Friday, February 05, 2010

Children of the Lie: Chapter Eight


A Matter Of Custom

The Ramada Inn stood guard like a fat, square battleship, berthed beside the flotilla of lights which draped the beachside food and drink stalls. The drive had taken longer than expected and Richard was in a less-than-charming mood. He did not particularly want to be here; he was not in the mood for a wedding, but it was one of those things which had to be done. The groom worked somewhere in the bank and, as is the way with weddings in India, invitations had been liberally distributed, especially to the higher echelons of management. A wedding, like all other occasions, was as much an opportunity for business as for family celebration. It had been deemed by his seniors that it was Richard's turn to represent the bank on this particular occasion.

To be fair, he did not necessarily mind such socialising, but he had been travelling for much of the week and rattling from one side of the country to the other at the mercy of the national airline was not much fun. He had done remarkably well considering, with a mere five-hour hold-up in Madras and only a two-hour wait in the airport at Calcutta. But returning home only that morning he was feeling the strain of a week on the road. He found these weddings tiresome at the best of times and, on this occasion in particular, most of his energy and patience had been left at various airports across the country.

"I don't know why they are having a wedding at this time of the year, anyway," he muttered irritably, as they got out of the car.

"Perhaps there were family problems and they had to delay it," Anne replied. "They had probably already paid a booking fee to the hotel and couldn't put it off any longer. Besides, this week has been remarkably dry and there's no wind tonight, so it should be fine." She smoothed the creases from her suit of vivid green silk and then, just to be on the safe side, gave Richard a brush across the shoulders which finished in a final pat of comfort. "Come on," she added. "Let's go and do the right thing. We don't have to stay long. You know what these functions are like .. thousands of people and you just walk through to let them see your face."

Jo, who had been standing to one side watching the final brushing and preening, began a straightening and smoothing of her own clothes, without any noticeable effect. She wore a long, straight dress of navy blue linen which had creased impressively during the lengthy, cramped drive and which intended to stay unsmoothed, despite her efforts. "Who cares," she told herself. No-one was likely to be all that interested in what she was wearing. It was time, anyway, she got used to the fact, that she was simply one of those women who drooped and wilted almost from the moment they walked away from the mirror. Perhaps it was one of fate's cruel jokes that, as soon as her hair was perfectly in place, she would walk under a fan or be blown about by a stray breeze and never, but never, would the released strands fall back into place. Rather, they dangled and hung wherever their fancy took them and their fancy generally took them to unattractive places.

There were times when she wondered if Anne had not been made with a small amount of plastic mixed in among all those billions of cells. Her hair always remained in place, her lipstick never smudged over the edges; her mascara would not run; her eyeshadow refused to gather in a thick line at the crease and .... neither did she appear to sweat. There was no shine to the nose; no damp seep around the armpits; no moist droop of her clothes. She even woke up with her hair in place and, worse still, without the dry scratchings of sleep in the corners of her eyes.

Jo smiled. She could never claim to be at her best in the morning .... greasy hair standing on end; eyes gluey with sleep ... it was not a pretty picture but then these days it didn’t matter. It probably hadn’t mattered with David either, people don’t leave you for things like greasy hair even though it feels like it. Anyway, David had had bad breath and that didn't stop her loving him. Besides, he had rotten eyesight and couldn't see beyond his own pillow without glasses.

"Are you coming?" came Anne's voice and Jo looked up to see both she and Richard some distance ahead.

"Thanks for waiting," Jo pouted in mid-pant, as she hurried up behind them.

"Sorry," said Anne, taking her arm. "We thought you were following. Didn't realise you were daydreaming again."

"Ah, but this is the perfect place for dreams," intoned Richard, as they walked through the glass-fronted hotel door.

It was a place of dreams and not simply because it played host to the occasional wedding. This was where the ordinary people came to see the rich and famous; where they lingered to catch a glimpse of the stars who, in moments of extreme boredom left the hallowed heights of film city, the legendary land of Bollywood, which stood a little further along the road, and came down among the ordinary mortals, thronging the shabby length of Juhu Beach. This was somewhere they could sit to drink whisky, smoke cigarettes, talk loudly at each other, envy each other and be admired. The distant sighs which lingered at the edges of their glittering world were sometimes faintly audible when silence dropped an unexpected net over the battle of conversation. Somehow, between the whisky, the sighs and the looks of adoration, boredom was soon dispelled for the famous. They were stars and they had a responsibility to their fans which must be met. After all, the gods could not remain upon their mountain top forever.

This was where the wedding was being held. A suitable venue for anyone who aspired to unconventionality and even more suitable for those who wished just to touch the hem of fame, hoping against hope, that a little of the glitter would adhere. This was a wedding which spoke not only of success, but also of the avant garde. Not for these two families, about to be joined in holy matrimony, were the tented pavilions of tradition considered to be acceptable. They would break new ground in holding the wedding in a well-established hotel, and one, which, as everyone knew, drew the stars of film city like a magnet.

What they sacrificed in beauty, they made up for in prestige. This was no temporary temple constructed overnight on a piece of bare ground, a momentary existence of exquisite loveliness, where a multitude of flowers in fresh, moist bud hung in a thread and flourish of colour; a magical disguise for the inner skeleton of rough-hewn wood and bamboo lengths. For them there was to be no floor of earth, strewn with flowers and lengths of carpet; no wooden trestles laden with food; no street urchins disguised as waiters, clearing and serving with barely washed hands. This was a wedding with class, no matter how one looked at it. More than that, quite a lot of foreigners had been invited, and they would be much happier with the higher level of hygiene which the hotel catering provided, and, equally as important, the civilized standard of toilet facilities which were naturally available at such a venue. All in all, it was an occasion which would please everyone. The locals would be admiring and impressed and the foreigners would simply be grateful.

The crowd streamed along the narrow path to the poolside, the steps becoming just a little more hurried as the music grew louder. The music was Western ... yet more decadence, more glamour. But first the formalities and an enthusiastic shaking of hands with the groom, the groom's family, the bride's family and of course the bride, for this was a modern family. Everyone was pleased, as everyone is meant to be on such occasions, but the pleasure was magnified a thousandfold because this marriage was within the community. Neither child had been lured away into that dark and fearsome world which constituted ‘other’. The prayers were done, the puja answered.

For those who were not of this land it was difficult to conceive the sense of relief which encompassed such an event. That the threat of the ‘other’ could constrict the throat and stop the breath was strange indeed, even more so, when as often as not, the ‘other’ was also Indian, also Hindu. But in this divided land the 'other' lived all too close, with each small community surrounded by countless others. It was in fact fortress India and it held them in thrall. The individual's lot was cast from cradle to grave in the rigid mould of custom. They were slaves, each and every one, to the past; to the unyielding spirits of the dead.

When the words, 'not of our community,' were repeated in stricken whisper, they spoke of a strange and fearsome world, something akin to the screaming pits of hell and damnation. Once dragged into that terrible void, the bride or groom would be lost forever, eternally cast from the bosom of 'our community.' It was a horror which haunted all parents and which could only be dispelled as the final vows were taken within an acceptable marriage.So there was much to celebrate, and perhaps, at the Ramada Inn, on this occasion at least, not all of the sighs were for the stars.

Jo followed Anne and Richard as they were led to a table by one of the groom's brothers. He had been introduced to them, but after only a few weeks in India, she still found it impossible to catch the pronunciation without a few repeatings. They were introduced to the two other couples at the table, one English, with wonderfully simple names like Jenny and Tony, and the other Indian, with names which were rather more of a challenge. They shook hands and sat down.

The music grew even louder as if carried on an hysterical note. Voices rose in unison as people strained to make themselves heard. Out of the shouted confusion Jo was able to ascertain that Tony, the Englishman was in the pharmaceutical business and the Indian gentleman was in advertising. The latter looked to be in his fifties with silver-grey hair, slicked firmly into place, and narrow-lidded eyes, all balanced by a sharp hook of a nose. He wore the kurta pyjama because he knew it suited him and because he liked the way its simplicity belied his prestige. In a way it was his private joke, although, he was proud, very proud of his heritage. One had to do one's bit after all and since he had never doubted his superiority he was quite happy to dabble in ethnicity. His wife looked to be much younger than he but then wasn't that always the way in advertising? Why should India be any different? She was also much paler of skin, but that also was the norm. Colour consciousness in India was absolute, especially as far as women were concerned. Black skin was more easily accepted in a man, especially if he were successful, but it constituted a very black mark indeed, especially in the marriage stakes, for those women who could not be classed as 'fair' in the marriage market which ran each Saturday in the newspapers.

