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The Simplicity Of Love- An Easter Short Story

The Simplicity Of Love- An Easter Short Story
Satendra Nandan
March 30
10:44 2016

Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. His collection of Fijian short stories, Ashes and Waves, is due for publication later this year. This is Part I of the following short story.

 

Gulab Sharma, Raj’s best friend, wasn’t his friend, after all. Raj felt a kind of betrayal after Gulab married Karuna, the girl Raj was falling in love with during his final year at the secondary school where the three of them were studying.

Their school was built on the banks of the Nadi River, next to a temple. Indeed it grew as an extension of the temple, and in Raj’s mind the place of worship and the school remained connected with the image of god Ganesh, with his elephantine face, and a fulfilled belly. And that twinkle in his eyes that seem to see all.

Karuna was studying in the form below Raj.

 

Raj’s love for Karuna

The classrooms had no walls and Raj would often glimpse her crimson cheeks like mangoes glowing on the top branches of his Nani’s mango tree, beyond his reach. And because these mangoes reminded Raj of Karuna’s cheeks, full and pure, he never threw a stone or a broken stick at them. It is amazing how you begin to care for things that remind you of certain people.

Raj loved the way she smiled – shy but full of radiance and her long, black hair flowing in his dreams. Often Raj had to re-read the page or passage he had just read because she’d seep into his consciousness as a sad Hindi film song. The fact that Mr Mahabir, the English teacher, was a firm believer in silent reading didn’t help much.

There were afternoons when Karuna would stand on the concrete edge of her classroom, in the afternoon sun, and stare at the temple on the right where a dark, potent Shiva lingam stood erect in its black, stony solidity in the middle with the portraits of a variety of gods and goddesses painted in a splash and clash of holi colours on the inner partition of the temple. Below each figure, in black, was the signature of the painter, Mr Harry.

As was his training and habit, Raj would bow to these painted statues with reverence and say a silent prayer to the Lord of Life, visible and invisible, the creator and destroyer of more than his universe, to help him pass his Senior Cambridge examination.

 

Karuna, compassionate and seductive

Karuna would glance compassionately at the village women who came with their dusty children, fresh fruits, wilting flowers and a coconut on a copper plate and would go round and round the temple. Then, after several circles, they’d hand the plate to the pujari who would ring the bell seven times, annoying Mr Mahabir, disturbing his lesson and waking up drowsy children in Ratu Reddy’s history class.

Sometimes Karuna would sit on the concrete floor, with her go pretty legs dangling seductively, gazing across the languid river. Her bright eyes had a distant look, always searching for something. Beyond the drab school building on the river riparian banks the teitei grew with abandon: dalo, kumala, trees bent with beautiful breadfruits, bananas ripening behind yellowing leaves giving one a feeling of the richness of a wild garden in alluvial soil.

And just before the dilapidated, wooden bridge, the women and girls had built a washing and bathing place. They’d wash their sulus and bula shirts, dance on the slippery bank of the river, scream with delight and dive into the warm water.

There were occasions when they would attract the students by whistling and waving and when we responded, they’d fling their sulus, and plunge into the river, before Ratu could turn his head to see what interested his students more than his version of the French Revolution.

 

Growing together and separate

The river flowed, green in the morning, emerald in the afternoon. Raj often thought if it was the river that made Karuna look so romantic, her slim waist, like a silvery fish flitting through the ripples. So on the bank of the Nadi by a Hindu temple, near a Fijian koro, Raj and Karuna learned their lessons and grew, together and separate, dreaming and longing, never touching each other, keeping the secrets of their muted love to themselves.

In the evening, as the leaves of the raintrees were closing, slanting the rays of the sun refracted in the water, Raj made his way through the one-street town with corrugated iron and timber buildings to the bus stop. There was only one two-storey concrete building then in the middle of the town. It belonged to the mayor who had his name printed in three languages: English, Fijian and Hindi and the Oum symbol at the beginning and end of the lettering in sanguinary colours. Again the sign-painter’s trade was conspicuously displayed: HARRY SIGNS.

Karuna would disappear into that building with her QANTAS bag full of books.

Raj would walk behind watching her gait and movements, wondering if ever he’d have the joy of carrying that burden for her at least to her door.

 

Love does strange,embarrassing things

Raj had nothing to say to her but he walked on the same footpath she walked on. Love makes you do strange, embarrassing things, especially when you lack courage.

