I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I have looked into the face of love, and it is black. Black as well are its hands and limbs, and the rest is uniform gray. Up close, there are scars. Tense and silent, tail erect, he paces the railing of my balcony, snapping the buds of hibiscus that stud the vines stretching to the roof. Baring ferocious incisors, shocking as a bat’s, he hisses, then seals his mouth and slowly blinks. I read into his closed, wrinkled eyes a weary tolerance of my presence. He cuffs a female half his size, upon whose back rides an indifferent child—what are his women called, cows? mares? sows? Those clinging little beasties—are they pups, kits, calves? I am out of my element here. My element is, or was, language.
I call him Boom-Boom, and not just for the avalanche of bodies and branches he unleashes on my tin roof at dawn. His harem tears fruit and vegetables from the garden I’ve tried to raise. Fierce Boom-Boom, liege and pillager, extracts his ten percent on a daily basis.
The flowers—hibiscus, azalea, roses, bougainvillea—what are they for my Lord Boom-Boom? Appetizers, sherbet to clear his palate, a lozenge, dessert? None of his harem brings him blossoms; these he nips himself. He makes the buds of flowers seem the most extravagant pleasure in the universe. Pink lips unsheathe to surround the bud, tongue circumnavigates the boll, parting its tightly-folded head which he licks at first like a delicate cone, then chops tight to the stalk where ants then rush to stanch its syrupy flow.
Boom-Boom surveys it all, regally, from my cool stone verandah. I’ve drawn up behind him, close enough to admire his battle-scars, to watch the muscles twitching, to see the salt-and-pepper glint of his middle-aged muzzle. We’re co-evals, my liege and I. I stare down with him at my trees and rows of garden while his women patiently dig up my carrots, bend and break my beans. We’re in this together, the harem-keeper and the bachelor bull. Once he whirled and swiped a sticky hibiscus blossom from my extended hand, breaking the skin.
Accidents will happen.
He’s watching his women.
Despite everything, I think of monkeys as essentially playful, dolphins of the trees, not territorial scavengers. I wish I still had children to show them to. A wondrous thing, monkeys on your porch. “See, Bayard,” I would say, rolling back the clock 20 years, “he wants to play. He wants to be your friend.”
Two years ago my bride and I made a honeymoon visit to a ruined palace at the desert’s edge. On the cracked and pitted parapets of the emperor’s walk, an old guide had whispered, “Now I am imparting erotic informations, saar. Maybe the lady should not be hearing …”
“She can take it,” I said.
We were staring at the maze of old zenana walls, Raja Singh’s stockyard for 22 brides and 600 concubines.
“Seven feet tall, saar,” the old guide intoned, reaching above us to an imagined canopy. “400 pounds,” and his arms fluttered buoyantly over the hot stone railing. Then, sliding closer to me, dropping his voice, he giggled, “penile member, saar, 24 inches.”
My bride tittered.
“Jesus, Meena, two feet! How about that. If he couldn’t slam-dunk, maybe he could pole-vault.”
My young bride’s bosom strained that day against her sari, one breast pressed tight against the discolored marble, the other flaring in profile from it. How like a painting she seemed, how eternally erotic, the scene enacted a thousand times in catalogues and collections: Maid on Parapet Awaits Her Lover. Elephants at a distance, camels against the dunes, and I, the would-be Raja, clutching his Sure-Shot, staring down at the empty breeding pens and wondering, which will it be tonight? One of my experienced courtesans who knows the hundred ways of drawing ecstasy like clear water from a dry well, or one of the shy and painted virgins borne on camel-back as tribute from the villages, who, in their ardent innocence, their exquisite accommodations, can kindle fire from a dampened old stick?
“Saar, a gratuity?” the guide tugged my sleeve.
They are gone by mid-morning, and I am alone with Baba, my father-in-law, under the fan in my private quarters where a serving woman brings me tea and a banana for breakfast and later, yoghurt and fruits sprinkled with coarse sugar. Twice a day an old gentleman in khaki carrying a jute sack tinkles his bicycle bell and drops mail in the wooden box. I can spot my bride’s airmail letters from way up here on the verandah where I read and snooze the days away.
