Monday, 25 January 2010

The Vampire of Veluvana- short story

The Vampire of Veluvan
  The old German lived in a Buddhist dharamshala on the edge of the old town.  Not far, but the flat rate fare wouldn't stretch to it. The trip would cost extra. What to do? These are disturbed times.

    I disdained to haggle. The tonga driver's face grew longer. He had misjudged me. “It is a bad place,” he temporized, sizing me up slyly. “Good people do not go there.”
   ‘So,’ I thought to myself- ‘some prostitutes are lodged in the dharamshala. No big surprise. Since the riots, the pilgrim trade has dried up. No doubt, the lodge keepers have found a way to appeal to a
different type of customer’.
  ‘I’ll pay what you like.” I said sharply- “Just name your fee and stick to it. Mind it- no tamasha later on!”
  “No, Babu, you don’t understand.” the tonga wallah was placatory. My flash of temper had convinced him I was harmless. “It is not a good place. Unlucky. There has been talk.”
                                  “Some bad characters hanging around?” I asked.
   “No! They are too scared. It is something else. There are some foreigners there. They are old…really, too old.  What can I tell you? It is not a good place. You are young and fit.  Why risk?”
            “All right,” I said quietly, “We will go and come back quickly. It is for my work.”
   The dharamshala was in a deplorable condition. The lodge keeper had fled the previous year. An enterprising Jain youngster came round on his three wheeler to sell the elderly pilgrims some basic items.  He was a smart enough fellow. I was surprised to see that he stocked Japanese (or
perhaps Korean) magazines and noodle packets. 
   Initially, he was polite and solicitous but abruptly lost interest when I mentioned who it was I had come to see. Apparently, the old German didn’t spend money here. Instead, some Sadhus, belonging to the Natha order, came to see to his needs once every fortnight or so.  

No, nobody knew why the naked Sadhus should want to look after the old foreigner.

    I stopped probing.  Ever since the riots, the townsfolk had become wary of the nanga Sadhus with their tridents and matted hair.
    The elderly Ambassador, whose memoirs I was editing, had mentioned that the old German was a Knight of Malta. He was some sort of relative of the Spy Master Gehlen.  The story I had pieced together was that he had initially been sent to Nepal on charitable work for the Sovereign Order. After the fall of the Ranas, he reappeared in Rangoon as a student of Buddhism. There are some articles he wrote for German magazines available on the internet. I don't read German, but gather that he was an admirer of U Nu. 
  After Ne Win's coup, he resurfaces in Sihanouk’s Cambodia, but, in ’65, after that puissant Prince’s deal with the Communists, he receives a sort of bedraggled entrée at the court of Sikkim’s  Gyalmo- the beautiful American blue-blood, Hope Cooke.  From there, around the time of the fall of the dynasty, the German went away to Sri Lanka. Then- the  Karmic Ouroburos of that Edenic isle having swallowed and spat him back up again- some twenty years ago, he returned to India and settled in this little pilgrim town. The Indian Government seems to have turned a blind eye to his remaining in India.  Perhaps, if he had really converted to Buddhism, he had become stateless. The Knights of Malta are a Catholic order. They would have withdrawn his passport.
   My other reason for thinking there might be a story here was because I had come across his name in a book on ‘Hitler’s High Priestess’ the French savant, known as Savitri Devi, who inspired Serrano and Evola and, now, a whole host of neo-Nazis who, strangely to my mind, have done little to build upon her foundations to secure the recognition of Hitlerism as a bona fide religion.
   My first visit to the old man did not go well. He was completely hairless, hunched, and naked. He shouted at me, in Hindi, to go away. There were two European women there- both over 70. They looked terrified. I hurriedly left.
   Later, more ashamed of my lack of savoir faire than from any higher motive, I sent over a note explaining my interest.  To my surprise, I got back a rather beautifully handwritten invitation to dinner at a local restaurant- ‘Gaylord’, I think, it was called.  The D.M, a friend of a friend, was kind enough to lend me his ‘lal batti’ car. To be frank, I was nervous about staying out late in a town so recently scourged by riots.

