08 Jul A Gash in the World
Chapter 3 Inventing the Future
Although reeling from shock, Columbia’s Southern Asian Department acted fast. In two days the staff organized, with the help of Asha and Aditya, a memorial evening for Meghnad. They sent out many invitations to academics, students, friends, members of the Indian American community, journalists, and others. Harold stayed on in New York to attend the service.
At the appointed hour, the auditorium was full. The energy in the room was at a high pitch. People were talking excitedly, some dressed casually in jeans and others more formally attired in suits. Meghnad had been a popular maverick. Two policemen sat sentinel in the last row, not quite comprehending the drama unfolding before them.
There was a hush as Aditya walked onto the stage. A sophisticated man of fifty with a great whorl of a moustache and a dignified air, he wore a three-piece suit with a purple tie. He looked relaxed but sad, his eyes conveying a quiet resignation, a helplessness in the face of tragedy. A specialist in Indian theater and dance, he often succeeded in dominating discussions and groups with his forceful personality. He opened the evening with a few remarks describing Professor Surya as a friend and colleague. He had known Meghnad for fifteen years, since Aditya had joined Columbia.
Next, there were three half-hour talks recounting Meghnad’s contribution to Indian Studies. They focused mostly on sculpture, but spanned the full breadth of the field. Meghnad had transfigured it in a series of lectures that dealt with the statement of sculpture as opposed to its representational qualities. This was a direct continuation of Coomaraswamy’s insistence on significance over representation. Meghnad’s work provided a new means of classification, though one that has not yet been widely adopted today. There was also some mention of his contributions to architecture.
After that, several people rose to offer encomiums. Harold spoke the longest perhaps, on Meghnad as an Indologist and as a humanist, and as an unusual scholar with both great depth and a moral tone. That was a rare quality today among academics, intent only on advancement, too afraid to act against the problems of the times.
Many Indian businessmen who knew Meghnad through his political efforts also spoke highly of his service to the Indian community. They seemed to know him well. The representatives of a number of Indian political parties also eulogized him.
In the middle of the ceremony, a somber mood permeating the room, a young bespectacled man, his hair parted in the middle, his features all unusually sharp, walked up the aisle towards the stage. With a determined confident gait he approached the mike. He was wearing a denim jacket with tennis shoes. His eyes sparkled madly. “Professor Meghnad Surya may have been a great academic, but he was no friend of the Indian people. His writings, his speeches, his organizational efforts have all been anti-Hindu. They vilify the essence of Hinduism. While we cannot be glad at anyone’s death, I, for one, am glad that his anti-religious activity has come to an end,” he said, in staccato bursts of animated sentences.
Everyone was electrified. No one moved.
With a pugnacious ‘Thank-you,’ the man stepped down from the stage and strode out of the auditorium. Four men trailed behind him. One of the policemen accosted him.
“Sir, may I ask you your name?” the policeman said.
“What does my name have to do with anything?” the man replied.
“It’s just routine. There’s been a murder. We need your name,” the policeman repeated.
“His name is Ajit,” said a journalist who was hovering around. “He writes for the Indian newspapers here.”
“Is that right, sir? Your name is Ajit? How is it spelled?” the policeman asked.
“Yes, it’s Ajit. A-j-i-t. Got it? Now can I go?”
“Just a minute, sir. Your address? Where you can be contacted?”
“I live in Queens. I’m in the phone book.” He gave his number.
“Now what was all that about? Are you part of a religious cult or something?” the policeman asked.
“You are all so ill-informed. Where can I even begin? It’s no cult. It’s a movement in India to create a new Hindu civilization,” Ajit said.
“You speak Hindu then?” the policeman asked.
“I don’t speak Hindu. I speak Hindi. Hindi is the language. Hindu implies the religion,” Ajit said, exasperated with this familiar exchange.
“This dialect, Hindi, as you call it, is your national language?”
“It’s not a dialect. It’s a language like English.”
“Okay, I see, sir, so you want to create a Hindi civilization,” the policeman said.
“You do not see at all. Thank you and goodbye.” Ajit strode off with his friends.
The audience inside broke into disconcerted conversation. Aditya rushed up to the stage and apologized for the remarks and invited Asha to make an announcement to divert everyone’s attention.
Asha ascended the stage a second time. “I am pleased to announce that the Southern Asian Department is going to institute, in honor of Professor Surya, a new lecture series on contemporary India. The series will start in the autumn. You are all invited, of course.”
