Susmita Bhattacharya was born in Mumbai and sailed the world on oil tankers before settling down in the UK. She is an associate lecturer at Winchester University and leads the SO:Write Young Writers workshops in Southampton. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian), was published in 2015. Her short stories, essays and poems have been widely published and also broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She won the Winchester Writers Festival Memoir prize in 2016. She lives in Winchester with her family.
In the Lap of the Gods
I met you at a Christian camp that summer. I went there, quite honestly, to find a prospective husband. These things happened in camps, I knew that. My best friend had met hers this way, and she was certain I would do too. But instead I found you.
The train whizzed past the smoky suburbs – the sunrise offered in soft focus through the Mumbai smog. The further we sped away from the city, the crisper the air became, until we were in the Ghats, with vast swathes of green rolling away from the railway tracks, waterfalls creating lacy tendrils on craggy rocks.
We sang Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so and clapped our hands. We snacked on banana chips and chikki. The other passengers joined in, their fingers beating the rhythm on their thighs, although they wore the markings of other religions on their bodies. We shared our food and swapped stories until we arrived at our destination. Our group of twenty, buzzing giddily with excitement, spilled out into the platform like bees homing in to nectar-heavy flowers.
And then, they introduce you to me. We are to share a room for the next three nights. We smile and say hello. Our room is a narrow sliver of floor between two thin walls. A bunk bed with a chest of drawers squeezed by the foot of the bed. The toilets and bathroom are at the end of the corridor, to be shared with ten other rooms, lined up like a stack of books. Each bed has a much used pillow with a round, black stain smelling of coconut hair oil and a thin, scratchy blanket. Just looking at it makes my body itch.
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You remove a shawl from your rucksack and place it on the bed. You pat it down firmly, making sure there are no creases anywhere.
‘One must have a good night’s sleep,’ you say, smiling at me. ‘At least this shawl smells of me and not some strange person smelling of oil and Margo soap.’
I nod and look at my own bed. It never occurred to me to bring any bedding. Maybe I can use my towel as a bedsheet. You laugh, as if reading my thoughts.
‘Your first time here?’
‘Yes. My first time. But my best friend has been about two or three times already.’
‘Hmmm the Christian virgin then,’ you smirk.
‘Yes, Christian and virgin. But not for long, I hope,’ I say, feeling brave.
‘Which one do you want to lose first?’ You are already putting your things away in the top drawer, leaving the bottom one for me.
I mean – well, to tell you a secret – I lean closer to you and smell apple spice in your hair.
But you finish the sentence before I do. ‘-Looking for a husband?’
‘How do you know?’ Do I look so desperate that my intention is evident on my face?
‘Most of the girls who come here do. Even the guys. Well, there are two specific groups – those who are here truly for God’s purpose. That’s about 2% of the crowd. The rest wouldn’t mind hooking up with someone. And why not – same mind-set. Same religion and all. Easier this way.’
‘And which group do you belong to? Are you looking for a husband too?’ I ask.
‘The first,’ you say, your eyes sparkling. ‘Not interested in the second.’
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But I don’t believe you. You don’t look like the people who have come here to be one with God. They have a certain aura about them. They wear crucifixes, and take God’s name at every opportunity. They advertise their faith loudly, but your body is bare of any holy annotations.
The camp leader gathers us together in the compound and gives a welcome speech. He details out the activities and aims we need to achieve during the three day camp. He puts us into groups. I scan the people in my group for an eligible man. There’s one young fellow with a massive Adam’s apple and a gold cross nestled underneath it. There’s another one, quite overweight and with a loud laugh. There’s you – grinning at my disappointment and whispering to me – ‘Don’t worry. I’ll sort you out!’
At the end of the day we sit next to each other at the long dining table, spooning rice and runny dal into our mouths. And at last, in the quietness of the night, after giving up on sleep on the lumpy, smelly mattress, I move down to your bed and we talk.
I tell you how after a bad break up, my parents now insist on finding a man for me. I tell you how I have bought myself some time – to find Mr Right myself. I tell you I am bad at choosing the right person for myself. Both my relationships had been disasters. You tell me that you are not interested in getting married. You tell me you are studying to be a geologist. You tell me you will run away from home the day you get your admission to an American university. You tell me to do the same.
It’s fun to share secret glances with you as the leader gives sermons on Christian brotherhood and the true meaning of love. There are testimonies every night. Young people who have found their true love: their Lord. No one else will do. They take to the podium, and declare such experiences of love they have received from above. They cry as they speak, their bodies shivering with passion. There is only One Lord – and he is coming to save us all.
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A girl with severe acid burns all over her face and arms cries as she tells us how the Lord accepted her when everyone else gave up on her. For months, when she was in coma, a constant light kept her company, and a voice calmed her and reassured her she was going to be okay. She had sinned. Her boyfriend had punished her. But now, she would be saved. She holds out her arms – her melted skin forming ridges and fault lines like the hills around us. But she is at peace, for she has learned that true beauty comes from within. She has found the meaning of life.
After dinner, yet again runny dal and rice, you produce a bottle of Old Monk. A quarter. We borrow tea cups from the kitchen, and drink it neat, the rum burning down our throats, making us giggle at our ungodly behaviour.
I slip under the sheets with you, balancing my cup and warm up against your hot skin. I smell your hair, which is reeking of smoke from the campfire last night. I tell you about my ex – a Muslim – who could not accept my faith. And my parents’ ultimatum: to marry a boy of suitable religion and means before the end of the year, or else they’d find one for me.
