Monday, September 21, 2009

Children Of The Lie: Chapter Three


Children Of The Lie

The buffalos stretched out along the side of the road in a black straggle of bodies, plodding dutifully behind the wiry scrap of a boy, who, from time to time, waved a stick which was almost as big as he was. Their bulging bellies and bony rumps gave them an air of the ridiculous when viewed from behind, but as the car passed them, their patient beauty was revealed, of broad, black brow and noble profile. They seemed unconcerned at the constant rush and roar of the traffic, bent as they were upon following the bobbing black head, with its unruly halo of stiff, unwashed hair.

The animals were sleek , fat and apparently well-fed, for it was better to be needed than revered and while the buffalo was not sacred like the cow, it was necessary, both for work and for milk. Not for them a life of aimless wandering, a searching for scraps of food; their's was a life of useful purpose. They worked hard but they had few worries, these massive beasts with their dirty tails and enormous noses, down which they peered in myopic boredom.

As any cow in India would tell you - if it could - being a god is not all it is cracked up to be. They could not be killed, that was true, but they were frequently ignored and sometimes moved rudely out of the way. Their revenge was simple: to seek out the busiest intersection they could find for a lengthy afternoon nap. There was no doubt that they were past masters at the art of draping their often scrawny bodies across the road in such a way so as to cause the greatest inconvenience possible to the moving traffic. It was fitting revenge upon a life which offered a very mixed bag of doubtful blessings.

A scream of horn and a bellow from Richard ended Jo's brief respite from the rioutous world outside her window, lost as she had been in the tranquil rhythm of the plodding buffalos. "Bloody idiot! I'm sure some of these people want to die," exploded Richard. "There's only one bloody rule in this country and that is there are no all except the one that says; 'give way to the guy who is bigger than you.' It's their whole damn philosophy of life: the big fish eat the little fish and so the little fish have to be quick. I suppose that's why the idiot on the scooter tried to cut across in front of me like that. If he had had his wife and two kids piled up behind him, as they usually do, he never would have made it!" He finished this outburst with a shake of his great, shaggy head, muttering beneath his breath a few choice expletives, just for good measure.

"But he did make it," retorted Anne, who began to frown at the few snatches of abuse, which were slipping so easily from his tongue. "So I guess it wasn't his time to die."

"That's alright for you," countered Richard, beginning to look flushed, "but I'm the one driving the car and I'm the one they would beat to death if I happened to hit the silly little bugger."

"Only if it had been your karma," said Anne, with a teasing grin. "And stop swearing," she added, prodding his fleshy thigh.

“I don't believe in all that rubbish," replied Richard, with a sharp snap to the words. "Karma or no karma, it wouldn't hurt these people to learn to drive like the rest of us, instead of just bribing someone to give them a licence."

“Do they really do that?" asked Jo, who was becoming increasingly concerned at the suicidal tendencies of most of the drivers with whom they were sharing the road. Richard gave her a withering look through the rear-vision mirror and Anne simply turned her head with eye-brows raised at the stupidity of the question.

"Well, how would I know?" Jo faltered, in meagre defence. She was beginning to realise that going out for an afternoon drive was likely to be more of a baptism of fire than she had expected. Not only was the traffic murderous, but the whole experience was an overload to the senses. In the choke of hot, moist air, the blare of horns and the roar of engines, the heady offering of ancient drains ... and at each intersection, the high-pitched squeak of "Mummyji", with the tap, tap, tap on the window pane and the small, dirty brown face, with night-black eyes and clothes to match. These bright but battered scraps of humanity were like birds, flapping and fluttering around the stationary cars.

The beggars were said to be part of a vast criminal network, which along with the requisite bribes paid to local police, had made begging a lucrative profession in Bombay. and these gutter waifs were highly prized. Children, more than most, are equipped by the gods to elicit pity. It is nature's gift to ensure their survival., but in this grey and gritty street world, it could also ensure their mutilation, for it had been noted by those in control of such matters that a crippled child made a better beggar than a whole one. It was considered that the removal of most of one arm constituted sufficient maiming; one hand had to be available, after all, to receive the guilt-given monies and, since beggars needed to be able to walk if they were not to be too much of a nuisance, both legs were generally left intact.

Big-eyed babies, their faces framed in ruffled caps of red and orange were also good value in the cut-throat, competitive world of beggary and, when one appeared at Jo's window, balanced on the hip of a tatter of a child, barely older than itself, she could only stare as if mesmerised. What kind of world was this, where babies should be weaving their way through the screaming bedlam of cars and trucks as calmly as her own children had traversed the playground at the same age? The traffic cleared its throat, even as she watched, and surged ahead. The children skipped back to the gutter, disturbing a flock of fat, feeding pigeons on the footpath and raising them in a grey, blanketing rustle, which shook in the air for just a moment, before drifting slowly back to the ground.

There is no easy way to meet Bombay and Jo's introduction was to be no gentler than any other. This was a cram and a clutter of a city ... a muddle of movement and cacophonous cries ... a metropolis of ten million or more, which had eaten its way across the string of tiny islands in which it had first taken root. A cramped, crowded and filthy place, Bombay was India's greatest city and not merely because it was the wealthiest. Amidst the rich rotting, crept vicious and tenacious life,.She could see it in the eyes of the people whom they passed: sharp, with a brittle determination. She could see it too in the plants which demanded survival and took it from every available crack in the concrete; life so desperate, so resolute, that a tree would force itself from the side of a building, having found the barest bed of soil in which to take hold.

The further they drove, the more Jo was repulsed but at the same time fascinated. While one part of her wanted nothing more than to retreat, to find refuge from the chaos which lunged and loomed on either side, there was some other part of her which drank it all in, stayed glued to the window, soaking, absorbing, becoming one with the world outside. This was a place within whose twist and turn of streets lay the still decaying detritus of a city which must once have resembled Paris. It offered tantalising glimpses of graceful arches and delicate wrought-iron verandahs, of shuttered windows and high-carved doorways ... a world of rust, dust and grime, of peeling paint and, sometimes, a shop which looked a little cleaner - even modern - squeezed between the sad, sagging facades of older, more world-weary companions.

They drove along the railway line, its fence gripped by shreds of plastic under which the rag-pickers sat in family groups, crouched monkey-like, picking the fleas, each from the head of the other. And in the gutter, the babies, lying on tearings of blackened rag, watched over by older children, naked and dirty, little more than babies themselves. This narrow stretch of path which bordered the road was a world in itself; the surface chopped and broken, uncared-for since the British left. This was home to the people of the street, the only home they had. There were rules. They knew their place and, as often as not, they paid the nearest policeman to stay there. They kept a discreet distance from the stall-holders, who ranked along the opposite side of the road and whose offerings were destined for another world.

The vendors sold coconut juice; a slash from the knife across the top and it spilled, fresh from the shell; small, bright yellow limes piled into a heap, resting on a piece of cardboard; sugar-cane juice, falling green and frothed as the greasy cogs of the crusher turned ... it offered energy and refreshment in the heat of the day, and in the monsoon, it was just as likely to offer hepatitis as well; peanuts, naked, dry-roasted, packed into neat cones of old newspaper; cobs of faded yellow corn, blackened but barely cooked on a small bed of coals; and everywhere along the path, the stains of betel, dried to a rusty orange, but spat like blood from maleficent red lips.

"It's a hard place to like," said Richard, his voice breaking through, “but it is impressive in its own way."

"That's a matter of opinion," Anne replied sharply. "So what do you think, Jo ... of your first look at Bombay?"

