Conjuror of Divinity


Asia Literary Review Volume 26: Winter 2014




Tea splashed from the cup half-raised to her lips, smudging the newsprint. Sheena couldn’t believe it but there it was, a half-page matrimonial advertisement with the title: Indian Billionaire Needs A Wife: Are you the ONE I am looking for?

The text was prefaced by the picture of a smiling man, clearly no longer young.

She raced through the text:

Amlan Bagchi, 65, a billionaire tycoon with business interests in the US and Mexico, is now looking for love after his wife died five years ago.

I own a private plane, a 135 ft. yacht, and a fleet of cars and motorcycles. I have vacation homes in many places, but I live in my mansion in Mexico. I fly planes, rock-climb, go deep-sea diving . . . you will have to keep up with my active lifestyle!

I want love and companionship. No dowry required. You must speak English well and have a basic degree. You should have a sense of adventure and the desire to travel.

Most importantly, you should be no older than 40 and slim. Divorcees and widows are OK, but definitely no children.

Her mother’s voice droned in the background: ‘Ohey! Once your hands are red with henna, I will bathe in the Ganges . . . dear Gods, every day I pray for deliverance!’

As if conjured up by her mother’s constant complaints, had the Gods finally delivered? At the bottom of the advertisement (in full colour) were photographs of the man’s cars, his yacht, the twin-engine plane, and his mansion in Mexico. And a phone number to call, in a large, bold font. Sheena examined the man’s picture again – could this advertisement in India’s leading newspaper be an elaborate hoax? She could hear her heart beating in the unnatural silence that had descended on the room. Then she realized she had been holding her breath and felt her chest deflate with a whoosh of air.

As usual, Sheena had woken up on this Saturday morning to the screams of her neighbour yelling at the new servant. On the other side, a child tunelessly practised a devotional song. That she lived in Paschim Vihar, in a lower-middle-class warren of tiny apartments the engine of Shining India had passed by, was something out of her control; but today, with the intense smell of masalas sizzling, her mother’s vehement hawking and spitting into the basin in the hallway, the cold cement floor, the mismatched wooden chairs with their rattan bottoms frayed into pinpoints of discomfort, everything seemed unbearable for a moment longer, especially so early in the morning.

‘Still reading?’ her mother called. ‘How long do I have to wait for another cup of tea?’

Walking to the alcove that was the kitchen, Sheena put the pan of water on a gas flame that leaped into heat. She rinsed out a cup.

‘The Sharma girl is getting married tonight,’ her mother said.

‘I know, Ma.’

‘Don’t dress like a bhootni with your hair as spiky as your heels. Find some nice bangles, so many men at the wedding . . . ’

‘I know, Ma.’

Sheena liked to think that she was a glamorous single woman, the envy of her friends. She kept her hair short and sometimes bleached and spiked it, and she never let herself gain any weight. Her father had named her Dakshina, but now she had a new name and the looks to go with it. Working in the bookshop at the Imperial Hotel (the most luxurious property on Janpath), surrounded by expensive coffee-table books printed on the glossiest of papers, she was careful to modulate her English so that it never sluttered into a mongrel Hinglish but marched, crisp and discrete, as if reared in wintry climes. Her ease with the customers had kept her at her job for the past fifteen years, working every day while her friends from school and college sent her invitations to weddings, naming ceremonies, thread ceremonies, and the anniversaries of long and fruitful marriages.

In short, as her mother was reminding her yet again, while the good men married other girls. Sheena spooned sugar silently into the cup as she went over the words of the advertisement again.

‘Eh, girl, Vivek’s parents will also be at the wedding. And your Mausi will come from Greater Kailash . . . See, see, it’s raining already! Ooof... are you going outside in that singlet to show the men your nipples?’

The laundry was still hanging outside and a soft misty drizzle had dampened everything. Through the patter of the rain on tin awnings, she could still hear her mother talking over the relatives upstairs and the neighbours on both sides. Sheena shook the damp laundry and hung the clothes hastily over the chairs. The room already smelled mildewed and wet. She had the sensation of pond water in her nostrils.

Sheena sped past her mother and into the bedroom, flopped on her stomach and powered up her computer. The news services, including the BBC, had already picked up this story about an Indian multi-millionaire who had just spent £18,000 on a matrimonial advertisement.

So – it was not a hoax.

Sheena lay on her back and closed her eyes. She imagined a palatial home with cool green marble floors gleaming like leaves after rain. She imagined smudge-free ceiling-to-floor mirrors. And the ocean! Yes, frothy white waves to wake up to every single morning, washing her world clean.

Was it too much to hope for? She reached for the newspaper and stabbed at the numbers on her mobile phone.

