A Gash in the World

Chapter 5            The Idea of the Postmodern

5.1

The room—one of the many informal meeting areas in the offices of ZEC, a Palo Alto software company—was a long and narrow rectangle. Its new carpet gave the place a buoyant look. The wide windows let in washes of light. It was a setting that conveyed a sense of contrasting shades and proportions, of a binary interior that matched the binary computer-related work that was usually carried out in it. Four men were gathered at a large round table at one end. It was lunchtime on Tuesday the 29th of June, and three of the men had brought bread and tins of vegetables with them.

Kamal viewed the room smugly. Ashok, Mohan, and Kiran were his products, engineers, like him, but ten years younger. He had spent the last year pouring various ideas into their ears. Ashok had in fact been a Marxist, but with the obvious intellectual difficulties of Marxism in the nineties, he had succumbed to the lure of another totality, one permeated with an extreme form of Hinduism rather than Communism. It did not bother him that The Ideas Foundation, a well-known political think-tank of which they were all members, considered Marxism godless and profane, an easy target of venom.

Kamal Kothari, the man with the chapatti, was speaking. “Now that Meghnad is dead, we can rethink our strategy. We don’t need to be so defensive any more. We can speak openly about the Hindu dimension of our program. So far we had focused on economics and the protectionist stance of The Ideas Foundation and played down the role of religion. But now things are different,” he said with obvious satisfaction.

“Yes, we can bring out the role of The Ideas Foundation in forging a new religious order equal to the ancient one—a new Ramrajya. We are the only ones with a clear and far-sighted goal, and the Indians in the U.S. will fall in line once they see this fact,” Ashok said.

“All Indians must pay homage to our land, to our myths, and to our culture,” Mohan said.

“We must think about building a similar culture here in the U.S. The number of Indians is growing. If they are all motivated by Hinduism, they can be a force to reckon with. Take Ajit, see how his eyes sparkle,” Kiran said.

As Kamal’s colleagues, they lunched together, organized events together, and collaborated on ideas. Kamal considered himself a strategist. He never allowed himself to become tangled in ideology, though he certainly knew how to pull others in. With his scientist’s mind, he could remain detached from his machinations. He believed that ideology was only a tool to acquire power. Only the true believers thought that power was a tool to realize ideology.

Their goal was to persuade as many Indian Americans as possible of the beliefs of The Ideas Foundation: Hindu nationalism, revivalism, nativism.

The men settled down to planning a panel discussion with the Indian student body at nearby Stanford University. The co-Presidents of the Stanford India Association had strongly opposed The Ideas Foundation but welcomed debate. They’d even invited the Foundation to the campus once. Sometimes those with the strongest critical beliefs were the most susceptible, as with Ashok the Marxist. An expert at spotting these fellows, Kamal would approach them afterwards to inspire them with the fire of his ideas. Inevitably he’d shake their beliefs and over time he would draw them in.

After the meeting was finished, they rose and dispersed to their individual offices. Kamal prepared to email his colleagues in The Ideas Foundation about their plans. His message would also travel to India, to the Foundation headquarters in Delhi. On his mailing list was “Observer.” Kamal himself did not know who Observer was; he had just been given the name by Lele in Bombay. When Kamal had asked Lele, he had said he did not know either. The name had been passed on by someone else.

 

5.2

On Tuesday the 20th of July, exactly three months after Meghnad’s murder, Harold stared at Meghnad’s first page, studying notes his friend had jotted in the margins. He imagined Meghnad’s thoughts, pondered his feelings, weighed his research. Harold could not sleep. He could easily imagine Meghnad at his desk, in his home, in their many conversations, and tried to fathom what he could from the meager evidence of two pages.

The second murder, the murder of Jim Boyd, suggested that Meghnad’s research and the two pages were linked with their deaths. This in spite of Jim’s murder appearing—on the face of it at least—like an ordinary mugging. Harold’s suspicions seemed well founded, but he realized he had no proof.

The long line of critics mentioned in Meghnad’s second page were actual people, but Harold doubted they were connected with the Sahityashastra. That was something to research. In any case, he would endeavor to form a clearer idea of the Sahityashastra.

Reclining on the sofa in his office at four o’clock, Harold finally decided to actively pursue the enigma of Meghnad’s death. The death of his friend, the puzzle of the two pages, the mystery of the Sahityashastra—all these forces drew him to the problem. He thought he had figured out the puzzle: the two pages were the beginning of a novel that Meghnad intended to write. But that only deepened the riddle of “The Sixth Veda.” Harold knew his investigation would be difficult, possibly dangerous, but he had just started his sabbatical. He would need help, but felt that Anouk was too rattled for the job. Instead he thought of Asha. She would manage the American end when he was in India. In addition, he felt there was no need to postpone his research on architecture with Chaturvedi.