  Von Gehlen was very thin, perfectly bald, with creased but surprisingly pink and healthy skin. He introduced himself in good English with a degree of gentility but spoiled it by asking if I could pay for the meal. Before I could reply, he added that he had already ordered himself an expensive brandy.

  With an affectation of Teutonic bluntness, I let him know that money was not a problem. However, he continued to harp on the subject.  ‘I am too old,’ he said simply, ‘you will have to pay. If not in money, then by presenting your arse for the kicks that our good host will surely shower upon you. You see, I am too old. They worry they will have the corpse of a white man on their hands. That is the only thing that restrains them. Otherwise, they are wild beasts.’

   I called the waiter and told him to take the old man’s order. I myself would have to leave shortly- so let the bill be kept ready for me.  
   “Sahib, you came in the ‘lal batti’ car?” the waiter turned out to be the proprietor. A milder looking man could scarcely be conceived.  Far from wishing to hand out thrashings to deadbeat customers,
he had his own tale of woe to tell.  But, by this stage, I just wanted to escape. This trip had been a waste of time.

  The old man was enjoying his brandy. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry to leave, I would have felt sorry for him. He was in his eighties. This might be his last occasion to eat in a restaurant- not fancy by any means, but, perhaps, the best this little town could offer.
   Simply to give him face, I muttered a couple of questions about Savitri Devi and Julius Evola and Ambassador Serrano and so forth.
   He immediately assumed an air of bemusement- did anyone take those cranks seriously? 
   I remembered that the German word ‘krank’ means a sick man, rather than a nut-job.  Heidegger’s comment on Celan- ‘Celan ist krank heillos’- came to mind.  For some inexplicable reason, I spoke my thought aloud.
 “Celan” he said, correcting my accent, “You like his poetry?”
   “Too deep for me” I said truthfully.
   Perhaps, it wasn’t very tactful to bring up the meeting between the Jewish poet and the Nazi philosopher. Let the old man enjoy his brandy.
   “Yes.” said the old man, “He had depth. Unfortunately, the River Seine had more. Who would have thought it?”
   “Were you in Sri Lanka during the Black July pogrom?” I surprised myself. It wasn’t a question I had intended to ask.
   “What? Yes... I suppose so. I saw some killings myself. The villagers had got hold of a  Strassenvalze- do you say road roller? So they used that on the children and the old people and the
too stupid to run away. You are…Tamil?”
   I was astonished. Could the German be reading my mind? I’d read that thing about the steamroller in a book by R.D Laing. The great psychiatrist was in Sri Lanka to learn some advanced meditational technique to slow down Time- that single, spokeless, Strassenvalze wheel of King Menander's
otherwise non-existent chariot- and freeze the elusive moment which, the Buddhists maintain, is the only reality. 
   It occurred to me, I would have said Milinda- not Menander- and, suddenly, the brandy tasted vile.
 I asked the proprietor to hurry up with the main course.

“I heard you were a Knight of Malta.”
“In another life… another, do you say habilitation?|”
“No, we don’t say that. Do you mean incarnation? Another birth?”
“No. Habilitation. A course of higher studies. Do you have such things here?”
   “Yes, we abound in it. In India, possession of a PhD qualifies you for better treatment in Jail. All the apprentice gangsters have PhDs. You may have seen them busily completing their habilitations during the recent riots. ”
“So, there is progress. Good. And you yourself are…”
“Not a PhD. Don’t worry. The restauranteur will get paid in money, not kicks.”
‘So, you are not an academic. Perhaps, a journalist?”
“No. Definitely not a journalist.”
“But political.. you ask about Savitri Devi and that old paralytic- Julius Evola…”
  “He was paralyzed? I somehow thought he was a mountaineer like …urm... y'know, the British poet, the enemy of Yeats at the Golden Dawn... y'know...the guy who persuaded Ananda Coomaraswamy to try a bit of wife-swapping...sorry, the name was on the tip of my tongue....” 
          It was the British occultist, Aleister Crowley, whose name had slipped my memory.
The old German was peering at me intently. Suddenly, he grinned.
Could he, not just read my mind, but actually disorder my thoughts?
    But no, why should he bother? He was busy with his brandy. He had already achieved his objective. He had established his ascendancy.  Put simply, I was spooked and I would stay spooked. I might as well just pay the bill and go home. Chalk it up to experience. Old Germans living in derelict dharamshalas are still no objects for pity or, worse, the sort of fuzzy-minded mystagogy some middle class Indians still occasionally go in for.
 “Did you know Evola, in Germany, during…urm.. your military service?”
   I had remembered that Evola was hit by a shell that paralyzed him while working for the SS in the last days of the war.
Except, I wasn’t sure I’d ever actually known that.
Thought transference?
Was I tapping into the German's private portal to the collective Unconscious?
“He was in Vienna. I was on the Eastern Front.”
“That must have been…”
 “Glorious? Yes. War is glorious... to the young. For a fit man who is young.” 
He looked pointedly at my thick eyeglasses. 
“Perhaps, you know the poem by Tyrtaeus…”
“That lame school teacher? He was before my time.”
“Since he lived a few centuries before Alexander- I suppose he must have been!”
The old man grimaced. “All soldiers are contemporaries.”
“The Buddha was not a soldier.”
“Is that what they teach you nowadays?”
He blinked at me happily, like a lizard in the sun.
"Forgive me. I did not know. It explains so much.”

    Karma, I thought- or thought that I thought- for, perhaps, the German was putting these thoughts into my head... Still, either way, I had brought this on myself. The truth was, I just wanted a bit of local colour, I had no interest in the man himself. There was a slot, in my new novel, for an old European aristocrat living in an Ashram or dharamshala in some little town- perhaps in the Himalayas…actually, definitely, the Himalayas… and he’d say wise things in a German accent and maybe quote Novalis… no, Holderlin- the God within us always lonely & poor- or better yet, Heidegger on Holderlin- the poet's blighting illness as Being's recovered future from which our salvation will come as a god-… and… and… I don’t know, the whole thing would have been kind of mystical with a bit of a sentimental undercurrent and, well, kind of sophisticated.
   Instead, I was stuck playing the role of the pretentious, bespectacled, Babu upon whom this elderly Hitlerite hooligan could practice his mind games while leaving me to pick up the tab. 

            I called for the bill. “I’m sorry, I have to go… the District Magistrate lent me his car.”

    Von Gehlen ignored me. I was relieved. What if he really was a hypnotist like Aleister Crowley? Or, worse a vetala, a vampire- there had been unexplained deaths in the vicinity of the dharamshala…- where better for a vampire to hide himself than a riot plagued Pilgrim town?

    I was out of my depth. I don’t do Horror. Well, Dracula maybe- but this was shaping up to be H.P effing Lovecraft! How get out of it? Got to let my lower middle class, N.R.I, instincts take over. When you look into the abyss- thus sprach Neitzche- take an effing snapshot on your camera-phone, otherwise, the abyss will look back into you. 
    Maybe I should take a snapshot of the menu- which by a typesetter's error translated ' Athithi Devo Bhavah' as 'The Guest is Cod"- or find some billboard with a hilarious example of Indian English I could post up on my blog. 
                                        I never actually did take a snapshot of the menu.
              Just that zikhr-e-sukhan- the mere memory of my blog- was enough to save me.

“Will you visit me again?” the old man was crying. “No one comes. No one comes. The abbot said he would send me V.I.P visitors. I would conduct lecture tours. My books would be published. That was 20 years ago. They have forgotten me. Everyone has forgotten me.”

    I asked the driver to turn on the siren. “Sahib,” he said, “It is against regulations. Lal batti can only be turned on for official business.”
   “Arre, it is for your own safety I am telling!” I replied, “There is a vetala behind! I was clever to trick. But, why take chances? No backchat, just drive fast, I say!"

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