When chako came to live in a small village in the hills of North Malabar, the people took to him at once. He was a tall man, thin, a little stooped, and his beard was so long it touched his chest. That was unusual in that area, where men were clean shaven. He found a place to stay in a household, which consisted of a man called George, and his little daughter Anna. Chedathi an old woman living in the outskirts of the village would come to cook for them and wash clothes. The house was never dusted; it was always dark, littered with clothes, Anna’s books and papers, many stray cats and George Saar’s leather covered account books. Strangely enough, there were no flies.
George Saar had never known Chako before, but while climbing down the slope from the church, where he spent every evening doing the accounts, he heard a slither behind him. Chako in his clean white mundu, hitched above his knees, umbrella under his arms had slipped on some red gravel.
|“What is it, missed your step?”
“I come from the paddy lands. Not used to this.”
“Who do you want to meet?”
“I’m a doctor, a green herbs man.”
“You won’t get any customers here. Everyone makes his own medicines.”
“No, no, I have come to collect them.”
“Don’t you leave that to your assistants?”
“I’m writing a book. Everyone in the West wants our knowledge, we must share our ancient texts. I’ve come to draw pictures of the plants, and then if I find a nice place to stay, I’ll do the writing here as well.”
George Saar took him to his house, and then almost at once asked Chako if he would like to live with them. Chako looked at the man. He had a strangely effeminate face, eyes very large and melancholic and a blue haze on his morning razored face. It was a face that seemed to float in water, drowning in some unformed and congealing grief.
Chako said he would pay him two hundred rupees a month which George Saar refused. He said, “It’s enough that you are a man of knowledge. And widely travelled. Not many people in our village can speak English, and we need some correspondence handled in a court case against a chemical company. A proper doctor is always useful. Which church do you belong to?”
“No harm in that, you can come to worship with us. We are Mar Thoma. The subscription is thirty rupees a year, and I’ll take that from you now”
While George Saar took out the little yellow receipt, Chako looked around the house. He would have preferred to stay in a larger house, perhaps by himself. But then, for a start this would do. He put his small blue canvas bag on the bed, and was removing his broad strapped Bata shoes when a cat suddenly jumped on his shoulder. It had been sitting unnoticed on the mosquito-net bar over the bed, and while it startled him, he was not averse to cats and put it gently down.
There was a small window at the side of the bed. The wall was made of thick brown teak wood, and from the window he could see acres of green banana trees. The leaves were thick, green, mottled with yellow in places, and the maroon cone flowers with their ivory nectar thick stalks pushed out from every one. It would be a good crop. A child’s head appeared at the window — an untidy child, but a pretty one. He noticed she was wearing reel beads around her neck and that her hair was cut very short. The long skirt did not match the blouse, for both were made of different cloth, different textures by perhaps different tailors.
|“What’s your name?”
“Anna. Why are you sitting on my bed?”
“I thought it was mine.”
The child ran screaming for her father.
He met her again at dinner time. George Saar, it seemed for all his penury, had one weakness which was for candles. He had lit six, where two would have done. They made a bright warm glow, penumbras merging into each other. The child ate well, though a cat sat on her lap and made small quick movements with its paws every time she picked the fish on her plate. Sometimes she would look at Chako, and there was a strange darting awareness when she did that. He was surprised, because he was forty years old, and though he knew he was attractive to women, he had not expected a child to express these shadows of desire.
At night, as he slept near the window on the other side of the house, which overlooked a small rounded hill beyond which there was a narrow stream, he saw in a dream Anna and George. They had encircled him with bamboos, which were bare of leaves. They would not let him leave. He turned, before his eyes, into a magnificent golden snake-large, convoluted, flecked, yellow and tame. He awoke to a sense of shame, the room in which he lay dark and heavy, the night sealing him in.
