Translated by: Frances Frenaye
The trains from Bombay to Madras leave from Victoria Station. My guide assured me that a departure from Victoria Station was, of itself, as good as a trip through India, and this was my first reason for taking the train rather than a plane. My guide was an eccentric little book, which gave utterly incongruous advice, and I followed it to the letter. My whole trip was incongruous and so this guidebook suited me to perfection. It treated the traveler not like an avid collector of stereotype images to be visited, as in a museum, by three or four set itineraries, but like a footloose and illogical individual, disposed to taking it easy and making mistakes. By plane, it said, you’ll have a fast, comfortable trip but you’ll miss out on the India of unforgettable villages and country sides. With long-distance trains you risk unscheduled stops and may arrive as much as a whole day late, but you’ll see the true India. If you have the luck to hit the right train it will be not only comfortable but on time as well; you’ll enjoy first-rate food and service and spend only half as much as you would on a plane. And don’t forget that on Indian trains you may make the most unexpected acquaintances.
These last points had definitely convinced me, and perhaps I was so lucky as to have hit the right train. We had crossed strikingly beautiful country, unforgettable, also, for the variety of its human components, the air-conditioning worked perfectly and the service was faultless. Dusk was falling as the train crossed an area of bare red mountains. The steward came in with tea on a lacquered tray, gave me a dampened towel, poured the tea and informed me, discreetly, that we were in the centre of the country. While I was eating he made up my berth and told me that the dining- car would be open until midnight and that, if I wanted to dine in my own compartment, I had only to ring the bell. I thanked him with a small tip and gave him back the tray. Then I smoked a cigarette, looking out of the window at the unfamiliar landscape and wondering about my strange itinerary. For an agnostic to go to Madras to visit the Theosophical Society, and to spend the better part of two days on the train to get there was an undertaking that would probably have pleased the unusual authors of my unusual guidebook. The fact was that a member of the Theosophical Society might be able to tell me something I very much wanted to know. It was a slender hope, perhaps an illusion, and I didn’t want to consume it in the short space of a plane flight; I preferred to cradle and savor it in a leisurely fashion, as we like to do with hopes that we cherish while knowing that there is little chance of their realization.
An abrupt braking of the train intruded on my thoughts and probably my torpor. I must have dozed off for a few minutes while the train was entering a station and I had no time to read the sign displaying the name of the place. I had read in the guidebook that one of the stops was at Mangalore, or perhaps Bangalore, I couldn’t remember which, but now I didn’t want to bother leafing through the book to trace the railway line. Waiting on the platform there were some apparently prosperous Indian travelers in western dress, a group of women and a flurry of porters. It must have been an important industrial city; in the distance, beyond the tracks, there were factory smokestacks, tall buildings and broad, tree-lined avenues.
The man came in while the train was just starting to move again. He greeted me hastily, matched the number on his ticket with that of the berth and, after he had found that they tallied, apologized for his intrusion. He was a portly, bulging European, wearing a dark-blue suit, quite inappropriate to the climate, and a fine hat. His luggage consisted of a black leather overnight bag. He sat down, pulled a white handkerchief out of his pocket and, with a smile on his face, proceeded to clean his glasses. He had an affable, almost apologetic air. “Are you going to Madras too?” he asked, and added, without waiting for an answer, “This train is highly reliable. We’ll be there at seven o’clock in the morning.”
He spoke good English, with a German accent, but he didn’t look like a German. Dutch, I thought to myself, for no particular reason, or Swiss. He looked like a businessman, around sixty years of age, perhaps a bit older. “Madras is the capital of Dravidian India,” he went on. “If you’ve never been there you’ll see extraordinary things.” He spoke in the detached, casual manner of someone well -acquainted with the country, and I prepared myself for a string of platitudes. I thought it a good idea to tell him that we could still go to the dining-car, where the probable banality of his conversation would be interrupted by the silent manipulations of knife and fork demanded by good table manners.
As we walked through the corridor I introduced myself, apologizing for not having done so before. “Oh, introductions have become useless formalities,” he said with his affable air. And, slightly inclining his head, he added: “My name’s Peter.”
On the subject of dinner he revealed himself to be an expert. He advised me against the vegetable chops which, out of sheer curiosity, I was considering, “because the vegetables have to be very varied and carefully worked over,” he said, “and that’s not likely to be the case aboard a train.” Timidly I proposed some other dishes, purely random selections, all of which he disapproved. Finally I agreed to take the lamb tandoori, which he had chosen for himself, “because the lamb is a noble, sacrificial animal, and Indians have a feeling for the ritual quality of food.”
We talked at length about Dravidian civilization, that is, he talked, and I confined myself to a few typically ignorant questions and an occasional feeble objection. He described, with a wealth of details, the cliff reliefs of Kancheepuram, and the architecture of the Shore Temple; he spoke of unknown, archaic cults extraneous to Hindu pantheism, of the significance of colours and castes and funeral rites. Hesitantly I brought up my own lore: the legend of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas at Madras, the French presence at Pondicherry, the European penetration of the coasts of Tamil, the unsuccessful attempt of the Portuguese to found another Goa in the same area and their wars with the local potentates. He rounded out my notions and corrected my inexactness in regard to indigenous dynasties, spelling out names, places, dates and events. He spoke with competence and assurance; his vast erudition seemed to mark him as an expert, perhaps a university professor or, in any case, a serious scholar. I put the question to him, frankly and with a certain ingenuousness, sure that he would make an affirmative answer. He smiled, with a certain false modesty, and shook his head. “I’m only an amateur,” he said. “I’ve a passion that fate has spurred me to cultivate.”
