Radha Narayan

His eyes twinkled in the shadows thrown by a dozen oil lamps. He was dressed in silk the colour of the dawn, threads of saffron and rose intertwined with threads of gold. His eyes, his unforgettable dark eyes, were veiled by long lashes, his young, girlish face was filled with an indescribable sweetness, and his full rosebud lips were pouting in a mischievous, enigmatic smile. He wore a necklace of diamonds and a diadem of gold in which were set the oldest rubies of a lost empire, and out of that crown glanced a peacock feather. My grandmother held his hard, immobile cheek with a tenderness she did not know how to show a living soul, and spoke to him in whispers filled with the most helpless love.

That was the first time I saw Krishna. It was summer in Bangalore and the house of Sriniketan was filled with laughter and music. My grandparents were together with their three daughters and their husbands, one son and his wife, and nine grandchildren. I, daughter of the youngest daughter of my grandmother, was not yet ten. The older cousins talked without a moment’s pause while we younger ones ran screaming down the long corridor, only to be caught by my grandmother and scolded severely for getting in her way. With naive predictability, the girls fought with the boys once a day and then locked themselves upstairs to talk seriously about Grown-Up Things while the boys covered tennis balls with duct tape and played cricket in the yard. At six in the evening everyone came together in the kitchen, famished. Lit candles and oil-lamps appeared on every wall. The nine grandchildren washed their hands and their scraped knees and sat cross-legged in a line on the floor, forming a train from Raghu, the oldest, to Gowri, only then discovering words. My grandmother sat facing us with a large pot of curd rice. We held out our right palm and a spoon of creamy curd rice was placed into it. When we poked a hole in the top with our thumb, hot and spicy rasam was poured into the opening. We ate noisily, messily, wide eyes fixed on our grandmother as she told us about Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, whose dark skin was the colour of a monsoon cloud, whose feet were soft as lotus-petals. He was the graceful, gentle cowherd who played the flute on the hills of Brindavan, the shrewd strategist who guided the virtuous Pandavas to victory in the battle of Kurukshetra, the enraged fire of justice who beheaded wicked Sisupala, and the loyal friend who had saved my grandmother’s life fifteen years ago.

We learned of the pain that awoke my grandmother in the middle of the night during the late stages of her third pregnancy. She dragged herself to the puja room and fell asleep curled at her idol’s feet. The next morning her husband, far away on a business trip, received this cryptic message from a saffron-robed, twinkle-eyed mendicant priest, “Your wife and child were in danger last night, but I’ve taken care of them.” And thus, in the quiet, camphor-scented, flickering twilit hours, we discovered Krishna’s stories, spanning three thousand years, embroidered in the hem of the summer days.

Radhekrishna, my grandmother would sometimes say as she rose to her feet. Radha, lover and childhood playmate of Krishna in the hills of Brindavan, was his greatest devotee, and because of her love for him she was inseparable from him.

“That which you most desire you will find,” my grandmother promised us, “so always have his name on your lips.”

I knew she was right, because Krishna could have lived anywhere in the universe but he chose to live in Sriniketan because she wanted him there. He ran with us in the yard, and climbed the neighbour’s guava tree to steal its fruit, and ate the leaves of the tulasi plant surreptitiously as we did, and in the evenings his mellifluent laughter joined our own amidst the jasmine boughs. I confided in him often, in the quiet puja room where I first saw him under the light of the oil-lamps, and was overwhelmed by the way he could silence my thousand questions and anxieties with a quiet, teasing smile, could always drown out my racing heartbeat in a perfect, timeless silence. On my eleventh birthday, I dressed in indigo-blue silk, in a fitted blouse and a lush ankle-length skirt with a hundred pleats and a trim of gold. My gold earrings were shaped like small bells and they chimed as I ran down the stairs. I wore several bangles on each wrist, and tinkling anklets, and fresh jasmines in hair scented with coconut oil. I went to see him, proud and hopeful, meaning to ask him a hundred questions about my impending adulthood, but he stood there in all his splendour, crimson roses at feet that had been decorated with dark henna and turmeric, and I knelt before him and, not knowing what to ask, simply bowed my head and whispered, “Please.”

I resolved then to find words, to find the wisdom of those sages who spent hundreds of years in meditation, standing on one leg in the austere silence of the Himalayas, palms folded, eyes closed, forsaking sleep, food and even air; and who, after those hundreds of years, their hair matted and grown to the earth and their bodies encased in anthills, finally received their heart’s desire, and were released from the world and taken up to spend eternity at the side of their Lord. I spent many nights on the stairs, eyes closed and chanting his name, but from time to time I’d open my eyes, ashamed that someone might be watching me and laughing, and ashamed again of being ashamed. There were others who loved him so much more than I—I’d seen them call to him unabashedly by his various names, every time they sat down and every time they got up. Madhava! Govinda! Narayana! He was their first thought each morning, their last each night.

