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The Far Himalaya

It was around 10 o'clock when they left the graduate residence and set off west along Bloor, walking as far as Robert Street and then south. It was a splendid spring day, with cool air and aspiring white clouds that gave intermittent relief from the hot sun. Aditi wore her huge rock star sunglasses, jeans, a light jacket, and Ben his broad-brimmed brown cloth hat. He kept his hands in his jacket pockets as they strolled, and she held him by the crook of his right arm, a deceptively submissive-looking posture dictated by the almost comical disparity of their heights.In this neighbourhood, the Annex, with its preponderance of university-related people, they looked completely at home, a couple of young grad students, or assistant professors, or professionals in one cultural domain or the other, and Ben felt the appeal of this apparent legitimacy, which from a practical point of view was so completely within his grasp. And how he yearned for it, as he would share it with her: the little house, the twin studies filled with books and music, the back yard with two lawn chairs where they would sit together, reading or talking, in the shade of some big old tree, no children (they were agreed on that, thank god), but a dog and a cat with hilarious ten-syllable Sanskrit names, a professorship for her, and for him some kind of worthy and remunerative work in which the talents people saw in him could be realized and appreciated, and which would be his more or less equal contribution to their shared life.His eyes brimmed with tears. He looked straight ahead, widening them, lest the tears spill, removed his hand from his pocket and caressed her lower back, again looking her in the face and smiling. She smiled back, with a touch of inquiry at the tragic intensity of his expression, but asked nothing, since this was nothing out of the ordinary for him.

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He arrived promptly at ten o’clock for his appointment and Dr. Coniglio saw him at once. There was something odd in the doctor’s manner, stiff, which worried him and alerted him to the seriousness of the news. He had known Coniglio for years. They were of an age. A graceful man, with athletic shoulders, a clean stiff collar and shirtsleeves invariably rolled. He liked him, the cordiality in his speech, the clarity in his face like sunlight on flagstones. Coniglio had treated his mother at the end of her life, when she was dying in the ruins of Casa Lampedusa, had made the long drive from Capo d’Orlando to Palermo each week. Until the war, he had been the family physician for his cousins, the Piccolos, attending them at Vina, their villa, and it was only in the last five years that the doctor had opened an office in Palermo. He remembered now, seeing the man’s new consulting rooms, how his mother had used to look at Coniglio, the narrow cold assessment in her eyes. She too had thought him a fine gentleman. She too had not wanted to observe himstanding next to her son.

He did not think of himself as shy but a certain shyness took hold in him when he found himself in the company of men such as this, men with a deference for his own station in life, men who had set out and achieved success, men of purpose, men of the world. Their easy manners left him uneasy, their confidence made him falter. He felt himself slow down, grow watchful, hesitant, until he had lost the moment for the quick retort or dry joke that came always to mind. Instead he would blink his lugubrious eyelids, and smile faintly, and meet the other's gaze helpless.

He waited for the doctor to gesture to a chair before he unbuttoned his winter coat and sat. He took off his hat and folded his gloves in its upended crown and rested his walking stick across his knees. He set his leather bag carefully to one side, half unbuckled, the little frosted cakes in their paper wrappers from his breakfast at the Massimo visible, the spine of the book he had brought for later, The Pickwick Papers, shining up at him. He reached at once for the cigarettes in his pocket but caught the doctor’s eye.


Ah, Don Giuseppe—Coniglio smiled, tsking—not all that is pleasurable in life is forbidden. But some things are, or should be. You look tired, my friend.

Giuseppe withdrew his hand and crossed his legs, the bulleted purple upholstery crackling. The other had settled himself at the edge of his desk, one leg hitched up, his hands folded lightly over his thigh, those hands which turned and weighed and cut into the skin of other beings and sought out the secrets in their flesh. Calmly he met the doctor’s gaze.

Well? he said.

It is as I feared. The doctor’s voice was slow now, deliberate. Emphysema. It can be checked perhaps, but not stopped. I am sorry.

