The bed is relieved. Two lovers lie beside each other, weightless. Amber light from a street lamp outside falls through the open window casting itself across their splayed bodies painting their skin – his chest goes deep red, her shoulders, a canvas to the shadow of the windowframe – a perfect rhombus in pale orange. She puts her arm over him.
“All right,” he murmurs, “We do it.”
“Mmmm,” she hums into his chest.
They sigh in unison.
That’s how the decision is made. He does not hide his anxiety and she senses it but says nothing more. His lips are chapped and he picks at the dry skin. The movement jostles her. She wriggles, and turns away, already drifting off to sleep. He lies awake considering a temp job.
The next day she tells her assistant, Lucy:
“We’re going to do it.”
High morning sunlight blazes through her office. Lucy enters, closes the door, flattens the blinds, then turns on the ashtray. It was a gift — an ashtray that sucks smoke into its belly and diffuses it.
A gaily plaid-patterned pouch fluffs out under a black plastic tray containing the suction mechanism. It looks like a sporran pulled from the navel of a Scot or, when there’s more than one cigarette resting on it, like a tiny set of bone-white bagpipes.
“Well, now you’ve gotta quit,” Lucy comments, shaking a cigarette loose from the pack on the table between them. Jennifer pulls a lighter from her purse.
“Mmm,” she agrees, “this one’s my last.” She leans across the desk, lights Lucy’s, then her own. They smoke in silence. Jennifer rocks back in her chair as she puts the cigarette to her lips, then leans forward to exhale. It is quiet between them in the office – the barely audible crackle of the burning paper, the long, slow exhalation of smoke into the ashtray, the soft beeps of fax machines and telephones from beyond Lucy’s desk. Jennifer ashes.
“Well,” Lucy says, finally, “hope it’s a girl.”
The would-be father of her child sits on a bench in Union Square in a black overcoat with a wool scarf wrapped tightly around his neck; folded once lengthwise and then tucked into a loop made from halving its length — comme son ami Stan, comme un Parisian.
The scarf was a gift from Jennifer. He’d had it dry-cleaned only once: during The Horrific Autumn of the Void when Raj became convinced that noxious World Trade Center dust, porting asbestos and burnt humanity, had infected everything capable of holding it. He’d even rid himself of his beard, then. But it was back by winter – speckled with tiny white spacecraft each time it snowed.
Rajagopal Balasubramaniam americanized when he moved to New York, taking the name Raj Balas, because he felt it had a European feel. He was 19 then and the Mayor was a Jew – it was a good time to change your name.
When they first met, Jennifer thought it would be a one-night stand. In Raj’s arms, after that hot night, she said: “People from outside the U.S. aren’t put off by girls with a weight problem,” she said, “It’s like it’s not part of their culture to discriminate – or maybe it’s even better, you know, to have a little more on you?”
“You don’t have a weight problem,” Raj mumbled.
Since that encounter, seven years have fired by at New York’s inhuman tempo. They stayed together through four infidelities, three of which they discussed openly. Raj slept on the sofa fourteen times. Jennifer once left on short notice to stay with her mother in California but she returned after the weekend. They didn’t rush into things after nine-eleven, but knew then, for certain, where it was going.
It’s twilight in autumn when day darkens early and gray dusk speeds toward nightness – the hour of the shift change, when empty taxis return to their gates leaving tourists at street corners waving their arms in futility at yellow cars topped by bright white letters: “not-for-hire.” The city of New York breathes workers in and out – the drone bees of the great hive exhaled and inhaled, exhaled, inhaled.
In the park, Raj watches a woman in black moving fast against a stiffening wind. The woman runs to get to the subway steps. Traffic picks up.
<wheedley eedley eedley> goes his phone. “Balas,” he replies.
“Bigot!” whispers the voice of a shape-shifting creature known as a rakshasa. The streets are a tumult. There are chiseled cement barriers cast into the avenue, cracked and speckled with tar. A tattered leaf skitters across the stone surface of the pathway in front of him. It comes to rest near Raj’s shoe. “Admit it, at least,” hisses the voice.
Raj holds the phone still against his cheek. A zephyr passes over his face. The rakshasa takes the corporeal form of a gray-flecked, tattered thing that flutters to a landing on the sidewalk.
