The American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), wrote one of the introductory essays for an early edition of Bhagavad-gita As It Is. It's a fine essay, if you haven't read it. Part of his sympathy with the Gita came from meeting a monk from East Bengal in the mid 1930s, whom he met through his Columbia University friend, Seymour Freedgood. I will, at some point in the near future, type up the sections of Merton's spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, in which he talks about Brahmachari, as they referred to him, and the influence he had on Merton's spiritual development. In 1968, Merton took a trip from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to India and Thailand, described in his book The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. One of the people he visited was Brahmacari, still living faithfully at his ashram in East Bengal. The following story by Seymour Freedgood, however, will give you a good introduction to Brahmachari.
I offer it partly because it is a fine, even a sublime story, based almost wholly, as I see it, on real events. Perhaps that makes it as much a reminiscence as a short story. Brahmachari was a real person in Seymour Freedgood's life.
However, I also offer it as reflection on the effect of a Vaisnava arriving in America thirty years before Srila Prabhupada. The sixties were definitely more conducive to the success of his mission than any earlier decade would have been.
The story is in three parts. If you really get impatient, scroll to the beautiful conclusion in Part III.
These events occurred in the mid 1930s, story published in 1948 in Harper's . Anthologized in 50 Great American Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane. I've kept the punctuation as it was originally printed, although it screamed for commas.
Grandma and the Hindu Monk
by Seymour Freedgood
It was only with my old Jewish grandmother that I expected trouble when Brahmachari, a Hindu monk I had met at the University of Chicago, came to stay with us at Wreck Lead that summer. Our parents' house in that seaside village was a bright, noisy, communal sort of gathering place. Located equidistant between bay and ocean - Wreck Lead is a narrow strip of island that fronts the Atlantic and has its back to a smaller ocean of marshes and bayous that separate it from Long Island proper - it was a haven for my college friends. In the garage one of my brothers was always building a sailboat. In the yard and over the surrounding sand dunes our youngest brother, sometimes aided by Ernst, the police dog, waged a constant war for survival over half a hundred neighborhood kids. Projects were always on hand - either a voyage of discovery to an adjoining island or the launching of a new surf boat on the beach. Against those clear Atlantic seascapes the agreeable combination of hot sun, salt air, white beaches, and interior bays made the town an exciting place to visit and our house was always full. Josey, the Czech cook, was never sure who might come down to breakfast any morning. Even more than our parents, whose work took them daily to New York, it was our seventy-year-old grandmother who ruled this precarious menage.
Her lot was not easy. She was a pious, near- sighted old lady who spoke chiefly Yiddish and spent most of her time at her prayers. Out of respect for the Jewish dietary laws and a distrust for Josey she prepared her meals in the basement and ate them in her own room. Betweentimes she made periodic inspections of the house. My two brothers and I usually entertained our visitors, both New York and local, in a small book-lined study - which was also a repository for most of the fishnets, paddles, and overnight camping gear in the community - at the rear of the house. An extra-large window gave it separate entrance. Sometimes, upon getting up from the table, my brothers, our house guests, and I would retreat to this room and find that ten or twelve of our Wreck Lead associates, having finished their suppers earlier, had come through the window and were waiting expectantly to discuss new projects - a crabbing expedition or a trip by rowboat to an overnight camping spot.
There was a fixed routine to Grandma's periodic inspections. Invariably she would poke her gray, mild old head through the door of the study and peer near-sightedly through her glasses - usually they were sunglasses - at the occupant of the nearest chair. "Where's Seymour?" she would ask. To this question there was a fixed reply. "Here I am, Grandma," would answer whoever it was who occupied the chair. She'd peer a little closer. Behind the sunglasses her eyes were misty and uncertain but whether she wore the dark lenses against the glare, or against the truth, or possibly against the glare of the truth, it was hard to say. "What time is it?" she'd want to know. "Twelve o'clock, Grandma," was the set reply. "Good," would say the little old lady. Satisfied that her eldest grandson was present and that the world was still at meridian, she'd return to her cooking or prayers.
