Kiran Kulkarni found himself in the first row, aisle seat, of an Indian Airlines plane headed for Bombay out of Madras. Tapping on his forehead with his pen and looking up into space, he mulled over an argument for a paper he would present at a philosophy conference in Philadelphia. Suddenly he squirmed in his seat and dug out his wallet. There they were, his children: golden-faced Ravi, dignified and almost too serious for his thirteen years; and blue-eyed little Sonya with her curly light brown hair, his little angel of eight who looked like her mother.
God how he missed them! Only four more days till he was back home in California.
In the seat to his left a coffee-colored man leaned his head against the window and half-blocked the sinking sun as it hung over the gray cloudscape below. The monsoons were on, not a break anywhere in the clouds. Kiran wondered if it would be raining in Bombay. He closed his eyes . . .
Kanchipuram. His mind drifted off to the raggedy palm-reader plying her trade under a large margosa tree. He had the habit of worrying about the world’s destitute – about the only virtue he had picked up from his saintly grandmother Aaji that had stuck.
He hired this wrinkled black woman because she looked dirt-poor sitting by herself under the tree. It didn’t matter in the least that she could speak only Tamil. He squatted over the baked orange earth and waited for her to tell him he would have sons, get rich, travel to exotic places, whatever. Three women, an old man, and a few curious urchins gathered around to watch. The man said he knew a little Marathi, Kiran’s native tongue, and would translate.
“What did she say?” Kiran asked with a look of impatience.
The man looked uneasy and waggled his head side to side. He looked around him as if asking for help.
“It’s OK. You can tell me. What did she say?”
“She said – she said you will – you will die in India, Sah’b,” said the man through a nervous grin.
Kiran thought he heard wrong. “What did she say?”
“That you will die in India, Sah’b,” said the man, still smiling.
“ ‘Die,’ you said?”
“Yes, Sah’b. That is what she said.”
He laughed nervously and looked around at the others for confirmation. One of the women said something, and they grinned as if at a joke. Then the man said, “We die in India, too!” They laughed a jittery laugh and looked back up at Kiran.
“Ask her when.”
The man muttered something to the soothsayer, but she only shook her head and stared up at Kiran with her strangely bright, lashless, diseased eyes.
Kiran was anything but superstitious, but in the Madras airport he couldn’t help but feel a little anxious. A terrorist had blown up thirty people there a few years back, and the Tamil Tigers across the straits in Sri Lanka were fighting for independence as doggedly as ever. Now, sitting comfortably in the plane, he couldn’t help feeling relieved at the thought he would go on living a little longer.
For a long time Kiran had wanted to take a break from the usual grind of an academic philosopher pumping out one scholarly article after another, and write a novel. But about what? It had come to him one morning as he showered. In his Catholic days at Georgetown he felt a kinship with St. Thomas, the great doubter. According to legend Thomas sailed across the Indian Ocean to convert India to Christianity and was eventually martyred near Madras. Two thousand years later he was the patron saint of India’s Catholics and was as loved and revered as Jesus. But Kiran had the idea of making his Thomas convert away from Christianity. Where did this idea come from?
Under the spell, at sixteen, of a charismatic Jesuit at St. Xavier’s in Bombay, he had done the unthinkable: converted to Catholicism. It had horrified and scandalized his high-caste Hindu family. So now he would, in a manner of speaking, atone. But Hinduism with all its deities wasn’t anymore to his liking now than Christianity. So what would his Thomas convert to? To Buddhism, of course, the only religion that an atheist like himself could respect even a little. So this time Kiran found himself in India to do research on his novel, not just to visit his old mother.
He pushed his seat back and closed his eyes. Random memories started to come. Ravi looking out over Yosemite Valley after a strenuous father-and-son hike, spring rains in the Connecticut woods when he and Lisa were dating, warm moonlit nights on the Arabian Sea as seen from his bedroom window when he was a boy – they were such lovely memories. But there was also Shalini, his first love – too terrible to think about. He thought of how he used to feel after he made love to Lisa and lay awake staring at the ceiling; the libido had subsided, the passion had died; and he would find himself thinking of – Shalini. He went still further back in time and remembered how he felt called to the priesthood when he was at Georgetown. But in graduate school while studying philosophy he rebelled, turned his back on Catholicism, and locked into what the Church termed a worldly, materialistic track. He forgot all about a priestly vocation. Yet all those memories left a trace in his heart, like the faintly visible track of a snail.