You tell me you want to walk on beaches, and collect shells, and not care about anything else in the world. You tell me that your father, a master mariner, had sailed on all the oceans, and collected water from every one of them in slim homeopathy vials. The collection was preserved in a dusty showcase, the water long evaporated, and your dad no longer your hero. You say no one has ever understood you. What you want. What you need. You just go along with the flow, and feel the urge to walk along the sea.
I listen to your stories. Each like a fairy-tale, where you are the princess. But never in need of a prince. You tell me of the days you accompanied your father on voyages around the world. You and your mother fighting for his attention. And even now, you are fighting – you can never make peace with your parents. You have already walked along many beaches around the world. How my heart stings with envy. I have only been to the local ones, with its offal and rubbish dredged up to the shores every day as offerings.
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And then you turn and smile and me. The lamp behind your head makes a halo around you. Your frizzy hair softening its glow. I’m glad we met, you say.
And then, and then…
There is no one else in this world. My heart beats to the rhythm of the distance hoots of the owl. My fingers stray to caress your fingers, still tightly wound around the cup of rum. I smell the smoke in your hair, the rum on your breath and I am lost. I feel like time has been suspended. I feel a sense of recklessness, of sweet danger rushing in to envelope us. I’m not sure what I want but you are guiding me. You touch my lips with yours. Ever so softly it may not have touched even. I move forward, pressing firmly into your mouth. But you lean away. You give a little laugh.
‘No,’ you say.
I laugh as well. But I climb out of the bed, unsure of my movements. You pull the blanket up to your neck and snuggle in.
‘Tomorrow,’ you say. That’s all you say. And then I turn off the light and face the wall.
The day has passed in a blur. As the evening mellows in, the songs of praise in the chapel crescendo into the night, challenging the calls of the roosting birds. The hills look careworn and patient, holding us in its cradle and indulging us. Sing, sing to the glory of god to your heart’s content. There is no one here to hear you, except the birds, the craggy rock faces and the trees. The sense of being one with nature is overwhelming.
People around me are crying, tears streaming down their faces, lips trembling, voices soaring. I envy their belief. I envy their commitment. I glance at you from the corner of my eye, and am embarrassed to see you are looking at me. You have that smile on your face. The one that tells me there is trouble ahead. With a slight shake of your head, you motion me out into the open through the side door. We escape, running side by side, our slippers slapping against our soles, our giggles muffled inside our mouths. We stop at a distance, and the singing becomes one voice, echoing into the empty night.
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We keep walking down the hill, taking in the smells: the raat ki rani, its intoxicating perfume mingled with the smells of cow dung and cut grass. We turn a corner, and before us is a bush, all aglow in the darkness.
‘What’s this?’ I cry out.
The bush quivers with little pin points of light, sparks straying out and disappearing into the darkness.
‘The burning bush,’ you say. ‘Can you just believe that?’
I nod, but have no words to reply.
‘You know, these hills are older than Moses. Older than mankind itself.’
I look around me. The hills glow in the dark. Galaxies swirl above, the stars powdering the sky.
‘The Ghats are older than the Himalayas. They’re more than 150 million years old and go back to the time the earth had one big continent. We are witnessing something to old, so sacred that we must stop and pay attention to it. This is the abode of the Hindu gods. And when I look at this amazing geology, I believe in god’s creation.’
You walk towards the bush, and I follow you. There is no fire. Fireflies are nesting there. I have never seen fireflies before, and now I stare at them in wonder. They hover and they fizz, then they disappear. I reach out for your hand, and you hold it tight.
They have floated away and we stand there in the dark. I cling to your hand, and we embrace. The ancient mountains bear witness and I feel the shackles falling. I feel so light I could fly. I am not afraid to face my parents again. Actually, I’m not afraid to face myself – I look forward to returning home and being myself. I feel your fingers caress my arm, my desire for your touch increasing as we fall back on the cold, damp grass. I want to return to the real world with you by my side. Yes, that is what I want. But I’m too afraid to think about it. I suppose we will bury our secret here in the in the lap of the Gods, with our desires just fading into memory.
‘Be like these ancient hills,’ you tell me. ‘Stay strong and independent. You do not need a man to complete you, believe me.’
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I believe you. I am so thankful to you for this reassurance. We return to the prayer hall. There is silence as everyone is bent over in contemplation and worship. We sit down, still holding hands, our lips move in prayer. And I thank God that I found you.
We did not meet again. You did run away to America. I tried to keep up with your news on social media. You graduated and I sent you my best wishes. I did not find Mr Right but I didn’t mind. I had found self-worth, and the courage to stand up to my parents. They could not stop me as I too moved away to another city and lived my life according to my terms. I broke a couple of hearts and revelled in my power to do so. Both times, I thought of you and how proud you’d have been of me.
And then I saw the photos you were tagged into via a church friend. Your wedding photos. You proclaiming you had found the love of your life. I looked through your posts, your photos. It was there, for all to see. A traditional white wedding – how very original.
I closed my eyes. I did not want your truth to shatter the myth I had created in my mind to guide me through my life. I took one last look at your wedding photograph – you were not the person I knew all those years ago. I certainly wasn’t the same person you had met all those years ago.
Finally, I unfriended you and returned to my work. This was not the time for reflection.