Jean Ville Godard is not someone you would call well-traveled.
Sure, he has been to a few places in his younger days- like Cambodia and China in the Asian continent and some parts of North America. But even as a youngster, he was never truly smitten by the travel bug. Whichever places he visited, he did because of peer pressure.
And in adult life, Godard-who never married lived a more or less solitary life, the kind of life which limited his social life- a factor which took away peer pressure almost completely because his peers for some reason didn’t find it worthwhile to put pressure on a self-acknowledged loner to do something that he may not like to do in the first place.
But had they known about the excitement with which he had planned for his trip to Kerala, they would have been truly amazed. For whereas he would change the channel whenever a travel show comes on the TV, he literally spent hours poring over books about the God’s Own Country.
He wasn’t really going to visit the entire state. He was going to take a flight from the Charles De Gaulle Airport to the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. He would stay in New Delhi for three days and take in as many sights as he could during that time-including the Taj Mahal.
Then, another flight and he would reach Trivandrum- a city near the southern fringes of the subcontinent, from where Kollam was just 60 kilometers away.
It was in Kollam that the reason for his excitement existed.
It was at a certain place in Kollam called Karachal that he was going to find out if his father was always the asshole that he thought he was.
Godard was surprised to find how much he was enjoying the small city of Kollam. Despite the sweltering heat he found the city-which was in fact just a glorified town, charmingly quaint. The languid pace which verged on the lethargic was the main attraction as far as Godard was concerned- a far cry from his own home city of Paris and definitely a world away from the hustle and bustle of the smoke-filled Delhi from where he escaped just yesterday.
Even as a layman, Godard could see that Kollam was what businessmen and development authorities might call ‘under-exploited.’ There was a shoreline which remained largely unused without a single port(though there used to be one once upon a time) and the land itself looked like a contest between small time commercial establishments and residences that looked like they existed there because they didn’t have anywhere else to go.
In other words, if you came seeking action, Kollam was so not the place for it.
But the sort of action Godard was looking for was personal- something that was to be done at a place which was so far off the beaten path for the average tourist that not only would you not find an entry for Karachal in the Lonely Planet, you won’t find it on Wikipedia either!
But of course, Wiki-even though a predominant feature of the contemporary internet was by no means the only place that existed online. Not by a long shot. There were Facebook pages, discussion forums, blogs and other digital marvels of interest for the ones who really wanted to dig out some information.
And Godard, who thought the internet was the greatest invention since sliced bread-he thought his weekends perfect when he could order a wine online so he needn’t break away to go to the shop from reading his Chaucer- was able to track down some information about his intended destination.
The information was not much in terms of depth of content. He learned that the place was just some 15 kilometers from Kollam, en route the place called Kundara which apparently had some historical significance(what that significance was, Godard had forgotten almost as soon as he read it.) There wasn’t much to see in the way of tourist attraction there, though the blog did mention a small old temple dedicated to a female deity where devotees came to overcome their anger issues- something like that.
The details were rather sketchy and for the author of the blogpost English was most definitely not his first language. As a casual reader, Godard found many passages all but incomprehensible(like this: “the stupendous temple, there is hill down below and temple, so many come with angry and go away. Both angry and them”). As a language teacher who has been instilling in elementary school children for years a love for the English language (something quite hard to do with French kids, Godard would vouch), he found the writing deplorable.
But that’s not to say that he was ungrateful to that unknown blogger- after all it was the maximum information that he could obtain about the place where his father had visited more than 40 years ago.
This was the last night that Godard was staying in the Kollam town. He had thought of visiting the beach one last time but after the boat ride to Alleppey and back earlier in the day, he was too bushed to even get out of bed, let alone step out of the hotel, even if it were to go to the beach and enjoy a chilli baji from one of the street-side vendors.
The two times he has had it, he had enjoyed the oily delicacy tremendously, thinking how even though the French cuisine was considered one of the best in the world, his people still had a long way to go when it comes to street food.
No, not even the thought of the salivating taste of those bajjis could get him out of bed. Instead, he remained in his total room, wondering if the hotel where his father stayed in his visit was anywhere nearby. (He knew this hotel wasn’t it. This place- Nani Hotel was built not more than a decade ago.).
But tired though he was, thoughts about his father kept him awake for the large part of the night.
Even though Godard would turn 42 next month he couldn’t say that he knew his father all too well. He held Kieslowski responsible for the death of his mother. His father’s habit of abusing her contributed to the poor woman’s mental breakdown which eventually culminated in her death.
The rage was something that Godard harbored in his mind for a long time and not just that, tried to instill in his sister-his one and only sibling whenever he got the chance. But the fact that she was too young when all the abuses were suffered by her mother made this endeavor particularly.
But some part of her must have bought into what Godard told her for she never bothered keeping in touch with her father in her adult life-not any more than her brother. The fact that she fell in love and married a businessman whose IT firm had branches in Los Angeles and Sydney in addition to Paris, and moved away with him to Australia made this all the more easy.
Not so for Godard who remained in the same city as his father-Paris, and who would run into him occasionally when he gambled down to some pub on a weekend when he had nothing better to do(whenever he thought that reading any more romantic poets would make him downright sick).
But over the years Godard became pretty good at giving a cold shoulder to his old man- even on the couple of occasions when Kieslowski would try to break the ice and offer to buy him a pint.
And the shoulder remained cold until the old man’s illness.
The illness- the scientific name of which made Godard’s head hurt could be understood as a hastened senility, falling somewhere between dementia and mild paranoia. It also made the old man a particularly tiring person to care for. This was proven beyond any reasonable doubt on the multiple occasions when he tried to escape from the three different old age homes in which he was consigned.
It was after he threatened to kill a nurse at the third place using a butter knife – and tried he did- that Godard decided to take charge of caring for the old man himself. His sister who was cruising the Bahamas during this time said that she would send him as much money as he needed for the effort(“Or if you wish, we can have him in a plush place I know of in Sydney where he could go completely bonkers and they wouldn’t care-for they charge an arm, a leg and one of your tits for looking after the senile!”).
