Short story by S. Narayanaswamy
Sunny Iyengar woke up early that morning, like any other day. He sat up in bed, with both feet firmly on the ground. The bed was oriented so that he sat up facing East. He folded his hands in salutation and bowed his head in silent prayer – to the Sun, to the world, to the creation. This too was a daily ritual like waking early, performed without much thought, ingrained into him over the past twenty five years.
After completing his ablutions, Sunny walked into the kitchen and made coffee with practiced efficiency. He spooned out equal amounts of three different coffee beans from three separate jars into the coffee grinder. The grinder was within a custom made silencing chamber – Sunny seriously disliked the noise of the coffee grinder. He poured the coarse powder into the conical filter of the coffee maker, added bottled spring water, and turned it on. He went and sat in his La-z- boy leather recliner, waiting for the coffee. The coffee maker gurgled like a little infant that was tickled by its dad. It was a happy sound – a good sound to greet the new born day. Sunny’s eyes surveyed the apartment.
It was a small apartment, but decorated in a contemporary style, reflecting Sunny’s taste as well as personality – orderly, rational and practical. Nothing fanciful. When the coffee was ready, Sunny filled his mug and returned to the recliner. All around him was quiet. It was as if the city that had been screaming itself hoarse throughout the night had finally fallen silent to catch its breath, just for a couple of hours. Enjoyment of coffee occupied Sunny fully and completely for the next few minutes. The morning coffee was a relatively new habit that Sunny had cultivated with his usual deliberate precision, unprompted by his father or the rigors of his professional life. It was the one time he surrendered to pure sensory bliss. Savoring the caffeine induced gentle buzz in his head, Sunny focused on the day ahead. It was a big day for him. Vice President at twenty nine! He had called his father in Los Angeles the previous night with the good news. His father was proud of him.
Sunny placed the empty mug in the sink and went over to the big window. He parted the blinds and looked eastward. It was late January, and the first rays of the Sun were trying to pierce through the dense fog. As he continued to stare, the fog seemed to melt away and he was able to see everything with utmost clarity. The clarity did not hit him, like some extraterrestrial punch – rather, it was like a gentle awakening. He looked at the red ball of the rising Sun and nodded, acknowledging its summons. He packed a small duffel bag, threw it into the passenger seat of the Honda CRV, got in and pulled out into the street. He did not stop at the BART station from which he usually took the train to his office. He drove past it and soon merged on to Lincoln Highway, drove past Oakland and headed into the open country, eastward.
Venkat Sundaram Iyengar migrated to the United States from India to work as a research scientist in the Bell Labs in New Jersey. He moved his young family to the US much against the wishes of his orthodox parents who considered crossing the ocean a sin. However, he still followed tradition in naming his son after his father. Venkat was determined that little Sundaram would have every advantage of growing up in the United States of America. He researched and planned everything. First, the name – Sundaram simply would not do. So, Indian Sundaram became American Sunny. Research showed that infants listening to classical music grew up to be high achievers. Boxed sets of various classical symphonies replaced the South Indian Carnatic music cassettes given by Venkat’s mother.
He bought only the toys most suited for brain development. He was not like typical Indian parents who forced their children always to study and did not allow any play. Research showed that carefully chosen physical exercise as well as music complemented school learning and stimulated the brain. Therefore, Sunny was enrolled in a few select sports and Suzuki violin lessons, right from Kindergarten.
Sunny approached Reno around ten o’clock, but was not tempted to stop there. The artificial glitter of the casinos and the strip did not entice him. He stopped briefly at a rest stop further along the highway, just to relieve himself and stretch his legs a bit. The high desert stretched in all four directions as far as the eye could see. The traffic had thinned out. He got back on the road and reached the tiny town of Winnemucca at one o’clock in the afternoon. When he saw the city’s sign on the outskirts, he remembered a line he had read on some travel website – Winnemucca, the oasis of the high desert! He decided to sample the oasis for lunch. Lunch was just a grilled vegetable sandwich and a bag of chips, which he ate sitting on a park bench. The January cold had a nip, but the Sun, high in the clear sky was warming up everything that he touched with his rays. It was nice, but he did not linger. Eastward ho!
*** *** ***
When Sunny was about seven, Sunny’s mother insisted on paying a visit to see her ageing parents in Chennai. She wanted to take Sunny also, but Venkat was extremely reluctant to let the boy go, because he had planned every minute of the summer for Sunny’s development and growth. Moreover, he was concerned that Sunny’s growth would be adversely affected by the chaotic and emotional nature of South Indian homes. However, he had to bow down to the pressure from the grandparents and reluctantly allowed Sunny to go for two weeks.
Sunny could not blend in with the brood of boisterous cousins, nor did he like much the invasion into his space by the bevy of aunts who insisted on hugs, kisses, pinching his cheeks and such sundry travesties. He would have gladly gone back to the US within that first week if someone gave him the chance. Then he discovered the music class his grandmother taught at home and fell in love with it. Venkat’s mother was a respected teacher of South Indian music called Carnatic music. Sunny had a good ear, already well-tuned in his violin class. The grandmother noticed him hovering shyly around the class and gently coaxed him to join. He liked the little girls that came to class wearing colorful long skirts with shiny tinsel hems. He liked their immature voices trying to articulate the complex melodies, repeating after the teacher. He liked the melodic structure of the raga system; he liked the orderliness of each composition set in a distinct modal scale. He was instinctively drawn to the Raga Mohana, an enchanting pentatonic scale.
Sunny and his mother did not return to the US after two weeks. First one grandmother fell ill. They couldn’t leave when the old lady was sick. When she got better, and they started packing, the other grandfather fell ill. Of course, they couldn’t leave then because that would be disrespectful. Venkat was upset, but there wasn’t much he could do under the circumstances. Sunny and his mother returned to New Jersey just in time for school. Sunny’s mother tried to find a local teacher to continue his Carnatic music lessons, but Venkat would have none of it. There was no research to show any beneficial effects of Carnatic music on a boy’s growth. The matter rested there.
It was quite dark by the time Sunny reached Salt Lake City. As the Honda cruised along Interstate 80, cutting through the heart of the city, he thought of the nice cafes of downtown, and was tempted to stop there for the night. However, the mysterious pull from the East wouldn’t let him. He made a quick stop at a gas station to fill up and got back on the road. It started to snow. As he climbed higher into the mountains, the snow got heavier and the wind blew stronger. All the traffic moved at a cautious forty miles per hour. Some of the semi-trailers pulled over to the shoulder, and the drivers were putting snow chains on the tires.
Going into Summit Pass just before Park City, the snow got so heavy that visibility was almost zero. Huge blobs of semi-wet snow fell as if being hurled by a team of all-star baseball pitchers. The wipers struggled valiantly to keep the window clear, but the snow continued to cake up on the periphery. The Honda skidded once on a hair pin bend. Sunny was not used driving in such conditions, and he got scared for a minute. He was cold, tired and hungry. The larger SUVs, pick-ups and semis that were chained up whizzed past in the left lane. Did I embark on this journey just to meet my end in these snowy mountains? he wondered. However, stopping was not an option. He had to keep going. He knew that Park City was less than ten miles away.
It took him a little over forty minutes to cross the ten miles of the snow laden pass. Even as he contemplated taking the exit into Park City, the Honda emerged from the pass and the snow had suddenly let up. His spirits picked up too. He stayed on the highway.
*** *** ***
Had Venkat been an educational researcher, he could have published several papers in scholarly journals on the benefits of the American scholastic system. After all, Sunny was the living example of it. He graduated high school at the top of his class and was the valedictorian. He maintained just sufficient interest in music and sports to keep his mind and body sharp. He graduated with honors from Princeton in Computer Science and got his MBA from University of Chicago. From there, Sunny’s career progressed along a predictable trajectory. He made rapid advances in his job with his disciplined rational approach and methodical precision. Venkat was very proud of his American son – Sunny wouldn’t do anything that is not rational. Vice President at twenty nine!
** ** **
He could not remember the last time he had seen another vehicle on the road. The landscape was afloat in the ethereal glow of the pale moonlight. The earth was completely flat. He glanced at the clock. 10.37 PM. It occurred to him that perhaps he should stop for the night somewhere. A green exit sign came up after ten minutes. “Green River” it said. There were comforting and inviting symbols of food and bed under the sign.
What is this place? Looks like middle of nowhere. I wonder if it would be safe to stop here for the night, Sunny wondered. Immediately he chuckled to himself – Safe? I’ve never done anything like what I did today. After what happened in that mountain pass, what am I afraid of? Gosh, I am tired!
Even as he made the decision to stop for the night, the road curved sharply to the left and two enormous columns of eroded rock loomed ahead. The landscape changed dramatically from the featureless infinite flatness of high desert into rock formations, carved into fantastic profiles by centuries of erosion, and appeared spectacular in the dim light of the pale moon. He found it difficult to keep his eyes on the road. Within a minute, the car crested the peak of the mesa and emerged on top. To the right, he saw a wide valley which nestled the town with hundreds of lights glittering in the darkness like fireflies. It was at once surreal and beautiful. Then came the exit.
