Monday, December 15, 2008

Bone apetite! THE THIRD SECRET By Larry Gaffney

Trevor Drake, who thought himself a man of the world, was nevertheless astounded when Fancher and Dr. Soon patiently described for him the exact nature of what they called “the first secret.” Drake swallowed the bit of casserole he’d been chewing and stared at them across the table. .

“You’re joking,” he said.

Fancher raised an eyebrow. “I’m not in the habit of joking about such matters. Perhaps we’ve been premature.”

Dr. Soon laughed merrily. It was a laugh that club members had heard often enough to make them wonder how a man dedicated to the sober and challenging work of neurosurgery could be so jolly. Some even called Dr. Soon “The Laughing Brain Surgeon,” though not to his face.

“I think,” said Dr. Soon, “that our friend is still processing the information. We must not judge too quickly. And no, Trevor, I assure you we are not joking.”

Drake put down his silverware. He took a sip of merlot and dabbed at his mouth with fine Irish linen. “Very well,” he said, folding his hands in front of his plate, “if you are indeed telling the truth, then I suppose I must revise my opinion of the club.”

“For the better?” asked Fancher.

Trevor Drake considered the florid face in front of him. Bald pate, gray-flecked moustache, craggy wrinkles and bright, sardonic eyes. Fancher had the face of an English lord, though in fact he owned a chain of hardware stores.

He glanced at Dr. Soon, a short, compact man whose toothy grin and laugh-lines about the eyes belied the penetrating mind within.

In the club’s comforting gloom he observed the paneled walls, the leather sofas, the Tiffany lamps. He thought of its old-moneyed, tweed-jacked members, men of substance every one.

“Why not?” he answered.

Fancher raised his glass. “To the first secret, then.” The three men drank to the toast.

It occurred to Drake that they had been sizing him up for some time. No doubt the scales had been tipped in his favor on the night Drake and Fancher had spied each other in the lower regions of a particular town house in Back Bay. In the dimly lit corridor of special, soundproofed rooms, Drake had seen Fancher coming down the stairs. Quickly he’d opened the door and slipped back into his room—back to the whimpering and the acrid smell of sweat tinged with fear—but he was certain their eyes had met for a moment. In the days that followed, neither man acknowledged the event, but now Drake understood that the unique tastes catered to by that Back Bay bordello dovetailed, in spirit, at least, with the secret of the club.

He munched his casserole, savoring the soft, spicy meat—pork, was it?—and waited to hear more.

Fancher busied himself with his meal, stuffing huge forkfuls of the casserole into his mouth, smacking his lips and chewing noisily. Dr. Soon, a more delicate eater, took up the thread of discourse. “You are aware that at certain times our club is closed to all but an inner circle.”

“Yes,” said Drake. “Frankly I’d wondered if you were indulging in some silly ritual, like bankers in Kansas who fancy their lodge The Golden Dawn or a camp of Thugees.”

Fancher snorted into his plate. “Now you know otherwise.”

Dr. Soon continued. “We are having a secret meeting on Friday evening of next week. You are invited to attend.”

“I’m honored,” said Drake. “But I confess to some trepidation. I mean . . .” He groped for the right words. “I don’t want to insult you, but what if I don’t . . .”

Dr. Soon interrupted. “You are concerned that the taste will not be to your liking. That is most amusing.”

Fancher looked up from his meal. “Damn right it’s amusing.” He nodded at Drake’s half empty plate. “Enjoying your casserole?”

Suddenly Drake understood. For a moment he felt dizzy, nauseated. But the moment passed. In its wake he felt elation. Yes, he’d have to admit he was enjoying his casserole just fine. And the small, spicy gobbets of meat?

Definitely not pork.

In the months that followed, Trevor Drake enjoyed the taste of human flesh so much that he began to get a little fat. During the secret meetings he devoured second and third helpings of boy a l’orange, roast suckling long pig, and other entrees prepared by Mr. Gumeroy, the swarthy, truculent chef brought in for these special occasions. And of course there were dumplings, and mashed potatoes, and sauces and gravy. On a day in March when he could not fasten his trousers without discomfort, he stopped at a Bally’s and signed up for a year’s worth of iron-pumping and treadmilling. And later, at the club, he ordered a salad and nothing else.

During the pleasureless mastication of lettuce and carrots, he was joined by Dr. Soon and Emilio Quatrocchi, the latter a professor of music at a prestigious university.

“Ah,” said Dr. Soon, “I see you are eating healthy today.”

“Well,” said Drake, “I’m afraid our club fare is bad for my waistline.” He looked from Dr. Soon to Quatrocchi, a dapper man of fifty with the physique of an athlete. “How do you manage to stay so trim?” he asked. “You don’t look like you have an extra pound of fat between you.”

“Discipline,” said Quatrocchi. “Pure and simple. A little less meat, a little more exercise.”

Dr. Soon laughed. “But of course our friend has discipline to spare. How otherwise could he hold a position of respect in the community while engaging in certain . . . private activities?”

Drake smiled. But the comment made him uneasy. Was Dr. Soon alluding to some “private activity” apart from their feasts at the club? Perhaps Fancher had spoken of their encounter. He swallowed a last piece of carrot and prepared to leave, when Quatrocchi spoke.

“Actually, Trevor, we have some good news for you.”

“Fine,” said Drake. “I’m always in the mood for good news.”

It was well past noon and the dining room was quiet, with only a handful of members finishing solitary lunches and reading their newspapers. Quatrocchi leaned closer. “Those of us in the inner circle have been watching you. You’ve done well. It’s time you learned the second secret.”

Drake had wondered about that. If there was a first secret, there had to be a second. Was there a third, as well? If so, he would wait to be told. Correctly, he had surmised that tact and restraint were among the valued qualities of the inner circle. One had to be tactful and restrained if one wished to indulge regularly in cannibalism.

“Once again, I’m honored.”

“For this,” said Dr. Soon, “you must be given a tour of the kitchen. If you have finished your salad . . .?”

And so the three men proceeded from the dining room into the wide hallway that led to the kitchen. Quatrocchi pushed through a set of double doors and Drake followed him into a room that nearly took his breath away. It could have been a converted ballroom, so high was its ceiling, so cavernous its depth. In the center of the room stood a gigantic fireplace with a sunken hearth large enough for a tall man to stand in without stooping. Gleaming copper pots and stainless steel utensils hung from racks over wooden countertops surrounding the fireplace. There was an electric grill, cabinets, sink and dishwasher. Curiously, the smoke-darkened, pea green walls were separated by a stairway that led to a balcony suspended halfway to the ceiling.

Dr. Soon went to the grill and spoke softly to the cook, who then gathered his staff and left the room.

Quatrocchi took a key from his pocket and opened a locked closet door. “There’s something in here you need to see,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at Drake. “Here, give me a hand.”

From the closet he dragged a heavy cast iron pole, at least seven feet long. Drake lifted one end of it and followed Quatrocchi to the hearth. With some effort they hoisted each end of the pole into holders bolted to the bricks.

“Please take note of the chain and clamp attachments at various points along the pole,” said Dr. Soon.

“Yes,” said Drake. “Hard to miss. And I note also the heavy crank on the wall, connected to the holder. We wouldn’t want the meat to be overdone on one side, now, would we?”

“Ah, but look more closely, please,” said Dr. Soon. “One of the clamps is different.”

Drake looked. And so it was. At one end of the pole, the clamp was not merely a piece of curved metal for holding a body fast to the spit, but a rectangular strip of hard black leather, charred and brittle.

Drake stared at the clamp for half a minute. Then he knew. He stepped back and placed a hand against the wall of the hearth to steady himself. With the other hand he took out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his forehead.

Dr. Soon was now giggling like a schoolgirl. “Treated elk hide,” he managed. “Even in great heat it will not disintegrate for a long time. Naturally we would prefer to hear the screams unmuffled by a gag, but . . .what might the neighbors think?” He tried to continue, but could not contain his laughter. It was all so amusing.

Quatrocchi smiled, but there was concern in his voice. “Is it too much for you?”

“Not at all,” said Drake, his countenance restored. “I admit it threw me for a moment, but no, I’m fine with it.”

“In my country,” said Dr. Soon, catching his breath and wiping the tears from his cheeks, “all of the best chefs use this technique.”

“Yes,” said Quatrocchi. “And what hypocrites we are in the West. Are not live lobsters thrown into pots of boiling water and relished by kindly folk who dote on their pet poodles? Yet if a Korean chef has the good sense to tenderize a living dog with a blowtorch, everyone is up in arms.”

Dr. Soon shook his head sadly. “It is a fact that extreme pain releases chemicals that make cooked flesh more tender and palatable. If it is nature’s way, why should we not follow?”

“I agree,” said Drake. He thought for a moment. Then he asked the question that had been bothering him for some time. “I don’t wish to appear nosy, but I’ve been wondering . . .how do you pick out our, uh, meals? I mean, where do you find them?”

“A fair question,” said Quatrocchi. “Actually we have quite a number of sources, and while I’m not at liberty to divulge them, I can assure you that all meat is fresh and untainted by filth or disease.”

“Of course. I didn’t mean to imply . . .”

“Not at all. Later on you will learn much more. I can tell you that one of our members runs a charitable home for wayward children. When he’s quite certain he has a plump and healthy child with no meddlesome relatives who might come poking around, he donates it to the club. That’s how we operate. Always safe, always discreet.”

“I would expect nothing less,” said Drake.

“So then, asked Dr. Soon, “you are looking forward to being in the kitchen during our next roast? Tomorrow night Mrs. Huddleston will read her poetry in the salon. Then she will be our guest for dinner.”

Drake looked surprised. Phillip Huddleston was a member in good standing, a fellow trencherman at their feasts.

“Don’t worry,” said Quatrocchi. “Phillip arranged it himself. He hates the bitch.”

Drake looked up at the balcony, at the three rows of plush-backed wooden seats. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Ariel Huddleston, a pie-faced woman of forty-five with large bosoms and graying, ash-blond hair tied in a pony tail, stood at the lectern shuffling her papers. She wore gold wire-frame glasses, an ankle-length dress of purple corduroy, and hiking boots. In an unpleasant nasal voice that smacked of graduate seminars, she began reading her poetry, which consisted of two types: feminist diatribes, and flower-filled, lyrical musings on the pain of unfulfilled desire.

The men sat in their easy chairs, smoking and sipping cocktails, trying to keep their sighs and restless shiftings to a minimum. Mrs. Huddleston droned on. To Drake’s left sat the poet’s husband, hands folded in his lap, eyes shut. His face wore a beatific smile, which in other circumstances might have been taken as a show of pride. On Drake’s other side Judge Bromberg nursed a martini and drummed his fingers impatiently on the arm of his leather chair. In the middle of a long poem that seemed little more than a listing of exotic flora, punctuated by the occasional vapid statement about a woman’s feelings, the Judge whispered to Drake out of the corner of his mouth, “God save us from the botanical imaginations of lady poets.”

Finally the reading came to an end. Mrs. Huddleston descended the podium amid the applause of men whose moods had suddenly improved. For a while she circulated among them, absorbing false praise and measured smiles. Then she was led from the room by Fancher and her husband, ostensibly to view the club’s fine art collection.

Dr. Soon watched them depart. He turned to the group, his shoulders hunched in anticipation, his face glowing like a child’s on Christmas morning. “Now we must give them a moment,” he said, placing a finger to his lips.