Thanking her, Godard declined her offer and told her that the sole reason of his call was to inform her that his father would be at his place from now on. “You know, just in case you wanted to reach out to him,” he added jokingly.
Godard went the extra mile to make his father’s stay at his two bedroom apartment atop a florist’s as pleasant as possible. The extra mile included setting up a balcony filled with potted flowers(thanks to the florist who lived in the apartment below who helped) and adding personal touches to the guest room like placing empty bottle of Chadon champaigne(his father’s favourite) on the sill.
If you had asked Godard why he did all this for someone whom he hated, he would simply have given you the answer, “Because he is my father and he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. But I still hate him.”
Such a complicated statement shouldn’t be construed as a sign that Godard’s was a complicated personality. On the contrary, a simpler person you couldn’t find in all of France. His enjoyments in life were limited to good books, the occasional bottle of red wine and listening to Franz Leist on moonlit nights-well, on some dark nights too.
And his philosophy about life was to “Do what you love and that’s it!”- a philosophy that was forged in the fiery depths of his mind in the aftermath of a failed love relationship with the girl who was sure he was going to marry
They met and fell in love with each other at the University when he was an English undergrad.
When the girl left him for a well-muscled hunk who didn’t “spend all time waxing lyrical about the lyrical prowess of Wordsworth rather than paying me the deserved attention” Godard was bedridden with an intense case of heart ache, his volume of Wordsworth’s Preludes his only salve. As for the engagement ring which she handed back to him, it would become part of the gifts that he gave to his younger sister years later at the time of her wedding.
Godard would recover from that heartache- as much as one could recover from a heart break and proceed to live a life as devoid of complications(which largely meant women) as possible.
The only complication, in fact, of his life was his relationship with his father. The man who stole his childhood, the man who died seven months ago, the man whose shit and pus he wiped clean for months even though he hated him, the man whose dying words were related to the story he has been mumbling about in the last days of his life- about his long forgotten visit to India, and the place called Karachal in Kollam.
“Is this Karachal?” Godard asked the bus conductor.
He had asked the conductor to please let him know when the bus reached Karachal. He had used the best British English that he could summon-what with India being an erstwhile British colony, he assumed that people might be more prone to understand that sort of English- the one he called ‘Stick- the- verb up- your- stiff- behind -English’.
But either he was mistaken on that front or this particular bus conductor was an exception to the rule.
The only reason Godard had bothered to ask if they had indeed reached the destination was because he happened to see a green board with the name of the place stenciled in yellow letterings.
The Karackal junction was just a small affair with a bakery, a provisionary store and a barber shop all in the radius of a few meters. Other than these there was a reasonably big banyan tree under which was a board that proclaimed ‘Auto Stand’. At the time though, there was only one autorikshaw parked in the stand.
The vehicle’s driver- a young man- was reading the newspaper with a smile on his face: as though the news he was reading was pleasant- perhaps, the price for petrol has come down or maybe God came down in person and proclaimed that when the time comes for the final judgment all auto rickshaw drivers would be spared, no questions asked.
Seeing no one else around(except for a really really old woman who looked at Godard from the bakery with bulging eyes as though struggling to determine if Godard were real or an apparition) Godard walked towards the auto driver.
When the driver looked up at the sound of the approaching footsteps Godard realized that he was younger than he first thought. The smooth dark skin, the radiant eyes and the headful of the blackest hair he has seen in a long time all belonged to someone on the south side of 25 years.
The smile on his face remained, giving Godard the impression that it was a permanent expression, as though the young man considered the entire proceedings of life as an elaborate joke.
“This is Karachal, isn’t it?” Godard said in the slowest possible tone without sounding like he was retarded. He was still not sure if the youth would understand him-even though almost all the shops he had seen in Kollam bore a sign in English- including the bakery opposite(“Malavika Bakery”) he has seen that the knowledge of English as a spoken language wasn’t great among everyone.
However, the youth seemed to understand him perfectly well as he nodded emphatically. What more, he even added, “Yes, this is Karachal, sir, what can I do for you?”
Heartened to be greeted by someone who could speak English well, Godard said, “Do you know where a Miss Susan lives!” Godard wasn’t entirely sure if the person he was seeking was now a missus or a miss. The decision to use ‘Miss’ was randomly made.
The youth had to think for just a moment before his smile broadened. “Oh, you are here to see Susan chechi? I know where she stays. I will take you to her!”
Godard was first alerted to Keislowski’s mumblings about “a certain Susan” by the maid he had appointed to take care of him while he was away at school.
As he neared the door of death, the old man’s ravings became wilder-like the one about “pigs in a refinery who went to the moon to shoot down the president” or “a lot of people bum naked on the beach, donuts emerging from their backsides”(the latter Godard attributed to a particularly bad dream the old man must have had after a bout of diarrhea-induced by bad donuts, of course).
Along with these, the mumblings about Susan of Kerala was also something which Godard himself heard. But it was only after the maid pointed it out that he noticed how more frequently he spoke about Susan. More than that, he noticed how consistent he was about certain details- about the year when he visited Kollam- 1972, or the name of the place where Susan lived- Karachal and the colour of the nightie which Susan wore when he first met her at the hotel- light blue with white floral patterns running around the neck.
And as his health deteriorated, more details about the stories emerged- some fascinating, some appalling. Well, most of them appalling.
If Kieslowski’s mad sounding ravings were to be believed, Susan was a whore who seduced him and with whom he lived for months, spending most of his money in the process. Worse than that, he impregnated her- ‘an accident, a sheer accident’ as he puts it and the couple had an abortion(“or something like that”) and they buried the foetus in the backyard of Susan’s one-bedroom house.
“My name is Sastri, sir!” said the auto rikshaw driver. “Actually, my name is Mohan Kumar. Only, everyone calls me Sastri because I look so much like the old Indian cricketer- Ravi Sastri. Do you watch cricket, sir?”
When Godard said no, Sastri asked if he was not from England. And when Godard said France, he expressed his surprise, saying how “I thought you were from England, seeing how you have come to see Susan chechi.” Godard wondered why this would be.
“Yes, there is no cricket team from France, right, sir?” continued Sastri. “So, I don’t think you watch cricket. No, I don’t.” He spoke as though Godard had lied to him that he was an avid cricket fan. “But we here in India, we watch cricket, sir. We worship cricket. Tendulkar, Dhoni, Virat Kohli- you heard of them, sir?”
Godard had no idea what the driver was going on about. He assumed that the different names just mentioned were different maneuvers in Indian cricket- like the ‘scissors cut’ in soccer.
The ride from the auto rikshaw stand took just under 15 minutes but in that span of time he learned more about Sastri than he needed.
The auto driver, it turned out once worked as a tour guide with the tourism department for a while-that’s how he became “so good with the English language.” However, the pay was lousy and that’s why he switched to riding the auto. Godard also learned, among other things, that Sastri was the third of his parent’s three children, that his parents yearned for a baby boy and it was only after years of earnest prayers and special offerings at temples that the couple were able to conceive for the third time. He also came to know how as a young boy Sastri was used to call ‘Blackie’ not because of his dark skin(“Most of the people who called me that name were darker than me”, he said) but because he had a black mole on his back which everyone would see when he went to bathe in the temple pool.
Sastri gave Godard a real-life version of a case of severe information overload which is the bane of the internet age. But the Frenchman bore it all with equanimity given how he was pleased with the idea of the man taking him to Susan. During the ride, Godard did affirm that the Susan whom Sastri meant was the one who has worked abroad for many years. His father had left Kollam to France only when Susan told him that she got a job abroad and would be leaving soon. (He was pretty sure that his dad must have overstayed his visa duration, but details about such practicalities were never part of the dying Kieslowski’s mumblings).
“Should I wait, sir?” Sastri said once he dropped Godard off in front of Susan’s gate. Before Godard could reply, he added, “Yes, of course, I will wait. It is very hard to get autos from here!” Though he wasn’t sure if he was up for another fifteen minutes of his brain getting stuffed with random pieces of information about this person whom he just met, he complied- the labyrinthine alleyways which Sastri took to bring him here were sparsely populated. To make it back to the main road on his own could be what the poets of old might consider as “a fool’s errand that never goes well!”
“Okay,” saying so, Godard turned towards the gate to the two storied house with lions on either side of the gate standing as sentries. The roaring lions(even though the paint was flaking) were fitting enough for the fiery spirit of the Susan his father has spoke about, thought Godard as he pushed open the gate and walked towards the house.
It didn’t take long for Godard to realize that he had made a mistake.
For the woman who presented herself as Susan was someone who couldn’t have been more than 35. A little enquiry made matters clear – This Susan used to work in London for five years. It was rare for people from these parts-especially women to go abroad to places like England to work. When Godard asked for Susan, Sastri simply assumed that they must have known each other from her time in London.
And so he brought him here.
But as for finding the real Susan whom Godard sought, this Susan was helpless.
“Wait a minute, maybe father would know!” she said. A few minutes later she came once again to the door, this time with an old man who walked with much effort, using a walking stick.
Now the challenge that presented itself to Godard was to speak about Susan without explicitly stating that she used to be a harlot, or that his father lived with her in an year when his passion was at its height.
So he told them the story which he had made up just for such an occasion: “I am a writer working on my newest book. It’s about illegal transport of people to different places from third world countries. An entire section of the book is dedicated to the history of such enterprises. I have reasons to believe that one Miss Susan from Karachal was taken abroad in this manner.”
When the old man didn’t show any signs of remembering, he added that the person in question “had two children-if my sources are right. Twins at that. She was a single parent but as for her job, no one knew what she did exactly,” he added, hoping that it would be hint enough about the woman’s profession.
Whether it was the mention of the twins that did the trick, Godard wasn’t sure but the old man’s eyes lit up. The hand that held the walking stick shook a little.
“Yes, Susan.1Yes, I remember Susan! She used to live on the western side of the village!”
Around this time, his wife-who was working in the kitchen came around. Upon hearing her husband speak about Susan(in a tone that wasn’t exactly filled with animosity)she said, “You still cannot forget her, is it! Not even after having two full grown children one of whom even got divorced,” this she added looking at Susan. “Not even after you suffered a stroke! Oh, Jesus, how evil is man’s heart!”
Of course, Godard didn’t understand any of it since the woman spoke in Malayalam. But her wailing caught the attention of Sastri, who thinking that there was something wrong came rushing to the house.
“And who is this?” the woman said, pointing to Godard.
It was Susan who gave her the reply, “This is a writer who came looking for that Susan woman.” She then explained how Sastri made a mistake by bringing him to their home.
To say that Susan’s mother was quick tempered would be an under-statement for no sooner had her daughter informed her about Sastri’s folly than she sprang towards the auto driver like a vicious cat pouncing on a hapless mouse. “So you think just because my darling daughter is divorced, she has become a loose woman, have you? The only reason why she is no more married is that the person she was married to was an irresponsible fool! But what do such details mean to the people, huh? What?” She raised an accusing finger at Sastri who looked like he was ready to fade into thin air under the woman’s vicious attack.
“You people!”she screamed. “All you people assume that the girl is rotten, otherwise why should she walk away from a marriage? And that sort of a mindset shows exactly what’s wrong with this village, this city, this state, this whole country!” Without missing a beat, she added, “Don’t you have any shame in bringing some white man to our door, saying this house belongs to a slut! How dare you!”
The fact was that the woman had some spate with Sastri’s mother(something that developed when the two women had a fight when they met at a wedding where Sastri’s mother made some innocuous remark about Susan’s divorce which Susan’s mother took to be less than innocuous). Sastri had a feeling that the lady was taking out the anger towards his mother on him. But he didn’t get the chance to say so as the woman turned around and faced her husband with her eyes blazing with anger-“And you, how could you still remember that silly slut! After all these years, you still can’t get her out of your mind, can you!”
