No one in Bodhi’s village had expected an ascent of the Mount Everest. It alarmed his mother. Men had trespassed on an abode of gods visible on clear days. Retribution was forthcoming. Bodhi was six years old.
The above-mentioned conquest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay was Bodhi’s earliest lucid memory. His father received the news, and a blue parcel, at an Indian post & telegraph office near the Nepal border. Only weeks before, tall and hardy white men weighed down with rucksacks had trudged through his village from a railhead of the Indian Railways. Bullock carts carrying wooden crates had followed them on a dirt road.
The blue parcel uplifted Bodhi. It contained a ‘Meccano Set’ in a red box. It had a picture of London’s Tower Bridge on its cover. There were red and green steel building components, wheels, nuts, bolts and hand tools. From these, Bodhi built bridges. He built buildings. He built trucks. He dreamt of bridging the Kosi – a river descending from the slopes of the Mount Everest and meandering close by.
Years earlier, Bodhi’s father went to the University of Calcutta to study law. He aspired to transcend a life cultivating jute, rice and sugarcane with oxen and plough. Halfway into his degree programme, in the year before India’s partition, he encountered the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’. A group of Burmese monks saved him from a lynch mob. He didn’t continue. He became a subsistence farmer. He didn’t speak about the violence he observed. Nonetheless, Bodhi surreptitiously fathomed it in an old issue of the ‘Life’ magazine and yellowed newspaper clippings.
The ‘Great Calcutta Killings’ had another impact. Hindu Bodhi was enrolled in a Buddhist School. It was attached to a monastery on a grassy knoll. The knoll adjoined a marsh. His teachers were yellow-robed Indian bhikkhus, and burgundy robed Tibetan lamas.
The lamas were alumni of universities in Benares (now Varanasi), Colombo and Shanghai. On a trek to Lhasa, after a sojourn in a sangha at Sarnath, they learnt of the loss of autonomy in their homeland. Thereafter, they followed the southerly flight of a flock of Tibetan black-necked cranes. It led them to the aforesaid marsh, and to a refuge.
Buoyed by the armistice in the Korean War, the lamas awaited normality; it was not to be. The assassination of John F Kennedy, when Bodhi was in high school, ended that possibility. They left but they made a difference. They brought the world into their classrooms, and one of them, in time, created a turning point for Bodhi.
After the lamas left, Bodhi’s village morphed into an industrial town. It started with a sugar factory. It was followed by a distillery, factories for making fertilizer, paper and jute-bags, and coal-fired power generation. Its mango and lychee orchards disappeared, and so did its marsh. Its people worked in its factories or migrated to cities. The age-old Buddhist enclave dissolved.
One day, Bodhi went to New Delhi Railway Station for travelling to a town in the Himalayan foothills. He needed to collect information for his master’s thesis on a bridge over a tributary of the Ganges. On his way to the station, a march in support of an independence movement in East Pakistan disrupted road traffic. Such public expressions culminated in the creation of Bangladesh before the year’s end. On that day, however, it resulted in a missed train.
As Bodhi approached a ticket counter to reschedule his journey, his attention was drawn to an adjacent counter. A counter clerk sitting behind an iron-barred window spoke repeatedly in strident Hindi interspersed repeatedly with an English phrase:
‘Not Possible Madam!’
Presently a petite young Indian woman, henceforth referred to as the girl, dressed in a black skirt and beige blouse moved out of the line and looked around. Among those in the ticket lines, small and wiry Bodhi’s gaze was tranquil. The girl came up to him with a copy of the railway timetable, and asked softly in an alien accent:
‘Excuse me, do you speak English?’
The perplexity of the girl, with sparkling dark eyes and even white teeth, was quickly resolved. She was looking for long-distance trains (with more convenient timings) for a day trip to Agra and its Taj Mahal, mere hundred miles away.
Bodhi came out of the ticket hall into the fierce heat of Delhi’s summer, and saw the girl standing under a purple umbrella. The scene was chaotic around her. At a bus-stop next to her, passengers were jumping out and climbing in through crowded doors of buses which hardly stopped. Nearby, droves of people were jostling for auto-rickshaws and taxis.
Conversely, tongas were in less demand. Bodhi hailed one with two empty seats and escorted the girl to a YWCA hostel. She was from Trinidad in the West Indies, a student nurse at a hospital in Southampton in the UK. The day before she had missed a group tour to Agra.
‘Can you take me to the Taj Mahal? Travel expenses plus a fee.’ The girl asked.
‘Yes, but can you wear a sari? You will not be conspicuous.’
‘Good idea! I have one.’
The following day, Bodhi arrived at the YWCA hostel before sunrise. The girl, draped in an auburn sari, was waiting in its mahogany-panelled lobby. In its subdued light, she blended with the gravitas of furnishings and framed paintings of British India. They took the Taj Express at daybreak. The girl was spellbound by the unfolding panorama – agricultural fields stretching to the horizon, waterwheels operated by camels moving in a circle, women drawing water from wells in villages and, as the sun rose, children playing among grazing cows and goats.
‘Is your village similar?’ the girl asked.
‘More or less.’
‘How far is it from Delhi?’
‘About six hundred miles, to the east.’
‘What’s out there with a tiny red flag?’ The girl pointed to an object in the distance as the train sped through the plains.
‘It’s a temple.’
‘A temple in the middle of nowhere and barely large enough for a toddler!’
‘Perhaps location and size do not matter in such matters. Do you have temples in Trinidad?’
‘Of course! There are many people of Indian origin.’
‘How come? I thought the people there are mainly of African origin?’
‘Indians came to work in sugar plantations, after the abolition of slavery.’
‘Long ago! Do you know about the West Indies?’
‘The West Indies cricket team is well known. The game of cricket is popular in India.’
‘Its capital city, Port of Spain. It is a venue for cricket test matches.’
‘You know a little!’ the girl smiled.
‘How big is Trinidad?’
‘Oh, it’s very small.’
‘How small is very small?’
‘If you travel this far, you will fall into the ocean.’ The girl replied and they laughed.
Bodhi and the girl reached the Taj Mahal at noon. It was hazed in midday heat. They fended off a flock of tour guides and photographers. They walked in its forecourt. They went up on its surrounding open terrace. They strolled around the Taj Mahal. Up-close, the girl sensed its pervasive sadness. She pointed to wilted flowers carved in its white limestone. At one point on its open terrace, abutting the muddy Yamuna River, Bodhi stood still.
‘What’s the matter?’ The girl came up and asked.
‘I feel odd.’
‘It is this unnerving heat. Let’s get under a shade. I have tea in my thermos. You can have some, and it is almost time to go back.’
It was dark when they arrived in Delhi. Their inbound train was overcrowded as hundreds of people boarded at an unscheduled stop minutes from Agra. At the YWCA, the girl gave Bodhi an envelope and a wrapped gift and said goodbye. Her flight for the UK was early in the morning.
In a university hall of residence, on Delhi’s periphery, Bodhi opened his envelope. Inside, the money exceeded his expectation. He could replace his worn-out clothes and shoes. The wrapped gift, a half-empty tin of assorted biscuits, was more unexpected: a picture of London’s Tower Bridge on its cover kindled memories.
The monsoon, which came within weeks of the conquest of Mount Everest, was strong. A large flood ensued and in its aftermath, an outbreak of black fever. Bodhi was afflicted. At its end, his mother took him to a shrine on a riverbank. There an ash-smeared sadhu, sitting under a banyan tree, tied an amulet on Bodhi’s hand. Alongside was an abandoned hamlet: vines covered its crumbling walls. His mother said its people, who made bricks and earthenware, left during a famine which overlapped the Indian Mutiny.
The recollection of the ruined hamlet merged past, present and future for Bodhi. He hastened to the YWCA and spoke to the girl in its lobby. A dam broke inside him before he finished.
‘Will you marry me?’ Bodhi asked after he composed himself.
The stupefied girl had listened calmly, while stories of her ancestors tumbled in her memory of villages, friends and families left behind, of the three-month voyage in sailing ships, of mountainous waves around South Africa and of loved ones who did not survive the crossings. But it was all in the distant past. Besides, though Bodhi was alluring, India was huge, primitive and intimidating. She flushed.
‘You’re crazy. It’s impossible!’ the girl replied.
Bodhi accepted the verdict in silence. He apologized to the girl for his brazenness. He thanked her for her generosity, and again wished her a safe flight. He stood up to leave. His shirt, stained by the day’s travel, was soaked in sweat.
The girl also arose to leave and was instantly overcome by a convergence of her own past, present and future. She fought back her tears. She wiped Bodhi’s streaked face with her hands and said:
‘Ever since a child, I yearned to come to India. Now I know why.’
Before long, it was past midnight. There were footsteps coming down into the lobby. The girl’s tour group was assembling for boarding the airport bus.
Bodhi was elated, but soon reality set in. In the prevailing milieu, it was an untenable proposition. He sought parental consent. His mother at first did not believe and upon believing blamed his father for sending him to a Buddhist School. For her, it made Bodhi incapable of recognizing what is real and what is unreal.
For Bodhi’s father, it was a story from the Arabian Nights: a girl came on a flying carpet, enchanted and vanished. Compassionately, he spoke of the healing power of time. No matter, for Bodhi the subsequent months in Delhi were turbulent.
Bodhi sought relief in a prayer which he had hitherto chanted mechanically upon waking up every morning. He reflected on its exhortation: the world is impermanent; the world is suffering; there is no self. He contemplated on the futility of anticipation, but to no avail. Instead, he found solace in letters, and the girl’s calligraphic replies kept his hope alive.
Seasons changed. In the spring, the girl came to Delhi to meet Bodhi’s parents. It was a cold meeting: although the girl looked every bit Indian, she was not Indian. Generations, and two oceans in-between, had altered her. Ironically, an act of inhumanity, not uncommon in Delhi, provided a benevolent outcome.
Bodhi’s parents wished to visit Delhi’s historical sites. They hired a tonga at the Red Fort. It was a balmy day. As the tonga approached Chandani Chowk an auto-rickshaw loaded with bolts of textile swerved to avoid a recklessly driven car. It collided sideways with the tonga.
Seated in the front seats, Bodhi and his father were transfixed as the tonga tilted momentarily and its driver held a frantic horse. Meanwhile, in the back seats, the girl prevented Bodhi’s mother’s head from hitting the pavement. This split-second rescue and first aid made the girl endearing.
Nevertheless, on the other side of the world, the girl’s parents in Trinidad were apprehensive of their daughter’s implausible direction. To them, India was a land of deprivation and lawlessness. Their anxiety was increased by the handed-down accounts of some who had opted to return to India at the end of their indenture. They were labelled impure and ill-treated by family and society. They came back to Trinidad, derelict.
Two years elapsed. The girl qualified as a registered nurse and started working in a hospital in Portsmouth, UK. Likewise, Bodhi completed his studies and joined a road construction company near Delhi. There he met an engineer from Trinidad who had come to promote bitumen from its ‘Pitch Lake’, for making asphalt. The engineer helped Bodhi find a job in Jamaica in the West Indies. Bodhi’s prayer was answered.
Bodhi first went to Trinidad. There, he and the girl were married in San Fernando, a city on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Paria and Venezuela beyond. The day, with a bracing north-east trade wind and an azure sky, became memorable for another reason: the Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon.
In Jamaica, the land of Bob Marley and Reggae music, Bodhi and the girl found happiness among its people and in its landscape. They were touched by the legend and setting of its ‘Lovers’ Leap’ and the quaint town of ‘Port Antonio’ with its banana boats. Professionally, Bodhi enjoyed being a member of the team designing a bridge across the Kingston Harbour.
Slowly and unexpectedly a change occurred. In a world gripped by the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Tehran, Cuba spread its influence in the Caribbean. Among others, it forged close links with Jamaica. A flight of capital and skills followed: bauxite mining industry and tourism sector were affected; shelves in supermarkets emptied; social unrest loomed; the Kingston Harbour Bridge was shelved.
Notwithstanding, the Kingston Harbour bridge remained a work in progress in Bodhi’s imagination. He attended a symposium on long-span bridges in Istanbul. There, an American engineer from Chicago made a presentation. His biographical note stated St. John’s University in Shanghai.
The engineer from Chicago remembered a former classmate, Lama Lhotse – Bodhi’s high school mathematics teacher. Lhotse taught algebra and geometry on a canvas of literature: positive and negative signs were kindness and cruelty. Similarly, two lines intersected in space as actions and consequences. And, an infinitesimal number, like an imperceptible deed, was not insignificant.
The meeting in Istanbul coincided with the inauguration of the 40th US President – Ronald Reagan. In its optimism, there was much to build. Within a year, Bodhi was offered a job in a firm of consulting structural engineers in San Francisco.
Socially, Bodhi was adrift in Solnit’s ‘Infinite City’, whereas the girl connected through its patients – prenatal to geriatric. At the San Francisco General Hospital, she met celebrity and commonalty, image and reality, hope and despair, love and neglect, addiction and violence and not infrequently, craving for a life without end, without wrinkles and without pain.
Bodhi did connect with the society in the Golden State, albeit differently. Weeks into his job, he noticed a little bird on the sidewalk in the shadow of a skyscraper at 101 California Street. He had stepped aside to retie a shoelace, and noticed the bird caught in the middle of scurrying footsteps. He cupped his hands and lifted the bird. It fleetingly opened its eyes. It shivered. Its feathers were puffed. It didn’t resist. Bodhi placed the bird, sheltered in a paper bag, in his backpack. At home, the girl put a splint on one of its broken legs. It recuperated in a wicker basket.
The next day, Bodhi was watchful as he walked from his office to the Powell Street BART station. In imminent dusk, he saw a bird on a sidewalk, and then more – some trampled. He picked up as many as he could. The girl gave him empty cardboard boxes with holes.
Bodhi often came across injured birds – Bushtits, Goldfinches, Juncos and Kinglets. He built an aviary in his basement. Most birds only needed water, food and respite. Some were treated by a neighbourhood veterinarian.
On weekends, Bodhi released the birds in a marsh in Palo Alto. In it, at times, there were Sandhill cranes, and, always, birds of different colours, varying sizes and aliens and natives. He remembered the days with his father, in a marsh faraway, observing black-necked cranes and other birds. Now, in another marsh he found friendship among birdwatchers, young and old.
Years rolled by: children grew up and left the nest; Bay Area became the ‘Silicon Valley’; the world witnessed the Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, the Rwandan genocide, the 9/11 terror attacks, the Indian Ocean tsunami –; Barack Obama won the election as the 44th president of the United States; Bodhi approached retirement.
All told, life gave Bodhi and the girl their share of vicissitudes. One was a hedgehog and the other a fox. Sometimes, they came close to a breaking point, but the glow of a tender moment in Delhi kept them together.
Months before retirement Bodhi and the girl travelled to Kolkata, where Bodhi carried out a safety evaluation of the Second Howrah Bridge across the Hooghly River. From this bridge, a riverbank monument is visible in the distance. It marks the embarkation point for the Indian labourers exported to British colonies. An inscription states the destinations and a timeline – Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa and the West Indies, during the reign of Queen Victoria, Empress of India.
Up close, the girl found the monument unsettling.
‘We shouldn’t have come. Let’s leave.’ The girl said.
‘Don’t you hear the soughing of these old trees? Here the past is alive.’ The girl’s eyes glistened as she spoke.
They didn’t stay long, and the trees foretold.
A year on, Bodhi narrated his life over cups of tea on a hotel’s terrace in Istanbul, as ships moved under the Second Bosporus Bridge. Outside, the air spoke of the approaching spring and the city was abuzz with the news of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Two days later, Bodhi stopped over to visit a former colleague in London’s Docklands. Exiting the Wapping Overground Station, he walked on a riverside path. Midway, he collapsed. Paramedics found him where the Thames bends and the Tower Bridge comes into view. He was returning to San Francisco after immersing the girl’s ashes in the Ganges.