Um mmm mm ma oh oh oh . . . oh Mama . . . oh Mama . . . oh Mama . . .
I woke with a start when I heard the noise.
“Oh my god . . . oh my god . . .,” the sound of a woman crying, or maybe being beaten, was floating in the air. There was a fair amount of light in the room, but nonetheless I turned on the side table lamp. Just at that moment I turned it on there was a final Aah! and then complete silence.
It was my second day in Greece. I was staying on the second floor of the Revisit Inn, the place you come back to. It was in a quiet neighborhood, far from the crowds of old Athens. The whole area was residential, with just a couple of hotels, and this one was of a middling size, really more of a large house, or an inn as its name suggested. There were three floors, each with five rooms; every room was quite clean and tastefully furnished.
I looked at my watch. It was 2:30 in the morning.
I was disturbed by the voice, and so sat up in bed. Then I walked around the room, trying to determine whose voices these were and where they were coming from, but to no avail. I checked the door to my room. It was locked. I peered out onto the balcony. There was only darkness and the distant sound of some dogs barking in the street. There were a few stray dogs on the streets of Athens, but not many, and they looked quite healthy and strong in stark contrast to the feeble stray dogs in India.
Had it just been a dream? But that voice . . . in such distress . . . drowned in pain . . . could it really have just been a dream?
I decided I’d mention it to Angela in the morning. Now, I should sleep. I tossed and turned in bed for a long time. My ears were pricked for the slightest noise. My restlessness and apprehension grew each time I turned over. I shouldn’t worry Angela by telling her. Maybe it was just a delusion, or because I was half-asleep … plus, what would come of telling her anyway?
Then I heard someone flush the toilet in the next room. It gave me comfort in the dead quiet of the night that someone else besides me was awake. A short while later I heard another flush.
Angela’s room was right next to mine. She was in 206 and I was in 207 … so was it Angela who was awake at this hour? I got up and went to the door. I gently turned the brass-plated door handle, opened the door, and stepped into the hallway. I glanced under Angela’s door, but it was completely dark. I started to tiptoe back into my room. That’s when I happened to look over at room 208, and saw light shining out from under the door.
Yes, then I remembered, yesterday morning when I checked in I’d seen a middle-aged couple emerging from this room. I’d said hello to them, and they had smiled in return. Recalling this, I smiled.
“Oh, so even at this age Madam was crying out!” I returned to my room and calmly went back to sleep.
Chai was the only thing available in the hotel, and you had to order it. The Yugoslavian woman Sanya at the reception desk would bring me the chai. She seemed a couple years older than me. About forty years’ worth of kohl streaks were smeared across her white face. Nonetheless, her body was still slender and quite energetic. The two shapely legs that flashed under her miniskirt were evidence that she took good care of herself. She brought chai and two digestive biscuits at 7 a.m. This was my breakfast. She came briskly clacking down the hallway and as quickly was gone again.
Angela woke up today, as always, at 11 a.m. She called me to say good morning. The intercom in the room was only for contacting reception, so we had to talk on our mobile phones. From the outset she had explained to me that unless it was urgent, I should not wake her up before 11. I tried very hard to sleep until 7, because I had a bad habit of getting up at 5 or 5:15. One thing I liked a lot about Europe was that people liked to speak, and listen, very directly. Both in anger and in love. Otherwise they won’t talk to you. Maybe they consider softhearted sentimentality to be unnecessary speech. They do not put up with any misconceptions or let them fester.
Angela called again a little while later and I went downstairs. There was a small lobby downstairs with a small bar, some sofas, and an LCD TV hanging on the wall that seemed to be on all day and night. The manager of the hotel, Adonis, was sitting at the reception desk. He was a fifty-or-so-year-old Greek man, tall and well-built.
Adonis asked me in his deep voice, “Did you sleep well?” This must have long been an automatic greeting of his, because every morning when he asked this same question of every guest he’d sweep his hand across his bald head.
I generously said, “Yes,” but then thought about it and smiled and added, “except for the noise coming from the husband and wife in 208 at 2:30 in the morning. Their cries woke me up.”
“208!” The manager’s eyes widened in surprise. He opened the register and checked something.
“There must be a misunderstanding. That room is empty. The guests who stayed there yesterday checked out in the afternoon, and no one else has checked in as yet.”
I was taken aback, and reacted in disbelief. “How could that be?”
Adonis laughed and said, “You must have had a really good dream, after all you’re still a young man … I used to have dreams like that too once upon a time.”
“No, I got up and went into the corridor. That’s when I saw that a light was on in the room.”
“The light must have gone off in a hurry,” he laughed again.
Annoyed, I retorted, “You’re taking this very lightly.”
“Yes, because it’s impossible that anyone was in the room,” he said amiably, blind to my irritation.
“Adonis, please understand, I also heard the toilet in that room flush twice.” There was surely some tension in my voice, some of it was real, and some in an effort to convince him. It appeared that he noticed this time.
He responded calmly, “Of course you heard this. The walls of this guesthouse are made of wood, not cement, and if anyone flushes anywhere above you, below you, near or far, it will sound like it’s coming from the next room.”
This time he didn’t smile but closed the register, got up, and walked toward the laundry room.
