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
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,
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."
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
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
"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?"
"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
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?"
"Yuck! Not Baudelaire!"
"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
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
She stood up, and stretched, yawning. "How about a drive?"
"Don't have a car."
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 Mammelles...you'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
"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
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
"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
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 awful...by 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
"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
"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.