Priyatam Mudivarti grew up in India and the Middle East and now calls Cambridge his home, where he works as a software engineer. He recently received his MFA in Fiction from Pacific University, and is a member of Writers Room of Boston, where he is working on a collection of poems and a philosophical thriller set against ’93 bomb blasts in a four-hundred-year-old Indian city. This is his first publication. www.priyatam.com, http://priyatamphotography.com.
Last year I burned my father. Saw his dry veins, heard his crackling bones, and threw his ash into the sacred Godavari. Today I pass the border of paddies and trees and return to the mountain. Roads run forever. I wheel my Jeep, shifting gears, drive up and up and park on the gravel next to his cabin. I pull my eyes on the flight of stairs. My Father. He was here.
He trained me how to breathe. Look before you photograph, he’d say. Observe the shifting sunrise, the watchful moon. Observe the stillness, the static feeling that can’t be seen—that moment before a tiger leaps, before a breeze cools the grass and blows on your ears. Observe.
Plaster flakes have fallen on the ceiling of his cabin. I peek my head into his office. Outside the window a tree branches out, hanging in the wind. Mosquitoes are smashed dead against the remaining glass. A film negative, scarred with cigarette burns. Six moldy cigars. I search under the desk, paw through scraps of torn magazines. I open a cloth from a trunk and dust a pile of leftover bones. In them I find his medium-format lenses. His Mamiya. I hid them last year.
Outside, the grass is tinged with gold. A squirrel fingers the grass. The sun is shy, the river calm and drifting. I screw the camera onto a tripod and fix the lens and shutter and release the silver knob. The breeze pushes through the leaves in a howl of a thousand shrieks. A squirrel ducks under a branch, grips the tree with its feet, nibbling through bleeding sap. An eagle rides overhead through the thermals. I press the shutter halfway and trap the air to calm my beat. A jolt fires into my ribs: the eagle lowers its beak, descends into a blast of wings, and crushes the squirrel in a fist of talons.
I miss that photograph. I am not as good as my father.
The river is cool and leaves float under its stream. I burst into the ripples and wobble my back in the balmy creek, feeling the figs snip my toes.
That night, I sleep in a wooden bed with the bamboo frame. In the silence between midnight and sunrise, I wake up to roll over and feel my chest for sweat. I bury my face in the blanket, my hands knocking my knees. I remember the hospital, the urine on his sheet, and the rhythmic coughs of my old, dying man.
Last year I took my clothes off and dipped my head into Godavari. The water ran cold and molecular. On its stream flames of pots sailed, shredding the ashes of men into a journey of waves. At the pyre I had rolled my father’s legs in cotton sheets and covered his eyes with a candle. The flame swallowed his face. Soon, I will fist his ash into three mango leaves, rice and ghee, and see him drift in a pot of a bright, glowing nest.
“How long into the river?” I asked the priest.
“I don’t know the distance,” he said. “The river only flows.”
I returned to the pyre and thought about my future: a gray sky staring back at me; the calculus of thoughts, the echo of the prayer, and smoke spreading under my feet—a thimbleful of ash.
“It’s time,” the priest said.
I gazed into the pyre and tried to compose myself. A pigeon fluttered on a branch and winged above, gliding in an endless journey. Behind her sun plundered in the sky. Next to my feet bones crackled and collapsed into powder and flames.
“Last thing to burn,” he said and gave me a torch.
“The skull will break easily.”
A blue flame flared up, shaping into a rose, burning quicker and faster and freeing itself from the rest, soaring, like a kite.
I wake up and begin my journey. Tomorrow he will live again. I must try this.
I drive to the temple at the base of the mountain before first light, and wait on its twenty-five steps. A statue of a marble cow stands at the top entrance. Pigeons rest on an old banyan tree with branches coiled like immense snakes. The air smells of rain on a post-monsoon day. I change to a wide-angle lens, breathe in and out. The sun dawns. A dog springs from the lower steps onto the pavement and salivates next to a man sleeping under a jute blanket. Next to him, an aluminum plate, three bananas, one-half of a peeled coconut. The man pulls his blanket. I swear I can’t focus, can’t even change my lens. Then a monkey leaps from the banyan. Behind him seven other monkeys huddle together. The sun cracks through the branches, onto its leaves. The world is a record, my attention is a needle, and we all are in the same groove, sharing the clock.