'Wheatish' was a word in common use when describing girls who had reached the marriageable age and whose parents were desperately seeking some family with a suitable son, who could be paid to take her away. The bride at this particular wedding could most definitely be described as 'fair,' so much so, that she could almost pass for Italian, the highest praise of all for any woman in this land. Her husband was of a darker hue but one could not really describe him as black, that would not have been fair. It was not surprising, of course, given the absolute power which men wielded in the society, that they, or at least their family should be the final arbiter of what shade of brown was considered acceptable. In this situation, since they could demand all that they wanted, and more, it was only logical that they should opt for a wife of gentler shading.

Colour, was after all, the basis of the ubiquitous caste system, so it was natural that it should dictate still, degrees of acceptability within Indian society. A wife who brought a lighter shade of pale to the union would provide that greatest of all gifts from the gods: a son, an heir, whose skin was not too dark. The gods however have a healthy sense of humour and, needless to say, the mix of dark and light did not necessarily provide a dilution of colour in the resulting offspring. As often as not, the male children were as heartily shaded as their father and the female children were blessed with a little of their mother's milkiness. Still, in the way of things in India, that was a blessing in itself, for girls, as everyone knew, were expensive things which had to be gotten rid of as soon as possible and the lighter the skin, the lighter the burden when one began hunting for husbands.

The blushing bride in this instance had been no burden whatsoever. She was not only a beautiful maiden and fair, but she was educated. Such things were considered a plus, even though most young women were required to relinquish all such ideas of work and independence upon marriage. It was enough to be able to tell others that she had a degree. No-one cared in the slightest what degree it was and heaven forbid that she should seek to make use of it; but she had a degree and that offered prestige. It was something however which benefited the family far more than the girl herself, for when she disappeared through the door of her new home, she was also expected to disappear to herself. In some cases, if her name was not considered suitable, it would be changed.

She would be born anew in a sense and a concerted effort would be made by one and all to erase that which she had been before. She was unlikely to protest. This was her lot. She was called to honour her husband as a god. To find God, and the meaning of life, in her husband. It was an awesome task, even with the best of men. His word was law and her duty was to obey that law, even if he were the vilest and most evil of human beings. It was her dharma as a woman, as a wife, to subjugate herself to him and, in the doing, to subjugate herself to every member of his family, especially his mother and sisters. As it was, there would have been no-one to whom she could turn should she have sought to rail at her fate. To her family, to all intents and purposes, she existed no more as daughter. Her life now lay with her new family and if she should endeavour to return to them, they would turn her around and send her back, for such an event would bring great shame upon them.

This girl of barely twenty years, who stood now, smiling, radiant in the receiving line, garlanded like a princess and draped in the caressing folds of a shimmering sari of crimson and gold, had found, at last, the true meaning of woman. She was bedecked in jewels. They shone on her forehead, around her neck, upon both wrists and hung in a glittering dangle from each ear. She had reached her moment of glory. This represented her sole purpose in life. If she were lucky, it would lead her on to a fulfilling life of companionship if perhaps not love, and of motherhood, a state which promised joy only should she bear a son.

If she were not lucky then her life would lead her to no more than drudgery, abuse both verbal and physical and more misery than she had ever expected one person could endure. But she would endure, or else she would die: consigned to the flames at the hands of her husband and his family, to wither and char on the kitchen floor amidst the blackened fragments of her flesh and what remained of her charred, nylon sari.

If her destiny were to lie in the State of Gujarat, which sits to the north of Bombay, the odds would be even greater that she should met such an end, for there, within each and every hour of each and every day, a woman dies of burns. It is thought, by some, that not all are put to the torch by the husband and his family, but that many, instead, light the match themselves; committing their own bodies to a flaming suicide, in order to escape the physical and mental abuse, which they endure as a new bride. Some, choose even to hold the hands of their child, as they huddle in the burning arms of death; the child, invariably being daughter.But for the moment, such things lived only in the world of the unthinkable, and the golden girl smiled and bowed and rested her dark and gentle eyes upon the swarthy god who stood beside her.

It was a warm night and unexpectedly still for the time of year. The roped-off pool reflected the myriad of lights on the adjoining patio area. In the apartment block across the way windows had been flung open and families balanced, at times precariously, on the flimsy window sills, the better to hear the music and the better to watch the excitement below. They lived, for a moment, the glamour of a world which could never be theirs.

The wandering stains of monsoon decorated the walls of the hotel, just like every other in the city, but somehow, on this night of dreams and stars, it served simply to make the setting that much more exotic. It was on nights like this that, faded as she was, India waved seductively to the world and the smell of the jasmine wound through the hair of the dancing women triumphed gloriously over the ever-present odour of dust, mould, sweat and garbage. The night offered a heady draught. Jo drank deeply. There was a splendour to it and she was happy to just sit and watch, but she had caught one or two quick looks from Anne and knew that she was also expected to converse. The advertising gentleman looked suitably patrician, suitably bored and suitably unfriendly. Jo decided to throw caution to the winds and asked him for which advertising company he worked. His nose quivered at the question, his brow creased and he informed her, quite sternly, that he had his own advertising company. He then turned away to speak to Tony, displaying with a firm shoulder that she was to be ignored.

Jo didn't really mind too much. She was beginning to find a lot of Indians boring. They came in a predictable variety of flavours: there was the obsequious, ever-ready to please, agree with anything you say, variety; the arrogant, but of course India has such an ancient and noble culture and the world has so much to learn from us; the opportunist, desperate to discover if you are 'useful', and always disappointed to hear that you have no connections with the diplomatic community, whereupon you are promptly abandoned. And invariably, there were those who were concerned, and thoughtful and ever-ready to discuss the complexities and difficulties of their society, all too aware of the shortcomings, and yet, with absolutely no intention of changing anything because they were perfectly content with their place in the pile, even though they would never admit as much.

After awhile it didn't much matter, since this was one country where there was a flexible dimension to truth and to fact, that is if one believed that such things existed at all, which rather removed the gut and substance of any conversation. When you came down to it, it was all just talk. It was forgotten even as it was spoken, if it had ever been known in the first place. It was all no more than empty words, where what was said was merely whatever was considered suitable to the moment ... it didn't mean anything, it wasn't real, it didn't last, and it took one nowhere.

It was easier to just sit and let it all drift past. Jo stepped firmly on the voice which began braying at the back of her head,...'come on, you aren't being fair. How much can you know after a few weeks? You haven't met many Indians anyway. You can't dismiss a whole race like this,you can't....'. She reached out and waved to the waiter, indicating that she would like her whisky refilled. Perhaps after one more drink she would feel like flinging herself into the whirling pool of conversation which encircled her.

The whisky was warm and wonderfully harmonious. Beside her, the advertising mogul, played with his toes, massaging each one, as they must have been done, all those many years ago, as he lay in naked, gurgling babyhood. Jo looked across to see if Anne had spotted this development, but she was mercifully engrossed in conversation with the English woman. The advertising wife sat silent, across from her husband, excluded from the intricacies of male conversation which had all three men gesticulating across the table. They seemed to be talking about politics, but it could have been business. It had to be one or the other. Jo wasn't sure, but the two subjects seemed to constitute the conversations of men in this country, at least it had in her brief experience of the place. Women talked about their family ... or at least they talked about their sons.

Jo wondered if she should strike up a conversation with the youthful advertising wife, but quickly voted herself down. She didn't look to be the sort who would have any children and that would have to be the first question on the official agenda. But then, maybe they weren't even married, although, she recalled, that someone had said something about wife, or had they? She was hopeless at making sense of the Indian accent so could not be sure at all of just what she had heard. Probably safer to say nothing, she reasoned. She couldn't very well ask the woman what she did. It was a question, so she had discovered, to which Indian women generally responded with a blank stare. Whether it was because they didn't actually ever do anything with all the servants they supposedly had running here and there, or whether it was because one wasn't allowed to ask such a personal question, Jo wasn't sure.

She wondered for a moment if there were such a thing as an Indian bimbo, and decided that there probably wasn't, but this woman was as close to it as she had seen yet. At least she looked like an Indian version of the American model ... sort of a cafe au lait Barbie doll in a sari. Maybe it had a different name here ... bimbos were universal after all. It was about at that point, just as she was beginning to realise the depths of mind-numbing boredom to which she had sunk with her ruminations, that Jo, felt her hand being lifted and shaken vigorously and found herself confronted by a round and beaming face which belonged, so she subsequently learned, to a Mr Jasani.

"How do you do? How do you do?," he continued with an enthusiastic shake of hands around the table. He had been brought to join the group by the groom's brother, who was, so it seemed, still busying himself with the placing of guests.

Mr Jasani settled himself next to Jo and bestowed a smile of true delight upon her. "I am so pleased to meet you," he went on. "I have heard from Nitu that you are from Australia. I have a son in Australia. I have not been there but I am so much hoping to go."

