This is a fresco from a temple in India. The temple is in Varsana, in the Vrindavana area, the place where the goddess Srimati Radhika is said to have grown up, during her pastimes in this world. Yesterday I spent some time with a group of friends, there in the temple, discussing this piece of art. The intriguing aspects of this fresco are so many, the discussion it provoked so lively, that I am compelled to present my perspective, for posterity. I will try my best to do this in language resembling that found in art history books, with a few weird breaks from that form.
Firstly, and overview of what is occurring. This painting shows Vasudeva Maharaja carrying the child Krishna across the Yamuna, from Mathura to Vrindavana. He did this to bring Krishna beyond the reach of the cruel Kamsa, lest that tyrannical king should smash the baby, as he did many others before. In the upper right, Krishna is appearing to Vasudeva and his wife Devaki. He manifested initially in the form of four-handed Narayana, before transforming into Baby Krishna, at the request of Devaki. It’s a deep and intricate pastimes, and here we (I?) am just touching on it. Below that, Kamsa is shown smashing one of Vasudeva and Devaki’s previous children. On the left are Vasudeva and Devaki praying, or possibly Nanda Maharaja and Mother Yashoda awaiting the arrival of Krishna, as one local sadhu asserted.
First of all, the relative size of the people and things in the painting is completely relative to their importance to this instance of the pastime. Western figurative art tends to mimic the camera (well, the laws of perspective preceded the camera). Western abstract art is, in this author’s humble opinion, mostly terrible, and not worth writing about.
But what we see in this painting is different. Compared to what a camera sees, it is completely wonky. Vasudeva is taller than a building. A palace isn’t much taller than Nanda Baba would be if he were standing. But the entirety of the pastime could not be conveyed in one frame if the artist limited themselves by imitating a camera’s view. Instead, the size of the elements is relative to their importance. Vasudeva carrying Krishna is what this picture is mainly about, therefore they are the largest. The palaces are just there to give context, so they’re small. The personalities inside the castles are important (but not as important as Vasudeva Maharaja) so they are quite large. The trees and so on are also there for context, so they’re small, whereas the jackal upstream from Vasudeva is large (it showed him where he could cross). This is all absurd from the point of view of visual perspective, but that’s what’s so great about it.
Temporal dispersion within a single instance (not a bad section title, eh?)
Furthermore, not all the events in this painting took place at the same time. Kamsa is shown killing a baby on the right, something he did previous to Vasudeva Maharaja crossing the Yamuna river. Narayana is shown appearing to Vasudeva and Devaki, which happened earlier that night. On the left hand side, one local sadhu told us, Vasudeva and Devaki are shown praying, before the birth. I’ve seen a picture of Lord Rama where He crosses the Ganges River. In one picture, He is shown there with Sita and Lakshan on one bank, and on a boat in the middle, and offering respects to a sage on the far side. It was a bit like if someone shot pictures with a camera for an hour or, then put everything they capture into one frame. Except very different from what a camera sees, but that we covered.
So in this one picture of Vasudeva Maharaja crossing the Yamuna River, we have events happening at different times, and size relative to importance.
Intriguing stuff. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.
Hi. B.T. Lowry here, fantasy author and videographer. Welcome to the first story developed from the scene-of-the-week series.
The scene which got the most votes was the short film, “Ghosts from 500 Years ago,” so I went right ahead and developed it further. I added more footage and brought in a ghost-king from ancient India and some deep thoughts. If the first part seems familiar, jes’ keep watching.
Here it is:
My special thanks go out to Erothyme, with Biomigrant and Emma Staarbird. Their excellent music is featured in the latter part of the film, the song “Pines and Leaves,” from the album, “Sound in the Living Current.” The whole album–and all their work, really–is excellent. You can find out more about them at these sites:
Also, thanks to unnamed temple musicians of South India and Orissa, whose celebratory sounds also grace this film.
Thanks for watching and listening and reading. Feel free to look around the site, btlowry.com, for more scenes and such. You can also read my novel, Fire from the Overworld, and sign up for the new scenes in your mailbox each week, along with guest posts and thoughts about living, loving investigation and creation. Or you don’t have to do any of that, and we can still be friends.
