Dream from Ettayapuram
Venkatesh is doing well now that he is out of the hospital. The burns were only minor and can barely be seen, except on his thigh where the acid spilled. He is in good spirits and speaks often about you, asking constantly when you will arrive to see us. I tell him that it will still be a few weeks before your return. I have not told him that I have secretly been planning a trip for all of us to the Golden Beach . I do not want to raise his hopes just in case I am suddenly called away for work.
I have been enjoying my leave for this past month and made good progress on my story. As you suggested, I incorporated the interview between the stationmaster and passenger, even adding a section explaining the passenger's background. The paper has agreed to publish the series but will not pay until I have completed the final portion.
It feels good to be writing, now that the summer heat is beginning to fade and often in the evening, a cool draft comes through the windows to refresh my sentences. The maid sometimes will have my dinner called early so that she may take leave and enjoy the pleasant evening with her family. I do not mind. I enjoy eating alone where I am able to listen to the sounds of the crickets, bullock carts and distant car horns, as if somehow there is a great river dividing the city and myself. The landlady agreed to extend my lease until December, so that I may have enough time to finish my story and not have to make an entire trip back for editing.
. . .
I lead quite a systematic routine; you have no need for concern over my health. Surprisingly, after our peripatetic travels throughout the west coast, I don't feel at all restless or the need to explore my surroundings. You asked me whether I felt I could call this place my home, but that question seems to mean, would I ever call anyplace home? Since I once removed myself, my roots have grown large as I carried them around and can no longer fit into the same opening. Perhaps the reason why I left altogether was only a matter of a gradual growth or awakening, I know that Talik and Amma have different ideas, but even each of them had enjoyed their particular and individual metamorphosis at one point or the other. If they mention the fact that I had suddenly changed or grew distant, they are only misleading themselves. I had not been in their world for many years.
My day is simple. I often rise early, as the fisherman leave and I can watch the sails on their boats glistening on the water like fingernails. It is good to feel the sun come up, and I know that if I practice my breathing exercises they have the greatest effect. After I have had my bath and shave, I go down to the office to check my mail and receive any wire transfers from the city. When I come back I usually practice for a bit. A wake up call for the neighborhood you might say.
Then I usually walk Venkatesh to school. His mother used to pay a small fee every month to have a bicycle carriage arrive to pick him up. But since I told her I could walk with him, she was gracious, and offered to serve me an afternoon tiffan as well.
This is one of the more pleasurable moments of the day. Venkatesh and I sit next to the fallen wall on the verandah and his mother spreads banana leaves and rice and vegetables served in little dented copper pots. Venkatesh and I eat solemnly as if he were a guest and I, a respected elder. He does not realize how ineffably our routines are entwined. The workmen pass by and the women go to and from the bazaar. Sometimes the vegetable lady walks into the square and I can hear her hawking and crying out in her musical voice. Often it becomes so quiet all of a sudden, that I can hear the lady next door softly persuading her son to wake up in the morning and finally the sound of him brushing his teeth by the drain.
. . .
Today I have just come from the office and matters there seem to be growing increasingly chaotic as the elections loom. All are either busy writing their editorials or complaints. It is interesting to observe the reactions of the villagers to different actions and strategies made by the candidates. They consider the promises made by one candidate to be somehow offensive to the other. It appears that when the party conventions migrate from one village to the next, their slogans and banners take a radical course and shift to accommodate a particular village's concerns. This is something not altogether different from the city, except here the patronage of a candidate is measured by how many sessions of free meals they serve. The paper asked me to write a short piece on this. I accepted, remarking in my closing lines, ‘ . . . the amount of money that ----- has swindled, hoarded, and looted from the people could have rebuilt the entire city over.'
They did not publish.
. . .
I was invited to perform in Ettayapuram for a concert. Chandran picked me up at the bus stop and escorted me to the host's house. The husband and wife were both doctors and lived in a large house in the middle of the textile district. The bus ride had been long and disagreeable and I did not sleep much. In the afternoon after lunch, I felt drowsy and the heat seemed to stick in my throat. I lay down upstairs in a lonely room until I was woken for the concert.
It was a lonely room because the son, who had grown up in that house and slept in that room, had set up all his memorabilia and photos around. The ornaments and collectibles I passed a brief glance over with weary eyes until I picked up a sandalwood figure to turn in my hand. They inhabited a space in another life. Now they were just forgotten and overlooked placements on a desk. It amazed me, the sorts of belongings he had in that room, decorations and memories sitting on a table. For a long time now I had been living only among austere surroundings.