"I hardly know what to say," Jo replied quietly, still trying to absorb the confusion of images. "It's certainly different!"

Richard gave a grunt which could have been a laugh: "That's a good, safe answer. You'll be okay here. That is what we all say when we are asked what we think of the place. 'Interesting' is another good word. The fact is that either one is perfectly adequate. The Indians don't want to know what we really think of the place and they would be mortified if we were to tell them. They simply don't see what we see. I can understand that a bit better now, having been here for so long. Even I have gotten used to it. After awhile, you really don't see things as vividly as you first did and, given that most Indians have never seen anything else, and therefore have no chance for comparison, it's not surprising that they simply fail to see the worst of it. I guess what does surprise me is that even those who travel still don't seem to be able to make any sort of comparison to the filth that surrounds you here and the cleanliness....well, of the best of the Western world, at least. They are past masters at filth ... I'll give them that. Maybe it's some subtle art form which we haven't mastered yet."

He chuckled at his own attempted joke, but was ignored by Anne, who had no intention of letting the matter drop. "It's different when you live here," she said. "Somehow, none of it matters too much when you know you are booked on a plane leaving next week. I know when I first came to visit, even before we knew we would be posted here, I was horrified at what I saw and yet, at the same time, it seemed somehow exotic as well. It was only when I came here to live that I realised an airline ticket in the pocket makes it possible to find almost anything exotic, no matter how hideous it truly is. When we did come here to live, nothing was exotic anymore, it was all just horrifying, utterly horrifying!"

Jo watched the involuntary shudder of her shoulders as she finished speaking. She wasn't sure that she wanted to get used to it, and yet, at the same time, she was greatly comforted by the fact that she did have an airline ticket in her pocket. She found it hard to see how such squalor and misery could ever be considered acceptable. "But if you get used to it, as you say, doesn't that mean you are consenting to it in some way? Doesn't it mean that you are saying it's okay for life to be like this?" Jo directed the question at the back of Richard's head, having realised that Anne was unlikely to be of the opinion that one could or should get used to it all. "I mean," she continued as an afterthought, "I can't imagine being anything other than horrified."

"Whether you can imagine it or not is rather beside the point," Richard replied. "The fact is that to live here, you have to get used to it. And whether you want to or not, you will find yourself being horrified less and less the longer you stay. It takes too much energy to be shocked or horrified all the time and most of us simply don't have it to waste. All except Anne, of course." He turned to his wife with a cheery grin and added: "What we all need is a good cup of tea. Isn't that the cure for everything in your family? Let's head for the Taj."

Even as he continued to drive, Jo could see the muscles working at the side of his neck. “And anyway," he added quietly, chewing through the words as if to digest them all the better and all the while appearing to concentrate as they turned the corner, "There really isn't a choice. I would be happy to hear any suggestions that you may have, Jo, but the fact is that there is next to nothing that any of us can do here ... except send regular cheques to the Jesuits and try to treat the people we employ as well as we possibly can. You can always buy food to give to the beggars. I guess that helps. But you do drive past sick people, you do drive past dying people , although thankfully not so often in Bombay because the place does seem to be able to feed the millions who come here, but because even if you stopped, and even if you were prepared to put them in your car, given how incredibly filthy they are ... there you go, see how deep our Christian compassion runs there really is not much you can do for them. And look what we come down to, we worry about how dirty they are, not the fact that they are dying. That's what happens to you here, whether you want it to or not.

"Even if you were a saint and you did pick them up, there is nowhere that you can take them. Most hospitals won't touch them and the few organisations which do try to help are so short of funds and support that they are almost useless. So you keep driving. In this country even good Christians keep driving. We all know what the priests tell us to do. Oh yes, we are meant to ask ourselves what Christ would do in the same situation. Ha, that's a joke! We all know damn well what Christ would do, but that doesn't mean we do it. He had some fairly impressive connections and could rustle up the odd miracle. I don't have any miracles and neither does anyone else in this place, so we all keep driving."

He half turned his head toward Jo: "As you can see, this is not a very convenient place to subscribe to our glorious Christian values. Much easier to be Hindu in India ... they see it all quite differently. They at least are true to what they believe ... we are the ones who are hypocrites. We know what we should be doing, but we don't do it. It sure ruins a Sunday when you go to confession and seek forgiveness and then walk out of the church and step over another body, without taking a second look!" Richard slapped the wheel in frustration and then dropped into silence. He was annoyed as much as anything with his outburst. Religion, and especially his own beliefs, were things which he preferred to keep at a discreet distance. He did not like the way the poverty and cruelty of India pushed him to look at himself. More to the point, he didn't like what he saw on those occasions when he did look. The trouble with being brought up a Catholic, he reflected with annoyance, was that you couldn't get away from the teaching, even if you decided that you weren't particularly interested in the religion. It was indelibly printed on both heart and mind and continued to make a nuisance of itself, no matter what you told yourself you believed.

Richard would not have considered himself to be a good Catholic, but he had become a dutiful one, at least since his marriage. He continued to go to mass, not because of any great spiritual need,` but because it was something he had done as a child and, even as an adult, he had felt no particular urge to either keep it up or to give it away. It had been circumstance, rather than conscious choice, which saw his church-going dwindle through his early adult years. If he felt compelled at all, it was because Anne converted to Catholicism before their marriage and she had embraced it with a devotion which he felt he ought to support ... although even that dedication had dwindled in recent years. But, in one respect at least, half of Charles Blackman's prayers had been answered and the soul of at least one of his daughters could be said to have been saved.

Richard felt somehow responsible for the fact that Anne had become a Catholic, ignorant as he was of her father's prayerful entreaties, and so he considered that it was the least he could do to continue to go to mass. There were times though when he wished just a little that he could put it all quietly to one side, not permanently of course, but simply for the duration of their stay in India. Richard Thompson was a man who was nothing if not practical. This was an inconvenient country in which to hold such demanding beliefs as: 'I am my brother's keeper,' and 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' Such things were hard enough to achieve in a civilized society, but in this medieval world, where one was a temporary visitor, it was no more than sham and farce.

They drove on, past Churchgate Railway Station,which, along with the great and gothic monster of Victoria Terminus, was one of the two main mouths which spewed forth each morning the millions who came to work in the city, some of them travelling for up to five hours in either direction. Even in the early afternoon of a Saturday, the crowd was in motion, criss-crossing the street with insect-like determination. The road took them down along the Oval Maidan, with its palm-fringed stretch of lawn, crisped brown by the full force of the May sun. Off to one side, gargoyles leaned from the top of the university clocktower, leering at the litter on the grass, of people and of paper, in this once-pristine place which had seen the parade of the Empire at its peak. Down past the cinema, with a garish splash of paste and paper on its peeling walls to announce the ‘very latest’ American film offering; a steady diet already considered stale by the outside world.

"That's the Prince of Wales Museum," said Anne, pointing as they veered to the left , at magnificent building in that elaborate Indo-Victorian Gothic style so often found in Bombay. “It's probably worth a visit," she added, while mentally making a note to herself that it would be the sort of thing which Jo could well do on her own. Anne had visited the museum once, shortly after arriving, but found the smell of dust and sweat and little-washed bodies oppressive, wrapped tightly as it had been by the heat into a stale, suffocating package.

