14 Jun A Gash in the World
Chapter 1 An Architecture for India
“It was 1834, a year of great excitement and promise for Indian antiquaries. James Prinsep had just deciphered the Brahmi script and this would transform every aspect of the study of ancient India. In less than a decade, Prinsep arranged the unnamed and unidentified members of Indian dynasties so that they stood out as well-defined individuals in an organized structure. Indian history had finally acquired an order.”
Professor Harold Stone paused. He craned his head up slowly, shifting his weight, and glanced at his audience. The mike glinted in the dark, reflecting the light from his slides. From behind a lectern on the stage of Asia Society’s auditorium in New York, Harold could see a few faces in the front rows, and the rest faded gradually into obscurity. His voice was the only sign of movement in the stillness. It was Tuesday, April 20, 1993. He felt the darkness hung like a shroud, creating an uncertain, ambiguous atmosphere. The auditorium was both enticement and entrapment, snare and temptation. The field of Indian culture was in turmoil.
Harold, who taught in the Indian Studies Department at Harvard, was fifty-five and at the pinnacle of his profession. He enjoyed a strong reputation not only in his own discipline but also in adjacent ones like art history and aesthetics. A popular speaker, he was often invited for talks like this one.
His lean figure and stylish suit made Harold seem more like a man of action than one who had committed himself to the world of thought. Thin-rimmed, elegant glasses revealed alert brown eyes. His hair was gray and short and hastily combed, and his appearance gave him the contradictory air of a careful but comfortable dresser. The paper he was reading lay on the lectern with a few pages turned over. It was neatly printed with occasional penciled remarks in the margins. He took his hand out of his pocket, shifted to another page, and continued.
Harold acted on whatever stimulated him, vocation or avocation. A creative disorder underlay the apparent order of his life. He was the sort of person who would drop everything to pursue the object of his attention, forgetting even his everyday routines. It could be an alluring woman. His current object of desire was Nisha, a teacher of comparative literature at Harvard. “Nisha” meant “the night” in Sanskrit, and to Harold she represented something mysterious, ineffable, passionate.
It could be an absorbing intellectual venture. He had once gotten involved in a project on Indian art with someone from Harvard’s philosophy department. They had investigated parallels between Kashmir Shaivism and the philosophy of John Dewey. Both dealt with the aesthetic nature of experience, but were embedded in very different systems of thought, with many connections between them. This kind of comparative work always excited Harold because it vindicated his belief that the East and West were intricately linked, not just through surface trade and politics, but inextricably, through their worldviews and cultures. As a result of this work, he had also developed a reputation in the field of aesthetics, but it had taken two whole years and he had had to put aside his regular research.
Or Harold’s fixation could be to extend his help, as he did when he solved the unusual and disturbing case of the campus deaths five years ago. He felt that was one of his most satisfying moments, an opportunity to excel where he would have least expected it. A number of students at Harvard had been found dead in strange places on campus—a corner of Harvard Yard, in the Square, and in the Biology Department. The administration and the provost had been baffled until Harold, playing the inexpert sleuth, traced the mystery to a common denominator: the books the students had been reading, as revealed by his examination of the library records. They were all books on Darwinian notions and the murders were connected with a Creationist controversy that had broken out. The Creationists had resorted to violence when their ideas had proved ineffectual. Once again, Harold had immersed himself in his pursuit, to the predictable detriment of everything else.
The Asia Society lecture hall was filled with over four hundred people, many milling about in the aisles. Others were still streaming in. Lower down, near the stage, some people had perched on the steps. There were academics from Columbia University, including his colleague Meghnad Surya, and of course Harold’s former student Asha Raman. Haresh Chatterjee, Aditya Gandhi, and Stanley Holzer were also present, all settled separately in scattered locations. Barring an occasional cough, the room was silent as Harold spoke, the listeners immersed in the quiet flow of words. A slide of Cunningham with a white moustache was on display, dispelling the darkness momentarily. This was a popular version of a more technical paper Harold would deliver later in the year at the Indology Congress in Grindelwald.
“Ananda Coomaraswamy, in the course of a brilliant career, provided a new foundation, a new methodology for the study of Indian art, whether architecture, sculpture, or painting, and so overcame the shortcomings of early scholarship.”
Seated in the seventh row with an unimpeded view of the lectern, Meghnad reflected on what an eloquent speaker his friend Harold was. Then his mind wandered to his upcoming television interview the following week. He had already had one interview in March, a charged affair in the aftermath of the Bombay riots. He had been flooded with letters supporting his stance and with an equal number of denunciations. Another network now wanted to interview him, and he expected the same explosive results.
