Her appearance struck Milford when she stopped Mrs. Milford on the hotel stairs, to ask a question. There was a flushed urgency, a near-breathlessness, to the question: “Have you been to the hairdresser yet?”
“No, not yet,” Jean answered, startled to be abruptly accosted, though since they were all members of a 22-person museum-sponsored tour of the temples of southern India, in theory they were all comrades in adventure. It was so early in the tour that the Milfords hadn’t yet thoroughly worked out the other couples, but Henry recognized this apparition on the stairs as paired with a bespectacled, short, sharp-nosed man in a blue blazer, the two of them hanging back a bit shyly at the get-acquainted cocktail party beside the hotel swimming pool. Somewhere in their early 40s, by Milford’s estimate, they were among the youngest people on the tour, whereas the Milfords, in their early 70s, were among the oldest. Yet age differences, and differences of wealth and class, were compressed to insignificance by the felt pressure of the alien subcontinent all around them.
“How was she?” Jean asked, abandoning her usual reserve. There was, Milford had often noticed, a heated camaraderie among women when they touched on the technology of beauty. Already, he saw them as sisters of a sort.
“Horrible,” came the swift, nearly breathless answer. “She didn’t understand my hair at all. It’s too curly.” The word came out as a spondee—cur-lee. The woman, in her own, more snugly cut blue blazer, spoke with a faint strangeness—not an accent exactly, but with her mouth held a little numbly, a bit frozen in the words’ aftermath, as if whatever she said slightly astonished her. Her hair, now that he looked, was indeed remarkably curly, bronze in color, and so thick and springy it seemed to be fighting to expel the several tortoise-shell barrettes that held it close to her head.
Milford, standing lower on the curved stairs, with his feet arrested on two different steps, recalled an earlier glimpse of this apparition, also on steps. Those on the tour who weren’t too distinctly infirm had been climbing the 614 steps carved into a stone mountain, Vindhyagiri Hill, at whose summit stood a monumental Jain statue, a giant representation of a fabled sage, Bahubali, who had stood immobile for so many days and months that (legend claimed) vines had grown over his body. At the beginning of the climb, Milford had been shocked by his first sight of a live “sky clad” holy man, who was moving upward, one deliberate step at a time, with ceremonial pauses for chanting and shaking his wrist bells. His stocky, even paunchy body was otherwise quite naked, and tanned an oily coffee brown unbroken but by patches of gray hair on his chest and elsewhere.
The ugliness of an aging male body disturbed Milford. Did the man proceed up and down the holy stairs all day long? Didn’t Indian law forbid indecent exposure? Or was it legal at sacred sites, in the vicinity of a giant nude statue whose penis, the guidebook calculated, was five feet long? Preoccupied by these questions, Milford felt a body brush past his. He was being passed by a youngish woman in khaki slacks and white running shoes and a yellow baseball hat tipped rakishly forward on her head, as if her hair were too bulky, too springy, to fit into it. Without effort, it seemed to the gasping Milford, she moved upward and out of sight, amid the many other ascending pilgrims at Sravanabelgola. By the time he had made it all the way to the shrine at the top, out of which the huge effigy, symmetrical and serene, protruded like a jack-in-the-box—she had disappeared.
“But she shouldn’t have trouble with your hair; it’s so straight,” the woman was telling Jean, with that terminal emphasis, her lips ajar as if there was something about straight hair that left her stunned. “I’d love to have straight hair,” she did add, and thrust out a shapely, heavily ringed hand for Jean to take. “I’m Lorena. Lorena Billings,” she said.
“I know,” Jean smiled. “I’m Jean Milford, and this is my husband, Henry.”
He wondered if Jean was lying, or if she had really known. Women lied, often for no other reason than simple politeness or the wish to round out a story, but then they did retain details that slipped by men. He had already forgotten the apparition’s name. Taking her hand—startlingly warm and moist—he said, to cover his betranced confusion, “You passed me on the Jain steps yesterday. Breezed right up by me—I was impressed. You must be in great shape.”
