'God Wallah,' a Short Story by Noa Jones
"I took my place with the other attendants along one wall where we could keep our eyes and ears alert for our respective masters' signals."
New Delhi, 2007
On the eve of a massive golden jubilee celebration that is to fill the streets of New Delhi, I am helping my boss into the bathtub for the last time. The task is made difficult by the fact that he had a sip of liqueur after dinner. We were at a party hosted by the Kenyan ambassador earlier this evening, and as a final course they served flutes of Chartreuse with a horrible-looking pudding. He took the glass, saluted the hosts, and with a flourish made the motions of drinking it all in one go. A German delegate said, "Ho, ho!" and followed suit. But when my boss set the glass back on the table, I could see that it was still completely full. The liquid had barely passed his lips. Nevertheless, as soon as we left the embassy gates he started behaving as if he had downed a whole bottle of whiskey. "I'm drunk!" he proclaimed. He hung on my arm weaving back to the car. Maybe he was, or maybe he was acting—who am I to presume to understand the motivations of a holy man? I am not supposed to think of him as subject to mundane human fallibilities like drunkenness, or faking drunkenness, for that matter. He is a man who—his devotees believe—exists in a realm beyond the ego's machinations.
I confess that in the past I have faked a state of mind to suit situations, pretended to be sleeping or ignorant or deaf. "Me no speak English!" Waving my hands. Once on an overcrowded aeroplane I pretended to be mentally unstable so that the woman next to me would give me a little room for my elbows—basically I impersonated a lunatic chaat wallah I once knew, flapping my arms and making squeaking sounds—and that most definitely did the trick. So I understand this compulsion to put on an act. My boss himself has taught that, when boiled down to the marrow, everything we human beings do is an act. "This so-called normality is simply another kind of mindless drama," he said. Nevertheless, I don't like seeing him behaving sloppy, intentionally or otherwise. A little discretion, please.
"Anaa-a-and-ji! Give me a good scrub, Anand," he is howling in the bathroom. He has stripped down to his gleaming white lungi. He looks at me in a friendly, slightly unfocused way that suggests he is imagining I am someone else. It is often the case that he changes his manner toward me so totally that I wonder if he simply maps other people onto my being. Like when my big sister and I used to talk to each other through the transparent sticker of Hanuman stuck to the windshield of my father's scooter. Perhaps he is seeing me through a scrim of someone else. It might be entertainment for him. Or maybe he added the honorific "ji" just now—Anand-ji—as a sarcastic nod to my supreme non-ji-worthiness. Or maybe it is a sign of his genuine affection for me. Or maybe he is seeing through me and responding to some hidden inner true essential me. Or maybe he is seeing a demon who possesses me. Or the god whose emanation I am.
It doesn't matter to me anymore. My curiosity has been exhausted, finally. After so many years, I no longer have the energy to continually examine his every word for meaning. Oh, how I used to get into a twist when he spoke to me. In the old days.
My internal organs flip and flop like a broken sandal. No. I must keep this sentimentality from taking over. He is asking me for a good scrub, so I will give him a good scrub, just like that. And then I will go. I cannot put a veneer of devotion or importance on top of this act of scrubbing. Cannot see my work as an offering, cannot see his request as a blessing.
There are people out there who would chop off a leg to be standing in my shoes (or I suppose it would be one shoe if it came to that point). But it's time for me to wake up. Guru-ji is just a man with a certain skill set and a number of obligations, and I am just a less powerful man with a different skill set and different obligations. The current one being the exfoliation of an old man's hide and the turning down of a bed. Tomorrow is a big day, and he will be expected to be glowing and rested.
From the basket of complimentary full-size, five-star bath products he has selected a bottle of verbena-scented bubble bath and is trying to open it. He is not manually dexterous, unaccustomed to doing even the most common things without assistance. Can't handle a mobile phone or make a cup of tea. Although I admit he is quite adept at clipping his own fingernails and will happily do so in some of the most inappropriate places, getting away with it because great holy men are granted immunity to a number of social conventions. People thrill at his unconventionality. No one dares correct his behavior. He has become spoiled, almost feeble in the shelter of his team of sycophants, me included. Especially me.
