The Murder Victim
His name was Wyatt Sumners. When they found him, he had just turned fifty—he had seemed younger than that the one time I met him. It was a few months ago, at Vikram and Caroline Aggarwal’s house in Jodhpur. The Aggarwals live in an eighteenth- century palace decorated with handmade furniture and textiles, each object specially chosen, resonant with the taste of someone who looks at objects every day as a profession. There must have been forty rooms in the house’s new addition, a rectangular court built around the original haveli with its intricate screens carved into the sandstone walls.
Sumners sat on a low sofa, dressed in jeans, a zippered leather jacket, and a cotton scarf that looked like it came from the local market. In London, he had been an unsuccesful actor, but now he was a tutor, or as he put it, a “babysitter” for the two children of a movie producer I work for—that’s what had brought us together that night, a movie I had cowritten, set in India. Vikram Aggarwal and I were talking about politics and Sumners was sipping his wine, admiring the room. I was speaking about things I knew nothing about, hazarding opinions in the broad way you fall into when you read the paper in foreign countries, even ones you’ve set a screenplay in. The news that week concerned separatist fighters in the state of Assam. In an act of ethnic cleansing, they had gunned down seventy migrant farm workers from the state of Bihar. The United Liberation Front of Asom. I said if I had not happened to be traveling in India that week I would never have heard of the United Liberation Front of Asom.
Sumners sighed. He had been in the country for three months and was exhausted by it. “All I want is my week on the beach,” he said. “Then I’m off to Mallorca with the two brats.”
He lit a joint and offered it to me. Unshaven, his hair long enough to be feathery, he had that ironic cheerfulness that people from everywhere have now, like Americans on TV, which like a common language softens the differences between us.
“Where are you going, Goa?” I asked.
“Yes. You’ve been there?”
“Not for a long time. Maybe twenty years ago. More than that actually. Before it was Goa.”
None of the seventy murdered Biharis’ names was mentioned in the papers. In ten days, it was Sumners’ name that would be mentioned in the papers.
The main site to see in Jodhpur is the Meherangarh Fort, which looks like something from a movie. From a distance, it’s the beige color of the desert behind it, as are the ancient city walls with their watchtowers. On the ground floor, inside iron gates high enough for elephants to pass through, are rows of women’s handprints inscribed on the wall in a rectangular pattern. They’re there to commemorate the widows who committed suttee, the ritual of throwing themselves on the pyres of their husbands killed in battle, defending the fortress.
Each ruler built another palace on top of the last. The fort is so tall you take an elevator to the top, and the view from there makes modern skyscrapers seem like the work of barbarians. Along certain ledges you can see the full height of the highest towers, cream-colored, shaped like minarets, and the cubed-shaped buildings of Jodhpur below, all of them painted blue. Someone had to place the carved stones that high up in the air. Someone had to whitewash them each year after the monsoon. The maharaja’s wives would lift ornate dumbells to keep themselves slim, or lounge on divans beside marble fountains, their lives spent behind the screened walls of a fortified harem thirty stories high.
For three months—October to December—the actors and crew for the movie I’d helped write had been in Jodhpur, shooting on location at the Bal Samand Palace Hotel. The movie was a sex comedy—there was no special reason it had to be set in India, other than that it would give us an excuse to go there, and without the setting it would be indistinguishable from twenty other movies just like it. Caroline was telling stories about the reaction of the locals, the way everyone knew the names of even the minor stars, the director, the screenwriters—even me, who had not arrived until it was all but over. The merchants had sold the producer and his wife three hundred bed covers. One of the stars, a famous comedian, had bought so much jewelry in one of the shops that the owner had given him the key. He was able to lock it up day and night if he wanted, so no one else could go in.
“How did you settle on Jodhpur?” Wyatt Sumners asked.
“That was Wilentz’s idea,” I said, passing him back the joint. “I had it set in Khajuraho at first, where they have those temples with the erotic carvings. There were a lot of Kama Sutra jokes we had to cut out.”
Sumners took the opportunity to denigrate our boss. “Wilentz must have seen a way to save money,” he said. “Probably did a deal with the local council. The mayor.”
“It’s not the mayor,” said Vikram. “The man he would have talked to is called the collector. I always loved that word.”
“Sounds like Kafka,” said Sumners.
“At least he didn’t do a deal with the collector of Assam,” I said.
We were still sitting in the large room that opened onto the courtyard. Two great danes lay on their sides on pale green beds trimmed with silk thread. Fires burned in iron bowls, six on either side of the lawn. We had eggplant salad, goat cheese, spring rolls with cilantro and shaved carrots. We drank wine from Caroline’s home in Chile. Her five-year-old daughter Lucinda came down and spoke to us in Hindi. She could count to thirty in three languages. Her favorite food was macaroni and cheese.
Sumners was going to take the train to Goa that week, rather than fly. In one of the many peculiarities of Indian travel, he reminded us, second class A/C was better than first class. It must have been around this time that I told the story of Veronica and me on the train platform in Udaipur.