She had stumbled through musty rooms where exhibits sat undusted and often unexplained on peeling paper stands, within smeary glass cases. She had looked at the beautiful balustrade, edged in black grime where it met the walls, marked by a million hands rubbing blackly, forever unwiped, following the cool, chipped marble teeth of the staircase to the top. She had walked up the stairs and sat for a time on a forgotten seat, staring through the cracked glass of a window pane, wanting desperately to weep at the dirty shabbiness of it all, the abuse of beauty, the desperate hopelessness of people who did not seem to care for anything. Instead, she became angry and, grabbing her bag, had fled, pushing through the crush of flesh and noise which surged up the stairs, rushing out into the sunlight, turning her face to the bright blue sky in a desperate searching for something not despoiled.

"Well, here we are," said Richard, as he drew up at the front steps of the hotel.

The Taj lobby was cool and busy, dabbed at the pulse-points with mould and dust, sweetened in this instance with a dash of disinfectant. The large, marble-floored reception hall was decorated with couches carved in dark, heavily laquered wood, upholstered in a striped fabric of gold, purple and red. The benches sat in a companionable circle upon a large, blue rug. The walls sported fake fretwork and competed for the eye with the mirrored ceiling. An enormous brass vase offered up a wealth of pink gladioli to all who entered through the wide bank of front doors. More people and more movement. A crier with his tinkling bells called the name of some lost guest; tanned young men with battered rucksacks, both boys and bags in need of a good wash; grey-suited European businessmen; safari-suited Indian businessmen and American businessmen in slacks and short-sleeved shirts; a gaggle of Alitalia air crew, neatly navy-blue; and the tourists, in all shapes, all sizes, all colours, contributing a clattering of tongues to the already reverberating air.

"Come this way," said Anne, striding ahead. "We'll go into the Shamiana." Jo followed, enjoying the air of sanity, of normality, which the hotel offered. The realm through which she had just driven seemed to blur and fade with each step.

"Three teas, please," said Richard to the waiter as they sat down. "Oh, and one serve of samosas, as well. Thanks."

Jo rested her chin on her hands. "Susie would ask me why I drew this experience to myself," she said. "She would say I have to ask myself why I ran away from chaos into more chaos."

"Yes, it's a bit like that," said Richard, with a comforting but dismissive pat on her shoulder, "but take heart, believe me, you will get used to it."

"How is Susie?" asked Anne.

"Oh fine. No man at the moment. She says she isn't interested in men anymore, that there is plenty in her life to keep her occupied and she is enjoying the peace and freedom. I think the main reason is that her mother died last year and as the only child she inherited the entire estate and consequently shouldn't have to worry about money for the rest of her life ... nor have to go to work either. Work is something Susie has always tried to avoid, although I suppose you could say being a mistress is a bit too much like hard work, as far as I'm concerned," Jo added as an afterthought.

"Somehow," said Anne slowly, " I never felt she liked men much.”

That's a funny thing to say," declared Richard, with a look of surprise on his face. "I mean, someone who has made a profession of being ... well, you know ... what she is..."

"No it's not!" countered Anne. "Not at all. It's just that men want everything their own way. They want to pay women for sex and still believe they really love them. It's one big lie from start to finish. For the men it is, anyway. Women know exactly what they are doing. It's men who are the true romantics. When it comes to sex, women are realists. In fact," she went on, warming to the subject, "I believe that it's women who seduce men, not the other way around. It's just that women let men go on believing that they are controlling it all, when the truth is they control nothing."

"Ah, so now it is out," laughed Richard. "That's what you are up to, is it?"

"No, you fool," Anne replied, fighting back a soft smile. "I love you ... most of the time, anyway ... and that makes it all totally different. Although sometimes I am not sure why I do," she finished firmly. The arrival of the tea brought an end to the conversation, as cups were filled and the plate of samosas passed around.

"I must admit I like these things," said Richard, biting into one of the plump, deep-fried packages of vegetables encased in pastry. "So long as they don't have too much chilli in them. Can't stand the stuff, or rather it can't stand me, which is even worse."

Jo ate slowly, washing down the remants of the somewhat greasy pastry with a mouthful of hot, strong tea. For as long as she could remember, tea had been something which made the world seem better. In any crisis, the first cry was always : "Someone put the kettle on."

The magic was not lost. She began to relax and settled back against the bench seat. Richard, who was sitting across from her, had his eyes closed and was drumming his fingers on the table in time to the piped music. How many times had she turned to a cup of tea for comfort? It wasn't the tea, of course, it was what it represented -- something everyday, something normal and simple in a world which no longer seemed normal and was not at all simple. It was ritual which said no more than that life must go on, no matter what. It was a symbol of the ordinariness of life during the most extraordinary of times. She wondered what people in India did to comfort themselves during times of crisis. Perhaps they too drank tea. A sharp intake of breath interrupted her thoughts. She turned toward Anne who was sharing the bench seat with her and found her face frozen with distaste. Jo followed her locked gaze. At an adjoining table, a little further along, sat a portly gentleman in white shirt and brown trousers, .with one leg crossed over the other, making available his foot with its loose-hanging chappal, so he could slowly but systematically massage his toes.

"I'm going to be sick," said Anne, with a protective hunching of her shoulders. "Can you imagine where he has walked? The filth. How can he sit there and play with his toes while he is eating? They are disgusting ... I can't stand it, the way they lie to themselves. How can they think they are so clean, when they have such filthy habits? I can't even understand how they can wear sandals ... I mean, it's putrid out there!"

"Stop huffing and puffing, Anne," said Richard, whose eyes were now open, but who continued to drum on the table. "You are being obsessive, if not ridiculous. They are his toes and it's his lunch. Now just be a good girl, turn around and drink your tea."

Anne curled her lips and gave a disapproving sniff in the direction of the blissfully-unaware gentleman, with his well- massaged toes, and reached for her tea.

"Come on, finish it up," Richard added, more kindly, "Let's take Jo for a walk. This is supposed to be a holiday for her and there are things to see."

They walked from the restaurant with Richard leading the way. He half leaned his head back toward Jo: "This place was built at the turn of the century. It was the first building that most people recognised as the ships came in to dock. It was also the first stop for a drink. It was financed by Jamsetjee Tata, a big Parsi industrialist ... his family is still probably the richest in India. He started with cotton mills. Did very well, made a fortune. The family has been lucky ... they've managed to hold onto it. Everyone was pretty impressed with the place when it opened in l903, not only did it have four hundred bedrooms, but it had electric ceiling fans as well. At least they got that bit right.”

“What do you mean, they got that bit right?" Jo asked, hurrying along behind him in order to catch the disappearing trail of his words.

“Well, the story is that the building was designed by a Frenchman who, when he finally got out here to check on the job, discovered that they had built the hotel the wrong way round," Richard said.” Apparently, he got so distressed, he committed suicice, threw himself from the top of the staircase. Seems a bit of an over-reaction for one simple mistake!"

"It probably was the end of the world,” Jo replied, “as far as that poor fellow was concerned. His great artistic triumph, back to front!"

Richard nodded: "Perhaps, but it all turned out for the best. What would have been the front of the building is now a beautiful verandah, which overlooks the pool. If they had built it the right way round, there would have been no security either. As it is, having the back of the building at the front, makes it easier to protect the place in times of trouble. Might be even more useful than the architect imagined...given the look of things in this country at present."

"What do you mean? Is it really that dangerous?" Jo asked, knowing that she sounded worried and wishing that she didn’t.

"Oh no," Richard replied quickly, but in a voice which rang in Jo's ears with a hollow confidence. "Not at all, at least for the moment, but India is in a state of turmoil and it is becoming more violent all the time. It's hard to see it holding together as one country when it's so divided anyway between caste and class and community ... not to mention religion and language. If the Indians ever were as meek, mild and tolerant as they say they were, it's easy to see that they are no longer. There's a lot of resentment here and it's not just ancient hatreds.The downtrodden are beginning to stir. At least, I think they are.

