Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
Latha Viswanathan (M.A., York U) has worked as a journalist and advertising copywriter in India, the Philippines, and Canada and is the 1994 recipient of the John Hazard Wildman Prize for fiction from Louisiana State University. Her stories have appeared in Fiction International, Many Mountains Moving, New Orleans Review and others.
Six p.m. in Bombay is early morning in New Jersey. The hours Surya struggles to fill in India have yet to be born in America. The telephone rings. His son Prem's voice is solicitous.
"Are you all right? How was the trip?"
"What do you mean all right? I'm here, aren't I? You tell me, how are the children?"
"I just wanted to make sure you reached safe and sound." Prem's tone is controlled and patient, as if addressing an uncomprehending child. "We're okay. I'll call you again soon. Renu will call too."
Too many calls, Surya thinks, to ask about safety. Is anyone really safe? An absurd idea.
All around the apartment, the walls, end tables and coffee table, Uma's face smiles back.
Carefully, lovingly, he has plucked her young face from old albums. Everywhere he turns, her face remains frozen, encircled with yesterday's flowers, trapped in black and white photographs.
It had happened a long way away from home in a place called, of all things, Succasunna, in New Jersey, where his son took care of the details. Prem, a mechanical engineer by profession, was an efficient, orderly type. He had made arrangements with a funeral home nearby. They were very organized, he assured his father gently, showing him a pile of documents, certificates, medical reports from the hospital, all of them stamped and signed.
His daughter Renu flew in from L.A. Son and daughter whispered and hovered around Surya, anticipating all sorts of imagined needs.
The end had been quick, a matter of ten days. By then Uma was incredibly weak, lost in a world Surya couldn't reach. Her only nourishment came from tubes. Surya resorted to a liquid diet. After they pumped her body full of painkillers, she barely spoke to anyone. She became a catatonic creature, moaning with vacant eyes. He communed with her in silence.
He stopped writing letters, answering phone calls, talking to the children and grandchildren.
The last few days, Uma's small, shrinking veins turned stubborn. The nurses couldn't pierce her arms. The glucose, the platelets, the blood bags, all these had to find a way.
They mapped out a shunt through veins that ran down her legs. When it was all over, Surya slipped out the needles. The skin continued to weep, a red trickle moistening the sheet underneath. The sphincter relaxed; the nurse and he changed her diaper. She was dead and things went on. It had shocked him.
The funeral director had offered Prem many options. There were all sorts of caskets to choose from, depending on what they wanted to spend. Did they want embalming? he asked. When Surya found out what this was, he shook his head. What was the point in puffing up Uma's skin?
During the cremation, he stood by his son. Prem's fingers had trembled as he placed the piece of camphor on his mother's chest. Watching the funeral home people slide her in, Surya thought he saw a kind of relief flicker on their faces. For Uma, an end to meaningless pain. For Surya—what?
A month after Uma's death, Surya's silence continued. The children became worried. They'd thought their father a strong man, obdurate at times, even domineering as a young man, but very much in control, always there. Was this quiet, almost indifferent man, the same man they knew? Startled by the transformation, they conferred, procured invitations from friends, dangled notions of exaggerated importance, the role a grandfather played in children's lives.
For the past few years, he'd watched the grandchildren. They came home from school it seemed only to go out. They were busy miniature adults. They had so many illusions to break. What could he, an old man from another country, offer in the way of enlightenment when it came to ice hockey, baseball and track?
He blended with the evening shadows, sitting in the quiet of his room. Prem and Renu were in the kitchen, sharing summer holiday plans.
"Camping is great fun for the kids." This was Prem, in a studied, deliberate tone.
"Maybe the Mayan ruins." His daughter's trilling voice.
Surya walked towards the window. A summer thunderstorm was beginning outside. A stripe of lightning and a corner came to life, oak branches reaching out. Tails of sphagnum moss tucked tightly into hanging baskets on the patio spilled out, Swami beards, taking him back.
After the rains, he had watched Uma in the terrace garden of their flat. She had stopped weeding and wiped the sticky juice of bruised leaves from her palms. He watched as she balanced a moving clot of soil in her hand. "Isn't it amazing? she said. This earthworm, how it tunnels all the time? This garden, I think it's mine, but I'm just somebody puttering for a while…." Surely, there, Surya thought, his mind would cling to thoughts of his wife, the way she'd been alive?
