published in Volume 9, Issue 4 on September 16th, 2002Early one April morning, a year after his arrival in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India, James Hollands woke from a long, deep sleep with a fire in his heart for a village woman. As he descended the winding path dressed like the locals in a lunghi cloth and long white shirt, he knew that she would be among the crowd of passengers, arriving at the Coonoor bus station. If it wasn't for all the beggars crowding the bus, he might get a better glimpse of the woman's complete body. Sometimes she turned her face towards the dense green hills, divulging a lovely swirl of long black hair. On crowded days she struggled with her bundle and food wrapped in banana leaves to squeeze her way off of the packed bus. She always talked to the villagers in an animated way while walking in the muddy street, and nothing in her behavior ever suggested that she had the slightest hint of being watched.
Her skin was a smooth brown and the curves of her body slithered under her bright sari with a rural kind of desirability. Not long ago Hollands had frequently glimpsed her eyes, almond-shaped and a liquid-black, when he would carefully watch her attending the garden at Sim's Park. The garden, an imitation English an attraction of the hill station, was a short walk from his bungalow where he stayed while working for an American construction project in collaboration with the Indian government. Holland's interest in the woman had to be a secret kept from his employers, the native villagers and the few English residents who had remained living guarded and sedentary lives in Coonoor long after the colonial departure. Only his work partner, Dennis Boyd, knew of James's sensual fascination for the woman and repeatedly warned James against any indiscretion. He had often expressed derision towards his friend's "futile obsession." He would say something like, "What could you be thinking, Jimmy? What could possibly come of this?" or, "She's a common native, poor, doesn't speak the language. Don't even know if she's married. Come on, wake up and get real."
Hollands was aware of the woman's distinct limp. He noticed the affliction when she would walk about the botanical garden at the park, planting and digging in the flower beds. Once she looked up towards him sitting on the hill, but he was never certain if she had caught his improper stare. It was rude of him, he was certain of that, and he averted his eyes. What compelled him to gaze at her? She walked lamely from the rose bed to the spot under the banyan tree where she gathered with other women workers to talk. He never actually stood close enough to glimpse the details of her appearance, but what general aspect of her form he beheld absolutely enthralled him. Her morning arrivals on the bus gave a more distant and crowded view. Never near enough to hear her speak, he could only see her mouth moving unclearly and he often wondered whether, like other poor, rural women he had seen, she was chewing beetle nut. In fact he knew utterly nothing about the woman. He only knew that the habit of studying her at a distance had become a kind of ceremony that nurtured his hours in a world that had grown more and more foreign and incoherent. Watching her, first at work in Sim's Park and now arriving in the mornings on the town center bus, was a secret practice that absorbed his entire being.
What did he expect to find in this woman? A certain gentle servility of temperament was a desirable quality he believed characteristic of Indian women, especially those of the poorer classes. Perhaps he might stay on in India, marry even, and own a house like the Tudor cottage up on Tiger Hill or build a bungalow above the tea plantation near Lamb's Rock. He wouldn't be the first Westerner to do it, to settle into an ex-patriate existence in a remote region of the subcontinent. Really, there wasn't much in his life calling him back to the States, not for a thirty-six year old man who had been away a number of years and had fallen out of step with the momentum of the western world. In fact, in Madras he had looked into the matter of what was involved, papers and procedures and legalities, regarding the possibility of marrying what was referred to as "a host country national." It wasn't really a complicated thing, not nearly as difficult as would be the courtship and social mechanics of crossing the dubious boundaries into this deprived woman's life. No doubt Boyd was right in calling the consideration absurd and reckless. But the rational wasn't a factor in his fantasies and the more impractical it all appeared, the more he was enticed by the idea.
Once confiding in Boyd after a few drinks on the verandah, Hollands had said, "Here we are living at the rim of this country, just barely peeking in. Why not, if one finds an opening, go on, even if blindly, and just plunge in? Even if the water turns into quicksand." Although Hollands liked the sound of his own brash spontaneity, untypical of his reticent nature, he faltered at his own phrase, "if one finds an opening." Just how was that done, he wondered. There was no way that he saw of entering her existence, no way of approaching the woman as an equal, speaking Tamil or doing the things that her kind did. At this point, he was only dreaming from a distance; he watched her from the outside as merely a witness to the surface of things, an ineffective spy in the obscure mesh that was India.