Drake stood quietly with the other men. To his surprise, he felt a sickening twinge of revulsion. Could this be conscience, an aspect of his personality he regarded as entirely vestigial? As a child he had been a tireless torturer of small animals, even those given to him as pets. In adolescence he had orchestrated cruelties inflicted upon the gentle misfits who passed through the school system like specimens awaiting vivisection. His adult years had been characterized by utter ruthlessness, and more than a few of his business associates and their families had been left distraught and penniless. Calculatingly, he had won the affections of a woman, married her, sired a daughter, and then cast them both aside in order to pursue a lifestyle more congenial to his tastes and desires. And now, at forty, he was content with what he had become: a proud and successful businessman, and a practicing sexual sadist. He was a regular at the Back Bay brothel where young prostitutes would willingly endure mild tortures—whippings, strangulation, even the searing touch of a lighted cigar—for a price. As a preferred customer he sometimes had access to a special quarry, the confused runaway. Fresh from the sticks, convinced that the glamorous life of a high-priced courtesan awaited her in the big city, she would submit to bondage, and then Drake would enjoy the greatest of ecstasies—to torture a nubile, attractive girl who was getting more than she bargained for, whose cries for mercy were no act. And afterward, she would have no recourse but to take the money and limp off to nurse her burns and bruises, thankful she had not been part of a snuff scenario. No, what he was feeling now could not be conscience; of that he was certain. No doubt it was a vertiginous reaction to the intensity of this new pleasure. He had, after all, always stopped short of murder.

A sudden cry came from the kitchen. Nervous laughter rippled through the group, and then, led by Dr. Soon, the men surged forward.

Drake was not prepared for the sordid tableau before him. Standing shoulder to shoulder with well-dressed, eminent club members, he watched in amazement as Huddleston methodically punched and kicked his stunned, bleeding wife. Huddleston’s jacket was draped over a wooden chair and his tie was loose at his collar. He crouched low and pummeled his wife’s face, holding her head up by her pony tail, a spray of spittle accompanying the vile curses he shouted at her.

“Enough!” cried Quattrochi, leaping forward and grabbing Huddleston’s arm. “Where’s our fun if you put her in a coma?”

Weeping and babbling, Mrs. Huddleston was delivered into the hands of Mr. Gumeroy and his assistant—a gypsy, by the look of him—who roughly stripped off her clothes and fastened her to the spit. As the fire was prepared, the men climbed the stairs to the balcony and settled into their seats.

While his assistant worked the bellows, Mr. Gumeroy tended to the gag, no easy task considering the woman’s terrified screams and attempts to jerk free her head. Then he took a soft brush and basted her with oil, from her neck to her writhing feet. “Sorry if it tickles,” he said, loud enough for all to hear.

There was laughter in the balcony, and a bottle was passed around, and the men fired up their cigars and pipes. They shared conversations about business and world affairs, occasionally interrupted by the drawing of their attention to some fascinating aspect of the scene below.

Drake remained casual, smiling and joking with his fellows, reaching for the bottle of expensive gin, projecting the savoir-faire expected of a sadistic cannibal at the slow roasting of a live woman. But within, a trembling had begun at the very core of his being, and he feared it would spread outward, and soon overwhelm him in a frenzy of uncontrollable horror. As heartless and cold as he had been all his life, even though he had milked pleasure from the discomforts of bound women, nothing had prepared him for the stark terror of this monstrous scene. He wore his bland smile as a mask, while his mind shrieked that he must somehow escape from these dangerous lunatics. Hoping that the sweat on his face would be seen as a consequence of the rising heat, he silently prayed to a God he had always mocked, and waited for the ordeal to end.

Upon the long table sat three enormous plates heaped high with steaming, succulent meat. Amid the murmur of talk and the tinkle of silver and fine china came the droning voice of Huddleston, who, to Drake’s acute misery, sat directly opposite. The man went on and on about the lucky accident of his late wife’s dietary habits. Plenty of beans and corn, whole breads and eccentric, new-agey grains, and a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables had given her the health and amplitude that translated itself into the tastiest dish he’d sampled in many a month. Their mouths full, their eyes glazed, those within hearing grunted assent. Huddleston sawed away a portion of his wife’s thigh and shoved it, crispy skin and all, into his mouth.

“Careful you don’t burst,” said Quatrocchi. “Isn’t that your third helping?”

“And I’m not done yet,” replied Huddleston, violently salting his platter. “Only pleasure she’s given me in years.”

Drake forced himself to laugh with the others. He jabbed with his fork at the meat on his plate, then buried it beneath a mound of mashed potatoes. Quickly he snuck a piece of asparagus into his mouth and chewed demonstrably, hoping this ruse would work until he was able to slip out of the room and flee the club for the safety of his home and the loaded Glock he would sleep with from now on.

But it seemed hopeless. He sensed the sidelong glances trained upon him. Although he made his plate a chiaroscuro of gravy and asparagus and potatoes, a sly watcher would notice the poorly disguised hunks of untouched meat. He had no choice but to partake of Mrs. Huddleston.

After one small bite, Drake knew that any attempt to swallow would make him vomit. Bringing a napkin to his lips, he ejected the chewed flesh with its broth of grease and saliva, aware of Quatrocchi’s puzzled glance. These men are monsters, he thought. He must make a run for it, try to escape.

He dropped the balled napkin onto his plate and stood up. His shaky legs and sickly pallor—very real indeed—would support his subterfuge. “Gentlemen, I’m sorry,” he began. “I seem to have come down with something . . .a virus, I think . . .” He pushed aside his chair and backed away from the table.

Quatrocchi stood also. “Will you be all right?”

“Yes. Yes, I’ll be fine, I think. I may have to vomit. I’ll just be off to the bathroom for a moment. Sorry about this.”

Turning his back to the table, he walked slowly, unsteadily across the thousand-mile expanse of carpet that led to the door and blessed freedom.

“Trevor!” Fancher’s voice broke the stillness like a rifle shot. “Have you forgotten?”

Drake turned his head. “Forgotten?” The word came out of him like the tremulous cry of a child. Would it give him away?

Fancher pointed to a hallway at Drake’s left, about fifteen feet from the main door. “Bathroom’s that way.”

Drake managed a wan smile. “Of course it is. I must be feverish.”

His mind racing, he entered the hallway. The silence in his wake was ominous. He knew that the ancient building was a warren of odd rooms and corridors, and he hoped to bypass the bathroom and sneak around to the front door.

The hallway was lit by a small table lamp with a cut-glass shade. Its feeble light cast dark shadows upon the wall. Drake’s tread made no sound on the thick carpet. He listened for footsteps behind him, but heard nothing. At the bathroom he turned right, down the adjoining corridor. He tried one door. A storage closet. He tried another. Locked. In the corner of his eye he perceived a flicker of motion. No, it was nothing. Just shadows at the end of the hallway. Beneath his jacket and shirt he felt sweat coursing down his sides. Now he increased his pace, half running along the corridor. He came to another door. To his relief, it was unlocked. It opened onto the dark landing of a descending stairway.

Drake hesitated. The only light came from beneath, a soft glow barely illuminating the top step and its balustrade. This did not seem the way to the front of the building, but what were his options? He would chance it. There must be a back door or a side entrance. He would keep moving till he found it. Cautiously, he passed through the doorway.

From the darkest part of the landing, a figure emerged.

Drake gasped and stepped backward. He did not see Mr. Gumeroy’s raised arm coming down until it was too late.

Mouth dry. Vision blurred. A dull, throbbing pain at the side of his head. He awoke on a cot, knowing who he was, but entirely forgetful of his circumstances. Sit up, he thought. Rub your eyes and see where you are and what has happened to you.

But he could not move his arms.

In panic he tried his legs, but they too were fastened to the cot.

Then he remembered.

A rasping cry escaped his parched throat. He pulled at his bonds, thumping the cot against the wall.

A door opened, and Dr. Soon walked into the room, smiling. “I’m so glad you have awakened,” he said. “You have been unconscious for many hours. The blow to your head was quite heavy. Mr. Gumeroy sometimes does not know his own strength.” He pulled a chair next to the cot. From his black bag he removed a pen-light and examined Drake’s eyes, holding the lids open with his thumb.

There were footsteps in the hall. Fancher came in. “How’s the patient?”

“Nothing serious,” said Dr. Soon. “He will be fully alert and aware.”

“Excellent,” said Fancher. He bent over the cot and with a rough thumb and forefinger began pinching the flesh on Drake’s side and shoulder.

Drake tried to squirm free. He winced with pain and turned his head away from the man’s rancid, beery breath. “Please,” he begged, “let me go. I promise I won’t tell.” His words came in a rush, between the catches in his breath. His limbs shook, and his heart was a mallet breaking through his chest. “I swear,” he cried, “I’ll do whatever you ask!”

Dr. Soon giggled. “It seems you have not guessed the third secret.”

“Must be the blow on the head,” said Fancher.

Tears spurted from Drake’s eyes. “You can’t do this! I’m your friend, a fellow club member!”

Dr. Soon put away his light, zipped up his black bag. “And as such, you are in the unique position of knowing the third secret because you are at the center of it.”

“Has to be a club member, I’m afraid,” said Fancher. “It won’t work any other way.”

Drake’s entreaties deteriorated into a stream of gibberish. Impelled equally by terror and despair, his head shot from side to side as he strained to break free from the ropes that held him. Without warning, Fancher gave him a tremendous stinging slap. “For Christ’s sake, man, pay attention! Where’s your dignity?”

Dr. Soon intervened. “Let us review. The first secret is that we devour human flesh. The second secret, those eaten must endure great pain, so that the meat is more tender. Now, Trevor, can you tell us the third secret?”

Though he felt himself on the brink of madness, Drake focused upon his captors. If there was a way out of this, it wouldn’t be through hysteria. “It’s obvious,” he said. “You’re treacherous bastards without honor. You take a man into your club and then kill him.”

“That’s not fair,” said Fancher. “You’ve hurt our feelings. If you’d been a worthy member, none of this would be happening.”

Dr. Soon spoke. “We have long experience of observing the reactions of a man watching for the first time someone being roasted alive. It was obvious that you did not enjoy yourself in the balcony.”

“And that performance at table!” snorted Fancher. “Do you take us for morons? A virus, indeed.”

“On rare occasion,” continued Dr. Soon, “we make an error in judgment. When that happens, we manipulate the situation to our advantage.”

“We’re great sensualists,” said Fancher. “Can’t imagine any group of men who enjoy good eating more than we do. It was Dr. Soon turned us on to the idea of cooking them alive to improve the taste. But you know how it is with pleasure. You always want more.”

“The solution was a matter of simple deduction,” said Dr. Soon. “Compare your plight to that of the late Mrs. Huddleston, whose agonies were not preceded by a period of contemplation.”

“Time to think,” said Fancher, with a chuckle. “And full knowledge of what we’re all about.” He bent over Drake’s quivering form, leered into his face. “That is the third secret. Remember what you saw from the balcony, and let the juices flow.”

Dr. Soon exploded into laughter, but Drake only saw the open mouth and crinkled eyes; he could not hear him above the sound of his own screams. He thrashed and bucked on the cot, and this time Fancher merely stepped back to watch appreciatively.

Drake was still screaming when Mr. Gumeroy and his assistant entered the room.
--Brought you by RK

Monday, December 8, 2008


It was his routine. A routine that he religiously performed for seven years. And all he longed for was advancement in his job and enough money to take care of his wife.

When the distant temple bells would toll precisely at seven o'clock every evening, Ramu would rush from his one-room abode--actually an outhouse adjoining the local money-lender's house--wash his hands and sprint toward the far end of the street, bearing with him his uneasy load of injustice of life. And the bells would continue to toll unitl he almost reached the sacred plot of the temple.

Seven years of worship--a kind of mechanical chore--has not fructified in any tangible rewards. Yet his trust in the magical and mystical powers of the supernatural dieties has not deserted him. He believed blindly.

As soon as he reached the holy spot that muggy and rainy Friday evening, the sweltering end of June, he, as usual, circumambulated the temple thrice, gently stepped inside and rang the brass bells; folded his hands in deference to the mightiness of the stony idol, bowed as a sign of his insignificance before the immutable Unknown, and eventually prostrated before the dark oily image. The shirtless Brahmin priest lighted a camphor on a shiny copper plate and moved it hurriedly thrice clockwise while confusingly invoking the blessings of the Divine in an incomprehensible language. He carefully picked a few marigolds and green fragrant leaves and placed in the cupped hands of Ramu. With a copper spoon the priest dropped a few drops of sanctified water in the devotee's carefully adjusted hands. Ramu sipped the water.