This week the scene-of-week is in a video. I recently went to the magical land of Hampi in South India and was inspired to make this video about the ancient culture there, which was conquered, which has morphed into the people and customs found here today. I recommend you watch it and listen to it, but if you’d like, the transcription is below.
I look at these old ruins from above, this extensive temple which is crumbling in many places. The courtyard, now empty, must have been filled for celebrations. Deities would have been brought out on procession, accompanied by priests fanning them, offering them food, water, incense and flowers. People must have sang in the procession, beat drums and blown shehnais. Feasts were offered to the deities, then given to rich and poor alike. A king held ceremonies here, for good children, a long reign, and to please God. These dusty ruins were whole and alive. People lived here, they worshipped here. Some of the priests must have served in this temple for years, perhaps decades.
How can I just pass through this place when it had so much significance for them? How can I not stop to mourn their tragedies, and to wonder at the intricacies of their lives?
Each week, I’ll give you a scene from a story, maybe from the beginning and maybe from somewhere in the middle. These stories will not be fully written, just the scenes. You can vote for which ones you want to have made into a full story in the comments section. 🙂
You can listen to this being read to you here:
The family’s old, crazy auntie held one finger to her mouth, glanced around as to indicate all the others in the house, and gave me a look could only be described as ‘extremely conspiratorial.’ She pushed her taped-up glasses up on her nose, adjusted the sari on her frail, skinny frame. Eyebrows raised, eyes wide. Grinning like a little girl.
She spoke to me in Bengali, still glancing around and grinning. I sat by my computer, listening. I couldn’t understand her, but it was eminently obvious that she was revealing her plan to me, telling me the whats and the hows and the whens. She’d carried out some trickery, somewhere in the house. Maybe she’d mixed ingredients in the larder. Maybe she’d stolen something. Maybe she’d said something to one person, something else to another. I didn’t know, but it was mischief, and I was in on it.
This is part of the Scene-a-Week series. Each week, I’ll give you a scene from a story, maybe from the beginning and maybe from somewhere in the middle. These stories will not be fully written, just the scenes. You can vote for which ones you want to have made into a full story in the comments section.
Photo: People from all over the world coming together for unusual and diverse spiritual, cultural and personal reasons
Here’s a question for all you thinkers out there: is there anything at all which cannot be contained in a story?
I say no, and here’s my case.
All types of people can populate stories
Characters can be theists, atheists, violent, philosophical, young at heart but old of body, young of body but old of heart, proud, humble, talented, foolish… you name it. The variety of people out there in the world and universe is the same as the potential variety of characters.
All knowledge can be contained in stories and characters
There are stories about math, arts, engineering, space travel, astrology, astronomy, mysticism and folklore… Indeed, the evolution and devolution of these subjects over time is also a grand story.
All places both real and imaginary can be settings in stories
You can set a story anywhere on earth, or under it, or in the oceans or in the air, or a combination of all of these. A story can take place between planets, on other planets, in a black hole, in an alternate dimension, or in a place transcendental to all dimensions.
We swim through stories all our lives
The newspaper is a collection of stories, with characters, settings and events. When we ask a friend, “How was your day?” their answer will be a story. Even if they just reply, “It was good,” or “It was bad,” that still tells us something about or friend and what they’re really going through. That’s part of their expression within a larger story. Our guesses about what’s really happening with them are stories.
Stories aren’t all fictional, but they’re all subjective
What?! How can real stories be subjective? Well, because they’re experienced by subjects–by people. A person’s personal experience, as well as their retelling of events will always be from their point of view. Someone may be rational and truthful, or may not even tell events according to their own experience. But we’re all subjects, and so whatever we experience is subjective. We’re in stories and we tell stories. It’s what we do. All fictional stories are based on real-life stories, even the really far-out ones. We don’t really create anything new–that’s my understanding. We recombine ideas in amazing ways.
There are stories everywhere, but in some places they’re denser
I’m in West Bengal now, in the village of Nabadwip by the river Ganges. I’m staying with some of my god-family who run a school for underprivileged kids. I’m learning a bit about how the different kids came to the school here. We’re working on a video series, with spotlights on a different child each month. Stay tuned for that, but in the meantime I’ll say that their stories are both extremely tragic and extremely hopeful.
