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The Lives of Strangers

by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

(winner of Pushcart and O.Henry Prizes; honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2002)

The seepage of rainwater has formed a tapestry against the peeling walls of the Nataraj Yatri House dining hall, but no one except Leela notices this. The other members of the pilgrimage party jostle around the fire that sputters in a corner and shout at the pahari boy to hurry with the tea. Aunt Seema sits at one of the scratched wooden tables with a group of women, all of them swaddled in the bright shawls they bought for this trip. From time to time they look down at their laps with a startled expression, like sparrows who have awakened to find themselves plumaged in cockatoo feathers.

Aunt beckons to Leela to come sit by her. “Baap re,” she says, “I can’t believe how cold it is here in Kashmir. It’s quite delightful, actually. Just think, in Calcutta right now people are bathing in sweat, even with the fans on full speed!”

The women smile, pleased at having had the foresight to leave sweaty Calcutta behind at the height of summer for a journey which is going to earn them comfort on earth and goodwill in heaven. They hold their chins high and elongate their necks as classical dancers might. Plump, middle-aged women who sleepily read love stories in Desh magazine through the interminable train journey from Howrah Station, already they are metamorphosed into handmaidens of Shiva, adventure-bound toward his holy shrine in Amarnath. Their eyes sparkle with zeal as they discuss how remote the shrine is. How they will have to walk across treacherous glaciers for three whole days to reach it. Contemplating them, Leela wonders if this is the true lure of travel, this hope of a transformed self. Will her own journey, begun when she left America a month ago, bring her this coveted change?

Tea arrives, sweet and steaming in huge aluminum kettles, along with dinner: buttery wheat parathas, fatly stuffed with spicy potatoes. When they have eaten, the guide advises them to get their rest. This is no touristy excursion, he reminds them sternly. It is a serious and sacred yatra, and dangerous, too. He talks awhile of the laws to be observed while on pilgrimage: no non-vegetarian food, no sex. Any menstruating women should not proceed beyond this point. There is a lot more, but his Bengali is full of long, formal words that Leela does not know, and her attention wanders. He ends by saying something about sin and expiation, which seems to her terribly complex and thus very Indian.

Later in bed, Leela will think of Mrs. Das. At dinner Mrs. Das sat by herself at a table that was more rickety than the others. In a room filled with nervous laughter (for the headman had frightened them all a bit, though no one would admit it) she held herself with an absorbed stillness, her elbows pulled close as though she had been taught early in life not to take up too much space in the world. She did not speak to anyone. Under her frizzy pepper-colored hair, her face was angular and ascetic.

Leela has not met Mrs. Das, but she knows a great deal about her because Aunt Seema’s friends discuss her frequently. Mostly they marvel at her bad luck.

“Can you imagine!” the doctor’s wife says, “her husband died just two years after her marriage, and right away her in-laws, who hated her because it had been a love-match, claimed that the marriage wasn’t legal. They were filthy rich—the Dases of Tollygunge, you understand—they hired the shrewdest lawyers. She lost everything—the money, the house, even the wedding jewelry.”

“No justice in this world,” Aunt says, clicking her tongue sympathetically.

“She had to go to work in an office,” someone else adds. “Think of it, a woman of good family, forced to work with low-caste peons and clerks! That’s how she put her son through college and got him married.”

“And now the daughter-in-law refuses to live with her,” Aunt says. “So she’s had to move into a women’s hostel. A women’s hostel! At her age!”
The doctor’s wife shakes her head mournfully. “Some people are like that, born under an unlucky star. They bring bad luck to themselves and everyone close to them.”

Leela studies the kaleidoscope of emotions flitting across the women’s faces. Excitement, pity, cheerful outrage. Can it be true, that part about an unlucky star? In America she would have dealt with such superstition with fluent, dismissive ease, but India is complicated. Like entering a murky, primal lake, in India she has to watch her step.

* * *

Leela’s happiest childhood memories were of aloneness: reading in her room with the door closed, playing chess on the computer, embarking on long bike rides through the city, going to the movies by herself. You saw more that way, she explained to her parents. You didn’t miss crucial bits of dialogue because your companion was busy making inane remarks. Her parents, themselves solitary individuals, didn’t object. People—except for a select handful—were noisy and messy. They knew that. Which was why, early in their lives, they had escaped India to take up research positions in America. Ever since Leela could remember, they had encouraged her taste for privacy. When Leela became a computer programmer, they applauded the fact that she could do most of her work from home. When she became involved with Dexter, another programmer she had met at one of the rare conferences she attended, they applauded that too, though more cautiously.

