Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The White Man in the Cinema

Village Basket Weaver, Deccan Plateau
Maharashtra State, India, 1980

Her name was Pushpa and I first saw her at a seminar the development institute I worked for was holding in Nagpur.

The amazing density of India's population means that a city of over three million, like Nagpur, can be virtually unknown outside the country. And were it not the centre for a region of exceptional orange production it would have little fame within the country. Sitting on the Deccan plateau in central India, the area is so far removed from the tourist track that a farmer told me one day I was the first white man he had ever seen.

She wore the black bead necklace that proclaims a Marathi woman married. Her husband was a top official in the district government. Although she wore the traditional sari, she didn't cover her head with the end of the garment and her hair was loose and shoulder length in the western style. Other than a few pleasantries nothing passed between us that day.

We met next at a similar function in Sevagram, a village near Nagpur and the site of the last ashram that Mahatma Gandhi called home before his death. The seminar was held on the grounds in a large open-sided hall surrounded by Neem trees. A Coppersmith Bird could be heard keeping up it's penetrating “tock tock” call in the afternoon heat. We ended up on a planning team together and our mutual attraction was soon mutually obvious. During a break we talked for a while and then I said softly, ”You're very beautiful”. She let out a little gasp and whispered, “I love you”.

At that moment I should have realized I was in trouble.

Before she left she offered me her telephone number, creating a tacit understanding between us. As soon as I could get a short leave I took the bus to Nagpur, got a room in the best lodge I could find, and went out to a Hindi movie to finish what was left of the evening. The next day I phoned Pushpa. She came over immediately. She told me one of her children had spoken of seeing a white man in the cinema the night before and she had been hoping it was me. We made love. Afterwards she put on my shirt, perhaps wanting to hide her baby-softened belly while still revealing her slim brown legs. We lay on the bed talking. She told me of her childhood and the Brahmin family she came from. The arranged marriage that left her living with a man she had no feelings for. Her children. Her trips to England. The guru she was following. I ordered tea up to the room and then sat and watched as she showed me how a sari is put on. When the pune came with the tray she sat stiffly in a chair until he was gone. In our parting the intensity of her language surprised me.

The next time I could get away we spent a day in a different lodge. She gave me a prayer medallion of Sai Baba, a popular local saint. We were very happy together but I began to wonder at her dramatic outpourings of love which seemed more theatre than honest emotion.

A month later I was resident in a rural project some distance from Nagpur. The village of Dabhad was the usual haphazard collection of mud houses closely packed together to save arable land. In India there are three-quarter million such places. Over my two years in Dabhad I would experience the festivals, feuds, weddings, tragic accidents, cremations, religious devotions, hard labour and summer drought that is the villager's world. I would eat their monotonous food, suffer some of their diseases and dance in their celebrations. No matter how completely I have since re-entered the modern Western world I know something in me will always remain connected to that one village and those particular people.

One afternoon as I was returning to Dabhad from another village across the fields of sorghum and cotton I was met by a youth who announced that “a lady” had arrived at the institute residence. I expected it to be an American associate but found Pushpa standing in the front room with my young Indian colleagues around her. The house was a simple village structure. Sparrows flew in and out of the ventilation gap between mud walls and tin roof. The floor was treated with a solution of water, mud and cow dung to keep down the dust. In this humble setting I was surprised to find beautiful Pushpa standing in a bright sari of the best cloth.

I was not happy to see her. In the village culture I was worried disclosure of our clandestine relationship might seriously jeopardize my credibility and our work. I could imagine all sorts of consequences stretching back to Nagpur or Bombay, and she must have known this even more than me. We provided her with a tour of the project and a room for the night.

The next day was a holiday. After breakfast one of the young Indians talked about everyone taking Mrs. Deshpande into town that afternoon for dinner, but he was quickly shut up by the others in a way that told me she and I were not fooling my colleagues. I had no choice but to make the offer myself.

In town she asked to make a brief return to a room she had taken in a lodge but once there I refused to accompany her further than the lobby. I was unsure of what eyes were watching us. After waiting a half hour I realized I had been out-manoeuvred and she wasn't coming down until I went up. The meeting in her room was unhappy – the bed beckoned us and although I refused her advances, it was impossible to do with tact. With nothing resolved we left for dinner and afterwards took a pedal rickshaw through the little town to the river. I remember the two of us up on the open seat, as if on parade for the crowded street.

We sat on some stone steps leading down to the Godavari, one of the five sacred rivers of India. The landscape was soft with haze from evening cooking fires. Summer had greatly diminished the river and small children drove herds of cows and buffalo home along the dry bed. We watched the sunset and talked. I felt more and more alienated from her. I realized she was using the relationship as something around which she could fabricate a romantic fantasy limited only by her imagination. I was the seed of reality she needed to maintain her illusion. We took a rickshaw back to the bus station and I waited there until she left on the Nagpur bus.

Watching it drive away into the night I wondered if she would see, that although I refused to be an actor in her cinema, there was a real alternative.

The last time I saw her was back at the Sevagram ashram. I was sitting on a stone step leading into a garden, enjoying the calm of the evening after the day's heat. She appeared on the path, stopped, and asked me coldly where Mary Da Costa was. She listened to my answer and then without another word walked away into the fading light.

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