I have lived.
I have lived in other peoples’ lives.
I have imagined lives.
Now I need to relive the most vivid of those lives, to remind myself of how alive I was, trapped as I feel in an old body and a disintegrating society, that limits me to routine actions and trite communication (however much kindness may also be involved). The future offers few possible openings and the certainty that looms is the end of everything for me.
In perspective the lives I remember, or recreate, are short, fragments of possible wholes that never existed, could not exist, or exist as ripples spreading out from the intense moment that condenses sensation, understanding, sense (meaning). They last two minutes, two years, two millennia.
My first memory is light. I hope it will also be the last awareness. After I have stopped trying to put together the crumbling pieces of my life’s puzzle.
In front of a tree, a waterfall, a bird, time can disappear. When I realize that, the moment may deepen fleetingly into a luminous, bottomless dimension I call eternity, and I know such encounters can’t be lost.
He’s the one who understands almost no English. He sits quiet and relaxed through the meetings to discuss the performances for the visiting scholar. A guest and with no voice, I also sit in the circle and listen. From time to time we look at each other.
He dances the evil roles, the repellently seductive demoness, the despotic king. He’s the best actor in the troupe, and I focus on him, aware of every gesture he makes. I find I’m seeing through the illusion he fabricates by his art to the man behind it, his skill, his intelligence, his devotion.
One of the assistants translates for me so I can tell him I admire his acting. He thanks me and we look at each other and laugh because of the impossibility of carrying on a conversation. I would like to ask why he has specialized in the bad characters, but it’s too complicated. I can’t get any closer to him.
It’s not a physical contact I want, but some recognition of the affinity I feel exists between us.
The visiting scholar is not happy with my presence so I decide to leave. But first I ask the driver of the troupe to take me to the temple in the hills where this school of the dance tradition originated. On the way up, through woods and coconut groves, the driver suggests we stop to visit one of the dancers and I agree.
The man who comes out of the poor wooden house to greet us is ‘my’ dancer, as surprised as I am.
We sit on the bare porch and his sister brings me tea and little bananas. I’m an honored guest and they are shy and kind. The driver explains I want to see the temple and the dancer says he’ll come with us.
As we drive on up the dancer and the driver converse in voluble Kannada. The views are beautiful, with openings on to green valleys below. I have entered, casually, a world apart.
The temple school is in a big clearing near the top of the hill. On one side is a low wooden building belonging to the troupe; the dancer unlocks the door for me. The semidarkness inside is peopled by bulky costumes and tall headdresses. Swords and paste jewels gleam, the smells of greasepaint and incense are poignant.
We cross the field and enter the path to the temple, between trees and stone walls. The temple is ancient, almost shabby, with few adornments. At the door a young priest greets the dancer with respectful familiarity. My presence is explained. We go in and stand side by side in front of the sanctum where silver statues glow in lamplight. The god is a form of Krishna.
An older priest enters the sanctum and chants as he performs arathi for us. The dancer watches as I carry the heat of the flame to my eyes and the priest marks my forehead with red powder.
The dancer signs to me to follow him and we circumambulate the sanctum three times. Barefoot on the stone floor, crossing beams of light from high up in the roof, I walk with amazed devotion behind his straight and supple back.
Many years ago, we had a brief sexual relationship. For him it was shocking, because of my foreignness and because, I suppose, of the severe prohibitions imposed by his outcaste origin. For me it was a welcome encounter with a sensitive and beautiful man, but there was no way I could or would try to persuade him to prolong it when it troubled him. He was also married.
We kept in touch sporadically by letter and later by e-mail about the tangled situation that arose around the translation of one of his books, in which I was involved. We met, briefly and at long intervals, on my trips to India. Through these contacts and through the long times of absence and silence, mutual concern and affection continued to deepen.
It’s my last long stay in India. I have rented a little house on the roof on a larger bungalow, with a wide terrace surrounded by coconut palms and the tower of a small temple close by. My project this time is to translate women poets of the region. It turns out not to be easy to find them; they are less visible (though several of them are better poets) than the men on the scene. I ask R for help. He knows many of them and has encouraged them in their careers.
He is frantically busy. Local elections are approaching and he has to travel the state in support of the candidates of the small and idealistic political party he founded some years ago. He knows it can only be a fringe phenomenon, but he feels it’s needed as a voice of conscience, in support of the marginalized and of green causes. Important enough for him to have sacrificed his writing to maintain it, because without his charisma it might not survive.