Mr Jasani, it transpired, had spent some time in America in his youth. He had studied in New York and in fact planned to make his life in that country after answering the parental call to return to the land of his birth to marry a suitably selected bride. He had returned promptly and equally easily accepted their choice. It was a good choice on their part and one which brought together two young people who soon found that a deep and abiding love had grown between them. And this proved to be the problem. Mr Jasani wanted to go to America, his wife did not. She was frightened of such a move, so far away. She was happy in Bombay, happy with him, happy with his family. He loved her deeply and could deny her nothing. And so they had stayed. But he never forgot the land of his dreams, and so, some years back, after his wife had died, he began to seek out the company of foreigners in general and of Americans in particular, because it was only with them, that he could live the dream a little, of what his life might have been.

He held parties each month, to which he invited his oldest Indian friends and his newest foreign friends. They were successful parties in the main because Mr Jasani was a warm and sincere man. He liked almost everyone and he was, surprisingly for someone of his heritage, of a remarkably trusting nature. The beautiful face of his long-dead wife smiled benevolently from the small table by the side of his bed. She watched over him still; safe in the land of her birth. He had not failed her and she grudged him his dreams not one little bit.

It was only after her death that their son applied to emigrate to Australia. Mr Jasani had thought it would be America, had hoped it would be America, for then, only then, would there have been a possibility that he might return. But his son chose Australia because there were many vacancies in the hotel trade, his chosen profession, and so he had gone to Sydney some three years back and had, to all accounts, done remarkably well for himself. So much so that he promised his father that he would bring him over for a visit; if not this year, then certainly the next.

To meet someone from Australia, enthused Mr Jasani, was like being with his son. They must come to dinner, they must all come to dinner. How long was Jo staying? Some more weeks yet. She must stay as long as possible. There was so much to see and he would like so much to know her better. They would have dinner together soon. He would arrange it. He would call in a few days, he said, handing his card to both Jo and to Richard and accepting one of Richard's cards in return. This exchange seemed to trigger a chain reaction and in an instant, or so it seemed, there was a flurry of cards around the circle. The ritual completed, everyone stood up. It was time to go. Each had left their mark with the other, there was nothing more to be done.

"Do they really specify the colour of the women in the marriage advertisements?" Jo asked, as she and Anne sat at the breakfast table the next day.

"They certainly do," replied Anne. "Haven't you seen the matrimonials in the Times? We've probably still got a copy of Saturday's paper. I'll ask Mary. She takes them when we have finished with them and sells them, but it might still be around."

Mary returned a short while later with the required copy and handed it to Anne. "Now, let's have a look ... here we are,'alliance for 25 years, five feet eight inches, slim, wheatish complexion, sharp features', not sure what the sharp features signify. Probably means she is ugly. "They like to point out defects -- I guess so no-one can claim later that they were cheated. Like this one ...'Hindu Maharashrian girl, 34, five feet four inches, 10,000 rupees per month, leukoderma patches on lower legs, cosmopolitan, well travelled, home loving and cultured habits.' Now she must be really unattractive ... thirty four is very, very old to be unmarried. Bit of a lost cause that one."

"Poor girl," remarked Jo, "it's all a bit like a cattle sale."

"It certainly is," said Anne."It wouldn't surprise me if they check their teeth. Still, to be fair, they advertise the boys as well, although it's a buyers market in that respect and it works in their favour. Mightn't do so for too much longer, given the rate at which they are getting rid of their women. That will make things interesting. Perhaps then the girls will be able to make some demands about what they want.” She smoothed out the crumpled sheet of newspaper and ran her finger down the columns: "Really, they all put in much the same order when you look at it. Everyone wants 'tall, fair, slim and beautiful.' This country is either full of 'tall, fair, slim and beautiful' young women or else there are a great many disappointed people. Doesn't augur well for the short, black, fat, ugly ones and I have to say I've seen more of them around."

Jo looked up in surprise:"That's an awful thing to say. There are very few people who are really ugly and anyway, you don't live with looks, you live with a person."

"I know that and you know that," replied Anne, re-settling her glasses on her trim and very pretty nose, ”but they don't know that here. They don't believe in persons, especially as far as women are concerned ...they are mere things, chattels, to be bartered away for no other purpose but to bear sons." She rattled the page to good effect and continued skimming the lines for more matrimonials of interest: "Here's a good one ...'alliance invited for fair, beautiful, Hindi speaking Maheshwari girl, 23, from business family, can hear only with one ear with hearing aid, well versed in household chores. Has done beautician and fabric painting course.' Well, that should have them flocking around in droves," Anne finished acidly," given that Indian women rarely use makeup and it's hard to believe that any mother-in-law would let her new-found slave sit around dabbling in fabric painting when there was work to be done."

There was a gentle knock at the door, soon followed by the appearance of Mary: "Madam. The telephone. It has rung."

"I'm coming," said Anne as she pushed the pages across to Jo. "Here, have a look yourself. It's an education in itself."

Jo ran her eyes down the ranks of small, black type: 'Alliance invited for Gujarati Brahmin doctor girl, 37, from well educated, respectable, Gujarati Brahmin family boy.'

'Alliance for tall, slim, good looking, well-read, intelligent, domestically accomplished, talented, sweet-natured, Indian music and animal loving, Maharashtrian Brahmin graduate girl, 25, earning monthly over 6000 in advertising agency, from well-known family, father top ranking Central Government Official.' She certainly sounded to be a saleable commodity, mused Jo,

'Matches wanted for girl, 33, slim, wheatish, good in household work.'

'Boy from Marwari family, 23, second year B. Com, walks with calliper and crutches, seeks intelligent, understanding bride. Slightly disabled girl, or widow or divorcee also acceptable.'

Enough was enough. She folded up the paper with a sigh. There was something incredibly depressing about it all. More than anything, it was sad, that any society should believe that those who were impaired in some way, were not fit for general consumption, but must instead, seek out those who were, like themselves, less than perfect. The lame it seemed must seek the lame or someone at least who bore a blemish. Marriage may well be hit and miss in the western world, but at least the imperfect were free to seek the perfect, and callipers did not a union make.

She smoothed out the folded paper on the table and one more beseeching advertisement caught her eye:‘Alliance invited for U.S. settled fair, handsome, tall, Hindu boy, 29, chemical enginer and MS polymer science working with reputed fortune company as head of engineering. Earning dollars 100,000 annually. Girl should be very pretty, fair, tall, educated, belonging to status family.'This last was listed under 'green card.'

"What's this green card?" asked Jo as Anne walked back into the room.

"Tell you in a minute," Anne replied quickly. "Mr Jasani is on the phone. It's about dinner. He wants us to come on Friday night. Richard and I are busy but I said I would ask you."

"Tell him I would love to come. He seemed nice. I liked him."

Anne returned soon after and said as she sat back down at the table. "A green card is what you get when the Americans say you can live and work in their country. It is the glittering jewel almost every Indian seeks. It is quite a carrot in the marriage stakes ... the magic key to fame and fortune. They even have an ad which they run for the Times Matrimonials. In fact, I cut it out last week. I think it's in my desk drawer. I'll go and get it."

Everyone knew that the Indians had arranged marriages, Jo reflected, but this was very much more ‘arranged’ than she had ever imagined.

"Here it is," said Anne walking back into the room and waving the newspaper cutting like a flag. "Listen to this. 'He's going to make a new life in America. Your son has a green card now. He has a good job lined up abroad. But there's one thing nagging you: life abroad is totally different and although he will adapt to that lifestyle, you don't want him to forget the Indian way of life; to ignore Indian values and traditions. The solution is to find a girl who can help him go places, yet remain firmly rooted to our land.' "Now that," said Anne, "is a boy who has made it."

"I guess," said Jo, with a wry laugh, "that he would be able to get someone slim, fair and beautiful."

"He would get," replied Anne, "exactly what he wanted, or more to the point, exactly what his parents wanted. The green card is the key to the Indian dream; the passport to prosperity. The world begins in America ... at least it begins in those little bits of India which they have built in the States. When they talk about remaining firmly rooted to our land, they mean it. We went to New York once and took a trip out to Queens ... I couldn't believe it, some streets looked just like Bombay. Women wandering around in saris in the middle of winter, wearing socks under their open sandals, cardigans and coats. They looked quite ridiculous, but I guess they were happy because they were maintaining their traditional values even though they were freezing to death in the process."

She shook her head at the memory and the furrow in her brow grew deeper. "And you see exactly the same thing in Bradford and Leeds in England," she went on. " They don't really emigrate. They move a bit of India to another country wanting to live there exactly as they have lived at home, wanting to be Indian forever, no matter what, demanding that their children and their children's children be Indian too. I’ve see little girls running around here in their saris, with broad Manchester accents ... sent home to be married off, and then they both toddle back to England to live the traditional life." Anne shook her head. “It’s not only ridiculous, it’s disgusting,” she added.