Anna brought him his coffee in the morning. They had a cow, it seemed, for the milk was thick and smelt of grass, insects, and he could almost see the softly ruminating cow. The fireflies which at night had encrusted the wall and the windows, were now pale green worms. Looking at Anna he remembered the dream. With a child’s licence she got into his bed and put her arms around him, nuzzling his beard. He was frightened, repelled, and he pushed her.
“I must start the day. Haven’t you got school?”
“No, it’s the holidays. Can’t I come with you?”
“Father said you were going to look for herbs. I’ll show you where they grow.”
“All right. I’ll be ready in an hour.”
When she had gone, he took a switch of palm leaves and swept out his room. He straightened the worn grey sheet on the bed, and hung his coloured sarong which he had slept in on a plastic rope above the bed. He washed on the verandah outside his room, where bronze vessels were kept filled with water. There were ants and small leaves floating in them, but it felt chilly and clean.
“Mother committed suicide you know. She hung herself in the back room where you are sleeping.”
Anama was holding his hand as they walked through the dark glades of rubber. Blue birds flew toward the water. There was something strange about the light, a little ominous, an alienness — the trees rising into the sky, tall, gaunt, their leaves thick and almost black green. Chako didn’t know what to say to the child.
“She was only twenty, you know”
“How old were you?”
“I don’t know. Chedathi told me about her. I never saw her. But people always say that she was only twenty. Father has a picture of her. It’s in his box. I’ll show it to you when we go home.”
“I don’t think I should see it, Anna. After all, if it’s in his box, it’s because he doesn’t want everyone to see it.”
“You won’t go away will you, because I told you?”
“I’m only here for this one day, Anna. In the evening I must catch the bus to Trivandrum.”
“Chakocha, don’t go. Father said you would live with us. Father doesn’t love me. Please stay with us. What I said about mother wasn’t true. She was ill, and she died when I was born, in a hospital. I promise you, she didn’t hang herself. I just said that to make you feel sorry for me.”
“I’m sorry for you anyway, Anna. You’ll be all right. Now let’s look for these plants.”
She ran a little to keep up with him, and when they came out of the rubber lands, it was a relief. The sun was shining, he could see the soft outlines of the herbs that he sought. He knelt down there, and began to uproot them, carefully placing them in the large file he had brought. They were healthy specimens, and he wished that he had not met George or Anna, and had found a more impersonal residence for himself. He had met the Councillor, the Development Officer, a lawyer and several merchants the previous day — and all of them had been very courteous. He could have spent a month in Puthenkavu, and no one would have been disturbed by his presence, nor he by theirs. Already because of that chance encounter with George he was trapped in some kind of unhealthy situation. When he looked for Anna an hour later he could not see her.
“Chakochaya, here I am.”
He looked up, and found her directly above him in the fork of a large mango tree. She had been watching him all the time, and her face looked small and tense.
“Come down, I want to go to the other side of the river.”
“I shan’t come down unless you promise you will live with us.”
“Don’t be foolish. I have an old mother I have to return to.” “I’ll not come down then.”
“Do what you like.”
He began to stride away-feeling helpless and angry. He walked till the edge of the river, and then called out to her again. She did not answer, but kept looking at him, her eyes small and angry.
|“I’ll tell your father.”
“He’s at the Loan Office.”
“I’m going then.”
“If I fall down, I’ll break my bones and no one will find me.”
“All right, I’ll stay.”
She scrambled down. She was laughing, a child again with no remembrance of power.
“I’ll call the boatman. You stay here,” she said.
Chako wandered into the water. A small brown snake crept out from behind a rock, and he stepped back quickly.
Anna came back with the boatman. He had a long pole with him, and his bare torso gleamed and glistened in the sunlight with oil and sweat. He was a short fellow, wearing a small rough towel, and although not more than thirty, his teeth were like scraps of betel nut.
|“Where does Saar want to go?”
“The other side.”
“Why not cross the bridge?”
“Where is it?”
“A kilometre from here. If you come with me, it will cost you two rupees, to cross.
“Let’s go then. Leave the child here. The river is deep and the boat won’t take three.”
