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Inderjeet Mani

Far Away From Here

I first met Lily at a beach house party in Grand Bay. It was one of those evenings with an elaborate sunset and drinks on the terrace. The scions of the Karachiwala family sat in their Hawaiian shirts drinking beer and talking quietly about their yachts and the marlin fishing. The Karachiwalas were Sindhis from Bombay who had made their fortune in East Africa before coming to the island to take over the textile sweatshops.

Lily did not show the slightest interest in me when Vicky first introduced us. She looked out over the lagoon, focusing absently on the reef in the distance. Her head was encased in a sun hat, her face beautiful and mysterious with the rays of the setting sun falling on it. She wore a tiny gold nose ring, and on her neck a few beads of perspiration glistened temptingly. She strolled to the bar in her yellow caftan, her legs light and swift, the kind that could wrap tightly around your waist.

"How do you kill time around here?" I asked, pouring her a scotch from a crystal decanter. "You don't seem the deep-sea fishing type."

"I'm only here for the summer vacation. But it's been really busy. With stuff from college." Her voice was gentle, with a swishing, singsong accent.

"College? Where?"

She leaned close. I could smell bubble gum.

"London. Birkbeck College. Daddy has a flat in Kensington, so we decided on London."

"Birkbeck? Do you know my good friend Shahid? Teaches philosophy there?"

"Never heard of him. Anyway, I'm doing French lit. Most of the guys I know are in Eco or Business."

"French lit?"

I laughed to myself as she walked away. Then I wandered off into a grove of sea pines. The sand was soft and white, and I wanted to roll in it like a dog. Instead, I lay there smoking, remembering the Delhi girls from the 1970's who were in my Advanced French class. They were always scribbling in French on the windows of our teacher's car, or hopping around on one leg looking for fallen contact lenses. I served them faithfully, bending low and retrieving fallen objects, but when the girls paired off eventually, it was with fellows with futures in finance and public administration, not students of French like me.

I knew a bit about pairing off, having been twice married, once widowed and once divorced. Now, at fifty-five, after years in Brussels and Barcelona and Rabat and Rome, I was making a desultory living as a French translator on the island of Mauritius in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I was lonely as hell in that land of tropical sunsets, and more than a little bitter. But I wasn't ready to throw in the towel.

Surprisingly, Lily had followed me into the grove. She perched beside me on the sand. I could smell her antiperspirant along with the gum. "I was talking to Vicky. He says you're an expert on French lit. You see, Bunty, I've got to do a term project, and I'm stuck. And everyone at home's pretty ignorant about French culture."

I studied her face. "What's your project on?" Her lips were full, with a hint of Botticelli. They were made for poetry and heavenly concourse -- I expected them at any moment to burst into song.

"I'm supposed to write about the island and its influence on French literary culture."

"Sounds pretty imbecilic. Who are the geniuses teaching you?"

A little frown crossed her face. Her lips pouted.

"Bunty -- are you going to help or not? I wanted to write about the Mauritian influence on French literature. Trouble is, there aren't any famous Mauritian writers."

"There's one who won the Nobel Prize. But it's hard to get noticed outside if you're from a place this small."

She asked a few more questions, but finding my responses unhelpful, she walked off in a huff.

"Mon vieux, what's up with you and the young Karachiwala?" Vicky asked me that evening. "You seem stricken!"

We were heading back to Port Louis in his sportster, passing a bottle back and forth.

"Drop it, Vicky. I'm too old for her. Besides, she's not my type."

Vicky chuckled as he handed the Chivas to me. "Actually, she's just right for you -- young, very rich, and with literary inclinations. But watch out for her dad. He's kind of possessive. In fact, he'll chop your balls off!"

I always wondered how Vicky had made it as a diplomat, given his penchant for crude language. But he was right. I was stricken. I couldn't get her out of my mind.

I spent the next day in my flat in Port Louis smoking Kenyan dope and thinking of young Lily: her singsong voice, her sun hat, the lagoon, her lips, the intoxicating odor of her gum. I drank a bit to steady my nerves, but as I poured the scotch slowly into my glass, I remembered the sun's rays falling on her face. I finished half the bottle and sat there in the balcony in the company of a green and yellow bird, its throat pulsing with song.

