Saturday, April 19, 2014

Future books: A historical novel about Nepal

A young man from England who I recently met sent me this email after reading my book:

Sat, Apr 19, 2014
I very much enjoyed reading your short stories in the Prediction. Most of all I liked the historical ones, the Promise and the Prediction. Rana-era Nepal was vividly realised, the characters seemed very true to the period and to their social station, and the synthesis of traditional Sanskritic forms of belief and practice, such as astrology, with modernity -- as represented by democracy and revolution, intruding on the feudal court-politics of the late Ranas -- made for a highly satisfying parable of Nepal's rites of passage through the twentieth century. It occured to me that I've not come across any other examples of Nepali historical fiction, in English at least, and this would be a very fruitful genre for writers to take up. I would love to see you turn your hand to a historical novel, maybe one that features astrology as a major component, since you seem to know a lot about the subject. Is this something you've considered?

And the answer is:
Glad you liked the historical stories. Interesting that it seems to
appeal to a broad range of readers. Usually I get a male/female split
on my stories (men like some stories, women like some stories) but
these two seem to appeal to a universal group of readers. Yes, maybe I
should write a historical novel! One has been
percolating in my mind-its a family saga/Hundred Years of Solitude style
Nepali novel. Obviously astrology would play a big part.
I was just reading a book on Saturn and realize Western astrologers
and philosophers, quite respectable ones too!, have a lot to say about
the subject. Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade being prominent ones.

(Author's belated addendum: I just realized Gabriel Garcia Marquez died on 17th April. Perhaps his spirit was hovering around when I wrote this email. An homage, either way.) 



































Republica review: The Prediction

Through a spyglass
SEWA BHATTARAI
Though Sushma Joshi names her book The Prediction, it is not very predictable. Most stories in this collection have surprise endings, or even begin from strange subject lines. For example, there is her first story about a man getting lost in Mongolia, and another about a satellite that crashes among the Himalaya, both very unusual subjects for Nepali writers.

Sushma sets the tone right at the start with a very readable story. The Discovery of the High Lama has an intriguing subject matter and enough dialogue so that the reader is not bored. Her plot, too, holds the reader’s interest till the very end. And that perhaps defines most of her stories: unusual subject matters, lots of dialogue, and interesting plots.

When it comes to the subjects she addresses, they are a wide variety: From a Nepali drummer making a life in Europe to an astrologer in Mohan Shumsher’s court. Sushma seems to know a lot about each of these subject matters, and the tidbits she scatters makes the stories appealing. For example, in A Boleria for Love she describes intricate drumming patterns of Tabla, an instrument of classical music, and in The Prediction she goes into the technical details of classical Hindu astrology. She also gets the accent and tone for her characters right, whether Nepali, Mongolian, Spanish, or American.

Where Sushma falters is in denouements. The first story, about a man who is perceived by everyone as stupid takes a trip and gains a remarkable kind of wisdom, is superbly told. But then comes the conclusion, of the narrator becoming convinced of his own inadequacies compared to the former stupid man’s wisdom. And it is so sudden and abrupt that the reader is not at all convinced about the narrator’s conviction. Sushma mentions in her afterword that the story is a true one that she heard from a friend. It almost seems as if she should have stuck to the true narrative of the stupid man and left her narrator, presumably her creation, out.



In fact, as Sushma mentions in her afterword, all her stories are either true or partly inspired by true events. This gives her stories a journalistic quality, as if she has looked at real-life characters through a spyglass. For example, there is the story called ‘Hunger’ about the newest daughter-in-law of a large joint family who never gets enough to eat. As Sushma has admitted in her epilogue, this story is very similar to Law and Order, another story she has written previously about hunger. And yet, Hunger brings to light the plight of women, especially younger daughters-in-laws, who are at the bottom of the pecking order in large families. Sushma portrays their unwritten rule of suffering everything in silence, which prevents them from seeking solutions, very well.

And then there is the story about correct astrological predictions, which Sushma reveals in her afterword as an account that has been passed on in her family as a true one. The story portrays not just Hindu society’s (including royals’) dependence on astrology, but also astrology’s roots in science. This story raises astrology from mere superstition to something which has deep connections to the Hindu psyche, and depicts why we are so influenced by it.
The Promise and Shelling Peas and History Lessons both deal with the historical place of women in Nepali society. The Promise is a multi-layered story, where a goddess who will improve his fortunes has been promised to a man. Women of all stripes enter his life, including a pretty maid, an old crone and self proclaimed priestess, and a slumbering family deity. The reader is left wondering which one of them is the promised goddess. In the meantime, the reader takes a fascinating tour into the debaucheries and family politics of the high and mighty royals of old. The ending makes it sufficiently clear which one of these women is the goddess, and also, how goddesses are actually treated in Nepal. Shelling Peas and History Lessons adds another facet to the life of the super-wealthy. It portrays one of the many casualties of unequal society: women who pay in life for proximity to the rich.

A Boleria for Love and The Best Sand Painting of the Century are perhaps the most fanciful stories in the collection. A Boleria for Love is simply delightful, its unusual and seemingly impossible love story immediately drawing the reader in. But once again, one wishes Sushma had provided more of a conclusion. The current open ended one leaves rather more to the imagination than desired, especially after some pages of remarkable storytelling. The Best Sand Painting of the Century, on the other hand, offers too clichéd an ending, even though the lengthy pieces includes some priceless sarcastic observations. The characterization of a monk who degenerates into a worldly life is one of them, and another is the monk who displays a mandala of Princess Leah (from Star Wars, I assume) as the greatest mandala in the world.

Curiously, the best part of Sushma’s book is her afterword where she talks about the process of writing all her stories. It is like a behind the scenes peek, something equal to the “making” of movies, and makes you wonder if every other book you like has interesting “making” stories that you never got to read. Here Sushma offers insights that could not fit into the stories, and they give the stories a wholly new dimension.

Sushma’s book is for those who want to read the stories of Nepal in English language. Her elegant language and simple but effective and varied plots are the mainstays of this book, and will please the reader despite a few glitches.

Title    : The Prediction
Author    : Sushma Joshi
Genre    : Fiction, in English
Publisher    : Sansar Books
Published    : 2013
Pages    : 174, Paperback


sewa.bhattarai@gmail.com

Read the review in Republica online here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

List Challenges: "End of the World" in Read the World Proportionally

Once in a while, the Internet sends you a delightful find. 