He pockets his phone. The pigeon steps cautiously, lifting bony legs, stretching the wrinkly pink skin on its knobby legs. A scaly sheen of iridescent violet and sea-green glimmers in its neck.
“And yet you profit from avoiding conflict,” it murmurs, “you hypocrite.”
Raj looks left and right. He thinks a pigeon is talking to him. The park fills with people en route to the subway. From the pocket of his overcoat, he withdraws a crumpled, white paper sack. He unwraps half a bagel, tears off a piece the size of his thumb and throws it down in the walkway. The pigeon pecks at it.
Several more birds gather, clucking and cooing. Raj feeds them. The light fades fast. The thousand thousands descend from high-rises into the concrete street, all the souls of city traffic, like leaves drifting down.
Lucy was born into a large Irish family that shared a small flat in King’s Cross, London, in the early 1980’s. There wasn’t enough room for a happy family, much less one with her father at its root.
These days, she plugs headphones into a sixteenth-inch jack attached to a radiating plastic box on her desk each morning at 7:30, faces the monitor, the door and the telephone, takes a one-hour break for lunch, returns to her hemispheric chamber for five hours in the afternoon, and then pulls out of the jack at 6, like a stopwatch, <click>.
And she does it again the next day … infinity.
This has gone on for seven years.
Lucy is a vibrant human being who has evolved into a robot trained to respond when things beep and ring:
“Creative.” she sings into the receiver,
It’s Raj: “Hi Lucy, what’s up?”
“I see us as huge, flat, irradiant disks,” Lucy replies, “enormous plates of data stacked on top of each other in a hierarchy of information access. We constitute our consciousness of what is happening in the world right now from the information marketplace, consuming only what’s available at our financial level – on our particular plateau. Nobody reads anything that isn’t on the Internet any more, so it all comes down to TV.”
Ten year’s in the industry, and Lucy’s voice has been whetted for the phone: cool and metallic.
“If you’ve only got TV, you’re in the ghetto where everybody knows the same false shit. If you’ve TV but no cable, you’re broke or the nouveau chic who cut the cable after 9/11 and ran out and bought a DVD player. You watch videos, claim they’re documentaries.
“If you’ve TV and cable – and I’m talking just basic, now, because news and information ride the basic and premium packages equally – then you’re on the biggest, widest disk of all. We shop together, eat out together, form opinions together in electronic media and real time everywhere-now. We watch the same shit on a TV mounted in the back of a seat on the airplane. Most of us have Internet access, which less than 10% of the world has …
“From our huge, flat socio-intellectual group it gets smaller – smaller disks of information consumers: satellite TV, digital, broadband, until you finally end up with the wealthy few flipping through free porn and catching Formula One live from Dubai,”
Lucy takes a breath, and in a series of quick motions, opens a drawer, pulls out a message pad and cuts the iTunes dj, midstream. “And these aren’t the Illuminati we’re talking about, Raj. These are the most powerful wankers on earth. Neroes, Raj, masturbating while Rome burns.”
In the park Raj shrugs back the chill, “I read the papers. Can you put me through, please?”
“One moment please.”
In her office, Jennifer stabs an index finger at the grey button marked “intercom” and immediately the office is filled with the airy sound of static, a plastic mic dangling in the wind.
“Hey,” she calls out.
“Goddammit, take me off.”
“What do you want?”
“Let’s celebrate …”
Cars swoosh by, a horn, in the distance, a siren. A heartbeat.
“C’mon, pick up the phone.” Jennifer takes a drag, eking out, “My hands are full here.” She exhales into the ashtray.
“When are you done?”
She sighs and flips her wrist to see the face of her watch. “I don’t know. Ten, maybe?”
“All right, look, I’m going to Gopal’s.”
“Look for pregnancy books.” Jennifer hangs up, then stabs at another line to call her mother.
“We’re going to have a baby,” she blurts into the receiver. “We’ll start trying in the spring. It’s decided.”
“Are you getting married?”
The dead nothing sound of the digital line between words, then the unmistakable sigh of her mother, “I’ll call you back.” <click>
Jennifer sets the phone down and immediately reaches for a cigarette. “This one’s my last.”
