V. Samsara

I have always been intrigued by the fact that cows in India are sacred. Unmolested, they roam the streets of towns and villages. In some parts they have a bell round their neck and a jasmine topknot on their head, sometimes they are painted. But mostly they are wretched. Gaunt, filthy and sick, they munch away on pounds of rotting waste, eating up slops, paper, or bits of material they find along the wayside. Drivers, rickshaw-men and pedestrians break their necks avoiding the cows sprawled in the middle of the road. Anyone who happens to bump into one must face the outrage of the crowd. Cows have power. They can bring traffic to a standstill. And people show them respect. Yet many of them die of starvation.

*

Mother was brisk and impatient, and Zam was as slow as a cow's digestive system. By the time anything finally worked its way through Zam's wiring her nerves would be in shreds. I had no problem with his tempo.

Zam would mix dough of water and dark coarsely ground wheat flour with a little bran. He pinched off a bit of the dough, rolled it into a ball, then flattened it into a pancake, flipping it from one hand to the other. That regular slapping sound is music. Chapati. As soon as the thin pancake landed on the circular opening over the fire it puffed up. His skilled hand swiftly turned it over and it was done. The Indians eat chapatis with everything. They scoop up sauce with them, stuff them with vegetables, wipe their plates clean with them. The chapati is their bread as well as knife, fork and spoon. A complete place setting all in one.

*

My father worked until he dropped. He would stay on at the site until he felt he had things more or less under control. Sometimes he didn't come home for days on end. The Indians were stubborn, but that didn't bother him. No one was more mulish than Raquel. The coolies were willing, they just refused to work with anything technical, with new tools, anything not tested and proved over centuries.

*

He was to look in on the boss. Barto… was pacing the office, waving his arms in agitation. Out of the window he could see the open space on the river bank. Piles of bricks, bamboo scaffolding, the ground looking as if a bomb had landed. People everywhere. An anthill on fast forward.

—We need that three-story building and we need it now. The old warehouse is bursting at the seams. When can you start?

—As soon as we complete the loading bays at the station and get the drains linked up. Two weeks, I assume.

—What? You want to start concreting during the rainy season?

—Yes.

—Seriously?

—Yes.

—Okay, you know what you're doing. When are you going to start shifting the jetty? Can you speed things up?

Thomas paused for a moment. He didn't like false promises.

—Well, I could, but I'd need more people. From home.

—Don't you have enough?

He could feel the exhaustion. His neck stiff with a string of sleepless nights, his lungs loaded with forty cigarettes a day. But here was a chance. An opportunity not to be missed. He fought hard to concentrate and make his point so there could be no room for doubt.

—Martinec is busting his hump, but he can't keep up with ordering all the materials. I deal with the suppliers myself, or he'd never get any sleep. Kielkowsk spends the day and night on the plans, doesn't have time to deal with budgets, so I do that myself too. Švarc handles deliveries and Zítek does the accounts, fulltime. So there's no one to oversee the actual site.

—How many?

—Two or three should be enough, but no greenhorns. I need men who know what they're about, aces who understand construction and can keep the workmen on their toes—this needs redoing, mix the mortar properly, get this rendering fixed.

He pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.

—I need men who can get the coolies to stop carrying everything on their heads. Bricks, cement, mortar. At a snail's pace. Otherwise we're going nowhere fast. They have to be people steeled against these folks' perpetual tomorrow.

—I'll ask for two foremen. You'll have them here within five weeks.

—Thanks. We'll move the jetty after the monsoons are over.

He was standing knee-deep in the muddy water. Rising at a dizzy rate. Formwork strained to the limit, soil dissolving into a brown mash and the persistent patter of raindrops landing in hungry puddles.

—Where the hell are they?

Ruda Martinec, his wild mop of hair plastered on his head like a helmet, was yelling into the shafts of rain.

—I don't know. But if they don't get here this minute, we'll be up shit creek, boss!

