A Death Refracted – Part 4.8 – The Fifth Knot
Derry is at the last Knot of five, the house of school teachers. Will she find her match?
They’re walking past closed doors. Their driver, Parm, has parked his car in the main square of the village in the fragrant shade of an amla tree. Bunched on a bench at the foot of the tree Derry had noticed a group of old women dozing, who slowly lifted their heads, looked at the newcomers through sleep softened eyes and satisfied there was no threat rounded themselves back into their slumber.
Derry’s uncle leads them past one of the village gurdwaras – this one belongs to the Kutbhandia – and through a narrow cobbled lane, drains open either side, dammed with piles of rubbish, stagnant water stench following them all the way.
Her uncle stops at an open door, the arch above inscribed with the words ‘The House of Well Comes: 1967’ and turning says, “This is the house.”
Derry has not been to this village before, but her mother has talked about it; her eldest sister lives here. The wooden door has a panelled carving of a she-wolf, exquisitely detailed, and the snouts of three of her cubs just visible peaking above her ears. She reaches out and traces the lines of the noble animal. She feels a lightening inside, and for the first time that day is looking forward to stepping inside another’s house.
“It will be dark soon,” her father looks to her mother. “We may have to stay the night with your sister.”
“She knows we’re here,” her mother replies. “I will call her so she can prepare.”
“Just a bed,” her father says. “Tell her not to prepare any food. I can’t handle any more today. I am tired and my stomach is playing up.”
“I will tell her.”
“This travelling has given me a huge hunger,” Derry’s uncle declares stretching. “I wouldn’t mind a couple of chapattis with pickle. And maybe some saag to go with that,” he adds.
“What is this I hear of hunger,” a smooth as fresh butter voice asks and they turn to see a tall slender woman dressed in deepest green at the open door. Long blue black hair, reaching down to her lower back, frames an exquisitely boned face, freckles the mark of a leopard on her cheeks, in which yellow green eyes shine with amusement.
“I was just saying that I have a mighty hunger.”
“Then you have come to the right house,” the woman says. “We have just laid the table for supper.”
“This is the house of the schoolteacher?” Derry’s father asks.
“We are all teachers here,” the woman replies. Then looking at each of them in turn; “And you must be the family from England.”
“Then enter,” the woman invites. “You are expected.”
The room is light, whitewashed, large windows, unglazed, netted against the flies and the night, allow the sun in while keeping it cool. It is simply furnished; there’s a small table and four chairs, a stack of another four discretely hidden in a corner, and packed bookshelves – the first Derry has seen in a house other than her own – lining every wall.
The aroma of fresh coriander, cumin and lemon hangs in the air.
“Jivraj,” the woman calls. “Come, we are ready to eat. Bring your sisters with you.” She invites her guests to sit.
The table is set; bowls of rice, black lentil dahl, raitha, and jugs of lassi.
“Bring the chapattis.”
A tall man, over six feet, early twenties Derry thinks, accompanied by two equally tall women – Derry is unable to gauge their age – enter bearing covered trays. They place them at each end of the table and go to stand with the older woman.
“My children.” She introduces them; “Jivraj,” – he inclines his head, adjusts his round glasses on his beaked nose, and murmurs “welcome” – “Miri” – the spitting younger self of her mother – “and Piri” – the spitting younger image of her sister.
“They have been looking forward to practice their English with you,” the mother smiles at Derry. “I hope that is not too much of an imposition.”
“I would like that.” Derry is relieved. The blur of the day has, had left her disoriented, and now she feels calmer, the ground firmer beneath her feet. She addresses the children in English; “You are joining us for supper? It doesn’t feel right to eat by ourselves.”
“Of, course we are,” Miri replies in an American drawl – which catches Derry by surprise; she was expecting the usual clipped Indian accent – and takes a chair from the stack in the corner and positions it next to Derry. The others pick one each and take the remaining spaces.
“Eating is a sacred pastime for us,” Piri adds with a serious face pulling in her chair.
“Ignore her,” Miri advises. “She can talk a lot of nonsense.”
“Girls, water please,” their mother says firmly.
“You have a lot of books,” Derry’s uncle remarks studying the titles on the shelves.
“We each have a bookcase,” the mother replies. “We have different tastes. Mine is Moghul literature and paintings. Jivraj, his is mathematics and music, and the girls….”