There was a note of distress in his voice, I thought, expressive of regret or sorrow. His eyes glistened, and his smooth face seemed paler under the lights of the dining-car. His hands were delicate and his gestures weary. His whole bearing had something incomplete and indefinable about it, a sort of hidden sickliness or shame.
We returned to our compartment and went on talking, but his liveliness had subsided and our conversation was punctuated by long silences. While we were getting ready for bed I asked him, for no specific reason, why he was travelling by train instead of by plane. I thought that, at his age, it would have been easier and more comfortable to take a plane rather than undergo so long a journey. I expected that his answer would be a confession of fear of air travel, shared by people who have not been accustomed to it from an early age.
He looked at me with perplexity, as if such a thing had never occurred to him. Then, suddenly, his face lit up and he said: “By plane you have a fast and comfortable trip, but you miss out on the real India. With long -distance trains you risk arriving as much as a day late, but if you hit the right one you’ll be just as comfortable and arrive on time. And on a train there’s always the pleasure of a conversation that you’d never have in the air.”
Unable to hold myself back, I murmured, “India, A Travel Survival Kit.”
“Nothing,” I said. “I was thinking of a book.” And I added, boldly, “You’ve never been to Madras.”
He looked at me ingenuously. “You can know a place without ever having been there.” He took off his jacket and shoes, put his overnight bag under the pillow, pulled the curtain of his berth, and said goodnight.
I should have liked to say that he, too, had taken the train because he cherished a slender hope and preferred to cradle and savor it rather than consume it in the short space of a plane flight. I was sure of it. But, of course, I said nothing. I turned off the overhead light, leaving the blue night-lamp lit, pulled my curtain and said only goodnight.
We were awakened by someone’s turning on the ceiling light and speaking in a loud voice. Just outside our window there was a wooden structure, lit by a dim lamp and bearing an incomprehensible sign. The train conductor was accompanied by a dark-skinned policeman with a suspicious air. “We’re in Tamil Nadu,” said the conductor, smiling; “this is a mere formality.” The policeman held out his hand: “Your papers, please.”
He looked distractedly at my passport and quickly shut it, but lingered longer over my companion’s. While he was examining it I noticed that it came from Israel. “Mr.… Shi… mail?” he asked, pronouncing the name with difficulty.
“Schlemihl,” the Israeli corrected him. “Peter Schlemihl.”
The policeman gave us back our passports, nodded coolly and put out the light. The train was running again through the Indian night and the blue night-lamp created a dreamlike atmosphere. For a long time we were silent, then I said: “You can’t have a name like that. There’s only one Peter Schlemihl, the shadowless man, he’s a creation of Chamisso, as you know very well. You could pass it off on an Indian policeman, of course …”
He did not reply for a minute. Then he asked, “Do you like Thomas Mann?”
“Not all of him,” I answered.
“The stories. Some of the short novels. Tonio Kröger, Death in Venice.”
“I wonder if you know the preface to Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl,” he said. “An admirable piece of writing.”
Again there was silence between us. I thought he might have fallen asleep. But no, he couldn’t have. He was waiting for me to speak, and I did.
“What are you doing in Madras?”
He did not answer at once, but coughed slightly. “I’m going to see a statue,” he murmured.
“A long trip just to see a statue.”
He did not reply, but blew his nose several times in succession. “I want to tell you a little story,” he said at last. “I want to tell you a little story.” He was speaking softly, and his voice was dulled by the curtain. “Many years ago, in Germany, I ran across a man, a doctor, whose job it was to give me a physical examination. He sat behind a desk and I stood, naked, before him. Behind me there was a line of other naked men waiting to be examined. When we were taken to that place we were told that we were useful to the cause of German science. Beside the doctor there were two armed guards, and a nurse who was filling out cards. The doctor asked us very precise questions about the functioning of our male organs; the nurse made some measurements which she then wrote down. The line was moving fast because the doctor was in a hurry. When my turn was over, instead of moving on to the next room where we were to go, I lingered for a few seconds to look at a statuette on the doctor’s desk which had caught my attention. It represented an oriental deity, one I had never seen, a dancing figure with the arms and legs harmoniously diverging within a circle. In the circle there were not many empty spaces, only a few openings waiting to be closed by the imagination of the viewer. The doctor became aware of my fascination and smiled. He had a tight -lipped, mocking mouth. ‘This statue,’ he said, ‘represents the vital circle into which all waste matter must enter in order to attain that superior form of life which is beauty. I hope that in the biological cycle envisaged by the philosophy which conceived of this statue you may attain, in another life, a place higher than the one you occupy in this one.’”
At this point my companion halted. In spite of the sound made by the train I could hear his deep, regular breathing.