"It probably isn't as bad as it seems," said Jo. "It's natural for people to want to hold on to what they know."

"It's all a matter of degree," Anne shot back. "You should see some of these places and you might change your mind. As far as I'm concerned, if they aren't prepared to change then they should stay in India."

"I think you are just frightened that the same thing might start happening in Australia," said Jo.

"Oh it does," replied Anne with vehemence. "Don't kid yourself about that. I've seen matrimonial advertisements in The Times which have come out of Melbourne! It's appalling! I think it should be banned."

"What exactly would you ban?" asked Jo, quietly."The people, the arranged marriages, the advertisements ... ?"

Anne thought for a moment, chewing at her lips as she considered her alternatives. The chewing intensified as she realised that there were not many. “Okay," she said, throwing her hands up into the air as she relinquished the argument. "I guess you can't really ban anything.But I tell you, I would make it much harder for people to bring into the country, anyone, who is the resulting partner of an arranged marriage. It's no more than another form of slavery. The Indians will tell you that the women are free to choose but it simply isn't true, not of most of them anyway. The pressure on these girls is enormous, and ruthless; both psychological and physical. We don't need those sorts of values in our country. They are medieval. They can do what they like here, but why should we make it easy for them to keep doing the same things when they have chosen to emigrate ... or even if they are simply working in the country? Setting themselves apart like that just creates problems for everyone. As far as I'm concerned, they should be pressed to embrace the traditions and values of the country that they have chosen to call home. Otherwise they shouldn't be there."

"But you can't force people to give up what they know," suggested Jo.

"No, I'm not saying that," replied Anne. "What I am saying is that they should be encouraged, vigorously, to become part of their new country, not just physically, but emotionally; that country which they have chosen, and I re-iterate, which they have chosen, to make home. The longer they hold on to their old ways the greater the divisions become.I remember when it was a matter of pride to become an Australian ... or an American, or whatever it was that one had chosen to become? Now we tell people that they can take what they like from our country and continue to live as citizens of another. It's ridiculous. If you want to see what that sort of division brings then take a good look at India.”

"You're just frightened that they will export their ideas along with themselves," said Jo. "You are over-reacting just a little. They will, of course, take their ideas and attitudes along with them, but they will also learn new ones from the new country. There's no way of avoiding it. It's not easy, but everyone benefits in the end. I'm sure of that."

Anne gave a gentle snort of disgust; it was of delicate force, but it was a snort just the same. "It's all very easy for you to say. If we are not careful, then this is what we will become. We've become too tolerant in the West of other people's differences. We've become paranoid about offending others, even when those others are acting in a way which is unacceptable by our standards. We do ourselves a disservice when we sacrifice our values in the name of tolerance. We bend at the slightest touch, but they, they don't bend at all.”

"But they are not the only ones," said Jo, wishing to introduce an element of fairness into the conversation. "I can remember a Greek family we knew who sent back home to Greece for a wife for their youngest son. It seems to me that you are talking about traits which are universal."

"I'm not saying that they are the only ones,” said Anne,” I guess I focus on them because they are here, or I should say, because I am here; because this is what I know. Any country which allows immigrants or long-term foreign workers should have some say about how those people are blended into the community. I mean, if you wanted to adopt ten children and you had a choice of a hundred, it would make sense to choose the ten who would most easily assimilate into your family. I can't see that a country is any different. You can call it racist if you like. I just call it common sense. The racist flag is waved far too much for my liking. Why should we sacrifice common sense just because someone else screams racism? We are encouraged to plan our families, well, all I am saying is that it is time we started planning our societies.”

“I’m not quite sure how one would go about that,” said Jo, in a voice tight with disapproval.

"You can do anything when you make your mind up,” returned Anne, convinced of her own rightness in what she saw as a wrong world. “We should accept into our country only those people who are deemed to be capable of integration. I'm not saying it should be a matter of race; merely a matter of the suitability of each individual. There are some people, in any society, who can change easily and with enthusiasm; there are others who can change, but only with difficulty and there are still others who refuse to change at all. They are the ones I would not accept. I can't see that they would be happy anywhere else anyway. Better if they stay home."

She sipped at her tea, seemingly pondering the awesome stretch of time throughout which some people could hold to their ancient and often outdated ways. Her lips moved a little, as if she were about to speak and then settled into a stiff line. There was something about the movement, thought Jo, which indicated a change of topic; or at least, a variation on the theme. Anne was not the sort to venture too far into the depths of any subject. It would have bothered her, this unleashing of passion, on the subject of human frailty and intractability; leading as it might, to questions of a more personal nature.

"The other interesting thing of course, and you won't be surprised when I tell you," said Anne at last ready to re-enter the fray, "is that I didn't see any Indian men in cotton dhotis or kurta pyjama, when we went to Queens. No, they were quite sensibly dressed in woollen trousers and heavy jackets. It was the poor damn women who were forced to walk through the snow in sandals and a stupid sari." She refolded the newspaper with a sharp, firm snap.

"Ah yes," said Jo, with a slow smile," but don't you know, you're talking about the unconscious law of life , Auden wrote : 'we would rather be ruined than changed, we would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.' It’s human nature to resist change and women tend to be held more tightly by tradition because they have less power. It may not even have been the men who were forcing the women to wear saris in conditions for which they were totally unsuited, it may have been the women themselves who refused to change.

"Let's just say," said Anne acidly, "if anyone is going to be sacrificed at the altar of tradition, it will be the woman."

"Sure, but from what you have told me, it is the mothers-in-law in India who are the tyrants. You would think that as women they would realise they are all on the same side."

"But that's about power," interjected Anne. "The only power a mother has is through a son and she will fight to the death, well, to the death of her daughter-in-law a lot of the time, to hold on to that power. Without that power she is nothing. You have to remember that she has been nothing. She has been the new bride, ignored and abused and now it is her turn to have some power, to glory in her own authority. She is not going to give that up easily. It is her day and she is going to have it. In a way, you can't blame her. It's a bit like men relinquishing power in order to create a more equitable society.

"Even the most reasonable of men, and Richard is one of them, at least in his good moods, still want, somewhere deep, although not perhaps as deep as they think, to be superior. Australian men, who are among the ranks of the more enlightened, do not necessarily aspire to godhood like Indian men, but they still want to be on top, just a little bit. Think about it...if you had power would you simply give it away just because someone said you should?"

"I really don't know," replied Jo." I can't say that I have ever felt that I had any power, so I don't know that I would recognise it. But it isn't as simple as some people having power and others not. We have to ask ourselves why we need power and the answer is always that we are afraid. It's fear. That's why these women fight so bitterly to hold on to what they have ... they are afraid of what will happen to them should they find themselves with no power at all. It's cruel though ... and silly ... the things we do in order to gain mastery. It's all an illusion. I used to think I was in control of my life and then, one day...poof! It was all gone. Just like that. It was as if the floor had fallen out from beneath my feet. But there had never really been a floor, not a solid one. I just thought there was. All of us have to learn to change, Anne, not just those whom we deem to be acting wrongly."

"That's all very well to say," said Anne, smoothing the newspapers rather more than was required and blackening her fingers in the process. "You sound like one of those silly American self-help books ... change your life in twenty minutes. You can talk about change but what do you do when you don't know what you should be changing into. I'm not frightened of change, it's just that I don't know how to be other than I am. It's working alright as it is. Why should I change?"

"Well," replied Jo quietly, "that's exactly what most Indians would say about their way of life and yet you are constantly talking about how they need to change, how they must change and how they should go about changing. You say things are working well enough as they are and that's what they say. You ask why you should change and so do they. Are you both right or are you both wrong?"

"You are just twisting words," said Anne irritably."Look, I've got a million things to do. I can't sit here talking all day." As she stood up to leave she rested both hands for a moment upon the white tablecloth, leaving as she did, two firm, black hand-prints upon its pristine face. "Damn. Now look what you made me do," she said, holding the offending hands before her, as if wishing the blackness to disappear. "Rotten newspapers. Rotten country ..." Jo heard her mumble as she disappeared through the door.

As Jo sat at the small desk in her room, willing herself to write the required reply to her mother, she felt the image grow within her mind, of the woman, trudging through the snow in a drag of sodden sari, her feet numbed in sock and sandal. The human resistance to change was remarkable. It would be admirable if it were not so often self-destructive. Because the woman would be changed, whether she wanted it or not ... either that or she would be destroyed. The laws of life were simple, if not always pleasant. The fight against the future was a futile one, for there was no choice but to follow the way of the young.