And none more so than this one, on Nepali New Year's day. "The End of the World" is listed in this incredible list compiled by Ng Yi-Sheng, who decided to compile a list of 100 books that reflects the world as it is, demographically.

The list is available in List Challenges, and it is a list than any author would be honored to find himself/herself in. Not just because its a list of books that I would love to read (all of them), but also because there's a certain sense of comfort and "coming home" to a list that does include the breadth and diversity of the world, as it is. I say this beats any "100 books" list compiled by TIME.

Of course, that's a bit on the self-promotional side, you may say. Well, even if I wasn't on the list, I'd still say it's a better list than any compiled by TIME! Just click on it, you'll see.
In his interesting blog "Around the World in 80 Books!", Ng Yi-Sheng, who appears to be based in Singapore, says:

I recently got ticked off over a "Read the World" list that was still really centred on Western books. Then I started thinking: what if there were a reading list of 100 books that reflected the actual demographics of the world population right now?Behold:19 books from China;
17 from India;
4 from the US;
3 from Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan;
2 from Nigeria, Bangladesh, Japan and Mexico, and
1 each from the Philippines, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Egypt, Germany, Iran, Turkey, DRC, Thailand, France, UK, Italy, Burma, South Africa, South Korea, Colombia, Spain, Ukraine, Tanzania, Kenya, Argentina, Algeria, Poland, Sudan, Uganda, Canada, Iraq, Morocco, Peru, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nepal, Afghanistan, Yemen, North Korea, Ghana, Mozambique, Australia and Taiwan.50 are by men. 49 are by women. 1 is a work of divine revelation. Authors (roughly) reflect the ethnic makeup of their nations.Because if you're gonna read the world, you might as well do it RIGHT.


Friday, April 11, 2014

"The Prediction" in Himalaya

My story "The Prediction" is now out in Himalaya, a journal of the Association of Nepal and Himalaya studies published by Yale University. You can download it here.


Republica interview

Here's an interview Republica did with me last Friday. I don't think I said " The book is about themes like slavery and ghosts of the past that are very often found in the works of Black Americans"--but perhaps I did say that African American literature does deal with issues of slavery, and often times there are ghosts as well, as in Morrison's Sula. Otherwise this is a good recap of my conversation with Sewa.

Check it out.

Extraordinary everyday
THE WEEK BUREAU
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. She has two published anthologies of short stories, and her documentary Water, about how a community in Lele procured water, was shown on CNN. Her latest collection of short stories, The Prediction, has recently hit the market. The Week’s Sewa Bhattarai caught up with her to talk about her writing habits, her views on exotic topics, and the like.

How did you start writing?

When I was thirteen, an English teacher beat a friend of mine. I wrote a protest poem about that. That was my first piece of writing. Later I went to Brown University and did some courses on writing.

What are your writing habits?

I write for two hours everyday before I go to bed. It may be fiction, non-fiction, or parts of a book. Some of them are published in my blog.

How important is reading to writing?

I think reading is central to writing. I grew up reading from the British Council Library, so my schooling was in British classics. Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, I love them all, and they ended up influencing my writing.

How did they influence you? Do you strive to be like them?

No, I do not strive to be like them. They were experts in what they wrote, and it is very hard to gain that level of expertise. Jane Austen, for example, knew a Victorian woman’s world intimately, and that was her strength. My stories are based on social reality, and that is perhaps where the influence comes through.

Why only social reality? Why not fantasy?

Fantasy is a very interesting genre, and I would be delighted if there were good fantasy books in Nepal. But you have to be really immersed in an imaginary world if you are to write fantasy, and I don’t think I will be doing it any time soon.

One of your stories is about a soldier’s hunger, and you are obviously not a soldier! How do you research for stories like these?

I am trained as an anthropologist, and research methods like ‘participant observation’ come in really handy. And then there is my schooling as an actor. For those who are used to acting, it is easy to get into the skin of other characters.

One of your stories is based on astrology. If a foreigner wrote it, it could easily be labeled ‘Orientalist.’ How does it feel to write about such exoticized topics as an insider?

Orientalism is when someone takes an exotic element out of context and glorifies it. But for us, astrology is a part of life: the story I have documented is true, or so my father would have us believe. The astrologers who sit out on the pavements telling people to do this pooja and that may not know much, but astrology is a highly developed science involving precise calculations. Vedic astrology may even be the origin of mathematics. Astrology is not just superstition, but also our heritage. My story is a start to presenting this facet to the world.


SEWA BHATTARAI

As a woman, do you write about women differently than men do?


Only in this story called A Bolero for Love did I go out of my way to present this 60-year-old dancer in a well rounded manner. Other times I don’t really think about how I am portraying a woman, but about how my character would think and feel. And in that, perhaps the male gaze that we grow up with subconsciously creeps in, and I end up portraying them as they are normally portrayed by the media.
But sometimes you consciously use the male gaze, for example in this story called Law and Order which kind of subtly makes fun of the male characters.

Do you think the world of writing is different for a woman than for a man?

Definitely it is more difficult. I do not feel any less of a writer when I am in New York or in Paris, but here I feel the space is less accepting of me. But that may also be because I am not a very social person.

What do you think of English writing in Nepal?


There is a lot of hidden talent, a lot of aspiration to write and be read. Internationally, it is difficult for a Nepali writer to get published because most publishers think not in terms of quality but in terms of sales, awards, etc. If you are from India, you are eligible for the Booker and so many other awards. People in fringe nations like us have few options. They can try, but not too hard. The system is already rigged against you, so you need to be realistic.
But I think our 30 million-strong market is not so bad, young people have good English and are interested in reading the stories of Nepal in English. But certain conditions limit writers.

What sort of conditions?

The publishing industry believes there is no market for English books in Nepal, and is not really ready to take them on. As a person who has published her own books, I think there is a market because my books are selling. And then there is a high amount of piracy. Booksellers have their own presses, and as soon as a book is successful, they print and sell unauthorized copies. The royalties do not go back to writers and publishers. Unless these problems are fixed, the situation is not going to improve for writers.

