- Category: A Showing of the Palms
- Written by Jim Dee
*** Chapter One ***
One night before departing for India, Clive's sequential food-dream begins in a café . . . whose dark entrance lurks mysteriously one flight of steps below street level. Images dance like butterfiles—a plate of fennel, a headwaiter’s white lapel, an opalescent grin, a wide palm leaf over a table linen—until Clive, along with yet-unrecognized others, sits. The waiter, his hands clasped together at his chest, takes the order: Malai Kofta (or “grinded vegetables formed into balls and left to simmer in a delicately spicy sauce”) —- only he requests a spicy version. “How hot would you like?” he's asked. “Very hot ... Blow my mind.” Just then, a sari-clad woman emerges from behind a sky-blue curtain separating the dining room from the kitchen. She carries a thin, jagged piece of cardboard, which sways rhythmically from her extended arm like a pendulum. Soon, he's tasting a chutney, realizing the cardboard bore the recipe. Looking back, the sky-blue curtain wavers like the surface of a distant sea, and considering this, the dream becomes lucid. Before the main course arrives, Clive's drunk from the coriander, and secretly considering the undifferentiated unity of all things -— mystical experience, Calcutta, Bombay!
The afternoon before leaving India, it was finally time to find a sitar. He'd always longed to possess one, thinking the key to understanding one lay in ownership; one would presumably need prolonged access to such a device in order to fathom it, and prolonged access, for something like a sitar, meant ownership.
Skipping ahead a bit to the actual purchase of this instrument . . . he and his wife, Maria, instructed a fiftyish Siekh taxi driver -- a chubby fellow, thick beard, tucked gray work-shirt, limited English —- to wait outside. Non-Hindi speaking Americans need only be in India for a few moments to understand the logic behind separating hired drivers from souvenir store employees. In fact, he'd already jokingly penned in his journal a mock-translation of what probably occurs between taxi driver and store owner/worker:
Taxi: How you doing? Say hello to these nice tourists!
Other: [Smiling, waves.]
Taxi: Look, I’ve tested them. They understand nothing of what we say. [Then, to patrons,] You look for shoes? I think this good store. [Then, to Other,] Whatever your price on the sandals, raise it 100 rupees, and I’ll swing by in an hour for my 50. [Taxi and Other smile. Taxi gets out, opens patrons’ door, patrons buy sandals.]
They'd been in India long enough to form only simplistic stereotypes, however. Maria trusted no one as far as shopping was concerned. Clive, however, viewed the Siekhs as less corrupt. Perhaps it was the turbans. They seemed, after all, religious. When they asked him to remain outside with the taxi, he looked as if he’d been somehow able to mind read (i.e., he understood why they'd made such a request). Garrison Keilor, in his Lake Wobegone series, once described a dog as being “on the verge of speech.” Truthfully, Clive had spent the better part of an evening trying to one-up that description (to describe the Siekh taxi driver, who was “on the verge” of speaking English); but that’s simply the best way to say it. Maria glanced back at him as they crossed the street. He stood outside of his yellow and black Ambassador taxi, patiently frustrated in the scorching Bombay afternoon.
The proprietors of Bombay’s Singh Music Company invited them in. Scattered musical novelties filled every wall and most of the floor space—bamboo and wooden flutes tuned to every key, violins, tablas, horns and fancy zills. One sitar hung lonely on a far wall, apparently broken. A thin layer of sawdust coated most of the unfinished wooden floorboards. The Singh’s are a family of artisans, Mrs. Singh explained.
“And fine ones, at that, I can see,” Clive replied. “Do you have more sitars?”
Mrs. Singh appeared a bit miffed. “My husband is away now. . . Okay . . . I take you up.”
She meant, literally, upward (for four stories). The warehouse stairs, which were practically ladders, creaked loudly as they ascended. The temperature and atmospheric conditions —- four flights up in an enclosed wooden room in Colaba, Bombay, in an early-summer month—reminded them of health spa saunas. But, purchasing a sitar was to be done with reverence; neither of the couple complained. Mrs. Singh, though, a middle-aged woman in a multi-layered red and blue sari (looking quite American, actually) acknowledged the heat with a wipe of her brow.
One bulb illuminated the attic from a far corner, revealing thick, dark brown, rough-cut rafter-beams only a foot overhead. Between the heat and claustrophobic darkness, Maria imagined they were nearing the end of an expedition into a Pharaoh’s tomb. Mrs. Singh pulled back a dark cloth door; inside the final dark chamber hung perhaps thirty sitars swinging and bobbing almost carcass-like as she maneuvered through them.
Clive eyed many, hefted a few. One bore a cobra head carved atop its neck, but he opted for a standard 18-string model: cherry-brown with bone inlays and painted birds. 1,500 Rupees.
And, that’s really it. Pure denouement (even though it’s at the beginning of this piece of writing). At the trip’s outset, he'd envisioned the sitar purchase as potentially being the defining moment. It wasn’t; not by a long shot. Safely back in the Hotel Fariyas, they reflected on the entire trip . . .
“Lech Walesa . . .”
