the car and lays his cello carefully on the seat.
Shyam doesn’t say anything. I know he isn’t pleased. There was so much more he had planned on telling Chris.
Uncle turns to me and says, ‘We’ll be at the resort before you. Where do I take him?’
‘Cottage No. 12,’ I say. ‘But first, do take him to the restaurant for breakfast. We’ll meet you there.’
I know that Shyam wants Chris to have the best cottage, the one closest to the river and farthest away from the main building. Chris, Shyam hopes, will include a glowing account of Near-the-Nila in the travel book he is writing.
So we drive to the resort, Shyam and I wedged in the front seat with the driver.
In the back lies the cello, a proxy passenger, foreign and aloof and stirring in me much of what I have steeled myself to never feel again.
I turn to glance at Shyam’s face. Shyam is handsome. His skin is light and smooth; though he shaves every morning, by late noon, a bluish shadow appears, hinting at facial hair that he keeps ruthlessly under control. His features are even and chiselled; his body straight and supple; his hair jet black, abundant and neatly combed. He looks like a popular Malayalam film star. An action hero. Shyam knows that other women look at him. That he incites interest and perhaps even lust. I, however, feel nothing for him except perhaps a habitual annoyance.
I see that Shyam is upset with how the morning has progressed and suddenly I feel a pang of pity for him.
The car ride back to the resort is usually one of the highlights for him. Down the main road, and then Shyam would point to a stack of chimney towers by the river and say, ‘That used to belong to Radha’s family. The oldest tile factory in the region.’
‘This,’ he would say, pointing to a modern three-storey building, ‘used to be a cinema house. Murugan Talkies. It belonged to Radha’s grandfather. Some years ago, it burned down and this came up instead.’
And so the list would continue. A shopping complex. A rice mill. A row of houses. A rubber plantation. A mango orchard. A line of coconut trees …all of which my family own or once owned.
Then it would be his turn. This was the moment he waited for, when he could point out his trail of acquisitions, leading up to Near-the-Nila. And sometimes, me. He has been cheated of this, I think now.
Everyone in Shoranur knows everything about us. It is only with strangers that Shyam knows the measure of his triumph.
I pat his arm and say, ‘Don’t be upset. There will be more opportunities.’
Shyam’s eyes bore into mine. ‘What are you saying? What makes you think I am upset? I’m just annoyed. Who does he think we are? His porters? To follow with his bags and his silly buffalo of an instrument …’
‘Ssh …’ I try to calm him down.
Shyam has an exaggerated sense of self-worth. Or perhaps it isn’t as exaggerated as it is reduced. He sees slights where none are intended. And for this, too, ‘Radha’s family’ is to blame.
Suddenly I know what it is I feel for Shyam. Neither pity nor even affection. Just responsible.
‘I know, I know,’ I say.
Shyam slides his fingers through his hair, which parts and falls back. Once, I used to run my fingers through it. Now, when I look at it, all I feel is a certain detached interest.
‘You need a haircut,’ I say, trying to change Shyam’s mood.
‘Do you think so?’ he asks, tugging at a lock to check its length. It doesn’t matter if he thinks otherwise. Shyam will cut his hair because I’ve asked him to.
Shyam would bring me the moon if I asked him to.
The car sinks into a pothole and lurches out, on to the road. The cello in the back moves precariously. ‘Stop,’ I tell the driver and we pull to the side of the road.
I get out and try to move the instrument case into a safer position. I think of what’s within. The burnish of the wood, the satiny feel. I let my fingers slide along its length in a swift furtive caress. How is it that I have begun to care about something I haven’t even seen before? How is it that I know that within this case is perhaps the most beautiful thing I would ever see in my life? I feel dread swamp me again.
When I sit beside Shyam, he smiles approvingly. ‘The last thing we need is that instrument damaged. We don’t want him going back and giving our resort, or our roads, caustic notices. Though I wish he had brought something easier to transport. Like a flute, maybe?’ He sniggers.
The driver’s mouth stretches into a smile. ‘Do you think he’s a flute man?’ he asks, impishness flaring in his eyes.
Shyam darts me a quick look and grins. ‘You never know with these arty types! I suggest you keep your distance, anyway.’
They smile at each other, pleased with their gutter humour. With being able to be ribald in my presence, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn’t understand.
Playing the flute. Cocksucker. Wimp. Low-life …They don’t really mean it, I tell myself.
I keep my face expressionless. Shyam has forgotten what I know. Shyam has forgotten that I have lived outside this protected world he likes to keep me in.
In that hot car, I feel cold and shivery. I feel alone. I lay my hand on my thigh, palm up. I wish Shyam would take it. If he does, all will be well, I think.
My hand lies there, open and untouched. And then it occurs to me why I would never ask Shyam for the moon.
I hate having to ask.
Why is Radha wearing her ‘the woes of the world are on me’ face? Sometimes she tires me with her unhappiness. What is she unhappy about?
I am the one who has a rightful claim to unhappiness, but I have put it all behind me. And so should she. Besides, we now have Near-the-Nila, apart from everything else.
I knew that taking Uncle with us to the railway station was a bad idea. I had told Radha so. But she was adamant. ‘Christopher is coming here to meet Uncle. And Uncle’s very keen to go with us.’
‘I know,’ I tried to persuade her. ‘But we don’t want him to focus only on Uncle.’
‘Shyam,’ she said, in that tone that makes me want to slap her. As if I were a little child who had to be made to see sense. ‘As far as Christopher Stewart is concerned, Near-the-Nila is just another resort. If we shove it into his face, he’ll either be dismissive about it or ignore it totally. He’s staying with us, isn’t he? We have all the time to woo him and impress him with everything you want to impress him with. But right now, we mustn’t forget that Uncle is his top priority.’
I said nothing. I could see what she was getting at, but I didn’t want to admit it. Uncle, I knew, would put in a good word for us. Put in many good words for Near-the-Nila.
He is very fond of me. He is Radha’s uncle, but he has much affection for me. I know that. I think it is because the two of us, he and I, have only a precarious hold on the bloodline. We are outsiders, after all. Though, when I said this to Uncle, he glowered at me as if I were a fly in his paal kanji and snapped, ‘I really don’t understand what you are talking about. They are my family. Sometimes, Shyam, you talk a lot of nonsense!’
I said nothing. I didn’t mind Uncle snapping at me. I know the truth, as he does. As much as Uncle might claim kinship, he is only Radha’s father’s half-brother. And nothing is going to change that. He is as much an outsider as I am. So it is natural that we watch out for each other.
Which is why, when Christopher wrote to Uncle asking if he could find him a house to rent for the three months he intended to be here, I emailed him back offering him Cottage No. 12 at the resort, at a very reasonable rate.
Radha had smiled and patted my arm. ‘That’s very generous of you, Shyam. Uncle is happy that you are doing this and that, too, for a stranger!’
The light in her eyes made me want to sing. Usually Radha’s eyes are like the bulbs in the evening. Just barely alive. So how could I tell her that when Uncle showed me the letter, I had copied Christopher Stewart’s name on a piece of paper and done a random search on him on the Net? Or that I had discovered that he wrote a column for a travel magazine and regularly contributed travel features to several publications all over the western world? I knew that this was perhaps one way of getting into the international tour circuit without paying a hefty commission to tour operators. Christopher promptly mailed me back saying he was delighted and that he had visited our website and though he seldom did such pieces, he thought, given what he had read about Near-the-Nila, it might be possible to write a small piece about the resort.
I was puzzled by the foreigner’s interest in Uncle. It isn’t as if he is a world famous performer. Uncle is not so well known, even in India. There is no point in discussing this with Radha, however. She springs to Uncle’s defence if I make even a casual remark about his lack of success. ‘Not everybody is like you, Shyam. Money isn’t everything,’ she said once. ‘People make choices, you know. This is Uncle’s. He is happy with his art and that is enough for him. A successful artist isn’t always a good artist or even a happy one.’
I didn’t say anything then. Sometimes she talks utter nonsense and there is no use trying to make her see things any other way.
I looked at Radha’s face again. ‘I am happy that Uncle’s true worth is finally being recognized and I am glad that I can be part of that …facilitate his recognition in some way,’ I finished lamely, wondering if I was overdoing it. But the truth is that as I spoke those words, I knew that I really did feel that way. I am fond of Uncle, very fond of him, though I don’t think I will ever understand him. Or why he does what he does.
Such as going away in the autorickshaw and taking Christopher Stewart with him before I could even tell him what to expect at the resort. It isn’t that I particularly wanted to be with the foreigner. Now that I’ve met him, I don’t think I like him all that much. He’s much too young, for one. I expected an older man and he can’t be more than thirty-two or thirty-three years old. Maybe it’s also because Uncle couldn’t seem to take his eyes off him. As for Radha, it wasn’t that her eyes were as bright as emergency lamps, but they seemed to shimmer.
What the attraction is, I can’t understand. He’s pleasant looking enough, but then so is my driver Shashi. As for that music case …he’s here only for a few months. Why did he have to bring it along? How did he bring it with him on the aircraft? I must remember to ask him.
I must admit that the first glimpse of Chris standing there on the platform did clutch at my throat. It was like a photograph. One of those old photographs with curling edges, of a perfect stranger. You look at it and without knowing why, you feel a strange connection with the person in it, so much so you think you can’t rest till you have it framed and hanging on your wall. That was how I felt in that first moment. The next moment, I saw that two more days of unshaven chin and he would look like a backpacking budget tourist. The kind I certainly don’t want staying at my resort, lest they drive the big spenders away. I will have to find a way to tell him that I can’t allow that …what is the word, the grunge look. Maybe I can couch it as a joke. I will also have to teach him the right way to pronounce my name. Is it so difficult to say Shyam?
I could have done all this if he’d been with us. Instead, he ran off with Uncle and left us to bring his bags. Bastard!
Each time I look at Near-the-Nila, I feel a great frisson of excitement shoot through me. This is mine, I tell myself, all of it, from the concept to the last tile. If it wasn’t for me, Shoranur would have remained a dying railway town. Now there is a trickle of life, which I have breathed into it. I, Shyam, twice removed poor nephew and outsider. It is I who have done this, not the heaving bulwark of Radha’s family.
Outside the gates we stop and I look at the two lions seated on the gateposts, on either side of the black metal gate topped with gold-coloured spikes.
I had the lions painted gold to match the spikes. They glitter in the sunlight, my twin lions, and I feel that swell of pride again.
Radha hates my lions. ‘I told you gold was the wrong colour. They look so garish. I wish you had left them as they were. White. Or, if you wanted colour, why not terracotta?’
‘I hate terracotta,’ I say.
‘In which case, why don’t you paint the roof tiles gold as well?’ she says in that other voice she reserves for me, tinged with scorn and frilled with contempt.
I ignore her. I don’t want us to quarrel. So I do what I usually do when I want to avert a squabble. ‘Shashi,’ I ask, ‘is your wife back?’
Shashi’s wife works in a tailoring shop and supplements her income by sewing bedcovers and pillowcases for the resort. I am all for promoting local industry.
Radha mutters, ‘Fuck!’
I pretend not to hear her. I don’t think the driver has heard her, either. I don’t think he knows the word. His English doesn’t extend to fuck, I think.
‘Fuck,’ she says again. ‘Fuck the tiles. Fuck the lions. Fuck you.’
‘Shashi!’ I raise my voice to smother hers. ‘I’d like Ammu to start work on the pillowcases right away. We need six sets urgently.’
That settles Radha as I knew it would.
We drive into the resort and when the car pulls into the portico, I time the doorman. He has an allotted time of two minutes to welcome the guest and open the car door before the guest does.
Sebastian, the new recruit, takes four minutes. He is an impressive looking man, six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a great handlebar moustache. While I did hire him for his looks, I expect some efficiency. He’s been told this. I will have to call a meeting later this evening, I think. Radha could do so much here, but she chooses to flit in and flit out. That reminds me—I wonder if the gardener’s assistant has remembered to spray Flit around Cottage No. 12. Can’t have mosquitoes sucking Christopher Stewart’s blood and virility away. I want him alive and well and willing to write paeans about Near-the-Nila.
‘What is this?’ Radha asks.
I hear the surprise in her voice. I turn and walk to where she is. There are several trees along the driveway and there amidst the trees stands Padmanabhan, tearing the fronds off a palm leaf and stuffing them into his mouth.
‘Oh, is Padmanabhan here already?’ I ask.
‘What is this elephant doing here?’ Radha demands.
‘Nothing in particular.’ I try to inject breeziness into my voice.
‘Then why is it here?’
I shrug. ‘This is Kerala. How can it be Kerala unless we have an elephant?’
‘But we don’t have an elephant, Shyam.’ She stares at me. ‘Have you bought this creature?’
‘Don’t be silly. Much as I would like to own an elephant, I can’t afford to. I fixed this deal with the elephant’s owner. We have the palms that elephants like to feed on and a few leaves from the trees aren’t going to cost me anything. I also pay the mahout a small wage. So you see, everyone is happy. The elephant, the elephant’s owner and the mahout. In return, the elephant has to be brought to the resort twice a day, except when he has to attend a temple pooram or garland some visiting MP. Don’t you think it’s a good idea? My guests will get to see an elephant really close, perhaps even feed him a hand of bananas. It all adds to the atmosphere.’
‘But it’s such a damn cliché. Kerala and elephants …it makes us look foolish.’ The scorn in her words eat away my smile.
‘Clichés are clichés because they are true. Besides, I’m not wrong in saying my guests expect it. Look, you go to Rajasthan and you expect to see camels. You come to Kerala and you expect to see elephants. Tourists like these things. It makes travel exciting for them. Seeing things they don’t see at home, doing things they don’t do at home.’
‘If you ask me, I think it’s in poor taste!’
I give up. Radha, I have learnt, very often dissents for the sake of dissent. So I smile and say, ‘Never mind.’ And then, something perverse in me makes me add, ‘Can you truthfully say that you don’t pass an elephant on the road almost every day?’
Radha sighs. ‘It could be the same elephant. For heaven’s sake!’
‘How do you know?’ I ask slyly.
‘Grow up, Shyam!’ She stomps away.
I stand there admiring Padmanabhan for a while. His tusks gleam in the light. I walk towards him. The mahout smiles. ‘Don’t you want to be introduced?’ he asks.
The elephant moves. The chains around his feet jingle.
‘Is it safe to go near him?’ I ask. He seems enormous.
‘He’s as gentle as a baby,’ the mahout grins.
I stroke the baby’s trunk and feel something warm gather within me. One day you will be mine, I think.
I walk to the reception. ‘Are they here?’ I ask.
Unni, the reception clerk, smiles. Unni is a prince; a descendant of a branch of the royal family that lived in this region. He has a university degree and little else. When I decided to start the resort, I offered him a job. He’s smart and efficient, and in the course of a conversation with my guests, I let it drop that he is a prince. They like the thought, too. Of having a prince call them a taxi and arrange shopping expeditions and sell them postcards. Some of them go to the other extreme and almost apologize for having to ask him for their room key. Unni doesn’t mind either way. After a few days of working for me, he said, ‘I just wish I was a full-fledged raja. It would please them better to be able to say “Maharaja, two postcards please.” ’
Unni shuts the register he is writing in and says, ‘Uncle and the Sahiv have arrived. They are in the restaurant. The Sahiv said to leave his instrument in the car and that he alone would take it out and no one else should.’
I turn around. Sebastian, to make up for the delay in opening my car door and hoping to please me, has already pulled out the instrument case from the car. Damn! ‘Put that back,’ I say quickly. ‘The Sahiv will take that out himself. You can take the luggage to Cottage No. 12. And if you see the gardener, ask him to spray some Flit around the cottage. Not inside. Only outside. The Sahiv will run a mile if he smells it!’ I smile to take the bite from my voice.
‘Where’s the Sahiv from?’ Sebastian asks.
‘America,’ I say. America will impress him more, I think.
Sahiv and Madaama. No matter how often I teach them to refer to foreigners as tourists, they continue to call them Sahiv and Madaama. I go to the restaurant, where Radha is seated with Chris and Uncle. The steward rushes to my side when he sees me. ‘Sahiv asked for a boiled egg and toast and coffee,’ he murmurs in Malayalam.
Chris darts me an amused look. ‘What’s a Sahiv? I heard that on the railway platform as well.’
Radha smiles. ‘A corruption of the word Sahib, which is Hindi for master. Sahiv and Madaama, from the days the white men reigned rather than visited.’
I listen to her. She can be charming if she wants to be. How pretty she looks today. Her waist-length hair falls straight and silky as rainwater down her back. She’s wearing a pale pink cotton sari that casts a rosy flush on her cheeks. Her eyes shine with merriment and her lips are stretched in a smile. If she was this charming more often, I could concentrate on the administrative details of running the resort.
Chris grins and says, ‘Touché!’
‘We’ve left the instrument in the car,’ I say, feeling a little left out.
‘Don’t you trust us with it?’ Uncle teases.
I stare at him. I have never heard Uncle speak English. I didn’t know he spoke it so well. Why then does he insist on making his students speak Malayalam and wrap their tongues around syllables that are like blocks of wood?
‘Zha,’ he makes them parrot. ‘Zha as in mazha, pazham, vazhi …’
Mazha—rain; pazham—fruit; vazhi—way: he would gesture the words with his hands, with mudras they could decipher, while their tongues flipped, flopped and tried to slide through the sound of zha.
‘No, it isn’t that,’ Chris tries to explain. ‘It’s just that the cello is very valuable. I had always dreamt of being able to afford a cello like this one and now that I have it, I am extra cautious with my dream.’
‘Tread softly because you’re treading on my dreams.’ Radha’s voice is soft.
What does she mean, I wonder. Uncle has a strange expression in his eyes. Only Chris seems amused. ‘Yeats, isn’t it?’
I repress my sigh. One of her poets. I thought she was past all that.
‘Is this all you are eating?’ I ask as the steward comes in with a tray. ‘Why don’t you try some of the Kerala dishes?’
Chris slices the top of his egg deftly and says, ‘Oh, I will. Thank you very much. I am not very hungry now.’