Except for Mr. Isaacs, a local Hebrew teacher and Talmud scholar who had recently immigrated from southeast Europe and who provided her with a special link with her past, she had few friends of her own. Isaacs would stop by frequently to give her religious counsel, find her place in her prayer book, and criticize the finer points of her dietary observances. She accepted these ministrations with the good grace of a Roman lady who, condemned to spend her life in a distant and barbarous colony, took instruction in the traditional virtues from a clever Greek slave. Grandma was indebted to, yet suspicious of, Mr. Isaacs. In her conversations with me she sometimes observed that the scholar, coming as he did from southeast Europe, must have secret ties with the Hasidim, a mystical Jewish sect which had its origin in the eighteenth-century Ukraine. Grandma was anti-Hasidic. Yet Mr. Isaacs was a solace. Mystic or not, he at least knew the Talmud. And that was more than anyone could say about the rabbi of the local synagogue. All he wanted was a new gymnasium. She was also encouraged by the fact that Mr. Isaacs, in his frequent excursions into our back room, took occasion to chide my brothers, myself, and those of our friends who were of the Jewish community about our lack of respect for the ancestral values. He didn't get far.
Into this household, with Grandma its titular chief, the Hindu was easily absorbed. It's possible that three years before, when the monk - a delegate from East Bengal who turned up in America to represent his religious order at the World Conference of Religions at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair - had first arrived in this country, he would have fitted less nicely. By now though, after a period of residence at the University of Chicago, he had acquired more polish. When I met him there the previous Easter, he seemed to be just the sort of fellow who could liven up the summer at our house. I invited him at once. It's true that his costume was an obstacle but there was no changing that.
I still remember the shock I had when I first saw him in it. He couldn't have been four foot six. He had an ingenuous smile and protruding, fan-shaped teeth. Around his head was wrapped a turban, upon which a series of Sanskrit prayers had been scrawled in red and yellow crayons. A similar cloth hung around his shoulders. Beneath it was a gray undervest which did not entirely hide a woolen sweater and the tops of some brown underwear. And below all of this a white cotton skirt dropped clear to his feet. These, mercifully, were not naked; instead he had shod them in a pair of blue tennis shoes. Taken together, this outfit was his version of khaddar - Indian homespun - for adoption in northern climates. The sneakers he wore for religious reasons; any other footwear is of leather, which would be in violation of sacred cows. I don't know why they were blue. He also had a string of wooden prayer beads wrapped around his neck.
Such a costume, you may be sure, takes a lot of explaining but I felt we could overcome it somehow. Besides, he was clever and amenable and had a deliciously boyish quality. I knew that my parents, once the first shock of confrontation was over, would accept him as one of their sons. Anyway, he had dietary laws of his own to observe and I promised them and Josey that he'd prepare his own meals and eat them in his room. As for my younger brothers, I knew they would be amused by him. Monk or not, he could give them a hand with their boats. It was only with Grandma that I anticipated difficulties. She and Brahmachari were bound to run into each other eventually. I felt it important to prepare her.
I tried to explain to her, some months in advance, that a Hindu rabbi was coming to stay with us for the summer. Have you ever tried to make clear the facts of geography and history to an old woman whose Baedeker to the contemporary world is the first five books of the Old Testament, David's Psalms, and certain vestigial memories of a town in northeastern Europe where she spent her youth? That Brahmachari was a member of the Jewish clergy she was prepared to consider possible. Her world was full of mendicant clergymen - generally old men with beards, fur hats, and frock coats; many of them, she hinted darkly, were Hasidim. No offense to Mr. Isaacs, of course. She was even prepared to believe that Brahmachari, since he was a friend of mine, did not belong to this ragged company. A rabbi, to be sure. But just what community had I said he belonged to? India? A province of Russia, no doubt. Or further to the south?
"A little to the south," I admitted. "and maybe a bit to the east."