“Ludwig Wittgenstein . . .”
“Ludwig von Beethoven . . .”
“Lou Brock . . .”
“Louis Braille . . .”
“That’s a Louis,” Clive said. “I said Lou.”
“All right . . . Lou Costello . . .”
“That’s easy . . . Leon Czlgos . . .”
“He killed McKinley.”
“Right,” said Maria, pursing her lips. Their “Maria matches the first name, and Clive matches the initials” game continued sluggishly in the cabin of Delta flight 107, which assumed impossible stream-of-consciousness aires during the game: a mention of theory, and the sleeping passengers became like after-hours students in a campus library; of baseball and suddenly they resembled a busload returning home from the game, tired and drunk, bearing pennants; and so on . . . Leon Spinks, Loretta Swit, Loretta Lynn, Linda Lovelace . . .
Clive dreamt of a house full of wild moths, the entire house alight and beaming into a pitch-black forest like an inland lighthouse. As he would switch off lights from basement to upstairs bedroom, moths of all shapes and varieties followed from room to room, frenzied, staying with the light. The ending, much too terrible to relate, startled him; a final light switch leaves creatures of the night, after all, with few alternatives . . .
Soldiers at Frankfurt’s International Airport toted rifles exactly like the ones seen in the movie, Planet of the Apes. The airport itself, an extremely sterile, hospital-like compound, offered uncomfortable plastic waiting chairs and three-dollar ten-ounce beverages containing Wasser, Zucker, Kohlensure, and Koffein. Three and one-half hours there and they began to re-board for the second half of the journey. Before entering the plane, a well-dressed agent asked them some procedural questions: Have your bags left your sight since landing?, Has anyone asked you to carry anything?, etc.
The patronage had changed considerably from before. More saris, salwars, and kurta pajamas, and each seatback contained a complementary Frankfurter Allgemine and the Hindustan Times. Stewards and stewardesses delivered the precautionary instructions in three languages: Welkommen . . . Welcome . . . Namaste . . .
By four a.m. American time, it was dinner-time in India. Dinner foods at this hour, especially of the spicy Indian variety, will cause heartburn even in Hindi passengers. Many tourists, thought Maria, probably do not keep this in mind. They return home with stories of sickness due to Asian cuisine which was actually caused due to Asian time-zones.
Both Clive and Maria received Hindu-vegetarian meals, as they had specified through their travel agent. Neither, however, were Hindu, and only Maria practiced vegetarianism -— she sincerely disliked all aspects of meat: the taste, the texture, the unnaturalness of ingesting something dead, and, of course, the ethical problems which drive many “vegetarians” away in the first place.
“People who give up meat simply for reasons of ethics don’t fully understand,” she’d explain. “They eat, for instance, vegetarian chili, and tofu-burgers. The ironic thing is that these items taste like meat! Why would a vegetarian eat anything that tastes like meat? If you truly want the meat, you should go and get it; but the problem is that people shouldn’t want it in the first place. Therefore, I am not satiated with any imitation-meats.”
Maybe she was Hindu, after all (unofficially, in the grand scheme of things). She had, after all, acquired quite a hankering for curries: vegetable curry, potato and pea curry, cauliflower and potato, eggplant. She knew all of them by their proper names: jalfrezy, alu matar, alu gobi, bengan bharta—and the rest of them: malai kofta (Clive’s favorite, for being the husband of such an eater, he too acquired the taste) mungfali kofta, chole, and the old standard, dal.
Dal is by no means strictly Indian; most Americans eat lentils. Lentil soup, American style, is practically dal. Dal, upon reflection carries great weight ideologically in the south of Asia, where members of all castes enjoy its nourishment.
Clive’s favorite feature in the world, besides Maria, was food. At all meals, he’d savor each bite, and he had even begun to publish small restaurant reviews here and there—mostly praise, though. Clive had studied once with an instructor who quipped of literary critics: “No literary critic ever found notoriety because of his praise for another authors work. If you want success, you’ve got to discover faults in writing.” Clive, unable to forget this, feared the obscurity of becoming a relatively unknown food-critic. And why shouldn’t he have feared this? After all, food and literature shared so many common properties: the introduction, a beginning, middle, and end, . . . a climax, denouement. You name it. A great food critic, said Clive, is schooled in literature. And Indian food had become a favorite subject: “The alliteration in garam masala,” he wrote, “. . . cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, cyanne . . .”
Another of his former graduate school professors had become famous because of a poem involving dinner with a hostile foreign general. Thus, food also contains politics, he thought.
Clive would have a similar opportunity in Sri Lanka-however, with perhaps less political shock attached. The Brigadier General with whom Clive dined smiled gently and comfortably, wearing a sarong, in the warm glow of his living room. His stately wife, entered the room carrying two plates. He mixed his rice and yellow dal with the thumb and fingers of his right hand, as if demonstrating a technique to Clive. “We eat this way,” he said, “because it is said that there is greater sensuality with this method. Also, it is easier to mix than with utensils. When you eat with your fingers, there is a heightened sense of taste.” The aging man produced two heavy plastic binders filled with the newspaper clippings and memorabilia of his career, each page securely laminated. “Ants,” he said, “They eat everything. You have to be very careful.” Clive and the general, purposely left alone by Maria and the other women for the evening, discussed politics, philosophy, technology, world-population, golf, and yes, even food.
By five a.m., the palm-fringed outline of Bombay’s hazy dawn emerged from the night. Soon, they stepped into the thick air of the first-light and were immediately bitten by several mosquitoes. Nighttime!, Clive yelled to Maria, over the blaring jet-engines on the tarmac. The malaria mosquitoes are still out! It’s safe to assume he was a tad hysterical. Okay, he’d said to the doctor at the Reston, Virginia, immunization center, say I take the Lariam, and an infected mosquito bites me. What happens then? He replied, Well, let’s just hope he isn’t. They dropped everything onto the runway, unzipped every bag completely in a desperate search for the repellent. One hundred percent Deet. One hundred percent?, the Tysons Corner, Virginia, camping store employee asked Clive, Where the hell are you off to anyway? Clive responded, Let’s just say we’re going beyond Skin So Soft.
Eureka! Two drops in the palms, to be vigorously rubbed everywhere. The employee in the obscure camping store which carried the stuff reportedly had his plastic watchband partially eaten away from contact with this very solution in Florida’s Everglades. Malaria was more important than watchbands, however: Couple extra drops. . . .
At the customs desk in the wide, dull-yellow room, a soldier stamped their entry forms in two separate places, ripped them into halves, separated and stacked the one-halves, and returned the others. At one point in the procedure, he used several different stampers with the rapid certainty of habit. Two light taps on the blue inkpad, then three forceful whacks onto various paperworks, then a quick switch to a triangular stamp and a red inkpad, and two tremendous additional whacks. The dozen-odd entry lines—four for natives, three or four for non-Indians, and a few for transit passengers or special cases-sounded like a construction area.
Their passports duly scrutinized-the lamination inspected, photographs held beneath fluorescent lamps, etc—they received the obligatory indifferent head-bobble and were waved on to the exit and baggage x-ray.
A half-hour and two encashment certificates later, Clive uttered “Cochin” and handed-off a two-inch high stack of 50-rupee notes, tightly stapled through the middle, to an Indian Airlines agent across a warped plywood partition. He grabbed two slips and a sheet of carbon paper from a shoe box, completed both tickets, and shuffled them through the throng of cabbies outside onto a nameless off-white bus—nameless, by the way, as decided by Maria en route to the domestic airport. Maria considered the uniqueness of this bus out of it’s Indian context. Its dullness resembled a dusty and beaten war ambulance; but it carried the living, and as they’d soon see, it passed the dead.
It passed by untold camps of human suffering, through perhaps one of the planet’s most impoverished and filthy gatherings of human life. Maria felt that, perhaps, since these people had never and will never know comfort, that they lived perhaps complacently poor. Clive saw the matter from too many philosophical angles to explain, but all of them somehow complete with the silence of awe. Both peered through the open window holes (there were no windows) of the safe-haven bus, amid smoke of tires burning along the roadside, amid sickly mongrel strays, and other scavengers. For Clive, the strength of the visual overpowered the strength of the audial, and so he, upon retrospect, could not remember the deafening unmuffled exhaust system, the potholes, the suitcases jarring out from overhead compartments. Clive simply registered the scenery in his own world of quietness and smoothness, as if he might have registered scenery from a slow-floating raft on a peaceful river-only he never looked away from the miles of cardboard and cloth homes, the throngs of unwashed and disease-ridden human beings already awake and huddling in what was still the day’s first light, among random fires in the hot darkness; the quietest, smoothest, most ear-splitting and dizzying ride there is.
[Ed. note: Later in the novel, in a section not completed, the scene here is contrasted with the peaceful backwaters of Kerala.]
In the rodent-infested domestic airport, the plentiful stock of mosquitoes refused their arms, which they held out as a dual test: How well does the Deet work?; and How determined are the mosquitoes on this side of the world? They hovered blood-filled and slowly, persistent in random directions, larger, they agreed, than American varieties, and bearing lash-like dangling limbs for nearly undetectable back-of-neck feedings. Rats scurried out-from and in-to baseboard holes. Like they imagines administrative offices in hell might resemble; stagnation under yellowed ceiling fans powered so weakly one could track the blades’ movement, sitting unwashed in clothes containing nearly two days sweat, painful hair, heavy eyelids, and another hour till the plane south.
Then something strange happened, something they wouldn’t notice for another ten hours after arriving in Cochin, Kerala, India: the earth had bloomed. The mad scramble of crowds and the ear-splitting persistence of jet-engines had vanished—as though, as we slept, each stressful component of the trip had magically metamorphosized in form from the worst intangibles into the most beautiful tangibles; from exhaustion and stagnation into abounding Bougainvillea and coconuts. Somewhat refreshed and a day later, we crossed the lobby of the Casino Hotel, and ventured out into an early-summer day on Willingdon Island, Ernakulum, Cochin, Kerala, India.