Friday, February 05, 2010

Children of the Lie: Chapter Ten


The Worms Of The Fruit

They arrived in Delhi on the early morning flight, with a mere half an hour delay in their departure time. It was an auspicious beginning, remarked Jo. Jan had been somewhat subdued from the time they left the house and her suggestion of good fortune did nothing to brighten his mood. As they took their seats at the front, his eyes widened at the sight of the toilet door hanging askew, having surrendered to gravity through the loss of one or more vital screws. The arm-rest of his seat was in a similarly dishevelled state with a twist to the ashtray lid which made it impossible to close. Despite the relative youth of the aircraft, there was, on the whole, a well-used air to it, from the worn grittiness of the carpet to the slow fraying of the upholstery.

Jo attempted to quiet his fears. “Don’t judge it by its looks. I’ve heard there’s plenty of puja done to make sure it stays up in the air.” Jan grunted. His lips firm and his face pale. She patted him on the arm as she spoke: ”Richard says that the shabbiness is just to make people feel comfortable. They’ve probably got a team of sweepers who batter the place up a bit with iron bars when the plane is first delivered to make it look right. I’m sure it’s really in tip top condition.” Jan grunted again in reply and Jo, suspecting that fear had rendered him incapable of speech, took out her book and began to read.

They ate nothing on the mercifully brief flight, having been warned by Anne that the caterers were not renowned for the hygiene of their kitchens. She explained, in vivid detail, the colourful if cruel nature of dysentery, while packing into a corner of Jo's bag a container of charcoal tablets and a box of Lomotil. The latter, she instructed, was only to be taken in extreme cases, and then, only in small doses. A slight upsetting of the stomach was best left to run its own course, in order that the intestine be allowed to purge itself. The charcoal tablets would aid in a general fumigation of the area and a return to normal habits. Jan needed no such instruction, having experienced for himself, more than once, the full fury of dysentery while staying at the mission in the south. Not that he was in any mood to eat anyway with his stomach tied up in knots.

He was returned to the world at the moment of touchdown; restored to all his energetic jollity. He bustled his way through the jostling queues of businessmen, waving his arm in the air to hurry Jo along, and sprinted for the first available taxi. Once settled into the bosom of the bulbuous, black Ambassador, he apologised for his frailty, saying that, while he had great faith in the mysterious ways of the Lord, he felt rather more relaxed about whatever path had been chosen for him when he had both feet firmly planted on the ground. It was not, he added, a particularly rational approach to life, especially given his chosen profession, but then, he had learned long ago that fear was the one thing which remained impervious to reason.

The driver appeared to nod in agreement at this point, turning as he did so to spit enthusiastically through his window. A few drops of brilliant red beaded the glass and his lips and tongue glistened with the colour of fresh, wet blood. Jo, who was sitting behind him, could see the muscles at the side of his neck and cheek working rhythmically, as he returned to his slow, cud-like chewing of the betel. If only he could drive as systematically as he chewed, she reflected, as the car careered through the traffic, veering first to one side and then to the other. But the roads were wide and seemed less congested than Bombay, so perhaps he was simply enjoying the illusion of freedom.

The long, broad streets, lined with trees, did have a sense of deliverance about them in this, the imperial city of New Delhi, which Lutyens had designed in the early years of the century. With the leaves washed clean in the recent rains, even this city of the great dust plains could shine in a green, resurrected glory. Soldiers standing guard on sandbagged corners were the only sign that freedom was a fragile thing and that true liberty was as yet phantasmal throughout this troubled land. The broad, squat bungalows in colonial white bespoke the diplomatic nature of this expanse of dreaming green, which was left suddenly behind when they were confronted by an unexpected crush of traffic and broke through the unspoken border which divided the two Delhis. This felt more like it , Jo told herself.

Old Delhi was merely another version of Bombay, minus the appalling stretch of slum.The driver, whom they subsequently discovered did speak impeccable English, took one look at the neatly printed address which Jan had written on the back of an old business card, and said: "I know where this is. I have been there before." And for once, in yet another auspicious happening, it seemed that he did and, before very long, they were unloading their baggage from the boot, or the dicky, as the driver called it, at the front of the tree-shrouded bungalow which adjoined the small church of Our Lady of Dolours, somewhere deep within the suburbs.

Father Giacomo came through a side door to greet them as the withered bearer, smiling through a chip and stain of broken teeth, nodded them into the house, endeavouring all the while to lift their luggage, unaided, up the two steep steps. Jan, obviously fearing that the flimsy fellow would fold beneath the weight, wrested two of the bags from him and strode inside. Father Giacomo embraced each in turn with that light and gentle embrace used by people who wish to welcome and yet are fearful of the touching. However tentative the hug, it was more than compensated for by the warm smile which played from each corner of his mouth and which danced deep within his sky-blue eyes.

He was in his middle sixties, still with a good head of hair, although silvered at the temples and somewhat grizzled in a wiry curl on either side. There was a healthy shine to his nut-brown skin, weathered and folded as it was from years in the sun. He was a square man, both of body and in the shape of his face; well-fleshed, although not running to fat, despite a looseness of both neck and paunch. There was a sense of energy about him, a simmering of spirit, such as belongs to those men who are in love: whether it be of work or of woman. In Father Giacomo's case, it was both, for he had never tired of the task which God had afforded him and neither had he wearied of serving the Holy Mother; she who had never failed to give him succour through the long and often daunting years. That he followed the Blessed Virgin with a devotion which grew stronger with each passing day was a small secret which he hid and yet which gave him the strength of many men.

A long, white cassock cloaked him from top to bottom, where sandalled feet pushed forth in a bare, brown presence. The gown, which buttoned at the neck, had been specially made for him and it hid, within its copious flowings, the most enormous pockets, designed specifically for the receiving of all those unexpected gifts which seemed to come his way. Into his pockets would go the monies, pressed into his hand, by all those who wished, for that moment at least, to help him in his work. They would also receive, from the hands of the good Father himself, a varied tipping of nuts and sweets left unattended at the various functions to which he was always invited and which, he knew, would be put to far better use when distributed among the children of his parish.

Not only money and sweets, but an eclectic assortment of objects could be salvaged from Father Giacomo's enormous pockets, to the frequent dismay of his housekeeper, the ever-efficient Therese. Father Giacomo not only believed in the adage ‘waste not, want not’, he also lived it. One never knew when something or another would come in handy. The fact that a half-eaten sandwich could be considered as useful as two almost-new screws, a piece of copper wire, three rubber washers and a cutting from some plant or another which had been passed along the way, made the cleaning out of his pockets something of an adventure which never failed to surprise. That Therese, who came of solid Goanese stock, was not an easy woman to surprise was yet another small blessing of which Father Giacomo was not unaware.

He had been in India for some forty years, having come, in his youth, from a small town in the Tuscan hills. His visits back to the home country had been few and far between, so much so, that he could no longer conceive of ever living there again. It was his fervent hope that he would be taken in the midst of his work. If he feared anything, it was that he would be called upon to retire and be forced to return, to linger the rest of his days in some priestly retirement home. That he prayed for death to come in the midst of a vigorous life was also because he considered India to be his home.

India was also his other love, his Magdalene. She was the one who had fallen and he knew her in all her black cruelty and yet he loved her still. That she was stumbling in the dark, battling within herself, against herself, only made his love for her that much more poignant. She was not easily understood, this old and raddled whore, who lived the lie of her own youth and beauty, but he believed that he understood her better than most and he knew that he loved her in a way that was rare. When she rattled her necklace of hollow skulls, he did not turn in fear; he faced her still, staring, unblinking, deep into the dripping maw; daring her to reveal herself as life, as well as death. He knew that the way of destruction was also the way of the soul.

They sat long over the lunch which Therese had prepared; a more than passable lasagne, made with ground buffalo steak, heavy with tomato and dried oregano and with just a whisper of chilli because Therese could not help herself, believing, as she did, that food without the breath of the burning pepper was not food worth eating. If Father Giacomo saw this as sacrilege, he did not say, preferring instead to indulge her in this, as he did so many other things: she was. after all, the woman who restored order to the chaos of his pockets.

They sipped slowly at the chianti which he had opened in celebration of their visit. It had been a gift from his sister when she came out to visit him the previous year. He had saved it especially for just such an occasion. Wine, he said, slowly filling their glasses, should be drunk only by those who appreciate it. There was the merest click from the tongue of Therese as Father Giacomo, proving himself to be a man who certainly did appreciate wine, downed first one glass of the robust red and then, having immediately re-filled his glass, downed this second portion just as quickly. As the solid hips of Therese swung disdainfully through the door, he winked at his guests and said: "I do in fact have another bottle of this in my stores, should you wish for more." He filled his glass for the third time and added: "It is a pleasant way to pass the afternoon, but it is a rare thing for me now, the drinking of wine." He sipped and then sighed. "It is very sad that the Indians cannot make good wine. They try, yes, they try, but it does not work. In Italy, even the vinegar is better than the wine they make here. That is the only thing I miss ... the wine.”

He was, in fact, becoming more mellow with each passing moment and, having asked Jan to describe his experiences in the south, began to nod off. The return of Therese and a rather intense clattering of plates as part of her final clearing returned him to the waking world with a start. ”Such an interesting time you have had," he said, re-settling himself upon the chair in a rather more upright position and casting a slightly guilty look in the direction of Therese. There was a firm cast to her lips as she held the bottle in one hand and the cork in the other and said: "I shall put this away, Father. You have finished." But Father Giacomo was not so easily cowed. "No, no Therese," he replied. "You leave that for our guests. You go now. We do not need you to look after us anymore."

When she had left, he turned toward them and, in a conspiratorial tone, added: "She does not like me to have a drink. She is very against the drink. Her husband was an alcoholic. He used to beat her. She says that drink makes men mad. Only the wine which is made holy is safe. From that wine, she says, God has taken the fire."

Jan laughed: "I think you could get just as drunk on holy wine, if you put your mind to it."

"Yes, yes, of course. This we know. But, for her, it is the fear. Her husband was a man and when he drank he was mad. I am a man and she fears that, if I drink, I will also become mad. It does not make sense this thing. It is the fear. That is all. It is like the baby chick, still with the eggshell on the tail ... if a hawk flies overhead, it will run for cover. Even if a wooden model of a hawk is drawn over their coop, they will run. Even if all the hawks in the world were to vanish, this fear would still sleep in the soul of the chick. It is the same with human beings and, for us, there are many more images which sleep in our souls; waiting to be triggered, to be brought to life. For Therese, one of these images is the wine ... it is the bottle," he said, reaching out to grasp the offender by the neck in order to raise it aloft. “The bottle throws its shadow across her mind and she runs in fear from the madness of men," he added, shaking his head sadly from side to side.

It was, thought Jo, difficult to imagine Father Giacomo being angry about anything. There was a strength to him certainly, but there was also an inner calm, a peacefulness. As it was, after three glasses of wine, he was heavy-lidded and nearly asleep. That he remained at the table merely to be polite was obvious. Jo stretched and yawned as she did so: "I think I could do with a nap. It has been such a long day. We were up very early. How about you, Jan?” He nodded in agreement as an obviously relieved Father Giacomo rose unsteadily to his feet, not forgetting to drain the final dregs of the wine before he did so.

“That is a good idea," he said. "Very good. Very good. We will all have a rest. There is a party tonight to which I have been invited. You must come. It is being given by a very old friend of mine. She is also from Italy. She is married to an Indian. She has been here very many years, almost as long as I have. You will like her. It will be much fun." He ushered them toward the door with a flapping of cassock and something akin to a shooing, with the relaxed waving of his hands, adding as he did so: "We will find Ramu. He will take you to your rooms."

The bearer had been sent to summon a taxi to take them to the party. The night was black and warm, with a blurred glitter of stars. When the bearer returned, he was brandishing his broad, broken-toothed smile from the front seat of a car, having brought one of the tiny three-wheeler taxis which beetle about the city in a rattle of rusting metal. They could not possibly fit, said Father Giacomo. He must go away and find one of the larger vehicles. They waited by the gate for the expected second coming, bathed in the calm of a still night. The lights in the surrounding homes shone with a butter yellowness; the dust reached through the last touch of the rains and somewhere, lost within the night, a dog barked, sharp and clear.

They were the first to arrive at the party. Father Giacomo had said that this would be so. It was the custom in India to arrive late, but he had not seen Gabriella for such a long time that he had chosen to arrive on time in order to have an opportunity to talk with her before she was captured by her guests.” It will also give you a chance to talk with her," he said, as they got out of the taxi. "She is a wonderful woman. It would be a pity if you did not get to know her a little. Parties in India are always so big, so many people. There is so much talking, but so little knowing. This way, we come before the others and there will be some talking and some knowing." His face was lit with a satisfied smile as he rang the doorbell.

Gabriella Shah was a woman in her late fifties. She was very thin and very brown and very, very wrinkled after years of baking in the Indian sun. She had a sharp, hooked nose and large, round brown eyes. A bountiful frizz of greying hair fell around her face. She wore a low-necked dress which revealed a soft, leather-like wrinkling of throat and chest as she reached out to shake hands. A lovely smile played around her elegant mouth as she greeted them. Father Giacomo's friends were of course friends of hers, she told them in an accent which was still heavy, despite three decades of living in a foreign land.

Jo was struck by the courage it took to wear such a low-cut dress with such badly wrinkled skin. Gabriella had dressed for the climate and not the ego. Jo squirmed at the thought of her own cowardice. She was already avoiding sleeveless dresses because of the viscous shake of her upper arms, and here was this woman, somewhere near sixty, who had the strength of character to to hide nothing. She did in fact look quite lovely and yet it was a beauty which rested comfortably with age. That she loved herself was obvious; not in a vain way, although that may well have been the case at one time, but this was beauty cast deep in the soul.

By the time the guests began to arrive Jo had learned that Gabriella’s two grown-up daughters were both married and living in Italy. That they had each married Italian men, was, she said, no reflection upon their father. It had not been so much that they preferred to have Italian husbands as the fact that they preferred not to be Indian wives. A woman had more freedom in Italy and her daughters were both very strong girls. They had no intention of sitting quietly to one side. Men were still very traditional in Italy, but, for her girls, the choice had been between the two countries and they had each chosen Italy. Gabriella and her husband visited regularly and they were renovating a country home in Perugia. Business interests kept them moving back and forth between India and Italy so it all worked out very well. It would have been much more difficult if her girls had married men from some country other than India or Italy. This way it was still all in the family.

The trickle of guests was increasing and Gabriella's husband called her to his side. Jo found herself instead, in conversation with a tall, dry man who said in a clipped accent that his name was Vivien, and he was a visiting English academic. His hair was grey and tightly curled and he had the strangest mouth. It looked for all the world like some afterthought, cut into his face when the rest had been finished. It did not belong in the face of a man, firm and fish-like, with straight, thin lips, and yet, the words which emerged were normal enough. He spoke in that clear, controlled, upper-class manner, with a fruitiness of inflection hanging from certain vowels.

He was in India for six months, involved in some research, travelling around a bit, but mainly based in Delhi. He was working with the university on secondment. He was hoping to write a book on India, hoping to bring some understanding of the contemporary society in terms of its history. We forget our history at our cost, he had intoned to Jo who was finding him strange but interesting. It was a very difficult society to understand, he said, unless one retained a completely open mind. People had a lot of misconceptions about India. India was rarely what people thought it was, rather she was always herself and that meant many different things to many different people. Take the issue of tolerance. Hinduism wasn't really a tolerant religion; it had more to do with an innate sense of superiority than any decision to tolerate the other. India does not so much tolerate other cultures and religions, as it ignores them; acknowledging that they exist but dismissing them as being of no importance.

“I’ve heard that before,” offered Jo, hoping to show that she had some understanding of a subject which was seemingly beyond understanding.

Vivien’s head seemed to move just a little and with generosity one would have said he was acknowledging her comment but the flow of words barely stopped. The Indian believes, he said, that his society possesses the highest cultural learning ever received by man. Other religions were not considered to be a threat because they were known to be inconsequential. It was not even really a matter of arrogance, he continued, they knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that they possessed the greatest truths and therefore, such issues of inferior and superior did not arise: it all simply was. It was a part of the cultural ethos to believe, that in India, the heights had been attained and those heights far surpassed anything achieved by any other race. It was merely a matter of time before the golden era would return and then the rest of the world would come to see the reality of the known truth.

“But are you saying they cannot look around and see the way things really are.” Vivien looked surprised at yet another, more forceful, interruption as if such things did not happen in the normal course of events. For a moment Jo wondered if he would answer as his lips moved slowly against each other but no sound came. But he did answer, in his own time.

“Some do. Some do not. But neither is important. It is not how they are which is important, but what they are. The how is a moment in time; the what is eternal. They believe that by remaining still, by letting life pass by, holding on to what they know about what they are, they have endured through the centuries. The world has come to them; they have not gone to the world. This, of course, is more true of northern India than it is of the South, where quite extensive trading and colonising movements took place, as far away as Indonesia. Southern India did, in fact, have its own time of conquest, but it is the northern peoples who have held sway in terms of Indian culture.”

“I haven’t been to the South,” Jo murmured, almost as an aside, but it failed to stop his flow.

“In historical terms,” Vivien went on, “many things were brought into India, but each, as it arrived, was broken up and given a local flavour; reconstructed on Indian principles. In doing this, they kept themselves pure, unsullied, or so they thought, but, at the same time, in obliterating the real past they became reliant upon their mythic past, against which all had to be validated. There is a word in Sanskrit, Upadhi, which means deceit, deception, disguise, but also limitation, idiosyncrasy or attribute. The ultimate truth, being without attributes, cannot be contemplated by the mind. What it all comes down to, the core meaning, is that they know, really know, they don’t just believe, that they have a knowledge which is unassailable and which cannot be given away. The experience is ineffable."

"It all sounds ineffable to me," said Jo, " if not thoroughly confusing. I’ve only been here a short time and I understand less the longer I stay. India seems to be the only subject with foreigners, as if they find themselves wandering around in some dark strange place and must desperately search for a light."

"Oh, there are a few lights shining around the place," replied Vivien, with the beginnings of a smile."That is what we try to do with our research: give some form to the formless. “

“From what I’ve seen already that’s quite a task you’ve set yourself,” laughed Jo.

Vivien smiled in reply, but it was a serious somewhat disapproving sort of smile. It was obvious that he took himself and his work very seriously. Jo felt suddenly uncomfortable and in an effort to make amends said quickly:”But it must be very interesting, your work, and you obviously enjoy it.”

He nodded in assent, honour satisfied and taking advantage of his captive listener pushed on regardless, straightening his shoulders and stretching his lips, as if preparing to address a lecture hall instead of one, small, interested mind. ”In studying the ancient writings,” he said,” we try to find out how people have come to be what they are. This is a fascinating culture. Whether one likes it or does not like it, is really irrelevant. There is such contrast between what it believes itself to be and what it actually is, that it represents the most remarkable example of the human talent of being able to hold two totally conflicting opinions at one and the same time," he finished, shaking his head with a bemused smile at the contradictory workings of the human mind. Jo opened her mouth to speak but she was not quick enough.

"Of course," he went on, gathering his words together neatly within the thin tightness of his mouth, "they are now working themselves to establish an accurate historical and archeological past. Just because it has not been done in the past, does not mean it cannot be done now. But the work has been going on for a long time. People have always been interested in India.”

“Like some puzzle which has to be solved,” interjected Jo.

“Hmm, yes, I suppose you could say that, “ he replied, without conviction. Jo felt she had been somehow chastised both for her comment and interruption. He was not an easy man to like, but he was interesting to listen to and that seemed to be the only task she would be allowed.

“It was the Jesuits,” he continued slowly when it became obvious that his companion had nothing more to say, “ who first succeeded in mastering Sanskrit in the 17th and 18th centuries. They compiled the first Sanskrit grammar in a European tongue. But it was the British, really, who established the foundations of Indology. The Jesuits never really gained an understanding of India's past. In 1783, Sir William Jones came to Calcutta as a judge of the Supreme Court. He was a brilliant linguist, a genius. Jones began to learn the language and, on the first day of 1784, the Asiatic Society of Bengal was founded and it was in the journal produced by the society, Asiatic Researches, that the first concrete steps were taken to reveal India's past. Charles Wilkins was another major force. He worked for the East India Company. He and Jones were the true fathers of Indology.

"They received a great deal of support from the Governor General of the time, Warren Hastings. It was initially a bid to help them understand Hindu law, but of course it led on to other things. It was a fellow called James Prinsep, an official of the Calcutta Mint, who found the key to unlock the Brahmi and Kharoshthi scripts, in 1837, and really got things moving. The translations, in effect, gave the Indians back their own past. The average Indian, anyway. A lot of this material had been in the hands of the Brahmin priests and wasn't accessible to others.The British also got things moving in the field of archaeology. A fellow called Alexander Cunningham, who was a young officer of the Royal Engineers, devoted himself to the study of the material remains of ancient India. It was the East India Company which began some of the first collecting of artifacts. I won't say it was all done for altruistic motives, but it was done, it was a start. It's up to the Indians now to continue the work, to discover as much as they can about their factual past."

"Will they?" Jo asked, jumping in quickly as he drew breath.

"Oh, I think so. It is also part of the human condition to be possessed of the most severe curiosity. That they had their moment of glory, however brief, is without a doubt. What they have to learn is the limits of that glory. It is not enough to fabricate a structure which supports simply what people want to believe."

"But isn't that what is always done here?” Jo asked. “Ive been told it's enough to wish that something were true to say that it is."

Vivien gave a dry little laugh and curled his lips at the edges: "Ah yes, well, they will have to work within their own particularities. It is not enough to sit still and to bend the truth to your own ends. One has to go out, to at least attempt to meet it halfway. People may want to change facts but it cannot be done. They can be ignored, oh yes, but they can’t be changed."

"From what I’ve seen,” said Jo, “it’s not so much that the Indians ignore the contribution of the British, but rather that they still seem to be angry about it all, about the fact that the British were even here.”

"Yes. A pity that. Can't be helped, I suppose. Lot of misunderstandings on both sides and yet, you know, if it hadn't been for the British, this country -- as a nation would probably not exist. There was no India, as we know it today, before their coming and any conquest which was made was done with an army four-fifths Indian in composition. However much hatred there is toward Britain, it's a fact that it was British occupation which drew them together, made them one and helped them to discover a commonality of past.”

“Why do you think they remained so separate from each other, the British and the Indians?" asked Jo. "It seems to me that the British had quite a love affair with the place and yet they kept their distance.”

“The truth of the matter was that everyone kept their distance. Everyone was to blame, not just the British. This was a divided society anyway, divided far more by caste than Britain ever was by class. In the early days of the East India Company, there were attempts to mix, but the high caste Indians would not mix with the foreigners, because of fear of being polluted, and the Moslems would not let their women mix in society, because it was against their religion. So you can see, there was very little common ground for socialising. In fact, the high caste Indians considered the foreigners to be at least as inferior to them, if not more than the British held the Indians to be. There was the most appalling racism on all sides, but it was also an echo of the times.”

"Yes," said Jo, with a smile, "we do live in different times. Even your Australian colonial isn't considered to be quite as inferior as he once was. When I try to tell Indians that they are not the only ones to be discriminated against, they look at me as if I'm mad. As if it is inconceivable that any Westerner with white skin could be discriminated against. I think everyone has gotten a bit carried away with this issue of colour. Discrimination isn't about colour, it's about culture. It's about how people live; what they think about life...” Vivien began to shuffle, and raised his hand to barely disguise a small but definite yawn. Jo felt a surge of irritation. He was obviously not a happy listener. She could not help but suspect that it had something to do with her being a woman, and worse, a non-academic!

The irritation pushed her on: “I mean, there are some Italians who have darker skin than some Indians! Sometimes I think people bring a lot of trouble to themselves simply by believing in racism. If you go around expecting people to discriminate against you, then chances are, sooner or later,that someone will and all that does is vindicate your position.I can’t help but think that it suits the Indians to believe that Westerners are racist, because the alternative is too awful to contemplate ...that people object, not to the colour of their skin, but to their habits. As long as they believe that it is about colour, then they are safe, but to acknowledge that they are rejected because some of their habits and some of their attitudes are offensive, would require them to change. They would no longer be innocent victims. They would simply be people who have habits which others often consider to be dirty, dishonest and rude. Not to mention attitudes which are primitive, bigoted, racist and sexist," she finished with a flourish.

Vivien moved slowly from one foot to the other, in a rather more definite sign of discomfort. Jo noted the movement, but ignored it. She had been prepared to listen to him but not he to her and his rudeness had simply made her angry. He was happy resting on his academic laurels, lecturing to all who would listen about India but he never got down to the guts of the place. He talked about how and why things had developed but seemed unconcerned as to what, if anything, could be done about it. In his eyes it was all simply academic and that kept it safe. He was like a lot of foreigners in India, he believed certain things to be true but did not have the courage to say so. It annoyed her if only for its sheer hypocrisy. When foreigners got together in private, they waxed long and lyrical about the ills of India and yet, in public, they merely smiled sweetly and either said nothing or disguised their true feelings with something called discretion. It wasn’t discretion it was deceit !

"We’re establishing the cult of victim by not being honest,” she continued,. “Someone else is always to blame, the British, the Muslim conquerors, the CIA or the combined Western plot against the Third World. No-one ever accepts responsibility. We’re not helping these people by encouraging them to believe in their own innocence and helplessness. The Western world runs around, beating itself with a paper whip for its own racist attitudes, while ignoring the atrocities which exist in most other countries. The truth of it is that it is Western society which provides the greatest opportunity for a free and honourable life, for the greatest number of people and which seeks to uphold the rights of all individuals, regardless of sex, colour or creed. I don't see why we should be ashamed of that. We come from a society which defends the rights of the individual and I happen to think that’s pretty important.”

“I think you misunderstand me,” said Vivien tersely.

“No I don’t,” Jo shot back,” I understand you perfectly. Your work is all about finding explanations for why India is the way it is without ever questioning what is right or wrong about it.”

“Dividing things into absolutes like right and wrong is of very little use in the scheme of things,” Vivien returned coldly.

“Why, because it makes us choose? That’s my whole point, just understanding isn’t enough, at some point we have to choose. We have to look at what is available and say yes, this is good or this is bad, this is fair or this is unfair, this is cruel or this is kind ... it’s about justice and at the end of the day, despite its many shortcomings, Western society ... modern society is the best hope that the world has got. From what I can see around me in India, it's the only hope. It seems to me that if you really want to be of use to India you should not only be trying to help the people understand why they are the way they are but what else they could be. As long as you keep your true beliefs silent you are simply supporting the status quo and denying them truthful debate about where they have been and where they might go. And, I think it's high time that we gave up our guilt. It is nothing more than a sanctimonious indulgence, on our part. It's also patronising. “

Jan walked up to join them and Jo, who was feeling a little guilty at her outburst and responsible for the strained expression upon the Englishman's face, slid one arm around his waist in welcome and said: "This is Vivien. We're talking about India. Surprise, surprise. The eternal topic.It's a bit like having someone in the family who is mad ... it's all anyone ever talks about, and it is probably time to stop."

"We all care too much," Jan replied. "That's the trouble and, the more we care, the angrier we get about things. "

"Perhaps you are right," agreed Jo. "I don't know. I am beginning to be glad that it isn't my problem."

"Ah, but it is your problem,” said Jan,” and always will be in some way.You have been here long enough to care a little. I know I have. You share a little of yourself with the country and the country shares a little of itself with you. That knowledge of each other is permanent; you may go away, but you will always have a little part of the other living inside you.

”Very true, very true," Vivien nodded in agreement, rolling the words out slowly with an edge to his voice which spoke of departure. He continued to shuffle, looking all the while over the top of Jo's head for some likely and, hopefully, more harmonious destination.

It was at this point that Gabriella came sliding silently among them and, taking Jo's hand, led her away with the words: "I am moving you just a little. I have been watching you. Vivien is a lovely man, but so serious. You must come and meet some people who will make you laugh." She stopped for a moment and took Jo's chin in her thin, long fingers: "This is not a face which has seen much laughing, I think. Not for some time. This we will fix.”

Jo was glad to be rescued. She had a feeling that somehow she had dug herself into a hole. The trouble with honesty was that unless the other person was also comfortable with it then it achieved no more than the sure, sudden death of conversation. Vivien would blame her and probably it was her fault. But she felt better at least for having been honest. At least she told herself she did, but there was the niggling thought that she was no longer sure what honest was!

The group to which Gabriella introduced her was a mixed one. There was Tom, born in India of missionary parents, educated both in India and the United States. He had returned to Delhi in his twenties but now spent much of his time in Bombay where he was a bit-part actor in the movies. He preferred India because the rules of life were more easily bent. Tall, thin, beak-nosed, breathless of voice and decidedly gay, he was in love with himself as well as with India, but he was also possessed of a bitter wit. It protected him both from the world and from himself.

Feroze, who had accompanied Tom to the party, had black hair, black eyes and was, in his own words, an artist. He was frequently bored by people and not afraid to let it show. He wanted only the semblance of intellectual conversation, where there was no expectation of actually learning, nor of offering anything. He preferred pretence, it was much less tiring.

Pearl was in her sixties, the product of a union between a German Jewish father and an Indian Parsi mother. Her father remembered nothing but the wounds of life and her mother was suitably long-suffering. Both were still active, busy people, despite the respective anger and depression, or perhaps because of it. They were well into their eighties and Pearl was still very much the little girl. She was educated, erudite, warm, witty ...but still very good at blaming others both for her problems and for those of India. It was better not to talk about such things and in fact, there was no need, given that she was so much fun to be with and had such a wealth of stories and anecdotes. No-one could accuse her of not caring however; she did her bit. There was an occasional involvement with a drug rehabilitation centre. Such things were important but they should not be allowed to take over one's life.

Alex, who looked as if he belonged nowhere in particular, let alone to this stylish group, was a sanyassin. He was involved in commercial enterprise, as he described it, back home in the States, but had taken time out to spend his vacation at the ashram. His dark, greasy hair was pulled back into a pony tail, caught with a rubber band. A gold watch flashed beneath the frayed cuff of his creased shirt and he flourished a solid gold lighter each time he lit one of his numerous cigarettes. He seemed to be saying:'I can be anything I want with no thought of you,' and yet he had the embarrassed laugh of a child caught lying. He talked about owning your energy, and rolled cliche after cliche onto the field of conversation. Within the harangue of hype there were seeds of wisdom but the garden was badly in need of weeding. There was an endless parading of thoughts, but no husbandry discipline. He seemed driven,

He believed he had found himself in India, while failing to realise that there was nothing special about India which would bring about such a state. Even its horrendous poverty and degradation could be equalled in the countless other city slums. The world offered any number of places where one could achieve the same end, it was just that, for some long forgotten and ill-deserved reason, India carried within its name an air of sanctimonious spirituality. If one were going to find oneself anywhere, then it had to be here. It was the place where such things were seen to be done, just as one bought English marmalade, Ceylon tea, French wines, Scottish salmon and Russian caviar. If you wanted silk you went to China; if you wanted soul you came to India. India offered the magical partnership of crushing poverty and human degradation on an impressive scale hand in hand with a reputed wisdom and spiritual superiority. The latter element made the horrors far more bearable than they would have been on some other stinking heap. With a wave of his gold-wristed arm Alex expounded upon the treasures which could be found.

One could spend a great deal of time looking beyond the physical spectacle of stick-limbed women and children, in filthy rags, picking through the slimy heap of rotting garbage, toward that more soothing realm of reality, that particularly Indian way of looking at things, where peace comes from knowing that such things serve a greater purpose and it is not for us to question. At this point, he maintained, one can know at last the great wisdom of India and know one's self has been found. What it all came down to, thought Jo, was that one learned to look at a shitheap and not mind that one was looking at a shitheap.

Sumira had very long black hair and heavy-lidded eyes, which wore about them the dreamy droop which is bestowed either by a dose of valium or an injection of the most killing boredom. She spoke with the barest movement of her lips, as if the very opening and issuing forth, drew from her the last ounce of energy which she possessed. She wrote articles, very dry, so she said, for academic publications. It kept her busy and gave her some sort of identity other than being someone's wife, mother, daughter or sister ...the lot of a woman in India. She felt terribly guilty at her selfishness. She did not have time for her friends. She did not understand when Jo informed her that she had many friends whom she did not see often, it was enough to know that they were there.

Neither did she understand, when Jo told her, that her friends did not necessarily like, nor meet each other. But there had to be a connection, she maintained. There was. It was Jo herself, but she could not understand that either. It was incomprehensible. In India all things must serve a purpose. The majority of meetings are with family or members of one's own community. To have a friend who belonged to neither group could only mean that they were useful in some way. Friends were not simply people that you liked, that was incidental, they were people who might one day be of use. Of course, Sumira liked all her friends, but she could not conceive of having a friendship which existed for no other purpose than that of enjoyment of the other.

And, last but not least, there was Dan, thin-jawed, with pale, dry skin and wispy blonde hair; his soft, long-fingered hands hung at his side. He listened quietly to it all. He was a diplomat, something senior with the American Embassy. He had been in many interesting places, moving from one exotic spot to the next, Cairo, Budapest, Beirut, Libya, and now Delhi. He had no need to speak, his job was to listen. And yet, there was something young and small resting within the depths of his eyes, a little boy wanting to be accepted, to be ordinary, when the fact was that he was really very important.

Jo had seen that look before. He was the sort of man that Susie would have called a Russian Doll. Susie had shaken more than a few of them in her time and, she maintained, the hollow rattling that they made was unmistakeable. It was the sound of the small man in the large persona. The trouble with a lot of important people, especially men, Susie claimed, was that, in many cases, the growth of the person did not equal the growth of the personality and they remained tiny little selves, rattling around inside something which could only be called conceit. The greater the discrepancy between self and image, the more noise they made when shaken.

Given the way Dan was looking long and almost wistfully in the direction of Tom, Jo suspected that, if anything were to shake him up, it was not likely that it would be a woman. It was about this point that she caught a glimpse of Jan in the far corner of the room, deep in conversation with a young woman. There was something about the blonde short hair, the snub nose, the freshwashed freckles and outdoor attractiveness which marked the girl as Australian. Jo excused herself from the gathering and walked over to say hello.

Her name was Rhiannon and she was from Sydney. With shiny brown legs, barely encased in khaki shorts and shod in white socks and walking boots, she looked far more suited to the scaling of mountains rather than that of conversations. There was something of the mettlesome mare about her, a coltish air to her long-limbed frame, the effect increased by a cream coloured mane of curly hair. Long of neck, clean of limb, blue of eye, she was the picture of bursting health.

She had spent a year backpacking China after studying Mandarin at the university in Canberra. She had learned to spit within the first two months and it had taken another two months on her return to Australia to forgo the habit. The Chinese she said, had been amazed, both by her fairness and her height. She laughed at the memory of this and her silken mane of hair shivered across the broad straightness of her shoulders. She wore a sleeveless shirt of loose, cream cotton and resting below the curve of her throat was a thin disc of gold cut in crescent shape with the horns expanded and turned on edge; it was fastened behind the high arch of her neck with a tie of scarlet and white thread, held together in a tight braid.

It was interesting, she agreed, when Jo remarked upon the unusual design. She had picked it up somewhere along the way in her travels up from Goa. She couldn't remember where, but had seen it and liked it. She enjoyed the haggling. It hadn't cost much, and in fact, the little man who sold it to her, and who also insisted on fastening it around her neck, had said that it was a very special and that it was meant for her and because of that he gave her the very best price.

"Of course, I didn't believe him for a minute," she laughed, deep and rich from within the throat. "But the final price was only about fourteen dollars, which seemed fair enough to me."

She liked travelling, she told them. Especially in such places as China and India where life was raw. She didn't mind all the difficulties, all the awful things, in fact, those were exactly the things that she did like. Life in such places had a sharp edge to it. There was no chance of being bored. There were always surprises. Such places had a meatiness about them; something to get your teeth into. Her own teeth shone as she said this, straight and white and gleaming sharp.

It seemed that the beautiful Rhiannon had been made to a perfect pattern, right down to the last fine detail. She had that flare to the nostrils and toss of the head which brings men to their knees. Jo took one look at Jan's face and saw that, for the briefest of moments, the priest had given way to the man. He was returned to himself by the arrival of two young men who, in the scheme of things, were rather more eligible. As if sensing this, Rhiannon turned her attention toward them and a slow sheen began to show on the gold of her bare skin, as if the night without or the night within had each grown suddenly warmer.

Jo slipped her arm around Jan's elbow and, with a farewell to Rhiannon, which appeared to be unheard, dragged him in the direction of the dining room. Someone had said something about dinner and she had the feeling that Jan would be in a better frame of mind if he were to be fed, in some sense at least. He gave a slow sigh as they walked away and said with a teasing smile: "Such are the things we relinqish."

"She wasn't your type, at all," replied Jo, "even if you were allowed to have a type, except for the fact that she was the right height."

"That’s a start,” chuckled Jan.

"Well, in your case there are no starts," Jo said firmly. “Let's eat."

The dream came with her into waking. There was something about it which bothered her, despite her efforts to dismiss it as a fantasy which her mind had knitted and ravelled from the previous evening. It had something to do with Jan having been drawn to the amazonian beauty of Rhiannon. However, it was not of the youthful blonde goddess that she had dreamt, but of herself.

A dark shape had come through the shadows of sleeping night and lain down beside her. It was Jan. He stayed quietly at her side, barely moving and yet, she had sensed the stirring of him as man. When the full awakening was reached and then passed and she had felt only the warm, honeyed cleaving upon her right thigh, he asked in a whisper if she knew what had happened. When she replied that she did, he began to cry. In a brief, cream-lit moment of the moon, she saw his face, riven with horror and the deepest fear. In the terror of his sobs and the drench of his sweat, she felt the touch of God's wrath and knew that he dwelt in the deepest hell because of what he had done. What she wanted, with a heavy aching, was to reach out and hold him in her arms; to take him within the enfoldment of herself; to let him know the true love of woman, if only for this one time.

She had woken in a sticky drenching of her own sweat. The slow click of the fan above her head did little more than to move the air in sodden circles. Through the broken blind which covered the window, she could see the grey-dawn green of the garden. It called softly with the first stirrings of the birds. The way to the garden lay through the kitchen and she crept without need, on bare, silent feet, past the huddled shape of the bearer who slept on a charpoy crammed into the centre of the room. The sun had already arrived by the time she reached the kitchen, streaming through the uncovered window, settling into the otherwise gloomy corners of the room, teasing the last touch of light from the shreds of cream paint which remained upon the walls.

To one side stood the solid, square bulk of a cement stand which combined both trough and base for the gas burners on which Therese cooked. Along the edge ran an ancient drip of dirt and grease and the wall behind boasted a thick dressing of heavy soot from the occasional wood fires which were used when gas was in short supply. A bundle of twigs lay in one corner, in a dry, rigid heap, waiting for just such an occasion.There was a stark economy to the room, with its bare, flagged floor and cupboardless walls. A set of three, rough shelves had been hammered into place at one end of the room but these held no more than a few assorted bottles and tins, and two large, blackened saucepans. Hanging above the trough, on big, bent nails, were ranked an assortment of cooking utensils, begrimed through cursory washing and the tenacious, sooty bloom of the cooking fires. The bearer wriggled on the rough rope of his bed and snorted loudly through buried nostrils. Jo hurried past. She did not want him waking up and following her around waiting to be useful.

There was an unexpected coolness to the morning. Perhaps it came from the soothing wetness of grass on her bare feet. Whatever the reason, she felt instantly refreshed, and the weight of the remembered dream was lifted. She smiled to herself. Fancy dreaming about making love to a priest! It had been a long time but she hadn't realised she was that desperate. Not that Jan wasn't attractive; he was a lovely man. But she was not for a moment attracted to him in that way ... that was the curious thing about the dream. Why should he be the one who came to her bed? It must mean something, but she didn’t want to think about it, the morning was too wonderful.

The garden was heavily overgrown, close in fact to total disarray. The creep and reach of leaf and branch tumbled against the side of the white-painted bungalow and stretched even onto the dull, pink-caramel edge of the roof tiles. From somewhere within the tangle of bursting green came the sugar smell of jasmine.

In one corner stood a Neem tree, large and rough-barked with serrated leaves. It was a tree, though she did not know it, which gave birth to white flowers, yellow fruits and whose twigs made a shockingly bitter toothbrush for those who could afford no more; and for those, like Ramu the bearer, who had never cleaned his teeth in any other way and had no intention of changing, no matter how many toothbrushes Father Giacomo placed by his wash basin. Father Giacomo did not however object to Therese making use of the leaves, both in her cooking and as an insect repellent. This he could accept; such things were done in Italy, but as for cleaning teeth with a twig ... no, no, that, he was convinced, was what made Ramu's gums swell and bleed so and, if he were not careful, he would lose all of his teeth. Broken teeth were better than no teeth at all, he would instruct the nodding and smiling Ramu, who would continue to take the toothbrush offered by the good Father, using it instead to clean his toe-nails and continuing to take to his teeth with the Neem twig.

The other large tree in the garden was a pomegranate, that tree which endures with the least of care, striking deep into inhospitable earth; rough-barked and twisted of branch, it offers hard-clad fruit with tender seeds. It is the tree of the mythical son, the self-mutilated and resurrected god, Attis, whose mother Nana conceived when she placed a crimson seed of the pomegranate in her bosom. It was a tree which, in ancient times, had been sacred to many of the Lords of Light: Adonis, Tammuz, Dionysis.

It was held sacred because it was said that from its blood the young gods had sprung. Its scarlet red seeds, when burst, give forth a vivid dye. The fulsome birthing of its egg-filled pulp, led many to believe that it spoke of fertility as well as love. During the days of its greatness it had seen the Paschal victim traditionally spitted on wood of the pomegranate; it had seen its reddish-gold globes chosen as the only fruit to be allowed inside the Holy of Holies and made in miniature to adorn the robes of Jehovah's priests. This fruit, which carried upon its head, a given crown in the form of its withered calyx, was the emblem of Saturn, the seventh day, and of the planet Ninib, the ruler of the winter solstice. The meaning of the pomegranate is much forgotten, although it is said that it is the only fruit which the worms do not corrupt; the fruit which survived the descent into hell, there to be taken by Persephone, at the behest of Hades, committing herself therefore to a life equally shared, between the dark and the light.

The sky hung heavy in a shining haze as they waved to Father Giacomo through the back window of the car which they had hired to take them down to Agra. The fat belchings of smoke which ringed the edge of the city as they drove out was sure evidence that the hard brown tinge to the heavens was no God-given thing.The straggle of suburbs through which they passed were no match for the slums of Bombay, but there was a broken, littered chaos to them all the same. The clean, wide streets of diplomatic Delhi seemed not a part of the true, crushed heart of the land. Everywhere it seemed, there were far too many people for far too little space. So much so, that when at last, they threw off the loitering grasp of the city, it came as a surprise to be embraced by a broad and distant stretch of green. They both sighed. Each felt the sense of safety which comes with the widening of horizon; the peace which resides in distance, for those who come from lands where the horizon is endless and the distance is beyond mere touching. That the crowd upon the road lessened, but a little, was not important; they could see beyond the here, they could see beyond the now.

When Jo returned her eyes to the road itself it was to discover that the traffic was verging on the suicidal. The route to Agra, formed part of the highway system, leading on to Calcutta, but it appeared to be little more than one lane wide, the width of a suburban road, and it was crammed with traffic. She was glad they had taken Father Giacomo's advice about hiring a solid car and were now very slowly travelling south in an old, but sturdy Mercedes. They were sharing the journey with a weaving assortment of camels, cows, cars, carts, bullocks, bikes, buses and trucks , and more trucks. It seemed as if all the trucks in India were on this particular road and that each and every one was dangerously overloaded. Old and worn, they looked like so much scrap metal on wheels with their square, rusty noses, decoratively painted, if somewhat faded sides, and great swaying rumps.

It would have been impossible to put anymore onto the trucks. In most cases, the load hung out far over the back of the truck, as well as at the sides and rose in height to an enormous swaying bulk. They passed the overturned carcase of one such beast. It seemed that the slow sashay had become a dance of death which had brought the over-loaded truck down with a crash, no doubt flinging the driver through the windscreen as it did so, into the path of the oncoming traffic. To one side of the road lay a shrouded shape, the tell-tale redness seeping slowly through the cloth.

It was in the ever-present battle against death that each and every driver sat firmly on his horn. They screamed and raged without halt, warning whoever would listen, of the driver's intent. The camels seemed not to mind. They passed one of the gracefully striding beasts, his firm, proud neck raised high and nostrils flaring. There was an even greater droop to his heavy-lidded eyes, as he plodded solidly along the side of the road. It was as if he believed that what he did not see, would therefore not exist. It was a solution of sorts.

There was a tranquility to the countryside, succulent, verdant, after the rains, and luminous in the dry face of the sun. Villages sprang, from time to time, isolated from the green by a band of barren earth. Through the larger villages could be seen the evil seepage of an open drain and between the mud and dung huts stood neat piled towers of bullock pats, raised, round by round with circles of formed, dried dung. Yet more circles leaned against rock or tree, drying to a hardness which would make them suitable for stacking. Sometimes, within the waving emptiness of fertile field would be seen a small, round house of plaited cane grass; a shelter for the farmer, who worked, bent low to the earth, in some distant corner.

Jo found herself becoming drowsy, seduced by the steady hum of the car, the scream of horn having already become a distant, unimportant thing. She looked across at Jan, through half-closed eyes, wondering if he would think it rude should she fall asleep. He sat, wide-eyed, transfixed upon the road ahead, willing the insane rush of oncoming traffic to pass them safely by. Something within her wanted to reach out and hug him, to assure him that all was well. He was such a fearful traveller, and yet, he was the one who was assured by his faith that all was in safe hands. She was the one who should be frightened; she who could lay no claim upon any particular faith.

Perhaps it was harder for those like Jan, who had been brought up in such an absoluteness of faith, to truly plumb the depths of their own believing. She wondered if he had ever conceived of not believing. She wondered if he held to something which he had to have to survive, or was it something which he had chosen freely as a way to live? There was a great difference between the two. The first was based on fear and was a stilled and fragile thing. The second was based on love and free choice, and grew ever stronger in its ability to accept change.

She was about to rouse herself and distract him with conversation when the car began to slow and they pulled into a rest station. They had passed a number along the way which consisted of little more than a lean-to constructed of planks with an open fire built in at the front and a clutter of metal cooking pans, both large and small, heaped to one side. The dirt area at the front was swept clean and it was here that wooden tables and chairs had been set up, along with a row of rope and string beds, upon which the weary could take rest. At each of these way-stops, a cluster of bushes and a tap, placed off to one side, appeared to constitute toilet facilities. That they had stopped at something which was rather more civilized was of enormous relief.

They were both hungry and Jan was again appearing almost cheerful. They ordered ‘safe’ as instructed by Anne; tea and toast with jam. The smell of curry and frying vegetables filled the air, but they resisted the temptation to test the quality of local food upon their own fragile foreign stomachs.

"It does smell good though," said Jo wistfully, staring at the slices of soft, half-toasted bread.

"Believe me," Jan replied firmly, biting into a piece of jam-heaped toast as he did so, "It is not worth it. As one who has ventured into the bowels of dysenteric hell ... so to speak is far wiser to wait until we reach the hotel in Agra. It's part of one of the big chains and should be okay. You can eat yourself silly.”

Jo nodded, knowing he was right. "It's such a damn nuisance though, all this fuss about the food and the water,”she added. "You know, if they could just fix up that, it would be rather fun travelling around this country. It's really quite pretty once you get out of the cities. I can't say I would like to live in any of those villages, but I guess you could call them quaint.”

Jan sucked the last of the jam from his fingers and then stirred three heaped spoons of sugar into his tea. "I would actually prefer them to do something about the roads first. It's a bloody nightmare out there. Did you see that truck loaded with wheat which missed us by no more than a whisker? He came screaming around the corner on our side of the road. I thought we had had it.”

“I'm afraid I didn't," Jo replied. "It was so warm in the car that I was falling asleep. I guess I'm a bit of a fatalist too. I have discovered with life that the best-laid plans can be upset in a moment. What you think is real can be gone like that!" she finished with a click of her fingers. “Does it really scare you that much ... the driving?”

Jan wiped his sticky hands vigorously upon his even grubbier handkerchief. "No, no. It's not so much that I am scared," he replied with perhaps a little too much protest. "It's just that the driver doesn't seem to have much of any idea of safety and I figure someone should keep a watch out. Half the time he looks to be asleep as well.”

“He probably is," laughed Jo. "Why don't you tell him you want to drive. That would solve the problem. We could both sleep and you could take care of the road.”

Jan finished wiping his hands, folding the handkerchief finally into a careful square. “Guess this needs a bit of a wash," he said ruefully, before tucking it back into his pocket. He began to push some of the sugar which had spilled into a pile with the fork and then slowly drove it into circles, around and around. "I am scared, you know," he admitted at last. "In fact, I know you know," he added with a small smile. "I saw you watching me when you were supposed to be sleeping.”

“Sorry," said Jo guiltily.

“Oh no, don't be sorry. There's no point hiding from these things, is there? Doesn't make me a very good priest, does it? Scared of flying, scared of crazy driving. You must think I'm scared of everything.”

Jo shook her head in protest at this suggestion, as he went on talking: "I'm not you know. Most of the time I am not scared of very much at all. But then ... I guess, most of the time I am not in planes, nor on Indian roads.”

"We're all scared of something," said Jo softly. “

I know that. But the fact is that my being scared of these things means that I am scared of death and I don't like that. I mean, I'm not really, scared of death that is ... so I don't understand why I should have these fears. It's all very silly. It doesn't make sense.”

“There's always a reason for our fears," said Jo, wanting to comfort him and yet, somehow, doubting that she could. "Always a very good reason. It's just that often we don't know what it is and that makes us even more scared. It's fighting against the fear which does the damage. It's the battle which empowers fear.If you don't fight against it, just let it be, let it have its say, then it will rise up and show itself and then, in its own good time, it will slowly drift away. Go into battle with it and it will only give it the chance to drain the energy from you, to grow stronger and stronger, until it sucks the very life from you.I'm not saying that you should give in to it...just lay down and die, but let it have its say, that's all, listen to it and it will tell you something about yourself. It will tell you why it has come. It's easier said than done I know, but it's worth a try."

Jan nodded sadly. "Perhaps, perhaps. I'm certainly not much good to God, running around like a scared rabbit am I?”

“You are no such thing," Jo countered firmly. "Anyway, you look nothing like a rabbit ... more like an elephant. Come on. Let's get on our way. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can both relax. And, if your fears come to pass, and the worst happens, I am sure they will sweep us up very neatly and bury us under one of those gum trees which I've seen along the side of the road.”

The driver, Hari, was leaning against the side of the car as they walked out, idly brushing the dirt from his trousers while watching the antics of a large, brown bear which stood in the middle of the dusty car-park. A group of people stood around, watching the animal dance, pulled roughly from one side to the other by a length of rope, which disappeared up one nostril only to emerge from a hole which had been drilled at the top of its nose, then to wrap firmly around its head. The owner increased the vigour of the dance by an occasional prod with a long stick.The crowd seemed to be enjoying the spectacle and the bear did not appear to be greatly perturbed, but Jo felt sick. She hurried into the car. "I don't know how they can be so cruel," she said to Jan as he got in beside her.”

“They don't mean to be," he replied. "They don't see the animal in the same way that we do. If they can ignore feelings in other human beings, purely because they belong to another caste, then it is not likely that they will consider them in a dumb animal.”

“Sometimes I wonder just who is the dumb one," Jo said crossly. "The animal or us. You don't see them putting ropes through our noses and making us dance."

“No," laughed Jan. "They just bite your head off!"

"Well, there's more honour in that than the things that we do to them. Anyway, they don't bite off heads just for the fun of it...they do it because they need to eat. We're the ones who commit cruelties just for the fun of it."

They lapsed into silence as the car swung out between the gates and returned to the madness of the road. Jo cast a quick look at Jan. He did look a little more relaxed. It was good to talk about things. Much better than just holding it all inside. It was funny really, often it was enough to admit that we were scared, for the fear to be diminished. But perhaps it was because having admitted our fear we could stop pretending. Strangely enough, in India, she found herself pretending less and less.

She was changing, becoming something new. Her only hope was that it would be successfully transplanted when she returned home. It wasn't always easy, this uprooting and the clusters of eucalypts which could be seen along the side of the road. They were indigenous only to Australia and they had been brought to India, as they had been taken to many other places, because of their ability to grow quickly and to survive on little water. But the foreign was not so easily assimilated and it was now said that they were greedy in the drawing of water to themselves; that they were not suited to the land.

It was strange to see them there, thought Jo, against the backdrop of green fields and back-bowed peasants. They seemed out of place without the enormous reach of raw, red-brown earth and the endless stretch of blisteringly blue sky. They were slight, these gums, just begun, mere striplings and yet, although the window was closed , she thought, for just a moment, that she could smell the sharp, fresh tang of their crushed leaves. It was the smell of the bush, of long burning days and it seemed lost alongside the exotic, crazed cavalcade which clung to the narrow road. And yet, however alien, they thrived, bursting high with a silvering of olive-green leaves. She wondered if they would bring with them the dry, quiet rustle of the bush; the dappled semi-shade of sunshine through drooping grey-green leaves. She doubted that they would, because, rooted as they were in different soil, they would bring something new, which in the fullness of time, would become something old. They would be made by the land and, at the same time, they would make the land. By taking root in foreign soil, they brought only of their barest selves: there can be no true echo of the bush, for the becoming wears a different face, of sky, of sound and of scent; except for the rich, sharp oil - only that remains to create the illusion of another place.

These trees, if they were allowed to remain, would be of India and perhaps, on some far day, they would become to a few, in this other land, synonomous also with home. When no-one could remember when they had not been of the land, perhaps for some children of India, the merest drift of eucalypt, the smoke from a burning leaf, would bring the same silent aching of the heart as it did for those who called Australia home. Perhaps some day the village children would collect the gumnuts as she had done as a child, those remains of the blossoms which knew no petals, but came instead in an explosion of brushy filaments and stamens.

The bigger gumnuts they had made into bubble pipes, piercing them once they were hard and dry to insert a straw through which to blow. At one time, her father had brought her home six of the largest gumnuts she had ever seen. She set up a hospital for some tiny dolls, each barely half an inch in length, made of hard, pink plastic, which her grandmother had given her. For each nut-bed, she stitched small sheets and pillows, tucking each tiny baby tightly in place with a final square of woollen blanket. What a small, safe world it had seemed, all tucked up in a gumnut.

But strangers are not easily accepted. Unless they proved their usefulness quickly, these trees might yet be ripped from the soil and cast aside. Perhaps they had no place here. They were strange these trees in themselves. For those first Europeans who put foot upon Terra Australis they were austere trees of death, in an alien landscape ... a place of scorching sun, flies, snakes, begrudging soil and heathen savages. They bred homesickness that was all the more bitter, and perhaps because of that, the settlers sought to wrest them from the ground these evergreens which were mean of foliage; shedders of bark; trees which bore no fruit; knotty, hard and stubborn beneath the saw. Their only virtue seemed to be the gum, which dribbled forth in glassy lumps. It was gathered more carefully when it was discovered to be a remedy for dysentery. It was but meagre acceptance for the farmers especially, who waged unremitting war against the twisted, mottled trunks which ranked against them.

In the beginning, it was the trees which owned the southern land; it was the trees against which the settler struggled most fiercely, grubbing deep within the resentful soil to remove the final roots. They had felled the valiant gums upon their own sacred soil, across millions of broad acres; they scored them round the belly, ring-barked to bring slow but certain death; they burned and dug and cleared, because to the Europeans, the trees were ugly things when compared to the beauty which they had left behind.

But in time, even they had learned that the trees were right for the raw, red land and that, in the cleared emptiness, there remained little to which the fine, light, fertile soil could cling. They began to look upon them with fresh eyes and, in recent years, the task had begun of returning the trees to Australia; a re-planting in the millions to break the stranglehold of encroaching desert. And, in the doing, the land was being returned to the trees: the enormous red gums which strike forth from the river bed; the slow-growing coolabah; the tall, taut mountain ash; the snow gum, its smooth trunk twisted with a laquering of yellow, red and green, glistening in the mist; the spotted gums; lemon-scented gums with bark-wrinkled armpits; the enormous mountain ash; the scrub of mallee and desert and the queen of trees, the white gum, continually shedding its bark to rise straight and pure against a sky of blinding blue; or to shimmer ghost-like, a phantom of the moon's milky light.

They come to life with the leaves raw-born in a transparency of red gum tips, these trees of the sun which turn their hanging leaves, edge-on to the light, to shine sharp, like a knife and in the doing, to reduce the loss of moisture. They are past masters at survival in the most inhospitable of places and, for this reason too, they rise, thick-trunked, high to the heavens, with only a small crown of leaves to cover their heads. But while the evergreen leaves are a token of the eternal, the resurrection, it is the shedding of the fleshy bark, that ritual purification of the body, the sloughing of the skin which reveals a youthful bloom, an eternal tightness of trunk and limb, no matter the counting of the centuries. It is in the coarse bark, rough and furrowed; falling in fibrous strips or curling from the trunk in shining tubes, that the endless process of renewal is played out. It was these trees, seen by some as yet another invader, which fate had brought to India and which now sought to take root in the soft, strange soil.


Post a Comment

<< Home