Fiction / February 2008 (Issue 2)

Appeasing Kali

by Debra Moffitt

“I’m not sure where I’m at,” Caroline says to a middle-aged man with dark skin and a serene face.

“Well, where did you come from?” His Indian accent sounds pleasant, the ends of his words rising up as if perpetually asking a question.

She had stopped in front of the women sitting on the ground stringing together garlands of orange and white flowers. Woven baskets lodged between their legs and their fingers worked nimbly linking each flower to form long chains. The jasmine will wilt in the day’s heat, she thought as they called out in high pitched voices, “Buy some ma’am? Flowers for Kali.” The silent air shimmered. An ox trudged by pulling a cart filled with milk canisters. And then watching the ladies’ thin hands work, she quietly slipped into a space empty of thought. When the mystical moment passed, she found herself lost on the street. Horns blared. Dirt roads shot off in five directions, and all looked the same.

She squints. Her eyes run over the rows of stalls selling postcards, idols and incense. "I came from that direction I think. Thigh-high kids with black hair and eyes as dark and soft as a velvety summer’s night touch the white skin of her elbow. The Indian man shoos them away.

“They rarely see blonde hair like yours,” he says apologising. Caroline tries to smile, but strains to see the intersection. How will I get back? Where am I? If Julie were here, she would know the way. But she’s in bed at the hotel with fever and dysentery.

The heat bears down; the monkeys screech and the over-sized crows caw. Even the butterflies, the size of her two hands joined together, seem possessed by some vibrant, pulsating energy. At dawn, Hindu priests promenaded through the streets chanting and clapping, encircling the shrines of their gods. Darkly skeletal women waited at the temple gates like ghosts. Later, their voices rose under the temple.

“It’s a morning prayer to awaken God,” Julie said. “Otherwise he might oversleep and the whole world would stop.” Caroline laughed, imagining that God might need an alarm.

Three-wheeled rickshaw taxies with idols and sacred cows glued to dashboards buzz around honking. They throw up trails of dust and thick black smoke. Caroline dodges them to cross the street. A driver leans out. “I give you a ride. You go with me?”

“No, no.” She walks on. Ninety-six degrees yesterday, she thinks, and they said it could get hotter. She longs for home and recalls the sea, its soulful blue, the cool breeze and its constant presence like a loyal companion. Her adoration and yearning to be enveloped by it, is the closest she has ever come to devotion and yearning for a god. She wants to go back to her queen bed, hot showers and Chinese restaurants. When Julie’s intestines make peace with the parasites, they’ll both leave. But for the moment she is lost in India.

“What is the name of your hotel?” The soft-spoken man walks at her elbow, his eyes fill with concern.

“Oh…uh, Santi something, I think. But I couldn’t have gone far,” she says and studies the roads anxiously. Her eyes fill like a lake at the foot of the Himalayas about to overflow.

“Have you had nothing to eat?” The kindness of his voice pushes the lake to overflow. Caroline wipes her eyes. “My wife is right here.” He points to a small woman buying garlands and waves. The woman’s delicate flowers flow down her arms and over her purple sari. “Come and we will serve you some sweet chai and gulab jamun. When your mind is at rest, you will remember,” he says.

No, really,” Caroline says. “I’ll find it.” She wants to go on alone, but when she looks into the streets, she feels small and helpless like a lone, lost child. A sense of panic begins to rise from her stomach to her throat. “Are you sure it’s okay?” Her eyes plead. He smiles and motions for her to follow his wife. They walk past open houses with intricate chalk designs at the doorways. Old women squat out front or sit on crates. In the darkness of the houses nothing is revealed. A blue-skinned Shiva sits cross-legged, one hand held up in a blessing, a river in his hair and a necklace of serpents round his neck. If he knows the way, he looks too tranquil and self-absorbed to reveal it.

The wife stops at a threshold and kicks off her leather sandals on a mat. She and her husband look like two halves of the same seed. The man follows. “Please,” he says. His face looks fatherly and protective. Caroline hesitates. “Please,” he repeats and motions for her to step inside. She removes her silver sandals and enters. A Hindi film of Kashmir mountains blinks sporadically on the eye of the old TV. Songs accompanied by the drone of reed flutes and a harmonium ripple through the room. The woman calls out and a hunched, toothless grandmother arrives sliding her feet over the floor with a child groping at her skirt.

No introductions are made. Names seem unnecessary here, like matter that drives a wedge between the essence of a thing and its appearance. The wife sets about hanging flowers over the neck of a goddess on a pedestal. It’s a strange goddess. In one hand she holds a sword, in another of her many hands she holds something else. Is it a head? The grandmother lights incense and mutters something punctuated with drool and a blissful smile.

