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03/10/2012

Faultlines

Shubhangi Swarup

Silence on a tropical island is the relentless sound of water. The sound of the waves, like the sound of one’s breathing, never leaves you. For a fortnight though, it has been drowned out by the simmering clouds and whips of thunder; raindrops drumming on rooftops and slipping off to shatter into countless splashes. The newly married Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi have resigned to their fate. The rains refuse to leave them alone; strangers in a bedroom with dampened desires and half-dreamt dreams.

Girija Prasad dreams a lot these days, for the rains are conducive to such things. One night, the downpour suddenly stops sometime before sunrise. In the middle of a wet dream, it wakes him up. His ears had adjusted to the tropical cacophony like a spouse to a snoring partner. He wonders what happened. Who left the room?

He peeps from his queen-sized bed down to Chanda Devi’s rustic bed on the floor, facing the open window instead of him. Aroused, he traces her curvaceous silhouette in the darkness. When the two were united for several births by walking around the sacred fire seven times, she followed his footsteps meekly; firm in her conviction that destiny had brought them together in a new avatar. But in this avatar, he would have to find space in her heart once again. Till then, she informed the groom on the first night, “I will make my bed down”.

She’s wide-awake, distraught by accusatory cries coming from the other side. It’s the ghost of a goat. The ghost’s feet wander on the roof, and have now descended to stand under the open window, filling the room and her conscience with guilt.

“Can you hear it?” she asks, “the bleating.” She knows he’s awake, she can feel his gaze on her back.

“Hear what?”

“The goat outside”.

The forlorn erection dies a certain death. He’s wide-awake now to Chanda Devi and the predicament she poses.

“No goat roams in our house,” he replies in exasperation.

She sits up. The goat’s cries turn shriller, as if to tell her to convey to her dreamy husband, “you denied me my life, but you can’t deny me an after-life, you sinful beef-eater!”

“It’s just outside our window!”  She tells him.

“Only you hear it. If it doesn’t scare or threaten you, then perhaps you could ignore it and go back to sleep.” He meant to say ‘should’, not ‘could’. But he doesn’t have the courage to be stern. His wife, he has realized, doesn’t respond well to dialectics or coercion. In fact, she doesn’t respond well to most things. If only she was less attractive, he could have ignored her and gone to sleep.

“How can you sleep?” she exclaims. “You hacked the innocent creature, minced its flesh, deep-fried it with onions and ate it with guests. You left the restless soul to haunt our house!”

If the souls of all the various kinds of meat he had consumed returned to haunt him, his home would be a zoo and barn combined, leaving no space to move, let alone sleep. But mild-mannered Girija cannot say that. Two months into his marriage, and he’s resigned to his wife’s virile imagination. It is a wilful act of hope, attributing her behaviour to her imagination, and not some mental illness. For the sake of his unborn children and the decades they would have to endure together, he announces, “If it makes you sleep, I will stop meat”.

That’s how carnivorous Girija turns vegetarian, much to his wife’s and his own surprise.  For the sake of few hours of rest, he says goodbye to scrambled eggs, mutton biryani and beefsteaks forever.

At the hint of sunrise, she leaves her bed. She enters the kitchen to prepare an elaborate breakfast. There is new life in her movements and a smile lurking in her silence. Now that the killings have stopped, its time to stretch out a white flag in the form of ‘aloo parathas’. Two hours later, she serves them to him and asks, “How were they?”

Girija can’t help but feel unsettled, that too for all the wrong reasons. The sun is finally out. His wife, who cooked him breakfast for the first time, is bold enough to place a napkin on his lap; brushing past his shoulders, spilling her warm breath on his skin. While he craves the comfort of grease mixed with flesh, he can’t find it on his plate. He turned vegetarian in his sleep.

“How were they?” she asks him again.

“Who?” he replies, disoriented.

“The parathas.”

“Perfect.”

She smiles and pours him a second cup of tea.

Chanda Devi, the clairvoyant one. She gazes at ghosts and prefers the laconic company of trees.

She feels for him- his unexpressed cravings. Yet she knows he is better off giving up on flesh. The kingdom of flesh is as ephemeral as it’s unreliable, especially when compared to the kingdom of plants.  Chanda Devi has seen it all; even the rivers of blood that will drain out of her body one day, consuming her flesh but not the soul. It makes her obstinate, this knowledge. It makes her a demanding wife.

 

*

 

When Girija went to Oxford, it was the first time he his left home in Allahabad. After a four-day journey in horse carriages, ferries and a train, when he finally sat on the ship that would carry him to England, he left behind the jars of pickle, ghee parathas that could outlive human beings, and images of various gods and pictures of his family–including a portrait of his mother that he had painted.