He was jolted out of his reverie by a sari-clad stewardess serving him tea and a snack. He tore open the cellophane protecting his crackers and ate them, each in one bite.
He pushed his seat back again and closed his eyes. Turning his mind to his work, he congratulated himself. Everything had gone smoothly. He had interviewed ordinary Christians in Kerala and traveled up and down the coast where he meant to stage a debate between Thomas and a Buddhist sage. He traveled on a rickety bus over potholed roads to the village of Venni and snapped pictures of the battleground where King Karikal defeated enemy kings almost two thousand years ago, when Thomas might conceivably have been present.
And who would have thought there would be days left over for carefree travel? Kanchipuram, Tiruchchirapalli, Srirangam, Tanjore – their great temples, their undiluted Hinduism, the real India, the India he had rejected but still felt drawn to. He was glad he didn’t go home early. The real India . . . his India . . .
“. . . not ready to leave this world. If I died now, I would have to come back.” An Indian’s voice speaking British English with a Tamil accent woke Kiran out of his nap.
“But you are sure you come back?” said another voice in the unmistakable accent of an Eastern European struggling with English. “I am – how you say? – atheist” (he pronounced it “ah-tee-ist”), “so I not believe that.”
They were sitting directly behind Kiran.
“I believe we keep coming back until we are free of the Great Illusion. Then there is eternal life,” said the Indian.
There was something about this point of view that triggered in Kiran a faint, suppressed, nostalgic longing for the fruits of a living faith. He was hardly aware of it as he eavesdropped, but it was there anyway. “And you want eternal life?” said the other man.
“Yes and no; I want it, but not yet.”
“You should be born Russian like me! Then you are not ashamed for your – your desire, heh heh heh!”
Kiran got up to go to the toilet and scanned the passengers as he walked back. Among them were a beautiful Tamil woman with a red bindi on her forehead and a long-lashed baby boy in her lap; a bloated man with weary, sagging features whom he took for an American; and a distinguished looking Muslim traveling with a woman whose face was veiled except for her eyes. The Russian, he decided, looked like Gorbachev.
Back in his seat, Kiran couldn’t resist turning around and stealing another look at the beautiful Tamil madonna. She absent-mindedly kissed her baby on the head, and Kiran found himself thinking again of Shalini. He erased the image, and a picture of Lisa holding Sonya when she was a baby flashed across his memory. He looked again at the madonna loving her baby and again thought of Lisa holding Sonya. They were real. Shalini was not. Why did he feel so wretched?
His thoughts gravitated back to the conversation between the Indian and the Russian, and he realized clearly for the first time he had been rooting for the Indian. He wondered how this could be since he, like the Russian, was an atheist. Did he, Kiran Kulkarni, really want eternal life? Or did the wish arise like swamp gas out of some ancient, mouldering catacomb in his brain? Interesting, he noted.
By now the plane was more than halfway to Bombay, and the bright orange ball of a sun threatened to dive beneath the unbroken clouds below – when it happened. There was a faint thud. It barely registered on Kiran’s consciousness. A minute later the door to the cockpit swung open and a crewman asked in English with peculiar urgency, “Is there a doctor here?”
“Yes, I am a doctor,” said an old man off to Kiran’s right. The man got up as everyone in the compartment stared in surprise. At that moment Kiran remembered the odd thud. Had anyone else felt it? “What happened?” he asked the crewman in an undertone. “I thought I felt – or heard something.”
“A minor accident,” the crewman said. But his face, which showed tiny pocks of blood like buckshot on the right side, was puffy, and his eyes seemed dazed.
“What kind of accident?”
The crewman ignored Kiran and held his arms out toward the doctor while his foot held the door ajar. “Come! Come!” he urged.
Kiran bent his body to the right and look through the unguarded passageway leading into the cockpit. A crewman with hands over his eyes and dripping blood was being propped up in the pilot’s seat. Another man was frantically looking through a toolbox on the floor. Then Kiran saw twisted metal; some of the dials on the instrument panel were shattered.
“A bomb?” he whispered in shocked disbelief to the crewman as he led the doctor into the passageway.
“Nothing to worry about!” the crewman called back in a shrill, chastising whisper.
Then Kiran heard from the cockpit, “Bombay approach, this is Indian Airlines Flight one seven four, come in, over.”
The door shut.