Since the time, some five weeks ago, when he first noticed the woman arriving from Mettapalayam and the hot plains, James Hollands had observed her from the balcony at the Vishnu Hotel and Restaurant. Here he sat drinking a cup of chai listening to the radio playing Karnatak South Indian music while deep, disembodied voices called out, "Chai garam, garam chai." He preferred the Vishnu to the Sangam across the way with its loud, blaring Hindi movie music. Also, the waiter at the Vishnu was friendly, in fact, familiar enough to have whispered to James, "no husband," after some time of noticing the foreigner's attention towards her. The man's name was Ram, and he was the only local in Coonoor, as far as he knew, who had an intimation of his fixation with her. That he believed her to be unmarried was the only information Ram could offer the American.After the bus arrived from the plains, he would remain seated on a wooden bench under the shade of a thatched awning, drinking his tea from a red clay cup, brimming with steaming liquid. It was a strange relief he felt, seeing the woman disappear from his sight as she walked up the hillside path towards her work at Sim's Park. The trance induced by watching her so intently would lift, at least until the next morning when he would return again. The bus returning to the villages of the plains arrived at the same place in the early evening, but he had decided never to be there so as not to invite any notice of a conspicuous pattern. Once the woman was gone from his view, Ram might sit down with him and teach him how to put some Tamil words together into a sentence. Relaxing, he would inhale the soothing smoke of a beedie, sip, smoke, and stroll about town, observing the huddled pageantry of markets in their morning bustle. Sounds and colors spilled out with prodigality, tipping into the benign confusion of the variety of the bazaars. Laid out on banana leaves and bamboo mats were the strange merchandise of the medicine man: snakebite cures, scorpion poison remedies, lizard oil and mongoose extract balms, dried frog legs and bird's feet. Next to the medicines came the bright-colored anatomy charts displaying symptoms and cures for cartoon-like figures in turbans and loincloths, garishly painted. For a moment Hollands's mind drifted to the sudden thought of a cure for the woman's crippled leg. Could this world of strange conceptions of the body ever allow her to submit to surgery and Western methods? Yes, Boyd warned him that Hollands and the woman lived in different worlds. That fact became more obvious with every strange occurrence he saw. A blind beggar, strumming a one string instrument, stretched out his hand. Hollands handed him a rupee. More beggars approached him, children in rags, an old woman shaking with palsy, a shrunken old man with a face like molten wax extended his wilted arm, no fingers on his stump of hand. Leprosy, his mind quivered. Swells of goats and pigs, bristle-back and snorting, rummaged for food along sewers and canals of Coonoor streets. What squalor, he thought, and how he would love to rescue this woman from the filth and hopelessness of an impoverished life. His eyes now turned to what had become a familiar sight. A group of mourners passed before his eyes. The hurrying procession, accompanied by the sounds of drums and cymbals and ragaswaram horn, was bearing a garlanded palanquin of a mummy-cloth corpse high in the air, joyously singing prayers and chants for the dead. Ecstatically, they jostled down the streets towards the pyre of flames prepared behind the temple. Hollands wandered the town and later worked a few hours on the new hospital construction. After work he went back to his bungalow, and before falling asleep, he drifted off into fantasy. He imagined the woman as his wife preparing a meal for guests in their cottage on Tiger Hill. He pictured her as the decorous hostess to his admiring friends. After the guests were gone, he saw her on their bed with her long black hair languishing on the pillow and her ample breasts peeking above the sheet. The day's memory of the mourners summoned an image of her death. These same friends comforted him with their condolences, whispering words of praise for his devotion to her. Someone said to another, "He was so kind and good to her. He saved her, gave her a life of grace and comfort." Another replied, "Yes, rescued the poor women from poverty." Restful and contented with these images, he fell asleep. When the woman did not appear on the bus the following day, Hollands didn't worry about it. He knew so little about her life that it seemed imprudent to try to reason out just why she was absent from the usual place. It occurred to him that morning that she had just needed one day's rest in Mettapalayam, but when he didn't see her anywhere in Coonoor in the two following days, he concluded that she had stayed on down in the plains. What would she be doing at this moment, he wondered, what would she do there? Then it came to him: perhaps she had not appeared because she had noticed him watching her. He was enamored with the thought that she was aware of his infatuation and was perhaps too shy to present herself. He was shy himself, but it was now clear to him that it was time to make contact with her. In Calcutta only months ago, he had resisted proposals of marriage to Bengali women, suggested by the women's male relatives, somebody's cousin's brother or other. These offers were easily dismissed in that these thinly-veiled grasping plots to gain American citizenship were embarrassingly obvious. But this woman was not like the forward and avaricious kind from the city. She was a guileless simple rural woman. When a week passed not seeing her, he grew anxious and decided it was time to make inquiries. He would go and ask Ram at the Vishnu. When Hollands, with rupees in hand, looked up from the table to ask Ram about the missing woman, he was upset to see another waiter. "Chai, chai, garam chai?" the man asked. Ram never asked so aggressively. He was always polite. "Where's Ram," Hollands asked as he peered over the tables, "in the kitchen?" The young man shook his head in confusion. Hollands wanted to ask the question in Tamil, but he feared his pronunciation would be too imprecise. He tried anyway. "Ramku yenna achi?" The waiter did not react. Ordering a tea, he wondered whether Ram had been replaced. When the new waiter returned, Hollands was disappointed. The man poured the tea, not in the way Ram did by cooling the hot liquid by pouring it rapidly from one glass to another. Hollands left the Vishnu and walked around the central town area plotting what he might ask anyone. "Pardon me," he might begin, "do you possibly know anything about the woman who... " He couldn't consider mentioning the limp. ".... the woman who each day takes the bus to Mettapalayam?" No, these questions were vague and absurd. A sense of folly was folding in upon him, when suddenly he felt a tap upon his back. He turned around, and there was Ram. "Sir, you are looking for me? Today not working. I know what you want. Where is the lady? Yes? Someone is telling me she stays in Mettapalayam with her daughter." "Daughter?" Hollands replied. "You didn't say anything about a daughter." "That is correct. I only talked about a husband. I said she doesn't have. A daughter she has staying Mettapalayam. That is what I know. She is working sometime here in Coonoor and living and working sometime Mettapalayam." Hollands had a difficult time explaining to Dennis Boyd his need to go to Mettapalayam. "Jimmy, I'm telling you, if you continue chasing after her and losing time on the job, the company will fire you. How long will you be gone ?" "A couple of days," Hollands answered. "Maybe a week." "A week?" Boyd repeated in amazement. "Don't push this thing with that woman." "Losing the job would not be the end of the world," Hollands said. " With the money I've saved I could live in this country for a long time. She has a daughter, you know. The woman needs help." "Word gets out to the wrong people," Boyd warned him. "and you might lose your visa." It was with some anxiety on the following day that James Hollands boarded the crowded morning bus for Mettapalayam. The stifling heat filled the airless bus as it descended into the arid plains. The bus stop was in front of the small marketplace which contained a row of palm-thatched food stalls and the post office. Across the mud baked street from the market was the Ganesh Lodge and Restaurant. The passengers got off here and walked the rest of their way home. This was the downtown where the paved road ended; so also ended the outside world with which the town was connected to the Nilgiris by this back-and-forth rickety bus run by the Guratgi Hill Station Bus Company. On market days the shops and stalls were filled by tribal villagers out to buy and sell. It was among this crowd, passing through the few streets that formed the downtown that Hollands hoped, at some time, to be able to see the woman. It was destined to happen, he thought. The town was quite small. What he would do when he finally saw her was an uncertainty that confounded him as he sat down for chai at the Ganesh. "Chai, chai, garam chai," a voice behind him shouted. For a moment he hoped it could be Ram. The waiter surprisingly spoke English and poured the tea into a porcelain cup placed on a saucer. "You are coming from Coonoor?" the middle-aged man said in a refined voice. "Yes," Hollands answered. "It was a long and hot ride. I'm not used to the plains." "Yes, this town is not cozy like the hill station towns, Ooty or Coonoor," the man commented. "But this is the real India. Not the story book one of cool and lovely landscapes. This is more real. Down here you can find what you are looking for." It was a curious way the waiter had of speaking, and Hollands felt encouraged in the relative safety of this remote town to press on and inquire about the woman and her daughter. "You speak English well.To tell you the truth I am looking for something. No, really I'm looking for someone. I'm working at building that new hospital in Coonoor, and there's a woman here. She has a limp, you know, a bad leg. There's a chance the new surgery unit could operate to fix it for her. The doctors want to encourage people to be helped by Western type medicine. You understand? She's not real young, and she walks around with a bad leg." "Does she have a little daughter" the waiter asked. "about ten years old?" "Yes. Do you know her?" "The girl comes in here everyday," the waiter said. "after school to buy