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SHORT STORIES | M. PADMANABHAN

Khajuraho

He greeted them warmly but with reserve. Carol liked that. She preferred foreigners to remain at a decent distance, where she could keep her eye on them. He had already bought the tickets to enter the complex. She guessed they would reimburse him at the end of the day. “Are you ready?” he asked, “Shall we go in?” Rather silly question, all considered, thought Carol. Maybe he’s a little simple-witted? Perhaps it was just his professional patter.

A part of what they were about to see was visible from outside: tall, tapering structures, pale with dark patches, covered with intense carving. They were perhaps ten storeys high, thrusting priapically straight up into the mauve morning. Carol recognized them as temples from the vaguely similar buildings elsewhere on the tour. In Bali, for instance and in Angkor Wat. She found it to be a complete waste of time to visit such buildings. It was simply ridiculous to think there might be more than one deity, after all. She believed that even the most determined pagan must know, in his secret heart, that he was wrong.

The iron turnstile through which they entered the complex shrieked piteously as it turned on its single metal pin. Within the low boundary walls, they found themselves in a stone courtyard perhaps two football fields in size. Emerald green grass carpeted the earth wherever it was not covered by the granite flagstones. The jutting structures were situated atop platforms which were about the same height as Robert’s head. There were four temples in clear view but there were other, lesser mounds, suggesting ruins. Along the periphery, forming a continuous boundary, were trees, dark green, seemingly uniform.

Rajesh began. “This group of temples dates from the mid-tenth to the mid-eleventh centuries. It is not known why exactly they were decorated with the scenes of love that have made them famous throughout the world. They were built by the Chandella dynasty, that lasted for five centuries before succumbing to . . . ”

The words pouring effortlessly out of Rajesh rolled right over Carol. She couldn’t even pretend an interest. It was all so bleak, so impossibly alien. She looked around, trying to locate even one thing in the surroundings that actually attracted her, but found nothing. In the distance she noticed a group of fellow visitors. Indians. The women wore bright, fluttering saris, their colour a relief from the dreary stones around them. Carol herself wore a thin white GAP tee-shirt, a pair of pale cream Dockers, sensible walking shoes and a floppy hat over her shoulder-length hair. In her tote she carried her water bottle, a sun-umbrella, an automatic camera and an emergency bottle of sun-tan lotion. Robert wore khaki Bermudas, a blue Hawaiian shirt and a bush-hat bought in Sydney.

Now Rajesh was inviting them to come forward. They ascended a flight of stone stairs. Using the spike of his umbrella as a pointer, the guide indicated small details of stonework. Carol wondered what sort of pourboire he was going to expect. He certainly knew his stuff, whatever it was. She wondered where the pornography was hidden. She had told herself she’d let the men go in and gape at it without her. She disliked perversity in any form.

Then they were standing in front of one of the friezes decorating the sides of the platform on which the nearest temple stood. Every surface of every temple was heavily embellished with figures carved in stone. Carol’s eyes had grown tired of looking at this type of sculpture, with the inevitable stylized flowers here, the folds of cloth there, the boneless writhing of the limbs, as if all the characters had been, inexplicably, modeled on octopuses. If not for the young man whose services had been engaged for the day, she would certainly have excused herself to go and sit somewhere, while Bob went slowly around, looking for the smut.

Instead, however, she focused on what was directly in front of them. Then her eyes widened. She suddenly realized it wasn’t either flowers or mythical beasts she was looking at.

“Here,” said Rajesh, flourishing his umbrella, “we see a couple in a typical embrace—typical for Khajuraho, that is.” He pronounced it Kha-j’-RA-ho. “For the normal people, this type of pose might be on the challenging side. From the ornaments that the lady is wearing, she is clearly a courtesan or a princess. The man clasps her waist while she holds his erect member in her left hand. With his right hand he caresses her breast, gripping the nipple between his thumb and forefinger. With his left hand, he is stimulating her genital area from the rear. His eyes are shut, from which we can guess that he is experiencing the celestial pleasure. Her left limb is raised up and similarly his left limb and each limb is placed on the partner’s shoulder. This is so that the man can achieve the greater penetration. On either side of the lady, we can see her two companions and they are smiling. They are giving the couple support. Additionally, this lady on the right is giving herself the stimulation with her left hand.”

Nothing in Carol’s life so far had prepared her for this moment.

No word described what she felt.

It was not embarrassment or disgust. It was not pain or pleasure. Instead, it was like having her normal, everyday self peeled away like a banana skin, leaving the fruit of her being exposed to the world. In one instant, something she had never known before was revealed with the suddenness of a lightning bolt slithering out of a cloudless sky: that there is, in this world, a cosmic otherness that separates one culture from the next. It is so extreme and so outrageous, that even something utterly mundane, such as the act of love, when depicted in an exotic idiom became an assault. It could savage her cultural awareness. It could rape her ignorance.

COOLTURE | When Actors Go Mental

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