At night, after Boom-Boom and his harem make their evening appearance, I change into a clean devotional kurta and pajama and sniff about on all fours, thrusting my head into the thick bougainvillea vines where snakes have been rumored to hide, and carress a nodule with my lips and tongue, to suck a bud into openness. I have crunched my share of hibiscus buds, and they are pungent as leeks but fragrant, too, like Indian desserts, indescribably flowery. There are always new buds, freshly opened by morning and these I leave for my Lord.
I am what I am, a gaunt baritone with paranoid tendencies, a widow uncomfortable in his body. Not from my lips will you hear gender-shading: no widower I. In this phase of my life, I insist on absolutes.
This phase of my life I owe to an engaging teenager by the name of Boom-Boom Karakas. I have seen pictures of his room in happier days, his drums and a trophy-case. He is the son I never had: athletic, outgoing, a bit madcap. I have even met the lad, a direct descendent of Genghis Khan on his father’s side, though the mother is a bit of a mutt.
I have shaken the hand that U-turned a Camaro across three lanes of the Eisenhower Expressway, down four miles of the northbound lanes warping an errant tapestry through a woof of horns, then plunging like a spawning salmon up the headwaters of a pinched suburban stream. Caroline, heading to O’Hare to pick me up, flipped him like a grizzly flicking a salmon from a shallow gravel-bar, gutting the Camaro from bumper to tailfin. He popped from the dorsal seam like a lichee from its meat. Our car sustained barely a scratch, just a folded fender and a starburst of shattered glass. It was a bloody spawn.
It went better for the boy that he was legally sober and not on drugs. He’d merely been watching old “Sweetness” himself, Walter Payton, hitting the holes, accelerating, picking up his blocks. He snapped his fingers, kicked his heels and sang, “I can do that!” They called it “The Sweetness Defense,” the surge of misplaced glory a high-school fullback must feel, finding the seam at night without lights, cutting back against the grain of onrushing cars and trucks, dashing the wrong way down the Eisenhower. No jury would convict, not after the Super Bowl. He’d done it safely, as the phrase went, many times: down the Eisenhower, up the Stevenson, across the Ryan.
Fiction, I’d always taught my students, is a sealed realm of pure and beautiful justice. A justice-dealing machine. The great novel exposes hypocrisy, tests every pretense; that is its only comfort. There are agents of savage justice in this world, most of them outlaws, many of them evil. I’d spent a lifetime teaching students to respect and even admire existential cowboys like Boom-Boom Karakas, the Belmondo of Brookfield Estates. My training in literature, which I took as training for pertinent realms of life and death, told me there was a string in there somewhere. Find it, and follow it through, no matter where it leads. To a ruined estate in Uttar Pradesh, crouched among the monkeys, seems entirely logical.
At that hour of the night, Caroline would have been far beyond the legal limit. I always figured our next sabbatical would be to a dry or expensive country, an academic’s Al-Anon. Not that anyone could guess. She was always presentable. And since she was merging into the Eisenhower that night in the proper lane at the proper speed, and she was gray-haired and dressed in a wool skirt and a Scottish sweater we’d bought at Heathrow a few months earlier, they never took a blood sample. I spent three hours in the United Terminal, then took a taxi home, where the police were waiting.
She looked like the wife of a small-college president. I knew her suits and dresses by name: “wear your Oberlin sweater,” I’d say, “your Denison suit.” Knox, Carlton, Bowling Green—the names roll before me now like cherished phrases of a dead, devotional language. I’d lectured in just about every college in the midwest, been met in every pokey airport, gotten liquored up in their gracious guest houses, and always put on an adequate show. We knew their institutional odors, saw them all as choices once offered but never taken, affairs not entered into, enmities spared.
She seemed dressed for a perpetual country auction, under a crisp autumn glaze. Something about her bottled ruddiness suggested high New England, a bright but blustery day with falling leaves. “I’ll bet you’re a Smith girl!” one of my colleagues bubbled on first meeting her, “I’ll bet you knew Sylvia Plath!” She stayed trim, but not svelte, more sporting than sexy. She was credited with fitness, but actually she just never ate. People assumed we lived on a country estate and commuted to campus from Wisconsin, perhaps. They came to me with bizarre requests about breeding their dogs and stabling horses. We actually lived in a late-’50s suburban development north of Evanston. We were reclusive because of Caroline’s social unpredictability. She would start crying at dinner, or she would drop the crystal. Or fling it against walls, giggling.
In all fairness to myself, I could have passed for a small-college president. I used to wear corduroy jackets and cashmere turtlenecks. My hair turned silver fairly early, as did Caroline’s, so we were always thought of as young-at-heart, good-sport senior citizens. On the night of Boom-Boom’s intervention in my life, and termination of Caroline’s, we were only 48.
“And I almost made it,” he lamented. “Your wife panicked, professor, and that’s the truth. Now I’m looking a two-year suspension of my license—where’s the justice in that? It’s not going to bring her back.” He’d repressed his remorse so deeply, and continued to behave so normally—which is to say objectionably—that the therapists were worried about his recovery. They suggested reserving some of my settlement money for his treatment, should traumas ever surface.
The lad is clearly a force in the universe, a principle of pure destruction. I’ve paid my dues, I thought, let others pick up the bill. “Your Honor,” I said, “I have talked to this boy. He has not publicly expressed the grief I know he feels in his heart. I know these things; I am a literature teacher, a trained observer of life. The Arrangers of the Universe are behind this boy. I support his petition to retain his license. It is unlikely he will play the Walter Payton game again.”
Let there be no inhibition in the free exercise of his will, I said. Let the rainforests fall, the seas run black. The Court was impressed by my compassion. An act of Christian charity, according to his lawyer. His mother threw herself on my neck. His father wrenched my hand and shoulder. The boy said, “you’re okay, professor.” I left the courtroom worth slightly over five million dollars.
“Three children,” Caroline used to say, “one of each.” She knew how to carry off outrageousness, sounding just a pinch British, despite having come from Cincinnati.
Carl’s in Ophthalmology at Iowa Hospitals; Renata’s a young Boer in the Stanford Law School. It’s Bayard, child of my Faulkner period, San Francisco’s “Cecil Beaton of Heavy Metal,” who had been our only problem. Now it’s his problem. He enjoys being up there with hang-gliders and race-car drivers, in a very special uninsureable risk-group. “And you always thought I was a sissy!” he laughs.
By day, he’s a landscape photographer, doing gardens of the rich and idle. At night he haunts the bars. He’s the most debauched 21-year-old I have ever met. He’s said no thanks to his future. He gets messages on his telephone service: catch the overnight to Tokyo. KISS needs a glossy.
My question now is, what did we do to deserve Carl and Renata—stodgy even for these constipated times? Carl’s friends—other residents in Ophthalmology—could start a Rotary Club of Health Care Professionals. The world is an eyeball and music’s for the waiting room. He’s 26 and getting bald. His girlfriend has three children.
For this I bought 20 years of season’s tickets to the Chicago Symphony? For this I refused a television set till they were out of high school?
Renata is also doing well. She’s in her final year of Women’s Law. A partnership is guaranteed. I used to melt when she called me “Daddy.” Now she holds me responsible for Caroline’s unfulfillment; hence her drinking; hence her accident. It is not comfortable to be called a murderer by the only person, until my bride, who had filled my whole heart.
Bayard you know about. I wish he could be here now. He revels in the debasement of love’s design, he knows the shape of love’s deformities.
I was becoming a curmudgeon. I was 48, rich, single, and disaffected. My university offered, in their phrase, “compassionate leave.” I sold the house and made a quarter- million on the inflationary ride. I put everything in mutual funds and started pulling out the equivalent of an endowed, Ivy-League chair. I moved into a northshore apartment with 12-foot ceilings. I spotted Saul Bellow at our local pharmacy.
Before Caroline’s death, the most exotic thing I had ever done was teach in Teheran for a year. I compiled a book while the Shah collapsed. My Iran book was called Contingency and Character in the Contemporary American Novel. It attempted to “locate” (as I used to say) the modern hero in the multiple contingencies of language, history and culture, instead of paraphrasable psychology. The reviewers said it might have been a useful book, 20 years ago, before deconstruction. It’s out of print.
And then the Fulbrights called again. Not out of compassion, but with a favor to ask. They were desperate. An obscure college in India had just become Fulbright-eligible, the result of an agreement negotiated by a lunatic who’d never visited the town or the campus. They’d throw in a second year, wherever I wanted, if I agreed to pick up the pieces. “We owe you one for Iran,” is how they put it. I could be Dr. America and Dr. Modern Letters in a provincial backwater (“more a backsand, I’m afraid”) that had never taught American Lit or anything later than Thomas Hardy.
Shri Viswanath Patel University was willed into existence in 1948, five pastel residences and a lecture hall overlooking a cracked griddle of swirling salts, the sunken floor of a dry lake. “The Death Valley of India,” the Dean-cum-Chairman proudly explained, except when the monsoons made it Great Salt Lake. I was their first foreigner, except for a wayward Uzbek who’d taught ghazals by Omar Khayyam the year before.
For those familiar with India, the state is Bihar, a catchment of human misery draining, eventually, into Calcutta. My Fulbright salary, converted to rupees, not to mention the monthly checks accumulating back in Chicago, probably exceeded the GNP of the entire district.
Viswanath Patel had been a Gandhian. He’d been a “Sir” but dropped it during the Independence struggle. His vision dictated a college for tribals and untouchables. Some indeed are tribals: handsome, black-skinned men addicted to much adornment. Over the decades, however, ideals have gradually receded. Students come from the middle classes of neighboring towns, or landowning families of surrounding villages. Despite reservation clauses guaranteeing their admission, tribals have set up trinket-stalls around the college, selling bows and arrows, drums and carvings made of bone. “Backward castes” do the cleaning and heavy work. The land they beat a living on, by netting fish or raising sorghum, has been declared arid, saline, and terminally leeched.
Yet, still, things grew. I arrived just after the monsoons, when the lakebed was already drying and my students were busy plowing, planting and adding manure. I was given an “apartment” in the guest house, a furnished room with a fan (though electricity was rarely available), and a bathroom on the Indian model with a hole in the floor between metal stirrups for squatting or taking a standing aim. There was no running water and no kitchen, but I did have a bell, attached to a gray-haired and elegant-looking gentleman who’d once worked in a Calcutta club. He seemed to be on duty twenty-four hours a day. His name was Dhiren.
He had a daughter named Meena.
I had asked for, and been graciously assigned, a graduate seminar in American Literature. Every word in that sentence should have quotation marks around it. Once a week, a man vaguely familiar as myself (less and less so as the winter wore on and I dropped my Western clothes, grew a beard and lost 40 pounds on Dhiren’s fruits and yoghurt), called I stood in a dark, stuffy intimate amphitheater, candlelit and bug-infested, in front of 25 women ranging in age from 14 to 52, responding to astonishing questions and remarkable opinions on Time and the Universe, the English language and American Trivia. In my innocence, I had assigned the usual tests, from Benjamin Franklin and the Federalist Papers, through Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter. The books had been shipped, but resold in Patna by the bookseller’s agent.
The absence of books confirmed something I had always suspected. For the inspired lecturer, the text is often distracting. That winter by candlelight (electrical supply then being in permanent disruption), I reconstructed American thought, American history, the rise and flowering of American Literature. I stuck to the syllabus, and they asked questions and wrote papers on the assigned, but invisible, books.
Only the blind could ignore such beauty. It was spring by a Chicago calendar, though the seasons made little impression apart from dry and wet. Forster, being Forster, had noticed the deep-chested, wasp-waisted naked male bodies, the graceful limbs of laboring men bursting with muscle. I, being whatever I had become, noticed the women, faces cast more perfectly, skin more radiant, bodies straighter, yet more womanly, than any I had ever seen.
“How are you finding your students?” the chairman, Professor Narayan, inquired. I was feeling expansive. “Intriguing,” I said.
“They are not, of course, sophisticated at all,” he apologized.
“I find some of them perfection itself,” I said.
“Oh, sir, you do us too much honor!”
“Some are exquisite.”
This was entering forbidden territory. In the Gandhian world, “lascivious behaviour” can be revealed in a glance, an off-hand word, an innocent gesture. I was thinking of a girl named Meena who had delivered a paper on The Scarlet Letter, or should I say, had delivered a paper about a spirited young woman with a child, abandoned by her timid lover, who confronts him in a forest with her unbroken will and her thunderous determination to preach, to write, and to act. I had mentioned Hester in my lecture; I had even commented on Hawthorne’s striking defense of art and independence in a Puritan society.
But in Meena’s retelling, the forest was hot and snake-infested, the nefarious minister was a drunken and abusive landlord’s son, and the young mother a virtuous girl of the serving-class who had been given to him at 13 to settle her father’s gambling debts.
Unsound pedagogy, you say.
She read her paper by candlelight. I had been sitting beside her at the front desk (a dissecting-table in the college’s original design), and I lost myself, first in her tears and outrage, and then quite frantically as I studied the shadows under her sari, imagining her nudity from the midriff folds visible to me, a nudity so tangible that I yearned to reach out and dab the sweat, mash the mosquitoes buzzing her head and drinking from her arms, and to begin the delicious unwrapping of all six yards of that Christmas-colored cotton.
I had been celibate for nearly two years. I had thought of my Fulbright year in an Indian desert as a kind of sexual Al-Anon, a safe removal from much temptation. I had seen my intellectual life as sterile, my paternity irrelevant, my bloated finances a joke.
This is computer-enhancement fueled by passion: in the candlelight of a hot March Tuesday afternoon I plotted the intimate topography of a small, dark planet named Meena whose age and last name I had never learned. She had been anonymous and now she had erupted in my consciousness and wouldn’t let go.
“Yes,” I said, “beautifully done. Hawthorne would approve.”
We all had a picture now of The Scarlet Letter as a revision of Sita’s testing in the forest, of a beautiful woman walking through flames to prove her faithfulness, holding out her hand to a doubting, fair-skinned Ram who had put her through the torture of his suspicions. Hanuman, the co-operative monkey-lord who had guided Ram through snake-dense forests and delivered him safely to the island-fastness of Sri Lanka, stepped back into the forest’s gloom, his duty discharged.
The oldest tableau in Hindu piety.
But what is this? As Ram approaches, slightly humbled by Sita’s purity, slightly abashed by his lascivious assumptions, she withdraws her hand. She clutches the child to her breast. His child, perhaps; Ravanna’s child—her abductor’s—perhaps. “Tell me,” Ram demands, but she laughs. He will not beg her forgiveness; he demands that she abandon the suspect child to the monkeys and accompany him back to his throne, where he is fated to rule long and benevolently with her at his side.
She laughs in his face. There can be no justice with me at your side, she mocks. I am not yours to command. I did not resist our enemies for 14 years in order to follow your orders. I did not walk through flames only to serve you now.
He’s enraged. What can he do but rule? What can she do but be his wife? It is their dharma and their karma, to rule and to serve.
“What can I do?” she cries in rebuttal. “Preach! Write! Act!”
In Meena’s tale, Sita and Mukta, her daughter, stay in the forest. Hanuman retrieves them. Ram wastes away in various disguises, wandering through his kingdom, claiming to be the true king. He is mocked jailed, becomes a drunk and public nuisance. The throne is occupied by lesser and lesser kings, until it is lost to outsiders.
That was the Meena I had in mind, when I spoke of exquisite women to Professor Narayan. “There is no Meena in our program,” he insisted.
“Brilliant and beautiful,” I said.
He was smiling when he corrected himself. “The only Meena I know is Dhiren’s daughter. But she is a serving-girl! Most unfortunate, what happened. A mishap. Divorced, a bad husband, with a child.”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s who I mean!”
He reached out to touch my arm, smiling benevolently. “No, no, quite impossible, you see. As I have explained, she is not favored in her appearance. She is very dark—”
“This Meena is very dark.”
“—and a servant’s girl.”
And that was the moment I fell from respectability. To have found comeliness in a dark-complexioned servant’s daughter is to harbor lascivious attitudes, to express attraction where only one kind of attraction is possible.
“I see,” said Professor Narayan. “This fellow Dhiren is very shifty. He asked permission for his daughter to attend your class. I thought, what is the harm? She may even improve her mind and get her thoughts off her problems. She had lived with her father in Calcutta for many years and developed urban ways. Dhiren became a scoundrel and fell in debt. His wife died, and he fell among bad types. The girl was not unattractive in a village sort of way, and so he sold her to bad fellows. Her husband allowed his friends to use her, for money. Then, in remorse for what he had done, Dhiren came to us and begged for honest work. I felt sorry for the chap, so I created a position. Now you tell me his daughter is brilliant and beautiful. I’m very sorry, sir, very sorry I did not warn you before. You are blameless, sir—I take full responsibility. I must release Dhiren immediately.”