A slide of Ananda Coomaraswamy appeared on the screen, a quiet, pensive figure with brooding eyes, in an embroidered shawl, as Harold continued to speak.
“Coomaraswamy began to explore the inner significance of the architectural form itself. Built form could be studied from either a utilitarian or a symbolic point of view, either as fulfilling a function or as expressing a meaning. He argued that the two dimensions merged in the Hindu temple into a single unity, working as a dwelling for the image but also as an image with a meaning itself.”
Meghnad recalled his recent article, “What is a Hindu?” published in Time. It had created an outburst in India and America, seeking to answer the question Veer Sawarkar had originally posed in 1923 in an anti-colonial nationalist context. Meghnad had approached it using the idea of fuzzy communities. He challenged the notion of a sharp boundary between any two religious communities. Time was deluged with letters, since the article also appeared in the wake of the riots in India.
Another slide revealed Coomaraswamy hunched over a book.
“Coomaraswamy thus transformed the study of the temple from its purely mundane aspect to its inner meaning, from its physical manifestation to its very reason for being.”
Harold usually enjoyed the feel of the audience, but today something was amiss. Perhaps it was the atmosphere—the unnerving quietude, the rigid bodies, the spooky stillness. They all bespoke a kind of menace, but Harold could not tell what it was. Somewhere out there, among the roughly four hundred people, he knew there was danger. There was nothing he could do about it, no one he could warn.
The talk continued for another half hour. Harold felt a little detached as he approached the end, a welcome lightness of being. When he finished, the applause lasted a long time. The audience then readied itself for a few minutes of questions. An American brought up Ram Raz, a student emphasized the contributions of Fergusson and Havell, and another person raised a question about contemporary work like Dhaky’s. After another round of applause, the crowd began to file out of the auditorium as the chairperson mounted the stage to thank Harold.
Asha had arrived just before six, at the appointed time of the lecture, and had barely managed to find a seat in the last row. She now struggled toward Harold against the flow of people. Meghnad waited patiently in his seat beside his French wife Anouk, a photographer.
As the rush thinned, Asha reached the foot of the steps where a coterie was plying Harold with further questions. She waved at her former teacher, and he nodded with a smile, as he emphasized the role of textual materials in assessing the architecture of ancient India. Asha signaled that she would meet him upstairs at the reception. Meghnad and Anouk joined her.
“The talk was at just the right level for the audience. You can tell by the enthusiastic response,” Meghnad said.
“I wonder why he didn’t mention Mus. I know he was going to because I saw a copy of his manuscript two weeks ago. But it was a wonderful talk, wasn’t it?” Asha said.
“I heard a version of this talk in Boston just last month,” Meghnad said as he checked his watch. “It’s just after seven. Should we suggest dinner at the Shelby after the reception? It’s right around the corner.”
“Why not? It’s chilly out, and best not to have to walk too far,” Asha said.
They lingered in the center of the room. The pale blue carpet presented a bright contrast as people emerged from the uneasy darkness of the lecture hall. Their gaze fell upon Asha in the middle of the room. Some of them smiled, recognizing her.
Dressed in a white linen shirt and blue skirt, Asha stood with crossed arms, a gray overcoat draped over them. Her smooth black hair brushed her shoulders. An assistant professor in Columbia’s Southern Asian Department, she had been one of Harold’s best students; at thirty she was now the department’s youngest member. She specialized in ancient Indian literature and painting, an unusual combination of proficiencies, and this had evolved into a recent interest in the contemporary literature and painting of India. Despite her academic inclinations, she was unusually adventurous and, in her school days, had been a member of many secret societies. Once during a mugging in a deserted subway station, she had attempted to kick the gun out of the mugger’s hand instead of wisely handing over her purse. She escaped alive and unscathed, but she had been unusually lucky. The train had roared into the station at just that moment and her assailant had fled.
Meghnad was one of Asha’s senior colleagues at Columbia. He was a highly individualistic, even idiosyncratic, member of the profession, known for his brilliant but esoteric work on sculpture—an Indianist’s Indianist—by his own tongue-in-cheek description. His moustache was fierce, his eyes penetrating, and his manner aggressive. He always found himself in fights with academics, waiters, and politicians. He was a close friend of Harold’s though they had never worked on anything together. Their methods differed: Meghnad was more of an idealist, Harold was more of a realist. Of late, over the last six months, Meghnad had been combating communalist views among Indians in America. He had happened to be in Bombay during the riots and that had reinforced his sense of the crucial importance of his efforts. He lectured, wrote articles in newspapers and magazines, and appeared in television interviews, all with the objective of informing the Indian American public about the nature of Hinduism and the threat of fundamentalism in India. He endeavored to drive a wedge between Hinduism and fundamentalism, two quite distinct practices that were increasingly blurred. His talks were invariably well attended, and he felt he was beginning to have an impact.