The Rani of Mandi
Rajasthan is poor, in spite of all the talk you hear about India’s boom. On the road to Jaipur, the capital, you can see almost a mile of ruins on either side of the road where audiences used to watch processions enter the city on elephant back. The elephants would have been caparisoned in red and green and their riders would have been swathed in jewels. Legions of weavers and masons and carvers and musicians had been supported by that way of life, before cars and motorcycles joined the bullock carts and stray dogs on the broken roads. Now the palaces are dilapidated, even a major site like Meherangarh Fort is only partly restored. I remember walking through the empty halls, Veronica and I, through the room of baby cradles, the room of palanquins, the room of Belgian mirrors, the room of arms and armor—daggers, lances, swords. In one of the rooms was an exhibit of antique photographs, portraits of the old royal families. One was of a woman called the Rani of Mandi, on the occasion of her appearance before the court of George V in 1924. She was dressed in a pale sari—I imagined it for some reason as gold—extending one hand behind her hip as if to brush back her veil, the other hand at her breast, clasping a pearl necklace. It may have been that her hair was only pulled back, but it was possible to imagine it as cut short, like a flapper’s, like Zelda Fitzgerald’s.
On the Platform
We were waiting for a train in Udaipur, Veronica and I, when we had one of those moments you never want to have, moments of revelation, disgust. Udaipur itself is a tourist city, “the Venice of India,” built on a lake that encircles one of the world’s most famous hotels. Outside the station it had been unusually quiet, almost no one there, but on the platform there was a throng of carts being steered by porters, tea sellers, men with turbans and walking sticks, teenage boys in windbreakers and jeans. It happens all the time in India, the stares of men and boys, an unreadable gaze that is usually nothing more than curiosity. On the streets of a place like Udaipur, it’s easy to behave like a child sometimes, smiling and answering when someone asks what country you are from, as if the question is innocent, as if you are glamorous, maybe even a movie star. Your choice in a crowd in India is often to be a child or a hostile intruder.
At first there were maybe fifteen boys, but soon there were more than thirty, moving in closer, like birds, until they had formed a semi-circle around us as we stood with our luggage, everything dim on the platform, just a few lights behind the crowd of faces. They began to make longer and longer eye contact, more emboldened as they saw how little there was we could do. They were staring right at Veronica, her long hair coming down over her shoulders, American hair. I waved my hand and said “goodbye,” as if being sarcastic, but they knew sarcasm and weren’t moved. A small boy in glasses watched me, enthralled, a nervous smile on his lips, waiting to see how I would react. My glance was enough to shame him into averting his eyes, but only a moment later he was staring again, knowing that he was safe within the mob.
I made eye contact with the leader, a tall, lanky boy with a scarf tied around his head like a bandage. I told him to back off.
“This your wife?” he said.
“How many times you make baby with your wife?”
I don’t remember a single woman being on the platform. Everyone was a man or a boy, all of them watching now, even those who were by the newsstand twenty yards away. The boy with the scarf on his head was shaking he was so excited, smirking and pacing, knowing that no matter what I did, everyone was on his side.
The Shrinking Globe
The Rani of Mandi grew up in a town called Kapurthala in a palace designed by a French architect who modeled it after Versailles. She was the child of her father’s fifth wife—his fourth wife was a dancer from Spain, his sixth an actress from Prague. The Rani’s father, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, spent a quarter of his annual income on jewels. The Rani was his only daughter. She was sent to England for her education, spoke several languages, had friends in Hollywood, New York, all over the world. In 1940 she was living in Paris, then the world’s most cosmopolitan city, when the Nazis invaded. Some of her closest friends were Jews, and in an effort to save them the Rani bartered all of her jewels to help them gain passage to the United States. The plan was uncovered by the Gestapo, who deported the Rani to Germany. It had taken just a single moment—the moment of her arrest—to strip away everything I have just told you about her. She was detained in a concentration camp, where she died after only two months.
“Did you read that?” Veronica said, showing me the caption at the exhibit.
I hadn’t read it. I had walked right by the photograph, seeing just a beautiful woman in lavish clothes, a kind of Indian Zelda Fitzgerald, I’d thought.
They call it “Eve teasing” in India—whistling, groping, fits of sexual aggression toward women. The play of gazes, back and forth, becomes distortive, intensifying, compulsive—everyone involved becomes somebody else. At the time, it seemed that anything could have happened, that when the train came the men and boys could have rushed into our compartment and taken turns with Veronica, and in the face of their stares it was hard to decide if the danger was all just imagined. The only thing to do was to decide that it was.
We drank many bottles of wine that night at Vikram and Caroline’s. They were an easy group of people to talk to, though we came from different places all over the world. At dinner there was Szechuan chicken, prawns in garlic sauce, a salad with beets and greens grown in Vikram and Caroline’s garden. Serge and Alain, two Parisians, dealers in antiques, arrived from the airport. Their white shirts and black pants and mustaches reminded me of the cotton brokers in Degas’ paintings. Their clothes were so clean they shone.
