MANH January 2013 : Page 92

Fictionist T his issue’s installment of Fictionist features a short story by James McGirk, a writer who moved to New Delhi in the early days of Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms. The Godling of Greater Kailash is an intriguing story loosely based on McGirk’s experience as a photographer’s assistant during a particularly long and hot Indian summer, when New Delhi’s expatriate community was flooded with Burmese refugees. The Godling of Greater Kailash A short story by James McGirk ather called from Srinagar to debrief me: “You’ll be working alongside a Bhutanese by the name of Pinky. You’ve met him. Bartholomew’s assistant. Really interesting fellow who might even become your friend.” “Pinky? His name is Pinky?” “Not his real name. Close approximation of the first few syllables. A refugee Bartholomew agreed to take in.” “A refugee from what? The troubles?” “SLORC.” “SLORC?” “State Law and Order Restoration Council. They call it something different now. Your basic savage military junta.” “And Pinky is my age?” “Close. College age. A monk or something like that, harassed by special policemen.” Father paused and said something to someone. The line rustled. “He had to get out. He hijacked a plane.” “He hijacked a plane? With a gun?” “Yes. No. With a Buddha F head and blinking lights. Two LEDs wired to a lantern battery.” I heard muffled conversation on the line. “Look. They need the line open. Pinky is quite smart. But he can’t seem to grasp what makes one slide any different from another. Teach him...okay?” artholomew was a fixer and a freelance photographer who had become something more: a family friend. It was morning. Delhi is a city of parks, and before 9am, when it is still cool—after the toxic cooking-fire fog has burned off but before the petrol fumes and red clay dust have a chance to settle in—the air can be warm and pleasant to breathe in. Bartholomew’s house was close to the street, unlike our compound, and quite modern—stilted blocks of teetering whitewashed concrete over an open-air garage that the long thirsty spines of a neem tree had begun to intrude into. “No need to wait for me,” I told Driver Manoj, as I stepped B out onto the cracked asphalt. He nodded but lingered until the door of the house opened. “Ahoy there, young man,” Bartholomew said. He had an oily black beard and pitted skin, and wore a frayed, beige photographer’s vest, its many webbed pockets bulging with batteries, film canisters and other unidentifiable lumps. It was the first time I had seen him without my father present. He did not shake my hand, but did tip his cigarette at me. “Ready for a long day of hard work?” “I suppose I am, Mr. Paul,” I replied, hoping his expression might soften. “Bartholomew,” he said, sputtering blue puffs as he spoke. “Come.” Photographers’ studios are likely the same all over the world, but this was the first I had seen. The studio: lots of light, high ceilings slightly neglected, wrinkled aluminum umbrellas and blazing bulbs. No air-conditioning. A dirt-streaked fan stirring loose papers. Black and chrome bits of expensive machinery and optics with Japanese names like Nikon, Canon, Minolta and others I did not recognize. Velcro strips, nylon straps, webbing and the acrid tang of photo chemicals and cigarette smoke drifting in the air. Deeper in: magazines neatly stacked, gray flat-file folios, washing line with clips and dangling, drying strips of celluloid film, swaying gently. Beyond that was a door. Bartholomew raised his hands to his mouth: “Pinky? Pinky! Come out and introduce yourself.” The door opened and a stooped 20-something in ill-fitting photographer’s garb hurried in. “Bartholomew-sahib?” “You remember Gordon’s son?” He nodded yes. “So, stand straight, shake and say hello.” We approached each other. Pinky’s palm was warm and fluttery. I dropped it as soon as I could. Perhaps too abruptly. He stood still, an egg-shaped face, an almost hairless head balanced on a precarious neck, eyes barely visible beneath gold folds of fat, and long lashes. A ruddy flush spread across his cheeks: “Hell-o.” His voice was distant, soft, unused to the pops and crackles of English. “Hello,” I replied. “Don’t be bashful.” Bartholomew said. “Pinks. Ask him a question. Go on. We don’t have all day for introductions.” “Do you like football? Or do you like cricket?” He chose his words very carefully. “Neither,” I replied. Pinky dipped his gaze to the floor. My toes prickled from the attention. “That’s enough, Pinky. You two will work together,” Bartholomew said. “Pinks, fetch us all some tea.” “And biscuit, too?” “Yes. And fetch us a plate of biscuits.” He paused for a moment. “Only for you and me. None for him.” Pinky jutted his lip out while he pondered his orders, then scurried back to the kitchen. “He’s quite smart,” Bartholomew said. “I can tell,” I said. “I didn’t want you spilling crumbs on the slides.” “I’ve had breakfast already.” “Good, good. Perfect. So let’s begin.” He led me to the back room, to a workbench in the darkest corner. Hot glue smells hung in the air. A glowing cube lay next to a steel machine that was about the size and shape of an outboard motor, with a single glistening rod protruding from it like a one-armed bandit. Pinky returned with two cups of tea on a tray and a paper packet of sugar biscuits. He set them down before us. “Where’s yours?” Bartholomew asked Pinky. “Kitchen.” “Come back with it.” Bartholomew stood. “I’ll be back, too.” He returned before Pinky, carrying a gray three-ring binder marked GODLING, which he set down before me. The cooling unit in the other room changed settings and began to hum. 92 | | Jan/Feb 2013

