A Gash in the World

Chapter 2       An Interlocked World

2.1

Chaturvedi sipped his early morning tea. Bombay’s summer had begun early and he felt hot and sticky. His wife, sitting beside him, slapped him on the wrist for swallowing so loudly. A ceiling fan rotated its three blades and although the convection of air currents in the room cooled his tea, it did not assuage his discomfort. A fly was walking across the dining table. It inched towards the biscuits in the saucer, and Chaturvedi brushed it off with a sweep of his hand.

A Sony television set stood in one corner of the room against two gray and white sofas and some Indian Art Deco chairs. The chairs were a gift from Chaturvedi’s father-in-law, an army officer. A couple of striped dhurries on the gray mosaic tile floor heightened the spareness of the white walls of the drawing room. Two bedrooms spread out from the corridor for the children, and a third lay at its end for Chaturvedi and his wife. The apartment itself was in a six-story building at Colaba.

Chaturvedi, Indianist, specialist in architecture and sculpture, was a close friend of Harold’s. His mind drifted between several topics, darting back and forth from Khajuraho. He was writing a paper on the convexity of form for the Indology conference. He had a new explanation of the spherical breasts and bottoms, of the rotund figures at Khajuraho. His paper would introduce a new methodological principle in the understanding of ancient forms, a principle involving ideas from hermeneutics, a method of interpretation that derived from efforts to make sense of old religious texts in a new context.

Another strand of Chaturvedi’s thoughts raveled around Harold’s impending visit in October. They had planned to work together on an architectural project during Harold’s yearlong sabbatical. There were many things to do before Harold came to India, not least of which were all the administrative chores. Chaturvedi had to contact people at the Archaeological Survey of India. He also had to draft some plans for their project on paper before Harold’s arrival.

He also had to supervise a few doctoral theses. One student in particular hadn’t quite grasped how to do research, to formulate conjectures on the basis of meager information, and then to refine the data on the basis of the hypotheses. The student had collected reams of facts without a theory in mind, all to no avail. Even the manifold taxonomies of classical Indian thought hadn’t had an impact on him.

Chaturvedi realized his tea had cooled. “My tea is cold again,” he said ruefully to his wife. “It’s the fan as usual.”

“It’s your mind. Always thinking of something,” his wife said.

“Please. Can you get me some more?” he pleaded.

“I think you should get it. It will stir you out of Khajuraho.”

Chaturvedi laughed. “Okay. Do you want some more?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“I’ll have to go to the campus today. Amonkar still hasn’t figured out how to think about research and I fear he’s going to be with me for another year. I don’t know why he doesn’t just take up another profession. He could be a good manager somewhere.”

An hour later, Chaturvedi left the house and walked to the bus station nearby, waiting to catch a ride to the Bombay University Campus at Kalyna. On the long slow journey he mulled over some of the unresolved issues in his paper, barely noticing the throng of people around him or the choking roads along which the bus crawled. The city had become impossible, it was coming apart. Chaturvedi did not allow this side of Bombay life to weigh him down, the interminable bus rides, the noisy traffic, the crowds, the pollution; he would withdraw to his world of temples and forts and palaces. Here he would be safe from the demands of the city, he would return to it refreshed and energetic. He always wondered if other people had their avenues of escape. Later, alighting from the bus, he walked briskly towards his department through the campus. When he got to his office, he booted up his computer. He heard a knock on his door.

“Come in.”

“Hello, Sir,” Amonkar said.

“Good morning, Sanjay. Do you have something for me?”

“I’ve collected some information on the ceilings of temples in Gujarat. And also on the step wells. I wanted to ask you what data I should gather next.”

Chaturvedi shook his head. “Why don’t you spend a little time thinking? Read the essay by Dhaky and Nanavati. You have to look for ideas, for patterns, for organizing principles. Not for facts. You’ve already done that. You now have more information than you will ever need. Am I making sense?”

“What should I do?” Amonkar asked in a thin voice.

“One way is to see what others have done, how they’ve organized their data, what form and shape they have given to the problem. This will help you develop a point of view, and as you do, you will begin to notice other things about the problem, things people may not have realized. You know the facts well enough, you need ideas.” Chaturvedi softened, “Try to follow your intuitions.”