A bomb! Kiran felt a jab of terror. What the hell! No, he must stay cool. “Nothing to worry about,” he remembered the man had said. And probably there wasn’t. But his next thoughts were very different. They were those of a realist who has made a successful career of seeing things precisely as they are. The clever bastard! It had to be someone on the inside, a mechanic maybe, he thought. Why didn’t he just blow the whole damned plane up? I can’t even smell smoke. The instrument panels, the controls – one lousy little plastic bomb. Nothing but a little glass in the face. Shit! –
Kiran stuck his head in front of the dozing man on his left and looked back through the window at the engines. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, and the engines’ steady purr told him they were running normally. Nothing to fear, nothing to fear, he told himself.
“Fasten your safety belts, extinguish all cigarettes, pull your trays into the upright position” – it was a man’s voice, first in English, then in Tamil, then in Hindi. The muscles around Kiran’s chest began to quiver. He told himself the instructions were just a precaution, but he wasn’t sure. The intercom was working, and that at least was a good sign. He reminded himself that for every crash there are a hundred, perhaps a thousand close calls.
Meanwhile the passengers in first class were appealing to the two stewardesses who were hurrying up and down the aisle with towels in their hands. “What happened? What happened?” they said.
“. . . mayday, mayday. Bombay approach, this is Indian Airlines one seven four with an emergency, over.”
Whoosh went the door as it shut.
A mayday! This couldn’t be happening! thought Kiran. But it was happening. As a very young man he had always prayed on takeoff that the plane would not crash. He felt the old urge, but there was no one to pray to.
Then his thoughts started tumbling one over the other: Indians can fix anything, we’re geniuses at fixing things! My broken shoe, the cobbler on Mount Road in Madras, the hundred little tools spread out around him on the ground.
Three minutes, two rupees, good as new! And that tool-box in the cockpit. Indians can fix anything. . . . He thought of Ravi – he saw his serious face lighting up a little as he got off the plane and little Sonya’s shiny curls and heard her delighted greeting, “Dad-dee!” with the accent on the second syllable. Son and daughter, so real, so alive, so young – only thirteen and eight. Surely they were a part of his future! They had to be.
The leper he gave twenty rupees to, the little dune of mud in Venni where cobras lived and were placated with prayer, the Christian fishermen of Tangasseri who took him out in their fishing boat, his office at school with the pictures of his children neatly mounted on his desk, Aaji, his parents, Lisa, Shalini, the, the – like Dracula in his black cape she loomed up batlike: the palm-reader in Kanchipuram! The words “You will die in India” dug into his brain, and he quietly screamed out a mighty NO! to any and all higher powers, real or unreal. It was impossible! Impossible that she could be right! How could she know!
The door to the cockpit opened. Man in a uniform.
“Sir!” Kiran said, fighting his panic.
The man pretended not to hear and rushed by.
Kiran almost unlatched his seatbelt to run after the man. He imagined himself grabbing the man’s arm, spinning him around, and saying, “We have the right to know what’s happened! We have the right to know if we’re going to die!” He imagined the man falling back and then slithering away beyond the curtain into second class.
But Kiran only sat paralyzed in his seat.
Then he stared at the door separating the cockpit from the passengers and imagined himself barging through and demanding an explanation: Either you tell them what has happened or I tell them. I know there’s been an explosion,
I know you’ve radioed a mayday. The people in second class don’t know anything. They have a right to know. I have a right to know. Either you tell them or I tell them!
At that moment Kiran cared not even a little about the people in second-class. He wanted to know if he, Kiran Kulkarni, was going to die. That was all.
Voice over the intercom: “This is the co-pilot. There has been a small explosion in the cockpit and we are experiencing technical difficulties with the wing elevators.” There was muttering and a few gasps. “You must stay calm,” ordered the voice. “Keep your seatbelts fastened. Obey all instructions from the stewardesses. We are doing everything we can to regain control. We have time. Still – you should prepare yourselves.”
The nose of the plane was tilted downward.
Now there were screams. Or rather wails. The veiled Muslim woman took up the death knell – her own! Her cries provided an unbroken background to the spasmodic shrieks and oaths of panic. Her voice was like the tambura which, when strummed, hums the sound of the eternal Om.
Could this be it? thought Kiran. Could it really? He thought of little Sonya and wondered how she would take it when – it was too horrible a thought! She needed him. And Ravi. The thought of his children being raised by Lisa alone – no, it couldn’t happen! It mustn’t!