I spend a lot of time in India, and for some years have been going back and forth between India and England, in particular. Now there are stories in England too, but not like in India. I think of stories like threads in a tapestry. England has its tapestry, with its colors and density of strands. There is the history of the British Empire, there’s Christianity, there’s science. There is medieval England, and the pagans and druids in the ancient past. So there’s some great, diverse stuff going on. There’s no doubt about it. Canada has its story, the United States has its story. All places do, and they’re amazing.
Then you come to India. It’s also a tapestry of stories–of lives weaving together–but it’s extremely dense and colorful, and parts of it are very, very ancient. Here’s a short story I wrote, about reincarnation, poverty and brother-sister love.
I’m not the only one who thinks this way about India. Check this out:
A Rough Guide to India: “It is impossible not to be astonished by India. Nowhere on Earth does humanity present itself in such a dizzying, creative burst of cultures and religions, races and tongues. Enriched by successive waves of migration and marauders from distant lands, every one of them left an indelible imprint which was absorbed into the Indian way of life. Every aspect of the country presents itself on a massive, exaggerated scale, worthy in comparison only to the superlative mountains that overshadow it. It is this variety which provides a breathtaking ensemble for experiences that is uniquely Indian. Perhaps the only thing more difficult than to be indifferent to India would be to describe or understand India completely.”
It’s a land of extremes. Extreme wealth and poverty. Extreme depravity and saintliness, horror and beauty. Schools of thought which aim at total annihilation of the self, and others which aim at realization of one’s spiritual form and eternal relationship with a personal Godhead. There’s a history going back–depending on who’s story you take–thousands or millions of years.
Keith Bellows, National Geographic Society : “There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds… I had been seeing the world in black & white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.”
Stories stories stories!
Here in India, you might meet a man in a loin cloth with no shoes, living in the mountains. He’s studied computer programming in Bangalore, but left that to become a yogi. His grandfather practiced yoga for decades and, at the time of his death, his soul left his body out the top of his head with a small explosion.
One of the kids here in the school was separated from his mother for a long time by an abusive father. He become very introverted, but with the care of the teachers he’s become an excellent actor and helps all the other kids learn. His family are refugees from a war in Bangladesh which took place before his birth. It was, ostensibly, a religious war, but seems to have been more about land and power, unsurprisingly. He’s living now in Nabadwip where, the Vedic scriptures describe, a form of Krishna appeared about five hundred years ago, named Caitanyadeva. People from all over the world come here to worship Caitanyadeva. How they learned about Him is another story, how His teachings fit in with the vast array of teachings in India is another story. All these stories mix together in a way that I’ve never heard of anywhere else.
Nine Lives by William Dalrymple has one chapter for each of nine very diverse people here in India, from a prostitute to a divine dancer. I recommend it.
Really there’s just one big tapestry of stories
Do you disagree? Have you traveled around India, stayed with some families, learned about the history and philosophical/religious groups within the country? Let’s talk. The way I see it, there are threads of stories running all over the globe, but there seems to be a real nucleus in India.
Mark Twain, American author: “India is, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.”
I’ll end with a few quotes about this land.
Will Durant, American historian: “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all”.
Romain Rolland, French scholar : “If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India.”
If you disagree with me, please say so in the comments. If you agree with me, please debate respectfully with those who don’t. You can subscribe by giving your e-mail in the top right part of the screen. You’ll get a free mini audio-book/e-book too. And be sure to click the relevant links to share this around!
I’m publishing once every two weeks.
Life is diverse indeed
Bad guys have their own motivations.
In nuanced stories, no one is just plain evil. That’s true in real life too. This ‘evil-doer’ is just carrying on the inheritances of a bad childhood. She’s trying to uphold tradition and order. He wants the land back that was stolen from his people generations ago. She’d determined to save her country’s principles, and the only way to do it is to rule it with an iron fist. An antagonist is a hero in her own mind.
Good guys have their faults.
An anti-hero has more faults than most. Clint Eastwood’s characters, Wolverine, the couple in Natural Born Killers, the dudes in Pulp Fiction. They’re so twisted that they’re protagonists but not heroes, in my mind. I don’t have friends as heavy as that, but most of the people I look up to aren’t perfect. I love them anyway.
