“Just a few steps from here, can you please come?”, I ask Sharmilee as we step out of Shinkows, the Chinese restaurant in the Commissioner’s road in Ooty. She might refuse, because we have had a row; the light drizzle has again started and it may rain giving her an excuse.
The food was good, not as good as it used to be in the old days. I used to visit Shinkow’s with my father as a school kid. The old Chinese owner is now dead and a black and white photograph of the man hung on the wall. He is dressed in a closed coat like Mao Zedong; there is a look of plainness on his face.
He had no children, the waiter informed us during the course of lunch, that the old man’s brother’s sons have taken over and made several changes to make the restaurant more profitable and less authentic.
Mandarin ducks, reared right behind the restaurant then, used to quack as we ate the ‘Peking duck’- a dish cherished since the imperial era. It was prized for its crispness- thin, mostly skin and little meat- sliced in front of the diners by Chinese cooks, then roasted in the oven, heated by straw until the aroma tickled one’s palate. The dish served with scallion and sweat-bean sauce, is no longer on the menu; the chefs have disappeared as well. The duck-pens had been replaced by a large deep-freezer.
The only thing that remained was the red-checkered table-cloth, the stale smell of Vinegar and the brown stains of Soya. The owners lived upstairs, the waiter told us, but no longer cooked or came down to oversee. The noodles though, the over-friendly waiter assures, are handmade and homemade. He has been a waiter for twenty years. Having migrated from Theni and picked the local dialect, he uses it to perfection.
We were early. There were a few customers at 12.30 noon. An indulgent middle-aged widow was trying to overstuff her teenage son, a student of Lawrence school. Her new paramour waited outside smoking a cigar. A honeymooning couple from North India struggled to pick a dish from the menu, wanting to keep away from such exotic dishes as roasted beef and shredded pork.
Sharmilee loves to chat ceaselessly. The waiter kept the conversation going while serving us, narrating incidents from his own life- of Ooty and of his Chinese masters. He was rude enough to ask a few questions about our family, showing concern that our children no longer stay with us.
Sharmilee’s temper cooled while we ate, and that is a relief. I looked at the permission slips granted by the forest officer for trekking inside the Mukhurthi sanctuary. That is for tomorrow. Sharmilee had been fuming since the entire forenoon was wasted in acquiring the permission. She does not fancy the mountains much or the predator-less Nilgiri Tahrs of the upper plateau.
Her interests lie in socializing and organizing group activities. I want her to experience the tranquility that the mountains offer- the Walden-like seclusion. The gap between our minds is widening without us being aware. I want her to see why I love solitude.
She masks her impatience, adjusts the stole around her neck, then her cardigan, looks at the Pedro- type hat I am wearing.
Beyond St. Stephen’s church, the clouds look gloomy. My plans for trekking will go haywire if it rains heavily. It’s difficult to spend a whole day with Sharmilee in the confines of the resort doing nothing. She hates to be without company.
‘Yes, and how far?”, she asks.
In the meantime, the waiter who fends for his two wives and nine children including one spastic, rushes out wielding a hanky saying Madam’s left it on the table. Sharmilee studies it without touching it, and declares that it doesn’t belong to her. I am not even aware of the kind of hand-kerchiefs she uses.
The waiter suspects, that it must then belong to the lady who had come to dine with her German boss the previous night. He apprehends that she was too friendly with her boss for an Indian lady. Sharmilee wants to know more, whether the German was her boss or her client.
An urchin, ten years of age, comes close to Sharmilee riding a bicycle and almost dashes into her. She shrieks at the surprise, rebukes the boy for being reckless. He tries to stop the cycle, veers the handle-bar and loses his balance. I hold him from behind to prevent him from hurting himself.
I ruffle his brown hair playfully; yellow strands run through in many places due to continued exposure to sun. Strangely his hair feels silky. His cheeks are tender despite the black grime embedded in them. I take care to ensure his running nose does not smear my fingers.
Sharmilee directs me with a look of annoyance, “You touched him.”
“He is a child”, I shrug her off. The urchin speeds away in the meantime.
“Isn’t he nauseating to touch? So dirty he was.”
I look at my fingers cupping them like buds. I do not share her feeling of disgust; showing my fingers to her I say: “See, it’s clean.” I smell my fingers to prove my point. It smells of charred blue-gum leaves.
The waiter tries to wipe my hands with the hanky. He attempts to pacify Sharmilee, “It’s alright madam, I will clean it.”
I withdraw my hands, repulsed by the piece of fabric used by an unknown lady. A convulsive shudder runs along my dorsum. The waiter retracts from his intended action to please Sharmilee and heads back into Shinkows. Another waiter is already out looking for him.
“Don’t you ever touch me again”, she warns.
“We will see about it”, I tell her.
I smile trying to recall the last time I’d touched my wife. She reads my thoughts: “Anyway, you never touch me these days; all the intimacies are past, why do I worry?”
Of late, the long years of living together denies me the sensual pleasure of touching Sharmilee. Touching her nowadays is like touching a part of me, if that is any consolation. I dare not expound such absurd truth to Sharmilee. Any discussion on the subject is like courting disaster. For the time-being, I am eager to show her something I had always wanted her to see.
And then there is tomorrow; she could turn cranky, not come with me for the mountain-trek. I hate James, the guide ear-marked for taking us to the sanctuary. He is a jerk and might call off the trip at the first dot of rain, pretending to protect me from a deluge.
“Come, darling, let me show you, it’s important that you see.”
On the Church hill road, between Shinkows and St. Stephens’s church, close to the Nilgiries district library, the cute little red building with musk odor of oak wood, right above the Rose-Mount, the Jail hill, the St. Mary’s hill, is the vast expanse of openness. Wild plants with clusters of yellow, pink blossoms hide the valley immediately below. There is a stretch of grass meadow below, speckled with natural springs, capable of sucking unwholesome grazing ponies into its treacherous trap. There is an indistinct pine tree on the left, and a lone eucalyptus tree towering like tattered stick on the other side. The eucalyptus is long since dead, yet not ready to fall off. I try to recollect if the tree was alive when I was last here.
I don’t know how long ago that was, may be forty years, or close to fifty. I have no clue. It’s a breath-taking view of nothingness, and the nothingness binds me in its spell.
Tell me dear, who do you want me to see that is so special?”, Sharmilee crones- can be coquettish when angry.
Look, this is where I saw God first, I find Him here whenever I visit.”
She looks in my direction, then the direction where I am looking.
“Really?” she asks.
Her tone’s unruffled. She would use my eccentricities later to arraign me. Sharmilee and I have been moving in different directions; our relationship getting colder since the news of our son’s disintegrating marriage came. It has been a long battle for Arun- he not wanting to let go of Evelyn, and she firm on calling it off.
The legal battle turned sordid as the case progressed in the family court. It was Arun who had to weather the rough ride. He was required to find chinks in the armor of Evelyn’s petition in order to defend himself from the alimony suit, while at the same time having to endear her back.
The divorce petition serves to shove a harsh wedge in our relationship though both of us want the ordeal to be over and Arun to begin with a new slate. I put away unpleasant thoughts and look at God. I nod towards Him, so that she can see.
I assume Sharmilee is able to see Him as I do, hence close my eyes in a meditative trance. Memories of my childhood waddle before my mind. I was studying in a school run by a Christian evangelist group. The school is not far away from where we stand. The morning session in the school started with long prayers in praise of Jesus. Most of the students were Christians, the students took interest in singing. I am a Hindu, and had joined the school only four months before. My dad was on a transferable job. I knew I would have to move to a new town, a new school, and therefore didn’t bother to learn the songs.
I never sang, for me it was ritual without meaning. The master- he was a handsome man, immaculately dressed in blue woolen coat- seeing that I was not participating took me in front of the assembly and caned me for all to see, with the stick he always carried. He explained his reason to the students before he started; they seemed to understand. I could not. It was ridiculous to punish me merely because I did not want to sing praises of God whom I did not understand. Not singing praises of God isn’t an offense.
He smiled as the cane came across my haunches with a drone. The shame of humiliation was more than the pain of body. He kept smiling as he brought down the cane with a sense of spirituality. I wondered if he knew how much it pained.
The sting of hurt pride hurts. Unlike beaten dogs who keep their heads bowed, I lifted my chin. That evening I walked back home alone. On the way I came across God for the first time. It was the place I had learned not to hate, this very place, this very picture of plainness.
I tried to hate the Master, the school, his whole family. The school faculty comprised members of his family- mother, father, sisters and a lame brother. I tried hard, but could not really hate him.
Some of the boys wanted to see how red my buttocks had turned. I wanted to see it as well, but I needed a secluded place under the thick green bush.
“Hello dear, stop being clownish, let us go, my sister will be waiting”; I had forgotten that I had promised to take Sharmilee for an ordeal called evening tea at the village called Masakkal near Kothagiri. Her sister is married to a British, and holds archaic rituals in her garden, among which is evening tea. Sharmilee loves to be in a crowd, she can’t live without being in a group. She seeks peace in a crowd; I in solitude, though we yearn to head towards the same destination.
I have seen Sharmilee keep her head down like a dog, when relatives and friends- those who are not aware of Arun’s imminent divorce- ask her how Evelyn is; Eyelyn is our daughter-in-law. How is Evelyn? When is Evelyn going to give us a grandchild? She always says something incoherent without meaning to lie.
I want her to lift her chin up. I want to lift her chin and make her see the white expanse of plainness which conveys the meaning of God.
“Can you see God?”, I ask.
“You mean that shapeless, colorless, odorless, tasteless patch of sky?” Sharmilee can be caustic when not amused. I don’t answer for a while. “You mean you attained Nirvana here?”, she continues.
If ceasing to hate is Nirvana, yes, then this is the place. I view the Plainness once again, as opposed to Nothingness, the picture is clear. I speak with conviction I have never felt before.
“This is God. God, before the religions, the society corrupted His plain face.”
Saranyan BV is a Mumbai based writer and poet. Many of his stories and poem appear in Indian and international literary magazines. He loves Raymond Carver’s short stories and recommends every lover of short stories to read Annie Beattie’s ‘Snow’.