Still radiator coolant in a puddle at the curbside bus stop shimmering electric green reflects the neon strip from a lotto sign in the window of the corner shop owned by the immigrant whose kid tagged “AMERIKKKA” everywhere after the buildings got knocked down.
Nobody here – where it’s taught early not to ask or tell too much – would say for sure that the Bush Mafia didn’t let 9/11 happen and most put up an American flag since it meant the Italians’d do business. Pimping and hoing continued at 96% efficiency while the legitimate economy tumbled blindly waiting for the murder of Arabs to save it.
Here, the same smells in an orderly way from the same places everyday, end in a mix remembered miles away as Brooklyn. Each twilight brings the sound of jet-fuel burning in the turbines of descending planes and a few hundred more people everyday. To see what exactly? New York died in the 20th century. The eleventh of September just sealed the tomb, neatly closing the era for historians. It was all so scripted.
Picture night over rooftops and chimneys. When everything is still, you see me. I am a New York night.
Ovid: There is, far above us, a way. It appears white at night and so we call it milky.
Picture a white skipping stone, pulsing, at night. That’s right, a satellite. See that skipping stone blipping regularly across the fluid blackness between the still points of ancient light that forms the great sea of time and space. I am the black sea upon which rests Ovid’s great white way.
On that first night of the new era, while you slept or tried to sleep, having nightmares or dreaming it all a dream, I was clickety-click, lickety-split, looking-climbing, seeing everywhere. I crept across rooftops from ocean to ocean, swam – one among billions of plankton – in the bitstorm on the infosea, avoiding whales of security teams: enormous beasts of agency drifting through the fluid ones and zeroes making as much useful information as stochastic noise.
I lay low, listening as they passed, singing their weird music that pushes them forever on. I became the white eyeball. Have you ever seen two men fight? I am a New York night and there is no greater authority on such matters. I host eight million egos. I catch a fight every shift.
There’s often a moment just before the shit goes down when it seems it won’t happen at all: a slouch in posture, a moment’s hesitation, the briefest instant of sanity or fatigue before the flurry of escalation that leads, ultimately, to assault. It might be a <sigh> that breaks the hard-built tension just before the nod, the push, the shove-jam-cock that ends with the <pop> of battery.
The deaths of 2,800 in my belly were the outcome of one such flurry of violent exchanges between the most desperate and the wickedest of the wealthy. The Oil Cabal Americans – whose religion is capitalism – drunk with newfound power from the success of their Millenial coup d’etat, spent the summer of ’01 baiting the fearless blackguards of the shadow markets over possession of dark crude from the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Then it was the spectacle on CNN worldwide, which means that there was a declaration of war all right, only it happened months before the morning of September 11. Perhaps years, decades and centuries come into it. Will we ever know?
Instead we’re stuck with the birth of a fiction: the spectacle re-interpreted and woven into artificial jingo, accepted by at least enough people to let the war parade begin, middle and … will it ever end?
Part of the spectacle happened half a mile from the hard-angle of Gopal’s nose. It was spectacular right before his eyes. He stood on the roof of his North Brooklyn bookstore – where he’d watched the sun set a thousand times over the glittering Manhattan skyline, where he’d smoked a thousand joints after work over the last seven years – chin dropped to his chest, brow furrowed, staring in awe. He saw the fiery bursts, witnessed the collapse and the enormous hoary plume of ash, poisoned dust and rubble. He rolled a joint.
He’d have made a unique photo. His calmness from a distance linked him with no one. His hawkish South Asian nose was only accentuated by that perched posture on the bookstore rooftop staring at the nullification of the World Trade Centers. He looked more like a vulture than anything else.
Then Gopal went downstairs to watch the news. The kids had been let out of school and some of the teenagers drifted into the shop to hang out. Gopal told them their parents would want them home, and when the shop was empty, locked up downstairs, flipped the “closed” sign and went back up to the roof.
Jennifer was at her office when the second jetliner screamed past. She didn’t get back to the house until after 2 in the afternoon. She found Raj face down in his pillow and woke him with the news. He’d slept through the apocalypse.
They watched the replays of what had happened just half a mile away while he slept. They went to the roof. There they found Gopal, atop his, next door, smoking. They crossed over the flashing. It was Gopal who first said: “There’ll be backlash.”