"Not Egypt?" she said, startled. Egypt had a special place in Grandma's world view. It was only a matter of years - or had it already been centuries? - since Moses had led us out of that wretched country. She was unkindly disposed toward the Egyptians and each spring at Passover she invented new atrocity stories about them. I sometimes felt that Grandma felt closer to the times of Exodus than to the European town where she had spent her youth.
"Certainly not Egypt," I said hastily.
She said she'd consult with Mr. Isaacs. Meanwhile we'd wait and see.
As it happened, Brahmachari was already in the house for two or three days before Grandma even noticed him. They were enjoyable if hectic days. As I had anticipated, the Hindu was absorbed into the household with a minimum of fuss. It's true that when he first drove up from the depot he was so surrounded by luggage and parcels that my parents were upset. They replied to his greeting with visible apprehension and eyed his turban, his skirts, and his shining brown face with alarm. For his part, the monk seemed to accept this as natural and tried to put them at ease.
"I am Mahanan Brata Brahmachari," he told them, in the meanwhile ordering the taxi driver to deposit his luggage on the veranda, "a Hindu mendicant from the Sri Angan Monastery, Faridpur, East Bengal. Your son has invited me to stay with you for the summer. Ay, Seymour," he said, noticing me for the first time in the crowd that by now had gathered around the taxi, "there you are. Delighted to see you. Please pay this man."
His fan-shaped teeth shot through his smile with an almost disembodied brilliance as he folded his palms in front of his face and bowed to my parents in the traditional Hindu gesture of greeting. He then shook hands with my brothers, patted the police dog, and clucked sympathetically at my parents' polite but strained expressions. They were plainly worried about how they were going to explain the presence in their house of this little turbaned stranger to their friends at the Men's Club and the Ladies' Auxiliary.
No sooner had Brahmachari installed himself on the couch in the backroom study - immediately upon entering the room he had removed his sneakers and squatted down in the middle of the couch, his legs folded under him, and from this position supervised my two brothers and me as we carried in his luggage - than my parents were inside with us. In the background Josey hovered, concerned about his meals. These, it appeared, must consist entirely of vegetables. No eggs, no fish, no meat. "Not even eggs?" asked my mother. "Can Josey fix you a salad for lunch?" He agreed that a salad would be splendid and the two women bustled off, full of plans. It was apparent that he would have to do little cooking himself.
My brothers and I got on with his luggage. This consisted, in addition to three tin suitcases, of a box full of philosophy books, and a potted plant, securely wrapped in brown paper, which he asked me to unbind and set in a window seat. When my father, who was an amateur gardener, expressed interest in this rather hideous bit of shrubbery - it looked a lttle like the rubber plants which were once a feature of many middle-class American households, but was dwarf-sized and covered with small, dark brown beans - Brahmachari explained, waggling his finger at us from where he sat in the middle of the couch, that it was a Tulasi plant, a bush sacred to the Hindus for a reason I now forget. His abbot had given it to him when he first left India. He never traveled without it. It reminded him of home.
More people were crowding into the room to greet the Hindu but my brothers and I admitted only Mr. Isaacs. It was my hope that the Talmudic scholar would act as an intermediary between Grandma and the monk. A direct meeting, particularly on his first day in the house, seemed unwise. As for our other friends in the house and out in the yard, some of whom were tapping on the window and demanding that they be let in at once, I asked them to be patient until the monk had settled. His trip from Chicago had been tiring and he wanted rest. Later we'd all go to the beach. A boat-launching was scheduled for that afternoon and the Hindu would come along. Meanwhile Mr. Isaacs sat down with Brahmachari on the couch.
It was soon apparent that the Hindu and the mystical Jewish scholar had hit it off. Indeed, so absorbed did these two become in each other that they seemed unaware of the tumult outside the house, where my brothers were preparing for the launching of a long, slender surf boat on which they had been working for weeks.