“No,” was the thoughtful, unsmiling response, as she looked at him for the first time. Her eyes were a surprisingly pale color, almost amber. “I just wanted to get it over with quickly, before I lost heart.”
"Did you really know her name?” Milford asked his wife when the other woman had gone off with her horrible haircut. It had looked pretty good to him, actually. With hair that curly, always retracting into itself, how could a hairdresser go wrong?
“Of course,” Jean told him. “I looked over the list they gave us when we signed up for the tour and tried to match up names and faces. You would get much more out of these trips, Henry, if you did some homework.”
She had been a schoolteacher in her early 20s, before he had met her, but he had a clear enough vision of her standing in front of the second- or third-graders, slender and quick and perfectly groomed, demanding with her level, insistent voice their full attention, and rewarding them at the end of each class with her brilliant, gracious smile. She would have subdued those children to her own sense of a proper education, and she was still working to subdue her husband. Sometimes, when he sought to evade one of her helpful lectures to him and sidle past, she would sidestep and block his way, insisting, with a blue-eyed stare, “Look at me!”
He said, kiddingly, kidding being another form of evasion, “I prefer the immersion method—to let it all wash over me, unmuddied by preconceptions.”
“That’s so sloppy,” Jean said, endearingly enough. Physically she and the apparition were both, Milford supposed, his type—women of medium height with a certain solid amplitude, not fat but sufficiently wide in the hips to signal a readiness for childbirth; women whose frontal presentation makes men want to give them babies. His and Jean’s babies were themselves of baby-making age, and even, in the case of their two older daughters, beyond it. Yet the primordial instinct was still alive in him: He wanted to make this apparition the mother of his child.
Lorena Billings’s body differed from Jean’s not only by 30 years’ less use but by being expensively toned. Though open to dowdy, education-minded New Englanders like the Milfords, the tour was basically composed of Upper East Side New Yorkers. They seemed all to know one another, as if the metropolis were a village skimmed from penthouses and museum boards, and their overheard talk dealt with, among other cherished caretakers of their well-being, personal trainers.
Much of the conversation among the women was in Spanish. An oddity of the tour was the number of wives from Latin America—remnants of a wave of fashion, some years ago, in trophy mates. Lorena was one of them, the child of an adventurous American mining engineer and a Chilean banker’s daughter. This explained her charming, intent way of speaking—English was not her mother tongue, the language of her heart, though she had been sent off young to American schools and spoke the acquired language fluently. She even spoke it with a pinch of New York accent, that impatient nasal twang so useful, in her husband’s mouth, for announcing rapid appraisals.
Ian Billings was a lawyer, with unspoken depths of inherited, extra-legal resources lending his assertions a casual weight. Milford took what comfort he could, as their trip wore on and as acquaintance among the tourists deepened, in the observation that Billings had the thin skin and pink flush of a candidate for an early heart attack. He was his wife’s height, a height that left her bordering on tall but her husband distinctly short. In talking to Lorena, lanky Milford felt himself towering as if literally mounted on Proust’s figurative stilts of time. He was plenty old enough, if he thought about it, to be her father, but in the society of the tour bus—a kind of school bus, with the discipline problems in the back and the brown-nosers up front near the lecturers—they were all in the same grade.
Dusty villages and green rice fields flowed past the bus windows. Vendors and mendicants clustered at the door whenever the bus stopped. Temple followed temple, merging in Milford’s mind into one dismal labyrinth of dimly lit corridors smelling of rotting food, offerings to gods who weren’t having any. At the end of some long and dark corridors stood the linga, a rounded phallic symbol periodically garlanded and anointed with oil and ghee. In especially well-staffed temples, robed priests guarded the linga and stared expectantly at the tourists.
Milford was not good at Hinduism. He kept confusing Vishnu and Shiva, missing the subtle carved differences in hairstyle that distinguished them. He kept forgetting whose consort was lovely Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and good fortune, and whose consort was Parvati/Durga/Kali, daughter of the Himalayas, goddess of strength, warfare, destruction, and renewal, dancing with lifted leg and multiplied arms in her circle of fire. Jean and Ian struck up an alliance, a conspiracy of star students, comparing notes and memorizing lists of primary and secondary deities and their interrelations and of the eminently forgettable long names of the temples nested in their various dirty, clamorous cities, among their endless one-man shops and mutilated beggars and heartbreakingly hopeful, wiry, grinning brown children.
