The blue boy’s blue lotus eyes beckon,
And the sweet, sword-sharp smile,
And the dark nails on the dark fingers
Play with flute and heart-strings.
The boy slips out into the courtyard, and stands sun-dappled, blue pyjamas tinted purple in the setting sun’s scarlet light, yellow kurta gilded. “Come,” he calls.
“Wait,” you murmur, still within the corridor, still in shadow—you cannot move as fast as he does.
“Play for me,” he says, spinning on one spot, arms outstretched—you are afraid for a moment that he will hit one of the tourists, but he does not; he never does.
“I will,” you say, setting down a bundle to free one hand, tucking in your waistband again—it has been a good day, crowded with tourists, and your waistband is sagging with coins and your lips are chapped and throat dry.
“Now,” he demands, coming out of his spin abruptly, dark curls askew, and stalks close, makes to pull your flute from your hand.
“Wait,” you say again—you say it often, to try and get him to stop, to stand, to slow his wind-swift pace to yours. He listens, sometimes.
Now he frowns, forehead creasing, lips turning down, and pushes past you, back into the corridor, hair and skin and eyes and clothes fading into its greys and blues, even the bright yellow swallowed in the gloom.
You shift your bundle with your foot and sit, tailor-wise, knees creaking as you fold them, and put your flute to your lips, taking a moment to stop smiling before you begin to play. The sun, though setting, has yet enough heat to warm your bones, and you peer through the red-gold light into the shadows—you always peer into the shadows, when he leaves your side. He might yet leave, all these years later; depart as abruptly as he’d arrived.
Might, but has not. Not today, not yet. You make out the shape of him leaning slightly out, one hand braced against the dark red walls, weight on one hip, garments shadowed—all of him shadowed, like shadow made solid. He shakes his head, once, curls flying haphazard, and pulls himself back to lean against the outer wall and listen to the tendrils of music you send snaking towards him.
You cannot see the smile on his face, but his joy shows in the easy slump of the broad shoulders, the tipped-back head, the arms flopping loosely at his side—total abandonment. This is why you give in, creaking knees, and dry throat and all. This is why you play for him. You smile, the tune skipping a second before your lips resume the proper shape, and close your eyes. And still feel his joy, wrapping him warm—it will soon be cold, and he still shivers in the desert night. Just now, though, it is perfect, and you abandon your tune mid-way—it is only something you play to please tourists, or to warm up—and revert to the first tune you learnt—the first tune he taught you—and let the plaintive, unearthly strains change you—nothing changes him but he himself.
There is grass beneath you—you can feel, still, the flagstones heated in the long day’s sun, as the song quivers, and then they disappear under—transform into—soft lush grass as you gather breath and the flute volume. The sun is still a setting sun, but holds none of the harshness it should—even the westering sun is a cruel master in your land—almost its rays cradle you. There is perfume around you—the air is redolent with the scents of wet earth and new-bloomed flowers—and in the distance is the laughter of women, and closer, there is the lowing of a herd of contented cattle. When you open your eyes, there will be your god, too, his hand on a tasselled horn, his back against the trunk of a peepul tree green with spring. His bare body shall be tinted evening-dark, and his black curls will be adorned with a peacock’s fallen plumage. His free hand will hover over the flute in his yellow waistband. And when you open your eyes, he will smile at you, as though he is father, brother, friend, beloved, child.
He will, but not yet. It is not yet time to open your eyes and look upon him—the peepul is yet but brown shadow and green smoke, the tune must serpentine some little while longer—you must play him into being, pull him by the flute-enfolding hand into this green grove you have never seen with your eyes open—Vrindavan, where you have never been save in dreams and like this—and make him into the god your village temple hosted. You see him thus but once a day—less, when you truly lack the fortitude to worship him—it is a dusty, dusky boy that walks with you every hour, all these many years. Only at times, only like this, is your boy your god.
A rough hand shakes you, and the tune skips and falls silent. The grass browns and withers, and you open your eyes. The man before you is coal-dark, his face unfinished—nose flat, eyes staring—like the Jagannath you have seen only pictures of, and for a moment your heart stutters. And then you mark his clothes and the camera slung ’round his neck, and as the last plaint of the flute vanishes from your ears, you see Vikram squatting in front of you.
“He says you’re very good,” Vikram offers.
“Thank him,” you answer, bone-weary, eyes closed against the horror—you have never been so interrupted, where has he gone?
“He wants you to pose.” The man, when you look at him, hefts his camera. “He’ll pay you.” You look away from Vikram, look into the gathering dark for a glimpse of yellow, of blue, of tangled curls and laughing, impatient eyes. You can see nothing of him, he has melted so swiftly into the deepening shadows. “A lot, kaka.”
Today has been a good day. You are tired, bone-weary and throat aching, and your god has disappeared because others interfered with his worship. You look at your flute in your hand, at Vikram beside you, at the tourist with his camera, at the pillar where you last saw him, and you nod. You take up the flute, and you begin playing. Today has been a good day, and a busy one, and your waistband is sagging under the weight of coins thrown in Indian visitors and foreign tourists. Tomorrow might not be so kind.
This is not that first of tunes you were taught—there is a shine in this that speaks of coins, of gold—of Lakshmi and not her spouse—but it catches the tourist’s attention, and it comes easily to you. Easier, at least, than what you have played all day for tourists, for money. You fix your eyes upon the walls as the camera flashes, and when you reach the end of Lakshmi’s tune, you let the man put a crisp hundred rupee note in your outstretched palm. You even manage a smile.
You gather up your bundle and walk slowly from the fortress—it is closing time—eyes searching every shadow, every dark-skinned boy. Outside you slump by the road and put your flute to your lips and slip into your interrupted worship. The grass grows slowly, sparse and yellow, and the trees are stunted. There are no flowers, no women, no laughter. You are at the end of your tune, at the end of tolerance, when he walks into the withered grove, and loops an arm ’round the shrivelled branch of a tree.
You open your eyes and see him before you—hair limp curls, the yellow of his kurta faded to brick, blue pyjamas to grey. “Come,” he says, and you follow him into the dusk.