(Raga, in its broadest sense, is a song or melody which, according to Indian theory, must be played at a specified time of day or night if it is to have a transcendental effect on the listener’s mood and emotions.)
Outside, the heat bounces off the cobblestones and floats in waves towards the Parthenon pillars. I toss the squashed cockroach out through the window, the sun momentarily glistening on its dark brown back, a yellowish-white ooze sticking to its underbelly. A dog sleeps in the shade of a doorway, avoiding the Athens sun.
"Come back to bed, " Billy says in his slow, sing-song Virginia way of talking, breaking the palpable silence between us.
He stares at my naked back framed by the window, at the beads of sweat rolling down my spine. He wants the poor, untouchable girl he saved, my head in his lap, satiating the fire in his loins. In that way, he is too earth-bound. I make mythologies, invent histories, and keep him out.
On a day like today, it is easy to let the mind wander, like a raga in search of its appointed time, a thirsty nomad seeking a green oasis.
The monsoon rain is drumming insistently on the roof. The pundit and my mother huddle close under the banyan tree. He prefers getting wet to entering an untouchable’s house. Now he beckons me, unfolding my horoscope, as raindrops plop softly on the scroll. The ink begins to run, big black smudges disappearing into wavy lines. A spider’s web enclosing my fate. His face is lined, with horn-rimmed glasses perched at the end of his hawkish nose, like a bird of prey. He has come to foretell what the stars hold in store for me for the rest of the year. Today is my birthday. We are sure of the day, but mother cannot recall the precise year of my birth. She cannot read or write, and she keeps track of time only through hearsay and a dimming memory. It does not matter to me, because I feel I am old already, not old in years, maybe, but in a different way. I can look fear straight in the eye and not flinch from it. Like the time I was walking home one evening and suddenly came upon a cobra blocking my path, its rope-like body upright, the shell-shaped head poised in midair, the tongue flicking. I stopped abruptly, two feet away from him, the two of us locked in each other’s gaze. I was at his mercy, but I did not turn in fear, did not blink my eyes. I held him as he held me, both captives of something unknown and unspoken between us, something felt in my marrow and his body, not a word or a thought but more like the hushed sound of a sigh. And then it was over, too quickly over. I retreated two steps at a time. He, the God Naga, had let me go, as I knew he would when we had looked each other in the eye.
Finally, the pundit shakes his head and pronounces my doom. "It doesn’t look good, " he says. "This coming year for her. "
Mother looks up at the leaden sky, at the distant Himalayan ranges under a mantle of black clouds, asking the gods to intercede. "But we are only poor untouchables!" she pleads.
"The pathways of the stars are fixed, " the pundit says, shrugging. "Some things are written! "
Mother raises her arms again up to the dark sky, pleading to her goddess for a change in heaven’s plan for me. The pundit, determined guardian of ancient ways, keeps shaking his head, unwilling to relent till the rain comes down harder, slashing at his legs sideways and making him run for cover. "She must be purified! " he proclaims in parting, hurling his words at us, offering the only solution possible to appease my fate, as he struggles desperately with an umbrella turned inside out by the wind. "Yama himself is blocking her path. "
I am fourteen, more or less. My destiny is fixed, a rock, not a cloud. Yama, the God of Death, has singled me out and will not let me reach my fifteenth year.
We go back indoors, mother and I, she sobbing silently, touching my face as I stand in front of a cracked mirror that splits my image in half. "You are beautiful, " she says, her voice catching, unsure, regretful. I know she can only be oblique about the truth. My twice-cursed fate: once for being untouchable and a second time for being light-skinned. A double aberration, unsanctioned by the gods, an unplanned thing of beauty doomed. "I should have kept you long in the sun, " she cries now. "To darken you. A fair untouchable is like…"
I complete the thought for her in silence: A fair untouchable is an unnatural thing.
I stare at my two faces in the mirror, cursing the lily-white skin. Nothing in it of beauty, no line of curved lip, no shape and color of eye bestowed by some absent-minded goddess handing out Beauty on a dull day in heaven. But I know how the men stare when I pass by the well on a summer evening, how one will dare a long, tuneless whistle, and how their eyes are glued to my back long after I am out of sight.
When the rain stops, I go to my sanctuary above the canyon, where the insects hold back their droning chorus, waiting for the next downpour before beginning again. The air is chaotic with the sound of birds singing and the faint echo of the Shiwalik hills. Here I feel beautiful beyond the flawed images in cracked mirrors. Nothing jars my just-so soul.
Billy is from nowhere. He has no sense of place. His parents were born in Pennsylvania, he in Virginia. Time, space, and earth – or a handful of freshly plowed dirt – mean little to him. If you are from a Punjabi village, you scoop up a bit of monsoon-soaked earth and you think: This is Punjabi, this is me. Or you look at the evening light that moves slowly from ravine to ridge, and you feel it on you like a second skin. Billy sees the light but in a different way. If he looked now at the sleeping dog in this hot Athens street, he would think only of camera angles. We are here for a brief vacation from the hectic life in America, to restore something I know we never had. I am at home in this drowsy Mediterranean light, but Billy merely dreams shutter-speeds.
He tells me I have Bette Davis eyes. The first time he said this, we were in the Liberty Mission School in Delhi. I was sweeping the front porch, and he came up from behind, jabbing my back gently, and said it then. I did not like him touching me, but I was indebted to his father for having taken me in after I left my village and had nowhere to go. Is she a goddess, I asked, this Bette Davis?
Now, whenever he wants to seduce me, he says I have Bette Davis eyes. It’s as if he has nothing to say. Maybe he wants to recapture the day when he first said it. But he does not know that there is nothing to recapture. I remember his words, but more indelible is the precise moment of the hot Indian sun beating down on the crimson bougainvillea, and the tiny hummingbird – its wings making silent music – that hovered above the concrete lip of the pond.
"Remember when you used to think Bette Davis was a goddess? "
"What about Bogart? " I say. "Is he not one of your gods? "
He shakes his head. There are no gods in America.
I know they have gods here in Greece. From the window, I can see two of them on a pillar of stone, forever locked in an embrace, their resolute lips and eyes glinting in the sun, the yellow Acropolis behind them. With his soft brown curls and hollow cheeks, his skin turned dark brown by the sun, Billy too reminds me of a god, his god, the one whose portrait hung in the mission office in Delhi, the hands nailed to wood, the head tilted in pathetic suffering.
"Come back to bed, " Billy repeats, insistent. His face, coated with whitish sun cream, looks like a primitive mask sold in souvenir shops.
I hear him but I am elsewhere. The remembrance of monsoon clouds weighs me down, and the sleeping Athenian streets drag me into a state of indolence. In my mind, spicy aromas lace the air; the thick smell of sweet mangoes hangs across the afternoon like an invisible net. I am between two continents. Like my two faces in the cracked mirror.
He orders tea from room service, saying tsai and parakalo, the only Greek words he knows. He thinks all Indians like tea. They do; we do.
Now kids have arrived and are playing in the deserted street. They place a rag-doll on a bunch of newspapers. Billy hands me the teacup. Faint lemon vapors tickle my nose. He pats my waist. Outside, a thick blue line of smoke rises from the pile of burning paper. An old man in a sailor’s cap approaches; the kids run away. Shaking his gray-haired head, the old man stamps out the fire and gingerly picks up the half-burnt doll. A breeze stirs, changes direction. The acrid smoke reaches our window. It has a faint odor, thin and delicate as a lace bridal veil, trapping me in the memory of a saree-draped woman, just three months wed, seated on a charpoy in a circle of onlookers, a pile of dry wood arranged crisscross around and under her. She is like some anointed, mythical bird hypnotized by the chanting of holy Sanskrit verses. I stand at the edge of the circle of onlookers, and I pray to my gods to let me receive the suttee’s spirit, her short-lived but passionate devotion to a love she hardly knew and for whom she was now giving up her life. The whispers die out. The match is lit. Total silence. Then flames shoot up in myriad flashes of orchestrated color like peacocks and flamingoes dancing in air. God descending, becoming the scene, is the scene. Was the woman, was the wood, was the holy tongue of flame, the heavenward spiral of thick smoke. Nothing could dispel Him.
Billy intrudes. "Let’s get married, " he says.
The kids have not come back and the burnt-out paper is scattered about. The old sailor is nowhere to be seen. The dog lifts his head, then curls up in sleep again.
Billy means it in the way his people mean such things. Like they say, "Let’s have pasta tonight, " or "How about a drink? " I should say yes, just to see him call his father in the evening, when the rates are low, and then make arrangements to take the morning flight out of Athens. So easy to give in and give up, like the day is giving up to sleep. Hand him his triumph: the missionary’s son saving an unfortunate, untouchable, heathen girl.
"I do not wished to be saved, " I say.
He thinks of love and marriage as a means. He does not know that love is beyond sin and salvation, destroying scent and sight, touch and taste… a beast on the prowl, moving in for the kill. He has not seen the flaming tongue of love, the dazed terror on the suttee’s face as she offers herself to an ancient sacrifice of love, for love. And he has not witnessed how her soul rises from the pyre, ascending to heaven to take its place among the goddesses.
His hand has moved down below my waist. He thinks his touch will arouse me; in his mind is some weird, learned theory that an untouchable must be awakened by touch therapy. I sense only defilement as his probing fingers feel hot on my skin.
Outside, the air is filled with passionate ghosts in stone.
"Wait, " I say. But I do not tell him that in me is the song of a monsoon bird he will never hear.
I remember the high-pitched song of the koel bird in the banyan tree, its sleek black body visible against the canopy of green, heart-shaped leaves. I remember the sweat dripping down my armpits, and my mother’s consolation, "He is a brahmin, after all. "
So I went to be purified one summer evening, to have my destiny altered through the penetration of my impure body by his sanctified one. Only by doing so could he intercede for me with the gods. He was there before me, the horn-rimmed frame sticking out from his breast pocket, beads of sweat glistening on his hawkish nose. Behind a bush in the fields, where partridges calling out to their mates filled the low valleys with their trilling love song, he bade me lie on the ground. Against their raga at dusk, he and I were silent in our mating. And when I cried out – just once – my voice mingled with the cry of peacocks that had come to roost in the treetops.
With the end of the monsoon, his guilt was washed away. When we passed in the village alley, and he went by as if I were invisible, I knew the burden was mine alone. Mine the guilt, mine the pain.
My body would not reject the thing. It was a thing because I was too. I could not love a knot in my insides that had nothing to do with me. Mother never tired of looking up heavenwards while we planned its disposal.
The time I inserted a knitting needle, I thought the pain would kill me. The blood ran against the brownness of my legs. Red tributaries of the holy Ganges. Outside our hut, a sparrow in the pomegranate tree was gathering bits of thread and grass to furnish its little nest. Enough, mother said, we will cope with it when the time comes.
The weeks turned into months. When the time came, she made me sit on the edge of the carpoy. I did not scream. With the first tiny cry, I told myself that this is how it is, how a girl becomes a woman, and after it is born, this is how your mother takes crushed, poison oleander seeds and force-feeds them into the tiny mouth, and then this is how life goes out quietly before it even begins.
We wrapped it in a white sheet, put it in a wicker basket, and covered it with scraps of food so nobody would notice. Before dawn, before the cock’s crowing, we took the basket to the village dump, and when my mother pitched it into the refuse pit, I felt a stirring of air brush my cheek with the softness of a child’s palm. I had birthed it but not known it. Now I knew in my blood how it was, how its soft, wet skin was and how its clenched fists were, how its eyes were closed to the world, and how we never gave them the chance to open, ever.
On the far side, tiny white flowers sprouted in abundance around the pit. Death was soft petals swirling in my brain.
Two weeks later, I left the village for Delhi, the big city. On the first day, a kind old man hawking betel leaves on a street corner took pity on me and showed me the way to the Liberty Mission compound, where I met Billy and his father. They wanted to save me for a Christian fate, so they took me in. I did not mind. I was hungry and tired, and if I would be fed and given a bed for the night just for praying to an alien God, it was a fair exchange. I thought that whatever happened to me – bad or good – was ordained by my gods, maybe as a consequence of the pundit’s intercession, or maybe, simply, as a coming together of the deeds of my ancestors. If it must be done, it must be done. And so I stayed with them till they took me to America on a day awash with bright Indian sunshine and the sky a song of pure blue.
"What are you waiting for?" Billy asks.
I draw the curtain, preferring my deceptions in the dark. He pulls me down, thinking he has triumphed, that he has tamed and aroused me. I evolve in the dark, like a snake shedding its skin, pushing the dead tissue layer by layer. He cannot see my fiery eyes, my flaming tongue, my gradual metamorphosis into the devouring goddess. I singe his thighs, hot-lick his face – the cream mask tasting like oil – and flick my tongue along his body till he burns. This is not what he knows, this passionate annihilation of himself. It is only a matter of seconds before he flees into the alien Athens streets. The savior saving himself.
The evening is cooler, the Aegean sea breeze coming in from the south.
I cross a small bridge to sit tucked away among the pines on Philopappou hill.
A steady fall of water runs down in a murmur of song as it nudges the greenery on the banks.
A plane soars high overhead, streaking the sky in a thin line as it heads out west across Europe and the Atlantic.
In the pool by the bridge, a snake-like thing slips into the water. Perhaps it is only a black branch, but beads of sweat break out on my forehead, an ancient fear in the marrow of the brain.
The air is thick with the odor of wet leaves.
An insect, unidentified, crawls up my bare knee. I flick it away and watch it walk on the water, performing its tiny miracle.
The senses sleep in the stillness. No assault of spice or hot Indian sun, no dust or dirt of Punjab to suffocate. No death, no life.
Only my soul strumming the memory-strings in this arrested moment of simple surrender. My very own raga of rejoice.
Raman Singh was born in India, educated there and in England, Germany, and the United States. He has worked as a journalist in North Africa and the Middle East, and as a professor of American Literature, mainly at Mary Washington College (Fredericksburg, VA). He has also taught in Indonesia and Syria as a Visiting Fulbright Professor. Singh’s publications include short stories in various magazines, and a novel, The Gazelle, which has appeared in an Arabic translation. He currently resides in Athens, Greece, with his daughter.
Opinions expressed in Terra Incognita are not necessarily shared by all or any of the editors.
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