On our next visit, the following weekend, Lily was wearing makeup, a very light lipstick and blue mascara, and she had let her hair hang down, ringlets tumbling over her shoulders. She smiled and came up to me with a saucy walk. I had a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other, and I was wearing reflecting sunglasses to hide my bloodshot eyes; I must have looked quite comical. Still, she sat down beside me, leaning over the back of a beach chair. She was wearing shorts, and I saw that she had strong calves and a little scar on one knee. She caught me staring, and I looked away.

"Listen, Bunty Uncle, I'm stuck. The Alliance Française in Curepipe doesn't have any material. Daddy'll be mad if I flunk this course."

"Drop the Uncle -- it makes me seem unduly old. I take it Birkbeck hasn't worked out?"

She shrugged, as if Birkbeck were a tiresome subject.

"My A-levels weren't good enough for Oxford or LSE. Anyway, I wanted to live in London, and Birkbeck seemed fine. I've only been there one term, you know. I was used to having everything at home, and now, even with a maid, it's pretty hard."

"Which particular historical period are you interested in?"

"Doesn't matter."

"How about Bernardin de Saint-Pierre? He wrote the tropical idyll Paul et Virginie. L'ile Maurice as a lost arcadia, the noble savage, that sort of thing. Paul and Virginie were French kids raised in log cabins, having sex right there under the coconut trees up there on Long Mountain."

She smiled at the mention of sex, as the younger generation was wont to, then looked to where I pointed. It was there all right, an oblong volcanic rock jutting out at the edge of a long promontory. Behind it, a cruise ship slowly came into view, its decks white and shining like a wedding cake.

"Eventually, they were separated. Virginie was sent off to France for a real education. Paul was heartbroken."

"How do you know so much about all this?" Her eyes were teasing, but her voice was still gentle.

I smiled back at her. I knew I could wax eloquent when I had to. I sidled up a little closer.

"What happens in the end?" she asked.

"When she returned, after many years, her ship was trapped in a hurricane. Within sight of Paul -- right over there near the Saint-Geran Channel. The wretched Paul tried to swim out to the ship, but the swells were too high."

"Somehow I'm suspicious of stories with sad endings. It makes me think the writer's out to get even or something."

"Well, do you want to go with Bernardin or not?"

She looked at me with a curious expression, one that I had never seen before. I had a feeling she'd known all along about Bernardin. "You know, you're really very strange," she said. "But more interesting than the people around here. Is there anyone else?"

I thought for a bit. "Yes," I said finally. "There's one other character. But he was very different from the rest."

"Who was he?"

"Charles Baudelaire."

"Yuck! Not Baudelaire!"

"Why not?"

"He was so sick. We had to read him in high school. And what's his connection to the island?"

"Back home in Paris he'd gotten into a fight with his stepfather, General Aupick. He got drunk at a dinner party and flung a glass of claret in the General's face. For which he was banished on a mailboat bound for Calcutta, of all places. On the way, they ran into a storm. They had to put in to L'ile Maurice for repairs. At which point he jumped ship."

I leaned a little closer.

"Does the name of Autard de Bragard ring a bell?" I asked.

"No. Why, should it? Let me see, I did know a Gaston de Bragard in elementary school. One of the old French families -- sugar barons."

"Well, Baudelaire stayed with the Bragards. In their plantation house."

"Oh, I've been there. For a birthday party."

"Baudelaire really lived it up at their place. Mme. Bragard cooked all his favorite dishes. They had a lovely sylph-like daughter, around five years old. Baudelaire adored children, and he would spend hours in the nursery playing with her."

"You make him sound quite angelic. I thought he had a filthy mind."

"He had a morbid imagination. He died of syphilis, you know. Picked it up from a Parisian prostitute."

"How horrible!" Lily looked at me with mock horror, but I could tell she was interested as hell. "He was into drugs, right?"

"Yes. High on opium."

I refilled our glasses.

"You know, you drink too much," she said.

"My mother always said that. Why don't you try the Bloody Mary?" I thrust my glass towards her, and she took a sip. Then, astonishingly, she leaned her head close, almost touching my face.

"Bunty, I sometimes imagine that after college I'll finally start to live my own life -- out of the reach of the family."

"Lily, there's nothing quite like breaking free and living by your own principles. But I thought you were well-adjusted. Daddy's pet and all that. With a nice allowance to boot."

