Riding the Tiger

This is the second story of mine published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in the anthology Mantle of Stars. It takes place in India and is the longest and most complex story I have written so far. It incorporates some of my own experiences living in that country — although much of the story is, of course, fiction!

 


Sahib, looking only, very nice murtis, Durga Ma, Durga Ma, only looking…please, Sahib, Durga Ma…”

The boy selling images of the Hindu gods and goddesses was very persistent. Calvin was barely aware of him, perhaps because the urchin spoke softly, not with the usual pestering whine of Indian street hawkers. He descended the temple steps as if in a trance, oblivious to the tumult that met him in the street, too perplexed by what had just happened to him in the temple of Arunachala to make sense of anything. The boy stood in front of him now, blocking his way, clutching an assortment of various deities to his chest. He held out one particular murti with a look of such determination and sweetness on his little face that Calvin felt compelled to buy it. The postcard size image portrayed Durga, the eight-armed goddess astride her usual vehicle, a tiger. He knew that much about the Hindu pantheon. Although Durga was a warrior goddess and the consort of the formidable god Shiva, she manifested as one of the more benign deities. He gave the boy far too many rupees and slipped the picture into his shoulder bag.

“Durga Ma blessing Sahib, Durga Ma giving Sahib much protections…” the boy called after him in his garbled English, sounding like a priest intoning the benediction.

He had been in India three weeks already, with still a week left before his departure, and he felt that he had reached the limits of his endurance. India was not an easy country to travel in, but he had known all about that when he decided to come here. Friends who had been to India before had warned him about the difficulties he might face, and some of the travel accounts he read painted a grim picture of the country. Still, he had been attracted enough to the mysteries of the subcontinent to undertake the trip anyway. Three weeks. It felt like he had been in India three years.

****

Calvin Sanderling enjoyed a reasonably successful career and a stable relationship with his partner. Although he was grateful for these blessings in his life, there was no denying that an indefinable restlessness, an insatiate emptiness had taken hold within him. His relationship with Peter was a satisfying one, affectionate and mutually respectful, but Calvin realized that no one, not even his partner, could decipher the cause of his lingering dissatisfaction. Peter thought that Calvin’s malaise was a passing case of Weltschmerz, or even the beginning stages of a mid-life crisis. Being of a sunny disposition himself, Peter was sure that these concerns of his partner would resolve themselves in time.

The Orient, and especially India, had always fascinated Calvin. The ethereal sonorities and vital rhythms of classical Hindustani music had delighted him as a teenager and could still enchant him. India evoked alluring and exotic images. It was the one destination that might release him from the grip of the blue funk he found himself in. Nearing fifty and still fit, he realized it was now or never. He would travel to India. Peter didn’t share his interest in the Far East and lacked an adventuresome spirit, so Calvin decided to go it alone.

He used his saved vacation days to take off from work, the accounting firm in Dayton where he had dutifully toiled for the past dozen years, and booked a ticket to Mumbai. He would stay an entire month in India. He read enticing reports about the beauties of South India in particular, of the fabulous temples and fantastic landscapes to be found there, of palm-fringed beaches. Winter would be the ideal time to visit that part of the country. So he planned his itinerary, reading every guidebook he could get his hands on. He studied up on Hindu religion and culture, but found it rather bewildering. How does one sort out 330 million deities, anyway? He got his shots and packed lightly. In mid-December he landed in Mumbai, full of anticipation and excitement. His first impressions fascinated and horrified him. On his way from the airport to the hotel the airline had booked for him he had seen a train passing by with hundreds of men clinging to the sides of the cars, even sitting on the roof. He was sure that he would never dare to travel by train in India. Too wired to sleep after his long flight, he deposited his things in his hotel room and walked to the nearby beach. There he found all of India on display. Many families strolled under the palm trees. Women in their elegant saris floated by, strands of jasmine woven into their jet-black hair. There were vendors hawking everything imaginable, a camel led by a garishly dressed dwarf offering rides, a holy man buried in the sand with just his hands sticking out and a bowl for donations nearby, palm-readers and astrologers doing a brisk business, a sadhu sitting cross-legged and oblivious to the crowd swirling around him, even a group of western-looking Hare Krishna freaks singing and dancing ecstatically. No one paid them much heed and they didn’t look out of place here. Most impressive of all was the grand sweep of monsoon clouds over the open sea, opulent clouds churning slowly in a kaleidoscope of golds and grays and purples. Calvin was dazzled by the scene. This was India!

The enchantment of that first day didn’t last long. He flew to Chennai the following morning and then continued his journey by bus and train. He was soon overwhelmed by the squalor, decay, appalling filth, noise, pollution and unrelenting chaos. Everything was a major hassle: buying the tickets, boarding the trains and buses, negotiating with the rickshaw wallahs, dealing with the ever-present swarm of beggars. He had been forewarned and was determined to make the best of it. Initially the temples were fascinating, but after a while they began to look the same and he couldn’t help noticing how shabby and dilapidated they were. He couldn’t make much sense of the goings-on in the temples either; it all seemed so haphazard and strange. Only one temple had really pleased him–at first, anyway. The gopurams, the immense wedding-cake towers with their staggering array of deities, were brightly painted. He took lots of photos until he had a closer look at one of the figures. A many-armed female deity painted black and red stared down at him fiercely, her tongue sticking out and a severed head in one hand. It so unnerved him that he fled the temple and headed directly back to his hotel.
From there he took a night bus north to another town recommended in his guidebook. The trip was an ordeal that left him with frayed nerves. He could see the headlights of every approaching vehicle on the narrow highway, many a near-collision averted at the last second. The seats were so cramped he could barely sit comfortably, no less sleep. He found a pleasant enough room at the Parvati Guest House, one of the nicest he had stayed at, but he had to haggle for half an hour with the twelve-year-old son of the manager who wanted him to pay in advance for four nights. Calvin couldn’t imagine staying more than two. He became so disenchanted at this point that he even considered leaving India earlier than planned, perhaps even going to some other country.

This was a temple town sacred to the god Shiva, situated at the foot of a mountain called Arunachala. It is believed that the god Shiva resides there and that circumambulating the mountain incurs the god’s blessings. Calvin wasn’t much into Shiva or ritual circumambulations, but the thought of a nice hike was appealing. He got up early and set out down the road. Although he had difficulty finding the right path at first, he was soon delighted with the route. It went through a pleasant forest with occasional views of cultivated fields and distant mountains beyond. Arunachala, though not especially high, was enveloped in clouds. That took the edge off the burning tropical sun. Best of all, there was no one else around. It was blissfully quiet. He finished by midday and, after a light lunch, headed for the temple. It, too, was at the foot of the mountain.

The size of the temple compound was enormous, but it was also disappointing; there were the usual crumbling buildings and piles of rubble everywhere. After wandering around for a bit Calvin was tired and looked for a place to sit and rest his feet. He noticed a small pavilion, an ornately carved stone structure open to four sides. It appeared to be empty. God only knows what they do here, he thought, sacrifice goats? He wasn’t in a particularly benevolent mood. He lowered himself onto the shaded top step of the pavilion and closed his eyes. It felt good to sit after the exertion of the morning’s hike. After a few minutes he became aware of a presence somewhere to his left. He heard something; it sounded like someone singing. Calvin was aghast. There was somebody else in the pavilion. He opened his eyes. Turning his head slowly, he was barely able to make out a figure sitting cross-legged in the corner. As his vision adjusted to the shadow he could ascertain that it was a man, perhaps a very old man—it was hard to tell. The man was staring right at him and continued to chant. Calvin couldn’t understand any of it except for the name Shiva. He was chanting a prayer to Shiva! He locked eyes with the old man and felt himself magnetically drawn to him. The man slowly raised his right hand from his lap, turning his open palm upward, then gesturing to the space before him, as if he were inviting Calvin to sit directly in front of him. It was an exquisitely executed and unmistakable gesture. All the while the man continued to chant softly. Calvin didn’t know quite what to do. Should he sit? Should he kneel? The sadhu (for that is what he must have been—a holy man) was only six feet away, so Calvin swung himself over and ended up kneeling right in front of him. It was all so awkward. What the hell was he doing, kneeling in front of this complete stranger who was incanting some mysterious mumbo jumbo?

Om Shiva Shiva Shiva

Calvin could see the sadhu very distinctly now. He was ancient, swathed in a soiled dhoti and a frayed shawl. The man’s eyes were still fixed on him steadily, a gaze that emanated infinite goodwill, warmth and peace. A thought crossed Calvin’s mind, that even if the whole world came crashing down, this old man would still be sitting here, chanting his hymn to Shiva, unmoved. Calvin closed his eyes and the next thing he knew, WHAM! The sadhu had struck Calvin’s forehead with his open palm. Calvin was stunned. He opened his eyes and WHAM! Again the old man whacked him, this time even harder. Now the look in the sadhu’s eyes was intense, even fearsome. His chant became louder: SHIVA SHIVA SHIVA! Calvin felt a jolt of energy course through his body. What the hell was going on? He was completely confused. He managed to put his palms together and bow reverently, imitating the ritual gesture he had seen the Indians do countless times in the temples. He got up and stumbled out into the blinding sunlight. From the pavilion he heard one last sound: the sadhu was laughing. A gleeful and penetrating howl issued from him, rising in pitch and ending with the sadhu calling out DURGA MA, DURGA MA, in a voice that sounded like it came from some other disembodied being.

Calvin hadn’t taken two steps when he felt a heaving in his chest—he had no idea what was happening to him—and then he began to sob uncontrollably. It just overtook him. Somehow he found an out of the way corner and just sat and wept for quite some time. When he was done he felt transformed, as if the weight of a hundred years had been lifted from his shoulders.

It was at this point that Calvin exited the temple compound and staggered down the steps. Durga Ma, Durga Ma—Mother Durga—the boy had pressed on him. Whatever. He couldn’t make sense of anything now. And it didn’t matter. That night he slept more soundly than ever. He awoke late, without any particular desire to do anything. He had a leisurely breakfast and decided he had had enough of sight-seeing. No more temples. He would go to Pondicherry, on the coast, three hours away by train. Pondy was a former French enclave and Calvin’s guidebook stated that the town retained some of its colonial ambience. It promised to be a good place to hang out for a few days and do nothing.

The train took more than three hours. It came to a grinding halt in the middle of nowhere and didn’t move for over half an hour. You never knew what was happening—a cow on the tracks, perhaps? Calvin was too preoccupied with his thoughts about the experience in the temple to get annoyed about it. He had decided on a hotel from his guidebook, but the rickshaw wallah who picked him up at the station insisted he had a better place. So off they went. It was quite nice—the Annapurna Hotel in Nehru Street. On his first day there he explored the former French colony. There were some lovely, though crumbling, colonial villas, and gardens filled with bougainvillea. The streets were clean and the houses vaguely European. And there was a noticeable absence of wandering cows—those pathetic, garbage-munching, flea-bitten skeletal bovines that had free run of every other town Calvin had been to. Pondy was dominated by an ashram that enclosed the burial place of some modern saint who had lived in the town for many years. Enjoying the serenity of the courtyard, Calvin sat in the shade and observed the steady stream of devotees coming to do homage to the revered saint, lighting sticks of incense and placing flowers on the tomb. Their devotion intrigued him, but he couldn’t imagine himself doing the same.

Since there was little else to do in Pondicherry, Calvin felt the need to move on again. He elected to travel up the coast a bit to a beach town popular with tourists. He checked out the following day, leaving his bags at the hotel. Needing to kill time before the scheduled departure of the four-thirty bus, he took one more walk around Pondy. At noon he felt hungry and thought of the pleasant French café he had dined at the previous day, the Rendezvous. It was on the north side of town. Passing through Government Square, a large public park with shade trees and benches, he felt the need to rest a bit and get out of the sun. He hadn’t been seated five minutes when, out of nowhere it seemed, a young Indian fellow materialized and sat down on Calvin’s bench.

“Vat country you are coming from?”

Calvin knew this to be the likely prelude to some hustle or other: visit my brother’s shop (only looking, not buying!), give me forty rupees to visit my sick mother, give me rupees, give me rupees! The sheer audacity of their solicitations never ceased to amaze him. Calvin had heard many come-ons by now. At best—and this was rare—these strangers just wanted to practice their English. This young man was pleasant and well-mannered. Against his better judgment Calvin let himself be drawn into a conversation. Like nearly all Indians, the young man was slight of build, with the usual brown eyes, dark hair and skin like mocha. With his well-trimmed black mustache he looked like some exotic prince who had just stepped out of a Rajput miniature painting. He was twenty-four as it turned out, studying engineering in Chennai. Calvin asked him his name. It was Madhu.

“Madhu,” mused Calvin. He had come across that name before in his reading, though he couldn’t quite place it.

“Your name also Madhu?” The young man had misunderstood Calvin. They were off to a rocky start.

“No, no. My name is Calvin and I come from the United States.”

“Kaal-veen,” the Indian repeated carefully. He enquired about Calvin’s travels and claimed that he himself often came to Pondy, to visit the ashram. Somehow he didn’t seem to Calvin to be the ashram visiting type.

“Are you being married?” asked Madhu.

Calvin was not about to divulge any details concerning his personal life and simply stated that he was not married and never had been. This was somewhat perplexing to Madhu. Everybody got married in India, whether they wanted to or not.

Then the young man came out with a statement that completely floored Calvin. Madhu said, in an offhanded manner, as if he were commenting on the price of mangoes, “Sometimes I am having sex with my male friends.”

What? Calvin wondered at first whether he had heard that correctly. Indians, he had observed, were very uptight and puritanical; they never talked about sex and would certainly never admit to a random stranger that they indulged in homosexual acts. Homosexuality was not even a concept in the minds of most Indians.

Madhu continued in this vein, asking Calvin what he did for kicks. Calvin was so astonished by the turn the conversation had taken that he hardly knew what to say.

“Are you liking partners of your own age or younger ones?” enquired the young man. He was persistent. Madhu told him that he especially liked American men, but Calvin had to wonder just how many he could have met.

He could see where this was headed. The thought of having sex with this guy between lunch and a bus departure didn’t particularly appeal to him, though he was curious about Indian men. The Indians were a handsome people, but he hadn’t felt, until this moment, the slightest erotic urge during his entire stay in the country. Now, out of the blue, the opportunity for intimacy was thrust upon him. He tried to remain noncommittal as he weighed the feasibility of a roll in the hay with this guy. What could be the harm? His curiosity and desire for adventure ultimately got the better of him. He agreed to meet Madhu after lunch, in an hour. The young Indian wrote an address down on a piece of scrap paper, explaining that it was a guesthouse, not too far away, in the Indian part of town. Calvin took the paper and inserted it carefully between the pages of his guidebook.

Over lunch at the Rendezvous, a lovely quiche and salad (a welcome change from spicy curries), Calvin meditated on the baffling surprises that travel had to offer. He never could have imagined that he would pick up a man in a park in India—and in Pondicherry, of all places! Still, there was something about this encounter that just didn’t add up. The conversation with Madhu had been so brusque, so clumsy, devoid of genuine flirtation. Was it just a matter of the considerable cultural and linguistic differences between them? Calvin realized that he would never understand this country or its people. There was nothing of the hustler about Madhu: he seemed like a nice, clean-cut young man. And besides, Pondicherry was hardly the cruising capital of the world; most visitors were serious devotees who came to visit the ashram. How likely was it that a young Indian man would lie in wait in that park to pounce on the first unsuspecting foreigner who came along? Perhaps he, Calvin, had misjudged the Indians. Perhaps it was just a fortuitous coincidence that the two of them had found each other in Government Square. For now, sipping his café au lait, he could anticipate an unexpected amorous adventure.

When he had finished his coffee and paid the bill he took his guidebook out of the shoulder bag to retrieve the scrap of paper with the address. As he opened the book the picture of Durga fell out onto the table, right side up. The goddess’s eight arms brandished all sorts of weapons and she was smiling at him ever so mischievously. How did that get there? He was sure it wasn’t in the guidebook before. Inexplicably, the scrap of paper was gone. He dumped the entire contents of the bag onto the table, but it was nowhere to be found. It had mysteriously vanished. At first Calvin was very annoyed, then disappointed that he wouldn’t get to enjoy his assignation with Madhu. By the time he got back to his hotel to retrieve his luggage he had gotten over it. He made his way to the bus station.

That night, at the Lakshmi Lodge, Calvin slept fitfully. Just when he managed to fall asleep he had the most horrible dream—or was it a revelation? He was with Madhu, in the young man’s room. He already had most of his clothes off when another man, older and threatening, appeared. Calvin was going to be robbed, literally with his pants down, relieved of everything he carried in his travel pouch—his passport, money, credit cards, airplane ticket. Then the scene dissolved and in its place, in a flash, Durga appeared, the resplendent goddess astride her tiger. Calvin awoke in a cold sweat and sat up, his heart pounding. The dream was so real, like it had in fact happened to him. There could hardly be any greater calamity in a country like India than losing one’s money and documents. And how would you explain the circumstances of the crime to the local police? Calvin took a few deep breaths to calm himself down. He knew without a doubt that this was the scenario that would have played itself out if he had kept his tryst with Madhu. He had been saved from a terrible situation. Suddenly it all made sense: it had been a scam from the beginning. Madhu was acting as the decoy to lure him to the trap. This kind of thing happened all the time in Asia; he had been too naive, his judgment too clouded by desire to see it as such. The relief he felt from a catastrophe averted soon overtook him and he drifted off into a deep and welcome sleep.

Calvin arrived back in Chennai the day before his scheduled flight home. He planned to go back to the hotel where he had stayed a month before, but the rickshaw wallah wouldn’t hear of it.

“Sahib is vanting nice hotel—clean, very cheap. Sahib liking hotel very much. I bringing you to best hotel in Chennai—Sahib very much liking…”

He was too weary to argue and let himself be taken to the hotel the driver suggested. Checking in, he discovered that he had been delivered to the Varanasi Tourist Palace. He remembered that Varanasi was another name for Benares, the ancient city on the Ganges, a place of pilgrimage sacred to Shiva. On this, his last night in India, Calvin placed the small picture of Durga on the nightstand. He adorned it with the small garland of marigolds he had purchased and lit a stick of incense in honor of the goddess. As the thin plume of sandalwood smoke rose and pervaded the dingy room Calvin entered into that magical state between wakefulness and sleep. He imagined he heard the laughter of a sadhu, far off in the distance.

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