Thomas took two flamingo steps closer and surveyed the layout.

—Get out of here! I mean it.

—What about you?

—Let's go!

A landslide. The earth shifted and holes opened up in bomb crates. Not one company, for miles around, was doing any construction work, except for the geniuses at Bata. Sinking foundations and setting concrete in the monsoon—you'd have to be insane. Or suicidal. Thomas knew he was neither. He only needed more pumps. Many more.

By the end of the week they had evolved an efficient method. The flood of pumps set against the rain, the mixer pouring concrete into the foundations before the holes disappeared under water. Inch by inch, they poured the concrete into the crisscross of shuttering. They linked finished skewbacks with strips of rebar to deaden the shocks from earthquakes. The foundations were ready in six weeks.

Ruda Martinec shouted to him over his shoulder:

—Your wife called, boss.

He straightened up. For a moment he wondered what that meant.

—Has something happened?

—She asked the same. Said she hadn't heard from you for a week. Wanted to know if you're still alive.

He nodded. Thanks, Ruda.

—You ought to go and see her. I can take care of things here.

*

Arm bent, fingers gripping the white handle. Pale brown liquid fills a china cup. She was pouring herself a cup of tea. Leaning against the doorframe, he observed the curve of her back.

—Did you send for me, Madam?

Her startled cry bounced off the wall. She swung round, the teapot lid clinked.

—You frightened the life out of me!

His footsteps were leaving visible traces of mud.

—Frightened?

—I didn't recognize you.

Layers of dust had turned his hair a strange gray color, his stubble betrayed a weeklong absence of the razor, and the darkness of his complexion could be as much from the sun as from dirt. Millwheels of sweat in the armpits of his shirt.

—You look like a savage.

He stepped toward her.

—Where is he?

—Who? Daniel? In bed.

She breathed in, a medley of odors. Sweat, cement, tobacco, lime, mortar, rain. He took the teacup from her hand and set it back down on the tray. The tablecloth behind her was full of flowers and tropical fruits. He lifted her onto the table. Breathless, she tried to resist.

—He's not asleep yet. He's waiting for his story.

—Let him wait.

—Mum-mmeeee!

—I don't think he's going to.

His eyes shot up, he let go of her dress.

—Can you tell him something short?

—Can you go and have a wash?

She ran her hands down her dress to smooth away his grip marks. He switched off the dining-room lights, headed for the bathroom and reached for the soap. He left the door ajar to catch the bedtime story.

*

I'm going to tell you about the brave warrior of the Mixtecs who became their first ruler. One day, he climbed a hill and cried out: Whosoever wishes to be lord of this land must defeat me in battle! Everyone heard, but no one wanted to pit their strength against his. As he came back down the hill, the rising Sun tickled his face. The warrior thought that the Sun was challenging him to a duel. So he took his bow and shot an arrow at the Sun.

And the Sun? He didn't even notice and continued on his way across the sky. The warrior remained on the alert right until the moment the Sun set below the horizon. I've conquered the Sun! he shouted into the silent landscape. I've conquered the Sun! And so he became the first ruler of the Mixtecs. And ever since that time the Mixtecs have called their rulers "he who conquered the Sun."

*

—But that was only a short story!

—I'll tell you a longer one tomorrow.

—But the Sun didn't even fight with him.

—No, it didn't.

—So how could he win, without a fight?

—You sometimes can win if the other one doesn't put up a fight. And sometimes you can win by not fighting yourself. You let the other one think he's won. As the saying goes, discretion is the better part of valor. And the Sun had the discretion not to put up a fight. You can only do that when you are so strong that you don't have to prove you're better. Now, go to sleep.

*

When she entered the bedroom, he was grinning.

—So how could he win, without a fight?

—Stop it.

—I'm not sure he understood your definition of a victory that isn't one and a fight without fighting. I certainly didn't.

—Well, he did.

—And there's me, always puzzled who he gets his IQ from.

He laughed and grabbed at her.

—You're roaring like a tiger; if Dan hears you he'll have nightmares.

—Just as long as he doesn't come in here.

*

A monsoon swept across Batanagar. It was too much for the warehouse roof. The iron sheeting rolled up like wrapping paper, roof fittings and mountings gave under the weight of water. The wall of the engineering works collapsed; the bamboo scaffolding of the petrol station lay scattered like matchsticks. Any prospect of a decent sleep vanished in the rainy haze.

Once the monsoons passed, the construction division had to remodel some of the larger stores. They divided the work, splitting India into parts. Father headed south, to Hyderabad and Madras.

After three weeks he returned to Calcutta. He arrived home late at night, tired and hungry. He crept into the bedroom, sat on the bed and watched her sleeping. Dressed, he fell asleep next to her. In the morning, he woke to an empty bed. He found her in the bathroom. She was sitting on the edge of the bath, head in hands, breathing deeply.

—Raquel, what's the matter?

He bent over her and inspected her closely.

—I'll send for Doctor Seagal.

—He was here yesterday. I'm all right.

—All right? Did he say that?

She smiled.

—I've got another builder for you.

He raised an eyebrow and let out a whistle.

—I bet I'm the last to know.

—You're hardly ever home.

—You could have written me, like last time.

*

They told me I would be getting a little brother or sister for my sixth birthday. I wanted a brother. Girls in India count for nothing. Kavita once told my mother that when her cousin had a baby girl her husband was so angry that he cut his wife's ear off. Girls were a punishment.

*

Then there were days when Mother was out of sorts.

I came to the dining table straight from bed. She looked at me sternly.

—Go and brush your teeth and get dressed, now. You're not having breakfast in your pajamas.

—Why do I have to brush my teeth in the morning when I haven't eaten anything all night?

Nervous, she glanced at Thomas. He went on stirring his coffee. That made her even more annoyed.

—Daddy will explain.

—Do what Mummy says, Dan, I'll explain afterwards.

I flounced off towards the bathroom and listened to snatches of what they were saying.

—Darling, how am I to explain that he must brush his teeth in the morning when he hasn't eaten all night? Anyway, I'm in a rush to get to work.

—I just haven't got the energy to argue with either of you, Tom.

—I know. But you look good.

She rolled her eyes.

—He so takes after you, Raquel. He analyzes everything, and woe betide if something doesn't make sense. He can't stand rules for rules' sake.

—Come on, Tom. Cleaning one's teeth in the morning is not just some rule; it's basic hygiene.

—There you are. I can go and explain it to him now you've given me a decent case to make.

She looked for something to throw at him. There was a bowl of oranges behind her. She reached for one, but he was already at the door.

—I'll get you some knives, the kind they throw in the circus. That'll be more fun.

*

Martinec came hurtling into the office, frantic.

—There's some cobras in the warehouse, boss. Dozens of them.

—So, chase them out.

—But—but how? The men are scared of them.

—Damn, heat at home and cobras at work.

A few minutes later Tom showed up at the warehouse with a bunch of grinning natives at his heels. Each armed with a stick and a sack over the shoulder.

—Right then, Ruda. These men will show you how to get rid of a few snakes.

He marched straight inside, a stick in his hand. Martinec was racked with doubt.

—Are the bastards poisonous?

He paused at the door and treated Martinec to a lukewarm smile. Fatal, he said dryly.

—But the good news is that people who die of a cobra bite are cleansed of their sins. They get buried whole, you see. Not cremated. It's redemption, actually.

—Thanks. That makes me feel much better.

*

The child was born still.

Kavita said it was a curse. That the Shivor's crone had cast a spell on Mother. I didn't really understand, but I felt something dreadful had happened. I remember my parents, their bodies wrapped up in pain. My mother's eyes were blank pages. I walked through the house, silent, invisible to everyone. I overheard Kavita telling Zam that Mistress had been seized by demons. I was frightened, but I knew my father would do everything to drive them away.