The man opens his blanket. A baby girl yawns, crawls out. Sun glimmers into her eyes.
I miss that photograph.
On the day of his surgery a nurse shaved his head. She opened his skull and drilled a hole into his forehead. I think the hole went too deep, sank into his chest. He came out alive and said hello, “My face looks like a mummy’s.”
He tried to smile but blood spilled out of his mouth.
The nurse pressed a label on his arm: patient forty-five. She answered her phone and left the room, swaying her hips.
“They’ve no sense of humor,” my father said and adjusted the label, swayed his neck into his druggy sleep. I sat on an armless chair next to his bed.
At four in the morning he woke up. “How did you score on the board exams?” he said, waking me up from a nightmare, his face now looking like a mummy. Blood clotted under his lips. I sat on the edge of his bed, touched the empty groove on the sheet. There were no legs. No arms or chest, just his face smiling beneath his hollow jaw.
“Just made it through,” I said, and he touched my forehead.
His arm stretched into a long, weightless bone.
“How do you feel?” I said.
He squinted, not wearing his glasses. “Still strong,” he said. “Old and strong!”
The new sound in his voice stayed in my ears.
I tried to change the subject, but he had nothing to say. I turned my back to him and clutched the curtain hung by the window, watching a squirrel climb around the light of a lamppost with nowhere to go.
“Listen,” he said. The IV tilted as he lifted his arm. “Don’t worry about me.”
He described his life in a low whisper: how things changed slightly from year to year, little things, his abrupt breathing, the blurry mountains, his smoky coughs high above the summit, breathing an air so thin.
He bent his head and tousled my hair. “What do you want from your life?”
He knuckled his eyelids softly.
“Not again,” I said.
He held the frame of the bed. Wires dangled around his arm. His skin was falling.
“I can’t be good like you,” I said. “I’m not an artist.”
The light in the room was dim and cast shadows around us, giving us a halo, like a long exposure on a negative film. I slung my backpack over a shoulder and headed for the door.
He lifted himself out of bed, toes pointing down. He moved his lips (I couldn’t even hear him).
“You can trash a piece of paper,” he said, his hand on his hip. “Or you can fold it into a kite.”
He knew I still didn’t understand.
I walked closer to the center of the room and watched him knead his arm and reach for me.
“One day you’ll be better than me.”
On the nightstand the apple was browning. A fly sucked the juice of its skin.
He stood at the center, tall and saggy, and rubbed his arm and chest.
An upward pressure raced into my ribs.
“Don’t worry,” he said again and patted my cheek. He clicked an imaginary camera with his index finger and smiled. “I’m just a vintage 35mm.”
I start the Jeep and speed down the slope. Peaks of coniferous trees spread across the mountain, the pale skies, where stars gleam in black and gray—a blur in the fog and dust. The rattle of distant hyenas and cats and boars surround my throat. I feel too frightened by their roar, too shocked to see light at the end of the open sky.
For two years he taught me everything. He woke me at five, sat on a brick, chanted a mantra, breathed in and out—one hundred-and-eight times, and counted the beads around his chest, his straightened back, releasing his breath in controlled bursts until the sun would beam through the banyan tree.
Once, I asked him why he prayed to the sun.
“I’m glad you asked,” he said. He placed his large hands on me, one on my chest, one on my back, and put his thumb on my nose.
He sat down in front of me and folded his legs into a lotus. He connected my thumb and middle finger, connecting the brain to the eye. His neck was stiff, his face calm. He closed his eyes. I closed mine.
“Forget the destination,” he said. “Your journey is inside, not outside.”
He held the brick under his thighs, expanding his chest.
“When you compress time, you live longer. When you hold your breath and compress the air, block and release, when this happens—you will unlock your mind.”
I stared at him.
“The rhythm of chants will synchronize with your breath, spreading in circles inside your body, lifting you up and up, until you forget to breathe.”
He kept chanting.
“When you open your eyes the world will have a new meaning. When the slow, measured, ringing of faith opens the hole in your chest to the branches above, when you prepare your mind to focus, the world will shrink into your eyes: you will scan and release your shutter with the speed of your eye. The sea, the sky that turns into a July slate, the motion of crabs, the crack of thunder in a monsoon storm, the fish that migrate and perish one hundred feet below the polluted pond—even people,” he said. “You will see them cry and hide their hostess smiles.”