He broke the silence. "I want to go home. I want to take her back."
Renu and Prem ranted and raved. They spoke in pious gestures, in between making necessary travel plans. They held onto him while he walked down the stairs, they shushed the kids, turned off the television. Surya gripped the chair, editing sentences before they began, scrunching a fistful of the curtain material hard. It was perfectly natural, he felt, that he'd want to go back. He didn't see the need for any distractions now. He wanted something else. A state where life zigzagged, he was young and old man, guru and disciple at the same time. Somehow the present always assumed a place of diminished importance in India. Was it the daily assault? The chaos, the mingling of absurd and profound, that fleeting sense of a glimpse, a tip of meaning that surfaced sometimes? He needed this fragile preservation now.
By his side, on the table, sat an aluminum tin, the remains of his wife. The lid was sealed shut, a protruding coin of red wax on either side. He carried it, feeling the weight of bones and flesh. In the cupboard, he put the container between piles of cotton saris, the ones she couldn't take with her to America. He turned off the lights. In the dark, there was a semblance of comfort, no more groping shuffling thoughts. Like some young, tireless lover, he courted sleep, the escape it offered.
With dawn comes a moment that is still a seed. It carries a core of potential, of promise, the obfuscation gentle on the awakening mind. He felt it envelop him, that delicious boundary between the conscious and unconscious. He longed to prolong it somehow. If he heard no other sound to indicate that the city had come to life, he might manage to string a few such moments together, feign indifference a little longer. It was no use. Behind the eyelids, he felt the day crawl, mouth open wide, imploring his participation. Then the thoughts began.
With awareness came the dullness, then sharp pain, losing her yet again as if for the first time.
His daughter called. Surya knew he was lucky. There was no question about his children's devotion. There were times in America when he thought he detected a trace of irritation.
Perhaps it was his helplessness. He was a dependent in a foreign place. He made the past in them come alive. A past they'd jettisoned. Did they think he was forlorn, innately pathetic, stuck in the periphery of the world outside? It didn't matter anymore. Despair. Self-pity. These were luxuries for the uninitiated.
The grit on his feet made him look down. Uma's favorite carpet, now heavy with dust. He remembered the day they had ordered it. The family, three generations of carpet weavers, had shown them the drawings, the samples. A sullen eight year old sat in the corner of the room, oblivious to them, working with intense concentration. The children in these families worked as hard as the adults. These carpets needed the skill of small fingers to achieve that level of density, that look. He saw the hands that made the knots. Those cuts, the calluses on small fingers. A childhood lost so family could survive. He heard the father say, "Now remember loop around tight like this so the wool doesn't slant."
The distended cheek, the tongue that worked, helped the boy keep up the pace of his hands. Eyes and fingers would work for weeks. When it was half, no, three quarters done, he'd be reminded it was time to stop, put in a subtle flaw. A thing that proved no machine had touched the job. "A designer signature, a calculated pattern error," Surya had said.
"No," Uma countered, "the child giving of himself—that's what gives the piece life, don't you understand?"
Outside, the stifling heat of the day had begun. The breeze from the sea in the balcony was weak, it did nothing to relieve the humidity in the air. From the apartment above, a nasal voice rose. The call to Allah. The wail, a plaintive cry, hung above him, obliterating all other sounds. On his trip back to India, he'd heard the same cry. It was in London—Heathrow, in fact. He had disembarked and was going down the escalator. Just outside the men's room, tucked in a corner, a man stood facing towards Mecca. He mouthed the words softly. The man struck Surya as wise or completely stupid. Which was it? Was he so powerful that he could lose himself here, accumulating for the life to come? Or was he carrying on with a habit, a sight to be ridiculed?
In the distance, above the Towers of Silence, the dakhmas, he spotted a circle of birds—vultures—buoyant on lazy, warm air. A visual signal from shy scavengers. They patrolled at a height, in anticipation of corpses. Soon alerted by the sudden descent of a neighboring bird, they came from all directions. According to the Avesta, the holy book, to cremate or bury the dead would defile the elements. Parsis offered their bodies to the birds, a final sacrifice.
In the evening, when pedestrians walked by the towers, the tree and the menacing presence of vultures made them walk by faster. There they sat on a big banyan tree with exposed roots that hung down from the branches. The aerial roots reached deep into the ground, offering support for the trunk, feigning an appearance of several trees at a glance. For the vultures, the tree had become a focal point, a waiting ground. The accounts he heard had remarked on the eerie effect produced by the street lights. They said squirming shadows pushed through branches and reached out into passers by. The birds drifted in and out silently, phantoms of the tropical night.
What did they attack first? Surya wondered. The eyes? He imagined the talons resting firmly on some young face while the hooked beak pulled and tore. Rigid pecking order would be observed according to the size of the beak. There would be hissing and clawing while the timid ones sneaked in. He saw the leaders reach in deep with their bald, long neck, making life out of death. The others watched dully, staring through filmy eyes.
Upstairs, the wailing ended.
In the evening, Surya sat on the low cement wall by the beach. In a few minutes, the sun would be gone. The sound of the waves was hypnotic. The repetitive pattern: the slow coil of the curl, the stretching, the leveling and spreading with a hiss. Why was he compelled to watch? He was sucked into it, as if in a trance. He would have liked to still the movement, for one incalculable minute. The sea cleansed itself of him continuously.
Years ago, sitting here like this with Prem and Renu, they had seen a beached whale. Trapped in shallow waters, it had stranded itself.
"Why? Why did it do that?" they wanted to know.
He'd told them nobody knew. It remained a cetological mystery.
"Was it lost?" Renu asked.
"Some people think so. They say the sloping beach makes them get lost. They can't hear the other whales." Surya recalled reading that the beach had no surface to echo their sonar waves, the acoustic signals they depended on.
He himself wasn't sure of this. Where else could they strand? He was partial to the theory that the stranded whale had been sick. It had come to the shore not knowing where else to go. Self-preservation would not allow drowning. For an air breathing mammal, it would be unnatural, horrible. He'd read that they sometimes stranded in great numbers. Surya thought of them traveling in reassuring pods. One sends out a wild distress call and they come, defecating in sympathy. Death became an affirmation of community. It was pure, touching. It moved him.
The children and he returned there the next day. The scientists came. They scraped the algae, carved out the ovaries and counted the ripple marks on the whale's teeth. They also snapped several photographs, probed and peered some more, plopping samples into bottles of alcohol.
Then the vultures came. They squabbled over the carcass near a massive, gaping wound.
They stripped and peeled the skin, exposing the insides. After a hot day's sun, the stench had been unbearable.
Surya had been standing in front of Uma's cupboard for a while. Finally, as if he'd just entered the room, he opened the doors in a hurry, the doors swinging back, nicking the paint on the wall. So early in the morning, he knew the beach would be deserted. The man upstairs had finished his wail. The carpet in the living room had been swept. Surya's face was calm as he left the apartment.
He settled himself on the wall. The predatory creatures were here too. The gulls. The crows. And the vultures? Didn't they roost together at night in crags? Then he remembered they had no call. Theirs was a secretive, unseen presence. With dumb, infinite patience, they waited for daytime, when together, they would feed again. Perhaps they'd already left for the dakhmas.
Carrying her ashes, Surya walked towards the waves. They'd been married for forty-five years. Shivering slightly in spite of the heat, he opened the lid and immersed the ashes in the sea. The water soaked his pants; his mind thrashed about, slashing the surface, performing a breach, traveling deep. The images came to him, all jumbled up: the ebbing waves of her body, the weaving child, a crying man, beached whales, the birds—shards of himself that fused and dissolved. This small part, how to hold onto it, make it his lifeline? He heard the rhythmic beat of his heart and felt the dampness cling to his thighs.
Finding his spot on the wall, he sat down. It was high tide. The air was heavy, the monsoons were almost here. When the rains came, he wouldn't come here for several months. The rocks became treacherous, covered with moss. To his right, above the place where the washerwomen rinsed their clothes, he thought he heard flapping. The birds were here too. He felt their presence. Together, they watched the waves.