Meghnad’s wife, Anouk, wore pearls on a black dress. Thirty-nine, she had first met Meghnad at an art opening while still a student at Columbia. A quiet woman, more prone to observation than verbal expression, she had a keen eye. Her black and white photographs had been exhibited several times in Soho galleries.
Meghnad, Anouk, and Asha waited silently for a while, comfortable with each other, feeling no pressure of conversation. They then followed the last of the crowd upstairs to the reception.
After almost fifteen minutes, Harold emerged, still surrounded by a few eager members of the audience who accompanied him to the first floor.
Waiters dressed in white, silver platters balanced on their palms, wove through the packed lobby, offering hors d’oeuvres to knots of people as they exchanged greetings and renewed acquaintances. A table at one end of the long room displayed wine and sparkling water and many persons were queuing for a glass. The large windows of the lobby overlooked Park Avenue. The pitches and tones of conversation filled the high-ceilinged room. Steve, one of the waiters, caught snatches, as he stopped to present his salver.
“And what is this?” an elegant woman in a high-necked Chinese dress asked him.
“Artichoke, ma’am,” he said.
“How wonderful to see you, Janet,” another woman said to her as she plucked a piece from the serving dish. “I thought you were in India. When did you return?”
“Just last week. I had a great time. Jack was with me and I was able to meet a lot of people in connection with my book,” Janet replied, helping herself to some toast.
“Did you know Janet is doing a book on antique doorways in Asia?” the older woman addressed the others in their group.
Steve pivoted around, offering his plate to the others in the circle.
“What kind of book is it going to be?” a young man asked.
“One with lots of pictures. Some of the traditional doors in Rajasthan and the South are incredible, with such intricate work. I wish I had more time for India, but the publisher has me on a tight schedule. How are the grandchildren, Amanda?”
Steve swiveled to attend to another bunch of people as another waiter drifted by with a plate of shrimp.
“What do you know about the Internet?” a tall man with graying hair asked his companion. “It is going to change everything, even speed up the economic recovery. I don’t really understand it, but they say it’s going to be global.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about it. Supposedly, they’re going to connect all the computers in the world, or something like that,” another man in a suit said.
“This looks like artichoke,” a third man said to Steve.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
The man shifted his glass of red wine to his left hand and accepted a piece. “Thank you.”
The others reached forward too, as one of them continued the conversation, “Anything to get us out of this slump. I had to lay off fifty people last year. How are you guys coping?”
“The slowdown hasn’t affected us much. I think it’s sectoral. Manufacturing and retail are the worst hit,” the other fellow responded.
“Real estate prices have crashed in the city. That is always a sure sign it has affected pretty much everything,” the third man interjected.
A third group of people, university students, more casually dressed and younger, were discussing Harold’s lecture animatedly.
“Stone was very good. That was a tricky question about Raz. He handled it superbly,” a wiry girl in blue jeans said.
“I found him old-fashioned. He completely ignored the new work by Stevens. Not even a mention of deconstruction,” a young man in a tweed jacket argued.
“Stevens is still controversial, so why bring him up at a place like the Asia Society? He is better discussed in a university setting,” another student countered.
“I disagree,” a fourth woman said. “The people here are very well read, even if they aren’t all academics. And there was a great deal of interest besides.”
Harold had retreated to a far corner with Meghnad and Anouk and Asha, savoring a quiet moment with his friends. “I’m so glad you could come,” he smiled warmly.
“You were very good,” Meghnad said. “The talk was so clear. You seem to have polished it since I heard it in March.”
“Thanks. Yes, I’ve worked on it since then.”
“I enjoyed it very much,” Asha said.
“Especially the parts about Coomaraswamy and Kramrisch,” Anouk joined in.
“I love New York. And New York audiences,” Harold said.
“We’re thinking of going to a restaurant nearby after everything is over. It’s Italian,” Meghnad said.
“Good idea.” Harold was distracted, as a young couple approached. “Why don’t we regroup here in about thirty minutes?”
Asha saw someone she knew and Meghnad and Anouk strolled away. A man in a blue blazer stopped Meghnad as he was passing him and said, “Hello! Aren’t you Mr. Surya?”