He knew Amonkar tried hard. If only his words would seep into the young man’s impervious head. After Amonkar left, Chaturvedi faced his computer, an old PC that he used just for word processing and email. He waited for the email program to load, glancing at Agarwal’s painting on the wall across. It was an expressionistic work of abstract, stylized figures that he found morbid in its contorted pain, but he was attracted to, even hypnotized by, its swirl of dark and luminous colors. It always reminded him of the tragic in life, the existential core that man could not escape. He freed himself from these melancholy thoughts and inspected his email.

He had two messages. The first was from the Vice Chancellor of the university who wanted Chaturvedi to chair a committee to assist foreign visitors to the campus. He wrote back, accepting the honor.

The second was from Anouk Surya. “Meghnad Surya died on April 20 of a fatal stabbing as he was leaving the Asia Society in New York.”

Chaturvedi was stunned. He knew Meghnad well and had even collaborated on a book with him. He wondered what had happened, and then glanced out of the window behind him. He could see the jacarandas and gul mohurs and laburnums of the placid campus. He felt a sudden ache.

The phone rang. He ignored it, letting the swirling feelings sink into him. He began to compose a reply, but couldn’t bring himself to articulate his thoughts. Finally he decided to call Anouk later at night from his home.

There was a knock on the door.

“Yes?” Chaturvedi said.

“It’s me,” Amonkar said, peering inside cautiously.

“Oh, come in, Sanjay. What is it?”

“I have something to tell you.”

“What?” Chaturvedi asked again, a trifle impatiently, annoyed at the interruption of his thoughts.

“I have an idea.”

“Thank God for small mercies,” Chaturvedi said with a sigh. 

 

Harold was a specialist in ancient Indian theater. He had written several papers, and a number of books, of which the first was “Mythology in Ancient Indian Theater” and another that became famous was “Theater and Rasa.” He was to read his latest paper at the Indology Congress in Grindelwald on “The Meaning of Ornament in Indian Architecture.” His first book, an expansion of his Berkeley PhD dissertation, was still regarded as a classic in the field. He’d tackled the central problem of the role of mythology in the writing of the Natyashastra. Why was the Natyashastra so mired in mythology? Until his dissertation, there were many wrangles, many opposing views about this mythological cloak. Abhinavagupta himself had taken the mythology at face value. A contemporary writer had interpreted it as expressive of the Shudras’ desire to gain entry into the Brahminical fold, since he argued that Natya originated with them. Another had argued that Natya was pre-Aryan in origin because of its connection with Shiva. A third scholar had insisted on a broader view, including Bharata’s motivations in wanting the Natyashastra accepted as a fifth Veda for both Aryans and non-Aryans. Bharata also had to dispel any fears the priests may have had about the dramatic arts by glorifying the actions of the gods. A fourth account took the mythology as testimony for the ritualistic and magical significance of theater. And there were yet other views.

Harold’s contribution had ignited a small revolution in the field. While the contending views hadn’t disappeared, they were accommodated within his perspective as developments and refinements of his approach. His key idea was to view the mythology as a language of the time, a language that was used to conceptualize and describe the events of the day. He had unlocked the secret of the Natyashastra. Mythology was the equivalent of the abstract philosophical inquiry of later times, it provided the terms through which situations and actions could be analyzed and criticized. This insight permitted a restructuring of the field by making possible a synthesis of competing positions. Younger scholars had not been slow to seize upon its opportunities and now Harold’s work stood as the received view in the field. His dissertation had landed him his first job at Harvard, and he had been there ever since.

His book “Theater and Rasa,” published in the early eighties, was also deeply innovative. It interpreted Bharata and Abhinavagupta’s accounts of rasa, a concept of aesthetic experience and enjoyment, in contemporary terms. During the performance, the spectator is not in the spatiotemporal order of the character represented. But he is also not in the spatiotemporal order of the actor; he is in neither order. This peculiar state of suspended identification evokes generalized emotions like, for example, fear or wonder. This is fear plucked out of space, time, and causality, this is wonder that is both intangible and embodied. He had argued that this generalized emotion was not a Platonic form, immutable and supra-human, but instead constructed from the flesh and yet immaterial. He had shown how Bharata’s ideas went beyond Aristotle’s Poetics. Indeed, he interpreted rasa theory in the light of the “reader response criticism” of the seventies and thereby created a new variant of it, one that gave both text and reader their due. As a consequence, rasa theory became well known in the Western world, at home in the critical language of the day. It is this dual direction of his book, elucidating rasa in the context of reader response theory that marked the critical success of his book in multiple fields and cemented his international reputation.