When the women finish, the man bows before the goddess too. He turns to Caroline. “Will you have hot tea?” His wife pats a pillow at the goddess’ feet motioning for Caroline to sit. Choked with incense, despair and tears fill her eyes. Her heart pounds with anxiety. The wife returns with two metal cups and hands one to Caroline. It burns her fingers and she quickly sets it on the floor and stares into the murky mixture. Will some minute, invisible life form in there reduce her to a ball of writhing flesh, like it did Julie?

“You like Indian sweets?” The man extends a plate of deep-fried dough shaped into balls and swirls.

She politely accepts one, wraps it discreetly in a tissue and slides it in her pocket when the man looks away. The wife disappears into the black shadow of an anteroom. Caroline holds the metal cup between her hands, rolling it nervously back and forth. Her breathing rises and falls nervously. “My friend’s sick at the hotel. I thought I could find my way alone.”

“We will get you home,” he says. “But try to enjoy the present. It’s a gift.” He chuckles at his own pun.

“In case I die in the next few minutes?” She looks up warily at the goddess. Do and wonders if Indians make human sacrifices.

“You could, but chances are you won’t. It’s good to live like you might though. It makes you appreciate life more.”

Her eyes narrow at him. What does he want from her? But his voice flows out unhurried and soothing. “In your part of the world you say, ‘Carpe Diem.’ Seize the day.”

She sighs. “Everything’s strange here.”

He listens carefully, sips his tea. “You like it?”

She sips warily. “I hope it doesn’t kill me.”

He chuckles. “Time will kill you. Tea won’t.” She tenses her brow and shakes her head. “What is your name?”


“Does it mean anything?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. It’s just a name.”

“I was named after Krishna, a god who loved Radha.”

“Oh.” Caroline sips the tea tasting of cardamom and stares vacantly off into the past.

For them gods make love too. “Do you believe in reincarnation?”

Krishna lifts his tea to his dark lips. “It’s certainly plausible.

“We will see our ex-husbands and lovers again?” Her heart fills with hope and dread. If she could do it over again, she would be better, wiser. She stares into the flame of a lamp burning on the altar. Desperation had driven her to follow Julie on this trip. It had started long before, the pang of emptiness, the haunting loneliness even in a crowd, even with Robert beside her. Despair had so filled her one night that she slid the chair beside the window and unlatched it. Her foot found a sturdy place and the sill was only half a step away. Looking down into the night from the fourth floor, a void spread out below.

In that moment she remembered her rich things — the Persian rugs, the silver and crystal and bone china. They were like props in a play that had no meaning. But as she looked up a fire burning across the night sky reflected the tiny spark of life that struggled to stay alive inside her. Then a decision, like a miracle arrived. There had to be something more and she would find it. This is what had prompted her to follow Julie.

Embarrassment flushes her cheeks. Can he see into her heart and read the headlines of her past like a tabloid newspaper? “I guess if we come back we’d have to go through puberty again. Pimples and all.” He seems to accept her and not judge. She wants to hug him for this.

Krishna blows on the tea, rippling the surface. “It’s God sporting.”

She reflects. “Oh you mean it’s a game. But what happens if you don’t want to play any more?”

“I think it’s like a merry-go-round. When you get tired of it you can get off.”

“And then what?”

“You go Home.”

The mention of home sends an arrow of yearning through her heart. She sits up on her knees and looks into the face of the goddess towering above her. “I need to go.”

“You are a good person. You will find your way.”

No, I’m not good she wants to say, not if you really knew me. “I remember now. The hotel is called Pa…santi or Par Shanthi.”

“You know what Shanthi is?” Krishna says.

The goddess stares wildly at her. What is that garland carved in stone around her neck? A necklace of human heads.

“Peace. Peace that knows no bounds.”

“Why are you helping me?” Now that she has seen the heads, she eyes him suspiciously, and wonders if she is in danger. But his eyes laugh and a smile breaks across his face.

“We are taught to treat all people as our guests, because all are spark of God. You could be Parvathi.”

The thought that she could be God makes her want to alternately laugh and cry. Does God get lost too?


Out in the heat, they walk down a tree-lined lane. “Have you been to the U.S.?” Caroline asks.

“Yes, I went there to study. But I came back for my mother.”

She thinks of Krishna’s goddess. The divinities invaded her dreams at night like the subtle sounds of the reed flute weaving through the air. She follows the high pitched notes a short distance to the source — a man wearing a turban. A spectacled cobra’s eyes peek out of a rotund basket; its body rises and sways. The man’s breath rushes through the flute, holding the unpredictable creature suspended under his invisible control. She looks for a thread or a trick and crosses to the other side of the street, bemused, but distrustful of the power of music over the poisonous nature of the animal. If only human nature could be tamed so easily, she muses.

They pass one-room wooden shops with hand-painted signs. Shopkeepers call out to her: “Come see my Kanchi silks.” “Perfumed oils from Madras, lady.” “You like gold jewellery and rubies?”

“I’ll ask here,” Krishna says.

She waits and unconsciously reaches out to finger the fabrics hanging in the doorway and hears Krishna pronounce the word “Shanthi.” Beautiful silks draw her closer. She touches one and then another until she crosses the threshold.