About Joshi’s Book

The Prediction is a collection of short stories that Joshi wrote over several years. The stories present different facets of Nepal, ranging from the constant hunger that plagues women at the bottom of the pecking order, to the historical story of how astrologers correctly predicted the reign of more than one Rana prime minister. Some of the stories deal with the issues of Nepalis abroad.
God of Small Things

Joshi’s five picks

Good of small things

Arundhati Roy
This was one of the first books by a woman in the subcontinent that presented middle class life in the subcontinent so well, and in our language. It is notable for exploring depths of emotion and forbidden relationships.

Romeo and Juliet
William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s books are often considered boring because people tend to read them. Seeing this play acted out brings alive the universal story of star-crossed lovers. The little nuances remind you why it is a classic.

White noise
Don Delillo
Delillo is an apocalyptic writer. Though not prodigiously famous, he is nonetheless very talented. He captures a cultural slice of America very well, dissecting American issues like consumerism and disintegration of family.

Howl

Allen Ginsberg
Ginsberg was one of the writers from the 60s, from the generation that started movements against racism, sexism, and other inequalities. His writing is full of rebellion against the unfairness in society.

Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison
This is one of the early works by Morrison, before her awareness of her own work changed her writing. The book is about themes like slavery and ghosts of the past that are very often found in the works of Black Americans, and the style is very poetic and lean.


Published on 2014-04-04 11:49:56

Thursday, April 03, 2014

A Boleria for Love



 Thought I'd share "A Boleria for Love" with you all on this beautiful spring day. Needless to say, a love story about an older woman/younger man was inevitably rejected by the finest literary magazines (what else was I expecting?). I wasted a bit of my time submitting this to the world's "greatest" lit magazines, the editors of which may then have gone on to recruit writers to write nastier versions of older woman/younger man stories, which then went on to win gushing accolades and giant financial awards/rewards for misogynistic versions of my story... But never mind, there's still time to read the original and be inspired here!

And of course, don't forget to buy a copy of LALit magazine, which will be printing this story shortly in its new edition. And also of course buy a copy of "The Prediction" and read the rest of my other stories as well.

A BOLERIA FOR LOVE

Xavier did not know, when he cut out the piece of newsprint from the New York Times that grey November day, that all his desires for a mad, passionate love affair was about to be fulfilled. He was not thinking about love when he took out his Swiss army knife and cut the advertisement from the paper. He was thinking about the dinner he was going to prepare as his hands moved over the square, cutting out what in hindsight would prove to be a part of his destiny.
"Hola, que pasa," he said, as he walked over to a kiosk, Carlo's Café, set up at the edge of the park. "Un café, por favor."
"Milkensuga?" the man asked, pushing back his black wool hat, which was almost as big and heavy as his Russian accent.
"Hmm?" said Xavier, disoriented. Wrong nationality. "Oh yes, always some milk and sweetness in my coffee. Any music going on around these parts?" he asked, drumming a little tune on the side of the tin counter. "In my kiosk, there is only radio." The man laughed. "Here, I don't know, but down in Queens we have many, many clubs. Have a good day, my friend."
With his curly hair and even features, and the gold earring in one ear to give him that exotic look, Xavier give off the aura of the world weary artist. He had that look that could situate him in mediaval Spain as well as it could in modern India, or London, or Rome, or New York. He got a salaam ale kum from the Northern African men down from the garment district just as fast as he got a smile and an hola from the Central American men on 14th street. Women, going to work in midtown Manhattan in suits, turned around in the middle of broad avenues in their high heels to give him brief, intense looks as they wondered whether he was not somebody they could make a quick merger with.  He looked like an the unknown musician waiting to be discovered. 
As a drummer living off nightly gigs, Xavier learnt to move into a new town and within a night meet musicians who wanted to play with him. His easy manners and lack of history made people claim him as one of their own. He was someone who understood their values, their lives, their yearnings. Xavier, with his reassuring beard and his silence could enter into people's houses with the quietness of a cat, set up shop and everybody would assume he was part of the family. People had a sense of recognition when they met him, even though he was unlike any other person they had ever met before. He did not, as a rule, have to find his gigs in the newspapers.
But the text of this advertisement had caught his eye. URGENT CALL FOR A DRUMMER. "Rosa Pilar Cuellar, famous flamenco dancer from Spain, urgently seeks a drummer.” She was doing a season in New York, at a small repertoire company in the lower East Side.
I wonder what happened to her drummer, he thought. Famous people traveled with their own drummers. They did not make desperate calls late into the season. But it was almost five o clock now, and he had to give up contemplating Rosa Pilar in favor of dinner. 
____________________________________________
Xavier had learnt to drum as a toddler, banging tabletops and the floor with his fists.  His father, a music teacher who lived in a crumbling house in the center of old Patan, taught him to play the tabla at the age of five. He got up at six am every morning to practice in the cold, banging his fingers in the concrete balcony until his fingers bled from his efforts. "Practice, practice!! Discipline, discipline!" His father yelled at him when tears fell from the pain.
His mother, an orphaned farm-girl from Patan, was adopted by Jesuits missionaries at an early age. She had decided to call him Xavier, after the saint. The missionaries had long since disappeared, but Fulmaya, his mother, still had a faded portrait of the baby Jesus looking up sadly at his Virgin Mother which she had added to the altar of ancestral gods, and to whom she offered incense, hibiscus and vermilion powder every morning. Her husband, who had gone to Delhi to learn instruments the hard way from musicians both Hindu and Muslim, treated all matters of religion with contempt. He yelled at her and told her she was a fool. But she didn’t listen to him.  
His father wanted to turn Xavier into one of the most famous musician in the world. He kept the boy up to practice his beats until the boy felt his eyes growing smaller from weariness. Sometimes he fell in an exhausted sleep over the tabla. At times, his father put him to bed, but most days he woke him up with an angry yell: "You are going to be better than Zakir Hussein! Practice is the key. You must practice, practice, practice!" Xavier’s mother died too early for her to come to his defense.
On his fifteenth birthday, with an audience of five old eclectic musicians arraigned around him, the boy played the tin tal faster than his father. His fingers moved like a blur of light. "Its not how fast you can play that matters! Anybody can make that sound, bhut-bhut-bhut, like popcorn in heat. Its playing slow that's the difficult part," his father said.
Xavier’s heart sank. His father was impossible to please. He started to beat out a slow beat on the tabla. It was so slow, so soft, the two old harmonium players in the front strained their ears to hear him. "Wah, wah, wah,” they said at the end, chewing on their toothless gums. Slowing down, he realized, was painful. But it had its own rewards.
Xavier had to practice for five more years before his father announced: "I am taking you to play with me on Shivaratri." The temple of Pashupati had a number of small hills. Perched on top of one of these was the Kirateswor Temple, with a small courtyard with a towering peepul tree in the middle. Every full moon night, musicians met up for a concert. Shivaratri was one of the biggest nights for music. Xavier's heart jumped. He had played with his father before in gigs, but never at Kirateswor.
Naked sadhus rubbed grey with ash, foreheads lined with white and red, smoked themselves into some sweet oblivion by glowing embers by the gates. You would never guess from outside that inside was a courtyard filled with music. These were performances of musicians fluent on the sitar and tabla, sarod and madals, and many other instruments in between, brought out with the pure passion of worship and devotion to the gods.
Xavier drummed that night as if his twenty year old body was an instrument of its own, fused to his tablas. He drummed with such energy it felt like Shiva himself had woken up and started to do the tandav dance on the hilltop. Or so one young woman, heart beating along with the beats of the drums, body moving along with his movements, imagined.
Her name was Keri and she was twenty two year old. She came from a small town in California. She was in Kathmandu in a student exchange program. As soon as the tall boy with the curly black hair and the easy smile came on stage, she felt more alive. She was sitting next to the sadhu by his fire on the little threshold, and she could glimpse Xavier from her perch. She watched him as his body moved to the beats. Looking at him, she felt that pang – a sprinkling of loneliness and déjà vu mixed with physical desire that mixed in a cocktail that entered her blood and made her intoxicated with joy and sadness. She knew the two of them were going to fall in love. She also knew how it was going to end.
After the concert was over, she waited until everybody had lined up and talked to the musicians. Everyone would dissipate soon. When the courtyard was empty, and the musicians were packing up their bags, she went up to the young musician.
"Have you been to Goa?" she asked.
The drummer looked up in surprise. He saw a young woman with light blonde hair, wrapped in a blue cloth and a small blouse. She had a small pert nose and a smile that lit up her face like the full moon.
"No, I haven't. Why?"
"Because I think you will like it," she answered.