Giuseppe smiled faintly. He could not think what to say. The spirometer is not always conclusive, of course. We could examine you again.

Would you advise it?

Coniglio held his eye a moment. I would not, he said at last, gently. Are you here alone? I had hoped the princess would accompany you.

He shook his head, calm.

You should not be alone, the doctor said. He rose and went behind his desk and opened a drawer and unscrewed the lid of a fountain pen. I shall write you out a prescription to help with the pain. But the only true medicine, you understand, is for you to cut out tobacco.

The winter morning was grey and diffuse in the curtains. Giuseppe closed his eyes, opened them.

And will that reverse the effects? he asked.

It is a chronic disease, Don Giuseppe—there is no reversing its effects. It will progress regardless. But it can be managed.You must change the way you have been living. You must exercise regularly. Walk. Eat rather less. Avoid stress and worry as you can.

There is no other treatment?

Well. Let us try this first.

But the disease will kill me? he pressed.

Coniglio regarded him quietly from behind his desk. Anynumber of things could kill you first, he said.

Giuseppe, despite himself, smiled.

I will give you this for the pain, and to help you sleep. The doctor took some minutes to write out the prescription. He then untied a red folder and withdrew two typed pages and perused them and then slipped them back into the folder. We are getting old, Don Giuseppe, he said. That is the substance of it. We may not feel it, but it is so.


Our bodies will not let us forget it.


Coniglio steepled his fingers before him. It was clear he was struggling with what to say next. After a moment, to Giuseppe’s surprise, he began to speak, in a casual way, of his wife. He had a French wife who was known to treat him badly. He said: Jeanette has returned to Marseilles. Her sister is ill. She wishes to be with her family. She has written me to tell me she would like me to join her. Permanently.


You and the princess lived apart a long while, did you not?

Yes. In the thirties.

I remember your mother spoke of it. Princess Alessandra was in Latvia?

Giuseppe nodded. He did not like to think what his mother might have said about it.

Coniglio was tapping his fountain pen against his wedding ring, click, click. Otherwise his face was calm, his hair smooth, his coral shirt unwrinkled and immaculate. Yes, he said, yes yours was an arrangement that succeeded. So I tell myself, it is the modern world, Coniglio. Be strong. You have telephones, aeroplanes.

Giuseppe did not enlighten the man. Licy had always gone where she chose to go, as she chose it. She had flet to Sicily only when the Soviets neared her estate in Latvia, burning the great homes as they advanced. He did not deceive himself by imagining she had bowed to his desires. 

Jeanette tells me there is work for a doctor in any city, Coniglio said. Even for a Sicilian doctor, she says. I expect there is some truth in that.

What will you do?

Coniglio looked out the window, smiled vaguely. I will imagine the very worst of fates and settle for a lesser one, he said. But my patients, I would worry for them, Don Giuseppe. It would mean, of course, many farewells.

It is always better to be the one leaving than the one left behind, said Giuseppe.

Yes. And some journeys cannot be delayed.

Giuseppe inclined his head.

Coniglio pinched the bridge of his nose and there was a sudden anguish and bafflement in the gesture. He removed his spectacles, blinked his watery blue eyes. The man’s strong emotion surprised Giuseppe, left him uncomfortable. Do you know, said the doctor, for years now, whenever I am faced with a difficult decision, I think of something your mother said to me. She said, Always take the easier path, Dr. Coniglio. And yet I have never done so. I wonder what is the matter with me.

It was as though a coin flared in the cold sunlight between them.

Your mother was a powerful personality, Coniglio continued. She had strong opinions. I remember she used to talk to me about Mussolini.

She was rather confused, near the end.

She used to complain about his spats. Too many spats, she would say, Coniglio smiled, shook his head. I remember she held my hand one morning and said Mussolini had changed nothing and yet because of him everything had changed. 

She was thinking of her house, Giuseppe said quietly.

A beautiful palazzo, the doctor agreed. The Americans did not need to bomb us as they did.

I did not know you knew it, Doctor.

Coniglio gave him a puzzled look. I visited your mother there. Several times.

