Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
Meena Alexander is a prolific writer. Her poetry publications include Stone Roots (1980), House of a Thousand Doors (1988) and two long poems: The Storm, A Poem in Five Parts (1989) and Night-Scene, The Garden (1992). Her new volume of poems is River and Bridge (1995). Her prose writings include The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience, essays and poems (1996), Fault Lines, a memoir (1993), Nampally Road (1991), and a new novel Manhattan Music (1997). She is the author of The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism (1979) and Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley (1989). Her poems and prose writings have been widely published in magazines in the USA, UK, and India. Her work is also included in anthologies such as Making Waves: Writing by Asian Women (1989), Contemporary Indian Poetry (1990), Love Poems by Women (1990), Modern Indian Poetry in English (1991), Charlie Chan is Dead: Contemporary Asian-American Fiction (1993), The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry (1995), Penguin New Writing in India (1996), Sister to Sister (1996), Written by Herself (vol.II) ed. Jill Ker Conway (1996), and in the CD Rom series: American Journey. Selected poems and prose writings have been translated into Malayalam, Hindi, Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, and German. See other work by Meena Alexander in this issue of Weber Studies: Conversation, Poetry.
(Note: "Child Vanishing" is a fragment from a longer work in progress.)
'Jon, Jon,' I murmured.
My lips were full of blood, they tingled as I stood in the museum waiting. I made an O as if I were sucking on air. I did not care who looked at me.
Suddenly I saw him. He strolled in, wearing a red sweater. It filled my eyes. I followed him into the foyer and to calm myself touched the petals of a flower set in a vase by the information counter,—pale pink, almost white and I had the sense that if I touched it, it would come apart under my fingers. He was so close to me now, right by the table in the museum foyer where the flower was set so I could smell that odor of him, something with sweat and sandalwood commingled.
'Jon, Jon Singh' I wanted to murmur, instead brushed my lips against his cheek.
Now we were head to head, against the painting. I could see how carefully the child's image had been formed: right hand holding the flower, and the meadow he had plucked it from turned into a green sea that uplifted him. The child's white sherwani was stark against paper primed with lead white, painted over in an onyx color. I imagined the painter, an old man with scraggly hair, squinting a little, adjusting his eyepiece, pointing his brush of fine squirrel hair. He turned and pondered his palette, zinc white imported from Kashgarh, for the boots, India yellow for his embroidered cap. With that tint the cap could fluoresce as the years passed. At great price he found the last lot of India yellow, drawn from the urine of several cows that had delicately chewed on mango leaf, on the leaves of the finest mango, the farmer in Tuglakabad had assured him. The old man was satisfied. He did not have long to go on, he understood that. He needed to complete the upper portion of the child's cheek and then perhaps he would shut his eyes for a minute, give in to the great fatigue that was sweeping over him.
Now over two centuries later the cheek glowed in the subdued light of a museum wall, two continents away.
'Look at that child, he's traveled all this way to get to us.'
There was something in my tone that made Jon stop, look at him. A tint of pain, was that the way to put it? As if something pinched me, without my knowing it, slight tug of a single hair, a fraction of skin against metal.
He smiled at me. Was he wondering how large my eyes were in the half light. Almost like a night creature. What was I like at night? He didn't know. Ours was a love of afternoons tucked away, late lunches, and for all we knew there must be thousands like us all over the city. Millions and millions of illicit loves if you added together all the metropolises of the world. But how else should love be? As far as I could tell it always went against the laws of the world. The very notion of a legalized love was ridiculous.
'See those flowers?' I asked. 'They're the same as on the robe.'
I was waiting for an answer. So he turned away from me and fixed his eyes on the minute embroidery painted on the cap. An expression, querulous really, or wincing perhaps on that boy's face, a male child, islanded in a meadow, lilies of burnt umber set at his feet.
Facing me he let out a sigh, a deep sigh of something like contentment. How quickly his emotions shifted when he was with me, but so far there was always this underbase of pleasure. If only we could stand for ever, facing the anonymous Mughal child, in the safety of those who would never know them, tourists from Spain and Italy, Japan and Hungary, families too, dragging little children.
He let his hand coast, ever so lightly over my hair, then my mouth till he felt my breath on his palm. Later, as we sat in the museum cafeteria, sipping tea from the thick white cups provided by the museum for its patrons, I let my mind slip back.
It was damp, I had woken early. Caught the bus and sat quietly at the back. By the museum the sight of cherry trees had held me. A week later they would tilt in ice, black poles caught in fields of ice, but just now they had put out their delicate jointed arms on which the moisture glowed. Through the bus window I made out a small figure walking. Walking right into the dark stand of trees. I squinted hard, trying to make out the slight body, the shabby brown coat, the face. But a mistiness in the air took over. Just where the path divided, one arm disappearing into the trees, the other coasting round, I could see brown fabric starting to blur. As if a cloud of earth had risen into air, I thought, but had no time to ponder this for the bus jerked to a stop and there was Jon waiting at the steps. His coat was open in the cold and I saw the red sweater he sometimes wore, burning up the light.
