ON ANTICIPATION: Dr. Gita DasBender (Dr. DasBender is a professor of English at Seton Hall University, New Jersey)

       It could be the nostril-searing afternoon heat, or perhaps the mindless tapping of a faraway woodpecker that brings my mother's friends to the cool comfort of a shaded bedroom. They arrive one by one, each knocking faintly on the side door that has been a private entrance for as long as I can remember. It is this sense of comfort and familiarity that makes their afternoon ritual particularly special. And yet the casualness with which they settle at the foot of my mother's bed never fails to surprise me. No discomfort here, only a vague awareness of entering a private domain, a domain that subtly transformed by the nature of the conversation and the casual elegance of supine women becomes doubly private.

The space of the otherwise sprawling Calcutta contracts in the summer. It shrinks to a crackling zone of tepid air that quietly lays its thick, unmoving presence over the landscape. No one escapes its weight. All that is possible is a slowing down, a gradual unwinding of all movement until time itself is nothing but a pulse beating against the neck. And all through the afternoon the women lie against gigantic pillows, heads resting in cupped hands, brown wrists gleaming beneath thick gold bracelets. The dim light hanging on the wall casts deep shadows in these faces, heightening the tedium and fatigue that creep into their bones on such sun-scorched days. They sit apart from each other, but whisper as though if spoken any louder the space between them would open up and devour the words. Like the women I too lie in bed, soothed by the gentle swoosh of the fan circling above my head. My curiosity about their conversation is surpassed only by a more constant one, one that slips in and out of my consciousness when I lie flat on my back and study the ceiling fan. I imagine what it would be like if the fan with all its weight in metal were to come crashing down on me. What would that moment of crushing heaviness feel like? But only the luxury of siesta time could afford such flagrant daydreaming for a twelve-year old and create of the innocuous ceiling fan, a three-armed monster ready to pounce on a helpless prey.

Everything in the adjacent room is quiet and constant; my mother's friends in their lazy poses, the steady whirl of the fan, crackling hot air as it floats through the wooden shutters. Amidst this quiet is the faint rustle of silk saris as the women shift and settle deeper into the pillows, their beetle-juice stained lips relishing the gossip.

In those days I would sometimes escape to the red room in the far end of the house and lie against the crimson cement until the warm vaporous outline of my body was imprinted on the cold floor and I could I trace my name on it. Underneath, the rumble of tramcars reverberated in my ear like shifting plates of the earth. I heard them creak and grind, those rusty monsters, as their unwieldy bodies rattled and swayed through the narrow streets, a graceful oddity grotesquely superimposed on the land of rickshaws and cow-carts.

It was in Boston that I once heard the surprising tinkle of the tramcars of Calcutta. It was strange to feel the cold air in my face and think of the warmth of the city across the ocean, of summer afternoons, that vicious time of the day when the sun brands the earth with a fiery blast, and when my mother's friends venture out for their odd ritual. I know strange things happen when the sun wreaks havoc at three p.m. School children scramble indoors, traveling vendors put their familiar cries to rest and cease to hawk their wares, stray pedestrians delicately manoeuvre the street, clucking in despair when a shoe stubbornly lodges itself in the melting tar. One should never underestimate the power of the midday sun in the month of May. They say it makes dogs mad and people too. Outside, in the verandah, there is a brief hint of patchouli as the pale green blind sways in the hot breeze, waiting to be hand-sprinkled at dusk when the scent of jasmine will take over. Inside, the mechanical flurry of clock hands sweeps away the very moment it so carefully bears.

And the sun buzzes over this sprawling, decaying city, a city known either for the stark reality of the Black Hole, or for the terrible misnomer - city of joy - only the imagination of an outsider could conceive. The joys of the city are subtle, hidden perhaps in the cracks of aging bricks, in the crumbling grains that flow through the muddy waters of the Ganges, in the frantic energy of devotees whose faithful deity emerges from the fertile soil of the Ganges only to be immersed in its waters once again. I call these joys for here resides the spirit of a city known mostly for its dispiritedness. But to partake of that dismal joy is to enter the atman, the very soul of Hindu life. As a child I experienced the Hindu culture from afar, keeping it at arms length as if it were a pool of icy water I could dip my toe into but never, never enter. I watched from the margins never quite understanding the mysterious link between man and idol, flesh and earth, transience and permanence , but now I try to weave in and out of time, picking up an idea here and an idea there, testing connections, trying to make sense of the whole picture without losing sight of the small links.

With the month of August begins the Sharat season - crisp cool mornings with dazzling azure skies, and balmy, scented evenings. It is also the time to prepare for the annual return of the ten-handed, ambidextrous Goddess Durga to her maternal home. She is reborn every year in the hands of idol-makers who mould her voluptuous image with extraordinary care. You see the male potters in narrow alleyways, covered with the slippery sensuality of clay, patting every curve in place. With what tenacity and grave intent these men create Mother Durga, and with what heady devotion they immerse her into the murky waters of the Ganges. The goddess, miraculously birthed by the hand of man thrives for ten days until she is returned to the source of life, the godhead.