He tried to reach her.

—Raquel?

Something in her turned. Sinking down into a place he couldn't see. He held her tight, but his arms felt empty. His voice fractured in his mouth. He kept saying her name. Stay with me. His fingers gripping her loose flesh. Please, don't. You can't leave me like this.

Slowly her eyes came back. Her face unfolded as she recognized him, filling out in the grip of his arms. He was shaking, his lips against her face.

—Promise me you won't go mad.

*

Through the crack in the door I watched the people in the house, Doctor Seagal and others I'd never seen before. I stayed with Kavita, who kept chanting her mantras. After that, everything changed. My mother stopped telling me bedtime stories. That lasted the whole summer. Father would come home early and take me for walks or to the movies. There were dozens of movie houses on Chauringi. Cartoons. Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Popeye the Sailorman. My father next to me, laughing like a kid. Before I went to sleep he would tell me about the work at the site, and about the most beautiful buildings in the world.

*

Agra. Mogul architecture. The Taj Mahal. A white marble mausoleum on the edge of the desert. Rabindranath Tagore wrote that the Taj Mahal was a teardrop on the cheek of time.

In 1631, when his wife, the Persian princess Mumtaz Mahal, died in childbed, Shah Jahan summoned the best of Asia's artists, craftsmen and builders. It took them twenty-two years to complete the most beautiful shrine in the world. Legend has it that Shah Jahan was so distressed by his wife's death that in just a few months his black beard and hair went completely white.

*

The palace changes color with the seasons and with the time of day. Blushing at dawn, gold with the moon on it. The changing colors are said to reflect the changes of a woman's mood.

—Mummy also feels pink sometimes.

—Yes, she does.

—Can we go and see it?

—Would you like to?

*

A year later we did.

*

On the way to Agra we stopped at Benares. Pilgrims at the ghat, in the river of rituals. The sacred rite of washing. A Hindu with the golden beads of a Brahmin round his neck. The highest caste. The goddess washing away all sins. The Ganges. Long ago she had flowed in Heaven.

Father told me that Benares was older than Jerusalem. A city already ancient when Rome was formed. The holiest place on the Ganges, center of the world. If you die in Benares, you become one with the universe.

Mother turned round. Two steps from her sat a young man, almost naked, his dark skin and chest covered in black hairs. The lotus position. Deep meditation in the midst of the chaos at the ghats.

I strayed away from my parents, delirious. A knot of people squatting round a fire. I crept nearer. A charred body on a pile of wood, only dried feet poking out from the flames. I stood transfixed. I tried to turn away, but rooted to the spot, I kept looking at the remains of the burning corpse. And there I saw him. A legless man, crooked, with a humped back, who had no trouble walking. The pilgrim's arms were his legs. The way he walked on his hands made me wonder why we needed legs at all. My body is a prison in which I suffer for my past lives, he said. The Ganges is a goddess. The Ganges is pure. Forever.

Rain streaming down the ghats. Dead bodies burning on pyres for the ashes to be carried away by the river. Cries framing the air. Rama's name is truth. Rama's name is truth. Rama's name is truth. Do you see, Danny? They're burying a holy man.

—His body won't be burned?

—No. They'll wrap it in cloth, weight it with stones and throw it in the river. Only the bodies of holy men and children are without sin. They don't have to be purified by fire.

—So if I died now, would you throw me in the river too?

*

Benares. A groove in the memory. The nighttime river swallowing a purple sky, hundreds of fires and stinging smoke. The dark orange glow on the walls of the temples, the dead in embroidered covers, the living in colorful plaids. Human bodies are torches in the chain of temples and recurring births and deaths, in the cycle of day and night, of months and years, in the boundless river of a human longing for purification and eternal deliverance. Salvation on the stone steps beside the sacred waters.

From Zvuk slunečních hodin. Copyright Hana Andronikova. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by David Short. All rights reserved.