I lay on the bed. I was not ill. I just could not get up. I lacked the strength. I looked out of the window. Evening. The chowk of the Empire Hotel, the biggest in Mumbai. The same buildings. The same crowds of people. Trams, buses, cars. The same chaos.
I remembered all those other cities: London, Paris, Venice, Naples... I have a friend, Jaggu, who has an odd habit. In the middle of a sentence, he would stop suddenly. “What are you thinking about, Jaggu?” I’d ask. His voice would be plangent with melancholy. “You’ll laugh but it just occurred to me that it’s four o’clock now and I can see the Calcutta Mail steaming into Nagpur. The Delhi Express will be at Jhansi, the Punjab Mail at Delhi, the Frontier Mail at Nagda and oh yes, the Madras Mail will soon leave Solapur.”
I would laugh but that didn’t stop Jaggu from swooping over the map. At these times, I would think of us flying kites together. That was when Jaggu’s imagination would take wing. If we could reach those heights and look down, what an infinite expanse of land we would see, how many countries take in at a glance.
Jaggu’s mind riding all the Indian trains at once seemed odd then; it seems natural now. Or at least today. For it is evening and I am in Bombay but it must be noon in London.
At this time, I would be picking my way through Piccadilly. In another half an hour, it would be time for lunch. I’d leave Shaftesbury Avenue and take a detour through North Regent Street to get to Vine Street and a favourite restaurant. With me, a girl from my college. We did not love each other but enjoyed each other’s company.
In the middle of Piccadilly is the fountain of Anteros. We would linger on the steps of the fountain as the traffic surged around us and waves of people and cars formed and broke in the circle; all very disciplined though. When the sun came out, a cyclone of colour and beauty would erupt. Even after all these weeks, I could still see the vivid clothes, the beautiful faces and the shapely legs; hear the click of high-laced boots and high heels; smell the aromas of perfume and face powder. These were the highlights of my day.
And Paris? What of Paris? It was the 14th of July, the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Bastille Day. When dance music begins to play, the European body begins to move to it, as if by a natural response. Mentioning the 14th of July was like turning on the music. In the streets, in the alleys, in the shops and cafés, Paris couldn’t stop dancing.
The celebrations had let loose a turbulence of people and laughter and beakers full of the warm South. Beautiful buildings, beautiful young women, beautiful clothes, beautiful streets, beautiful scenes – everything seemed to speak of the best of times. I would recall the heights to which humanity seemed to have risen all over Europe. Naples was the same. And Genoa. People were suddenly frantic in their desire to connect, to live.
All those cities now pass before my eyes. Not Berlin. I have not seen Berlin but that name returns again and again. Herta was from Berlin. I shut off the view of Bombay, return my head to the pillow. When will this wave of pain ebb?
What is this pain about? Herta’s love?
Separation from her? I am not a weak man. I have borne the blows of parting before this. I have taken harder knocks. I have watched several small fires burn themselves out. I have poked around in the sad cold ashes and found no sparks.
They say the wounds of love are like those inflicted by a tigress: they open their mouths again and again. I bear these wounds on my body but I seem hale and hearty. And yet this new sorrow seems incomparable to anything I have borne before, a near-limitless pain. Will I ever be free of it?
Herta killed herself.
Did I tell you?
I read it in today’s Times. There’s a small section for news from Hong Kong. One of the passengers on the ship I took to get to Mumbai, a Miss Herta von Hinne, jumped into the sea and killed herself. The reporter did not know why. For a moment, I felt only I could know why. And then that certainty faded.
No, I did not know either.
I have been in Mumbai for two days now.
My luggage is untouched. I have met no one. My clothes remain on my body. I sleep in them. I thought I would go out today. Now, I think not. The Times is in front of me.
With news from Hong Kong.
News of a suicide.
Another news item in the paper mentions a German householder, Herr Nober. He has been sentenced to three years in jail. A third item concerns the corpse of a German youth, Karl Franz. It was found outside the city in a grove of trees. I knew that name too. Herta had loved Karl once. And Nober was the manager of a German company in which Herta had been assistant manager.
Everything was clear in my head. Those eleven days, everyone’s ages, their life stories, their futures...and now Herta’s suicide. Another wave of grief ebbed, leaving me numb. The pain was draining my energy as through a wound. When grief bubbles up, there’s a moment in which I feel I should mutiny against its dominion, rise up, do something. But what can I do alone? Can the fluttering of a single tree release a tempest?
Writing this is an attempt to lighten that load. But how to write? Where to begin? Where to end? I seem to have begun where I should have ended. But then perhaps, that is as it should be, for my world has been turned upside down. Beginnings and endings, days and dates, everything seems to be disordered. I’m going to try and calm down and tell my story.
Excerpted with permission from Battlefield, Vishram Bedekar, translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger.
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