Her relationship with Dexter was a brief affair, perhaps inevitably so. Looking back in search of incidents to remember it by, Leela would only be able to recall a general feeling, something like being wound tightly in a blanket on a cold day, comforting yet restrictive. Even when things were at their best, they never moved in together. Leela preferred it that way. She preferred, too, to sleep alone, and often moved after lovemaking to the spare bed in her apartment. When you slept, you were too vulnerable. Another person’s essence could invade you. She had explained it once to Dexter. He had stroked her hair with fingers she thought of as sensitive and artistic, and had seemed to understand. But apparently he hadn’t. It was one of the facts he dwelt on at some bitter length before he left.

“You’re like one of those spiny creatures that live at the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “Everything just slides off of that watertight shell of yours. You don’t need me—you don’t need anyone.”

He wasn’t totally right about that. A week after he left, Leela ended up in the emergency ward, having swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.

An encounter with death—even an aborted one (Leela had called 911 as soon as she finished taking the pills)—alters one in unaccountable ways. After having to deal with the hospital, the police, and the mandatory counselor assigned to her, Leela should have heaved a sigh of relief when she returned to her quiet, tidy apartment. Instead, for the first time, she found her own company inadequate. Alone, there seemed no point in opening the drapes or cleaning up the TV dinner containers stacked up on the coffee table. The place took on a green, underwater dimness. Her computer gathered dust as she wandered from room to room, sometimes with her eyes closed, trailing her fingers as though they were fins across the furniture, testing the truth of Dexter’s accusation.

She didn’t know when it was that she started thinking about India, which she had never visited. The idea attached itself to the underneath of her mind and grew like a barnacle. In her imagination the country was vast and vague. Talismanic. For some reason she associated it with rain, scavenger crows, the clanging of orange trams and the purplish green of elephant ears. Were these items from some story her parents had told in her childhood? No. Though her parents’ stories had spanned many topics—from the lives of famous scientists to the legends of Greece and Rome—they never discussed their homeland, a country they seemed to have shed as easily and completely as a lizard drops its tail.

When she called her parents to inform them she was going, she did not tell them why. Perhaps she herself did not know. Nor did she speak of the suicide attempt, which filled her with a rush of mortification whenever it intruded on her thoughts. As always with her decisions, they did not venture advice, though she thought she heard her mother suppress a sigh. They waited to see if she had more to say, and when she didn’t, they told her how to contact Aunt Seema, who was her mother’s cousin.

“Try to stay away from the crowds,” her father said.

“That’s impossible,” said her mother. “Just be sure to take your shots before you go, drink boiled water at all times, and don’t get involved in the lives of strangers.”

* * *

What did Leela expect from India? The banalities of heat and dust, poverty and squalor, yes. The elated confusion of city streets where the beetle-black Ambassador cars of the rich inched their way, honking, between sweating rickshaw-pullers and cows who stood unmoving, as dignified as dowagers. But she had not thought Calcutta would vanquish her so easily with its melancholy poetry of old cotton saris hung out to dry on rooftops. With low-ceilinged groceries filled with odors she did not recognize but knew to be indispensable. In the evenings, the shopkeeper waved a lamp in front of a vividly colored calendar depicting Rama’s coronation. His waiting customers did not seem to mind. Sometimes at dawn she stood at her bedroom window and heard, cutting through the roar of buses, the cool, astonishing voice of a young man in a neighboring house practicing a morning raag.

At the airport, Aunt Seema had been large, untidy, and moist—the exact opposite of Leela’s mother. She launched herself at Leela with a delighted cry, kissing her on both cheeks, pulling her into her ample, talcum-powder-scented bosom, exclaiming how overjoyed she was to meet her. In America Leela would have been repelled by such effusion, especially from a woman she had never seen in her life. Here it seemed as right—and as welcome—as the too-sweet glass of orange squash the maid brought her as soon as she reached the house.

Aunt dressed Leela in her starched cotton saris, put matching bindis on her forehead, and lined her eyes with kajal. She forced her to increase her rudimentary Bengali vocabulary by refusing to speak to her in English. She cooked her rui fish sautéed with black jeera, and moglai parathas stuffed with eggs and onions, which had to be flipped over deftly at a crucial moment—food Leela loved though it gave her heartburn. She took her to the Kalighat temple for a blessing, to night-long music concerts, and to the homes of her friends, all of whom wanted to arrange a marriage for her. Leela went unprotestingly. Like a child acting in her first play, she was thrilled by the vibrant unreality of the life she was living. At night she lay in the big bed beside Aunt (Uncle having been banished to a cot downstairs) and watched the soft white swaying of the mosquito net in the breeze from the ceiling fan. She pondered the unexpected pleasure she took in every disorganized aspect of the day. India was a Mardi Gras that never ended. Who would have thought she’d feel so at home here?

So when Aunt Seema said, “You want to see the real India, the spiritual India? Let’s go on a pilgrimage,” she agreed without hesitation.

* * *

The talk starts at the end of the first day’s trek. In one of the women’s tents, where Leela lies among pilgrims who huddle in blankets and nurse aching muscles, a voice rises from the dark.

“Do you know, Mrs. Das’s bedroll didn’t get to the camp. They can’t figure out what happened—the guides swear they tied it onto a mule this morning—”

“That’s right,” responds another voice. “I heard them complaining because they had to scrounge around in their own packs to find her some blankets.”

In the anonymous darkness, the voices take on cruel, choric tones. They release suspicion into the close air like bacteria, ready to multiply wherever they touch down.

“It’s like that time on the train, remember, when she was the only one who got food poisoning—”

“Yes, yes—”

“I wonder what will happen next—”

“As long as it doesn’t affect us—”

“How can you be sure? Maybe next time it will—”

“I hate to be selfish, but I wish she wasn’t here with us at all—”

“Me, too—”

Leela wonders about the tent in which Mrs. Das is spending her night. She wonders what people are saying in there. What they are thinking. An image comes to her with a brief, harsh clarity: the older woman’s body curled into a lean comma under her borrowed blankets. In the whispery dark, her thin, veined lids squeezed shut in a semblance of sleep.

* * *

Struggling up the trail through the morning mist, the line of pilgrims in gay woolen clothes looks like a bright garland. Soon the light will grow brutal and blinding, but at this hour it is sleepy, diffuse. A woman pauses to chant. Om Namah Shivaya, Salutations to the Auspicious One. The notes tremble in the air, Leela thinks, like silver bubbles. The pilgrims are quiet—there’s something about the snowy crags that discourages gossip. The head guide has suggested that walking time be utilized for reflection and repentance. Leela finds herself thinking, instead, of accidents.

She remembers the first one most clearly. It must have been a special occasion, maybe a birthday or an out-of-town visitor, because her mother was cooking. She rarely made Indian food from scratch, and Leela remembers that she was snappish and distracted. Wanting to help, the four-year-old Leela had pulled at a pot and seen the steaming dal come at her in a yellow rush. It struck her arm with a slapping sound. She screamed and raced around the kitchen—as though agony could be outrun. Long after her mother immersed her arm in ice-water and gave her Tylenol to reduce the pain, she continued to sob—tears of rage at being tricked, Leela realizes now. She’d had no intimations, until then, that good intentions were no match for the forces of the physical world.

More accidents followed, in spite of the fact that she was not a particularly physical child. They blur together in Leela’s memory like the landscape outside the window of a speeding car. She fell from her bike in front of a moving car—luckily the driver had good reflexes, and she only needed a few stitches on her chin. She sat in the passenger seat of her mother’s van, and a stone—from who knows where—shattered the windshield, filling Leela’s lap with jagged silver. A defective electrical wire caught fire at night in her bedroom while she slept. Her mother, up for a drink of water, smelled the smoke and ran to the bedroom to discover the carpet smoldering around the sleeping Leela’s bed. Do all these close escapes mean that Leela is lucky? Or is her unlucky star, thwarted all this time by some imbalance in the stratosphere, waiting for its opportunity?

She thinks finally of the suicide attempt, which, since arriving in India, she has quarantined in a part of her mind she seldom visits. Can it be classified as an accident, an accident she did to herself? She remembers the magnetic red gleam of the round pills in the hollow of her palm, how unexpectedly solid they had felt, like metal pellets. The shriek of the ambulance outside her window. The old man who lived across the hall peering from a crack in his door, grim and unsurprised. The acidic ache in her throat when they pumped her stomach. Leela had kept her eyes on the wall of the emergency room afterwards, too ashamed to look at the paramedic who was telling her something. Something cautionary and crucial which might help her now, as she steps warily along this beautiful glacial trail, watching for crevasses. But for the life of her she cannot recall what it was.

* * *

Each night the pilgrims are assigned to different tents by the head guide, according to some complicated logic Leela has failed to decipher. But tonight, when she finds herself in Mrs. Das’s tent, her bedroll set down next to the older woman’s makeshift one, she wonders if it is destiny that has brought her here.

All her life, like her parents, Leela has been a believer in individual responsibility. But lately she finds herself wondering. When she asked Aunt Seema yesterday, she touched Leela’s cheek in a gesture of amused affection. “Ah, my dear—to believe that you control everything in your life! How absurdly American!”

Destiny is a seductive concept. Ruminating on it, Leela feels the events of her life turn weightless and pass through her like clouds. The simplistic, sublunary words she assigned to them—pride, shame, guilt, folly—no longer seem to apply.

“Please,” Mrs. Das whispers in Bengali, startling Leela from thought. She sits on the tarpaulin floor of the tent, propped against her bedroll, her legs splayed out crookedly from under her sari. “Could you ask one of the attendants to bring some warm water? My feet hurt a lot.”

“Of course,” Leela says, jumping up. An odd gladness fills her as she performs this small service. Aunt, who was less than happy about Leela’s tent assignment tonight, had whispered to her to be sure to stay away from Mrs. Das. But Aunt is at the other end of the camp, while destiny has placed Leela here.

When the water comes in a bucket, Mrs. Das surreptitiously removes her shoes. They are made of rough leather, cheap and unlovely. They make Leela feel guilty about her fleece-lined American boots, even though the fleece is fake. Then she sucks in a horrified breath.

Freed of shoes and socks, Mrs. Das’s feet are in bad shape, swollen all the way to the calves. The toes are blistered and bluish with frostbite. The heels weep yellowish pus. Mrs. Das looks concerned but not surprised—this has obviously been going on for a couple of days. She grits her teeth, lurches to her feet, and tries to lift the bucket. Leela takes it from her and follows her to the opening of the tent, and when Mrs. Das has difficulty bending over to wash her feet, she kneels and does it for her. She feels no disgust as she cleans off the odorous pus. This intrigues her. Usually she doesn’t like touching people. Even with her parents, she seldom went beyond the light press of lips to cheek, the hurried pat on the shoulder. In her Dexter days, if he put his arm around her, she’d find an excuse to move away after a few minutes. Yet here she is, tearing strips from an old sari and bandaging Mrs. Das’s feet, her fingers moving with a deft intelligence she did not suspect they possessed, brown against the matching brown of Mrs. Das’s skin. This is the first time, she thinks, that she has known such intimacy. How amazing that it should be a stranger who has opened her like a dictionary and brought to light this word whose definition had escaped her until now.

* * *

Someone in the tent must have talked, for here through the night comes the party’s doctor, his flashlight making a ragged circle of brightness on the tent floor as he enters. “Now what’s the problem?” he asks Mrs. Das, who attempts a look of innocence. What problem could he be referring to? The doctor sighs, hands Leela his torch, removes the sari strips, and clicks his tongue gravely as he examines Mrs. Das’s feet. There’s evidence of infection, he says. She needs a tetanus shot immediately, and even then the blisters might get septic. How could she have been so foolish as to keep this a secret from him? He pulls a thick syringe from his bag and administers an injection. “But you still have to get down to the hospital at Pahelgaon as soon as possible,” he ends. “I’ll ask the guide to find some way of sending you back tomorrow.”

Mrs. Das clutches the doctor’s arm. In the flashlight’s erratic beam, her eyes, mAGNIfied behind thick glasses, glint desperately. She doesn’t care about her feet, she says. It’s more important for her to complete the pilgrimage—she’s waited so long to do it. They’re only a day or so away from Shiva’s shrine. If she had to turn back now, it would kill her much more surely than a septic blister.

The doctor’s walrus mustache droops unhappily. He takes a deep breath and says that two extra days of hard walking could cause gangrene to set in, though a brief uncertainty flits over his face as he speaks. He repeats that Mrs. Das must go back tomorrow, then hurries off before she can plead further.

The darkness left behind is streaked with faint cobwebs of moonlight. Leela glances at the body prone on the bedding next to her. Mrs. Das is completely quiet, and this frightens Leela more than any fit of hysterics. She hears shufflings from the other end of the tent, whispered comments sibilant with relief. Angrily, she thinks that had the patient been anyone else, the doctor would not have been so adamant about sending her back. The moon goes behind a cloud; around her, darkness packs itself tightly, like black wool. She pushes her hand through it to where she thinks Mrs. Das’s arm might be. Against her fingers Mrs. Das’s skin feels brittle and stiff, like cheap waterproof fabric. Leela holds Mrs. Das’s wrist awkwardly, not knowing what to do. In the context of Indian etiquette, would patting be considered a condescending gesture? She regrets her impetuosity.

Then Mrs. Das turns her wrist—it is the swift movement of a night animal who knows its survival depends on mastering such economies of action—and clasps Leela’s fingers tightly in her own.

* * *

Late that night Mrs. Das tries to continue up the trail on her own, is spotted by the lookout guide, apprehended and brought back. It happens quickly and quietly, and Leela sleeps through it all.

By the time she wakes, the tent is washed in calm mountain light and abuzz with women and gossip.

“There she was, in the dark on her own, without any supplies, not even an electric torch, can you imagine?”

“Luckily the guide saw her before she went beyond the bend in the mountain. Otherwise she’d be in a ravine by now—”

“Or frozen to death—”

“Crazy woman! They say when they caught her, she fought them tooth and nail—I’m telling you, she actually drew blood! Like someone possessed by an evil spirit—”

Leela stares at Mrs. Das’s bedroll, two dark, hairy blankets topped by a sheet. It looks like the peeled skin of an animal turned inside out. The women’s excitement crackles through the air, sends little shocks up her arms. Are people in India harder to understand because they’ve had so many extra centuries to formulate their beliefs? She recalls the expression on Dexter’s face before he slammed the door, the simple incandescence of his anger. In some way, she had expected it all along. But Mrs. Das—? She curls her fingers, remembering the way the older woman had clasped them in her dry, birdlike grip.

“Did she really think she could get to the shrine all by herself!” someone exclaims.

Leela spots Aunt Seema and tugs at her sari. “Where is Mrs. Das now?”

“The guides have put her in a separate tent where they can keep an eye on her until they can send her back,” Aunt says, shaking her head sadly. “Poor thing—I really feel sorry for her. Still, I must confess I’m glad she’s leaving.” Then a suspicious frown takes over her face. “Why do you want to know? Did you talk to her last night? Leela, stop, where are you going?”

* * *

Mrs. Das, whom Leela finds in a small tent outside of which a guide keeps watch, does not look like a woman who has recently battled several men tooth and nail. Cowled in a faded green shawl, she dozes peacefully against the tent pole, though this could be due to the Calmpose tablets the doctor has made her take. Or perhaps there’s not much outside her head that she’s interested in at this point. She has lost her glasses in her night’s adventuring, and when Leela touches her shoulder, she looks up, blinking with dignity.

Leela opens her mouth to say she is sorry about how Mrs. Das has been treated. But she hears herself saying, “I’m going back with you.” The dazed expression on Mrs. Das’s face mirrors her own inner state. When after a moment Mrs. Das warily asks her why, all she can do is shrug her shoulders. She is uncertain of her motives. Is it her desire to prove (but to whom?) that she is somehow superior to the others? Is it pity, an emotion she has always distrusted? Is it some inchoate affinity she feels toward this stranger? But if you believe in destiny, no one can be a stranger, can they? There’s always a connection, a reason because of which people enter your orbit, bristling with dark energy like a meteor intent on collision.

* * *

Traveling down a mountain trail fringed by thick, seeded grasses the same gray as the sky, Leela wants to ask Mrs. Das about destiny. Whether she believes in it, what she understands it to encompass. But Mrs. Das grips the saddle of the mule she is sitting on, her body rigid with the single-minded terror of a person who has never ridden an animal. Ahead, the guide’s young, scraggly bearded son whistles a movie tune Leela remembers having heard in another world, during an excursion with Aunt Seema to some Calcutta market.

Aunt Seema was terribly upset with Leela’s decision to accompany Mrs. Das—no, even with that intense adverb, upset is too simple a word to describe the change in her urbane aunt, who had taken such gay control of Leela’s life in the city. The new Aunt Seema wrung her hands and lamented, “But what would your mother say if she knew that I let you go off alone with some stranger?” (Did she really believe Leela’s mother would hold her responsible? The thought made Leela smile.) Aunt’s face was full of awful conviction as she begged Leela to reconsider. Breaking off a pilgrimage like this, for no good reason, would rouse the wrath of Shiva. When Leela said that the occurrences of her life were surely of no interest to a deity, Aunt gripped her shoulders with trembling hands.

“Stop!” she cried, her nostrils flaring. “You don’t know what you’re saying! That bad-luck woman, she’s bewitched you!”

How many unguessed layers there were to people, skins that came loose at an unexpected tug, revealing raw, fearful flesh. Amazing, that folks could love one another in the face of such unreliability! It made Leela at once sad and hopeful.

* * *

Walking downhill, Leela has drifted into a fantasy. In it, she lives in a small roof-top flat on the outskirts of Calcutta. Mrs. Das, whom she has rescued from the women’s hostel, lives with her. They have a maid who shops and runs their errands, so the women rarely need to leave the flat. Each evening they sit on the terrace beside the potted roses and chrysanthemums (Mrs. Das has turned out to be a skilful gardener) and listen to music—a tape of Bengali folk songs (Mrs. Das looks like a person who would enjoy that), or maybe one of Leela’s jazz CDs, to which Mrs. Das listens with bemused attention. When they wish each other good night, she touches Leela’s arm. “Thank you,” she says, her eyes deep as a forest.

They have come to a riverbed. There isn’t much water, but the boulders on which they step are slippery with moss. It’s starting to rain, and the guide eyes the sky nervously. He pulls at the balking mule, which stumbles. Mrs. Das gives a harsh, crow-like cry and flings out her hand. Leela grasps it and holds on until they reach the other side.

“Thank you,” says Mrs. Das. It is the first time she has smiled, and Leela sees that her eyes are, indeed, deep as a forest.

* * *

“But Madam!” the proprietor at the Nataraja Inn cries to Leela in an English made shaky by distress. “You people are not to be coming back for two more days! Already I am giving your rooms to other pilgrim party. Whole hotel is full. This is middle of pilgrim season—other hotels are also being full.” He gives Leela and Mrs. Das, who are shivering in their wet clothes, an accusing look. “How is it you two are returned so soon?”

The guide, who has brought in the bedrolls, says something in a rapid pahari dialect that Leela cannot follow. The clerk pulls back his head in a swift, turtle-like motion and gives Mrs. Das a glance full of misgiving.

“Please,” Leela says. “We’re very tired, and it’s raining. Can’t you find us something?”

“Sorry, Madams. Maybe Mughal Gardens in marketplace is having space—”

Leela can feel Mrs. Das’s placid eyes on her. It is obvious that she trusts the younger woman to handle the situation. Leela sighs. Being a savior in real life has drawbacks she never imagined in her rooftop fantasy. Recalling something Aunt Seema said earlier, she digs in the waistband of her sari and comes up with a handful of rupee notes which she lays on the counter.

The clerk rocks back on his heels, torn between avarice and superstition. Then his hand darts out and covers the notes. “We are having a small small storeroom on top of hotel. Big enough for one person only.” He parts his lips in an ingenuous smile. “Maybe older madam can try Mughal Gardens?”

Leela gives the clerk a reprimanding look. “We’ll manage,” she says.

* * *

The clerk has not exaggerated. The room, filled with discarded furniture, is about as big as Leela’s queen-size bed in America. Even after the sweeper carries all the junk out into the corridor, there isn’t enough space to open the two bedrolls without their edges overlapping. Leela tries to hide her dismay. It strikes her that since she arrived in India, she has not been alone even once. With sudden homesickness, she longs for her wide, flat bedroom, its uncomplicated vanilla walls, its window from which she had looked out onto nothing more demanding than a clump of geraniums.

“I’ve caused you a lot of inconvenience.”

Mrs. Das’s voice is small but not apologetic. (Leela rather likes this.) “You shouldn’t have come back with me,” she adds matter-of-factly. “What if I am bad luck, like people believe?”

“Do you believe that?” Leela asks. She strains to hear Mrs. Das’s answer above the crash of thunder.

“Belief, disbelief,” Mrs. Das shrugs. “So many things I believed to be one way turned out otherwise. I believed my son’s marriage wouldn’t change things between us. I believed I would get to Shiva’s shrine, and all my problems would disappear. Last night on the mountain I believed the best thing for me would be to fall into a crevasse and die.” She smiles with unexpected sweetness as she says this. “But now—here we are together.”

Together. When Mrs. Das says it in Bengali, eksangay, the word opens inside Leela with a faint, ringing sound, like a distant temple bell.

“I have something I want to give you,” Mrs. Das says.

“No, no,” says Leela, embarrassed. “Please, I’d rather you didn’t.”

“He who gives,” says Mrs. Das, “must be prepared to receive.” Is this an ancient Indian saying, or one that she has made up herself? And what exactly does it mean? Is giving then a privilege, in return for which you must allow others the opportunity to do the same? Mrs. Das unclasps a thin gold chain she is wearing. She leans forward and Leela feels her fingers fumbling for a moment on the nape of her neck. She wants to protest, to explain to Mrs. Das that she has always hated jewelry, all that metal clamped around you. But she is caught in a web of unfamiliar ideas. Is giving the touchstone by which the lives of strangers become your own? The expression on Mrs. Das’s face is secretive, prayerful. And then the skin-warm, almost weightless chain is around Leela’s throat.

Mrs. Das switches off the naked bulb that hangs on a bit of wire from the ceiling. The two of them lie down, each on her blanket, and listen to the wind, which moans and rattles the shutters like a madwoman wanting to be let in. Leela hopes Aunt Seema is safe, that the storm has not hit the mountain the way it has Pahelgaon. But the world outside this square, contained room has receded so far that she is unable to feel anxiety. Rain falls all around her, insulating as a lullaby. If she were to stretch out her arm, she would touch Mrs. Das’s face.

She says, softly, “Once I tried to kill myself.”

Mrs. Das says nothing. Perhaps she is asleep.

Leela finds herself speaking of the pills, the ambulance, the scraped-out space inside her afterwards. Perhaps it had always been there, and she had not known? She talks about her father and mother, their unbearable courtesy, which she sees only this moment as having been unbearable. She asks questions about togetherness, about being alone. What the value of each might be. She sends her words into the night, and does not need a reply.

She has never spoken so much in her life. In the middle of a sentence, she falls asleep.

* * *

Leela is dreaming. In the dream, the glacial trails have been washed away by rain. She takes a false step, sinks into slush. Ice presses against her chest. She opens her mouth to cry for help, and it too fills with ice. With a thunderous crack, blackness opens above her, a brilliant and brutal absence of light. She knows it has found her finally, her unlucky star.

Leela wakes, her heart clenched painfully like an arthritic fist. How real the dream was. Even now she feels the freezing weight on her chest, hears the ricochet of the cracked-open sky. But no, it is not just a dream. Her blanket is soaked through, and the floor is awash with water. She scrambles for the light switch and sees, in the dim glare, a corner of the roof hanging down, swinging drunkenly. In the midst of all this, Mrs. Das sleeps on, covers pulled over her head. Leela is visited by a crazy wish to lie down beside her.

“Quick, quick!” she cries, shaking her. “We have to get out of here before that roof comes down.”

Mrs. Das doesn’t seem to understand what Leela wants from her. Another gust of wind hits the roof, which gives an ominous creak. Her eyes widen, but she makes no move to sit up.

“Come on,” shouts Leela. She starts to drag her to the door. Mrs. Das offers neither resistance nor help. A long time back Leela had taken a CPR course, she has forgotten why. Mrs. Das’s body, slack and rubbery, reminds her of the dummy on whose chest she had pounded with earnest energy. The thought depresses her, and this depression is the last emotion she registers before something hits her head.

* * *

Leela lies on a lumpy mattress. Even with her eyes closed, she knows that the clothes she is wearing—a baggy blouse, a limp cotton sari which swathes her loosely—are not hers. Her head feels stuffed with steel shavings. Is she in heaven, having died a heroic death? But surely celestial bedding would be more comfortable, celestial clothing more elegant—even in India? She is ashamed of having thought that last phrase. She moves her head a little. The jab of pain is like disappointed lightning.

“Doctor, doctor, she’s waking up,” Aunt Seema says from somewhere, her voice damp and wobbly like a biscuit that’s been dunked in tea. But why is Leela thinking like this? She knows she should appreciate her aunt’s loving concern and say something to reassure her. But it is so private, so comfortable, behind her closed eyes.

“Finally,” says the doctor’s voice. “I was getting worried.” Leela can smell his breath—it’s cigarettes, a brand she does not know. It smells of cloves. When she has forgotten everything else, she thinks, she will remember the odors of this journey.

“Can you hear me, Leela?” the doctor asks. “Can you open your eyes?” He taps on her cheek with maddening persistence until she gives up and glares at him.

“You’re lucky, young lady,” he says as he changes the bandage around her head. “You should be thankful you were hit by a piece of wood. Now if that had been a sheet of rusted metal—”

Lucky. Thankful. Leela doesn’t trust such words. They change their meaning as they swoop, sharp-clawed, about her head. The room is full of women; they wring their hands in gestures that echo her aunt’s. She closes her eyes again. There’s a question she must ask, an important one—but when she tries to catch it in a net of words, it dissolves into red fog.

“It’s all my fault,” Aunt Seema says in a broken voice that baffles Leela. Why should Aunt feel so much distress at problems which are, after all, hers alone? “Leela doesn’t understand these things—how can she?—but I should have made her stay away from that accursed woman—”

“Do try to be quiet.” The doctor’s voice is testy, as though he has heard this lament many times already. “Give her the medicine and let her rest.”

Someone holds Leela’s head, brings a cup to her lips. The medicine is thick and vile. She forces it down her throat with harsh satisfaction. Aunt sobs softly, in deference to the doctor’s orders. Her friends murmur consolations. From time to time, phrases rise like a refrain from their crooning: the poor girl, Shiva have mercy, that bad-luck woman, oh, what will I tell your mother.

A commotion at the door.

“I’ve got to see her, just for a minute, just to make sure she’s all right—”

There’s a heaving inside Leela.

“No,” says one of the women. “Daktar-babu said no excitement.”

“Please, I won’t talk to her—I’ll just take a look.”

“Over my dead body you will,” Aunt Seema bursts out. “Haven’t you done her enough harm already? Go away. Leela, you tell her yourself—”

Leela doesn’t want to tell anyone anything. She wants only to sleep. Is that too much to ask for? A line comes to her from a poem, Death’s second self which seals up all in rest. She imagines snow, great fluffy quilts of it, packed around her. But the voices scrape at her, Leela, Leela, Leela . . .

The room is full of evening. Leela sees Mrs. Das at the door, trying to push her way past the determined bulk of the doctor’s wife. Her disheveled hair radiates from her head like crinkly white wires, giving her, for a moment, the look of an alien in a Star Trek movie. When she sees that Leela’s eyes are open, she stops struggling and reaches out toward her.

Why does Leela do what she does next? Is it the medication, which makes her lightheaded? The pain, which won’t let her think? Or is it some dark, genetic strain which, unknown to her, has pierced her pragmatic, American upbringing with its sharp, knotted root? At times, later, she will tell herself, I didn’t know what I was doing. At other times, she’ll say, liar. For doesn’t her response to Mrs. Das come from the intrinsic and fearful depths of who she is? The part of her that knows she is no savior?

Leela sits up in bed. “Aunt’s right,” she says. Her teeth chatter as though she is fevered. “All of them are right. You are cursed. Go away. Leave me alone.”

“No,” says Mrs. Das. But it is a pale sound, without conviction.

“Yes!” says Leela. “Yes!” She grasps the chain Mrs. Das has given her and yanks at it. The worn gold gives easily. Falling, it makes a small, skittery sound on the wood floor.

Darkness is bursting open around Seema like black chrysanthemums.

Mrs. Das stares at the chain, then turns and stumbles from the room. Her shadow, long and misshapen, touches Leela once. Then it, too, is gone.

* * *

The pilgrimage party makes much of Leela as she lies recovering. The women bring her little gifts from their forays into town—an embroidered purse, a bunch of Kashmiri grapes, a lacquered jewelry box. When they hold out the presents, Leela burrows her hands into her blanket. But the women merely nod to each other. They whisper words like shock and been through so much. They hand the gifts to Aunt, who promises to keep them safely until Leela is better. When they leave, she feels like a petulant child.

From the doorway, the men ask Aunt Seema how Leela is coming along. Their voices are gruff and hushed, their eyes furtive with awe—as though she were a martyr-saint who took upon herself the bad luck that would have otherwise fallen on them. Is it cynical to think this? There is no one anymore whom Leela can ask.

* * *

On the way back to Srinagar, where the party will catch the train to Calcutta, by unspoken consent Leela is given the best seat on the bus, up front near the big double windows.

“It’s a fine view, and it won’t joggle you so much,” says one of the women, plumping up a pillow for her. Another places a footrest near her legs. Aunt Seema unscrews a thermos and pours her a glass of pomegranate juice—to replace all the blood Leela lost, she says. The juice is the color of blood. Its thin tartness makes Leela’s mouth pucker up, and Aunt says, in a disappointed voice, “Oh dear, is it not so sweet then? Why, that Bahadur at the hotel swore to me—”

Leela feels ungracious, boorish. She feels angry for feeling this way. “I have a headache,” she says and turns to the window where, hidden behind her sunglasses, she watches the rest of the party get on the bus. Amid shouts and laughter, the bus begins to move.

She waits until the bus has lurched its way around three hairpin bends. Then she says, “Aunt—?” She tries to make her voice casual, but the words come out in a croak.

“Yes, dear? A little more juice?” Aunt asks hopefully.

“Where is Mrs. Das? Why didn’t she get on the bus?”

Aunt fiddles with the catch of her purse. Her face indicates her discomfort at the baldness of Leela’s questions. A real Indian woman would have known to approach the matter delicately, sideways.

But the doctor’s wife, who is sitting behind them, leans forward to say, “Oh, her! She went off somewhere on her own, when was it, three, no, four nights ago, right after she created that ruckus in your sickroom. She didn’t take her bedroll with her, or even her suitcase. Strange, no? Personally, I think she’s a little bit touched up here.” She taps her head emphatically.

Misery swirls, acidic, through Leela’s insides. She raises her hand with great effort to cover her mouth, so it will not spill out.

“Are you okay, dear?” Aunt asks.

“She looks terribly pale,” the doctor’s wife says. “It’s all these winding roads—enough to make anyone vomity.”

“I might have some lemon drops,” says Aunt, rummaging in her handbag.

Leela accepts the sour candy and turns again to the window. Behind her she hears the doctor’s wife’s carrying whisper, “If I were you, I’d get a puja done for your niece once you get to Calcutta. You know, to avert the evil eye—”

Outside the bus, mountains and waterfalls are speeding past Leela. Sunlight slides like opportunity from the narrow green leaves of debdaru trees and is lost in the underbrush. What had the guide said, at the start of the trip, about expiation? Leela cannot remember. And even if she did, would she be capable of executing those gestures, delicate and filled with power, like the movements of a Bharatnatyam dancer, which connect humans to the gods and to each other? Back in America, her life waits to claim her, unchanged, impervious, smelling like floor polish. In the dusty window, her reflection is a blank oval. She takes off her dark glasses to see better, but the features which peer back at her are unfamiliar, as though they belong to someone she has never met.

 

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is author of Arranged Marriage (stories, Doubleday, 1995), Leaving Yuba City (poems, Doubleday, 1997), and two novels, The Mistress of Spices (Doubleday, 1997) and Sister of My Heart (Random House, 1999). Her work has also appeared in Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Ms., and Zoetrope, and her latest book of stories, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, is due out from Doubleday in April 2001. (2001)

 


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