A new sound, ugly, ridiculous. “A million dollars to anyone who can bring us home. A million dollars U.S.!” It was a shrill, gravelly shellburst belonging to someone stupefied with terror.
“GODDAM IT! I WON’T DIE!” it exploded.
Kiran looked back in horror at the American. Who was he talking to, this man who sat chained to his seat, catatonic, rigid, shaking violently, screaming about his million dollars, like someone in the electric chair? Who was he talking to as he stared into space? Meanwhile the plane had tilted more severely downward toward the clouds, and the sun forced out its last rays before it sank behind the gray curtain.
For a moment an eerie quiet filled the cabin.
God, forgive me, Kiran heard an alien voice inside him say. Quiet, you coward! another voice answered. Die by your convictions! Die as you have lived! He repeated the words, Die as you have lived, again and again, like a mantra. God, forgive me, repeated the ancient, alien voice inside him.
For an instant he despised himself, then he took the matter in hand. He exhumed the long, complicated train of thought that had killed God twenty years ago. Piece by piece, argument by argument, plank by plank he reviewed it, with unbelievable speed. He saw the inescapable conclusion – Therefore God does not exist – blazing like a laser beam into an endless Void. He heard the voice of Lucretius: Nothing to fear. The actual moment all there is to fear, then it’s over, over. Just peaceful sleep, everlasting sleep of nothingness. Nothing to fear, nothing to fear. Then some other voice inside him said the whole argument was a worthless trick of the mind. He heard the voice of the old family priest down in Goa, saw the black temple idol of Kala Bhairava, the Lord of Time, that the priest worshipped. “I play with Him all day long,” the old man had once said. Oh Shiva! an alien voice hidden very deep within Kiran cried out.
Then he heard a voice not in his own head, but behind him. “Teach me your God,” said the Russian behind him to the Indian. “What I must do at this moment?”
“You must think only of God at the moment of death.”
“But what is this God?”
“Infinite truth, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss,” the voice carefully intoned like a bishop celebrating High Mass.
And infinite love, that ancient voice inside Kiran mocked.
He looked back down the aisle. There was the beautiful woman with the wide-eyed child in her lap. The child was sucking his thumb, unaware, content. The mother’s face was upraised, her eyes closed, her lips moving.
He looked at the seat behind her. There was the American. His arms rigidly grasped the arms of his seat. He looked like someone in a dentist’s chair when the drill has struck a nerve. He too had closed his eyes. A hundred wrinkles creased his flaccid, sweaty face. Had he too found a prayer, a means of deliverance? Would he be the good thief on the cross? Him? Spare us! Kiran screamed into the Void.
The Muslim. He was droning some tract in Urdu. He was calm, as if he had long ago prepared himself for just this.
All through the cabin the various names of God – Shiv, Ganesh, Krishna, Dev, Allah – could be heard; not in chant, but in fitful, fervent, frightened ejaculations.
The plane was now pointed more steeply downward toward the vast cloud bank, which lay like a thick pall between Kiran and extinction. Suddenly he hated the man who planted the bomb. He hated him because he didn’t blow the plane up into smithereens and save everyone all this agony, this hypocrisy. And because his novel about Thomas would never get written. And because, because – it was unthinkable – he would never see his children again!
Kiran looked wildly around one last time. All these Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs united in one simple thought. A stupendous superstition guaranteed to deliver them safely into the presence of God or a better next life. The Indian behind him had spoken of the Great Illusion. But they’re the ones caught in illusion! Kiran reminded himself, now unsure. He thought of his life in California, the values and dreams of the gifted set he ran with. And he asked himself what was real, this or that? He wasn’t sure. He really didn’t know. He wondered if he had made some – some preposterous miscalculation.
He looked out the window at a break in the clouds. Three minutes? His brain exploded with preternatural energy. Heaped layers of images broke out of their prison, and he saw them all simultaneously. He heard and saw bamboo stalks creaking in the wind, crashing into each other, scarring each other. He heard the haunting whoops of the koël set off against crows’ caws. He saw monsoon clouds racing each other to the northeast, the ones overhead scudding faster than those more distant. He tasted the bitter leaf of the margosa tree and saw birds riding on the rumps of cattle. India rushed by in a hundred images, none excluded.
