Flashback: Bengal Light
Bengal light: black sulphide used as a shipwreck signal, or to illuminate the night.
--Captain Henry Piddington, The Sailor's Hornbook for the Law of Storms
I have some knowledge of poisons. My mother was a gilder, by inclination as well as profession: she turned base metal into gold with the help of potassium cyanide. At an early age I was taught the precise identification of toxins and their antidotes. Identity is important, if you want to find out which toxin is responsible, and who to blame.
Mum was not the only poisoner in our household. Our old gardener on the Malabar Coast used to collect seeds from a plant the Jesuits called St. Ignatius's bean. The active principle of it and its close relative Strychnos nux vomica
is the poison strychnine, whose seeds are eaten by many people in Malabar as a prophylactic for snakebite, especially during the monsoon, when cobras are driven from their holes by the rains that revive the earth.
If a history of these monsoon rains could be plotted as a series of fixed points on a map, would they form a pattern, the way planetary orbits do? A whole nest of cobras, perhaps, like the sinuous interplay of radio frequencies when different rhythms come together, or the strobing, flickering patterns of my monsoon summer, a cycle of events that comes back to me as dreams connecting impossible images. I can see the jerky four-frame shots in my head now, the clockwork cartoons of cheap animation.Let me tell you a movie
. Those are the words he used. It had to be a movie because he remained a director, removed from the action. Above it all. So he said. I write this down to try to find some overall pattern to the deaths of that summer, to discover the signal point on that monsoon chart where a flow crossed the boundary from smooth to turbulent. I need to know if the violent weather of our lives could have been reversed.
"This is how it starts," he said, the shot framed using his hands as a viewfinder. "This is the beginning: an opening scene something like Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train
, with a series of symbolic following shots on feet going first one way and then the other."
The bastardized version, I told him, the Bombay version. Niked, spiked, well-heeled, down-at-heeled, sandalled, sneakered, barefoot, brown. No doubt the Bombay version has a song here and some dancers, dressed to kill. He answered this charge of melodrama by explaining that the map of Bombay is reflected in its movies, and just as the best map is not the one that perfectly represents reality, so the best expression of this city cannot be achieved by celluloid realism.
"You have to picture it," he said. "Train tracks--Hitchcock's camera almost grazing the rails as they speed along their parallels and intersections, a clear glimpse into the nature of the action to be expected. The lens not rising above ground level until the fatal collision, and then just flashes on the screen: old, new, flesh, blood, wet, dry, living, dead."We will go in much tighter, a telephoto shot (but remember that this lens magnifies images, compresses space; it is an untrustworthy witness):
An open door frames a shadowed figure--two of them; one; we can't quite see.
One shadow pushes the other into the sunlight. Maya, the first Mrs. Sharma--once a shimmering star in the Bombay movie firmament, a sad Indian Marilyn who has outlived her future--stumbles, turns towards us, screams. As her fans used to at the sight of her. As they no longer do. This will be Maya's last starring role.Quick cut to a close-up:
her widened eyes and mouth tightly stretch the skin of her face into a youth that no facelift has achieved. For an instant she is
the lens--tracking down to the upturned face of the leper seven storeys below. Then wider again
as she is propelled over the balcony rail. Her heavy scarf catches on the fourth-storey balcony and chokes off her scream, a sudden jerk that pops her upper spinal cord like the beads on a cheap plastic necklace.
That final image--a woman falling--was recorded in newspaper headlines the next day: SNOOPER SCOOPS STAR'S SWOOP! For me it would have been just another statistic chalked on a morgue blackboard, if not for the fact that my sister was destined to become the second Mrs. Sharma. Our stories, my sister's and mine, parallel for a time but set finally on divergent courses, reflect the ambiguous nature of the summer monsoon, a season when the tempo of life and death in India increases.Act 1: Flotsam and JetsamFlotsam: goods lost by shipwreck found floating on the sea.
Jetsam: goods jettisoned and washed up on shore; goods from a wreck that remain under water;
(fig.) to abandon.
We were shipwrecked on an island and the island was Bombay; the monsoon threat held the whole city hostage.
Inside the air-conditioned airport the climate was falsely temperate. Outside, heat hovered impatiently, like an actor waiting for his cue offstage. I shuffled forward and watched a suit survey each line on my landing card with the precision of all men whose souls do not exceed the limits of their uniforms.
"Purpose of visit," he said, stabbing his forefinger down on the offending entry. "TV is occupation, not purpose. What is your motivation?"
What would he say if I broke down and confessed to a murder? If I said that Bombay was not a tourist resort for me, it was the last resort? But it's never a good idea to confuse officials with the facts, so I gave him a version of the truth he could accept. "I'm a journalist. Reporting on the monsoon."
"You could say that." If a weighty title got me through the queue faster.
"You are not having such an appearance," said my prosecutor.
The accused stands before him: age thirty-three, five foot ten, swimmer's shoulders, dead straight boot-black hair slicked back in a fifties quiff. On a good day, I like to think the haircut makes me look sort of early Kate Hepburn. On bad days it's closer to late Elvis, as my last lover told me when he left.
"It's not a good day," I said.