She was, after all, Raj’s first love. Of course, she didn’t know about it, though sometimes on a rainy day, across the forbidden boundary of the classrooms, she’d look at Raj with tenderness, then at the raindrops rolling pit-a-pat from the corrugated iron sheets above their heads onto the green dalo leaves. Because of that memory, the eyes of a girl and her rose-lips slightly open, Raj always felt romantic in falling rain; even during hurricanes he was exhilarated like a mad man singing by the wind-swept seashore.

 

Raj’s shame – selling farm fresh vegetables 

Gulab, his friend, was the class prefect and came from the town. His father was the owner of several buildings at the back of the town where, much to Raj’s shame, he used to sell farm fresh vegetables to Ramasami’s Indian Lodge for his busfare and textbooks. Karuna never saw Raj loaded with two soiled sacks, getting off Taki’s rickety old bus and carrying the dirty sacks to Ramasami’s Lodge: tomatoes, baigans, snake beans and, at times, Chinese cabbage.

Gulab, of course, knew about it because when Raj stayed at his house overnight to help him with maths, he’d ask needlessly, ‘Aren’t you selling baigans tomorrow?’

‘No,’ Raj would spit back, teaching him a wrong step to the solution of a mathematical problem.

One evening, after their swim in the river, flowing not far from his father’s mansion, built with ‘insurance-burn’ money, Gulab looked at his pink comb and remarked sadly, ‘My hair is falling. Look!’

Raj suppressed his delight and examined the black knot of hair. He tried to reassure him that some hair falls naturally to let new ones grow more healthy. Gulab didn’t seem convinced and knew that no greater tragedy can hit a twenty-year old young man than the first intimations of growing bald. It was more terrible than thoughts of suicide.

‘I don’t think you’ll ever lose your hair?’ he enquired hoping Raj would deny the truth of it so that they would be partners in distress.

Raj didn’t answer immediately and as they reached his room, Raj went to the mirror and was horrified to see another swelling raising its ugly head below his chin.

 

Celebrating after exams

Gulab and Raj did their Senior Cambridge together. The evening of the last paper, they stayed at Gulab’s home. His mother had invited him and had made some Indian sweetmeats: halwa, gulab jamun, jalebi and laddu to celebrate the end of a most challenging period of their life. That they had survived four years of Ratu’s teaching was a cause for thanksgiving.

After feasting, they decided to go and see a Hindi film at Harry Braiya’s theatre.

It was a religious film starring Nirupa Roy, Raj’s favourite actress, walking in the gardens of Brindavan, the abode of Lord Krishna. She was singing songs calling Krishna to come to her for his Radha was alone and thirsty. Her songs and dances, her half-clad bosom and chandramukhi face, shaped Raj’s imaginative life more deeply than he’d have realised then.

 

Movie stirs Raj’s love for Karuna

The love of Radha-Krishna given life among those flowers, peacocks, cows and the haunting melody of Krishna’s flute heard as a distant music stirred Raj’s love for Karuna. He was dying to see a scene where Krishna would kiss Radha but always a  holy cow would come at the critical moment, or when there was a chance of seeing the kiss reflected in the crystal pond, a jasmine petal would fall from Nirupa’s hair and the ripples would distort and dissolve the divine lovers’ images.

Still stars danced in Raj’s heart, and the melancholy music hummed in his soul as he walked back to Gulab’s home looking at the squares of illuminated curtains in the houses with their doors secured.

And as he walked, miles to go before I sleep, Karuna sang in his heartbeats.

Gulab and he arrived at his place a little after midnight. Gulab looked a bit pensive – maybe the film or the end of his school career;so they played cards for a while. Raj even saw him cheat a couple of times but didn’t say anything as he was experiencing a heightened sense of life that night – a rare mood for him. Whenever he won at cards, Gulab would exclaim: Lucky in cards, unlucky in love!

‘Superstition!’ Raj scoffed.

‘You’ll see!’ he warned.

 

Good friends on the eve of taking different roads

They laughed together like two good friends on the eve of taking different roads. As Gulab shuffled the cards, Raj went outside to relieve himself of Harry Braiya’s sweet tea sold at the cinema hall. The sky was full of stars, shimmering in the blue night. It was that time of midnight tenderness, when most birds and beasts rest with the earth, and only bats are awake eating ripe mangoes and the ancient eyes of the owls shine wisely.

Raj returned to Gulab’s room, his hand slightly wet, his curly hair covered in dew, knowing Gulab would have dealt both the Jokers in the pack in his set of cards. Suddenly Gulab got up and went to his study desk and brought out a white packet with Desai Bookshops printed boldly on it. Inside was a white envelope with a white Easter card in it.

 

Easter card for Karuna?