While their consorts matched notebooks and one-upped each other with snatches of Hindi and Sanskrit, Henry and Lorena were thrown into a default alliance of willful ignorance. They became, with sideways glances and half smiles, connoisseurs of irrelevant details—the dead-on mimicry by Indian officials and maître d’s of an imperial Englishness, bluff and haughty; a startlingly specific sex act included in a time-worn temple frieze; a lonely bouquet of withering flowers at the base of an out-of-the-way shrine to Parvati, goddess of (among much else) fertility and childbirth.
In the bat-cave recesses of the larger temples, wild-eyed Brahman priests appeared, selling blessings to the tourists. The tourists learned how to put their hands together and say their namaste, and to bow their heads and receive a stab of bright henna or oily ash on the center of their foreheads. Lorena, it seemed to Milford, retained the fresh mark all day, a third eye above her two, topaz-colored own. She had an aptitude for being blessed. In one of the larger and busier temples, a tethered elephant had been trained to receive a piece of paper currency in the prehensile end of its trunk, swing the trunk backward to pass the note to the trainer’s hand, and then lower the pink, three-lobed end of its uncanny and docile proboscis upon the head of the donor for a moment. At every opportunity Lorena submitted to this routine, her eyes piously closed, her canary-yellow baseball cap tipped jauntily forward on the dense mass of her curls. The cap, Milford supposed, served as something of a prophylaxis, but it was with wide-eyed merriment that after one such blessing she complained to Henry, “He spit at me! Right in my face!”
Trying to feel an elephant’s blessing as she felt it, he submitted to one, for the price of a rosy, 10-rupee note bearing Gandhi’s image, and did feel, on the top of his head, a fumbling tenderness, a rubbery heaviness intelligently moderated, as if by an overworked god.
He did not want to draw too close to Lorena. At his age, he preferred to observe at a safe distance, to embrace her with a wry sideways attention. She was beyond his means in every way. On the one occasion when, in the informal rotation of the couples and widowed singles and gay bachelors whereby the tour group sought to vary the round of thrice-daily meals, the Milfords and the Billingses shared a dinner table, the younger couple emitted an aura of expenditure, as their conversation revealed details of second homes in Southampton and Dorset, Vermont, not to mention a Miami apartment and annual trips back to Chile. Though to the Milfords they seemed youthful, they were old enough to be much concerned with their children’s admissions to preferred day schools and, eventually, Ivy League colleges. Like the solar beads that wink through the moon’s mountain valleys during a total eclipse, an undeclared fortune twinkled in their humorous offhand complaints at the unbridled expenditures of nouveaux-riche condo boards and the levies that New York City, in taxes and charities, extracts from its fortunate on behalf of its omnipresent poor.
Not that the Billingses were anything but pleasant and tactful with the elderly New England provincials. Milford observed that Lorena warmed in her husband’s presence, her eyes and voice taking on a cosmopolitan quickness and gleam as she touched on plays, fashions, art exhibits, and Manhattan architectural disputes of which, he saw she slowly realized, the Milfords knew almost nothing—only what had been reported in TheBoston Globe. Her mouth lapsed into that frozen, uncertain look with which she had addressed the strangers on the stairs; but then she decided, with an inaudible click, that the Milfords were happy to bask in a reflected glitter, and talked on.
Billings, Henry saw with a vicarious husbandly pride, permitted her to be herself, to display herself. Her expanding curls softly bobbed, the faint formality of her English melted into brassy New York diphthongs. “People keep telling us Jasper is so wonderful, but—no doubt it’s my stupidity—I find his post-Pop phase to be so dry, so disperso. But then we don’t own any of him, except for a few prints Ian picked up when he was still doing the alphabet and numbers. Compare him, say, with Botero, who’s just done a wonderful series of drawings on the American atrocities at Abu Ghraib—utterly savage, like nothing else he’s ever done. They absolutely rank with Goya, Los Desastres de la Guerra.” When she dropped into Spanish, a truer self leaped forth, sharp edges and trills, her voice a bit deeper, on bedrock.