In any discussion or debate, it’s nice to see characters representing different points of view. It’s the same in fiction. It’s boring if everyone sees things in the same way, like a herd of animals. If a theme of a story is spirituality, it’s uninteresting if everyone’s of the same faith, and of the same flavor of that one faith. Rather if we have a cast of atheists, theists, polytheists, scientists and ex-believers, we can flesh out the issues in their discussions, conflicts, actions and reactions.
Straw men. Built to burn.
A straw man is a character who’s there just to prove his world-view wrong. His failure shows that his world-view is flawed. Now, a character may fail because his world-view is unworkable, because his opponents take him down. But he’s got to have reasons for doing what he’s doing. He’s got to make a convincing case, if only to himself, if the story’s going to feel realistic. I may be a theist, but the atheist in my book has to represent himself well.
An aggressive, angry person has their reasons for being that way. It might seem convoluted and hypocritical to me, or to other characters, but he feels he’s justified or he wouldn’t be doing it. I, or the character who’s convictions are most like mine, might vehemently disagree with the villain, but if I’m going to write that character convincingly, I need to understand people who have that nature.
In order to write about people who think differently from me, who hold beliefs other than my own, I need to empathize with such folk in real life. I find that as I write more fiction, my appreciation of diverse kinds of people increases.
Bengali people are very different from Canadians
I grew up in Canada. Right now I’m in West Bengal. Bengalis as a whole have a very different nature than Canadians.
Broadly speaking, I find Bengali people to be extremely social, family-based, emotional, and devotional. They’re expressive without inhibitions, well into gossip, devotional to the point where they’ll roll around in groups inside of temples, calling out the names of the deities on the altar there.
By contrast, Canadians are reserved, polite, pragmatic and individualistic.
People are a bit like their climate.
The sub-tropical lands of West Bengal are rich with intertwined, often competing life. Canada is cool, vast and sparse by comparison. There are fewer flora and fauna, and what’s there is starkly differentiated. The people are like that too. Everyone sails their own ship. They meet with others, then go on. They don’t like to huddle in huge groups for long.
I may come from a polite and practical people, but how fascinating it is to put expressive, deeply spiritual, collectively-minded people in my stories. Though it irritates me to be shoved aside in a temple, by an eager old-lady-pilgrim’s steel-bar elbows, when I think of her as a character in a story, it’s suddenly a fascinating scene.
(courtesy of Alina Gaboran, used with permission)
It’s like artwork
If you’re going to draw a person on an object, at least in the post-renaissance style, you have to understand the three-dimensional shape of it, how light plays on it, how shadows fall on it and how it casts shadows, how the shapes join with each other. Some would say that if you want to really show the life of a living subject, you have to be in touch with that life in them. You have to empathize with them, then their likeness will come from your brush.
Diverse spiritual viewpoints
I just participated in a week-long spiritual festival here in Navadvipa town, West Bengal, India. It’s a beautiful place. The Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers all run through the land, dividing it into nine islands. We roamed from temple to temple, singing and dancing like mad. The festival is called the Gaura Purnima festival, celebrating the appearance day of the great spiritual personality, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (affectionately known to the elder ladies of his time as little Nimai)
An incredible diversity of people came to this little town
They came from around the world. Some are by nature creative and artistic, others scientific and practical. Some were born into spiritually-minded families. Others grew up in homes where such discussions never came up. Although coming to the same place under the same spiritual banner, people bring their own convictions with them. Some disagree strongly with others.
In all this sizzling pot of spiritual diversity, I found that my own writing of fiction helps me. The mindset of being a storyteller is allowing me to step back from the intensity of inter-personal drama. I can see it all as a story with an astoundingly diverse cast. With the detachment that comes from imagining it to be unreal, I can better understand people’s motivations. I can take what’s good in them, and the rest is spicy chutney. Certainly a story without conflict would be boring.
There’s a tendency in real life to make people fully good or bad, but in fiction it doesn’t fly. You want some gradations of motivations and selfishness.
Fiction is a kind of allegory, or simplified representation, of the real world’s in its infinite complexity. Often, it can help us understand, accommodate and live life.
