“For so long I imagined I was making some long journey which would make sense when I had reached the end, but now I realize there are no journeys, just imprints in other people’s dusty footsteps.” -- from Journey of Angels
Recognized for his first collection of short fiction, The Interloper, with a nomination for the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, Rabindranath Maharaj displays that distinct talent again in The Book of Ifs and Buts. Part of our new Vintage Tales series, these stories tell the experience of immigrants as they take up new lives, often alone, in strange lands. With passion and a discreet comic sensibility, Maharaj brings poignancy and enduring beauty to lives that
prosper, suffer, endure heartbreak and realize dreams.
About the author
Rabindranath Maharaj, a Trinidadian teacher and journalist, wrote several of the stories in The Interloper during the year he spent in Fredericton. He now writes and teaches in Toronto.
Excerpt: The Book of Ifs and Buts (by (author) Rabindranath Maharaj)
The Journey of Angels
“... and the beginning is as distant in the past as the ending is in the future, and walking to town, miraculously out of pain, I looked upon the world and remembered.” -- William Saroyan
This is how it used to be. I was the honoured head of the biotechnology department at the University of Armenia. Before I moved to America three years ago, I was examining the possibility of introducing an antifreeze gene from a cold water fish into Triticum urartu, the wild grains located in the Ararat valley -- progenitors of the first cultivated wheat in the world. It is very regrettable that I had to leave, because I feel that my countless years of experimentation will either have been wasted or more likely will be appropriated by Zoravar, who is well known for his drinking and his plagiarism.
None of this is true, of course. Not the language, not the facts. I was never the head of any biotechnology department, and Zoravar was a brilliant scholar whom I have seen tipsy just once. On that occasion I was picking the dried mazzards from his gardens when he strolled out of his house with a beautiful woman on his arm. The woman was about thirty years younger than his fifty-five, and from the way she was waving around a bottle of cognac and ceaselessly laughing at everything he said, I reasoned she was one of his students.
Zoravar’s back door and the window overlooking his garden were always open, even when he was away at the university, and a variety of young women strolled in and out. The exact purpose of their visits was never clear to me, though I suspected that Zoravar with his massive forehead, aquiline nose, white hair swept back and gangly frame, always outfitted in slightly worn coats, must have cut a charming figure to these women. They were all healthy-looking, and I admired his taste.
Or I used to.
Once, I saw a woman walking past the curtains which, billowing in the breeze, gave her the appearance of a gliding apparition. She might have been naked or clad only in her underwear. I climbed down from the tree, skipped over the hedge beneath the window and pulled the curtains aside.
Five shelves ran along the left wall. All were stacked with books but for the middle, where there were tins of tobacco, a potted palm, a pipe, a brass urn, and a framed photograph of Zoravar with black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Standing next to him was a tall woman with narrow-set but striking eyes. Directly opposite the window was a doorway, and when I leaned over, I saw, just beyond my reach, a small circular table with a book on the latticed top. Zoravar had brought this book to the garden a few times, not reading or anything but just staring at the plants in an absent-minded way. I bent forward to get a better look at the cover -- two white-gowned men pouring liquids into narrow glass tubes -- when I heard a small gasp and saw the young woman framed against the door. One hand was against her mouth and the other was clutching the towel wrapped around her waist. She was younger than I had imagined, maybe nineteen or twenty, and with her wet hair and the towel barely reaching her thighs she looked very pleasing. She glanced at the shears in my hand and, without saying a word, walked across to the top shelf, tiptoed, and removed a file. Then she returned through the door.
The next day, Zoravar came up to me and pretended he was examining the cracks in the cobblestone. I blurted my explanation, or rather my lie, before he had a chance to ask his question. His hands were clasped behind his back and he was shifting from one foot to the other. I noticed his pipe’s stem protruding from the pocket of his jacket.
I continued mixing the manure for the seedlings he had brought from the university. When I was about to leave, I saw him standing by the window, one hand holding away the curtains. He invited me in.
So, that evening, I walked home burdened with Zoravar’s books and with a steadily growing guilt. My wife, Leila, was delighted by my employer’s interest. She hugged me tightly, and when I stiffened, she removed her hands from around my shoulders. She said she knew how much I suffered as a gardener, how each day the pain in my body grew worse. She could not bear to see the look in my face, which eighteen months ago she had spotted across the pastry shop where she worked. She had known immediately we would always be together. And Zoravar, wasn’t he a kind employer to take an interest in a silly young gardener? She laughed and wiped away a tear.
We made love that night, as we had done almost every night since we were married, with a complete recklessness which I would regret when I struggled up in the morning.
I could never resist her; never resist her plump cheeks, her unfathomable grey eyes and her laughter after she had said, “Always, always you are so serious, Saren.” I could not resist, either, when she asked to meet Zoravar. During that first meeting he was the perfect host, ushering us into his living room decorated with rugs and antique vases and trailing vines, pouring us tea into his delicate cups, inquiring if the tea’s temperature was all right, standing at the doorway and stuffing tobacco into his pipe while we sipped nervously. In his soft, studious voice he told us how gratified he was by our visit -- Zoravar who had hosted so many educated people. He plucked out a book from a scrolling corner shelf and held it against his nose as if it were one of his prized flowers. He pushed the book into my hand. We were conquered, my wife and I. We had never been in the presence of such an educated man, or the recipients of such generosity.