It's my impression that Brahmachari was comparing the attitudes toward God and salvation that obtained in his Hindu monastery with those of the Hasidic Jews. His order was devoted to Lord Krishna, he told Mr. Isaacs. This meant that it was opposed to brahmanic formalism and put its stress on music and dancing and ecstatic union with God. As among the Hasidim there is a preference for the Psalms of David over the priestcraft and legalisms of the Mosaic testaments, so among the members of his order less attention was paid to the Vedic writings than to the Bhagavad-Gita, a song by the same Lord Krishna in praise of Himself. In short, Brahmachari and Mr. Isaacs, despite their differences in cultural background, costume, and language, had much in common. In stressing the ascendancy of the poet and the musician over the legalist they were defying ancient parochialisms and giving full praise to the Lord. With much of this Mr. Isaacs agreed. He did feel, though, that Brahmachari, if he had any sense about him, should keep these opinions to himself. Grandma might hear. In fact, it was his advice to us to keep Brahmachari and Grandma apart as long as possible. God knows what would have been her reaction if she learned that we were entertaining another Hasid in the house. Especially in those skirts. The issues of the spirit were beyond her. Best play it safe.
Sound as was Mr. Isaacs' advice, it was less program than circumstance that led us to act on it. The immediate occasion was the renewed uproar that now swept the yard. Evidently the boat was now ready for launching, for faces appeared at the open window, my two brothers' among them, and there was no resisting their demand. We must join them at once.
A great cheer went up from the yard a few minutes later when Brahmachari, now clad only in loin cloth covered by a bright piece of turban, and I, more conventionally clad in shorts and sunglasses, joined the launching party. There were hasty introductions but my brothers and their friends were too busy with last minute preparations for plunging the boat, a slender, canvas-covered affair, into the surf to attend to further ceremony. As their only concession to Brahmachari's status - or perhaps this was to test him - he was assigned to the bow. Huge waves coiled up in front of us as we lifted the boat to our shoulders and walked it toward the ocean. In the bow Brahmachari was already perched, a small, well constructed, brown figure, dressed in a brightly colored loin cloth and holy beads, his teeth flashing with excitement, a paddle in his hands. "All set?" I asked, looking up at him as he sat in the boat. He nodded enthusiastically. "Let's go." We lunged forward into the surf.
At Wreck Lead the idea in surf boating is to get the craft out beyond the first three rows of breakers, reverse it without capsizing, and race back in. As the first row of breakers crashed over us the Hindu disappeared. He bobbed up a moment later, his sleek head dividing the waters, still perched in the bow. We were now up to our shoulders in the water and had begun to swim alongside. A second row of breakers rolled over us but again the monk bobbed up, the boat riding lightly under him. He was now working his paddle and grinning. By the time we had survived the ocean's third assault he was definitely the skipper of the boat. "Here," he said, flashing me a brilliant smile as I crawled exhaustedly over the gunwale. He handed me a paddle. "You take the stern." A moment later, with Brahmachari calling instructions from the bow seat, we were racing toward the shore. This maneuver was repeated until even my youngest brother was limp.
By the time we had returned to the house there was little feeling among any of us that the Hindu was a stranger. In one afternoon he had successfully submerged himself in the routines of the house. So far did this absorption go that when Grandma, making her six o'clock inspection, looked into the study and inquired about my whereabouts, Brahmachari - but surely he had been told about this beforehand: could he have got it wrong? - answered for me. "It's six o'clock, Grandma, " he said to her. "Seymour's upstairs." I was later told that she failed to notice the discrepancy and left the room.
It's possible that this happy state of affairs might have continued indefinitely if Grandma and Brahmachari, because of their separate dietary practices, hadn't been preparing their own meals, Grandma on a stove in the basement, Brahmachari on a Bunsen burner in the now vacated garage, and eating in their rooms. They began to meet, their hands full of trays and dishes, on the stairs. After two or three days of this Grandma came up to me one afternoon in the study. Brahmachari was off somewhere with Mr. Isaacs and for once I was alone. For once also she had removed her sunglasses and seemed reasonably certain that it was I she was addressing. Who, she wanted to know, was that old colored lady who had moved into the room next to hers?