The First Gulf War never happened for Gopal, nor for his wife, Amrita. In May of 1990, just a few months before Bush’s Marines moved into Desert Shield, the newlywed Indian-American couple moved to Madras, she on a fellowship, he under contract. It was the month of the fire winds of Agni, that blow down from the slight eastern ghats across the desert of Tamil Nadu to the sea. Rajiv Gandhi hadn’t yet been assassinated. There was a drunken-ness in the fat, sticky afternoons.
They struggled with being Americans in India. It tore at their relationship. He drank late, often, and gave himself, swaggering, to Indian time. She found him condescending and patronizing and so was defiant when they went anywhere together. He thought her a hypocrite.
By April of the following year, while George H. W. Bush was declaring Kuwait a free republic, Gopal and Amrita were divorced.
Their families were generally unconcerned that a George Bush sought to crush Saddam Hussein and attack Iraq even then. Many secretly rather appreciated the cover that Bush’s war provided for the family misfortune – the hushed-up word and the secret bibliography of unmarried writers – “diworce.”
Bush the Elder’s war was declared over because it was bad politics. Amrita and Gopal called it quits for bad vibes. Late at night on a golf course in Bangalore, they made love, drunk, for the last time. Amrita pitied him and let it happen.
They moved back to New York and found friends who watched television at a frightening speed. Ubiquitous shrinking cel-phones led beep-beeping to workstations playing DOOM with three-dimensional range-of-motion in New York, capitol of capital – into which they leapt, single. Well, Amrita did: she went to grad school, married a Manhattan Jew, and became something of a demi-goddess; dark, silent and lovely set against all those white people, a broad-leafed houseplant whose curved palm wove its way into everything. She grew into the role. She and David rented a flat on the upper west side. Pukka.
Gopal meanwhile, moved to Brooklyn to tend the bookstore, Subbu’s Books. North Brooklyn pronounced it, “Soo-Booze”.
When his late-uncle’s estate was settled, Gopal was a “recent divorcee”, living with his father in New Jersey. Gopal’s father received the bookstore and a small parcel of land in South India, from his Subbu-anna, which is how he was able to die where he was born, leaving Gopal alone in Brooklyn, with a fate less secure, tending an independent bookstore in turn-of-the-century New York.
They all had to learn the name, ‘Giuliani,’ then, an Italian family name he was meant to live up to while he secured the island for corporate interests and helped Disney draw worker bees to the hive. The succor: they would want to feel the rain in Central Park that had appeared to them as if in a dream; breathing steadily in a dark room anyway, while a low-whirring emanating from above projected sparkling light in the black-and-white, high contrast drops that fell on Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Manhattan.
Hollywood and Bollywood produce dreams. And Mayors capitalize. Twenty years later, it was complete. Manhattan was a mall. Gopal had watched as Mallhattan made its way from meeting place to marketplace, marched through the Modernists and managed a much-hyped Millennium as it marked the exact end of the first Post-Modernism.
But this was all overshadowed when, at 600 miles an hour, a Boeing 757 slammed into the World Financial Center Two building downtown – an event that will forever be mistaken for the end of Post-Modernism.
Post-Modernism, an art movement of European abstraction that spread to literature and flourished in commercial quarters of the Euro-American entertainment sector, did not end on September 11th, 2001.
American Post-Modernism was authored in correspondence between R. Creeley and C. Olson as per a letter from the poet Olson in Black Mountain, North Carolina to Creeley, dated October 20th, 1951:
“And had we not, ourselves (I mean post_modern man) better just leave such things behind us – and not so much trash of discourse and gods?”
But to say it ended because of 19 Arabs or a cabal of white-supremacist’s covert Operation Northwoods is, you must know it, idiotic.
The fact is, American Post-Modernism ended two years before that fateful Tuesday morning, in October of 1999, with this utterance by the 107th Mayor of New York:
“Here’s how I know if something is art. If I can do it … it’s not art.”
which means American Post-Modernism achieved the respectable age of 48 years.
More than Orwell or Camus; and a generous figure given the very deep encroachment upon aesthetics made by commercial uglification at the hands of the sensationalist US American economic model.
