A Man Dispatched
Even the contemplative life is only an effort, Nora my dear, to hide the body so the feet won’t stick out.
— Djuna Barnes, “Nightwood”
“The wax imprinted with the seal,” said I,
“can never change the figure; so my brain
Now bears its stamp from you.”
— Dante, “Purgatorio,” Canto 33, Lines 79-81
THE START OF WHAT MIGHT BE CALLED A CRIME SCENE.
At the entrance to the promenade on Carter Road a man sat beside a pile of coconuts, holding a waist-high blade. It was, he’d recently discovered, quite useful for picking at a troublesome right toenail; this is the way he was employing it now, waiting until for Rs10 someone gave him the chance to display his executioner’s skills: guillotine the fruit, push in a bright straw, hand over the bowl brimming with its own milk. The umbrella sheltering his stand was the same dirty yellow and red as the sidewalk; the air bristled with heat. Waves lashed the shore. The rains would come soon.
Though Fr. Correa was usually an observant man, noting the coconutwallah and the umbrella and much more besides, today such perceptions had been pushed away: like water about a ship’s prow. It was late, but he continued swiftly along the path running alongside the beach, skirting the black mud and rocks, the sea shaded like a snail’s belly and leaving the same oily traces. Swimmers, dozens, maybe hundreds, were ignoring the multiple posted warnings and playing in the waves. Wrappers with Hindi brand names littered the walk; couples, with a liberty their homes would not admit, sat kissing on benches with plaques: “In memory of the late—,” “God is great,” “Raja is great,” “Allah is great.” Water—ship—prow—perceptions gently splashing up and fading away: in a confused muddle all passed him by, the combo bhel puri and Friendly’s ice cream stand, the skin care advertisements every few yards, the old stone crosses built to ward off bhoots, the men scrubbing laundry out on the rocks. In red painted capitals, the government sign on the wall: “Don’t throw poojas in the sea, even God wouldn’t approve.”
All because somewhere in the city, a man he did not know had been killed.
The fact was, he could not dispel the image of scissors from his mind. He knew they were common, a household item easy to obtain, as was rope; nor did death itself shock him—always a mundane, and sobering, deliverance into a form more pure. And yet: scissors. It was just because they were so concrete and everyday that their use on the flesh so disturbed him. After the policeman’s tale of Fr. Almeida—strangled with rope, his lips slit open, scissors sticking up from the open mouth—they were all he could think of: their holes for the hand, their one blade opening into two.
“Why should it bother me?” he asked himself. Then, with a bravado that he knew was false: “After all, I’ve seen death before.”
As a young priest he’d been sent to Madhya Pradesh for his missionary requirement. It had been ferociously cold, the children’s eyes peering out from unwashed faces, teenagers picking up with ease the western disdain for farm work but unwilling to toil at English (an ugly language; they slinked around instead doing good-for-nothing such-and-such, their mothers looking at him with accusing eyes). Pieces of cloth spread on the ground of the little hut were the only layer between him and the hard frozen earth. Many had passed away that winter, usually already in an advanced, greenish state of bloat by the time he arrived. There had not been medicine, nor would they have taken it had there been. But he was not thinking of humans. No: for some reason it had taken a cat falling into the village well to shake him—one of the mangy things that prowled about, feeding on the no doubt disease-ridden rats. The villagers, making their daily trek to the well, walking barefoot through the forest, had not reported it to him at once. For days the animal had lain rotting away, preventing access to the only water supply for miles, before thirst had won out and a reluctant cook knocked at his door.
No moonlight had lit the ground as Fr. Correa picked his way over the broken branches and muddy leaves of the jungle lying between him and the well. The cook accompanied with a lantern, neither electric light nor batteries being available. But because the darkness lacked the thinness any lamp could penetrate, the little yellow spot did little to illumine it. In the blackness even the voices of the jackals in the brush seemed to assume a sharper tone (as if cut from scissors, murmured a jagged corner of his mind). How did the villagers navigate these paths? Eventually he came to the little clearing, where at the bottom of the black ring the cat’s body formed a fly-ridden island in the murk. “Take it away,” he’d ordered the cook, whose job every day was to break the necks of the chickens. The man refused, shrank back as if faced with a madman. He had not understood this reluctance to touch the corpse. Eventually, another villager had whispered to him the reason; a low-class dalit was dispatched to remove it.