Such a glorious ritual! Similarly Ramu performed his duties as a lower division clerk in the state government office devoted to tax levy and collection for fourteen years. In his office hie superiors were almost like gods. Those changing gods at least blatantly demonstrated their anger or petty indifference but never their dissatisfaction with Ramu's diligence and efficiency. He felt his colleagues with "connections" were promoted or their sloppy work was never questioned. What about the real gods? "Can I have connections with gods," Ramu would muse periodically.

Ramu brought back in his folded hands a piece of fresh coconut the priest offered to share with his wife, Rukku, hoping that the gods would bless her with a child.

They have been married for about fourteen years--the first seven were a mere span of marital ecstasy and comfort; the past seven years prolonged like a tropical summer afternoon. Struggle, self-torture.

"I don't trust the efficacy of these sacred coconut pieces anymore," retorted Rukku. "After all, we've performed prayers, visited fdholy places like Tirupati, bribed the gods and the priests, have had only dips in Ganga, Godavry, and Kauvery; fed the brahmins, gave donations for temples. You name it! My god, we have done every conceivable thing to please te gods above. And you've also tried to please and humor the gods in your office. Have you had any promotions? Your friend Krishna, a mere bachelor degree holder, has even become an upper division clerk. And...and...have I conceived yet? No! If there is no meaning or purpose in life, if there is no charm or pleasure, then why should we suffer to continue our daily visits to the temple. Please stop form now on."

Such perorations were a routine with Rukku.

But on that particular rainy evening, when Ramu rushed back from the temple in mud, slush, and sweat, Rukku ebulliently smiled at him--perhaps the first natural one in seven years--instead of reproaching him. Stunned and perplexed, he muttered--what miraculous events have taken place in the past forty minutes?"

"Oh, our neighbor widow visited with me. And she quoted Lord Krishna's counsel to the warrior Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita. "In work thy rightful interest should lie, nor even in its fruits; let not thy motive be the fruit of work; to no work let not thine attachment be."

Ramu wiped his sweat in Rukku's saree.
-- Brought you by RK

Friday, December 5, 2008

From "KRISHNA ,GANESH AND THE REST " by Prasenjit Ranjan Gupta

I've never been religious, but some years ago the gods began to talk
to me. I had just moved to New York City. First it was Krishna, leaving
messages for me on the answering machine.

"Hi, this is Kris," he'd say, "are you doing okay? We're worried about
you." And then he'd hang up.

It wasn't anybody I knew, even though most people who were Krishna-
something became Kris when they came here. Perfectly understandable; how
many Americans can say Krishnaswamy Ramasubramaniam? So it was Kris or
Ram, like the truck. When he called the display would say 0, but the
light would be blinking and there'd be this message. When anybody else
left a message the machine would say 1, or sometimes 2, and once it even
said 3. (But they were all from the same person, drunk, asking for some
Angela, a wrong number.) So I knew it was no ordinary Kris, but the
Beauteous Blue One himself.

It was nice to know, of course, that the gods were keeping an eye on
me, but all the same I felt guilty for not believing in them. Once or
twice I tried staying home--he always telephoned during the day, when I
was out--but he didn't call. I wanted to ask him for some pointers about
meeting women.

Then it was Ganesh. You know Ganesh, the elephant god, the one who
rides on a mouse. (I can't understand the logic of these things
sometimes. But that's the way it is.) I expected him to have a high
trumpet-like voice, like an elephant call, but he had this really deep,
rich, mellow radio announcer's voice. And an interesting accent, kind of
basic North Indian with a British overlay, as if he'd grown up in Delhi
listening to the BBC a lot. He came on during a half-hour commercial on
a UHF channel. They were selling fitness equipment.

"How do--you do?" Ganesh said, nodding his trunk up and down. He was
riding an exercise bicycle--it was called an Air Velocipede, $299.96 in
four interest-free payments--and his knees kept knocking up against his
belly. He was panting. "How--do you--do?" he asked again. I wasn't sure
he could hear me, but I said "Hi" anyway.

He said, "Stay away from the potato chips, old boy. Everything all

"Not too bad," I said.

He nodded, then bumped his belly with his knee. It jiggled. "Ow.
Okay, good. Well, pip-pip." And the announcer came on, quoting the many
benefits of the Air Velocipede. I wanted to order one. How many products
do you know that are endorsed by a god? Even a minor one? But it was too
expensive for me.

I didn't have any women friends, except--very briefly--Meera. She worked
in the Indian store. I asked her out to dinner once.

At the Bangladeshi restaurant I could tell right away that Krishna
had disguised himself as one of the waiters. I knew he was good with
advice on the battlefield, so I asked him to recommend something.

He said, "Hmm. Try the chicken tikka masala." It was the most
expensive item on the menu. So I said, "Maybe I'll have the alu gobi."
Krishna slouched off towards the kitchen grumbling to himself. I suppose
he had to put on an act for the manager. I could see that the back of
his neck had a little patch of blue where he'd forgotten his makeup.

At the cash register I whispered to him, "Thanks, Kris. See you
around." He played his role to the hilt: he gave me a blank look--oh, it
was exactly right--along with my change. I took it all. You can't really
tip a god. They might be offended. He slammed the door after us. Krishna
was a perfectionist.

On the subway back to Jackson Heights I said, "You know, that man? At
the restaurant? The one pretending to be a waiter?"

She turned to me and smiled. "Yes, I know, the service was terrible,
wasn't it?"

"He's left messages for me before."

"What? Who, the waiter? You know him?"

"Oh, everyone knows him. He's a god. But he leaves messages for me."

She became quiet then, and looked at me with a new respect. When the
train slowed she stood up. "But this isn't your stop," I said.

"Oh, I think I'll walk a little," she said. "No, no, don't get up.
Thanks for a--uh, thanks. Bye."

I worked at a cab company. It didn't pay much, but the work wasn't very
hard, just sitting in a booth all day checking medallions in and out,
stuff like that. My boss was also Indian. His name was Harivansh
Vidyadhar Chaturvedi. Everyone called him Harry, but the first time I
met him I said Chaturvedi-ji, and he seemed to like that.

For the first few days everything went well, but the a gradual change
seemed to come over Chaturvedi. He found a girlfriend, and he became
very rude towards me. His girlfriend was an American woman, Carol, who
always wore jeans and sneakers and a tight blouse or sweater. She was a
waitress a few blocks away. It was easy to see what was going on.
Chaturvedi wanted to give her my job.

One day Chaturvedi flung open the door to my booth and threw a bunch
of receipts on the ledger. "The hell were these doin in my office?" he

I looked over the receipts and said, "They needed your authorization,

He glared at me. "Don't Chaturvedi-ji me, you lil shit." Then, in an
undertone, he said, "Fuckin Indian crap."


"Ya berrer getcher ack together. Lotsa people waitin fer this job."
And he slammed the door.

I was shocked. This man used to be an Indian. I sat there for several
minutes just staring out through the glass. Then somebody came up with a
medallion and I had to get back to work.

There was simply no pleasing him. Over the next few weeks I did exactly
what he told me to do; I did more; I did less. It made no difference. He
had convinced himself I was incompetent.

So the next time I saw Ganesh I asked him what advice he had for me.
He was on cable--Channel 47, I think--touting some diet milk shake. He
pondered my question, taking a deep slug and crinkling his trunk in

"Well, old son," he said finally, "I think this Chatterjee fellow--"

"Chaturvedi," I said.

"He's got to go."


"Yes, quite definitely. Simply causing too much trouble."

"Where will he go?"

Ganesh chuckled and took another swig. "Jolly good stuff," he said.
"--Don't worry about Chatty. I'll see what I can do." And he put down
the empty glass and waddled away.

I waited anxiously. But nothing happened to Chaturvedi. He went on
yelling at me in front of everybody for things I hadn't done. So at home
I began flipping through the channels to find Ganesh. I stayed up later
and later. But he seemed to have gone undergound.

One night when I returned home from work, I found I had a visitor.
Sitting on the wing chair in my living-room-cum-bedroom--I hadn't
refolded the sleeper sofa--was Durga. The chair seemed to be a tight fit
for her, because of her ten arms, but she had a smile on her face and
said to me, very pleasantly, "Ah, there you are. Sit down."

I straightened out the sheets and folded the mattress into the sofa.
It was old and heavy and took some effort, and for a moment I thought
Durga might help me--she was the one with ten hands, after all--but she
just sat there and smiled at me beatifically as I wrestled with the bed,
finally getting it in. It was okay, I suppose. She's a goddess. I put
the cushions back and sat down.

"I hear you have a problem," she said.

"Did Ganesh tell you?" I asked.

"Yes, he's one of my most reliab--"

"Where the hell is he?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I mean, I've been going crazy trying to find him. I've looked all
the way up to Channel 87. And he's nowhere."

"Oh yes, didn't he tell you? He's moved out of television. He's
thinking about Hollywood. He thinks he'll be seen more on the big

"Okay, are you going to help me out or what?" I knew I was pushing,
but you have to assert yourself. That's how you get ahead.

"Yes, yes, all right," Durga said. "You know what? You're a little
short on faith."

"Faith? Don't talk to me about faith," I said, feeling a bit guilty.
A lot guilty. But I went on. "You see my life?" I waved at the tiny
room. "And on top of that my boss is going to fire me. And you want me
to have faith?"

Durga looked around. "Hmm," she said. "I see what you mean. The gods
haven't been very kind to you. I mean we haven't. But you know how
things are. Lots of politics. Always someone wanting more boons, more
powers, all sorts of back-biting and nastiness. And sometimes the Big I
plays favorites.--But you're right, we've ignored you. But that's going
to change."

"I'm glad to hear it," I said. All these excuses! "When can we see
some results?"

She thought for a while. "Let's see." She bent down to the gym bag at
the side of her chair. "Remember I can only support and advise. Most of
the actual work you'll have to do yourself." She was rooting around in
the bag with at least five hands, clanking and rattling various things.
"Ah! Here it is." And she took out a ferocious-looking, straight-
handled, curved-headed dagger almost large enough to be a sword.

"Whoa!" I said. "Now just hold on! You're not saying--"

"Well, if you want to be rid of this Chatterjee--"

"Chaturvedi," I said.

"There it is," said Durga, hefting the dagger and running a finger
around the inside of the curved sharp edge. She put it on the table.
"You'll find it's just the right size." She smiled. Then she stood up,
picked up her bag, and walked out through the open door.
--Brought you by RK

HOMECOMING by Manorama Mathai

Neetu did not understand that when you are very poor dreams don't mean anything.
That is all they are, dreams, unreality, a fugitive hope that has hunkered down in the
further recesses of the mind. All that really matters when one is down and out is survival.
Neetu is only 12, a small wisp of a girl, who left her native Kerala many years ago but
not long enough to erase the memories to which she has clung all this time, memories
that became a dream of happiness past, happiness waiting to be reclaimed in a beautiful
place that had somehow got lost. Or so it seemed to the little girl who treasured her
memories as other children play with brightly coloured objects.

Vatakkara in Kerala, where Neetu's family had lived, is not a rich place, but it is green,
lush and it was home even though that home was only a small bare hut in which she
had lived with her grandparents, parents and other relatives. Her parents had worked
very hard as landless labour, her father as a coolie pulling heavy loads and her mother
doing odd jobs. For the little ones, however, there had been ponds to splash in, trees to
climb and loving grandparents on whose laps they might lie down to sleep.

When the chance came and it had seemed like a big chance, Neetu's parents had migrated
from Vatakkara to the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, as different from green pellucid
Kerala as any part of India could be and they toiled there in the harsh climate and came slowly
to the realisation that they had only exchanged one kind of poverty for another. And they were
not at home, outsiders who never would truly belong.

Realising that they could not afford to support Neetu and the other children who had come into
being, they got Neetu employed as a servant maid in an affluent local household. At an age when
she should have been at school and at play with her friends, Neetu shouldered all the household
chores that were thrust upon her and nobody thought that she was too young to take on such a
burden. There are many children like Neetu who struggle on as domestic servants. People believe
that they are better off working, but then some people will believe anything that makes the unpleasant
more palatable. There are many such people who will tell you solemnly that they are doing the little
child who toils in their home or business a good turn.