More appropriately, though, Giuliani’s comment safely ends Post-Modernism in the twentieth century of the Christian’s calendar, the century when it thrived.
Mallhattan was Giuliani’s vision. It bullied, begged for attention, got it, and seized still more, until The Civic Act became so scripted that when he jailed three hundred homeless people in the last months of the twentieth century, it was taken as a matter of course.
Then, in the 21st century, they busted the cops who sodomized a man with a plunger and behind them discovered a THICK blue line: Amadou Diallo, an unarmed New Yorker, holding only his wallet and identification in his hand was shot 41 times by unmarked cops in the foyer of his own home. Holes in the soles of his feet revealed they were still firing after he was down.
Giuliani had the trial of the four police moved from The Bronx to Albany, and the four cops, who had histories of violent encounters and even petty corruption, were acquitted of all charges, including “misdemeanor reckless endangerment.” We marched.
Then 26-year-old Patrick Dorismond, father of two young girls, and a security guard who, ironically, hoped one day to be a cop himself, was shot and killed refusing drugs from an undercover officer. And in perhaps the most obscene move of his career, before Dorismond’s body was even seen by his friends and family, Giuliani launched a campaign to vilify the dead security guard in the press.
Facing a p.r. nightmare, Giuliani went on the offensive and ordered Police Commissioner Howard Safir to unseal a juvenile record on Dorismond, disclosing that he had been arrested for robbery and assault in 1987, when he was 13. But the charge, that Kendall Clark reported stemmed from a childhood fist fight over a quarter, was dropped and Patrick’s record was sealed because he was a child.
Giuliani declared that Dorismond was no “altar boy” and that his previous brush with the police “may justify, more closely, what the police officer did.” The police were then ordered – and had the audacity of power to show – at Dorismond’s funeral: cops in riot gear at the funeral of a kid they had murdered. We marched.
The name became heavier: Giuliani’s cops were out of control. Giuliani’s Times Square, Disney-fied. Mark Green, or perhaps Fernando Ferrer, was going to be Mayor.
And then, on the day of the democratic primaries, two planes flew into the world trade centers and Amerikkka was born. Giuliani and the cops … were heroes.
Gopal stocked up on Chomsky, Parenti and Zinn, restocked his Edward Said and Autobiographies of Malcolm X. In Mallhattan, Amrita went to pro-Palestinian rallies, where David carried a sign that said “ANOTHER NON-ZIONIST JEW FOR PEACE AND EQUAL RIGHTS”.
The war-fiction rolled on. And we marched.
Subbu’s Books is a tall, narrow shop in a converted, ochre-brick row house at the end of a Brooklyn block that neatly separates two neighborhoods of different languages. Because of post-9/11 gentrification and development, the new customers are immigrants, artists, writers and film-makers.
Subbu’s sells newspapers, poetry, literature, magazines, how-to, nonfiction, a handful of first editions, calendars, selected best sellers, bookmarks, stamps, postcards and textbooks in Spanish, English, Arabic, Romance, Polish, Hindi-Urdu, Russian, Mandarin Chinese and so on. An image of the store’s founder, one V.V. Subbuswami, hangs, framed, garlanded, dusty, behind the counter. Today, Gopal, Subbuswami’s eldest nephew, makes purchasing decisions himself alone.
The block is silent but for the occasional whisper of rustling dry leaves on the asphalt. The birch out front of the shop has begun to turn; several leaves have achieved red and gold and a few yellow ones threaten to be the first to fall. Gopal hasn’t yet replaced the screens in the doors with glass and a thin, chilly breeze gusts through the shop. He props open the door to the washroom to sweep, mop and change the paper.
He was currently obsessed with American novelists of the mid-twentieth century, absorbed in a Van Wyck Brooks paperback of interviews.
After cleaning the toilet, Gopal picks up the paperback from the tank, closes the door and sits down to empty himself:
“In the summer of 1954, when he was forty, two years after winning the National Book Award in the United States for his first novel, “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison sat at Café de la Mairie du VI. In postwar Paris, with a group of expatriated Americans, he granted an interview to The Paris Review. It was his last day in Europe at the end of a well-traveled summer. He would return to the U.S. the next morning.
“I suspect,” Ellison said, “that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance – but it must be acceptance on his own terms.”
