“How am I going to attire you?” Krishnan sighs, looking at Sarah’s brightened blue eyes like flaming torches at a rebellion – she was excited about going to the temple. “You cannot come in a dress, you’ll be stared at even more than you are already! And what is everyone going to say? I know this isn’t peak timing, but all it takes is one big-mouthed Brahmin to spread the word, and there you go, goodbye cushy teaching job in Bombay and hello war in Singapore.”
“Doesn’t your neighbour Siddarth have a wife? Get a sari from her, Krishnan!” she coaxes, standing up from her previous position sprawled on the bed. She smiled at how scandalized he looked at the thought of borrowing a sari (it was, after all, the height of conservatism in the forties), his beetling black brows crushing together and his hand running through his curly locks. “Try getting one in blue, or perhaps pink. The only pinks I get to wear are the ghastly pale frocks for the Bombay Club balls.”
“Very easy for the madame to say,” Krishnan mutters as he trudges out into the rain, mud squelching around his toes unpleasantly. “First she makes me cover her in a full purdah so nobody recognizes her, now she wants me to procure a sari. These English, I swear.”
Sarah doesn’t know whether it is novelty or nostalgia for her father taking her around temples in the 1920s India of her younger vacations, that made her want to go today. She decides it is possibly Krishnan’s explanation of things – an obligation for his sake. It is not where she went that was the matter but the fact that she was with him as a badge on her sleeve, a symbol that she carried. She enters the outhouse and dips the mug in the lukewarm tub of water. The floor was still wet from Krishnan’s bath, the soap on the landing wet and she feels warmly attracted to him again, not recognizing this version of herself. Emmeline Pankurst would possibly be grievously disappointed. As she poured the water over her head, a blouse and a skirt flew over the door, catching on the handle and hanging precariously. A wet towel followed, drooping somewhat apologetically.
“So sorry about the towel. Put the clothes on and come in through the back door. I have procured a sari for you!” Krishnan calls through the thin walls. “Make sure the neighbours aren’t seeing you.”
How am I supposed to make sure of that, Sarah rolls her eyes, but softens as the last mug of water touches the small of her back. She wonders what the route to the temple is – perhaps she and Krishna could get lost in forests and run through fields before they get to a secluded, wintery location hidden deep within the woods. She takes the towel off the door, its dampness telling her it was the same one he had used. She dries her legs with it slowly, and then towels her hair, the intimacy shaking her to her core. Was this she – who had waited eagerly last year for her father and brother to come back from horse racing, who tittered in all-female Cambridge colleges with her girlfriends and drank tea demurely when possible future Counts came to visit? Sarah presses the towel against her face and believes that she may perhaps begin to feel more than mere affection.
“This is really rather revealing, isn’t it? Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?” She slips in through the door with the blanket over her shoulders and the towel dripping in her hand. She drops it on the floor, evidence of their sin, and deposits the blanket back on his bed. The white sliver of her stomach shines like the moon on a dark night, and Krishnan’s shirt is off and his hands are holding a pale pink sari.
“Have you actually spent your childhood in India, or did you forget that you aren’t supposed to wear shirts in temples? Now put this sari on and we’ll get going – God forbid if someone sees us.”
“Well, I don’t know how to wear it.” Sarah shrugs, using his comb to tame her hair. “I haven’t been allowed to even touch a sari, my father would develop a cardiac problem had I done so.”
“Well,” Krishnan holds the gilded edge of the sari and frowns at it. “I’m not familiar with this either, I have sisters but I’m quite certain I would not be alive today if I had visited their sari-wearing sessions. Let’s try our best then, and hopefully you won’t be stoned to death as we go into the temple.”
“If a bit or bob comes off there, I will make sure you won’t ever be found,” she threatens to hid the tremor in her voice as his fingers touch her waist like he was a famed naturalist feeling a new species of flora. It makes her feel like the tail of a comet, long and thrumming and everlasting. Heated. He walks around her as he wraps the sari around her waist and thighs and calves as if completing a circuit of worship and tucks it inward again at the inside of her waist where her stomach caved in a V. He is astonishingly close, and she wonders why she did not feel this intimate when he was in bed with her yet now she can see his stormy, darkened eyes covered with the gleam of spectacles, and feel like an exhale. He begins laughing, she can feel it on her face, his shoulders shaking.
“What is it?” Sarah laughs along, looking at the way about two metres of cloth stretched out in his hand and trailed on the floor.
“I have no idea how to proceed from this point.” He rubs the bridge of his nose, smile still glimmering on his lips. “Perhaps I should telegram my mother.”
“And have her die of shock, of course.” Sarah said dryly. “Well, if you don’t know, then just throw it over my shoulder, I think that’s the next step.”
“Wait, I remember I was supposed to fold this part –“ he folds a piece inwards in a zig-zag, then drapes the sari over her left shoulder.
“Let me see in your mirror,” she insists.
He stands behind her as she surveys herself, dressed like someone who could be his bride. Sarah presses a hand to the mirror, and suddenly, painful tears rise in her throat and throb behind her eyelids, trailing slowly. She knows how beautiful this image looks, her thin frame in a garment sewn for curves and busts, his head only a few inches taller than hers and his chest too bare and brown to be English. This picture makes her wish there was some way in the cosmic possibilities of this world that this could be true, and right, and correct. She presses backwards into him like a pillar, her hand still touching the mirror and feels her scalp on his stark collarbone. She feels home, but this is not home, not this terrible land in their terrible, war-torn world, this is even less of a home than England had been. Krishnan watches the fog form around her hand, and Sarah looks at his face and the lines beside his eyes and the dark spectacle-marks on his nose and wonders if this world could not be changed – perhaps it could be hidden from.
Sweat drips down the sharp lines of his back as Krishnan walks out into the street with Sarah, ducking into an unused dirt lane and mentally promising that he would wash the muddy-hemmed sari before he returned it. The hard, icy press of the air dries the moisture, however, and makes him shudder as his sandals splashed into the glutinous mud. He knows the way to the Govinda temple like the rough lines of his palm, so he looks at Sarah sideways as they trudge along, keeping their heads down to avoid over-familiar passerby. She looks eerily pale and stubborn and terrifyingly foreign in this street, and a surge of protection swivels within Krishnan as she turns to him, lips curved up in a smile. If she had not known how cruel this world could be to those like them, Krishnan could have seen her as yet another naïve English girl come to look at Indians, but the fact remained that she knew the twists and turns of this hard-edged world as much as he and still her lips curved up like Arjunan’s bow.
“Here it is, in all its glory,” Krishnan throws his arm out and flings it toward a stone structure to their left, carved in grey and smeared liberally on the outside with sandalwood paste. It was not a towering building, or even an impressively designed one as Krishnan presumed Sarah expected, and rather stood only five or six metres tall. Dear Lord, he closed his eyes in sudden horror – it does not even have a roof, only a courtyard with the main altar. He suddenly visualizes the rain starting and Sarah developing pneumonia. He would be arrested, and it would be entirely her fault. He sighed as he looked at the building with Sarah’s eyes, and noted that he should really stop doing that – it made everything so dull and bleary. He has been to this temple nearly every day after he had asked for instructions in faltering Hindi, soaked to his bones in sticky Indian rain, the first night he arrived in Bombay from Cochin, twelve years ago. He has pressed his head to the stone cold floor so often he is quite sure his forehead is flat, and he has sat before the altar for hours before going on protests – murmuring a request for solace that only his own Lord could provide before nights soaked in anger and resentment.
“Let’s go inside,” Sarah’s voice wavers in her excitement and Krishnan knows why she is excited, even though she has seen the inside of temples before, and has possibly not got any entertainment out of it. The reason makes him store her voice in his mind like a child sucking on a laddoo within his cheek, drawing sweetness from it. He wants to apologize in advance, for to feel like this was dangerous.
“Keep your head down and your arms tucked within the sari,” Krishnan warns her, almost teasing but she complies immediately. Outside the temple, he brushes his fingers lightly across the swell of her cheek as a sort of apology for taking her on such a quest, for feeling for her what he felt. He looks down then, and shuffles off his sandals – he is glad there aren’t any other pairs except for the ragged chappals belonging to the head temple-priest. She does the same with her heavy English boots, and her foot looks like a feather beside his.
“The carvings are so wonderful,” she tells him, as he leads her across the threshold. “When do you think they were done?”
“Don’t step on this – Now just follow me, and try not to touch anything you aren’t allowed to touch.” Krishnan hopes she will forgive him for ordering her around so, but he knows that she is aware this is his own dominion, his own place of worship and somewhere that now she has intruded upon – does not detract from its beauty but adds to hers. The inside of the temple is cool, and dim – the only lights from the flickering lamps and the floor wet from repeated washing. Krishnan feels the soothing touch of the water on his feet and it is as if he is six and his mother had called him home after an exhausting day out playing. The pillars in the small courtyard enclose the main altar in the middle, its door shut and murmuring, mesmerizing singing coming from within as the idol of the lord was being prepared for evening display. He sees Sarah’s eyes drink all this in, her lips wide open but eventually the light grey eyes return to his face and it is that which Krishnan wants to save in his heart.
“What does the writing say? On top of the small doors.”
“Shree Govinda,” he elaborates, sitting on the raised step next to the wall and drawing her alongside to sit by him. “Keep your voice down, by the way, there could be English walking along outside.”
“All right,” she promises, lowering her words to a whisper. “What’s Govinda?”
“A temple for Lord Krishna.” He smiles, anticipating her next questions. “Yes, yes, same name.”
“What does it mean?” Sarah frowns, “Being named after a God… It would be like naming a child Jesus.”
“Well, we have so many Gods that not using any of their names would lead to a serious lack of them.” he raises his eyebrows, and continues softly. “Lord Krishna is an incarnation of our Supreme lord. His name means, merely, black. See – you English have taught us that black is the worst, that it is the colour of plague and destruction and death. For us, black is the colour of our Lord, he was as dark as ebony. So dark that he appeared blue in the night. And do you know what the best thing is, about Lord Krishna?”
“What?” her eyes are tethered to his.
“He was beautiful. He was a beautiful lord, and a kind lord. He had an infinite capacity to love.” Krishnan closes his eyes as the temple bells rang harshly around them. “Come on, the pooja has finished. I must pray.”
He can feel Sarah’s eyes on him as they move toward the small, enclosed door atop the altar and the loud laughing of the larger bells is replaced by the muffled giggling of the smaller bell from within. Krishnan closes his eyes and bows his head, away goes the war and his friends and his students, away goes the dim damp of his bedroom and the silkiness of Sarah’s skin, away it all goes and his eyes are hollow and black except for the image of Lord Krishna. Suddenly he does not want salvation from this, he does not wish for battle and he does not pray for the British to leave his shores and seek others – he merely wants a friend, in this playful, beautiful God that can love ten thousand people to save them from insidious forces. The bell rings one last time and his eyes fly open.
“Oh –“ Sarah gasps. “It’s you.”
He sees Krishna as Sarah would see him, adorned with flowers and one leg crossed over the other. The carving was delicate and beautiful in the idol, the Lord’s nose and lips like petals on his face and his eyes glancing out lovingly, knowingly. He has seen this image for years and years and he tries to see it as a newcomer would, alluring and novel and brave. He is nothing when placed next to Lord Krishna, he is only a shadow in his light and only an overcast before the storm. It was like being in a grave, the silence around them – and she had thought of him. Perhaps it was the similarity in the names, perhaps it was merely because she was with him but Krishnan has placed his entire life and faith as a Nair into this image and Sarah seeing it as him! Tears rise painfully in his eyes as the temple-priest comes out of the altar room, bent-backed, with two leaves containing small red flowers. He does not blink at the English lady in the temple, he does not even look at the more grievous fact it was an Indian man accompanying her for his mind was washed clean by praying. Perhaps he would go home and beat his wife – we do not know – but now he thought of nothing but prayer.
“Krishnan, you did not order a pushpanjali today, no?” the Brahmin asks in Hindi, as he deposited the flowers in their hands – careful not to touch Sarah’s. “I did not see your name on the list.”
Krishnan merely shakes his head, craning his neck to see one last image before the glow vanishes. The Brahmin returns inside, and closes his eyes as he faces the altar.
“He asked me if I wanted to give a flower offering.” Krishnan tells Sarah as he leads her to the corner they had sat before. He seemed to have absorbed the spirit of Krishna, the Lord, he feels sentimental and with the capacity to love Sarah a million times over, and over in every reincarnation.
“What do I do with these flowers?” Sarah asked, cupping them delicately. Krishnan wants to laugh at this – he had already folded his up and tucked it into his dhoti.
“Well, first,” he takes out a small red blossom, “You put it in your hair.”
“This will look awkward if someone sees us, Krishnan,” she admits, but cherishes his rough fingers in the golden lines of her hair. “But strangely –“
“Strangely, I feel the same,” he tells her in a whisper, sighing. “They have a word for people like us, in both yours and my languages, you know?”
“Lovers?” Sarah teased, poking his bare chest. “What is that in Hindustani… premiyon?”
“Ha, clever, but no.” Krishnan purses his lip until the dimple showed in his cheek, albeit in a cheerless manner. “The word I’m looking for is deshdrohi.”
“And that means?”
He scrapes his finger in the fragrant sandalwood paste at the bottom of the leaf. He traces this across the velvet of Sarah’s forehead, and breathes inward shallowly – wanting to kiss her. He threads his fingers into hers. This feeling was unholy, and English, and even with sandalwood paste on her forehead and a blossom in her ear, she looked unerringly British. Would their world welcome this incarnation of Sarah, a grotesquely graceful image of the clash between two nations? Sarah the British Goddess rather than the British Usurper? It would not. So they cross the threshold together, and let go of their clasped hands. The bicycles on the main road tinkle and the sun is sinking, and their lingering moment is over.
“And the sari?” Krishnan asks, looking around before he places a hand on her shoulder. “I do have to return it, you know.”
“Well, I’ll tell the family I’m staying with that I visited with Mr. Gupta’s wife, and we played a bit of dress up.” Sarah shrugs easily, lying through her teeth. “They treat me like I’m five years old anyway, so me dressing up in a sari really won’t be that surprising in their minds.
“All right then. Start walking first and I’ll follow the other way after you’re not in sight.” Krishnan agrees. “See you tomorrow. And – and don’t wipe the sandalwood off your forehead, or take the flower from your hair till you get to the end of the street. I…”
He closes his mouth – he cannot say too much and he watches as she clomps ungraciously through puddles, muddying the hem of the sari even more. He feels like an oil painting in impasto, heavily stuck to the canvas as he stands unmoving and watches her run away from him. This is how it will always be, he knows, them dancing around in unending circles and meaningless revolutions and in the end, Krishnan will have to watch as Sarah leaves in a geometrically unsound, fashionable ship as Britain inevitably leaves India, farther and farther into the distance until she is a blur, then a dot, then nothing at all.
He tucks his dhoti into his waist so it hung at his knees, and began heading home.
“Abort it,” he spat. “Some way, some damned way – I don’t care. He will be killed, you will be sent home – and do you bloody think I will be able to keep my damn job?”
“Do you think it’s a game, Krishnan?” Sarah shrieks in the privacy of his small room in the teacher’s quarters. “Do you think a woman’s body is a game? Press one button to love her, press another to have a child, press the third to kill it?”
“We are playing, in your damned British Raj!” Krishnan embodies in his voice fire, sweat and veins pulsing on the back of hands. A million broken words rise in his throat, two hundred years of anger in his eyes and a pantomime of emotion flitting across his countenance. The words come out sharp and accusatory, slicing the words (and worlds) between them. “This can only be a game for us because of your people, and to a lesser extent, mine! A child of ours will not be recognized by either country, a child of ours will be hated by both. Trapped between nations like a deer caught between a gun and a jeep, loved by none and despised by all.”
“Isn’t being loved by two enough?” Sarah’s eyes spill over like a pot of milk at a housewarming.
“End it,” Krishnan begs this time, his hands shuddering. He hesitates on grief, on love and sympathy. There is a frightening desperation that plays across his face, backlit by the dangerous sky. He moves forward and almost crushes her cheeks with his hands. “End it, end us, or it will be the end of us.”
The half-truth of it is that he did want this child, of course he wanted it more than anything. See – this is the problem with this ruled country, he knows. He has learned to think in the past tense, because any model, any sign of happiness would be taken away and squeezed until every drop of profit has been eked from it like an orange squeezed by a greedy child. And when you return the orange to the tree – what is it now but skin and seeds? Fibre dripping wearily from the holes where the juice had spurted out, citric and sharp – hopes and dreams hanging wearily from threads. Krishnan looks at his reddened hands and wonders if this is what it has come to – that he has become a tyrant in his longing to love and be loved? It exacerbates the difference between them, the vast gully of feeling and decision, of the Arab nations and Eastern Europe and France before Krishnan can come to Sarah. A tremor of revulsion runs through him– toward himself and toward his lover, together who had dared to create an abhorrence, a mutation in the eyes of all those around them.
He is sorry (sorry is such a short word for what he is) he has hurt Sarah, scared her beyond her wits possibly – made her question ever falling in love with an Indian. It has made him barbaric, warring and frightening, someone who belongs on the British frontlines rather than behind a desk. He feels very unlike the Lord Krishna – he does not deserve that name and that idyllic existence with Sarah, that moment of holiness in the temple seems extrinsic and detached from what he is now, a malevolent man weeping over killing his own child. He feels like the Raj – a faux king, a puppet Empire, a fraud and a liar. That he had promised Sarah the whole world at their feet, British and Indian separated yet united – yet all he delivered had been scathing words and the memory of his hands pressing on her shoulders, his hands wrapping a delicate sari feels like glass in his chest. It’s not this world, he thinks, it is I who has done so much wrong. To consider killing a child, who could have grown into one of those little buffoons he taught and loved with all his heart?
“Do you remember – that day in the temple,” Krishnan whispers into the corn-yellow hair that tumbled out ferociously from its restraints. “I had said we were deshdrohis?”
“Yes, traitors.” Sarah’s fingers come to rest on his thick wrists, the knotted muscles that tensed when he raised the ‘Quit India’ placards with shame boiling in him. “What about it?”
“If we’re traitors, what do you think this child would be?” Krishnan’s voice is rising, his lips on her neck. He supposes it will all end in this bedroom, like it was fated to have done from the beginning. A bedroom was where Sarah had first told him she loved him, and now it’s where she is mulling all the hatred that could lie within this mild mannered man. It was where she’d kissed him, with their arms closing like brackets in a way their arms could never envelop a child. Honestly, Krishnan is surprised it had lasted this long – their sentence had dragged on long after it should have ended with a full-stop.
“What will you do?” he asks her. “What will we?”
“What do you want?” Sarah’s features are settled on cold, cutting anger. He leads her to the bed and sits her down upon it. She presses her needlepoint fingernails on his palms. “Close your eyes, forget country and nation and empire. What do you want?”
“My son,” Krishnan admits with a sob, his teeth glinting in the sardonic smile that had first endeared him to her. “My son, and you. Both of you. I want a ramshackle house with a white fence, the British to leave my country, an Alsatian dog, and a bloody stiff drink. That’s what I want.”
“Then that’s what we’re having.” Sarah touches his hand in a way that once had been too easy.
“My family doesn’t even know you exist,” Krishnan pleads anemically, his hand gravitating toward her stomach. “God forbid what would happen if yours finds out, and –“
“Come on,” she cuts him off, and this time she’s the one pressing lithe, lily-white hands on his sable cheeks. “Let’s take our traitorous selves to the temple, after which I’ll get you that stiff drink. Sanctify before the sin, is what I always say.”
It was decided with her words and his heart. They would not know it yet, but theirs was a foreshadowing to how the Raj itself crumbled, with British words and Indian heart. It would be some time, yes, and they would be considered both deshdrohi and traitors from either side of the world but they were survivors. Michaelangelo had once famously said – “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Perhaps God had seen the angel in Krishnan and Sarah, and carved them out from the British Raj, carved the Raj out of the earth and into the annals of history. Debris of two warring kingdoms that had managed to shake hands with their heads turned away converging into a secret couple in a hidden room within the bowels of the Bombay presidency. In a way, independence had already begun.
Indian Literature Magazine | Literature and Fiction | Author | Neha Shaji is a student of English Literature who runs a personal blog about colonialism and its’ aftereffects, literary analysis and social justice.
Genre: Short Story