August fell upon us, sudden and asphyxiating. I flew to Riyadh with my parents, watched stiffly as the idols and religious pictures were torn from our suitcases, listened to my mother assure the customs officials as they opened each bottle, sniffing for alcohol, “Pickles, for eating.” Saudi Arabia was a stark, dispassionate, alien land, without tamarind or sweet limes or jasmines, without lush hills or torrential monsoons, and my words, no longer describing anything real, disappeared into colourless sand. In a few months, surrounded by Riyadh’s relentless modernity and the desert’s monochrome, it became hard to believe there had ever been princes such as Bhishma who, even as he lay dying on a bed of arrows, spoke calmly of duty and virtue in the days to come. And so next summer, when I returned to India on vacation, I came with fewer beliefs and deeper certainties, with opinions as scientific and precise as the words in which they were couched were gutted and sparse.

My grandmother hummed the aigiri nandini as she raised tissue-thin towels to dry on a clothes-line over her head, and I said wondrously, “I remember the words to that. Some of them.”

“Do you?” she asked. “You used to sing it all, in one breath. You used to know so many things.”

I followed her as she moved swiftly and without hesitation around the kitchen, a tall, slender figure so much older than my world and so much more indestructible.

“You should take a statue or a picture with you when you go,” she said, “Then you won’t forget so much.”

“They’ll just take it away at customs,” I said, irritated. “It’s no use.”

She smiled, a smile so mischievous and so familiar to me and more his than hers, and said, “If you want him with you, he will find a way.”

I sat down in the corner, properly cowed. At such times I felt her faith had more permanence and richness than my reality, that she was more certain of his existence than she was of her own. Myth had intertwined with personal history until there was no difference between the two.

One night that summer, I stayed at my aunt’s house. The current had given out and we lit candles. The heat was stifling, so we left the bedrooms to sleep on the floor in the hall and opened the large windows there to let in some air. It was a very quiet night with light rain and the smell of bougainvillaea and wet earth. Unable to sleep, I stared at an idol of Krishna that stood in the corner of the room and wondered if my life would always involve him. I got up and walked quietly to the dining table where a single candle still flickered, and scribbled on a piece of blotting paper a poem:

I turned to Krishna’s idol

and asked it to foresee,

to touch my crystal ball,

and here’s what it told me:

“My job’s to play the flute,

not, the future, to see;

but what tune you plan to toot,

is up to you, not me.”

How he taunted me, the irrepressible child! Even as I agonized over my languishing faith, as I tried desperately to understand him, he laughed at my struggle and only sent more riddles my way.

August’s curtain fell between us again, and for years after that I did not see him at all. I sought him halfheartedly in Tirupathi the summer after I turned thirteen, when my family climbed the famous hill to see his temple. When I paused, legs aching, to catch my breath, a frail old woman raced up the steps with her eyes half-closed, her hands clasped above her head, voice raised in fervent prayer. Another time I encountered a man climbing the stairs on his knees, streaking the rough stone steps with his blood. At the top of the hill, inside the temple, the walls of which were plated with gold, women shaved off long, thick, tresses of dark hair out of a love I could not feel. Into a nine-foot-tall sack people emptied bags and briefcases of money and gold coins, and I felt a vague sense of disgust at their gullibility.

The great sage Ramakrishna Paramhamsa was once asked why he believed in God, and he replied with a smile, “Because I see him here, as clearly as I see you.” The sage was amused that others required justification for the existence of a god who was standing directly in front of him. I’d lost Krishna for a while in my pride and stubbornness, my determination that with enough knowledge and evidence, I could draw him into my mind and somehow understand him, and that conviction and love would be borne of this understanding. Someday, I’d hoped to say that Krishna was in fact a combination of –ism and –ation, and so I had struggled to place him on trial like every other god who has been judged, condemned on the cross or in a textbook, crucified to expiate the horrors of this world or explain them. We have always killed our own gods; we who spend our lives draped in guilt and banality, in the mire of our self-doubts and pretensions, we have no imagination for heaven, only a despairing hope that is at once aware of its own foolishness and its betrayal of the present life.