He stands, letting his lungi drop from his hips, eyes fixated on the yellow bottle, like an infant registering the sensation of texture and light for the very first time, and then, rather than popping open the lid from its hinge, he unscrews it, and instead of producing a dime-size dollop, as prescribed in elegant font on the side of the bottle, he lets the gel ooze out in a glistening stream, spilling through his fingers to the marble floor. He appears more than satisfied with this outcome. With his free hand he grips my shoulder with extra vigor, slipping on the soapy porcelain, finally squatting his naked behind down into the bubbles. I have to struggle to angle him squarely into the water; he bruises easily, and I don't want to be the one responsible for any purpling of his royal haunches.
It isn't just about saving my reputation. I sincerely do not wish the old man any harm. I have always prayed that his supreme qualities remain perfect, unchanging, and everlasting. That crystalline, unpredictable kindness, that dazzling wisdom, the immaculate way he wakes people up out of the deep slumber of delusion. But I have grown to loathe being in his presence. Why could he not always be as I first laid eyes on him—walking naked in yellow grass? That naked man and this naked man are different men. I begin to scrub his back with a loofah, and he begins to sing.
Tonight's party at the embassy was seriously formal and chock-full of the sort of obsequious, inaccurately executed pageantry we of the developing world are often mocked for. Looking down the nose at us for misspellings and wrong footings is a great pastime for the Ingies who come to this continent.
We were exactly on time, but there was a long queue already (punctuality is one of Guru-ji's surprising qualities). Our driver was an old Bengali who came with the Rolls-Royce that had been offered on loan by one of the sponsors for this portion of our trip. I reveled in the impeccable English styling of the interior, the high-gloss wood panels, the camel-hair upholstery. Just ahead of us was a sedan with Australian diplomatic plates. As it neared the reception spot at the red carpet, a very tall white man let himself out before his driver could scramble around to do the honors. I could see patronizing bemusement lighting his face, almost as if to say "Beat you to it" to the driver. The fat beetle of a man had managed to scuttle round to that side of the car and curl his fingers around the handle, but the Australian swung the door open, the force of which pulled the driver inelegantly to the side of the car. The man lifted his hat at us, then shook his head as he strode off toward the red carpet as the valets shooed away his driver.
I've seen how it's supposed to be done, in London, in New York City, in Johannesburg. Drivers with their earpieces and polished shoes serve swiftly, darkly, as if they themselves have been engineered by Mercedes-Benz. Streamlined moves, power and precision. No one ever slams his own door. Doors are not slammed at all, only smartly shut with the assuredness of a gun chamber.
"Poor man," Guru-ji said. We were sitting in the back seat, he to my right, as always. I never sit to his right. Nor do I ever stand directly in front of or behind him. Never handle his possessions with unclean hands. Never speak to him from an angle above. Never eat from his plate. Never wear purple in his presence. Never wear gloves. Never show my teeth.
"Ji?" I asked.
"What a sad man," he said. I followed his gaze. He was not looking at the belittled driver. The object of his compassion was the tall white man walking the red carpet. "He is so sure of himself."
Our chauffeur had also been slow to open the doors of the Rolls, but Guru-ji was patient. The old man bent to touch Guru-ji's feet, then brought the blessing to his forehead, leaning low to conceal a face filled with emotion. Guru-ji bestowed a quick blessing, placing his soft palm on the top of the driver's head. I felt a stab of jealousy. Such a simple interaction. I miss those days when it mattered so much.
I was in quite a state, knowing what was to come later. What is to come soon. The words "This could be the last time... This could be the last time" repeated in my head, inexplicably alternating in the voices of Daffy Duck, Shah Rukh Khan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. "This could be the last time."
We walked the red carpet and were ushered into a large, high-ceilinged hall, which probably served as a common dining room for embassy staff during the day. The cold green terrazzo floor and an unfortunate canteen smell could not be improved upon by party decor, white tablecloths, marigolds, or napkins folded into peacock shapes. Standing lamps, the kind used for night construction, had been brought in to brighten the place up. The light cast long, harsh shadows across the banquet tables, which had been arranged into a square in the center of the room, ten settings per side for a total of forty guests. Anyone facing one of the lamps had to squint. Those facing away were in a shroud of darkness. A lady raised her gloved hand to shield her eyes, wordlessly commenting on the poor planning with the usual colonial smirk. This was no Windsor Castle.
I took my place with the other attendants along one wall where we could keep our eyes and ears alert for our respective masters' signals. I have been forever tuned to Guru-ji's voice, like a village dog listening for the particular creak of his master's bicycle peddle. Waiting to hear the particular sharp way he pronounces the vowels of my name rising out of the singsong tones of polite chatter. The very black-skinned boy next to me was tuned to an altogether different frequency, one I could not detect, and at some point after the water was poured his ears perked and he leaped from his seat to kneel at a similarly black-skinned, but considerably more stocky, man seated at the table. I watched the body language with interest—the boy didn't bow his head, he put his hand on his boss's chair. Things I would never do.