“At the same time, why shouldn’t it bother me?” he asked himself suddenly, and immediately this seemed the more sensible question.
With relief he remembered that he’d promised to see only one person that day, and that was Risha. Risha lived on the western side of Bandra’s two sections; the board at ground level listed the surnames of the building residents. Nearly all Portuguese, but overlaid by a curiously overemphasized English, the Marathi tongue twisting together something strange of its own. Ferreira lost the soft swish of its abdominal “ay,” assumed a hard “air”; “Gracias” metamorphosed into “gracious” (the diocese archbishop’s surname, thrilling punning church bulletin contributors), “Rodrigues” became “Rodrigs,” spelt “Rodricks” for convenience. Ascending four flights he reached at last the gleaming marble tiles and sparkling window panes of Risha’s flat, viewed from without as she thrust the door open and ushered him in. Too clean, he thought immediately; the floor sparkled and the corner even boasted a new potted plant. Catholics but the Hindu mentality: turn inwards, the outside can go to hell, what’s a little dirt so long as the inner domain remains pure. Even the humblest shack will be spick-span when the country goes to pieces.
Standing over the stove ten paces away Risha was peeling and chopping a stem of ginger. She dropped it into the boiling water, stirred in milk and a dash of sugar, poured the chai into a porcelain cup on a tray beside two biscuits. “What’s new with you?”
He told her, then, about that morning. The church had been empty when he’d entered; light had been filtering through the small glass louvers wedged between squares of precast concrete and fitted with imported polychromatic glass. In the shimmering air, winged insects flashed past. Sensible people were home, or sipping Pepsis at an indoor café, or whiling away the hours somewhere else with a fan. But there he was, dipping his hand into the cool water of the entrance font, slow hand moving: forehead, chest, left shoulder, right. Within him that familiar contentment was growing, objects impressing themselves through his half-closed eyes: the altar, the cross outlined in diamond lights, the rows of seats, the red hymnals specially bound and embossed. Comfort and silence drew him close to the state in which he’d left seminary years before. To think even then that the light flooding in through the low windows on both sides was taking on a certain softness, molding itself into its opposite. He shielded his eyes and squinted: a man, yes, a policeman to gauge from the uniform. Passing the first pew, the third, the seventh. Stopping.
“He came to me, asking for help understanding the mind of the killer. He’d left a note, you see, claiming to understand the mind of God. So they think I can help understand the mind of the murderer. They asked me for help, Risha. Of course I said yes.”
One must watch one’s feet when walking in public places: no knowing what one might step on. Yet only when he felt developing a slight limp in one leg, followed soon by a flapping in the other, did he pinpoint the problem: his sandals were disintegrating. With three fingers he peeled off the bottom layers completely, tossing them into a Bandra Residents Association bin. With only a thin layer of plastic separating his feet from the pavement, each step he took made a complete impression: and this sensation provoked in him a delicious sense of total freedom.
MAKING THE ROUNDS.
In Bandra, Mumbai—“Queen of the Suburbs”—residents pride themselves on their constant spirit. “Take a look at us!” they say. “Never quiet, even at four am. Between Chitrapatee Shivaji and the Railway, weddings drum down the streets, gangsters move foreign liquor and lakhs, crores of gold. See the high schoolers congregating in hashish bars, the shiny black clips of the girls in gymkhana. Browse western wear, floor five Shoppers Stop; visit Hill Road, the stalls in the street. Wade through puddles to bargain down handbags, lumpy bras massed on tables, salwars tailored by hand. Because you have to keep upbeat here, it’s all in the temperament. In the west you might cultivate melancholy but here aloneness and silence are unknown. If you’re born into it rickshaws, motorbikes, the constant buzz of people become what silence really means: we’re tucked into our community like silver foil desserts in a sweet box, Yes, we admit it, just wander a little and they’re squatting over chapattis, even on the main street there’s stink and the odd cow. But there isn’t true loneliness, there isn’t Western despair. We have faith. We have community. And it’s that which gives us hope.”
At the station Inspector Anand’s hand grasped his shoulder, guided him toward his office—“Coffee?”—spun creamer to him across the slightly sticky table. Spooning Nescafé into a mug during the trivialities that followed—it’s always best when it’s piping hot, isn’t it, take some biscuit, bengal gram is there—he’d begun to think this was someone he could trust. Together they’d considered the investigation. For now, to make progress, his attention would center on the priest. Since it was impossible to think of a person in isolation—or in any case foolish, given a murder requires two parties—the best course would be to speak with those the priest had known. Only after would he visit the site of the death. From Navrijan Bookstore he purchased a tape recorder and notebook from the counter assistant with the mullah’s cap; on Tuesday, Inspector Anand drove up in an old green Fiat and waved from across the street. Opening the car door, Fr. Correa got in.
