Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Stepping in the River

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Stepping in the River

Article excerpt

Just as Frank promised, Vittala Temple turns out to be everything Lil has ever dreamed of. When it comes time to leave, the others have to drag her away from the honey-coloured columns to get in an auto-rickshaw with Prue. 'See you at the Mango Tree,' Richard calls, as he and Frank wave them off. The men have decided to walk back to Hampi and take a look at Lotus Mahal on the way.

On orange plastic seats under the striped awning of their chosen vehicle, the two women rattle along at a pace, up hills, down hills, past crumbling fortresses, past a giant statue of Hanuman the Monkey God and other remnants of the Vijayanagar empire. Dust billows behind the rickshaw, enveloping slender women bearing pots on their heads, lungi-clad men herding goats, children bowling bicycle wheel hoops, chai sellers and the odd buffalo or two.

'We could be in a scene from A Passage to India, ' Prue says, grinning at Lil and clutching the driver's seat to stop herself sliding about. She's laughing, and Lil is laughing because she has to agree. After all, here they are - two middle-aged women in sun hats and lace-up shoes, being conveyed like memsahibs past quote unquote picturesque natives they know nothing about.

'Adela and Mrs Moore without the corsets,' Lil says, and they laugh again, hanging onto whatever will stop them from falling onto the road or each other. For some reason they are both extraordinarily happy, which just possibly is because - in a way that can never be satisfactorily explained since it concerns the spirit rather than the flesh - Sharma, or someone, or something, India perhaps, is with them.

Can this really be so?

Twenty-four hours earlier.

When the boulders appear on the horizon, glowing pinkly above a fringe of coconut trees, Lil sees they're the same as ever, still heaped into fantastic mountains as if thrown down to earth by some playful giant. She can't take her eyes off them. Somewhere on the other side of those improbable stones is Hampi and with any luck, Sharma. The boulders shimmer like a mirage and like a mirage they get no closer, because Thiru, their driver, is lost.

The boulders are drifting sideways now. This is too much! Wedged in the back seat between Frank and Prue, Lil tries to catch Thiru's eye in the rear-vision mirror. 'Thiru! Hampi's back there, I know it is.' Her peremptory words hang in the air-conditioned air of the Toyota.

No one says anything, not even Richard in the front seat whose mediating skills have been needed once or twice on this trip. Thiru ignores Lil, but a few kilometres on he pulls over to talk to a man herding goats. They listen to the rapid-fire exchange, Thiru's in Tamil, the goat-herder's in some rural Kannada dialect, supplemented by gestures and one word which is repeated: Hampi. As with previous exchanges they've witnessed this one is successful, and an hour later the car is crunching up a boulder-lined driveway towards their hotel. The manager comes out all smiles to greet them. He is film-star handsome and says his name is Narasinga.

'What does Narasinga mean?' Prue asks and he tells her Lord of Lions.

He leads them to a pavilion for drinks on the house, and they're so glad to be out of the car and so charmed by Narasinga's smiles that no-one remembers to thank Thiru. He's probably being fed in the kitchen, Lil thinks later, as they sip mango and lime juice under a slowly- revolving fan. But it's only a passing thought because she's just registered a sound she hasn't heard in a long time - twenty-five years in fact - and it's coming from behind the palm trees on the far side of the pavilion. A gurgling, roaring noise that can only be made by quantities of fast-moving water.

The Tungabhadra. The holy river.

'Thank God we're here,' Prue says, putting down her glass. 'I couldn't take any more of those potholes.'

'How's your back?' Richard asks, without his usual show of solicitude. It's been a long morning and he seems more interested in the waiters padding about, setting out dish after fragrant dish on a circular buffet table. …

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