Translated by: Poupeh Missaghi | Edited by: Adam Seth | Header Photo by Matteo Vegetti
(c) “Bombay Rain” was first published in Denver Quarterly, Vol 48, No3, 2014, and it is being republished here by permission of copyright holders
The bell rang. Marcel was still busy watching television. Chandra came out of the kitchen and went to open the door. No one was there. Perhaps he had mistaken the ringing of the bell of the Rajabai Clock Tower for the doorbell. He turned around, but before heading back to the kitchen, he stood in the middle of the living room, looked at us, and said something in Marathi, the language of the people of Maharashtra. Though clear and articulate, what he said was not comprehensible to me. Marcel’s Marathi was no good either but he was more used to hearing it.
‘He is saying something about Rama Krishna, Krishna’s father,’ he explained to me.
I turned to Chandra and said in Hindi, ‘Say it again. Say it in Hindi.’
Chandra barely knew Hindi but managed to say a few words. Among his words I picked up khudkushi, suicide. In his Chandra language, Chandra was insisting that we not mention anything about the incident. We were not going to. Neither Marcel nor I had met Krishna’s father and his self-chosen death had nothing to do with us.
An hour later, the old boy greeted us from the threshold, with a withered bouquet in hand, a musical instrument on his back, and Surya in his arms. The black cat was a gift from a merchant from Benares to Krishna and on Krishna’s suggestion was named Surya by Rama Krishna. It leapt down from Krishna’s arms and walked to its spot on the windowsill. Krishna looked tired. We had expected him to be extremely pleased to see us. He was not. He simply welcomed us with a line from Khayyam, whose Rubaiyat I later realized he had read so much that he almost knew it by heart. He took his sitar out of his sack and put it on the armoire.
‘Has the boy taken care of you?’ he asked.
Krishna called the fifty-three-year-old Chandra the boy because, at almost the same age as himself, the servant too was still a bachelor. We thanked him for his hospitality. He sat down next to us and started chattering. First about how he regretted not having had read Khayyam until that age, then about quitting professional acting after the ‘demise’ of his father and now only playing music for himself and for the shadow of Rama Krishna who, not having reached moksha or the ‘final salvation,’ continued to hover around. I took his words as part of his eclectic beliefs, his desire to turn anything material into some transcendental concept, his habit of lecturing any atheist about polytheism. He picked his sitar up, played for a minute or two, and put it back on the armoire. He announced he was soon off to Benares to spread his father’s ashes in the Ganges to both put his father’s soul to rest and bring himself peace from his father’s shadow.
Marcel lay down in front of the television.
‘So tell me about Khayyam!’ Krishna told me.
‘You already know about Khayyam. Marcel and I have actually come to talk to you about Hedayat. Surely you remember Hedayat?’ I replied.
Krishna stood up, opened one of the armoires and brought out the folder of notes and pictures from two or three years ago. He had written on the backs of almost all the pictures and underlined many of his notes. He recited the first few lines of The Blind Owl and said, ‘I have read it three times so far. I need to read it two or three more times.’
Marcel stood up and joined us. ‘Tomorrow we will take a camera and find a suitable spot close-by to shoot. Some ruins or an abandoned house or somewhere similar. It’s a one-day job. You read from the book, we converse with you, and shoot the whole thing. The rest we’ll take care of later,’ Marcel explained.
‘Tomorrow?’ Krishna asked as if he was still an actor with a busy schedule, with no hours to spare.
‘Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. We don’t intend anymore to make you up to look like Hedayat. I have brought some of my grandfather’s clothes, a hat and a vest and a raincoat. You just put those on. You don’t need to become Hedayat himself. You just need to become a shadow, or a ghost, giving the illusion of Hedayat.’
Krishna nodded for a minute, whispering, ‘You realize I’m not the Krishna of three years ago. Even if I wanted, I could no longer play the role of the young Hedayat.’
I jumped in, ‘Marcel suggests that we make a short film, only ten minutes long, go look for a producer, and only then begin to go all the way to the end.’
‘It seems you didn’t understand me. I’m now more fit to play the bent old man, not Hedayat or the narrator.’