The first visit was to the house of an elderly couple. The entrance hall was under an inch of water when he knocked; Laetitia Domingues was cleaning when he found her (she must have opened the door but no one was there when he entered) flying from room to room, covering the beds, the cabinet, the table with pink plastic sheeting before the next rains. Cracks spidered the walls; half the ceiling lay on the floor in flakes. “Come in, come in,” she cried. “I’ll be just a moment,” and the same invisible presence slid a chair beneath him, a cup of tea in his hand. Her husband Ivan sat quietly before the television in a pair of boxers.
For an hour they remained on the cushions in the sitting room, discussing Fr. Almeida. A good man, insisted Ivan fiercely. Fr. Almeida’s treatments had offered him relief from pain; a cyst plaguing him for years had been cured when Almeida had placed one cool finger upon it. Ivan had written a letter to the Examiner decrying the “total lack of action and self-serving complacency” of the local police force, which had been published; he stood now to remove it from a dresser drawer and show Fr. Correa, who was struck by its simple, vigorous style. Despite their anti-police sentiments neither of the Domingueses were surprised he had been sent their way. They were known for being devout.
His questions finished, Laetitia rose. “Every day,” she said, pulling open a drawer and passing her husband a set of wooden beads: a plastic version was already in her hand. “This is our strength.” Ivan began, mumbling at rapid-pace, but with complete conviction—over the years the rosary itself had become an extension of his mind, so that even touching a bead evoked thousands of Hail Mary’s, and each Hail Mary took on physical weight. Midway through, without his noticing, the rosary fell into a heap between his thin legs, but in a way suggesting somehow not impotence but strength. Fr. Correa felt a sudden and inexplicable exhaustion. He declined a second cup of tea and promised to stop by were he ever in the neighborhood again.
Along the road to the Kerala campus children wove between cars, selling all kinds of things: toy boats, clear plastic umbrellas, collections of stories by Kushwant Singh. On the way they passed a line of hutments, crammed within a tiny interval. The government had cleverly paid gardeners to cultivate a nursery along the road and bored attendants to care for them at all hours, so that there would be no space for shacks; instead there stretched sweeping lines of yellow, emerald, incarnadine flowers blossoming from lines of pots. The stalks of some were tilted in the direction of the hutments. Come, they seemed to say: be small, make yourselves invisible, burrow down into our warm and welcoming soil. It is warm, we get lots of clean water, there are friendly spiders and mites for company, no one will disturb you here. The campus was built in the middle of a marsh and so unlike in the rest of the city, big leafy green plants were everywhere, with puddles of water overflowing into the cement sidewalk.
Professor Peranha had an office in Rangade Bhavan, where a cluster of students was standing outside. Fr. Correa seated himself on a bench in the corridor and prepared to settle in. He had to wait less than ten minutes; the knot of people unraveled surprisingly quickly into the queue hidden within it. Soon enough the authors of the penultimate (on Abused Women) and final (on Domestic Help) theses had been sent away with instructions for further fieldwork, or statistical analysis, so their work could stand along the wall alongside the hundreds of other projects the professor had supervised. If one was familiar enough with the field the patterns of intellectual currents could be discerned, encoded within the colons and capitalizations, the preoccupations of the past mixing headily with current research.
Fr. Correa had known the professor for years; their relationship was marked above all by mutual respect, grounded in mutual silence. If the professor considered religion a relatively harmless tool required to placate the population, he said nothing. And if Fr. Correa saw God in the professor’s work—one always left his office with a letter or book, the slim kind you accept out of mere politeness but later find contains the key to your entire work—this reverence was saved for other ears. The two shared a deep love of bridge, forming a team on the occasion they found a pair: that was enough.