“Mother!” Visibly embarrassed, Susan called out. But either the woman didn’t hear her or thought nothing of it, instead she went on like a machine gun that spewed words instead of bullets- words designed to hurt the old man who looked like he was inching closer towards another stroke with every bullet/word that hit him.
Sastri, meanwhile thought this an opportune time to pull Godard out of there. Placing a hand on the whiteman’s shoulder he applied gentle yet firm pressure which made Godard finally take his eyes off Susan’s mother’s furious performance which he was watching with fascination.
“Why, what’s happening?” said Godard as he was being pulled way by Sastri.
“Nothing, sir. It’s just that the old woman has a couple of screws loose in her head,” he said, careful to keep his voice below the hearing range of the family they were leaving. “Also, there is some other house where the Susan that you mentioned lived. I couldn’t have known that, sir, because it all belongs in history, and I being a young man…” He let his words trail off into nothingness with a forced smile.
Godard nodded though he was unsure that he understood what was going on. Even as they were stepping out of the gate, he could still hear the machine gun going on in full swing behind him.
“So, that’s not Susan’s home?” he said to Sastri as they got into the auto rikshaw(Sastri got in, keyed in the ignition and pumped the hand pedal all in a single motion so fast that for a while that he was more of blur than human).
“No, sir,’ Sastri said.
“Thank God for that!” exclaimed Godard, throwing one last look towards the house they were leaving behind. The old woman’s voice faded with distance but he saw a couple of neighbours running towards the house.
His arrival, he thought, wasn’t meant to stay a secret.
On the way to the real Susan’s house, Sastri kept apologizing for the mistake that he made.
At first, Godard found Sastri’s apologizing gentlemanly but soon it began to grate on his nerves, especially since he now knew that he wouldn’t get to meet Susan in the flesh- she has moved away and never come back, this much he surmised from Sastri’s speech which was part apologizing and part his attempt to make it clear that whatever happened happened not because of his mistake.
By the time they reached (the real) Susan’s house, Godard has had his fill of the guide. After paying him, he turned around, ready to walkyup to the house. But that’s when he noticed how much in disrepair that the house was in. The yard was overgrown with shrubs and there were a few tiles missing from the roof. Cracks were visible on the wall even from a distance and if the sounds were to be trusted, pigeons have taken residence on the roof.
A couple of tired looking stray dogs roared their heads from among the shrub at the sound of the auto rikshaw. The plots to the left and right of the house were empty, so the dogs were just about the only welcome that Godard got.
Godard had assumed that the House Where Once Susan Lived must now be the abode of someone else- perhaps one of her twin sons and his family. So he had expected a house renovated in the modern manner(for some reason, Keralites seem to like multiple storied houses even if there were just two or three people, he had noticed). He had thought that he would just drop in, introduce himself as a writer and state his ‘writerly objective’- maybe they would allow him to spend some time in and around the house. What that would have accomplished, he wasn’t sure but he couldn’t just leave without at least dropping by now that he has come all the way here, could he?
But such considerations didn’t bother him now that he saw how the house has evidently not been lived in for a long time- perhaps not since Susan left for the Gulf.
“Does no one live here anymore?” he asked Sastri.
Shastri shook his head. “We- me and my friends used to play cricket in this yard when we were kids. But I never knew who this house belonged to. All I knew was that the house belonged to someone who left Karachal a long time ago,” he added with a chuckle. “But even if she was still here, Mr.Godard, she would be old. Why you need an old woman?” he asked with a malicious grin.
Godard explained to him about the writerly angle. At the end of the explanation, he still wasn’t sure if Sastri had bought it- there was the malicious edge still to his smile.
“Do you think I can stay here for a few days?” said Godard, partly because the idea suddenly popped into his head and partly because he wanted to change the topic. “I would pay the rent to the concerned, of course,” he added. “I am sure some of Susan’s relatives are still around. Maybe I can pay them the rent.”
Sastri found this turn of events very much to his liking. Ever since Godard had landed in Karachal, he has seen a couple of holidays in the immediate future. The thing was that riding an auto rikshaw- even though more lucrative than being a tourist guide was still not all that great. At least, not great enough to help him take a couple of days off and go somewhere-maybe even hear what some tourist guide might have to hear about some place he has never been to before.
Now, Godard offered that possibility. He has already charged him for the ride to (the not real) Susan’s house thrice the amount of what he would charge from a non-foreigner. If he played the cards right, there was a possibility that he could bring about those holidays yet.
“I don’t think that there are any relatives of this Susan here anymore,” he said, and just so that he could bring in a touch of realism, he added, “But I will check all the same. Don’t you worry. But the house doesn’t look like it’s in any condition for someone to stay- not even for a few days!”
Fifteen minutes later Godard found himself in a small tea shack having coffee and piping hot chillie bajjis- not as great as the ones he had at the beach but still nice enough. He was asked to wait there by Sastri who said he would in the meantime “Check for sure that there are any relatives of Susan that I could find! The oldest person in the village lives very nearby and he has still the sharpest mind around. He is even the secretary of the village library even though he is over 90 years old. Can you believe it!”
What Sastri actually did in the meantime was go into a bakery and have an egg puffs and a banana, and a Pepsi. He called home and told his mother than he wouldn’t be home for lunch, he has got an urgent ride.
Some five minutes after Godard finished the last of his bajjis, Sastri was back.
Godard was impressed by the way the auto driver arranged everything in so short a span of time- workers cleared the lawn and the backyard of shrubs(and in the process killed two snakes that made residence of the unpeopled lot). Assuring Godard that it was all cool, Sastri broke the rusty lock on the door with a piece of rock- with lesser effort than it would have required to open it with a key. A woman was arranged to clean up the interior, meanwhile one of the workers-after finishing clearing the shrubs replaced the missing tiles on the roof.
The upshot was that by five in the evening the house was clean enough for habitation. The water in the old well in the backward was far from drinking quality but it could be used for toiletries. There was no electricity so Sastri made the requisite arrangements – in the form of a paraffin lamp and a couple of candles.
Godard knew that Sastri- who dealt directly with the workers regarding the payments and also for procuring the various materials required to make the house habitable, was overcharging him. But had he known by what margin it would be done,he may have gone back without staying in the small house even for a single day.
