Cover

Nadi

Gitanjali Kolanad | Updated on January 24, 2020 Published on January 24, 2020

A matter of principle: "I have decided as a matter of principle, to believe that whatever a person tells me is true" (Credit: ISTOCK.COM)   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

I saw Daizo from the other side of Triplicane High Road, where I had no expectation he’d be, when I was sure he’d have gone back to Japan, months after our last meeting. I don’t even know how I recognised him, so thin, so unkempt he’d become. He was walking beside an Indian man in a short-sleeved jacket and pants which men of a certain kind wore in those days, called, for no discernible reason, a ‘safari suit’; the two men were intent on their conversation as they navigated the chaos of street vendors and traffic. “Daizo!” I called out, loudly enough that people all around looked to see whose attention I sought so urgently.

I crossed the busy street as quickly as I dared. Even when I stood before him, Daizo seemed to have trouble believing I was really there, not moving into my arms opened for an embrace. But when I pulled him close, he pressed his cheek against mine, his hollow cheek that had been so smooth and plump. Mr. Safari Suit gave me an ingratiating smile that raised my hackles, but did not introduce himself. After Daizo and I exchanged a few, banal words of greeting — “How nice to see you, how are you?” “I’m well (though it was obvious he was not) and you?” It became clear that Mr. Safari Suit intended that they move on. I felt instinctively, without knowing why, that I must not allow that to happen.

I threaded my arm through Daizo’s and holding him firmly at the waist in case there was a tug of war, I addressed Mr. Safari Suit. “Now that we’ve met after so long, Daizo and I need some time to catch up. I hope you don’t mind.” Mr. Safari Suit’s smile remained fixed and though his eyes expressed some darker sentiment, he seemed to think better of making any protest. I turned to Daizo. “Let’s you and I go and sit somewhere. I want you to tell me everything that’s gone on since we saw each other last.”

My very first encounter with Daizo at Bombay Central Station had been similar, extracting him from the clutches of two men who’d been about to take his money on the promise, undoubtedly false, of getting him railway tickets. I’d been moved to do so initially by his exotic good looks: Pale creamy skin with no visible flaw, straight black hair cut like a cap, smooth eyelids without a crease that opened wide to look with inscrutable calm upon the world.

I took him by the hand to purchase tickets using the Foreign Tourist quota, finding him as docile and easy to lead as he’d been with the two cheats. I discovered he too was travelling to Madras, as it was called then. On the journey, I tried to impress on him how easily his expensive camera equipment could be stolen if he left it lying on his berth like that and train him not to pull out his whole wad of ₹1000 notes and yen each time he paid for a few oranges. Rather than taking me seriously, he seemed saddened by my cynical view of human nature.

When we arrived at our destination, I couldn’t bear to leave him at the mercy of the touts at Central Station, so took him home with me, to the upper floor of a house in Shastrinagar I shared with two other girls.

He was a quiet and unobtrusive guest, fitting into our routine without effort, going out during the day to take photographs, eating whatever was put in front of him and cleaning the kitchen afterwards with such thoroughness and efficiency as to invite the hostility of our maid, who muttered under her breath, “What kind of a man...”

My housemates and I did our best to talk him out of paying the first price that was asked by fruit vendors and autorickshaw drivers, but he wouldn’t listen. He seemed to have no shortage of money, so there was little we could do if he was set on frittering it away. He said in his careful English, “I know you think I’m very stupid, or I don’t understand the ways of the world. That is not the case. I have decided as a matter of principle, to believe that whatever a person tells me is true. Aren’t my principles worth the price I’m paying for this fruit?”

When he came home one day a week or so later to say he’d been invited to stay at the home of a man he’d met at the Mylapore temple, I was naturally suspicious, and even more so when I learned the man claimed to have a piano on which Daizo could play. Who in Madras in those days had a piano? So I accompanied Daizo in the car the man had sent to pick him up. We turned into the gate of a splendid house on Boat Club Road, which did indeed have a baby grand piano in the living room, as a purely decorative element, since no one in the family knew how to play. The man, his wife and children, even the servants, watched as Daizo sat at the bench and raised the cover, ran his fingers over the black and white keys and began to play some impressively complex piece of classical music. I was still a little uneasy but what could I say against a man with a piano? I left Daizo with the assurance that should he ever need to, he could come back to me.

So what had happened in the interim to bring Daizo to this condition? I took his hand across the restaurant table. His nails once perfectly manicured, tipped with crescent moons, were now cracked and blackened with grime, his hair that had been so thick and black and shiny was as if rusted. I asked him questions to which he gave answers devoid of facts: He’d learned the journey of his soul through past lives; in one he’d been a crow that had eaten the prasadam from the Parthasarathy temple; in another he’d been a merchant shipwrecked on this very coast; his being here now was a pre-ordained returning. How had he learned all this? He’d asked directions one day from the man in the safari suit, who told him their meeting was no coincidence. “It was foretold in my own horoscope that I would meet you wandering here today.” He’d then led Daizo through the narrow lanes of Triplicane, not to the Parthasarathy temple he’d wanted to reach, but to his own ‘office’. There, he’d shown Daizo a stack of palm leaves with a closely written Tamil script. “Somewhere here is your destiny, Daizo, etched by the ancient rishis as an advanced exercise in the practice of astrology, reading the futures of those yet to be born.”

Since then Daizo had been living in one of the Triplicane ‘mansions’ where single men could get cheap rooms. Every morning he’d gone to hear the astrologer in the safari suit read and interpret the Tamil verses the sages had written a thousand years ago. Daizo was a special case, it seemed, destined to achieve enlightenment in this birth. Therefore the sages had laboured to record each and every day of his life, inscribing on the palm leaves exactly what he should eat, what he should do. Daizo had been eating food that didn’t agree with him, and paying for whatever rites and rituals were needed to offset the sins accrued in lives as crow and merchant and all the other beings he’d been. “And you may scoff, but I remember what it was like to know only the one word ‘Ka’, I remember the moon pulling at the sea underneath my boat.” All his money had gone towards the rituals. He was waiting for more to arrive from his family in Japan. He took no photographs, since the palm leaves said nothing of such things. The astrologer had his camera equipment.

How firmly our beliefs hold onto us, not letting us go even when in extremis! I said, “If your destiny is foretold, then it’s already written in today’s palm leaf that I am taking you home.” He was very weak and did not struggle when I pushed him into the autorickshaw.

Once he had bathed properly and eaten a little, he lay down on my bed and slept. That night, I slipped under the sheet beside him and he curved himself around me like water into a cup.

The next day my housemates and I went to the astrologer’s house and threatened to go to the police if he didn’t return the camera equipment. The astrologer handed it over, saying, “You girls have come to me, which means your palm leaves too will be somewhere in this pile. Give me your thumbprints and I will tell you the names of your husbands.” We declined.

A few days later, I heard that Jiddu Krishnamurti would be giving a talk under the banyan tree at Vasanta Vihar. Daizo was feeling better, so we went together. Krishnamurti, speaking in his slow serious way, addressed the question of god’s existence, death, desire, the nature of our human condition. Daizo listened intently, and later that night repeated these lines he’d remembered from the lecture, putting the emphasis on different words, the subject, the object, the verb: “I am nothing. I will become something. But what is it that is becoming?”

The next day Daizo made arrangements to return immediately to Japan and embark on the project of translating Krishnamurti into Japanese.

 

Gitanjali Kolanad is a former Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer. She divides her time between London, Toronto and South India. Her debut novel ‘Girl Made of Gold’ is forthcoming from Juggernaut in 2020.

Published on January 24, 2020
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor