Lucette & Hemadri

 

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[Published in a slightly different form in The Portland Review in 2006]


In the midst of an Indian city a ditch cut into a wide mound of earth. The ditch was a meter wide and about three meters deep at the center of the mound, which spread over about 50 meters. The ditch faded to nothing at the ends where the mound sloped to the level of the surrounding terrain. The immediate vista was a rubble of excavation: partly exposed mud brick walls, which curved and staggered, most worn down to half height, heaps of mud bricks, of stone pieces perhaps once wall facing, other ditches, piles of dirt… Three canvass awnings stretched on poles sheltered part of the excavation. There was a cinderblock shed with a metal door at the edge of the open space. The whole was surrounded, as weeds might surround soil exposed when a stone was lifted, by thronging, small ramshackle houses, shanties, and shacks, which seemed at once brightly colored and dusty grey and formed a jumble that obscured the distance like underbrush. Beyond that were low hills, also crusted with dusty houses or shanties. Acrid diesel fumes stifled the air and stung the eyes while the sound of traffic ground in the distance.

Every few feet in the ditch stood a pole banded with colored paint like a ring snake. At the top of each dangled a floret of white paper strips each marked with a daub of paint matching a stripe, some with written notes.

Skinny, weathered women with knobby joints wearing bright red and yellow saris sat on their heels in the bottom of the cut handling dirt with trowels. Each had a small plastic trowel and a large, yellow plastic pan. A few small picks lay in the trench, and from time to time a woman loosened more soil from the wall of the cut with the picks. They crumbled lumps to dust between their thumb and fore fingers, some gently and speculatively, some dully, others with a sort of bitter aggressive energy. When she had worked a trowel load of earth, each scooped it into the plastic pan.  They moved about on their heels with the tiny steps of people accustomed to crouching in a position they seemed able to sustain forever. When one had filled the plastic pan with about a liter of earth she stood and waved to a tall, sturdily built young man who was standing on the top of the mound under an awning watching them.  He had a craggy face and a shake of curly black hair, and was dressed in worn and faded but very clean khaki pants and shirt. Khaki is the color of dust; it is the word for dust in the language of the surrounding city, and the cleanness of his clothing seemed a sort of paradoxical defiance of the dust, which was everywhere.

At her signal he pushed a wheelbarrow to the edge of the cutting, got to his knees, and reached down to take the yellow pan the sifter raised above her head. He stood, less awkwardly than you would expect for that position, lifting from his legs, dumpt the dirt into the wheelbarrow, and started toward a frame supported by pipes beside one of the awnings where a young European woman sat at a rickety table. It was a sunny day and warm but not hot. The sifters talked quietly to one another but not to the man with the wheelbarrow. He never sat on his heels, though surely he could have.

The European woman sat on a camp chair at a table under one of the awnings. She had a stack of books beside her,some photographic equipment, and a sheet of white paper before her scattered with what looked like dark, irregular rocks, which she was examining carefully with a magnifying glass. A CD player was softly playing rock music in French. She too was wearing khaki, a lose-fitting blouse, pants, and a plinth helmet. Beside her desk at table height was a shallow box with a screen bottom suspended in a device like a giant tuning fork made of pipe. The screen had gaps the size of two fingers.

 

When work began that morning the young man had walked firmly but not confidently to he table where the young European woman was already working. She looked up with a friendly, respectful smile.  He stopt before her and asked in English,

“Can I speak to you in English?”

“Yes,” she said, “ I speak some English.” She had a French accent, distinct but not heavy. “You must be Hemadri Chandragupta.” She had rehearsed pronouncing the name, which the director has written for her on a slip of paper. Their conversation progressed in the slightly stilted manner of people who share only a language they have learned in school.

“Yes,” he said, both embarrassed and arrogantly acknowledging her knowing his name. “I will replace Mr. Panditharadhya who has regrettably fallen ill. You must be Miss Lucette du Bussoin (He pronounced her name Boo-so-in as you might pronounce it in English.) the field supervisor.” She put out her hand and they shook hands. His grip was firmer than she expected from Indian men. She wondered if he thought it was an English grip, and he had shaken hands with her because they were speaking in English as they might have kissed cheeks if they were speaking in French. She had heard from the dig director that he was an engineering student who had no experience with archeological digs but had been hired because he had a patron with influence with the Institute, the French Institute of Pondicherry, Lucette’s birthplace, and one of the sponsors of this dig. Such influence troubled her for India, which she cared for. At first she thought he was probably a Brahmin, and that evoked her hostility to the caste system but, no, an intuition told her he was not. She liked him immediately for his mixture of confidence and vulnerability, and some tortured quality that promised meaning in him.

“I understand you are new to archeology,” she said.

“That is unfortunately correct,” he said. She did not hear the singsong quality of his voice that a native English speaker would have heard, as he did not hear her accent. “But I am an engineer. Perhaps I will have something to contribute to mechanical perfection of your project.”

“I hope you will,” she said. Just then one of the sifters signaled and she said, "Did the director explain what you do."

“He explained, but did not specify the details fully.” She thought he had not explained, or Chandragupta had not understood, but he did not want to criticize a higher-up.

She stood, “Will you let me show you?

“Oh certainly, please do,” he said a little insincerely she thought. She walked over to the trench and explained that he should pickup the loads of dirt from the woman along with a piece of paper with a mark on it, for the women were illiterate, and bring the load to the desk. As they spoke, the women kept their eyes down and did not look at him but seemed very aware of him; he did not seem to notice them as people. As she indicated, he wheeled the dirt up beside the screen in the pipe frame. With a plastic scoop they lifted the dirt from the wheelbarrow to the frame. She asked him to wheel the barrow under the frame and she showed him how together they could shake it.  When they had shaken the dirt through, three pieces of broken pottery remained. One of the sifters signaled for the barrow and he briskly turned to respond. When they had repeated the process he looked about the dig and saw a high spot where he went to watch, alert but with a craggy indifference, for the signal from the sifters.

The young woman arranged the bits of broken pottery on her desk, and photographed them. She opened several reports printed on poor paper with low-resolution black and white photographs and also some hand written notes, and began to compare the potshards with those recorded from other digs. But she glanced from time-to-time at the scattered workers and hoped he would come up with suggestions to improve the operation.

As she snapped the shards and tried to categorize the fragments before her, the inadequacy of the photographs in the monographs on her desk frustrated her. The written descriptions or occasional drawings were more useful because they drew out the essence of the things. The monographs articulated a lengthy recession of grey precision, which in turn called to mind her slowly crystallizing story of early Indiana archeology, largely based on broken pieces of pottery.  Of course it is potshards that survive because they are hard and chemically stable, as if future archeologists were to see our civilization though fragments of broken plastic.  Archeologists used to make stories of conquerors imposing their style on defeated tribes. In Europe they found something called corded ware, where the potters had ornamented the pots by wrapping them in twine before they fired them, leaving an imprint on the finished surface. So much of what they built on was negative images, the concave images of seals, the incisions of inscriptions…  The corded style proliferated from east to west in Europe and archaeologists, men, had made a fantasy about the conquering “cord ware people” who had swept across Europe like an army.  It seemed such an obvious idea, because of early 20th century men’s presuppositions, because they had learned about the Napoleonic wars or the conquests of Hannibal in school.

For a moment the image of her first reading of Flaubert’s novel Salambo rose in her mind, a comforting memory like her memory of the duck baked with apples her mother cooked almost every Sunday evening, no matter how far they were from Normandy. It was reading this novel, when she was 12 or 13 that had first turned her heart toward archeology. It told the story of the war between the city of Carthage and a rebellious army of mercenaries demanding back pay. The hero, Hamilcar, a vigorous, craggy, brutal, middle-aged man – when she read it she had imagined Jean Gabin in the part- although later thought Arnold Schwarzenegger might be more appropriate – was Hannibal’s father. The war was vicious: grinding sieges, villages left smoking in swaths of scorched earth, the dying wounded, particularly the suffering of animals. From her second reading she would always remember a dying elephant, its intestines trailing on the ground, bellowing as it staggered, stalked by scavenging lions, across a field of carnage. It was sadism really, it was Flaubert brutally rubbing the eyes of the bourgeoisie in the brutality of war, but which she, a perfect little bourgeoisie and a child carried from nation to nation by the misfortunes of war, had had filtered it out, had not tasted it in first reading, had seen it without feeling like the gunfights in American Westerns. What had captured her as a child was the minute, brilliant, fine-grained evocation of the material reality of that ancient world, of living, the textures of fabrics, the smells, details of architecture, the intricacy of weapons. For the days she first read it, it was more real around her than her prim room in her family’ small house in a white-walled compound in Algiers where she could sometimes hear the sound of gunfire. Later, in l’ecole normal she had written a paper on the accuracy of Flaubert’s archeology. It had been flawed even in its own time, but 1000 times more vivid than any monograph. Later too she had realized that the heroine, Salambo, the daughter of Hamilcar, had drawn her. Now she thought of Salambo with contempt and piercing embarrassment at her former feelings, thought of her as a cardboard masculine sexual fantasy. She was the neurotic, virgin moon priestess, who floated over the grisly action, attractive to all the leaders, marriage with her dangled by her father as political bait, finally half raped by a brutal mercenary captain. Hamilcar was an exiled general who returned to power in triumph like De Gaul. Salambo had enchanted her as a girl by her ability to hover above the carnage of her world, legendary, cared for but uncaring.

So when she started to study archaeology the story of the conquering corded ware people was gospel not because of the evidence, for everyone knows that fashions have their own life-; at least everyone in Paris knows, but because men’s minds run to conquest.

 Once in a paper she had compared it to future archeologists finding the tattered shreds of soccer balls, fixing their dates by exquisite, unforeseen, technology, and then propounding the story of how the soccer-ball people had swept out of Europe to conquer the world.  Her professor had red-penciled it out but cherished her sardonic laughter. She had wanted instead to tell a story of independent people living wherever they lived, people of all kinds of stature and skin color, making and choosing styles rather than moving or crafting as “a people”. She wanted to tell a thousand stories. She loathed the 19th-century idea of A People, most of all the ugly fantasy of the Aryans trampling down from Afghanistan upon India like Hitler upon Poland.

The Aryan story ran like this: Once upon a time there was a civilization nearly as old as Uruk. The ruins of their cities were the fragmentary mud walls now being eaten away by an increasing erosion in cities called Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, Lothal, and many other sites joined to them by pottery style and building technique. We do not know what they called themselves, for their scattered glyphs, if glyphs they are, endure undecipherable on seal rings and bits of brick. These cities, so the story went, were inhabited by small dark-skinned people like the people of South India now called Dravidians, though not enough telltale bones survived to prove it. Powerful horsemen had swept down on them through Afghanistan: the Aryans. They spoke an Indo-European language, were taller and lighter. Ancient Indian religious texts support that story, as did the masculine power fantasies of the euro-centric anthropologists. These Aryans, the word came from the old texts, the Vedas, were the image Hitler sought to evoke.

Chandragupta returned with a load of soil. The director had admonished her to let his predecessor lift the soil from the barrow to the screen, but Chandragupta offered a new start so she bent over to work with him. When they were standing opposite one anther shaking the screen, she considered him from an anthropometric perspective. He was tall for an Indian, with wiry, knobby limbs but a barrel chest. He was darker than the noble Brahmin Nehru, but not as dark as a true Dravidian. His face was round with a wide nose, unlike Nehru’s long face with a Roman nose. Yes, he was the result of people mixing. She asked him where he was from. He answered Bangalore, as if there was something embarrassing about it.

But the field did not support a story of conquering armies. The digs at the mud-walled local centers, the brief, inscrutable inscriptions on seals, the mapped-out patterns of potshards showed precipitation and drift, not the sharp lines of conquest. Harappa and Mohenjo-daro had declined, probably because the slow grinding of the Indian subcontinent against the Himalayas changed the courses of the Indus and other rivers, before there was evidence of Aryans. The telltales of Vedic culture first appear here and there among the scattered smaller towns that endured after the disintegration of Harrapan society, and further west in the valley of the Ganges, where the style had never been Harrapan. Lucette thought of Vedic culture as a scourging paralysis, which had slowly infected and gripped the subcontinent. The lynchpin of Vedic society, as she saw it, was a universe of strictures, Dharma and Karma, and built on them the monstrous caste system, which imposed on some by birth the irretrievable duty of backing out of the presence of someone of a high caste, perhaps of sweeping away their footsteps as they retreated, not so as it would be as if they had never been existed, but because every trace of their existence was filthy. This was the culture that generated legends of conquest and enslavement to justify itself. She had come to India almost by accident, through a connection one of her teachers had with the institute at Pondicherry, the tiny, fading territory of French influence here, when she wanted at all costs to get away from France, as far away as she could. As she worked in India she more and more took on in her own mind the job of unveiling the arbitrariness of Aryan dominance, of showing that alternatives might have flowered.

Lucette was born in Pondicherry in the fifties. Pondicherry had been a small French colony within India since the 17th century, and France had ceded it to India just before her birth. It remains quiet and quaint. Many people of French colonial ancestry live there to this day where it is cheap and resembles the French colonial past more than does France itself. Her mother was the daughter of shopkeepers in a small town in Normandy, her father a major in the French army. He had been a new graduate of the French military academy, St. Cyr, stationed in Senegal when the Vichy government surrendered to the Germans leaving the colonial army in limbo.  He had returned only once to France, to find and pluck his bride from the poverty and chaos of post-war Normandy. Her mother and her older brother, a toddler, had been sent to safety in Pondicherry when they learned she was pregnant.

The retreating French colonial armies had taken her father and his family on finally, full of ignominy and spite, to Marseilles. She had grown up in the army culture, which at first mistrusted then gradually grew to despise the home country most of them had barely known. They viewed it as a sacred duty to maintain the empire and the integrity of Algeria as part of French soil, but France did not want them and De Gaul betrayed them. Later she thought another reason Salambo meant so much to her was that it was set in an atmosphere of rebellion in a region near Algiers, where she had lived in a guarded compound and absorbed from her parents and their circle a biting fear of the Algerian servants, whom, at the same time, they claimed to be fighting for. Her father had been a member of a secret organization trying to create a rebellion in France. He resigned from the army when its leaders were put on trial for treason and through relatives got a job managing a small insect extermination business. She did well in school and left home for the Sorbonne as soon as she could. In 1968 when the student rebellions broke out in Paris she was a young teenager, and they became her rebellion, at once like that of her parents and against them.

The next day Hemadri appeared at her desk pushing the wheelbarrow — she had given him a key to the cinderblock shed where they kept equipment at night. Pilfering was a problem even though they had hired a guard from a local agency strongly recommended by the local government, a sort of protection racket Lucette thought. Pilferage extended to random objects disappearing from the site, she supposed because the thieves thought they had some market value.

Under his arm he carried a sheet of yellowed paper. It was time-yellowed newspaper, flaking on the edges as if it came from behind an old picture frame. He excused himself but said he had something he wanted to show her. The paper bore a finely inked mechanical drawing of a pulley arrangement to lower the frame to the ground and return it to a locked position. The fine, cleanly inked lines seemed like a wrought-iron framework floating above sand.

“You see,” he said, “then you can easily empty the barrow onto the frame, and then lift it for shaking.” What struck her was the drawing, which made the design leap off the page at her.

“If you approve I will come on Saturday and undertake construction.”

She studied the drawing. He would need more pipe and pulleys and rope.

“I am aware of a location where I could obtain it.”

“How much will it cost?”

He shrugged in an embarrassed way. She was afraid he would steal it or get it in some other illegal way.

“No, how much will it cost – if it’s not too much I can get it from the petty cash purse.”

He shrugged and named a figure in rupees.

“Do you need it now?” She asked. He stood embarrassed.

She fished a purse out of her backpack and gave him the money. It was not the first small contribution she had made to the dig.

When he took it she said, “There is something else I want to ask you —How did you do this drawing?”

“It is a technique called isometric projection,” he said.

“I don’t know what that means.”

He paused groping for words. “All the lines in the plane of the drawing are their true length.” He said. She was not enlightened. “It is for drawing an undertaking you want to build; — when you draw in true perspective the proportions are distorted so it will appear correct, but it is hard to build from.”

She remembered learning about true perspective in art classes.

“You have learned to draw like is as part of your engineering course?”

“Of course” he said, “It makes more sense in my profession and it is easy for me.”

“Could you draw these,” she gestured toward some shards on the table,

“Of course,” he said. She fished a tablet of notepaper and some ballpoint pens out of her backpack. She was uncomfortably reminded of begging children on the street pestering her for pens.

“Could you please show me,” she said as if drawing were an unexplained phenomenon that she was consulting an expert about.

“This is not the correct equipment for this type of drawing,” he said.

“Please just show me,” she said. Somehow he had made her feel drawing was an esoteric art where she needed his guidance.

“I will attempt it,” he agreed. He drew a shard with assured strokes. It seems to rise out of the paper.

“I can also do it in 2-point perspective, which is good for emphasizing the edges of things,’ and a he drew it again. It was less vivid but this time with a delicate stipple he expressed the rougher surface and a bit of design.”

“Have you heard of painted greyware?” she asked.

He shook his head and, as if to cover, his ignorance added, “Perhaps three-point perspective would be most suitable for this purpose. He drew it again in a way that suggested the complexity of the shape.

“Would you like more work?”

“If it would please you,” he said. She knew he meant he wanted money.

“If I found the money could you come in and spend a few hours each week drawing the most important finds?”

“We must have correct ink and pens,” he said.

“We can’t do anything until I get approval of the expenditure,” She said “Do you have ink?” she gestured toward the drawing of the new tray stand.

“No – I used the pens of the university.”

“We will get some,” She said. Can you tell me where to buy them?”

“Paradaham Draft supply, 68 Duwalla place,” he said promptly, “You will not know what to buy. Let me go with you and guide you.”

“Can you go with me, say on Saturday morning? If I get approval?”

“I can meet you there at any time you specify,” he said. “But it will delay constructing the new frame.

“This is more important,” she said. She thought to herself he could not possibly have heard of painted greyware — he had just drawn the shard in a way that immediately likened it to that style because of his intelligent eye. He had remarkable talent.

 

In the evening she went to the director of the dig and asked for four hours a week extra pay for Hemadri. She showed him the drawings and showed him how Hemadri’s sketch of the shard had immediately made it clear that it was in the painted greyware style and how superior it was to the low-contrast, roughly printed photographs of shards in the monographs. 

“This boy is only trying to suck up to you,” said the director who had gone to school in the US and liked to show his command of colloquial English.

Lucette felt defensive for him, “He is extremely polite,” she said.

“I suppose it would gratify Professor Hasabnis in Pondicherry” the director mused. Lucette did not want reasons like that to matter and kept silent. He approved the extra wages. She wanted to ask what cast Hemadri was, but did not want to act as if it mattered. He was not untouchable or the director would not have let him work with high-caste Hindus on the project.

 

C

 

She gave the address of Paradaham Draft Supply to a rickshaw driver who was able to bring her to the street but could not find the building. She said she would go on foot. It was in a dusty neighborhood of modest but clean shops: bicycle and sewing machine repair, small grocery, and small hardware stores on the street level of two-and three-story apartment buildings built of concrete blocks. The streets were wide enough for a single car to pass, not like the pathways between buildings of the old city, but were not laid out on a grid and suffered unpredictable name changes or were not visibly named at all so Lucette realized she was lost when she unexpectedly found herself again in a small unsquare square with a shrine to Hanuman. But after a moment she recognized Hemadri standing smiling at her with patient interest beside the shrine.

“I thought this locality might offer difficulty to you and that chance would bring you here,” he said. She felt the had been standing there rehearsing the speech. For the first time she admitted to herself Hemadri stirred her desire.

He seemed taller here. They walked together, he guiding, but side by side. If she had been an Indian woman, it would have been unusual in an old fashioned neighborhood. He asked her if she was from Paris.

“I was born in Pondicherry,” she said.  When he looked startled, then dubious, she continued, “My father was in the French army fighting in Cambodia; when they learned my mother was pregnant they sent her here to be in a safe place.”

“But surely that was after the Handover!” He exclaimed evidently not wanting to believe she was so old.

“Yes, it was after the Handover, but you know it was still a haven for French colonial people. Have you been there?” she asked. He shook his head.

“You know it didn’t prepare me for finding your friend’s shop. The streets I remember – maybe other districts were different – were laid out in a grid and had names in French.”

“The English brought city planning to India,” he replied.

She shook her head,” No, the streets of Harappa were laid out in a grid planned with intelligent regard to the location and with covered sewers 4000 years ago.”

“We will reach our goal in a moment,” he said, seemingly impervious to ancient history. Lucette cringed that she had embarrassed him by showing his ignorance and brought to their consciousness the twisting streets with uncovered sewers where their steps fell.

 She went on to tell how receding the French colonial retreat had carried her as a child on to Madagascar and then Algeria. She wanted to be perfectly frank about her origins among colonial oppressors. She could not tell if it disturbed him. She never could decide how the Indians really felt about the English. They seemed admiring and even sentimental about their former masters, but she could not believe that was true. She also talked about her upbringing so that she could ask about his, but all he said was the professor had spotted his aptitude. Perhaps that explained the ambiguous feeling she had about his caste.

 

The Paradaham Draft Supply shop was a dusty storefront with faded maps in the windows. There was a front room perhaps three by three meters with a counter and shelves of drafting equipment. A dusty store on a dusty street. Hemadri guided her inside with a certain furtive pride. He introduced her to the owner, an elderly Moslem. Hemadri was probably going to get a kickback, but she did not have the heart to be angry with him.  Hemadri and Mr. Paradaham discussed the project, selected paper, ink, a pen, and appropriate nibs.  Mr. Paradaham was a stooped man with white hair and thick-lensed, thin-rimmed glasses, wearing a beige kufi and a brown knee-length jacket. Instead of the khaki worn on the job, Hemadri was wearing a plaid shirt and faded bluejeans. She had dressed modestly in a long skirt and loose fitting muted green cotton blouse for the occasion. He seemed to loom hesitantly over her and Mr. Paradaham. Yes, he stirred her desire. She resolved to try to understand how her feelings fit into the larger picture of colonial exploitation by the west.

After she had paid and exchanged a bit more chat with Mr. Paradaham, Hemadri offered her the neatly wrapped package of supplies to return to the site office. Lucette imagined he had come by foot. When they left the shop she wanted to find a busier street where rickshaws were frequent so they walked along together for a ways. An embarrassed silence fell between them. When they came to a street where rickshaws swarmed she began to feel embarrassed that she could afford one, hastily said something like ‘I’ll be getting on now’, and hailed one. For the first time, he made the little Indian bow with clasped hands and said “namaste” to her. She paused getting into the rickshaw, stepped back to the sidewalk and did likewise.

 

In the next week they developed a rhythm of work where she would select any object from the dig that need a drawing — sometimes none, sometimes one or two or three —and give them to him. The next day he would bring her drawings. In a sense the drawings looked stiff and awkward to her; they were not attractive; but the precise, identifying details of the object somehow leapt off the paper.

As they worked together she distanced herself from her desire. She believed in choosing men who were her equal. She made a sort of insistence on parity; to be a worthy lover, she felt, a man must be a worthy opponent. Hemadri was cute and …she felt in some obscure way he was both powerful and sad, but he was also an awkward colonial boy, a victim of the oppression that had been her family’ calling. She felt his unfailing politeness, with its undertone of arrogance, should put her off.  This awkwardness and arrogance in him offered a kind of barrier she could use to sort out her own feelings. Like him, this barrier was stiff, but insecure.

 

One day when they were sifting together she reached into the dirt and took out a seed. She explained that seeds were often useful for dating material and learning about the lives of the city builders, what crops played a role in their diet and economy. But they passed through the mesh.

“Seeds would float,” he said.

“You could build something to extract them by floating them couldn't you?” she asked.

She half expected him to say ‘Of course I could,’ arrogantly, but he said, “It would be my pleasure to make another contribution to the project.”

 

The next Monday he showed up with a carefully drawn set of plans.

She did not at first comprehend the drawing.

“It is a floatation tank, Mademoiselle du Bussoin, made from easily availed materials,” he said. He had taken to addressing her as Mlle. du Bussoin, which he had, without her prompting, begun to pronounce more-or-less as a Frenchman would.

 In a moment she saw that it was an empty oil barrel, the bottom filled with cement as designated in a neatly penned callout. A channel in the cement drained toward a faucet. The drawing also showed a sieve with 2-cm mesh and a scoop with a very fine mesh.

“You will also need to make a round wooden sieve, smaller than the diameter of the barrel,” he explained deferentially “with a 2-cm wire mesh, and a small metal scoop with a carburetor screen mesh.  Two people do the floatation.  First the soil goes through our coarse dry-sieve, which has 4-cm mesh for the precious shards.  Then one person, that might be yourself, holds the round wet-sieve half in the water and agitates with a car-steering-wheel motion while the other, that might be myself, pours the soil into the big sieve and skims off with the small scoop the seeds, et cetera, which float.”

 

In ten days it was built and Lucette asked the diggers and scrapers to watch for seeds. If they saw seeds, then Hemadri and Lucette would use the floatation tank to extract them. As they worked she began asking him again about his background. He told her he had been partly adopted by an engineering professor at the University in Bangalore.  He had not actually lived with the professor’s family but at a dormitory first of a boarding school and now at the University.  He was often invited to the professor’s house.  He said the professor had noticed him when Hemadri, still a small child, had figured out on his own how to install a two-way electric light switch for the renter of some property the professor owned. He did not speak of his life before the professor took him up and Lucette again sensed something sad and hidden, which ignited in her a small, stinging fire of resentment on his behalf.

A few days later morning came and Hemadri did not report. Lucette waited for an hour and when he had not appeared she went to one of the women in the ditches and by signs and a few words of the local language, Marathi, she had picked up, that she wanted the digger to fill in Hemadri’s job. At first the woman demurred. Perhaps she feared retribution from someone for overstepping her place, but Lucette had picked her out before, something about her body language, a lift in her shoulders and she soon agreed, and did pretty well. Like the other women she was short and skinny, but strong.

Hemadri did not appear on the next day either. Lucette asked the director, when he came around, if there was any way to get in touch with him. The director had only an address, the name of a building in the old part of the city.

Lucette left work early and set out to find him. She changed into her long skirt in the shed and she took a bicycle rickshaw to the edge of the old city, which even bicycle rickshaws did not penetrate because of the narrow twisting ways.  Really, they were not streets in the sense that someone located buildings beside them; rather it appeared that buildings had been constructed to no apparent grid or angle and the narrow spaces left between them used for access. As she had planned, she found a street kid idling were the rickshaw let her off, and asked in guide-book Marathi and if he could find the building whose name, Saraswate tower, she read to him off her piece of paper.  He guided her among the passageways to a stone building perhaps 50 ft. square and four stories high.  She gave him a few rupees, and he indicated he would wait for her and guide her back out of the old city.  On the ground floor there was an inner courtyard. The building was dirty, paint peeling, an open sewer drained from the courtyard, which was full of activity and inactivity. Poorly dressed people were coming and going through the entrance.  She could see a small shrine to Saraswate, the goddess of art and learning in the inner courtyard and a couple of people squatting on the ground engaged in making unfired clay cups.  Several old people were sitting idle on the steps in front of the building.  She tired to ask for Chandragupta of an old man who appeared to be dozing. The old man replied with what to her was meaningless mumbling; she could not tell if it were words or not. The little boy who had guided her came up and asked her for the name she was seeking. Then he gestured for her to follow and led her to a large room off the courtyard where a corpulent woman was sitting on the floor talking with some cronies. After further conversation the little boy gestured for her to follow him.

The building was a hollow column. A continuous balcony on each floor around the ample airs haft gave access to rooms, which formed the outer shell of the structure. Lines of washing hung across the air shaft. The boy gestured for her to follow him up steep stone stairs with 30-cm risers and narrow treads. They climbed three floors. As she climbed she could see there was a whole neighborhood within the building, small shops, tailors working at treadle sewing machines, someone carving both wooden dolls and figures of the gods, someone making soap, etc.

The boy led her to a wooden door with peeling paint in a thick, stone wall and knocked.  Someone answered and exchanged words with the boy. The boy indicated she should enter and stood outside on the balcony.

The room was about 2 by 3 meters.  It was crowded by two narrow beds, some wall-mounted shelves, a trunk, and a table. A young man about Hemadri’s age was lying on one of the beds reading; Hemadri was lying on the other, curled into himself toward the wall and covered with a blanket. She recognized the drafting supplies neatly stored on one shelf. There was no chair. The young man rose and gestured that she could sit on his bed, but she knelt beside Hemadri’s bed and put her hand on his shoulder. She half drew him — he half turned himself. She could feel he heat of his shoulder and fleas gathering on her ankles. He opened his feverish eyes and reached his hand to her as she reached hers and gripped it.

“You have come to call on me,” he said, his voice weak and incredulous.

 

 

 

6500 words

 

Copyright © 2006 by Dirk van Nouhuys:

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