Had it just been my imagination? Angela stepped out of the lift and Adonis said something to her. She was Ennis’s cousin and had booked the room for me.
“Why are you making trouble, Philosopher, telling this wrestler here scary stories?” Angela walked over to me and said, gesturing at Adonis. My desire to tell Angela the details of the night’s events faded.
We left the hotel and spent the whole day walking around old Athens. The alleyways there were narrow but clean, and it didn’t stink anywhere. The bazaars were full of people, but miraculously there were no bumped elbows or other collisions, and no one startled us by laying on the car horn. The stores and showrooms glittered. There were a lot of Bangladeshis operating small roadside kiosks that sold things like cigarettes, lighters, chocolates, and peppermints. Many Bangladeshis had settled in this city, and the Greeks had maintained their distance from them. The Greeks think that these people eat dogs instead of mutton, and that they also feed it to the diners in their restaurants. They think they have no ethics. Most Greeks avoid them and their restaurants—maybe this is true for all South Asians. And it is not just the Greeks but most Europeans. It made me think of the Biharis who had come to live in Delhi and the ways Delhiites treated them. Athens may have bigger crowds and more grit than Stockholm, but there was still much less than in Delhi. Everywhere in Athens were walls adorned with graffiti by nameless artists. The whole city was like an art gallery. When we got tired we went to rest on the remains of an ancient building in a vast park near the Acropolis.
Angela had already asked Ennis about my interests, and he had said that I was not as interested in ruins as I was in people: in their conversations, their mannerisms, and their interactions. This is why she had shown me around the bazaar and the other crowded areas of the city.
As the day turned into evening and I saw the Greeks laughing and eating and playing among the glittering storefronts, I could no longer believe that Greece had gone bankrupt. You could not see poverty, fear, looting, or struggles over money anywhere. There were a few beggars, but they were Roma, or gypsies. When Angela heard this she laughed and explained that Greeks rented their houses and buildings and enjoyed them without a care. The government was bankrupt, but not the citizens. There was a lot of corruption here, too.
“Ennis told me, ‘Dev is a really strange man,’” Angela said, looking at me sideways. “You are definitely peculiar, but your lecture yesterday was really outstanding. There are a lot of people here too who believe in reincarnation. Your argument, and your explanation, were really great … tomorrow I’m going to take you to meet one such person, my friend Calista. I told her about you … no, no, but I should say that she herself asked is there some Indian guest coming to visit you,” and I was surprised. How did she know? She is very excited to meet you; however, she is even more peculiar than you.” Angela smiled. “And to tell the truth what we need even more than her is her car, without a car we’ll go bankrupt ourselves riding around in taxis … we’ll be fleeced,” she joked and winked.
As I listened to her talk, my mind wandered, as was my habit. When it came back I said to Angela, “I’m not sure yet myself about all of this, but I believe that the truth has a thousand faces.”
My speech that she had been praising had been arranged by the Society of Philosophical Thoughts in Athens, to which I had been invited, all expenses paid. They were hosting me for two days, but I planned a seven-day trip so that I could see Athens and other nearby places. Angela lived in a village not far from Athens. She made arrangements at her own cost to stay in Athens for the week to show me around.
The so-called egoism and selfish lifestyle of Europeans, as it was understood in India, was in reality just the opposite. Here I’d seen so many helpful and empathetic people and families. They just cherish their individuality, nothing more, they have a desire for privacy … which is the very thing that is so rare in India.
Angela and I had been together since 11 a.m. I had forgotten about what had happened the night before, but when we returned to the hotel that night, it all flashed before me. Her room was first, then my room. Curious, I walked a little further along and saw that the lights were off in Room 208. I returned to my room and stood aimlessly at the door. Then, across the hall, a strange old man emerged and walked very slowly past me and down the corridor. His shoes made a soft squelching noise, as though they were waterlogged. He was a peculiar old man, with disheveled salt and pepper hair and he walked as though he were asleep. When he walked past me I detected a fishy odor.
As soon as I put the key in the lock on my door, there was the sound of a door opening, and I stepped back with a jerk. “I should be more careful,” I said to myself. This sound came from about ten feet away. I crept quietly in its direction.
I heard the sound of a man and woman laughing. When I casually passed in front of Room 210, I saw a middle-aged man and a young woman so absorbed in an embrace that I smiled. I wished I had a companion like that here with me! Angela had so far expressed no interest in being anything other than a friend. She was a beautiful young Greek woman but very reserved. She had an unearthly golden tone, as if she might turn into some bronze idol, every limb measured out and sculpted, a long neck and large eyes. Her voice also sounded like she was in some kind of amorous embrace, soft and voluptuous. She had said that she was single, without any boyfriend, but so far she hadn’t made any first moves.
I walked a little further down the corridor but it was a dead end, so there was nothing to do but return to my room, and there was only one path to get there. I headed back. Those two were still oblivious to the world around them. The man was tall and sturdy, and the girl was significantly shorter and more delicate; he was grasping her hair and his head was bent. They hadn’t noticed my coming and going. Those two were in their own world, far removed from this one. I was behaving like any normal Indian, peeping on someone else’s private moment. That old man who’d shuffled down the hall, unseeing, was the better man. I felt a wave of guilt.