Ellison, at perhaps the height of his freedom, embraced by some intellectuals and academics in New York and Europe at least, critically assured of his place in any history of the American novel – “Lolita,” would not appear until the following spring – continued:
“The Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write – that’s what the anti-protest critics believe. But perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read … he doesn’t want to identify himself with Negro characters in terms of our immediate racial and social situation, though on a deeper human level identification can become compelling, when the situation is revealed artistically.”
The interviewers describe the author as “overwhelming. To listen to him is rather like sitting in the back of a huge hall and feeling the lecturer’s faraway eyes staring directly into your own.”
Ellison, facing the literary attention of Europe and Euro-america, was direct and serious:
“The white reader doesn’t want to get too close, not even in an imaginary re-creation of society. Negro writers have felt this, and it has led to much of our failure.”
Gopal shits and reconsiders the text: “The white reader doesn’t want to get too close, not even in an imaginary re-creation of society.” He flips to the frontispiece. The little paperback had been published in the city, by Viking, in 1963; the exact year that, some thirteen thousand miles away, Gopal had fallen into this existence. “Too close to what?” he mutters.
When Raj arrives he tells Gopal: “We’re going to have a kid.”
“The aunties will have a fit if you don’t get married.”
Raj adopts a Valley Girl tone that he and Gopal once mocked, putting his hand up, palm out, “What. Ever.” He rolls his eyes heavenward. Laughing, Gopal reaches over and high-fives the open palm.
“How old are you?” he asks.
Gopal shrugs and returns to his paperback.
As Raj picks at the shelves, he and Gopal spend the afternoon trying out the sound of their new names: Gopal-mama, Gopal-uncle, Appa, Dad, “Pops” and so on.
The rakshasa returns as an African-American male, 6’2″, puffy afro, in the alley behind the bookshop. Raj, who had slipped out back to piss in the street since Gopal had beaten him to the toilet, finds himself facing the demon dressed in an all-black sweatsuit with two parallel white stripes running down the pants leg. White, block, sans serif lettering is printed across his chest: HOUSE NEGRO.
“Will you please wake up?”
Raj mumbles like an idiot, looking up and down the alley, peering back over-his shoulder at the bookshop for Gopal’s piercing eyes. “What do you want from me?”
“Come clean!” barks the brother from another planet. The rakshasa looks at Raj in disgust, steps toward him. “Take your clothes off, man, we’re swapping.”
The near-silent alleyway drips invisible trickles of water. Several blocks away a garbage truck sounds its high-pitched, repeated <wheet-wheet-wheet-wheet> backing up to a curbside dumpster. Raj Balas is standing naked and alone on a side street in Brooklyn, his clothes in his hands, his cock and balls hanging out.
Later, Raj lays his dark hand upon Jennifer’s pale breast – como Neruda; un reloj en la noche. He makes tiny circles with his index finger around the shades of pink.
They share the row-house next door to Subbu’s Books. Their bedroom window looks out onto the tree-lined street. Opposite their building, the brick walls of a materials warehouse are tagged with graffiti: SOON.
“A pigeon called me a bigot yesterday.”
“I suppose it was only a matter of time,” she murmurs.
“I’m being visited by a demon. He says I’m a house nigger.”
Jennifer tenses: “I told you not to use that word in front of me.” She half lifts the sheets. “So what are you telling me?” she manages, “that your conscience is brown, too?” She rolls over, away from him, her long white back a wall of silence.
On this day, a Sunday, they are expected in New Jersey for a garden party to be held at the home of Ramesh and Kalpana, septuagenarians who had emigrated to the U.S. in the same year as Raj’s parents and who had been close with his Uncle Subbu. “We were a Tamil family all alone here and they were Telegus,” his mother would say when he was young, with such respect and wonderment, “So, of course, Kalpana and I became like sisters.” Since his own father’s death, Raj had become closer with Ramesh-uncle and Kalpana-auntie.
The stems of chlorophyll-leaking leaves snap free, sending showers of technicolor shard drifting down to the earth, rusted and yelloween. Kalpana stands still, at the edge of the driveway on the concrete path leading to the door, looking out across the lawn.