The restaurant is half full. It is only eight in the morning. In a little while, most of the guests will arrive for breakfast.
We are not full up. In fact, only six of the twelve rooms and three of the eight cottages are occupied. Later in the day, a group of Germans is expected. Tomorrow, when Christopher wakes up, the resort will bustle with life and the ja ja ja of Germans. That will show him how popular we are.
I get up and go into the kitchen. ‘You forgot …’ I tell Baby George, the cook. He looks at me blankly.
One evening, Varghese, who owns a machine-tools unit in the smallscale industries complex at Kolapulli, and I were coming back from Alappuzha. Varghese’s sister and her husband own a small island in the backwaters. They converted the family home into a resort and are now booked through the year. Varghese offered to take me there so I could see how everything was organized. On our second day there, he took me to a toddy shop. Unlike most toddy shops that have only a number, this one had a name: Chakkara Pandal.
I don’t like toddy. Never have, except when it’s freshly tapped. Then it tastes like coconut water and bears little resemblance to the foul-smelling, sour toddy. But Varghese said that the food at Chakkara Pandal was worth a visit.
‘What kind of food is it?’ I asked, thinking that a place called Chakkara Pandal probably served only sweet things.
‘The usual—matthi-poola, meen pappas, erachi olarthiyathe—toddy-shop food,’ Varghese said as we rowed up the canal—or rowed down; I don’t know. All I could think of was, I hope the fish didn’t come from these filthy waters.
‘The owner likes old songs. He named it after one—Chakkara pandalil, then mazha pozhiyum …’ Varghese hummed the song.
Chakkara Pandal, when we got there, was nothing like the sugar bower the name suggested. It was dark and dank, and smelt of stale sweat and fermented coconut sap. But there was Baby George, dishing up the finest food. All I needed was one mouthful of beef olarthiyathe to know that this was the man for Near-the-Nila.
‘You are wasting your talent here; come to my restaurant and you’ll be appreciated,’ I said, offering him three times his pay, with full benefits.
Baby George agreed instantly. All was set, I thought. The only thing I had to watch out for was that Baby George didn’t get too friendly with Chef Mathew.
Chef Mathew had been to catering college; he knew how to make soufflés and puddings, soups and steaks—everything a guest might want, but seldom asked for. Mostly they preferred to dine on Baby George’s creations. And yet, I paid Chef Mathew twelve times more than what I paid Baby George. If Baby George ever found out …I shudder at the thought of his leaving.
At first, I wanted to call the restaurant Baby George’s Kitchen. Then it occurred to me that Chef Mathew might be offended. Besides, Baby George after a few days might stake a claim to the ownership of the restaurant. This is Kerala after all, where even squatters have rights. So I decided to take a cue from the toddy shop where I found Baby George and called my restaurant Mulla Pandal.
I trained jasmine to creep along a trellis and scent the air. On every table, we placed a little card that explained the legend of the mulla pandal—the jasmine bower.
‘Baby George, you forgot the coconut oil,’ I say again.
Baby George grins. ‘Sir, you scared me,’ he says and takes a special can of coconut oil reserved for this purpose. ‘I didn’t forget. I thought I’d wait for the guests to come in. No point in wasting oil.’
He drizzles coconut oil into a saucepan. The oil heats and slowly an aroma spreads, filling the kitchen and percolating into the restaurant.
Just a faint whiff. Too much, and it would turn their stomachs. Just a faint whiff to conjure images of wood fires and bronze cooking pots, rustic life and discovery. Usually the guests would let it trickle up their noses and instead of settling for a frugal breakfast would ask for a full Kerala spread.
It isn’t easy managing a resort. I have to think ahead of my guests all the time.
I let the aroma trickle up my nose. My stomach rumbles. ‘Baby George, I’ll eat here this morning,’ I tell him and am rewarded with a beam.
Would Radha want to join me? It’s been so long since we ate a meal together at the resort.
The table overlooking the river, my favourite table, is unoccupied. The others have gone, leaving as their signature bread crumbs, shards of eggshell and three used coffee cups. I wonder where they are: Uncle, Radha and the Sahiv.
In my mind, I have begun to think of Christopher as the Sahiv. Where has he spirited my family to?
The steward pads to my side. I look up. It’s Pradeep.
I run a small, tight ship. Fifteen employees in all, and each one of them handpicked by me. Anyone who shows the slightest inclination to laziness or an unwillingness to do more than the scope of his job has to go. I can’t afford it otherwise.
‘Look at Unni,’ I tell them. ‘He is a prince, but he doesn’t mind being reception clerk, postcard vendor and travel agent. He even carries the baggage to the room or the car if the doorman is busy with another guest’s bags! I know this is not how other resorts run, but you must understand that there is nothing to this town. And the guests are not as many as we might like. I can’t hire too many people and have them sitting around twiddling their thumbs. I’d have to close this place down. This way, you can be sure of a regular salary. It’s up to you, of course.’
Pradeep helps in the kitchen and during meal times dons a uniform and transforms into steward. ‘Sir,’ he says. ‘Madam said they’ll wait at the reception.’
Then he looks around and says softly, ‘The Sahiv at table four was complaining of the smell of coconut oil.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He said it was much too strong for his taste!’
Pradeep is one of my best employees. Apart from being able to speak English, his loyalty to me is complete.
I sniff the air. The smell is a little excessive. ‘Tell Baby George to use less oil next time,’ I say.
Pradeep nods his head and pads away. The boy walks like a cat, on the balls of his feet.
I pick up the card on the table.
Once upon a time, a young maiden fell in love with the moon. Every night she stood under the night skies and appealed to the moon to make her his. The moon bathed her loveliness with his light but remained far away. One night he could resist her beauty no longer and kissed her on her lips. She felt herself flower and so great was her joy that she became a jasmine. A flower that blossoms at night only when the moon touches it.
The Jasmine Bower is a celebration of earthly appetites. Let the Jasmine Bower rule your senses and we assure you it will be a truly memorable experience.
I had written the text myself. Radha had giggled as she read it. She said, ‘You do this very well. I never thought you could write stories or that your imagination was so, so …’
‘I am a businessman, not a storyteller,’ I interrupted, though I was delighted by her praise. ‘Here is the English translation. I did it myself. Will you read it for me, please? I didn’t go to a fancy school like you did; mine is basic SSLC English! So there might be errors.’
Uncle had put his glasses on and read the Malayalam text.
‘Do you think I should add something?’ I asked.
Uncle looked up. ‘No, it’s very good. I didn’t think you had it in you …this artistic streak!’
I said nothing. What did they know of me? I used to write poetry. Until Radha’s father found my book of poems when I was fourteen and said, ‘All this is very nice, but poetry is not going to put food in your belly. For that you need money. Put aside this nonsense and do something worthwhile, chekka.’
Chekka. He always called me that. As though by referring to me as boy, he could rob me of even the dignity of a name. Since he kept my family fed and clothed, I didn’t protest, though I hated the word.
‘I am not a boy; I’m almost a man,’ I told my mother angrily. He had referred to me as chekkan in the presence of a group of relatives. She hushed me as she always did. ‘Don’t let him hear you, or he’ll start his rant about ingrates and how it’s better to bathe a stone in milk than help relatives …do you want to hear that all over again?’
Yet, when he needed to sort out the mess Radha had caused, he had come knocking at my mother’s door and then the word chekkan magically disappeared. For the first time, he called me Shyam. I was Shyam, the man whose eyes he couldn’t meet.
‘Your breakfast is getting cold,’ Pradeep says in my ear.
‘Why do you creep up on me?’ I snap, dragged from my thoughts.
I see the hurt in his eyes. I pride myself on never losing my temper. To make up for the spurt of anger, I try to joke. ‘You must have been a cat in your last birth.’ I pause and peer at him. ‘Has the cat been sipping some foreign milk when no one was looking?’
‘Not this cat.’ His mouth wobbles with suppressed laughter. ‘This cat is afraid of hot water and AIDS.’
Ribaldry is a great leveller.
I tear off a small piece of appam and dip it into the egg masala. In my mouth, the soft fluffy appam melds with the spice of the gravy. It is delicious. I eat slowly, savouring each mouthful. Let them wait, I decide.
I do not understand this. Even in that first moment, I felt I knew him. It can’t be. How can it be? He has never been to India. ‘This is my first visit to India,’ he told me in the autorickshaw.
Was he in the audience when I performed in Houston a couple of years ago? He did say that he has been living in America for some years now. But all I can remember is a line of faces uniformly Indian: the women in mundu-veshti and laden with jewellery, and men in silk jubbahs and mundu. I can’t remember a white face, no, not even in the periphery of my vision. So why do I feel as though I know him?
When I took his hands in mine, what was it about him that tugged at me, somewhere in the pit of my stomach? A sweeping tenderness that made me want to clasp him in an embrace. In my heart syllables tripped: Ajitha Jayahare Madhava …Krishna meeting his childhood companion Sudama after many years. Krishna the king who can read the woes of Sudama the pauper. Krishna, who forgets that his life is blessed with abundance while Sudama’s is cursed with emptiness. There is sanctity in the moment. All I can think of is, he’s here. I am Krishna. Or is he? Who is the blessed one? I do not know.