Which was why Professor Paranha’s involvement with Almeida, the visits that according to Inspector Anand he made twice weekly, were so surprising. He had never mentioned them; it gave this meeting the nature of a confrontation, for which Fr. Correa had no desire. At the same time, his friend’s behavior was curious: subtle, to a degree an outsider might call dissembling, if he had never seen Professor Paranha’s open honest face before. It was a face Fr. Correa knew well, having had ample opportunity to watch it as the professor slid across a five of diamonds with perfect equanimity, bidding an artificial 3NT; it could mask certain complexities, even the lack of a minor suite contract.
What transpired in that office? Though Professor Paranha preferred his privacy, one sentence hinted at what he’d been looking for with Almeida: “The idea began to obsess me: to construct a single, beautiful book that gave a glimpse of divine radiance. At rare moments I could even feel myself approaching the tender phrase, the geometric structure, which would recreate the world in its beauty. A sentence can be stroked to make it purr, sucked like a boiled sweet, scoured until the rust is removed and it sits there burnished as a new kettle…”
Driving back, half the hutments standing on the way in were gone, demolished by governmental order in a flash raid by police with night sticks. Only the oldest ones, there since 1984 and therefore with legal permits though indistinguishable from the rest, were spared. Tapping batons against their legs showily, a few police still kept watch. Two women were already stacking up the wood planks and sheets of scrap metal into neat piles, so that as soon as the police departed with a siren squall they could set up once more.
Onward they went to the Bombay High Court second appeals room, papers soft and crumpled, bound in twine, stacked to the ceilings, softening away through the waterlogged air into nothing… hands clicked over typewriters perched atop the stacks. In that meaningless, breathing building, every door opened like an entrance to a self-contained absurdity. A judge expounding far longer than was needed, lawyers sounding off like television announcers, a bailiff taking notes in a baseball cap—an affront, no two ways about it!—five levels of verandas overlooking the massive central courtyard. You could wander up and down the floors; no one seemed to care. People in tight red caps and costumes in white with embroidered beads on the chest, Sikhs wearing their best turbans, judges smelling of sweat as they whirled by in black robes, individuals and families waiting on benches and rows of chairs or quietly, quietly sobbing… The clerk on their list was out. No, no one knew when he would return. They exited and continued on their way…
Inspector Anand, in the car beside him: “Do you want to know why I became a police officer?”
The inside of a Fiat is not very large; the two had been spending nearly every day with one another for a week; the car was stalled in traffic. Everything demanded an exchange of confidences.
“The building where I grew up was down the street from this fence,” the inspector said, keeping one light hand on the wheel. “An unmarked gate, just across from a giant billboard advertisement for Gold Flake honeydew tobacco. As kids we had all sorts of tales about it, though mostly we accepted what our parents told us: that it was where the gods lived and devoured the sweets we gave them as offerings. One day I discovered a small hole in the fence, behind a red electrical box reading ‘Stick No Bills.’ I was small for my age; immediately I grew curious. By inserting one leg, ducking my head under, twisting my head sideways and wriggling the second leg over I was able to pass through this hole, something impossible only one year later. To my great disappointment I came up against only a much larger, thicker second fence. Pressed into the almost nonexistent space between the first wall and the second—turning anything, even my head, sideways was impossible—for a minute I descended into a cold panic. My body shook in its entirety. Then, an immense calm overcame me. The external situation would remain the same whether I was nervous or not; this thought gave me the courage to sidle right a few steps. And that’s when I saw it, a tiny chink precisely at eye level. A sign. Mehboob Studios. I saw it all, the stars going in and out, not in saris and thick makeup like in the magazines but in T-shirts and jeans. When I saw Raj Kapoor, my heart almost gave out. This was the hero of my youth: when I was younger I’d pasted up magazine pictures of him in my room at home… This was where I crouched, day after day, not longer than twenty minutes at a stretch because my mother expected me, but long enough. When I passed the building on the way back from school I would run my hands over the gate. It was something special, something only I knew about.”
He paused. Fr. Correa tilted his head and waited.
“You are expecting this to be a story of how my boyhood illusions were destroyed,” the inspector said, looking at him uncannily.
“You will be disappointed,” he continued, maintaining his stare.
Fr. Correa exhaled; Anand’s mouth continued to move. “Strange things went on there. They had costumes, would try on British imperial clothes, Portuguese… Later I discovered young stars were entertained, females, given the chance to prove themselves. But none of it matters now.” His eyes were far away. Fr. Correa clutched the door handle as they narrowly escaped colliding with a motorbike careening in the opposite direction. “In the merciless and unsubtle heat of this city, the idea that there are hundreds or thousands of such nooks enthralled me. And if you’re not a criminal, the only chance to see them is if you go into my line.”