Anna watched as Chako got into the boat. It swayed, as it tried to free itself from the tethering rope, and he almost lost his footing. She would have laughed, he knew, so he did not look at her. He wondered for a moment whether he could not just leave when he got to the other side. The loss of his bag and the few things he had brought with him would not mean much.
Kuttan untied the rope, and got in with him. It was a canoe, and it rocked violently again. There was no place to sit, and Chako stood uncertainly in the middle. Kuttan used his pole to punt, his body heaving as he pushed into the deep black mud of the river. Anna looked far away, and already Chako felt relieved, a passing stranger.
|“Poor child, she doesn’t have a mother.”
“She does have a mother, except that she is a whore.”
“I thought she was dead.”
“Dead to the people in this village maybe. She lives in Bombay. She ran off with a rich man, he spoke another language and drove a car.”
“How did he get here’.
“He came here in a car you know, came to see this place. What there is to see I don’t know. His wife — the one he was married to — collected old boxes it seems. You know the ones our grandmother used to keep their clothes in. Strange, when we no longer have use for things, someone else wants them. You are here to collect green medicines, I heard.”
They had reached the other shore. Chako was burning under the heat of the sun. He wished he had carried his umbrella with him. Kuttan helped Chako out, and then having taken his money strode off toward the cool thatched eaves of the toddy shop.
That afternoon as he had his lunch in a canteen where the buttermilk slopped over the rim of white ceramic jars he heard that a child had been found drowned in the river at Puthenkavu. He wondered for one horrible terrifying moment if it was Anna, but he never went back. His belongings, without the blue bag they had been in, arrived by post a year afterwards at his mother’s house. They were stitched up in an old pillow cover, but there was no note inside.
It was twelve or fifteen years later that Chako met a woman at a party in Zurich. It was one of those occasions when white wine was drunk in great quantities, and the lake was somnolent and black, a kind of rippled glass.
There were anthropologists and faith healers and medical practitioners. Chako noticed the woman at once, knew that she would be called Sarah or Mariam or Anna, maybe Sosha (for Susan). She had smooth black hair and almond shaped eyes, reminiscent of sea journeys over the Arabian sea to Malabar, and the pallor of skin that sheltered women have. She was with a very large man, an ox of a man, a water diviner. When Chako stood near him the water diviner trembled and heaved and almost rotated on some internal axes.
“Aquatic Astral sign? Pisces?” he said, and Chako nodded, surprised.
Chako watched the woman for a while. There was something about her face, her eyes, the way she looked and murmured which reminded him of a child briefly met.
People were still talking about the evening seminar, and there was no sense of the day having broken into its compartment of leisure time.
|“The paper on health and astrology was bizarre.”
“Interesting though that Sylvia Plath’s mother was a Paracelsus scholar.”
“What did she do?
“Must be, everyone writes poetry in this field.”
Chako moved away before he could be drawn into conversation with people who barely knew one another, but acted for five days as if they were intimates. He had already been by the lake, to the woods near the Zoo where he heard the mournful calling of elephants dreaming of swamps by teak forests. He had even been to some of the churches, where the bells rang but no one went, unless it was to a Bach recital. It was a banker’s town. He liked Sumatra Street best, with its large shops full of carpets and masks and incense. He felt comforted there, at sights of the “exotic east”. The masks grimaced back at him, reminding him of home, and the emotional intensity of life, for here in Zurich, the faces were as finely tailored as costumes.
The woman he had been looking at came towards him. He was right, she was from back home. Sosha.
“I heard you yesterday. You were very good,” she said, tinkling the ice about in the amber glass. Her jewels were perfectly matched, and she wore indigo.
“It’s fifteen years since I began this work. I feel far removed from what I am saying or doing. It’s much more exciting to be thinking it out.”
“Where did you collect your data?”
“In a village called Puthenkavu.”
Shadows crossed her face. Her eyes became narrow and withdrew into some menacing inner space.
“How odd. I once lived there.” “You. When was this?”
“Twenty years ago? I was twenty then.”
“Your father’s name?”
“They called him Ivanios. But he was from another village called Tenapally. I lived at Puthenkavu because I was married there.”
“But your husband — Azor I met him yesterday at lunch. He’s not from home.”
“No. We must talk sometime. Tomorrow I’m planning to look at the University and the old quarters. Would you be free?”
“Yes, certainly. Where shall we meet?”
“At the meeting of Weinberg Street and St. Moritz Street.”
“I don’t know them.”
“Below the Clock at the Autobahnof ? I’ll be there at eleven.”
She went away without saying any more. Chako felt irritable at having his precious day taken away from him. But it was an odd coincidence and he knew he was entangled.
The next morning he had croissants which his tongue could not pronounce, try as he would. So he asked for ‘round bread’ and orange juice. There was a delicate old woman, in a rose pink blouse and a tight black skirt-eighty if anything, but with purple eyeshadow and scarlet lipstick — who sat across him and questioned him about India.
“Your people are very brilliant. It is I’m sure because they eat hot curry powder every day. I once tried it. I bought curry powder, mixed a spoon in a glass of water and drank it. I never tried again.”
He looked at her disbelievingly. She spent the whole hour chatting about the cigarette company she owned at Baar.
“My father wanted a son. I had to become his son. I never married. I took over the company. I come to the Astor for breakfast so that I can see people. It’s lonely in my flat. I must visit your country one day. Perhaps in my next life — karma you say — I shall marry and have children. To bear a child must be a miracle.”
When Chako left the room he felt heady with vicariously inhaled cigarette smoke, and laughter, for the old woman had so much courage and guile.
It was cold outside. He looked with wonder at the large imprints, which he left behind in the dirty half melted snow. “I passed this way though 1 might never breathe this air again, or see the white mountain flowers growing delicately against a city wall.” He felt strangely happy, a spider who had not yet spun a web, aloof, astray, looking for crevice and shaft as if they were his to know. Boys sped past him on roller skates, and the tang of orange juice was still on his tongue. He saw Sosha waiting at the kiosk outside the station. She was wearing boots and jeans and an army jacket.
“Shoshanna really, but my husband calls me Sasha.”
“It suits you.”
“Shall we walk? I must talk to you. When you spoke about Puthenkavu, I was startled, shocked.”
She stopped to drink water at a fountain. Jets of cold clear water spilled out of a medieval lion’s mouth. The wind blew cold, and the early geraniums were out on the window boxes. There was no washing hanging out, and no sunshine-only a clear grey day. The hoardings were fluorescent, about the only colour that he could see other than the white of the houses, and the green of trees. Chako drank at the rim of the fountain, and was startled at the effervescence of the water as it spilled down his throat.
“I wondered if you had met my husband.”
“There was a child?”
“Yes, a daughter. I abandoned her when she was three months old.”
“Why?” He took out his handkerchief, washed the night before with a minuscule square of hotel soap. He looked carefully at the frayed edges. Sea tides of fear threatened to swallow him. She didn’t look at him.
“I was twenty. I met Azor when he came to our house looking for antiques. I fell in love with him. It was pretty wordless really. I mean, we shared
nothing — neither a past, nor a culture, nor a single idea. It was silent and engulfing, like a seed in the earth, like a bookmark keeping a place, like unknown streams in some strange valley. Nothing seemed important to me then, other than persuading him to take me away. He was seventeen years older than me, married with a child. You can’t imagine how terrible it all was. And yet, I knew what I was doing. I felt sorry for George, and for the little baby. But then I would think that the baby was better off with George’s mother, in fact in those early weeks it was she who took care of the child. I didn’t even know how to hold her. Mothering isn’t instinctual, is it? I mean it’s got to be learnt. I never gave myself the chance. She must be grown now. I wonder how she looks. Azor would not let me have any children. He said that if I had abandoned a child once, I could do it again. He bore tremendous guilt about his own family and what he had done by leaving them.”
They walked under the bridge by the river, and watched an old man and his wife feeding the ducks. The shadows of the trees lay across the water in orderly rows. The shops were all closed-it was a long weekend and Zurich had emptied itself out as people went to the resort towns. The streets belonged to the foreign tourist, camera in hand, calculating currencies, sipping at kiosks.
“Did you see George?” she asked.
They were sitting under the bridge, on the steps by the river. It was very peaceful there, and Chako felt detached again. At times his inability to feel things, to get involved seemed arid, at other times like this he was almost cool, desireless and afloat like the black swans on the blue water.
“I stayed, with a man called George and his daughter Anna for a day.”
“Anna. Yes, she would be called that. That was his mother’s name. How does she look?”
“A little like you.” Chako said sadly.
“Strange, she must be as old as I was when I left Puthenkavu.”
Sasha didn’t notice Chako’s silences. She went on ceaselessly as if she had known him for years. He felt detached from her, thinking of the paper he had to present in the afternoon of the next day.
“I was not young or foolish. I was twenty. I knew the fate that I was choosing for myself. I understood that I would suffer, that I would make my people feel pain, that life would have to begin anew and fragmentally. But still, whatever the guilt, this is my life, and I am what I am, and the years have gone by too fast for me to regret. What use would it be anyway, for I cannot go back, or amend things, but must remain where I am.”
He said nothing, remembering a child who wished her mother was dead to avoid understanding an absence without reason.
“I wanted children later but Azor would not let me have them. We came to Luzern after Azor and I left Bombay. Things were so uncomfortable in India — our two orthodoxies combated us at every turn. So he came to the College of Magic here. It was fun, those early days. After George’s rubber-fields and the tedium of the rain, and the minuteness of his accounts, I liked it here. Azor was helping to breed unicorns — it failed of course, the goats and the ponies wouldn’t get together. Rather awful I suppose if looked at from a Puthenkavu perspective. What do they say about me in the village?”
Chako said nothing. They were looking in at the antique shops, which she was thoroughly familiar with. The glass windows were clear and they could see the old beautiful gleaming wood. She knew, without entering, the prices of each artifact, and the period and place from where they had come. They walked down the narrow cobbled lanes, with their 17th century facades and their modern interiors, white lace hanging at the windows, delicate oil lamps at polished desks. It was a world she was completely at home in.
“We’ve been out for two hours now. Isn’t Azor concerned where you are and who you’re with?” he asked, looking at that unperturbed vaguely avaricious face.
“He’s never been possessive. He knows infidelity is painful — I don’t think either of us could suffer again. Why didn’t you marry?”
“I was too busy with one thing or another. Work, I suppose. And then my mother. She’s the opposite of you.”
“I could not have married, really. She’s so obsessive, about me. I get away for a while by planning trips somewhere or the other. She wouldn’t tolerate another woman in my life. I think I knew it would be cruelty to marry, the violence between women is painful to bear.”
“George’s mother was like that. He should have remained loyal like you. But then there was property to be inherited. When he saw Anna he said, “An expense.” That’s all he saw when he first held her. And then Azor came, and he looked at me, and no one had wanted me before. I made coffee for him one day when no one was at home. That’s how it began. It’s all so long ago. And now George must be forty-eight. Strange, but there it is.”
She pushed her fingers through the short smooth hair. She was extremely, poignantly beautiful, but somehow centreless. He had never met anyone like her, and he felt emptied, too unable to mourn for a lost child in mismatched clothes.
“Would you like to come with us to Rigi? We go by cable car.”
“No,” he said, remembering Anna.
SUSAN VISWANATHAN. Is a senior lecturer in Sociology at Hindu College, Delhi University. She is the author of The Christians of Kerala : History, Beliefs and Ritual among the Yakoba (OUP, Madras, 1993). She has been a fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi(1989 –1992) and an honorary fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla on the Religion and Culture Project(1990 –1995). She has been an honorary consultant to the World Council of churches, Geneva on the question of inter-religious dialogue, and this remains her central research interest.