Fictionist The Godling Of Greater Kailash

This issue’s installment of Fictionist features a short story by James McGirk, a writer who moved to New Delhi in the early days of Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms. The Godling of Greater Kailash is an intriguing story loosely based on McGirk’s experience as a photographer’s assistant during a particularly long and hot Indian summer, when New Delhi’s expatriate community was flooded with Burmese refugees.

The Godling of Greater Kailash

A short story by James McGirk

Father called from Srinagar to debrief me: “You’ll be working alongside a Bhutanese by the name of Pinky. You’ve met him. Bartholomew’s assistant. Really interesting fellow who might even become your friend.”

“Pinky? His name is Pinky?”

“Not his real name. Close approximation of the first few syllables. A refugee Bartholomew agreed to take in.”

“A refugee from what? The troubles?”

“SLORC.”

“SLORC?”
“State Law and Order Restoration Council. They call it something different now. Your basic savage military junta.”

“And Pinky is my age?”

“Close. College age. A monk or something like that, harassed by special policemen.”

Father paused and said something to someone. The line rustled. “He had to get out. He hijacked a plane.”

“He hijacked a plane? With a gun?”

“Yes. No. With a Buddha head and blinking lights. Two LEDs wired to a lantern battery.”

I heard muffled conversation on the line.

“Look. They need the line open. Pinky is quite smart. But he can’t seem to grasp what makes one slide any different from another. Teach him...okay?”

Bartholomew was a fixer and a freelance photographer who had become something more: a family friend. It was morning.Delhi is a city of parks, and before 9am, when it is still cool—after the toxic cooking-fire fog has burned off but before the petrol fumes and red clay dust have a chance to settle in—the air can be warm and pleasant to breathe in. Bartholomew’s house was close to the street, unlike our compound, and quite modern—stilted blocks of teetering whitewashed concrete over an open-air garage that the long thirsty spines of a neem tree had begun to intrude into.

“No need to wait for me,” I told Driver Manoj, as I stepped Out onto the cracked asphalt. He nodded but lingered until the door of the house opened.

“Ahoy there, young man,” Bartholomew said. He had an oily black beard and pitted skin, and wore a frayed, beige photographer’s vest, its many webbed pockets bulging with batteries, film canisters and other unidentifiable lumps. It was the first time I had seen him without my father present. He did not shake my hand, but did tip his cigarette at me.

“Ready for a long day of hard work?”

“I suppose I am, Mr. Paul,” I replied, hoping his expression might soften.

“Bartholomew,” he said, sputtering blue puffs as he spoke.“Come.”

Photographers’ studios are likely the same all over the world, but this was the first I had seen. The studio: lots of light, high ceilings slightly neglected, wrinkled aluminum umbrellas and blazing bulbs. No airconditioning. A dirt-streaked fan stirring loose papers. Black and chrome bits of expensive machinery and optics with Japanese names like Nikon, Canon, Minolta and others I did not recognize. Velcro strips, nylon straps, webbing and the acrid tang of photo chemicals and cigarette smoke drifting in the air. Deeper in: magazines neatly stacked, gray flat-file folios, washing line with clips and dangling, drying strips of celluloid film, swaying gently. Beyond that was a door.partholomew raised his hands to his mouth: “Pinky? Pinky! Come out and introduce yourself.”

The door opened and a stooped 20-something in ill-fitting photographer’s garb hurried in. “Bartholomew-sahib?”

“You remember Gordon’s son?”

He nodded yes.

“So, stand straight, shake and say hello.”

We approached each other. Pinky’s palm was warm and fluttery. I dropped it as soon as I could. Perhaps too abruptly. He stood still, an egg-shaped face, an Almost hairless head balanced on a precarious neck, eyes barely visible beneath gold folds of fat, and long lashes. A ruddy flush spread across his cheeks: “Hell-o.” His voice was distant, soft, unused to the pops and crackles of English.

Hello,” I replied.

“Don’t be bashful.” Bartholomew said. “Pinks. Ask him a question. Go on. We don’t have all day for introductions.”

