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