Although she was only a child, close in age to their own children, she was not their child and Neetu's
employers were not kind to her. She was only a servant and servants belong to a different breed;
soon the harrassment began and grew to unbearable levels. She is still unable to talk about it but if
you persist with your questions the tears welling in her eyes and some suspicious marks on her arms
and legs need no words, they annotate only too well a cruel page in her life. There is a look about a
child who is unloved and it is plain for all who have eyes to see.

Finally, Neetu could stand it no longer, perhaps some small misdemeanour or childish mistake
brought dreadful retribution on her defenceless body, so she ran away. She did not go back to her
parents, she knew there was no recourse there, that there was nothing they could do to help her.
She was half starved, hurt and alone, but something remained in her mind, had never been erased
from her memory, which she knew she must look for. What drove her on was the dream she still
carried in her mind of her quiet native village in Vatakkara, which seemed to be her only hope.

She had no clear idea of where Vatakkara was or how she might reach that place, but she remembered
that she and her parents had come from there in a train. So she went to the railway station and thought
that she might find a train going in that direction. It was not as easy as she had thought because there
were many trains to catch before one might find a train to take one to Vatakkara.

Wandering bewildered on the station platform, she was noticed by some policemen and it was obvious
that she was penniless. So they did the only thing they could do, they took her into custody and later she
was produced in court. There, Neetu told the judge her tale and she begged and she pleaded to be sent
back to Vatakkara. Her grandfather had died and others of the family had moved away but she was sure
that her grandmother who still lived in the village would welcome her back with open arms.

The judge must have been a kindly man; perhaps he was moved by a little girl's tears or else he saw the
scars on her thin malnourished body and recognised that they were recent. Whatever the reason, he acceded
to her request and she was sent to Kerala accompanied by two women constables of the Madhya Pradesh police.

When they arrived in Kerala, two Kerala policewomen joined the trio in order to help them locate the house in
Vatakkara where Neetu's grandmother still lived. It was not an easy task. One mud hut looks very much like
another and coconut palms and ponds are not reliable landmarks and the little child who had left Vatakkara
so many years before had no real clues to where the grandmother's hut might be. She saw it very clearly in
her mind's eye, the well with the pulli tree beside it from which she had plucked the sour fruit to suck, even now
it made her mouth pucker; the verandah on which her grandmother had lulled her to sleep with old lullabies.
But what she saw there in the Vatakkara they took her to did not fit in with the dream, the long-ago memories.
The reality looked different and she did not even know her grandmother's real name.

Still, somehow, through tenuous links and tortuous questions, they found the place and they found the old woman,
Neetu's grandmother. The reunion was joyful, for she did welcome the little girl, her grandchild who had come all
those many long, lonely miles in order to find what she thought of as her home.
--Brought you by RK


On the tarmac of the Jaipur airport the Italian woman who had been sitting in front of Clarice collapses. The woman's boyfriend catches her just before she hits the hot asphalt.

On the bus ride into town Clarice realizes that her perspective has become warped: she has seen so many photographs of them that she imagines the Rajasthani men in brilliant red, pink and chartreuse turbans are wearing their headdress solely for her benefit.

Camels pull carts of marble and slate. Humpbacked bullocks wander down the center of the streets. A goat big as a donkey nibbles at the tattered bottom of a movie poster. Rollo is sitting across the aisle from Clarice. These women's saris, he thinks, they're eye-catching. Peacock green and royal purple are colors that would really move in Westwood.

A thin old man pedals a bicycle cart loaded down with truck batteries. With sad intensity, Dalits break piles of rock. Oh my, thinks Trudy, sitting three rows behind Rollo, these people have such work. Sometimes I wish I could do it for them.

In the old town, city regulations require that all buildings be painted pink. Down-market Disney, thinks Rollo. The bus passes shop after busy specialty shop: fans, film, suitcases, stainless steel cooking pots, scooter parts. Sidewalk merchants sit cross-legged with their goods spread out on blankets before them: pomegranates, lemons, plastic sandals, comic books. Rollo holds his camera up to the window. These people know nothing about profit margins. Simpletons: it's all about volume.

Afternoon sun beats down on the 18th century Jantar Mantar, the largest stone observatory in the world. Romance languages intertwine with Urdu and Rajasthani as the tour group's slick new guide, Gieve--pressed slacks, blow-dried hair and Ray-ban sunglasses--hurries through an explanation of ancient astronomy. Clarice raises her hand and asks a question about orbital velocity. Gieve smiles and ignores her. The guides are parrots, Clarice thinks. They don't even know what they're saying.

Pigeons coo from the hundred foot high gnomon of a sundial; the smell of stagnant water rises from green pools. Damn woman, thinks Gieve. What does she expect?

Gieve hustles his group through the City Palace: "See giant silver urns? What are they for? One maharajah went to England and brought Ganges water with him to drink. Devout Hindu. Water was not so dirty then. Very amusing. Come on, please, we must go." Trudy glances over her shoulder at the residence of the current maharajah who is, according to Gieve, one of the richest men in India. His family still occupies much of the complex. Satellite dishes cast shadows from his roof. So much wealth in one man's hands when so many are so poor, Trudy thinks. Why can't they spread it around?

The maharajah peeks out of a small window in an upper story. I can't go out until those idiots leave, he thinks. What time does the last tour end?

"Do you want to see how they make gemstones?" Gieve asks when they are back on the bus. Someone say yes, he thinks, someone.

Good lord, thinks Clarice, not this line again. "No!" she shouts.

Trudy remembers being told by a friend that the guides must ask first if their charges want to go to a shop, but once they get an affirmative, they take a cut of whatever is bought--"Up to forty percent," Trudy's disgusted friend had said. "No!" Trudy shouts.

"Sure!" Rollo exclaims. The stateside mark-up on jewelry could be tremendous, he thinks.

After a cursory two minute demonstration of gem polishing, the group is herded into the showroom and the selling begins. A boy passes out cold soft drinks. An army of young men in silk shirts stands behind the counters. "You want to see rubies? We are having best quality emeralds this season now."

Exasperated, Clarice stalks back out to the air conditioned bus. The gem polisher sneaks on board. He holds out the tiny semi-precious stones. "Hello, my friend. You want? One hundred rupees."

"No, I don't want."

"Nice star ruby, nice moonstone."

"I don't want to buy anything from anybody ever again."

"Garnet. Look. Turquoise. Two for one hundred rupees."

"I hate gems."

"Okay, five dollars only. Okay, how much?"

Inside, Rollo is bargaining with a salesman. Trudy lounges on a couch and holds an ice-cold can of Fanta up to her forehead. That fat guy, what's-his-name. He's such a greedy dork.

That frizzy-haired liberal is staring at me again, thinks Rollo. She wants me. Definitely. But that would be a big mistake.

Clarice gets out of the bus and walks down the street. Smog hangs heavy in the air. Puddles of stinking sewage glimmer blue-gray in the gutter. A finger taps insistently at her shoulder blade. "Okay, three for five dollars. Okay, how much?"

The next morning, freshly showered, Clarice thinks, We never talk to each other in this group. We're all a bunch of slugs. She looks around at the other ten people on the bus. God, she thinks, it's not worth it.

The moment Trudy steps from the bus to take a photograph of the Hawa Mahal, the famous Palace of the Wind, she is besieged by hawkers and beggars. Beautiful, she thinks of the terra cotta cupolas above scores of latticed windows. Better get a postcard, though. I can't enjoy it like this.

Necklaces, packages of worthless coins, marionettes and riding whips are thrust in Rollo's face by seedy men with scruffy beards. "Best picture is up on roof. Come with me." Legless beggars push themselves along on carts, tugging at his pant legs. School children squawk, "Pen, pen, pen," like some new species of parakeet. "Go to hell," says Rollo. "All of you people can just go to hell."

After Rollo scrambles back on board, the group heads for the Amber Fort, northeast of Jaipur. "Whu whu," Gieve breathes into the microphone. "Who wants to go for elephant ride?" Clarice, Trudy, Rollo and all the others burst into applause that is not a little sarcastic. Fools, thinks Gieve. As if I don't notice their scorn.

The moment the bus parks, the group is assailed by determined hawkers specializing in brass peacocks: "Three hundred rupees. Okay, two-fifty. Okay, how much?"

"I'll give you one rupee," Rollo says.

"Okay, one dollar, okay." Five hands thrust peacocks in his face.

"No, one rupee."

They look at him as though he has offered to rape their mothers. "Forget it."

"One rupee?"

"Screw you," someone mumbles.

The elephant Clarice boards with three others has open sores behind both ears. What next? she thinks. The animal sways slowly uphill towards the fort, bumping her legs against the wall.

Trudy and Rollo, riding together on a healthier elephant, pass by. Poor beast, Trudy thinks. Rollo is patting his shirt pockets. Now where are my damned sunglasses?

Clarice surmises that her elephant is very sick. Below her the boulder-strewn hillside stretches down to a fetid lake. She has a sudden presentiment that she will be crushed to death by a lame elephant in northwestern India in her thirty-second year: unmarried, the mother of no children, creator of no lasting monument. At least it will be an exotic death, she thinks. Painful, however.

Instead, her elephant lumbers on. A hawker takes advantage of its sluggishness. "You want puppet?"

"No," says Clarice.

He throws one into her lap. "Here, you take. Free."

Clarice tosses it back down to him and begins speaking the few phrases of Welsh she remembers from her year as an exchange student. "Ble rydych chi'n byw?"

"My name Johnny. I see you when you come back down, okay?"

"Da iawn, diolch."

The fort has grand views of the rocky landscape around them, but it is crowded with tourists and beggars and screeching monkeys. Trudy and Rollo stand next to each other in the Hall of Victory. They catch each other's eyes in the thousand inlaid mirrors. What a jerk, thinks Trudy.

Two swamps have formed under Rollo's armpits. She's after me again. I'm going to have to say something. Set her straight.

As Clarice is walking back down from the fort, a hawker accosts her. "Hello. Johnny. Remember?" He holds out the puppet. Clarice shakes her head, no. "Hey, you promised!" He says it with such force she half-believes that she did make some promise. She looks in Johnny's eyes. He's desperate. He'd rob me if he thought he could get away. She walks quickly for the coach.

These stingy foreigners won't part with a single paise, Johnny thinks. "You promised!" he shouts after her, already looking for another customer.

Gieve has been replaced by a long-boned, serious-faced woman named Padma who will serve as guide for the long, jarring bus ride from Jaipur to Agra. Neem and eucalyptus trees line the highway. The bus passes camel carts and scooters as the driver plays chicken with the big Tata and Ashok Leyland lorries. In the fields, brightly clad women move among the sugar cane. Skinny boys tend herds of goats. House crows perch on the roofs of mud huts and concrete shacks. Huge sows lounge in the monsoon puddles, rolling in the orange mud. When I get home, Trudy thinks, I will never take my luxury for granted again.

The bus stops in Fatehpur Sikri, a city built centuries ago, briefly inhabited, then abandoned by the emperor and his citizens. The hawkers, however, have not abandoned Fatehpur Sikri. Padma hires a local guide on the spot, a bony young man with a smile like a villain in a slasher film. Parvati, please, thinks Padma, let the boy not be a crook.

"Excuse me. This is place Akbar came because vision a saint had. You know, saint? Excuse me. He wants have a son and Akbar builds tomb because saint says he will have son. Excuse me. This where harem staying. You know, harem?"

Clarice thinks, This man picked up his English on the street--of course it's not perfect. He only looks like a criminal. A green parrot squawks from the top of a red sandstone palace. The evening breeze, carrying a hint of incense, blows cool against the sweat on her skin.

As the Americans climb the steps of the Panch Mahal, a five-story, colonnaded tower, men appear from nowhere to help them up the stairs. Clarice is terrified of heights, and she nearly plummets to the ground while trying to extricate herself from a stranger's grasp. Trudy pays another man ten rupees to leave her alone. He wants more, keeps tugging at her sleeve. "No," she says. "No!" But he is insistent. "Baksheesh, madam. Hello?"

