A Gash in the World

Chapter 11            The Real and the Rational

 

On Monday morning, Asha awoke late and with no classes to teach, so she lingered in bed. She had received the Sahityashastra and spent the weekend poring over it. Her growing admiration for it matched Harold’s.

On this cold, sunny, windy day, she had no plans to step out. She relished the times when she could work out of her apartment. It was quieter than a library in fact, though the stillness and solitude made the atmosphere a bit spooky.

It was nearly eleven when Asha finally struggled out of bed. Her cat, Panini, who had curled on one corner of the comforter, jumped to the floor and sidled against Asha’s leg. She lifted him up and waddled over drowsily to the kitchen. She cooked herself a breakfast of eggs with chives. After she’d eaten, she read her email. Her second message was from Chaturvedi.

“Dear Asha,

Harold seems to have vanished! No one knows where he is. Even the police haven’t a clue. It seems he’s been kidnapped. His hotel room was thoroughly ransacked. I’ll keep you posted on developments here.

Chaturvedi”

Asha froze momentarily, wondering what she could do. She picked up the phone to call Samir, but then decided against it. After fifteen minutes of vacillation, she resolved to travel to Bombay.

She scrolled through her mental checklist. Where would she find a substitute for her classes? Maybe she could cajole the postdoctoral fellow Clark. There were a million other tasks she had to take care of, and she started by calling a number of departmental heads and secretaries.

Later in the day, she was at the department to meet the head Lawson when she ran into Aditya. She told him what had happened to Harold. Aditya asked her several questions about the matter, but it became obvious that she didn’t know very much about the kidnapping. After a while they parted.

Surprisingly, Lawson, in an expansive mood, offered her leave without much ado. Clark would substitute. The required formalities were worked out in a couple of hours.

She then cabbed it to Air India on Park Avenue to purchase her ticket. Passing by the Asia Society, she recalled Meghnad’s death only a few months ago.

Though three women occupied the counters at Air India, only one counter was open. Several people waited on the sofas. Annoyed, Asha clamored for a second counter to be opened and sat down at it. She bought tickets for Tuesday evening, direct to Bombay.

The next day was preoccupied by chores, arranging for someone to look after Panini and water her potted plants, among other things. Asha packed her bags, and then hailed a cab for JFK. The long ride seemed interminable. After arriving at the airport, and going through the usual airport procedures, she boarded the plane, and made her way towards her seat. As she lowered herself into her seat, a familiar voice spoke to her, “Asha, I didn’t know you were flying to Bombay.”

Startled, Asha looked at the seat across the aisle and discovered Anouk Surya.

 

 

……

 

 

Harold awakened gradually, his eyes growing accustomed to the dark. He could discern the shape of a night table with a lamp next to him, a sofa and chair on one side. It felt like a large room. He groped around for the lamp switch, and after a painful minute, flicked it on.

The simple room had a wooden table and a few chairs on one side. Harold considered himself the only untidy object in the room. He glanced at his watch and noticed that it was four in the morning. He stood up uncertainly and staggered to the bathroom to splash his face with some water. When he emerged, he drew the indigo curtains. The exposed French windows revealed a marvelous sight, a night sky bright and starry. He couldn’t be in Bombay. This house was perched atop a hill, and he could see signs of a little hamlet in the valley. His skull hurt terribly. He touched the back of his head gingerly and winced. It seemed like a bump, a bruise, and a cut all in one.

For a brief moment, Harold forgot his predicament and succumbed to the charms of the village that lay sprawled below the hilltop. He felt his aching head once again, and then he remembered. After a brief scuffle outside the Taj, his captors had forced him into a car and knocked him out with a blow to his head.

For the first time, he accepted that he was confronting a powerful enemy. A shiver coursed through his back. So far, he had dealt with it lightly, overconfident after his success with the Harvard killings. But the throbbing bruise in the back of his head warned him of the perils ahead.

The French windows and the white door were locked. He rapped on the door. When no one answered, he banged on it with his fist. Was he alone in the house? He picked up a chair and tried to break the windows, but to no avail.

