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Authors: Ariel Glucklich

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BOOK: Climbing Chamundi Hill
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We had moved only a few steps from “hangman's tree,” I realized, but I was happy for the old man's slow pace. “What a strange story! I really don't know what to make of it. It reminds me of ‘The Frog Prince,' I suppose.”

“Ah yes, the golden ball in the pond…And here we have a solar-love flower—what a wonderful coincidence. And what do you make of the frog prince, then?”

“I don't really know—as a marine biologist I'm highly skeptical…” The guide laughed kindly at this. “It seems like it's about coming of age, learning to accept sexual feelings. I'm not sure—there's something very psychological about it.”

“And our little turtle boy here, is he also coming of age?”

“Possibly. Coming to terms with who he really is, his inner nature—the prince, I guess.”

The old man pointed behind me to a smallish tree. “Sandalwood. This is our staple here in Mysore—have you bought any carvings?”

The sweet-smelling figurines, hand-carved with great care
to avoid any sign of individual artistry, were everywhere in the city. I loved their smell and had picked up several broken icons that had been left on the floors of workshops—that made them unique and eccentric. I shook my head.

The old man asked, “Was it wise to tell this story when I did, after the Brahmin's failed magic?”

I could not fathom where he was going—it was one of those questions he liked to ask in order to set me up for a theoretical point. Or so I thought. “I'm not sure, but there seems to be some progress there. The Brahmin failed, he remained stuck, while the prince learned how to move forward.”

“Toward something?”

“Sure. He seemed to be more fully adult, confident. He became more authentic to his inner, true self—damn, it sounds so corny when I say it.”

“Well, don't torture yourself about it. It's an excellent answer. Of course, it's exactly the opposite of what the story is telling us, but that's another matter.”

I knew it! I knew there was something I should have seen, but didn't. I'm not sure what it is about old Indian men, guides especially. They have a gift for making you feel like a child, and the harder you fight that feeling, the worse it gets. But I was curious. “What do you mean?”

“From where I stand, it's a story about having a very solid sense of self, a rigid one in fact. And it's a story about getting rid of that notion, attaining selflessness, transcendence. That is what the kingdom stands for, you know.” He winked mischievously, which seemed to undermine what he was saying, but he continued. “It's a gradual process, my friend. We can't achieve transcendence immediately. We must first win the princess—that's immanence, it's the
atman
of
the Upanishads. You've heard of these scriptures, I'm sure. And to win atman—of course, we've never lost it—we must first obtain the solar-love flower…”

I had read the Upanishads, as Rony urged me to. My friend also explained some of the famous passages, about Yajnavalkya and Janaka, and Shvetaketu and Uddalaka Aruni. I learned about the individual self merging with universal Self, but I doubt I understood it any better than Emerson and Thoreau had two hundred years earlier. Still, I thought I knew something. “Don't tell me,” I pleaded with the old man, who was just watching me. “The flower is the grace of God!”

“That's very nice,” he smiled. “I like that, although that's not what I was going to say.”

Of course not. What did I expect? “What then?”

“Perhaps I should not say, you're giving such wonderful interpretations. Who knows, perhaps you're right and I'm wrong. I should not like to lead you astray…”

“But what were you going to say about the flower?” I raised my voice. “I'd like to hear…” He could have been teasing me, but there was no way I was going to let him change the topic. “Come on, oblige me!”

“Let me just say that many of these stories—especially about animal people—are about who we are in our ordinary existence, how we come to be the people we are, and how to unmake all of that. The essential first step—renunciation—means untangling our ego, our very identity. Although the goal is transcendental, the means are always mundane. We control them, not God.”

“So the flower is some psychological symbol, not a divine one?”

He shook his head and smiled at the same time. “As you
might expect, I do not like these distinctions. Let's just say that the flower is a key in the process of unmaking who we have come to be through our family's expectations or those of our friends—our place in the world. For each one of us such a key exists, but it is unique.”

“Well then, why is it solar, and a flower?”

The old man began to laugh. He rolled his head backward and grabbed his sides as he roared, but there was no malice in his laughter. He seemed happy for some reason—perhaps he liked my insistent focus on the flower. “The reason it's solar and a flower is because it's my gift to you. It's your key, my friend, and no one else's. Remember that.” After he settled down a bit, the guide added, “I know this is hard—let me help you with another story.”