Rollo comes up from behind, taps the man hard on the shoulder. "Piss off, mate," he snarls. Trudy smiles her thanks.

"These people are vultures," Rollo says. She'll probably want to get engaged now, he thinks.

God, thinks Trudy, I hope he doesn't feel I owe him anything.

Agra is a one trick town, thinks Clarice the next morning, and that one trick is the Taj Mahal. The Taj is enclosed by red sandstone walls on three sides and the Yamuna River on the other. 10:30 a.m. Already Rollo is dripping with sweat. Coming at the apex of so much de rigueur sightseeing, the Taj seems to him almost anticlimactic. In Rollo's guidebook there is a quote >from J.A. Hodgson, a nineteenth-century British traveler: "It is, I suppose, one of the most perfect and beautiful buildings in the world." Rollo supposes Hodgson is correct. Yet the Taj is so much itself and nothing else--so emphatically the symbol of India--that he finds it difficult to get excited. Okay, there it is: huge and white. Now what am I supposed to do with it?

The temperature at 105 , the group treks through Agra Fort, a massive Mogul structure much like the Amber Fort--echoing buildings, perspiring tourists in short pants and sunglasses, soft drink vendors, mosquitoes, flies. On the way back to the bus they are descended upon by a ten year old boy with a terrible case of elephantiasis. He bounces along the pavement on huge, bloated feet, his long rubbery toes flapping up and down, cartoon-like and grotesque. Trudy nearly faints from the heat and shock. This is it, she thinks, the worst thing I've ever seen.

Before they return to the Sheraton, their new guide, Shiv, a short gruff man Clarice believes has clearly seen the Taj several hundred more times than is good for anyone, asks, "Would you like to see how they make the inlaid marble boxes? Very famous handicraft in Agra." This time nearly everyone joins Clarice and Trudy in calling out, "No!"

Only Rollo yells, "Yes, please." As the others glare at him, Rollo thinks, Sour pusses. If they knew how hot the import market is right now, they'd change their tune.

"Okay," the guide says, "you come in for a minute. Only look, don't have to buy." Don't buy, he thinks, and all of you can rot.

Once they arrive at the shop, everyone but Clarice decides to go in after all. She sits in the bus brooding. These people. They never stop. They turn you into the ugly American whether you like it or not.

In the afternoon the tour bus heads for the Itimad-ud-daulah across the river. It is a slow drive through crowded streets; no hawkers and only a handful of other tourists are there. The Itimad-ud-daulah is the tomb of the great-uncle of Mumtaz Mahal, the woman buried under the Taj. A squat, single-story structure, it is nevertheless covered with ornate pietra dura, the marble inlay decorating the Taj Mahal and the boxes in the shops. The building is dotted with holes where admirers have chipped out and stolen the semi-precious stones. Rollo reaches into his pants for his pocket knife.

A tribe of monkeys lives within the walls of the compound, nursing their young, playing with plastic bags in the long grass, dropping out of mango trees like overripe fruit. Trudy creeps into their midst then quietly hunches over her notebook. Diane Fossey, she thinks. This is totally Diane Fossey. A bird sings in the branches of an ashoka tree. From across the Yamuna comes the sound of honking horns, the smell of the factory smoke that is eating away at Agra's monuments.

That spacey one is going to get in trouble, Clarice thinks.

Rollo is in a dark corner of the tomb, digging at the wall with his knife.

Suddenly, Trudy feels a hand on her shoulder, firm but not necessarily aggressive. She slowly turns her head. Monkey breath, she thinks. The gray eyes blink. Very carefully she stands and walks away, her shoulders still hunched, her heart pounding. Oh God, seven rabies shots in the gut and none of the needles will be sterilized.

Clarice, who has seen it all, strides towards her. When Trudy is thirty yards away she turns around to see a big male scratching his chest, his genitals red and engorged. She puts her arms around Clarice and begins sobbing. Clarice pats her back. This could never happen at home, Trudy thinks.

Not in a million years, thinks Clarice.

Finger and thumb rubbing the smooth stone in his pocket, Rollo glances out >from the tomb and sees Trudy and Clarice embracing. Well, I'll be damned, he thinks. Lesbians.

Allah have mercy on the souls of these people, thinks the gatekeeper, shaking his head at Trudy and picking up a half-smoked cigarette from the ground. It is only through His will that they do not die of their own stupidity.
--Brought you by RK


Annayya couldn't help but marvel at the American anthropologist."Look at this Fergusson," he thought, "he has not only read Manu, our ancient law-giver, but knows all about our ritual pollutions. Here I am, a Brahmin myself, yet I don't know a thing about such things."

You want self-knowledge? You should come to America. Just as the Mahatma had to go to jail and sit behind bars to write his autobiography. Or as Nehru had to go to England to discover India. Things are clear only when looked at from a distance.

"Oily exudations, semen, blood, the fatty substance of the brain, urine, faeces, the mucus of the nose, ear wax, phlegm, tears, the rheum of the eyes, and sweat are the twelve impurities of human bodies."
-- (Manu 5.135)

He counted. Though he had been living in Chicago for years, he still counted in Kannada. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven ... eleven ... eleven.... At first, he could count only eleven body-wastes. When he counted again, he could count twelve. Yes, exactly twelve. Of these twelve, he already knew about spittle, urine and faeces. He had been told as a child not to spit, to clean himself after a bowel movement and after urinating. Whenever his aunt went to the outhouse, she took with her a handful of clay. She cleaned herself with a pinch of clay. As long as she lived, there used to be a clay pit in the backyard.

In the southern regions of the country, wind instruments like the nagaswara were considered unclean because they came in contact with the player's spittle. And so, only Untouchables could touch or play them. Thus, the vina, the stringed instrument, was for the Brahmins; and the rest, the wind instruments, were for the low castes.

Silverware is cleaner than earthenware; silk is purer than cotton. The reason was that they are not easily tainted by the twelve kinds of body-wastes. Silk, which is the bodily secretion of the silkworm, is nonetheless pure for human beings. Think of that!

What a lot of things these Americans know! Whether it means wearing out the steps of libraries or sitting at the feet of saucy pundits or blowing the dust off old palm-leaf manuscripts, they spare no effort in collecting their materials and distilling the essence of scholarship. Annayya found all this amazing. Simply amazing!

If you want to learn things about India, you should come to places like Philadelphia, Berkeley, Chicago. Where in India do we have such dedication to learning? Even Swami Vivekananda came to Chicago, didn't he? And it is here that he made his first speech on our religion.

"Of the three kinds of bodily functions that bring impurity, the first one is menstruation. Parturition/childbirth causes a higher degree of impurity. The highest and the most severe impurity is, of course, on account of death. Even the slightest contact with death will bring some impurity. Even if the smoke from a cremation fire touches a Brahmin, he has to take a bath and purify himself. No one, except the lowest caste holeya, can wear the clothes removed from the dead body."-- (Manu 10.39)

"The cow being the most sacred of all the animals, only the people of the lowest of the castes eat the flesh of the cows cadaver. For this very reason, the crow and the scavenger kite are considered the lowest among birds. The relationship between death and Untouchability is sometimes very subtle. In Bengal, for instance, there are two subcastes of the people in the oil profession: those who only sell oil are of a higher caste, whereas those who actually work the oilpress are of a lower caste. The reason is that the latter destroy life by crushing the oil-seeds and therefore are contaminated by death." - - (Hutton 1946:77-78)

He had known none of this.

Not that he hadn't read a lot. Many a pair of sandals had he worn out walking every day to and from the university library in Mysore.The five or six library clerks there were all known to him. Especially Shetty, who had sat with him in the economics class. He had faded the previous year, and he had taken the library job. Whenever Annayya went to the library, Shetty would hand him the whole bunch of keys to the stacks so that Annayya could open any book-case and look for whatever book he wanted.

The bunch of keys was heavy because of the many keys in it. There were iron keys which, with much handling, had become smooth and shiny. Ensconced amidst them were tiny, bright, brass keys. Brass keys for brass locks. Male keys for female locks. Female keys for male locks. Big keys for the big locks. Small keys for the small locks. And there were also a few small keys for big locks and some big keys for small locks. So many combinations like the varieties of marriage which Manu talks about in his book. Some locks were simply too big for their cupboards and so they were left unlocked. Others were nearly impossible to unlock. You would have to break open the cupboard if you wanted to get at the one book that beckoned you tantalizingly. Who knew what social-science-related nude pictures that one book contained!

When he was in Mysore, much of what he read had to do with Western subjects, and they were almost always in English. If he read anything at all in Kannada, rare as it was, it would probably be a translation of Anna Karenina or a book on Shakespeare by Murthy Rao, or ethnographic studies done by scholars who, were trained overseas, in America. But, now, he himself was in America.

"The knowledge of Brahman austerities, fire, holy food, earth, restraint of the internal organs, water, smearing with cow dung, the wind, sacred rites, the sun and time are the purifiers of corporeal beings." - - (Manu 5: 105)

To learn about these things, Annayya, himself the son of Annayya Shrotry, after crossing ten thousand miles and many waters, lands and climes, had to come to this cold, stinking Chicago. How did these white men learn all our dark secrets? Who whispered the sacred chants into their ears? Take, for instance, Max Mueller of Germany who had mastered Sanskrit so well that he came to be known among Indian pundits as "Moksha Mula Bhatta." He, in turn, taught the Vedas to the Indians themselves!

When he lived in India, Annayya was obsessed with things American, English or European. Once here in America, he began reading more and more about India, began talking more and more about India to anyone who would listen. Made the Americans drink his coffee; drank their beer with them. Talked about palmistry and held the hands of white women while pretending to read their palms.

Annayya pursued anthropology like a lecher pursuing the object of his desire- -with no fear, no shame, as they say in Sanskrit. He became obsessed with the desire to know everything about his Indian tradition; read any anthropological book on the subject which he could lay his hands on. On the second floor of the Chicago library were stacks and stacks of those books which had to be reached by climbing the ladders and holding on to the wooden railings. Library call number PK 32 1. The East had at last found itself a niche in the West.

"Why do your women wear that red dot on their forehead?" the white girls he befriended at the International House would ask him. He had to read and search in order to satisfy their curiosity. He read the Gita. In Mysore, he had made his father angry by refusing to read it. Here he drank beer and whisky, ate beef, used toilet paper instead of washing himself with water, lapped up the Playboy magazines with their pictures of naked breasts, thighs, and some navels as big as rupee coins. But in the midst of all that, he found time to read. He read about the Hindu tradition when he should have been reading economics; he found time to prepare a list of books published by the Ramakrishna Mission while working on mathematics and statistics. "This is where you come to, America, if you want to learn about Hindu civilization," he thought to himself. He found himself saying to fellow-Indians, "Do you know that our library in Chicago gets even Kannada newspapers, even Prajavani?" He had found the key, the American key, to open the many closed doors of Hindu civilization. He had found the entire bunch of keys.

That day, while browsing in the Chicago stacks, he chanced upon a new book, a thick one with a blue hardcover. Written on the spine in golden letters was the title: Hinduism: Custom and Ritual. Author, Steven Fergusson. Published, quite recently. The information gathered in it was all fresh. Dozens of rituals and ceremonies: ceremony for a woman's first pregnancy; ceremonies for naming a child, for cutting the child's hair for the first time, for feeding the child solid food for the first time; for wearing the sacred thread; the marriage vows taken while walking the seven steps; the partaking of fruit and almond milk by the newly-weds on their wedding night. (He remembered someone making a lewd joke: "Do you know what the chap is going to do on his wedding night? He is going to ply his bride with cardamoms and almonds, and he himself will drink almond milk in preparation for you know what!") The Sanskrit chant on love-making which the husband recites to the wife. The ritual celebrating a man's sixtieth birthday. Rituals for propitiation, for giving charity; purification rituals, obsequial rituals, and so on. Everything was explained in great detail in this book.