“I don’t know what to believe. I can’t seem to find conviction,” I said, with all of the teenager’s exaggerated petulance and scepticism. My grandfather was troubled. He took me to the city of Trivandrum; there he engaged an auto-rickshaw driver to take us to five temples, and to wait for us at each one until we had finished our prayers. At one of these temples was a room filled with granite pillars that were hollowed out so they each played a different musical note when struck. At another, a ten-foot-long statue of Krishna, made of solid gold, lay content and meditative on a coiled granite cobra whose hood provided it with shade. At a third temple a lotus pond shimmered in the twilight, ablaze with a hundred floating oil-lamps, and every wall I touched pulsed with the clamour of drums and nadaswarams played to announce the presence of the god I couldn’t see. He wasn’t there, not in the gold and not in the granite, and I was growing tired, faithless.

The last temple we saw that night was rat-ridden, dilapidated, deserted. A young boy offered the rites, leaning against the wall and sighing in boredom as he chanted. The statue was a small misshapen granite doll with unsymmetrical silver plating that looked more like a child’s clay gargoyle than anything remotely divine. The smoke was suffocating, the walls were painted in garish colours, and there was a soft humming from insects hidden in the crevices. I shot a glance at the entrance, worried that our auto-rickshaw driver had sickened of his tedious job and had abandoned us here in this temple, barefoot on a moonless night. But instead he was standing at the entrance, palms clasped together in a prayer more sincere than my own or that of the young priest. My eyes fell on a baby lizard and I followed its movements with my eyes until it disappeared into the shadows.

The boy finished his bored recital and greedily collected his dues, and we left the temple to go to the house of a relative; we’d be spending the night there. My grandfather pulled out his purse to pay the fare. “Fifteen rupees,” the driver said. He had waited patiently and uncomplainingly at every temple, so my grandfather handed him twenty rupees. The driver held the money to his eyes in respect and gratitude.

“Although the distance was not much,” my grandfather said to me afterwards, “he had to wait for us for nearly two hours! I was expecting him to ask for at least a hundred rupees. In fact I was ready to pay so much more! I was so surprised that he only asked for fifteen rupees.” I smiled. Before leaving the vehicle I had glanced at the meter out of curiosity. It had said “17 Rupees, 50 Paise.” I too had expected him to argue for fifty rupees at the very least. I was startled when he not only did not want to haggle, but actually asked for less than his due. At the time, I didn’t push the matter or point it out because I did not want to embarrass him by asking for his reasons. But I knew that he had seen something that night that we had not and our riches were nothing compared to his.

I envied him his ability to find his god even in a misshapen clump of granite. How blind and ignorant I was in comparison, and how desiccated was my imagination that I could only see the surfaces of things! Oh, I envied him fiercely. Through his eyes the ordinary and imperfect clay of a parched farmland, brutal poverty and the squalor of people living in shared filth without reprieve or hope, the horrors of plague, polio, starvation, illiteracy, corruption and death, all these things could be borne because he could glimpse the sublime.

Suddenly I felt compelled to laugh at my conceit, at my attempts to comprehend divinity and to explain it in terms of a human, all too human intellect. I remembered the story my grandmother had told me about Hiranyakashipu, whose greatest desire was to be immortal; so he stipulated that neither man nor beast could kill him, neither indoors nor outdoors, at neither day nor night, neither on the ground nor in the sky; and no weapon created by man could hurt him.

“And yet,” my grandmother had said, placing the next spoon of rice deftly into my hand while I listened in fascination, “the god Narasimha, the fourth avatar of Lord Vishnu (remember Krishna was the eighth), appeared to the evil Hiranyakashipu in the twilight hour as half-man and half-lion, sat across the threshold of the wicked man’s house, kept him between earth and sky by putting him in his lap. Then Narasimha tore Hiranyakashipu’s stomach to pieces with his bare hands.”

I should have remembered the story—when we attempt to understand that which is beyond our comprehension we are limited to saying that it is neither one thing nor another, that it escapes classification by any of the dichotomies by which we understand our world. To limit the possibilities of the world to the narrow confines of human imagination and language is to invite terrible punishment for our arrogance.

“Never step on paper,” my grandmother had scolded me repeatedly when I was a child. “Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, abides in every word. Touch the paper to your eyes to ask her forgiveness.”

I had done as she said but I hadn’t really believed her. My pride had driven me to question my grandmother’s words when they did not make sense. I couldn’t understand how the same goddess could be in every piece of paper. I tore a page to shreds and inspected the disaster closely with the magnifying glass in my Junior Science Kit. At seventeen, my new-found knowledge of subatomic particles allowed me to smile at the thought of a queen sitting cross-legged on a lotus inside every quark, but I also knew that I would never step on any paper or book as long as I lived. The stories I’d heard were meant to be remembered and repeated, not dissected. Ritual doesn’t honour what is sacred—it makes things sacred.