It was hardly beautiful then.


It was a fine house once, before its ruin.

And a fine house after, Don Giuseppe. When I was a child I would pass by it every Sunday morning. My father worked a fish stall in the Vucciria. It was not the fastest route. But then I was not always in such a hurry to join him.

He said this without shame or embarrassment at his low origins and Giuseppe could only nod vaguely. It seemed all at once of supreme insignificance. His mother, he remembered now, had distrusted this doctor by the end, had coughed and grimaced and called him her good doctor Mafioso. He opened his mouth to speak, closed it. Do not gawp like a fish, his mother used to tell him. He got abruptly to his feet.

You must forgive me, he said.

Coniglio half rose from behind his desk. Of course.

I have lost track of the hour.

Certainly. We shall speak again soon, of that I am certain, Don Giuseppe. Remember me to Don Casimiro and Don Lucio, if you will. And of course to the princess.

He suddenly heard in the doctor’s old-fashioned phrasing the syntax of an English novel, as if it were a sentence translated aloud from Meredith or Eliot, and he glanced at the doctor from beneath heavy eyelids. More than most this man had witnessed the tension and soured love directed by his mother towards himself as she ailed, had witnessed her bitterness, the muttered imprecations, the veiled insults. It left him, Giuseppe felt with a quick sharpness, vulnerable and foolish. But then the feeling was gone and he wanted only to absent himself from the small office with its smells of lemon gauze and varnish and camphor, smells that would forever remind him of his own death.

And so Giuseppe Tomasi, last Prince of Lampedusa, put on his hat with care, worked his fingers into his dead father’s kidskin gloves, and took up his walking stick and his worn leather bag. At the door he paused.

How much time do I have, Doctor?

Coniglio’s hands were clasped carefully on the desk before him and as he tilted his head his spectacles filled with light, obscuring his eyes. That will depend on you, he said. Let us pray it is many years yet.

In which case, said Giuseppe, it will not depend on me at all.

The doctor smiled, but there was a sadness in it, and Giuseppe went out, the frosted glass on the streetside door rattling softly as it closed, and he shuffled out into the cold bright air leaning on his cane as if it were still the same morning as before, and he the same man.

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Translated from the Gibberish


Immigrants speak in fragments. This is their language of choice—or rather, this is the language that has been chosen for them. Incoherence. The inability to understand, to be understood. Ask immigrants where they are from, ask the question, “So what is home for you?” and you will see the agony on their faces. Of course, as a writer, I get asked that question all the time, and it is a valid one, and I answer it without missing a beat: I have two homes, and I have neither. That is what I say in interviews. But catch me off guard, catch me at a train station in Bombay, or when I am staring into someone else’s home from a bridge, and you will see the lines appear on my face.

As my neighbour did this morning. I was emptying my trash into the garbageman’s cane basket, and she asked me, “Do you like it there?” —meaning my other home, Vancouver —and I said, “Sure, sure,” and she said, “It must be so clean,” and I said, “Yes, yes,” and just as I was about to re-enter my apartment, she asked, “So, are you happy there?” and the truth is a resounding no, but then I’m not happy here either, because there is no here, here was, it no longer is, and it’s questions like these that keep pharmaceutical companies in business. Am I happy anywhere? Was I ever happy? Is there such a thing as happy? I don’t think so, and if there is, I don’t want it. I want to combust in such a powerful way that the effects are felt deep in the oceans; I want craniates to read my work and get my meaning, and that’s about it. It won’t make me happy, but it will give my combustion the distance it deserves.

While I’m feeling all this, my neighbour tells me that she went over to Dr. Hansotia’s place and rang the doorbell but he didn’t answer. What if he’s dead? What if he’s had a stroke and is just lying there on the kitchen floor? But then, upon further investigation, she discovered that he has been opening the door for the garbageman, and has also hired a new maid to help cook, clean, and get groceries. So he has every intention to live. My neighbour seems a bit disappointed by this. Just as I’m disappointed by my constant need to make sense of a decision I made twenty years ago —to leave. I can feel my body turning dark; I can feel an eclipse occurring within me, the light being blocked.