Amlan Bagchi felt a happy smugness welling up, just looking at the scenery of this New Delhi. He wasn’t exactly in Delhi but in the satellite town of Gurgaon, but here it was, the city he had left behind so many years ago as a young man. The roads were still filthy in this version of New India, the malls sprouting into inadequate feeder roads. The buildings might be taller and flashier, but a basic incompetence and complete lack of civic sense still ruled. Nothing had really changed.

It was winter now, the air heavy with burning twigs, a moist woodiness mingling with the odour of peanuts roasting on charcoal braziers. The city was bathed in that forgiving half-light, blurring crouching beggars and accumulated garbage into indistinct smudges.

Here, where winter blended almost instantly into a blazing summer that lashed the city with afternoon dust storms, Amlan knew to enjoy this balmy weather. He rolled down the tinted window. Patches of greenery brightened by spiralling pink bougainvillea lined the driveway to his hotel.

‘How many girls yesterday?’ He looked at his assistant, Hari, who was texting into a Blackberry. ‘Fifteen.’ It was the first day after the advertisement but the shortlisted girls were already swarming in. Hari was a serendipitous find; last week, after landing in Delhi, the first thing Amlan had done was to go to a shop that sold SIM cards and Hari had been behind the counter. With typical Indian curiosity, Hari asked Amlan about his trip to India, about existing family and, finally, offered to help. Amlan had liked the look of this salesman in a clean white shirt with the logo of the telecommunications giant on his shirt pocket, a man who had dirt under his fingernails.

He had invited Hari for a drink at the hotel bar after work. Hari’s real talent (he confessed to Amlan during the course of the evening) was Swayambhu, the practice of making Hindu idols burst forth magically from the earth. The process was quite simple: one had to get any bean that would sprout, dig a hole, put an idol on top and fill it in. Then would follow the process of watering this area diligently and surreptitiously, so as to leave no evidence. After some time, the bean would fatten and the idol would burst out of the earth as if divinely ordained. The specifics of that idol did not matter much (although having an idol in the eight metals prescribed in the texts added weight). With the growing Hindutva movement, these talents were very much in demand to ensure that a Hindu temple could be built where a Muslim mosque had existed for centuries, or to jostle aside a Buddhist shrine.

Amlan had looked at Hari and burst out laughing. The Conjuror of Divinity! He knew from experience how useful it was to have the Gods on your side, and a man who could manipulate the superstitious, especially in India, would be invaluable. He immediately offered Hari three thousand rupees a day to work exclusively for him for as long as it would take, and Hari, sliding back into his chair and signalling for another whisky, had grinned.

Sheena walked briskly into the interview room, where six women were already waiting. A man at the desk was texting busily. A veteran of a system that bypassed queues by privilege, Sheena walked up to the man confidently, raised her arm to show off a perfectly tailored blouse and tapped on his desk imperiously. The man looked up, slightly bored.

‘I have an appointment. At four?’ She despised this man on sight – probably some peon of the millionaire – but she was careful to keep a smile on, the kind that bestowed attention instead of asking for it.


Sheena nodded. The man gave her a form to fill in. ‘Sit down, please.’

‘I already have an appointment – at four.’

The man glanced at his watch. ‘Please sit, Madam.’

Sheena sat down with the form. She looked at the competition; mostly slim, although one was definitely on the corpulent side, with lush curves. Another had a familiar face and Sheena realized she had been on a hit TV serial many years ago, but had since disappeared from public view. The one sitting next to the plant looked well over forty, her bony cheekbones highlighting deep wrinkles on her face.

Taking out grandma and fatty, she thought, leaves just four to beat.

The door opened and a woman rushed out in tears. The man at the desk said, ‘Next . . . Manjula.’ And Manjula, a gorgeous dark-skinned girl, sashayed in as if on a runway.

Sheena smoothed her own hair down and rehearsed her speech. The first thing that he would probably want to know would be why she wasn’t already married. They always asked that and she had memorized the lines: grief at her father’s death in her mid twenties had taken her into her thirties without thinking of marriage; her demanding job; and of course, everything would have changed if the right man had come along, but all this was destiny, no?

She glanced into the mirror and wondered how much a 65-year-old prospective groom would want to know.

Amlan had positioned the desk so that it faced a tall mirror. Reflected in the image was a round wooden stool, not the most comfortable of seats, but most of the women did not sit long enough to feel any discomfort. As soon as they sat down, this view allowed him to check off the most important criterion: if a woman’s behind spilled over the sides of the stool even slightly, she was too fat for him.