The oldest man in Pali Hill lived in one of the Portuguese colonial bungalows, the ones open at both ends so the summer breeze could travel the length of the house and ripple the curtains. He had lived there his whole life. On the table before the delicately fret-worked verandah, pink roses stemmed upwards from a narrow-necked gold vase; light flowed in through the honey-combed windows. A framed photo showed a handsome young man smiling before the station tracks: later, at the pinnacle of his 36-year career as an Indian railways officer, he would become senior store officer of purchase.
He spoke slowly and very softly. Fr. Correa, afraid his tape recorder would not pick up the voice, took down the words in his Navrijan store notebook, above the clean blue lines:
Years ago, when Fr. Almeida was posted at Dahisar, he approached me at Andheri platform No.3. He wanted to know the time. I told him, half-three. He casually mentioned he was awaiting a Virar bound fast train for Dahisar. You’re not in the right place then, I said. Platform 3 is a dedicated platform for UP Churchgate bound trains only. Virar trains arrive on Platform 4. I am not aware of the railway system, he replied. I know only that the train I am awaiting will come on this platform. Five minutes later the scheduled Virar bound train arrived on Platform 3. I thought my eyes were deceiving me. I could not comprehend the absence of a crash. The next Sunday I visited him for the first time.
BRIEF FORAYS INTO OTHER MODES OF BEING.
Risha took lunch on the upper level of the Coffee & Tea Leaf overlooking Linking Road. The music of ancient classical instruments entranced her with its swirling tenderness: out past the scarlet and ivory-striped awning her eye swept over the cars and rickshaws below. The motorbikes with women in full hijab clutching stern-looking husbands, the roofs made of overlapping sheets of corrugated metal, the gas station and advertisement for Whyte & Mackay scotch: “Scotland’s Favorite.” Palm trees framed the scene; raindrops made little crowns where they splashed on the awning. A layer of glass separated her from it all. The minute the doorman showed her out in a blast of air-conditioning India would be there once again, its muddy gravel and fruit stalls with rows of chemically ripened fruit thrusting themselves into her field of consciousness.
Once her brother had taken her to visit the Sisters of Mother Theresa ashram. The first floor ladies were merely poor, or “psychological”; the third floor were unwed mothers, long hair hanging over round bellies. Wandering down the stairs a level to the second floor, though, she saw them: the women lying on beds with limbs splayed, eyeballs grotesquely turned and hugely larger than warranted, heads looming massive atop desiccated bodies. “We turn them over every hour so they don’t get bed sores,” the nun on duty had said.
So that’s how life was, then—like a giant omelet! Weren’t we all getting bed sores? Well? Who was turning things over for us?
Incidentally, the worst had been yet to come. The nun told her in excruciating detail how the ladies entered the ashram with maggots swarming beneath their skin, which had, obviously, to be removed. This was done first by “smoking them out”: dousing the skin with a combination of turpentine and naphthalene. After a few seconds the waving black heads would emerge; that was the moment when you’d dive in with a pair of forceps and pull them out as quickly as possible, smashing them into a ready-to-hand tissue. Of course the ladies cried—not with pain, but with relief.
The waiter brought out her pasta; it swam in a cream sauce, topped with a light sprinkling of parmesan, pepper, and basil. This, she thought, was the kind of food you couldn’t get on the street. Yet now, it nauseated her.
Why were these thoughts going through her mind now, of all times? For she wasn’t alone. There was an incidental boy sitting across from her, worrying over his napkin and the impending gloom of the check. She did not count it among her more successful dates.
But where was her brother now?
Crows had been crowding in improbable bunches on the balcony of the apartment complex opposite his bedroom window in S.V.D. Provincial when he’d woken that day, feeling reasonably fresh. If he’d been a bit closer he would have been able to see the rich glossy black of their foreheads, crowns, throats, and upper breasts, or the beautiful lighter gray-brown ringing their necks like a collar. But he did not like crows: their enormous curved beaks frightened him, as did their habit of eating anything at all to stay alive (on the neighbor’s balcony was a large, reeking bag of trash).