He thought he would rest and wait till the morning. Perhaps his captors would surface then. He doffed his shoes, burrowed comfortably into bed, and curled off to sleep.

When he awoke again, it was eleven-thirty a.m. He rose, still sore, and tried the door. It was locked. He knocked on it again, but no one responded. They were clearly trying his patience. He wondered what they had in mind.

Hungry, he opened the armoire in the corner. To his surprise, he saw his suitcase. He opened it to find his belongings neatly packed. He realized his captors intended his incarceration to last a long time. They had been considerate, and to him that implied an even more powerful foe than he had imagined.

He bathed, shaved, and dressed. He looked down again upon the bustling village. He could see a class in progress under a thatched roof supported by bamboo poles. About thirty children appeared to be reciting a lesson. The sky was a clear blue, untouched by the pollution of Bombay.

 

……

 

 

Chaturvedi scratched his head. The police had failed to uncover any clues that might reveal Harold’s whereabouts. An annoying fly buzzed around. His office at Kalyna on the Bombay University campus was bare, except for a worn, wooden desk and chair at one end of the rectangular room, with an open window behind him. Along one wall shelves overflowed with books. The walls were painted a curious, creamy yellow, the hallmark of university rooms, but Chaturvedi had adorned the center of the large room with a brown and white dhurrie.

He had one ghost of a lead, Harold’s diary, which he inspected, as the fly buzzed around the room. It alighted on the desk near Chaturvedi’s left elbow, and he swatted it with the diary. He cleared the mess with some paper and wiped the page on Harold’s diary clean.

The diary indicated that Harold had visited KP’s house just before he was kidnapped. Chaturvedi thought he could at least fix the time of Harold’s disappearance more precisely and learn from KP if Harold had indicated anything unusual during their dinner. He felt it was unlikely that Harold was being held in Bombay. On the other hand, his captors couldn’t have transported him very far from here.

He gathered his satchel and moved to the door. He had an appointment with KP at six o’clock at his home. Harold walked to the entrance of the campus and hailed a cab. He was already late and couldn’t reach it in time by bus. As he settled down for the long ride, he pulled out a new work on sculpture that had just arrived in the mail.

When they arrived an hour and a half later, it was already six-thirty. Chaturvedi paid the cab and rang the doorbell. He had attended a party at his house once for a conference on Indian Studies that KP had organized. KP himself opened the door and welcomed him in.

“Come in, Chaturvedi. What a surprise! What can I do for you?”

“I won’t take up too much of your time. Harold has disappeared, been kidnapped.”

“What?” KP exclaimed. “He was with me just the other day. What happened? When?”

“He seems to have gone missing right after he came to see you. The police think it’s a kidnapping because his room at the Taj was ransacked.”

“Come in. Sit down. Tell me what happened. Can I offer you something?”

“I called Harold in his room late that night, around eleven, because I had just received word of an invitation from Columbia University.” A servant handed Chaturvedi a glass of lassi. “I called again at eleven-thirty and then at midnight and twelve-thirty, but there was still no answer. I was a little worried. That wasn’t like Harold.  Twelve-thirty was late for him to be out. I live nearby so I went to the Taj and forced them to open his room. The room was in a shambles. I picked up Harold’s diary before the police came, an Inspector Ghurye. He spoke at length on the sociology of crime, but there were no clues to be found. Ghurye concluded that it was a kidnapping, a rare occurrence in Bombay, but the logic of the facts was inescapable.”

“This is very disturbing. Why would anyone want to kidnap Harold?”

“That’s what I thought I’d ask you, KP. You were the last to see him. Did he say anything that might indicate he was in danger?”

“No. We talked mostly in general terms about culture and the like. He did mention he had found the Sahityashastra. Could that be it?”

“It could be. We hadn’t had time to meet yet, so he barely mentioned it to me,” Chaturvedi said. “What do you know about it?”

“Not much. But he wanted to translate it and thought I could help him with the distribution.”

“When exactly did he leave?”

“About ten-thirty. He was dropped off in my car, so we know that he got to the Taj for sure.”

