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