My signal was slow to come, as were the courses of food. And there were many. Maybe eight in all. In between, there were toasts given by men puffed up with flattery who farted from their lips, squinting in the light. Party guests wore masks of expectant smiles and false warmth. The very things that most wore my boss out. I watched as he withdrew, his boredom passing as serenity, which is what people presume of him. He smiled beatifically, nodded gently, ate little.
After the dessert wine and pudding were served, he took his sip and then his leave and all the guests rose and bowed, some with palms pressed together, others giving him inappropriate handshakes and pats on the back.
He only started pretending to be tipsy on the way back to the hotel. I had to phone Big Baba to meet our car and help escort us up one of the Imperial's side entrances so that there would be no witnesses. My boss is a man of few private moments and little shame, and we could not afford another scandal. By the time we got him here in the suite he was by all appearances roaring drunk—childish and off balance, his precious lips loose and wet. He spoke with an accentuated lisp and leaned on me for footing. "Is this the door? Is this really the door? Or is that just a projection of door?" It was a trick question, and I didn't answer. Just helped him through what appeared, to me at least, to be the door.
Luckily no one saw us. I thanked Baba and asked him to come back in the morning, at six sharp. In the striations of service, my place is above Baba, but we are all well and far under "his holiness." Tomorrow he will be in a motorcade and then on a stage, televised, praised by politicians, waving from behind bulletproof glass. His words will be streamed, recorded, transcribed, and otherwise cast into networks of human information to be repeated, appropriated, contemplated, meditated upon, and most probably misconstrued, for the benefit or to the detriment of many sentient beings.
I shampoo and condition his beard, restoring a little brightness to the white. Delhi's air attaches itself to every fiber that flutters through it. A holy man's beard, even one sealed in a Rolls-Royce, is no exception. The bath is situated in a nook that makes it difficult for me to anchor myself without my sleeves sopping up bathwater, yet I persevere, keenly aware that this is one of my last acts of servitude, holding the tuft under his chin and squeezing the suds all the way down to the wisps at the end. He closes his eyes and seems to finally sober up. From the stillness he begins to sing again. A childish but melancholy song about a sailor taking leave in a sinking ship.
Is he reading my mind? I have every reason to think it is possible. He has a veritable salmagundi of skills and abilities, omniscience being one of them. The breadth of his abilities is beyond my cognition. Even now I have to admit that.
He tosses a wet sponge over his shoulder at my head, playfully or with mirth, I can never know with him. I quickly return to my senses and dutifully scrub his back with the loofah.
After giving a final rinse, I dismiss myself so that he can towel off. I stand outside the door listening to his grunts. Working so closely to a man of the cloth, there are moments every day when I have the opportunity to contemplate the collision of heaven and earth, and this is one of them. Standing with my head bowed in a five-star hotel listening to a great saint struggle to dry the spot between his toes. Even the pope and Vladimir Putin and Nelson Mandela must stand naked and address the wet crevasses of their physical bodies. Only the wildest cave-dwelling shamans can get away with delivering their wisdom from a place of rot and stench. But they say that only when you are a saint can you tell the difference between a saint and a crazy man, so you're safer with saints, I think.
My boss is wild but he is immaculate, smelling of citrus oil, wearing hand-spun cotton, eating mostly vegetables. Even his luggage has this immaculate quality. Despite getting tossed in dirty holds with the rest of the baggage, his orange leather Globe-Trotter always seems to be sparkling clean when I retrieve it from the carousel. This is something I had noticed. Something that kept the mystery alive. It was these little things, when it should've been the big things.
Few people are allowed to touch his belongings, but I have that clearance. I am even endowed with the power to give clearance to others. But it's rare that I do. Which could become a problem. There is no obvious heir. Who will take over in my absence? Baba? No. He has fingers like hot dogs.
I can't let my mind wander here because my heart cannot take it.