“Fire him and you’ll lose your Fulbright money,” I said. Lust and pity guided my words. The girl was Cinderella, Sita, Hester Prynne.
“Sir,” Professor Narayan stepped back now, rocking on his heels. “Everyone here is knowing her story. If you do not cut yourself loose, the good name of your country will be tarnished.”
I heard myself saying it even before the thought occured. “I’m going to marry her, Professor Narayan.”
We were of course obliged to leave the college. There were, in fact, two children—a boy seven by the name of Amai and a girl of five … named Mukti. Mukti … of course, means Pearl. I have learned that the tent of the universe is pegged by coincidence, and that accumulated coincidence constitutes a pattern. I have learned that after 50, a man encounters no more surprises, everything is vaguely predictable. By the age of 50, the millions of random thoughts, the thousands of people we’ve met, the hundreds of thousands of separate articles, books, words, all begin to coalesce. Our character becomes multiple contingency. Meena also had three brothers and four sisters, most of them in Calcutta living precariously. They, along with their children and widowed in-laws, 50 people in all, began arriving a week after our announced intentions.
Dhiren—now known as “Baba,” my father-in-law, though considerably younger than I, feared that his role of servant might cause me embarrassment. I should note that the college, in its excitement over landing an eminent American scholar (as I was then known) had confused the means with the ends and introduced me as Senator J. William Fulbright. Dignified attempts at reclaiming my identity had only met with hurt and alarm. To avoid further indignities to my high office, Baba proposed a reasonable solution.
He wished to return to his ancestral village in Uttar Pradesh and take up landlording. Many abandoned estates, including the one his own father had cooked for, could be bought for a few million rupees. There would be buildings within its walls for all his children and grandchildren. There would be fields attached and outlying villages of indentured laborers to pay him tribute. I was touched by his seignorial ambitions. There would be an apartment suitable for the Senator and his bride.
We were married in a Christian service in Ranchi, though neither of us ascribed to that faith. Her last name, I learned at the service, was Kumar, common as Smith. We left for our honeymoon in Rajasthan, to walk the parapets of Raja Singh’s palace, to gaze at the zenana walls and lose ourselves in lust, while Baba and the family left for Uttar Pradesh with a line of credit for 20 lakhs—two million—rupees.
Perhaps you think me trusting or even simple-minded. I draw your attention to the ballast I’ve shed in the cauldron of love. If Newton’s Laws hold true for the moral universe, consider an equal and opposite reaction to the surrender of my name and citizenship, my wealth and whiteness, my tenure and refinement, my three children and a spotless defense of culture and irony wherever they seemed imperiled. Consider the Giddiness of Being that follows when the memory-banks are spilled like water in the sands of Rajasthan.
I was being reborn, you see.
Seven feet tall and proportionally endowed, I waited at sunset on the Raja’s walk for a signal from the maid on the parapet, awaiting her lover, my bride. Secrets of the ancients coursed in my loins. My virgin courtesan had never been inside a hotel, had never eaten restaurant food, had never worn jewellery, a silk sari, or even a bra. Had never been taken in a gentle embrace by a man not bent on hurting her.
I have had affairs, yes, with students and with colleagues and with the wives of colleagues, and in all those tangled, expectant moments there inhabits the shadow of an ultimate purpose: what it means to be a man, to escape the old self, and to create something new. Don’t look for profundity here, for I am out to extinguish all the markers I took to be normal and within the parameters of the Male American Self.
Those moments were not repeated with my bride.
She met me in the room, in her Scarlet Letter sari as I had requested, kohl-eyed, tinkling in her honeymoon gold and jewels. I turned off the air-conditioner. I turned off the fan. She put her hand on the back of my neck, and it was ice cold and trembling. I followed the hand, the thin arm ribbed with bangles, up the smoothness to the elbow, under the sari-end that hid the rest of her arm, and shoulder. My fingers followed the outline of the choli, where it scooped in the back and hooked in front and I eased the eyelets apart. Still no bra, no wonder I had not miscalculated a millimeter of that exquisite topography. The sari hid everything from my gaze. My hands slipped down her sides, bare and warm, to where the folds of her sari were nipped by a drawstring. She tugged and it came loose. I lifted the sari and she stood before me in a petticoat and opened top. She tugged again and now my white pajama bottoms tried to fall unimpeded to the floor, but understandably, snagged.
