Friday, March 19, 2010

All Who Wander

I wrote this in bits and pieces between 1999 and 2002. Usually when I read something I wrote a long time ago, I wince. It always seems slightly foolish, poorly written and melodramatic; I have to resist the urge to rewrite it completely.

Although I think the writing holds up pretty well, this one was especially hard to read: not only was it was written during a time of particular melodrama and deep personal uncertainty, but the newborn puppies mentioned at the end are long grown, and gone.

These days I’m trying to have some compassion for my younger self, drama and all, and let her speak for herself.

* * *

I set forth into the mysterious, crumbling beast of the city just as the morning haze is dispersing under the sun. Delhi awakens: flower-sellers set out bright baskets of marigolds and roses; shawl-muffled taxi drivers huddle around small fires, steam rising from strong brewed cups of chai; diesel belching trucks careen along deserted streets. The buildings are dingy in the rising light, caked with decades of soot. There is no bustle to detract from the filth. Refuse is everywhere, the atmosphere nearly post-apocalyptic. My taxi stops at a light and I look out the window at  worshippers traipsing into a 15th century temple with an AT&T ad painted on the side. It is all so…Indian; for a moment it looks alien, a dirty leftover country, and I have a fierce and sudden desire for the clean, predictable lines of the West.

I wonder what I am doing back here, why the tide of my heart draws me, again and again to return to the country I fought to leave for so long. I hated India when I was dragged here by my parents, and spent my years tense and snarling like a dog on too short a tether, straining for release, for home, for America. At what point did the meaning of home slide in my mind from the west to the east? The irony of it sits uneasily on me; I suspect that returning to America gave me the luxury to feel unfulfilled.

The taxi drops me at the faded sign for Lodi Gardens. Once a glittering example of Mughal decadence, the sprawling, unsafe acres are now overgrown with wild vines and towering Eucalyptus trees, their bark as white and smooth as bones. I creep along a narrow maze of trails through walls of brambles. It is just after the monsoon; nature is riotous, lush and green. I relax as the smell of city fades into the overpowering scents of jasmine and magnolia.

I have not explored these acres for nearly eighteen years, but memory leads me to a decaying pavilion standing amid scattered stones and slumped column fragments. I clamber around the ruined walls, picking my way through refuse and broken marble screens, and finally settle myself on a cool, pockmarked block of sandstone. I have a partial view of a Frangipani tree, waxy golden blossoms weighing the delicate branches nearly to the ground.

I survey my surroundings cautiously, wondering if I really have sat here before, if this view moves me with its beauty or if some chord of memory resonates, too low to be heard by my conscious mind. When we arrived in India, I was ten years old, and saw these gardens from the hotel where we passed the first hazy, crazy days. My father took us for walks in these gardens, droning about history and culture while I straggled behind in sullen confusion. The gardens were maintained then, and I had to struggle against their beauty.

The sun has climbed higher, straggling rays waver through the canopy to illuminate the journal laying open in my lap. I have not written anything. Suddenly, I become aware of the haunting notes of a bamboo flute drifting over the abandoned gardens. Startled by the sound of the mountains here in the metropolis, and relieved to be rescued from the accusing glare of blank paper, I scramble down to begin a mostly aimless search through convoluted undergrowth for the source of this melody.

I burst into a grassy expanse of a small clearing; there, squatting under the spreading limbs of a Sal tree, sits the elusive flute player – an old, wizened, saffron-clad sadhu, one of India’s wandering sages. His matted dreads hang down his back, forehead anointed with rune symbols, begging bowl at his side, bare feet look hard as cracked earth…eyes closed as he draws fantastic music into the air. I hover, fascinated and afraid of intruding.

He looks up after a moment, and regards me without surprise. “Sister,” he speaks in oddly accented Hindi, “look, I have come upon a brother who is without his family. Come and sit, that we may send him out of this life with comfort.” For the first time I notice, laying on the ground, breathing in harsh panting gulps, a half-bald, filthy stray dog. The sadhu reaches over and caresses the  animal’s sore-ridden flank. “Sit.” The old man speaks again, dark eyes snapping, “He has no family, Sister, and he is afraid.”

There is no way I am going to touch that animal. I open my mouth, but everything I consider sounds too petty, so I sink down to the dog’s side. The sadhu shuts his eyes and keeps playing. We sit as time passes around us, the music from the scarred bamboo lifts and trembles. Green parakeets wing through the trees, luminous streaks against dark foliage. I fell utterly disconnected from myself, yet painfully aware. Life ebbs slowly from the shivering dog who has somehow ended up in my lap, and as I look at him, this nameless animal of the streets, I feel a sense of vertigo. I am spinning away from myself, into myself, and I realize what this is to me, a dying dog in my arms, and I am taken, unwillingly, to memory.

* * *

Ruby was my first. First love, first death.

When we finally settled into our small town in the mountains, I began to fight bitterly with my parents over many unremembered things, but oh, I wanted a dog, needed one, as only lonely children can. My festering dislike of India had only grown with time, especially when I, the outspoken, sociable one, was unable to find much common ground with other children. My parents eventually relented, and I procured an unlikely companion: a 70 pound, military bred and trained Doberman Pinscher, the legendary Ruby Tuesday. She personified my rage: stubborn, protective and unpredictable.

We went nearly everywhere together, into the ancient hills, through the bustling bazaars. It was in the market that I often felt I had a glimpse of Ruby’s world, amid the varied and overpowering scents, I felt a kinship with her madly twitching nose.

It was not until after I had escaped India, finally, that she died of poisoned meat thrown over the wall by neighborhood thugs. I got the call from my mother in the middle of the night, waking in a cramped studio apartment next to my first lover. Like my rage, Ruby had been forgotten, buried deep. When I heard how she died, convulsing and vomiting blood, my anger overtook me and I realized how quietly things sink below the surface of life.

I had something of India taken away from me, and I wanted it back. I wanted to return to my wandering in the hills, easy in the saddle and my big, disreputable dog at my side. I wanted back eerie pine forests that filtered light into gloom, the impossible neon green of young rice paddy, and the serene sweep of the high Himalaya rising white and cool beyond the hills. As I sat sobbing on the edge of my bed in Minneapolis, I wanted, desperately, to have come home for her, just once more. The idea of her dying, waiting for me, was overwhelming. As I cried alone after my boyfriend rolled back over into irritable sleep, I realized the truth of every cliché about dogs. Ruby and I had been each other’s; in a way that only India had borne witness to, only India could understand.

I am back now. She is still gone.

The dog trembles once, spasmodically, and finishes dying.

I gingerly push the filthy carcass from my lap, thinking about fleas and communicable disease, and face the holy man’s shrewd face. He creaks to his feet and motions me to follow.

We wind our way through a corridor dressed with bold red slashes of hibiscus, talking about nonsense – Delhi traffic, crime, politics. I am in a daze and unable to contribute much. I cannot place the cadence of his speech, although it seems very familiar. I imagine he must be from some remote village with some dying dialect, perhaps raised by a family of priests, learning chants under the ancient pillared pavilion of a Banyan tree. I ask him where he from, and his native language.

He turns to me with a mischievous look, and says, in crisp, precise, unmistakably Oxford English, “I was raised to speak the Queen’s own, little sister.”

I gape. He ignores my stammered questions and explains that he was born in England, of Indian parents, educated at Oxford and practiced law. He never married, and he tells me, with an emphatic shake of dreadlocks, that every year seemed greyer than the last. He realized that he was living a life he hated. He sold everything, bought a one-way ticket to India, and has been wandering the sub-continent for the last fifteen years. The clipped accents of England emerging from this spiritual hobo totally disorients me.

“I was rich and comfortable, but ill at ease. I felt a lack without knowing what I longed for.” He speaks gently, as if to soothe a frightened animal.

I am still unable to speak, and only stare after him as he touches my head in blessing and dismissal. He moves off into the deep green shadows, empty begging bowl at his side.