That's how it had started. And that's how he had ended up in Goa. He had lost his virginity to Keri two days later in the same hillside, underneath a tree with gnarled roots. They could see the glowing red points of the sadhus as they smoked joint after joint and kept guard over the dark shadows of the night as they had wrestled and kissed and fused in the darkness and the dirt underneath the trees. Keri's body was so soft he wanted to hold it for ever, but eventually the chatter of birds and echoes of early morning worshippers told them they had to get up and brush themselves down. He kissed her feverishly and drunk with the madness of first love told her: "I want to be with you for ever." Keri smiled at him, with a tinge of sadness.
His father would never allow him to leave. He felt Xavier’s musical education was still incomplete. So Xavier did not tell him he was going to Goa. Keri had paid for his ticket. On the next full moon, he made his way out, carrying his bag of tablas, clean underwear and socks, and a copy of his dogeared notebook. In his notebook, he had pasted a sepia-tinted picture of his mother, smiling and holding him as a little baby, a picture of St. Xavier, a hologram of the Goddess Saraswoti, patron of musicians, and a few poems which had caught his fancy. He felt no regret.
________________________
He folded the cut out advertisement into a neat square, and stuck it into the back pocket of his jeans. On the way home, he stopped at the grocery store on 6th street and got a coconut, with the promise of sweetness in the watery cavity. The chicken that he made was multi-layered and satisfying, the tastes an exotic blend of Goanese and Newari cuisine. A hint of coconut milk with a touch of scallions. "Where did you learn to cook like this? Saint, that was culinary genius!" John said. John the artist, with his gym perfect body and his Peter Pan looks.
The two of them had met in the middle of some arty-farty party where everybody was talking about their future projects - their next book, their next film, their next incredible fuck. They both ended up in the balcony, smoking.
"They're just a bunch of big dicks in there!" said John, in a stage whisper.
“A bit boring.”
 "A bit boring! Darling, come clean and just admit it’s a Huge Bore in there!" John shook his head. John was fascinated by the quiet charms of Xavier ("Darling, what a name! Don't tell me you were one of those saints in Catholic school!"). Xavier loved the spontaneity, the humor, the queenly ingenue in John. No, the two of them were not lovers - although John tried hard to engineer this prospect. "Saint, you're just a closeted queer, admit it!" he said, falling on top of Xavier one day when he was drunk.
Xavier laughed and said: "Well, I've been dating women for the last twenty years and I seem to do pretty well with them. I just haven't had any cravings for men, but maybe you're right. Maybe it'll show up when I pass fifty."  
John was always surrounded by women. "Its pooling resources, man," Xavier would explain, when somebody expressed wonder at how he could live so intimately with a gay man in a platonic relationship.
 But something had felt wrong in the last few months. He had been sleeping with one woman after another, each one younger, more artistic and more thin than the last. It happened more on their insistence than his. They always ended up, after a good fuck, smoking and talking all night with John anyway. Then they would end up stripping for him so he could paint them in all their glorious nudeness. Xavier often thought John had more fun with naked women than he did. "What is going on with you, saint," John asked him one day. "Here you are, letting woman after woman slip from your fingers like slippery fish! I wish I was as prolific as you, but you don't even seem to give a damn."
Ever since he broke off with Dana three years ago, he was in mourning, holding his spirit and his heart in a plaster cast, a hurt that never healed. She lived in the Amsterdam now, with their three year old daughter Sristhi. Sristhi, who had been the birth of creation, and who had given a new meaning to his life. Now she was no longer in his life anymore. Every day, she played with a big man from Germany called Daniel, who bought her toys and chocolates with his salary as a tax lawyer. He burnt with rage sometimes, still as fresh as the day she left him, wondering if she would stay with Daniel forever, or if she would leave him just as she had left Xavier.
          And then that phone-call. "Xavier?" That soft, breathless voice. He  ached to hear it again after such a long time.
           "What do you want?" he asked her, because he did not want to be disturbed again from this surface calm that was settling over his life.
          "I want to come back and life with you in New York," she said. "I think we can work things out." 
          Xavier listened. His heart ached. He wanted to close his eyes and say: "Yes, yes, yes! Come back to New York," But then he knew it was too late. Too late for her to prove to him that she would not do the same again with some other man, if she returned. Too late for them to be perfect couple. "Dana," he said to her. "We can never go back, you know that. But I can help you get a divorce." And that's how it had ended. Shristhi had gone to stay with her grandparents in Leiden. Dana had after a year, finalized her divorce. She was now in an island in the South Seas, in a relationship with a half-French, half Guyanese man who distributed Bibles to hotels.
          Xavier watched the women come into his life. Plastic women, clean and hard and disposable as take-out cutlery, who he would be with for a night, and then replace with another the next night. "What is wrong with you, Xavier?" asked John. "Are you sure you don't need to go into therapy? I can recommend a very good shrink, if you want."
          Xavier refused. What could he say to a stranger in a room devoid of any personal belongings, sitting on a couch, watching his polite, uninterested face across the table? What could he possibly say? There was a void inside him like he had never felt before, except perhaps those undefined moment when he had first encountered Goa and felt like he had been searching to recover some irrevocable loss that he could not remember.            
____________________________________
Kathmandu melted like rancid butter from his memories as he came to Goa. Goa was a magical place of soft palm beaches, churches that made him wonder about all the worlds that had come before, and people who smiled at him like he was one of them.  
Xavier found a gig at a local hotel playing tabla during dinnertime. At night, he went back to the inn where he stayed with Keri. They had late dinners outside the porch with the leaves over their heads, watching the riotous blooms of bougainvillea, and then later on they went through the cool, dark hallways towards their room with the carved wooden bed and the sea-chest standing by it since the fifteenth century, and make mad passionate love that felt like it would never end.
As he lay there on the tall bed he would wonder if he, the son of a peasant woman and a one eyed musician from Patan, was not indeed a reincarnation of a Portuguese sailor, or perhaps a pirate, from five hundred years ago. How else to describe his impossible name that had given him countless hours of ragging from his schoolmates at the St. Xavier's Boys School. They called him "King Xavier" with mock humility. How else to explain his curly hair and his light-colored eyes, when both his parents had been compact, neat Newars with the hair as straight as silk and eyes like enlightened Buddhas? Nobody would ever dream that his mother had ever cheated on his father, for god forbid, she was a religious woman. So what unknown history and genes were manifesting in him, driving him farther and farther away from the only home he had ever know? And why Goa?
 Houses falling from hundred of years of neglect lined Goa’s streets. He walked through them as if he was walking through his own past life, trying to reclaim a story that he could not remember. The sea entered his body like a cooling balm, a memory which washed and flooded him, and yet there was something he could not quite put together, some yearning, some strange nostalgia. He was like the tourists who came to Kathmandu, coming for something that they could not name -- searching for some part of them that was hundreds of years old, some part of them they had forgotten.
_____________________________
          When he called up the number listed under the ad for "DRUMMER WANTED", he half expected a lovely Spanish version of Dana's voice to answer his call. Rosa Pilar, he thought, savoring the name. She must be young and beautiful, with a body like a wisp of smoke, curving with incredible delicacy through the air.
          "This is what's wrong with you, Xavier," John said, when he saw Xavier’s dreamy face. "You dream too much and are disappointed when dreams do not match the reality. You are doomed to live forever in a land of unfulfilled nostalgia."
          “You think so?”  
          "The things you feel nostalgic for do not exist," John snapped. "Now go out and meet that goddamn woman. I bet you she's the biggest nag you've ever seen."
          A male voice with a strong German accent answered. "Halo?"  Not Dana, but Daniel. 
          "I am calling in response to the ad for a drummer.”
          " Are you a drummer?"  
          "Yes I am.”
          "What drums do you play?"
          "I was trained on the tabla, but I can play many other styles. African, jazz, flamenco."
           "Flamenco?" the man said, almost with disbelief.
           "I spent a year in Spain," explained Xavier. He had spent a year wandering around with a group of Roma artists who sang and danced their way through the continent. He had fitted in so well, and had learnt the music so quickly, people had a hard time believing he was not one of them. One day he had been thrown in a jail in Madrid in a police raid. It took the Nepali embassy a week to pull him out. The only reason why they had gotten involved is because he had a second cousin who worked as first secretary at the Embassy. The man had felt obliged.
"Your name?"
Xavier Shrestha.
"Xavier what?"  
Xavier spelt it out for him - S H R E S T H A.
          Okay Mr. Xavier. Rosa is meeting drummers tomorrow at the Spanish repertoire theatre. Do you know where it is?
           