If the woman, and all those like her, continued to walk through the depths of winter, ill-dressed, ill-shod, then she would, eventually, fall by the wayside. Her children would not willingly wait for her. She would die alone, clinging desperately to the useless traces of her traditions. The fact was that human beings were selective with their customs and the real truth was they clung to those which were most convenient all the more fanatically because of those which had been forsaken. Did the woman still eat with her hands? Did she sleep every night with a fan, slowly turning over her bed? Did she squat on the floor to cook over a single gas burner? Did she refuse to clean her own toilet, to sweep her own floor? Weren't these also part of the time-honoured Indian tradition?

Like it or not, she would have changed at least a little although she would probably have fought valiantly against it all the way. She would have her puja corner in her new house in the alien land, and she would cook the food from home, that was natural. But there was every chance that she would cook on a stove, that she would eat with cutlery, at least when she was out and that she would clean her own toilet, from time to time anyway. She may even have begun to insist that her children learn how to flush the toilet themselves, a servant of the required caste no longer being available for the task. This may have been difficult and there was every chance that toilet flushing, for her children and for her husband, became one of her allotted tasks in the new world.

The last things that she would ever do, and very few of her kind would reach this point, would be to leave off her sari or to cut her hair. These were things which marked her as a good wife, a traditional wife. She would freeze first, rather than face the rage of her husband, the sneers of family members on their endless round of interfering visits. The steady trickle of relatives from the old world to the new and back would keep her well reminded of all that she should be. There would be little opportunity for the outside world to lure her away.

It was the same at home, thought Jo, with all this talk of multi-culturalism. Noble motives were behind it of course, but did it make things better, or did it make things worse? In that respect, Anne was right. People were being encouraged to hold on to their old ways, their old lives, even their languages, creating no more than cruel divisions, when what they should be doing, as settlers in a new country, was creating a new life for themselves, a new culture. They were being shackled to the past in the name of multi-culturalism and they lived in a no-man's land, belonging to no real country except that which lived as a dream in their minds.

India had lived a kind of multi-culturalism for thousands of years, with each caste and community remaining separate; each holding to its own ways and its own beliefs. If there were ever to be an argument against encouraging people to keep to their own ways, their own language, no matter what, then this was it! It brought no more than narrowness of mind and a cruelly divided people who knew more of hatred than they did of love.

In the old days, in Australia, people had been pushed, even forced, to adapt to new ways, to learn the new language. They came from the far ends of the earth, and yet they had possessed a common goal; they were becoming Australians together.The fact that they had little or no choice, was beside the point, they did it all the same. They were not given permission to hold on to the worlds they had left, and so, they were forced to create a completely new one. It was that, which had drawn them together, whether they were fishermen from Sicily, refugees from Hungary, or farmers from Turkey. Some fell by the wayside, because the task was not made easy. There was little quarter given to those who refused to change, but others broke through and in the doing a new nation was created. If they had been able to hold on to their old lives, their old languages, there would have been no more than lots of broken selves; no new nation, but a terrible heaping of small, old, dyings.

It was in the nature of the human condition, to cling to the past. No encouragement was needed to do that. What human beings did need was to be encouraged to change, to push toward new dreams, not to hang on to old ones. But then, as any nation of immigrants knows, it is the children who are the true gift. It hardly matters that the parents clutch at the past. It is almost expected that they will not be able to make the transition from one world to another. But their children will, within months, even weeks. It might even take years, but it will happen all the same. It is the children who will belong to the country of adoption and as likely as not, they will have little interest in the old. It was as it should be and yet, there were always some who would fail to recognise this simple truth, and in the desperate holding they so often crippled their children and destroyed themselves.

Many would change and some would not; many things would be left behind and others would be dragged stubbornly through the years. Could it truly be said that a woman wearing a sari in winter was any sillier than the generations of Australians who had religiously sat down to a hot Christmas lunch, in foolish mimic of the northern lands been left behind? For close to two centuries, countless millions clung to this ritual of a lost world, wanting to believe that the snow lay thick outside, while in truth, the sun sat, high in the sky, spitting through hot, white teeth. It had changed of course. It was one of the last silly rituals to be relinquished, but it had only happened in the past thirty years or so, only in that time did people in Australia begin to question the relevance of these other-worldly traditions.

Perhaps it was all no more than a matter of time which led to the changing; or perhaps it was the mere act of questioning. It is the questions which initiate the process of change and once begun it moves on. It was in the changing that the nation began to blossom, revelling in the uniqueness of itself; content to become what it was, instead of trying to remain what it thought it should be. It was then that new traditions were born.

And yet, as silly as it all seemed looking back on it, they were good times all the same, Jo told herself. Her father's mother, long widowed, came up each Christmas until she died. It was she who cooked the lunch, rising at five, dressing in a loose cotton shift, and soft slippers, to prepare the food in the last few hours of respite before the sun. There had been something comforting about the clink and shuffle from the kitchen, drifting as it did through Jo's partly open door each Christmas morning. Sometimes she had crept out to join her, pushing herself firmly past the small, but bulging sack at the bottom of her bed. Gifts were not to be opened until everyone was up, which meant, when her mother was up and this usually took place somewhere around ten. It was a cruel wait and yet, at the same time, one which gave the excitement of the morning a high, fine pitch.

Her grandmother would murmur a muffled greeting when she appeared, handing her a mug of tea and directing her to a chair at the far end of the table where she would not be in the way. Her grandmother had been a big woman, with a large head, capped with a covering of tightly permed grey hair. She was of Italian and Scottish extraction, the former being instrumental in her decision to wear black and only black, after the death of her husband, and the latter in making her a woman who epitomised economy of style. It was an economy which she applied both materially and maternally. She wasted nothing, not even kisses, which, as Jo's father once recalled, always seemed to be in short supply. He could remember, he said, being kissed only twice: on his fifth birthday and on the day of his father's death. The latter kiss was somewhat debatable, given that he was comforting his mother at the time, holding his arms around her, and her face had fallen forward against his cheek. He liked to think that it was a kiss.

She was a kindly woman all the same, although it was considered unfortunate by all who knew her that the two strains of culture should reveal themselves in her nature as they did. She had inherited the Italian passion for religion, but not for motherhood, nor for cooking. In these two fields she leaned toward Scottish simplicity and frugality, that is, except at Christmas time, when perhaps, the religious fervour which suffused her, rose to such great heights that it demanded a variety of expression.

Everyone got a hug at Christmas, if not a kiss, even her daughter-in-law, whom she well knew, referred to her less than kindly, as the 'black widow.' It was a term which always puzzled Jo since she could find nothing at all which was spider-like about her grandmother. There were others whom she considered far more suited to such a name. Instead,her grandmother seemed more like some great black and grey cat. She moved softly, despite her bulk, and she had a presence, which while distant, was greatly comforting. She was a good listener and would quietly go on with her work while Jo followed behind and chattered to her heart's content. Her grandmother was a discriminating woman and she had not suffered fools lightly, but she was a loyal and attentive friend. She had her own way of loving and while it was not demonstrative, it was real. At least, it felt so for her granddaughter.

She was also a powerful woman, both physically and emotionally. Another name which Jo heard her mother use was 'battle-axe.' She had not realised at the time that it was meant to be an insult. Instead, she saw it as meaning some sort of warrior queen, and, given the strength with which her grandmother chopped wood for the stove, it was more than appropriate.

The eldest of thirteen children this woman who had given birth to Jo’s father became a mother before she had finished being a child. She was ten when she helped her mother to wash the bodies of her two small sisters who had died within a day of each other, during a diptheria epidemic. They had lain on the kitchen tables, like two fallen angels; cold, white cherubs, caught in death, with the purity of their innocence intact. They were dressed in long, ruffled nighties of white cotton. She had brushed the soft, golden curls from each icy brow and clipped the hair into place with small, pink bows. She kissed gently, each marbled brow. She had not cried, then or since, but some sixty years on she still lit candles for them after mass. Sometimes, in the dance of the flame, she thought that she saw their sweet, pinched faces, but the illusion always disappeared, as quickly as it had come.

The first sound on Christmas morning, would be that of the axe, wielded with a thud and a snap as she cut the logs and kindling necessary for the task ahead. She could be seen, in the gloom of near-dawn, shadowy in the yellow flicker of the kerosene lamp which stood nearby, raising the axe high above her head and then, with careful aim, bringing it down upon the chopping block, splitting the small logs, straight down the middle in a crisp and honourable splintering. She would not be alone, at this ceremony of initiation, for behind her, the magpies would call, those mottled birds of light and dark, trilling from the treetops in a full-throated morning song which rose and soared, rising as if to the very heavens. And from deep within the shadows of the bush would also come the coarse laughter of the kookaburra, this herald of both sunset, and of dawn, reminding in its raucous rattling that life is never quite as serious as we like to think it is. The kindling would be gathered first, held bunched in her abundant cotton apron and carried to the house to be laid, reverently, upon a nest of crumpled newspaper. She would then return to collect the larger logs, from which the coals would come.

By seven, the tiny kitchen would be sweltering, and the runnels of sweat would fall, in steady drip, down both sides of her face. But she would sing all the same. She always began to sing at this time. It was the hour, she believed, at which everyone should be out of bed. Those who lingered longer were deemed lazy. Hers was a beautiful voice, sweet and lilting, caressing the lyrics of the old Scottish ballads which she had learned from her mother. There was an unexpected tenderness to her voice. She also sang carols, at the behest of her grandchildren, whose new, tinny squeakings would ride alongside the richness of her own song.

The small enclosure at the back of the house, not much more than a lean-to, with louvre windows which looked out onto the enormous spread of a pepper tree, was a humble beginning indeed, for the bounty that would be brought forth. The floor was uneven, falling toward the outer wall, covered in green checked lino, cracked and worn with a smooth, brown track worked between table and stove. Here no pattern remained. All had been erased by the passage of labour and time. Her grandmother would pad softly along this ageless path, throughout the morning, her worn red slippers, with holes cut in either side to ease her bunions, making little sound as she did so.

She stopped only to wipe her hands, from time to time, on a damp tea-towel, and to sip at her sweet, black tea. An electric stove sat in one corner, but it remained unused on Christmas day, instead, the culinary marvels came forth from the black depths of the wooden stove which sat still in its chimney alcove at the side. The flame of log, and glow of coal stoked the furnace of the day even more, but if anyone, even her son, had dared to suggest that it was insanity to cook such food in such a way in the middle of a searing Australian summer, she would have abused them roundly and sent them smartly on their way with a good clip around the ear.This was the way it was done, this was the way her mother had done it, this was Christmas, how could it be madness?

It was madness, of course, a kind of madness; at least as silly as wearing a sari in the snow. Such things cannot last but they ease the process of change, sometimes they stifle it, but not for long because the movement forward is inexorable. Jo knew that there was no denying her grandmother had gained great satisfaction from this incongruous ritual, but perhaps, by then, it was all that she had left. Her husband was dead, her son had married a lazy harridan of a woman whom she despised, the souls of her son and granddaughters were doomed, and the world was changing ... it was changing too fast. Young girls were wearing skirts which got shorter all the time ... no more than hussies! And the music, ridiculous trash. It wasn't really music at all. She didn't know what the world was coming to, and in that last year before her death, that last Christmas, she had seen cards which did not have snow on them. Everyone knew that Christmas cards had snow on them, that is, those cards which did not have a religious theme. That was what Christmas was about, that and the blessed child and the holy mother of course.

If anyone noticed the intense passion which went into the preparations of that final celebration, they did not say. Grandma had been her usual bustling self, a little more insistent that everything be perfect. She straightened the cloth on the heavy oak dining table three times ... the first because Anne pulled at it, but on the second and third occasions, simply because it did not seem quite right. She fiddled with the centrepiece of flowers, arranging time and again the tiny daisies amongst the rich, red splayed fingers of the poinsettia. She folded and re-folded the linen napkins, moved the bowl of fat, black cherries from the sideboard to the table and then back again. She polished the crystal glasses until they gleamed and then gave the mince pies an extra dusting of icing sugar in case the first coating should melt in the heat.

When all was said and done, it was a wonderful Christmas, the best yet. Even her mother was up by nine and her father drank only half as much beer as he usually did. Anne had not been sick after eating her lunch, everyone found coins in their piece of pudding and the food was magnificent. The ham had baked to glistening perfection; the pork crisped to a crackle, the duck emerged in pure golden glory, the potatoes were devoured in delicious crunch; no-one found a worm in their peas, the carrots had been given a final gloss in honey and butter, the gravy came black and rich from the duck drippings and the stuffing had sliced thick and sweet, redolent with the richness of sausage and sage.

The pudding was carried to the table, shivering with flame, taken from its swaddling cloth in the kitchen after a slow boiling for three hours. There was brandy butter, thick, yellow custard made with six egg yolks and a large bowl of clotted cream which Mrs Nelson's sons had delivered that morning. The old metal fan rattled away in one corner, but they sweated all the same. As a special treat for Anne, who always seemed to be sick after pudding, grandma had made red and green jellies, which sat, in a glorious, quivering melt upon two, large white plates.

The cake remained untouched, sitting atop its brightly polished silver stand, heavy with thick, snow-white icing, crowned with holly and circled in a flounce of red, green and gold paper. The mince pies kept their pristine cap of powdered purity, despite the heat, but they too were left for later. The shortbread fingers were brought down, however, as a small, final nibbling to be had with the tea. It was the children's job to make the tea, the reasoning being that the adults had laboured long through the morning to prepare the lunch. On one Christmas morning, when Jo's sack did not have what she expected, she had forgotten to bring a cup of tea for her mother. At least, she said she had forgotten, when chided for the oversight. She had her own reasons for placing the first cup of tea in front of her grandmother.

The shortbread was Jo's favourite, and she always feared that by the time she returned with the tea, all of the blunt, buttery fingers would be gone. They were not of course, for grandma, as always, had made more than enough. They had all munched away, at that last special Christmas, at the sweet, rich crumble of biscuit, slowly drinking their steaming tea. The tea made them sweat all the more, but it was, said the adults, a wonderful day; a truly wonderful day.

Anne had tried unsuccessfully to dunk her shortbread into her mug of tea. Fresh, buttery shorbread simply does not have the firmness of character required for such treatment. With the second, equally disasterous attempt, the plate of biscuits were moved out of her reach, whereupon she burst into tears and Jo was told to take her away and play with her. They had gone into their bedroom and Jo had cuddled her until she had stopped crying and listened as she fell into a deep sleep, with her thumb in her mouth and a dab of green jelly on her nose.

She had heard the grown-ups, soon after, clear away the food and stack the plates, and then the house fell silent. They had gone off for a sleep. The dishes would be done later, in the cool of the evening and then they would return the plates to the table and pick at the cold remains for their tea. There would be salad as well. Jo had seen her grandmother washing the lettuce and wrapping it in a damp tea-towel, which was then placed in a metal bucket beneath the concrete troughs in the laundry, the fridge shelves offering no more available space. She had helped her to slice the tomatoes and cucumber. They had been sprinkled with sugar and the bowl filled with raw, white vinegar, before being stored in the fridge. A space would always be left on the bottom shelf for this sharp, sweet salad, unsuited as it was to storing beneath the laundry troughs, if only because experience had shown that it drew to itself the most adventurous of the bees which made their home in the pepper tree. Drawn on dreaming winds, they murmured in long, slow hum beyond the cracked wire of the screen door.

As the last sounds of movement settled into the simmering folds of the afternoon, Jo had stretched herself to lie full length upon her bed, listening as she did to the gentle protests of her stomach. She felt her eyelids fall and forced them open, locking her gaze to the long, brass mercury which hung on the wall of her room. The crimson blister had pushed forth to find its way past the marking of 100 degrees. Jo watched it through half-closed eyes, wondering if one day it would rise and rise and not stop, bursting bloodily, out through the top. The heat had gripped the house ever tighter, with the sun beating mercilessly at the back of drawn curtains. A heavy quietness closed in. The world was silenced. All life fled from the bared, scorching brutality of the sun. Somewhere a cicada clicked, once, twice, and then no more. It was as if everything had been captured, and, held hard in the pounding heat, unable to move, it curled into itself and slept.

The driver took Jo down a short, dark lane, walking ahead with confident stride, waving like a token, the scrap of paper on which was written Mr Jasani's address. He stopped and pointed in the direction of a doorway. A chowkidar, sitting within the dimly lit recess jumped quickly from his stool, to stand, framed, hand to forehead in clumsy salute. His clothes were crumpled, grimy and heavy with the reach of dust and sweat. Just inside the doorway the stairs began, leading up in a worn and wooden stepping from which she was barred by the gangly figure of the solemn-faced watchman. This was not a man who enjoyed his job. He pointed, one long, knobbly finger toward the lift, a tiny box of a thing, with a criss-cross of metal for the door.

It rose slowly, carrying her up, creaking and grating, stopping finally with a shudder at the fifth floor. A small fan set in the centre of the roof whirred maliciously above her head and as the lift came to a complete stop, it too whined to a standstill. She turned to the scarred and pitted mirror fitted into the back wall of the lift and attempted to resettle her hair. There were two doors at this level and in front of one, in fragile rest upon the concrete floor, lay a series of fish, shaped in coloured power ... defenders no doubt of whatever faith lay within. A far corner had been decorated rather more casually, displaying as it did, a rich, rust splattering of betel juice. The second door was graced by no more than a mat of thick, trimmed fibre. To one side was set a small, wooden plaque bearing the valiant remnants of a brass-lettered name: A.J...A..I. It was close enough. She rang the bell.

The door was opened by an elderly bearer who opened his lips in greeting, baring little more than yellowed and broken teeth ... they hung in a crossed and ragged row out over his bottom lip. She had yet to come across a bearer with straight teeth. He ushered her in, bowing as she passed to reveal a black rim along the inside of his shirt collar. The bottoms of his trousers were frayed and he was barefoot, but he bore himself with dignity. He was a bearer after all, he knew his place in the scheme of things. It was nowhere near as good as some but vastly superior to anything that most could claim, within the seething mass of humanity to which he belonged.

Mr Jasani came bustling out, followed close behind by a sweet -faced girl who looked to be in her late teens. She wore a yellow kalwar sameez, with a brown trim in a geometric pattern. A scarf of the same pattern, but in a more delicate fabric, hung in gentle drape across one shoulder. Jo found her hand gripped in yet another of Mr Jasani's enthusiastic handshakes. He managed to maintain the pressure in steady rhythm, even while using his free hand to usher the young girl around to the front.

“This is my daughter," he said. "Priya."

Mr Jasani released his grip and Jo received, in its place, the small, very limp and slightly moist palm of the soft-eyed girl. She seemed such a timid thing. She was probably nervous. Mr Jasani was a widower and it was likely that to his daughter had fallen the role of hostess. Perhaps she was not so much reluctant as terrified.

"Come. Come," urged Mr Jasani, both hands flapping like flags in the direction of a door a few steps further along the hall.

The room appeared to be both crowded and noisy. It was not large and yet not so small either, but it held some dozen people within, each jostling for space amidst an eclectic assortment of chairs. A long sofa stood against one wall. It looked to be wearing a slipcover of green cotton, but, bearing as it did, the burden of four full-bodied Indian matrons, with their bountiful drape of sari, little of its own self remained to be seen. Against one wall stood a laminated cupboard with rows of glass shelving, displaying an eye-catching assortment of objects in brightly coloured crystal and glass. A glass dog, with a big, red nose and long, floppy yellow ears seemed to take pride of place amongst the ranging of vases and bowls and variously depicted birds and animals. Pushed up tight into the corner stood a television set, encased in a zippered cover of clear plastic; protection from the grit and grime which fell unceasingly from the polluted skies.

Jo was introduced along the way, between door and chair, but the names came and went in a blur of sound and smiles. "Come, sit here," pressed Mr Jasani, drawing out a seat upholstered in cracked black leather with a curved wooden back. "This is my most comfortable chair. It is my favourite. What would you like to drink?" he continued, satisified at last that Jo was well settled. "We have some whisky and some gin."

"Gin and tonic would be fine," replied Jo. She hoped it would be imported gin but reasoned that it probably would not. Anne had warned her, at length, about the local liquor.

“It's poor quality!" she had said. "It won't hurt you, but it doesn't take much to give you a screaming hangover. Even the imported stuff isn't completely safe ... it's often adulterated. They pay a high price here for empty liquor bottles and there's a roaring trade done in the making of fake labels ... they even produce fake lids and seals. It's very professional but some of the stuff can be quite lethal. Oh, and don't forget, stay away from salads and pork and we don't eat fish during monsoon. The fishermen don't venture out as far and anything they catch comes from relatively close in to shore . The stuff which pours out into the ocean from this city is lethal and there's more than just sewage to kill you."

There were so many 'don'ts', Jo reflected, it hardly seemed worth going out. She considered, for a brief time, the possibility of taking only bread and water but dismissed the plan as futile, given that water, if not properly boiled, was probably more deadly than a little adulterated liquor. And she had read only that morning of some fifty school-children poisoned by bread. If she was going to go down in a screaming heap, she finally resolved, she may as well be drunk.

Having despatched his daughter with the order for drinks, Mr Jasani sat back in his chair, crossed his legs, gave his knee a satisfied pat and said with a teasing gleam to his eye: "I will not ask you how you are enjoying Bombay. I know a little about your country. My son writes very often. It is very different to here."

“Yes, it is very different," replied Jo, liking him even more.

"So tell me then. How would you describe it?"

"Well, it is just a very nice place to live. There is a lot of sun and a lot of sky and it is mostly clean and generally people don't interfere too much; you are free to get on with your life. Well, my mother would interfere if she could, but I don't let her," she added.

"You do not like your mother?" he asked with real concern.

"Not much, but it's okay. Where I live you don't have to."

"It is different there with families. I know that. You do not stay together. We are much closer here."

"Are you really closer, or is it that you have no choice," countered Jo. "Can you honestly say that if people had the option of living without all their relatives, that they would not?"

Mr Jasani rubbed the bridge of his nose while he pondered the almost unimaginable scenario. "No, you are right," he finally conceded. "I think most young people would not live with their parents if they had the choice. Even now it is changing. Some young couples do live alone." He made this last comment rather sadly, but seemed to brighten as his sweetly pretty, but suitably silent young daughter appeared in the room and began to offer a plate of savouries.

It was true that things were changing, but he was glad, he had to say, that they were changing slowly. He did not want a world where the young people went their own way. Sometimes it had to be so, but with his son in Australia, his nineteen-year-old daughter was all that he had. One day too she would go, to her husband's home. Perhaps then he would go to Australia. He would have to live with his son. There it would not be possible for him to live alone. At least, he hoped it would not be possible, nor that his son should even suggest it. His son was not married yet. It would be important to find him a suitable wife. There would be many girls in Bombay who would like to go to Australia. He was sure of that.

It was cruel fate which took people across the sea to foreign lands. It was only because India was so poor. It could offer so little. Because of that, it was all the more important that one remained faithful to one's own land. He would have done so, he knew that, if he had gone to America, all those many years ago. But he had not and here he was and there were no regrets ... how could there be? He had had a wonderful, loving wife and a healthy, happy family. Things were changing, that was true, but at least, remaining in India, as his wife had begged him to do, he had been able to retain the traditional values and pass them on to his children. They would be values that his son would have to keep, even if he never returned to India. It was not that he minded change. He was a generous spirited person and he gained true enjoyment from most of the new-found freedoms which were beginning to infiltrate the society, beginning to change the expectations of the next generation. He could live with some change, he just hoped that it would be slow, very, very slow.

"You must eat," he said to Jo as his daughter arrived with the freshly heaped plate of what looked to be fingers of toasted cheese.

"What is this?" she asked, taking one small piece from the plate.

"It is chilli cheese toast," said Mr Jasani. "It is very good."

"Not too hot, I hope," said Jo, even as she felt the first fiery burst beneath her tongue.

Mr Jasani must have noticed the glaze which fell over her eyes because he quickly responded: "Water? Shall I get you some water?"

Jo nodded vigorously, feeling the burning clench of her throat make any spoken reply impossible. "I must have eaten an entire chilli in that first bite," she finally gasped after the last gulp of water.

A look, which could have been one of muffled satisfaction, but which was probably gentle concern, passed quickly across Mr Jasani's face. "You cannot eat the chilli as we do," he said, as he passed the glass to his daughter, who really did look worried, signalling her to refill it.

“It is an acquired taste. I have heard that," breathed Jo through the final sear of her throat. "I'm just not sure that it is one which I am equipped to acquire."

Mr Jasani laughed. "There, there. I will make sure that the rest of the food is not so hot." He hurried off, hopefully to have a stern word to the cook. His daughter hovered to one side, ready to refill the glass with water in an instant, should it be required.

A woman slid into the chair beside her. A hand reached out: "How do you do? My name is Nita Ghosh. You are from Australia?"

Jo nodded: "Yes. I am visiting my sister. Jo Baker. Glad to meet you." The squelch of handshake completed, the woman returned her hand to the safety of her lap.

"So, and how are you enjoying Bombay?"

“It is very interesting," replied Jo, without the slightest quiver of guilt.

"Ah yes. It is such a cosmopolitan city. Such a great city. There is so much happening. So much to see. The art and the music and the theatre ... so cultured. You must be keeping very busy. It is impossible to see it all. There is so much."

Jo felt something very close to a squirm nudge her along. There was something about the woman which annoyed her. There was an oiliness, which, if one were to blame something, soon had Jo slithering along a perilous path.

"It's just a pity it's all so filthy...."

"Ah yes. There are the galleries, so many of them. The art is quite wonderful.....I'm sorry. What did you say?"

"I said," Jo repeated slowly,"it is a pity that it is such a filthy city."

A sharp intake of breath was enough to restore order: "Yes, yes, you are so right. It is such a pity, such a pity. But what can we do. These people are coming from the villages, all of the time. They do not stop. Hundreds every day. They fill the footpaths ... they are everywhere. It is terrible."

"But even the suburbs where the rich people live are filthy," Jo pressed. "I can't see why it should all be blamed on the poor people. There is nowhere that is clean. That's what I don't understand."

By this point not even a sharp intake of breath was enough to restore order and there was a definite catch to the voice as the woman responded: "Yes, yes, you are quite right. Quite right. But it is all the servants. Such terrible people. They throw everything out of the windows. What can be done? What can be done?" she finished lamely. An expression of serenity began to move slowly down over her face, washing the desperate look from her eyes as it did so. There was always the possibility of escape. "But it has been so nice to meet you. So nice. I must go now. So nice to meet you."

The woman fled and Jo sat there, feeling both ashamed and unsatisfied. What had she achieved by telling the truth, by telling what was her truth? If she had known she would feel as bad as this she wouldn't have bothered. The silly woman didn't want to hear what she had to say anyway. The woman didn't care what she really thought, she merely wanted to exchange pleasantries, go through the motions.

"It's easy to see you're a visitor," said a voice in her ear.

She turned toward the voice. "Hello, I'm Mim. Marian Hawthorn actually but everyone calls me Mim."The handshake was moist but firm. "You certainly sent poor Mrs Ghosh off with her tail between her legs."

"Yes," said Jo guiltily," and now I feel terrible about it."

"Oh don't let it worry you. She doesn't really care. It's all just part of the game. They never remember what you say, whether it is good or bad, so you may as well have the satisfaction of saying what you really think."

"Do you?" queried Jo.

"Oh no. Not allowed to. I'm with the British Commission. We have to be diplomatic. Can't run around being as free with our speech as you can."

"I can't say I feel very free. I'm Jo Baker by the way. Glad to meet you. And yes, I am a visitor. I'm staying with my sister for a few weeks. And you?"

"I'm here on a posting. One year down and one to go."

"Do you like it?"

"Well, like is perhaps a little too strong. But I don't mind it. It's worth it for the sunshine if nothing else. England is awfully gloomy. Can't stand all that rain. I'm a summer girl at heart. Hate being locked up in dark, dank places. I'm hoping to get to Africa after this."

"You're a glutton for punishment," said Jo, surprised that anyone would choose another third world country after living in one.

"Oh, I like a bit of adventure. There's something exotic about tropical places. Hot weather seems to make life more interesting. Plenty of men too. Lots of these places have heaps and heaps of single men. I'm very fond of men, especially when there are lots and lots of them."

Mim gave a rippling laugh and took a long drink from her glass. It looked to be straight whisky and in fact it was. There was something of the faded flirt about her. She appeared to be near forty, but she was still pretty in a papery way. She wore a flimsy blouse, which lay open at the front, falling across the full, bra-less beauty of her breasts, and a long, cotton skirt which clung to her well-tanned legs and finished in a wrap at her feet where blood red toe-nails could be seen, peeping through the lattice of her sandals. Her fingernails were not long, but they were painted in the same shocking colour; a near match for the ruby flash of her full, well-formed lips. She had a round face, framed with a soft shake of fine, blonde hair and her eyes laughed. A professional 'other woman' if ever there were one, thought Jo, but she seemed nice and she had a wonderful laugh. There was a rich throatiness to it at times which seemed to speak of some secret joke of which few others would approve, but in which she delighted.

Just as Jo was beginning to think that the evening might be livelier than she had expected, in the company of the delightful Mim, she was summoned by an insistent Mr Jasani, and led off to the next room where food had been laid out on a long table. It was actually Mr Jasani's bedroom, but a long trestle had been set up along one side. The late Mrs Jasani presided over the parade of guests from her place at the right-hand side of the bed. She stood atop a cream, lace mat in a thick frame of mother-of-pearl; enshrined, intact, even in death.

The voices could be heard, drifting through from the living room, as soon as Mary opened the door. A sudden hearty laugh sounded a note of strangeness. Richard and Anne were obviously still up and had visitors. It was late; unusual for them to be entertaining at this hour.

"Ah, the wanderer returns," called Richard as she appeared at the door. He had, so she gathered, had a well lubricated evening."Come in and meet Jan."

A large man lifted himself from the sofa as Richard spoke. He had a broad smile which sat easily above a burst of bright, red whiskers.

"This is Father Paul Jancowitz ... Jan for short, at least to thee and me," bellowed Richard. "This is Jo, my sister-in-law," he added. "She has been out gallivanting somewhere in the wilds of Bombay. Brave sort."

Jo's hand was taken in a gentle but controlled grasp and patted rather than shaken, laying as it did upon one large hand, and covered by the second. "Delighted to meet you," he said. "As you can see, it has been quite a night. I did warn Richard not to open the second bottle of red, but he heeded me not."

"Foul liar," chortled Richard from across the room. "You demanded that I show you my cellar, all six bottles of it that is, and then said that since we had made the effort to inspect it, the least we could do was drink another bottle."

A muted chuckle rose at the back of Father Jan's throat. "It's probably all true," he said in mock sorrow. "I have been known to lead my flock astray in enjoyment of the grape."

"So, how was your night?" asked Richard.

"Very nice, thank you," replied Jo,"apart from a brief altercation with a lump of chilli."

Richard grimaced: "Horrible stuff. Can't stand it. Not so much the taste of it. It's the napalming of my arse the next morning which I can't stand."

"Come along Richard," said Anne, rising to her feet. "I think it is way past your bedtime. Jo is probably tired and I am sure Jan is. He has travelled a long way today. There will be plenty of time to talk in the next few days."

She reached out and took the glass from Richard's hand, placing it safely upon the coffee table and then pulled at his hands in an effort to drag him to his feet. He wasn't really drunk, but he was exceedingly merry. He muttered and grumbled but rose all the same. Anne turned toward Jo before leading her well sedated husband away: "Jan has just come up from the south on the train. He has been at a mission down there and is going to stay with us for a few days. He's also planning a trip to Delhi and Agra next week. You might like to go along. Have a think about it."

On the way past, Anne leaned down and planted a resounding kiss upon the thinning strands of white-blonde hair, which remained upon the good Father's head: "Sleep tight. Lovely to see you." She blew a kiss to Jo and pushed Richard through the door.

Father Jan was a bear of a man, thick-set and tall, somewhere in his early forties, but with the face of a boy. His bright blue eyes glittered with both kindness and determination. He smiled at Jo. "I think we had better toddle off too," he said, getting to his feet with a heavy sigh and towering over her. "Not much of you is there?" he said with a quick grin as he linked his arm through hers and guided her through the door. "I'm sure all those stories Richard told me can't be true. He must have made them up,” he added wickedly. "I shall look forward to having a long talk with you tomorrow when you can tell me the real truth about yourself."

Delivered to her room safely, she crawled gratefully into bed and slept. And within the sleeping she dreamt, of Krishna, the blue-black boy, he who had danced with the lovely Radha. He was the Lord of Divine Love; the moonlight lover of the Gopis: the young and middle-aged wives of cowherders, those who had fostered and raised him. It was for Krishna that the women sighed, not for his white brother Balarama. It was Krishna who drew them on the drift of a distant flute, stirring their sleep and blowing the heavy perfume of white water-lilies, in a deep drugging, through their dreams. He teased them with his flute and their passions rose until each held hands to aching breasts. 'Each he took by the hand, and when their eyes were shut by the magic of his touch, the circle formed. Krishna sang an air in praise of autumn. The Gopis responded, praising Krishna and the dance began to the tinkle of their bracelets. Occasionally dizzied by the round, one or another would throw her arms about her beloved's neck and the drops of his perspiration then were like fertilizing rain, which caused the down to stand forth on her temples.' And he went into each, pervading their natures, and through them, the natures also of their husbands. He brought his oneness to all in a crushing frenzy.

‘As she-elephants, covered with dust, enjoy the frenzy of a great male, so those herding women, their limbs covered with dust and cowdung, danced with him on all sides. Their faces, laughing, and their eyes, large and warm as those of dark antelopes, grew bright as they drank ravenously the wonder of their dear friend. He would cry out to startle them and they would quiver with delight. And their hair, coming down, cascaded over their bounding breasts as the young god, thus among the Gopis, played, those nights, beneath the autumn moon. Reaching out his arms, he caressed their hands, their flowing locks, thighs, waists and breasts; scratched them with his nails, pierced them with his glances; laughed, joked, and teased; gratified them with all the tricks of the Lord of Love.'

Yet in the dream, it was not Radha whom he had lain softly on the ground, braiding flowers in her hair; it was not Radha who had guided him to love on the bank of the Jumna; it was not Radha who received the ravishment of his love: it was Mim, with her fine blonde hair damp with sweat and the redness bruised from her lips, who became his slayer as she brought him to her thighs for a night of war. It was she who 'made him captive, encircled him, routed him with her bosom, mangled him with her nails and tore at his lower lip with her teeth; pummeled him with her haunches, dragged his head back by its hair,and then drowned him with the honey mead of her throat.' It was Mim, in all her faded glory, who embraced him fully in the dark of the perfect night.


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