* * *

It is a long time later, and halfway around the world that I find the image of the old sadhu reoccurring in my mind. Another dog is lying in my lap, breath rattling. Kalia is five, and has lived with me as long; she is in labor. Her usually sleek form is obscured with the bulk of pregnancy, her sides ripple with contractions. Her usually calm eyes are round and startled, as if she has no idea what is happening. I am exhilarated and terrified for her. It is a messy business, the bringing in of life, but with surprisingly little fuss, Kalia delivers nine wet, squirming Doberman puppies.

In a rare moment of accord, my husband and I sit next to the new family, proud as any grandparents. Urban glances over and gives me a wide, uncomplicated grin. I forgive him everything, for a moment.

So much has happened between us since I sat in the lush Indian garden, taking part in an experience that I think I have understood. We are on the brink of disaster, he and I, my mind spirals outward to the future, which has stopped being about us, and started being about me. India pulls me again, and I find myself looking at him and wondering what I am doing back here in America.

I have told Urban the tale of my strange encounter, read to him from my scarred old journal. When he looks thoughtful and says, “I understand.” I look at him with furious contempt, thinking, you couldn’t possibly.

* * *

Kalia looks very dark against the white walls of the waiting room, her attention focused completely on the plastic laundry basket full of puppies. They are three days old, blind and mostly ignorant of the world beyond their mother, who submits patiently to the prodding examination of the vet. There is something wrong with her, and I have forgotten India for the time being.

When the vet says “Lymphoma.” my hostility to Urban is also forgotten, and we reach for each other. Kalia, unconcerned, snoozes on the floor between us, nose pointed at her future.

I take her for a walk later, leaving the husband and the puppies to their own devices at home. The light has a peculiar bright cast, like deep water. Brilliant colours have bled the green from the leaves. The air feels alert with autumn. I climb around the crumbling, shabby cliffs of Minnehaha Park, slipping and scrambling against the rough, wild bark of oaks and maple. There are a few late wildflowers clinging through the season. I do not know their names. I wish Urban were here, and I long for the simple comfort of his presence.

This is our favorite place. My family used to come down here with a raucous band of neighborhood kids, chaos on the move. Urban and I have been coming here since we started going out, but this is my first walk by the creek since my return from India.

We come to the place where creek meets river. I haul myself up the twisted roots of trees, exposed by tenacious erosion and unreliable sand. The roots are over ten feet tall and look fantastic, otherworldly, as if the trees were in the process of humping themselves elsewhere. I am pleased with my perch. These trees have been here a long time, and the rate at which the sand has worn away from the roots has happily coincided with my growth. They are one structure I remember from childhood that has remained in proportion. Kalia cranes her head up and wags her stumpy tail uncertainly. When I pull out my journal, she huffs and trots off in disgust.

I have been scribbling for some time when I feel a sudden, familiar, dislocation, and look up, confused. For a moment, I swear I hear it, the deep notes of a flute, then I realize it is only my mind, memory plucking a note that resonates through me. I take a breath and look around, at this sweeping part of the world where I have lived, left, returned; at my dog, unfettered and flying across the beach; at the page open in my lap and the names of the two pups we are keeping, names chosen before we knew of Kalia’s dwindling days: Dagaz, the rune for the peak and turn of the cycle, and Asha, hope. I am drawn back to the image of an unlikely holy man, and of midwifeing a death in the garden of my childhood.

For the first time, I begin to understand.


  1. This was so beautifully written, you made me cry.

    Anyone who has lost a dog can relate, at least partially, especially if they held the animal as it was put down. You add dimension with colors of memory to so many different fragments of your life, weaving together the happy and the sad and finally death.

    There a spiritual thread running throughout the piece. The sadhu, the passing of life the connection to nature at the falls tie the different threads of story together giving it all a depth of experience.

    This is beautifully written. I've heard so many pieces of this in different stories, but this is wonderfully put together. You make me miss all of those dogs -- Kalia, Dagaz and Asha. I'll never forget holding the two of them in my lap as their life ebbed. I wish I could have done the same for Day, but he went his own way. Why do we have dogs? Oh yeah, for these wonderful memories of love.

  2. this is a very poetic and touching piece. i often have to quench the urge to re-write my old entries as well, because what i feel now about the past is more solidified than what i felt during the time. however they provide a snapshot of a moment in time, and that is more valuable unedited.