from Chapter 4: Fire Beneath the Skin
Smoke hung over the city as we rode back towards the ghats. In the distance over the river, we heard volleys of fireworks, watched them flash, bringing the jagged outlines of temples into dark relief, followed by thudding like artillery shells. Our rickshaw driver tried to avoid the crowds by following side roads. Off the main avenues, rows of dozens of small oil lamps and candles had been planted along the ledges of the homes instead of electric lights. Strings of firecrackers burst like machine gun fire from the city center. The explosions came with greater and greater frequency as we neared the river. A young boy stepped out from between two building and hurled a banger into the middle of the road. It detonated in the path of our rickshaw, frightening the driver. He swerved, rocked on two wheels and narrowly avoided a head-to-horn collision with a wandering cow. Roman candles flared across the sky, fizzling gold above us. The sacred city could well have been at war.
"I am a Dis-co Dan-cer," the current hit song from a popular Hindi movie, blared out from loudspeakers set up along the main market streets. Young men gyrated to the beat in front of garishly painted plaster idols of the god-king Rama and queen Sita, spot-lit and strung round with coloured lights. A mass of dancing worshippers, all clapping hands above their heads, jammed the next intersection, making further rickshaw travel impossible. I paid the driver and we dismounted into crowd. Clutching each other's hands, Dorothea and I pressed our way through the frenzy into the back streets at the center of the sacred city, trying to find a way to the river.
Wet, dung-filled paths, too narrow for cars or even ox-carts, covered the heart of Varanasi like a skein of clogged veins. They twisted and turned, dead-ended and looped back upon themselves. Through one doorway I spotted a flash of red and the glitter of candles: a rear window into a shrine room filled with praying, white-robed devotees. In the next alleyway, a water buffalo munched softly on a pile of dried grass. All the shops were still open, their wares spilling out onto the street: silver bangles, pewter pots and water jars, row upon row of small golden idols. Candles and coloured lights covered every ledge. Young boys huddled in small groups, daring each other to hold the tips of red bangers in their hands. The explosions made Sabina jump, and her skittishness attracted the boys' attention. They threw their tiny bombs directly at her sandaled feet, laughing as she shrieked, chasing as we tried to escape through the winding alleyways.
The boys fell back when we joined a train of well-to-do women in white saris. The procession led through the inner-city maze to the shore of the holy river, just upstream of the burning ghats. We had inadvertently joined the final steps of a funeral march. The cremation fires seemed muted under a hundred bright electric lamps, each hanging on the end of a long bamboo pole. Lamps for the dead, Sabina explained.
A second power failure struck, dousing the city once more in darkness. But the momentary blackness soon gave way to the yellow glow of cremation fires. Orange embers flickered upwards into the sky. Looking out over the river, we saw hundreds of small oil lamps set afloat as offerings to Rama. Moisture rose up from the river and drifted inland, swirling warm and fishy around us. A dog barked near the river's edge, then growled. We walked towards the ghats, and stepped down the dark stairs towards the water. A voice called to us from the river.
"Hello Mister, you want go boat ride?"
We heard the gentle slap of oars. We could not see the hull against the black water, just the boatman's glowing white turban as he slid towards the shore. He held out a near-invisible hand to steady us as we boarded. We sat close together on the wooden planks in the bow, and the boat surged slowly upstream away from shore, into the current of tiny river lamps. Sabina urged the oarsman to be careful not to overturn any of the fragile offerings. He allowed the current to take us further out until a thousand dancing lights bobbed between us and the shore. Beyond the banks, the city's darkened profile was shot through with dots of candlelight.
"Oh, so beautiful," said Sabina. "It's as if the stars have settled on the city."
Where was the rational Indologist now, I thought with a grin. But it vanished the next moment as I felt her fingers touch my cheek, slide down my neck, press lightly against my chest and rest there. The sudden intimacy of her touch inflamed me. I placed my hand on her thigh, felt her muscles tighten and relax. After a minute she placed a hand over mine, holding it still.
"I have an idea," she whispered, "Another secret. I'll show you, back on shore."
When we reached the ghats she took me by the hand and led the way once more through the city's inner maze until we arrived at the gates of an ancient observatory. She quickly coaxed the watchman into opening the iron door for us, then drew me in after her through a confusing network of walkways and walls to a circular staircase. It took us to an open platform where for centuries Hindu astrologers had charted the course of the sky. As we looked down on the city spread out beneath us, the power failure ended. Varanasi flashed out of the darkness with a million multicolored lights. A spontaneous cry from thousands of voices rose up from the streets. "Disco Dancer" surged through the loudspeakers. A sudden volley of roman candles filled the sky with luminous pinks and greens. The smoke that followed gave the whole city a misty glow.
Sabina leaned against my side and put her arms around my waist. She pressed against my chest, her breasts warm beneath her kurta, her hair against my cheek.
"I give you Varanasi for Diwali, Tim" she said, holding me close.
