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SHORT STORIES | M. PADMANABHAN

Khajuraho

(A little woman with her big bag.
Foreign soil. In the East.
Before an epiphany and a rising sun)


Carol and Robert Delaney had not planned to visit the erotic temples at Khajuraho. Their flight to Kathmandu from Bangkok was diverted to New Delhi and then cancelled altogether due to political tensions in the mountain kingdom. The airline gave passengers the option of remaining one or two nights in India before being reconnected to their onward destinations.

The Delaneys had three days left on their Asia-Pacific tour before they returned to their home in the US, in Newport, Rhode Island. They were loathe to allow mere politics, of all tedious reasons, to ruin their careful planning. So they chose to stay on in India.

The local American Express agent, an Indian who spoke English surprisingly well, made a number of suggestions. When he mentioned the temples with the X-rated sculpture Robert immediately brightened. He’d heard about them he said, though Carol couldn’t imagine when or where. He’d certainly never mentioned them to her before. Those two words, “erotic” and “temple”, just didn’t go well together, in Carol’s way of thinking. Then again, as their tour had shown them, there were almost as many different ways of thinking as there are airline booking clerks. Three weeks of zigzagging around from Easter Island to New Zealand to Australia to Indonesia then Japan and on to Cambodia and Thailand had left her weary of the outlandish, the astonishing and the outright bizarre. She wouldn’t have minded something just a tad ordinary or at the very least, famous. That white tomb for instance, the Taj Mahal. Wouldn’t that be something?

Robert just went on grinning like a goofy schoolboy, saying he’d set his mind on the weird temples. Carol shrugged and said she didn’t care either way. He was six years older than her. She often let him have his way. He’d be retiring soon. He was a tall man, handsome if you ignored the deep ravines creasing his forehead, the pouches under his eyes and the silver-gray hair thinning on the crown of his head. Carol was short, blonde and trim, with the same flat stomach she’d had as a secretary, when she’d joined the firm where she’d met and married her husband. It had been a good match. They had two children, both boys. One was in college, one headed his own soft-ware unit. Whatever that meant. Carol didn’t ask questions to which she couldn’t understand the answers.

The bookings were made. Robert and Carol checked into the nearest Holiday Inn. Early the next morning, they were on their way.

It was a small town, Khajuraho. Ka-ZHOO-rah-o. Carol practised saying it out loud and found it wasn’t too difficult. Half the reason she had resisted coming to Asia all these years was that she didn’t like those impossible names! And now here she was. She’d enjoyed Thailand best so far, names and all. India seemed less easy to like. Maybe it was because they had gotten here out of necessity, not choice. The poverty was more visible. The climate was definitely worse. Then again maybe it only felt that way because their taxi from the airport had not been air conditioned. Ka-ZHOO-rah-o. Well, the names were easier. That was something.

Carol often talked out loud in a rolling tide of comments about everything happening around her. Robert had got used to it. He joked about it sometimes. Called her his Universal Reporter.

The agent suggested spending the entire first day resting in the hotel with perhaps a brief stroll through the market in the evening. The temples, according to him, were best seen at dawn. “It’ll be cooler too: the site opens at six. Believe me, once the sun is properly up—he smiled in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink manner—it might get too hot if you know what I mean!” Robert snickered. Carol ignored the dirty-joke silliness. She didn’t mind looking at pornography now and then, just to please Bob, but it was never something she sought out.

She and Robert checked in at the Khajuraho Sheraton and spent the day blobbing out by the swimming pool. In the evening they met the guide, arranged by the hotel, who would take them around the temples. He seemed pleasant enough. He was of medium height, had fair skin for an Indian and a warm, sensuous mouth. His English was passable. It wasn’t what he said but how he said it that was difficult to understand, Carol remarked to Robert later. His first name was Rajesh, he said. Carol had to see it spelled out before she would try saying it. Raahzh—she said, tentatively. Raahzh…Esh. Not bad. She said it a few more times to fix it in her mind.

The couple had a light snack and went to bed. Robert put his arm around Carol, drew her to him and nuzzled her ear, but she patted his hand in an “I’m asleep!” way. He took the hint. After thirty years of marriage, they knew one another’s signals.

The next morning the hotel had arranged a taxi to take them to the site. It was just before sunrise. Rajesh was already there. He was carrying a full-length black umbrella with him, tightly furled. Must be against the sun? thought Carol. There had been no talk of rain, though. Perhaps he was unusually fastidious. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt tucked into his black pants, everything neatly pressed. Who does his laundry? wondered Carol. He was so very thin. There was something hungry and underfed about him that suggested chronic loneliness. How much did a tourist guide earn, after all? Enough to support a family? Unlikely.

COOLTURE | When Actors Go Mental

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