The big butts of Indian women were depressing him. Trawling Mexico and the US for love had honed his preferences, and his last wife, Tanya, had boyish hips. It was Tanya who had spent four years designing and building the house in Mexico where he now lived. The house named after his aunt, his Pishi: Aparajita.

Aparajita, the Unvanquished; how he loved the sound of that.

Amlan’s own mother had died early and it was this Aunt who had mothered the young Amlan into adulthood. He twirled a glass paperweight as the memory returned: a woman dressed in white keening behind a mosquito net, urging him to not leave her and go to America, not to sell the house, the only home she had known. When he had bent down to touch his Pishi’s feet in farewell, she curled her toes out of his reach. ‘Ashi,’ he had said, for a Bengali farewell was about coming back. Pishi had hardened her tone. ‘If you leave now, may you never come back! Mora mukh dekhte aar aashish ne re!’

Don’t come back to see my dead face. He had walked away and let her curse grow into truth. He hadn’t come back, not even at the news of her death.

The door swung open, and another woman walked in. ‘Hello,’ she said, ‘My name is Sheena.’

He straightened the paperweight on the desk and stood up, holding out his hand. Her fingers felt soft, the tips perfectly pearly pink. As she seated herself, he glanced at the mirror. So far so good. He liked that she hadn’t put on a sultry voice, or bent across the desk to shake his hand while flashing her cleavage. She had short spiky hair and he liked what he saw. He looked at his notes – she was thirty-six.

‘Aren’t you worried about the age difference?’ He always started bluntly, keeping an eye on the time. ‘I don’t want any children, and you are still young enough to have them?’

‘I’m not at all maternal.’ He could see her relax. She hadn’t hesitated, not even slightly.

He read the form. Her eyes were running across the line of his shoulders just as he looked up; the whistle from the room freshener had broken the silence. He liked women who didn’t start yapping to fill a room with noise and this woman continued to sit silently across from him, back straight, unperturbed, just taking him in without looking away.

He held up her questionnaire and glanced through her height and weight. She was born in Delhi and had a degree in English Literature. He leaned forward. ‘You’re not a closet vegetarian, are you? I mean, it says here that you eat meat, but some Indians prefer to be vegetarian and eat meat only on some days . . . I can’t live like that.’

‘No worries,’ she replied. There was a twinkle in her eye.

‘And do you enjoy intercourse?’

Whether she was eighteen or thirty-six, an Indian woman was supposed to save herself for the marriage bed, and whether that was the case or not, nobody asked the bride. The question sounded – well, a little crude – especially coming so soon.

Should she tell this man: I have enjoyed intercourse with many men, travelling wayfarers who have stopped at the Imperial bookstore and fucked me in their rooms, sometimes inviting me for weekends in Jaipur and Goa, once a two-week jaunt to Phuket? That the men were always married or taken, and my longest relationship was with Geert, the impossibly tall Dutch engineer who for two years had led me silently to hope, every time he returned to Delhi for a month or two, but that even that had petered into silence? That I prefer sex a little rough, the talk dirty, the men generous afterwards, in rooms with luxurious white sheets, attached to bathrooms with white bidets, preferably with ocean waves outside to soothe me to sleep?

‘I do enjoy intercourse, yes,’ said Sheena.

‘Good,’ he said, ‘I need sex at least twice a week’.

This was a matrimonial interview, although unlike any Sheena had encountered before. She examined the patterned carpet, wondering whether he would ask to have sex immediately to try her out. This nonresident Indian was making her feel both gauche and unprepared.

But he was too smooth for that. He started to tell her about his lifestyle now, not boasting of his wealth but describing how he had come far from his childhood, very far indeed from the difficulties of growing up in India. That his strongest memory was of lining up for the rations of rice, sugar and wheat, commodities that were mixed with bits of stone and earth to make them heavier. He described the dusty heat and how small he had felt, standing in line with his father, jute bags in hand, every single month at the Cooperative.

‘Nobody does that anymore,’ said Sheena.’

‘No ration cards?’

‘We have them. But only the servants collect rations. We go to the market.’

‘Yes, of course. Servants and Supermalls.’

She thought she heard derision, but it was masked by a smile. ‘I have a question, actually.’


‘Why the advertisement in the papers? Couldn’t you have gone through a matrimonial website, some sort of’

‘I have no relatives in India any more, so an advertisement seemed like a good idea. I tried to find someone through dating sites in Mexico and in the US, but sometimes you just want someone who’ll speak your language, even if it’s not Bengali. You know?’

He was as self-assured in person as that outrageous advertisement had suggested. He smelled of woody cologne and his fingernails tapered to manicured edges. There was an expensive cleanliness about him that would take her very far away from the tiny flat in Paschim Vihar, from her daily commute on Delhi’s filthy public transport.