It was an hour before they called him in. Inside was a small dark stage and two people sitting on chairs. The German man was there, in the front. Besides him sat another woman with frizzy hair piled on her head, and a forty something woman with a warm, kind face.
None of them could have been Rosa Pilar.
"The instruments are already up there." the German man, who turned out to be the theatre's manager, told Xavier as he walked up the narrow aisle. "Play with the music."
And that was all. The canto jondo piped in, suddenly, like an auditory hum, and then increased in volume. He sat down on the caja - an upside down wooden box, with the small round hole on the side. He put his hands down, and beat on the side of the box. The box came alive, responding to the call of his hands. He remembered the beats. He had slept through it for a hot and blazing summer outside Madrid, and had them followed the troupe from Italy all the way up to the Czech Republic. The first palos de flamenco was an alegria. A profound song of happiness. Slowly, he started to drum. Within a minute, he was lost in the music, and did not even see her as she entered from the side.
She came in, her back as straight as a soldier’s. She swept in like a ship liner making a turn, sweeping through the stage, and then started to dance. She was wearing a crimson backless dress with sweeping folds. She danced as if all the world had become crystallized in this one moment of music and rhythm, as if her muscles would never ache from the pain of exhaustion, as if she could never stop. She danced with the grace of the wind, and the power of a hurricane storm. She danced, and danced, until Xavier was lost in the red blurs and the arm, leg, body, head motions and could barely keep his eye away from her.
It was only when the music stopped that he realized, belated and bemused, that he was looking at the proud and beautiful face of a diminutive sixty year old woman.
                   _________________________________
Xavier had dreamt, in those long exhausting hours when he was repeating the ta-dhin-ta-dhin beats, that one day he would meet the woman of his dreams. She would be more than a woman who loved him, and who he loved. She would be his soulmate, a being who knew his every fear, passion, desire, who could sense his every mood through the slightest gesture, one who would be able to be present in the same room without sharing eye contact and who would know his most intimate thoughts.
His love for Keri had been full of innocence, untouched by any layer of experience which taint our later encounters. He had loved her without reserve. Dana had been more earthy -- a body full of fire and spirit, who had spilled anger, hatred, jealousy, envy at his direction, making him experience all of these emotions again as if he was feeling them for the first time, with a poignancy he had never felt before. All the other women in between had been sensations of the moment - pleasant to look at, easy to talk to, some of them with the promise of intimacy, all of them giving him physical pleasure, but none of whom had managed to fulfill that hole in his soul with the same presence. None of them were mad, like he had often suspected that Dana was on the point of being, and her madness had given her a certain depth, a certain bottomless quality that he could not get away from.
The only other person who made him feel as alive, oddly, was Rosa Pilar. "Xavier," She said, drawing out the "r" when he finished drumming. "Rosa. We are going to work together." Her face broke into a radiant smile. Then she walked out.