‘We only need your shadow, not you yourself.’
‘I have not yet digested the novel well. I told you, I need to read it two or three times more.’
‘Right now it’s not about digesting the novel. It’s about shooting the film. Please don’t say no.’
Marcel went back to the television and did not go on. He turned it off and picked a magazine to browse. Having lost the desire to talk, Krishna took up his sitar again. His music was more depressing than desperate: heavy, short, and intermittent. The rain continued to pour and the lights went out. Surya silently reclined at the window, not taking its eyes, even for a second, off of Krishna. In the dark cloudy evening, its eyes were the only source of light, making the tar black of its fur look bright.
Krishna began to talk again, ‘Do you believe in reincarnation?’
‘Okay. Don’t start again. I remember our conversations about your belief in disbelieving. Let’s forget about beliefs. Do you think reincarnation is practically possible?’
‘No,’ I said, lying there on the couch, looking up at the ceiling.
‘Let me explain what I mean. When I talk of reincarnation, I am not talking of consecutive destinies but of shared destinies,’ he said, immediately continuing to expand his point.
‘Stop it, Krishna! Your father died by his own choice. This doesn’t mean you need to follow in his footsteps,’ interrupted Marcel.
I brought down my eyes. Krishna was not there. I saw Chandra, standing at the kitchen door, giving me a reprimanding look.
Chandra did not understand English. I gestured to ask about Krishna. Without responding, he went back into the kitchen.
‘Where did Krishna go?’ I asked Marcel.
‘Krishna?’ Marcel asked.
I did not answer him and he went back to reading his magazine. A few minutes later Krishna showed up again. He had walked in from outside and was soaking wet. He had a flower in hand and a sack over his shoulder. The sack was bloody and wet.
‘Where did you disappear?’ I asked him.
He laughed briskly. ‘In search of my father’s shadow,’ he said and rapidly swallowed his laughter. The Rajabai Clock bell rang again. Krishna, assuming it was the doorbell, stood up to go open the door.
‘Sit down,’ I said.
He went to the door, opened it and after a few seconds closed it, and came back again.
‘The old boy has got you too delusional,’ I said, pointing to Chandra who was back at the door of the kitchen, not taking his hostile eyes away from me.
‘I went out. I saw a Muslim who threw stones at the chameleon.’
‘It was sitting right here on the branches, hiding under the banyan leaves.’
‘Was it afraid of the Muslim?’
‘It had taken refuge from the rain.’
‘Was it waiting for the rain to stop?’
Krishna did not reply and I did not follow up. Two minutes later he continued, ‘Its skin will lose its quality if it gets wet. You know that, don’t you?’
I called out to Marcel. He was not there. ‘Did you see Marcel?’
I stood up to go look for him, tell him to forget about shooting tomorrow.
‘He might have gone to bed,’ Krishna shouted after me.
I did not find him in the bedroom. I came back to the living room. ‘I couldn’t find him. He wasn’t there.’
Krishna was lying down on the floor, wrapped in a sheet. It was not nighttime yet and no sane person would sleep so early in the evening. I pushed the sheet aside. Krishna had buried his face in the pillow. He raised his head.
‘I am the boy, the old boy,’ he said, in English.
His face was Chandra’s face. The bell rang. It was not the Clock’s. I went and opened the door. Nobody was there. A few steps away, a shadow was thrown on the floor. It could be Rama Krishna’s shadow. It was totally still. Its outline was exactly what one would expect from the pictures of Rama Krishna on the walls. I returned. The lights were on again. As I was closing the door, I noticed Surya. It leapt, throwing itself into the hallway. I closed the door. I walked to the kitchen, took a beer from the fridge, and walked back to the living room. Surya followed me around. Chandra stood up, collected his bed, and went back to the kitchen, his haven. Surya tottered towards the windowsill. The Clock bell rang nineteen times.
With no real intentions, I went back to the door. The rain kept pouring, not seeming to want to stop. Krishna was at the door. He had gone out to shop for dinner. He had seen Marcel going to the Clock Tower under the rain.