Sheena had a mental image of maniacally waving a hand into the air – please, please, pick me – as he flicked his wrist to glance at his watch. She willed herself to be quiet. It seemed to her that silence was necessary now, to concentrate her body into a resolve that would help this man choose only her.

The man said, ‘I am sorry, our time is over today...’

Steady breaths now, a rapid easing of the chest, in and out, then again.

‘Thank you for coming,’ he said. ‘Hari will be in touch with you this evening. I would like to see you again.’

He walked her to the door. She left the building quickly without raising her head; the moment felt so jubilant that she didn’t want to catch the evil eye of any of the waiting women.

Once outside, she immediately dialled Vivek. She swore impatiently at the long, insistent burrs, but it was three in the morning in Texas. Vivek, her cousin, the closest thing she had to a brother, who had steered his two sisters through arranged marriages (and had one of his own) – he would know what to do next. He would know how to check Amlan Bagchi’s background for her. She had no idea how this was done or what to look for (Bankruptcy? Felony? Adultery?) but Vivek very well knew the rules of this game.

Two days later a driver picked Sheena up from the Imperial hotel and took her to the Emporio Mall, that chrome-and-glass temple to haute couture. Amlan met her on the ground floor, and when Sheena extended her hand he leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. She gave him an awkward pat on his sleeve with her raised arm.

They strolled through wide corridors lit by crystal chandeliers. When they stopped at the glass elevators, Amlan said, ‘I want you to buy something for yourself, something to wear.’

She twirled flirtatiously, ‘Don’t you like what I have on?’

‘You look beautiful. But please, I insist.’

‘I couldn’t. I can’t accept anything just like that, really.’

‘Because I didn’t have time to buy flowers?’

Sheena laughed. ‘Nothing in this place is equivalent to a bunch of flowers.’

The lift doors opened, and soundlessly closed again as Amlan took her hand, stroking the palm and she felt the firmness in his grip. ‘I want to see if our tastes match.’

Sheena straightened her shoulders. ‘In that case perhaps we should take the escalators and shop around.’

Perhaps, she thought, this was how the fantastically rich behaved. She could feel his eyes on her as she picked her way through the lines of clothes. She didn’t look at the price tags, not even surreptitiously while holding a fabric up to the light, or holding a dress against herself to check its length. Without asking for his opinion, she chose a short asymmetrical dress by Rina Dhaka, in green and turquoise blue.

‘Good choice,’ he nodded.

‘Reminds me of oceans and waves.’

‘I like mountains myself.’

‘I could learn to love the mountains, but I prefer the water. Thank you for the dress.’

Her phone vibrated with a message. She texted back: Vivek, thanks SO much for going to Mexico for me!!!


Vivek did not like to travel, and getting to San Miguel de Allende from Mexico City involved two buses – one to Querétaro, where he was now waiting for the next, greedily eyeing the gorditas sizzling inside the small restaurant behind him. He was too afraid to eat those fried bits of dysentery but he had been waiting for over 45 minutes as buses went to León and Mazatlán and places that were anything but San Miguel.

This bus station in Querétaro reminded him of ISBT in New Delhi, where similarly aged buses trundled in, spewing out tired brown people. He felt winded by the sudden homesickness. Perhaps he was just hungry; he had started very early this morning and although the evening was beginning to smudge the sharp edges of the corrugated tin roof under which he stood, there was, clearly, no bus to San Miguel in sight. He wondered whether to call Vinita, who would probably be sitting in their living room in the tiny graduate student apartment on Front Street, flipping through the HGTV channel featuring palatial homes.

A couple nuzzled into the corner, the thick male hand creeping unabashedly into the girl’s waistband as they kissed. Vivek looked away quickly, mentally calculating roaming rates. He couldn’t call Vinita now; it was an unnecessary expense when he would soon be in a hotel room, with free Wi-Fi to call on Skype. He was saving up for an uncertain future (in this job market, they might have to subsist on a graduate student salary for years). He wasn’t sure he even wanted to talk to Vinita – her moods were so unpredictable! – and she didn’t seem to care about his absences as she continued to watch TV, although Vivek refused to subscribe to the cable channel with Indian shows.

Vinita’s family was well off, but his family had not asked for a big dowry when he had married Vinita a year ago, after a summer of rapid bride-viewing at various Delhi hotels and homes. After four brief meetings over that summer, an email correspondence had led to their wintry wedding in December. He had felt giddy with the excitement of it all (Vinita was so beautiful!), but Vivek had recently started to feel very shortchanged.