"Xavier! That woman is sixty years old!" shouted John in horror the first time Xavier found courage to tell him that he might be interested in a woman, and the woman was - don't be shocked - Rosa Pilar. Rosa WHO? John said, suspecting the worst, and then it sank in. Rosa Pilar, that admittedly fascinating dancer who Xavier had been drumming for the last month. John had swept into her dressing room after the performance, kissed her on both cheeks and told her she was the most accomplished dancer of all times. Of course, how could he not, after that spectacular performance? But did Xavier have to go and fall for her? That woman was sixty, for crissakes. It was a perversion of the worst kind that John, who had a horror of old age and wrinkles, could not stand. 
"Xavier," said John. "Are you sure this is not just some fad? Some horrible infatuation? Are you sure this is not an Oedipal complex mutating to replace your dead mother?"
Xavier, tuning his tabla, tap-tap-tap, shook his head. "I haven't felt like this in a long time, John." 
Like what? John said, with disdain. He couldn't live with a man who fell in love with sixty-year old hags. The whole thing was perverse.
"Its kind of funny, you know John," said Xavier, smiling. "Here I am surrounded by beautiful young women who would jump into bed with me without hesitation, and all I can do is fall in love with a woman who is twenty years older than me."
"Indeed," said John. "The workings of a madman's mind is hard to fathom." When Xavier continued to tap away at his tabla with that radiant look in his eyes, John said: "Well, if you were a woman, you might get away with it. But even that, barely. He better be fabulously rich for you to consider it. But a woman who is twenty years older! Perversity! Is she fabulous wealthy? No? Than what is it?”
Xavier just smiled.
 "It's the Madonna syndrome," John fretted as he went into the next room. "All these stars living with younger men, marrying younger men. Its getting into the cultural psyche. too much freedom, I always say…"
 "She’s in better shape than you are.”
“Oh sure,” John rolled his eyes.
“How do you know she’s not?” 
“How do I know…? How do you know?” Then it sank in. John looked at him in horror. “You been sleeping with the fabulous Rosa, Xavier?”
Xavier merely smiled, and did not say anything. 
                             _____________________

Even if he were to speak his mind, Rosa Pilar was outside his reach. She was married to Senor Emilio Francisco, a scholar from Madrid who researched the ancient art of China and who had translated three books from ancient Mandarin to Catalan. They had five children, three boys and two girls, and they had lived together in marital harmony for the last forty years. So indeed, Xavier would think wryly when he saw the shining bald top of Senor Emilio sitting with great ease in the front row, even if he had wanted to disrupt every rule of social order by declaring his love for Senora Rosa, his declaration would still fall a tree in the jungle. There would be no one to hear it. The woman adored her husband, it was clear. He was to all purposes a man in his sixties, happy playing with his grandchildren in the front row and watching his wife who he had worshipped for the last forty years once again come alive, like the young woman who he had first fallen in love with, on the dance floor.
And this is what fascinated Xavier. In spite of the age, she had managed to retain that body. She twisted and floated and stamped her foot for three hours every single night for a month, and not once did she murmur a word of exhaustion, or even tiredness. Indeed, she was stronger than a eighteen year old. So what was it? Was this woman some immortal creature who had drunk on the fountain of eternal youth, and would never get old or die? Her face revealed signs of old age. The skin on her face was pulled tightly back, like parchment over the sculpted bones. He wondered if her skin hung on her body like a wrinkled crepe dress. He had once gone to see an exhibition of photographs of older Japanese women. They had stood there, life-sized, black and white, their wrinkles laying on their skin like topography. They must have been in their seventies and eighties. The grotesque, the beautiful, the sublime and the scary were all rolled into that one moment and stared at him, daring him to look away.
"Mama mia!" he can hear her Spanish accent. She is mocking Simeona, her hairdresser from Milan. "What are you doing to my hair, Simeona? Do you want me to be bald for tonight's performance?" He smiled. How odd, he thought. I am in love with this woman.  And it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Her laugh, he realized, when he waited for her to come out from her dressing room and happened to see her reflection in the mirror--her laugh was ageless. She was laughing like that when she was twenty. And yet when she was off stage she was a sixty year old woman, walking with the swift steps but with a hint of stiffness, as if the fluidity with which she flew on stage was turned off outside. This woman was a magnificent but still older woman, the corner of her eyes lined with wrinkles. Dressed in a red dress, she looked like a sexy older diva of Madrid. Xavier's mind, puzzled, compared her off-stage persona to the dancer, the other woman who perhaps did not exist except in his imagination. And those three hours every night on the stage. This other side of her would burst forth like a demon seeking vengeance and would start rampaging across the wooden floors. The audience watched, transfixed, by this apparition of a woman who would have beaten every single one of them in a three hour marathon. She was marvelous.
"Love's like dat, man. It hits you over the head when you least expect it - and you don't even know what hit you." Ramon, his drumming buddy with whom he met up for gigs, said to him as they met later for their weekly beer. "I don't know what to tell you, son. I lived with a woman twenty years older than myself, it was the best sex I ever had in my life. What can I tell you."
"What attracted you to her?" Xavier asked, as he took a swig of his beer.
"She was on welfare. She had four kids. She was twenty years older than me. She wasn't in shape. She was living in a trailer. What's attractive about all that? But I was in love with her, man. I was in love. And thass how it is."
Xavier looked at Ramon as the light flickered on his face. This ordinary looking guy had experienced some transcendental love. It was etched in the sincerity of his voice. Ramon, who he had observed towing around girls with big hair and empty smiles, seemed like a different man.
 Jon put down his mug with a bang. "There's no explanation for love, man - none whatsoever. Its like you’ve just been punched in the stomach. You go: ahhh, and you just know."

For the three months that he worked for Rosa Pilar, he drummed like he had never drummed before in his life. As soon as he saw her crimson shadow he would feel as if he was coming alive through some divine force. She swept across like a spring storm, and then paused, transfixed, an ice maiden, a statue in granite for what seemed like eternity. Then she would melt and rage again like a swollen river, taking his breath, his thoughts, his every socially conditioned responses with him. All he could feel was this being in front of him, who seemed to see him in every thought even though she never looked at him once during the entire performance. And yet he knew she was as aware of his existence as he was of hers. Without him, she would not have danced with the same electric poise.
"Xavier, you are being silly. A bit egoistic, aren't you? Darling, this woman was dancing long before you became her drummer. Now tell me, how can the addition of a new drummer make her change her entire persona?" John argued.
Xavier was not able to answer that question. But the proud tilt of Rosa Pilar, the way she swept across like a graceful storm across the wooden boards, the way she reflected each heartbeat of time in her empress stance - something told him Rosa was dancing like she had never done before. And his drumming, which fit her steps like heartbeat, was the reason. He was not being immodest - he just knew. He also knew, as the days stretched into months, that she started to become just as aware of his physical presence as he of hers - his curly hair, his lean hands, his eyes that followed her movement without the least bit of intrusion. They were both aware they were dancing a deep, dark dance of their own, one composed of the minutest ripple of gesture, the slightest lessening of a tempo, an infinitesimal change of movement. They were both so aware of each other the stage felt charged with electricity, a force that lit up her poise and charged his hands to even more incredible feats. Both of them knew.
"Xavier," sighed John. "This is all getting a little tedious. Now you are beginning to imagine intimacy in the most absurd things. If I were your shrink, I would say you are avoiding intimacy. Why don't you profess your love for her and get all that electricity out of the way?"
Xavier knew that whatever he said would sound incredible, no matter how hard he tried to explain it. His experience went beyond words. It was on such a profound level even he couldn’t articulate it. And no, it was not just about the intimacy between a man and a woman, not even the telepathic link that builds up after years of sharing the same bed, the same sink, the same toilet. The same fears, the same anxieties, the same old jokes. He and Rosa’s bonds were more intuitive than that, the bond that comes between two people who share the same rhythm so closely it feels like their heartbeat is synchronized to the same beat. Ba-boom, ba-boom.
"I am worried about Xavier," said John the next time he saw Emily at a party. Emily the art school student who Xavier had dated. "The man has not been normal since he started to work for that witch." "She put a spell on him!" giggled Emily. "Something is fucking with his brain," John said. "Do you think he has started to smoke hash again?" said Emily. "He told me he had given it up a year ago. And he has been stone sober as well - not even a glass of wine."
If only if it were a matter of brain cells, and electric impulses, thought Xavier. Then they could put a few wires through his brain and pull out all the strands that made him feel this connection with this woman. Was she his spiritual partner, his love from a past life? What about her gave him this feeling of recognition, like he could see her every whim, every desire, every thought hanging out naked, like as if their brains had been soaked in about two buckets of THC, and all their thoughts were now standing bright and colorful like laundry hanging in the washing lines. 
He knew, for instance, she loved Emilio like a mother loves her child - with unconditional love. And that she worried about her youngest son, Rafael, who had a tendency to drink too much, and had already been divorced twice in his short life. And that she loved Clara, her oldest daughter, with a mixture of love and sadness, because she had not followed in her footsteps and become the best dancer in the world, which she knew the girl had been capable of. But now it was too late - Clara worked as a researcher on mediaeval dance, writing treatise after treatise on la dansa de la muerte. She seemed happy enough with her two daughters and her comfortable life, her husband who worked in the government and took care of her every desire. And she seemed unaware of this force which her mother sensed inside her, and which only made her nervous and irritable.
Xavier knew all this, by the way she twisted and turned in the stage when a member of her family was present. Then he started to wonder. Could she see his thoughts as he saw hers? Could she tell the way he desired her, his impulse to hold her body along with her face in his arms? Did she know that he dreamt about her? She came sweeping into his dreams wearing the same crimson dress, and he saw heaven and earth entwined in her two clasped hands, saw the way her straight back reflected the glances and longing people had thrown her way for six decades?  Did she know that he had begun to desire to hold her body as if she was his lover?
The next time she danced, he knew. She danced like she had always done, a darting flame picking up strength as the night went on, but there was a joy in her step, a lightness to her clapping like you only find in a young girl when she first falls in love. Xavier was shaken. Even her family, sitting on the front row, were shaken. What was going on with Mama? There was something about her that was not quite right - she seemed to have lost her majestic sweeping presence. She seemed to be prancing on the stage like she was a dancing gaily, in her own private world, far away from the audience.
Rosa, my love. I hope everything was okay, her husband said to her at the end of the performance. Were you angry with the hairdresser?
Rosa smiled and said: Not at all. I danced today because I felt like I have not in a long time.
Her husband frowned. He had seen his own mother go senile, remembering everything up to the time she was twelve with the vividness of color film, but with no awareness of the present. He was always searching for signs that his beloved Rosa might go the same way.
Well, I hope you will regain your former presence soon, he said, before being pulled out of her dressing room by Clara.
"Mother, what was it?" asked Clara. "You were dancing like you were bewitched."
"It’s the springtime, Clara my love," said the dancer. "I feel it in my bones. Esta lugar tiene duende."
                   _______________________________