“Are immersed in chess and critical theory,” Miri laughing finishes her mother’s sentence.
“And your husband?”
“He passed away over five years ago.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“He was drunk at the time. The fool!” she says fondly. “He was coming back from a book launch and took a short cut over the Hanging Bridge, forgetting that it was still incomplete.”
“How many years has that bridge taken?” Derry’s uncle asks. “The works seem to have been going on for ever.”
“Ten years for a span of fifty metres!” the woman laughs.
“We like to do things well here in India,” Miri chuckles. “The longer it takes the more time people have to marvel at the exquisite skills of the godly architects and the meticulous planners.
“It is a thing of beauty,” Piri joins in with the irony. “An engineering marvel to equal the pyramids NOT!”
“All they needed was a central pier column and a couple of load bearing beams,” Jivraj enters the conversation. “I told them that. Even sent them the designs.”
“We know. You would have built it in four months,” teases Miri.
“If all the materials and labour were provided as per the plan,” Jivraj qualifies. “My submission had a contingency of a couple of weeks, but yes, four months was more than adequate.”
“Clearly not bought into by the planning and procurement department, eh Jivi,” says Piri.
“Please ignore my sisters,” says Jivraj addressing Derry. “They know nothing of the world outside the chess board.”
“And he clearly does! Who in this house thinks that mathematics is above all a language of love?”
Derry is fascinated. She is at ease. She takes a sip of water. After the grotesque of the previous suitors this simple room is the ideal setting for the last stop of the day. She studies the bookcases. The books are not lined in any order that she can fathom, no meticulous spacing, spines not straight lipping the edges of the shelves. She notices Seth, Narayan, Raj Anand, Arundhati Roy, Adiga, Yeats, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Douglas Adams, R J Yeatman, James Joyce, Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote, Steinbeck, Pynchon…….paperbacks, hardbacks, magazines, journals……this is clearly a library of prodigious readers.
“I do not think that, I know that,” Jivraj clarifies. “Patterns govern the fabric of the universe, and mathematics provides the logic and the language to describe them.”
“In that order!” laughs Piri. “Logic first and then language.”
“Look who’s talking, the mistress of the Ruy Lopez.”
“It is intuition, of the female kind.”
“The building of circuits. Connections between points. And where there are connections there is love.”
“And only love is capable of connecting?”
Derry feels connected.
“Derry?” their mother holds out a plate. “Help yourself, my dear. There is very little spice in all the dishes. Try them, please.”
Derry has a hunger all of a sudden. She feels at home. She takes the plate and starts to reach across the table, but Jivraj motions that he will serve. She nods “yes” as he lifts the tops of the bowls and poses a question with each spoon.
The first mouthful releases a mix of spices and aromas that reminds her of Desh and her kitchen; this is not the minutely measured kind of cooking, this is food brought to life with a sprinkle of this and that, whatever is at hand; it is utterly delicious.
“My god, this is wonderful!” she exclaims in delight. “Who is the cook?”
“There is no one cook,” the mother stresses. “We all muck in. This is a collective effort. Everyone pulls their weight if they want to eat.”
“Madam,” Derry’s father begins – Derry recognises his stage voice, knows the formalities are beginning..
“Please, there is no need for formality. I am Myriam.”
“I wished to know the age of your son.”
“He is twenty six, as I am sure he will confirm himself.”
“He is the same age as our daughter.”
“I was born on the 28th March 1985,” Jivraj says.
“No way,” Derry is chewing on the most exquisitely thin, moist buttery roti she has ever tasted. “That is the same birthdate as mine!”
“You are twinned then,” Myriam laughs. “What a coincidence.”
“There are no coincidences,” Derry’s father states. “This is fate. All this is and that is to be has been written. We cannot deny that.”
“I am sure that will be disputed,” the woman says her strange eyes glittering looking across at her children.
Derry asks Miri to pass the lassi, pours and drinks. Miri tops up the half full glass.
“Uncle, you are aware of the 2nd law of thermodynamics?” asks Jivraj. “That time is always moving forward. According to it there is no way we can move backwards in time, undo the things that have been done. They are closed, wrapped up and thrown into a cupboard. Traces of traces they may taint the things that we do now and in the future – that’s the human condition we have to live with and manage – but we are on a trajectory to a state of maximum entropy.”
“What has that got to do with fate?”