“Yes, I am, and you are?” Meghnad prompted.
“Dinesh Puri. I was at a lecture of yours once. I agreed with you completely.”
“Thanks. You know, the very fabric of Indian society is being changed, both in time and space. The legacy of thousands of years of Hinduism is being slowly dismantled, its tolerance, its openness to new ideas, its ability to coexist with other religions. All our secular institutions are being gradually imbued with distorted religious ideals, and if this continues for a couple of decades, they will be awash with the worst kind of prejudice and bigotry. I don’t need to mention the violence; that is in plain view for everyone to see. These other changes, however, no one notices. They creep up on a generation without anyone realizing it, they become habits of the heart, and then it is too late. It is a very subtle process, and I think only Arendt among recent thinkers really understood it, though in a very different context. And this is a problem not just in India, but all over. It has deep roots, going back to Humanism and the Enlightenment,” Meghnad paused. “Forgive me for going on about this. What do you do, Mr. Puri?”
“I’m a cardiologist,” Dinesh replied.
“Ah, so you know exactly what I mean by ‘habits of the heart’,” Meghnad smiled. “Do you know that, in twenty years, if things carry on like this, modern philosophy will be almost completely wiped out of the curriculum at Indian universities?” he continued. “The worldview of the average Indian, Hindu or otherwise, will be irrevocably altered.”
Meanwhile, Asha had met up with an old friend from her Harvard days. “Paul, how are you? Where are you?”
A tall, bespectacled young man in a leather jacket, Paul stooped down to kiss Asha on the cheek. “It’s great to see you. How’ve you been? I’m now a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Aren’t you teaching at Columbia? That’s what I last heard from Carlos.”
“That’s right. What brings you to New York?”
“I was here to see an artist’s work. We’re planning a new show on Brancusi’s influence.”
“Interesting. Did you know Brancusi was a guest of the Maharaja of Indore in the 1930s?”
“I had no idea. I must research that. What are you doing for lunch tomorrow?”
“I have to teach, unfortunately. I’m free on Friday if you want to meet then.”
While Asha and Paul discussed their plans, Harold had hardly moved at all, thanking scores of people as they complimented him on his presentation. He felt a slight fatigue from the perfunctory exchanges, gratifying though they were, and longed for some respite. He received two invitations to dinner that he regretfully declined, but exchanged business cards, promising a phone call on his next visit. Someone from the Asia Society brought Harold some red wine, which he accepted gratefully. While he enjoyed such gatherings, he still sensed something different in the air, an undercurrent of some intangible, inchoate danger—a mood that had persisted through the evening. As he made small talk and shook hands, he failed to pinpoint the source of his anxiety.
Haresh Chatterjee popped by to congratulate Harold and exchange some academic gossip. Chatterjee maintained a low profile, and usually kept to himself, but Harold noticed that today he was unusually animated and gregarious. He spoke at length about a recent conference he had attended in Brazil. Both men helped themselves to Steve’s artichokes as they chatted.
As the crowd thinned, Meghnad and Anouk and Asha converged where they had left Harold almost an hour earlier. They apologized for being late and, casting a last glance around the emptying hall, they stepped through the revolving door, Harold first, followed by Anouk, Asha, and Meghnad.
Outside, the air was crisp and clear. There were several people waiting for cabs, waving goodbyes as they parted company. Park Avenue seemed solemn and a little despondent in the lamplight. Though a number of taxis headed downtown, the sidewalks were deserted, except for the stray pedestrian. As Harold pushed his way through the crowd, the tight ominous feeling that had gripped him earlier ebbed.
Suddenly, Meghnad gasped, stood rigid for a moment, and then slumped down, listing onto Asha’s right shoulder, his face in her hair. Propelled forward, she turned around to look, and saw Meghnad collapse. He rolled over and Anouk screamed.
Harold felt momentarily that everything was a little surreal, that he was strangely adrift, but he shook off the feeling and took charge. He asked that no one leave. Aditya Gandhi also stepped forward and motioned to the crowd to keep calm.
The crowd didn’t heed Harold’s injunction. Everyone reeled back from the scene and tried to scatter. On the avenue a couple of cars squealed to a halt and held up the rest. There were more screams and shouts, a few bleats and honks of blocked cars. Aditya Gandhi did his best to corral the crowd, and urged back about half of it. A clerk from the Asia Society finally called 911.