Perhaps I looked frail, my hair a little askew as I stepped off the bus. Perhaps his mind moved to the wind, for the wind was rising, whipping the rain at us both. He touched his lips, ever so lightly to mine and set his arm under my elbow, coaxing me forward to the entrance. Once we were in the foyer with its chandeliers and flower arrangements in urns, the vast public space giving off an odor of overdressed sanctity, I felt I could slip my hand into his coat sleeve and rest it right above the softness of his wrist. An intimacy I might not have dared in the street. But I felt safe in a building where everything could be found: Egyptian sarcophagi, Nubian gold, roseate murals of Pompeii whose figures dazed under centuries of lava had been tugged out, laid flat against bright walls, small Dutch maidens frozen in Vermeer's light, the coruscating texture of human flesh in Lucien Freud's paintings, Leigh Bowery's nakedness, rumbling, pierced by metal in odd places.
Now I watched him sip, the coffee cup gleaming against the hard red of his sweater. He sat with his back to the glass wall and something stirred, brownish, slight, larger than a sparrow's wing. I caught my breath. Cherry trees in the park, groping, as a tiny figure poked out, then was covered up, all over again by the trees.
'Child vanishing!' I whispered to him.
I held my breath so he could not tell the agitation that gripped me. At least I had got the words out and knew he had heard them. He had heard me. I could tell from the bemused air with which he put down the cup and asked his question:
'What child? I think our painted boy is still there.'
I took a sip of my tea then turned away to the dividing glass, the stand of dark trees forcing my words. Something was thrusting up inside and the words didn't quite match. But I had to speak. It was all disjointed but Lucien Freud's paintings slipped into mind. I didn't know why. The old woman stretched out in white, her feet propped in front. I had first seen that image on a trip to England years ago. So like grandmother, though Eliamma wouldn't have held her feet so stiff on the bed and in any case, she would be walking in the hot sun, her hands gripped about an umbrella, or hoisting a cloth bag filled with vegetables, rice for the poor family across the paddy field.
Did Jon know that grandma Eliamma lived in Kochi? Perhaps one day I would take him to India.
Jon Singh was looking over my head at the crowds thrusting in, tourists from Europe where the dollar had plummeted, women and men in gold and leather and well kept tweed, brushed silks and clattering heels. I heard low pitched laughter, babble. Jon wouldn't reply, it was as if he hadn't heard my question. I bent to pick up my purse. As he turned to watch me, I drew out a tiny mirror and made note of my face. The paucity of flesh, the darting hair, made me tremble. My lipstick was lodged under a pencil and I pulled it out. It was quite done these days, to do one's face in public. The most genteel did it, a quick pat of color, the fretful smoothing of a comb. My motion seemed to please him. As he guided me out, I sensed again, how tall he was. I barely came up to his neck.
'My Jon Singh, my California man' I thought silently and would have whispered some such thing to him, but we were moving rapidly now and under the stone cover, the exit archway, he moved a fraction of an inch away. Behind his shoulders I could see the play of light where the fountains had been.
His question surprised me, his voice so abrupt: 'How long can we go on like this?'
I did not know what to say to him, moved my wrist quickly and felt hair catch in my ring. That ring with circling stones Sam had given me years and years ago. There was a sharp pain in my wrist as I brought my hand down, close to my neck. I. I noticed his eyes, dark, watchful, focused on me
'What is it Leela?'
'Nothing, I must have got off the wrong side of the bed or something.'
He smiled a wry sad smile, and said nothing. I wanted to explain but felt that the words I might have summoned had deserted me utterly. My mouth was dry, empty.
His question troubled me. What did he mean by asking that right on the steps of the museum, with all those people thronging around. What could he possibly mean? What did he want from me? Still his voice, gruff with emotion, sounding as if he had just woken from a tender sleep, haunted me. I quickened my pace.
A few blocks from the museum I passed a playing field. It was a field where the kids played ball in good weather. But it was empty now in the light rain. A child stood by the fencing, in a torn jacket and a cap backside front. There was something in the way the child stood, shoulders ever so slightly hunched, back against the source of light, that made me stop and stare. Where had I seen that figure before? Was it a girl? The cap made it so hard to tell. There was a field behind the child, wet, gleaming.
How quickly I walked away, stepping gingerly in my wet coat, into the bus that took me northwards. Out of the bus windows—it was as if some secret catch in the earth had been released—I saw children pressed into doorways and alley ways, begging. New York children in leather and torn denim, grown children in gangs loitering by the subway. When that building in the South Bronx, it was used as a bomb factory, burst open, roof blown sky high, doors shattered into tiny pieces, the firemen had led out a child, its brown coat aflame, hair live, burning. The TV news had followed up. The child survived, but massive burns had altered her skin. Freed from her hospital bed, she had taken to walking through Central Park, even when it rained.