Page 163. A detailed description of the cremation rites among Brahmins, with IIlustrations. What amazing information this Fergusson chap had given! There was a quotation from Manu on every page. The formulae for offering sacrifices to the ancestors; which ancestral line can be considered your own and which not. The impurity that comes from death does not affect a sanyasi and a baby that hasn't started teething yet. If a baby dies after teething, the impurity resulting from it remains for one day; if it is from the death of a child who has had his first haircutting ceremony, the impurity is for three days. The ritual concerning a death anniversary involves seven generations: the son, the grandson, and his son who perform the death anniversary; the father, the grandfather, and the great-grandfather for whom the anniversary is performed. Three generations above, three generations below, yourself in the middle. The book was crammed with such details. It even had a table that listed the number of days to show how different castes are affected by death-related impurities. Moreover, if a patrilineal relative dies in a distant land, you are not subject to the impurity as long as you have not heard the news of the death. But the impurity begins as soon as you have heard the news. You have to then calculate the number of days of impurity accordingly and at the end take the bath of purification. The more Annayya read on through the book, the more fascinated he became.

Sitting between two stacks, he went on reading the book. All the four aspects of the funeral ritual were explained in it. All these years, Annayya had not really seen death. Once or twice, he had seen the people of the washerman's caste, a few streets from his own, carry in a procession the dead body of a relative all decked up. That was the closest he had ever come to witnessing a death. When his uncle died, Annayya was away in Bombay. When he left for America, his father was suffering form a mild form of diabetes. But the doctor had assured him it was not life-threatening as long as his father was careful with his diet. His father had suffered a stroke a year-and-a-half ago. It had left his hands and the left side of his face paralyzed. Still, he was alright, according to the letters his mother routinely wrote in a shaky hand once every two weeks. In her letters, she would keep reminding him that every Saturday he should massage himself with oil before his bath or else he would suffer from excessive heat. In cold countries you have to be careful about body heat. Would he like her to send him some soap-nut for his oil baths?

When a Brahmin is nearing his death, he is lifted up from the bed and is placed on a layer of sacred grass spread on the floor, his feet toward the South. The bed or the cot prevents the dying person's body from remaining in contact with the elemental earth and the sky. The grass, however, is part of the elements, having drawn its sap from the earth. It is dear to the fire. The South is the direction of Yama, the God of Death; it is also the direction of the ancestral world.

Next, the Vedic chants are uttered in the dying person's ear. And panchagavya--a sacred mixture made from cow's milk, curds, ghee, urine and dung--is poured into his mouth. A dead human being is unclean. But the urine and dung of a living cow are purifying. Think of that!

Then there were the ten different items: sesame seed, a cow, a piece of land, ghee, gold, silver, salt cloth, grains and sugar. These ten have to be given away as charity. When a man dies, all his sons have to take baths. The eldest son has to wear his sacred thread reversed as a sign of the inauspicious time. The dead body is washed and sacred ashes are smeared on it. Hymns invoking the Earth Goddess are sung.

Facing the page, on glossy paper, there was a photograph. The front veranda of a house in the style of houses you would see in Mysore. The wall in the background had a window with an iron grill. On the floor of the veranda lay a corpse that had been prepared for the funeral.

The dead man is God. His body is Lord Vishnu himself. If it is that of a woman, then it is Goddess Lakshmi. You circumambulate it just as you would a god and you offer worship to it.

Then Agni, the sacred fire, is lit and in it ghee is poured as libation. The dead body gets connected to the fire with a single thread of cotton. The big toes of the corpse are tied together and the body is then covered with a new white cloth.

There was a photograph of this also in the book. There was that same Mysore-style house. But in this photoghraph there were a few Brahmins, with stripes of sacred ash on their foreheads and arms. The Brahmins even looked vaguely familiar. But then, from this distance, all ash-covered Brahmins of Mysore would look alike.

Four men carry the dead body on their shoulders. After tying the corpse to the bier, the corpse's face turned away from the house, the funeral procession starts.

The corpse is then taken to the cremation grounds for cremation. Once there, it is placed, head toward the South, on a pile made out of firewood. The toes are untied. The white cloth covering the body is removed and is given away to the low-caste caretaker of the cremation grounds. The son and other relatives put grains of rice soaked in water into the mouth of the corpse and close the mouth with a gold coin. Excepting a piece of cloth or a banana leaf over the crotch, the corpse is now naked as a newborn baby.

Where would they get a gold coin? These days who has got so much gold? Would fourteen-carat gold do? Do the scriptures approve it? he wondered.

The eldest son, then, carries on his shoulder an earthen pitcher filled with water. A hole is made on the side of the pitcher. Carrying it on his shoulder, the son trickles the water around the corpse three times. Afterwards, he throws the pitcher over his back, breaking it.

There was a photograph of the cremation too. Looking at it, Annayya became a little uneasy because it looked somewhat familiar to him. The photograph was taken with a good camera. The pile of wood built for the cremation: the corpse, and a middle-aged man, the front of his head shaved in a crescent, on his shoulder a pitcher with water spouting from it; trees at a distance, and people.

Wait a minute! The face of the middle-aged man was known to him! It was the face of his cousin, Sundararaya. He had a photographic studio in Hunsur. How did this picture come to be here in this book? How did this man come to be here?

On the next page, it was a photograph of a blazing cremation fire. At the bottom of the photograph were printed the hymns addressed to Agni, the God of Fire.

" OAgni! Do not consume this man's body. Do not burn this man's skin. Only consign him to the world of his ancestors. O Agni, you were born in the sacrificial fire built by this householder. Now, let him be bom again through you."

Annayya stopped in the middle of the hymn and turned the pages back to look again at cousin Sundararaya's face. He had no spectacles on. Instead of his usual cropped grey hair fully covering the head, the front half of the head was tonsured into a crescent just for this ritual occasion. Even the hair on his chest had been shaved off. He wore a special Melukote dhoti below his bulging navel. But why was he here in this book?

Annayya turned to the foreword. It said that this Fergusson chap had been in Mysore during 1966-68, on a Ford Foundation fellowship. It also said that, in Mysore, Mr Sundararaya and his family had helped him a great deal in collecting material for the book. That is how the photographs of the Mysore houses came to be in the book. Once again, he flipped through the photographs.

The window with the iron grill--it was the window of his neighbour Gopi's house, and the one next to it was the vacant house that belonged to Champak-tree Gangamma. Those were houses on his own street. And that veranda was the veranda of his own house. The corpse could be his father's. The face was not clearly visible. It was a paralysed face, like a face he might see under running water. The body was covered in white. The Brahmins looked very familiar.

The author had acknowledged his gratitude to Sundararaya, his cousin: he had taken the author to the homes of his relatives for ritual occasions such as a wedding, a thread-wearing, a first pregnancy and a funeral. He had helped him take photographs of the rituals, interview the people, and tape-record the sacred hymn. He had arranged for Fergusson to be invited to their feasts. And so, the author, this outcaste foreigner, was very grateful to Sundararaya.

Now it was becoming clear. Annayya's father had died. Cousin Sundararaya had performed the funeral rites, because the son was abroad, in a foreign land. Mother must have asked people not to inform him of his father's death. He is all alone in a distant land; the poor boy should not be troubled with the bad news. Let him come back after finishing his studies. We can tell him then. Bad news can wait. Probably all this was done on the advice of this Sundaru, as always. If Sundaru had asked her to jump, Mother would have even jumped into a well. Three months after Annayya came to the States, two years ago, Mother had written to him that Father couldn't write any more letters because his arms had been paralysed. Who knows what those orthodox people have done now to his widowed mother! They might even have had her head shaven in the name of tradition. Widows of his caste cannot wear long hair. He became furious, thinking about Sundararaya. The scoundrel! The low-caste chandala! He looked at the picture of the cremation again. The window with the iron grill. The corpse. Sundararaya's head shaved in a crescent. His navel. He read the captions under the pictures again.

He turned the pages backwards and forwards. In his agitation, the book fell flop on the library floor. The pages got folded. He picked up the book and nervously straightened the pages. The silence there until now had been broken by the roaring sound of a waterfall, a toilet being flushed in the American lavatory down the corridor. As the flushing subsided, everthing was calm again.

He turned the pages. In the chapter on simantha, the ceremony for a pregnant woman, decked up like Princess Sita in the epic, wearing a crown on her head, his cousin's daughter Damayanti sat awkwardly among many married matrons. It was her first pregnancy and the bulge around her waist showed that the pregnancy was quite advanced. Her father, Sundararaya, must have arranged the ceremony conveniently to coincide with the American's visit so that he could take photographs of the ceremony. He must have scouted around to show the American a cremation as well. And he got it, conveniently, in his own uncle's house. 'How much did the Fergusson chap pay him?' wondered Annayya.

He looked for his mother's face among the women in the picture, but didn't find it. Instead, he found there others whom he knew: Champak-tree Gangamma and Embroidery Lachchamma. The faces were familiar, the bulb noses were familiar: the ear ornaments, the nose studs, the vermilion mark on the foreheads as wide as a penny, were all familiar.

Hurriedly, he turned to the index page. Looked under V: Veddas, Vedas, Vestments. Then under W: Weber, Westermarck, West Coast ... at last he found Widowhood. There was an entire chapter on Widowhood. Naturally. In that chapter, facing page 233, was a fine photograph of a Hindu widow, her head clean-shaven according to the Shaivite custom, explained the caption. Acknowledgements: Sundararao Studio, Hunsur. Could this be his own mother in the photograph? A very familiar face, but quite unrecognizable because of the shaven head and the edge of the saree drawn over the face. Though it was a black and white photograph, he knew at once the saree was red. A faded one. The kind of saree only widows wear.

Sundararaya survived that day, only because he lived 10,000 miles away, across the whole Pacific Ocean, in a street behind the Cheluvamba Agrahara in Hunsur.

--Brought you by RK

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


He was in limbo. He stood balanced precariously on a narrow ledge at the very edge of a rocky cliff. Above his head, the sky was shrouded in dark clouds. At his feet yawned a vast dark abyss. Wreaths of smoky vapour coiling out from it enveloped everything and obscured his vision. A huge wind shrieked all around him threatening to sweep his feet off the ledge and plunge him into a seemingly bottomless pit. In sheer terror, he pressed back hard on the rocky wall behind him, flattening his palms out on either side of his quivering body, so that he lay spread-eagled on the sheer rock of that precipice.

"Save me, O Lord! Save me!" he screamed again and again in his fear. There was no response. He shouted himself hoarse while the wind grew stronger, ballooned out his thin cambric shirt and whipped his long hair all over his face. He almost gave up hope and abandoned himself to a headlong plunge into the chasm before him.

Suddenly, the black clouds above him were riven apart by a blinding flash of lightning. Loosening his grip on the rock behind him, he threw his left hand over his face to shield his eyes from the glare. When he dared to take a peek from underneath his arm, he saw to his astonishment a luminous figure with bright outstretched wings suspended in the air in front of him. "An angel!" he thought to himself confusedly, while his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth in dread.

"Do not be afraid, my child!" said a gentle voice out of the light.

With a desperate effort, he found his tongue again. "Is this hell?" he gasped. "Why am I being punished?"

"No, this is not hell," the voice replied. "You are not being punished. You are in a situation of your own making."

"But I am Christopher Columbus, voyageur extraordinary," he proclaimed, a trifle emboldened by the fact that he was not yet in hell. "How could I who sailed the high seas so often in all kinds of weather and found a western route to the Indies find myself in this predicament?"

"Because the time has come for you to face up to what has undone you and all those who followed in your footsteps," said the voice sternly.

"What is it that I have in common with those who followed my lead? What is it that I must confront?" The questions came tumbling out of a bewildered Columbus.

"Pride," came the swift uncompromising answer.

"But I suffered and fought and toiled to benefit humankind. No one appreciated me in my lifetime. They even laughed at me and robbed me of the wealth and praise that was my due. And now, You, an angel of God, accuse me of being proud. I am being unjustly persecuted," sobbed Columbus, his slight frame now shaking with uncontrolled anguish and fury.