As it was, come night and Godard found himself lying on a mattress on the floor of this slightly eerie house. The eeriness was largely due to the strange shadows that the paraffin lamp threw on the roof and the walls. It was also due to the prospect of a fetus being buried in the backyard so long ago.
In his readings, Godard has come across enough ghost stories to know that sometimes unborn spirits can be the most dangerous things in the world.
But all in all, Godard went to sleep feeling more pleased with himself than scared. For here he was, in the same place that his father came to all those years ago as a young man. He could well imagine his dad screwing that woman in this very same room as the twins lied (hopefully) asleepin the kitchen.
“Bastard! What a bastard!” he muttered.
He was planning to do some digging around in the backyard tomorrow night. Supposing that the location of the burial site that his father gave in his mumblings was correct(by the coconut palm that stood next to the well, right next to the base of the wellhe would find out for himself that his father was a greater bastard than he had ever thought.
As an anti-foeticide activist, there was no other way he could react to such a situation.
Godard didn’t join the ‘Life for the foetus!’(LFF) NGO on his own volition.
As a lifelong stag with minimal interest in such things as courtship and romance-let alone a family life he had no opinion about feticide one way or the other.
It’s just that there was this lady teacher in his school once who, like him lived a life on her own-being a multiple divorcee with a serious drinking problem. On weekends(sometimes on weekdays too) it they would to hang out together at the pub. From the outset of the relationship itself the lady teacher made it clear that she had no intention of getting romantically involved with anyone again. Which was perfectly fine with Godard too(though he doubted that he would have found anything romantic in her permanently red rimmed eyes and yellow teeth and sour breath even if she were open to romance).
On one particularly cold Sunday afternoon, she called upon him and said that they should be going somewhere else instead of the pubs all the time. “Of course, we should go to the pub, but after going somewhere else! What do you say?”
Now, the lady had the eccentricity common enough to all drink addicts-which is to give in easily to the numerous whims and fancies of the mind. So, Godard wasn’t at all surprised by her proposal . But he couldn’t have guessed the destination she had in mind.
He had assumed that she meant the mall, or a movie or maybe even a restaurant. So when they ended up in the meeting room of an NGO which he didn’t even know existed in his neighborhood, he was surprised. The meeting was sparsely attended, and that too mostly by elderly women. In fact, aside from a thin man with a reed-like frame who introduced himself as the meeting’s convener Godard was the only male specimen in the entire room.
I am never going to come here again, he thought as the convener began talking about such things as the ‘Sacredness of all life-even the one in the belly’ and ‘The rule of the law must not supersede the rule of the heart.’
But the more the convener spoke, the more Godard became hooked, bringing him to a mindset akin to the one he got when he used to attend the Sunday mass at the church- a habit he lost around the time when his betrothed left him for a muscled hunk who liked Chaucer less than he did.
Before long, Godard became regular attendant at these meetings. And not just that he even started volunteering for the protests and awareness campaigns which the NGO organized.
It was not that Godard found a personal connect to the cause. The closest he has come to such an issue on a personal front was when a pupil of his asked for the English word for foetus(kids these days are smart that way). But the fact was that the NGO-one with a singular mission(to enable all fetuses to live!) gave him something which he didn’t know was missing in his life- a purpose. A higher purpose than mere survival, that is.
The truth was that instead of ‘LFF’, had his lady friend brought him to an organization that was dedicated to finding the truth about all these UFO sightings that you hear about in the media, he would have taken that as a purpose in life and given his soul and body over for it.
But it was to the LFF that she brought him.She left the school(expelled, actually, for coming to class drunk and calling a pupil “terrible terms unbecoming for a teacher” according to the principal) just a few weeks after she introduced him to the LFF. But Godard stuck it out with the NGO, even going on to become the Paris chapter’s treasurer.
However, if Godard were to be truly honest with himself, he would tell you that he didn’t need to be an LFF member to call his father a bastard if/when he found evidence of a fetus that was buried in Susan’s backyard.
The day after his first night at Susan’s, Godard woke up to the sound of birds cooing. Sastri had told him that a few acres of land behind the house belonged to the Government school that was half a kilometer down from the house. The school apparently had not yet found any use for the land which remained empty, filled with trees and the birds that made them their residence.
It was also to this land that Sastri had pointed when Godard asked the previous day where to do his toiletries. The plumbing in the house was faulty and even Sastri couldn’t find anyone who could fix it in short notice. The empty land behind the house was filled with enough shrub to give him cover, but still, unused as he was to such endeavors, it was with shyness that he got to it.
But once he relieved himself, Godard found his mood improving.
On his way back to the house, he checked out the area around the well. Of course, he knew that a simple inspection of the surface wouldn’t reveal anything, but he couldn’t help it.
“Oh, there you are!”
Sastri’s voice startled him. The auto driver- in his khaki uniform stood at the back door, his slick hair combed to one side , the perennial smile on his face. Godard wondered how long he was there and had he seen him get to his business behind the shrubs?
“I found the front door open. You should be careful. Not that there is any problem of robbers in these parts, but you should be careful, what do you say?”
The question was mere rhetoric. Walking down to him, Sastri added, “So, where do you want to go today?” Seeing the perplexed expression on the white man’s face, he said, “I know you must be bored sitting here all alone. There are interesting places to see in Karachal.”
One of these interesting places, he said was a bridge that was built during the British rule. “Built by your neighbors, sir! More than a century old. The bridge is not used anymore. Is collapsed more or less. But the surrounding areas are beautiful. Stream and greenery and all- you can take photos, sir, You have camera, no?”
The second place he mentioned was an old temple where the principal deity was a fearsome Devi. Legend has it that if you are angry at someone, you could tell the Devi about it and if the goddess thinks that the anger is justified, that it pertains to dharma, then she would see to it that the soul at which you are angry would get punished.
Godard was not a religious person. But perhaps owing to the interesting legend he did find the latter place Sastri mentioned rather interesting.
However, he wasn’t thinking of going anywhere.