With a flash of humour rare in customs men, he waved me through--"Please to be entering the whirlpool"--and I walked free, into the heat of Bombay.
Here, in the year 1866, my great-great-grandfather was marooned for good, drowned in a bay his engineering skill was helping to drain, and laid to rest in the watery district of coconut groves known as Sonapur, which can be translated as "city of gold"; in this case, a metropolis of gravestones, because to die, the Hindu saying goes, is to be turned into gold. So Great-great-granddad finally found the fortune he had come seeking in this city of celluloid dreams. I picture him on my mental screen, morphing his steely Scottish soul into a softer, more valuable metal, a meltdown process no Glaswegian could regret.
This was my first visit to India in twenty years, a place I've been returning to all my life. I would have liked to begin at the beginning: once upon a time, among the spice forests of Kerala--in old India, where I was born, far down the Malabar Coast. But my sister's letters have brought me instead from London to Bombay, a city with its back to the past. Still, it might suit me better. Built on a shifting humus of decayed coconut palms and rotten fish manure, it has roots that are as shallow as most swamp plants'.
Looking out the window of a taxi headed for the centre, I found myself trying to find some landmark from my last visit. I should have known better. Old maps of Bombay are unreliable, charts of a city which does not exist anymore--or never did. Cartographers here have always disagreed on where land stopped and liquid began. In the seventeenth century, when the future metropolis consisted of no more than seven islands emerging reluctantly from a tidal swamp, every mapmaker altered and reinvented the geography, as if those islands were mere visions based on an insubstantial fabric whose shape could change to suit the audience.
real has been drained away long since by the urban developers who are dredging up the ocean bottom and using it as landfill to raise Bombay a few more precious feet above sea level. Glossy white hotel towers built with black-market money now stand on land which until a decade ago--last week--yesterday was a cartographer's blue-painted stretch of open water. The city's new identity is not horizontal but vertical, not insular but peninsular, a peninsula shaped like a hand, cupped to call someone back. They call it reclaiming. They say Bombay has been reclaimed from its original twenty miles of mud. The latest road map of Bombay is so out-of-date that even that property supporting the buildings where the map was produced is printed in the deep azure that indicates land still under sea, not yet reclaimed.
But how do you reclaim something that was never yours in the first place?
As the road curved over Mahim Causeway, leaving the vegetal growth of the airport slums behind, I wound down the window and felt the heat move immediately from a supporting role to centre stage, bringing in a gust of wind with the consistency of old lamb gravy. Another, fresher smell overlaid the greasy aroma of drains. Yes, it had rained recently, the driver told me: rain, although not the
rains, which explained why the temperature hadn't dropped.
I had not forgotten the violence of India's monsoon reversal, nor the scent of soil releasing different chemicals as it turned from dry land into wet. My father, a man whose passion for facts was exceeded only by my mother's for fiction, once analyzed the smell of rain. Its formula, he said, depends upon where it falls--on dry or wet ground. "First there is petrichor, the dry smell of unbaked clay, from the Greek for "stone-essence.' Later, that muddy, fertile flavour of geosmin." Earth smell: found in the flesh of bottom-feeders like carp and catfish.Purpose of visit?
Transformation from stone into earth.
The driver told me that in the north, near Lucknow, there was a small industry specializing in the smell of Indian rain. They put clay disks outdoors in the premonsoon months of May and June to absorb the water vapour in the air, then steam-distilled the smell from the disks, bottled it, and sold it under the name matti ka attar
. "Is meaning "perfume of the earth,'" he said.
Perfume of the earth. I rolled the words around in my mouth, only half listening as my guide ran through a list of this country's other, less volatile attractions. "You are knowing Bombay, madam? You must be knowing then that this is land stolen from the sea."
"So was I." My mother and I left India for the first time to move to Scotland when I was seven, but these broader horizons have scarred my guts in the same way the polio vaccination on my left arm has scarred my skin. A reminder that I've been inoculated.
A sudden gust of wind threw a wave over the seawall, drenching the nearest pedestrians. The taxi driver's eyes met mine in his rearview mirror. "Madam, I think someday soon the sea is stealing back its lost land."
"What is your good name?" asked the hotel receptionist at the hotel Ritzy.
"Roz Bengal. I've already told you twice."
He shook his head. "And twice I am telling you there is not such a booking."
"There--Benegal, R.," I said, pointing at the entry in his log. "BBC. Sorry. I forgot I'd given you the Indian spelling."
The man flashed me a smile. "British Broadcasting Corporation! Why are you not saying? Only I was thinking you would be Indian lady."
"I am an Indian lady . . . woman. I just happen to have a Scottish skin."
Before I shortened it to Bengal, British colleagues used to have trouble with my Indian surname. They persisted in pronouncing it Ben-eagle, like someone the Lone Ranger would've shagged when he and Tonto had a lovers' spat. The wrong kind of Indian. Bengal is a more appropriate name for me, the product of Indian weather and Scottish guilt. And it's easier for the old imperialists: a former British colony, now divided like Germany into east and west, with religion down the middle instead of a wall.