Billings, more aware than she of a range of conservative opinion outside of Manhattan, where the phrase “American atrocities” might possibly grate, readjusted his rimless glasses on his sharp-tipped nose. Almost inaudibly, he cleared his throat. These delicate alterations registered with his wife, and, her lips taking on their numb look, she slightly changed the subject. “Did either of you happen to be in the city when they had these big fat Botero people in bronze all up and down Park Avenue? That center strip has never looked so good, even in tulip season. The statues shone—is that the word?—in the sun. They were noble, and ridiculous, and everything all at once!”
“Terrific,” Milford said, meaning her entire presentation.
“I never saw them,” Jean coolly interposed, “but I read about them, somewhere. Where was it, Henry? Time? But I never see Time, do I, except in the dentist’s office? Oh dear,” she added, sensing her husband’s displeasure at her interruption, “we’re such bumpkins.”
Afterward, when the Milfords were alone, Jean said, “They were very sweet, indulging us.”
“I was fascinated,” Milford told her, “by her husband’s face. It’s so minimal, like one of those happy faces. He gives away absolutely nothing.”
“He’s a lawyer, dear.”
Milford had been a professor, teaching statistics and probability at a small but choice business school in Wellesley. It surprised him, upon retirement, to find how little he cared about his subject once he no longer had to teach it to classrooms of future profiteers. His teaching had been dutiful, and so now was his tourism. The world’s wonders seemed to him weary, overwhelmed by the mobs that came to see them.
The tour’s head lecturer, too, after two weeks of shouting to make himself heard above the echoing hubbub of temples and the shuffling distractions of museums, seemed to be losing interest and looking forward to his next tour, of German castles. The more-experienced travelers on the tour explained to the Milfords that everything was simpler and more concentrated on the Rhine; you stayed in your cabin in the boat, instead of hopping by bus all over southern India and constantly packing and repacking.
As the head guide’s energy slackened, his native assistant, Shanta Subbulakshmi, a short, dark woman from Madurai and the warrior caste, took the microphone in the bus and spoke charmingly, fluently, of herself—her parents’ unusual determination that she pursue an education, the ornate etiquette (the advance scouts, the ceremonial visitations, the seclusion of bride and groom from each other) of her arranged marriage. She spoke of the way the roads of Tamil Nadu used to run, when she was a girl, through the emerald green of rice fields, field after field, before the advent of the industrial parks and a ruthless widening of the dusty, pitted roads. She made the only case for Hinduism that Milford ever heard. “Unlike Buddhism and Catholic Christianity,” Shanta explained in her strict, lilting English, “Hinduism does not exalt celibate monks. It teaches that life has stages, and each stage is holy. It says that sexuality is a part of life, and business also—a man earns a living for his family, and this fulfills his duty to society. In the last stage of life he is permitted to leave his family and his business and become a seeker after God and life’s ultimate meaning. But the middle stages, the worldly stages, are holy also. Thus Hinduism allows for life’s full expression, where Buddhism teaches renunciation and detachment. Hinduism is the oldest of religions still widely practiced, and also the most modern, in that nothing is alien to it. There are no Hindu disbelievers. Even our particle physicists and computer programmers are good Hindus.”
Shanta helped the women of the tour dress in saris for the farewell dinner. The saris had been acquired in little shopping sprees squeezed between the long bus rides (some along a coast swept as bare as a desert by last year’s tsunami) and the claustral great temples, dingy mazes surmounted by towering polychrome pyramids of gods, gods upon gods, their popping eyes and protruding tongues and multiplied arms signifying divine energy.
Jean, a thrifty New Englander, reasoned she would never have another occasion for wearing a sari, and showed up in her best pantsuit. “These clothes people buy on vacation in a kind of frenzy of being there,” she said, “look so flimsy and tawdry back in the real world. They just collect dust in the back of the closet.”
