Kora is a multi-layered story that blends elements of mystery, spirituality, politics and romance to immerse the reader in middle class India from the 1950s through the 1990s. Anjali Venugopal’s richly detailed characters provide a unique look into life in a modernizing India, and her story has a tone and texture that inexorably sucks the reader into its time and place. The resulting novel is a thick and tasty slice-of-life whose protagonist is caught between the old and new worlds, between New York and India, and between guilt, hope, and despair.

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Excerpts from KORA

All excerpts copyright©2013 by Anjali Venugopal

Tibet, 1995

The monk stood halfway between Heaven and Earth, on the roof of the Chiu Gompa monastery. The night had been frosty, and early in the morning, when he had stepped out onto the roof top of the monastery, every sparse blade of grass, every rock, every nomad’s tent – even the yaks – looked as though they were made out of sugar. The vista that spread out before him looked fragile, as though it would crumble away to powder if it were not handled carefully.

            That had been an illusion, of course, because now, with the sun high in the sky, the sugar had disappeared and the greys had returned. The browns too. The frozen land was covered with stones. Further down the slopes, close to the lake, where the soil was sandy and lumpy, tufts of grass grew but they did nothing to lighten the bleakness of the stones.

            For that, he would have to lift his gaze and then he would behold chain after chain after chain of hill slopes. The slopes faded away into the horizon, pink hued in the beginning but growing lighter in colour till the most distant ones were such an airy steel-blue tint that they seemed be painted in watercolours.

            Across the vast turquoise lake that lay at the foot of the mountain into which the Chiu Gompa monastery had been chiselled – so it seemed – centuries ago, the monk could see the snow-capped peak of the Bon Re and he smiled as he always did when he beheld the great peak. No matter how torn apart the world was, it was safe for now. As long as there was snow on the Bon Re, there will be snow on Kailash. When one melts away, so will the other and then the world will be destroyed – so the legend goes.

            A raven circled high overhead, almost one with the skies, and down below, deep inside the monastery – ancient and crumbling, held up by a steadfastness that was as implacable as the stone into which it had been built – a handful of juniper was thrown into a smouldering censer. The juniper and the raven did not go unnoticed by the monk. Yet it was the woman who caught his eye.

            She stood below Chiu Gompa, close to a cluster of chortens, her arms crossed tight across her body, staring out into the vast blue waters of the Manasarovar where it merged with the sky. On the horizon, across desolate wasteland where only the wind and the wild donkey roam freely, Mount Kailash loomed over the Lake like a monolithic temple, its stark face softened by the sunshine and the dusting of snow that fell in horizontal lines as though to mark it out as different.

*    *    *

So many names for one mountain. It is the Kang Rinpoche; it is Meru; it is Swastika. It is the centre of the Universe; the navel of the world. It does not bother to compete with the peaks that surround it – why should it? Even Everest bows to Kailash.

            The thick white clouds that feel free to hang low over Chiu Gompa seem reluctant to move close to Kailash. It stands alone, its four faces marking the four points on the compass and the four facets of the Great God Shiva[1]. The southern face, always snow-clad, reflects His greatness, His majesty, His Divinity. The western face smiles benignly, it is serene and compassionate. The northern face is stark and forbidding. The eastern face, visible only from a great distance, is mysterious and indescribable.

            Kailash is separate even from the flaming orange hills that ring it. The hills in the outer ring are a cooler amethyst and they seem at peace, content to be where they are – at a respectful distance from the Abode of Shiva. Just like the clouds, even the hills are wary of moving too close. They know that Kailash is not of them and they are not of it. They are together, yet not. That is the way it has been for millennia. Holiest of Holies not only to the Hindus, the Jains and the Bons and long before Mecca and Lourdes, Tibetan pilgrims have been stumbling over pebbles and wading through streams, out of breath, giddy and with bleeding noses, to complete one circumambulation of Kailash. After they have done it once, they do it again. And again. And then they do it one more time. After thirteen such outer Kora, they secure access to Serdung Chuksum, 20,000 feet high on the southern face of Kailash. And there, around the thirteen shrines that house ancient sacred texts and relics of Gautama, braving the ice and snow that fall continuously down the slope, they do the Inner Kora. As the dew on a rose disappears in the first rays of the morning sun, so do our sins by a mere glimpse of Kailash. Imagine what the Inner Kora can do to the demons that reside within us all.