A servant appeared to announce that KP had a phone call. KP excused himself momentarily. He returned in just a few minutes and their conversation resumed.

“That’s a good point. I had just assumed it so far, that he got to his room, without quite realizing it,” Chaturvedi said.

“That’s right. He probably got to his room as well, not just to the hotel. I think we can safely assume that.”

“You’ve been a big help, KP. I still don’t know how to proceed, but I think I have a better sense of what must have happened. My hunch is that he is somewhere in the outskirts of Bombay and I am going to suggest to Inspector Ghurye to look in places like Khandala and Lonavala,” Chaturvedi said, rising to leave.

“Not at all. Let me know if you get news,” KP said, as he escorted him to the door.

Chaturvedi walked out of the house and swung towards Peddar Road. At eight, the traffic was still snarled with gridlock. He managed to flag down a cab after about fifteen minutes, and he directed the cabbie towards Colaba. It was dark and eerie when he reached home and the whole building was quiet. The lights had gone out in the lobby and elevator. In the overpowering silence Chaturvedi’s flesh prickled. He entered the lift. As the door closed, and the lift began its slow ascent, he remembered his uneasy feeling in Harold’s room at the Taj. As he stepped out on the fifth floor, his right foot crushed some glass. He realized someone had smashed the bulb on the ceiling. He fumbled for his keys and after an awkward moment inserted the key in the lock and opened the door.

His son was busy with his homework on the dining table as usual and his daughter was watching television. His wife was away in Calcutta. Chaturvedi sighed, and slammed the door behind him.

 

 

……

 

 

Harold’s thoughts drifted to Asha. Just as he was about to sit, he saw the handle on the door turn noiselessly. The door swung open. A young man entered carrying a tray. He had penetrating, dark eyes and an air of confidence.

“Hello,” Harold said. The man set the tray upon the round table.

“Hello,” the man said evenly.

“Where are we, can I ask?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. I’m to ensure that you are comfortable. That is all,” he said with a hint of a smile.

“What is your name?”

“Mahesh.”

“Have a seat, Mahesh. Why don’t you join me?”

“Doctor Stone, you will not get any information from me.”

“Be a sport. Are we alone here? Are there other people in the house besides us?”

“You are persistent. I’m sorry I cannot help you.”

“Tell me about yourself then. You speak good English. Are you a graduate of a university?” Harold asked.

“English has imposed a foreign culture on us. We are nativists. Yes, I graduated from St. Xavier’s College in Bombay,” Mahesh said.

“You sound like an intelligent young man. What do you mean by nativism, Mahesh?”

“I mean ideas that are natural to a time and place, that are not external or foreign. Hindu civilization and Hindu civilization alone is native to this Indian-Hindu soil.”

“And why do you favor nativism?”

“Because our civilization has been suppressed for the last thousand years by foreign invaders and barbarians. Hindu civilization will be great once again. Many in the cultural renaissance of India in the first half of this century said so. We are merely the instruments of those ideas.”

“I agree with you about the greatness of Indian civilization. After all, I’m an Indologist. But I think the way to make it even greater is to expose it to the world rather than turn nativist. The West has been strong for the last four hundred years and India should benefit from its advances in all disciplines and spheres of action. That is what a mature civilization would do. Not only that, it wouldn’t exclude other religions on its soil.”

“Everyone is welcome in this Hindu land,” Mahesh said.

“Who else is in this with you?”

“Knock on your door if you need anything.” Mahesh shut the door.

On the tray was arrayed a South Indian breakfast of idlis and sambar and chutney. Ravenous, Harold devoured the meal. He grudgingly admitted that his captors did things in style. It indicated confidence and strength. He realized for the first time that he was facing a group, perhaps even a secret group. Since Meghnad’s murder, the police had been searching for a single individual, puzzled that one individual’s reach should span India and America in so encompassing a way. He guessed this was a political organization of some sort. His intuition suggested that it couldn’t be a political party or any group affiliated directly with a party. This was something altogether more sinister.