The luxurious New York wives, however, wore saris; their silk and sateen glimmered in the firelight of the lawn torches while their excited voices shot Spanish compliments back and forth beneath the palms.
¡Tú eres una India! ¡En verdad!”
But in truth the costumes did not flatter most of the women: The fashionably thin appeared scrawny and starved, and those with more flesh seemed uneasy in their wrappings, as if something might at any moment pop loose. Milford would not have thought that a garment consisting only of an underblouse and a few square yards of cloth could fail to fit anybody, but the women by torchlight resembled a cluster of hotel guests who, chased by a fire alarm into the street, had grabbed gaudy sheets to cover themselves.
Except for Lorena: This curly-haired, Americanized Latina looked in Milford’s eyes as if she had been born to wear a sari, or at least this particular one, its pale-green border framing a ruddy, mysterious pattern that suggested, in the flickering light, rosy thumbprints. Her eyes seemed nearly golden. He had come up to her intending to say something jovial and flattering about her costume, but was struck dumb by how, with a kind of shameless modesty, she had given the tucked and folded cloth her shape—the inviting pelvic width, the exercise-flattened abdomen, the firm shoulders.
His voice came out croaky: “Terrific,” he said.
She seemed uncomfortable, ambushed by this new version of her own beauty. Her shoulders defensively cupped inward, and in a plaintive New York whine she asked, “You like it?”
Milford’s crippled voice regained a little strength and smoothness. “I adore it,” he told her, adding, kiddingly, “En verdad.”
He offered to move past her, releasing her to the party of her Upper East Side friends, but—a misstep on the uneven lawn, possibly—she moved sideways, blocking his way, just as Jean sometimes did, as a way of saying, “Look at me!” She asked, “Do you and Jean ever get to New York?”
“We used to, but now, almost never,” he told her, wanting to flee this apparition.
When, with the night’s torch-lit farewells jangling in his veins, Milford lay in bed face-down beside his sleeping wife, he seemed again to be confronting Lorena, body to body. A few nights before, the entire tour, but for its oldest and frailest members, had been taken to a giant city temple where, each night, a group of bare-chested, sweating priests carried a small bronze statue of Parvati, dressed in flowers, out of her sanctuary and through the temple corridors to stay until morning with her consort, Lord Shiva. The bronze statue, a third or less life-size, was carried in a curtained palanquin, so one could see nothing but the four Brahman priests shouldering the poles and the other priests accompanying the procession with drums and shouts and a blood-curdling long trumpeting. The priests trotted, rather than walked, except when they halted for a serenade to the invisible goddess; the trumpet riffed in an orgasmic rapture that reminded Milford uncannily of, on a younger continent, jazz. A mob of sensation- seeking tourists and God-seeking Hindus jostled and stampeded in the fast-moving procession’s wake; flashbulbs kept flashing, and Ian Billings, his arm uplifted like the Statue of Liberty’s, was videotaping the proceedings with a digital camera, whose intensely glowing little screen projected what the camera saw—bouncing bodies, bobbing heads, the curtained palanquin—and betrayed, above the thundering pack, his and his consort’s whereabouts.
Milford followed at a timid, elderly distance, but his height enabled him to see, at the intervals when the procession halted and drummed and trumpeted as if to renew its supernatural sanction, the circling, sweating, blank-faced priests. One of them looked curiously fair, grimacing and squinting through the smoke of incense in a skeptical modern manner—a convert, perhaps, except that Hinduism, in its aloof hundreds of millions, accepted no converts. The procession, after one last noisy pause, hurried down the corridor to Shiva’s sanctuary, where non-Hindus were forbidden to follow.
Sleepless on the verge of departure, Milford saw that this had been truth, earthly and transcendent truth, one body’s adoration of another, hidden Shivas and Parvatis united amid the squalor and confusion of happenstance, of karma. He rejoiced to be tasting, in its sweet folly, the fascination once more, though the dark shape he was lying upon, fitted to him exactly, was that of his body in its grave.