But Ajit’s speech aborted the evening. Confused and upset, the audience discussed its implications, connecting it to similar events in the U.S. and India. There were some members of the audience who were sympathetic to what he had said, even though they might not have been quite so brusque in their expression. Anouk felt her spine tingle again as she recalled the electronic message from the mysterious “Observer.” She wasn’t sure the styles matched, but she knew electronic personalities could differ markedly from actual ones.
As he listened to the young man, Harold felt his determination grow. He would get to the bottom of Meghnad’s murder. He had been experiencing it all along, over the last two days, but vaguely, at the back of his mind, in an intuitive sort of way. Now he felt this in an explicit articulate way.
As they filed out, Harold walked over to Anouk and suggested dinner.
Asha joined Harold and Anouk. They caught a taxi to a Chinese restaurant on the west side. The walls were draped with ornate red, white, and gold Chinese paintings. The spare black carpet and white tablecloths balanced the ornate walls. The tables were widely spaced, unlike most New York restaurants. The room hummed with quiet conversation. The waiters moved about unobtrusively. The three of them were ushered to a table in a windowed corner of the restaurant.
“How do you feel, Anouk? Have you been getting any sleep?” Asha asked.
“I’ve stopped crying. I just couldn’t cry any more,” Anouk said.
“You must be tired,” Harold said.
“I feel drained. But I’m not so negative any more. That’s the main thing. I can turn off my feelings.” A moment later, she wrung her hands in despair and said, “I’ve been here so long—I even talk like the Americans.”
They paused to order and then Harold said, “Take it easy for a while.”
“Have you made any plans?” Asha asked.
“I might join my sister in Paris. I’d like to get away for a bit.”
“That’s a good idea,” Asha said.
“Have you learned anything new about, you know, Tuesday?” Harold asked.
“The police said you told them it was a premeditated job,” Anouk said.
“It must be so hard to talk about it,” Harold said.
“On the contrary. It makes me feel more focused and constructive,” Anouk said.
“I want to help with the investigation. I have some ideas,” Harold said.
“You do?” Asha perked up, mildly surprised.
“I want to study Meghnad’s papers, especially his recent and unfinished work,” Harold said.
“That’s no problem. But there’s a lot of it,” Anouk said. “In fact, I am going to need help organizing it.”
“Can I take it to Cambridge with me? After sifting through it of course, so I take only the relevant things,” Harold said.
“I don’t see why not. I know you’ll be careful with it. Can you help with publishing any of it?” Anouk asked.
“Of course,” Harold said.
They sipped their cocktails in companionable silence for a few moments before Asha asked Anouk, “Did you tell Harold about the phone call?”
“Not yet.” Turning to Harold, Anouk explained, “Someone called on Tuesday night and didn’t say a word for about a whole minute, then said ‘hello’ and disconnected.”
“That’s peculiar.” Harold was clearly puzzled. “Whoever it was probably was trying to scare you for some reason. Of course, it could be totally unconnected with the murder…just a wrong number. Have you told the police?”
“Not yet. But I will tomorrow.”
“Let me know if it happens again,” Harold said.
“If you think it’s premeditated, who do you think did it, Harold? What’s your theory?” Asha asked.
“It’s too early to have a theory. All I have is half a hunch, but that’s enough to get started,” Harold said.
“The police officer who phoned didn’t give me much hope,” Anouk said.
“There aren’t a lot of clues, but I’m approaching it from a very different angle,” Harold said inscrutably.
The dim sum arrived at that point, and for a while the three friends fussed with their chopsticks. Harold was a vegetarian and had ordered some meat-free bean curd with spring onions for himself while the others sampled a variety of foods. He usually ate with gusto, but today his mood was different. The talk turned to the mysterious emails and the “Observer.”
“Could Ajit be Observer?” Anouk wondered aloud.
“We should keep an open mind, but from what you say my guess is no,” Harold said. “I would like to see the message myself, though.”
“What do you make of Ajit?” Asha asked.
“He is obviously an educated young man, but perhaps not very well educated,” Harold said.
“Do you think he is a fanatic?” Anouk asked.
“There’ve been similar outbursts by mostly educated Indians here and in India lately. It is a strange development. It’s troubling because they tend to be somewhat extreme, but their views are intelligently expressed. These people have usually been harmless physically even though they are not afraid to espouse violence verbally. But you can never tell…I wouldn’t call Ajit a fanatic, though.”
“Could he have killed Meghnad?” Anouk asked.
“It’s hard to say, but I doubt it. Why draw attention to himself if he’s a murderer? On the other hand, if he’s overconfident…” Harold’s words trailed off.
They chatted away for the next hour, building theories only to tear them down. Even Anouk, otherwise morose, joined in. Toward the end of the evening, they all felt lighter.