“Please go on,” I said.
“There’s not much more to say. The statuette was a dancing Shiva, but that I didn’t know. As you see, I haven’t yet entered the recycling circle, and my own interpretation of the figure is a different one. I’ve thought of it every day of my life since then; indeed, it’s the only thing I’ve thought of in all these years.”
“How many years has it been?”
“Can you think of one thing only for forty years?”
“Yes, I think so, if you’ve been subjected to indignity.”
“And what is your interpretation of the figure?”
“I don’t think it represents a vital circle. It’s simply the dance of life.”
“And how is that different?”
“Oh, it’s very different,” he murmured. “Life is a circle. One day the circle must close, and we don’t know what day that will be.” He blew his nose again and said, “Excuse me, please; I’m tired and should like to catch a bit of sleep.”
When I woke up we were drawing near to Madras. My travelling companion was already shaved and fully dressed in his impeccable dark- blue suit. He had pushed up his berth and now, looking thoroughly rested and with a smile on his face, he pointed to the breakfast tray on the table next to the window.
“I waited for you to wake up so that we could drink our tea together,” he said. “You were so fast asleep that I didn’t want to disturb you.”
I went into the washroom and made my morning toilet, gathered my belongings together and closed my suitcase, then sat down to breakfast. We were running through an area of clustered villages, with the first signs of the approaching city.
“As you see, we’re right on time,” he said. “It’s exactly a quarter to seven.” Then, folding his napkin, he added: “I wish you’d go to see that statue. It’s in the museum. And I’d like to hear what you think of it.” He got up, reached for his bag, held out his other hand and bade me goodbye. “I’m grateful to my guidebook for the choice of the best means of transportation. It’s true that on Indian trains you may make the most unexpected acquaintances. Your company has given me pleasure and solace.”
“It’s been a mutual pleasure,” I answered. “I’m the one who’s grateful to the guidebook.”
We were entering the station, alongside a crowded platform. The train’s brakes went on and we glided to a stop. I stepped aside and he got off first, waving his hand. As he started to walk away I called out to him.
“I don’t know where to send my reaction to the statue. I haven’t your address.”
He wheeled about, with the perplexed expression I had seen on his face before. After a moment’s reflection, he said: “Leave me a message at the American Express. I’ll pick it up.”
Then we went our separate ways among the crowd.
I stayed only three days in Madras, intense, almost feverish days. Madras is an enormous agglomeration of low buildings and immense uncultivated spaces, jammed with bicycles, animals, and random buses; getting from one end of the city to another required a very long time. After I had fulfilled my obligations I had only one free day and I chose to go, not to the museum but to the cliff reliefs of Kancheepuram, some miles from the city. Here, too, my guidebook was a precious companion.
On the morning of the fourth day I was at the depot for buses to Kerala and Goa. There was an hour before departure time, it was scorchingly hot and the shade of the roofed platforms afforded the only relief from the heat. In order to while away the time I bought the English-language newspaper, a four -page sheet that looked like a parish bulletin, containing local news, summaries of popular films, notices, and advertisements of every kind. Prominently displayed on the front page there was the story of a murder committed the day before. The victim was an Argentinian citizen who had been living in Madras since 1958. He was described as a discreet, retiring gentleman in his seventies, without close friends, who had a house in the residential section of Adyar. His wife had died three years before, from natural causes. They had no children.
He had been killed with a pistol shot to the heart. The murder defied explanation, since no theft was involved: everything in the house was in order and there was no sign that anything had been broken into. The article described the house as simple and sober, possessing a few well-chosen art objects and with a small garden around it. It seemed that the victim was a connoisseur of Dravidian art; he had taken part in the cataloguing of the Dravidian section of the local museum. His photograph showed a bald old man with blue eyes and thin lips. The report of the episode was bland and factual. The only interesting detail was the photograph of a statuette, alongside that of the victim. A logical juxtaposition, since he was an expert on Dravidian art, and the Dance of Shiva is the best known work in the Madras museum, and a sort of symbol as well. But this logical juxtaposition caused me to connect one thing with another. There were twenty minutes left before the departure of my bus; I looked for a telephone and dialed the number of the American Express, where a young woman answered politely. “I’d like to leave a message for Mr. Schlemihl,” I told her. The girl asked me to wait a minute and then said, “At the moment we’ve no such name on record, but you can leave your message all the same, if you like, and it will be delivered to him when he comes by.”
“Hello, hello!” she repeated when she did not hear any reply.
“Just a minute, operator,” I said; “let me think.”
What was I to say. My message had a ridiculous side. Perhaps I had understood something. But exactly what? That, for someone, the circle had closed?
“It doesn’t matter,” I said; “I’ve changed my mind.” And I hung up.
I don’t deny that my imagination may have been working overtime. But if I guessed correctly what shadow Peter Schlemihl, like Chamisso’s hero, had lost, and if he ever happens, by the same strange chance that brought about our meeting on the train, to read this story, I’d like to convey my greetings. And my sorrow.
*By Antonio Tabucchi, from “Little Misunderstandings of no Importance”, copyright © 1985 by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore Milano. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
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