"Old colored lady, Grandma?" My grasp of Yiddish has never been perfect and I wasn't sure I had heard her correctly.
She repeated her question. Who was the old colored woman in the shawl, white skirts, beads, and kerchief who had been monopolizing Mr. Isaacs for the last few days?
"That's not a colored lady, Grandma. That's a man. It's that Hindu rabbi I told you about. Hasn't Mr. Isaacs introduced you?"
"Him!" she sniffed. "That Hasid. But he's black," she objected. "You said he's a Hindu rabbi. Can Jews be black?"
The answer to that question would have called for such a lecture on the wanderings of the Jews since the burning of the first temple and their relocation in such unlikely spots as the Congo and Outer Mongolia that I decided to cut it short. "Of course they can be black. They can be any color you want. As a matter of fact," I added irrelevantly, "Brahmachari's brown. Now don't worry yourself about this, Grandma. Believe me, he's a man."
But she did worry, poor lady. I didn't realize until later how worried she must have been. Fifty years had elapsed since Grandma had come to this country but her attitudes, flexible as they may have been to start with, had long become fixed. The point of view from which she judged her children, her grandsons, our house on Wreck Lead, and her grandsons' friends was in violent contrast to the contemporary world of cultural interchange and racial transcendence. Nor was it any longer rooted, except indirectly, in the tight, exclusive, inversely aristocratic Jewry of nineteenth-century eastern Europe. Between the European world of her childhood and the transformed Long Island household in which she was spending her last days she had projected a screen upon which all social occurrences were interpreted according to their Old Testament archetypes. To her way of thinking, for example, every non-Jew was a potential raider on the caravan - Grandma in charge of one of the camel carts - which traveled interminably from Egypt to the Promised Land. In Grandma's mythical world-view the time was always Biblical - either midnight or high noon - and the space was a limitless desert across which she and her people moved. Perhaps you've felt that her periodic inspections of our back-room study, her queries about my whereabouts, and her requests for the time were no more than the obsessive rituals of a vague old lady. Or that our replies led to her questions - "Here I am, Grandma," and "It's twelve o'clock, Grandma" - were a cruel sort of joke. Obessiveness and cruelty were no doubt involved but it occurs to me that what she really demanding when she asked for my whereabouts was the promise that the caravan was secure. That despite the wide open doors and windows and the crowds of strangers, no enemies had come in, no hereditary antagonists of the race.
In retrospect I now realize that for some days after our conversation she looked more harried and distraught than ever. It's true that the house was crowded that week - another boat-launching was planned - and the yard and the back room were again full of enthusiasts. This added to her rounds. Also, it had been hot and for some time she had been ailing. Her illness was diabetes, I think, although she was secretive about it. She also had a leg infection. But I didn't know until the very moment of discovery that she had extended her patrols. Evidently she had taken on a new assignment after our talk about the monk. She began to observe him at night. Since her room adjoined his on the second floor and had access to it by an outside balcony, this wasn't hard.
The spectacle of that mild old lady creeping along the balcony after midnight to peer through a closed screen door and observe by moonlight a sleeping Hindu would be ludicrous if the eventual result hadn't been so shattering to her brave old spirit. Early one morning - it was the hour of the false dawn, I think: there was an unnatural light in my room - I was awakened by a violent tug. I rolled over, opened my eyes, and discovered that it was Grandma who was standing over my bed. She was dressed in a night shift and was barefooted and trembling with rage. "He's risen, he's risen!" she almost screamed at me.
It occurred to me that she might have been cooking all night and had eccentrically baked a cake. "What's risen?"
"The savage! The demon you brought to the house!"
I heaved to a sitting position and now realized that Mr. Isaacs was standing behind her. In the half light he looked as sleepy and bewildered as I felt. Presumably she had roused him first - he had by God's grace chosen this night of all nights to spend at the house - and had only given him time to throw his frock coat over his night shirt before rushing him to me. He too was barefooted and his beard was uncombed but he hadn't forgotten his fur hat. "The demons!" Grandma was now screaming. "Your friends, the demons!" She clutched at me savagely. There were other cries of alarm from up and down the ground-floor corridor as my father and mother, my brothers and Josey, perhaps thinking that the house had been burgled, came running from their rooms. Ernst, also aroused in the study, began to bark. I looked at Mr. Isaacs, who raised his shoulders in a shrug. "What demons, for God's sake?"