For months he disappeared into the mountains.
When he returned his brain had grown a tumor. Three more months, the doctor said. Three more months.
One month later a man from a charity came to scoop out his eyes.
I wake up at five thirty and leave the cabin with the camera. It’s time for the first death anniversary. At Godavari oil lamps twinkle at the banks, where fisherman stayed overnight for an early catch, drifting in their boats. The priest is back with a bag and sits on a raised platform in front of the temple, overlooking Godavari.
He ties my wrists with mango leaves and smears my forehead with vermillion paste, and chants a long, single syllable.
On the sand I draw a man with no eyes. They look like caves.
“Over here,” the priest says and points to a line of pots.
In the center of the pyre a fire crackles and rifts in a gust of wind.
“But I did this last year,” I say.
The priest nods and instructs me to mix a ball of rice. “You must pay your respects every year.”
I take off my shirt and press my face into it and hold myself together for a short time. I walk around the pyre in circles. I keep stopping, having to force myself to remember what I was doing, where I was.
A few yards away I sit on a bamboo mat. For the next twenty minutes I hold my throat with three fingers and chant the same mantra one hundred and eight times. On each count the sound rumbles inside my throat.
At the count of ten, I remember my father's speech. First you close your eyes, next you become the air you breathe.
At twenty, my chest thumps harder. My pulse jets through my ears.
At forty, I relax my waist.
At seventy-nine, my bones expand inside my spine, making a soothing, sitar sound, lifting my body into another space.
At ninety-two, when I close my eyes and suck my breath, I see fire and ash, playing in smoke.
At the count of one hundred: a mountain, the remains of the cut down trees, a man with a beard and without any clothes, rotting under his limbs.
At one hundred and one, my body grows fiery, as if a log from the pyre rolled into my spine and burned my chest.
One hundred and seven. My heart comes to a full stop. I learned to stop my breath. My chest expands out of my ribs, stretches my neck.
At one hundred and eight I become a vacant light. Everywhere, white. There is no breath under my throat. My eyelids are gone. I can’t feel my hands or hear my breath. I can’t feel a thing. Every molecule is mine. Nowhere to go, but it is beautiful. In my mind I mix saffron and milk to rinse my glands. Father taught me to lock the air each time I breathed. When you trap air like that, he’d say, you freeze time.
A soft hand taps my back. “Well done,” the priest says. “You can now throw the rice.”
I open my eyes. Whiteness everywhere. A pigeon flaps on a coconut tree.
“Just a minute,” I say and get up and bring my camera with me.
I walk to the side of the temple. A boy is playing on sand, naked below his waist, fiddling with a capless toothpaste. He looks lost, parentless, limping under the shade of the naked banyan. There, I begin to compose. I stand with my palm pressed against my chest. Above, pigeons roar in an endless journey. Beneath them—not too far—in front of a fallen coconut, rats make love and snuggle in debris. Papers furl and float into a ball. The boy is playing, jumping! I focus—zoom in on his smile. Wind gushes in one direction and papers begin to flap. Several others join. A blue plastic bag floats above his head. When he raises his arms and jumps his penis dangles, slapping his legs. Years of malnutrition had narrowed the boy, down to his knees, bulging into spheres of bone.
He catches the bag, laughs, and rolls on mud.
I duck my arms into my chest, lean against the pillar, and find myself singing, dancing, and wishing I were naked. Too much, I think, wanting to sink into it.
I press the shutter halfway and wait.
The boy turns and cries.
Yes, I take that picture.
“ When my father died years ago the priest told me to push the torch so the ‘skull would break easily.’ I’m not sure if that’s what he said, and how I felt, but the image has stayed with me. In my first workshop in 2007 I wrote a scene about a funeral. Since then I wrote different flavors of a father-son-funeral story (including a long story about a painter that spanned forty-five years and two countries), but I wasn't going anywhere. I needed another image to bounce off my first. They say write what you want to know. At the time I had done some documentary photography, read about sadhus and artists, and re-read several short stories I admired and started to relate one thing to the other, until one day, I saw a recurring image of an old man that looked like Ansel Adams chanting across a sacred river, and I thought—it is time to rewrite again. ”