As I awoke I could hear the artist singing downstairs. The pattern of notes floated in the background of my thoughts as I slowly gained my bearings. During the concert I played energetically and without calculation. As I boarded the bus for home, considering my regrets, it began to rain.
. . .
A young man has arrived in the village through the foreign exchange. His name is Albert. He says that he is studying architecture and desires a closer look at the temple statues, although his attitude is of quiet condescension. Often he asks me to accompany him to the temple and I begin to explain to him how at any time of the day no shadow can be seen from any side of the walls. It is as if I am selling him something. I can tell that he is attracted to the statues and architecture, but is pained over the fact that they are located in such an obviously rural and cloistered environment. We often have discussions about the various aspects of stone and cutting as I am also interested. He sometimes accompanies me to the office. It is fine to converse with him for a change, he has just arrived and can tell me much of the latest news. He speaks as if he knows all parts of the world through the books and maps he has studied. But his speech is convoluted with such antiquated phrasing that at times I hardly bother to correct him. Once he took me aside as we were walking back from the temple and said, ‘You, at least, I know believe in only one god.'
‘Actually, I pray to many gods,' I answered. Then after a short pause, I said, ‘but don't worry they're all dead.'
He sensed my lack of seriousness and became mildly irritated. We pursued our walk in silence.
. . .
An unpleasant incident this afternoon. I decided to take an auto into town to receive some mail that could not be sent to the village. The driver arrived to pick me up in front of the street and I paid the fee in advance. The driver took his time traveling down the main road until we entered the outskirts of town. I had no idea in what direction lay the post office and was simply trusting the guidance of the driver. He drove quickly down a few turns and bends until we were no longer on the main road. He continued to drive until we entered an extremely poor area of town. At last I inquired as to our whereabouts. The driver, in answer, stopped the auto and shut off the engine. He turned around and stared at me over a drooping mustache. I asked him again, but he continued to stare at me. I looked around and saw only a few shacks and roofless homes. A few naked children played down the path by the gutter. The place was eerily quiet. ‘Are you American?' the driver finally asked.
I looked at him and realized that he was up to some mischief, but could not decide whether I should lie to him or not. I had a feeling he already knew the answer, and was simply asking the question to cement his intention which, I guessed, was money. If I lied to him he might become annoyed and pull something more drastic, on the other hand if I told him the truth, he would probably ask for an amount of money I did not have.
Looking around for some sort of escape I was struck by the obvious answer. I gathered my things and without saying a word stood up and walked away. I looked back only once and saw the driver still sitting there, eyeing me with his hand on the gear.
After negotiating the labyrinthine corridors I was able to find my way to the main road. I hailed a riksha and rode to the bus station.
. . .
I invited Albert for tiffan at the insistence of Venkatesh's mother. It was an awkward moment curtailing the pleasure of the meal. Albert was first offered a seat on the floor. He accepted, sitting down with his knees crooked and angled up, like some string puppet. Upon seeing his unfamiliarity with eating on the floor, I offered him a short chair and the writing desk that Venkatesh used for his school work. These seemed adequate for the job, as after accepting, Albert began eating with a voracious appetite. Venkatesh's mother prepared a special saffron pilaf accompanied by a vegetable kurma with coconut milk. After everyone settled down, I felt the enjoyment of the early afternoon beginning to return. The air was warm and humid and a light drizzle had just begun. My skin was still hot, as I had just returned from my walk to the office and now it began to let off a light steam. The sensation relaxed me. I mixed my rice carefully and lingered over each mouthful, my nose inhaling all the odors. Saffron, sweat, rain.
. . .
There are several girls here who have begun taking dance lessons from Malati. She lives down the road towards the beach in an old dilapidated house. Sometimes when it rains she calls me to repair the ceiling. All I can do is patch up the holes with some jack wood, but by the next rain the wood has been removed by her students to let the sunlight in. I tell her that she ought to bring a carpenter to build a verandah for her, so she can have her dance lessons outside. I have offered to pay, but she told me that she does not wish to spend money on the house as she may be moving soon.
Playing for the dancers taught me a valuable lesson. It is essential that one play not for the music of the dance but for the feet of the dancer. The students each have their own rhythm and it is sometimes impossible to coordinate, but I find that by playing with a slow enough tempo I can often guess where the next step may fall.
The villagers also say that Malati is a good singer and that she is completely self taught. When I am playing mrdangam for the students, she will sometimes sing a tune that sounds familiar, I wish I could have her inscribe the words so I can take it back with me. When I ask her, she says she has forgotten the words and will look for her old books where they are written. I have a feeling she may not know to read or write.