There were patterns woven so securely into our lives that gods could stand on them. Upon my grandmother’s instruction, my brother and I had learned to recite the thousand names of Vishnu. Ajah sarveshvarah siddhah siddih sarvadih achutah, we’d chanted with solemn diligence. Conviction is not born of comprehension but by practice, and love, like conviction, comes not with insight but with patience. It came to me in time, renewed and refreshed, love stronger than would ever be given to an ordinary man, love for Krishna’s full red lips that smelled of roses and milk, for his soft arched feet, for his heaving, sighing, breathing, laughing flesh; for the sound of his footsteps that I heard on days when the rain poured down in torrents; for skin that smelled like eucalyptus in the morning breeze and tasted like fresh mangoes in the summer, for the sonorous voice that swam in my head in infinite colourful swathes.

I found him when I learned to play the bamboo flute, saw him the very first time I touched the sweet-smelling old wood to my lips; he was leaning against the bark of a banyan tree in the middle of a paddy field, one leg casually crossed over the other, head cocked to the right, the peacock feather in his hair swaying lazily in the hot breeze.

I visited Kanyakumari, at the tip of the Indian peninsula, and there I rode a horse along the beach and watched people bathe in the furious waves that flayed the rocks. It was the night of the full moon and the current was strong and dangerous. A street vendor sold me a conch shell, and when I blew it I saw Krishna, in all his beauty and horror, armed with his weapon, the spinning gold discus. Humanity was in need of a purging, there were too many of us on the earth, and we were barren and insipid, and so he had come for us. And as the waves roared I lifted my conch shell to my lips again, took a deep breath and echoed his engulfing, primeval sound.

The wisest of the wise, that tiger among men, the warrior grandsire Bhishma, knew that in loving Krishna one learns to love both life and death without regret; one would not have meaning without the other, and both are transfigured and immortalised in sacred ash and in the scent of sandalwood and jasmine and in stories told by grandmothers to awe-struck children by the light of candles on rainy nights—“Bhishma saw Krishna approaching him, his dark skin flushed with anger, his bare feet crushing the hard stones of the Kurukshetra battlefield, a robe of golden yellow silk resplendent around his waist, the Sudharshan discus spinning on his index finger. Instead of fighting him, Bhishma threw down his weapons and held out his arms in love, smiling and welcoming such a death, saying that there was no greater glory, no greater blessing than this.”

Bhishma knew that there was no more magnificent death than one which made the story of his life inextricable from that of Krishna. He would attain the only immortality comprehensible by mortals, to have his name be spoken and sung in the same sentence as that of the god he loved.

Last year, my grandmother came to Detroit to guide her oldest granddaughter through her first pregnancy. My brother asked her if she would consider staying in America permanently. She scoffed, “Leave Sriniketan? That place is a temple!”

I nodded, remembering every morning that I’d woken up there to the sound of wet clothes being slapped rhythmically against the stone in the back of the house by the maid. A row of cousins would sit in a line in the kitchen drinking their morning coffee, slowly blinking awake. My grandmother would greet the morning visitors, “Radhekrishna!” and they would respond likewise with a smile. Meals were always eaten together, my grandmother sitting in the centre and serving rice steaming hot, and around her would be a pot of ghee made from the richest and best-flavoured butter, pulses steaming like liquid sunshine, and foods that had made our mouths water all the way down the street where we were playing and made us come running home. My grandmother would make all the spices and pickles by hand, drying the chillies out, measuring them and grinding them laboriously with a mortar and pestle, her hand one long, swaying muscle. She’d tell us about her young days in the prince’s court, or teach us stories and prayer-songs that she also taught to some of the other children in the neighbourhood.

“The children nowadays,” my grandmother said to my brother and me, “they’re so difficult. They don’t listen. They keep asking complicated questions. I don’t know the answers.”

I felt a burst of pity for the children, who did not know the price they were paying for truths so brilliant they left no shadows.

We held a baby-shower for my cousin, and at the end my grandmother called the lot of us sternly to the side to say a prayer and we—from Raghu, the oldest, now over six feet tall and a father of two, down to Gowri, a beautiful young woman of seventeen turning heads across the room—scurried to obey. My grandmother dressed the fresh milk with threads of dribbling saffron and lit the camphor on a silver tray. We took off our slippers and closed our eyes and sang with voices filled with love.