For the past two years, Philip has mentioned him in his letters. His name is as familiar to me as the names of Thomas and Linda, Philip’s children. Is it just that? A bonding born of knowledge? That Chris prefers beer to wine; that he douses his food in hot sauce; that he tore a ligament last year playing tennis; that he is working on a travel book in which I am to feature. No, it isn’t that, either. I try to put it out of my mind. In my old age, I have discovered that the imagined and the real tend to cross over.
But now, as he gently draws his cello out from the back of the car, it seems a gesture I ought to recognize. The squaring of shoulders, the tensing of his back, the tilt of his head. I think of a scene from Kalyanasougandhikam. Is this the unease Bheema felt, I wonder, when he found an old monkey blocking his way to the garden of divine flowers? Obstructing his path wilfully, as if to thwart his beloved wife’s desire to adorn her hair with the fragrance of the divine blossoms. Is this the feeling that crept up Bheema’s spine? That this is someone I ought to recognize. That we are more than we know.
When Christopher shuts the car door with a backward heft of his hip, I am certain: I know him.
Radha walks down the steps to where I am. Her gait is measured and languid. My niece bears on her face marks of dissatisfaction. It makes me sad.
Some days ago, as I sat on my veranda chatting with her, I said, ‘Radha, do you know the significance of the katthivesham in kathakali?’
She smiled as if to suggest that my question was a silly one. ‘Of course I do,’ she tossed back at me. ‘The villains of Indian mythology; the destroyers of all things good and noble. Isn’t that it?’
‘I don’t think you do,’ I said. ‘Ravana, Narakasura, Hiranyakashipu …you know why these demon kings are classified as katthivesham? They are men born with noble blood in them. They could have been heroes. Instead, they let their dissatisfaction with their destinies curdle their minds, and so they turned out arrogant, evil, demonic. Like you said, destroyers of all things good and noble.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’ Radha asked. Her eyes blazed into mine. Her voice was quiet and low but I could read the rage in them.
I reached forward and touched her forehead with my index finger. Then I touched the skin around her nostrils.
‘The lines here speak of dissatisfaction. They could just as well be the white bulbs a katthivesham wears on his forehead and the tip of his nose,’ I said, trying to smooth the lines away.
Radha brushed my finger away and got up. ‘Sometimes, Uncle,’ she said, ‘you let your imagination see things that don’t really exist. These lines, marks of dissatisfaction as you call them, are an indication that I am growing old. I should buy an anti-ageing cream. That’s what I need. Dissatisfaction! Why on earth would I be dissatisfied?’
I did not want us to quarrel, so I let it rest. You cannot make someone see the truth unless they want to.
Radha, my darling niece, my surrogate child, is not afraid of the truth. She has always stared it in the eye. This time, though, she pretended it wasn’t there.
Since then, when she’s with me, Radha tries not to let her unhappiness show. Her creams do their work; they repair and heal the skin and add lustre, as if someone has dusted her face with a handful of abharam.
But mica dust is like fool’s gold: a false glitter that doesn’t endure. And so, when she thinks I am not watching her, the marks emerge. A clenching of muscle, a tightening of skin, a whitening of hue, a stillness in the eyes. Dissatisfaction perches on her face again.
Now Radha’s gaze follows mine. I see that, like me, she cannot keep her eyes away from him.
She walks forward. ‘Do you need any help?’
There is a lilt in her voice. Where has the discontent seeped away to? There is no need for abharam. Her face is radiant. Her eyes throw him a sidelong glance.
Chris turns to her. His smile gathers her in his arms.
I think of Nala and Damayanti. Of lovers in kathakali who embrace without actually doing so. Only an experienced veshakaaran, an actor with more than mere technique, can perform that embrace. With arms that do not touch the woman, and with only his eyes, he lets her know that he desires her.
Chris, I see, desires Radha. And she, him.
Who is he, I wonder again. This young man from across the seas, with a cello and a smile on display. And knowledge he hides in his heart.
I have no time to think any more. For Shyam is here. Striding down the stairs two at a time, swaying on the balls of his feet, a sheaf of papers tucked under his armpit, making a thwack as he slams a fist into an open palm, an approximation of energy and entrepreneurial spirit. ‘So, shall we get going?’
Radha cringes. Chris drops his eyes and breaks their embrace. And I look away. After all these years, I still do not know how I feel about Shyam.
How shall I describe him?
I have played him. I have been Keechakan, the able commander-in-chief of the kingdom of Vidarbha. Keechakan, who with his might and battle strategies kept the kingdom inviolable. But his longing for Sairandhari, his sister’s handmaiden, blinded him. He couldn’t see that she detested him. He thought it was pride. He thought he could break that pride.
Or is he Bheema, I wonder. Bheema, the hasty one. Bheema, who jumps into battles and life without any introspection. Bheema, who doesn’t realize that when his wife sent him away on a quest to find the divine flowers, all she was doing was buying time away from his bumbling, his uncouthness, his lack of finesse. She did that by appealing to his strength, his ego. She sent him away and he thought it was love.
Sometimes I think Shyam is Bheema. A great, big, good-hearted creature whose goodness Radha makes use of. Whose gaucherie she flees from. And sometimes I think that perhaps he is Keechakan. All he wants to do is possess her. He hides his conniving behind a mask of besotted love, and when he has her on her knees, he’ll kick her. Then I think Radha is wise to keep him on a leash of unreciprocated longing.
‘What are you thinking about, Uncle?’ Shyam’s voice creeps on to the stage where I am trying to place him.
‘You,’ I say absently. ‘You,’ I repeat, unable to relinquish the soul and skin of the characters my mind has sought.
‘Me?’ The syllable jerks with fear that he modulates into surprise. ‘What is there to think about me?’
I hear the tremor in his voice. What does he think I know?
Suddenly I know who he is. Like everybody else seeking parallels, I sought him among heroes and villains. I should have looked, instead, into the shadowed zones of the stage, at the minor characters whose doings let men live or die. Shyam is the aashaari.
The carpenter with his betel-nut, leaf and tobacco pouch, his chisel, hammer and yardstick. The comic who makes people laugh. And yet, there is underlying his buffoonery a knowledge that is both sound and crafty.
Not everybody can play the aashaari. I know; I have played him. It requires an understanding that is beyond the comprehension of a novice. The carpenter is both fool and master craftsman. It is he who brings warning of impending death, whispering in the ears of the Pandavas that the wax palace will turn into a funeral pyre that night. It is he who digs their escape route and camouflages it. He devises their escape with a flourish of gestures and exaggerated movements. He makes a mess of the steps, skids, falls, rolls his eyes, looks this way and that, and does it all with perfect timing. Only an actor with an impeccable sense of rhythm and versatility of expression can handle the aashaari. And Shyam is that aashaari, wearing the guise of a fool and never missing a step.
‘Uncle?’ Radha is concerned.
‘Is he all right?’ Chris asks.
‘He hasn’t been feeling very well,’ Radha tries to explain this habit of mine of slipping away; she calls it my trance.
Shyam snaps a finger. ‘Bring a chair’
I sink into the chair. Shyam fans me with the sheaf of papers in his hand. The breeze cools my brow. I feel the tension in my muscles loosen. Just like a child’s, Shyam’s features are taut with the effort he’s putting into the fanning. I like him for now. I close my eyes. ‘Water …’
Someone brings me a glass of water. Radha holds it to my lips. I sip slowly.
Radha murmurs, ‘We should let him rest.’
Shyam looks down at me and says, ‘I think he’s done too much this morning. I told you we shouldn’t have brought him with us.’
I feel my liking turn inside out. I dislike this way he has of talking about me as if I am not there. I stand up. Blackness threatens to swamp, then settles.
‘Don’t talk about me as if I am not present,’ I say. ‘I forgot to take my betel-nut box. If I have a chew, I will be all right.’
‘It’s just the heat that is making me ill,’ I try and explain to Chris, who looks concerned.
I wish they would stop fussing. I am not a doddering old fool. Strangely enough, it is Shyam who bails me out.
‘Have you seen my elephant?’ Shyam asks. I look to where he is pointing. An elephant is parked there.
‘Whose …’ I begin, but Shyam cuts me off.
‘Would you like to go closer and see him?’ he asks Chris.
Chris smiles. ‘He is enormous,’ he says and there is something akin to wonder in his voice.
I see Shyam glance at Radha. There is triumph in his eyes.
‘He is enormous all right. An enormous baby,’ Shyam says. ‘A very nice elephant to know, in fact!’
I shake my head. What new scheme is this? Only Shyam would think of something like this.
‘Shall we go to your cottage?’ I say to Chris, getting up from the chair.
Radha and Chris look at each other. Then they move to either side of me. Chris turns to Shyam. ‘Would you ask someone to carry my cello? Carefully, please.’
So we walk, Radha and Chris flanking me on either side. Shyam follows with the cello and its bearer.
I tell myself that I did not see the vile look Shyam threw Chris. It is the heat, I think. Or perhaps my imagination.
When we reach the cottage, Shyam flings open the doors with a flourish. ‘Your home away from home,’ he says.
Inside, the cottage smells faintly of many things: furniture polish, room freshener, mosquito coil and Flit. The smells tussle with each other for supremacy, but the breeze from the river enters and subdues everything. The curtains at the windows billow as Shyam opens them one by one. ‘The cottage has an air conditioner but I suggest that you don’t bother with it.’
I catch Radha’s eye. She is embarrassed. I know what she’s thinking. That having offered the cottage for so little, Shyam is trying to economize. Then Shyam says, ‘If you are worried about mosquitoes, I could have a mosquito net pegged around your bed. But you should leave the windows open. The night breeze is cool and brings with it the fragrance of all the flowers in the garden and the neighbourhood. You can hear the night birds. And on a moonlit night, if you lie in bed, here,’ he pats the head of the bed, ‘and look out of the window, you can see the moon and then if you sit up, you can see the river shimmering in its light. It’s very beautiful.’
I feel the breath catch in my throat. Who would have thought the boorish Shyam capable of such sensitivity? I try to catch Radha’s eye, but she is looking elsewhere.
Chris smiles and says, ‘But this is wonderful, Sham!’
Shyam stares back at him unsmilingly. ‘S-h-y-a-m. It’s Shyam.’
He appeals to Radha, ‘Isn’t there a name in English that is like Shyam?’
Radha shrugs. Shyam deflects the slight with an animated wave of his arms. ‘So, do you think you will be happy here?’ he asks Chris.
Chris shrugs. A long-drawn, yes shrug. His eyes are shining when he says, ‘Great! I love this place. Oh yes, I’ll settle for the mosquito net, and if it gets very hot, I’ll consider the air conditioning.’
‘Mr Koman.’ He turns to me.
‘Call me Aashaan,’ I say. ‘Everyone here calls me Aashaan.’
‘Aashaan is teacher, master,’ Shyam explains. ‘In fact, once you learn to say Aashaan, you’ll be able to say Shyam properly.’ There is a teasing note in his voice.
I smile. There is a side to Shyam, I am discovering, that both Radha and I choose not to see. Learning to like Shyam requires an effort that neither she nor I seem to want to make. Perhaps it’s his own fault. He makes it so much easier for us to dislike him. Though, there are others who think differently. His employees love him and he is much admired in town, I hear. What do they see in him that we don’t?
Shyam looks at his watch. ‘I have a meeting with the municipal chairman at a quarter to twelve. I should be leaving soon. I suggest you shower and rest. Uncle needs to rest, too. You can call for room service, or lunch at the restaurant. It’s up to you. And do feel free to call me any time.’
Shyam draws out a card from his wallet. ‘This has my mobile number. By the way, would you like a mobile connection while you are here?’
Chris stretches and yawns lazily. ‘No, I don’t think so. But thank you for asking.’
Radha takes the card from Shyam and writes her mobile number on it. ‘And this is mine,’ she says. ‘Just in case you get lost or want any help or anything, you can reach me on this.’
‘I live in a tiny house nearby,’ I tell Chris. ‘It is alongside the resort. Come by later, in the afternoon.’
‘I’ll bring him over,’ Radha offers.
Shyam frowns but doesn’t say anything.
I stand up. Shyam rushes to my side. I take his arm.
‘I am tired,’ I tell him. ‘Could you ask the driver to drop me at my house?’
‘Yes, of course,’ Shyam says. ‘You mustn’t exert yourself like you’ve done this morning.’
‘I know,’ I concede. ‘Sometimes I forget I am not young any more.’
Again we walk the path. Shyam and Radha flank me on either side. I feel Chris’s eyes on us. Who is he looking at? Radha? Or me? Or the picture the three of us make?
I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. My window overlooks a low wall beyond which are steps leading to the river. When the Nila is full, the water rises to the top step and licks at the low wall. But now it is almost dry and there is just a green pool that ribbons into a brown stream further down.
There are a few water birds in the deep-green pool. Paddling, bathing, fishing …making do with what they have. I can hear the bird noises.
The room is dark and spare. I like it this way. Too many things in a room make me feel as if I am in a crowded market. I raise my hand and feel the wooden bars of the window, worn with age. Like the wooden ceiling and the bed I lie on. And Malini, my parakeet. She is asleep with her head tucked under her wing. A feather flies. A pale-green feather. She is moulting with age, just as I am.
I drift in and out of sleep. I am unable to still my mind.
I think of the morning. Of the young man. Of Radha and Shyam. Of all three of us and Chris.
I am too tired to think. I close my eyes and let the bird sounds lull me into calm.
I wait for them. The evening is warm and still. Then I see them. How perfectly they complement each other, I think. I feel a great sadness. There is grief in this, I can already see it happen.
The two of them, Chris and Radha, oblivious to the mischief destiny can wreak, smile happily at each other, at the evening, at me.
‘You are looking refreshed.’ Radha’s voice swells to include me in her circle of joy.
Her face wears the radiance of a minukkuvesham: the lovely damsels of kathakali who have chanced upon an inner grace. As for Chris, he is the hero. Nala to her Damayanti. Arjuna to her Subhadra. Krishna to her Radha.
‘Chris has so much to ask you,’ she says.
He smiles almost shyly. ‘I really don’t want to tire you, but I do have a few, actually several, questions.’
I nod. This is what he is here for. ‘What would you like to know?’
Chris draws out a file. ‘Philip helped me put this together.’ He turns the plastic sheets. ‘It has a bio with dates of performances, facts and details that are very impressive, but I do need to know more.’
Radha comes out of the kitchen with three glasses of tea. ‘You’ll have to drink from a glass. Uncle doesn’t have any cups in his kitchen.’
Chris holds the glass carefully. It is hot and the tea will scald his mouth. I can taste tea only if it burns my tongue. Tobacco has numbed my taste buds and now only the heat can make them bloom.
‘Would you like me to cool the tea for you?’ Radha asks.
Chris puts his glass down. ‘Oh, I’ll wait for it to cool,’ he says. I realize then that he doesn’t like the intrusion.
Chris touches the file to take up the thread of our conversation.
‘I’d like to know everything about you,’ he says.
I hold up my hand. I am not ready for this. ‘You are not writing my biography. Or is this for a novel, maybe?’
His eyes drop and then rise to meet mine. ‘I don’t know what I intend to use this material for, or how. All I know is that to understand you as an artist I need to know the man. I know so many artists—writers, painters, musicians, dancers—and they all talk about their art as if it’s a living creature. Something that possesses them to the exclusion of everything else.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Art can be a very demanding mistress …’
Chris taps his pencil against the table impatiently. ‘I think I will understand what art means to you only when I know how much you have let your art rule you. Your dreams, your hopes, your compromises, your sacrifices—everything that your art has demanded of you.’
Radha sucks in her breath. She knows how reticent I am and how much I hate to talk about myself. ‘I don’t know if Uncle will …’ she says, rushing in to protect me as she always does.
I throw her a smile. It’s all right, I tell her with that smile. The honesty of his reply draws me. The man and the artist. I have never thought of myself as split into dual parts. Is it possible?
‘Before I begin, I must tell you something that is intrinsic to kathakali. This dance form requires the performer to interpret. It demands that the veshakaaran imagine beyond the poet’s—what is that word you use, libretto …In my story, what I think is real could perhaps be the imagined, and vice versa. Do you understand?
‘I have to imagine and interpret not just my own life, but the lives of all the others who have been part of my life. My facts could be wrong, the details could be missing, but I shall hide nothing. That much I can assure you. When you’ve heard it all, you can tell me if the man and the artist are one or dual creatures. You can tell me who rules, the man or the mistress.’
Chris peels the flap of a pocket on his trousers. He brings out a small tape recorder. ‘May I?’ he asks.
I nod. It is better this way. For me to imagine my life, and for the words to capture the flow as I speak.
I open my betel-nut box. I have had this box for god knows how long. I choose two tender, green betel leaves, smear a little paste of lime and wedge the whole into my mouth. Then I pare a few shavings of areca nut with a pocket knife. The fresh areca nut floods my mouth with a juice that settles the sting of the betel leaves. I add a small piece of tobacco.
I push the betel-nut box towards Chris and gesture for him to help himself. He doesn’t.
The betel leaves and areca nut wrap me in a fug of comfort.
I am ready to talk now, I think. I rinse my mouth and drink some water.
Chris presses a button on the tape recorder. Radha leans back in her chair. Somewhere the flapping wings of a pond heron slash the air.
‘In the beginning was an ocean,’ I say.
Chris raises his eyebrows. ‘An ocean?’
I smile. I know what he is thinking. That perhaps I am referring to Noah’s Ark, or maybe Vasco da Gama. But he is too polite to say more, or maybe he is scared that if he offends me I’ll clam up. So he swallows his trepidation.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘An ocean.’
1937 The Prayer of Humble Access
This wasn’t how he was meant to die: the water swirling above his head, cascading into his ears and nose, filling his mouth and rushing to his lungs, stilling forever his flailing arms and legs. Salt in his eyes, salt lining the back of his throat, salt poisoning his blood. He rose to the surface one more time and knew that if he were to allow it, he would be pickled in brine.