 

 

……

 

 

Samir took Asha to lunch at China Garden at Kemp’s Corner, a popular, marbled, and somewhat noisy place. They threaded their way across the crowded dining room as the maitre d’ showed them to a table in the far corner. Conversations echoed off the floor and walls to produce a din that was usually absorbed by carpets and curtains in other restaurants.

Asha had arrived at two in the morning and stayed at the Centaur. After much hesitation, she had called Samir the next day. Mainly out of nervousness, Asha spoke at length about Harold’s disappearance. Out of a sense of deep relief, Samir didn’t interrupt her.

At the restaurant, Asha brought him up to date with what Harold had written to her. She informed him of the string of murders and how Harold had found the Sahityashastra. Samir had never heard of the text. Asha claimed it provided an internal critique of fundamentalism, and that it could have an impact on the political situation if even a small number of people were to read it. Harold’s letter had been long but hurried, she could tell from his familiar handwriting, and she had guessed at some of the connections.

The waiter approached and they asked for a little more time. They scanned their menus as Samir warned Asha about the spices. They decided on some dumplings and chicken and signaled to the waiter. After they ordered, they resumed their conversation about the Sahityashastra.

As they were talking, a heavy-set man sat down at the table next to theirs. For a brief moment, he surveyed the restaurant, and then looked directly at Asha. “If you do as I say, no one will get hurt.”

As Asha opened her mouth, the man tapped his finger on his lips and shook his head slowly. The rest of the restaurant receded from their view. No one spoke and the noise in the restaurant died down to a distant murmur. Then, all at once, Samir took Asha’s hand and, ignoring the man, led her hastily out of the restaurant. The stranger muttered a loud warning half under his breath, causing some heads at neighboring tables to turn, but was unable to stop them in the midst of so many people. Samir and Asha were soon outside, looking for a cab. Upon hailing one, Samir, agitated, ordered the cabbie to drive to a nearby restaurant called Naaz, a quieter place less likely to attract attention.

A charming, teetering, ramshackle three-story restaurant, Naaz was located on one corner of Malabar Hill, Bombay’s most posh residential location with a panoramic view of the city. The neem trees shielded the interior from the road and shrouded it in secrecy. Its cheap, aluminum tables and chairs lent it a kind of minimalist urgency of purpose, where every word exchanged between lovers counted as solemnly as their gestures and looks. They sat to calm down for a while.

“What was all that about?” Samir said.

“I haven’t the faintest idea. Who could that have been? Maybe it has to do with the book. Maybe they’re already on to me,” Asha said.

“Could be. I wonder how.”

Asha paused to think. Then she said in a measured and determined voice, “I think I should translate the Sahityashastra. And we should somehow disseminate it.” In the long silence, they pondered the boldness of the idea.

“Do you think you could manage a translation? Have you ever translated anything before?” Samir asked.

“Not really. But I think I could do it. But I don’t know how we’d distribute it.”

“We seem to have two choices, to rescue Harold or to translate and disseminate the Sahityashastra. We couldn’t hope to do both simultaneously.”

“I’m worried about Harold,” Asha said.

“I think he’d want us to do the translation.”

“How would we go about it and where would we do it?” Asha asked.

“For a start, I don’t think you should stay at the Centaur on your own. And I don’t think you should stay at my place either. Maybe you shouldn’t even be in Bombay,” Samir said.

“Exactly. After all, Harold was kidnapped here.”

“Don’t panic. So far, it seems like they’re after the Sahityashastra and that we must translate it before they get to us. How long would it take you to translate it?”

“I’ve already skimmed through it. If I did nothing else, I think I could do it in just about three months at the fastest. To make it intelligible to a wider public, I would have to work harder. Harold’s daughter works on translation at AEC and I think they’ve made some sort of breakthrough there, which makes it easier to translate texts. I may be able to ask her about that.”

“Three months isn’t too long. I was fearing it would take a year.”

“It won’t be a scholarly translation. The argument is complex and Harold said it was parallel to ideas from economics. I can’t imagine how Bharata thought of such a beast so long ago. I will also have to translate from Bharata’s world to our world. But it is the argument that will have rhetorical and logical force and that I must clarify. Besides, of course, Bharata’s undoubted place in the canon will seriously undermine the revivalists and fundamentalists, since the argument comes from within its folds, so to speak.”