It was the first time Raj was really seeing, rather handling, an Easter card. As his parents were village Hindus, he’d never received or sent one. Raj picked the card up and touched the lettering inside with a sense of worship as if he was beholding the portrait of Lord Krishna. It had a large silver cross embossed and a few stars in gold and said simply: A Blessed Easter.

He was about to let it touch his forehead, when Gulab said, ‘Why don’t you send it to Karuna?’

The thought had never occurred to Raj. His hands trembled, his lips sealed. His heart palpitated as if he had been caught red-handed at some unnatural act, a guilty thing surprised.

‘No, nothing to worry, Bro, just a card wishing her joy. Just sign here.’

Gulab put his thumb on the immaculate, white spot. Raj noticed his nicotine stained nails, split at the edges.

Raj got up from his desk, opened the door and walked out into the courtyard. The dogs were dozing under the mango tree, the stars twinkled and trembled; a terrible sense of loneliness invaded his spirit as he stared at them. How often he’d repeated under his breath when an emptiness filled his spirit: In you I’ve loved so many, my beloved!

Raj heard the faint sound of a flute floating from across the river. Surely not at this hour? But there are lonely mad men around at any time.

So he went back into Gulab’s room where his best friend was sitting on his bed with his bare, brown chest shining in the light, his manly nipples like brown sultanas. Raj borrowed his fountain pen and wrote ‘Love’ on the card and signed his name. He sealed the envelope after licking the flap with his tongue.

Gulab enquired if he had signed it.

‘Signed,’ he revealed, fearfully.

‘Let me see!’

‘No, I’ve sealed it.’

‘Oh, no,’ he protested. ‘I wanted to sign it, too.’

‘You can get another and send it to her,’ Raj suggested, slightly irritated.

 

Gulab, in love with another

‘No, not to her. I don’t like her that much.’

Then he told Raj he was in love with Master Shanti Lal’s daughter, Shantaben, who lived in one of his father’s rented flats. Somehow he had sensed that Raj liked Karuna and he was glad.

 

 

As he began telling Raj of his clandestine meetings with Shanta, Raj slipped under the brown blanket and slept a dreamless sleep – a sky without stars.

Next morning Raj went to the Nadi Post Office, a wooden building, and bought a two-penny green stamp from a greying Mr Nair with our new Queen’s lovely portrait on it, licked the stamp and posted the card. Then in Taki’s rickety old bus, with Taki driving it himself, Raj went home to his village, little realising that he had made a large gesture in his life.

 

Raj has mail

One evening in January, his neighbour Nathu, who worked as a watchman at the airport rubbish tip, told Raj that he’d seen a letter addressed to him at Nataly’s shop – the local postal agency. Raj thought perhaps it was a letter from Principal Ratu Reddy telling him of the dreaded results but that wasn’t due for another couple of months from our Queen’s country. Besides, they were always broadcast over the local radio – a great honour if you passed the highest examination of the land especially one set in England. The names of the schools were also given – a clever way of informing the public which were the better schools.

Ratu had remarked, ‘Why not name the principals, too?’

Raj rode his cousin Ramu’s bike to Nataly’s shop near the edge of the airport. Mrs Nataly, a round, smooth-face woman of about forty, got the letter out of a pile and handed it to him with a smile. The writing on the envelope was elegant and stylish. Certainly not Ratu’s scrawl that reflected his meanness and historical ignorance.

 

‘Love, Mary Karuna’  His heart beat like a fish thrown out of water.

Raj bought a cone of ice-cream and went out of the shop as a gang of airport youths came bouncing in. Raj tore the envelope open and, inside on a sheet of thin blue paper, was the letter written carefully. She told him details of her day’s activities, the books she read and how the holidays were so boring. At the end she mentioned his card, her best gift this holy season. And had signed: ‘Love, Mary Karuna’.

Love: Raj was thrilled; and afraid. What a rash thing he had done. What if the letter was discovered by Ratu Reddy? His whole reputation would be in tatters. Ratu had said in the assembly that Raj was the ‘dark horse’ of the school – an expression he didn’t quite appreciate coming from a darker man until someone explained its idiomatic meaning to him. He may not even get his results if Ratu discovered he was writing and receiving love-letters from his school girls.

Mrs Murtiamma would have a field day in the staff room and then with the senior girls under the avocado tree always telling them to cover their breasts properly while exposing her own darkening cleavage, with a black spot in the middle, in a low cut blouse and a golden fountain pen plunged voluptuously in the centre.

 

Raj afraid In short, he was afraid.

And what if Father found the letter? Although he couldn’t read or write English, he was bound to take it to Hardayal Pandit in the town, Gulab’s grandfather, Raj’s father’s educational advisor and the senior clerk in a  corrupt and corrupting law firm.