Then, from the recesses of his childhood years, from those countless hours spent thrashing his arms and legs in the river, from the humiliation of knowing that he alone hadn’t learnt to master the water while everyone else had, he sought one memory that would allow him to live, to escape the sea and its salt.
It came then, swimming into his being with the frantic swish of a tadpole’s tail. That one lesson that was to be his mantra for life: Don’t fight it. Close your mouth. Hold your breath. Let your body be.
Slowly he felt his body lighten. The waters loosened their hold and he knew as his hands tightened on a piece of wood that floated into his grasp that it wasn’t his time yet.
When he opened his eyes, the face that hovered above his head beamed. ‘Praise be the lord!’
Sethu wondered where he was, but his tongue wouldn’t form the words to ask. The nurse, a kindly creature with scraped back hair, glasses and a complexion that resembled the bottom of his mother’s cooking pots held his wrist, noting his pulse. Providing that first human contact that rushed tears to his eyes.
‘I’m Sister Hope. We’ve been waiting for you to wake up. The fishermen thought you were dead when they saw the gash on your head. Then one of them wasn’t so sure. So they thought of Doctor.’
He heard the note of awe in her voice for the doctor. But mostly it was her accent that made him want to hug her. What was this place where Tamil had the ring of Malayalam? The roundness, the gathering and pouting of vowels, the heaping of consonants as if they were dried teak leaves …He couldn’t be too far from home.
The nurse tucked the sheet around him. ‘The fishermen told Doctor that if anyone could help, it was him …and they were right. Now you lie here quietly and I’ll fetch Him.’
Him. Doctor Aiyah. God incarnate to the villagers. Miracle worker of Nazareth. Father figure. Sethu was to discover that Dr Samuel Sagayaraj would be all this for him as well. But first, Dr Samuel was to play priest at his christening.
‘How are you?’ the doctor asked.
Sethu looked at the man by his bedside. So this was his saviour. This man with a square head and even features. His skin was smooth and moustache trimmed. His eyebrows were the only unruly vagrants in the otherwise well-groomed face—furry, thick caterpillars locking horns at the bridge of his nose. The hands that held Sethu’s wrist were strong and capable. The doctor wore horn-rimmed glasses. He radiated a presence that made Sethu want to turn himself over to him and say: Look after me. I need your protection.
‘Can you tell me which year we are in?’ the doctor asked in Tamil, his accent more neutral than the woman’s.
‘1937. It is 1937, isn’t it?’
The doctor nodded. He allowed his mouth to soften into a smile and asked, ‘Do you remember what happened?’
Sethu licked his lips. They felt dry and crusty; salty, too.
‘No,’ Sethu said. ‘No, I don’t remember.’
Sethu wasn’t lying. He didn’t want to remember.
‘And what is your name?’
‘My name,’ Sethu hesitated, groping for a name that was familiar and yet wouldn’t give him away, and he thought of what the American missionary in Colombo had called him, ‘is Seth.’
‘Yes,’ Sethu said in English. This would tell the doctor that he was an educated man. A man of means. ‘My name is Seth. I used to work with the health department in Ceylon.’
Seth. It was an unusual name for an Indian. But it was a common Christian name and one that Dr Samuel recognized. And so Dr Samuel’s eyes widened. Was this the miracle he had been waiting for? A Christian health worker!
‘Pleased to meet you, Seth. Is there an address you’d like to give me? Your family must be worried. We must inform them about your whereabouts. What about your employers?’
Seth closed his eyes. Home? ‘No,’ he said. ‘I am an orphan. And I quit my job some months ago. There is no one waiting for me …’
‘Don’t say that, Seth,’ Dr Samuel said quietly, patting Sethu’s arm. ‘For those who have none, there is God. Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Ruth 1.16.’
Nurse Hope nodded approvingly.
‘Give him the Bible, Sister. Let God be with you as you recover, Seth. Don’t forsake the good book and it won’t forsake you. God’s word will guide you where your heart doesn’t. It will be as is said in 1 Kings 9.7: A proverb and a byword.’
Sethu swallowed. How long could he keep up this pretence?
As he lay there, he wondered what it was about him that drew these types. These men who wished to take him by the hand and lead him down what they considered the chosen path. First Maash, then Balu, and now Dr Samuel. Why did he allow it to happen? He felt a great weariness settle over him and it seemed so much easier to sleep rather than think.
When Sethu woke, the Bible was at his bedside and two beaming Nurses Hope. Sethu blinked.
‘This is my sister, Charity,’ Nurse Hope said. ‘She is training to be a nurse. I have one more sister. Faith. She’s a nurse, too.’
She straightened Sethu’s bedclothes, rearranged the medicines and then stuck a thermometer into the mouth of a man in the next bed.
‘Two days and you’ll be out of here,’ Nurse Hope said suddenly.
‘I’ve brought you the Bible,’ Nurse Charity said shyly. He shifted and turned his head away. Her gaze unnerved him. Why does she look at me like she’s never seen a man before, Sethu thought, feeling the weight of the Bible in his hands. On the flyleaf, printed in copperplate, was her name: Charity Vimala Jeyaraj. ‘You shouldn’t have,’ Sethu said.
‘Oh, I can share Akka’s Bible. Anyway, this is the only English Bible apart from Dr Samuel’s.’
Sethu thought of what the man in the next bed had said earlier. ‘I wish the kondai sisters would pay me some attention. All three of them were here while you were asleep, hovering around you all the time, while I lay wide awake groaning for a bedpan.’
‘Who?’ Sethu had asked.
‘The kondai sisters …who else?’
Sethu smiled. The ‘bun sisters’. ‘Is that what they are called?’
‘The whole town refers to them as the kondai sisters. Periya kondai, chinna kondai and jadai kondai. Their hair buns are the only way to tell them apart.’
Sethu felt a chuckle gather within him. It was true. Big bun, little bun and plaited bun …but where was the plaited bun?
Sethu felt his chuckle grow into a fit of giggles and so hastily, he began reading the Bible even as they stood there. Perhaps they would leave him alone then.
Why had he chosen to give himself a new name? It wasn’t as if he was a Known Defaulter. Or was he one now? KD. Synonym for rowdy, hooligan, criminal, anti-social element. How could you, Sethu, Uncle would ask. How could a member of my family become a KD?
Sethu was fourteen years and three days old when he ran away from home. He didn’t know what else to do.
He stood staring at the school noticeboard. He had failed in his exams again, for the third year in succession, and now he would be expelled. The headmaster had said as much to his uncle the previous year. ‘We don’t keep a student if he fails for two years in the same class. In Sethu’s case, I’m willing to make an exception. You see, his marks are good enough in all the other subjects, but how can I promote him to the next form if he doesn’t even scrape through in mathematics? I don’t understand it. He has an amazing memory. All he has to do is look at a page just once and he can tell you everything there is on it. Yet, in mathematics, he is worse than the worst dunce in his class. I don’t think he is applying himself. What else can it be?’ He turned to Sethu and said in a voice that was meant to scare him, ‘This is your last chance. If you don’t work hard enough, I’ll have no option but to expel you. Do you understand?’
Sethu nodded. He always did when he had nothing to offer by way of explanation or comment. Even then he knew that mathematics would crush him.
On their way home, his uncle didn’t speak a word. Later, when they sat down to lunch, he said, ‘You heard what the headmaster said, didn’t you? If you want to make something of yourself in life, you need an education. Or, if you’d rather be a farmer like me, you can quit school tomorrow. It is your decision.’
This was his uncle’s way. Other men would have torn a young branch off a tamarind tree, stripped it of leaves and then stripped the skin off their wards’ back. Not Sethu’s uncle. He stripped the skin off Sethu’s soul with his quiet reproach. Sethu said nothing, feeling the heaviness within rise to his eyes and clamp his throat.
Sethu didn’t understand what it was about numbers or water that defeated him so. It wasn’t as if he didn’t try hard enough. He did. He worked, he wheedled, he did everything he could to make them heed his bidding. But neither the numbers nor the waters of the river succumbed to his advances. They mostly ignored him, or merely let him down. Like now. Sethu knew he must flee his uncle’s reproachful eyes and the waters of the river that questioned his adequacy day after day.
He walked along the riverbank. Sometimes, he felt a great surge of restlessness and he would walk along the river not knowing where he was going or what he would do if he got there. It was just enough that he was walking. Then his legs would tire and he would turn back, glad to go home.
Now he walked towards the railway station. He would take the train to Madras. That’s where everyone ran away to. In Madras, he would make a life that didn’t require him to master numbers or water. Or ever encounter the disappointment in his uncle’s eyes. Perhaps he might even meet his father, who had gone away to Madras five years ago and never returned. His mother had a new husband now, and Sethu hoped his father would take him in.
He patted the pocket of his shorts. He had some money. His fees and book money for the next year, and some money his mother had given him to buy a pair of sandals and a few groceries in town. It wasn’t much, but there was enough to buy a train ticket to Madras and a meal or two till he found a job.
He didn’t have to wait long for the train to arrive. He got into a carriage and found a seat. Opposite him sat a man and a woman. The woman smiled at him. He smiled back and let his eyes drop. The train began to move and Sethu turned to look out of the window. ‘Where are you going?’ the woman asked.
Sethu dragged his eyes away from the window, where the landscape seemed to have acquired a certain beauty he hadn’t noticed when he lived there. ‘Madras,’ he said absently.
The woman looked at the man. He leaned forward and said, ‘But this train doesn’t go to Madras.’
Sethu felt as if someone had kicked him in his gut. ‘But this is the train to Madras,’ he said, willing it to be so. ‘I checked the timetable.’
‘No, this isn’t the train to Madras,’ the man repeated in a gentle voice. His eyes were sympathetic. ‘The train to Madras is an hour late. All trains on this line are. Didn’t you hear the announcement? This train goes elsewhere and the compartment we are in will be attached to another train in Coimbatore. This is the Rameswaram compartment.’
‘What do I do now? I have very little money left.’ Sethu’s voice crumpled.
How could you, Sethu, a voice muttered. His uncle’s voice, full of reproof and sorrow. How could you? How could you be so silly as to not read the train’s name? Or ask where it was going? Speaking of which, how could you run away and abandon your mother, your family and me? How could you?
It was the thought of encountering the voice and those eyes that caused tears to emerge in the eyes of fourteen-years-and three-daysold Sethu.
‘Don’t cry,’ the man said, rising from his seat. He patted Sethu’s shoulder and sat by him. ‘What is the need to cry? Will crying help? Tell me, is anyone expecting you in Madras? An uncle, an older brother, someone?’
Sethu shook his head. ‘No.’
‘Do you want to go back home?’
Sethu shook his head again. ‘No, no.’
‘In which case, come with us to Rameswaram.’
‘But what will I do there?’
‘Do you have a job waiting for you in Madras?’
Sethu shook his head again.
‘We are going to Ceylon. To Colomb,’ the woman said. ‘Come with us.’
Sethu stared at them. All his life, he had shuddered every time someone mentioned Colombo. It was as if the very word resonated with the boom of the ocean. Wave upon wave piling on to the shores of a tiny island. Wave after wave conspiring to suck in boats and lives that rode on it. Colombo. But how easily she said it. Colomb. As if, by swallowing the ‘o’ at the end of the word, the waters that surrounded the island disappeared down her throat. Freeing the journey of his worst fear. Water.
‘Yes,’ the man said. ‘We’ll take you to Ceylon and I’ll find you a job there.’
Sethu swallowed his fear of crossing the ocean with the countless questions that danced at the tip of his tongue. But all he would ask for now was why. His uncle’s voice wouldn’t let it rest: How could you trust a total stranger so?
So Sethu cleared his throat and asked in his most polite voice, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you helping me?’
The man smiled. He looked down at his fingers and said, ‘I don’t know. I am not an impulsive man. But something about you makes me want to be impulsive. To help you find a place where you can stand on your feet. I am not questioning my impulse; perhaps, neither should you.’
So Sethu rode the train and crossed the waters, buoyed by an impulse. And there in Colomb—for he too swallowed the ‘o’ to erase the thought of the swirling waters—he found it was possible to make a life. Despite the unruly numbers. Despite the unforgiving waters.
Later in his life, when and if Sethu ever referred to those years, he would say cryptically, ‘Maash was a good man.’
He called the man in the train Maash. Master. Mentor. ‘Maash and his wife looked after me very well. I never needed for anything in their home,’ he would say if anyone probed further. ‘Maash found me a place in the health department. I had to do a health inspector’s course, then a year of training, and by the time I was eighteen, I was actually earning.’
How could Sethu tell anyone of everything else that those years had been made of? Like the ‘o’ in Colombo, they existed even if he never spoke of them …Until Saadiya, that is. Saadiya. Saadiya Meherunnisa. Good Girl. Peerless among women. Light of the skies. Saadiya, who lit a beacon and demanded that he trail it through his past. But that was to be many years later.
First, Sethu had to cling to the new name that was his lifeline and be born again. Sethu knew that for a while, at least, he would have to be Seth and let the good book lead him to light and a place in Dr Samuel’s kingdom.
A high wall ran around Dr Samuel’s house. Instead of a gate, there was a door painted green. A door with a padlock and chain. Within those walls Sethu felt safe.
When Sethu was well enough to leave the hospital, Dr Samuel offered him a job. ‘I need someone like you’ was all he said.
Sethu looked at the doctor’s face, trying to read the meaning of his words. ‘But I am not trained to do this sort of work,’ he said, suddenly afraid.
Dr Samuel merely smiled. ‘You’ll learn as you go along. As thy days, so shall thy strength be. Deuteronomy 33.25. Think about it.’
Sethu sat outside the doctor’s room. He sat with the patients who were waiting to see the doctor. He looked around him. This was a small town, significant for the fact that a missionary organization had chosen to build a hospital here. The town saw many strangers: people who came in from the surrounding villages and the nearby districts. Births. Deaths. The town saw people come and go, and no one asked questions. Sethu stared at the floor. He thought of a line that he had chanced upon in the Bible: I have been a stranger in a strange land.
Perhaps it contained a message for him. He would be a stranger in a strange land. Once again, life was throwing him a line. Don’t fight it. Let it be, he told himself. He would go with the tide.
Dr Samuel gave him a room off the enclosed veranda that ran along the front of his house. It was a huge house with many rooms and much furniture. Dr Samuel barely used a couple. ‘There is enough space for the two of us here.’ The doctor laughed almost apologetically.
Sethu wondered if the doctor was lonely. And what about a wife and children? Sethu bit back the words. He would ask the doctor no questions and hopefully the doctor would ask him none. He looked around him and said, ‘Thanks.’
He thought he saw gratitude in the doctor’s eyes. The doctor was lonely, he decided.
So Sethu found a home to house his new life. There, in the garden filled with mango and tamarind, papaya and coconut trees, he discovered a cork tree and saw that it thrived, a foreigner amidst the natives. He took comfort in the lesson. That behind the high wall with the door, there was a place for him, as there was for Hope, Charity and Faith, Dr Samuel’s acolytes. Sethu belonged, just as they did.
As the days merged with the weeks, Sethu worried less and less that he would be discovered. Dr Samuel found him things to do. He was part secretary, part compounder of medicines, part dispenser of prescriptions, part odd-job man, part record keeper, part errand boy; his day had so many parts that he didn’t know where it sped. There, in Nazareth, enfolded in the all embracing arms of St Paul’s Hospital, Sethu knew content.
When the days grew hotter and drinking water became scarce, Dr Samuel gave Sethu one more part to his day. Every morning, the women who lived in the houses around the doctor’s, stood in a line by the door in the wall and Sethu would draw a pot of water for each of them. ‘They will have to walk miles to get the brackish water for everything else. As long as our well has enough water, we will give them a pot each. That will suffice for drinking and cooking. But you will have to see that they get only a pot each, or it won’t last very long,’ Dr Samuel said.
Then the water level in the well began to recede too, and Sethu took the doctor to show him how much was left. ‘We have to stop providing water now,’ Sethu said.
Dr Samuel peered into the well with a worried expression. ‘This might sound silly, but if the water goes below that level, we are in for trouble. I thought we would be spared this year, but if it doesn’t rain soon …’
‘Drought?’ Sethu asked, realizing for the first time the implications of a dwindling water supply.
‘Drought, and cholera. Just last year, this district suffered a cholera epidemic.’
What next, Sethu wondered. What would a cholera epidemic be like?
He soon knew.
Where did they come from, these hordes with cracked heels and dry lips, oozing from their orifices, with cramps that gripped their bellies and bodies that craved for fluids and yet were unable to hold it in? Who were these people who emerged from a countryside that in all his viewings had seemed empty of life?
They kept coming. Old men, young children, able-bodied men and matrons with a touch of grey in their hair, bound by a bacteria. Kindred spirits in suffering, they were stalked by a nameless dread: would it be their turn next?
Then Sethu had no time to ponder. Dr Samuel drove them with his manic will. ‘We don’t have enough of anything—people, medicines or energy. But we must cope. We must manage somehow,’ he barked as he went about ministering hope and help.
The beds were full and even the corridors were lined with palm-leaf mats. Every inch of space in St Paul’s was covered with disease and despair. Sethu had never seen suffering on such a scale. For the rest of his life, the odour of phenyl and palm-leaf mats would bring back to him the stench of cholera, the coming of death.
‘What do we do now?’ Sethu asked, coming back from the storeroom. ‘We have almost entirely run out of medicines. We need a miracle now.’
Dr Samuel rose from his chair. ‘Come with me,’ he said. Through the deserted streets of Nazareth, Dr Samuel led him to a little church with a high steeple. Its inner walls and pillars glistened a curious white.
‘You have been living in Nazareth for some months now, but you never seemed to want to come here. And I let it be because I knew that when you were ready to seek God’s house, you would do so,’ the doctor said.
Sethu bit his lip. You brought me here, he wanted to say. But he let the words rest, as usual.
Sethu reached out to touch the wall. ‘They must have mixed at least a million egg whites into the lime for the plaster to be so smooth and pearly.’ His voice reflected the awe in his eyes.