The exit ramp led into what seemed like the center part of the town on a two lane road. There were some official looking buildings and some shop fronts. The street was deserted. He passed a solitary blinking traffic light and spotted a gas station that was brilliantly lit. He didn’t need gas, but thought this would be a good spot to get some information on where to stay and perhaps get something to eat. As he entered the store, the young man who was watching something on TV behind the counter, got up and came forward. The young man gave him a strange look.
“You’re not from around here.” It was a statement, not a question. Sunny was a bit taken aback, but nodded his head in assent.
“True, I’m from San Francisco.”
“No, that’s not what I meant. You don’t look American!”
This really shook Sunny up. I don’t believe this! Should I stand here and explain to this dimwit that I am as American as him? Oh god, I am so tired, Sunny thought. “My parents are from India,” he said out loud in a non-committal way.
“Ohh! So, you are an Indian from India, then! Not like an Indian Indian, you know what I mean? There are many of those here, you know!”
“Hmm, whatever. Could you tell me if there’s a hotel or a motel nearby?”
“Yeah, sure. There are a couple of motels down the road. They are Indians from India too, just like you. So, you should feel right at home.”
He bought a bag of trailmix and walked back to his car.
Getting back on the main street, he noticed two motels, one on either side of the road. He pulled into the one on the right. A neon sign in the parking lot proclaimed that the place had vacancy. A painted notice pointed to a dimly lit window as “office”. The middle aged Indian woman with a sour face behind the window gave him a curious look.
Oh great! Now she’d want to know what a nice Indian boy like me is doing in the middle of the night! Sunny groaned to himself. But the woman just swiped his credit card and handed him the room key. She did not express any interest to engage him in conversation, and he was thankful for that. He got his duffel bag out of the Honda, walked into the room, stretched out on the bed and promptly fell asleep.
*** *** ***
He got up when a ray of sunlight stabbed him in the eye. He woke with a start and could not understand where he was. The window seemed to be facing East, and though the drapes were drawn, there was a narrow gap which allowed the offending ray of light into the room. It took him a minute to remember where he was. The bed was saggy and his back was in agony. He got up gingerly and stretched himself. He felt much better after a long hot shower. After surrendering the room key to the middle aged Indian man in the office, he got into the Honda and sat in the driver’s seat, just staring ahead. It was surprisingly not very cold in the car. The car clock said it was 10:14.
I’d better get going, he thought, yet he continued to sit there. He opened the bag of trailmix he had bought the previous day, and started munching one piece at a time. He was facing East. There was a mesa in front of him and he could see Interstate 80 and the traffic on it. The Sun was fairly high in the sky. As he continued to munch, he ran his gaze along the length of the mesa. His attention was drawn to a large rock formation that looked like some gigantic modern art sculpture. The oddly cylindrical rock glowed in multiple reddish hues wherever the sunlight touched it. He kept staring at it. He was entranced by it. Suddenly, he started the car, put it into gear and started driving towards the rock formation.
It was a fairly steep climb, but the road though unpaved, was good and the Honda made it there fairly easily. There was a small parking lot. It looked like this rock was a bit of a tourist attraction. The base of the rock was about thirty feet above the parking lot. He got out of the Honda and started climbing over the rough ground. By the time he reached the base of the rock, he was quite winded. It was cold and slightly breezy. The sun was shining brilliantly in a cloudless blue sky. It was not a single rock – rather it was a piece of the mesa that had been cut away from the main chunk, and then shaped by centuries of erosion by wind, rain and snow. He could see the various layers on the surface and each layer was a different reddish hue. Once he caught his breath, he walked around the rock to the other side.
On one side, he could see Interstate 80 far below, winding its merry way westward, through the spectacular rock pillars that he drove past the previous night. Those pillars too were carved by nature just like the rock next to him. The scene on the far side knocked his breath away. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. It was as if the Earth’s skin had a case of goosebumps and they just froze like that. There were a few rocks jutting out here and there and there were clumps of occasional sage brush. The air was mildly fragrant with the aroma of sage. He left the big rock and started walking towards the frozen waves.
He went on walking, fully captivated by the landscape. It got to be very windy. Sunny had no track of time nor was he aware of his tired body. At times, the wind seemed to speak to him, goading him on. Suddenly, the world became very dark. Sunny stopped and looked at the sky. A humongous black cloud swallowed up the Sun. He shivered involuntarily. He looked around as if waking from a dream. He could not see the large rock from which he had set out.