“Everything. And nothing. Let me demonstrate.” Jivraj picks a plate from the table and lets it drop. It shatters on the floor. He bends and pick up a piece. “This was whole and now it is……well it’s a mess. Whose fate was that written into? The plate’s? Mine? Yours? Did I choose to pick up that plate and let it go, or did the plate decide to be picked up and dropped, and did you somehow win a celestial lottery to witness the event?”
They wait for him to explain.
There is a look of amusement on Derry’s father’s face. She knows whatever anyone says will just wash over him, will not change his thinking, his beliefs, which are set in stone.
“I would like to believe, because of the way we humans think, that this singularity is purely mine. But it cannot be; the plate had to be on the table, you all had to be seated around it, we had to be eating and discussing fate at this precise moment. In this unique bubble of time we had to have come together, touch and be touched by that moment. What are the chances of that? I would say pretty small.
Something or someone has brought us together. Call it what you want – Elohim, YHWH, Allah, Jehovah, El Olam, or just plain God – there is a force that drives this universe and our individual narratives…”
“You are saying that you agree with me, believe in fate? There is a greater…”
“Uncle, he’s messing with you!” Piri laughs. “Take everything he says with a pinch of cumin.”
“Yes, uncle, I’m just messing with you,” Jivraj confirms with a smile. “Think about it. This external force has written all our histories. We are in a state of forced being…”
“Being moved and guided by god’s love…”
“No, uncle, being forced by this external force. That is essentially the ISNESS of our being if we believe in fate. We did not happen to be around this table because of a happy coincidence; we were forced, led by our noses to be in a place not of our making or choosing. We truly are then ‘as the sheep’. The question ‘to be or not to be’ becomes ‘to must be or not must be.’ That is the basic principle of a belief in fate; We are pieces in a chessboard unwillingly moved by a will that is not ours.”
“My thesis is based in that,” Miri whispers to Derry. “The 64 squares of a chessboard as a metaphor for the improbable probability of God as a Black Pawn.”
“Why a pawn?” asks Derry.
“It has the power to transform.”
“Would a true god do that; force us against our will?” A pause. “I doubt that,” Jivraj answers his own question. “God would want us ‘to be aware’, to be curious enough to explore, decide and shape our own lives. Therein lies the ineluctable joy of being.”
“You do believe in God?”
“Of course. There is a limit to our mathematics, its modelling of what there is. There are shadows of unknowns we cannot begin to explain, a beauty which can only be explained by calling it ‘The Mystery’, ‘The Universal Spirit.” His eyes are bright behind his spectacles. “But we know what we know and the world is the way it is because of what we know and the way we think about what we know….
“And if we want it to change then we have to change our thinking,” Miri finishes for him.
“The challenge is to know yourself first. Know your tolerance for the maximum state of entropy that applies to you.”
“And what is your tolerance?” Derry is curious to know more about this strange man. She has no interest in mathematics, but listening to him, the passion in his voice, the confidence firing that passion she is carried into the current of his thoughts. She wants more.
He thinks for a moment before replying. “I was about to say there are no limits, but I would be stating an untruth. There are limits, and that is part of the beauty of life, to discover those limits and burst past those, to open into each season as that season and more.”
“He is not only a mathematician, but also a poet,” Piri says in mock admiration.
“They are one and the same,” Miri asserts. “The universe is built on never ending infinitely complex sets of patterns planted between and across the different dimensions. We exist as points between them, and as mathematicians and poets our purpose is to discover and map their beauty.”
“We always come back to the beauty of patterns,” sighs Piri dreamily.
“Pawn to e4, and we control the centre.”
“Can we focus on the beauty of this meal,” their mother reminds them gently. “I’m sure our guests want to get away before dark.”
Derry doesn’t want to “get away” from this place, the moment to pass. She feels at home. There is nothing grating on her senses. The discomfort she had felt all day has been sloughed off. There is just her wet pad. She asks to be excused.
Miri guides her, drawing a path through the house with eloquent fingers.
She follows true the echo of their conversation following her.
Hanging next to the bathroom door is a drawing of the family and on the wall behind them a mirror in which is the reflection of a woman, who looks familiar.
She leans closer, gasps as she recognises the face; it is hers. There is a sheer silence inside of her and she understands then what Jivraj meant by ‘the ineluctable joy of being.’