“I have an idea about distribution. But we can talk about that later. The first task is to find a place to work. Do you know Nirana?” Samir asked.

“Harold mentioned it to me. But do we really need to go so far? How about Lonavala?” Asha said. “Some friends took me there once.”

“I was thinking of something more romantic.”

Asha slid her hand onto his and caressed it.

“On second thought, we should be in Lonavala or somewhere near Bombay. Nirana is too isolated. And if they found us there, we’d be trapped,” Samir said.

“That seems right. But what if we went back to the U.S.? We might be completely safe there. What do you think?”

“It’s a thought. But, don’t forget the murders in New York. I don’t know about being safe. Besides, it’s expensive,” Samir said.

“Don’t worry about expenses. I can support you temporarily. We have to manage just three or four months.”

“Where in the U.S. would we go?” Samir said.

“Anywhere. Or we could keep moving.”

“Let’s think about it tonight. It’s a good idea. They’d never think of looking for us there.”

“Of course, it means we’re leaving Harold to fend for himself and I don’t like that,” Asha said.

“What about Chaturvedi? Can’t he help in some way?”

“I’m sure he’s doing all he can. In any case, we should meet him before we go.”

“Have you brought the original copy of the Sahityashastra with you?”

“Yes. I thought we might need it. Maybe that is what the man was after.”

“Quite possibly,” Samir said.

They had finished their meal. They had been sitting, talking animatedly for about twenty minutes, when the waiter approached them to ask if they wanted to order anything else. With that cue they asked for the check.

“There’s a party in a couple of days we should go to. It’s the sixtieth birthday party of Seth, a billionaire, and it’s on his ship,” Samir said. “A lot of people will be attending and we might meet someone who could give us a clue. I have a feeling our enemies are the types of people who will be there.”

“It might be dangerous,” Asha said.

“Indeed,” Samir replied.

 

 

……

 

 

After fetching Asha’s bag from the Centaur, Samir packed and they cabbed it to a friend’s apartment on Warden Road. Samir had left a note for his father about their plans, adding that he would be in touch with him soon. When they arrived at Deepak’s place and rang the doorbell, a balding, stocky man in a striped kurta opened the door.

“Meet Asha, my friend from New York. This is Deepak. Asha is an Indianist at Columbia University, Deepak writes both fiction and nonfiction. He specializes in Greek philosophy. I’m sorry about the short notice. Fact is stranger than fiction, let me tell you.”

“Nice to meet you,” Deepak said, extending his hand.

“Deepak is writing a book about our concepts and categories and how they can shift and how we use them to perceive and experience and act upon the world. Deepak, you may be writing about it, but Asha and I are in it. We have to stay with you for a couple of days while we make plans. I hope you don’t mind. They’re after us.”

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you,” Deepak said good-naturedly.

As Samir and Asha laughed, they felt themselves relax. Asha recounted the whole story, starting with Meghnad’s death at the Asia Society eight months ago.

Deepak, silent for a while, said, “My word! What have you been up to?”

“That is why we need to lie low for a bit. We have to go to Ahmedabad to meet an Indianist tomorrow. We’ll be away for a day. We’ll go to Seth’s party the next day. You’re coming too, aren’t you? I’m hoping to get a sense of whom we’re up against. The very next day, we’ll fly to Chicago where we’ll stay with a colleague of Asha’s. How does that sound?” Samir asked.

“You can stay as long as you want,” Deepak said.

He showed them to a room and let them settle in.

“I had completely forgotten about Anouk. Did I tell you I met her on the flight to Bombay? She’s staying here with a friend on Malabar Hill,” Asha said.

“I wonder what she’s doing here?” Samir said. “I don’t think you should tell her where we are.”

“Anouk’s fine. But you’re right. Why take a risk? Or put her at risk?” Asha said.