He had been completely unprepared for the viciousness of Vinita’s passive discontent. She seemed willing to do what people wanted her to do, but never was. During the bride-viewing she had hardly said a word, her head cocked slightly to the side as if she didn’t know how to look at him directly, and he, along with his family, had approved of this shyness. She did the same thing to him now and it wasn’t as if she ever complained, but her uncooperativeness reached such an unbearable level that Vivek had to capitulate. Like the time when she didn’t want to entertain the visiting uncle from Delhi and Vivek, inhospitably, had taken his uncle to dinner at a restaurant (where his uncle insisted on paying the bill). Vinita had ordered lobster, the most expensive entrée on the menu, then sat through the dinner sullenly, pushing the tail around her plate without eating a bite. Vivek had been deeply embarrassed. He wondered whether his uncle pitied him; Vivek the brilliant scholar of the family, tied to some uncouth girl who was a social albatross around his neck.

A bus stopped at his right, and the amorous couple disentangled themselves from each other. The man gave the woman a last lingering kiss, and then they both walked to the bus, bumping into each other gently.

A part of Vivek had believed, all through his virginal undergraduate and graduate schools in India (surrounded by classmates who gave in to raging hormones), that people who succumbed to arranged marriages were, in some way, deficient. His exertions on his wife’s passive body at nights further convinced him of that. His parents had to find him a Vinita because no girl, especially not someone like Vinita, would ever actually choose him if given a real chance.

Which is why he had agreed to this trip to Mexico, to stop Sheena from making the same mistake. He was also curious about this mysterious Amlan Bagchi. If all turned out well, a rich brother-in-law could be of help in many ways.

Amlan steered Sheena towards the expansive buffet at Setz, where heaped tables of food ran from one wall to another, the lines disappearing around corners and behind pillars. The restaurant was filled but they were ushered into a secluded corner. She smiled at him, ‘Is this a test too? To see if our tastes match?’

‘Of course’, he said, ‘I choose the wine and you decide whether to drink it. Relax!’

But she knew how keenly she was being watched while she helped herself to the sashimi, with chopsticks perfectly poised. She felt eyes on her legs as she walked through the serving stations. She deliberately smoothed the back of her dress as she got up, her long ring-less fingers resting on a perfectly tight behind.

They talked about the hundreds of crank calls every day, most of them from men asking him to marry them instead, loan seekers, and the occasional Bengali matron scolding him for showing off his wealth. A retired professor advised him to build schools in villages.

He gently tapped her hand across the table. ‘What do you think? Should I give away my wealth?’

‘It’s your money. Spend it on what makes you happy . . . and that could be in building schools.’

‘Ah, you think money buys happiness?’

‘My best friend Dimple married a divorcee. She lives in a HUGE place in Sainik Farms, but her husband has three brats from an earlier marriage who hate Dimple.’ Sheena shrugged and sipped at her wine. ‘A certain happiness can be bought. Dimple spends enough money to look and feel fabulous.’

‘To happiness, then,’ said Amlan, raising his glass. The waiter appeared at their side instantly, refilling both glasses as soon as they had put them down.

‘How much longer do you think you will be in Delhi?’

‘Not much longer, I think. I’m not interviewing any more.’

Like a sequence from a reality show, the women in the waiting room flashed through her mind – the gorgeous Manjula, the accomplished actress – could he have chosen Sheena? The terror washed over her. If he said thanks but no thanks with the gift of a dress, should she ask for a second chance? Even the women in this room were all so well groomed and gorgeous, while she, Sheena, had nothing that could be called an advantage. The spikes of short hair, which her mother said didn’t suit her bony face, were so last season. She steeled herself, hearing blood in her ears above the clinking cutlery and glasses.

‘I like you, Sheena,’ she heard him say softly. ‘I would like to take you away for a few days to Kerala, to get to know you better.’

She tried to sip slowly at the wine. ‘Is there anyone . . . else . . . you are considering?’

‘No.’ He paused slightly. ‘I think you may be the one for me. Can you get away soon?’

She felt giddy with relief. Or perhaps it was just how fast she had gulped down this glass of wine. The meal passed with one thought in her mind – she needed to check in with Vivek soon. She needed assurance that Amlan did not have another family somewhere, other loves with prior claims waiting for his return. Love could be worked on, if everything else was in place, and she was good at pleasing a man. She was so tired of giving too much, not holding back, for so little secured.

As Vivek finally slipped into a bus seat by the window, he cursed Sheena for being so persuasive. Of course his cousin was excited – at her age any man would do.

