Viet Nam News
by Hồ Anh Thái
His name was Ananda, and Ananda means satisfaction and bliss.
One morning he went to the director of the factory that stood just outside his village and asked for a million rupees. This sum, he knew, would be large enough to build a great temple with a unique architectural design, the kind of temple that would lure droves of tourists to the village. Until now, tourists had passed by quickly, as if Ananda’s village were located in a wasteland. But the young director—he was the same age as Ananda—refused outright. Wasn’t India already overburdened with millions of temples, an abundance of gods, and a shortage of everything else? No, he would only donate a small contribution to the village charity fund. And when he said “small,” Ananda knew, the young director wasn’t simply being modest—he meant really small. Tiny. And as for the temple fund, the answer was “no.” And that was that. And now he should leave the office.
Yet Ananda could not go back to the village empty-handed, since he had promised both the village’s old notables and Agni, the God of Fire, that if he could not get a million rupees for the village, he would offer himself as a sacrifice and would throw himself onto the burning pyre that waited in the cremation ground near the river.
That evening, the director got into his car and began the short journey back to his house in the village. The road from the factory gate to the highway was about 800 metres long. In the middle of that road, just a short distance from the factory gate, the director suddenly saw a man standing with his left leg drawn up and the entire weight of his body pressing on his right leg. He recognized this as the posture of God Shiva in the cosmic dance performed to shake the universe. The driver braked the car, and he and the director both opened their doors and got out.
“You again!” the director said. “What are you doing here? What do you want?”
“One million rupees.”
Ananda’s face was full of holiness and mischief. The director wanted to spit at the holiness, but he respected the mischief. He waved his hand, signaling to the driver, and the two men lifted Ananda up and placed him on the side of the road. Ananda kept standing perfectly still on one leg, as silent as a real statue. Only after the car was out of sight did Ananda drop his other leg and quietly go back home.
From that day on, every morning, just before the director’s car brought the director to the factory, Ananda went straight to the same place and stood on one leg: sometimes the left, sometimes the right. And every evening, after the car had left, he returned to his home and ate his one spare meal of the day. His late parents had left him his house and a small grocery which was now being taken care of by a friend. The villagers did not really believe Ananda would ever get the money from the director. Watching him standing on one leg day after day, they had come to the conclusion that he was simply practising his yoga exercises.
Yet in fact the villagers were not so certain about what to believe and what not. Everything was as possible as it was impossible. The director was not a bad man. He was the son of one of the village’s Brahmin families, a family whose influence and reputation had spread as far as England, whose wealth had allowed their children a British education. Upon their return to the village, they had built a new factory for the production of certain latex products. In order to demonstrate his concern and good intentions for his native village, the new director had launched a vigorous campaign, during which he meted out to each family a box containing ten condoms—the factory’s new product. He stood up on the reviewing stand, mercilessly thrusting his forefinger into one of the things while glibly explaining how to use it to the villagers. The agonies of our people are caused, he said, because the average man only used one condom a month when he should have used eight. A big flock of children was not the cause of good luck and happiness but rather of poverty and catastrophe. At the end of the ceremony which introduced the new product, he loudly chanted a slogan: Only shoot/ once a week/if you want/a future/that’s not bleak./ Only shoot/on one night/if you want/a future/that’s really bright. “Shoot!” all of the village urchins shrieked out, thinking the slogan had something to do with guns and the army. And as soon as the director had left, the villagers completely and instantly forgot what he had said. Instead of cramming their privates into the condoms, they crammed in their breath. Soon hundreds of pure white balloons flew up over the village and burst like firecrackers.
The village remained as poor as it ever was. As unknown as it ever was. Every day, the luxurious tourist buses continued to come one after the other, speeding straight past on their way to other towns. Over there, an ancient city was spread out for ten miles on the crest of some mountains. A little past that was a Queen’s palace, a place popular with visitors for the last ten centuries. And every day Ananda still stood on one leg, watching the convoys of tourist buses streaming past him on the highway. Not even glancing at his village of poor launderers, most of whom he could see from where he stood, over by the river, smashing wet clothes against slabs of stone as if they were not washing but trying to smash the rocks to pieces.
Ananda could see everything that happened over by the river. All day, the launderers would talk and complain loudly to each other. All day, the men would try to bend down behind the women whose saris would billow when they stuck their buttocks up and bent down to strike bed sheets against the rocks. And each evening, the bank of the river would be turned into the place of secret rendezvous for the youths of the village. It was on that bank that Ananda saw Asha, once a little girl who his parents had wanted him to marry, walk hand in hand with a young lad. He watched as they crept under a bush, not far from the place where he stood. He listened as the brazen sounds they made came to his ears. Like everybody else, they had come to regard him as an inanimate object, something like a tree stump standing near the river.