Then events out of the more distant past began to vie for space, and, as before, nothing was excluded. He was an amazed but helpless spectator as he relived Sonya’s birth, his seminar philosophy classes at Columbia University, the ecstasy he felt listening to a classical concert with his friends when he was just a teenager, the high ceilings of his grand ancestral home, the little snub-nosed girl he gave candy to in first standard, his dear mother when he was a toddler–
“This is the pilot speaking!” Kiran jumped in his seat. “Prepare for a possible crash landing. Lower your head behind the seat in front of you. And God be with you.” In three languages the pilot spoke these absurd words. Two-hundred fifty bodies crouched down. There was the sound of rustling, then some whimpering, but mostly an astonishing quiet.
Now Kiran saw himself from a new angle. Systematically he had pumped all spiritual convictions out of himself. His soul was like the vacuum inside a light bulb or a TV tube, and the materialism and worldliness that had vitrified around him were like the shell, the glass of the tube. He realized he hated what he had become even as he knew there was no turning back.
He reached for his briefcase, opened it, ripped off a cover of a hardback book on temple architecture, and scribbled on the inside with a quivering hand, “Lisa, thinking of you and kids. Will in third drawer on left. Munja for Ravi. Munja, yes! So sorry, so sorry. Love, K.” He closed the briefcase full of notes, books, undeveloped film, and the hardback book cover.
The steeply tilted plane hit the clouds and vibrated as if it would disintegrate before it hit the ground. People whimpered, prayed, but mostly there was just quiet. Suddenly, as the plane lurched, Kiran glimpsed a gray landscape out the window. He unbuckled his seat belt, reared up, and leaned over: a perverse commitment to realism, a lifelong habit, compelled him to see what death looked like as it zoomed toward him. It looked like a millet field. He whipped himself back against his seat and tried to dissolve in it. He couldn’t find one end of his seat belt. What did it matter? He made his body rigid, as if bracing himself against impact, and squeezed his eyes shut. He waited for that precise moment, that millisecond between consciousness and oblivion. The words Oh God! rushed at him pleading and begging and screaming, but he cut them off. In their place he substituted a memory of Ravi as he kicked the winning goal in the last seconds of a child’s soccer game in California. On Ravi’s face there had been a smile that lit up the universe. It was the happiest moment that father and son had ever known together. Now Kiran clung to that smile, clung to that smile. With a violent, flashing, pulverizing crash, the Void closed round.
Kiran looked upon a fiery, smoky scene. As if to make sure he was still alive, he ran his hands over his chest. He felt his shirt, felt that it was open at the collar. It was amazing. He was intact, he was unhurt! He studied the fuselage of the burning plane in the millet field, the charred bodies, most still strapped in their seats, the peasants running up; he heard the shrieks of the women, and his amazement only grew. Then he remembered he hadn’t been able to fasten his seatbelt. Had he been thrown free? Yes, that must be it. Now rescuers were all around, and he tried to tell them that everyone was dead – except himself. But they took no notice of him; it was as if he wasn’t even there. And then one of them – one of them walked right through him. Even then he didn’t understand. Not at first. But when it happened a third time, the truth blasted him with its full – was it horror? At one level it was.
He realized that all the fools of the world had been right after all and that he, the philosopher – how could it be? No, it couldn’t. But it was. There couldn’t have been any survivors, so he must be among the dead. Yet here he was. His next thought was that he was cut off from his children and his friends. No, he must not let himself think of them, not now. Again he marveled that he was still a conscious, living being. He could even smell the burned bodies. With what? A nose? Back on earth he hadn’t the slightest doubt that all that was happening to him was absolutely impossible.
Why wasn’t he elated? He had cheated death, yet he felt edgy, almost panicky. Ravi and Sonya. Oh my God! Oh my God! he repeated over and over as the truth sank in. He would never see them again. And they would never see him. Oh my God! It was too horrible to think about.
It began to grow darker, and he had no idea where he was supposed to go or what was supposed to happen. He was lost; he was alone. It occurred to him that there might be a hell, that most impossible of all fictions. After all, wouldn’t he have to pay for his error? Justice and condemnation – didn’t he deserve to suffer? There certainly wasn’t a welcoming committee! In his loneliness he suddenly found himself thinking of Shalini, almost hoping that she might turn up. Where might she be in this strange world that death couldn’t reach? Then a heaviness came over him, and all he wanted to do was lie down on the spot and go to sleep forever.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published November 2011
Size: 229 x 152 mm