Even so, he finds time to give me a perspective on my subject, put me in contact with poets and critics of their work, make sure I meet some of them. Occasionally when he’s in town he comes to sit and talk for a while.
When my cell phone rings, I wonder if it will be him.
I watch his tall dark figure emerge from the stairs on to my terrace and shamble across to me. On impulse I put my arms round him and he hugs me back, naturally. He sits down on my wicker sofa and I sit on a chair half facing him. He tells me about his latest trip. Suddenly this is the way it’s always been, a quiet moment in a parallel life. Tea time – though he doesn’t like the tea I make. And we hardly speak each other’s languages.
Somewhere in the folds of time we sit there still.
The person who wants to buy my house on the island, who is saying the money is there to be paid right now, is thickly built and has straight, very black hair and finely marked black eyebrows. I feel an immediately sympathy with her, her spontaneity and forcefulness. We reach an agreement, after a discussion between her and my son. She leaves, with her mother and the friend who brought them to us, who laugh and say she’s always so quick to make up her mind.
My son and I talk about the deal and he tells me she may like to be referred to as she, but in fact he’s a man. I deny it incredulously, but after a while I realize he’s right. He always refers to him/her as he. Having started with she at my original perception of her/him, I find it difficult to switch, but end up using one or the other depending, I suppose, on the occasion.
In the offices we spend time in, mostly waiting to be attended to, Lyn is of course a man – his documents say so. After a while the projection – his toward the unsuspecting, mine on to him – begins to wear off, and I see him as male. From behind, his very straight back and the black hair tied in a pony tail make an image of an Indio warrior, the kind of man I would fall for.
From other angles the body is bloated, a feminine roundedness framed in masculine rigidity, or it could be just a careless obesity. Gestures suggest caricature, though it’s not clear who would be miming what; clothes are unisex.
What is clear is that Lyn accepts totally what he/she is and expects others to do the same. And they do. At first contact they may look perplexed for a moment, but they soon respond to Lyn with unguarded liking.
Sitting side by side in Lyn’s comfortable, air-conditioned car as we drive from one bureaucratic stop to the next, we talk about many things, the state of the country, relationships, fate. He says he learns a lot from me. I am certainly learning more, as reactions, emotional and physical, succeed each other in me to his/her disconcerting presence. Am I attracted to the woman I originally saw, or the man who contains her, a woman with a strong masculine side, or a man with a consuming anima, or the woman that the anima projects, or the man purged of female traits? Is this the androgynous body supposed to be the ultimate object of desire, the symbol of completeness? And is my response to it the first honest chart of my own psyche? Is it this revelation that fascinates me?
Finally, we sign the sale papers and go our own ways.
“So it’s come to this.”
The woman lying below me, as I turn away from a mass of bodies crowding me, is my mother, though her face and body are much younger and fuller than I ever saw them.
She’s expecting me to make love to her. I’m slightly aroused; I suppose it’s what I want to do. I’m bending down to embrace her when someone takes my arm from behind. I look back – it’s a youngish attractive man, and I immediately turn and walk away with him.
In the same dream I remember what she looked like lying there and I see a thin, almost skeletal, shriveled body with a sharp, disapproving face, flat on a hard surface which may be the top of a tomb.
The man has disappeared. I don’t know who he was. He was nothing like my father.
It’s all over. What a relief.
I lived with José for nearly ten years, my longest relationship and my one marriage. When I think, as I sometimes do, that no man ever really loved me, it’s José that I come back to as the exception. At least part of the time, at our better moments, he did, and I can say no more than that for myself. We had too many differences. His insecurity as an uneducated Venezuelan from a poor background couldn’t deal with my restless and demanding search for a personal utopia. We had, I think, contrary illusions. He supposed, with a mixture of aspiration and resentment, that in marrying me he was joining the ranks of the privileged, and I saw him as a tropical D.H.Lawrence man whose love and art would free me into a spontaneous and natural sphere outside class and common morality.
It was a time when such illusions were still possible, and we were young, but I at least was also foolish. And probably unjust to him, though his complaints and his jealousy were beyond my capacity to deal with.
We lived, more or less poor, in three different countries, had two children, quarreled and started afresh many times. I believed in his talent and mostly maintained him, which he resented. He turned down opportunities to become known as an artist, which puzzled and depressed me. In the end his frustrations made him violent and I discovered that physical violence was the limit of what I was willing to stand. He was soon living with another woman.