Vivek had tried to gather information about Amlan Bagchi through the usual Indian networks but the man seemed to be a complete recluse. None of the Bengali students he knew at the university could find any relative anywhere in North America who knew this Amlan Bagchi. A very old article titled “THE UNVANQUISHED” had popped up in Indo-American news, where Bagchi talked about his difficult life, his road to riches, his house named “The Unvanquished”, and ended quite pompously with a statement about the Gods always being on his side despite the odds. Nothing else came up on Google. Bagchi, unlike most diasporic Indians, was completely disconnected from the desi network. It was all very worrying, as these secretive types usually turned out to be gay. Finally, a journalism major had been able to dig up an address for Amlan Bagchi.

When Sheena had called him he had been tempted to tell her to wait, get to know this guy a little better, but what was the use? Vivek had known his bride for six months. When he had developed cold feet a week before his own arranged marriage, his mother had given him a lecture.

‘The problem’ – his mother had wagged a furious finger in his face – ‘the problem with all you children wanting love-shove romance like in the silly movies hanh, you think it lasts? Your romance is boiling water on the fire of life, and all that love, so hot-hot already, so much jawani-ki-garmi, POOOOOOOFF, disappears into steam in no time. Then you come talking of die-vorce, hanh? But see, your Papa and me, look at your sisters, your uncle-aunties . . . we are cool water when we marry, then put to the flame slow-ly warming up, slow-ly, everything in its own time. Love will come when you live together, but that is not the most important thing. Vinita is a good girl, a beautiful girl, so fair and from our community, what more you want?’

‘Ma,’ Vivek protested, ‘marriage is not a kettle of water.’

His mother had smoothed his hair over his forehead as if he were still a little boy. ‘Come back in a year beta, and we’ll see what song you are singing then, eh?’

It was a year already and Vivek felt miserable remembering that conversation. He would make sure that his cousin had a real chance at happiness. He was lucky to have found an academic colloquium nearby so that the Math department would fund this trip, but he had a day and a half to sleuth around San Miguel. Now, with the travel delays, he would get just one single day.

Everyone in the US had warned Vivek about highway robberies in Mexico; his money and credit cards were tucked inside his socks and were now jabbing at the heel of his foot. He tried to keep calm by adding up the sum of the letters on the advertising and the street signs even if he didn’t understand the words. It was a childhood trick (he had competed with his sisters to see who could add up car number plates most quickly); now he counted maniacally as he passed the highway signs, the hoardings, the shops.

His phone vibrated once. A message from Vinita: Going to sleep now call me tomorrow. He squinted at the backlit message and understood that Vinita didn’t care whether he reached San Miguel safely. Outside the window, he could see a massive statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched, floodlit from below.

The bus was now standing room only. Vivek could no longer estimate how far it was to San Miguel as the frequent stops had made time elastic. He had been warned against getting off anywhere on the highway (even if the bus driver told him the bus had broken down) and the second injunction was against talking to random Mexicans, especially young men.

He glanced at the traveller next to him. The man was probably his father’s age. His greying hair was sparse and he wore flat shoes and khaki pants, with a faded brown T-shirt. If anything, the man reminded him of an unmarried uncle who was always being told by the family to smarten up.

Not trusting his own pronunciation, Vivek carefully wrote out SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE in capital letters on the back of a receipt. Handing the man the slip of paper, he said, ‘Excuse me. Very far?’

‘Ah. My home also. Not far, three stops?’ The man’s English was accented, but clear.

‘Three stops?’ Vivek tried sounding out the name, just to be sure, ‘San Miguel?’

‘Si, si. Maybe eight minutes, or ten minutes?’

This was either a lucky break or Vivek was in for trouble. ‘Gracias,’ he said, and held out his hand. ‘I am Vivek.’

‘Eduardo. Pleased to meet you. From United States?’

‘From India. New Delhi,’ said Vivek.

Eduardo smiled. ‘India! Ah, welcome!’

He had begun to tell Eduardo about the academic colloquium when the older man peered out of the window and said, ‘Next stop. We get off now, OK?’

The bus stopped at a dark shed next to a roundabout. The traffic on the road was intermittent. ‘Can I get a taxi here?’ Vivek scrabbled in his backpack for the printout of the budget hotel he had booked online.

‘I can wait with you and call a taxi,’ Eduardo offered. ‘My home is up that hill.’ Vivek could only make out a dark mound, dimly lit in places.

But a taxi was quick to arrive. Eduardo took the hotel printout and scribbled a phone number on it. ‘Call me’, he said. ‘You must tell me if you need any help here, my Indian friend’.

In reply, Vivek had gripped his hand tightly. How grateful he felt then, being driven to the promise of a clean bed where he could tumble into sleep immediately. The freedom of having no one to answer to felt liberating as the taxi swung through a narrow arched gateway, up cobblestone streets lined with haciendas inscribed with names like Casa del Sol and up again through the darkness of a night perfumed by thickly flowering shrubs. He would ask the hotel reception to book a taxi for tomorrow morning, to drive him to Amlan Bagchi’s mansion, but for now there was simply the delicious promise of sleep, even if it would be on an empty stomach.