Back in my room I changed my clothes and lay down. After a little while I went to YouTube and started listening to my favorite thumris, “Yad Piya ki Aaye,” “Hai Ram,” “Ye Dukh Saha nahi Jaaye” . . . I liked them best in Begum Akhtar’s voice. There was Wi-Fi in the room. Then I listened to everyone from Bade Ghulam Ali to Shobha Gurtu to Rashid Khan. The sweet accusations of my older sister Narmada and my five-year-old niece played in my mind along with the thumri.
“When will you find a wife, brother . . . when will you bring me an auntie, Uncle?”
“Didi, let me know if you meet anyone like me or whom I might like!” I’d say “Then there can be a wedding!”
Didi would cry.
I wanted to explain to my sister that a relationship isn’t based just on what we think or how we live, it’s also about how the other lives, and it’s important that she live with some purpose.
Narmada Didi said in a sad voice, “Dev, that’s not the kind of relationship they attribute to kismet.” Silence descended upon us after that. I thought, let’s see how long we can keep up these performances.
Worn out from a long day, at some point I fell asleep.
“Oh oh oh . . . Oh my god oh my god . . . charrr marrr charrr marrr . . . huf huf . . . you devil!”
I was woken up again. I looked at my watch, it was 2 a.m. I sat up right away and turned on the bedside lamp. I could still hear the voice, the sound of someone wailing . . . continuously … like someone was being beaten . . . “ah ah ah” . . . suddenly there was the sound of laughter . . . this too was a woman’s voice . . . I put my ear against the wall of Room 208. The headboard rested against that wall. The voices were both coming from that very room. For the next ten minutes the sound of someone crying and then someone laughing continued so I quietly left my room and stood outside the door of room 208. There was a light on inside. The voices could be heard clearly in the hallway as well, much as they could back in my room.
Now that I’d investigated, my mind was somewhat at ease. I wondered if I should knock on the door and pull back the curtain on the whole mystery. But what if some guest had come today? It would be rude and humiliating. After all, Athens was a tourist spot. I stood there for a while longer and unabashedly took pleasure in those cries. When they subsided, I tiptoed back into my room and lay down. I could see the full moon from my balcony, and the moonlight glittered. I turned off the table lamp and tried to go back to sleep. Again and again those lustful voices, still ringing in my head, broke my concentration, what must that girl be like? She must be a real wild one. So why was she laughing? Maybe she was a professional and had to…
At some point I fell asleep. I don’t know how long I was out when it felt as though someone was tugging on my big toe and shaking me. I opened my eyes, and standing across from me was a strange, beautiful young girl, whose blue eyes gazed at me lovingly. I lay motionless and acted like I was asleep. She stepped closer and came to the head of my bed.
She just kept on staring at me. She had yet to say a word. She was wearing the kind of clothes a gypsy woman might wear. She wasn’t perfectly still, but swayed slightly, like a curtain in a light breeze. It wasn’t Angela. She looked at me with a fixed gaze, and I at her from hooded eyes, less than half open.
“You’re afraid of me . . . do not be afraid.”
Even though my hair stood on end out of fear, I feigned anger and shouted, “Get out of here! I don’t want anything from you!”
She kept on staring, unflinching … and those blue eyes were hypnotic. They added to her beauty; she had a sharp nose, triangular face, golden hair, and a thin frame, medium height.
“Go away, I’m not that kind of man!” I finally said to her.
“Take me away from here, back there.” Without turning around, and still watching me, she backed away toward the door and left. As soon as I couldn’t see her anymore, I sprang up and ran to the door of my room. I couldn’t believe it: the door was unlocked. But I had locked the door myself, I was sure of it. I tried to remember. Had I heard the sound of the door opening or closing? No, I was sure I hadn’t heard anything.
I stood at the door for a few moments, then opened it quietly. There was no one outside. I went to Angela’s door: surprisingly, there was a light on inside. I tiptoed over to Room 208; it was dark. I didn’t hear anything. I went back to my room and looked at my watch. It was 3 a.m. I was wide awake. My eyes stayed open, alert, the whole night, and it wasn’t until daybreak that I finally fell asleep. At 11 a.m. Angela called and woke me up. I hung up when she said good morning.
I started to obsess again about the incidents of the night before. The lock on the door was automatic, meaning that when you closed it from the inside it locked itself. So someone outside could open it only if they had another key. And there was an extra key down at the reception desk. I got dressed and went down to the lobby. Adonis was sitting at the reception desk. At first I didn’t have the courage to ask him anything, but fear and restlessness made me bold.
“Good morning . . .”
He responded indifferently to my polite greeting. It was clear he was not pleased and had no interest in talking because today he didn’t ask me anything about how I’d slept, which was his usual habit.
“Did anyone check in to Room 208?” I asked.
There was rancor in Adonis’s voice, “Why . . . did something else happen?”
I asked again politely, “Yes, could you please tell me?”
He looked at the register and said, “No . . . it’s still empty.”
When he said this a storm erupted inside me. So what had happened to me last night? Was it all really just a dream, or a dream inside a dream? That can happen, I know. Or am I struggling with some psychological problem? Is this some psychosexual issue, or was what I saw actually real? So many questions churned inside me. Who was she: a living girl, or a dream, or some spirit? Why did she tell me to take her back there? There? But where?
Threading my fingers together I asked, “Where is Sanya?”
Now there was pure contempt in Adonis’s voice, “Her shift is from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.” The flame of his contempt singed me.
When I saw Angela come downstairs I sat back down on the sofa. She started chatting with Adonis. I could see the changing expressions on her face. She kept motioning with her hands like she was explaining something to him. Adonis’s expression was perplexed.
“You’ve been bugging him again today, or what?” she came near and said to me. “What’s your problem?”
I didn’t answer her. Only when we left the hotel did I say, “Maybe I should change my room.”
Angela nodded her head. She took out her phone and started speaking to someone in Greek.
“Your room can’t be changed right now. The hotel is full and the only empty room is 208. Do you want that one?” Maybe Angela had been speaking with Adonis. “What’s the matter, will you tell me?”
“It’s nothing . . . just at night I hear sounds of a woman crying, screaming, laughing and talking, after 2 a.m.” I decided it was OK to tell Angela this much.
“Hmm . . . look, there could be some confusion . . . I’m not sure but it could be that at night Sanya and someone else . . .”
I looked at her, surprised. “What do you mean?”
“After Adonis leaves . . . or maybe he participates too, or it could even be a business necessity. Look, a lot of tourists come to Athens, there’s an economic downturn and the hotel’s business . . . you understand, don’t you?” Angela shrugged her shoulders and a sparkle lit up her big eyes for just a moment, and then was gone again.
The theory about Sanya didn’t sit right with me; there must be some other explanation. Finally I blurted out, “But at night it’s dark in that room . . . it’s got to be something else.”
“I don’t have anything else to say . . . I don’t believe in these things . . . but Calista does. Didn’t I tell you already? I had already told her about you, and yes, she asked for your room number. She believes in such magical, mystical things.” Angela went on speaking, saying that her friend was a very intelligent girl.
“She was at the top of both her undergraduate and graduate class in philosophy. Then she abandoned her studies and joined a group that practiced magic and sorcery. They’d summon the souls of the dead, and who knows what they asked them, but, as far as I understood, it was things like where we come from, what happens after we die, where we go . . . etc., etc. Now she doesn’t do any of that. Lately she’s learned to play the flute very well and has just been doing that for the last two years. She’s unique . . . and so are you. Do you want to meet her this evening? You can ask her about all this.”
As Angela was talking I remembered Örebro and the day I spent with Innis, and that old Roma woman and the astonishing things she was saying. I thought Innis was a very peculiar and eccentric guy, and he’d formed a distinct opinion about me too. He’d often ask me some really strange questions and his eyes would always sparkle like he was talking with a man from some other planet. He’d called me peculiar several times. Most of his questions had to do with the future and he’d always seek a prophecy like there was something specific he wanted to hear. When he was waiting for my answer surprise would stand at attention in his eyes like an alert soldier leaning forward on his lathi.
He was a support for me because despite having lived in Stockholm for a full year, I still didn’t speak much Swedish, and Ennis helped me quite a lot with this. When it was time for me to go to the market, I’d call him and he’d always immediately say, “I’m coming now, Dev.” I would tell him to meet me in the evening.
He was about ten years younger than me and about a foot taller. He was finishing his degree and also worked part-time in a restaurant. All the young men and women in Stockholm worked part-time jobs, and the surprising thing was that no one considered any kind of work beneath them. So there was no discrimination based on work, in fact quite the opposite. Those who worked were considered self-sufficient, and there were all kinds of jokes made about the “indolent” students who only had to study. The majority rules, I thought, smiling . . . thinking, seeking, and understanding transforms into points of view and mentality.
My being Indian fascinated Ennis. He’d even said that he really wanted to go to India, to go to the land of snakes and mystical holy men. I was proud of being Indian, even though I was currently living in Europe, I only ever wanted to settle in India, but why? Why this passionate attachment, this sentimentality?
Here’s the amazing thing . . . a truly strange coincidence. Ten years ago, when I was twenty, I had the same intense desire to go to Greece. In those days, I was pursuing a degree in philosophy.
Ennis wanted to see the land of the Buddha, Gosala, Mahavir, Ajita Kesakambali, Kabir, Guru Nanak, and Ravidas. He wanted to see the Taj Mahal, the temples of Tamil Nadu, and the first church in Kerala. I wanted to touch my forehead to the land where Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, and the great doctor Hippocrates once walked.
Much later, I’d learned that Ennis was ethnically Greek but had been born in Sweden, in a city called Örebro. He was the only child of a Greek father and a Swedish mother. He had a number of relatives who lived in various towns in Greece. The way we met was also a coincidence. I had been allotted an apartment in a hostel and Ennis had his own house in Stockholm. Our paths wouldn’t normally have crossed.
In truth, in my life I’ve gotten great joy from coincidences. These always filled me with a kind of life force and made me full of hope . . . they made me optimistic that something new, helpful, meaningful, energizing, or interesting would happen.
My flight from Warsaw, Poland, back to Stockholm had been canceled due to technical problems. So the airline made another arrangement. I had to deplane at the Frankfurt airport and from there catch another flight to Stockholm. It was on this flight from Frankfurt to Stockholm that I met the six-foot-five Ennis, as our seats were together. He had big blue eyes, long eyelashes, a sharp nose, an oval face and long neck, and broad strong shoulders. He was like a beautiful Greek messenger of the gods, to whom anyone would be attracted at first glance. His face resembled Angela’s, of course—they belonged to the same family and shared the same blood. He was in the window seat. As soon as I sat down next to him we started chatting in a rather formal way, but we’d become good friends once we disembarked in Stockholm. We both liked each other right away.
He took to calling me Dave instead of Devdutt because even after trying very hard he couldn’t manage to say Dev and I called him En, which was his nickname. I only learned that his origins were Greek after about three months of our meeting every weekend. As was my nature I never asked En anything personal . . . I didn’t like dancing in anyone’s personal or familial space. If someone wants to say something about it himself, that’s a different matter.
There hadn’t been any snow since October had begun. In India the big issues were poverty, illiteracy, healthcare, casteism, corruption, and communalism, but here global warming was the political preoccupation. Everyone was worried about how late in coming the snowfall was. I frequently heard people saying that this was a real problem and that until other countries in the world started treating this as an environmental crisis, it wouldn’t improve at all. Even the newspapers were full of stories about concerns over weather patterns and the environment instead of stories about murders, rapes, or robberies. I would joke with Ennis and say, “There are greater tragedies in life than a lack of snow,” because he always blamed other problems on the lateness of the snow. The train was late because it hadn’t snowed yet, the price of vegetables had risen because no snow had fallen, etc. I would tease him so much that he would laugh sharply and say, “Dave, you’ll never understand.” Then I’d remember India’s caste system. Papa often said that Europeans couldn’t understand caste, that it was a thing outside of their experience and ability to comprehend.
We’d left on the morning train from Stockholm to Örebro. I also got a return ticket, and together it was 38 euros. En had a rail card in his pocket, which he could use to embark.
We’d had our morning coffee and were walking through a bazaar in Örebro. We came upon an old woman sitting across from us. Mischief sparkled across her pale, puckered face. There was such a sparkle in her slate-colored eyes, it was like someone had heated her up and she was gleaming. Maybe it was the flame of her experiences or her struggles.
I didn’t understand anything she said except for one word: Indian. Indian means from Bharat. She wasn’t speaking Swedish, that much I knew. There weren’t many people on the road, it was nearly empty. There was one shop, near which she sat, legs outstretched, endlessly looking.
She had a bright, multi-colored scarf tied around her head, and woolen gloves on her hands, black tights, and a dress that looked like a salwar from her neck to her knees and a thick overcoat. She was big and wide and white like snow. A small snake with its hood expanded and several dots were tattooed on her wide forehead. Her nose was sharp and her lips were thin, like all Europeans.
As I always did, I reached in my pocket, took out all the kroner coins I could find, and put them in front of her on her mat. I would only help out old people and young women in this way. I figured that old people couldn’t work hard any longer to earn money, and that at least if young women could manage in life by begging, they wouldn’t have to resort to selling their bodies.
We listened to the old lady, then moved along. After walking by a few shops, we turned left into a small alley. We walked a little way down the alley before I asked En what she’d said. He told me that she had said that Athens, the Green Capital, was calling me, and that it’s there that I’d encounter my fate. When I heard this I laughed. En didn’t. He was serious and there was this surprise in his eyes that there always was whenever he was with me. “How did she know you have an ardent desire to travel in Greece?” His voice was hollowed out. “Why did she say Greece?” he fumed.
Now my attention was on this too, and I turned and ran back the way we came, toward where the old woman had been sitting. En ran behind me calling out, “Dave, Dave!” But I didn’t stop. I went to her shop, but she was no longer there. Then En arrived. We ran together then, from this alley to that alley, this road to that road. Surprisingly we didn’t tire from running. A strong wind started to blow. En shouted at me to go back home—”there’s a storm coming, there’s going to be heavy rain, this is how the weather is here, it changes, it can be totally unexpected.” But it was as though I couldn’t hear anything; there was a different storm raging inside me. I had to find this old woman at any cost, to know why “Greece” had come out of her mouth. Running alongside me En tried again and again to explain that she must be a sorceress, a Roma, a gypsy, she knows mantras and spells, she could hurt us . . . and running after her was a bad idea. After ten or fifteen minutes of running we were both tired and sat down on two chairs we found outside a shop. Behind the glass windows you could see some people doing their shopping. Here, all the shops had sturdy overhangs to protect you from snowfall or rain.
The wind was picking up. Then En yelled, “Dave, there she is!” I looked in the direction of his pointing finger and there she sat under a shop’s awning, like before with her legs spread out before her, eating a grilled sandwich. She was entirely protected from the wind and rain there. Now we were standing in front of her, taking a few moments to catch our breath. Just as before, she didn’t pay us any attention.
“When will I go there . . . to Athens?”
It was like she didn’t hear my question. She kept on eating her sandwich calmly as though she was unaware of our presence. I repeated my question twice but she remained engrossed. I quickly took a 10-kroner note out of my pocket and tossed it into her lap. Now she raised her eyes to mine, but did not lift her head, and peered into my eyes for a long moment. Then she closed her eyes while she bit into and chewed her sandwich. When she finished, she wiped her hands and mouth with a napkin. She picked up the note and handed it back to me. I told her to keep it. But she didn’t put her hand down. Defeated, I took it back.
“When will I go?” I asked En so he could repeat it and ask her in her language. But she heard my question, and before En could speak she answered me directly, “When fate calls you.” Now she was speaking in Swedish. En was explaining this to me in English, “You’re going to get your wish to go to Greece, but it won’t just happen like that, you’re being summoned.”
“How do you know this? Who is calling me?!”
At this question she fell silent, then looked at the sky and said, “Go . . . it’s going to rain.” A few moments later it started to pour. “I can only say as much as the spirit instructs me to.”
“But I don’t believe in fate,” I said to En so he would repeat it to her. But she answered, in a voice dripping with scorn and ridicule, “Fate doesn’t have anything to do with what you believe … it moves to its own rhythm, just like I did in my youth.” She smiled slightly at that. Maybe she also understood English.
En asked several questions about himself, but I couldn’t tell from En’s face what he was asking or if he was actually getting satisfactory answers. I just wanted to know why she said Greece specifically, but she wouldn’t answer me.
She eventually got sick of En’s incessant questioning and shouted, “Go on, get out of here! And you . . . ” She looked at me and said in a soft voice, “Come and meet me here in November. Then whether we meet or not, please revisit if you want to know more.”
The third day after returning to Stockholm from Örebro there was an invitation to come to Greece in my email inbox.
It was the last week of October and I was in Athens. The rain was suddenly so heavy that Angela and I ran to the hotel when we got out of the taxi. The taxi couldn’t drive down the lane the hotel was on as it was one-way. We were coming back from a fabulous dinner. We had been on the third floor of Savas Restaurant. From there we had a head-on view of the Acropolis, sparkling, bathed in light. By chance the moon above the Acropolis was full, and it too was sparkling. This meant that tomorrow was Purnima.
Angela’s friend Calista had come especially to meet me today. She was also a poet, she explained. The restaurant was empty. We were the first guests. At my request, Calista took out her flute and without any objection started to play. She played continuously for about ten minutes and all three of us were transported, and forgot where we were. A kind of hypnotic intoxication enveloped us.
When Calista finished playing all the restaurant waiters applauded first. Then we clapped too. In the meantime a few more guests had come into the restaurant. A newlywed Punjabi couple sat just behind us. They too demonstrated their appreciation with applause.
“Dave, do you know the meaning of the name Calista?” Angela asked. I shook my head. “Most beautiful . . . enchanting beauty,” Angela said in a grave and conspiratorial voice. In truth, Calista was extremely beautiful and still, like a lamp with an unmoving flame. I looked at Angela and asked, “And what does ‘Angela’ mean?”
“A woman of God . . Devkanya, Devstri . . . Devpriya,” Calista answered in a serious voice instead of Angela. And surprisingly, Calista called me Dev, not Dave.
I didn’t know why Calista seemed so familiar to me, like I’d met or seen her somewhere before. With her triangular face and small blue eyes, Calista was so beautiful and innocent that any young man would be attracted to her, would fall crazy in love with her. She was some kind of dream girl. That night she was mostly quiet, but when she spoke it was like a babbling brook. Over the course of the couple hours we spent together I learned that she was unusual in every way. She did not like meeting very many people. Most of the time she kept busy studying or playing her flute. Her father was no longer alive and her mother owned about fifty houses in Athens, which she rented for lakhs of Euros every month.
“Dave, if Calista were dressed in a nomad’s outfit, she’d look like one, no?” Angela suddenly said as we were getting out of the lift in the restaurant. When she heard this she smiled, “It’s on account of my blood, no?”
“What do you mean?” burst spontaneously from both our mouths, but Calista didn’t say anything further on the topic. She just kept smiling.
Before me floated the image of the girl from the night in my room, her face, her eyes, her golden hair, her clothes. Without a doubt she looked almost just like this.
We paused when we got to the hotel lobby. Angela stood near the gate and shook the rain from her coat. On the opposite wall the television was on. Two men sat on the sofa drinking and watching something or other, but neither of them was looking in the television’s direction. We were heading toward the lift when Sanya emerged from the laundry room. She avoided my gaze, and said hello to Angela. When we got upstairs, Angela said good night and went into her room.
Now I was standing once again in that spot where I’d stood the night before. I remained there for a few moments. If all the rooms were occupied, then why wasn’t there any noise at all here now, not even the slightest, and why did the yelling and screaming start at night? I took a few steps forward and arrived at the dead end. There was no noise anywhere, no kissing couple, and no old man. Feeling a little mischievous, I walked to Room 210 and rang the doorbell. After a few moments the door opened, and there stood that same skinny girl, her eyes full of questions.
“Please excuse me, but do you have a lighter?” Suddenly I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Her eyes showed no reaction. “Wait a moment,” she said and closed the door. A little while later she was at the door again with a lighter in her hand. Now I groped around in all my pockets, but I didn’t have any cigarettes because I didn’t smoke them.
“I’m sorry, maybe I forgot my cigarettes in my room,” I said and started to go back, but she said, “Please keep it,” and held the lighter out toward me.
I took it from her. “Thank you.”
About a half hour later someone knocked on my door. I looked at my watch. It was about 10:30. I got up, opened the door, and Sanya was standing there. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe that girl had complained about me.
“Can I come in, Dave?” she said forthrightly as she walked into my room. She sat down in a chair, her pretty legs gleaming under her skirt. She pulled a packet of cigarettes out from the pocket of her cropped jacket and asked, “lighter?” I picked up the girl’s lighter and gave it to her. She lit her cigarette, took off her coat, and set it on the table opposite. Underneath, she had on such a short, tight almond-colored blouse that it seemed it would cut off her breathing above her navel.
“Adonis told me that you’re having some trouble here at night. If you want, I can sleep with you here at night . . . just sleep.” When she said this she smiled for the first time. “Maybe being alone for so many nights has gotten you down.”
“How many euro?” I pushed ahead to learn more about this mystery.
“Maybe you didn’t understand. Nothing—this is just to help you out. I don’t do anything like that.”
I was surprised. Can someone go this far to help someone else? I wanted to test it, and said, “OK, I want to go to sleep now.” She asked for ten minutes and exactly ten minutes later she was back, carrying her gown. She went into the bathroom and changed her clothes. I found all of this exciting. Now we were both on one bed, under one blanket.
“May I put my hands and feet on you?” I asked ten minutes later.
She smiled. “For just your hands and feet I’ll take fifty euro, that will disturb my sleep somewhat.”
I shifted and pressed against her. A little while later I asked about her true intentions. She smiled and said, “Maybe you forgot, but I said I didn’t do this and was just trying to help you. Is that clear?” Now I understood that Europeans set limits. A refusal meant “no more.” I turned away from her and went to sleep and indeed I slept really well that night. Sanya got up at 6 am. She changed into her clothes and looked at me.
“Thank you,” I said to her.
She turned and said, “I hope you had a good rest.”
I nodded my head in gratitude, got up, and handed her fifty euros. Quite forthrightly she said, “No, Dave, that was just a joke, and in truth, while I do need money, that was just a favor.” I felt an even greater debt of gratitude toward her and said, “I want to give you something.”
Sanya thought for a moment and said, “OK, but only give me twenty euros.” I admired her clarity.
The next two nights also passed in peace, without any noise or interruption. I slept soundly and woke up refreshed. In those days, Angela, Calista, and I explored doggedly. Besides Athens we went to Cape Sounian and Delphi. Calista walked very close to me. Much of the time she held my hand as we walked. I didn’t know if she was interested in me, or in the fact I was Indian—who knows, maybe it was both—and I started to realize that Angela’s presence had started to irritate me. This started to show in my behavior and so Angela started giving us more time alone. Most of the time she tried to arrange it so that just Calista and I could explore. Saying that she had this or that to do, Angela would leave us together.
One afternoon in Delphi, when Angela was still sleeping in her hotel room, Calista said that her great-grandmother on her father’s side had come from India and was a gypsy. “I haven’t told anyone here. But you and I are so alike.” I had already told her about myself in detail. Roma people here are in the same condition that most of the poor Dalits, backward castes, and tribals are in India. After realizing this about each other, we talked and talked over those four days.
One day early in the morning we went to Myrtos beach. Calista was driving. It was about two hundred miles from Athens, approximately seven hours by car ferry and along a road flanked by thin grasses. Even though it was a pretty exhausting journey, we were both exhilarated, like a couple of teenagers. It had been my fervent wish that Angela not accompany us on this trip, though I knew that such a long drive would be difficult for Calista alone. I told her what I was thinking and she smiled and said, “Truly, I won’t get tired, I’ve sipped the nectar of the gods!”
“Me too.” I couldn’t figure out why I had this kindred feeling every moment I spent with her.
Myrtos Beach was truly beautiful. We walked and walked until we reached a distant spot where we were alone. As it was the end of October and a cool day, there weren’t many people on the beach anyway. There were many small rocks where we were. “Come, rest for a bit.” There was a cement bench between two wild shrubs tucked away in some rocks. We sat down and stayed like that for a long while, who knows how long, without speaking to one another, but were we really silent? The ocean’s blue water came to rest on the beach before rolling out again in waves that were sometimes small and sometimes powerful.
Then Calista put her nose up in the air and started to sniff. Her face was tense. I was going to ask her what was wrong when she suddenly leaped up and jumped on top of me. I didn’t know why and was alarmed. She had one hand on my shoulder and her chest was close to my face. With her other hand, she hurled something far away. I looked toward it, and was still confused for several moments. A black snake was lying there. It must have been three feet long. It fanned its hood and looked at us before slithering away into the grass. She explained that this was a very poisonous species of viper, one which usually comes out when it’s warm, although it wasn’t on this day.
“How did you know there was a viper on the rock behind my head?”
She smiled and said, “I smelled it.” Then she went on, “Now let’s keep going. It’s getting to be evening, and in the evening the seawater turns an even more peculiar color.”
That night we stayed in a hotel there, in the same room, but nothing happened between us. I was afraid she might have the wrong idea about Indian men, but what she was thinking, I don’t know. She didn’t give any indication that I could make a move. We spent the night like two separate islands on the same bed and returned to Athens the next day.
Now the time to leave Athens had drawn near. It was my last night. I would return to Stockholm on a 9 a.m. flight the next morning. Angela and I ate dinner promptly at 8 o’clock and came back to the hotel. Adonis was at the reception.
“Is everything OK?” he asked with a smile. I answered, “Thanks to your kindness.”
He smiled, so I said jokingly, “Has a guest checked into Room 208?”
He smiled in a knowing way and answered, “No one yet, please say a prayer!”
Angela and I each went into our own rooms.
By 10 o’clock I’d packed my bags and gone to sleep. Ufff ufff, hamf hamf, oh Mama, oh my god, please please … aah aah oh Mama… hahaha! This noise woke me up. I thought it was a dream, but no, the voices continued. I remembered that Adonis had said that no one had checked into Room 208. Since I was leaving the hotel tomorrow anyway, I made up my mind that I would go and investigate. I opened my door and went to Room 208. The voices were coming from inside, though it was dark. I considered this for a few moments, then knocked on the door. But there was no commotion inside, and the voices continued unabated. In a kind of frenzy I knocked loudly on the door again but the noise of the voices from inside was continuous. I went to stand in front of Room 209, and there were the same intoxicated voices, then I moved to 210, where I’d borrowed the lighter. I was shocked to hear there too the same crying and laughing voices. I ran back toward my room and stood at Angela’s door. There was a light on in her room and the voices were emanating even more loudly from inside. I nearly beat down Angela’s door but it didn’t open and the voices didn’t stop . . . now they were echoing through the whole corridor . . . humph humph ahh oof leave me please, I love you. Angela’s room was right next to the stairs. I ran down the stairs and straight to the reception.
The hotel’s main door was locked and Sanya was sitting on a sofa near the bar, asleep. I tiptoed over to her and sat down next to her. I stayed alert for a while, but here there were no voices, and who knows when sleep seized hold of me. I woke in the morning at 6 a.m. I sprang up and went to my room. All my luggage was just as I had left it. I got ready right away. A little while later there was a knock on the door. I opened the door to find Angela there.
“We should leave at seven,” Angela said without meeting my eyes.
I nodded my head yes, then started to close the door, when she muttered, “I’m sorry I couldn’t open the door last night, I take medicine at night and then fall into a deep sleep…” I closed the door and went into the bathroom.
Days fly by. These days did as well. At this moment of leaving the Revisit Hotel, I wondered whether the whole world was like an inn where people keep coming and going; there’s no single owner, just travelers, and in between all this coming and going there are so many different types of tumult. When I went down to the lobby I found Calista sitting there already. Calista came along with Angela and me to the airport. As we walked through the airport, Angela stopped a way back as though lost in thought. Calista and I kept walking, up to that point beyond which only passengers may go. At this last moment she sprang and pulled me into her arms. I had also begun to have feelings for her, and so kissed her lightly on the cheek. But she drew me close and kissed me on the lips.
“Take me away from here and back to India with you,” were Calista’s last words, just as they had been of the gypsy girl that night in my room.
“I’ll bring you soon, my dear,” I said and pulled her into my chest. She gulped, and tears glittered in her eyes. She turned and ran away, over to where Angela was standing. Now they were both waving good-bye and I was wondering who it was who’d come into my room that night . . . why Angela didn’t open her door . . . whose voice it was at night crying and laughing . . . was the old gypsy woman in Örebro pointing me toward this destiny?
I shook my head and set all these thoughts aside and began to walk toward my gate, but then it seemed to me that Calista was everywhere I looked. I turned and looked toward where Angela and Calista had been standing. There was Angela, smiling. Calista wasn’t there. Had she gone home so quickly? Where did she go? Hiding my surprise and bewilderment I hoisted my backpack and walked back over to Angela.
Her expression was open, questioning. “What’s up?” like a flower, blooming from her lips.
Quite worried now I looked all around her, like Angela was hiding someone behind her back who would all of a sudden jump out and stand before me.
“Speak up, Dev, say something . . . what do you want to say?!” Angela stepped forward and forcefully grabbed my shoulders.
“Calista . . . where did Calista go?” There must have been a kind of submissiveness in my eyes. I read as much in Angela’s.
She patted my head and looked at me sympathetically.
I repeated my question. “Where is Calista?” Hearing my question a second time, Angela hesitated, then said quietly, “What Calista?! When did you meet Calista?! . . . there has not been any Calista with us, Dev!” Then she said with a tone of understanding, “Go, before you miss your flight. We’ll talk on the phone. Forget this loneliness, Dev, find someone for yourself.” My glance scattered everywhere, but there was no Calista. I started to walk again and there was Calista’s image everywhere . . . It seemed like someone had come close and whispered in my ear, “Take me back with you.” Then I remembered what Angela had said, “Calista has learned a lot of magic and such, she’s quite strange.”
“Nonsense, I don’t believe in these things.” I kept walking. I must be more vigilant. I must not allow this fragmentation, I told myself, and walked on.
© Ajay Navaria. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Laura Brueck. All rights reserved.