We met sporadically over the years, without tension. I went to live in Venezuela, where life was easier at the time and I could give the children more opportunities. They kept in touch with their father and his family, especially the brothers and sisters of his new marriage. I heard when he left them for yet another relationship, and returned for his long-suffering wife to look after him through his final illness.
I was living on Margarita Island when I had the news of his death. My immediate reaction was to be sorry for his wife and all our children, and to feel only slightly sad for myself. As the day passed, memories stirred, and I remembered José as he was when we first met, and our happier times, travelling or eating with friends or walking in the woods with the children. A friend came by and when I told him what had happened, he suggested a walk on the beach.
There had been a storm the night before and the sea was rough. The waves broke violently close to us on the sloping shore and all across the bay, a long way out to sea, patterns of seething foam, with crests and tails, formed a pageant, white on dark, of writhing dragons. The scene was beautiful and exhilarating and at the time I forgot sadness and the pull of the past.
I remembered it often in the days following and discovered that I hadn’t needed to dredge up explicit memories of passion and conflict; the sea itself had found and exorcized them.
My men, one day
A man sitting in the stern of a boat is staring at the almost naked breasts of a woman in the prow who’s provoking him. He’s aroused, pouting like a rooster. I feel sorry for him, he’s ugly. He’s my son.
In the meantime the boat is bucking among the overlapping waves, splashing us, and his son, my grandson, is shouting terrified “I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go.” We let him go on shouting.
We come into the shelter of an island. The water is quiet, transparent; at the bottom there are strange stones, little abstract sculptures in marble. My grandson is content. Beside me he holds himself up in the water for the first time, he’s swimming. The day’s victory.
We land on a small beach to eat our picnic. A swarm of wasps finds us, my grandson shrieks, another tantrum.
The sea is calmer on the way back.
My cat and I have a very tight relationship. We should – I gave birth to her.
Her mother came to me as a tiny scrap of cathood, saved from a litter that was being abandoned to die (common usage on the island) by a friend who knew I wanted a kitten. Its eyes were scarcely open and I had to feed it milk with a dropper because it couldn’t lap enough.
It grew quickly and was soon doing kitten acrobatics all over the house. It turned out to be ‘she’, unexpectedly, as according to common knowledge all gingers are male. Maybe the small black spot on her nose meant she was really tortoiseshell. Her daughter, however, is ginger without even a spot.
Cora was a great hunter and almost extinguished the lizards in my yard. One day I saw her sitting face to face with a grass snake (the snake had reared up so that its eyes were exactly on a level with hers), and I was afraid for her, sure she would be bitten. The tension increased till suddenly, with startling rapidity, the cat extended her paw and slammed the snake in the face. It swayed and wavered and after a few more blows it collapsed and was carried off to die among the leaves under the bougainvillea.
Cora was always waiting at the door when I came home, and kept me company as I moved around the house. She liked to watch the water flush in the lavatory bowl when I went to the bathroom, and sit on the printer while I worked at the computer. She didn’t like to be picked up and after a minute or two of being stroked, which she sometimes asked for, she would suddenly turn and bite. But her affection was clear.
Long before I thought she was old enough to come on heat, I realized she was pregnant. When her small body looked as if it must be going to burst, I prepared a basket for her to give birth in. I was in bed, reading with her beside me, on the night when she went into labor. I fetched the basket to the bed and sat her in it, but she was not interested. She got out again and settled between my legs where I was sitting against the pillows. I tried several more times to put her in the basket, but she was determined to lie between my legs.
After minutes of straining and obvious pain, she howled and a small slimy bundle slithered out into the world.
At that moment I looked up and found my son standing in the doorway to my room. And I saw the scene as he must be seeing it: an old witch with disheveled hair and without her teeth, grinning at the successful birth of her latest child.
The rest of the litter were born easily, in the basket. Cora’s attention was all for the kittens by then and she didn’t mind where she lay. They were all ginger, and not easy to tell apart, but I’m sure the one with me now was the first to arrive.
Where did this little knot in my destiny called ‘bull’ tie itself?
In my New Zealand childhood, it was normal to be afraid of bulls and to avoid them. Jersey bulls are mean creatures, and dangerous. Once my father and I were chased on a fishing expedition, but that was by a cow, and we were near a fence we could slip under.
From the years in Italy I remember no bulls.
In the early years at Los Rastrojos I walked near them often (I was never able to keep others’ cattle off my land), but I don’t remember being afraid, just careful sometimes. I even wrote a poem for one I didn’t meet:
“From a print in the clay/ I guess his broad back/ his warrior’s flanks/ and lunar horns.”