Harold had to read everything he could—books, articles, monographs on the Sahityashastra. He figured it couldn’t take him more than two months, just in time for the Grindelwald conference. After that he would travel to India and search for relevant writings there. Asha would support the effort in the U.S. and perhaps he could enlist Chaturvedi’s help in India. Beyond that, Harold’s direction seemed murky, aimless. He would know what to do after he had read a bit. The writings would point the way.

He realized his approach differed from that of the police. He believed you always had to probe things from the inside. External evidence wouldn’t suffice. Ideas mattered. He remembered the Harvard deaths of 1988 and how he had solved that mystery by investigating the biology books the students had been reading before they were killed.

The sky paled as evening approached. It was still light, a warm breeze wafting in through open windows. Harold rose, smoothed his pants, and sat down at the computer. He sent a short message with the first two pages of Meghnad’s novel to Asha. He wanted to whet her curiosity before asking her assistance. Harold knew Asha would be intrigued.

Coincidentally, a message from Asha popped up: she was inviting him to kick off the series of lectures on contemporary India she had announced at Meghnad’s memorial event in April. Unfortunately, the series commenced in October, after the conference, when he would be in India. He would have liked to launch it.

He expressed his regrets and suggested the name of Aditya Gandhi as a substitute.

 

5.3

Anouk had just finished a depressing dinner. For a while, she stared out at the black Hudson, recounting her fate. Then she looked at a photography magazine, listlessly flipping through its pages. Later, at about ten, she flicked on the computer.

There was a message from Napa.

“Dear Gruyère,

I hope you’re settling down. It can’t have been too easy. You haven’t written for a long time. I’d like to know what you’re thinking. What are your friends thinking, the ones who are pursuing your husband’s death? I’d like to know. Do keep me apprised. The last time you mentioned a professor at Harvard. The case sounds fascinating. Tell me what he’s doing.

I have been traveling. I had to go to Athens for some work. Things have been hectic.

Write soon with a lot of news. I hope you’re staying out of it though. It isn’t safe.

Napa”

For some inexplicable reason Anouk shivered. Napa was a friend, but what made him so curious? She wished she hadn’t mentioned Harold and his plans to him. Earlier, she had savored the mystery of Napa’s identity; now she felt a tremor of fear. He now knew who she was, but she only knew he was male. She rose and closed the window, even though there was no draft. Why did he always warn her against getting involved?

But just when her doubts seemed strongest, they subsided. In fact, to prove to herself that her fears were groundless, she wrote him openly about recent developments with Harold.

“Napa,

Thanks for your letter. How are you? You seem busy.

How was Athens? I have stayed away from the murder according to your advice, but the Harvard professor, Harold Stone, has been making some progress. He’s decided to pursue the ideas my husband was involved with. He also thinks my husband was starting a novel about the Sahityashastra. He plans to read everything he can about the lost book to start with.

I feel much better these days. And I’ve taken lots of photographs, all of buildings.

Write soon.

Gruyère”

 

5.4

On this marvelous Sunday in August, the sun was shining, the temperature had peaked at a perfect seventy degrees, the sky was blue with fluffy Magrittesque clouds. There was a light breeze from the northeast. Anil and Allison were out on a picnic at the Arboretum. They had driven there in Anil’s gray Civic. Some trees had yellowed, announcing fall. Allison looked fetching in a short red skirt and striped green and white blouse. The couple held hands and ambled through the trees, searching for a suitable spot.

Anil had finalized the deal with Information Products. Their mandate was to find a suitable Sanskrit text and use it as a base to translate into English. “It’ll be interesting to work with a Sanskrit book. I haven’t done that before. I wouldn’t mind picking up a little Sanskrit along the way. We’ll need to find someone who understands it,” he said.

“We could ask my dad to suggest a text,” Allison said.

“That’s not a bad idea. You know, I’ve been thinking,” Anil changed the subject abruptly. “Why not define a metric on the lattice? A metric induces a topology, a metric is a way of measuring distance. We would be able to measure the distance between any two points on the lattice. Think about it—in a particular context, the distance between ‘bright’ and ‘brilliant’ may be two and the distance between ‘bright’ and ‘radiant’ may be three. We would choose the nearer translation, ‘brilliant,’ because it is closer to ‘bright.’ We’d be able to identify the distance between words and their translations. By doing so, we can tell which words are near each other and which words are far from each other. We could get a mathematical version of nearness. And translation is nearness.”

“You’re so clever, Anil. All we need is to be able to tell how far apart a word in Sanskrit is from its translation in English. Then we can choose the translation with the least distance so we are as close to the original word as possible.” Allison stressed the point with flowing gestures on an imaginary lattice.