“Welcome,” a man says. He sports a pair of black jeans and a polo shirt. The store is like a wooden box with no windows lined with unfinished wooden shelves. A bright image of Buddha, his heart radiating rays of light, hangs on the wall. Scented oils warm the air and soothe her anxiety as she lifts the testers to her nose one by one — lotus, jasmine, rose. She admires silks brocaded with gold, pashmina shawls, and embroidered pillows from Kashmir. And she spirals into the exotic beauty until her eyes fall on the black statue of the goddess wearing a garland. It is the same goddess that haunted Krishna’s house. “Are those heads?” she says.

“That’s Kali.”

“Not very friendly.”

“The destroyer,” the shopkeeper says.

“Why love a god who destroys?”

“They worship all aspects of life.”

“You’re not Hindu?” she said.

“I am Buddhist. We worship no thing.” He reaches up and plucks the statue from the shelf. “Here.”

She examines the image. “Does it make sense to you?”

“I think she teaches humility.”

Kali, the name forms silently on her lips. Other gods wear flowers or jewels, but she sports a garland of heads. Others seek to console, but Kali makes no pretence. Life is hard. Birth hurts. Death does too. All things created, she will destroy. Nothing lasts forever and she makes no apologies. Caroline imagines her dancing on human hearts and laughing at her misery.

“I think I’ve found the hotel,” Krishna says appearing next to her, then he points at the statue. “You like her?”

She briefly looks up to acknowledge him. “I don’t understand.”

“She treats all the same,” Krishna says.

“You don’t have sinners.” Caroline looks from Krishna to the shopkeeper. “Either of you?” Then her thoughts continue without waiting for a response as if Kali, staring back at her, forms the answers directly in her heart. Terrible, beautiful, painful, blissful — I merge all into my Self. No one strong or wealthy and powerful nor meek and good and innocent or evil escapes my grip. No different am I than the mystery of Time, itself.

Caroline wants to protest, to explain to the goddess that it is not fair, that life should not hold pain or unhappiness. And Kali again speaks to Caroline’s heart. Where would joy be without sadness, or love without hatred? Both determine the value of the other. Each owes its existence to its opposite. Caroline temporarily shifts her eyes to the jade Buddha, its head the size of hers. Isn’t this the mystery of life unveiled, he seems to say, to accept all with equanimity? There is some comfort in this, as if balanced in the serene eye of the hurricane one might find peace.

Caroline makes an offering then. If you are a destroyer, then I offer you my garland of fear and pain and emptiness. She lays it at Kali’s feet. In her mind’s eye, a flame rises and burns her offering into a raging fire. Caroline’s knees feel weak and she leans against a wooden shelf.

Outside, Krishna flags down a motorised rickshaw. “He will take us there.” She settles into the narrow space beside him. The driver swerves along a new stretch of paved road that follows the river. Water is scarce and the land cracked and parched under the sun’s infernal gaze. The broad river bed carries a narrow trickle of water. Washer women clean garments and spread them out along the sandy river bed to dry.

“I don’t think I came this far,” Caroline says nervous and worried again.

“Have you heard of the wish-fulfilling tree? Many people come to see it.” He points up a hillside above the riverbank.

“What’s that?”

“A saint gave discourses there. Sometimes he let people wish for the fruit they wanted and then it would appear in the branches of the tree. Cherries, oranges, mangos. That tree bore all of these fruits.”

“I don’t know what I would have wished for,” Caroline says. “It seems that I’ve wished for so much, but never for the right things.” She exhales a puff of exasperation. “I would wish to go home.”

Barren, rocky hills jut up from the river; yellow, withered weeds adorn the edge of the road, and brown earth rises in clouds then settles on houses, beasts and people. If she could peer inside and photograph her emotional landscape, the picture would look like this: arid, desolate, dry. But now she feels hope. India has filled her and soon it will turn green. She hugs her knees to her chest in the backseat of the rickshaw. Sometimes it is good to turn back inside and see the bareness and the muddle.

A breeze stirs and exposes the underside of the leaves. Dark clouds gather on the horizon. The washerwomen stop and point to the sky. When the first fat drops of water fall, they scurry around jerking up their clothes, placing them in baskets on their heads.

“It’s raining,” Caroline says with excitement.

“But it’s not the season!” Krishna says bewildered.

More drops fall. “Please stop. Please let me out.” As a kid, she played in the warm summer rains with delight, dancing and laughing and swaying under the generous silver streams. How long ago…how she had longed to grow. She steps into the rain as it descends in garlands, pearling down into the ground, dancing on her skin. A crowd of children erupt into laughter and run joyously under the downpour holding out round metal pots to capture it. Caroline holds out her hands, opens her palms to the sky, raises her face to the clouds and opens the vessel of her heart. Water cascades through her hair and drenches her skin as she whirls and laughs with the children to welcome the gentle rain.
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
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