Apparently the bulls’ shape and gestures had already made a deep impression on me. They had become something intimate, dear and menacing at the same time. Altamira, Picasso, posters for bullfights had helped to engrave them in my mind.
I know there are psychological implications and the bull obviously represents masculine power. My reaction may have a sexual component.
Archetypal too. The bull, like the tiger, is pure yang.
But I’m thinking of living animals, not symbols.
The connection became more intense and personal when I was chased by three yaks in a remote valley in Sichuan. Two were brown and smaller, the followers. The third – or first – was huge and black with long, horizontally set horns.
I was alone and after I realized they really were running after me and getting close (the perspective in the high valley had made them seem smaller and further away, perhaps dogs), I panicked. The only possible refuge – a miraculous one it seemed to me later – was the crumbling stone tower for tall incense sticks beside an altar to Buddhist mountain spirits. I managed to clamber up it and sat huddled while the three beasts came within meters of me and stared at me with fierce, impatient black eyes.
They must have decided I was no use to them and after a few minutes they turned and galloped away in a wide circle with their strange manes and skirts and feathery tails swaying and blowing in the wind. I thought I had never seen any animals so beautiful. But I sat for nearly an hour before making up my mind to climb painfully down and go on my way.
Several years later I conceived an exaggerated fear of a bull belonging to the man looking after Los Rastrojos. The bull was speckled grayish white (“palomo” in Spanish), with a dark and rather beautiful head but a disagreeable expression. His owner agreed that he looked menacing, though he had never actually tried to hurt anyone. If I met him I couldn’t walk past him, and once had to be rescued on my way to the house after a long wait on the other side of a fence from where he was sitting. On another occasion I was going to my favorite place by the river and stood up after sliding under a difficult wire gate to find him standing in front of me swinging his head. I dived straight back under the gate and ran home feeling incredulous, indignant and unreal.
It reached the point where I was hesitant to spend time at the house in case the Palomo was nearby. His owner said he usually grazed far up the land but seemed to descend just when I was coming. What kind of love is this? he asked, not altogether joking. We had a connection, plainly, but more negative than ambivalent.
Eventually he sold the bull. It turned out the Palomo was no use either for plowing or as a stud. I felt sorry (I don’t like to think what his fate must have been) but relieved. The next time I went to Los Rastrojos, I set out jauntily on the bull-free path to the river. Before I could see the river gate (the boundary of my land, among trees) I heard a roar, and when I reached it, just behind it and with every intention of pushing it open and coming through, was a big black bull.
That was too much. It was a very hot day and my desire to reach the cool water of the river was too strong. I bravely raised my walking stick and said something like Shoo! shoo!, and the bull actually turned round, crossed the river and went back up the path on the other side.
Both sides of my heart
From my English origin, I should have been a good rider, competent and fearless, but I was not. Fooling around with my friends and our ponies in New Zealand I was happy, and rode bareback and tried sitting backwards, but put on a hunter for a ride in England I was nervous and felt out of control. I rarely felt at ease on a horse, though I loved to ride.
But my relationship to horses is much wider and deeper than riding. It always lifts my spirits to see a horse, and my feeling for a fine, proud horse with perfect lines, aware of his strength, is worship. Especially a black stallion, and mixing mythologies I associate their attraction with Krishna. Krishna is compassion through beauty, his blue swagger the link between the warrior and the lover.
Many years ago, I adopted a black stallion that had been mistreated. We seemed to be getting on well until the day he thought I was taking food from him: I left my straw bag against a tree where I had also put hay for him, and when I reached to pick up the bag he lashed out and bit me, hard, on the chest to the right of my heart. It hurt, I felt betrayed, and I realized he was too much for me. I passed him on to a young man who would treat him well and ride him hard, which he needed.
Some time later I was petting a little black stallion at a show, and he suddenly nipped me, very gently, to the left of my heart.
What does it mean to have been bitten by black stallions on both sides of my heart?
Once I climbed a mountain in Wales in fine weather and when I reached the top it hailed, just for as long as I stood there. My formidable aunt said the mountain had rejected me. I like better the version of a friend who said the mountain had “hailed” me.
Do the stallions’ bites mean something similar?
There’s a print, a frame, somewhere in my brain that’s always waiting for an elephant to occupy it. In India, when it felt empty in the morning, I knew I would see an elephant at some time during the day, even if I had to go to the palace garden where the maharaja’s elephants had their stable.