Harold and Anouk decided to meet at her apartment on Saturday at eleven in the morning. Harold would go directly from there to the airport.
Anouk returned home by subway. When she reached her apartment, the phone jangled the quiet of the hallway outside. She fumbled with the lock and threw open the door, running to the phone just as the answering machine was about to switch on. She picked up the receiver, breathless. “Hello?”
A male voice at the other end said, “Hello.” After a pause, the line went dead.
Chaturvedi wrote a number of emails once he recovered from the shock of Meghnad’s death. He talked to Anouk and made an awkward mess of it, he thought, unable to maintain the balance between Indian profusion and American restraint. Anouk, being French, was used to displays of emotion and was not unemotional herself, and didn’t really mind.
“It was better not to call,” his wife said.
“It’s important to talk. It makes a difference,” Chaturvedi said.
“And what a difference you made,” his wife said wryly.
“Okay, okay. Let it rest, will you?” Chaturvedi snipped, a little offended, going into their bedroom to change his clothes.
Chaturvedi then headed towards the campus. His colleagues Dwivedi and Trivedi had been away on a field trip to Lothal, an archaeological site in Gujarat, and knew nothing of Meghnad’s death. They were expected back today.
He wanted to commiserate with them, to lament the loss of a star of the South Asian Studies community. Their offices were in a line, first Dwivedi, then Trivedi, and last Chaturvedi. Chaturvedi stopped at Trivedi’s first and knocked.
“Come in,” Trivedi called.
Chaturvedi found his colleague with his back to the door. He was dabbling with his sea cucumbers again. Trivedi’s hobby was marine biology, and when he wasn’t ruminating on ancient literature, he was irritating the cloacal regions of his three sea cucumbers. To his colleagues’ surprise, Trivedi had even published a short paper in the “Journal of Marine Biology” on their intake of sand and retention of organic material. He had measured various ratios and postulated a concept he called the minimum retention rate.
“Back with the Trio, eh?” Chaturvedi chuckled, as he stepped in.
Trivedi turned his head. “Give me a minute.”
Chaturvedi pulled up a chair and sat down. “How was Lothal?”
“Fascinating! The dockyard was quite remarkable, perhaps the greatest ancient maritime architecture there is. The town planning of the Indus Civilization had a deep grasp of principles. The museum wasn’t bad, though as you know, our museums have a long way to go. We just don’t have the resources. You must see it,” Trivedi said, his back still to Chaturvedi.
“I have some bad news for you.” Chatuved paused. “Someone killed Meghnad in New York.”
Trivedi whirled around and Chaturvedi saw one sea cucumber sink to the bottom of the fish tank. “What did you say?”
“That’s the sad truth. He was stabbed outside the Asia Society.”
“This will have such implications for the field.”
“Why don’t we take Dwivedi to the canteen? I need to have some food in my stomach and we all need a drink.”
Dwivedi wasn’t in, so they ambled over to the canteen by themselves, where they spotted Dwivedi with a female student. Dwivedi was a bachelor, and except for his florid shirts and the occasional seduction, quite blameless.
“Welcome back. Can you spare a few minutes? It’s important,” Chaturvedi said to him.
“Of course. We were almost done. So shall we meet directly at the NCPA before the show, Kamini?” Dwivedi said to the student.
Kamini nodded, gathered her papers, and rose, waving to Dwivedi as she walked away. Chaturvedi and Trivedi took her place.
“Meghnad’s been killed,” Trivedi said, not one for gradual revelation of information.
“What? Are you serious?” Dwivedi exclaimed.
“He was stabbed outside the Asia Society, but no one knows who did it. Anouk thinks it was a premeditated murder,” Chaturvedi said.
“Why would anyone want to kill him?” Trivedi asked.
“That’s what I’ve been thinking,” Chaturvedi said.
“Maybe it’s all that anti-communal stuff he was into,” Dwivedi said.
“Maybe. You can annoy a lot of people that way. And we know Meghnad had a knack for it. His Time article and his television interview stirred a lot of people up,” Chaturvedi said.
“Yes, those were bombshells,” Trivedi said.
“I talked to Anouk this morning. She seemed to be coping fairly well,” Chaturvedi said.
“I must phone her too,” Trivedi said.
They talked for a while and then dispersed in different directions, Chaturvedi to a lecture he had to give, Trivedi to his sea cucumbers, and Dwivedi to the library. On the way, Chaturvedi ran into Amonkar.
“Aren’t you coming to class?” Chaturvedi asked.
“Yes, right after I see Professor Trivedi, in a few minutes. He wants to tell me about his latest experiment with the Trio. You know how he is, he expects everyone to be interested.”