Just before he began we heard an excited voice behind us. Several steps down the path a man about my age and a boy were bending over a step and gesturing excitedly. We backtracked immediately—I suspected a snake—but when we reached the spot, the source of excitement turned out to be a small common tree frog. The tiny amphibian had been shading itself next to the step, but the sudden commotion made it panic. It tried to hop up to the next step, but failed repeatedly. The boy and his father—I assumed they were related—argued about something and laughed. I asked the librarian to translate.

“The boy wants to take the frog home, but his father claims that the frog is a pilgrim and must not be disturbed.” The man, who was wearing green trousers and a cotton shirt, appeared modern enough—a professional man. Was he teasing the boy or was he serious? The boy seemed more excited than disappointed. Suddenly, the frog, which had gathered some strength, took several quick leaps sideways
and disappeared behind the green tecoma shrubs. The father and the boy stared at the spot, then noticed my feet. That made them forget the frog—they giggled happily. In an instant they turned around and charged up the hill.

TO TRUST A WOMAN

The gentleman who was my neighbor before I retired, a successful merchant named Udhay, once told me this story about his days as a young man. He told me that he had been the only child of a couple who suffered through a tense marriage. His father was a wealthy trader who had married an exceptionally beautiful woman—just because he thought it would showcase his earnings to competitors. Unfortunately, she may have been too beautiful for him, and he never learned to trust her. Even when she was pregnant with Udhay, their only son, he suspected her of infidelity. It was not until the boy was born, showing a crescent birthmark on his chest—identical to his father's—that the merchant relinquished his suspicions about the pregnancy.

The rich merchant loved his son and spent hours playing with the boy or sharing the wisdom he had accumulated in a fruitful life. He taught him how to be assertive around other boys, how to make and invest money, but mostly how to conduct himself around women. Long before the boy was ten, his
father already lectured him about the dangers of feminine wiles. “Be careful with women, son. Especially the pretty ones. They will lead you on, make you think that they love you—but in truth they are always planning your downfall.” Little Udhay did not get much out of these lectures; his father was very disappointed to see the boy run to his mother and ask her what daddy was talking about.

The boy loved his mother. She confined herself to the house, managing the household and the servants, often telling him stories, and showing him how to worship the gods. He sensed his mother's deep sadness, although her demeanor would suddenly become overly joyful whenever her husband came home. To the boy this meant that his mother was trying to cheer up old Lemon-Face.

As Udhay grew into a teenager, his father assumed an even more active role in educating him about the ways of the world. He brought him to work in his shop, occasionally even on business trips. Once, when the boy was fifteen, his father took him to the district capital on a trading expedition. At the end of a long workday, the merchant showed Udhay to a famous brothel in order to demonstrate to him just how cunning and dangerous women can be.

The madam of the house was a monstrous old woman called Yamajivha. She had a huge protruding jaw and crooked teeth beneath a bulbous nose. She shrieked in laughter at the sight of the sweet-looking boy and his serious father. “Wait here,” she said rudely to the two guests, “I'm in the middle of something.”

Then she turned to her daughter, who was hardly more attractive than her mother, and said, “So you hear what I'm telling you? Men are worth only as much as the size of their wallet. The ones with money—even if they are old and ugly like this one with the kid—you must love. Those who are penniless—even if they look like Kama himself—throw them out. Do you understand?” The girl nodded vigorously, as though trying to make up for an earlier mistake.

The old wench then turned back to her guests and rubbed her hands. “What can I do for you gentlemen today?” She eyed the boy with relish, but the merchant stepped in front of his son.

He pulled ten gold pieces out of his pocket and handed them over to Yamajivha. “My dear madam, you have already taught my boy everything he needs to know about love. I hope this is enough reward for the lesson.” He took the boy's hand and led him out.

The old prostitute ran to the alley and called after them, “Come back anytime, master, there's plenty more wisdom where that came from.” Then she walked back in and slammed the door.

By the time Udhay turned sixteen, he was begging his father to let him go out and earn his own fortune. Over his wife's protests the merchant agreed, but he gave his son a large sum of money to get him started. As a concession to his wife, the merchant agreed to select a companion for the boy—Udhay's paternal cousin Arthadatta, who was two years older. The young men set out at the head of a cara
van, along the river in the direction of the sea. In a few days they reached Kanchanapuram, a ramshackle town of river traders where even morality was up for sale. They camped some distance outside of town, intending to continue on the very next day.

However, that evening the two young men dressed in fine silken clothes and went to see a dance at a local temple. Udhay made eye contact with one of the dancers—the most glamorous woman he had seen in his young life. The dancer, Sundari, smiled at him sweetly, and Udhay immediately told his companion to return to the caravan and unpack for a long stay.

“I think I'm in love, dear cousin,” he said grandly, as a wealthy teenager might.

“I don't think this is a good idea,” Arthadatta pleaded. “Why don't we leave right away?” But he left the mesmerized boy at the temple and returned to camp.

Udhay had never been in love, but he always imagined that love would have to be won. Some of his favorite stories were about separated lovers or infatuated heroes having to pass a test or conquer a shy princess. This was thrillingly different. After the performance Sundari simply came over and touched the young man's feet in respect. He introduced himself to the girl, who, blushing, invited him to meet her mother.

The two women lived in a well-appointed house—the foot-washing bowl Sundari's mother brought out was covered with gems. The older woman, Makarakati, was dignified with quick and sharp
eyes—like those of a hawk—that seemed to take everything in. The young man found her intimidating, but her devotion to Sundari was obvious, especially when she hugged her daughter and said, “He's such a handsome young man, and obviously from a respectable family. Be nice to him, my dear!” That made Sundari blush again, and Udhay felt his own cheeks flush. They lounged on silk pillows all evening long, feeding each other fruit and sweets from crystal bowls, which were served by two discreet maidservants. Every now and then when Udhay felt his hostess accidentally brush against his arm or thigh, he recoiled in pleasure. He waited for some signal that he should leave, but it never came.

Late the following morning, Arthadatta saw his young cousin entering camp, floating like a sleepwalker. “Where were you, young cousin? We were all so worried about you!”

Udhay took that as reproach and snapped out of his reverie. “Don't father me, Arthadatta. I spent the night with my beloved.” His face softened with the sound of that word. “Now, where is the chest? I need to withdraw some money.”

“What for?” Asked the cousin.

“I need to make a small loan to my beautiful Sundari; it's just a temporary matter. Where is it?”

“Well, how much do you need?”

“It's not your money and not your concern. But if you must know—one million.”

Arthadatta was appalled. A million bought you a stable full of the best horses, with food for a lifetime
and an army of stable boys. It was nearly one-quarter of the boy's total wealth. “Listen, boy, don't you recognize a scam? You're walking straight into it with your eyes open and your pocket bleeding dinars!”

These words deeply offended Udhay. “It was my idea to give her the money…She refused to accept it.”

“So what happened?”

“Her mother persuaded her…sensibly, I thought. She said that because we were lovers, we should be sharing everything, and that Sundari might as well accept my offer.”

“You're a damn fool, cousin. And don't forget, it's not your money either—your father gave it to you.”

But Arthadatta was wasting his breath. The young man took the money and disappeared again. The trading expedition dissolved into a long, idle wait by the river, while the infatuated young merchant spent most of his time at Sundari's house. Two months went by, and half of Udhay's money found its way to his lover.

One day Arthadatta was angry enough to confront his cousin with harsh words. “Listen, cousin, you're completely out of your mind. That girl, Sundari, she's just a dancer—a performer. Do you have any idea what that means?” He got no response and continued. “She's a prostitute, man, a whore. She's had other men and now she's out to rob you. Wake up!”

But even this brutal honesty had no effect on Udhay. “I know she's a dancer, but she's not like the other ones. She's pure and beautiful, like my mother. You and everyone in father's family are just jealous of
beautiful women, but I'm not. Besides, she loves me with all her heart—I can feel it.”

“What you feel is not love, cousin. Trust me.”

Then Arthadatta had an idea. “Look, I'll prove it to you. Let me come with you to Sundari's house and just suggest that we should leave. She'll drop you on the spot.”

The young man agreed, and in the presence of Sundari and her mother Arthadatta executed his plan. “Ladies, I'm sad to tell you this, but Udhay and I have spent our fortune and must now resume our business journey.” Looking at Sundari, he said, “Your beloved will only grow richer, and he will certainly return to you when the time is right.” He then paused to observe the reaction.