*    *    *

Blessed is the person, the monk thought, who can stand where the girl stood and see what she saw. She resembled the tops of the chortens[2] in some strange way. She stood motionless despite the breeze that blew through the flags, hastening the prayers of the devout to their destination. Her maroon scarf fluttered in the breeze, a vivid splash in the arid brown landscape. Its frantic attempts to be freed from the confines of her jacket on served to underline her own lack of movement. It was as though she was frozen – lost in some distant memory, in some other dimension of time and space.

            And then she moved. As though summoned, she began to walk towards the lake. She stumbled and he waited for her to pick herself up again. But she did not. She sat in a heap on the pebbles and dust, her head low and her body shaking. It seemed as though she begged forgiveness with every fibre in her being and the monks eyes softened. Nobody not even Kailash ̶ can undo what has already been done. Abruptly he turned and walked into the monastery.

*    *    *

Eventually the shaking stopped and Tamra raised her head. The Lake smiled at her. Its very blueness permeated her thoughts and calmed her soul. The Sacred Pool of Pure Consciousness. Manasarovar. What bigger demons are there after all, other than the ones created by the mind? And yet, hidden somewhere below, is the knowledge of our own Divine Nature. To enter the cosmic pool of pure consciousness – the eternal Manasarovar all that is required is the realization of this secret.

            White swans filled the Lake. They were everywhere – swimming in the icy cold water, drying their feathers in the feeble sunshine or flying overhead, providing a bold yet pleasing contrast to the blue waters below them and the black ravens above. Like the mythical hamsa, they were. By transcending the limitations that bind other creatures – by being able to walk on the earth, fly in the sky and swim in the water – the hamsa symbolizes the highest spiritual accomplishment. For that reason it is considered eligible to accompany images of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the Enlightened One. How fitting that the hamsa should make Mansarovar its home.

*    *    *

A particularly caressing breeze wafted across and Tamra lifted her face gratefully to receive the gift. She felt healed, as though her heavy mantle of self doubt and recriminations had been lifted off her shoulders. For the first time she saw the raven and smelt the burning juniper.

            ‘I was right,’ Tamra thought, enjoying the feel of the cool breeze as it lifted her hair back from her anxious brow and the nape of her neck. ‘You are the Mother! You will forgive, won’t you – after I’ve done the Kora? Even if Kailash, stern Father that he is, won’t!’

 

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Bombay, The 1950s

For as long as anybody could remember, Shantaram Potdar had the most beautiful Ganpati idol for the Ganesh Chaturthi[3] festival for miles around. Back in the fifties, that is. In the present time, there has been no Ganpati idol for Ganesh Chaturthi in Potdar House for as long as anybody could remember. These two extremes are in fact linked to the same incident. It was during the Ganesh Chaturthi of 1964, just before the idol of the elephant god was to be taken out amidst much dancing and singing, past the houses, the windows of which were bursting with people waiting to throw flowers and say goodbye to the deity, and up the road to wind back down to the tank behind Tankervilé for the immersion, that Nana went mad. That is quite literally ̶ and very tragically ̶ what happened.

            Potdar House had a deity inside, in the temple. In an altar made for the purpose, lay the sword and shield of the Goddess Ambé Bhavani. In front of the altar and covered with a piece of red silk, was a wooden seat, placed there for the Goddess when she came to Potdar House each night to rest. The Potdar family had been custodians of the sword and shield for generations. The front doors would never be locked after sundown for this reason. How can the Goddess enter if the door is locked? Then the family started locking the front door. To keep thieves and murderers out, true (and Nana in – which was the real reason) but keeping the Goddess out as well. Without Her protection, the house became cursed and nothing good ever happened there.

*    *    *

Shantaram Potdar was a man of habit. He rose at six am every day of the week. He would then walk at a brisk pace around the garden, completing thirty two rounds in an hour and forty five minutes. Thirty two rounds of his garden – each round being from Jodbungla to the front gate – were exactly three kilometers. At ten minutes past seven, his chair at the dining table could be heard being scraped back and two minutes later, came the sound of an egg, boiled three quarters, being tapped. Three decisive taps. The egg would be consumed in silence and it was followed by a second one. For every day of his life Shantaram Potdar ate two eggs, three quarters boiled, followed by a plate of pohe[4]. And this was eaten at ten minutes past seven.