Harold also enjoyed modern art of all kinds. He liked its primitivism, rooted as he was in ancient cultures. Barnett Newman was one of his favorite painters. Pictorial flatness, the control of color, dramatic presence; all these elements possessed him. An awareness of powerful forces, the presence of terror and fear, the inhumanity of the natural world, the eternal insecurities of life, all animated old and new art. He also felt drawn to modern Indian art with its rough figuration, abstract imagery, and semantic intent that inundated and saturated the senses.

He knew several people in Bombay, and had some influential friends like K. P. Oswal, the industrialist and culture czar. He had met most of them through his own lectures. Someone would attend a popular talk of his at a cultural institution and introduce themselves and, more often than not, invite him to dinner. Over the years he had met a number of people outside the small academic circles of Bombay. He also knew Delhi and Madras a little, even though he didn’t visit them as often.

 

Harold awoke with a start and groped around in the dark for the switch. He had been dreaming, feeling a tangled mass of emotions, rasas that he could not quite separate and define. His dream was a strange fusion of several streams, one about his lecture, a second about Meghnad, with the beautiful Nisha a third tributary. He kept pondering a talk of hers he had attended, “Postcolonialism and Postmodernism,” wondering how it affected the interpretation of his own talk and what it might have to do with Meghnad’s death, and how the three seemed to implicate each other in a wild torrent of juxtapositions.

Nisha’s stance was at odds with the orientation of his own field. It intrigued him when she said it was only a matter of time before the Orientalist background of Indian Studies gave way to a postcolonial outlook. She would say the East was a product of the West. Even though he would defend his field and its presuppositions to his satisfaction, he was frankly troubled by the recent incursions of the poststructuralists in culture.

Meghnad’s murder intruded upon these thoughts. Meghnad’s fight against communalism became especially charged in the light of his discussions with Nisha. Harold felt there were two interrogations of the field of Indian culture: the poststructuralist and the fundamentalist, each opposed to the other. The field of Indian Studies brimmed with ideas of Hindu civilization, of a religious civilization for India. Many scholars had been swayed by these ideals and a small movement of fundamentalist scholarship, of reconstructing Ramrajya, had mushroomed. A spate of papers had been published in the new journal Hindu Civilization. A theoretical basis for fundamentalism was established, one that could not be dismissed as easily as some of its strident practitioners. Theology, always dormant, stirred, ushering new interpretations to the fore. The space of Indian culture was now fraught with danger, as the ancient infused the modern. Three dogmas converged upon a single point, the status quo, the dogmatism of the left, and the dogmatism of the right. Harold disliked them all. They formed a continuum, instead of isolated camps. This fuzzy community of Indianists made things more deadly because it allowed seepage. Hindu fundamentalism percolated into many different dimensions of the study of Indian culture without people realizing it. That allowed it to invade everyday life itself. Habits of thought shifted, divisions sharpened, and people came to be classified by religion rather than anything else. Space and time divided into Hindu or Muslim. The secular receded from view.

Harold’s own vision for the field of Indian Studies, always lurking in his subconscious, was a large one: he wanted researchers to revolutionize the domain the way Western classicists and medievalists had transformed their disciplines, even as recently as the twentieth century. The classical world and the medieval world, he always said, were largely the inventions of scholarship, of men and women of more recent times engaging with the texts and materials of the remote past, and shaping images of a continuous Western civilization. The East, and India in particular, had a long distance to travel to realize this quest. Their intellectual histories were far from fruition. His own excavation and interpretation of rasa theory stood in this incipient hermeneutic tradition. Indeed, he envisioned not just many fragmentary and divisive studies that partitioned off various regions of the world into isolated and irreconcilable civilizations, but instead an integration of many local inquiries into grand, interpenetrating, and multifaceted networks of a single world civilization, a single story of the world. The immediate challenges, however, were, as he returned unhappily to the less grandiose surfaces of his thoughts, to ward off the dangers and distortions being forged by the Indianists themselves.

Harold rose, a little groggy. He noticed it was three in the morning and cursed. He would have preferred to be home, in Cambridge, and not have these troubling and jumbled thoughts ravaging his mind. He was in a corner room on the twentieth floor of the Lexington Hotel, a building with neo-Gothic flourishes. Interestingly, an Indian company owned it, a fact that gave him a peculiar feeling of satisfaction.