I sing you no tales of love’s disillusionment. Love is not a domestic animal and I have been spared the petty politics of its taming.
We returned to our new estate of marriage on these grounds that Baba bought: a crumbling mansion, servants’ quarters, apartment blocks for minor relatives, orchards, animal-pens, and a high wall studded with glass. In one of those servants’ pens, Baba had been born. He wept at the memory.
Money-lenders of the last century, fat merchant-princes of Calcutta who dabbled in landowning and the casual chattling of seasonal labor had built this mansion, deeded these fields, indentured these surrounding villages. A consortium of owners, great-grandchildren of the merchants, now Calcutta wastrels little better than servants themselves except for exalted notions of their lineage, sold their interest to Baba for little more than back-taxes and a transfer fee. Baba hired a tax-official to do his negotiating, which amounted to threats of prison-terms and fines bearing compound-interest from the British days, if the deeds were not turned over in compensation.
Special effort seemed called for.
In these two years we have reclaimed three rooms of the mansion with paint and wood and plaster, we’ve unburied an Aphrodite sculpture that rioting Muslims had decapitated in 1947, we’ve repaired the outer walls and begun pruning the mysterious orchard—snake-choked, hazed with bats and resting monkeys—which should bear sweet lime and mango in a year or two if Boom-Boom’s ladies co-operate. In olden times, five villages depended on this estate for inputs and simple justice before extractive greed brought everyone to their knees. Senator Fulbright has used his influence to bring electricity, a classroom, and a dispensary. He’s even done some teaching of the servants’ children. Gradually, in this life, I am finding my level.
With the possible exception of Baba and Lord Boom-Boom, I am the happiest man I know.
The money for playing both man and god should last another year or two. Meena writes me that her teachers are pleased with her progress, and with Amal’s and Mukti’s. They are American school children, as she had wished. They live in my northshore apartment with the 12-foot ceilings. She is the only freshman at Northwestern with an MA (Sir V.N. Patel Univ.) in English literature. She writes that Chicago is very cold this winter.
Perhaps it is all a dream, but if it is, I am dreaming in color, with a full palate of taste and texture. Boom-Boom and I have learned a game, on his evening visits. We sit on the warm stone balcony, rolling my evening orange back and forth, each of us feigning a bite, holding it close for inspection, pretending to keep it, licking it, then rolling it back. He finds this orange game vastly amusing, and he has permitted some of his ladies and children to join us, each of them rolling fruits or pebbles, licking them, and rolling them back to me.
Then comes the time when innocence ends.
This evening, biting off buds for tomorrow’s worship as I always do, tongue parting the crevices between the leaves as Boom-Boom had shown me, lips grasping, teeth in readiness, moray-man in the reef of his bougainvillea, I encounter the surge of new resistance, of low, astonished lizard-life, the green head no larger than a bud trembling in my mouth, its twitching tail jerking from my lips. My tongue is nipped—it could have been worse—and Lord Boom-Boom swipes once at my face and dashes the poor lizard to the floor.
And then he pushes me aside, for there, lured at last from the ladder of my vines, the giant head appears, awakened from its millennial sleep. My Lord squats on the parapet wall, the snake, its yellowed hood flaring wide, its tongue flicking, launches itself only to fail, to spray the stone with venom at Boom-Boom’s dancing feet. The women begin their screaming, their flinging of fruits and pebbles. Hanuman, my guide and protector, dodges and leaps, landing astride the ancient god, pulling him from the forest of leaves and raking its flesh with his claws, battering its head against the parapet. When it is safe, the first of his women, and then I, join the general battle. We leave the snake bloody and twitching, under a pulpy sludge of burst-apart oranges. Boom-Boom studies my face. I read his brown, bag-rimmed eyes, his wrinkled face and cheeks. This far and no farther, o, wanderer, his eyes tell me.
He rises, whistles once, and his troop of women gather. Another whistle and they plunge over the stone railing still moist with venom, and gather again in my garden, to plunder my fields under the watchful eyes of their god.
Clark Blaise directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee