Sunday, July 25, 2010
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Vanquisher, a sweeping novel set in southern India between the 1930’s and 60’s takes the reader into the pulsating world of Swami, the second-born son of a proud but impoverished family. In this world, the weak, namely Swami’s entire family, depends on the strong, namely Swami. It is from this world that Swami dreams of escaping someday to go to America.
Rangoon, Burma, 1934
“No telegrams? Again!” Rajee slammed her palm against the postmaster’s table “But I get one every month.” She closed her eyes. “It’s been three months,” she whispered, trying to hold back tears, trying to swallow the stone that had grown in her throat.
With a grimace the slight man used the back of his hand to wipe away the spittle Rajee had sent flying across the steel table and onto his face. “Maybe they forgot,” he mumbled. Rajee let out an irritated grunt. Looking at her the postmaster shrank back a little into his chair.
Rajee stormed out of the post office. It was a cool afternoon but her neck felt hot, her cheeks burned. She had been a fool. Such a fool.
In minutes she was home. Home was a large two-story brick bungalow with a wooden upper verandah. It was one of the homes built for the British, by the British, almost fifty years old and still in good condition. The bungalow stood on a narrow street lined with tamarind and palm trees, a few miles outside the town center, close to everything yet away from the bustle. The occasional tanakha smeared vendor or two calling attention to her spicy snacks that sent pungent smells from large bamboo baskets were the only sounds and smells that broke through otherwise restful afternoons.
Rajee settled down in a wide bamboo chair on the verandah trying hard to keep her thighs from jiggling. She looked longingly at the Shwedagon Pagoda’s main gold tipped stupa tower that stood in the distance. Its regal opulence had always sent assurances her way, made her feel a life of brimming happiness and affluence wasn’t too far. But today it seemed dull, inattentive, unwilling to give her the solace she sought. Rajee got up. No sense letting her mind wander to dangerous places. There were boxes that still needed unpacking.
A raise and a promotion had resulted in their move from a tiny dormitory like room to this house, two weeks ago. The landlord had refused to rent it to them at first, what with the rising anti-Indian sentiment in the country. But thankfully, her husband Mani’s bosses had exerted their influence and the landlord had been appeased. It was a prickly situation. The rich, in Rangoon especially, were all Indian. Most locals lived in relative poverty. Rajee felt guilty for being part of the upper class here, the foreigners who had taken over. But there was nothing she could do about it. Riots had started a year before and there were regular news items citing one more anti-Indian or anti-Chinese uprising. Not to worry, people had said. Mani’s was an unremarkable salesman’s job at Remington Brand Typewriters. The anti-Indian locals usually targeted the richer, more prominent Indian businessmen and their families.
Rajee willed the niggling worries to slide off her chest by thinking of their blessings instead, like this one, their new home. She walked from room to room, savoring the creaky wooden floors that seemed to speak to her, keep her company at every step. The fresh-smelling coral-pink painted walls were ablaze with the streaming light that made its way in through floor-length windows.
The gods had showered so many blessings on them and best of all she was pregnant again. If only her poor father had lived to see his grandchild. Circumstances prevented him from knowing his first but this one—it was so unfair that he was no longer alive to hold, kiss and spoil this one either. Stop Rajee stop! She put both her hands to her temples and pressed them to curb her racing mind. She stepped out of the house and settled back in her chair on the verandah. Sinking into it she took a deep breath and exhaled heavily, as if blowing away the past.
Mani was walking towards the house taking long strides, swinging his new leather briefcase and whistling tunelessly. He hurried over to her, stroked her hair, and asked how she was feeling. Rajee got up, using his arm for support.
“Nothing from your sister,” she said. “Again.”
Mani began picking at a piece of loose skin on his lip. “We made a promise.”
“I don’t think I can keep it,” she said miserably.
He gave her a pleading look. “We have to.” With a smile he touched her belly. Rajee put a palm over his. They looked at each other. The baby was touching them, reaching for them. At once Rajee’s heart started to beat slower, calmer. A quick flush of happiness spread across her chest. “Lets go out,” she said.
Mani said eagerly, “There’s a new Indian restaurant--”
“Somewhere else.” She looked at him with raised eyebrows.
He let a slow broad smile spread across his face as he touched her cheeks with warm hands. “I know. Next week, we’ll take a trip on one of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’s steamers.” Their lips touched. She could smell stale cigarette smoke on him. His colleagues all smoked. Mani hated cigarettes and had tried without success to get them not to smoke in his presence but Rajee wished he’d take up the habit. She breathed deeply inhaling the intensely masculine odor. “We’ll go all the way to Mandalay,” he whispered. “On first class deck seats, we’ll sit with all those pompous English sahibs, eat cake and sip tea. What do you say?”
Rajee looked into her husband’s eager eyes. The steamer would take them along the Irrawaddy River past pretty villages dotted with pagodas small and large and ever so lush rice fields. What could be more perfect? Part of her wanted to leap high into the sky, soar with wings spread, like some proud, invincible bird.
Part of her felt like life couldn’t be more wonderful and yet...
Rajee could see Mani outside the room, tearing his nails with his teeth and spitting them out. A bolt of pain sliced through her. She screamed. Siti tried to hold her down as she tossed about. Siti, a local Burman was the best midwife in town. Poor Siti. She’d delivered hundreds of babies but not one of her own five or six had survived. Mani ran inside, took Rajee’s hand. Rajee tried not to think about Siti’s dead children as another painful surge cleaved through her. She screamed again and pushed. Surely her bloody stomach and intestines along with a whole lot of human dung must be thrown out and on the floor by now.
Siti held her legs apart in an iron grip and half an hour later, Rajee was handed a tiny cherub. His face was red and puckered. He had dimples in his cheeks.
Siti looked at Mani. “You have a son,” she said in Burmese. She held the baby out to him. “I can’t take my eyes off this one. So much curly hair, such a noble face but so tiny like a kitten….” Mani couldn’t bring himself to touch the baby. At last he sat down by Rajee’s side. His lips trembled, he had tears in his eyes.
“He looks like you,” Rajee said. “Gopal.” Tiny baby Gopal lay nestled in the crook of her arm. The gods had been kind. Mani put his arms around her and nuzzled against her shoulder. Rajee closed her eyes. Tears ran down, warming her cheeks. “We’re a family now,” she whispered. “At last.” Rajee felt a rush of love for her two men. Coming to Burma had made Mani the husband she could count on. And Gopal was the one blessing that their happiness needed to be complete. Gopal was special, a baby to be cherished and loved. She’d spoil him, give him everything his heart desired. And the way things were going she’d always be able to.
Siti was with her again two years later. This time the birth had been easy. Mani was away on tour. And baby Swaminathan was born with little ceremony.
“See how he looks at me,” Rajee said with pride. “Those eyes, piercing, sharp.” Rajee held her new son to her breast.
“He’s handsome!” Siti said, “but not as fair as Gopal.”
“So what? He’s my Swami. That was my father’s name. Turn on that fan, will you? My baby will melt in this heat.” Rajee caressed baby Swami’s cheek. “This one will take care of me in my old age.”
Siti turned the fan on. “Why him, why not Gopal?”
Rajee clucked her tongue. “I just feel it here.” She touched her chest. “Gopal is such a needy baby. This one will be more independent. Did you see how he grabbed at my breast? Aiyoh!”
“He’s born at an auspicious time.” Siti wiped her hands on a threadbare towel. Her soft eyes turned filmy. “Burma is finally free now, not from the British yet, but at least from India. And soon the British will have to go too. I have nothing against you Indians,” she said with an embarrassed laugh. “You’re the only ones who can afford to pay me…but…it’s an auspicious time. Maybe your Swami will be brave like the rebels who made our freedom happen.” She picked up her enormous bag.
Swami would be courageous and staunch, Rajee thought. His first look that had held her eyes in an unwavering gaze had told her so. She kissed his forehead.
“Same time in two years?” Siti said saucily and left the room swinging her ample hips.
Rajee sat on the verandah fanning herself with a sheet of newspaper. The fleeting few seconds of breeze it provided were little comfort for it was as though the sun god was having a merry laugh at their expense—‘here let me surround you with gorgeous orchids and hibiscus of every imaginable color, leafy trees of tamarind and fragrant mangoes and blind and scald you with light and heat,’ he seemed to say as he bore down upon the earth with every ounce of energy he could muster.
Mani, who was reading the morning paper, kept swearing at intervals. He downed his coffee in a single gulp. “Where’s the rest of this article?” He slammed down his cup on the table in front of him. Why was he being so crabby? Rajee ignored him and continued to fan the paper about her face. “Take this.” He handed her a magazine. “And give me--” He leaned over and snatched the paper from her hands. “That.”
Rajee listlessly picked up a cashew biscuit and bit on it. The thick buttery confection melted on her tongue. “Hmmm.” She closed her eyes.
Mani picked up his coffee cup and raised it to his lips again. Then realizing it was empty, he let out another stream of curses. “At this rate, we’re going to have to return to India soon. This war--”
“You don’t see the Burmese all leaving.” Rajee elaborately pointed her biscuit at the door. As far as she was concerned, they were home. “What should I make for lunch?” She dusted crumbs off her hands and got up.
“Wait.” Mani held up a palm and continued to scan the newspaper with narrowed eyes. Rajee stood beside him with her hip jutting out, her fingers tapping impatiently against her waist. He was probably reading between the lines finding things that didn’t exist. Newspapers existed to exaggerate the truth. But better let Mani have his say. That way he’d get it out of his system and forget all about whatever was bothering him. Hmm…so what should she make? There were some leftover lentils, fresh spinach and carrots. Usually full of ideas for meals, she found herself feeling completely blank. Tiny morsels of cashew lingered on her tongue still. She moved them about her mouth a little before finally swallowing them.
Mani read out a few lines then looked at her. “The Burmese are cooperating with the Japanese to fight the British. But the Japanese can’t be trusted. They have their own agenda.” He folded part of the paper and used it to swat a bunch of flies clustered near spilled drops of coffee.
Rajee was unconvinced. “It’s all just speculation,” she said.
“Listen,” Mani went on, “it’s not safe here for us anymore--the Burmans have never liked us. We’ll always be Kala Lumyo to them.”
Rajee winced. Kala Lumyo--black people, black aliens, something like that. Some ignorant Burmans called the local Indians that, but so what? This was her country too. Right audacious it was when Rangoon was crawling with Indians. She didn’t care if they were called stinking black pigs or sewer rats or worse. Their life here was far too precious to be affected by such drivel. She hadn’t spent so many years in Burma only to be sent back by idiots’ ranting and a senseless war that had nothing to do with them.
“I really need to start lunch,” she said and left.
The very next day, Mani came home with wonderful news. He had been chosen salesperson of the year. Remington Brand Typewriters was being most generous, for Mani was to receive three thousand rupees as reward, more money than anyone in his family had ever seen. They’d be able to buy land, a house, anything. And they might actually be able to, with perseverance and patience, ride out the war, it seemed.
Some months later
The Japanese declared Burma independent. But their promises of independence for Burma turned out to be false and the government they’d set up was their puppet. The people had turned against the Japanese and their new firebrand leader, Aung San and his people were plotting to take over.
Rajee pushed her plate away. “I won’t go back,” she said. She could feel the hairs on her arms rise, goose bumps felt scratchy against her blouse.
Mani pressed down on a piece of dosai rice pancake, and pushed it around his plate a few times until it had sopped up all the coconut chutney. He stared it for a long while before putting it into his mouth. Gopal, Swami and Cheenu suddenly entered the dining room chasing each other amidst loud shouts and laughs.
Rajee whispered, “If we must let’s go to Bombay. Let’s go anywhere but there--”
Mani grabbed three-year old Cheenu and hugged him close. Cheenu began to squeal and kick his legs in the air until Mani let him go. The boys sprinted out of the room. Mani looked at Rajee. “We can’t take three children to a new place. We’ll stop at home first. After that we’ll…we’ll see.”
Rajee packed a few light bags. We’ll be back. In a year or two at most, she told herself. Over and over. She walked around the house trying not to sob at the sight of her precious possessions covered with ghostly sheets. She swept her eyes across every room, gathering memories from every corner, burning images of every single nook in her restless mind.
On the last day, she dressed the boys in starched white shirts, khaki shorts and navy blue blazers. Their black leather shoes shone like mirrors, they wore hard hats to protect their heads. All they knew was that they were taking a trip, a long one. There had been tears shed over toys and clothes left behind but promises were made about coming back for them very soon.
As Mani checked the bolts and turned the key in a large iron padlock, fear that the happiest years of her life were being left behind that door pierced Rajee’s heart. She took one last, lingering look at the golden Shwedagon Pagoda with its shining gems. For so many years it had stood there, visible from every window in the house, like an umbrella of richness and plenty, surrounding them, shielding them. Mani tugged at the lock. Rajee clutched a picture of Lord Ganesha to her chest. “Protect us.” She hoped he was listening.
The ship tore them away from the shores of Burma. Rajee looked at the beautiful country that had been her home for so many happy years. She wished it and its gentle people well, and prayed that its years of struggle might soon end, that the rebellion for freedom would prevail. This country had given them much joy. She hoped that very soon, the Burmese could also live quiet, happy lives without fear of oppression. Just as she had.
Days later, they docked at Vizag port. They took a taxi to the train station and got on a train to Madras.
“Won’t cousin Ambi be excited to see us?” Gopal said. “I wish I could have show him my train set.”
“He’ll probably be in school now, in Madras,” Mani said.
“Huh?” Rajee said in a croaky voice. She was half asleep, undulating with the train.
Mani kept his eyes on the boys. “Lets just get home first,” he said in a stern voice Rajee knew was directed at her.
Rajee looked out the window and began counting the coconut trees that zipped by. The earth seemed swallowed by paddy fields. Sun burned men and women stood wearing colorful lungis sarongs in ankle-deep water soaked fields and called to the people on the train, with hands cupped around their mouths, their faces lit up with tranquil smiles. Rajee thought about her home in Aarumugam village, the land she had left behind. Her land. Her own modest rows of rice, her patch of fragrant ginger. And the trees. Coconut, tamarind, mango. The mangoes must be ready for picking. Should she make pickles? Did it make sense to plant rice? Her temples began to throb. “When do you think we can go back to Burma?” she said.
Mani sat still like a statue, stared straight ahead. He didn’t say a word.
Aarumugam Village, Tamil Nadu State, India
They got off the bus and walked slowly towards their land, exhausted, hungry. Rajee pushed open the creaky gate. The land was covered with masses of weeds and overgrowth. With a cry, she tore towards the house, running her hands through the tall, wild grass. The courtyard was covered with thick patches of caked mud. Dry leaves fluttered about in the breeze. The windows were shut and giant cobwebs connected the pillars of the verandah. There were splatters of bird droppings and dried cylinders of rat turd everywhere.
Shaking with anger, Rajee leaned against a tamarind tree. “Look…look at what they’ve done!” she said between heavy sobs.
“Don’t start...” Mani said harshly. Gently then, he put an arm around her, bent down and plucked out a clump of grass. “This is home, Rajee. All will be well, trust me.”
In the distance, temple bells began to ring. Rajee turned towards it. The temple’s tapered dark stone roof peered through the trees. A ragged red flag tied at its tip flew furiously in the breeze. This was no Shwedagon. There were no encrusted gems to feast her eyes upon. This temple was all stone, dark and cold. Just then, above the clanging of the bells, a chant of mantrams rose. A group of women were reciting them in clear loud voices. The mantrams sought the blessings of the divine for peace and happiness.
It was, Rajee decided, a good enough omen. All would be well, just as Mani said.
I climb down the narrow iron ladder onto the dusty platform. The ends of my toes touch the ground. I flinch. Aiyoh! I curl my toes into my slippers. It’s not yet eight in the morning and the sun has already scorched the gray asbestos-roofed railway platform of Dadar station in Bombay to a white-hot.