I sometimes saw one swaying along a busy road, the mahut on its neck apparently oblivious to traffic. The shambling circular movement of the back legs always reminded me of the Sanscrit recipe for female beauty: a woman is supposed to walk like an elephant. And her skin should be the purplish color of fresh mango leaves.
I saw them in festival processions, their huge, heavy, caparisoned bodies looming close to the restless crowds. Once the lead elephant was pointed out to me by the man who had owned him earlier as the animal that had killed a servant who denied him water.
There is no longer the care there used to be in training and treating elephants. Not enough men want to be mahuts now; there is no longer the same charisma attached to a job that lasts a lifetime. The relationship between the man and the animal is supposed to be exclusive and unbreakable. Devotion, obedience and trust.
The elephants of my childhood were patient, lovable creatures you gave buns to at the zoo. Or they could be turned into clowns at the circus. A very partial and disrespectful view.
At Bandipur national park, sitting in a friend’s car, we watched an idiot get out of his SUV and jump up and down gesturing provocatively at a group of elephants, led by an old matriarch, that were grazing at the side of the road. She charged. He managed to get away and we were at a safe distance, but it was a dangerous moment, especially for a terrified boy swerving past on his motorbike.
My saddest encounter with an elephant was at a stable where a motherless baby was dying because it wasn’t responding to the care of the very concerned keepers.
I also had a chance to play with a little one on another visit to a national park. It was the day when all the working elephants from round about were brought in to be measured and checked. The intimidating giants were kept at a distance, while the rest lined up to receive in their wide open, toothless jaws a football-sized ration of millet dough, followed by a small cube of jaggery, cane sugar. A baby among them approached me waving a bunch of leaves in its trunk. I started to run round a tree and it followed me, round and round, smiling, while the mother looked on benignly.
Now the print in my brain is not so clearly outlined, but sometimes I’m sadly aware that it’s empty.
Though clothes have not been a priority in my life, I’ve always enjoyed them, and chosen them in a way that to others seemed to reflect a style. As long as it was possible to find clothes I liked, which lately, confined to my home in Venezuela not only by the pandemic but also by lack of petrol and other inconveniences of our disastrous government, has been very difficult. I used to go across the border to Cúcuta in Colombia, where there was much more variety, but those journeys have been indefinitely postponed.
My greatest pleasure in dressing I found in the years I spent in India. The first time I wore a sari, in spite of the lessons I’d had from friends, I put it on the wrong way round, to the visible disdain of one of my professors, a famous writer. He later became my friend, and I learnt to wear a sari correctly, on any occasion, even riding a bicycle, and always felt acceptable, desirable, even slightly regal. But my usual dress was the Punjabi, or salwar kameez, tunic top and either baggy or close fitting (churidar) trousers, with the dupatta, a light shawl worn backwards, all offered in an endless number of combinations, fabrics, designs, colors, sometimes decorated with embroidery, braid or sequins. And the most comfortable dress I know, for any occasion. I still wear one of my outfits sometimes in Venezuela, and people in this time of anything goes don’t seem to find it too odd, but of course it doesn’t feel the same as when it made me blend in.
I have memories too of shopping for clothes with friends. The Fabindia chain of stores, when it started, sold only pure cotton clothes in impeccable taste (later it changed hands and became ordinary), where possible in traditional settings. I remember an old house in Madras, and rummaging with my friend Gita, whose taste I admired, and another friend of hers. They agreed on a simple sari in white cotton net with embroidered green borders, and not to be left out I bought one too.
I wore it a couple of times and felt elegant, but doubted I had the style to make it special. Then I went back to Venezuela and never wore it again. A while ago I saw it on a wardrobe shelf and decided it was being wasted. Now it’s been made into curtains that hang at my bedroom window. The light shines through it in the morning and always brings a glancing memory of Gita and the day I bought it.
My earliest memory is of light. A fresh glow, sunlight falling on a white cloth, a blanket I suppose, in my playpen. At the time I could identify neither blanket nor playpen, but I was aware of the light, so bright it filled my eyes and head.
Many other memories since then, with no order in time, come to mind. Light on ancient stones, at different hours of the day. Light shimmering on leaves, pale in the early morning, mellow toward sunset. Light blending with the vibration of a hummingbird’s wings.
A beam from a hole in the roof of a ruined temple falling on an idol. Late afternoon sunlight moving across a carpet.
A flickering candle, firelight more knowable from the shadows it casts.
Torches, light bulbs, neon signs, don’t touch off the answering flare inside my brain.
Is that flare mine? How far can it go with me? Will its fading be the last thing I know? Could it swell to engulf me?