. . .
The paper asked me to do a piece on the younger generation of musicians and how they have excelled. The editor cited specific examples of how the music has gained appreciation abroad, especially in the form of academies that have sprung up in a number of major cities. I told him I would be happy to write about my experiences from before, and how the concerts and recitals enjoyed steady and enthusiastic crowds; how the young musicians seemed charged with a duty to give their greatest concerts more often in foreign environments where the art is fledgling and uncultivated. But I was forced to tell him I would always favor the older generation. How could I explain to him that all the great artists were dead? Has this generation already forgotten those musicians? I did not think I could do justice to such a topic, because music had become an extinct and unrealizable purpose in my life.
. . .
It rains steadily now. I only go to the office every couple of days to see whether any mail has arrived, for nearly two weeks I have received nothing. One evening I was leaving Malati's house, and the rain began with an intensity unmatched in previous days. I realized I had forgotten my umbrella. Luckily, I had brought a spare dhotti in my bag and I wrapped it around my head like a turban. As I was standing in the courtyard doing this, Malati walked into the downpour. Peering at me through the dimness, she said, ‘Why don't you stay a bit longer, I can make tea for us.'
‘No, I had better be returning soon. I have some writing to do,' I said without looking back.
She moved closer and grasped the end of my coat saying, ‘The roof shakes so much . . . sometimes I feel that the walls may suddenly collapse . . . do stay for a bit and keep me company. We can practice some of those old songs that you wanted me to sing.'
‘Don't worry about the roof, the leaks have been repaired and I don't think even the wind god could blow down those walls,' I spoke with some difficulty in her language.
She did not let go of her grip on my jacket. ‘Couldn't you just take a break and spend some time here? I just ground some cardamom and -- didn't you notice the aroma throughout the house? But there's no sugar left . . . . I was wondering if you might want sugar in your tea.'
I gently disengaged myself from her grasp and brought out a bundle of notes from my pocket. I handed them to her saying, ‘Here, for the sugar, take it. I'll return Friday and we'll have some tea.'
She stared at the money for a while and then bowed her head. Her hair drooped in wisps about her face and the braid glistened in the moisture like scales. ‘Please . . . ‘ she whispered.
‘I'm sorry, ‘ I muttered, and we stood there like that without saying anything. Then I said, ‘Goodbye Malati,' and turned and walked out through the gate.
As I was heading back down the road, an old lady I had often seen crouching under the neem tree accosted me, saying, ‘Sahib, please, you see how few leaves this tree has . . .'
Her eyes were on the money I still carried in my hand. Without thinking, I flung the damp notes at her and continued down the street with my arms in my coat.
. . .
I have felt the same way about my presence here, especially in the beginning when I was either treated with gratuity or mistrust. As a result I rarely announce my position to others and in my editorials for the paper, I have remained distant of local affairs. You speak as if the harassment is more in the form of a withdrawal of supplies or blackmail of funds. But as you have little money and virtually no supplies, they cannot control your movement within the region as a matter of course. I am not fully aware of the details, but it appears that they may be simply trying to pare down your operations until the full treaty is signed.
As to your question, I do not think much about the past. Doing so requires an amount of superhuman effort that I rarely posses. I have had my suspicions that Talik must have stumbled across our letters long before we were aware of it. As for the rest of it, insane cravings and rushed hours between calls, catching our breath under the perpetual fog, the drills and sirens and bodies pressed to the floor. I cannot think of the past except woven through a single thread.
. . .
Your courage is admirable for staying in ----- despite the tribal disputes. It would seem that the militia has annexed the neighboring village only to quell border arguments, but this would make your situation as an American citizen precarious for their civil laws. You have told me about the wounded and of the inadequate facilities to maintain a working ward for the sick, but it appears that this turn of events actually allowed you to obtain the supplies you have lived so long without. I feel that your trips back and forth across the lines are more dangerous than you describe. I read in the newspaper of kidnappings and terrorist attacks. I can only hope that the embassy allows you a motor escort. It is disturbing that the soldiers seem to have no partiality for your passport.
Here, it is as if all activity has ceased. We are in preparation for the festival and most of the afternoons I am out in the square, building the stage and making the various thrones and props for the performance. Venkatesh is sometimes allowed by his mother to come with me and watch the workmen fashion their backdrops and giant cut-outs. He is fascinated with the idea that an entire story, encompassing many lands, characters and settings can be entirely performed on a stage. He will ask me, ‘Are there really cities made of gold?'
I want to reply, ‘Yes, there are cities made of silver and bone as well,' but then I would be forced to tell him another story.