A wave of heat along with a stench of sweat and drying urine envelops me. Men and women leap off trains, yelling at each other, herding numerous children, while expertly collecting their bags and negotiating with pushy porters. I look up. A huge banner hangs across the platform, torn in places, its bright lemon yellow faded in parts. But large letters in black, ‘Welcome To Bombay,’ stand out cheerful and welcoming.
Here I am at last--a twenty-two year old engineer. A penniless but capable, no--brilliant young fellow, eager to unfurl the rest of his life with his own strong hands, eager to set the streets ablaze with the fire of his ambition. Eager to—“Swami this train will go to the car shed soon, we don’t have much time,” my brother Gopal says in a harried voice. He and our bags are some distance from the train door, waiting in line to get off. The more efficient passengers are already walking away from the station in quick business-like strides, while Gopal and I struggle to get our bags out of the train and on to the platform.
Vendors shout their wares from stalls covered with red and green striped awnings. Peddlers balance trays of sweets and savories on one hand and chase away flies with the other as they make their way through the crowd.
Men in light gray half-shirts and shorts with matching oval Gandhi caps stand in stalls hawking lemonade and fizzy drinks, clanking bottle openers along rows of dark green bottles and calling out in sing song voices to attract customers. An emaciated girl of about eight and a slightly older boy, flexible and slim as a rubber band, are performing tricks. The boy is doing handstands and cartwheels while the girl is clapping and singing songs in a sad nasal voice. A large handkerchief spread in front of the girl is dotted with coins.
People here seemed to exude raw energy. Their faces bear a look of determination, their quick feet move as if they are gliding on wheels. And though hot and humid, this thick Bombay air seems to carry an electric charge, a sizzle of anticipation.
Hmm…what is that delicious smell? I turn to look for the source of the aroma--freshly fried garlicky potato buns, surely. A stocky bowlegged young man walks by carrying a basketful. My empty stomach twists itself into a tight knot, as if attempting to get a glimpse of the delicious snack I am compelled to let pass. I try to stifle the pain with a firmly placed arm over my stomach when a huffing porter in an oversized faded red shirt and loose, bedraggled white pants comes out of nowhere.
“I take to taxi? Only two rupees sahib sir.” He rubs away at his prickly gray head with one hand and scratches an armpit with another. I shake my head no with some violence. He pushes me out of his way and tries to pick up one of our trunks. His eyes gesture for me to help as he adjusts a red rag on his head. When I won’t assist him in placing it on his head, he picks it up and with a grunt settles it on his shoulder. Then he starts to grapple with me for another piece of luggage.
Gopal jumps off the train and opens his arms wide. “Ah…Bombay!”
The porter is still tugging away at my arm.
“Where have you been? Get…get…rid of this--” I wrench a large bag out of the porter’s clutches.
“I was looking for our thermos,” Gopal says. “Someone must have pinched it.” He pushes the porter away. “Jao, jao go away.” The porter puts our trunk down. He folds his hands from the tips of his fingers to his elbows, bows and touches Gopal’s feet and pleads for the work, claiming a wife and six or seven mouths to feed. Then apparently realizing that we are truly disinterested in his services, he kicks our bags and leaves cussing loudly in Hindi. Gopal makes to run after him but I catch his arm. “Idiot,” Gopal says. “You have to be firm with this lot.” He scratches his chin, looks at our bags. “Hmm…we could take a local train to Matunga but its rush hour. There won’t be enough time to get in with all this. Lets take a bus, that way you can see the city too.” We are close to the exit when he stops. “Wait here, I need to check the departure time for the Calcutta Express for one of my roommates.” Gopal walks up to a display board.
I stand away from the crowds in front of a fruit juice stall decorated with pyramids of limes, oranges and pineapples.
“Look at this one,” a soft female voice says in English. Is she talking about me? I present my profile in its best angle with nose tilted up and chin cocked, pretend to look at some movie posters.
“Bit thin but nice height--look at his curls--and those huge brown-black eyes? Mummy is after me to make up my mind about two boys--the horoscopes match perfectly, she says. But one’s hairy belly aches to spill out of his shirt, and the other smells like he hasn’t seen the inside of a bathroom in months. I can just see him rubbing his smelly, unwashed thing against me on our wedding night. Ah, my darling…he’ll pant and I’ll just vomit on him.’ Her friend lets out a low chuckle. “Why can’t she find me someone like that?”
I turn slightly to get a glimpse of the face that goes with the voice. Bright eyes, pretty nose. Not bad, not bad at all. I send them a smile. The women quickly hide their faces behind books.
Gopal returns. “What are you looking so pleased about man?”
I glance at the girls. Gopal shakes his head.
We take our luggage to a bus stop flanked by garbage bins and stalls selling everything from t-shirts and saris to fresh sugar cane juice and small electronics. A long line of taxis is enticingly close, with the drivers leaning against their vehicles, some digging their noses, others smoking beedis cheap unfiltered cigarettes. Strains of music coming from the taxis and the myriad shops and stalls blend into a raucous garble where we stand. Not far from the taxis is a line of horse carts painted with a hodgepodge of images of gods and goddesses in exuberant colors, some compassionate, others fearsome.
We wait for half an hour in a snaking line of tired-looking men and women. I try holding my breath against the smell of rotting food but give up after a while. Thankfully, a near-empty dusty red bus arrives and several people get on. I look at Gopal. Not this one, he mouths. The line has now melted into a cluster of impatient people waiting for another set of wheels to approach the stop.
One soon arrives, tilting precariously to one side with people hanging out the door. Before it can come to a full halt, a few jump off. The bus doesn’t look like it has any intention of taking more passengers and continues to move. People around me let out loud, angry groans. A tall man approaches our bus stop, lifts his arm, and brings it down to the ground as if prostrating in front of the bus.
“What is he doing?” I say.
“He works for the state transport department--that’s their signal for the bus to stop.” Gopal leans forward, as if preparing to run a race.
The bus stops for but an instant, and the state transport employee lifts himself into it. Gopal bulldozes himself into the bus right behind him and asks me to hand him one piece of luggage after another. He fields the colorful curses being hurled at us from the others wanting to get in, as well as the bus conductor’s dire warnings, with placatory words and excuses.
We settle ourselves in the now-blocked entrance once Gopal has generously let the driver go on his way. The people left outside continue to shout and hammer the sides of the bus with fists.
Gopal breaks into a triumphant smile and while buying our tickets from the bus conductor starts to commiserate with him about the deplorable working conditions of state transport employees. The conductor is quickly mollified. Maneuvering the giant steering wheel with his entire upper body, the slight but expert driver navigates the narrow, congested streets of Dadar, making sharp turns and narrowly missing many a pedestrian, hardly ever worrying the brakes. To my relief we soon hit a major thoroughfare. A cool breeze blows in through the windows and everyone begins to look relaxed. Gopal finds an empty seat and pounces. “Take the window.” He lets me slide past him.
I now have an unrestricted view of my new world.
Majestic Victorian buildings flank both sides of the wide road. In front of them, Gul Mohar trees emerge from the ground like giant bouquets of flowers with their narrow trunks and wide-spread branches sprinkled with fiery orange red flowers and fern like leaves, Tall bushes of bougainvillea dot the dusty earth here and there calling attention to their rich purples and pinks.
Schoolgirls and boys walk along the wide footpaths, dressed in uniforms of blues, reds and browns. The girls toss their pigtails, laugh, skip. The boys throw friendly punches and swing colorful water bottles above their heads. Weaving around them trying to get ahead are the more world-weary briefcase-carrying businessmen. Women in beautifully draped saris walk at a languid pace, laughing, talking.
Gopal stretches across me and sticks his neck slightly out of the window. He lets the breeze hit him full on his face.
The bus stops at a red light. A respectable looking man wearing a crumpled shirt and sweat stains around his armpits looks up at me. His forehead is creased, his expression restive. He sends me a small knowing smile. Does he see transparent ambition bubbling on my face, I wonder? I turn away from his piercing stare.
Will I be standing under the hot sun someday looking a little like this man? Is my quest for a path to prosperity doomed before I even start?
The bus moves forward and I feel myself jerk back towards the seat.
With a relieved sigh, I close my eyes.