Over the next few days, I keep one eye on Dr. Hansotia’s window as I do my regular Bombay things—I visit friends’ homes, try to partake of the natural rhythms of their daily lives: their morning jogs, afternoon naps, shopping trips (oh, how the malls have grown; they are the Great Barrier Reefs of our age), domestic arguments, laughter that I hear and remember from long ago, lovers who have aged and seem “happy,” money flowing in and out of wallets and cards, and me, reaching into my wallet to pay for dinners only to be scoffed at, but in the most affectionate way, because I am an artist, an adorable pye-dog. So many natural, daily rhythms that seem completely unnatural to me, such as sharing space with another human being; waking up next to one; having a miniature version of oneself and then holding it, scolding it, cuddling it, cleaning it. Once in a while, someone hands me their baby, hoping it will change me, hoping that some of its babyness will redeem my soul, make me less grouchy, or whatever it is they think I need. This obsession with happiness —to me it’s just a new-car smell that one day disappears without warning. I try to partake of daily life, but I find natural rhythms only when I am writing. But I cannot write all the time. So I think.

It’s 2 a.m. A peaceful time to be awake in Bombay. I still call the city Bombay when I speak, but I’ve started using Mumba when I write. Mumbai is creeping into my work. Those seven islands are speaking up, telling me it’s time to acknowledge the name change. If it’s only a name change, I tell those islands (when you’re up four days in a row, you can communicate with islands), why is it so difficult for me to say it? Is it because when I say Mumbai I don’t know where to go? Or is it because Mumbai has no use for me, doesn’t need me the way I need it? On my previous trip, a year ago, I went to Chowpatty beach at night and dipped my feet in the sea. And just as I started to feel the warmth of the water, the water tightened its grip around my ankles and I realized that water, that eternal truth-teller, was back at work. You did not leave Bombay, the water said. It spat you out. Remember this, each time you hold that new passport of yours. When I returned to Vancouver, I dipped my feet in the waters of English Bay, thinking I would spite the Arabian Sea. But the Pacific had a message for me as well. Not so much in words, but in its cold, steely silence.

In Bombay, once I’m done holding other people’s babies and shopping, once I’m done catching up with friends or watching a Hindi movie in Phoenix Mills, I do something strange —strange to others but not to me. I take late-night taxi rides alone. Even though people offer to drop me home after our nights out, I prefer cabs. There’s a bridge in the city, the JJ Bridge, which connects Byculla, the place where I live, to Colaba in South Bombay. At night, when there’s no traffic, it’s just a ten-minute ride between those areas, and I use that bridge to stare into homes, into people’s apartments, to catch a glimpse of the smallness of their movements, to see complete strangers perform mundane acts such as reaching for a newspaper, or to watch an old woman fanning herself. The bridge allows me to be so close to their windows that I can literally smell their lives. This is an essential part of my Bombay visit. As my taxi climbs up that bridge, I feel a kind of exhilaration —perhaps that’s too grand a word: a release, you might say. I become an eagle who swoops in and out of lives, of narratives, without the slightest regard for plot or character development. I collect snapshots, take photographs in the mind with eye blinks, in order to find the thing behind the thing, which I hope will enlarge my world; and when I do find that moment, I don’t know what to do with it. The second I begin to feel complete, to fill up with something, a sense of loss pervades me. Then I stop looking into apartments, I look below the bridge, at Mohammed Ali Road, at its mosques and minarets, its greenness, its lights sending out signals into the sky, and it feels like an ancient place, a place that contains the breath of centuries, warm and stale. I fill my nights with domes in the sky, and minarets, with roundness and erectness, and this says a lot about how I feel about Earth itself —that I am stuck in its roundness, when all I long for is upward movement, a minaret that will take me so high . . . And my thoughts stop as soon as I descend the bridge and pass by my old school —or, specifically, the petrol pump behind my school. When childhood memories take over, it’s time for me to leave.

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