sweets. She speaks the very best English. Just like me. The mother is very lovely looking, but she does not speak, maybe a word or two. She speaks Tamil only. The girl, Rumitra, she will come soon. She goes to English school, but it costs money. They are too poor. The little one tells me that she may have to quit this school and begin working in factory." "But she's too young to work," Hollands objected. "Far too young!" "Not in this country," the waiter said. "In Madras state most children begin working when they are only seven years old. I read this. Just wait. You can talk with her. Soon she's coming." It was late afternoon as Hollands sat at the Ganesh hotel waiting to meet the woman's daughter. The trees in the town center grew darker as the earth lurched away from the scorching sun. Birds began clamoring as the high branches fluttered from their weight. The racket continued, intensifying every minute as the sky turned into a deep orange sunset. Under the lights and awnings, women in bright saris, their hair braided and scented, walked charmingly into the market and the shops. A group of school girls came strolling past the Ganesh, and, just as the waiter had predicted, a young little girl in blue and white school uniform entered the restaurant and searched dreamily at the shelves of sweets behind the desk.. Hollands nervously watched the young girl as the waiter walked over to her and whispered while pointing towards Hollands. The little one the waiter had called Rumitra walked in slow cautious steps toward Hollands' table. "Hello," said Rumitra. "Mr. Subramanium said you wanted to talk." "Is that his name?" Hollands asked. "Yes. But he likes me to call him Mohan. That's his first name. What is yours, sir? My name is Rumitra." She was thin and fragilely built. He hoped it wasn't malnutrition. There was a simple particular elegance in the way she stood with her arms against her prim and dark blue school dress. A chain crucifix dangled about her neck, and her fingers, slight and copper color, toyed with it. "My name is James," he said in a voice one uses for children. "I met you before, sir. You're a friend of my mother's." "No, that's impossible, never before this moment," Hollands said. "I see your cross. Are you Catholic?" "Catholic, you mean like Christian. Oh no, sir. I am like Mama. We go to temple. I go to Christian school and they like me to wear this. Are you, how do you say, Catholic?" "I was once," he said and found a wave of emotion stirring in him. "Once?" she said puzzled. "No, you're tricking me. You can not be something 'once' and not be the same thing now." "Why not?" he inquired with great curiosity. "Because!" "Because why?" he asked. "Because God." "I don't understand. Tell me, Rumitra." "Because God makes you and loves you the same, for always. You can not change the love of God. You know! You're tricking." "I'm sure God loves you.. Your mother knows where you are? I mean she does, doesn't she?" "Mama is working?" "What does Mama do?" " I don't know. A service, I think. Giving things." "Rumitra, I want very much to meet your mother." "She is working now. She needs to work for long time. If she becomes rich then I can stay in school. She loves me and doesn't want me to work. I love school. I am the best in English. Teacher says." "And your Daddy," he asked. "Papa. Where is he?" "I don't know him, but I know he wants me to go to school." Looking at her more attentively, he decided the truly engaging feature was not her full little mouth, but her eyes; they were coal black, piercing, older and enthralling and, because of their size, seemed to overwhelm her whole face. "You are a very nice... a very special girl," he said in a fervent and tearful voice. "I want to meet your mother. I want to tell her what a wonderful and special daughter she has." "Thank you, sir. I know where to find her. You wait here. I know you will be good to her. I will bring her here. I will tell her that you are such a kind man." As though moving in a dream, he watched the little girl walk out of the Ganesh Lodge and Restaurant into the noise and twilight of the streets. The air had a fresh tangible quality to it. He took a deep breath and finished his tea. The tables in the Ganesh were empty; he was alone in the large room which was losing its shape in the growing darkness. Closing his eyes he felt an upward surge; soft images of contentment rose before his mind. he saw the delightful little girl holding his hand and leading him through the cedar groves along Tiger Hill towards the cottage where her mother stood on the high verandah beckoning them home for dinner. In another imagined scene the little girl and he awoke from their reveries of English books to rush to the veranda to watch a flight of wild monkeys, racing through the vine-hung trees above their cottage. Drifting off in contentment, he reached into his vest pocket and fumbled with his wallet full of rupee notes. Satisfied, he became aware of the ceiling fan, swirling and churning. The sound seemed to continue long into his musings, the sound of the whirling blades of a fan overhead. Then gradually the haziness of it blended into the clear murmur of a silk sari and this, delicately evident, was moving nearer, growing acutely until the room seemed to yield to a wave of