Fiction | ‘Drawing the Line’ by Sandeep Satishchandra

Tara there, Tara here.

I’m kneeling with the balls of my heels propped up against my butt, on the cold stone floor in a corner of the Paro Dzong. It is separated from the main complex by a narrow corridor and an intricate spiral stairway. Laid out in a neat little tapestry before me is a Thangka painting of Red Tara: the seventeenth of the twenty-one avatars expounded by the famous Atisha tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. In her right hand is a red vase, the same shade as her skin, camouflaged, whereas, her left hand is extended in a Surya Ravi Mudra– the ring finger and the thumb joined, symbolising holy communion of fire and earth. She is  holding onto the slim stem of an utpala flower, blossoming out of her left ear. 

A monk walks past my huddle, carrying some incense sticks in his hand. He kneels before the Buddha statue, lights the sticks, and places them in a holder that is shaped like one of those thuribles used by the Catholic Padres when I was studying at the Convent back in Bombay. On his way out, he looks at me, consults the Thangka, and nods, approving my current meditation. 

The legends of Tara’s origins are murky at best. One among them provides details of how she was birthed from the tears of Avalokiteshvara, while another one speaks of how she had been a Buddha in her past life, who had had made an oath to come back as a female Bodhisattva after rebirth to rid the land of snows of all suffering, and deliver its people from the hells of the living. 

Either way, poor Tara, the embodiment of the female deity in Vajrayana Buddhism is still believed to owe her genealogy to a man. Just like her mortal namesake, and my former lover, who in a fit of literary zeal, had embarked on an ambitious novel to denounce Borgesian Magic Realism and its subsets as being primarily patriarchal pursuits.

Tara and I met at a literary support group called the Band of Storytellers. I’ll never forget my first impressions when I laid my eyes on her in the room. It’s an eidetic hallucination- her pixie-hair cut; her sharp roman nose; her mellifluous voice that serenaded in lilts like a cuckoo bird, mimicking a sinusoidal frequency; tattoos all over her dark, bronzed skin- skin so dark and honeyed that her palms were white in contrast; her summery dress teased me in the draught of a pedestal fan, betraying in alternate billows luscious thighs pockmarked delicately with cellulite like weathered bubble wrap. Desire gripped me when she mentioned Jorge Luis Borges even if it was a tirade against his work with a gendered, feminist argument. 

How relevant is the question of gender and feminism when discussing Borges? – I argued back; I mean, as a writer he was as asexual as they come. Sexuality and Gender can be mutually exclusive, she retorted, and it can be argued that many of his writings spawned Magic Realism as a genre that is incompatible with women; in fact, it alienates every non-masculine gender. Every member of the group squirmed in their seat when I laughed back. What do you know, how will you understand? – She cried, her eyes ablaze- you are a man; how will you ever be able to appreciate what it feels like to be tied down to this mortal world with your body?

In spite of our contradictory stances on the matter, there had been an intense sexual vibe between us that I’m sure everyone else in the room had picked up on as well. I thanked my stars just then for having joined the Band of Storytellers. It had happened on an unremarkably dull night, out of curiosity and desperation, when I hadn’t received a single response for over a year- positive or negative- to the submission of my stillborn novel- Saffron and the Babalu. Undeterred, and on a steady diet of motivational porn on YouTube, I carried on with a loose sequel- Saffron and the Dark Maiden- about my literary alter-ego and a mysterious, dark-complexioned woman he meets at a literary support group. 

This ‘coincidence’ ignited within me an ineffable complex; of being in a strange multi-dimensional labyrinth where all that is written is bound to come true. The very evening Tara and I laid eyes on each other, I wondered, that a corollary of the complex would be to know reality is bound by whatever it is that is written. Not surprisingly, these thoughts wafted in when Tara and I were lost in the throes of coital passion.

Borges was obsessed with the shaping of a collective unconscious of all the denizens of a real planet over time; Tara and I discussed later in bed, our limbs intertwined like an occult maze, steam emanating from our bodies. The denizens in the universe of Borges’ seminal short story- Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius- had ended up believing a fictional treatise blessed with the imprimatur of antiquity as having been true all along

A fictitious history gains prominence in spite of its mythical origins, Tara said. 

Myth and truth are quite interchangeable, I concluded. 

Write it, and it will become.

Our chorus preceded a celebration of orgasms after the grand revelation – just as I had written it would in Saffron and the Dark Maiden.

The labyrinth I was exploring back then with my ‘reality experiment’ was in some strange analogy, similar to that of a Mandala I sit with every day in this Dzong. I struggle to locate meaning in these twisted Mandalas. In many ways, they are representative of our realities. The efforts required in the meditation of their truths revolve around counter-intuitive reconciliations. 

Take for instance the current one I’m consulting; I have been obsessed with it for the past two weeks. It is quite unlike some of the other Mandalic Thangkas I have seen over the years. There is no evidence of any traditional way of demarcating the boundaries between chaos and order. Where there should have been a uniform circle, marking the secondary boundary along with a tangent square marking the primary one, there is nothing but a light red halo around the central figure of a serene, red Tara. The chaos of fire seems to co-exist effortlessly with the order of sky. The lack of a boundary only makes the task of reconciliation and eventual syncretisation of frictional elements that much harder. 

Try as I might, I struggle with the question- how do I draw the line?      

But that hadn’t been the primary concern for me during the initial hey days of my coupling with Tara. Her lust was too divine at the time; her innocence too pristine for me to bother with the ethical ramifications of my metaphysical blurring of lines between literary coincidences and real-life accidents. 

Over the course of our relationship, Tare told me about her long history with depression and schizophrenia for which she consulted some reputed psychiatrists in Bangalore. During our walks together, I could hear the tinkle of a tin can from inside her clutch, containing raspberry flavoured throat lozenges, Risperidone for madness and Saridon for the migraines. 

As a creature of abuse, her body was littered with scars accumulated over the course of a traumatic relationship with a neurotic political activist named Sunny who couldn’t get himself off without inflicting pain and violence. But Tara hadn’t left him for the longest time, believing herself to be madly in love with the man. Their love story finally ended when he tried ripping her stomach with a blunt kathi knife in a fit to eviscerate their foetus borne not more than three weeks before. When she was admitted into the emergency ward at a nearby hospital, it was found swimming in a pool of embryonic fluid within her underpants, soaking up the fabric like the yoke from a broken egg in a cotton grocery bag. 

Isn’t it pretty? – She asked me one day, running her hands all over her abdomen, all over the orogenic ridges of the mummified wound, high on her prescription medication and Pinotage wine with the extra bite of red plums. 

In Saffron and the Dark Maiden, I had written about how the Dark Maiden tattooed over every scar on her body with symbols that defied the mark of violence each of them bore; the one on her stomach had barbed wire traced across the abdomen; semicolon inscriptions across her wrists; an F Clef under her left breast with the top staff line hiding the scar left behind from the kitchen knife that Sunny had used as a threat when he wanted to cut off her breasts. 

Over the following months of our courtship and fucking, Tara read the entire manuscript of Saffron and the Babalu. She was the one, privileged enough to read it, barring a hundred literary agents and small press publishers who had had a taste of just the first three chapters and a complete synopsis before sending in their rejections. And over the course of her reading it, I wrote about her reading it in Saffron and the Dark Maiden. I confided in Tara, coming clean with how the events detailed out in Saffron and the Babalu were true for most part- the novel’s allegorical treatment full of metaphors to conceal the truth, was a by-product of my artistic conceit. I was also careful to predict her being moved by how my literary alter ego in Saffron and the Babalu turned his life around by writing about how his own literary alter ego in the novel wrote a redemptive meta-tale, involving a bloke named Saffron resuscitated from the altars of death by a daemon named Babalu. The isomorphic significance of the turnaround of my life coinciding with that of my literary alter-ego’s literary alter-ego disconcerted her. 

In Saffron and the Dark Maiden, this anxiety drove her insane to the brink of catatonia, questioning everything and inquiring into the truthful nature of everything. That was when I did the unthinkable just for the Evulz- I had her read the entire novel. And then I christened her as the Dark Maiden in an intimate moment with our bodies locked in missionary- just like my literary alter-ego had done in the novel. Her eyes stayed widened until her descension was complete after I came flush in her. 

From then on, every time Tara made love to me; woman on top, she would ask me, locking her glazed eyes full of life with my empty ones- did we write the novel or did the novel write us? 

Through the course of time, through the course of our tragic relationship, and through the course of each chapter she pored over in Saffron and the Dark Maiden, I tried to alleviate Tara’s spiralling free-fall into the infinite depths of a psychosomatic breakdown. I even implored her to seek remedial expertise, and finally, at my wit’s end, I read Borges’ Partial Magic in the Quixote to her after a feral session of what can only be called copulation under the influence of butter infused with cannabinoids. 

In it, I explained, Borges explores a similar anxiety invoked when confronted with ‘strange ambiguities’ set in motion in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, involving serial subversions of reality. During the initial parts of the novel, its protagonists review Cervantes’ own Galatea- a literary predecessor to his Don Quixote.

Tara had been standing in front of the mirror, listening the whole time. As she tripped balls with stars and spangles sparking from her eyes, she ran her fingers over delicate sweat globules on the scar under her left breast. I know that you are talking about the Barber and the Priest in Don Quixote, she slurred- they speak of how the author ‘is more versed in misfortunes than literary verses.’ She then turned slowly toward me, picking up the copy of Saffron and the Babalu she had printed out at a Xerox shop nearby. Is this your Galatea? – She asked, thrusting the manuscript in my face.

And in a final culmination of madness, I continued deliberately, locking my eyes with her vacant ones, they happen to become the readers of Don Quixote while continuing to fulfil their roles as its primary characters…

Tara straddled me in the tantric sex position- the goat and the tree. She flicked a thin razor through her fingers and rested it where my carotid pulsed. I could smell her breath laced with gin, raspberry essence and smoke. Are we in your Don Quixote then? – She hissed, jabbing the razor deeper into my skin, is that what Saffron and the Dark Maiden is all about?

You know, I said, there occurs a scene in the Hamlet, wherein the characters of the Hamlet witness a tragedy analogous to the Hamlet on stage.

So what?

Lord Rama’s sons learn about the Ramayana from Valmiki, being his pupils, and sing its praises at a feast hosted by the King Rama himself. Lord Rama hears his own epic, recognises his sons, and rewards Valmiki who happens to be the principal author of the live epic. A similar interpolation takes place in the One Thousand and One Nights in which the dreaded King hears his own story from Scheherazade on the six hundred and second night.

And here you are, I revealed finally to the Dark Maiden, suckling her tits, sweat and all, whilst still under her. For some reason, I likened our coupling to a cherub fornicating with the primordial Madonna; it turned me on even more. 

How do I draw the line? Tara asked instead. She never blinked.

For the sake of instigating conflict in my literary game, I had to have Tara succumb to the infinite, self-referential loop I had pushed her toward, resulting in me leaving her and ending our relationship. 

It’s been a romantic infraction, I told Tara before I ran away to Bhutan to begin my purge for purity. She had been dressed in white against her dark, melting before me in our tender embrace; I had no choice but to leave her behind, relegated to a sterile ward at the far corner of NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) during her last stand at the brink of insanity. 

But she didn’t leave it at that, choosing instead to write me long literary emails in the hope of catalysing in her life the very turnaround orchestrated by my literary alter-ego’s literary alter-ego- all sharing a common namesake- in Saffron and the Babalu. 

She signed off in every email with an ‘Always your Dark Maiden.’ 

As the mails piled up in my inbox, I was overcome with a peculiar curiosity about how each of her successive mails was beginning to read exactly like I would have written them. 

There was something similar which struck me when I read two short stories by Borges- Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and The Death Compass after having read- coincidentally- Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. I realised that I had unearthed a literary connection between the two authors with Foucault’s Pendulum being a blown out version of Borges’ Tlon and The Death Compass; their common elements of blending together fiction and reality within the Kabbalistic frame-work of the world were stark. Borges has inadvertently created a literary degree of separation in Eco and maybe countless others.

In one of her emails, Tara professed that the world is a construct of nothing but symbols that can be assembled and reassembled indefinitely to script our own reality. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from that philosophy, Tara finally concluded in her mail, and be the mistresses of our own Cosmogonies. We are the scripters of our world, our reality after all. 

Write it, and it will become.   

I will do just that, Tara’s last words to me before I left, I will script my redemption so don’t try and stop me. Who am I to come in your way? – I had shot back then; after all, my literary alter-ego had kept his word in Saffron and the Dark Maiden. 

By the time I had gotten around to the rest of her emails many days later, I was stunned to see that Tara had somehow come to embody a literary voice very similar in tone and style to the one I had had employed in Saffron and the Babalu. She may have been a student of literature. She may have studied all the works of Shakespeare and Tolstoy- even Borges. But she had studied them as a reader. She studied my first stillborn novel as a writer. 

I was now certain of having created another literary degree of separation. She had been the sole reader of my novel in its entirety. With each successive email, I was alarmed by this mutative birthing of one author by another. Voices duplicated and reduplicated infinitely. But once I started unearthing literary degrees of separation between authors separated by temporal fault lines and interstellar heart lines, I realised that the nature of true authorship is a myth. All we have is a unique voice, and even that can be plagiarised through countless obsessions; Tara had shown me that. 

Her final email paralysed my resolve and precipitated in me abandoning my writing altogether-

Dear Saffron:

I woke up this morning with my feet sticking out of the mattress, paralysed in the cold draught. Still recovering from my nightmare I couldn’t curl my toes frigid from the terrors left behind in its wake. For a good minute or so I couldn’t recollect where I was.

I yearned to feel you next to me. Your body heat was always calming. I miss that feeling. Without you around anymore, I feel like I am losing a vital grip on reality. 

The pills don’t seem to help as much. I don’t know how many days it’s been since I last held you in this room. Passages of time seem to constrict with confined spaces. I just woke up from a nap, and am writing to you about my dream before I forget what I mean-

I am thrown into a dark cellar with cold stones for flooring. There is an invisible corridor, which leads me to a door that opens to a glorious library. There are glass panes on the ceiling, which doubles up as a roof. There are blue skies and white clouds during the day, while celestial Mandakini shines through at night. There is always some light at any given time. So much so that even in my dream-state, I dread ever revisiting the dark corridor I have stumbled through. The first thing I do after the first night spent there is to permanently board the door behind me. Over the next couple of days, I realise that the library is infinite. Every book ever written (not just published) is present on its elven shelves. I intuit literary degrees of separation one day when I read a book on how the philosophy of parenting a child is at odds with Plato’s parable of the cave. I find two other books with analogous situations. Out of a fit of inspiration, I proceed to re-order the infinite library into sequential catalogues. As the days go by I realise the problem with such categorisation. I am faced with two methods with which to proceed. The first is temporal; I am to arrange the books in terms of simple chronology. The assumption here is that chronology would take care of the phenomenon of authorial birthing. But this method does not account for the content of each book. I realise that ideas and themes presented in these books are ultimately not bound by temporality. Universal themes are relevant throughout timelines. Also the infinite nature of this task of assigning to the books an order by way of chronology belied the logic of having a beginning or an end. So I leave it unattended. The second method is that of Cause and Effect; I am to read each and every book on the shelves, and arrange them on the basis of birthing of ideas. This eliminates the problem of chronology as a starting point; it is only a base filter now after the clustering of books on the basis of their ideas and themes. Ideas proliferate from ideas; their themes replicate themselves with each succession. This seems to work better because a book’s identity is the content it bears. However a new challenge appears in that it is not possible to ascertain, beyond a point, which book birthed the primordial idea, the archetype. But it is a spatial concern; logic demanded a solution. Years go by, but not without discovery. I come across the script of the movie Inception, auctioned in an immemorial time for an obscene amount. As I read the original draft, I realise handwritten notes referring to the Borgesian literary device of interpolation within interpolation to be the inspiration behind the idea of having dreams within dreams in the movie. I also realise that every tragic love story is a plebeian variation of the tales of Heloise and Abelard, Romeo and Juliet and even Rama and Sita. I discover that it was actually Gaiman who might have birthed Rowling. The catalogues mount with time but the daunting nature of the task does not deter me. I relish the pleasure in enhancing the library’s bibliography. The end is nowhere in sight but it does not matter because my sense of purpose is inviolate. Some more years pass, and I come across Plato’s autobiography only to realise that his literary voice is nothing like that showcased in his Dialogues; it reveals that Socrates abhorred the written word. There is another tome found in the farther corners of the library, detailing out the chronological amendments made to the Mahabharatha with credits to each successive author. For instance, there is an obscure addendum to the Vana Parva section of the epic by a Vaishravaneya from the third century B.C., describing the battle between Arjuna and Lord Shiva in the guise of a Kirata; I discover that this mysterious poet’s  obsession with Sanskrit verses using nothing more than a handful of consonants was ultimately expunged from the original narrative with time, but his rhythmic style was later immortalised by the eleventh century A.D. poet- Bharavi- who composed his Kiratarjuniya, comprising special verses, employing the use of just one consonant or ones that were two dimensional palindromes with the verses remaining unchanged when read horizontally or vertically. The lack of anxiety with creative originality in ancient Indian literature is thus a myth. Some more years roll by, and now I am an old man, and something worse- an inveterate librarian. One day, I come across an odd looking book, handwritten; it bears the name- Saffron and the Dark Maiden. I open it to read references to another book called Saffron and the Babalu, which I find stowed away among the ones that are yet to be assigned their literary godmothers. In Saffron and the Dark Maiden, I read about how the author talks about the dream his literary alter ego has, in which he stumbles into an infinite library through an invisible corridor in the dark, haunted by the nature of literary degrees of separation… 

I wake up.

A dark-complexioned woman dressed in blue nurse attire looks on at my existential caving-in with a look of serenity. Her smile mirrors that of the Red Tara in the Thangka painting hanging on the white wall just behind her.

Hi Saffron, how are we doing today? – She asks, still smiling. Her name-tag reads:

Tara Subramanium, Trainee Nurse, NIMHANS Unit VI- Adult Psychiatry.

I don’t know how to draw the line.   

Sandeep Satishchandra works as a Marketing Professional, moonlighting as Co-founder and Head Writer at Culture Minus Sanskar– an online Media Collective, specializing in Video Essays, Podcasts and Literature on InstagramYouTubeHubHopperMedium and other online platforms. If he is not reading or writing, being the eternal hobbyist that he is, Sandeep dabbles in pursuits like Running, Capoeira, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and all things Epicurean.

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