In any case, he was too preoccupied now to think of the creatures. Walking to the kitchen, he flipped the switch: tiny wings and legs scurried away in frantic spiral motions as they always did when light came on so suddenly after the dark. How different are our minds? he wondered—diverting himself by looking at the vegetable leftovers, the last slice of cake in the fridge. Removing a plate from the stack, he thrust a blade under a thin stream of running water—it flashed when he turned the handle, nestling it into the heart of a pear.
His research had taken him through the whole of the city; over the course of the past few months he had collected hundreds of testimonies. People who had seen Fr. Bombacha, people who had attended his masses, people who had only heard of him but wished to speak of him regardless. The number of these people was outweighed, of course, by the number who looked at him in sheer confusion—or sheer contempt—when he revealed to them the purpose of his visit. In fact, part of the reason he worked so tirelessly was that in some part of himself he realized his approach was wrong; the feeling had begun to creep over him of a man who darkly senses he has missed a crucial turn but keeps walking, hoping in vain it will be the one just ahead.
The investigation was not coming along. It was no longer even, strictly speaking, a search for Almeida’s killer. Fr. Correa could not pinpoint the exact date the form had begun to diverge: he could look it up in his notes, he supposed, but this would not change the substance of the matter. If he found it increasingly difficult to add notes to the paper, it was because the investigation itself was offering up resistance, gradually transforming into a form unable to accept the addition of dry fact. Even Fr. Correa himself had not fully realized the extent to which this was occurring—though at times, like a luminous halo behind his consciousness, he sensed a corona of truth his mind would not acknowledge.
Increasingly he was convinced the murderer’s identity was not something he could know directly. One could only edge round it, draw out a chalk circle and walk on it, then at specific tender moments, nodes of sensitivity, pick up and carefully set down one’s load. If he tried to name a suspect before the time was formed his choice would escape, become ludicrous; he would be left with nothing. If he waited, perhaps the parts would fall into place: perhaps he would at last comprehend everything.
Attempts with other strategies had met with mixed success. The day before he had taken out from the library The Secret Doctrine, with its commentary on the ancient Tibetan Book of Dyzan. He read of the body as a fluid and unbroken consciousness, of paramnesia as the state of consumption by a single soft flame. With careful practice, by the fifth day he was able to experience a hint of something: a love invisible, colorless, beyond substance or proof: quinine, or asphodels in water. He carefully managed his feelings of disgust throughout; this was not his religion, that much he knew.
Once it may even have worked. They’d been passing one of the dozens of government retail creameries, where the percentage of “milk” never exceeded half, and was diluted still further by shop owners with powder. Women sat on the road with vegetables spread out on blankets. The gleam of a shiny, pale pink oblong caught his eye as a man at one of the fruit stands stacked tomatoes with hands cleansed by spit. Did the rains that continually washed over them—water from sewage-filled puddles condensing in clouds—purify or simply soil the land further? At that moment he could feel his body becoming an expanse of connected parts flowing out into the vast expanse of sky, moving simultaneously inward toward a source behind his thoughts and gestures. In the rain-soaked light, the nose of the Fiat parted the waters as a rickshaw’s wild star careened by in a haze of exhaust.
THE APPROACH TO X.
The morning train departed at eight; he was at the station ten minutes in advance, wearing his usual striped long-sleeve shirt, brown pants rolled at the bottoms, pair of old chappels.
A hand passed across the counter to give the man beside him a samosa wrapped in a torn bit of newspaper: a cryptic. Fr. Correa watched two tiny birds hopping about on the platform; beside him, a pair of slim girls purchased loaves of sliced white bread for the journey. Three-rupee tea and pista milk were being hawked from the stalls.
At last the train, thirty minutes behind schedule, fitted with a single pipe graduated release airbrake, hissed into the station. He stepped across the square tiles, which grew larger as they spanned the platform; unlike the local trains where one had to kick and claw onboard and pickpockets cut the straps of handbags in the ladies’ compartment, a relative quiet reigned. He pushed his way up the stairs and found his berth. The train was moving now, gathering speed, though not enough to work up a wind or dispel the stink of the other passengers. He wished now he’d sprung for an A/C car; well it’s always easy to hope in retrospect things could be different, that’s the way the game of history works. Something jolted, the track took a curve, and now the Bandra station was disappearing from sight, sucked into an already distant past. Fr. Correa did not watch it recede; instead he faced forward, standing: the only way to look if you’re searching for answers.