Sundari looked devastated. She began to shake and sob silently, allowing herself to be enfolded within her mother's arms. Then she turned to Udhay and said in a pitiful manner, “You're abandoning me for the sake of wealth. I was no more than a station on your journey. Oh, my fate…I gave you my heart…” she sobbed uncontrollably.

But her mother calmed her. “Don't cry, my dear. I'm sure he will return. You must let him go now.”

Arthadatta led his cousin out by the arm. “You were wrong—she doesn't want me to go!” cried the youngster.

But his cousin said, “Let's just keep this going a bit longer. We'll lead the animals away from town and see what she does.”

The next morning Udhay's group prepared early and took the western road out of town, walking slowly toward the coast. Just then Sundari came running from the city, calling out for her beloved in despair, her hair blowing wildly. As the men turned to look at her, she suddenly threw herself into a well. Udhay reacted quickly, but before he could reach her, three shepherds who happened to be near the well scampered down and gingerly carried out the injured woman, whose clothes were in tatters.

The merchant was beside himself with guilt. Gathering Sundari into his arms, he begged forgiveness, tearfully promising that he would never leave her again. It was a joyful moment for the two lovers, whose great passion burst into flames, fueled by tears and fanned by remorse. Standing off to the side, Arthadatta watched glumly.

Udhay, now emboldened by conviction, moved into his lover's home; he was hardly ever seen at the camp. Once a week he came to collect clean clothes and more money, then disappeared into his sweetheart's bejeweled bed with its silk canopy. He spent another two months of renewed sensual joy, until one day he returned to his cousin with ripped clothes, bruises all over his body, and a bewildered look on his face.

“What happened, cousin?” asked Arthadatta.

Udhay was too embarrassed or confused to speak. He stared down at his shoeless feet and remained silent.

“She threw you out didn't she? She threw you out! What happened—did you tell her you ran out of money?”

“Well, I did run out of money, but so what? What does that have to do with anything? I thought she loved me…She threw herself into a well for me!”

“Cousin, I have let you down, and I failed your father too. Not only have I not protected your money, I've been unable to teach you even a modicum of common sense. Come on, we're going back.” Within hours, the caravan was assembled and turned back upstream.

Back at home Udhay's father was furious. “I'm very disappointed, son. Didn't I warn you about women? Did you forget what the old whore Yamajivha said? Women are mercenaries, boy, all of them!” Udhay turned to look at his mother, but she was too meek to say anything. He was in no position to argue either, having lost almost five million of his father's dinars. “Come on, son, we're going back for more instruction,” his father barked. By the time the merchant's wife finally spoke up, protesting that the boy needed some rest, the two were already out the door.

Yamajivha was also furious, but only at herself, and she showed it by laughing and swatting her daughter's head. “She threw herself into the well,” she roared. “That's one of the oldest tricks in the book. I should have warned you about some of these tricks.” She turned and slapped her daughter again. “Okay, gentlemen, you can have your money back, or you can have my daughter. Which will it be?”
That made her laugh, and the two men looked at each other blankly. Their silence made the old woman shriek “Ala!” Then again, “Ala!” Suddenly a monkey jumped in through the rear window and scampered onto the old woman's shoulder. “Gentlemen, meet Ala. She's my gold-making animal. You can have her for a few weeks—she will get your money back.”

“How will she do that?” asked the merchant.

“Just feed her twenty gold pieces every morning, and she will do the rest.”

The merchant looked at her suspiciously. He was entirely predisposed to suspect the old prostitute of a scam, but this was his town—he knew where to send his friends in the police department if he had to. His son, meanwhile, seemed lost—it was not clear at all that he wanted his money back. On the way home the merchant warned Udhay, “Listen, son, I don't know what you're thinking—that girl did not love you; she just wanted your money. You may not believe me, but you will obey. You will take this monkey back to Kanchanapuram and win the money back. It's not negotiable!”

The young man put on his best clothes and left with a small group, including Arthadatta. The monkey was allowed to sit in the saddle with him. He arrived at Sundari's house looking fresh and eager, and he was greeted earnestly if not warmly. “How nice to see you, my dear young man,” said Sundari's mother, who was the one who ordered him kicked out as soon as he had admitted to running out of money.

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