How is communication even possible?
The diversity of people throughout the world is so great that I sometimes find it amazing that we can communicate at all. Yet we can, if we try, relate with people very different from ourselves.
Some say this is because we have parts of our brains which mirror the thoughts of others. We give them a temporary house in our heads, and thus come to understand them. By imitating their brains with parts of our own, we come to know them.
Energetically, we hear that people exchange energies when they communicate. Different colors and flavors of energy come from one person and make themselves part of the other. Either way, we take something of the other onboard. We make it our own in order to understand it.
This makes sense to me.
Human beings generally have two arms, two legs, two eyes and so on. There’s a kind of standard physical composition. Women and men aren’t that much different anatomically, except in a few key places. The physical diversity is built on the commonality. We’re much more similar to one another than we are different. Even the bodies of animals have many of the same structures as ours.
I believe that we also share a likeness in our fundamental makeup as conscious beings. We could say that we can understand each other because our fundamental makeup is largely alike. It’s not that we’re all one personality, but our personalities are made up of the same building blocks, arranged and shaped in different ways. I think councilors and psychologists would agree.
Spiritually speaking, I’ve heard we all come from the same source, and that we are wee versions of the supreme conscious entity.
Most spiritual paths advise us not to judge or criticize others. My own path, bhakti-yoga, certainly emphasizes this. It’s said that if we criticize someone, the faults we perceive in that person will become our own. Conversely, if we see good qualities in others, those virtues will come to us.
Writing fiction helps me to understand and empathize with others. My spiritual path also helps me accept others, which in turn helps my creation of fictional characters. This then helps me spiritually. It’s a sweet back and forth augmentation of goodness.
Plus I’d go crazy if I didn’t get my creativity out somehow. I’m not ready to be a full-on monk just yet.
Have you got any thoughts on creativity, spirituality and empathy? Share them below.
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I’ll be publishing once every two weeks.
New Spiritual Epic Fantasy Book!
As some of you may know, I’ve been beavering away at my first fantasy novel for some years now. It’s about a young man and woman who are students of a master mystic, in a desert village. Their teacher travels from his body to the realm of the spirit-rulers, only to be captured by the gods’ enemies. The desert ecosystem swings out of balance. Plants and animals kill each other without reason. The two students discover that the imbalances stem from a battle between spirit-rulers in a higher realm. They strive to restore balance between their world and the higher world, and to regain their teacher. But to do so, they may have to sacrifice what’s dearest to them: each other.
I’m excited to announce that Fire from the Overworld will be available on the 21st of April, in print and digital formats.
What pre-release readers think about it
“Some writers are great stylists and will write beautiful stories that say nothing new or important. Other writers are great storytellers whose tales are exciting but mundane. Only rarely do we see a writer whose creates compelling, important stories with captivating prose. B.T. Lowry is one of those rare authors whose work is not only compelling and moving, but also important to read. “Fire from the Overworld” is a terrific debut!”
–David Farland, New York Times Bestseller, Lead Judge for one of the world’s largest writing contests.
It’s like Carlos Castaneda on Brhad-Bhagavatamrta. On the brink of change, these young mystics show the potency of the inner journey and its effect on the world around us. (B.T. Lowry is) a story teller with the capacity to help us regenerate our conceptions.
-Caroline Tharp, Vice President of Gaudiya Vedanta Publications.
“Four Worlds” is a complex story that follows the lives of three young protagonists, as the structure of their world falls apart. The three main characters live in a rural town reminiscent of historic India. Yuvali and Héyowan are mystics and close friends who have grown up together, and Pradah is Héyowan’s older brother who will eventually take over for their father as chief of the village. The natural world has gone crazy–animals and men behave erratically, the crops are dying, and attack from roaming bands of codeless warriors threaten the very existence of the village. It is a fight taking place on both the physical plane–Pradah is training to be a warrior to defend the village from attack–and the spiritual plane–Yuvali and Héyowan appeal to the very highest of the gods for rescue. But when the line between good and evil blur, the three children must grow up quickly and make adult choices that will change not only the course of village life, but perhaps change all the infinite worlds ruled by the gods.