When did I set out from that rock? How far had I walked? he asked himself in disbelief, but curiously enough, he was not afraid. It was as if his adventures yesterday removed any sense of fear in him. There seemed to be a reason why he had stopped in Green River for the night. He was meant to come to this place. The wind told him that.
Suddenly, the wind turned into twirling gusts and sand began to fly with it. It began to prick the exposed skin of his face. He got down into a crouched position and drew his face into the partial cover of his jacket. His head was still exposed and he continued to feel the prick of the sand with the random gusts of wind. He thought he heard the sound of hoof beats coming from afar, but he couldn’t be sure. The wind had been making some weird noises. He couldn’t quite risk taking his face out of the jacket to have a look.
The sound of hoof beats became distinct, and they were a lot closer now. Almost as if by magic, the gusts subsided and the flying sand began to settle down. He stood up and shook his head and shoulders vigorously to shake off the sand. It was still quite dark and the black cloud still blocked out the sun. The air was thick with settling dust. In that unnatural twilight, he spotted a vague shape bouncing along at a distance, but could not be quite sure. Just then, the wind turned again and he could distinctly hear the sound of hoof beats, much nearer now. In a few seconds, the dust curtains parted in front of him and he saw a strange looking man riding towards him on a large horse. Sunny observed that, by facial features, the rider was some sort of a Native American. The rider wore dirty denim jeans and a denim shirt and rode without a saddle. He had long hair, but except for that, the rider did not display any other signs of his tribe.
The horse came to a stop a few feet away from Sunny. He stared at the rider, and the rider returned the gaze. The rider said something in an unfamiliar tongue. Sunny first thought he was asking something, but the rider’s face did not seem inquisitive. Sunny merely shook his head to indicate he could not understand. The rider gave a nod, got down from the horse and started walking, holding the reins. Sunny followed him. Shortly they arrived at a big rock which was almost like a hill. It had a shallow cave, and the rider motioned to Sunny to sit inside the cave. The horse just stood there, without being tethered to anything. The rider pulled out a few dry sage clumps from the earth nearby and brought them into the cave. He knelt beside the pile of twigs and began to strike two flint stones. Sunny watched him with interest. Soon, the cotton caught fire and the rider laid it on the pile of twigs. The twigs caught fire, and a thin plume of sage smoke rose up in a curvy path, filling the cave with a gentle aroma. The rider sat down opposite him and drew some materials out of various pockets. Many questions popped up in Sunny – What is this strange man doing alone in this magical place? Is he real? Well, the fire is real enough! What is he up to now?
The rider filled a pipe with some tobacco and some other ingredients and lit it with a burning twig. He puffed on it till it caught and passed it on to Sunny. He shook his head declining the offer, but the rider was insistent. So, Sunny accepted the pipe and just held it. The rider mimed with action that he should take a strong pull. Sunny did so, and almost choked on the smoke. He was caught up in a fit of violent coughing. The rider clapped his hands in glee and was laughing merrily. Sunny saw all this through his coughing and teary eyes. The rider continued to laugh gleefully, like a child enjoying its prank. Sunny was very angry and wanted to throw the burning pipe in the rider’s face, but was too consumed by the cough. As soon as he recovered from the coughing fit, the rider stopped laughing and mimed to him to take another pull on the pipe, and he did so. Then, Sunny felt his anger dissolve into the exhaled pipe smoke. The rider nodded in approval and said something in his strange tongue. He seemed to be congratulating Sunny, perhaps for getting the knack of the pipe or perhaps for his new beginning. Sunny took another pull on the pipe.
The rider leaned back against the rock and began to sing in a guttural voice. Sunny too leaned back against his side of the cave and closed his eyes. He felt his hearing grow very keen, picking up subtle nuances in the guttural singing – peculiar vibratos and surreal harmonies. The song blended into the plume of sage smoke and began to encircle him. It all began to feel natural and familiar to Sunny. The melody emerged fully formed and utterly beautiful. He knew this melody. It was Raga Mohana, which he had learned as a child from his music teacher grandmother in India. He surrendered his soul to it and it blessed his voice. He began to sing.
*** *** ***
The next thing Sunny knew, he was climbing from the big colorful rock down to the parking lot. There was no sign of a cloud in the sky, and the Sun was a giant ball of orange red to the southwest. He could see the street lights come on in the small town in the valley below. He got into the Honda and drove onto Interstate 80, heading westward, heading home. He drove all night and reached home just before six. The first thing he did upon entering his apartment was to call his father. That’s when he got the news that his grandmother had passed away in India. He went to the window, parted the drapes and stared at the Sun rising in the east. He felt touched.