            Every evening, on his return from office, his car would drive past the main door of Potdar House and crunch to a stop at Jodbungla. There the door would be open and the hall, fragrant with myrrh, would be softly lit by the chandelier of green glass. Shantaram Potdar spent the evening listening to Rainabai’s mellifluous thumris. Wistful songs they were, of longing and separation sung in a husky voice that was made even huskier by the constant chewing of betel leaf. Rainabai was everything Lakshmibai was not. She had long flowing hair which somehow was always fragrant. Her eyes were heavily kohl-lined. Her saris were soft and when she walked, she seemed to waft. There was not a harsh line in Rainabai. She would sit on white brocade cushions placed on a checkerboard floor and framed by windows with panes that were green and amber and blue. The days when she was away, giving concerts or recording new music, Shantaram spent the time sitting on the same cushions on which she sat, listening to her records and filling the empty aching spaces in his soul with her voice. When she returned, he would be able to tell by the way her diamond nose pin flashed as she sang for him, if she was going to allow him to share her bed that night or not.

            Next to the temple in Potdar House and far away from Jodbungla with its checkerboard floor, was another room. It had at one time been Shantaram Potdar’s father’s secret hide-out. It was a cubby-hole, with no windows and only one bulb hanging on a naked wire. This was Nana’s favourite room. And so too was it his mother’s. Lakshmibai was a short squat lady with clear level eyes and a massive pearl nose-pin that hid all the other features. She was good looking but one never got that impression. Her back was too straight and her gaze too piercing. She also had an incredible memory and an uncanny knack of knowing when the other person was lying.

            The time between dawn and noon she allocated for household affairs, her many children and the management of the vast estates that belonged to the family. Every evening she would enter the windowless room, switch on the light and then bolt the doors. Nobody was allowed to disturb her once those doors were bolted. Not even her precious Nana. Shantaram never disturbed her at all, at any time of the day. He was wary of his wife and had been so from their wedding night. When he came to the bridal chamber that night, he found his wife sitting up against the pillows, wearing glasses and reading a book. The only reason he did not send her packing was that her father had bought back Potdar House from moneylenders and had given it as part of her dowry. Shantaram was stuck with her. So he slept with her twelve times when the time was right and they had seven children, the oldest of which was Vishwanath Shantaram Potdar, shortened to ‘Nana’.

            Lakshmibai would have been very surprised if she had been told that she had been ill-treated by her husband for she did not see it that way at all. She too felt that she had done her duty towards her marriage by bearing his children and raising them. Her views on Rainabai she kept to herself but deep in one of her cupboards, lay a will that stated that should she predecease her husband, her jewellery, her clothes and all other personal belongings were to be given to her daughter, Devika and if Devika were to predecease her, then it was to go to Lakshmibai’s sister, Gauri. The items were listed and each time she bought something new, it was added to the list. Never would Rainabai wear Lakshmibai’s jewellery or her clothes. If she wanted to sleep with her husband, that was her choice. Lakshmibai did not think that was a very huge issue – her own experiences with him had been perfunctory and hardly worth a mention.

            Lakshmibai did not have a lover of her own. She had neither the inclination nor the time for that sort of thing. Lakshmibai’s passion lay in quite another direction. Just like her father-in-law before her, she was an ardent ham radio operator.

            Nobody understood her passion for her radio. They called the room ‘the shack’ but beyond that bit of jargon, they knew nothing. Except Nana. He knew that the rig consisted of a 300 watt transmitter, a Hammarlund Comet Pro receiver, a coil box, earphones and a microphone all bought by his grandfather from a man in New York. At first he was too scared to enter. When he turned eight, something changed and he could not stay away. He would slip in when nobody was around, put on the earphones and play imaginary war games. Terse commands were given, accompanied by much pacing. Now and then he would pause under the naked bulb to pore over an imaginary war map.

            “Troops! This is the plan: first, we attack here with infantry,” he would jab a spot on the map. “They will carry pistols and light machine guns. Second, bomb them. Third, bring in the cannons. Fourth, attack with spider tanks. Fifth, bring out full force – all 60,000. Sixth, win the war! Any doubts? None? Good!”

*    *    *

The children of Tankervilé and Potdar House shared the same tutor. The tutor was a dour old man who walked with a stoop and always carried a big black umbrella. He had two shirts – a white one and a khadi one. The khadi would turn out to be very significant in the events to come. He came three times a week and he had to walk a distance of five kilometers from his house to the bus stand, board the bus and sit for about an hour and a half as it trundled along, stopping every seven minutes or so. He would then trudge up Love Lane to Potdar House, where his pupils would be waiting for him. They were not a willing bunch of students. They would watch from one of the upper windows, from where they could see the road, and stare almost unblinkingly, hoping with every fibre of their being that he had had a heart attack and died the previous night. But their prayer was never answered – in fact it was severely ignored. The old teacher was blessed with the constitution and the temperament of a donkey. At ten minutes to three o’clock, they would see his black umbrella bobbing in the distance and at the stroke of three they would be sitting around the study table, waiting for the dry cough that signalled the beginning of the lesson. Once during the monsoon season, it had rained incessantly for two days and the low-lying areas surrounding the house were submerged in chest-deep water. At ten minutes to three, there was no sign of the teacher. The pupils were sure that he would not be able to make it and were waiting for the clock to strike three – a formality, really – so that they could tell Lakshmibai when she emerged from her radio lair at 5 pm that the teacher had not come that day and that they had waited till three. As the clock struck, he turned the corner – his umbrella held aloft like a flaming torch as he waded determinedly through the water. In all the years that he taught them, that was the only time that he was late for a class but he never – not once – missed a class altogether. It has to be said that his students never missed one either – much to their chagrin. They never contracted so much as an ear ache and so had no valid excuse for missing class.

            In this bunch of reluctant scholars, there were two misfits. Indra enjoyed the lessons but she enjoyed them because she got to sit next to Nana and slip notes into his books. During the lesson, she would lean over Nana ostensibly to get a pencil or a book, allowing her breasts to brush against his arm. Or she would sit in such a way that her skirt billowed out, settling on his legs. All this was not lost on Nana.

            There were two immense tamarind trees near the tank behind Tankervilé. They met there one day, quite by chance. Indra looked beautiful in a skirt of mustard yellow topped with a blouse of peacock blue and Nana was enchanted.

            “Sit for a while, Indra – don’t go yet!”

            “No! I have to go – I just took this short cut to the flour mill. My mother will wonder where I’ve gone!”

            “Just for a little while – this can be our secret place! Don’t you want to be with me?”

            “Of course I do! I’m scared my mother will find out, that’s all!”

            “Ok then – go on home to your mother!” Nana turned to walk on but stopped when she spoke again.

            “Can’t you ask me one more time – what kind of a lover are you?”

            And so they began meeting there almost everyday. There were times when they spent almost the whole day nestled in each other’s arms. His favourite joke, one which Indra did not find funny at all, was that if he had stopped to consider at that time, he would have realized that it was merely the mustard yellow of her skirt and blue of her blouse contrasting rather strikingly with the green of the tamarind leaves – not love at all. Indra had no such doubts. She loved Nana desperately and all she wanted to do was become his wife.

            Nana, the other misfit in the class, enjoyed the lessons because he found them interesting. Soon he started walking the old man to the bus stand and then, accompanying him to his house, quite far away. The old teacher lived in a silent house full of dusty paintings in gold frames of unsmiling people and he had a car, a 1925 Chrysler Six, rusting forgotten in his garage. But Nana was more interested in the dog-eared and silverfish-infested collection of books that filled rows of teakwood shelves inside the house. Most of the books had the covers and the first few pages missing, so Nana did not know the titles or the names of the authors of many of his favourite works. Nor did he know the beginning or the end.

            And then one day, Nana asked the old teacher about his shirt – the khadi one. In the teacher’s eyes, it was not an old garment washed so many times that the colour had faded almost entirely and which he wore only because he could not afford any better. Though that was true too. No, for him the shirt represented freedom. It represented self-respect. Not only had he spun the cloth for the shirt himself, but he had also cut the cloth and stitched it.

            The teacher belonged to the generation that had walked to the sea and made salt. He belonged to the generation that kept fasts and vows of silence in the firm belief that truth would ultimately win. The generation that did not celebrate the day India got the independence that they had struggled their youth away for, because that was also the time she got partitioned. The same generation as Prime Minister Nehru. And now in the evening of his life, the old man watched Nehru dream stubbornly of Panchsheel[5] as the situation in Tibet, the Eastern sector and Aksai Chin worsened and the country tumbled headlong into what was beginning to look more and more like war with China.



[1] Shiva:  The most fascinating God in the Hindu pantheon. Hindus believe that Shiva is at very centre of the Cosmos. Unlike the two other Gods in the Holy Trinity, Brahma the Creator or Vishnu the Preserver, Shiva is the Destroyer. But Shiva destroys in order to create again, since death is imperative for new life to be born. So His nature is comprised of complex opposites:  life and death; creation and destruction.

[2] Chorten:  Buddhist shrine; stupa; in Tibet, a monument built to house the relics of enlightened monks or lamas.

[3] Ganesha Chaturthi:  A Hindu festival celebrated on the birthday of Ganesha, the elephant-head God. It occurs between late August and mid-September each year.

[4] Pohe:  A dish made of flattened, processed rice, roasted with chilies, onions, and spices.

[5] Panchsheel:  The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, promoted by Nehru and first expressed in a 1954 agreement between China and India. The five principles are mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.