It was a large, irregular, pentagonal room. The furniture was comfortable but unremarkable, like the kind found in a myriad other hotels, and the carpet was plain and functional. As a result, the room appeared gloomy. The miniatures on the walls were asymmetrically placed, slyly invoking modernist proportions. Once again, he felt the fusing of ancient and modern motifs, and wondered if a different ancient source could be found to counter fundamentalism.

He stood for a few minutes and then with a sigh went back to bed and sprawled on his back, his eyes open. He stared at nothing in particular in the dark and rested like that for a long time. He could discern the outlines of the sofa and armchair and desk. Meghnad’s death was another stark presence in the dark. Curiously, he felt detached and philosophical. With another long sigh he switched off the light, plunging the room into darkness, returning him to Nisha’s ambivalent embrace.

He awoke later in the morning, surprisingly refreshed, and phoned for coffee and toast. His first thought was of Nisha, and a picture of her figure, with her short black hair, floated in his mind. On an impulse, he called her at her apartment in Cambridge, but she wasn’t in. His mind then turned to the events of the previous night and to Meghnad. He crowded out images of Meghnad’s twisted body on the pavement by focusing on who might have done it. He tried to shake off his cheerless mood. It seemed obvious that the crime wasn’t just some stray act. After all, Meghnad’s wallet hadn’t been stolen. Or could it be that the perpetrator hadn’t had time to complete the job? Harold’s intuitions assured him it wasn’t petty larceny. Of course he hadn’t the faintest clue as to who might have wanted Meghnad dead. He wondered what could be done to find the killer in a city like New York.

The coffee went directly to his head and woke him up fully. He bit into the buttered toast. His attention shifted to doing something for Meghnad. It occurred to him that perhaps Columbia could organize an event dedicated to him, an evening of lectures and eulogies. He would talk to Asha about it.

Below, two cars screeched at the intersection of 48th and Lexington and crashed into each other, scraping metal and splintering glass. Everything stopped momentarily, pedestrians froze, and then everyone resumed their activity. From the window Harold peered down on two taxicabs at right angles to each other. He saw a metaphor in the accident, one that concerned Meghnad’s death. He saw two forces colliding with each other, one of them emanating from Meghnad. The other was a mystery. Abruptly, the vision vanished from Harold’s mind as he remembered he had to call his secretary in Boston. It was a little after nine.

It seemed to him momentarily that he was imaginatively constructing Meghnad’s death rather than reconstructing it from the facts, a departure from his more empiricist leanings. But the feeling disappeared and he returned to the idea of a stolid police investigation. However, his heart was beating faster, and it occurred to him that he was gradually being pulled into Meghnad’s murder. He shrugged off the mood and bit off a corner of toast. He had phone calls to make.

After he had set up some meetings for the day, mainly at Columbia but also with his publisher, he reviewed his talk of the previous evening. He liked to savor each word or phrase. There had been some surprisingly good comments from a couple of Indian listeners and one American listener. They seemed quite well informed for members of a general audience. The question about Raz indicated that the person had read journal papers, not just books. All in all, he felt pleased at the level and breadth of interest in the topic of his talk.

A kind of gnawing depression overcame Harold. Meghnad’s death was finally having its effect, suppressed for a while by his other preoccupations. He decided to step out. He had an hour before his lunch appointment and he thought he’d wander about the city a bit, perhaps stroll across to Fifth Avenue. The lobby of the hotel was filled with the crew of Air India. He identified them immediately. Smiling, he negotiated his way gingerly through the throng of airhostesses. The day was warm and comfortable and he realized he didn’t need his overcoat.

 

Large gray clouds had bulked in the sky and the sunlight was indirect, creating a moody, dusky atmosphere. Asha was exhausted. Her body was sore and she hadn’t slept well. She had a class to teach that afternoon and needed to reference a few things, in particular the Persian influence of Kangra Valley miniatures.

There was a write-up on Meghnad in the newspapers, both on his tenure as a professor and on his more recent political activism, complete with a couple of photographs in the New York Times. As Asha and Anouk pored over the papers, the phone rang.

“Is this Mrs. Anouk Surya? I’m Officer Tim Bradford.”

“Yes?” Anouk replied.

“Ma’am, how are you? I was just calling to check on how you were doing.”

“Thank-you. I’m fine, I suppose. As well as can be expected.”

“Your friend Professor Stone has persuaded us to consider the possibility that your husband’s murder was premeditated. We’re following a few leads. Maybe they’ll help us find the killer.