Twelve hours. The top of the seat to which he was clinging cut into his hand. But he no longer felt sick or afraid, for everything was clear. To truly understand, he would need to go not to Almeida’s church but further away, to Goa. His investigation had been flawed from the start. He’d been asked to get inside the head of the murderer claiming to understand the mind of God; instead, he had only been learning about the priest. At the most fundamental level, this did not make sense: it was impossible to have a God without using him—molding him in order to fit one’s own personality and circumstances. One could not understand the killer’s motives by asking others about him; whatever the killer thought was his own thought, in all its imperfection.
But after all—now he really was feeling feverish—wasn’t even the killer just another middle term? Why couldn’t you get rid of him too? God, and the imprint of the crime, with nothing in between. Perfect imprints were sent through imperfect mediums, and imperfect imprints through perfect ones—the thing to do wasn’t to study the mediums, but to collect the imprints themselves, to find the perfect traces left behind and reassemble them upward into something like understanding. In searching for the priest’s murderer, in following the imprints he’d left, he’d only begun seeing larger imprints: of Portugal in India, of God on earth, of things he could not himself verbalize.
As night fell the cries of the food vendors and chaiwallahs moving up and down the narrow carriages—“Chai-chai,” “Panipuri-panipuri’—grew less and less frequent, at last ceasing altogether. The light murmur of another family reached Fr. Correa from behind a curtain across the aisle. It didn’t bother him; he slept peacefully, waking only once when another train passed. A scorched orange light burned on the right behind the curtain; on the left the wall sloped gently away. Looking briefly at the window he could see only his reflection: nothing showed when he relaxed his eyes into the blackness beyond. Again, he fell asleep.
The ashram was located in Raia, in Salsette, the southern part of the state. Fifteen hours later he was there, his driver maneuvering the car down dirt roads, a stretch of rubber trees rising up on the right: the ashram owned the plantation.
Soon they entered a kind of courtyard, bounded by buildings on three sides. To the left was a dairy farm, where cows lowed in their stalls; straight before him was the distillery used to make cashew fenny, the ashram’s primary source of income. It gave onto a room in which two young men were beating rubber into sheets, hanging it in a smaller chamber to dry before they sold it. On the rightmost building upon entering the courtyard, a giant portrait of Peter Verhaelen, the first missionary to settle there, was mounted on the wall.
Fr. Matthew was inside the main building overseeing repavement of the tiles. A saw ground at the air, making an enormous noise.
“Careful!” he scolded a boy who whipped round the corner too quickly with a load of beams in hand. “Ah, you’re here,” he said, ushering Fr. Correa into a room off the main foyer: less dusty, if not less loud.
A television hanging from the ceiling flashed out news of corruption scandals. In the kitchen Fr. Matthew ghosted his hand over the bottles of rum and whisky in the cabinet, let it settle on two bottles of Kingfisher lager; cracking the tops he waited for the foam to settle before bringing them out on a plastic tray. Fr. Correa was glancing in the direction of their Konkani quarterly Sobdacho Ulo (Call of the Word), lying splayed like a tired dog on the table, when he came in.
“You see the troubles we have,” sighed Fr. Matthew.
“Birthrate in the regions has declined further. Fewer children, fewer sent to become priests. Already only nine enrolled this year.”
“It’s getting so expensive to raise children…”
“We know that some of the families send them only so they can learn English, and will withdraw them before they take the vows. It’s so hard to tell with the boys though. They’re all so polite and usually have no idea of the situation themselves.”
“And then there are the materialist values of the west.”
Fr. Matthew sipped his beer and looked intently. He had become aware of an essential fog in the responses of the man before him, who was absorbing only the tone of his words, impressions good or bad, rather than the concrete facts demanding action.
Fr. Correa picked up a lime from the bowl of fruit on the table, absently spun it in one hand. “I apologize for being so distracted,” he said. “It’s been a tiring journey.”
“Of course.” Fr. Matthew stood. “Here, I’ll open a room for you; take some rest and in the morning go see the countryside. It’s raining but it will be cool out; the asan trees are beautiful this time of year. In the evening we’ll talk.”
Gently he led Fr. Correa to the building adjacent and showed him the second door. He was the only visitor at the moment: he had the building to himself, it would be quiet.
Everything was just like the house back home, comfortingly so. The two small hard beds lying side-by-side separated slightly like quarreling lovers, the curtains with a pale floral print stirring faintly, the small plastic bucket with its handle hung over the larger one in the bathroom for washing, the mosquito lamp resting in its plug in the wall outlet. On the wall above him ants moved in jagged lines through the dust.