When the taxi arrived the next morning and Vivek was woken by a call from reception, he was unable to remember where he was. The dogs had barked all night, keeping him awake until he had stumbled to a window to see if anyone was being robbed in the centro. Then he had fallen into an uneasy sleep and woken up again, reaching out sleepily for Vinita in the bed until he felt her absence as a kind of despair, much more than mere frustration.

The taxi sped through arid hills where only isolated patches of green cactus bloomed. Far below, the valley burst with colour. This unpeopled road was a complete contrast to the busy morning scene at San Miguel with the gentle light falling on stone, the crowing of roosters and the symphony of church bells ringing. He had devoured his breakfast hurriedly and headed for the door, unwilling to waste this one precious day, even as his senses felt overwhelmed by the roasted corn in the air, the birdcalls, the stab of uneven cobblestones beneath his feet.

Vivek checked Amlan Bagchi’s address again. The taxi was slowing down, and the driver, with his head out of the window, was driving slowly past a handful of disconnected residences, the roofs barely visible over fortified fences. These houses had security guards and electronic alarm systems, and flowers bloomed everywhere in orange vines and blue plumes. The taxi stopped.

He had settled the price for a return trip and the driver would wait. Vivek eyed the high iron gate of this fortress in front of him and felt intimidated until he saw the sign: “APARAJITA”. He took a deep breath and pressed the buzzer. There was no response. Peering through the slatted metal he could see a long driveway ending in a mansion. In the distance two men were loading the backs of donkeys with loamy soil, working silently as flies hovered above the ears of the animals. They glanced at him quickly, then looked away. Vivek rang the bell again, holding the buzzer down longer.

There was a slight shuffling sound before a man stood at the gate. Vivek handed him the paper with Amlan Bagchi’s name and the man nodded in recognition – then spoke in Spanish so rapidly that the only thing Vivek could understand was the shaking of the man’s head. The taxi driver translated: Amlan Bagchi was not here, yes this was his house, no one was home and Vivek should go.

He already knew Bagchi wouldn’t be home. Vivek returned to the taxi, wondering what he had hoped to achieve with this trip. Had he hoped that Mexico would be like India, with gossipy neighbours willing to share information? Had he hoped to see the evidence of a child’s bicycle on Bagchi’s lawn? The only thing he had discovered was that Amlan Bagchi was indeed very rich and not some sort of a pretender subsisting in Mexico City’s slums.

He decided to call Eduardo and have an early dinner laced with enough alcohol to forget this whole trip, which had felt cursed from the beginning. He would have to catch the early bus to his conference tomorrow morning. Maybe he should ask Eduardo about Bagchi, although that was a long shot. There was nothing more he could do.

Little green hummingbirds moved from flower to flower as Vivek sat with Eduardo on the rooftop of a restaurant, the golden light slanting across ochre walls and pooling into cobbled streets below. Eduardo had been pouring Rioja into heavy green wine glasses for over an hour now, and Vivek was feeling slightly disoriented as he watched the crowd of people gathering on wrought iron benches scattered around the perimeter of the square below. Peddlers of corn and of steamed garbanzo beans were doing brisk business and hot yeasty scents from a bakery mingled with the smell of wet stones. A radio played a tinny song nearby. Buildings the colour of salsa, the sound of church bells. He breathed it all in. He wanted Vinita to see this, to love it. He murmured her name aloud.

‘You miss your girl?’ asked Eduardo.

‘My wife.’

‘You should bring her here! San Miguel de Allende . . . good romance.’

Vivek could see that already. It was a city that also reminded him of the streets of Delhi, with the noise and the children everywhere, the dust tamed with water sprinkled from buckets. No wonder Bagchi had bought a home here.

‘Eduardo, do you know someone named Amlan Bagchi? Lives in San Miguel . . . an Indian man?’

Eduardo did not reply immediately, and looked down as he swirled the wine in his glass. ‘Yes. Bagchi. He is here for many years. Your friend?’

‘My father’s friend,’ lied Vivek. ‘I went to his home today, but he wasn’t there.’

‘Ah. It is hard to find Bagchi. Impossible.’

Vivek kept his voice even, ‘His wife – can I contact her?’

The evening had deepened into black and they were surrounded by candlelight. Eduardo’s words sounded slurred. ‘Eh? The murdered wife?’

‘Murdered? I was told she was still alive!’