Though she has been a resident of Northern New Jersey for the past thirty-five years, she’s never grown accustomed to the scent of fallen leaves soaked in rainwater. The damp odor clings to her tongue, hangs thick in her nostrils. She and her neighbors order the leaves raked before the rains come. They are stuffed into bags and marched to the curb, where they stand like squat dwarves, a family of Oompa-Loompahs side by side before each house in their neighborhood.
Kalpana and Ramesh live in a private community set among curving roads over a collection of hills covered in poplars, birches and oaks. Each home has a grassy, landscaped lawn with a copse of trees and a concrete drive connected by a sidewalk that runs along the road. A rectangular trail of grass between the sidewalk and curbside thematically unites each lawn.
From inside, she hears the phone:
Ramesh, tilted back in a cloth-covered easy chair in the living room, a few meters from the yellow Princess in the kitchen, makes no move to answer. The La-Z-Boy is an immense cavern around his frail, aging body. He is a tiny, thin South Indian man swallowed by a copy of The New York Times.
The recliner is positioned at an angle in front of a huge-screen television a few feet away. CNN is on, the volume unbearably loud. A second ring from the old yellow phone in the kitchen: <brrrrrring>.
“I’ll take it,” Kalpana calls out, making toward the phone. “Helloo!?” Her voice is hard-edged, high-pitched and grating. When she answers the phone, she always sounds slightly irritated, to dissuade the endless parade of telemarketers and scam artists but more, to put the fear of God into anyone from her family who might call.
“Auntie?” It’s the tinny sound of Raj Balas, swift in motion on a train marked New Jersey Transit.
“Aaaanh,” Kalpana says affirmatively, in a flat tone.
“Aaaanh. Aaaanh,” she repeats. In the next room, the television blares. Kalpana glares at Ramesh, who remains in his chair, unmoving. “Who is it?” he shouts out from behind the Times.
“We’ll be there around 12:30,” Raj says.
Ramesh lowers the paper and looks across the living room into the kitchen. “Is it Lakshmi?” Exasperation crawls into his voice.
“Aaanh.” Kalpana repeats, to Raj.
“WHO IS IT?!” shouts Ramesh.
Flustered, Kalpana screams into the phone, “AAAANH!” On the train, Raj pulls the cellular away from his ear. She lowers the receiver, covers it with her hand and shouts to Ramesh, “Pah! It’s Rajagopal! Leave me alone! God!”
After Kalpana hangs up, she remains sitting at the kitchen table, staring into the living room at the vast, crinkly rectangle of the front and back pages of the Living Arts section that masks her husband. Ihe television blares. She says calmly, “He is coming with Jennifer.”
“Jennifer!” Kalpana repeats loudly. “Che! Why don’t you turn that thing down?”
Ramesh lowers the paper and mutes the television with a finger to the remote. He looks across at Kalpana. “What’s he doing now?”
“He’s written an opera.”
Exactly 172 minutes later, Raj, wearing sunglasses and holding a gin and tonic, stands in Kalpana-auntie and Ramesh-uncle’s kitchen, opposite Prasad-Uncle, a 70-year-old Brahmin, in an open-collar and tee shirt, black polyester pants, who is shouting: “Krishna says, ‘I am God!’; Christ calls himself the Son of God! Mohammed, the Prophet of God. Only Krishna says, ‘Who is God? I. AM. GOD!”
A young boy runs past. Raj pulls his hips back and throws his arms out to avoid him, swinging his glass before him to prevent a spill, “Woah-ho!”
He leans back a little, pushing his free hand into his pocket; a maneuver meant to show deference to his elder with a demureness of posture in dissent. “but Uncle,” he begins, “I mean, the stories are metaphors told over and over creating a consensus on how we agree-”
“No,” replies Prasad-uncle firmly, “Consider Vyasa as a seat from which the story of God and man is told. It is the role of a man to tell, and of God to write – it is Ganapati who writes the story after all.
“But who puts the story in the mind of man? God. Every dream and notion is God’s first. Until it is written it belongs to God and only the enlightened can understand it.”
“And when it is written?” Raj asks.
“Then,” Prasad-Uncle smiles triumphantly, “it belongs to man.
Jennifer approaches quietly and Raj leans forward to kiss her cheek, whispering, “What a circular viewpoint.”