whispers. Hollands shook and opened his eyes to a sharp, direct stare. "Hello," said the woman. The figure of the woman loomed before him with an odd sense of unreality. He gazed fixedly at the space where, a moment ago, the daughter had sat. Now the woman appeared with her falling black hair, bordering a powdered and brightly painted face. Again he heard, "Hello." The room was real. The fan was whirling above. The woman was vividly there, but it was not faithfully the woman he imagined. A small voice spoke, crossing over the threshold of his awareness. It was the little girl Rumitra's voice. "That is one word she knows, 'hello'," the daughter whispered. "Sir, this is my mother." The woman smiled, not demurely as he imagined, but boldly. Surprised by the lack of shyness in her face, he looked closer, expecting to notice her teeth stained with beetle nut. Rumitra took Hollands' hand and placed it in her mother's hand. The woman gripped it firmly. "I will translate for the both of you," the little girl offered. "I do it all the time in my class." Holland's nervously mumbled that he was glad to finally meet the woman. Rumitra translated these words into Tamil for her mother. The woman again smiled at him, continuing her clasp of his hand. A silence fell momentarily over the three of them. The mother's strange smile annoyed him; it was disingenuous. The woman bent over and whispered in her daughter's ear. Rumitra looked at Hollands with a genuine smile and translated, " My mother wants to know if you like her." The meekness of the question touched him. He was inspired to put into words the rush of love he felt for her. He turned to the little daughter for help, but he soon realized that his exalted feeling could not fully be translated into any language. The moment was overwhelming in its tenderness, and he closed his eyes as if to savor it. He was happily blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. Hollands drew imperceptibly closer to her. His hands were on the table, so white compared to hers. He longed to squeeze her hand with affection. But, to his astonishment, she did just that thing, leaning across the table, squeezing his hand and said some words in Tamil. The daughter Rumitra interpreted, "My mother wants to know how much you like her." Hollands was startled, and before he fully grasped the meaning of the question, the mother again whispered, and the daughter altered the last words, "My mother means how much for, you know, her handicrafts?" The woman leaned forward, gazing intrepidly into Hollands' eyes, her head nodding assertively. He felt her fingers soothing his hand. Her eyes had a strange light in them. Her hands folded around his, not softly with the tenderness he wanted. There was an aggressiveness in her grasp, and, while she smiled, her finger brushed in a tickling way the palm of his hand. Stunned, he drew back and, rising abruptly from the table, noisily over-turned the stool and shouted, "What is it you want? Handicrafts, you call it? In front of your precious little girl. My God, what kind of woman are you!" Scornfully and desperate for admonishing words, he yelled out, "You could cost me my job, you know!" Stuttering on, he added, "And...I could...lose...my visa." The woman turned away, frightened. The little girl was shaking; tears poured down her cheeks. He stared, stricken and confused at the mother and child. Staggering out of Ganesh's and onto the crowded street, Hollands walked furiously towards the bus stop, hoping to catch the 7:30 back to Coonoor. His feet moved numbly as if they carried him grudgingly. He paused in the crowded street. All intention to escape left him. A tide of darkness seemed to be sweeping the last moment and it's passion away from him. He did not want to watch it disappear. His buttoned vest had come undone. He dropped his wallet in the dust. He stooped to pick it up and saw the thick swell of rupee notes inside. His body stopped walking and stiffened as the image of the daughter's face, worried and blameless, floated before him with tears spilling from her soft engaging eyes. He felt confused, embarrassed at his abruptness. He was seized with a longing to throw himself into the woman's arms, to cling to the both of them, to be understood, while he would watch how they were suffering. He turned around and began walking back towards the Ganesh. A surge of longing seemed to draw him back towards the place where, for a fervent and poignant moment, he felt deeply implicated in a family's misfortune. The image of the desired woman was changing. He turned away from an urge to grieve the loss of his own fantasy. Suddenly he longed to enter again and participate in their life. It was so much larger than his own. "Help, help!" he whispered to himself, but his voice was slight, barely a strand of sound. The lights were dim in the Ganesh as he walked meekly to the mother and child, being comforted now by the waiter the girl had called Mohan. Hollands approached them reticently and reached for his wallet and laid the pile of rupees on the table. "For Rumitra's schooling," Hollands said, feeling a warm wave of kind completion rising in his blood. "For your precious daughter." Turning from the table he could hear the little girl translating for her mother into Tamil what had just occurred.