As promised, it was quiet. He was woken only once, by two loud knocks at the door. The power had gone out. It was only Fr. Matthew, alone in the dark hallway, with the stub of a candle and a full box of matches.
In Old Goa it had been raining, so it was cool outside; when the sun came out the whole place looked bright and clean. How much quieter this is than the city, he thought. He inspected the ornate gilt decorations in the churches, went inside the Basilica of Bom Jesus, but St. Xavier’s corpse was not out for viewing: would not be for another four years.
On the upper level of the Archaeological Museum was a gallery filled with portraits and biographies of Portuguese viceroys and generals. What he liked best of all was the huge statue of Luis Vaz de Camoes rising up in the middle of the hall; everything else seemed small beside the author of the epic Lusiads. At the Museum of Christian Art he bought some stationery in light beige, bordered with dark blue leaf and animal designs; Risha would like it. Driving on at random he pulled into the lot of a small church in the area, where the sacristan let him look at old postcards written in neat cursive, and colorful Indo-Portuguese stamps printed on thick avergaodo paper with stripes all round the border.
On the way home he visited two beaches. It was pouring rain, so hard his umbrella inverted as he stood on the sidewalk to watch the waves. Even so, he could smell the sand, and tried to imagine what it would be like in the sun.
Though it was growing late he could not resist the novelty of a model tourist village on the way back, where an albino with a drinker’s nose tried to guide him through. He shook off the assistance. Two ladies materialized, selling tamarind toffees; they disappeared when he refused. Walking by the various plants, he read the tiny labels with their strange names: coffee plum, custard apples; and facts: a decoction of cinnamon bark twice a day will reduce menstrual bleeding.
Removing his shoes and walking into a cave, a placard informed him that this was where one of the old gods presided. The plaster was peeling; the god’s face had a dyspeptic tinge. At the end of the far end was a set of stairs, which he descended with a hand on the rail; two brown dogs sat beside one another on a mound of trash. The vegetation was marshy, dissolving into jungle. The tips of the trees touched their heads to form a clearing.
He thought about what he’d seen that day. The site the locals called Orlem Gor, where the Palace of the Inquisition once had stood. On the day of the ceremony, the prisoners filed out, dressed in all black, but for a yellow cloth scarf with red cross if condemned. The sound of the “Bell of the Inquisition” heralded the start; the prisoners proceeded to a bench in the gallery; the sermon was preached and proceedings against the prisoners read. A confession of the faith and absolution from excommunication was granted to those whose lives would be spared. Those sentenced to death were handed over to the secular authority; the next day they were burnt on the stake on the Campo de Sao Lazaro before the Viceroy.
Beyond where he stood a little dirt path snaked through to crest a small hill. He could not make out whether the path was manmade or natural. The light, which had before flowed around the trees, had now flattened and become gray—the sky for all the world like a giant roti.
On a tree a few yards off where the sunlight happened to hit it, a yellow leaf dangled and spun on its axis. It was like a tiny revolving door, or a gateway to infinity. Fr. Correa hesitated; then he went to it.
In 1542, when Francisco de Jaso y Azpilicueta was first sent from Lisbon, a dream came to him. Crossing a river, there was a native on his back, so heavy he could hardly carry him to the other side. Yet he did so, and continued to do so, night after night. It was a sign of the work waiting: the endless task of planting the cross in those far-off lands.
The journeys had been difficult. He’d crossed the banks of the Ravenna to reach a stand of pine cones, which he’d consumed to stave off hunger; no alms had been given him in two days. He’d slept in beds with wet or stained sheets offered as hospitality, climbing into them with gladness in his heart; he’d crawled naked into a cot full of hungry lice to compensate for his sins. Once he’d sucked the rotting finger of a leper in atonement for his revulsion. In Mozambique he’d gone about with a lantern in one hand and a bell in the other, proclaiming in the public squares.
The sun is rising above the shore now. The prospect of the next few years makes him ill: flashes come to him of a great violence. It is always difficult to uproot the old superstitions, though one cannot condemn what is necessary. O Lord, give me hope, he prays, as the anchor goes down.
But the crack is contained, hidden, within the glass. As Fr. Correa makes his visits, he is preparing the way for his further passage. As Azpilicueta touches land to extend Portugal’s command, he is leading the way for his country’s effacement.