That evening they were at Bombay Central, a railway station in Bombay from which one of the two arteries of the railway network originated. The maroon compartment with a yellow stripe waited stoically behind Asha, about five feet away from her. The train to Ahmedabad was scheduled to leave in ten minutes. Inside, Samir stowed their bags. People were milling about on the crowded platform, saying goodbyes, boarding the train, and finding their seats. Coolies in bright red helped people with luggage, and vendors attempted to hawk their wares, crooning in resonant tones that carried far. Their chants rose in a cacophony to the ceiling, a good twenty-five feet above.

The engine blared, warning passengers to finish their goodbyes. Asha cast one last look at the color and noise of the platform and climbed aboard. She caught sight of Samir beside a window and sat across from him.

“I love train journeys,” she said.

 

 

……

 

A week had elapsed. Harold had not made any significant progress with Mahesh. He realized that the people incarcerating him wanted to know the location of the original version of the Sahityashastra. They were not satisfied with the copy they had found in his room. It was too dangerous for them to let anyone else have access to it.

He paced about and then knocked on the door. When Mahesh appeared, Harold tried to engage him in conversation once more.

“Does your group have a name?” Harold asked.

“I suppose there’s no harm in telling you that. Our name is Fundamentals,” Mahesh said. “But I’m not telling you any more.” He withdrew as quickly as he came, carrying the tray he had brought in earlier.

The name sounded deeply ambiguous, quite plain at one level, but suggestive, with sinister undertones.

Harold had still not recovered fully from the blow to his head. It continued to throb. His body ached. His daily rhythms and sleep cycle had become quite irregular. He sprawled across the bed and, in half a minute, he was fast asleep.

When he awoke several hours later, the sky had paled to pink, and the town below looked remote, a blur without detail. Harold rubbed his eyes and yawned, startled to notice it was seven p.m. He thought momentarily of Nisha and longed to hold her in his arms. He stood, tidied himself, and rapped loudly on the door.

In a minute, he heard Mahesh on the other side.

“I was wondering if I could have a drink,” Harold said.

“What would you like?”

“Something cold. A Coke, perhaps?”

As Harold sat at the table and waited, he devised a plan. He had to escape. He had no idea what they had in store for him. He had a feeling they wouldn’t hesitate to kill him, not after all the mayhem in New York and Nirana.

The door opened suddenly, interrupting Harold’s thoughts, and Mahesh ferried in a glass of Coke. He set it down on the table.

“When is dinner, Mahesh?”

“Let’s see. It’s seven-fifteen right now. How about eight-thirty?”

“Sounds good to me. Why don’t you join me? It’s awfully quiet here.”

“I have other things to attend to. I’m sorry.”

“When did you get involved in all this?”

“I have to go now.”

“Couldn’t I eat a bit earlier, say at eight?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” Before Harold could say another word, Mahesh was gone.

Harold got up quickly and packed, keeping his suitcase ready for a speedy exit. He sipped his Coke and waited. He wondered if anyone had missed his presence by now in Bombay. He had failed to attend two appointments, one with Chaturvedi and another with Yusuf Ali and Gautam Bose. Besides, he thought, the housekeeping people at the Taj would surely have discovered his ransacked room. Maybe the police were searching for him at this precise moment.

As he drained his glass, the clock’s hands tilted towards eight. Harold picked up a chair and waited behind the door, feeling fleetingly bad for Mahesh, but there was no other way. Sometimes, brute force had to be met with brute force.

Exactly at eight, there was a light knock and the door handle turned. Harold’s body tensed. The door swung open. The first thing that he saw was a tray with his dinner, aromatic and pungent odors filling his nostrils, and he felt a twinge of regret at his hastily concocted plan.

As Mahesh appeared in full view, Harold crashed the chair down on his unsuspecting head. Mahesh collapsed and the kadhi and vegetables scattered. Without a moment’s hesitation, Harold picked up his suitcase and sprinted out of the bedroom into a large oblong room with a black carpet on a polished stone floor. The room was simply furnished, but there were clusters of many sofas and chairs. Before Harold could absorb it all, he came to a sudden halt.

Seated in the center of the room, on a dark sofa, was Aditya Gandhi. 

 

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