“We were four days in the Delhi aiport,” Serge told us. “Fog for four days. They would keep us on the runway, then back to the gate, then back to the runway.”
I felt wrong about telling the story of the station in Udaipur. It had disturbed everyone, raised the specter of xenophobia, not just the men’s and the boy’s but mine. Everyone agreed that what had happened was rare, so rare it was almost unheard of. It was better to talk about Indian films, as we were now (everyone had seen the films of Deepa Mehta, banned from Indian theaters). We talked about Bollywood, the rival stars Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, Bachchan’s son Abhishek’s impending marriage to the superstar Aishwarya Rai. They formed a kind of royalty, these stars. They held stakes in the nation’s corporations and could sway the outcome of elections. Like the weather, movie stars were something you could always talk about in India. Even Wyatt Sumners could talk about Aishwarya Rai.
“Stunning,” he said.
“The most beautiful woman in the world,” said Serge, bored, reaching for the wine.
“Not far from it,” Sumners said. He pushed some arugula onto his fork.
“You know, they named a tulip after her in Holland.”
I thought, if it hadn’t been for Sumners, and his trip to Goa, I would not have told the story about the station in Udaipur. I resented him a little for my own lack of tact, knowing I had no justifiable reason for feeling that way. I felt it anyway. When I think about it now, I realize there are no limits to my carelessness, my ignorance. I realize that if I hadn’t co-written a screenplay set in India—a sex comedy like twenty others—Sumners would never have been there in the first place. He would presumably still be alive.
Sumners was found in a small village outside Goa, hung by his neck from a mango tree. According to the papers, a group of men had either trailed or driven him to that place of huts and cook fires—sixty miles from the beach hotel he’d been staying at—and clubbed him to death, then hung him with a sari from the branches. The police beat confessions out of four suspects, whose stories were garbled, contradictory. One account said that Sumners had made a sexual advance on a local woman. Another that Sumners was buying and selling drugs. As motives reported in a newspaper, these are rational enough to help us stop thinking about the crowbar in the teeth, the feet kicking at the side of the still body. Perhaps the only real explanation is the simple one, that some grievance or misunderstanding had erased the basic assumptions that hold true most of the time, almost anywhere: that people are more or less the same, that kindness or reason will bridge their differences. The suspects who gave confessions were almost certainly innocent themselves. What we know for sure was that Sumners had called home to England the night before he died. He said he was on his way to Bombay to see a fireworks show.
I forgot to mention that there were guards posted inside the gates of Vikram and Caroline’s house when we arrived. I don’t know if they were armed or not. My first impression was not of the guards but of the lavish grounds—the stone gate high enough for an elephant to pass through, the endless lawn where fires burned in two rows of iron bowls. It looked idyllic (in a way, it was idyllic, all those strangers from everywhere, so easy to talk to). I forgot to mention also that Vikram was part of the local royalty, a nephew of the current Maharaja of Jodhpur. I remember later that night thinking of the Rani of Mandi, of how I had taken her at first for a kind of socialite, someone you might see nowadays in a newspaper or on TV. I think now that in some way this is what prompted me to tell the story of the train platform in Udaipur. In part of my mind, I was carrying the image of the Rani’s face at the court of George V, knowing, as I knew by then, what had become of her, of her friends and their world, knowing how defenseless it had turned out to be. Gathered at Vikram and Caroline’s house, we seemed in the light of the Rani’s story feckless, childlike. The night was beautiful. Its beauty was protected by a gate, and to be on the right side of that gate involved nothing more than luck. Everyone knows this. Everyone knows that luck doesn’t last.
When the train pulled into the Udaipur station, there was a decision to be made as to whether or not we should get on. The first few cars were already so full of people that they were hanging out of the doorway, holding onto the frames, the train still advancing. The pack of boys around us dispersed and moved in a scrum toward the tracks, matching the train’s pace, luggage clutched to their chests with one arm, their free arms outstretched. It was like watching a sport, or like watching footage from a war. They leapt up into the crowd that was already on the train, a tangle of bodies spilling out of the opened doors—scarves, bundles, rags.
“Let’s go,” said Veronica.
“Yes. Hurry up.”
In our berths in second-class A/C, the couchettes were made of clean blue vinyl, with a stack of pillows and sheets and blankets and a towel. It was as quiet as the waiting room of an office. I tried to read. The newspaper was full of ads for high-rises in Bombay, luxury apartments with backup power and three tiers of twenty-four hour security. After awhile, the train bumped forward, then slowly moved on into the darkness with a steady, thudding rhythm that invited sleep. Everything seemed far away. Before long it was possible to forget that ahead of us, separated by just a few doors, was the mob of men and boys, crammed into the compartments with bare feet, squatting in the aisles, twisting and hanging from the rails.