“But what about context? Distances will change with context. But one thing at a time. Let’s tackle this approximation first,” he said.

“And what of metaphor, Nisha’s pet province? Do we just ignore it?” she asked.

“Of course we do, at least for now,” he said.

Some clouds drifted overhead, casting a dusky shadow on the Arboretum. Only a few people lay scattered about.

“This is perfect,” Anil said.

They had reached a clearing, and spread their blanket at the foot of a tree. Allison took out the food while Anil stroked her leg. They had packed Swiss cheese and French bread and sandwiches. He picked out the Pinot Noir. The squirrels that scampered about now watched them from a distance. Anil reluctantly removed his hand in order to wrestle with the corkscrew.

“Isn’t it nice here? Have you come here before?” she asked.

“Yes, once, but that was some time ago. I was here with Meg.”

“Meg? Isn’t she in the Robotics Group?”

“She works on problems of cooperation between robots.”

“I don’t think she’s very smart.”

“I wasn’t interested in her brains.”

“And what are you interested in now, sir?” Allison smiled.

“The same thing,” Anil said lazily, splayed upon the grass.

Allison whacked him on the buttocks and wiggled closer to him.

 

5.5

Ajit had been arrested the previous week by Officer Tim Bradford, handcuffed, and brought into custody. The sergeant on the case didn’t really believe that Ajit was guilty, but was doing this as a ruse to smoke out the real villain. The police had reached an impasse. They had no choice but to strategize, even if it meant that Ajit would be temporarily inconvenienced. Ajit was strangely calm when he was detained, perhaps the result of his staunch faith. He was to be released today because the gambit had failed. Surprisingly, the death of Meghnad’s young graduate student Jim Boyd had yielded no significant evidence. Stumped by the event, they were unwilling to draw any strong conclusions. Harold, on the other hand, believed fervently that the Sahityashastra was implicated in a profound way. That meant nothing to the police, who were attempting to track down the assassins and their employers. Although Harold had hoped to interest the police in his interpretation of the evidence, it was to no avail. The sergeant, Tim’s superior, was a weather-beaten old fellow who had seen hundreds of cases; he would not heed some eccentric professor with wild ideas about Abhinavagupta’s book found in Jim’s bag. As far as the sergeant was concerned, it was an open and shut case, a classic instance of hired hands, killings disguised as muggings, especially in Jim Boyd’s case.

What mattered to Harold was the inner life of the story. For him, the unfolding narrative had two levels, a level of events and a level of meanings. For him, the details of the events didn’t matter. They could have happened differently, a different time and place, a different weapon, even perhaps different victims. The point was what it all meant.

He realized again that he was straying from his usual empiricism. His methods were becoming more imaginative, more intuitive, more dependent on chance and making connections rather than on deduction, and more like Meghnad’s. The creative disorder hidden in him was taking over. He wondered what Nisha might have to say about his approach. An image of Nisha appeared before him, her tossed hair, her pale, beautiful complexion radiant in the imagined light. He made a mental note to discuss it with her. They had both been too busy that summer and hadn’t met much. Nisha had in fact been in Europe much of the time, first at the Venice Biennale and then at Oxford. He figured she would find some deconstructive mode of investigation. Possibly she would look for an opposition like outer/inner to overturn, Harold thought, as Nisha receded from view.

Ajit had been cooperative in jail. The police had treated him fairly well and he offered all kinds of information about Meghnad. He had agreed to continue to help them. Word of all this reached Harold, and he decided to meet him the next day.

 

Ajit stepped out into the twilight, squinting. He hailed a cab and went across town to his favorite restaurant, an Indian place off Seventh Avenue. After eating sumptuously, he started home. He felt pleased he had helped the police; he revered the institutions of law and order. For him, Hinduism was the only religion that could sustain a genuine secularism, that could lend civil society its moral authority. Indeed, Hinduism was not even a religion, it was an entire way of life inaugurated by the intrepid Aryans, their moving Vedic chants reverberating in the Indus valley long before the Egyptians and Babylonians had even dreamt of their wonderful civilizations. The organic unity that was modern India, combining as it did hundreds of languages and cultures and practices, was nothing if not the holy land of the Hindus, nothing if not the fatherland of the Hindus.

It was dark now. As he filed through the Times Square subway station, a myriad tumbling thoughts racing through his agile mind, he noticed a man strumming a guitar, playing “Killing Me Softly.” People milled about, a typical New York crew. Ajit climbed down the stairs to the platform and smiled wanly at a couple there. Before long the train came whooshing in. He felt a sudden, strong push from behind. As he craned his head to look, he lost his balance.

His scream rent the air. The train screeched to a halt amidst thuds and crunches. It was too late.

Ajit was dead.

 

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