Sastri appered surprised by this response. “Sir, what would you do all day long here on alone.”
“I think I would do some reading,” said Godard. “The breeze that comes in from there”- he pointed to the empty piece of land where he just did his toiletries, “makes the room so much cooler if you leave the window open. And there is no better place to read a good book than a room in which the temperature is controlled so well naturally.”
Godard was no connoisseur of jokes(his own reading habit veered towards the more serious and philosophical literatures) but what he just said, he didn’t even rate to be on the scale of comedy. However, Sastri seemed to have a different take on the matter. He laughed out loud- a deep sonorous sound as though he were a blue whale that happened to walk the earth.
“Oh, sir, you are such a comedian!”
Godard hoped that that was meant as a compliment. The sound of Sastri’s laughter made him uncomfortable, unsure as he was whether the auto driver was laughing at his joke or at him.
They agreed upon a time at which Sastri was to come tomorrow to pick him up(9 in the morning) to go to the temple. But before leaving Sastri brought him some breakfast from a restaurant not ten minutes away. “You shouldn’t stay hungry when you are in our land, sir,” he said. He charged Godard thrice what the food actually cost though the Frenchman still found the price considerably cheap.
After Sastri left and he breakfasted, Godard spent some time-about five minutes, actually just walking in and around the house. In many a novel that he has read, he has read about how people got sentimental or got indescribable feelings while at a place where something pivotal had happened to one of their ancestors- in this case, Godard’s father.
Writers of such novels –if they were of a metaphysical bent of mind usually ascribed this phenomenon to the capacity of the ether to store ‘vibrations’ of events that happened long ago. If that was indeed the case, the ether around these parts was so not capable, thought Godard. For comparison, if the ether around these parts was a USB, it could hardly hold a JPEG image, let alone a whole movie.
For not only did he not get any indescribable feelings he was also feeling downright bored. It was to soak up the ‘vibration’ that he lied to Sastri that he would prefer spending the day alone reading- something that he regretted now.
“I should have gone sightseeing,” he muttered, looking at the cracks in the wall which evoked no feelings in him whatsoever.
Sastri had given him his phone number. So he could call him. Indeed, he almost called the driver but then changed his mind at the last moment- the auto driver has been most helpful and he was grateful for that- particularly for this opportunity to stay in this house, which made his intended investigation all the more plausible. But still, being a lifelong loner who prided in his independence, he wasn’t completely comfortable with too much of a dependency.
No, let me go and buy a shovel instead, he thought.
There was a small shop that sold farming utensils in Karachal itself- Godard had seen the shop last day on the ride to (the not real) Susan’s home. And a nice little walk it would have been too. But he didn’t want to give the people any reason for suspicion. After all, what explanation could he give for buying a shovel if someone were to ask him?
So it was that he went to Kottiyam- the nearest town(he made sure that Sastri’s auto was not at the Karachal junction while he boarded the bus). As far as small towns went Kottiyam was a decently busy place- plenty of shops, a lot of eateries and a reasonably steady traffic on the highway. Though Godard liked the quiet and solitude that Karachal offered, he realized that he could use a little time away from that and so he had a second breakfast(the first one that Sastri brought him was extremely light) and an orange juice. He roamed around the town for a while until the heat became so much that he began to think of Daante’s Inferno.
After asking a third person, he was directed to the shop where he could buy a shovel.
There wasn’t nothing on the woman at the shop’s neutral face to suggest that she was overcharging Godard for the shovel. But by this point, Godard had come to take it for granted that he was going to be over-charged for anything that he cared to buy.
Not bothering to bargain with the woman(he wanted to keep his shovel-buying activity as low key as possible), he paid her what she asked for and walked out of the shop. Almost immediately he got into an autorikshaw. Half an hour later, he was back home, reading a book, the newly acquired shovel leaning against the wall beside him.
The cool breeze had stopped and electricity being not available, Godard felt the heat all too well. He was planning to use the shovel late this night. Until then, he didn’t have anything better to do but read.
He could hardly wait to see what his investigation would turn up in the night.
If he could conclude the investigation tonight, he decided, he would leave Susan’s home the next morning.
Godard was an atheist but there was a moment when even he thought that God was on his side on this night. For the sky was so devoid of stars or the moon and was so dark that it would give the blackest of metal music(the kind which the teen son of his neighbors back in Paris blasted off his music system) a run for its money. It was as though God was giving him the best possible cover to carry out his investigation.
But the presence of the dark clouds also meant that the atmosphere was sultry, almost unbearably so. This made Godard sweat like a pig though it’s not yet been more than five minutes since he started digging.
But tiring though the process was, he didn’t stop digging, not even to take a short break- though his lungs would have benefited from the process(Once I get back to Paris, I must start visiting a gym, he thought). He just hoped that the location of the burial site that his father gave was right, and he kept digging, digging, digging until…
Until the shovel hit metal.
Needless to say this had Godard excited. Flicking on his penlight he shone the light at what he hit. He took a few digs with his hands to reveal what it was- an old college badge. Even though the badge was tarnished with age, Godard had no difficulty in recognizing the coat of arms embossed on the badge- the insignia of the college where his father went. He now saw that the badge had some heavily decayed threads attached to it and putting two and two together, Godard realized what had happened- the fore’s needed to be wrapped in a piece of cloth before it was buried, and to keep the cloth in place, Godard-or maybe Susan, used the badge to pin it in place.
And there were tell tale signs of a fleshy mass being buried here too. Godard had read up on enough forensic books before coming to this ‘expedition’ to know that there has definitely been a burial here.
His father was a bastard, he thought. He was a bastard even as a young man fresh out of the college on his first trip to India!
If he had expected some sort of contentment with this realization, he was disappointed. For his heart felt as empty as the yawning dark of the sky above.
The sound of heavy knocking on the door brought Godard awake from a sleep that was filled with disturbing dreams featuring a dead fetus talking, incredibly long walks across scorching desert sand(probably a symbol of the overwhelming heat in Kerala in March), a slithering reptile with a grinning expression(probably a symbol for his father),a dead fetus talking, a sensation of intensely parched throat, a clock that had stopped ticking(a symbol of his boredom in Susan’s home?) and gain, a dead fetus talking.
His wristwatch, which was the first thing that Godard checked upon coming awake was ticking though. And he was surprised to see that it wasn’t even eight yet.
Then what the hell was Sastri doing here so early? They had agreed the previous day that Sastri would come pick him up at nine.
Swearing in French under his breath, trying in vain to rub the weariness out of his eyes, he ambled his way to the door.
The weariness disappeared from his eyes soon as he opened the door and saw who stood there- an old but dignified looking woman in a blue and white cotton saree. Sunlight bounced off her horn-rimmed glasses and she clutched her travel bag quite casually by her side.
With a long forehead and wide but intelligent eyes, she had the look of someone who might be a school teacher. Godard’s first thought was that she might be a teacher at the government school that was further down from the house.
Maybe this house has been rented out to her. Maybe Sastri did one on him by getting money from him when all this while, the place has been rented by this woman.
“Who are you?” Her authoritative tone was becoming of a school teacher too, Godard noticed.
“I…” Godard wasn’t sure what to say. After a few moments in which his mind cleared itself of sleep’s last cobwebs , he gathered his thoughts and said, “I am a writer.”
The woman didn’t seem impressed by this. She may be a teacher but not a teacher of literature, thought the Frenchman.
“Yes, but what are you doing in my home?” she said in the kind of English that he heard whenever he travelled in London- the kind of English which sounded cute for a while before starting to grate on his nerves- all it took was a couple of pints to hear the real tone of that English.
But the woman who stood before him was distinctly Indian. So, she has been living in London?
But more than the accent it was what she said that had the biggest impact on him. ‘My home’, she had said.
“So, you are Susan?”
For the first time the woman had an expression that wasn’t one of easy determination. With surprise in her eyes she asked, “Who are you?”
Godard almost gave her his cover story of being a writer, having trained himself to respond in that manner. However, realizing who it was he was talking to, he said, “ I am Godard. I am Keislowski’s son.”
He mentioned Kieslowski’s name as though she should be familiar with it, as she should have been.
But the name didn’t bring any sign of recognition on her face. If anything, it deepened her confusion.
“Who is Keislowski?” she said. Like her brows, her words too were creased with confusion.
“Well..the Frenchman…” said Godard.
Susan shook her head. Not light went on inside her brain.
“The one who came here many many years ago..” Godard said.
Still no sign of recognition on Susan’s face.
Feeling a little exasperated, Godard whispered, “The one with whom you buried an unborn child in the backyard of this very house.”
That brought the recognition, alright. Susan’s eyes widened and her brows shot up as though they were ready to go through the roof of her forehead.
But once the surprise abated, her face broke into a smile which surprised Godard. He had expected the woman to be shocked or even a little sad. He should have known better.
“Oh, old Keilu has a son!” she exclaimed, the Indian accent edging back into her voice- true accents are intricately bound with the truest expressions.
“Oh, yes, that’s what I used to call him!” Susan giggled like a little girl. Stepping into her home, she placed a hand on his shoulder. “Let me just touch you,” she said though she already did touch him. “Let me see that you are real. I cannot believe that Keilu has a son. The things that he told me that time, you wouldn’t believe! Like how it was a mistake and he was someone who never ever wanted a child, he swore that he was not going to have a child in his life.”
“Well, I don’t think he changed much,” muttered Godard. “Though he had a child- children, actually, whether he truly wanted them or not is still open to debate.”
Susan laughed. “I see that you have a sense of humour, which unfortunately your father didn’t.”
“So..I thought that you were away. Abroad.”
“I happened to have returned today of all days. Would you believe it?!” there was a certain girl like glee in her voice which could have been indicative of a remaining innocence or a past as a harlot, Godard couldn’t decide which.
“Get outta here!”he said.
And they both laughed.
One of the items in Susan’s travel bag was a small coffee maker which ran on battery. Along with this was coffee powder with which she fixed two cups of coffee(plastic glasses that Sastri had brought with the breakfast the other day served as cups).
Seated on the bare floor of the house’s living room/bedroom/study/sleeping room/, Godard and Susan enjoyed the coffee, as much as anyone could enjoy sugarless black coffee on a hot day.
“I first went to Dubai. From there, Singapore. After three years serving men who behaved like they were dragons, I got the opportunity to go to London. I will spare you the details of how I got that opportunity or what I did in London for the bulk of the thirty years I spent there. Suffice to say that, after all these decades, I have now enough to come back and settle in my own homeland, though my relatives have disowned me. Hell, even my two sons-once they could stand on their own feet, disowned me. But I have no qualms- they both have good lives, married and with kids, a good job…”
Such details made Godard want to puke- anything related to blissful family lives had this effect on him- one reason why he didn’t watch Disney movies.
Susan went on in a somber tone about her hardship working abroad- though she never dwelled into the details, about the way she became a diligent follower of the news once she left home-she who used to give news the same significance as a garbage bin into which someone puked-so that she could know all the things that were happening in Kerala, and about how even though she had led a life of vice, she didn’t have any remorse for she did “what I had to do to raise my two kids.”
In other words, she spoke about just about everything except Kieslowski’s visit and the burial of the fetus.
When Godard brought the topic up, she remarked in an offhand manner, “Ah, yes, your father did impregnate me. We were both careless, and we did bury the fetus. Keilu gave me almost all the money that he had. Though to be honest, he didn’t have to. I would have done just about anything he asked, I really did love him.”
“But you left him,” Godard said. “You were the one who said you were going abroad, so he must leave, isn’t that right?”
After just the briefest hesitation, Susan said, “As I said, I had to do what it took to bring up my two kids. Besides, besides, I knew that Keilu deserved someone better than me. Way better. He was handsome, educated.”
“A prick,” said Godard without much emotion.
A sad smile appeared on her face.
Godard wasn’t sure if what she said was true- about her truly loving his father once, she who couldn’t even remember his name when he mentioned it! But Godard has never been a good judge of human character. A he never was under any illusion that he was a good judge of character- at least, not since a certain girl whom he judged to be his lover betrayed him.
So, he let her remarks about her true love be.
“I hope you didn’t find this…intrusion of mine rude,” he said.
“On the contrary, I am delighted that you are here. But I would like to meet this Sastri character you mentioned. I cannot think of whose son he might be -I reckon I would know most men in this village of his father’s generation.” She winked. “Even though I am happy that you stay here, I still think it’s rude to just rent someone else’s house without the owner’s knowledge, don’t you think?”
“I guess he is just someone trying to make a few bucks when the opportunity strikes, just like everyone else in the world,” said Godard. He didn’t wish anyone to come to any trouble on his behalf, though he did think that Sastri was a bit too ambitious in renting this house to him.
“All the same, I had a good two days’ stay in here.” When he added that he intended to leave Karachal this day, Susan insisted that he stayed in the house for a couple of more days. “We will have a lot of stories to share, I am sure,” she said with that school girl’s delight which he has recognized was part of her being.
Godard wasn’t sure that he wanted to share any stories with her, or wanted to hear any more stories about his father from her, for that matter. Instead he simply said, “I think I have done what I came here to do. Way better than I thought would be possible.”
Despite her protestations he insisted that he must leave that very day. “I have a couple of other places to visit before I leave for France,” he said.
While he was getting dressed(in the kitchen) he heard the voice of the auto driver calling out his name from the front yard. He was greeted by Susan- that too he heard, and also the conversation that ensued. Well, not exactly a conversation since it was rather one-sided. He heard Susan talking, her words flowing rapidly from her mouth like bullets from a machine gun- it seems that’s how Malayali women spoke when they were angry. He heard Sastri trying to edge in a few words and being elbowed out ruthlessly by Suasan’s ever-rising voice.
Since Susan’s barrage was in Malayalam he didn’t understand a single word of what she said. But from the tone of her voice he could tell that she was not exactly singing a love-poem to Sastri.
He is probably getting the rap for letting me stay here, thought Godard as he came out of the kitchen, all dressed and ready to leave.
And as soon as he came out into the living room/bedroom/every-room-other-than-the-kitchen Susan stopped talking. Turning her attention from Sastri whose expression made him look like he was ready to melt and become one with the ground, she offered Godard the sweetest of smiles. The transition of her expression from rigid severity to beautiful smile almost made Godard laugh.
On Sastri’s behalf he apologized for the trouble that they had caused her.
“No, no, you didn’t cause me any trouble!” she said. “And you did make the house and the surroundings better-cleaner.”
Then why did you give Sastri the verbal-treatment? he thought.
As he was leaving, he wondered again if what she said earlier- about loving his father in the truest sense was true.
Sastri remained rather quiet in the auto- something that Godard found as weird as a bird singing without any sound. He was still flummoxed by whatever Susan had said. The phrase “Harlot’s tongue” came to Godard’s mind.
To lighten up the mood, Godard said, “So, Sastri, tell me about this place where we are going.”
Sastri cleared his throat repeatedly as though he was on stage and was about to start singing. But he didn’t take his eyes off the road.
“No one really knows when the temple was built,” he said. “Some say in the 16th century, others 15th. The only sure thing is that it is really, really old.”
“Ok,” said Godard, wanting to encourage the driver to speak on. Silence, he found was so unbecoming on the driver.
“There used to live in these parts two feudal families- landlords to whom belonged practically all of the village and everything in it. It is said that some dispute arose between the two families- the reason for which remains unknown. And battle ensued. One of the families began to gain the upper hand and it became clear that the other family would lose everything that they had. And that’s exactly what happened. They lost everything, including their reputation. Ruined, the surviving members of the family became lowly farmers, working the land which now belonged to the family that beat them.
“It was during this time that a vagrant black magician came to the village. He was given residence for the night at a farmer’s house- the same house where the ruined ones lived. Upon hearing their story he asked him, ‘Do you still hold grudge against them? Are you still angry at them?’ to which they said, ‘Of course.’
“To thank for their hospitality he asked them to erect a shrine. He knew the requisite mantras so that the soul of a certain goddess would come down from its godly abode and reside in the shrine. This goddess was an ancient goddess of anger-someone who valued people’s righteous anger and avenged them. But the goddess would only avenge if she thought that the anger is righteous- that it pertains to dharma.”
“So, if you are angry at a dead soul, will it still work?” said Godard after a moment of reflection.
Sastri looked at his passenger in the mirror. “Yes, I can’t see what the problem would be.”
The shrine stood at the top of a small hillock- an easy climb which could be finished in under 10 minutes. To one side of the hillock was a cashew nut processing factory which spewed smoke that floated across the hillock, all the way up to the shrine. So, Godard had to breathe in a little char as he thought about the anger that burnt within people, standing in front of the goddess who was a bit tarnished with age.
Only, he couldn’t find any burning anger for his dad within his heart. Not at this moment.
The goddess held various objects in her multiple hands-almost all of them weapons, ranging from a cudgel to a long sword. Her eyes were wide open and so was her mouth- suspended in a frozen scream. Her teeth were sharp edged like that of a shark and the diadem on her head had a skull shaped encrusting rather of anything mellow.
If there was any goddess who could go all the way to the land of the dead and drag his father out from there and give him a good beating, it was her.
“But isn’t it a pity that I cannot summon up any anger towards the old man!”
“Did you say anything, sir?”
Godard didn’t realize that he has spoken aloud, not until Sastri asked the question.
“Nothing, Sastri.” Godard looked at the goddess again.
I don’t know if the anger that I have had towards my dad has disappeared for good, he thought. Maybe it will resurface at a later period- maybe when his next birthday comes around-which is next month, or maybe at his death anniversary when I will think about all the sadness he inflicted on his kids and my dead mother – his stale legacy, then maybe, I will boil over with anger once again.
But right now, for whatever reason I am at peace.
Godard held that thought in his mind. I am at peace.
He couldn’t help but smile. The goddess looked ferociously back at him.