Lowry’s writing style has beautiful passages of description that easily transport the reader to the kingdom of Raiya. Here’s a brief snippet, when Yuvali is using the mystic powers of an ayur to travel outside her body:
The sand beneath her was liquid, or blowing in the air across the big world, skins on the surface of a great creature who was a ruler herself, and Yuvali was like the dust in the wind around her, blowing everywhere and mixing with the world’s winds. She loosed herself to the four directions.
Hands caught her, held her together so she could go on. Someone with her, keeping her whole. The tree grew closer; a branch caught moonlight as a covering cloud broke apart. Buds lined the branches, and spiky clusters of leaves. The silvery mound had a dark patch within it.
It was a cave.
Interspersed and inspired by mythology and oral storytelling, the book’s world has a richness that is the perfect backdrop to an epic story of good and evil. If you’re a fan of Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy or are looking for a YA story similar to the atmosphere of Alexander’s MG-level The Iron Ring, you would enjoy reading “Four Worlds.”
-Alison McBain, Author. Published in Flash Fiction Online and Abyss & Apex.
I’m offering the first chapter as a sample. It is called ‘Flying,’ and it’s about Yuvali, a young woman and mystic student. She leaves her body as a practice, but is dragged by a mysterious force to distant mountains to witness a strange hunt.
How to get the full book
Fire from the Overworld will be available April 21st from Amazon.com in digital and print format. I’ll announce here when it’s published. If it sounds up your alley, please have a read and tell your friends!
Today I’m presenting a short story which I wrote some time ago. It takes the form of a letter from a brother to a sister. The only thing is, the brother remembers her from his past life, but he’s not sure if she remembers him.
Here’s the text version:
Dear Manjot (light of the heart),
I hope you and Kirandeep are well.
I want to remind you of our relationship, before you were born. Before I was born. I hope you don’t think I’m deluded.
You were so skinny that you slid through tiny hoops. I remember your bony shoulders poking through a blue sequined dress, which sparkled when you first found it. Your black, dreaded hair flopped around like a mop as you flipped and did handstands in train aisles or dangled with your knees hooked over sleeping-bunks. People clapped or pretended we weren’t there. Some gave money. I stood behind you in the aisles, a felt-tip moustache on my face, a man’s suit draped on me like a tent, pinned up around my bare calves.
I was your older brother and you my sister. Your name was Roma. Mine was Raj, though I was hardly a king. Do you remember?
I could play the ektara somewhat –the one-stringed instrument given us by our father. I wasn’t much for melody but the trains taught me rhythm: click-a-de clack, da-dunk, click-a-de clack, da-dunk. I twanged the ektara to the same rhythm which jostled the people back and forth. I think they liked that.
They said to me, “Boy! Sing Jaya Jagadish Hare!”
Or to you, “Can you pass through three hoops at once?”
And if we could do what they asked, they’d sing along and clap and would surely give us something. At first I didn’t know the popular Bengali and Oriya songs but I learned them as people sang for me what they wanted to hear. “Like this…”
You said to me when we were stopped at a country station, “I’ll learn how to balance on my mouth!” You’d seen a girl do this in a marketplace once, chest facing the ground and legs bending behind her head. “People will give rupees like a rain,” you said, nodding with raised eyebrows.
You dreamed of being a super-flexible yogi. I imagined I’d become a master musician. Such ideas kept us hopeful.
I remember when we switched trains, you waited on the old one until it started moving. I ordered you to join me on the platform but you leaned out the door and made a funny, defiant face. Finally you jumped off and ran along the platform, slowing to a stop. That made me angry, and I think that’s why you did it, because you liked me protecting you.
Do you have these memories? You died in between. So did I, but by God’s desire I recall the journey.
Evenings on the trains were best, when people hadn’t pulled their bunks down to sleep but were relaxed. They played cards, ate or entertained their kids. They’d give us a few rupees then. Big fat people, some of them. What they must have spent on food! The toilets’ stench was overpowered by the smell of hot rice, rotis and dahl.
I remember the day you died. We were curled against the train door. People sprayed us with water as they used the sink above us. The friction between the linked cars sounded like metal thunder. We stopped at a station where the train was cleaned.