“How’s your project going?”
“Not bad. I have one more conjecture,” Amonkar said.
“You sound very productive. Good. I want to see it today.”
“Sure. This afternoon perhaps?”
“See you then.”
Chaturvedi entered his office and flicked on the computer. There was just one message.
This is just to confirm that I will be coming to India for our research on architecture after the Grindelwald conference. I’m looking forward to it. Are you presenting a paper at the conference? I suppose you’ve heard about this nasty business with Meghnad. I don’t know what to do about it yet. In any case, see you soon.
Chaturvedi wondered for a moment what Harold could do about the murder, and then retrieved his notes and walked to his class.
Hysterical, Anouk had called Harold at the Lexington Hotel.
“He phoned again,” she shouted.
“Who?” Harold asked, immediately alert.
“That man on the telephone,” Anouk was sobbing.
“Calm down, Anouk. Please. Tell me what happened and I’ll come over right away.”
“They’re after me. They’re after me,” Anouk said.
“Who’s after you? Stay calm. Tell me slowly.”
“He told me to destroy Meghnad’s papers.”
“What else did he say?” Harold asked.
“My life was in danger.” Anouk gasped for breath, slowing down.
“He said he was a friend.”
“What did he sound like?”
“He actually had a nice voice, quiet, soft, even cultured. He spoke slowly. I was cooking dinner when he called,” Anouk slowed her speech and regained her composure.
“Did he say why he didn’t speak earlier?” Harold asked.
“He said he wanted to scare me.” Anouk began crying again.
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him I had given the papers to you. I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t have.”
“That’s okay, Anouk. It doesn’t matter.”
“He told me I had to get them back. In a day, by four o’clock tomorrow, and leave them outside my door in a bag,” Anouk said.
“We’ll think about what to do. I’m going to pack and come over and spend the night there, just in case.”
“Please, Harold. I’m going crazy with these phone calls.” Anouk sounded relieved.
“See you in an hour,” Harold said and hung up.
An hour later, Harold was at Anouk’s, ringing the doorbell. From the hallway, he could smell the aroma of the vichyssoise that Anouk was preparing. She opened the door and ran to him.
“Thanks,” she said.
Anouk pulled Harold into the apartment. The muted light from the paper lanterns gave the apartment a somber feel.
“Your home is beautiful,” Harold said.
Anouk held him close to her as Harold patted her back gently.
“He was terrifying, so calm and sophisticated about the whole thing,” Anouk said.
“Let’s hope it won’t happen again,” Harold said. “Have you called the police?”
“No, I suppose I should have, I didn’t know what to do.”
“Let’s.” Harold picked up the phone and Anouk handed him a business card with Officer Bradford’s number.
When Harold informed the police about the mysterious call, they promptly said they’d post a man outside Anouk’s apartment by four the next afternoon.
“Why don’t we go through Meghnad’s papers tonight?” Harold suggested.
“Why don’t we just make copies?”
“There’s probably too much. I should go through not only his own papers but also other papers he was using in his work,” Harold said. “I need to get a sense of what he was up to.”
“There’s quite a lot of stuff on his desk and shelves. Have you eaten?”
“Not really. It smells great here.”
Anouk ladled out the vichyssoise and sliced some fresh bread for Harold.
“How are you feeling now?” Harold asked. He held her again as she relaxed against his shoulders. She went limp and began to cry. “You need to let it out,” he said.
“I feel much better now. Why don’t you eat?”
Harold sat at the table, and tasted the soup with a spoon, savoring its subtle flavors. “I didn’t realize you cooked so well.”
“I hope you get to spend some time with your sister soon. It would help if you weren’t alone for a while.”
“We’ve never been very close. We’ve drifted apart and I don’t know how it will seem to be with her after such a long time. But it would be good to be with family.”
“Do you have anyone else?”
“No. My parents died early and I’ve never kept in touch with the others; being in New York also made it harder.”
“That’s how it often is, isn’t it? Harold said ruefully, thinking of the many opportunities for contact he had had to pass up with his own family in Seattle on account of his busy life. He felt thankful his daughter lived in Boston.
“Shall we get to work, Madame?”
In the second bedroom, Harold sat down at Meghnad’s desk and began to wade through the pile of papers and books. At an adjacent desk Anouk switched on the computer.
There was a message from Napa.
That was shocking news you sent me. My deepest condolences. My advice to you is don’t get involved in trying to track down the murderer. Steer clear of your husband’s projects, whatever they were. It’s not safe. Is someone with you? Do you have someone’s help to tide you through these days?
Once again, don’t get involved.