I begin sorting the contents of his suitcases. I must have packed and unpacked his cases ten thousand times in my life. His simple robes and lungis take up little space, outweighed by the books, toiletries, and odd objects he carries with him all over the world. And stuffed elephants. Always a stuffed elephant, but not always the same one. He is not sentimental in that way, or possessive, or materialistic, despite what the court papers said. Elephants simply amuse him, and once a few disciples learned this, word spread and it began a trend. An epidemic. Everywhere he goes now, they always give him elephants. Babar, Dumbo, Ganesha, all different kinds. He gives them all away, regifts them to children and pretty girls, and they end up on shrines, in handbags, decorating beds in homes around the world. As a reminder of one's guru, a stuffed elephant is as good as any. I'd say a bit more cozy than a crucifix.
I feel sorry for the papal entourage. The laundry situation must be a real production. I've had it easy. Guru-ji wears his lungi always. Even in Copenhagen or New York City. He can dress it up with a variety of wraps, sometimes even a smart blazer. I particularly like the indigo blue boiled-felt number he was given by a French woman. Even though the lungi is just a rectangular piece of fabric, when Guru-ji is swathed in it, it is the embodiment of elegance. And it's very easy to hang on a line. But the pope, with all those stiff panels and cascades of white, silk it looks like, what a nightmare that must be for his staff.
He comes out wearing his freshly washed muslin nightshirt. I have already turned down the sheets. He presses his palm on my head for leverage as he climbs onto the king-size mattress. For a moment my heart melts. He looks so small. His scalp is shiny under his thinning hair, like a baby pigeon. He is, at the very least, a good man.
But I've had enough. My heart is a caged animal.
I make myself busy while he gets comfortable; he likes me to stay around until he drifts off. I tidy up the room as he begins to doze. I remember once feeling as though his mind stream was like a roaring river during the day and that at night it would cascade over a precipice of consciousness, falling off into a spray and dispersing into a rainbow mist like Victoria Falls, never really reaching the bottom. I would watch him sleep, basking in this imagined spray.
From his foggy state he sometimes emerges to give me last-minute orders or dictation. He kicks the sheets a bit, then asks without looking at me, "What is this doggerel?"
"What is the meaning of the word doggerel? I like the way it sounds when Mrs. Mwatsahu says it." He repeats it again with a sort of husky growl and pulls the covers up.
"I think it means—" I pause because I don't know what it means in the dictionary sense, and I do not like to give misinformation. But Guru-ji often changes subjects before I can finish my sentences anyway, so I begin answering with no answer in mind. "It means—"
"She was quite tough, that woman," he says.
"Yes, she was, Ji."
"M-m-m-mwatsahu." He makes a satisfied sound. Guru-ji likes severe women. Likes to surround himself with big, tough ladies who tower over him with broad shoulders and big bosoms. They make him very relaxed. Just thinking about the ambassador's wife seems to have quieted him into a deeper state of sleep.
When I am sure he is deeply gone, I switch off the light, go back to my room in the adjoining suite, pack my bag, and leave the hotel—and my boss, my guru—forever. I do this without having said a word to anyone else in the entourage, not even a hint.
Keeping my spiritual crisis and my escape plans to myself has been a great feat for me; I have always struggled with the covert and confidential aspects of my job. One of the lessons I have learned by planning this final act of mutiny completely solo is how delicious a secret can be, how knowledge contained in the vessel of a single consciousness, not sprayed about like cheap perfume, becomes more potent.
I walk along the lush hedges and out past the Imperial's main gates into the night. Only steps past the gatekeeper's polished marble kiosk, the shabby side of Delhi lingers in wait, the oily dirt of the street, the litter, a low-lying fog. There is no intermediate state. I was in, and now I am out. It is as if a thousand cicadas have been silenced. My terror—of being caught, of making the wrong decision—suddenly lifts. I have not been caught. There are no more decisions to be made. No one knows where I am. Inhaling from this sweet sub-rosa secret gives me confidence. I wake a driver parked under a gum tree and ask him to take me to Indira Gandhi airport.
"Domestic or international?"
My flight doesn't leave for another five hours, but I want my mutiny to start immediately and in the dead of night.
In action movies, one often sees the hero running away just as something explodes behind him—a car, a cathedral, a phone booth—and at that moment his feet and body are lifted from the ground by a warp in the atmosphere. He takes flight. And that is how it is—I am lifting off, leaving behind an explosion of my own making, whose energy propels me out of India. I move in slow motion, unruffled by the chaos behind me, moving toward you, Miyako. Seemingly just a man with legs and arms, dressed plainly and carrying an overnight bag, perspiring like a criminal, but not bleeding from shrapnel wounds as my life detonates.