“Do you like football? Or do you like cricket?” He chose his words very carefully.

“Neither,” I replied. Pinky dipped his gaze to the floor. My toes prickled from the attention.

“That’s enough, Pinky. You two will work together,” Bartholomew said. “Pinks, fetch us all some tea.”

“And biscuit, too?”

“Yes. And fetch us a plate of biscuits.” He paused for a moment. “Only for you and me. None for him.” Pinky jutted his lip out while he pondered his orders, then scurried back to the kitchen.

“He’s quite smart,” Bartholomew said.

“I can tell,” I said.

“I didn’t want you spilling crumbs on the slides.” “I’ve had breakfast already.”

“Good, good. Perfect. So let’s begin.”

He led me to the back room, to a workbench in the darkest corner. Hot glue smells hung in the air. A glowing cube lay next to a steel machine that was about the size and shape of an outboard motor, with a single glistening rod protruding from it like a onearmed bandit.

Pinky returned with two cups of tea on a tray and a paper packet of sugar biscuits. He set them down before us.

“Where’s yours?” Bartholomew asked Pinky.

“Kitchen.”

“Come back with it.”

Bartholomew stood.

“I’ll be back, too.”

He returned before Pinky, carrying a gray three-ring binder marked GODLING, which he set down before me. The cooling unit in the other room changed settings and began to hum.

F"**k. Pinky’s probably lost in the pantry,” Bartholomew said. “We should start.” He unlatched a page from the binder and tossed it down. “These are pictures of Rangoon.”

“Are they yours?”

“Yes, mine.”

“Is this where you met Pinky?”

“Don’t ask so many questions.

” Stooping over the cube he sifted through the film, his vest hanging, the under-glow highlighting coils of his beard. He removed a strip of film and pressed it against the scratched plastic surface and peered at it through a clear acrylic loupe he set on top.

“Okay.” He sat up and handed me the loupe and the squiggle of black celluloid. “You snip the slide. Check it. Drop it into a mount. Check it again. Heat it… squash it… count of three… let it go, take out the slide, stick it back in the sleeve. Got it?”

“Yeah.” I picked up a pair of scissors and slipped the film between the shears. Bartholomew plucked them from my hand. “Let me demonstrate.”

I picked it up quickly and spent the morning crouched over the slide machine, sweating, snipping bits of film, mounting and pressing each little image into a glue-dipped cardboard mount, setting aside duplicates handily foreshortened to the word “dupes.”

Once the initial panic of not wanting to damage Bartholomew’s slides had passed, I began paying attention to his work. Most slides were worthless: crumbling Rangoon office buildings protruding rebar, lush vegetation and golden spires useful for stock photos or background. Then there were the protest pictures. Puffs of tear gas, owl-eyed students clutching blood-soaked kerchiefs to their heads. After each roll I sorted the slides into categories.

Bartholomew and Pinky drifted in and out of the room, fetching things and checking on me. Each time they left I leaned my head back to let my eyes readjust to the gloom.

Finally I came upon photos of a young girl—an apparently normal child, swaddled in gold cloth, trickling blood from a freshly jabbed nostril piercing—held aloft in a sedan chair, garlanded with marigolds, and anointed with oil carried forward in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of bare-chested devotees. Her expression was a stunned boredom I often felt, living cloistered in India. She was taken to a temple, a narrow townhouse wedged between apartment blocks, and closed inside. A bar was drawn across the door. The last frame—her on the balcony—was shot from almost directly below as she peered down and focused on the lens.

An office phone trilled in the Other room.

The door opened. “Gordon calling,” Pinky said.

“For me?” I asked.

“For Bartholomew-sahib.”

He was sitting by the compression cooler, smoking and leafing through a magazine.

“Word of professional advice,” he said. “Since this is my studio, assume all calls are for me.” He stubbed out his cigarette and grabbed the receiver from Pinky. His telephone voice was higher and softer.

“Gordon. How are you? He’s slow—just a little—but coming along, definitely. He’ll make a fine photo assistant someday soon… Careful. Yeah. And the troubles?… That bad?No need for photo support? I’m joking, of course, but seriously, do let me know. And we’re still on for… Cool. Okay. Groovy.”

Bartholomew squashed his hand against the receiver.

“Yeah. Okay. So he says you need to do some manual labor. Let me see your work.”

He came up behind me. I could smell stale cigarette smoke and sharp sweat. He picked up a stack of slides. He frowned at my work, squinting through each slide for flaws.

“It’s fine. Fine. You are too slow. Get me lunch and we’ll talk.” He wrote something in Hindi on a scrap of notebook paper and handed it to me.

Outside the conditioned bubble of Bartholomew’s studio, the air was ferociously hot, wobbling with heat, the clarity of morning gone and in its place haze, reddish from the dust of the surrounding hills and veiling everything, pinkish and grubby, like socks after a clay court tennis match. The smell of morning jasmine had given way to boiling grease and oily smoke that felt as if they were spackling my pores. The trees lining the road, meager things offering sparse shade, were all lime green, greedy and alive; beyond them, beyond The crude wire fences of the park beside me, cricket players were streaks of bleach white. Tiny insects nipped at my ankles and sewage bubbled and frothed in a drainage canal running alongside.

The market was at the end of the road, about a half-kilometer down, and consisted of an electrical substation, a post office annex, an open-air VHS video shop, an open-air tobacconist, an open-air pharmacist piled high with pillboxes and amber bottles, a cold drink wallah, a Kwality Ice Cream vendor and, anchoring this Indian interpretation of a suburban strip mall, a narrow corner store equipped with a scorched, grease-spattered kerosene stove, a battered pan and, above the huffing gusts of incinerated fats and spice potato innards, a hideously corpulent chef wearing a stained undershirt and little else.

Passed over Bartholomew’s order. The cook held it up, pinched between two glistening fingers, squinted and frowned at it then ladled pollen-colored slop into his hissing, stinking pan.

“Where is the girl?” asked the cook. “Always she comes with this scrap. Always I give her a cold drink.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Bartholomew’s lunch blistered, bubbled and resolved into an oversized savory pancake wadded with coconut goo. The chef scraped it out onto a sheet of butcher paper, hurled handfuls of red, yellow and then white powder at it, and twirled it all together into a crisp cylinder.

The walk home went more quickly, though the density of flies increased, perhaps lured by the dripping dosa.

Pinky was waiting for me, I thought, his soft Asiatic face peering over the balcony. Or maybe he was Watching the cricket game; but he waved at me and I returned the wave, and for an instant I couldn’t feel the flies, the heat or my dread at having to sit over a hot slide machine for another four hours, and I caught my mouth creeping into a smile and he grinned back, and I shook it off and prepared to present the filthy thing to our boss. Then I looked up again. Pinky was holding a slide to the sky. The GODLING binder was beside him.

I gripped the white metal door handle and pulled. The earthy, luxurious musk of burning cannabis resin billowed out of Bartholomew’s studio. He was squatting under a Tibetan mandala, a Doors album spread out on his lap, a black finger of resin and a deconstructed cigarette spilling shreds of tobacco all over the area. A small glassine baggie of pale caramel powder rested beside it. He looked up as I came over, tapping a rolled cigarette on his thumbnail and gesturing toward a small service table beside him.

“Sit,” he said. “Set it down here. Don’t spill.” He lit his cigarette. “You know what this is?”

“Sure.”

“Does your father know you know?”

“Yes.”

“Cool.” He tipped his head slightly, bobbing.

“Would you like some?”

“No, thank you.”

I walked back into the slide room, ate a biscuit and sat down to work. The binder was back where it belonged.

Delhi’s days stretched longer and longer, and the air grew hotter, drier and dustier, and in the quiet depths of Bartholomew’s Greater Kailash II studio we gradually fell into a routine. When deadlines loomed, Bartholomew regressed to caricature, lurching between extremes—one moment shrieking and kicking Equipment over, flinging slide mounts at the floor, and the next calling impromptu tea breaks and kneading our shoulder blades while he fed us glucose biscuits. There was something off about this temper of his: He paused too long before reacting. It seemed tactical, considered; but he never apologized nor spoke of his tantrums afterwards.

Without him Kailash would have had no presence at all, just monotony and quiet in a small concrete box filled with equipment. He was a dervish who swirled in and out. I ignored him. My time was consumed by the machine. I pried apart and catalogued the Godling’s life for Bartholomew Paul, one bleached cardboard frame at a time. I fancied myself a component in a larger machine, a scanner in the white box, annealing information for processing.

After the first rolls of Rangoon, it became all about the girl, the Godling. The photos were all taken from nearby buildings with a telephoto lens or at an extreme angle from directly beneath the building. The girl was cloistered inside, and could peep out of the latticework. Or, if a ceremony was in progress, she might appear on a narrow balcony, waving and dropping gold kerchiefs from the balustrade into the seething sea of admirers below. I tried to assemble an image of her.Her hair grew from a bob to a black cascade that rippled with light. She aged as the photos progressed. Bartholomew had been shooting her for years.But I still couldn’t assemble her entire face

I began to hide slides then place them into an unused carousel. I borrowed images from other boxes—pictures of gem sorters in Ceylon, starlets sprawling on film sets in Bombay, carpeting from ad campaigns. I tried to picture her, began to envision her life As a long trail of slides radiating out from her image, everything around her articulated in multiple lines of slides that bulged off of her, spreading and expanding—a sea of them that contracted at night as she slept, expanded in the day as she awoke and tunneled through the house.