Instead of answering she grabbed me by the elbow and almost hoisted me from the bed. There was the strength of ten thousand demons in that little old woman. She then whirled on her bare feet and ran back up the stairs. Mr. Isaacs and I followed dumbly, with the rest of my family crowding behind us. "The Hindu's risen," I told them. "God knows what she means." Josey and the police dog, who now had been silenced, protected our rear. "What does she mean?" I whispered to Mr. Isaacs as we trailed Grandma across her bedroom and through the door to the outside balcony. "She caught him praying," he said indistinctly. "Praying?" I asked. "What's wrong with that?" Grandma had rushed on ahead and was now glaring - a fierce, stooped little figure in her white night shift - through Brahmachari's screen. "Burglars?" panted my father, who had brushed past us to join her. "Where are they?" He was carrying a shotgun. A moment later we were overtaken and passed by the rest of my family, all in various states of undress and each of them armed - my mother with her pocketbook, my brothers with boat hooks and a fish net, and Josey with Ernst on a chain. "Well?" I asked Mr. Isaacs as we hurried over to join them. "What's wrong with praying?"
"It's the way he does it," Mr. Isaacs stuttered. "It's his dawn prayer. He shouldn't be seen." Mr. Isaacs was trembling, but whether from cold or apprehension I couldn't make out. "Speak up!" I said harshly. "What does he do?" Across the eastern horizons of Long Island there spread the soft-tinted reds and purples that herald the true dawn; then up from the eastern horizon shot the fast rising sun.
I grabbed Mr. Isaacs by the arm and pushed him through the small crowd around the screen door. "That's what scared your grandmother," the scholar said hysterically. "He does it by rising himself." Mr. Isaacs was trembling with horror. "She saw him praying four feet in the air over his bed."
Mr. Isaacs and I, our eyes straining against the screen door and our arms around Grandma, who was making inarticulate sounds, now had minds for nothing except the vision of the monk on his bed. Bolt upright in the middle of the counterpane, and dressed only in a turban, his loin cloth, and holy beads, Brahmachari was rapt in prayer. His legs were folded under him in the traditional yoga pattern, his eyes were shut tight and turned inward, but on his lips was a cryptic smile. In a circle around him on the counterpane he had placed his begging bowl, his cymbals, his hand drum, and the water jug, and beside him on the night table the Tulasi plant nodded and rustled in the early morning breeze. Perhaps I was deluded by what Mr. Isaacs had just told me - and nobody, not even Brahmachari would confirm this later - but I had the distinct impression that the Hindu, at the very moment the sun had risen, had floated down from the middle of the air. At that Grandma screamed again and lurched against me and Mr. Isaacs. As we put out our arms to support her I discovered that she had fainted dead away.
With many expressions of commiseration and sympathy we lifted Grandma up and carried her to her bed in the next room. It was into a vastly changed household that the monk descended several hours later when he came downstairs to prepare his own breakfast. The doctor had already come, examined Grandma, prescribed quiet and rest, and had gone, promising to return later in the day. The virtual coma into which the old woman had lapsed after the tension at the screen door had changed into mild delirium. She was conscious, the doctor told us, but a bit out of her head. "What's been going on around here?" he asked, looking at us queerly.
"What do you mean, Doctor?" Mr. Isaacs asked. "Did she tell you anything?" My parents and brothers were looking at each other intently.