One evening Venkatesh was in my room after school, and I absentmindedly began showing him how to make a swan out of an empty envelope. ‘Now you know how to make the puppets for the play,' I said. Then I made an eagle with another scrap of paper.
Venkatesh was extremely taken with the animals, especially the eagle, and for the next few days he was constantly practicing to make the shape as small and refined as possible. He used up all my letterheads, envelopes and even the pink invoice slips I saved from the post office. I promised to find more paper for him.
. . .
When will you be arriving at ----? I am happy beyond words that you have allowed yourself a trip to the coast. That would place you just a few miles from the air strip. From what you say it seems you are enjoying a somewhat quiet and brooding rest. I wish that you could see all the fall leaves here, the simple elegance of the bare chiku trees, and the thick jack fruit trunks which are always warm when I place my hand upon them, and all the little ants that hide between the cracks and come out to crawl over my fingers.
For a while now I have had a strange feeling that you may not be receiving all my letters. Perhaps it is that you are preoccupied with more significant matters and cannot reply with the emotions you feel.
. . .
I was in the city for the entire weekend covering the inauguration of the new Center for the Arts. My ‘perspective,' was needed said one of the editors. Several big shots were already involved with the show, so I did not write much. I stayed at the University and perused the books in the library. Their music material is quite ancient and the historical references vast.
I returned to the village only on Monday. I was walking back from the train station and I thought I'd stop by Venkatesh's home and see how he was doing. The door was open, but only the housekeeper remained inside. She informed me that the family had gone out to visit relatives and would not be back until late that night. She asked me to pick up several notes that had come for me from the paper. As I entered the living room, I noticed that a mobile was hanging from the low ceiling just a few inches from my head. Hanging on the wire were several brown, pink, blue and white eagles as well as a few swans. I smiled to myself thinking that Venkatesh had wanted to exhibit his artwork.
Something about the color of the paper by the light of the uncovered bulb made me halt. The mobile tilted to one side and the lowest paper was in the shape of a large eagle. I imagined it must have been an earlier work due to its size. However, I noticed handwriting on the edge of the thin folds. I carefully took down the mobile and unclasped the eagle from the hook. When I unfolded the paper I found it was your letter. After examining the other shapes I found many of your letters.
I unfolded each letter and laid it on the mat in the center of the room. I walked to the opposite side and sat on the chair, looking at the mat, the letters resting there, crumpled like leaves. I had the thought that I would wait for Venkatesh to come home and scold him for going through my things.
Then after a moment I rose and sat down next to the mat. I began folding all the papers into their shapes again. This took a little less than an hour, with the housekeeper sometimes peering curiously inside. After I had made all the little eagles and swans again, I hung them on the hook and placed the wire back on the ceiling before walking out.
. . .
What are the ways in which you remember? Do you drive over one dune to the next and imagine your life a desert? Have you lost your mind in stations and metros and doors that open and close but never shut? Yet you speak as if we were never at the meeting places, under the trees, between the shadows and over the dips and plateaus of the field. Where the waters always have the reflection of the moon and the distant ducks are seen but never heard. Under the night or evening sky when the heart is alone in company, and the windows are thrown open to the fragrance of jasmine. Or alone in the crowd of memory, do you sit still?
Is it just you standing over the hill, or is it you and your many ghosts? When the wind plays its flute every night you flash the look of a blind woman in its face and ask for a tambura. Leaving all your work at the hospital undone, as if we had not spent our last afternoon together.
. . .
An invitation arrived for a concert in the city so I traveled by train. I planned to leave the program early to catch my return ticket and after the solo performance ended, I considered my departure. Chandran had followed along perfectly. Knowing he was familiar with my playing, I set a brisk tempo. When it was over I felt fatigued and did not look forward to the train ride home. However, I had promised Venkatesh and others that I would be home in time for the festival performance the next morning.
The applause finished and the sponsor queued me to make my exit. I paid my respects to the musicians and rose to leave. From the audience someone launched a slipper in my direction. It missed me, but flew just a few inches by the main artist's head. I peered into the crowd to see who had thrown it but it was too dark to see anything.
A scuffle broke out in the front row and the sponsor emerged to speak to the people. Once the issue was resolved everyone sat down. I left the stage and gathered my things from the dressing room. At the doorway while putting on my slippers, I heard the concert resume. The singer started a fast number. Chandran had taken up the mrdangam and played gently to the rhythm. The sound created a mood of such subtle beauty that for a moment I was rooted to the spot as I listened, forgetting I had a train ride.