"Oh, they're OK as far as parents go." She sighed. "But then they'll be satisfied only if I hook up with a fat Sindhi boy, someone in the jewelry business. They're just waiting for me to finish college. It's all perfectly horrible, even though Daddy's a real darling."

"And your plans, my dear?"

"I don't know as yet. The entire society here seems phony. Does it seem that way to you?"

I felt everything was phony, but I couldn't tell her that. At twenty, it was OK for the world to seem phony. At fifty, it seemed like a major disaster.

She stood up, and stretched, yawning. "How about a drive?"

"Don't have a car."

"Wait here."

She left and returned in her daddy's Porsche. It was a 911 convertible, and she drove it well. My hair flapped wildly in the wind, and I had to clutch onto my sunglasses. The road wound through the canefields, around little hills, past Pamplemousses and the colored sands of Chamarel, and then in toward Black River Bay. The sky was filled with billowing clouds with dark undersides, and there was a smell of molasses in the air.

We stopped for sugar-cane juice at a little stall at the foot of the Trois Mammelles. The three black rocks stretched out behind Lily, jutting into the clouds. She drank noisily, leaving lipstick stains on her straw. The cloudy seaside light made her skin peach-colored, and I wanted to kiss her.

"Under the shadow of the'll find that line in Baudelaire. He lived with the Autards right here, in that cottage over on the hill." I pointed it out to her, as she sat on the car bonnet, swinging her legs.

"It's odd, isn't it, to think he was so close by," she said thoughtfully.

"He was in bad shape. Hadn't written anything for months. On the boat, he had contemplated suicide. Then he met Dorothée."

"Who was she?"

"A ravishing Mauritian girl. Someone with the power to forever change a man's life."

She didn't say anything, busying herself with trying to drink from an empty coconut. I offered her mine. She hesitated, then dipped her straw in, listening carefully.

"Dorothée was a household servant. Her family must have come from Calicut or Cochin, on the Malabar coast. The land of cloves and cinnamon. All the Indian indentured servants were called Malabars."

"Malabar! They used to call us that at school in Curepipe. Along with other names. The French girls were such utter savages!"

"Well, Dorothée was a Malabar girl. Her mother was actually a slave, purchased by the French from Portuguese traders who had kidnapped her in Cochin. Baudelaire fell hard for her. I suppose it was her negritude, the chocolate skin; in those days it must have seemed exotic. She took him up to her home in the mountains. It was the night of the Cavadee procession, where devotees perform rites of purification. He had never seen anything like it, the crowds marching up the slopes of the volcano carrying flaming torches, their cheeks and tongues impaled with skewers. It was all quite electrifying, and it made a tremendous impression on him. After all, he was only twenty."

"How does that story end?"

"We don't know what became of her. She was only a servant, and history ignores servants. But she got him writing again. And then she appears in his prose journals, and in his poems. In fact, there's one dedicated to her, called 'Bien loin d'ici', Far Away from Here. It's rather degrading -- she's pictured as a femme Malabar, lying on one elbow lazily fanning herself. A spoiled child, he calls her, as she lies oiled and waiting in her coffin-like chamber. There's not one word about her powers, about the night of Cavadee that brought them together."

She studied her nails. "So it ends sadly," she said. "Like your other story."

"You like it?" Lily asked.

"Turn around," I said.

She swiveled on one heel, waiting.

"It's a great haircut," I said, and she blushed.

"You've got lots of material now," I told her. "No need to complain of writer's block."

"Yes, the term-paper's in good shape. I wrote quite a bit on the Cavadee procession, about how it all came together for them that night. A night where the young poet learned something from the Indian servant woman. Even though he was ungrateful. It was the experience of a lifetime, an encounter which changed him forever."

I watched her delicate face. "There can be such moments in everyone's life. If one is lucky."

"Or simply attentive," she said, wise beyond her years.

"Luck and attentiveness, then."

She laughed. "It's really odd, you know, to think about the island and its continuity with the past and all. Even nowadays, on Cavadee night, the men still go out, beating a mridangam drum, wearing skewers in their tongues. Anyway, Bunty, how come you know so much about this place? And literature, for that matter?"

"I've lived a long life, my sweet."

"How did you end up in Mauritius?"