I was thirsty. I jumped onto the platform as workers in orange overalls mounted the train. I went looking for drinkable water. People slept on benches under rows of fluorescent lights cutting the night. Shiva’s crescent moon hung amid dark clouds and a wind blew from arid hills.
While I was drinking, men in expensive shirts offered me potato-pea samosas with coconut chutney. I ate some and wanted to bring some back for you, but they got me talking about where I was from and what I did on the trains. They saw my ektara and asked me to sing. I sang a short tune, still thinking of you. They complimented me, said I should enroll in a music academy. They’d help me get in. “Sing another!”
I was caught by their attention and was singing so loudly that I didn’t hear the train leaving.
Finally I heard the click-a-de clack of the wheels rolling over joints in the track. I turned. The train was accelerating out of the station, doors and windows passing into the night. You were leaning out a door, searching the platform. I dropped my ektara with a crack-twang and ran to you, calling your name, “ROMA!” between sharp breaths. You looked at me and screamed, “RAJ!” I clawed at door handles and window latches locked from the inside. Far ahead you hung out an open door. I ran faster. Maybe I should have grabbed some window-bars but it was already going so fast. I had no idea where the train was going. Windows and doors fell ahead of me into darkness. I ran harder and you reached out your hand, but half the station lay between us. Your strained smile broke as you realized I wouldn’t catch up.
There’ll be dried teardrops on this paper, if you look closely.
Then your face changed. You got your funny defiant look. You jumped, clutching your colored hoops, you hit the ground and lost your footing. You crumpled then rolled and slid. You stopped against a column which kept the station’s roof up. Your hoops rolled along the platform and onto the tracks behind the caboose.
For a full year I kept thinking you’d show up again. People don’t really believe in death. Maybe because the soul is eternal. Death’s all around us: people, plants, animals dying, but does anyone think they’ll die? We know it intellectually but do we believe we’ll actually stop existing? Just the body dies; that I know now.
The men who’d given me samosas caught me from behind.
I spent almost two years with them. They didn’t bring me to music school but sent me begging. They weren’t kind men, but they provided a sort of shelter, and maybe that was my bad karma mixing with God’s protection of me.
You might be thinking that all this explains your strange dreams about trains. I’m laughing now. In this life, you’d rather walk from Ottawa to Whitehorse than get on a train.
The men sent me all over Eastern India, always with one other child. In pairs we’d beg on trains, perform or steal to make our quota. We were like cows wandering a city, eating whatever we could find then coming home to get milked. The men didn’t keep us in pairs long enough to get close; we might have run away together.
After a year I understood you were gone. With no close friends, I didn’t much want to live. I got sick and the men found me medicine but they didn’t know what they were doing. I fell ill at the beginning of the rainy season and left before its end. When I died, I was thinking of my little sister, of you.
It’s hard to describe how I knew it was you. You looked very different: twenty years old, not seven; tall and beautiful and of course in a completely different body. You were well-fed but slender with fine brown hair. I recognized you through a combination of many many small things. Your laughing-dove-chuckle was almost the same. So was the way you folded plastic packages while you talked. You used to jump when you were excited; now you roll up on your toes grinning unabashedly. The way your nose wrinkles when you smell something you don’t like, the way your ears rise when you’re annoyed, the way you move gracefully through a crowd like you’re gliding on ice… so many things.
Maybe you can see why I hesitated to tell you. It’s inappropriate I suppose. Your husband might get jealous. It seems strange, my trying to rekindle something from another life.
You’re my sister. These last thirty years, serving in the school together, I’ve had it confirmed who you are – or were – a million times in a million little ways. When I think of you in that other life, roaming around performing on trains, I see your face as it is now. Maybe you know too, and you just don’t know what to make of it.
You can speak about all this with me if you’d like, but you don’t have to. If you just give me a nod of recognition, I’ll be satisfied. Or if none of this makes sense, you can pretend you never read it and just consider me a fellow naturalized Indian, as we are in this life. I’m planning a trip to India soon. I want to visit the holy places before this body gets too old for the journey. I might stay there until I die. I’m quite sick already, as you know. So whatever awkwardness this letter might cause won’t last long. I’m laughing. Each life is so short, isn’t it!
In any case, please think of me as an old friend.