‘Eh, anyone, anyone at all in San Miguel can tell you how she died.’

Eduardo’s words were slow. ‘Big yacht, two of them go sailing, sunny day, no storm . . . then she is dead. Dead in the water. He is a very good swimmer. A good woman, Tanya. Volunteer at library, shop at mercado – everyone, we all know her.’

‘Maybe it was an accident?’

Eduardo slammed his glass down on the table. ‘I make up this story, eh? Por qué? I do not know you before yesterday . . . but everyone in San Miguel know Bagchi. NO police. NO, how you say. . . investigation! The fisherman that day, the one who try to help, he is a rich man.’

The church bells began to chime and Eduardo crossed himself.

Vivek was placatory. ‘You are right. I have not seen him for many years. My father’s friend . . . ’

‘Her eyes . . . when they bring the body back? Still open. That Bagchi, he has the seed of the devil.’

Lying in bed later that night, Vivek wondered how much to tell Sheena. What Eduardo had said was disturbing, but the man had been very drunk. It was the testimony of a drunkard, and rich men always had enemies. The only thing Sheena had wanted to know with certainty was that Bagchi didn’t already have a wife – and, as Eduardo had confirmed, he didn’t.

Should he tell Sheena and let her make her own decision? What if he was wrong and this was his cousin’s last opportunity at happiness? He thought of the tiny flat Sheena shared with her mother and her daily commute with all the low-class labourers flooding in from Bihar; there was a higher probability of her getting raped and killed in New Delhi than of Bagchi causing her any harm. These fish-eating Bengalis were such an effeminate race, more prone to bursting into song than any violence.

Vivek resolved to say nothing. His cousin would be fine. He imagined the inside of the mansion he had seen earlier today, just like one of the HGTV show houses that Vinita would love to visit. The open windows brought in the sounds of the mariachis singing old ballads of passion, the music pouring out of doorways and travelling through alleys of sound. He picked up his phone and dialled Vinita.

Amlan stood on the balcony of the hotel. Someone had been snooping around his home in San Miguel, some Indian man, but that was to be expected.

The tip of his cigarette was the only light. It was three in the morning and he could hear Sheena’s gentle snores inside. He liked women who were experienced, and she was. He felt good being with her. She had nothing of the moral certitude of his last girlfriend, a Boston Brahmin; this one instinctively understood that the rules of the universe were malleable, especially for the strong-willed. She didn’t try to pretend that marriage would be anything but a transaction.

The susurration of wind through the palm trees made him look up. Was a storm brewing? The sky was still full of stars, though clouds were thickening on the horizon. Stars always reminded him of his Pishi gently turning his face to the stars whenever he was unhappy. They would pretend that the stars were the fingerprints of his dead mother: Here, she would count, see, five fingers, she is looking at you through her distant window.

He had grown beyond all that. So much bereavement in his life. He still missed Tanya, though the last decade with her had been hard, as she spiralled from mere depression to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. He hadn’t trusted the Californian medical system with its invasive testing and prodding and institutionalisations that had convinced Tanya she was crazier than she really was. He had moved her to Mexico but her symptoms only got worse; it started to make him a bit crazy too.

With his father, he’d had to plan for so long, to make sure that he would have the house to himself without Pishi there to be disturbed by every slight sound. He choked the old man with a sari until his tongue lolled out, then strung the sari to the ceiling fan. He had to stage the room: the half-drunk glass of water, the chair kicked over at the last minute. Thankfully the neighbours had taken over after that – a teenager nearby had committed suicide the week before, and the stories of an illicit love, of a winter-spring doomed romance, had danced through the mouths of many. A magazine that based its circulation on sensationalism even wrote an exposé. Amlan had truly grieved through it all; his horror, at so many levels, had a legitimate outlet.

But Sheena had a no-nonsense way of looking at him and the world and they would be good together. She came from a culture that buried the foetuses of girls and coerced goddesses to burst out of the earth; she understood complexities.

The sliding door opened, and Sheena stood framed by the curtain.

‘You OK?’ Her voice was sleepy, a little concerned.

‘Yeah. Just needed to think something out. Work-related.’ He held out a hand and she joined him on the balcony. ‘Did I wake you?’

She kissed his mouth gently. ‘It’s OK.’

He held her around the waist while she looked out at the city. ‘So many stars,’ she said. ‘It’s such a beautiful night. A bit windy, hmmm?’

He found himself stirring again. Nibbling at her ear, he said, ‘I think we should go back to bed.’

She led him in, letting the sash of her robe fall on the balcony floor. Amlan looked back. So many stars. So many desperate fingers reaching out for him through the distant window, yet he would remain unvanquished. He closed the sliding door with a firm click.


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