‘You didn’t say why the Muslim threw stones at the chameleon,’ I said.
‘Did you see my father’s shadow?’ Krishna replied.
‘I saw him but he had no head,’ I said and laughed.
Krishna ran to the sack he had put on the armoire, took it, and threw it out of the open window.
‘Bastards! They finally did what they were hoping for! They took revenge at last,’ he said angrily.
‘The Muslim hated chameleons. It was a chameleon that had betrayed the Muslim prophet who had gone into hiding in a cave. Changing colors, it had showed the way to the infidels. The prophet had cursed the chameleon, demanding his followers to kill the innocent creature wherever they saw it.’
‘The chameleon was my mother’s passion, my father’s love and mine. The Muslim had no right to kill it. He killed the poor animal and I killed him. I beheaded him and brought in the head. Perhaps he has taken revenge by beheading my father’s ghost. I hope he finds his head soon and gives back my father’s.’
I told Krishna to sit down. I brought him a beer. I opened the bottle for him.
‘Do you remember our first meeting? We were sitting on this very couch and I was talking about the differences between religions, and you kept repeating an irritating refrain: There is no difference. There is no difference. Meaning that Allah is Krishna and Krishna is Rama and Rama is Buddha and Buddha is Jesus and . . .’
‘I’m still of the same opinion: There is no difference. But what does that have to do with this?’
‘You keep talking about reincarnation. The Muslim has a superstition of his own,’ I said.
Krishna took a gulp of beer. ‘They are a world apart, reincarnation and this superstition.’
‘So in the end there is a difference.’ He took another gulp. ‘I still say what I have always said: There is no difference. This is a different matter. The chameleon hadn’t harmed anyone. I loved it, like I loved my mother, my father. It was dear to me, like the old boy, like Surya. What is the difference? There is no difference. No difference!’
The lights, which had gone out again, came back on. Chandra was now sitting next to me on the couch. I walked to the kitchen. I saw Krishna, squatting on the floor. He was playing his sitar but no sound rose from it. He himself was the one crying, nodding and reciting Khayyam. I walked back to the living room. Krishna was lying down on the couch, quiet, calm, holding on to his sitar. Chandra rose from the kitchen floor, shook himself clean, walked to the door, said something about the Rajabai Clock Tower, and pointed to the pictures on the wall, gesturing to me once again not to ask the son anything about the death of the father.
It was almost eight o’clock and Marcel was not yet back. Krishna turned to me and asked, ‘Did you understand what the boy was saying? My father threw himself down the Rajabai Clock Tower. Surya was the one showing him the secret path.’
‘Are you sure you saw Marcel?’ I asked.
‘Let’s go to Marcel,’ said Krishna.
The Clock bell started to ring again. It was to ring twenty times. Krishna rose halfway. I firmly held on to his arm and did not let him stand. He let out a dry laugh.
‘Don’t panic. I’m not going to go to the Tower. It’s useless with the rain. The moon should be up in the sky.’
I let go of his arm. He stood up and went to open the door. He came back with Rama Krishna’s shadow. It was still headless. Father and son sat down next to one another. The father was silent for a few minutes, then called out to Krishna. Chandra stood up from next to the shadow and walked to the kitchen. Krishna came out of the kitchen. With his white cuffs he wiped his face and came and sat down at his father’s feet. He started playing his sitar.
The Clock bell rang nineteen times. I rose to head out. Surya was not on the windowsill. The father’s shadow was not there. The son was not there.
‘I’m sorry. I know you won’t be coming back. So give my regards to Marcel,’ said Krishna.
I walked out. The rain kept pouring, not seeming to want to stop. At the door of the house, I came face to face with the Muslim. He was throwing stones at Surya. Surya leapt away. The stone hit the window of Krishna’s house. A headless shadow appeared at the window. There was not much of a distance between the house and the Rajabai Clock Tower. Ten minutes later, Marcel and I were standing in front of the Tower under the summer rain, with not much to say to one another. I looked up. Surya was fast ascending the back stairs of the Tower, lighting the secret path for the son.