It was past one by the time we made our way back through the combat zones of the old city and the still-crowded market streets to the Maharajah Hotel. The moon-faced manager sat outside on the steps, keys in hand. When we entered, he drew an iron gate shut behind us and locked it with a chain.
"Ah, Diwali!" he said dreamily as he climbed the stairs behind us. "Good night!"
Sabina eyes slowly surveyed the room. She smiled at the sight of the pomegranate, guava and red bananas I had piled on a bowl in the center of the wide blue bed. On one of the night tables the small white elephant she had given me raised its trunk playfully. I lit four candles around the bed, then turned off the light. Bicycle bells rang in the street below. A burst of firecrackers popped dully in the distance, and the occasional roman candle sent bars of light in through the cracks in the shutters.
"This is our room," I said, glad for how she lingered over the small details I had prepared.
I left her briefly for the sink, quickly sprinkling droplets of waters to scare away the ants. They scurried in panic all across the porcelain bowl and back into the cracked ridges in the plaster. I returned to the room and sat on the bed, legs crossed, eyes closed in a final moment of meditation, listening to her brushing her teeth, peeing, flushing the toilet. Such sounds filled me with bliss. I felt exhausted and exhilarated, drugged by Diwali, one corner of my mind still wondering if she as going to come back out and announce she had to leave for an important meeting now with some Buddhist monks.
She returned and lay on the bed beside me, her head propped on one elbow, looking straight into my face. I sank into her gaze. I couldn’t speak. We didn’t move. After a few minutes, she reached out and touched my cheek.
We caressed, easing each other out of our long Indian shirts. She touched me like an accomplished ballroom dancer leading a novice though his steps, sweeping me along in her grace. She guided my hands, my lips, to where she wanted me, pulled my head to her breast, drew my fingers between her thighs. I felt her muscles tense with pleasure. Her hands stroked my back, my neck, nails scratching lightly across my shoulder blades, her eyes watching me closely in the candlelight, as if learning how my body moved and taking apparent delight in mastering it. Reaching down, she grasped the base of my penis and slowly drew her fingers towards the tip. Her touch felt cool and I trembled. I clutched at her shoulder, panting. She smiled, inscrutable, shifted her hips and pulled me from my side to lie on top of her.
I rolled between her legs, felt her wet heat and pressed into her, gasping for air, blood roaring in my ears. It was too intense, too fast. I wanted to thrust wildly, claw her flesh, but instead dug my fingers into the bedclothes. I froze, afraid to move in case I burst, and an old specter of shame rose up. Her eyes tried to catch mine, but I averted them. She too was breathing heavily, but stilled her hips. We hung together motionless for awhile. Then slowly she began to rock, sliding me in a little deeper with each gentle movement, and the intensity held, did not spill over prematurely as it had done all too often in the past. She wrapped her ankles around the insides of my calves and strained to pull me tighter into her, increasing her rhythm. I opened my eyes and this time met her gaze, the blue sparking dark, honey hair tumbled all about. She threw back her head and I kissed her neck, breathless with the quickening roll of our hips. Our breathing came together now, shorter, faster, her body quivering beneath me. She groaned, and I felt it through to my belly, triggering a shudder, a brief second of bliss, spasms of pleasure coursing outward as I rocked hard against her, and then lay still.
We made love once more in the late Diwali night, and again at dawn as bicycle bells crept in through our window. Later she stroked me awake, taking my sex in her mouth until I grew hard and delirious. Then, placing her feet on either side of my hips, she lowering herself onto me from a squatting position, still watching, still smiling, while I clutched the sheets. After we had made the great bed rattle one final time, she kissed my belly, and slid off towards the bathroom.
"Where are you going?" I asked, dreamily.
"Oh, I have a breakfast meeting with Strauss. He has...
"I know, a Buddhist monk or scholar he wants you to meet for your research."
She grinned at me, and closed the bathroom door.
"Ack -- Ants!"
I hated to let her go, marvelled that she could separate herself so easily. I pitied Strauss, obviously so infatuated with her, but denied the pleasure of her touch. Yet I felt no pride. Rather, a sense of wonder that someone so beautiful, so accomplished, had chosen to be with me. It was almost religious. After she left, I lay in the blue bed, thoughtfully munched a guava and picked up my journal. My skin still tingled from her touch. A lazy, drugged warmth ran through my muscles, as if I was drunk on mulled wine.
"Technically," I wrote, "this has been the most intense, longest, most exhilarating night I have ever spent with a woman. I think I have a blister."
I stared at the word in my notebook and pondered how it had flowed from my pen. I was convinced she was a master in the arts of love, that men were for her like canvases to an expert painter. We had made love passionately and energetically, and I felt and acceptance of my sexuality--even desire for it--that I had never felt with previous lovers. Yet we hardly knew each other. This was exactly what I had longed for; better, in fact, than I had ever imagined it to be. But somehow dissatisfaction was creeping in already. I picked up my pen again.
"Somehow it feels 'surface,'" I wrote. "Passion, but not real intimacy. Not yet, at least. I suppose that's not surprising on a first night. It just feels as if somewhere underneath, there's supposed to be a lot more."