'I don't want ever want to live in a house again' the child told the reporter. CHILD REFUSES HOUSE. WILL SHE LIVE ON THE STREET? trumpeted the headline of the Daily News, over a shot of the pale face, the large staring eyes, hair mussed up with wind, a thin, thirteen year old girl cast out by her own life. Alive, housed nowhere. Would I see her now?
Houses, to hide in. Houses to be born in, houses to die in.
When we first got to New York Sam had taken me to visit Poe Cottage, a little shelter of wood and brick behind a chain fence in the Bronx. Edgar Allan Poe had moved there for the clean air. A thin, bearded man took us up and down the rickety steps, delivered a set piece on Poe's fascination with electricity, how raven came to roost on the blasted oak outside, how he was sure that a fault ran under the very spot where the house stood.
'Almost like the House of Usher' our guide, an adjunct lecturer at City College had said with a slight grimace and I could tell that Sam was impressed.
'He died of consumption' Sam told me as we were leaving, 'and the air was much cleaner here. Look!' and he had pointed with his thumb at the bare spot across the road, next to the burnt out carcass of the Shamrock Inn.
'That was where it stood. They moved it here for safekeeping!'
Human beings need shelter and keep searching till they find something. Even in war zones where a tent pitched in the shelter of a mountain tree was all one could find. We were lucky. This little white apartment Sam and I had found with high windows, looking onto the river. But how many houses have I lived in?
Houses shatter and fall in me. Shards of them, bits and pieces of them. A bathroom with its walls all askew, a kitchen with the side door blown off so the sun shines in on flood water, a fraction of a threshold, part of a high latticed window, bars from a painted bedroom, teak steps as high as a grown man, bits of sand and gravel someone's foot brought in. Thumbprints on a table still moist with river water.
When I try to look back at my life, there's no backness to it. Its all around, a moistness like sweet well water, the houses crumbled up inside. How many houses have there been? I shut my eyes, a bathroom in Tiruvella with a large gleaming tub, the clawed feet stenciled in gold, bought so many years ago from the British Resident. The dressing room close by filled with girlish laughter. Hands tugged at the curtains, muslin embroidered with the patterns of mango leaf, trying to shut out the gleaming white tub.
But the houses kept piling up inside. Houses with delicate quilting in the pattern of leaf and flower. Houses decorated with lacquerwork, houses with sarods catching fire. That was what the Dipaka raga was meant to do, wasn't it, when great uncle played on his sarod. He had let me touch the strings afterwards. A raga so passionate it could start little fires blazing, in stuffed feather beds, in bolsters near where the beloved sat. Did a musician have to have a beloved in order to play? Might imagination make up reality's lack, sunlight and tree bark conspiring?
Once I told Jon that story and he had liked it—the idea of musical strings setting fire to a house.
'Even a California house, an adobe house!' he burst out laughing.
So Jon had a house, somewhere in the warm flats of Imperial valley. He had spoken to me of the reddish colors of the hills, riding for miles on a horse so that the warmth from the stones brushed through his body and the horse limbs became his, cantering, hard into the twilight. He had left his little house with the brick oven and flat mats, behind. Far behind. He told me of a burial ceremony he had seen, an old Sikh who worked in the lettuce fields, lowered right there, in a simple wooden casket, into the American earth.
'Born in India, buried in America!'
Jon said this, a glass of bourbon in his hand. He had been melancholy then, in his room with the old windows looking out onto the fur district. The Furrier's synagogue was right outside his loft and through the metal grille at the window's edge I saw an old man in his orthodox cap, the prayer shawl over his shoulder, entering.
'I saw the dirt sprinkled on his turban, a shining white turban as he was buried. More?'
He was offering me bourbon. I shook my head.
'I wanted to disappear into that hole with him.'
I was genuinely surprised, lifting my glass up to the light as I spoke. But there was a tremor in my fingers I couldn't stop. Later, when I left him, I found myself on the street outside, right by a car park. The attendant waved at me, but I turned away sharply. Then, without knowing what I was doing, I started running.
On and on I ran, past the windows with their rosettes of fur and the headless mannequins draped in shimmering brown, the high heels on their plaster feet hardly making up for the cut necks, the window dresser in a fit of pique had thought fit to forge.
My feet started to hurt. I stopped, the breath coming in great gasps from my mouth, my neck hurting with the strain of the leather bag into which I had tossed the book of photographs Jon had saved, images from his new catalogue. Pictures of houses, rafters and stone floors, from his new Home Sweet Home exhibit. I pushed herself to a stop against a grocery store window and stared in.
The store was owned by Indians. I saw the mother in a drab sari clutching a little girl by the hand. The child had braids tugged tight with coconut oil. The hair on her scalp gleamed. On the mother's hip, was another child, much younger. A baby really, its pink dress and bulging panties wet with the fruit juice that dripped from a plastic bottle. The mother was saying something sharply to the older child. Surely she was, for I could see the woman's face. The six year old walking away, into a dark room filled with cans. I stood there, till the rain started, cold winter rain, stinging my cheeks and my clothes drenched, the leather bag seeping with moisture. When I got home the