"Hush, my child!" murmured the mysterious being. "See for yourself!

Suddenly, the entire gloomy scene before his eyes vanished, as if a painted tapestry had been whisked away from his sight. Columbus saw the menacing black clouds sweep away to reveal a sparkling blue sky brightened by the golden glow of the sun setting gloriously in the west. He saw the fathomless dark pit replaced by the rolling waves of the blue Atlantic. He saw the rocky ledge beneath his feet transformed into the swaying deck of the ship of his destiny, Santa Maria. He turned round and saw that the steep wall of the precipice had given way to the open ocean on which, a little distance behind his own vessel, floated the Pinta and the Nina, the two other ships under his command.

As he paced the deck of the Santa Maria, Columbus relived his odyssey in quest of a western route to the aromatic spices of the famed Indies in every vivid detail of meticulous planning, courageous undertaking and tireless execution. And he experienced anew the heady excitement of the discovery of a land he believed to be the Indies in the west as well as the profound gloom of frustration when his finding was repeatedly scorned and ridiculed.

He recalled the stifling poverty of his childhood as a weaver's son in Genoa as well as the passionate love of the sea which he developed in his youth. Signing on at the age of nineteen as a foremost hand, he undertook several voyages in the Mediterranean before he was shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal and finally arrived at Lisbon, alone, penniless and footsore. He was twenty-five.

Lisbon in 1476 could offer Columbus a deep water sailing experience which no other place in Europe could match. Since the beginning of the century the Portuguese had been scouring the Atlantic for islands and exploring the uncharted western coastline of Africa in order to exploit its potential for trade. By 1481, the Portuguese were undisputed masters of the Gold Coast of west Africa and had monopolized the profitable trade. Casting greedy eyes on the lucrative spice trade of the Indian Ocean, they were trying to round the Cape of Africa to land on the west coast of India.

"I did seize the opportunity fate had thrown in my way," he mused, coming to a momentary stop on the deck of the Santa Maria and balancing himself instinctively against the roll of the sea by planting his feet firmly wide apart. As he resumed his restless pacing, his reflections continued.

Enrolling in the Portuguese merchant navy, Columbus sailed the Atlantic routes from Iceland in the north to Guinea in the south and soon became a captain. On his return to Portugal, he married a master mariner's daughter who died soon after his son, Diego, was born. Thereafter, his life became centred almost exclusively on the sea. By 1484, he had gained enough experience, knowledge and influence to put forward a serious proposal to King John II of Portugal. Give up the African expeditions, Columbus advised, and strike out west instead across the Atlantic to reach the eastern shores of the Indian sub-continent and garner the spices of the East.

The underlying concept was neither original nor controversial. Everyone accepted that the Earth was a globe and that it was theoretically possible to reach the East by sailing west. What was novel about his presentation was the arithmetic. He demonstrated, to his satisfaction at least, that the distance between Europe and Asia westward was not 16000 kilometres as everyone thought, but less than 2500. This meant, he argued, that it was perfectly feasible for a well-built ship to cross the Atlantic in about three weeks, to land on an island off the coast of India and establish a trading post there.

For the next four years, King John blew hot and cold on Columbus' plan till his frustration was at fever-pitch. In 1488, the matter took a turn for the worse when the intrepid Bartholomew Diaz sailed into Lisbon with the tremendously exciting news that he had found and rounded the easternmost tip of Africa. The eastern route to the Indies now lay open. Much to Columbus' chagrin, therefore, his scheme of discovering a western approach was decisively turned down by King John.

Columbus was too sure of himself and his ideas, however, to give up. He had his brother put forward the proposal to the monarchs of England and France. The King of England summarily rejected it, while the King of France did not even bother to reply. Dejected but not yet defeated, Columbus approached Queen Isabella of Castile in person. At first, she said no, and then, well, maybe. Perhaps Columbus could come back after she had won the war against the Moors of Granada. Two years crept by, while Columbus chafed. When Granada finally surrendered, Columbus was among the first to compliment the victorious Isabella and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon. He found Her Majesty still capricious. Isabella now said maybe, then no, and finally yes. Stuffing her commission, which was like water to his parched soul, into the pocket of his worn-out tunic, Columbus hurried off to find and equip his ships. It was May 1492.

Ten weeks later, his provisioning complete, Columbus sailed exultantly out of the harbour in a 100-ton Galician merchantman called the Santa Maria, with two 50-ton caravels, the Pinta and the Nina in tow, and set sail for the Canaries. After a brief stop there, he finally launched out on his grand voyage on 6th September 1492. Within three days, he saw the last of the islands of the Spanish Canaries vanish below the horizon. There was only the vast blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, which could hardly be told apart from the immense blue sky, all around his ships. The grand adventure that would make or break him had begun.
Since Columbus knew the way the winds blew over the Atlantic, he made a splendid start and reached what he imagined was the half-way point of his voyage in about ten days. His crew was disappointed that they could see no sign of the legendary island of Antilia which was rumoured to lie somewhere there. Apart from that, their only worry was that they might not be able to sail back home against the wind which had so far favoured them by pushing them constantly westward.

Four weeks arrived and departed. There was still no sign of land. If what Columbus said was true, they should have sighted the easternmost stretch of the Indies by now. The crew became visibly anxious and perturbed. They even began to show signs of mutiny. Columbus, however, maintained stubbornly that they still had a few hundred kilometres to go and declared pontifically that they would land on an easternmost island of Asia in three days.
On the third day, there was still no sign of land. However, flocks of birds were seen flying overhead in a southwesterly direction. Ardently welcoming this sign, Columbus changed tack to align the course of his ships with the flight of the birds. Three more days dragged themselves out in the empty sea.

Now, he faced imminent rebellion from his sailors. He did not know what to do. He felt helpless. Suddenly, he heard some of his crew in the stern yelling and pointing to something in the sea. He hurried forward and peered over the side. He saw fresh driftwood bobbing on the waves. He heaved an enormous sigh of relief.

He posted a special watch for the night and went down to his cabin. Unable to sleep, he tossed and turned for a while on his bed and then gave up. He knelt on the hard wooden floor of his cabin and prayed as he had never prayed before. At two in the morning, he heard an enormous shout somewhere above him. Someone pounded on his door. He hurried out on deck. The lookout high up in the rigging of the Pinta had spied land dead ahead. Columbus' joy knew no bounds. It was the twelfth of October, thirty-six days since he had set out on his voyage and risked all at sea.
Dawn confirmed the lookout's report. A small island lay windward. Columbus steered his tiny fleet past the southern point and through the reef on the western side of the island. With a hand-picked crew, he rowed ashore in a longboat, stepped out on to the sand and planted the royal flag of Castile. On either side of him, the captains of his caravels hoisted banners bearing the symbol of their expedition, a green cross with the letters F - for Ferdinand of Aragon - and Y - for Ysabella of Castile. Columbus fell on his knees and the others followed suit. In a voice choked with emotion, he thanked God for bringing their long journey to a safe conclusion and crowning their efforts with success.

Abruptly, he was back on the rocky ledge facing the awful abyss. On the miasma before him, he saw the rest of his life flash past like a dream.

After the crowning moment of triumph, everything else seemed an anti-climax. The next three months rushed by in a daze of wonder and delight. He and his crew were welcomed by friendly natives who escorted them in and around the islands. As the Santa Maria, Pinta and Nina threaded their way through the isles, it became obvious to a number of his crew that they were nowhere near Asia. But Columbus persisted in believing and even proclaiming that these must be the outlying islands of the famed Indies. He had no hesitation, therefore, in dubbing the natives Indians. Just a little further exploration, he was convinced, would bring them to the spice-laden Indies proper.
Flushed with victory, he even accepted the loss of the Santa Maria with equanimity. When she went gently aground off Hispaniola early on Christmas morning, without any damage to lives or goods, he dismissed it as no great tragedy. In fact, he wasted no time in using the timbers of the now useless ship to build a little fort - a miniature replica of El Mina, the Portuguese fort on the Gold Coast of west Africa -- and christened it grandiloquently the Villa de la Navidad. He had no trouble finding the 20-odd volunteers to man the fort. His crew vied with each other to stay back. They had discovered that the natives of Hispaniola were perfectly content to exchange gold ornaments for tinsel. And the flame of greed coursed hot and insatiable through their veins.

Columbus, however, was impatient to get back for he had a tale to tell. The return voyage of the Nina, captained by Columbus, and the Pinta to Spain was, as the crew had feared, rough and hazardous. They had to fight their way home through one of the worst storms in living memory.

Welcomed home as a great hero, Columbus was showered with titles and honours. Neither funds nor men were in short supply for his three subsequent voyages across the Atlantic. Relentlessly, however, his fortunes began to ebb. His reports of gold and spices turned out to be unrealistic. His geographical pronouncements were increasingly difficult to believe. As an administrator he was such a hopeless disaster that he had to be forcibly removed from office.

Understandably bitter, increasingly cranky, he spent his last years pursuing impossible claims for compensation. Few outside his immediate family attended his deathbed or his funeral in May 1506; there was none to represent the court at either.

"Rank injustice!" howled Columbus, foaming at his mouth and clawing the rock behind him in maniacal fury. "Fie on God that He should permit this! Fie on you, His Angel, for tormenting me with these scenes of humiliation."

"Hush, my child," admonished the gentle voice out of the light. "Do not blaspheme. Look at yourself before you dare to curse your Maker!"

"What did I do wrong?" asked Columbus in a voice shaking with anger. "Did I not usher in the Age of Discovery? Did not others like Vasco de Gama and Magellan follow my footsteps and set Europe's imagination afire? Isn't the most potent image of these stirring times THE SHIP with the great navigators on board? And who stands at the head of this illustrious band? Is it not I -- Columbus -- the man who sailed boldly over the ocean no one had dared cross before and found a new way to the Indies?"

"True," came the reply. "Your discovery did usher in the Renaissance. It spurred Europe to produce marvels of art and science that rivalled the glories of Greece and the grandeurs of Rome. In time, it gave birth to the Age of Reason that culminated in world-wide industrialization. Your intrepid spirit has even provided the impulse in the twentieth century for man to land on the moon, to sift the sands of Mars and to measure the rings of Saturn."

"I was a great mover of Mankind, then," cried Columbus triumphantly. "Why then was God unjust to me?"

Think!" urged the voice out of the light. "Did you not accept Marco Polo's erroneous location for Japan -- 2400 kilometres east of China? Did you not take as gospel Ptolemy's underestimation of the circumference of the earth and overestimation of the size of the Eurasian landmass? Did you not therefore come to wrong conclusions about how far you had to sail west to reach the Indies? Did you ever bother to check and double-check your figures with scholars? And did you not stubbornly stick to your conviction that you had reached the outlying islands of the Indies in the face of all evidence to the contrary? On your second and third voyages, you knew deep within you that neither the island of Cuba nor Paria an unknown continent were part of Asia. Nevertheless, you sought refuge from the consequences of failure by trying to mask the facts. In fact, the very fervour with which you insisted in your last years on your discovery of a western route to the Indies is proof that you had realised your monumental mistake. Do you realize, my child, that by your obstinacy, you have perpetuated the outrageous error of calling all the friendly natives of the islands you discovered and all the original inhabitants of the huge landmass of North and South America Indians? You have unwittingly imposed an ongoing identity crisis on all the natives of the New World of America as well as the Old World of India."

"What's in a name?" cried Columbus, his back to the wall. "Let them all be lumped together as Indians! It is simpler and easier then to deal with them."

"You're dead wrong, my child," said the voice sadly. "You are also insufferably arrogant, like many of your race who have followed in your footsteps, for not only do they persist in calling the natives of the American continent incorrectly Indians, but have also exterminated most of them. How would you like to be called Chris Top Her Colum Bus the Spaniard? What's in a name indeed?"

Totally abashed, Columbus kept quiet.

