Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Elephanta Suite, Page 2

Paul Theroux

  "Doctor," Beth said—she had forgotten his name, but he too wore an Agni nameplate, lettered Nagaraj. "Doctor Nagaraj."

  He had said that he would see them at dinner, and they had forgotten they'd promised they'd see him. But he was unfussed, saying "Not to worry" as they apologized, and again Audie smiled at his inability to read the man's mood—whether or not he minded their having forgotten him.

  "We've already eaten," Audie said, seeing the waitress approach, and he noticed it was the girl who had seated them, Anna. She held three menus and stood next to the table, looking serene, patient, attentive. She had a pale, round, Asiatic face, like a doll, her hair in a bun, drawn back tight, giving her prominent ears. She was small, quick to smile when she was smiled at.

  "Is that short for something—maybe Annapurna?"

  "No, sir. Mother of Mary. I am Christian, sir."

  "Imagine that."

  "Anna Hunphunwoshi, sir. From Nagaland, sir. Kohima, sir. Very far, sir."

  "I've seen you in the spa."

  "I also do treatments in daytime, sir."

  "Are you eating, doctor?" Audie said.

  "Thank you, no. I don't take food after six p.m." He spoke to Anna. "I will take some salted lassi."

  "We should follow your example," Beth said.

  "As you wish."

  "Three of those, Anna, please."

  "Thank you, sir." She stepped silently away, clutching the menus.

  "Where did you say you went to medical school?" Audie asked the doctor.

  "Ayurvedic Institute in Mangalore."

  "That makes you a doctor?"

  "Ayurvedic doctor, yes."

  "Can you practice outside India?"

  "Where Ayurvedic medicine is licensed, indeed, I can practice Ayurvedic without hindrance," Dr. Nagaraj said. "May I see your right hand, sir?" And when Audie placed his big hand in the doctor's warm slender hand, the doctor said, "Just relax," and scrutinized it, and made some notes on his clipboard.

  "That Indian script looks like laundry hanging on a clothesline," Audie said.

  The doctor, intent on Audie's palm, said nothing. And even when the waitress returned with the three tumblers of lassi, he went on studying the big splayed hand. He made more notes and, what was disconcerting to Audie, he wrote down a set of numbers, added more numbers to them, subtracted, multiplied, got a total, then divided it and underlined the result. Still holding Audie's palm, the doctor raised his eyes and did not smile.

  "You had a hard life until age thirty-five," Dr. Nagaraj said. "You prepared the ground, so to say. Then you reaped rewards. You can be helpful to a politician presently, but avoid it. Next ten years very good for name and fame. Madam?"

  He offered his hand to Beth, and she placed hers, palm upward, on top of his.

  "Those numbers," Beth said.

  "Good dates, bad dates, risky times."

  "How long will I live?" Audie said.

  "Until eighty-five, if all is observed," the doctor said without hesitating. He went back to examining Beth's palm and scribbling notes.

  "I don't want to know how long I'm going to live," Beth said. "Just give me some good news."

  "Happy childhood, but you have no children yourself," the doctor said. "Next ten years, excellent health. Never trust any person blindly, especially those who praise you. Follow intuition. Invest in real estate. Avoid crowds, smoke, dust." The doctor strained, as if translating from a difficult language he was reading on Beth's palm. "Avoid perfume. No litigation."

  As the doctor tensed, showing his teeth, Beth said, "That's enough," and lifted her hand and clasped it. Audie glanced at her and guessed that she was also wondering if Dr. Nagaraj was a quack. But that thought was not in her mind.

  Dr. Nagaraj perhaps sensed this querying, though he seemed calm again. He sipped his lassi, he nodded, he tapped his clipboard.

  "I took my friend Sanjeev to Rajaji National Park to see the wild elephants. They are my passion. Did you not see my collection of Ganeshes in my office?"

  "I remember," Beth said. "The elephant figurines on the shelves."

  "Quite so." The doctor drank again. "We encountered a great herd of elephants in Rajaji. They are not the same as the working domesticated elephants but a separate species. They saw us. We were near the banks of the river. Do you know the expression 'Never get between an elephant and water'?"