There was one creature, however, that didn’t think Ananda was an inanimate thing. This was the vulture who perched on the top of a nearby ashok tree. This ominous bird was black, coarse as a turkey, meditative as a sage, and bald as an austere monk. At first the vulture thought that Ananda was dying, and for a long time has been waiting patiently for his death. In the meantime, it snacked on dead mice and snakes, all while waiting for the day it would have a chance to feast on Ananda’s body. Probably it counted the days. Probably it was the only one who could remember how many seasons of hungry and thirsty expectation passed with Ananda standing first on one leg, and then on the other.
One afternoon, the sky suddenly turned red. Houses, trees and everything else were instantly shrouded as if by a reddish-brown screen. Then the sand storm struck. Wild gusts of wind blew in clouds of sand from the desert. Sand whirled over the river bank, making a sound like a cascading waterfall, pushing into the eyes and nostrils of those launderers who hadn’t the time to find shelter, making them choke and cough and feel as if they were being suffocated. In the factory, a clerk had no sooner finished closing all the doors and windows of the office, when he got an order to call for the director’s car.
“But the storm is still raging, sir. It wouldn’t abate for at least another half an hour.”
“Call the car for me,” the director repeated.
The car crawled out of the factory gate, as if wondering itself at the necessity of this unexpected trip. The driver practically let it drift into that wind on its own inertia. Then, suddenly as a wink, he slammed on the brakes and the director was thrust forward. The car had stopped just an inch away from the living statue. Because he couldn’t see in front of him, the driver had believed that Ananda had left his usual place to take shelter from the storm. As a natural reaction, he started to get out of the car with the intention of lifting the man bodily and placing him on the side of the road. But the director raised his hand to stop him.
The car returned to the factory. The director had found out what he wanted to know.
But that encounter in a cruel storm provoked the driver into playing a cruel joke the next day. Alone in the car, he began to drive at top speed straight at the living statue standing in the middle of the road. Surely, he thought, even a genuine god like Shiva would drop his other leg and run away with his head in his hands if he faced such a wildly speeding car. The launderers working by the river all screamed when they saw the unavoidable accident happening right in front of their eyes. A split second before the impact, the driver knew that the man wouldn’t run. He lost his nerve and yanked the steering wheel to one side. The car swerved to the side of the road, flew up over several small hills, shuddered mightily, and landed upside down, its wheels spinning madly over its flattened frame.
The driver was pulled out of the wreck like a heap of rags. He survived, but from that day he was crippled. And since then, on every holiday, the villagers would see a man, bent-backed, one-eyed and lame, come out to Ananda and lay some rupees and a plate covered with flowers he had grown himself on the ground before the man standing on one leg. The curious would follow him, and a crowd of them would surround Ananda.
After the accident, the director had a new cutoff built from the highway to the factory. Now the road did not run straight to the place where Ananda stood, and people no longer had to stop, get out of their cars, and lift that obstacle over to the other side of the road several times a day. Ananda understood that the competition with time was really just beginning now. He and the director were both tireless runners.
Very late one night, Ananda was still standing in his usual position, since he had not yet seen the director’s car leave the factory. Suddenly he saw the shadow of a girl moving towards him over the ground. When she was nearer, he saw that her face was familiar. But it seemed to have come out of the remote past.
“Is this Asha?” Ananda remembered at last.
“No, I’m not Asha. I’m Gita, Asha’s daughter.”
Standing before Ananda now was the result of those sneaky acts he’d watched Asha doing. Gita told him that in those days, her mother had not enough money for a dowry, and so had had to remain single and raise her daughter. Now had come Gita’s turn. All of her friends by now had one after the other stained a tilak (vermilion mark) between the parting of their hair. But she had no dowry either. And moreover, she had to bear her mother’s shame.
Gita embraced Ananda, then yanked at his hand and urged him to come home with her, swearing to live with him until Yama, Death, came to take them away.
“How old are you?” Ananda asked and dropped his leg, giving himself a firm position from which to embrace her.
Could it be? Ananda had been lost in another world, and hadn’t been aware of either time or the changes in heaven and earth.
“Listen, Ananda, go home. Throw the director and his factory into the rubbish bin. To hell with temples. Our village has always been unknown and let it remain unknown forever.”
Gita’s talk reminded Ananda of what he was doing. He pushed her away lightly and tucked his leg up again.
“No,” he said. “I have to wait for the director.”
“Oh, he left a long time ago. I saw him before, sitting in the car of one of the foreign experts.”
Ananda had missed him.
“No matter; I’ll stay here until tomorrow morning and catch him when he comes back.”
“Will you stay here until your last breath?”
“No, not until my last breath. Only until I receive one million rupees.”
Every night after that, Gita came to Ananda’s house when he returned from the river bank. Yet even the harmony that came into his life from living with a woman could not prevent Ananda from going every morning to stand in front of the factory until evening. Gita still hoped he would change. Anyway, she thought, she would bear him a child, and with that, a family would be created.
But Gita’s plans proved premature. One day Ananda spotted her among a mob of the launderers, who were marching past him with stamping feet towards the entrance of the factory. Once there, they prostrated themselves on the ground, buried their faces in the dust, tore their hair and wailed. Then they began to scream in rage and to throw anything they could get their hands on at the factory. Then they began to chant whatever came into their mouths. Apparently they had found out that toxic wastes had leaked from the factory into the river, making any woman who drank from it barren. The factory had never received any Certificates of Merit for its condoms from the Committee of Family Planning. But now its toxic waste was surely worth at least two Certificates.
The ensuing lawsuit was contentious and dragged on and on.
Finally, the launderers were each given a meager cash compensation, not even enough for Gita to have a sufficient dowry.
One morning, exhausted after the lengthy appearances he had had to make in court, the director went strolling leisurely along the river. Suddenly a way to resolve the man-standing-on-one-leg case flashed into his mind. He would make a package deal, along with the compensation to the launderers. He went to where Ananda was standing and politely presented his compromise offer.
“Please accept 10,000 rupees. It’s an amount equal to the compensation of five barren launderers.”
“But I need a hundred times that much to build the temple.”
Ants, evacuating their nest because of the rain, were running like a stream of black dots from Ananda’s feet to his neck. He stood perfectly still, his eyes fixed on something at a distance in front of him. The director turned in the direction of his gaze to see a naked white heap on top of a small mound.
“What is it?”
“The bones of the vulture. It was waiting for my death. But it has to give up now.”
His name is Ananda. Ananda means satisfaction and bliss.
Early in 1990, I had a chance to make a stop over at Khushi village. When the tour guide told the driver to stop, I expected that he was going to introduce me to something significant. Instead I was led to a crowd surrounding what I took to be a snake charmer. But what the tourists were crowding about was a man standing on one leg. It was said that he had been standing there for a long time, and that only recently he had begun to attract the curious gazes of tourists, as the sole wonder of Khushi village. I managed to find a place in front of him, and he asked me from where I came.
“Việt Nam?” He repeated, elongating each syllable as if showing the word to his memory. After a while, he asked: “Which Việt Nam? North or South?”
“Việt Nam has been reunified for fifteen years.”
I looked into his eyes as I told him that. They were the eyes of a man not affected by loss or gain in this world, eyes that could not gauge the movement of time.
“Congratulations to you,” he said finally.
“Success to you,” I said, and left.
About two years later, I passed that village again. In my uneasy sleep, I was dimly aware that the bus had stopped, and of the driver’s raised voice.
“Khushi,” he called out.
“There’s nothing here worth stopping to visit,” I said sluggishly, my eyes still half-closed.
“Are you kidding?” my companion asked, his voice incredulous. “Look!”
Startled, I opened my eyes. There, next to the road which ran from the highway to the factory, stood an enormous temple, with a 30-meter high pyramid shaped tower soaring from it.
The temple was supported by 444 beautifully carved marble pillars, no two of which were alike. Since I already knew the story of Ananda, I assumed he had finally succeeded in getting his money out of the director’s pockets.
“Was Ananda a member of the temple administrative committee?” I asked.
“Which Ananda?” the young tourist guide asked in return, the immediately recognized the mistake he’d made because of his lack of experience. He’d forgotten to present the story of Ananda to the tourists.
It turned out that one afternoon, after a heavy storm, the director left the factory and saw Ananda, curled up on the ground in the very place where he’d once stood. At first, the director couldn’t believe that this wrinkled and frozen body was Ananda. For years, he had seen Ananda standing upright, balanced on one leg.
After that, the director was often seen wandering around the place where Ananda had stood. Sometimes he bent down, as if he was searching for a footprint left on the very spot where Ananda had been. Sometimes he lifted up his own leg, as Ananda had done. Sometimes he just stood silently, looking down at his feet. Then, one day, he suddenly announced he would donate the money to build a temple right in this very place.
At the entrance, instead of the usual idol of Hanuman, the Monkey God, holding his mace to guard the temple, the director had ordered a carving of the God Shiva, dancing to save the universe, one leg lifted up. And now the tourists has a place to stop and take photographs. Now, thanks to this wonder, Khushi village has become well-known. The villagers themselves now have a place to pray. Now those women made barren by the factory’s waste have a chance to come and touch the linga or phallus of Shiva, and pray to have children. And often now, a one-eyed old man with a bent back walks trembling to the temple, holding in his hands a plate of gaudy yellow marigolds from which emanates an incredibly chilly fragrance.
Translated by Hồ Anh Thái and Wayne Karlin