Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
G. S. Sharat Chandra
G. S. Sharat Chandra (M.F.A., U of Iowa) is Professor of English at the University of Missouri—Kansas City. The author of ten books and a former Fulbright Fellow and recipient of an NEA Fellowship, Chandra has published in London Magazine, Paris Review, Partisan Review, Iowa Review, Poetry and other journals. See poetry by G. S. Sharat Chandra in this issue of Weber Studies. See other work published in Weber Studies by G. S. Sharat Chandra: Poetry—Vol. 4.1, Vol. 7.1, Vol. 9.3, Vol. 12.2, Vol., 15.1.
When the dust of hot, arid days rises all afternoon, when the sun mellows and birds seek trees in droves, their frantic cackle drowning human noises in the bazaar, the hovering dust creates mirages in cobbled alleys, in front of fruit shops ablaze with gas lamps and bangle stalls with their myriad glass loops tied to the roof. The dust is everywhere and the horizon is so thick with it that the descending sun is enveloped in a monk's saffron. The clouds take shapes of mythic hunters and the hunted. Shadows of gold and ochre follow them. The birds, now settled, find it hard to stay down. They flutter and chase other in small circles around their perches, cacophonous or in ecstasy, as the dark descends. There are reflections in water puddles as bicyclists splash through them. Pedestrians who had passed a moment ago seem to appear in front of you with sudden familiarity. You do not know them and they aren't apparitions come to haunt you in the dusty twilight.
I was twenty-seven when I left India for good. Since then, I've married and have three children under the age of ten. Though India is always on my mind, there's no link that connects to the sudden stop my life came to and my new self. I leaped from one life to another and in between I left nothing but a vacuum. Only imagination and memory, when I need them, act as my bridges. Thus, whenever I go back to India, from America, where I live and teach, I'm a stranger wandering in familiar neighborhoods almost invisibly. I recognize every tree, river, palace, every sunset, every night of the full moon. But friends or relatives stumble in surprise at my familiar ways of greeting. I explain, identify and affirm. We look at each other through our grey hair, our wrinkled faces, our ravaged bodies for a semblance of that once upon a time when we were inseparable. Something quietly fathomed clears the film in our eyes and we smile, embrace or shake hands. But the sudden intimacy is unreal. We remain at large, distant and clothed by our separate worlds. We know that the bonds we shared while growing up do not untie us anymore. We do not represent ourselves.
One afternoon I saw an astrologer under a tree. He was the type that read the palms of transients and villagers, chose an auspicious day for an occasion, blessed an event, for a fixed, competitive fee. I was shabbily dressed, my hair was disheveled and my feet inside my Indian sandals were dusty. I carried a soiled handkerchief around my neck like any other hard-working Indian employee of low means. The astrologer asked me to pick up his four cowrie shells and throw them on his mat. I shook them vigorously and let them roll. The numbers ran even. He held my palm and read my story. I was a public servant. I was educated and led a comfortable life with a wife and two teenage daughters. In the recent past, things have been difficult. I was worried about my health which had suffered a setback. I was also worried about the future of my daughters. My recent illness had left its scars. If I took care of my mental and physical health, I might live to my late sixties or even seventies. My wife was a strong influence over my well-being since she did not belong to my caste and brought some non-aligned planets in conjunction. My wife was probably a Muslim.
I thanked him and left a five-rupee note on his mat. His handwritten sign advertised it as two. He was startled at my generosity and rose to his feet to thank me. My Western gesture had given me away. There was a look of awe on his face. He stood watching me as I mingled with the evening crowd on the street. Where was this man who continued his life as the astrologer read it? Has my life continued here without me? I wanted to see the man who had continued it, wanted very much to meet his teenage daughters. If his illness had anything to do with the heart, I wanted to appraise him of the wonderful progress made in the West. I could tell him the diet I followed, the pills I took and the way I overcame my fear of bypass surgery. I could send him drugs that weren't available in India, or were too expensive for him to bear. I could send him on my own! Then I thought of his wife. I imagined her in her Muslim ways. She must've found a compromise between her faith and his. They had formed a bond of love that prevailed over their religious differences. Surely, they loved each other and endured their sufferings on the strength of their love. If she were a Muslim and he a Hindu, their sufferings must've been plenty. If I had stayed back in India, would I have married a Muslim?
The bazaar was filled with its evening traffic. Some of the shops were out of power and gas lights blazed in them creating a haze around oranges stacked in pyramids. A thirtyish woman in a hooded saree caught my attention. She was standing in front of a bangle stall, trying various types of bangles. Her face was partly hidden by the saree and the shadows that the lamps cast. Something compelled me. I was embarrassed at being in front of a bangle stall without a woman accompanying me, but I took heart in the ivory and sandalwood carvings the shop also displayed. The owner was busy with the woman and ignored me. A boy assistant came to my aid. I was glad. I examined cheap miniatures, while my ears remained glued to the symphony of bangles as she tried them on. I surreptitiously moved closer, as close as I could stand to her without causing any commotion. Her perfume was familiar. Something I could not name. I could not remember where I had first smelled it. The nails on her left fingers were painted in magenta. They were long, beautiful and, again, familiar. I felt a shiver for I thought that those fingers, as they paused over the table top, knew I was looking at them. They nudged each other and each of them observed me. I began to sweat. Her hand was close to mine and though I busied myself with ivory elephants, gods, birds on branches, letter openers, I felt a powerful urge to grab it. I had the assistant parade everything he had on the shelves and at some point switched to speaking in English. The assistant didn't mind my quick glances at the woman as if he understood the turmoil within me. Suddenly the woman became conscious of my proximity and my hand reaching for hers in violent familiarity. She pulled her hand away and tugged her saree over her head more tightly. She whispered something to the shop owner, picked up her handbag and left. Mesmerized, I followed her, craning my neck over the bobbing heads of shoppers, through parked bicycles and squatting vegetable sellers. She walked briskly. She knew her way and her body moved inside her saree with a panic the folds did not betray. She sensed me behind her. I could smell her fragrance on my cheek as if she had touched me. It was in my collar, in my fingers as I wiped my brow. I knew her and I wanted to hold her and say, "It's only me!" But I could not remember her name! I tried frantically to recall her name to my lips before she disappeared forever.
The increased pace with which I followed her suddenly caught up with me and a sudden pain of angina shot through my chest. I had to stop. The pain was too intense. I groped for my pills and rolled one to my palm. I swallowed it. I put the cap back and shoved the bottle in my pocket. The pill caught my throat. I bought an orange, tore open its skin and squeezed the juice into my mouth. The sweet juice ran all over my beard and through my fingers. I had lost her. I did not know where I was. I looked around and saw myself in the middle of a strange place, surrounded by people who spoke a strange dialect. All the sign-boards in front of shops were in a language I could not recognize. Was I having a heart attack? I had forgotten the direction from which I had entered the bazaar and which way I was headed. I stopped a stranger. "Please," I whispered in my hoarse voice. "Can you tell me which way." He asked me in English. "Are you all right? Which hotel do you want to go?" I could not tell him. He mentioned several hotels. I could not recognize any of them. "I think you must be staying at the Metropole. That's the only decent hotel for foreigners here," he said convinced of my stature. He pointed the way. "Don't worry," he shouted after me. "You'll be fine once you get back. It's all this heat and confusion!" A flock of egrets rose sharply into the air from a low-lying branch as a car, turning, honked at my intrusion. I staggered out of its way. The car slowed down. The driver rolled his window down to ask me if I were all right. In the back sat the woman in the bangle shop with two teenage daughters.
The guard at the Metropole gave me his stiff military salute. The key with the long red plastic tag told me my room number. I had entered familiar territory and with the drink I ordered to be sent to my room, things began to settle in my mind. I took my pulse. It was normal. The angina attack had disappeared completely. When I turned off the lights, the dark that enveloped me didn't feel right. I didn't belong here in this dark. I had a home to go back to, a home whose dark soothed me to sleep. If I had stayed in India and continued the unforked life the astrologer saw in my palm, perhaps I'd have been the driver in that car. I'd be that Muslim woman's husband and those two teenagers in the backseat would be my daughters. But this darkness in the hotel room was neither. It was an unfamiliar middle, an illusory passage that connected to what I could've been, nothing else.