Could her thoughts be captured, too? I wondered. What would that look like?How could I map those? I tried to imagine sophisticated folds that might enclose crystallized fragments of her memories, wondered what she might think about, trapped within the narrow temple. And would she think of me? If she was divine she would think of everything and nothing at all— perhaps her temple enclosed snapshots of my life, perhaps liturgical documents encoded into scraps of blobby Burmese script. Should I be worshipping this tiny creature caught in a Rangoon townhouse?

I felt a hand grip my shoulder—Bartholomew. He was in costume, with his vest and cigarette and unruly beard and a camera slung around his neck.

“You have time to talk?” he said.

“I’m a bit busy,” I said.

“We have to talk,” he said.

“You’re f**king up all of my slides.” Bartholomew lifted my secret box of slides. “This,” he rattled the box, “is too weird.”

He tipped them all onto the floor. First the temple collapsed, then the Godling broke into square pixels and spilled onto the floor. Bartholomew shook the last few squares out onto what was now a crude, slatted pile.Black squares within white: My Godling smashed back inside the slim squares, losing a dimension, collapsing our connection, pulling down the tendril that had grown between us. I tried to speak but my mouth and tongue had turned Into a gluey tangle of tape.

My eyes welled up. “Allergies,” I managed to sputter.

Pinky came in and squatted above the pile. He picked one up and held it to the light.

“Hey, Pinks, stand up a moment,” Bartholomew said, then turned to me. “I want to show you something. Go grab Pinky some slide sheets.”

I fumbled in the supply closet for a moment and found a few unused slide sheets for Pinky. We left him to slide the white squares into plastic sheets. He picked it up quickly. Bartholomew walked me— shoved me, really—into the other room, the bright one, and sat me down on a metal stool. He didn’t say much. It was clear I wasn’t capable of conversing. He rooted through his belongings. Objects. Toys. He snapped a photo of me, fired off a bank of flashes that stung my eyes afterward then picked up a heavy, semicircular, professional-looking object that somewhat resembled a ball-andsocket joint.

“Hey. I want to show you something. How fast can you move this?” Bartholomew asked, handing the thing to me. “Throw—don’t let go—but throw as hard as you can, at the wall.”

I tried. I picked the thing up and hurled it as hard as I could but it wouldn’t budge. I tried again, going slowly, and I could do it. But the faster I moved it the more resistance there was.

“Cool, huh? It’s magic!” he said, wriggling his fingers like a sorcerer casting a spell. “Magic! Of course not—it’s a gyroscope.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He shrugged and sucked his cigarette. The ash pulsed orange.

“Nothing.” He shook his head. “Look: She’s not a f**king Disney princess.”

“I never said she was.”

“Did Gordon tell you Pinky’s backstory?”

“About the Buddha head?”

“I did the f**king Buddha head. Look. There’s a whole backstory you don’t understand. She’s… she’s… how do I put this to you? It’s all a trick, she’s a symbol… a figurehead, a ploy.”

“But she lives there?”

“She lives here. And she is not a she.” He clapped his hands. The door opened and Pinky slid into the room. Bartholomew pointed at a cabinet and Pinky removed a long black wig and a gold sari. He draped the wig over his head and wrapped the sari around himself and grinned.

“We make postcards out of them and send these photos back to Burma. It’s propaganda, stuff to give people out there hope. Do you understand me? I’m trying to assemble a life, give them a tiny bit of something to hold on to, and you’re f**king it all up.”

I left him, and walked out onto the balcony. Pinky followed me. He still had his wig on and a slide sheet in his hands, and he smiled at me but it meant nothing. And we both gazed into the vast, sh**ty pink city we were stuck in.

Then a raindrop fell on my glasses, dribbling down, and then another and another and another and another and then the entire sky burst open, pouring down on us. And Pinky suddenly took my hand, and lifted it up and pointed my finger at something in the distance.

James McGirk is a New Yorkbased writer whose work has appeared in The Economist, The Daily Beast and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He currently pens a monthly column for 3QuarksDaily.com and recently finished a novel titled Indian Made Foreign Liquor, which is still looking for a home.

Read the full article at http://digital.modernluxury.com/article/Fictionist+The+Godling+Of+Greater+Kailash/1276767/140921/article.html.

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