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By Sylvia W. Staub
A poet walking into the apartment at this moment might be tempted to see us as Etruscan figures, recumbent on sarcophagi. Actually it’s just Ram and me, reclining upon twin sofas across from one another in Ram’s modest living-room. The air is spiced with cardamom, which comes to us in gentle waves from an open kitchenette at one end of the room while from the other, open windows admit traffic noises from the darkening street. Above the traffic’s muted snarl, Ram is reciting passages from the Gita, pausing occasionally to translate it from Sanskrit and to comment for my benefit. We are old friends and new roommates, thrown together by his loneliness and my homelessness. Ram’s wife is visiting her family in India, and my Manhattan condo is in total chaos, in what is turning out to be an unduly extended period of restructuring.
At length I pry myself from the sofa and the Gita’s banquet of verse, my nose alerted by a subtle but insistent acridity that is gradually overwhelming the cardamom’s fragrance. Dinner, it turns out, is a casualty of our intense focus on things Vedic. This time, though, it is merely semi-burnt—an improvement on our last culinary cremation. “Give me the burnt stuff,” Ram says. “I don’t mind.” I pull a face, and he, chuckling, begins his customary homily on the imperfection of all things earthly and the importance of “essence.” Once, when I asked him what he meant by that, he told me, “Take our TV, for instance.” Thanks a lot! I knew their television only too well, the wavering parallel lines through which he and his wife placidly viewed its offerings. It should have been junked long years ago. “Enjoy!” I say, patting Ram on the head affectionately, and leave to hail a cab. I must check on my condo, which is full of part-time Turks and what is beginning to look like full-time Italians.
The Turks are my work crew, an architect and his two brothers, plus a handyman who is blind in one eye and can’t see too well through the other. (I once observed him driving a screw in upside-down.) The crew’s untidy presence has been prolonged by a winter vacation in Florida that is not in the contract; the Italians seem to have been there forever. They are Marcella, an NYU student who moved in with me after her roommate was killed in a car crash; Beatrice, Marcella’s elder sister; and Luigi, Beatrice’s fiancé. The young couple have run away from an ostentatious cathedral wedding whose guest list included half of Milan. “We want to do it simply, our way,” she told me. She and Luigi, hazy on details, are certain that in Manhattan, which is “free of Milanese pretensions,” its precise form will come to them. They seem to have settled with surprising ease into the chaos of my condo home.
I pay the cabbie and mount the elevator to the fifth floor of my high-rise. Outside my door I hesitate, waiting for a suitable break in Brahms’s E-Minor Cello Sonata, whose heart-grinding sonorities are flooding through it, causing the dog across the way to howl hideously. When I enter, they are in tableau at the far end of the living-room, a young bearded giant seated on a packing case, with a cello between his thighs, and Marcella, at my piano, which has been resurrected from its protective covers. She is looking at him adoringly. The light from numerous candles stuck in empty Chianti bottles plays on the highly combustible lumps of furniture, swathed in plastic sheeting, and pulls weird shadows from scattered coils of wiring and a miscellany of tools. Propping its weight against floor-to-ceiling bookcases is an enormous saw for cutting through walls. In the flickering candlelight, it looks like a prehistoric bird. There’s a strange smell to the place, burning joss sticks, for sure, probably mixed with the scent of wood shavings and who can tell what other aromatic exotica?
“Please go on,” I say, suppressing an impulse to douse the candles, whose melting wax is inventing designs on the parquetry. I find a seat on a cardboard carton; they smile hello. Then, wordless, the young man raises his bowing arm, and drawing the bow across the cello’s strings, coaxes from them the first notes of the sonata’s second movement. By the end of the third, my anxiety has transformed to trance, no match for Brahms’s imploring melodies—or, for that matter, to weeks of exposure to Ram’s worldview, which makes short shrift of any hindrance to the sweet flow of alpha in the brain.
The cellist, my Turkish architect’s youngest sibling, has spent the past two years perfecting these deep-throated sounds at Julliard. But why is he here, now, in my condo? I learn that he and the handyman were ordered to do a clean-up. At this moment, however, the handyman is nowhere in sight, and when precisely the cellist arrived is disturbingly unclear. What is certain is that no work has been done since my last visit, and from the double-width sleeping bag spread on a bedroom floor, its twin pillows placed suspiciously side-by-side, it seems plausible that he spent the previous night in my home. Another clue is the easy rapport between him and Marcella. No one I know of could affect the subtle intimacy in their ebb and flow without having experienced at least one extremely close encounter.
We might have had an encore if Beatrice and Luigi had not arrived right then, dangling plastic bags full of, from the smell of it, Chinese take-out. Eager to discuss their afternoon at the Cloisters, they ask me to stay for a meal. I readily accept, thinking of the burned goo awaiting me at Ram’s place, as well as the dripping candles. Here, at least, I can keep my eye on them. The Italians bring in a couple of rolled-up Japanese reed mats, unknown to me, and spread them on the living-room floor, raising small clouds of sawdust. Wood shavings and tiny splinters are left to poke through the mats’ loose weave, like miniature prison-camp torture devices. Which seems not to matter after the Chianti is opened and we dig our chopsticks into the Blue Dragon containers.
I’m fanning my mouth against the flames of Szechwanese food and find Beatrice’s sudden question disconcerting. “Do you know any priest?” she asks. “For the marriage. I mean, to marry us at home?” I gulp my wine and ponder the word home. Does she mean my condo, awaiting its new mostly everything—furniture, drapes, stemware, crockery, linen still wombed in packing? “Er, yes, I do ,” I stutter, “but he’s a Hindu, so he won’t be of any use to you.” “A Hindu, wow!” “Wow!” repeats Luigi, and dismay spreads within me, gathering force as they ask excitedly when and where they can meet him.
In the end, I arranged the meeting, telling myself it would come to nothing. How could I have been so wrong? As Ram read to us from the five-thousand-year-old Vedic marriage ceremony, the vivaha sanskar, and got to the part where the groom must vow to assist his bride to fulfill herself in her own right, Beatrice’s eyes began to caper. “Madonna santa! Millennia before feminism!” What took America so long to get in sync with such a remarkable concept? she wanted to know. Ram was not even a third of the way through his reading, and already she was asking if he would marry them.
“Surely!" says Ram. And then he looks at me and begins to fidget with his plain-wire spectacles, to avoid the piercingly disdainful signals my eyes are shooting at him.
“Why do you worry so?” Ram asks rhetorically in the weeks that follow. I am buckling under a load of karmic acceleration, which has to do with the Italians’ decision to be wed in my home. I haven’t yet said yes, thinking of white walls de-virginized by dirty hands, polyurethaned parquetry floors scratched and pitted by an assault of stiletto heels (synonymous with Italian females), off-white broadloom splotched with spilled wine. Maybe worse. With the dozens of gold-colored candles Marcella has been purchasing for the celebration, a conflagration, should I offer up my condo as a sacrifice, seems assured!
Ram gently places his bamboo flute beside him on the sofa on which he is sitting cross-legged. He’s wearing a flowing white muslin shirt and dhoti. On his head is the elaborate turban he will wear to conduct the ceremony. It seemed appropriate to him to don it for this partial rehearsal, in which I am stand-in for both the bride and the groom. “We will simply enjoy,” he says, reaching for his tobacco tin. “Think only of that.” He delicately pincers out some shreds with his right thumb and forefinger, places them in his cupped left palm, and begins to massage them with a liberal dab of lime paste. As he massages, his face registers the pleasure to come. “The chenam strengthens it,” he explains. “Gives it an edge, like chili powder.” Dressed as he is, looking rapturous in anticipation of the fortified tobacco, he reminds me of a little Yogic saint in a painting I once saw in a Madison Avenue store window. I feel we should be clinking glasses of Chablis in a sentimental salute to the Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
When I suggest it, Ram smiles in a mystical way and deftly uses his tongue to roll the tobacco from one cheek to the other. “Mahesh Yogi was very much misunderstood,” he opines. “In the West, it’s not just atoms that are split. Pleasure has become the property of the temporal; pain has been shunted to the sacred side. And it’s all due to that French fellow.”
“Descartes,” I say. “Plus Fermi.” But he’s on a roll. “Why shouldn’t Mahesh Yogi have made a few dollars out of the Beatles? It was only for the sake of expanding good activities.”
The ephemeral nature of all things, as propounded by Ram, was getting to me, dissolving what he saw as my “mundane attitude” to possessions, to their fate when and if, heaven forbid, I handed over my home to a hoard of twenty-something roisterers. The best I could do in rebuttal was to ask where he would be if his “senseless atoms” had not arranged themselves, for instance, into the books he so often had his nose stuck in. He gave me a hurt look, and with that I capitulated, to mysticism and romanticism, and plans for the wedding pushed forward.
I tried not to dwell on what lay ahead and to follow Ram’s advice to ”just flow and flow.” But at best I felt like a fizzled firecracker bobbing in the fast river of events, the next of which was close to calamitous and added an even more Puccini-like flavor to what had gone before. On a morning of pronounced prenuptial activity the Turks lent a hand, the girls’ father arrived, announced by no more than the tring-tring-tring of Ram’s phone.
“He’s away,” I say to the voice asking for Ram. The caller says he is Paolo Vencetti, Beatrice’s father. “Oh yes,” I say, stunned almost to stupor. “Staying at the . . . .” Moronically I ape him, while elsewhere in my brain his message records as a swansong for the young lovers. Damn! Just my kind of luck that Ram is away, conducting a funeral in the Midwest. He might soon be conducting Luigi’s, I’m thinking. Meantime, the signore is suggesting that we meet discreetly for lunch. “Sure,” I say . . . to discuss how best to stop . . . yes, yes . . . ‘an inappropriate espousal’.” I’m still dim-wittedly aping his words, but in his arrival, I have begun to see an out. He is Destiny’s instrument, come to save my condo, at the same time absolving me from Ram’s certain charge of “total mundanity.” Which explains why I am now sitting at a lunchtime table at Mario’s, waiting.
It’s got to be him, walking through Mario’s front door. The tinted eye-glasses are only half as opaque as Marcello Mastroianni’s, but there is a resemblance. At closer range, it is heightened by a mix of Via Veneto chic and disarming boyishness. I do not find him “riddled with neurosis” or “tyrannical,” which is how his daughters have described him. He’s a bit tense, which is understandable, and somewhat paternalistic, true. But he’s not a monster. “How did you know where to find them?” I ask, as he tops up the Pinot Grigio in our glasses. But Vencetti merely shakes his head.
Later, after Ram confessed to being the culprit, which he did without a trace of shame or penitence, I pieced it together. He had gone, on impulse, to consult with an acquaintance, a professor of Italian here in Manhattan, seeking to master a scattering of Italian words and phrases to use in the ceremony. “I no more than mentioned the wedding to the professor in passing,” he averred. Indeed! The professor no more than mentioned it—doubtless, in passing— to a cousin in Milan, who happened to be a business associate of the girls’ father. “So nice,” Ram remarked, “to have the ceremony in three languages: Sanskrit for the gods, Italian for the betrothed, English for the guests.” So nice, too, to have the parents attend. In Ram’s culture, parents were important, their presence essential at watershed events like betrothals. But a teasing note in his rambling explanation suggested calculation, and his wink confirmed it.
Signore Vencetti was kissing my hand, leaving. I said eagerly, “Do you really think you can stop it?” He looked up at me from his bent position, still holding my hand. “But certainly. And if not, then va bene.” In any event, he told me, it would all be redone, with dignity, in the Milan cathedral. So much for helpful Destiny! Dispirited, I caught a cab back to Ram’s apartment.
In the days ahead, I tried not to dwell on what might be happening to my home and on the weekend drove to a Vedic retreat in the Catskills, where I helped out in the kitchen, attended classes in Yoga exercises and meditation, and took long, quiet walks through the hills. When, on the wedding day, I stepped into my condo, I found it transformed into a festival of flowers and light, people dressed in everything from jeans and T-shirts to brocade and velvet. More than a score were seated on large cushions on the living-room carpet. Marcella’s touch was everywhere, noticeably in the display of candles, singly and in clusters, and in small terra-cotta pots, called charags, with flaming wicks nested in sweet oil. I knew she had purchased them at an Indian store on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. But where had she found the menorah, and why, since none of the essential participants was Jewish? (It came to me later that her studies in the Kabala might, perhaps, be a clue.)
My fears of fire quickly dissipated as I got caught up in incendiarism of another sort— excitement. It hung in the air, mingling with the more tangible plumes of aromatic smoke from joss sticks. At one end of the room was a dais within a bower of white roses and lilies, and on it were two straight-backed chairs, side-by-side. They were decked in posies and linked by white ribbons, their backs looped with garlands of marigolds. Looking around for Ram, I spotted him at the door, where he and Signore Vencetti were posted, welcoming guests. Ram’s splendid turban, in a violent shade of pink, could, I thought, become a conversation piece, even in so exotic a scene. In contrast, the Signore’s face was gray. I suspected that the only way he could stomach the “pagan charade” bearing down on him was to see it as theater. (Marcella had once told me he was a covert writer of plays that he kept on file and never showed to anyone.) And now the Turks were walking through the door. The brothers’ sculpted black beards made it difficult to tell them apart, but so, too, did their first names, all of which ended in “ent,” duplicating the names of a trio of brothers in a Turkish nursery rhyme. The charm of it had gone far to soften me up.
I poked my head into the kitchen and found it buzzing with the chatter of a caterer’s crew. Battalions of Champagne flutes and canapés on trays regimented its counters. On the stove, giant pots of risotto were being stirred, and elsewhere the glassy eyes of whole broiled salmon were a chastisement. Shuddering, I averted my gaze to the terrace, on which the instrumental set of a Brazilian ensemble awaited. It would wait much longer if this were India, where weddings last for from three to six days. For America, where time is money, Ram had tailored the ceremony to a matter of hours. “About two,” he warned, “although if more is required, I can ‘computerize,’ ” meaning, he could reinstate some mantras and a couple of rituals. When Luigi tactlessly asked if he could reduce the ceremony still further, to one hour, say, Ram ticked him off with a tutorish, “Is this not something you wish to remember?”
At the appropriate moment, Beatrice makes her entrée on her father’s arm. She is wearing an ivory-colored Victorian gown, found in an antique store on Bleeker Street, high in the neck, with leg-of-mutton sleeves that swallow her arms down to her delicate wrists. Luigi, awaiting her arrival at the bower, is a Bollywood movie idol two-thirds of the way down to his knees, at which point his white silk achkan gives way to lavender-striped pants and, farther down, to embroidered slippers turned up at the toes. Even in the quasi-Asian setting, their attire is confusing, Nevertheless, it excites a ripple of approval from the guests. I remind myself that we live in an ecumenical age and have witnessed some very strange things on film, like Galaxy wars and Ninjas. The bride and groom take their positions on the decorated chairs in the bower, someone turns off the overhead lights, and the ceremony begins.
It swims in the mind in recall, a dizzying cocktail of colors and lights and chanting, in which the ancient rituals of linkage lose no whit of charm: the bridal couple garlanding one another in marigolds; feeding each other morsels of prasad (an Indian sweetmeat that has been blessed); Ram tying their wrists together, leading them seven times around the flame that whispers “spirit” from its silver bowl; the curious shadows cast by his fingers as he spoons oil upon it and offers pinches of rice to the planets and the major gods of the Hindu pantheon, entreating them, with flattering mantras, to bestow health, wealth, fine children, long life. As he feeds more oil upon the ceremonial flames, he adds, “Not forgetting to request blessings from the lesser gods, like champagne and caviar!” The guests love it, responding with bursts of laughter.
We danced into the night wherever there was space for it, even in closets. I did a lively samba with Signore Vencetti, who lost his pallor soon after the champagne was served, whispering that it hadn’t been nearly as bad as he’d thought it might be. He saved the dreamy dance numbers for the Italian professor’s widowed sister. Some of us remarked upon it later, as we sat around massaging our feet in the small hours of the morning. My mind, for the most part surfeited with ecumenical considerations and world-viewing, now scaled down to the old piece of doggerel that advised the bride to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” The something old, I thought, could have been Beatrice’s gown, or the five-thousand-year-old vivaha sanskar itself; the something new was my redone condo, as was the something borrowed; the blue note had been supplied by her father, but only until the Italian professor’s sister walked in the door.
Later that year, there were at least two weddings that I know of in the cathedral in Milan. The first was the formal remarriage of Beatrice and Luigi, which was followed by that of the father of the bride to the widow he had met in my Manhattan condo. Marcella and the youngest “ent” are still an item. And I am well resettled in my home, which came through more or less unscathed, except for minor scratches on the parquetry and a Burgundy stain on my Ottoman carpet, its red reduced almost to invisibility by repeated applications of Canada Dry soda water. Ram, the last time I called, was in Albuquerque, performing another vivaha sanskar.
Sylvia Staub was born in India and worked for the Indian Government in London, Geneva and Paris before emigrating to the USA. She has worked as a copy-editor with Time-Life and as Copy Chief on Emerge magazine, a spin off from Time. Sylvia and her husband live in Tucson Arizona where she writes, edits and ghost writes; makes totems and primitive masks. She is a published poet whose work may be heard on CD.
A Mountain Story
By Sunil Kapahi
A mountaineer went to climb a mountain. It was a small mountain on the Himalayan range. Several mountaineers had climbed it before. Even Edmund Hilary had climbed it before climbing Mt. Everest. Climbing this mountain was a challenge not so much for its height, but its difficulty. Even in the month of May when it snowed the least during the year, there was enough snow for a mountaineer to fear slippage and falling. For this fear, our mountaineer, Rocky Rockefeller was well prepared. He had enough rope, ice axe, gloves and clothes to keep him warm. But this night that he was trying to get to the top, he slipped and fell. The rope dropped over the cliff and he was just able to hang on to the ledge with his gloved hands. It was about 6 PM when this happened. It soon got dark and Rocky spent the next hour hanging on the cliff, praying to God for help.
Though it was getting tiring and his hands were hurting, his heart was hopeful. He spent the next twelve hours on the cold mountain in the dark night, hanging on for his life. But he did not lose heart, nor gave up hope and continued to pray. And God listened to his prayer. A Sherpa community lived nearby. Around 6 AM, the next morning, Sherpa Fenzung happened to come around. He was just looking and heard some of Rocky’s groans. He had a rope handy. There was just enough light for him to see Rocky and he quickly stepped over the ledge and dropped the rope with one hand while stretching out the other towards Rocky’s arm. Rocky grabbed the rope and clasped Fenzing’s hand and pulled himself up.
"You are a Godsend," he said with a sigh of relief.
The Sherpa was not new to this. "We live here to help mountaineers like you," he said. "Anyone who climbs the mountain is our brother. And this rope that I carry with me was recently strung for someone in need. The famous Sherpa Tenzing Norgay who accompanied Edmund Hilary to Mt. Everest was my great-uncle and our clan, which helps all mountaineers, specializes in stringing ropes for our mountain-brothers. For us Sherpas, all mountaineers are a fraternity and stringing ropes is an art" he added. "Now come with me and get something to eat and get refreshed" he said kindly.
Rocky Rockefeller hugged the Sherpa Fenzung and thanked God one more time.
And the moral is: Rope strings fraternal is a Sherpa mountain art
(Hope springs eternal in the human heart.)
Sunil Kapahi came to this country from India in 1983. He was born in Ludhiana and raised in New Delhi. He came to Detroit, Michigan to work as a software consultant for the Burroughs Corporation.
Within three months of coming, he left the assignment at Burroughs and found a job with a consulting company in Atlanta.
After stints with several companies in Atlanta, he ended up at The Coca-Cola Company in 1997. He was diagnosed with epilepsy in April 1998 and has been on disability since, unable to drive and work.
He has been writing short stories since then.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these columns are solely those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the editor/publisher.
All Material © Copyright Kavita Chhibber and respective authors.
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