Dr Samuel warded off a fly as if to dismiss Sethu’s comment. ‘I agree, the walls are quite amazing, but that isn’t why I brought you here.’
He paused. Once again, his hand flew in the air to brush the errant fly away.
Sethu suppressed a smile and the thought that sometimes the good doctor was a pompous prig. ‘Some years ago,’ the doctor began.
Sethu leaned against a wall. He knew by now the doctor’s predilection for telling a story. How every moment, every emotion, every expression, even everything unsaid, would be dwelt upon.
‘Some years ago,’ the doctor said, seating himself in a pew. His pew. There were only four lines of pews. The rest of the congregation sat on the floor. ‘Nazareth was afflicted by God’s curse. Why God chose to curse Nazareth, I do not know. It has only as many sinners as any other town of this size does. Nazareth is not Sodom, and yet we had four cholera epidemics in one year and …’
The doctor stopped, overwhelmed by the horror of that memory.
‘And …’ Sethu prompted. For that, too, was one of the parts Sethu was expected to play: mesmerized audience and chief prompter.
‘And when it seemed that nothing but divine intervention would help, the priest here, Father Howard, made an offering. He vowed that the entire parish would come to Confession every day. Spare us, we’ll confess our sins and do penance for our trespasses, he prayed. He fell on his knees and I am told he stayed there for a whole week, pleading and beseeching. And the epidemics ceased to be. Now cholera comes just once a year.’
‘I would have thought that God would have eradicated cholera for good, now that there are no sinners here,’ Sethu mumbled, unable to help himself.
Dr Samuel frowned. ‘Seth, I have been meaning to talk to you about this for some time now. I have noticed that you barely know your Bible. You show no inclination to pray. And worst of all, you tend to question God’s will. In fact, you don’t behave like a true Christian should. You might think it’s fashionable to question the existence of God. But it isn’t right, believe me. I have seen so much disease and despair, and yet I never ask God why. You see, God moves in mysterious ways.’
Sethu realized that they were treading dangerous territory, so he steered the discussion in another direction. ‘Doctor, I am worried. The epidemic scares me. What are we going to do?’
Dr Samuel got up and came towards Sethu. He squared his shoulders and cleared his throat. Then he put his arm around Sethu and said, ‘Stay here a while. Go on your knees and pray. Speak to God so that he may set your mind at rest. As for the epidemic, don’t worry. We’ll cope like we always do. Tomorrow we have to go into the peripheries. Reports have come in of entire villages that are stricken.’
‘What are we to do without any medicines?’ Sethu’s voice rose. But Dr Samuel was already walking away. How can he be so obtuse, Sethu fumed. How can he delude himself that we can cope? He is insane.
In the early hours, Hope and Charity came to Dr Samuel’s door, fear pounding their voices into thin shrills. ‘Doctor, it’s Faith,’ they cried.
Faith lay in her bed, limp with exhaustion. ‘The dysentery is severe. She hasn’t begun vomiting yet,’ Hope murmured.
‘Didn’t she have her inoculation?’ Dr Samuel asked, as he fixed a makeshift IV line.
‘No.’ The two women shook their heads. ‘She had a fever when the inoculations were being done. Besides, you know how she is. She said it would pass her by, that God would keep her safe.’
Sethu stared at them in shock. ‘You should have known better. Couldn’t you have persuaded her?’
Dr Samuel said nothing. Then he sighed and said, ‘Perhaps God meant her to serve him a little longer. You see, I kept enough medication for the five of us. With an epidemic on, I thought it wouldn’t help if one of us went down.’
Faith recovered, but it was three days before the doctor and Sethu could leave. The day before they left, a consignment of supplies and a team of five doctors arrived. ‘Now do you see what I mean?’ Dr Samuel told Sethu. ‘God has his reasons, his own ways.’
‘We’ll set up camp in one of the villages and work from there,’ Dr Samuel said to the three doctors who accompanied them in the ambulance to the village. Faith, Hope and Charity had been left behind to assist the two doctors in the hospital.
‘I wish we could have brought one of the sisters, but they are needed at the hospital,’ Dr Samuel said. ‘Besides,’ he said, dropping his voice, ‘it would harm their reputation if they spent the nights with us in the wilderness.
‘There is a woman in the village near the camp. Mary. She will help us. She is a very devout and hard-working woman. I have already sent word for her to report to the camp tomorrow morning.’
Mary didn’t. That was when Sethu realized that he would be expected to fill in for her.
In the first tenement, Dr Samuel introduced him to the synonym for cholera: rice-water stools. ‘See this.’ He pointed very matter-of-factly to a man who lay in his faeces. Despite the extent of suffering in the hospital wards, Sethu had never seen anything like this before. ‘Clear fluid with bits of mucus. No odour. No blood. Just a gushing of bodily fluids. Classic cholera dysentery!’
Sethu rushed out of the hut to retch.
Dr Samuel pushed down his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘You’ll have to get used to this,’ he said. ‘Now pass me the IV line. The bacteria won’t kill him, but dehydration will. IV fluids with electrolytes to restore the balance and raise the blood volume, and medication to prevent further propagation of the bacteria. That’s all we can do. If God wills, he’ll survive.’
God willed it, and for three days Sethu trailed Dr Samuel through huts and tenements in the village. He swallowed the bile in his mouth, scrupulously washed his hands with disinfectant each time and bustled around providing Dr Samuel with hope, faith and charity. ‘When I can, I’ll escape,’ Sethu told himself as he cleaned up a patient. ‘I’d rather be a bonded labourer in my uncle’s fields than clean shit and mop up vomit.’
Revulsion is elastic. It stretches, seeping into every thought, corroding the mind and splattering every waking moment with its peculiar stench and taste. Revulsion taints your mouth, fills your nose and clogs your nostrils and then one day it ceases to be. And so Sethu, too, discovered compassion where revulsion had been. Disgust was replaced by concern, and fear with the anxiety that he would be unable to do enough.
The medication was nearly finished and the IV bottles were down to a dozen. ‘This isn’t enough,’ he told Dr Samuel, showing him their meagre stores.
Dr Samuel nodded and wouldn’t say anything beyond ‘If this is what God wants …’
That night Sethu couldn’t sleep. How could he? In the past few days death had revealed itself to him. A new face of death that could be vanquished by fluids.
Next morning Dr Samuel took him back to the first tenement. ‘Look at him,’ he said, pointing to the first patient Sethu had tended to. Arasu. King. Sethu thought of him as Rice-water-stool Arasu.
The man was sitting up. In a few days he would be back at work. ‘You are God in disguise,’ Arasu wept, clutching the doctor’s feet.
‘Hush,’ the doctor protested. ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 21 Psalm 46.1. I am just an instrument of God.’
Sethu looked at the floor and thought that the instrument of God wouldn’t accomplish much if he didn’t have IV bottles. So Sethu set about doing what he knew he must. More than anyone else there, Sethu understood how precious life was. Before the disease wrapped its coils around him, he had to find a way to manage the looming crisis so they could all escape. And so Sethu added yet another part to his born-again identity.
He drove the ambulance into the horizon. He didn’t have a plan, but by the time he got there he would have one, he told himself.
At the Pamban quarantine camp there were enough stores. He even knew where the storekeeper’s keys were. After all, that had been his job. He knew every nook and cranny of the place, and though he had told himself that he would never go back, he had to make this one last visit.
Sethu returned to the camp thirty-six hours later. It may be too late, he thought. Or perhaps not. There were still many who lay ill in their homes. Dr Samuel looked at the stores Sethu had brought back. He wouldn’t meet Sethu’s eyes and instead set about dispensing medication as quickly as he could.
Later that night, he called Sethu to his tent. ‘This is the day made memorable by the Lord. What immense joy for us. Psalm 118.24 Jerusalem Bible,’ he began. ‘When God chose to send you to me, I had my doubts. Yours was a reluctant soul, even though your flesh worked willingly enough. But now I am satisfied. God knew, even if I didn’t, that you are a true Christian. I will not ask how or where you came by the stores. I will not question God’s largesse. You know best. It is your secret, but if there is a sin involved, I want you to know that I will bear the burden as much as you. Shall we pray?’
Obediently, Sethu went down on his knees. He was glad that the doctor wasn’t too angry with him. And hadn’t sent back what he had risked his life for.
Next day, the doctor had news for him. ‘The Franciscan Sisters will be here tomorrow. They will bring a team of doctors and supplies. We can go back. Once things have settled down, we need to make another visit. This time to Arabipatnam. That will be quite an experience for you. The first time I went there, I thought I had entered another land. The people, the houses, the alleys, everything is straight out of the pages of the Arabian Nights. Very strange! It is like a little kingdom with its own rules. For instance, all strange men are expected to leave the town by sunset. But they trust me completely and so I am allowed to spend the night there.’
Sethu smiled. It pleased him that they had moved onto another plane in their relationship. The doctor trusted him enough to take him to Arabipatnam. Sethu had heard a great deal about Arabipatnam from the kondai sisters. It was a place where no stranger was welcomed. Where the alleyways were shrouded in mystery and peopled by descendants of men who rode both horses and the seas.
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