She slips an arm around him. “We’ve got to get back, babe.”
On the New Jersey Transit the atheist Raj Balas is suffering helminths. These particular blood-borne parasites don’t die easily. They swim in the veins for generations. The wicked beast manifests itself in all manner of hallucinations. Now it is auditory; an unending prattle in his mind as they speed toward Penn Station: “Faker, Fakir.”
Opposite him, Jennifer has fallen asleep, her full, white breasts gently rise and fall with her breathing; her shoulders sway left and right with the motion of the train.
Raj Balas’s opera characterizes Woodrow Wilson as a pedagogic Calvinist who led the U.S. into “the great war in Europe,” believing in an end to war forever and a new world order in which nation-states around the globe communicate in peace through ambassadors at a League of Nations Assembly.
The climactic moment transpires in the fifth and final scene of the third act, when the bespectacled, black-haired American President, a tenor, ascends an arpeggiated, slow-building, upper-register aria in the Oval Office.
It is the end of the war. Wilson has prepared a grandiose plan of reparations. The following morning he will leave for Europe. It is night. Wilson is in his bedclothes. First, the basses accompany him in drawn, syncopated half-notes. Their rhythmic pulse is picked up by the cellos, that push the tempo en pizzicato.
Wilson falls to his knees. The 14 points toward a new world order swell in volume as sectionals are added, from the strings to the woodwinds, the brass. The cellos persist, but their frenzied pik-pik-pik can barely be heard over the ensemble of instrumentation. The orchestra amplifies in a crescendo as Wilson climbs high above his clef into the effeminate heavens of the altos. He rises. The opera climaxes in the fervor of the Calvinist at the height of delusion. He stretches himself like a tautly drawn wire pursuing higher and higher pitches. He sings, “The world shall know a peace as never before / The brotherhood of man in shared holy contemplation …” a portrait of the American President overextended at the pinnacle of doomed hubris.
From the 14 points aria, the story tumbles down through the post-war years. The production arcs through the failure of the League of Nations, its blown Senate ratification, Wilson’s fall from favor with the public.
In the closing scene, the aged, beleaguered Wilson, making unattended whistle-stop lectures across the U.S., collapses in a heart attack on the train, raving madly about meaningful dialogue between all people on earth. And then he dies.
Winter brings calmness to the Apple. The shopping season ends. Mallhattan rests. Jennifer walks 23rd Street through a soft feathering snow. It is dawn. The silence is embracing. She is expected on an all-day photo shoot at a warehouse in Chelsea. Arriving, she finds Lucy outside, on a cigarette break.
Hugs. Cheek-kisses. Lucy mutters through the falling flakes. “How’s Mama-2-B?”
“Not counting her chickens before they hatch.”
“Hmm,” Lucy replies, flipping her cigarette into the gathering snow curbside, “Best not to put them all in one basket.”
For lunch at a German place in the central village, Jennifer orders beef and vegetable stew with potatoes, Raj, lentil soup and a beer.
“You don’t mind coming here, right?”
Raj stirs his soup idly, “No, it’s fine”
“Babe, I want to start soon. We’re ready.”
The tintinnabulation of silverware and words on glass, laughter from a table in the back. Raj stirs.
Jennifer puts her hand out across the table and touches the fingers of his left hand with hers. “I’m ready.”
They finish their meal in silence.
The rakshasa stamps around Raj’s subway car rattling through subterranean New York: a beast with wild fangs and spiky claws, it howls: “You are drowning in pollutants!” It is the dead of winter – 23 degrees (F) outside – but in a metal box under the East River, Rajagopal Balasubramaniam is sweating.
The following day, in the middle of the afternoon, Raj and Jennifer take a long, hot shower together. Using the special sponge, he lovingly soaps her entire body and receives the same in return. The difference in the color of their skin is never more apparent than in these moments, their most intimate, delicious reprieves from urbanity.
It is the first time in many years – since the scare – that they have not used a condom. Before Jennifer falls asleep, this is the last thing she remembers Raj whispering, softly in her ear:
“… and then we’ll say … to our little baby:
‘That’s how it was when you came into this world.’”
M.T. Karthik, 2001 – 2008
written in NYC, Los Angeles, Japan, India and Oakland