“Do you mean a caste war?”

“Probably, at least that’s how it’s likely to start. The lower castes have been treated like dirt for so long, it's about time they stood up for themselves. The biggest problem with this country is that every bastard hates someone else. The whole society is about clambering over the bodies of everyone else to get to the top. There's a lot of bodies in this country to clamber over. If India does break up it will be very nasty, indeed. One could do worse than hole up at the Taj until things cool down. Not that I think things will get too bad while we are here," he added, sneaking a look at Anne. "We only have two more years to go."

As they passed the great and glorious staircase which wound in stately rise up into the huge central dome, Jo thought for just a moment she could see the crumpled body of the broken architect, who had thrown himself so many years before from the top of the monument which mocked him. The vision flickered and fled. It was sad to think he had killed himself for a failure which would in time be called a success. If he had allowed himself to live, he would have come to see, in the fullness of time, that all was as it should be. The building had not been constructed back-to-front, but rather it had been designed back-to-front and, when the fates intervened, it was only to put right his wrong.

"We'll take you across the road to have a look at the Gateway of India. It was built in 1911 to commemorate a state visit of King George V an Queen Mary," said Richard, his words coming to her, hand in hand, with a fresh wave of moist and dust-dressed heat and its clamour of smells. Her nostrils quivered at the intensity of it all. The sweet, sickly odour of incense; the cloying sugar-smell of squeezed fruit juices and sliced pineapple; the acrid tang of human and animal ordure; the decaying perfume of discarded food scraps; the searing choke of car exhaust; the rich and revolting smell of rotting fish and embracing it all, the smell of sweat ... always sweat.

"It's a heady little brew, isn't it?" said Richard, with a grin at Anne, who was holding a handkerchief to her nose.

Jo followed him across the road, leaving Anne trailing behind through the beetling dash of the battered black-and-yellow taxis. As she reached the footpath on the other side, she was surrounded by a group of stick-limbed children in ragged clothes, each with an outstretched hand and a whimper on the lips. She wished she had bought some food from the bakery across the road, but it was too late now. For a moment she felt trapped by this ragged band of street waifs, the oldest of whom must have been no more than seven, but then Anne came hurrying up behind her with a sharp: "Go away!" She, of course, was completely ignored, for these children of the street can smell new blood and they knew instantly that Jo was a novice. They pressed closer, reaching out with dirt-encrusted fingers, picking at the edges of her skirt. Jo was overcome with horror at the thought that they might actually touch her and then, in the same instant, overcome with even more horror that she had thought such a thing. But salvation was at hand. Richard re-appeared like a lunging giant and his roar of: "Go away!" was obeyed in an instant, a tangle of dusky limbs fluttering in all directions as the children fled.

"Are you okay?" he asked, taking Jo's arm and giving it a comforting squeeze. "It's a bit much the first time."

Anne reached out and took Jo's other arm and they guided her in safety, through the scattering flocks of pigeons, beneath the shadows of the soaring arch.

They drove home along the traffic-tangled sweep of Marine Drive, with the skyline fading to a haze, along with the day. By the time they pulled into the driveway, Jo could not really be sure of all that she had seen: the hump-backed beggar boy, dragging along the gutter in a cruel curl of twisted spine; the leper, brandishing his small tin can for offerings, draped in a dangle on his scabrous stump; the face at the bus window, cupped hand at his nose, a jerk of the head, the gelatinous sliding down the side of the bus, a new path traced, meandering through the encrusted dirt. She wanted to hope that she had not seen such things, but she knew it was not possible to simply imagine the pictures which now re-played in a stark flickering.

"I think I could do with a sleep," Jo sighed, as she walked through the front door behind Anne and Richard.

"That's a good idea," said Anne. There's a few hours until dinner. We have a drink about seven. See you then."

But even in the cool quiet of her room, safe within, drifting toward sleep, the swollen, bloated back of the boy rose, crookedly, at the rim of her thoughts; his face contorted with the turn of his head; his soft, dead eyes threatening her yet. For a moment, she feared the terror was back - that beyond the memories of the day lurked another remembering: forgotten, dangerous.

There had been too many days when the terror came to stay with her, waiting ready by the side of the bed when she awoke, walking with her, sitting with her, eating with her ... and touching her, with that breathless catch to the throat and pound of the heart; drifting in a perfume of fear through her nostrils. Terror had taken her hand, even as she slept and the demons crept through the damp corridors of night to taunt her. Day and night, they stayed with her and, if she had not believed that they would have chased her even into the realms of death, then she would have chosen that as a final escape.

As it was, she had endured, dragging herself from her bed each morning, away from the voices which whispered: ‘Stay with us. Die with us.’ She did not stay. She did not die, although she lived long a death of sorts. She set herself goals. Each day, she worked through her list of domestic tasks, knowing that in the doing, she was triumphing against the malignant spirits; quieting their shrill cackle. She had demanded of herself that she do one special thing each day ... bake a cake, work in the garden, read a book ... on the rare days when her mind and the words on the page remained still enough for reading. She did the things that she would have done if she had been a real person; small, simple things that made a day better for the being.

She had also demanded of herself that she smile at the children when they came home from school. It took every ounce of energy which she possessed to drag herself through the raw, stretched moments, but ultimately she had triumphed. The blackness moved grudgingly behind and her marriage regained a semblance of normality. For a time she found a sort of peace, but the respite had been brief. It was only when David finally left that she was called back to the blackness to complete all that was required of her. It had been then that she had learned the truth of hell: that we fear hell because we know it is within us - it is us. It is that state of being when we know we cannot escape from what we fear because we are what we fear.

It is the true terror, the truth of Hades, the torture of being eternally trapped with ourselves. Hope lies only in the belief that we can transform, that we can walk with courage into those pitch-blind places and learn their depths; that we can face the monsters; that we can prevail. It is the teaching of the aeons, of myth and of legend that we can survive the tests and the devils and the tricksters. For it is a truth that we make our own demons and, because they are of our own imaginings, when we do not flee from them, but turn and face them down, they will vanish, even scatter, like so much star dust at our feet.

We are one and the same even though we know it not, birthed from the same cataclysmic exploding; the bursting forth of the eternal dust, that which is both matter and mind. To believe in our own power is the first step and the bravest, for it is a fearful journey, and it takes much courage. The way is hard and long, but the rewards are great. For Jo, that first step had not been a matter of choice, but rather one of survival. For she had come to know, through the whisperings of the angels, that it was at that point of seeming choice that many choose death - physical or psychological. It was not possible to go back, one must either go forward or remain, imprisoned.

It is at such times that many choose to die in their life, rather than to live in their death, in order to know the truth of the resurrection. But the fates drag only those who will not; those who will, they guide, and as sleep claimed gentle victory Jo heard a quiet voice, reaching out to still the rising panic, and she knew, that in this case at least, the path to madness lay not within her, but without.

Jo closed the clasp on the small string of pearls at her throat. She loved their soft, warm glow. They had been a gift to herself ... a celebration when her divorce came through ... a celebration of sorts where sadness wept at the feet of freedom and grief kept sombre watch, but a celebration all the same. The pearls were something pure and sacred, no longer hidden; the treasure of the feminine self restored. They were a symbol of her survival. She stepped back from the mirror. Not bad, not too bad at all, she smiled to herself. The black silk shirt fell down over the rise of her breasts, bringing a glow to the tanned sheen of her skin. She had lost weight; there was something at least to be said for a nervous breakdown. The black linen slacks fitted the curve of her hips and tucked in at the waist with a neat pleating.