"It's a long story. After Delhi I went to the Sorbonne. I wrote my thesis on Baudelaire. Then I worked in Brussels, first for NATO, then the EEC and the EU, doing translation. It was very mechanistic, not the world I wanted. My life was organized, every hour pinned down, people and objects moving around me like clockwork. I suppose I was looking for something more primitive, Dionysian, in a way. Anyway, I couldn't understand what I was doing there. I'd felt that way in India, too, but Europe made it much worse."

"I know what you mean, Bunty. I feel that way each time I return to London. I think it comes with being from the tropics, with the sweat and dark skin and things like that. You know the sega, our dance? It tells it all. A person has to be able to let go. Of everything."

She was an island girl now, and her eyes were glistening, their dark orbs shining above her lightly powdered cheeks.

"So you went back?" she continued. "To India?"

"No. I had ties. You see, I met Alison. A regular English working-class girl. But solid, with a heart of gold. And very sexy. We met in a pub when I was visiting London. We were in Shepherd's Bush, playing darts. I don't know what she saw in me. I guess she had run into Asian kids in school, and had wondered about their lives. Maybe I was very exotic or something?"

She smiled. "You are quite exotic. In a way. And very unusual."

"Anyway, one thing led to another, and we ended up married, but it didn't lead anywhere. I didn't have much money, of course, and she was working two jobs, living in London while I was in Brussels. It was tough."

She touched my shoulder gently, looking up at me. Her eyes were innocent.

"You've been alone ever since?"

"No. As I said, it's a long story. You see, we had a son. Khush and I don't talk much, though. He's a bit of a savage himself. Slovenly, wears dirty clothes, speaks in monosyllables, always preoccupied with his guitar -- he has a band of sorts. Lives in Clapham. You may run into him busking on the Underground. What more can I say?"

"He'll grow out of it," she said, smiling knowingly. "My old brother was like that. Dropped out of college for a while. Now he's doing an MBA at Wharton."

"Khush would never do that. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I got married again. This time to a Frenchwoman, from the translation office. She was very opinionated, like most French people. And she hated Khush, and so we fought. All the time. Then Delphine died. Colon cancer."

"I'm sorry, Bunty."

"It was the time it happened, I knew I hated her, which made it even worse."

"You poor thing," Lily said, leaning close. "And you're such a decent man, Bunty. Even with your drinking. And even, I daresay, something of a scholar. I'm sure your son is really very proud of you. But he just can't bring himself to say it. If only I could have helped you."

"You have, you know."

She leaned her head dreamily on my shoulder. I felt a little dizzy.

"You know, Lily, I've been thinking. About how much I enjoy just being with you."

"You're fun to hang out with, Bunty. And you've been very sweet, helping me and all. I don't know what I would have done without you." She ran her fingers over my shirt sleeve, as if to brush away an invisible speck. I could feel an overwhelming urge to taste her lips, so sweet and sticky. She must have sensed my thoughts, because just then she stood up, and tossed her hair.

"I've got to be going, Bunty. Daddy's doing a dinner tonight." Her eyes, rimmed with kohl, glittered in their icy beauty.

"You carry on," I told her quietly. "I think I'll just stay and finish my drink."

"Thanks, Bunty. For everything."

I watched her youthful back disappearing down the hill towards the beach house. There was a lightness to her gait. She seemed almost to be floating, the epitome of grace and loveliness, vanishing with her term-paper. I raised my glass and silently toasted her, along with all the young people of the world. They had such optimism, going forth boldly, armed only with term-papers, with their simplifications of the stories of all that had gone on before. I drank another toast to them, then sat there alone at the bar, looking out over the water. The sun was already gone, and all I could see were flecks of white foam.

©2009 by Inderjeet Mani

Inderjeet Mani studied creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania (with Carlos Fuentes), at Bread Loaf (with Patricia Hampl), and at Harvard (with Paul Harding). His work has been published in a variety of venues, including 3:AM, Drunken Boat (Finalist for the Pan Literary Award, also one of Story South's Million Writers Award Notable Stories of 2007), Nimrod (Finalist for Katherine Anne Porter Prize), WIND (2003 Short Fiction Award), Word Riot, Kimera, Plum Ruby Review, The Reston Review, and the Deccan Herald. He is represented by the Irene Skolnick Literary Agency. for more information see his Web site.

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