I suppose it was inevitable that my mother would find her way into my life once again. It was a nasty wet day in November when she emerged from the teeming anonymity of Kennedy airport looking far more diminutive than I remembered. This did not seem to be the same woman who towered over me only a few years ago. In the quick, momentary gesture of a hug I was enveloped in the arms of time. Her dark curly hair brushed against my face with a suddenness that brought with it the fragrance of coconut oil and the musty smell of naphthalene. There I stood gripping the cold metal railings until her pale face looking even paler against the sign screaming "Exit Only" became one big white buzz.

Her arrival had finally put to rest the anxiety of two months of waiting. Now that the waiting was over, the anxiety was replaced by dread, an awful feeling that gripped my chest and made my hands clammy and cold. It was raining outside, the same slick black rain that pours incessantly during the monsoons. My mother once said that rain on a wedding day is a sign of luck. Hers, she says, was blessed only by an annoying drizzle. Now she stepped out into the New York night, carefully lifting her sari just enough to take short steps over shiny puddles, her hair covered with droplets of water shimmering in the thin glow of streetlights. I wondered what this journey meant to her -- she who had traveled unknown waters to meet her daughter. And what it meant to me -- one who had journeyed away from home to another home.

By the time we drove home, the night had lowered a thick black shroud of fog that chilled to the bone and made one scurry indoors. From the back of the car my mother's eager, nervous chatter resonated strangely in my ears as if we were still on long distance. She flung at me stories from home like tasty tidbits to a eager child but all I could do was dutifully come up with a surprised "oh really?" or a crushed "oh no!" Names with fading faces whizzed past as quickly as the turnpike outside and I felt strangely detached from those once-familiar names and faces. In the pale green of the dashboard I could see some of them, their faces wavering distressingly as if hastily blurred by an invisible hand.

The effort to remember and yet not wanting to, left me feeling raw and desolate. I explained to her that the acrid stench seeping into the car was a permanent feature of the turnpike, a stealthy residue of burning chemicals that grabs the senses as quickly as it leaves. I did not tell her that the spasm in my stomach came and went with so rapidly that it made me dizzy.

That night, still not having recovered from her arrival, my mother sat my kitchen table and wrote me a note inside the cover of a birthday card she had carefully carried with her from India. Watching her write I dreamt of a time when I might have written her a similar note, perhaps within the folds of a Christmas card. It was a dream, which like many others, I couldn't decipher, couldn't read, couldn't shake off. When she wasn't looking I hesitantly skimmed the card, glossing over the note as if the words on the firm whiteness had a power beyond me. And it came to me that every word of tenderness, of emotion, of love wracked my body with embarrassment. Like the dream, I could not decipher this intimacy.

The hastily written note, packed with the need to give language to emotion, was a gift I did not want. I was rejecting a loving gesture. It wasn't much later, perhaps a month or so, that my mother broke down at the dinner table. She sobbed in loud gasps that early December evening, her face hidden in the palm of her hands. I had seen it coming, this deluge of tears, by the way she picked at her food, and by the way her dark hapless eyes caught my glance and moved away. Between her sobs she repeated apologetically, "it's nothing, it's nothing".

Later that night I realized that now it was her turn to reject the daughter she did not recognize any more. This was grief that that had to do with not wanting to see, not wanting to understand, not wanting to accept. This was a bitter reunion, one that had thrown us into a whirl of emotions that neither of us understood. We danced with the past, each of us taking turns with coming close to what once was, and then as the jarring present intervened, we were flung further and further apart. This was the painful dance of intimacy that we danced for two months.

I had desired to connect, to reveal and share, to regain the nurturing closeness that a mother and child tacitly expect of each other. I anticipated intimacy, craved it in some ways, and waited to know what it would be like. I knew we could no longer be shadow players, whirling our swords in the dark. It was time to tell. What I did not know was that I would never have the courage to ask, that my mother would never have the courage to tell, and that we would remain shadow players, wearing our masks, dancing in the dark.

I don't remember much of the day my mother departed. It was a Tuesday with no character. That's how Tuesdays usually are. The turnpike looked weak and gray against the brilliant blue of the January sky. Blue skies made the stillness of summer afternoons even stiller, held the picture in place. It was a blueness that smelled of parched earth and steaming soil, but it was also a freezing blue, one that left a cold trail in my heart.

It finally occurred to me on a cloudy February day that the realization of desire often bears little resemblance to the anticipation of it. I had been pottering around the house, touching the dust growing everywhere and smelling the new green on the lush vine in the living room. Here was life, I thought, happening without human intervention, slowly but predictably. The wheels of time were rolling their merry way heedless of who it dragged along, and here I was caught right in the middle of it, spinning crazily in its vortex, vainly imagining that this "I" was in control. I was thinking of my life's hopes, unfulfilled desires that nag at me, push me to places I've never been before. The struggle, I realized, lies in between the two worlds that I inhabit: one that conceals the idea of intimacy and confines it within the clutches of respectability, and the other which creates the desire to anticipate intimacy, makes me want to court it passionately, but forces me to intellectualize it. And there is an element of contrivance in seeking to decipher intimacy. It grows in our breasts from the time we nestle close to our mothers, our innocent faces submerged in the sweet milk of oblivion. We remember forever, that moment of semi-conscious desire, felt so readily and unknowingly and replayed in dazzling variations throughout our lives. I see it through the dim veil of memory, that unknown space I imagine, I seek, but cannot inhabit.

I am told that as a child I shuddered when embraced, turned my face in disgust when kissed. I remember the throbbing sting of cheeks pinched with careless enthusiasm, blood between my legs where it shouldn't be -- a hint of the kind of intimacy I did not want. It was all fairly simple then, this play with desire. If often arrived unannounced and swept me off in a tide of despair. And I wondered why desire had to be so brutal, so relentless, and intimacy so unavoidable. To remember the past, then, is to experience it through the spasmodic rhythm of then and now, the back and forth of what was and what is. It often happens that the nowness of the experience obliterates what once was, leaving in its place only that which can be palpably felt as a lived moment.

There were always tense moments right before the monsoons. They were expected every year like clockwork, and yet their arrival was always the occasion for panic and pandemonium. One could see the darkness approaching from the far end of the sky, getting deeper and more ominous with every passing minute. And just as the quivering stillness grew outside, there was a flurry of activity indoors. Shades were pulled, windows shut, doors slammed. The magnitude of nature's slow but majestic stride across the sky made our frantic efforts seem petty and meaningless. But the first crack of thunder changed it all. There was no longer a prolonged stillness, a numbing heaviness. In its place was glorious sound and movement. Silver streaks of lightening flashed and disappeared like the dangerous trick of a magician. The rumble came after only as reminder that what had flicked across the eye was indeed a trick. For the stifling oppressiveness of an earlier moment had somehow been miraculously, magnificently, stirred into a torrent of rain.

The power of the nor'wester is always in its capacity to fool the one who trembles like railings in a thunderstorm. The fear that sets in with the graying skies lifts as the rain thunders down. Then there is only the rhythm of earth and sky; the earth that waits in anticipation of the nurturing rain, and the sky that gives with abundance. What is realized is beyond the ken of anticipation, beyond even what nature expects of itself. But the rhythm of nature that touches every blade of flattened grass, every twisted shape, has an unpredictable beauty that resembles little of our experiences. The pact that sustains land and sky is unspoken, without open acknowledgment. Our expectations often culminate in loss, seldom attaining the kind of curious harmony nature enjoys.

My best friend Rini wrote me some poems a few years ago. She had surprised me with her elaborate scrawl on the thin translucent sheets of paper. I hadn't seen her handwriting for a long time. But then again, it was time for her to surprise me, maybe even herself. I read her poetry with an awe that slowly dwindled to fear and confusion. I had to scrounge through the memory of our childhood to recover the meaning of her poems, and every time I thought I came close to pinning it down, it flew out of my grasp, back to being a bold black scrawl on the page. She had managed to unsettle my deepest most firm belief in our friendship by ripping through it with the sawtooth emotions of her poetry.

I slipped into the mellowness of an August afternoon when the rain had subsided and was felt only as a humming, fragrant presence. She had wanted it just that way, so that she could unleash the torrent of her own misery upon me. There we were two solitary souls caught in an embrace of unknown sorrows, trying to console each other of griefs yet to be understood.

I think she knew why those summer afternoons plagued me so. And she came to me with nothing but her own sorrows. When I think of our intimacy in the context of intimacies we didn't understand, it slowly begins to make sense. We were trying to grow up in those days, trying to find our way through the numbing confusion of breaking into life. There was a danger, we knew, in knowing things too fast, in letting life grab us in its tight, menacing grip, but we threw ourselves at it anyway. And yet, even though we were cohorts of a kind, partners in misery, the intimacy we shared was tacit, closed, uncomfortable. We knew things we never shared, we shared things we thought no one knew.

But the night I read Rini's poems of desperate love in the watery beam of a streetlamp, I shivered with the renewed realization of something I already knew. Rini had always loved me. She was writing to let me know that our lives had collided and that she was still reeling from the impact. How sweet, how terrifyingly sweet, that moment when the innocence of childhood is no longer within the scope of comprehension, no longer redeemable. To know is to suffer, and to believe that suffering shall redeem. For what else is there but this realization that guides every exquisite, doomed moment of our lives?