  "No," said Beth.

  "I guess I do now," said Audie.

  "The elephants became enraged. I saw the bull elephant trumpeting and I ran and hid in the trees. Sanjeev was behind me, rooted to the spot, too frightened to move."

  As he spoke the waitress came back, paused at their table, then asked whether there was anything more she could get them.

  "We're fine," Audie said.

  When she had gone, Dr. Nagaraj said, "I watched with horror as the huge elephant bore down on Sanjeev, followed by the herd of smaller elephants, raising so much dust. Seeing them, Sanjeev bowed his head and knelt, knowing he was about to die. He couldn't run, he couldn't swim. But he did yoga—bidalasana, cat position, instinctive somehow."

  Flexing his fingers, making a business of it, Dr. Nagaraj straightened the mat in front of him, tidied the coaster under his glass, then dipped his head and sucked at the lassi.

  "And what happened?" Audie asked.

  Dr. Nagaraj went vague, his face slackening, then, "Oh, yes," as he pretended to remember. "The great bull elephant lowered his head as though to charge. But instead of impaling Sanjeev on his tusks as I had expected, the elephant knelt, trapping Sanjeev between the two great tusks. Not to kill him, oh no. I could see it was to protect him from the other elephants trampling him."

  He seemed on the point of saying more when Beth said that she was exhausted, that she would be a basket case if she didn't get some sleep.

  "I call that another miracle," Beth Blunden said as they strolled under the starry sky to their suite.


  They woke to a brilliant sunrise and felt there were no days like this anywhere but on this hilltop in India. The rest of India and the stormy world were elsewhere.

  Was it two weeks they'd been there? With a clarity of mind and a lightness in their bodies that was new to them, they had lost their sense of passing time. Being at Agni had strengthened them, and they were surprised, for it was like a cure for an obscure but tenacious ailment of which they'd been unaware. Rested, well looked-after, like children on an extended holiday pampered by adults, they were invigorated, enjoying the power and poise of contentment. Audie had even stopped teasing the waiters about the food, calling the uttapam "shit on a shingle."

  Everyone was pleasant to them, the staff always pausing to say hello or namaskar. Always smiling, deferential without groveling, they waited on the Blundens, devoted servants, prescient too, anticipating their desires. "Carrot juice again, sir?" "Green tea sorbet again, madam?" And when the Blundens skipped meals the waiters would say, "We missed you last night, sir," as though their absence mattered and was a diminishment.

  The Blundens were, to their surprise, grateful and patient. What Audie said about owning "a bunch of businesses" wasn't a hollow boast—it was true. They were wealthy, they owned four homes in four different states, and they knew all about employees and servants. They had gardeners, housekeepers, caretakers, odd-job men, but all of them were so well paid and so used to the Blundens as to be unafraid and presumptuous. You need us seemed to show in their resentful eyes. Indian workers were different, neither presumptuous nor servile; well spoken, educated, and skilled, they were like people from another planet whose belief was We need you.

  "I should start a company here," Audie said. "Or do what everyone else is doing, outsource here."

  They had arrived in the dark smoky midnight at Mumbai Airport and had been driven swiftly past lamp-lit shacks—a vision of fires, of torches—on the way to the brilliantly lit hotel, where they stayed in the Elephanta Suite—Audie intoned the name printed over the carved doorway. They had slept
well, waking at dawn to be driven to the airport for the one-hour flight, after which they had been met by a driver in a white uniform holding a signboard lettered Belondon in one hand and a platter of chilled face towels in the other.

  What the Blundens had seen of India, the populous and chaotic India they'd been warned about, the India that made you sick and fearful and impatient, was that one-hour drive from the airport to the top of Monkey Hill, the Ayurvedic spa known as Agni. Audie thought of the drive as a long panning shot, the sort you'd get in a documentary with a jumping camera, the very first image a woman with no hands, begging at a stoplight just outside the airport, raising her stumps to Audie's window ("Don't look, honey"), then the overloaded lopsided trucks with Horn Please written on the bumper, the ox carts piled high with bulging sacks sharing the road with crammed buses painted blue and red, the sight of women slapping clothes on boulders in a dirty stream ("Laundering," the driver said), others threshing grain on mats. Wooden scaffolding on brick buildings that already looked like ruins, whitewashed temples, mosques with minarets like pencils, gated houses, hovels, the lean-tos and tents of squatters. ("Gypsies—many here, sir.") Small girls in clean white dresses, boys in shorts, men in business suits on bicycles, youths on motorbikes, skinny cows chewing at trash heaps, a man pissing against a tree ("Without a pot to piss in," Audie said), another squatting at the edge of a field, the whole country on the road. Every few miles huge billboards showing movie posters of bug-eyed fatties in tight clothes. This India had no smell and hardly had a sound: the windows of the car were closed; the air conditioner was on. Whenever the subject of India came up, the Blundens referred to their drive from the airport, through the small city and along the road and up Monkey Hill to Agni, that one hour of India.

  "They've got zip," Audie said, his face to the car window. And in conversation with various Indian guests at Agni, peering at them closely, "Sure, I saw the Indian miracle."

  The miracle to them was that India was not a country but a creature, like a monstrous body crawling with smaller creatures, pestilential with people—a big horrific being, sometimes angry and loud, sometimes passive and stinking, always hostile, even dangerous. And another miracle was that they'd found a remote part of it that was safe.

  Agni seemed to be in the heart of India, yet India seemed far away. Perhaps that was the secret to experiencing India, to bury yourself deeply in it to avoid suffering it. The few times at Agni they'd seen something exotic or strange—like the monkeys staring at the sunset, or had they been looking at the town?—it was not anything they'd anticipated, not the India of stereotype, and that was so disconcerting, they withdrew into the Agni gate and shut India out.

  They had been surprised to hear the old man say he lived "just here" in the town, Hanuman Nagar. Where was this? They had believed they were on a rugged foothill of the Himalayas, an empty hill. Where was the town? They had no idea there was a settlement anywhere near Agni. And the "venerable temple" was news to them too. They suspected that the old man, a fantasist and yarn spinner, was indulging in hyperbole, another Indian trait, for how could there be a village nearby? Agni—the spa and maharajah's residence—occupied the serene top of Monkey Hill, at the end of a road that wound around the steep slope. Had there been a village, they would have spotted it on the drive up that first day. Instead, they had seen a yellow forest of trees with dusty leaves, staggering cows, glossy big-beaked crows, a few people on foot, and that was all.

  The Blundens had woken refreshed in the silence of their suite, a powdery dawn at the window, of pink dust and diffused light. They stretched, they bathed, they put on their white suits, like pairs of elegant pajamas, and they went downstairs and across the lawn to yoga.

  But here was something new. On this morning following their encounter with the old man, they looked down the hill and saw ropes of smoke untangling in the sky from the direction where he had pointed with his skinny hand. There was an earthen odor of damp flowers but also a smell of that distant smoke.

  They crossed the lawn to the yoga pavilion. Half a dozen others had preceded them and sat on rush mats, in lotus postures. Some had their eyes shut in meditation, a few greeted them softly; all were wearing the same white suits. The Blundens took their places. Vikram, the yoga teacher, sat on a raised platform, his hands clasped under his chin.

  "Om," Vikram intoned, auuummm, three times. Then, "Rub your hands, massage your eyes, feel the energy, feel the vibration. Open your eyes slowly, listen to the birds singing."

  The Blundens, without communicating this thought, each smelled the smoke they'd seen earlier, and another smell penetrating it, something sharp, like burned toast.

  They stood, they stretched, they did "the tree," balancing on one foot, then the other. They raised their arms, locked their hands, and stood on tiptoe. They felt like children, faltering in an exercise they barely understood, and, like children, not caring.

  "For tadasana, mountain pose. Think, 'This is Hanuman Mountain.' Find something to concentrate on," Vikram said. "A brick. A leaf."

  Audie saw a crack on a pillar of the pavilion. He stared hard at it. It held him up; he balanced on the crack, and it turned from a flaw to a distinct profile, a coastline, something with symmetry and meaning.

  "Now, slowly, lie on mat with feet apart. Inhaling breath, raise legs twenty degrees and slowly let out breath."

  They did this, lifting their legs higher, feeling their stomachs twist. They then knelt, extended one leg, did more poses and counterposes. Their arms and legs were tingling.

  "Feel the energy," Vikram said. "Breathe in, raise your arms as you inhale, bend to the left as you exhale, and hold the posture. Very good for kidneys, for spine, for pancreas, for blood circulation. Five regular breaths."

  No one except Vikram spoke. They assumed the posture of the archer pulling a bow, then the cat, the dog, and, resting with their hands on their chins, the crocodile.

  Without remarking on it to each other, feeling quietly strengthened, the Blundens knew they were improving. Beth, who had gripped her calves on the first day, could now touch the mat with her fingertips. Audie, who had trembled with his legs aloft, could now hold the position until Vikram said, "Exhale slowly and lower your legs. Prepare for pranayama."

  The breathing exercises cleared their heads: first the sequence of explosive breaths, expelling air through the nose, and then, using the thumb and ring finger, closing one nostril and drawing a breath through the other, exhaling through the first nostril.

  "This finger is earth. This is fire. This is sky. Use earth and sky."

  All this time Audie felt buoyant, vitalized, refreshed, serene; and Beth was enlivened, discovering new muscles, her arms and legs awakened. The end of the session came sooner and sooner, Vikram saying, "Now om and shantih three times," and taking a breath, "Auuummm."

  Afterward they lay for a minute or so, stretched flat on the mat, the cool air on their dampened faces, all the drowsiness of deep sleep wrung from their bodies.

  But lying there with their eyes shut, they were aware of the subtle smoke smell, not burned toast anymore but something fouler, a whiff of excrement.

  "I am limp," Audie said. "I feel wonderful."

  Not limp, Beth thought. She felt a heightened awareness, a keener sense of smell and touch. She was not soothed so much as set on edge.

  "Just floating," Audie said.

  No, she was alert, something quickening within her. Nevertheless, she hummed as though agreeing with him.

  "It's like an out-of-body experience."

  She felt it was the opposite, an intensification of the flesh, not the buoyancy he was describing to her as they walked past the clicking bamboo grove to breakfast. She had felt—still felt—a density in her body and a control over that density. Certain of her muscles were attached to her active mind: she was aware that she inhabited a whole live body in which she had been buried.

  "With each breath," Audie was saying, "I was sort of inhaling peacefulness through my nose, ca
lming myself and getting lighter."

  Beth smiled at him and said, "It's lovely—I want to go on doing this when we get home," yet nothing that Audie described was familiar to her. When she had lain on her mat she had felt energy pulsing out of the solid earth into her back and up her spine. Raising her eyes, tipping her head backward, she had sensed more energy pouring from the sky into her. Her fingers were limber, her grip was tested; she received power through her bare feet.

  "Like I'd slipped out of my body," Audie said.

  Not at all—Beth had felt naked, and she was soothed, as though a lover's hands had touched her, not erotically but like a caress.

  Audie had always spoken for her, expressing what she felt. That had been the case since before they were married, and it accounted for the happiness in their marriage. They were happier than ever, but these days at Agni, he would say something and she would smile, not because she agreed, but in disbelief.

  Even at breakfast this was subtly so. They chose the Indian options, but she saw that they each selected something different from the stainless steel containers at the buffet: he took a plate of idlis and sambar and curry soup; she chose the rotis and spiced beans, the sprouted lentils, the yogurt. She did not comment on this; he did not seem to notice. They ate without feeling full, they drank green tea, and they compared their reactions to the yoga session—that is, Audie enlarged on what he called his lightness of soul, and Beth nodded in agreement, yet distinctly felt that she had been affected not just in her arms and legs but in the pit of her stomach and in every inch of her spine.

  "Like I've had a lube job, an oil change, all the fluids checked," Audie said. "This is the nearest I've ever come to religion."

  "Yes," Beth said. That part was true. She had felt touched in a particular sense—light fingers on her body.

  "And I want more of it."

  "Yes," she said with conviction.

  "Meet you at the pool," he said. "I'm going up to the lobby to sign on for another week."