Hardayal would read, put two and two together and make it twenty-two! Raj’s future would be ruined because Hardayal had a strange hold over Father, much to the annoyance of Birbal, his father’s village advisor.

‘Arre, bhai, listen to me. This boy can’t study no more. Get him married soon, Boss. Otherwise, he will run away with some wild woman!’

That was Hardayal’s final insight. I heard Father repeating it to mother about others’ sons and daughters.

And yet Raj couldn’t tear the letter and scatter the pieces of delicate, blue paper into the wind which cannot read. That would have been an act of treachery to his inner feelings. Besides, this was the first letter he had received from a girl.

Raj arrived home late in the evening. Father enquired where he’d been. ‘Gone to see the results in the Fiji Times,’ he lied, and went into his bure.

 

Rereading Karuna’s letter every night

His heart beat faster than the wheels of the old bicycle. He took out the letter hidden in his underpants, with great care, closed the broken door, lit the kerosene lamp and read it again; every word, every comma, every thought. She wrote so well; English was her natural tongue like leaves to a tree. He could feel that words had emanated from her pen, and the paper had a fragrance he’d never experienced before.

Karuna was a Christian, in fact a Catholic, and had completed her primary school at St Mary’s. Her father was a teacher at the Andrews Government School and her mother worked as a school clerk at St Mary’s. One day, she wrote, she’d take Raj to meet the nuns. He got worried as he didn’t have proper clothes or shoes. And, to top it all, she’d concluded her letter with ‘Love’.

Raj pondered over it a long time until his father called him from his bure, ‘Go sleep, beta. Not stooding too much harder!’

Raj hid the letter inside the jacket of A Tale of Two Cities. Maina, Raj’s sister, was a nuisance – she could find anything with her nose and that nose ring that gleamed on it. Every night before sleeping Raj read the letter to dream dreams of such naked beauty, sensuality and sacrifice and thought of Sydney Carton: ‘It far far better thing I do….’

But he never replied to it.

Raj passes exams, got scholarship to study abroad

The results came out after the rice plantation season. Raj had passed; so had Gulab and a few others. Gulab joined Pan Am at the airport and Raj, after some struggle, managed to get admission in Mr Joyce’s school fifteen miles away from Karuna’s classroom. As he travelled by bus, occasionally he’d see her walk across the street towards her home. But they never ever met. Then suddenly Raj was given a scholarship to study abroad.

Raj’s father was rapturous. He invited Hardayal Pandit and a few other old friends from the town. Even Ramasami was there; his main concern was who’d supply him the fresh vegetables for his Lodge. They had a puja in the evening and Raj’s mother prayed to all the gods and goddesses to look after him in India. Kalpu, the village pujari with the help of Birbal, prolonged the ceremony until after midnight; the hour, he said, had to be propitious for the Boyo’s departure.

The flight was early in the morning; Raj was flying to Sydney by Pan Am. Even at that early hour a fairly large crowd had gathered at the airport where a new terminal building had been built by the Airport Authority. As he walked up and down in his suit paid for by his village cousin Kanhaiya Lal, he thought of the cows he had grazed on that very spot a few years ago.

 

Whole village farewells Raj

And today, this morning, a whole village had turned up to say ‘Goodbye’. Someone from their world was travelling to India, fragments of which they had seen in their forefathers and fathers in Fiji.

And, of course, a ‘gormit scholarsheep’ was a matter of honour and glory for the village and the school. Raj’s name was broadcast three times on the radio in all three languages: English, Hindustani and Fijian. His father had listened to all three much to the annoyance of his mother who had to miss her favourite Hindustani programme about women.

Raj was garlanded thickly: marigolds, hibiscus, jasmines, bright bougainvilleas like blood drops. Someone passed him a white envelope and he thought it was a gift of money from a relative and put it in his oversized coat pocket.

As he walked up the gangway an American tourist, with a red face and false teeth, remarked, ‘You a popular young man. Look at those people. All come to say “Goodbye” to you, eh?’

Raj nodded and went into the plane without waving that final goodbye.

 

‘Write to me from Bombay, Love, Mary’

Raj had entered another world as the senior air hostess welcomed him in her American accent and a tight dress. He was shown the window seat. He took the envelope from the coat pocket to count the money. Inside it was a note and a rose. It was from Karuna. All she’d written was ‘Write to me from Bombay. Love, Mary’. The hostess showed him how to fasten the seat belt and he felt a thrilling sensation as her mint fresh breath entered his nostrils. The half-asleep businessman sitting next to him was breathing heavily.

He looked out the window. As the plane took off he saw hands waving at him like branches in a storm. His eyes searched for Karuna in the crowd. All he saw were peasant faces, in multi-coloured garments, waving as the silver bird tore into a blue, beautiful, sky until they were indistinguishable, faceless dots no different from other creatures struggling on the flat earth.

From Bombay, and at a distance, Raj wrote to Karuna almost every fortnight. Rarely to his parents or his sister or to Gulab. She had become his one obsession in his loneliness in a difficult land. Every poem he read, every letter of Keats, every phrase that expressed love, became his and he included it in his letters.

 

Raj’s heart aches for Karuna and Fiji

And her letters came warm, loving, expressing both the sorrow and joy of loving; when one is young and one’s heart is not corroded or corrupted by the ‘real world’. The distance added depth and poignancy to their relationship.

He saw little in Bombay and his mind ached with a girl’s love. But Bombay was taking its revenge; the water began to affect his hair: first dandruff, flakes of it covering the glass on his study desk, and then his hair began to fall. His life became a hell and he wanted to return to Fiji.

His father had no money and the Government of India would pay one’s passage back only ‘at the successful completion of the course’. Raj began having nightmares. Imagine landing at Nadi Airport, Karuna there waiting for him with a garland to put round his neck and his bald head staring at her! He tried wearing a hat but to no avail as someone pointed out, ‘Fiji, you growing bald because of that stupid topi you know!’

He searched for signs of premature balding in other students but all had thick, lustrous hair. How he could have exchanged his head for their hair. But despite the pain and horror of his imagined future, he kept writing to Karuna.

Raj’s letters continued his purest thoughts about love. How important it is that one should never marry one’s first love. Something is left for imagining and when pain, betrayal and sorrow touch your heart as they would, you can lie on the sofa set of your imagination and dream of that unmolested world.

To have quoted from Keats, Dante’s thoughts about Beatrice, changed Wordsworth’s lines appropriately to express his love for Karuna, now appears a dishonest realisation, but at that time, it expressed the fire of his desire. Mr D.D. Gupta, the English lecturer, wanted him to see Hinduism permeated in Wordsworth’s poetry; Raj felt the gaunt poet was expressing his love for a girl he’d never even kissed.

The gap between life and literature didn’t exist for him then.

 

Gulab and Karuna now man and wife

At Easter, three years later, when he was in the throes of doing eight papers in English for the examination, he got a card from Fiji. The writing looked unmistakably familiar. It was Gulab’s, sent officially in a Pan Am envelope. Inside he had scribbled:

‘With many happy returns of the day!’ Enclosed in the folded card was a brief letter, although on the envelope was clearly printed CARD ONLY.

The letter told him Gulab and Karuna are now man and wife ‘till death do us part’. He had quoted several phrases from the Christian wedding ceremony: ‘What God has put together, let no man put asunder’; (in the Indian English dictionary, the word ‘asunder’ wasn’t even there). Gulab revealed he had now become a Catholic.

‘That is all Karuna asked me to do for her’; and she ‘gave me herself entirely in return’. He converted with joy; his Christian name was George Stevenson, ‘same initials’. (Several exclamation marks here like daggers plunged on a corpse.)

‘He is the Truth and the Light of life and Karuna is my wife’.

Raj’s first reading of the letter was desperate like a man saving himself from being suffocated. Then he read each word carefully almost vivisecting them with his eyeballs. So that’s why she hadn’t written for three months and he hadn’t felt the absence too keenly as he was preparing for his exam in the hope of returning home: crossing the seven seas for his love. Now a card, a letter from her husband, had made him so bereft.

 

Suicidal thoughts

Bereavement and then the thought of suicide.

Raj got up from the table and, in the invading darkness, caught a glimpse of his balding head in the window pane.

And his thoughts changed: Karuna wouldn’t have married me, anyway, he assured himself stubbornly.

The card lay on the glass sheet below which there was a photo of Karuna and the figure of Christ on a Cross in silver and the nails protruding like thorns growing around a multifoliate rose pointed at her unloved bosom.

 

No sadness, just a twinge of nostalgia

But today, this Easter, there was no sadness in his heart, no sense of betrayal, just an occasional twinge of nostalgia. Now he also had the knowledge – a bit of it anyway—that where there’s no crucifixion, there will be no resurrection.

That Gulab with his pen, the colonel with his gun, are around every corner of our lives. But also that Radha, his little girl, will hear the music of the flute again, in the dew covered blades of grass and in her incandescent heart, and dance and dance again, just outside his glass window, collecting fallen autumn leaves.

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