She walked over to the bed and picked up her belt. It had been a gift from David, in the full grip of guilt. She had done well in that respect for a time. The belt was exsquisite - fine, soft, black Italian leather, with a full-feathered peacock engraved on the square, sterling silver buckle. He had tried. She knew that now. It was just that he had tried in the wrong way. He had given gifts, expensive gifts, when all that she had wanted was love. But that was something he had not had to give.

She traced a finger over the buckle. There had been peacocks in the park when she was a child and each season, when their brilliance was born anew, she collected the remnants of the resurrection and carried home, to her secret place, the ephemeral colours of life and passion. Her mother considered such things to be dirty, dropped as they were upon the dusty earth, so Jo had hidden them well, covering the shimmer of feathered eye; wrapping its glory in old newspaper and secreting the discarded vision beneath her bed.

When they left the town, it was the park she missed most of all. It had been a safe place, a beautiful place, especially in the early mornings. She often stopped there on her way to school. The park had once been a part of the main homestead, built on the first farm established in the valley. A family called Bowman had moved there in 1880 and had built, in a curve of the hill, their new home. They called their first-born son, Hamilton Bridge, named after the tiny hamlet; another new beginning. But it was no more than a brief beginning for the child. His gravestone stood, with half a dozen others, in the family cemetery, at the boundary of the park. Jo would trace the name, long-carved into the soft, brown stone: Hamilton Bridge Bowman, 2 years, 3 months, 5 days. It had been a counting of a life, begun with such hope, ended so soon.

The town had lived longer than the boy, but had grown little. It had known instead a life which was more of a slow dying, and what remained of the child, in that still, guarded place was in its own way, a slow living. She had found herself drawn back, time and again, into the sheltering skirts of the bush, where she would sit for hours, crouched in the womb of the day. She would wait, at the edge of the tomb, listening for the liquid, crystal carol of the magpies' morning song, which heralded the beginning, fresh with the wet crisp of eucalypt in the grey-green haze of dawn ... and in the distance, the peacocks would scream.

She clipped a pearl earring to each ear and gave the belt buckle a final pat, before walking from the room. She found Anne on the verandah, a glass in her hand and a magazine on her lap. "Hi, how are you feeling?" asked Anne, as she closed the magazine and placed it neatly on the table beside her. "Good sleep?”

“Yes thanks. I feel quite refreshed, in fact. Restored even. Where's Richard?”

“He won't be long. Just getting changed. I am always ready before he is. He does it on purpose, I am sure. Come in and get a drink."

"That's an impressive liquor cabinet," Jo said, as they walked into the dining room. Her eye had been taken by the curving swoop of carving, inlaid with ivory, which adorned the head. of a tall, glass-fronted cabinet.

"Yes, it is lovely, isn't it?" Anne replied, as she ran one hand along the glossy wood. "They made some wonderful pieces here in the early part of the century. They are copies of English Victorian furniture, in the main, but with that brilliant Indian flair for decoration. There you are, something I like about the place! What would you like to drink? I'm having gin and tonic."

"That would be fine," replied Jo, who had by now wandered off to the side of the room and was asorbed in a gold-framed miniature picture hanging on the wall. "This is beautiful, too," she said. "You have such lovely things." She moved closer, drawn by the brilliance of colour and the fine detail of the painting. The boy, in his high-tied dhoti, cummerbund at the waist, held a whip in one hand and two leashed dogs in the other. "This work is so fine," breathed Jo. "I can almost see his eyelashes. He looks so sad. Maybe he doesn't like dogs."

"Who knows," said Anne, with a laugh, dropping two pieces of finely sliced lemon into the tinkle of ice in the tall glass. "Here, your drink is ready." She turned and walked over to where Jo was standing and stood beside her, also admiring the miniature. "I love it, too," she said, reaching out to wipe the dust, real or imagined, from its frame. "It's one of my favourite pieces. It's been done on mica. These paintings were very popular gifts in the 19th century. Many of them were posted home to friends and family in England to give people an idea of what life was like in Inda. That's why so many of them depict people at their work ... like this dog boy."

"How old is this one?"

"Oh, from about 1840, I think. They were first painted in Murshidabad, the old capital of Bengal. Apparently they had heaps of mica in the neighbouring hills. They also used it to make decorations for festivals and then, I suppose, someone must have come up with the bright idea of painting on it ... pictures of the manners and customs of the people. I imagine they fell out of favour with the advent of the camera," Anne continued, "but they really provide a fascinating record of those earlier times, if only because they captured, in such detail, the clothes and costumes of the ordinary people ... even those as humble as this dog boy. He probably looks as sad as he does because he got to sleep with the dogs as well as look after them!"

"Hello, you two, drinking already, I see," said Richard, his voice rising to an echo in the high-ceilinged room. "How many do I have to drink to catch up?"

"Very funny," replied Anne, with a dismissive but light-hearted tone. "This is our first, thank you very much," she added, with a toss of her head. "I was just telling Jo about the mica painting."

"They make a nice gift," said Richard, pouring a substantial amount of gin into his glass, "although you would have to care about somebody very much because they are not cheap. How about taking one home to your mother!" he finished, with a chuckle.

"He's only saying that because he gave it to me for Christmas," whispered Anne. "Come on, let's sit outside."

She turned to Richard: "By the look of it, you are on to your second gin already and it's all in one glass. We'll see you on the verandah."

"I always say you have to plan ahead," Richard called after them, grinning fixedly as he concentrated upon the effort of sliding the ice-cubes slowly down the side of the glass in order not to splash any of the precious liquid.

When he joined the two women, they were sitting quietly, both watching the gardener washing the dust of the day from the roses. He pulled his chair into the table with a clatter and turned to Jo: "I must say you've quietened down a bit. I remember a time when you used to talk non-stop."

"And you used to complain about it all the time," she countered. "Anyway, I guess now I know who I am and don't have to try so hard to be who or what I’m supposed to be." She continued to watch the boy with the hose, his shape fading in the slow slide of dusk.

Richard looked somewhat puzzled by her reply, sober as it had seemed in response to his light-hearted teasing, but he chose silence as the acceptable course of action. He did not want to get involved in one of ‘those’ conversations. Jo had become a bit deep and meaningful.

"What do you mean, you don't have to try so hard to be who or what you’re supposed to be,?”asked Anne, picking up the topic with both hands, much to Richard's annoyance.

"Talking," replied Jo slowly, "does two things ... it allows you to forget things too fearful to think about and it reminds you that you really exist. People who talk a lot are invariably insecure. They talk because it stops them from thinking."

Richard arched his eyebrows as Jo finished and Anne, who at that moment found her chair to be less than comfortable, put considerable effort to the task of re-settling herself. She had reached, although perhaps unknowingly, a point of common agreement with her husband.

"Here Jo, have an olive," said Richard, proffering a small bowl piled high with the fat, black fruits. "Take your mind off things."

"No thanks. Can't stand them!" Jo made a suitable face to express her distaste.

"Just try one," pushed Anne. "They've been in a marinade of oil, balsamic vinegar and rosemary."

Jo shook her head. "No thanks. I couldn't really. It's on my list of things to do, but for the moment I'm not quite up to eating olives."

They sat in silence, Richard more than a little relieved at the successful re-direction of the conversation. The gardener had gone, the watering done. The drenched roses drooped in gratitude. The light slipped quietly away, stealing the shadows from the banyan tree. The last crows called and the quiet of night settled into place. Richard was the first to speak, but, as if in awe of the darkness, his voice had dropped. No longer a boom, it was restrained and low: "So, how did you enjoy the drive, Jo?"

"Enjoy hardly seems the right word. So much of this place looks as if it has been blitzed," she responded.

"It could only be an improvement if a bomb did land on it," said Anne darkly.

"With our luck, any bomb would hit the Breach," snorted Richard.

"He means Breach Candy Swimming Club," Anne explained. "It's probably the cleanest place in town."

"Is there anywhere which is clean ... normal?" asked Jo.

"No, not really," said Anne, with a shake of her head. "This is probably the best of it ... where we live and around Malabar Hill. That's where the rich live, but by our standards, it's still incredibly filthy, even though you do come across streets from time to time which look leafy and are relatively free of street people." She shook at her glass, turning the ice around and around in a tinkling of agitation. "The thing I find hard to understand," she went on, "is why even the people who have the money don't bother to keep anything clean. I mean, they have the power to do something and yet they do nothing at all. This place is awash with cheap labour ... it could be the cleanest country in the world. Instead, look at it!" The statement was presented with a further rattling of ice.

"You overlook one vital point," said Richard, stifling the beginning of a yawn. "It simply is not important to them. That's why it stays dirty. It has nothing to do with money, they just do not care. You only have to go into the office blocks to see that. The lifts, corridors, stairwells are abysmal. Then you walk through the door into an office, which is spick and span ... all except the kitchen and toilet, of course. They are usually horrific, no matter where you are. That's because toilets and kitchens are the responsibility of the servants and no respectable Indian would deign to notice the state of them. That would be beneath their dignity. And, as for anything beyond the front door, forget it! What is beyond the front door is communal and no-one will waste money on something which does not belong entirely to them. There is no sense of civic responsibility in this country -- not as we know it, anyway. That's why the people who piss and spit in the stairwells are just as likely to be the people from the top of society as they are the poor wretches from the very bottom.

"I've seen businessmen in expensive Italian suits stop outside the front door of Grindlays Bank and piss in the gutter before going in for some high-level meeting. There was one young fellow, very well dressed, when we were staying at the Oberoi ... you remember, Anne ... we were sitting by the pool and he probably didn't see us, but he walked to the far end of the garden and unzipped his trousers and urinated in the corner. Choice, very choice. And he was no peasant, let me tell you. You go into places like the shopping centre at the Oberoi ... beautifully done, as nice as you would find anywhere, polished granite all over the place ... and in the corners they still piss and spit as if it were a gutter.

"It's a different world and there's no point trying to compare this place to what we know. The rules are different. It isn't possible to make a relevant comparison. India ranges from the twelfth to the twentieth century and there is very little of it in the latter. But it's their country and they have every right to live in it just as they wish. We are entitled to our opinion, but we are not necessarily entitled to express it. Not to them anyway. We are visitors, after all. Some people seem to forget that." Richard stood up as he finished speaking, casting a quick look in Anne's direction, before flicking the switch by the side of the door. Three bowls of orange light glowed along the verandah. His glass was empty. He decided it was time for a refill.

"Enough of India," said Anne in a semi-whisper, as he walked inside. "Richard hates talking about it. He says it's all a waste of breath. I think he is frightened that one day he will come out and say what he really thinks. Richard's solution to everything is to ignore it. I'm sure he believes that, if you don't talk about something, it will go away. Maybe he's right," she added wistfully. "Anyway, on to other things. Do you see anything of David these days?"

" No. I don't know that it would be good for either of us," Jo answered. "There is no need, everything is settled. He sees quite a bit of Sophie and Michael though."

"Does he have another woman? I hear the Susan thing didn't last."

"Yes, there is another woman. There is always another woman with David. I think he has discovered he is good at it...getting them, that is. I am not so sure about the keeping. He still seems to be making plenty of money. All in all, nothing much has changed ... except me, of course, and that's all I care about." Jo emptied her glass with a determined flourish.

Anne rose to her feet in a quick, unexpected movement, as if afraid that Jo had something more to say. Declaring that it was time to check on the dinner, she turned and hurried through the door.

The night was warm, busy with the clicking chatter of tiny lizards and the rhythmic shrill of crickets. From somewhere, in a drift, came the smell of jasmine, hand in hand with the ever-present mould, dust and redolent richness of massed humanity. In the courtyard below, a milky deliquescence in the darkness: Jo could just make out the figure of a woman moving through the garden, a long trailing of white in her wake. The spectral figure dipped and flowed, making a circuit of the roses. Where the face should have been, there was only a deeper blackness, an evanescence within the ghostly halo.

It was Mrs Mehta, as Jo quickly reasoned, on an inspection of her precious garden. She preferred to visit at this time. It was, in many ways, a sacred ritual, a puja of sorts, although she would never have admitted it to be such. It was a communion best served by the anonymity of night. It was in the raven depths that the flowers sang most clearly to her, of purity and of passion, of war and of peace. They offered beauty and they offered pain, the eternal marriage; the secret bitterness of love. In the stygian world of non-seeing, the thorns lay hidden ... only the blossoms could sometimes be seen, dressed in the pale breath of a fading moon.

Jo jumped at the touch of a hand upon her shoulder. Richard had come up silently behind her. She had not even sensed his presence, drifting as she was in the mists of the distant garden. "Come on, old girl. Dinner is ready," he said. "You seem to have wandered off a bit there. No escape from reality around here, I'm afraid." Richard headed for the dining room at a stride and Jo followed meekly, turning as she did for one last, quick look into the depths below. There was only stillness; empty gloom. Mrs Mehta had gone. Her mystery was complete.

The large room luxuriated in the forgiving flicker of candlelight. Anne had placed candles at either end of the long dining table. There were more along the sideboard. The mellifluous shadowing of living light caressed the broad expanse of cream-painted walls and played with the green and grey of the triangular tiles which patterned the floor. The room glowed. Only the corners remained in darkness.

There was no denying, Jo reflected, that everything looked better in candlelight. It hid a multitude of sins. "There's something merciful about candlelight, isn't there?" she said to Anne as she sat at the table. "I think it's a must for any woman over forty ... at least in the dining room and the bedroom."

"I think it's a must for men over forty, too," Anne replied, with a quick wink in Richard's direction. "Some more than others! Anyway, you can have too much light, as far as I'm concerned."

"What she is really saying," said Richard, as he leaned toward Jo conspiratorially, "is that she is too mean to pay for the electricity. You know what these Virgos are like!"

Anne straightened the flowers in the centre of the table and raised her pert little nose in disdainful dismissal. Richard rose to the challenge: "Actually," he added, "we have more than enough power cuts around here to keep her happy. It's one of the things she likes about India!" Anne threw him a withering look, but did not deign to reply, busy as she was with the final arrangement of the table.

They ate well. Anne was a superb cook, bringing her talent for perfection to the task. She believed that every meal should be worth eating, reasoning that if one enjoyed food then there would be at least three occasions in every day which could provide pleasure, no matter what else was happening in one's life.

The large, shallow plates of chilled beetroot soup swirled with yogurt were followed by chicken breasts, braised in butter and flamed with cognac. There were side dishes of eggplant, layered with mozzarella and home-made tomato sauce; crisp wedges of potato, baked with garlic in butter and oil, a spinach souffle, puffed and light, enriched with eggs, ground almonds and parmesan cheese; and a big platter of hot, chewy corn bread, cut into fat, steaming squares.

Richard poured wine into the tall-stemmed crystal glasses: a chardonnay, honey-yellow, robust and fresh with fruit. "This one's from the Barossa," he said. "A touch of the real world!"

Jo raised her glass: "Well, here's to you two. What a wonderful meal. You don't do too badly, at all."

"We try," said Anne. "God knows, we try," she added, with a small laugh. "The wine is a treat in honour of your visit. Richard brought a couple of bottles back with him the last time he went home. Most of the time we drink cask wine, as we can transport it more easily. Opening a bottle is a special treat. Indian wine is undrinkable and the French wine which is available here is shockingly expensive and often undrinkable as well because it's so badly stored. This climate can age wine a hundred years in a week! It's not kind. You do learn to appreciate it though, when you have it. Deprivation is a wonderful teacher. Familiarity does breed contempt!"

"Thanks very much," Richard teased. "So you find me contemptible, do you?"

"Idiot," said Anne, pressing her lips down on a smile.

"I don't suppose we've spent enough time around each other in the past twenty years to be either familiar or contemptible," Jo said, looking sideways at Anne, with a small, questioning smile.

Anne nodded her head in agreement: "Yes, it does seem like an eternity since we have had a chance to sit down and talk. I guess it is ... in a way. We've got a lot of catching up to do."

"I can take a hint," said Richard. "I'm for an early night anyway, so if you two want to sit up and chat into the wee small hours, I have no intention of getting in your way." He yawned, feigning weariness for a moment until Mary, having cleared away the dirty plates, placed a bowl of mango ice-cream in front of him. "Then again, I'm not too tired to eat," he said, reaching for the plate of brandy snaps..

Jo leaned back in her chair and stretched. She was feeling more than a little weary herself. It had been a long day. There was plenty of time to talk with Anne. No need to rush anything.

Mary came in with the coffee tray and placed it on a marble-topped Victorian console, which stood against the far wall. It was a whimsical piece, elaborately carved with swirls of ivy. The focal point was a large, gilded rose, which rested in the centre of a skirt of wooden leaves. Solid legs curled down into corpulent, clawed feet. Anne followed Jo's eye. "We claim no credit for that one," she said. "It was inherited from Mrs Mehta. She insisted that it had been in this room since her childhood and that she had no intention of removing it. As you can see, it is not quite our taste. The sofa is ours, though."

She pointed in the direction of a graceful couch of carved wood and woven cane, which stood at the end of the room. A delicate edging of leaves traced across the back of the sofa and, on either side, the wood wound, lily-like, to finish in wide, curved arm-rests. It looked to be more beautiful than practical. Jo could see why it would appeal to Richard and Anne. It was not that she did not admire their taste, rather that she believed a home was more for living in than looking at.

Richard wiped his mouth with his napkin, folded it carefully into a neat square and placed it on the table in front of him. He turned to Jo: "How are things back home? I haven't been there for four months and we don't get much news up this way. The Indian papers are good on local issues, but you would swear that the world begins and ends here. We get snippets about what is happening in Europe and America, but as for Australia ... forget it! I gather the recession is hitting pretty hard."

Jo swallowed the last spoonful of ice-cream, letting the rich, perfume fill her nostrils. She patted her mouth, fearful lest the orange cream had clung to the small hairs which she knew were clamouring to take charge of her upper lip, in this the late summer of her life. "I think things are okay," she said at last, following a final, firm wipe. "At least, I don't think things are as bad as they say. Everyone grizzles a lot, but David is still making money, if that is anything to go by. The economy is stumbling along. People are taking holidays at home instead of going to Europe and not replacing their cars with newer models, but most of the people we know don't seem to be suffering too badly. I think Australians like to play ‘We'll all be ruined’ just because, deep down, we know how lucky we really are. One look at this place and you realise we don't know we are alive. It's so clean organised ... the sky is so blue, there's so much space ... India is like some hideous, medieval nightmare."

"Yes", interjected Anne, "we quickly lose sight of what we have. It's so good to know there's a real world out there ... a normal world."

"I guess that depends on what you call normal," replied Jo. "This world must be normal for the people who live here. It only seems terrible to us because we have a comparison."

"Well, yes, of course, but that doesn't make it good," pressed Anne. "I mean, there is a better way to live and it has more to do with attitude than with wealth. The sooner these people learn that, the better off they will be."

"But maybe they are quite happy as they are," said Jo, already growing tired of what seemed to be Anne’s obsession with India. She knew that she sounded querulous, but she didn’t care. "Who are you to say how they should live or what they should be?” she went on. “ We can make assessments about how we see things, but at the end of the day, they have every right to live any way that they want."

"No-one is disputing that," said Richard, settling himself to re-enter the conversation. "I just wish that they would stop complaining about how poor and oppressed they are. They create their own misery. Do you know what the black economy is worth in this country ... around fifteen billion dollars a year ... real dollars ... American dollars? And that doesn't include the money generated by crime and drugs ... that's just the ‘honest’ black economy ... if you want to use an oxymoron. This place is poor because the people make it poor and it's a mess for the same reason."

Anne sat, twisting her napkin, transforming its starched perfection into something rag-like, limp and listless. "I think that is why it scares me so much," she said in a stricken voice. "Sometimes I think that, when we go back home, it won't be there anymore. It will all be like this. The whole world will be consumed by this ... this madness."

"Don't be ridiculous," said Richard sharply, throwing his by-now retrieved and also mangled napkin onto the table. "The Western world is the modern world and that is where the whole world is going. India and places like it are trapped in the past. If they want to stay there, they can. This is where we have been, but we have left it behind ... and so will they, I suspect, no matter how much they may fight against it. All this rubbish about resisting Western values when the fact is they are resisting modern values, civilized values. You can't go backward, you have to go forward. It's in the nature of things."

Anne stared at him, wanting desperately to believe his words, but knowing her own fear would prevent her from doing so: "Are you so sure about that?" she asked weakly.

"Yes, of course I am sure. There would be no point in living otherwise. Anyway, there's only room for one pessimist in this family and you do such a sterling job, who am I to compete? I think I'll take my coffee and go to bed. See you in the morning.” Richard strode from the room, his cup clinking on the saucer rather more than he would have liked, but not detracting overmuch from the august nature of his departure.

"Come on," said Jo, solicitously, more than a little disturbed at this new and timid side of Anne, one which she had previously not seen. "Let's have a cognac and take our coffee out on to the verandah. There's very little that a drink and a starry sky can't fix."

Anne stood up, as if in a daze: "You're not likely to find many stars out there. Too much pollution. Anyway, the monsoon isn't far away ... there will be a lot of cloud cover. The cognac is in the liquor cabinet. I'll have a big one." She turned and walked with ponderous tread, out onto the verandah - into the clouded night.

When Jo came out with the tray, she found the verandah in darkness. Anne was a collapsed shape in one of the chairs."Don't you want the lights on?"

"No thanks. It's fine like this."

They sat in silence for what seemed an endless time, moments becoming ancient, broken only by Anne's sighs, deep and regular, falling in hard, forced breaths. Finally Anne spoke: "It's like living some insane nightmare, where the most unimaginable filth and squalor and degradation surrounds you on every side and any attempt at normality, at decency, is frustrated by corruption, inefficiency and sheer incompetence. And all around the Indians are smiling and shaking their heads, agreeing with everything you say, humouring you ... because you are just an eccentric foreigner. They know it's just a matter of time before you stop seeing all these unimportant things like poverty, cruelty and sheer venality and see them as the superior beings that they are. I live in terror that one day I will see what they see and then I will know I am as mad as they are."