“I see.”

“If you have any suggestions for us, or remember anything, let me know.”

Anouk remained silent. She was frustrated. Her husband had been murdered and the police were asking her for advice.

“Well, ma’am, I’ve got to be going. Take care. I’ll call if I have questions.”

Anouk placed the receiver into its cradle and stared bleakly out the window onto the Hudson. She felt lost. She had no idea where to go and what to do. Her only living relative was a younger sister, a freelance journalist in Paris. She had already called her the previous night and told her about Meghnad. Her sister had said she would clear up her commitments and visit as soon as possible.

“That was the police officer in charge of this investigation,” Anouk said.

“I could tell,” Asha said.

“How did he sound?”

“Not too optimistic.”

“At least they’re on the job.”

“He said Harold convinced them it was a premeditated killing, not just some indiscriminate violence,” Anouk said.

“That sounds right to me, too. Are you going to be okay? I really have to go. I’ve got to teach in a couple of hours. I’ll call you later,” Asha said.

“Thanks a lot for staying. I never thought I’d make it through last night.” Anouk hugged her.

The door closed behind Asha. Anouk lingered by the door for a moment. The apartment turned inexplicably cold and she shivered. She walked through their spacious two-bedroom home, absently rearranging things, a vase here, a figurine there. She phoned her friend Karen but she wasn’t in. Drawn into the second bedroom, their office, she looked at the profusion of papers on Meghnad’s desk. She would soon have to sort that mess and perhaps request Harold’s help with it.

Desperate for some human contact, she started the computer and checked to see if there was any email. She was relieved to find a message from her friend Napa in California. They had been e-friends for three years, having met through a listserv for mailings about early Indian photography. She wasn’t sure if Napa was male or female, but s/he was an excellent conversationalist. For that matter, Napa didn’t know if Anouk was male or female because her screen name was ‘Gruyère.’ But they had settled comfortably into these neutral identities, chummy as wine and cheese. She began to type.

“Dear Napa,

My husband was fatally stabbed last night.”

In a somewhat unhinged way, she composed a long letter, editing it frequently, making sure she wasn’t revealing too much for Napa to guess her full identity. She worked feverishly, in a kind of shock, completely immersed in the thought of the moment. Her intense loneliness diminished as she finished writing. At the end, she felt empty and relieved. She hesitated a long time over whether she should actually send it, and then with an uncharacteristic insouciance, she keyed it off to California.

Meghnad had several messages. It was the first time Anouk had logged into his account, even though she knew his password. Most of the messages were from universities. There was one from Albert, Karen’s husband, also a professor at Columbia. She opened it but saw that it was something technical about sculpture. She scrolled down to the next message.

“Professor Surya,

Every state has a civilizational base, an ethos. The liberalism of the Indian state is but one example. Has the question of the civilizational base of the Indian state been put at last on the agenda? In the light of recent history, the answer must be in the affirmative. It has to be in the affirmative. This is but the will of the people.

Sincerely,

Observer

It left a vaguely mysterious feeling in Anouk. She didn’t know how to interpret it. Who would use a screen name like that? Where was “Observer?” In principle, “Observer” could even be in India. Why did she quiver? She wondered if Meghnad had known who “Observer” was. It could be read as a plain statement of fact. But could it also be read as something programmatic? The programmatic reading seemed to elbow out the matter-of-fact reading. The expression “civilizational base” tingled her spine. The phrases “In the light of history” and “the will of the people” had a slightly odd, prophetic ring to them. What recent history was the writer referring to? What did he mean by “the will of the people”? The sentences even sounded a little mad.

She rose suddenly, preferring to focus on other things rather than get swept into a cycle of suspicion and interpretation. She felt paranoid enough already. She shut down the computer and entered the kitchen. She prepared some scrambled eggs. She began to weep again, in little bursts, as she moved about.

After breakfast, she forced herself to step out and take some photographs to get her mind off the previous night. Wandering aimlessly through the city’s streets, holding back her tears, she observed with an aesthetic eye the forms of pain that her mind imposed on the concrete. She thought of Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Agarwal’s swirling colors. Without realizing it, she doubled back to Park Avenue. As she glanced at the pink granite walls, hard and elegant, she noticed a plaque that read “Asia Society.” The building stood impassively, disclosing no sign of the previous night’s stabbing. She fainted and collapsed in a heap.

 

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