I woke up this morning to find the soft thickness of early morning fog nudging at my window. It lay there lazily against the frost-rimmed glass, caressing every crevice, kissing every corner. As my glance flickered across the dazzling whiteness I could see beauty in nature's whims. Where only a day earlier the brown grass was beginning to show patches of green, I saw a powdery coat of snow. I pulled myself against the window to trace a thin trickle of water that was already running its course, having metamorphosed from icy solidity to a quick undulating stream. And I thought how erratic our passions are; firm, green, iridescent one day, soft with decay the next. They rise and fall in our breasts in rapid waves of desire only to crash and dissolve, finally, always it seems, in the aftermath of spent emotion.

Such were the musings of a mind bent on understanding the relation between the desire for intimacy and its ultimate fulfillment. It is no easy task to be in that hollow space in between, to probe into the dark crevices of the mind which breed the need for human proximity. To journey into the source of my primeval desires is to face myself naked, without the embellishment of modesty or imagination. But in all my nakedness what I need is clarity, that crystal clear vision of what there is to discover.

In my quest for clarity I wonder how one anticipates intimacy, courts it, reaches out for it. Does it make one tremble with fear like young green buds caught in a sudden March storm? Does it come in a mad rush through flesh and skin, touching every nerve, searing every pore? And is one left dizzy from spinning in its powerful center as if entrapped in a cruel joke?

It is only by diving into an intimate moment that I experience it. There is no hedging around, no quiet courting, no restless waiting. I have to snatch the moment out of thousands of others and savor it. But I cannot shake off the aftermath, that hollowness of an intense moment that vanishes into the abyss of time. Who can ever retrieve such preciousness? Yet if Gretel Ehrlich is right, "Time ... is not one thing, but an infinity of space times, over-lapping, interfering, wave-like. There is no future that is not now, no past that is not now." Can we then swim in this wave of intertwined time, all our pasts and futures fused into a giant spinning sphere of anticipation and realization? Not so easy, for a moment gone is a moment lost. It can only be retrieved vicariously, lived second-hand, again, after the fact.

And perhaps it is for the better that memory lags behind the present. When I sometimes get caught in a sudden shower in New York City, my eyes glaze over with nostalgia. Friends look into the density of rain and wonder what sleight of hand nature is pulling this time. I look into the skies, heavy and gray, and wonder why thunder is never so loud, lightening never so blinding here. I transcend the present and move in time, but memory teases like an insensitive adult. It promises to offer, but snatches away cruelly, reminding me always that what I think I see, what I think I live, is nothing but a trick.

It is not very often that the human eye encounters natural beauty of spiritual proportions, but when it does happen, the sight lingers in the mind like a prayer that is evoked over and over, with increasing fervor. In the autumn of '87, just when the nights had begun to cool down to the smell of tuberoses growing white and wild, I visited a tea-estate that lay sprawled at the foothills of the Himalayas. There was something in the quiet air of that region of the country that pulled at my soul, something that invited me into the very lap of divine solitude. I had been there before. But every time I returned, the landscape leapt up before my eyes in hills and mounds and sharp slopes as though it were recreating itself with renewed vigor. I bathed in the sweet green of unpicked tea.

It was the green that overwhelmed the senses the most. That and the invisible crickets thickening the air with their constant hum. Little dirt roads meandered through acres of tea bushes growing to tidy heights, tall balsams provided relief here and there from the expanse of uniform growth. But as the golden globe quietly sank behind the snowy peaks of Mt. Everest and splashed the sky in a palette of pink and purple, a quivering stillness descended over the gardens. I knew, watching the sunset from the elevated wooden verandah, that pink would soon vanish into purple only to reemerge in the bloody flecks of distant moonscape. And the sky would glow with a redness that scattered its mystical light everywhere. Then the spectacle would begin.

That night the sky was awhirl with shooting stars dropping into the horizon from every corner. But as they subsided, the moon slid up and hovered between the balsams. It was a pale, watery pool of light that hung between rows and rows of shrubs and lit up the garden with an eerie fullness. I saw the night revealed in strips of moonlight interspersed with dark clumps of tea bushes and wondered if I could ever learn of the passion with which the sky touched the earth. I prayed for the moon to touch me with its luminosity, for the earth to brush me with its stillness.

Now I dream again of the moonlit moment that took me closer to divining the mystery of nature. But it is a dream that shuts me out from living that moment again, from returning to the arms of the spirit that calls from the Himalayas, the abode of the Gods. I am no longer able to look through the bleary lens of time and see what has disappeared into its hollow space--it is gray and shadowy, encased in a delicate film of forgetfulness. I try to forget the desire for memory, but it creeps into my body telling me I have to learn once more to anticipate it, to tempt it into becoming. It is a constant rite of passage that I have to learn not to forget.



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