While he was relieved to leave the gods behind (especially Ram the dutiful son who left his wife for no good reason and the riverbank Baba who was no God, just a senile starving man) discarding his mother’s portrait was impossible without breaking down. But so would’ve been staring at her face, separated by the oceans. Unable to accept the separation, he decided to start a new life. A violently different one, the thought of which gave him piles. Lost in an unending ocean, he spiralled into a shell of silence. Stillborn tears expressed themselves as stubborn constipation. A diligent documenter of the plant kingdom, Girija had carried kilos of isabgol husk for the very purpose. He also carried dried tulsi, neem, ginger, powdered haldi, cinnamon bark and ground pepper to counter other physical ailments. When he arrived at Dover, the customs officials mistook him for an illegal trader of spices.

Within a day of his arrival at Blimey College, Oxford, Girija Prasad Varma became Mr. Vama, christened by tutors untrained in Devnagiri names. On the first evening, he tasted alcohol for the first time and also broke the generations-old taboo of consuming things ‘jhootha’, contaminated by the mouth of another. When the colossal mug of beer was passed among the freshers to take a sip from, he was presented with an option:  embrace another culture whole-heartedly, or languish forever at the crossroads. There were no portraits or deities on his desk to admonish him. The next morning, he would eat fried eggs for breakfast.

 

*

 

Girija Vama, India’s first commonwealth scholar had returned to India after five years with a doctorate thesis that he ended with two native words, ‘Jai Hind’. At the behest of the young Prime Minister, he was to set up the national forestry service. Most evening conversations of the tea drinkers in Allahabad involved far-fetched connections linking them to the illustrious bachelor. But why would he choose to get posted in the Andamans, the aunties wondered. A place only known for exiled freedom fighters and naked tribals. It was rumoured that there wasn’t a single cow on the island, and people had to resort to black tea.

One of the tea drinkers, Chanda Devi was relieved. Finally, Allahabad would have a man more qualified than her, a gold medallist in mathematics and Sanskrit herself. Her gold medals had clasped her like a chastity belt. Only a man more qualified could dare marry an intelligent woman.

Could she have it her way, she would’ve married a tree. She disliked men and women equally; meat-eaters even more, beef-eaters the most. But in 1948, even misanthropes got married, if only to increase their tribe.

The task of bringing them together was left to the starving, stooping baba who sat on the banks of the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. The Sangam’s sandy banks were forever crowded by devotees wailing, singing and praying loudly, leading local frogs to believe that it was mating season the whole year round.

Girija’s head-covering mother visited the baba and offered him bananas and a garland of sunshine marigolds. She touched his feet, and her worries came tumbling out.

Her son was exceptionally intelligent, exceptionally qualified with an exceptionally bright future. He was exceptionally handsome too. He retained his mother’s features and borrowed only his father’s chin. A prying devotee asked, “Then what is the problem with your son, behenji?”

“I can’t find him a worthy wife!”

“But what is the problem?” the baba asked with a smile.

Girija’s mother was about to repeat herself. When she saw the baba smile, she stopped. Holy men were in the habit of speaking in riddles and half-uttered sentences. He ate half a banana in silence, took the marigold garland and flung it in the air. It swirled several times and landed around the shoulders of a perplexed Chanda Devi, lost in hymns. And that is how the marriage between the man who studied trees and woman who spoke to trees was fixed.

“But baba,” it was Chanda Devi’s father’s turn to complain now, “My daughter doesn’t speak English, she is a strict vegetarian. And this man you selected, he has done a Ph.D in the English of plant names, and.. and.. I hear that he has tasted beef!”

The baba peeled a banana. “Child, you only see the present,” he said, and gave the father a banana peel to confront metaphysical truths with.

The truth is, it’s the islands that brought them together. Chanda Devi dreamt of her escape from a stifling household into the company of trees. For Mr. Vama, it was a little more complicated. A simple academic creature, he addressed every Indian woman as sister, sister-in-law or aunt.

Although the islands gave their name to the surrounding sea, the Andaman Sea, it was as compliant as they got. In the Andamans, species lacked names. Hens behaved like pigeons. They slept on trees and laid eggs from the branches of mango trees, giving gardens the rotten stench of smashed eggs. Airborne butterflies drifted themselves into sleep, floating down like autumn leaves. Ascetic crocodiles meditated on the banks of mangroves. For the longest time, no one could colonize the islands, for the impenetrable thicket hid more than just natural history.