Jo sat silent. She did not know what Anne wanted her to say, did not know even if Anne needed her to say anything. She guessed it was enough just to be there. Anne was talking more to herself than to anyone else. She was trying to convince herself of her own sanity; her own rightness in a wrong world. She knew what that was like. The hospital staff, smiling, nodding, placating, they had also been sure in their rightness. They had known that, in time, she would come to see the world as they saw it. And she did.

It hadn't been such a bad thing. Each world has its own rules and, to live in any one, we must, in the main, ascribe to those rules. To do other leads only to madness. In the end, it was all a kind of madness though, just with different names. We choose our own reality and, if it fits well within the world in which we live, then we thrive. But if we choose wrongly, then we are rejected by the world and urged, forced, to change our ways... to capitulate, to become like all the others. We learn to behave, to be good, and, in the doing, we often lose ourselves. We have to be very sure that the reality which we choose is the right one, both for ourselves and for the world in which we live. In the farthest reaches of hell live those who are doubly lost.

Anne stirred, shifting herself in her seat, unseen, lost as she was in the gloom of a moonless night. "They are like children,” she whispered at last. “This whole city looks, for all the world, like a bunch of kids playing house. But it's real. It's all so hideously real. They are undisciplined children. Tantrums, arguments, lies ... they lie and lie and lie and lie. Children of the lie, in the land of the lie," she said bitterly. "What we call truth doesn't exist here. In India, it is enough to wish that something were true to say that it is so. They forget what they have said from one minute to the next, because none of it is real: they are just saying what they think you want to hear and they will say something entirely different to the next person, even if you are standing there in front of them. It's all insane. There's no substance, nothing to hold on to ... nothing but empty words ... nothing but chaos." Her words ended in a sob. Jo wasn't sure whether it was of anger or of grief, but suspected it was probably both, in equal measure.

"The truth of it is, I despise them." Her voice was steadier now. "And I hate myself for that. I don't know why I should, of course, because Indians are totally racist. They despise any number of people .... all those that they consider to be inferior. I should feel perfectly at home. This is one country where it’s not only allowed to despise others, it’s expected! The caste system is based on one lot of people being superior to another, so why should I feel bad. I am an amateur. I don't actually consider the people to be inferior, as they do, I simply think their society , what they call their famous culture, is inferior. "

"Well, why do you hate yourself if you are only doing to them what they do to others?" Jo asked quietly.

"Because I am just like them. I am a hypocrite. I live the lie too. I hate myself because I do not have the courage to tell the truth. When people ask me what I think about Bombay, about India ... I tell them it is interesting or different. Mass murderers are interesting and leprosy is different! So I tell white lies because I don't want to hurt people's feelings ... and because I am a coward."

“There’s no such thing as a white lie,” said Jo.

“Don’t you think I know that?” Anne replied, in a voice sharp-edged with bitterness. “That’s what makes it all so much worse. All lies are black. What we call white lies are simply black lies which we have given ourselves permission to tell.”

“I”m sorry,” said Jo, “I know you know. I’m not attacking you. You’re no different to anyone else and I’m not saying I’m any better. “

“I know,” returned Anne in a softer voice. “It’s just that I feel so trapped.”

"It's the lies that trap us,” said Jo, and the ones we tell ourselves do the most damage. We tell ourselves that what we are saying is only a white lie and doesn't matter. They all matter. I always wondered how David could tell the lies that he did when he was having the affair...I couldn't believe that anyone could look you in the eye and consciously set out to deceive. Then I organised a surprise birthday party for Sophie and that taught me how easy it was to lie. The first one was hard, but then I came to actually enjoy it. There's a sort of power in knowing that you are the only one who has the full truth. Of course, I was lying for a good cause ... but then, that's what we always tell ourselves. David was lying for a good cause when he was committing adultery. You are lying for a good cause because you don't want to hurt people's feelings ... but when you boil it all down, it's still lying."

"I'm so tired," whispered Anne. "So very, very tired. I'm so tired of hating India. It eats away at me. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, that one day I will leave but I’m not sure anymore that it will leave me. All my brave words aginst injustice, poverty, corruption... and here I am surrounded by it ... doing nothing!"

She began to cry quietly. Anne spent a lot of time feeling guilty in India. She felt guilty when she gave to the beggars, guilty when she did not; guilty when she said what she thought, guilty when she did not and so lied by omission; guilty when she thought about what she had and what others did not have ... all in all, more than enough guilt to go around and more than her fair share, some would say.

She was really quite unsuited to this unapproachable land. She had a nature so fastidious that each smear of grime, each heap of rubbish, each crooked pipe, each piece of shoddy workmanship, each cruel iniquity rose up in stark relief to mock and threaten all she held dear. She suffered mightily in this dark and desperate world. More than that, she feared the weakness and the rage within her own self which India had revealed. Only that morning she had stood in the shower, shivering with angry tears, her hair full of soap and nothing but a dribble from the tap, because the gardener had, yet again, emptied the water tank onto the roses. More tears then because she screamed at the hapless youth and yet more tears because she knew that, despite her rage, he would probably do the same thing again tomorrow.

She lived in a world over which she had no control; the Indian myth made manifest. Life was a never-ending wheel of eternal sorrow, with telephones which did not work, toilets which did not flush, taps which did not run... where all was shoddy, inferior, ineffectual ... where nothing was as it should be, nothing ordered, nothing safe. It was like a disease - this great spiritual truth of the sub-continent, and one which she feared would infect the world. It would be a world where nothing could be secured without bribery, where people painted over windows and light switches and door handles; where carpenters made cupboards with doors which did not close, drawers which always stuck, handles which fell off; where plumbers nailed pipes to the wall in a crazy, crooked, hideous maze; a world without pride, without excellence, without order.

"Sometimes I think it would be easier to kill myself," she mumbled half-heartedly through her sobs.

"Death is rather final," said Jo, trying to leaven the weight of her words with humour. "Anyway, aren't you the one who told me that anything in life can be solved if it is approached logically, rationally and sensibly."

Anne raised her head and, with a sigh of deathly exhaustion, said: "Yes, I did say that, but that was when I lived another life in another world. It doesn't work here. The person I was when I said that is not who I am now. There are some problems which can't be solved that way ... I know that now ... India is one of them and so am I." She began to cry again, with a slow heaving as the sobs fought to escape. Jo moved across and sat at her feet, resting her head against her knees in a gesture meant to comfort, but not to intrude. Anne whispered softly into the back of Jo's head: "I am so very, very tired."

Jo knew only that there was very little she could do. Her sister had stumbled into the forest, at the thickest part, where there was no way or path. She wandered now through the cruellest depths of her wasteland. Jo knew something of that land. She had found it herself, within the halls of madness, but then India, for Anne, was also a kind of madness. It was a country which tolerated the intolerable; a country which lived the unliveable and a country which dreamed the impossible. There was no true map in this troubled land, which barely knew the truth of its own being.

The nightmare had been made manifest for Anne and she stumbled through its cruel valleys. Her eyes were firmly closed and no-one but herself could bring about an opening. It was in the blackness of night, when the boundaries of being were blurred, that Anne saw her fears rise up in triumph. It was then that she circled the truth of her world, fearing to strike out and find what was but the life of a night away. Yet it is only when the darkness is united with the light that perfection can be born and the moral initiative lies with each and every one of us and should not be left to any other, not even to God.


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