In my room, I stretched out on a mattress as hard as Akbar's tomb and tried to phone my sister, Miranda. The line crackled a few times before going dead. Desperate for a familiar voice, the best I could do was the voice mail of a London friend who had moved here years ago: "Hello, cyberpunks! You are connected to Ram Shantra Productions. Fax, phone, or get wired after the tone."
All my other numbers seemed to be routed through a video arcade on the floor of the Indian Ocean. The telephone operator told me it was the start of Caturmasa
, the four months of India's monsoon, seen by Hindus as auspicious. "Also as disintegration of the world." I gave up on contacting anyone and started strafing the networks, nuking each channel as it failed to satisfy, finally hitting CNN for up-to-the-minute global catastrophe, my kind of news. Falling asleep to the sound of machine guns in the Middle East, I corpsed it for sixteen hours and woke with only the dead and drowned for company.
A face swam up through the snow of static on the television screen: black-and-white from monsoon interference, flashes of Technicolor shimmying around the silhouette like St. Elmo's fire. I knew that face. The face in my dreams. Smeared lipstick. A noose of long seaweed hair strung round her neck.
The box crackled to life: ". . . video shot by Bill Thompson, a California tourist who found the body on Chowpatty Beach in Bombay just over three hours ago."
The camerawork was amateurish, tracking too quickly from a sea spumy as boiling milk to catch the bare brown feet of a crowd, the cuff of a uniformed leg, a pattern of white eyes in immobile dark faces. The light was murky. Out of the camera's immediate focus you could see only the Christmas lights strung around the street vendors' stalls on Chowpatty.
And then that nightmare face again. My mother's drowned face.
A steadier camera replaced the death mask with a CNN talking head. She turned to the young man seated next to her in the studio. "Mr. Thompson, can you give us details of how you came to take this extraordinary film?"
"I was wading out, taking these shots of the surf. A trip with some old surfing friends . . . headed for Australia . . . when the body . . ." His voice broke, trailed away.
The CNN reporter put her head on one side like a bird listening for a worm, then dug her beak in and gave the worm a tug. "When the body . . . yes?"
"When this streak of yellow wrapped itself round me." He shuddered involuntarily. "Sea snake, that's what I thought."
They used to wash up on our beach in Kerala, helpless as skipping ropes when out of the water, deadly in it. But it wasn't a snake this time. The end of the yellow scarf was tied to a swollen neck, and a gash of blood-red lipstick sliced across a bloated face. Poor Bill. He hauled her in by dragging on the snaking scarf. By the time he got her onto the sand, there was a crowd watching and three policemen to help him lift the body out.
"They told me they'd take her from there," Bill said.
Before they did, Bill had managed to track his camera slowly across the treasure washed up by the waves on Chowpatty. Her hands were a wrinkled fungal white, pocked and pitted from the burrowings of scavengers. "Like one of those wormy mushrooms you find in the woods," said Bill. She had a flat chest and dark, muscular legs, and wore a flamingo-pink embroidered skirt rucked up over a flaccid penis. The camera dipped, lost focus. One policeman sniggered. A second man pulled the skirt down over this sad evidence of misplaced sexuality.
Her arms were heavy with jewellery, not all of it gold. She had played a game of bloody tic-tac-toe on one shoulder. Before that, she had used her upper arms to strop the razor, shredding the skin into brocade, with wide bracelets of exposed sinew wound round both wrists. While her lungs and stomach filled up with water, her blood must have drained out of those fatal armbands into the sea.
Any film director would have killed for that final shot.
It's rare for a real murder to have the drama of fiction. Fictional death has victims with sympathetic haircuts, good lighting, suspense. Movie heroes never wear grey shoes. I should know. Over the past seven years of freelancing I have augmented my radio producer's wages by shooting videos about our daily criminal reality for late-night television. As yet, no serial killings, the twentieth century's ultimate art form, but those are pretty rare, despite cinematic evidence to the contrary.
Instead, the melodrama of real death pays my rent. It's taught me that murder victims die with their pants down, like Elvis, or their skirts up, like Maya Sharma, my brother-in-law's first wife. My job is to make reality more exciting, even when the husband obviously did it. Judicious editing, a little pacey music--and the most banal murder can be given drama.
Few faces touch me now. Only those I recognize: the drowned, the self-mutilators; what my mad mother used to call her "little accidents."
I was remembering, not really listening, when the reporter's commentary filtered through. ". . . speculation about the presence of an inspector from Crime Branch, Bombay's elite crime-fighting unit, who arrived shortly after the body's discovery. This is the fourth hijra death on Chowpatty in the last eight weeks. Sources claim the hijra may have been connected to the Bombay film world."
I put a call through to reception. "What's a hijra
death? CNN just said there've been four hijra deaths in the last eight weeks."
There was a slight intake of breath before he spoke. "Hijra is man pretending to be woman, madam. Or man who has no . . . equipment that is making man . . ."
"Balls and stick. A eunuch. Thank you."I haven't seen the eunuch in almost four weeks
. The words of my sister's last postcard to me.
Excerpted from Bombay Ice by Leslie Forbes. Copyright © 1998 by Leslie Forbes. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.