Meghnad’s face was strangely defiant, although contorted with pain. Harold bent down amid the din and reached for his friend’s hand to steady it from twitching. Instinctively, he felt for Meghnad’s wallet. There was a dark patch on Meghnad’s shirt below the right side of his chest, and Harold could see that he was bleeding.
Harold heard himself ask, “Are there any doctors around?”
No one came forward. Harold knew he should not shift Meghnad. There was nothing he could do but wait. Anouk moved her hand over her husband’s forehead in an effort to soothe him. The shuffling of feet and the low murmur of conversation made it evident that the crowd was restless and wanted to disperse.
Two police cars with flashing lights pulled up, followed by an ambulance with a wailing siren. The air felt hard and metallic as four policemen took control of the situation. They copied as many people’s names and phone numbers as they could, and then let them go. Meghnad was transferred to the ambulance and Anouk climbed in as well. Harold and Asha hailed the first available cab and followed the ambulance. They sat in grim silence all the way.
Meghnad died on his way to the hospital.
Asha accompanied Anouk home that night and sat with her as she reminisced. Beneath the apartment window, the Hudson purled, a silvery mass of water. There was no one about, except for the occasional car that sputtered by. Asha thought about how the world could change so irrevocably for one person without affecting anything else. It seemed right to want the world to respond, to accommodate this devastation, and yet the flow of things continued implacably as before. She shuffled away from the large square window towards Meghnad’s many books on the shelves. His own “Collected Essays on Indian Sculpture” stood out, an elegant white book with black titles. A slim volume of his “On the Study of Sculpture” stood beside it.
Devastated, Anouk could not stop weeping. Her hands trembled, her body shook, and she broke down. She stared at a photograph of Meghnad and her in Riverside Park in the winter of 1980 and then caught her breath.
Anouk talked to Asha about their honeymoon in Baja California, their travels to Europe and Africa, and of course, their many trips to India. Small unrelated incidents flashed through Anouk’s mind. The time Meghnad had bought her an abstract stone sculpture, the time he had surprised her with tickets for Egypt, the time he had tripped on the rug and landed squarely on her, pulling her down with him. She summoned the most trivial of details: the bright blue of a fisherman’s boat in Bombay, the cool texture of the sculpture he had bought her, the sensual weight of his body on top of her. All these qualities and others became more pronounced, causing her to fleetingly relive those moments in their past.
Anouk’s Columbia apartment with its wooden floors and rugs all over the living room appeared cold and desolate. Both women sat on the floor, on the rugs, and leaned against two mattresses. Two teacups designed by a Japanese craftsman lay between them. The square saucers were white, with rough brown edges made from a synthetic material on one side. The artificial textures grafted onto the saucers were like a construction imposed upon nature, like Cezanne’s geometries, mirroring the general tenor of Meghnad’s own thought and conception of the world. There were a couple of prints of Mondrian on the wall, as well as many of Anouk’s photographs, all in black and white. A dozen Noguchi lamps flooded the apartment with light. The combination of starkness and beauty created a kind of pathos that enveloped all the objects in the room.
It was one in the morning and, except for their voices, New York seemed completely silent. The night made the stillness even more pronounced. The quiet wrapped itself around the room, lifting it into a kind of void where time and space ceased to exist. Anouk seemed woven in an uneasy unreality. Asha found herself sucked into this vortex too.
Then the phone rang, fracturing the stillness. Asha jumped. Anouk snapped out of her spell, wondering who it could be at this hour. She walked to the phone, picked it up, and asked, “Hello?”
There was no answer. She could hear someone on the other end, but the person did not speak. Anxious, Anouk said, “Hello. Hello? Who is it?” No one answered. She reverted to French, “Allo?” Still no reply. Her anxiety grew.
Just as she was about to replace the receiver, a male voice said, “Hello.”
“Who is it?”
But there was no response.
She put the phone down, annoyed and a little worried. She strained to note whether the voice had an Indian accent or not.
Her mind jumped to Meghnad’s killing. It brought up, once again, all her doubts about the murder. She couldn’t believe it was a random act of violence, couldn’t accept that Meghnad had died so senselessly. There had to be a deeper design to it.
“It was a man at the other end, but all he did was say ‘hello,’” Anouk told Asha.
“What did he sound like?”
“I can’t say. The voice seemed to have no qualities at all.”
“Ignore it for now. If it happens again, we’ll report it to the police.”
“Maybe it’s the killer, maybe he wants something from me?”
“It’s best not to let your imagination wander.”
“Maybe he wants to kill me.”
“Why would anyone want to kill you?”
“Why would anyone want to kill Meghnad?”
The question hung in the air.