"How ironic," continued the voice, "that you should deny discovering a new continent, because you failed to reach an old one! You wanted to reaffirm your boast to Isabella on your triumphant return from your first voyage - 'When I set out upon this enterprise, they all said it was impossible'- even though you knew in your heart of hearts that they were right. Were you not guilty of pride? And has not your pride, my dear child, caused all your anguish?"
For a moment, Columbus hung his head in shame. Then, he flared up in protest. "But you yourself admitted," he cried, "that I have brought about the rebirth of curiosity and kindled the torch of exploration. You yourself said I am still inspiring men to go boldly where no one has gone before. Surely that means that the light of civilisation is spreading and dispelling all darkness? Am I not then a benefactor of mankind?"

"Even so did Prospero think," said a voice like a thunderclap at his right shoulder. Startled, Columbus turned his head and stared into the dark piercingly intelligent eyes of a noble-looking Englishman.

"Who are you?" he asked, annoyed at being interrupted.

"He is William Shakespeare," replied the voice out of the light. "He was born nearly fifty-four years after you at Stratford on Avon in England. He became famous as a playwright in his own lifetime. Within three hundred years of his death he has come to be known as perhaps the greatest English dramatist the world has ever known."

"So what?" snarled Columbus. "And who is Prospero anyway? What does he have to do with me?"

"Prospero is a character in The Tempest, my last play," said Shakespeare. "He is so involved in his study of white magic that he forgets his duties as a king and lets his younger brother Antonio usurp his throne. So he has to flee with his infant daughter Miranda to a far-away island among the very isles you, Columbus, discovered on your first voyage."

"Oh!" exclaimed Columbus, now interested in the story. "What happens?"

"Prospero's white magic is superior to the black magic of Sycorax who owns the island. He takes over the island after killing her. Her son Caliban -- an uncouth brutish-looking creature in Prospero's eyes -- becomes his slave. Prospero tries to win him over by teaching Caliban his civilized ways and even his language. But in vain, for Caliban proves an unruly servant. So Prospero has him tormented by Ariel, another creature of the island he has subdued successfully, till Caliban obeys him reluctantly. When Antonio gets ship-wrecked with his royal entourage and friends on the island by Prospero's magic, Caliban plots with the court clowns against his master and tries to seize his power. With the help of Ariel, however, Prospero outwits all his enemies, and wins back his kingdom. In the end, therefore, Caliban is forced to accept defeat and punishment."

"He gets what he deserves for his ingratitude," cried Columbus with a satisfied air. "Does not Prospero do the brute good by mending his uncivilized ways and even teaching him to speak and write?"

"So Prospero imagines," retorted Shakespeare, "in the arrogance born of his triumph, just as you fancy in your pride that you have greatly benefited humanity when, in fact, you have done incalculable harm."

"You too are jealous of my great achievement," screamed Columbus in a sudden access of fury. "I am not guilty of pride. And I still do not see why you are linking me with your Prospero."

Shakespeare did not get a chance to reply.

"Kindly allow me to explain," a gentle but firm voice intervened from behind Shakespeare. And even as Columbus stared in surprise, a most unusual man walked out of the shadows into the light to confront him. He was tall, lean and ascetic-looking. His brown torso had only a gleaming white cloth wrapped around the waist. His feet were clad in slippers and in one of his hands he held a thick bamboo staff to support himself. His head was completely bald. Behind a pair of eye-glasses, his dark eyes, twinkling with humour, mirrored a world of compassion for suffering fellow humans. Beneath his grey moustache, his mouth curved in an infinitely gentle smile.

"And who are you?" queried Columbus gruffly.

"Ecce Homo! " exclaimed the voice out of the light in a solemn tone commanding respect. "Behold the man! Behold one who, in his own lifetime, came to be known all over the world as the Mahatma or the great soul for his steadfast adherence to Truth and Non-injury. Behold Mahatma Gandhi who drove the British out of India and gained her freedom from two hundred years of enslavement to the English through non-violent non-cooperation."

"But he is a half-naked Indian fakir," said Columbus scornfully. "What can he tell me that's important?"

"Hush, my child," admonished the voice out of the light.
"Others more powerful than you have said so and lived to regret it. Just pause and reflect. Was not our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, clad in the simple robes of a Jewish Rabbi? Did he not wander the length and breadth of Judaea in his sandals? Do you measure wisdom by the costliness of a man's apparel? Be quiet and hear this man's words with your soul."

"There is a powerful symbolism in The Tempest," said the Mahatma in a gentle voice. "Prospero, you see is the archetypal colonizer and Caliban is the classic symbol of the colonized and the enslaved. And since your time, all the white races of Europe have systematically colonized the rest of the world and enslaved all their fellow human beings who happened to be black, brown or yellow. The Spanish conquistadors like Cortes colonized Mexico, Central America and Peru and even destroyed the Mayan civilization completely. The Dutch, the Portuguese, the Germans, the French and the English were all drawn into this game of colonizing and enslaving Africa and India. It was the vilest scramble for loot in human history."
"The English," commented the Mahatma, "who came last were the worst, for they played this game for all it was worth. For 150 years, Bristol and Liverpool were at the apex of an infamous and ruthless trading triangle. British ships laden with cheap cotton goods, trinkets and Bibles sailed from Bristol and Liverpool for the west coast of Africa. They exchanged their cargo for a shipload of black slaves who were then packed like sardines on slave ships and transported on the notorious Middle Passage, the second leg of the journey, to the sugar-bowl of the Caribbean, where they were sold to plantation owners and set to work as house servants or in the fields. Meanwhile, the same ships, laden with sugar, rum and molasses, returned to their home ports, registering substantial profit for their merchant-owners. And when the slave trade was finally abolished in 1807, they continued the horrible exploitation of slavery under a different name -- indentured labour -- and brought in shiploads of hapless peasants from the distant sub-continent of India."

"And what did they do in India? They came as traders and established the East India Company in 1600. But they kept interfering in Indian politics by selling arms and military forces to warring princes and getting cash, credit or even land in return. By 1757, through a diligent practice of this heinous policy of divide and rule, Robert Clive gained control of India in the Battle of Plassey. In 1774, Warren Hastings became the first Governor-General of India and established an elaborate system of civil service to administer English law and rule in India. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 --in reality, the First Struggle for for Independence in India -- was so forcefully crushed that it left wide-spread bitterness among the people. And so, under the guise of bringing justice to the Indians, the British Government took over the rule of India. In 1877, Queen Victoria declared herself the Empress of India and so India came to be regarded as the brightest jewel in the British Crown. It took another seventy years of heart-breaking struggle before India was finally granted its Freedom at midnight on the 15th of August 1947."

"By God's grace," murmured the Mahatma, his eyes misting over with memories, "I had my little share in this bid for Independence. How glad I am that I insisted on Truth and Non-violence! And how thankful I am to God that the Indian people -- all 300 million of them -- listened to me almost till the very end! But the British interfered again with their age-old policy of divide and rule and split the Hindus and the Muslims. It led to the blood-bath of the Partition of India and Pakistan. I did my best, I did my best, but in the end the tide of violence and evil overwhelmed the nation, embodied itself as Nathu Ram Gotse and killed me!"

"And the cruel irony," continued the old man, in a broken voice, his eyes overflowing with tears, "is that you white Europeans have done it all under the pretence of spreading the sweetness of Christianity and the light of western civilization to the darkest corners of the earth! All your greed and hypocrisy -- what are they but the outward symptoms of your terrible inner disease called pride? And how much violence you have perpetrated all over the world in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace!"

"Are you then calling all of us white Europeans Prosperos who colonized and enslaved the black and brown Calibans of the world?" snapped Columbus. "Even if it were so, we were surely benefiting them, helping them evolve from their primitive state into the daylight of civilization. Why, we even gave them language!"

Before the Mahatma could reply, Shakespeare who was plucking his moustache impatiently, broke in.

"There is another side, my friend," he said in a tone dripping with sarcasm, "to The Tempest. Caliban, you see, is not quite the uncultured savage Prospero imagines him to be. He has his own culture -- one that is unfamiliar to Prospero. He is aware of this side of his being, but can only grasp it in images, not words, for he is imprisoned by Prospero's language and his own servile notion of himself. He does try desperately to express this side of his being by bursting into poetry at critical stages in my play."

"And if," Shakespeare continued, "Caliban gains freedom on his own initiative without the help of foreign clowns like Stephano and Trinculo, then he will have but a single source of strength -- the riches dropping upon him from his dream-clouds, which have really sustained him all along. In order to be free, he must value the thousand twangling instruments of his dreams as the music of his culture, a culture which is his birthright, inherited from his mother Sycorax who, though she was conquered by Prospero, yet controlled nature through her sorcery and possessed a culture of her own. In fact, the flawed education he has received from Prospero might help Caliban realize all the more vividly that his mother's magic powers, the voices, the instruments, the riches of his dreams, all form one unbroken chain of culture, vastly different from Prospero's imperialistic culture. It might even enable him to wrench his culture from dreams into reality, to embody it in words. And since his native powers of speech have been strangled by Prospero, he must borrow his master's tongue and adapt his speech to his own purpose, while re-educating his vocal cords to his native speech. Caliban becomes bilingual, therefore, and articulates his rediscovered culture in Prospero's language as well as his own. And, in the process, he transforms his acquired language, bestowing it with new meanings which Prospero never dreamt of, so that the language he shares with Prospero and the language he has created out of it are no longer identical."

After the convincing thunder of Shakespeare's words, there was a momentary silence. Then, the mysterious being spoke out of the light:
"This, my child, is precisely the situation today in the post-colonial societies of Africa, India and the West Indies. Even the ordinary citizen, let alone the creative writer, of these societies has long recognized that instead of using his inherited language merely to curse his oppressor, as Caliban is inclined to do in The Tempest, he must wield it with consummate mastery for creative self-expression. You see, in real life, Caliban has the task of not only breaking out of the prison of Prospero's language, but also of building a new mansion for himself. His struggle with words and meanings, in short, is never-ending; he must continually forge fresh images of his existence in the smithy of his soul. And what of Prospero the capitalist-politician and industrialist-entrepreneur who has followed your lead and piled up achievement after brilliant technical achievement in the wake of your triumphant discovery? He is more than outwitted, he is baffled, for while Caliban continues to understand the speech of his erstwhile master, Prospero cannot fully grasp what Caliban is saying; the subtle nuances and references in the speech of his former slave escape him, for they now relate to a different culture, of which he is ignorant. Prospero can either choose to remain ignorant and proud, or he can shed his colonial arrogance and prejudice, befriend Caliban as an equal and humbly learn the mysteries of his fresh-forged tongue; he has thus a great opportunity to drop his despotic role and become a human being. In liberating himself, Caliban has paved the way to Prospero's spiritual freedom."

The voice ceased. There was a profound silence which penetrated deeper and deeper into Columbus' heart. Slowly, he lifted his head that had almost sunk into his breast in shame and anguish. He saw that both Shakespeare and Gandhi had disappeared. He was alone with the light that seared his very soul.

"How can I undo all the evil I sowed by my pride?" he groaned. "Can I not at least shrive my soul of sin and save myself?"

"Yes, my child," replied the voice. "You can save your self." And even as he looked on, the light faded and he was utterly alone.

His first impulse was to scream aloud in terror. Then, he collected his faculties with a supreme effort and looked around. With a start, he realized he was no longer on a rocky ledge facing the abyss. He was back in the little port of Palos at night on the waterfront. It was empty of all life. On a wooden post near him burned a solitary firebrand, eerily lighting up the scene before his eyes.
Out on the water, he could see the Santa Maria, looming like a ghost ship out of the darkness. No longer did it represent courage and enterprise and achievement in Columbus'mind. It had now become a symbol of the overweening pride of his race -- a pride that had spawned greed, hypocrisy and violence for five hundred years all over the world.

With a firm step, he strode over to the wooden post, seized the firebrand, pried it loose and then hurled it with all his strength at the Santa Maria. The dry timbers caught fire at once. As he watched the roaring fire devour that colossal symbol of pride and reduce it to ashes, Columbus felt at last an immense peace stealing into his soul.
--Brought you by RK