It also hid tribes left behind by the original littoral migration across the Indian Ocean. People who preferred to read minds over language, who clothed themselves in nothing but primitive wrath, equipped with only bows and arrows to fend off syphilis of civilization. Their world, a giant island held together by mammoth creepers, not gravity.

On this knotted thread of islands, Mr. Vama hoped to live the life he dreamt of: a life of solitude. An intrepid bachelor, he failed to see that the allure of the virgin forests wasn’t a simple one of the unexplored. It was also the allure of consummation. Here, his world experienced an earthquake.  Tremors ran through his body on a forest excursion, when he saw a tree that was actually two trees entwined. A peepal tree had coiled itself around the trunk of an Andaman Padouk, sixty feet high. For the first time, he saw two full-fledged trees growing in a coital position, blocking the sky with their embrace. Parasitic orchids found footing in the entanglement. A cancerous growth high up on the trunk obtruded his thoughts, with its face-like features. It felt like the trees were looking back at him. Exposed claw-like roots leapt on to the ground and sought Vama like a pale python. As he stood there, he could feel the roots inch towards him and halt at his toes. Standing at the bottom, Girija felt like an ant shuffling around, tempted by the impossible.

Months later when his mother began searching for a bride, he didn’t object. Science taught him that all creation demanded a male and female investment. And the islands seduced him by the beauty of it all.

 

*

 

A month into the monsoons, the four walls and roof that shelter the couple are reduced to a symbol for keeping them dry, a warm thought left behind by the British. For the rains have flooded deeper into their beings. An invisible wall has caved in, filling them with curiosities and preoccupations of another time.

When Girija stepped on to the island, he arrived believing in half-truths like no man is an island. It took him a year to realise that no island is an island either. It is part of a greater geological pattern that connects all the lands and oceans of the world. Half a mile away from his home, he found a living plant that was previously found only as a fossil in Madagascar and Central Africa.

On the day that would mark the end of the downpour and his tryst with beefsteak, Girija spent his office hours researching the ancestor of all continents: Pangaea. A supercontinent, a single entity that broke into all the pieces of land that exist; a possible explanation for the plant near his house as the Indian subcontinent broke off from Africa and banged into Asia. He studied the world map sprawled in front. “An impossible jigsaw,” he spoke aloud.

All the day’s efforts were rewarded in his dreams that night. The belly of Latin America slept comfortably in the groove of West Africa. The jigsaw fit so perfectly, Pangaea looked alive. What seemed like bits and bobs breaking off and floating in the daytime, now felt like a living being blooming in slow motion. He was ecstatic to see her stretch her arms as wide apart as Alaska and the Russian Far East, lift her head and stand on her toes, poles apart. Pangaea, blooming with the grace of a ballerina. He was aroused.

But when the downpour suddenly ended, it woke him up. Left to ruminate on half a dream, he wondered why the continents drifted apart in the first place.

Water swept into the cracks, a trickle turned into a stream. Streams turned into rivers. And then there was no turning back. Overnight, the rivers revealed cracks only oceans could fill in. It is in water’s nature to absorb the void, with all its crevices and peaks and other irregular symmetries, covering it with an unbroken, unending line. Only a fool would consider the shores of continents, sandbanks and parched patches as the full-stops to the line. They are pauses, at best. Or mindless chatter. Islands are mindless chatter in a meditative ocean.

He peeped from his queen-sized bed and traced his wife’s silhouette. He wondered what they were thinking.

Perhaps Pangaea the supercontinent dreamt of being a million islands. Perhaps now, the million islands dream of being one. Like the oddly dressed sailors who crossed oceans on a whim, the lands too realised that the end of our world is another’s beginning.

How does it matter? He concluded. Even if we had the answers, we’d still need God, and we’d still be lonely. Like the island he lived on, he was far too mid-ocean to change paths. Only God could help him endure the loneliness created by the couple’s separate beds. For a brief moment, the atheist believed in God.

Brought up as a devout Hindu, his atheism wasn’t an act of rebellion. Girija was just stretching his belief system, like Pangaea stretched her arms. All the languorous ship journeys that he made between England and India, India and the Andamans, they changed him. “When you stand on a ship deck and meditate on the blue-green, it’s the closest you come to staring into infinity,” he once wrote to his brother. “Standing alone in the face of infinity, it’s not your beliefs that bother you, but what you rejected or chose not to believe in that tugs at you.”

It is the closest they would get that night. Continents apart in their beliefs, God was the precarious bridge created when ridges met.

At that moment, the devil was a goat. “Can you hear it?” she asked, “the bleating.” And Girija lost his erection, the 27th one in the first two months of his marriage.

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