          The dance season was coming to an end. Before it ended, Xavier had two conversations with Rosa Pilar. One, when he had gone up the dressing room to tell her he could not come for a rehearsal because he was going to attend a friend's wedding. They ended up talking until the early hours of the morning about - of all things - life and death. Come sit down, Rosa said, patting the rose colored cushion in the chair next to hers. She was sitting alone in front of the mirror. "I am tired of Simeona's chatter. I’d be glad to know how you ended up drumming for an old woman like me."
A great dancer like you, said Xavier.
"Thank you," she said. Her voice caught for a moment in her throat. She lost her poise. The hairdryer fell from her hand with a noisy whine, and she shivered. Xavier picked it up. “Its off,” he said, pulling out the cord.
"There's nothing to be afraid of these days except for death, isn't it?" said Rosa, recovering her calm.
Xavier said: "I guess so."
"People are always so afraid of dying." Rosa Pilar pulled out the pins out of her hair. "But I have never let any fear get into my enjoyment of life, and I know I am going to die the way I lived - with joy."
Xavier, watching her face in the mirror, had a prescient feeling that he is going to die long before her. He could not pinpoint the source of this knowledge, but it was there, filling his head like radio static. Looking at her in the mirror, he also had this feeling that she was going to live for ever. He could not pinpoint the source of this feeling either.
"Do you ever wonder whether you or your husband who will die first?" Xavier asked, the thought coming out of his mouth before he could check himself. And then he stammered an apology.  "I am sorry, I should not have said that. Its horribly rude of me."
  "No, no, its fine," said Rosa. "My husband's father takes walks in Madrid, and he is past ninety. A very strong man. My parents, on the other hand, died twenty years ago. So his blood is stronger than mine." She smiled: "Are you afraid to die, Xavier?"
Then it dawned upon him, this knowledge - he had already faced a thousand small deaths, the end of one existence and the beginning of another. A friend had once talked to him about time and the life cycle and how we went through all these metamorphosis, how we lived eighty lives, if not more, in a full lifetime, and how could that be explained scientifically? How could the memories of somebody at eight years be claimed again by an eighty year old insisting, indeed, that that was her life? The assumption of course, was that there was a somebody who was an amalgamation of all these other beings, and that somebody, at the present time, was the only one who could claim be right, and true, and correct. All other versions that came before became materials for revision. The whole thing was very confusing.
It was at that moment of acute existential confusion that Rosa Pilar leant over and kissed Xavier on the lips. Xavier had kissed many women in his life, evoking feelings of varying degrees. Kissing Rosa was something he could not have imagined. She was a passionate kisser, dancing her way into his mouth and tongue. Xavier felt the tensions of the previous months released in an explosive energy inside his body. The clothes, when they came off, came off without shame, with the same natural synergy as the kiss. "The door is locked," Rosa said. The carpet on the floor was soft, inviting. "Simona never enters without knocking." Xavier touched her neck, the soft folds of skin. His hands folded around her, underneath her breasts—and then they both felt it, the heartbeat. For a moment, they lay there like this, hearing the sound which had tied them together. Then he unbuttoned her blouse. The only surprise came from the ecstasy that both of them had not been able to imagine.
                             _____________________
The second conversation happened a week before she left. Xavier had gone up to wait outside her dressing room to give her a bouquet for her birthday. She asked him to come in. It was a bouquet of yellow roses. She sat there in front of the mirror, half of her eye make-up removed, the other half still in place. He looked at her face in the mirror, and they caught each other eyes. They looked at each other for about a second before he looked away.
"How do you know when you are in love, Xavier?" she asked him. Simeona, with her hair piled to the top, laughed her high pitched laugh and said: "I think he should ask you this question, not you." Xavier wondered. Indeed, how does one know when one is truly in love, that this sensation of the moment will not be replaced by another memory in another month?
"Well, let me put it another way. Feelings between people change as time passes. This is inevitable. And love also changes, taking many different forms. But how, initially, at the beginning, when you see somebody, how do you know that you are in love?"
John had this theory that you could hear love when you first felt it. It was like a hum, some electric whine which would fill your ears with auditory information and tell you: this is it. Xavier had never heard that sound, but he wondered. Indeed, how could you tell? How could you know such an impossible thing? 
Simeona left the room. Rosa got up and stood in front of Xavier. He put his hand on the small of her back. She put his arm around his neck and pulled his face towards her. For a moment, they stood like this, in a close embrace. He smelt her perfume. 
                                      ***
   
The season came to an end. Rosa was in the dressing room when she saw Xavier for the last time. She wiped away the tears with her finger. “I love you,” she whispered, as he closed his eyes and felt his head resting on her for one last time. The yellow roses he had brought for her birthday were drying on the vase, but she hadn’t thrown them out.
John took him out to dinner at an Indian restaurant in the West Village that night.  “Leave me alone,” Xavier said, as soon as he came in. But John knew  knew Xavier couldn’t bear to be alone. 
"How can we live life without love?" John asked, his forehead furrowed with deep lines, his face chalky white in the light of the Indian restaurant. He had decided not to express his relief about Rosa Pilar's final night, instead choosing to adopt a somber mood of existential angst to match Xavier's mood of total despair. "But transgressing the rules is nothing. It’s not caring about them that is revolutionary."
"When you are in love, you feel a mixture of feelings. Exhilaration, admiration of the beauty of life, a deep relaxation. It is a feeling, like as if everything makes sense. Did you feel that with Rosa, Xavier?"
John decided, after a brief look at Xavier's face, not to go there. Tonight was not the night for psychoanalysis.
A feeling as if everything makes sense, repeated Xavier. He watched the rain falling outside through the glass windows, leaving streaks of melted water that blurred the outlines of the people hurrying past with black umbrellas.  
"Fear is the thing that kills us," said John before he could stop himself.  The sentence fell between them like a bad cliché.  
"Fear of what?"  
"Fear of love. Fear of life. Fear of death." John ticked off on his fingers. Seeing Xavier’s eyes glaze over, he added: "Fear of a badly done nan and greasy aloo gobi curry. Fear of going home and sitting in front of the television to watch "Sex and the City", all over again…"
  Xavier’s face broke into a small smile.
“Why are you smiling, Saint?” John was discomfited.
“You think she’s gone for ever?”
“Isn’t she? She’s in Madrid and you are in New York. End of story.”
Xavier smiled radiantly.
“Do you think that’s how this story ends?”