"Well," the doctor said hesitantly, "have you got any dark-skinned people around here? Dressed in shawls and turbans?" He paused, no doubt afraid he was about to make a fool of himself. "She has an idea that you've got somebody around here that Moses was angry about. She told me that when the Jews were leaving Egypt some dark-skinned people fell on the rear of the caravan, where the sick and the old folks were, and threw rocks at them. She says that Moses was very angry and told the Jews never to speak to those people again. It's my professional opinion," the doctor concluded bravely, "that if you've got anybody like that around here, get rid of him."
Even my brothers turned pale. "Dark-skinned?" asked my father. "The only one I can think of is a friend of one of my sons, a Hindu, and she couldn't mean him. India," he continued loyally, "is on the other side of the ocean from Egypt. Matter of thousands of miles. Besides, he's highly civilized. Never threw a rock at anybody." They were all looking at me sternly, though. The doctor agreed that Grandma might be suffering from shock. It was only an unaccountable swelling of her legs that disturbed him. She had suffered from this before, he knew - diabetes, perhaps - but it was now accompanied by paralysis. Temporary, of course. Keep her off her feet and under sedatives. He'd be back later.
"You and your monks," one of my brothers said gloomily.
It was into this hostile atmosphere that Brahmachari shortly descended. In his arms he was carrying my mother's pocketbook, as well as the fish net and the boat hooks with which my brothers had armed themselves. "Are these your properties?" he asked, smiling politely at us as we sat around the breakfast table. "I found them on the porch outside the door."
"We have no idea how they got there," my mother said stonily. She was speaking, it was clear, for the household.
"Excuse me," said Mr. Isaacs. Leaving his eggs untouched he got up from the table, took the monk by the arm, and led him out of the house. Later I saw them pan-broiling some rice together over the Bunsen burner in the garage. The two oddly-costumed men - Mr. Isaacs in his frock coat, fur hat, and beard, Brahmachari in a red turban and a clean skirt - were talking earnestly to each other.
The doctor's return the following morning did not ease the tension. Later that same afternoon he had briefly reappeared, stationed a nurse in Grandma's room, instructed her to keep the old lady under sedatives and to massage her legs, and had abruptly left. His only word to us was by way of warning - stay out of her room and keep the Hindu, or whatever he was, away from her. The nurse would attend to the rest.
So it was with considerable anxiety that I watched the doctor come down from Grandma's room the following morning. His own anxiety seemed greater than mine. In fact, when my parents took hold of him at the foot of the stairs and demanded to know what the trouble was, he seemed almost incoherent. "It's all in the mind," he mumbled over and over.
"In the mind?" my father asked. "I wish you'd enlighten us on that, doctor."
The doctor, perhaps recalled to his senses by my father's tone, tried to explain. He had taken Grandma off sedatives, he told us, although the old lady was still far from well. Despite hot applications and massage, the swelling in her legs had not gone down. It was almost as if she didn't want it to go down. You get cases like that, he confided. As if the patient refused to get well. It was his suggestion that we call in a psychiatrist. He'd be glad to recommend a good man, a cousin of his who was good in that line. Otherwise, the old lady might be permanently bedridden.
It was at this critical juncture, with my mother in tears at the mention of a psychiatrist and my father stern, that Josey made a great outcry at the kitchen door. "No, no," she was shouting, "stay out!"
"Come on, Josey, " I heard one of my brothers tell her. "It's only us and Mr. Isaacs." A moment later my brothers, with Mr.Isaacs in the lead, appeared at the foot of the stairs. "Where've you been?" I asked them. "The doctor wants to bring a psychiatrist."
"Out in the garage," said the youngest one. "That's where Mr. Isaacs spent the night." I looked at them closely. "Anybody else in the garage?" But if they had a secret, they were determined to keep it. "Could be," said my other brother. "You worried?"
Mr. Isaacs ran his hand through his thick black beard. "A psychiatrist? For the reverend dame?"
"For Grandma, " my mother wept. "They think the swelling is in her head." My father, himself verging on tears, tried to console her.
"In her head, is it?" Somewhere in the scholar's beard I detected a smile. "I can well believe it. I always thought her memory was bad. But before you call a psychiatrist, and with the doctor's permission," he said, making the outraged physician a formal bow, "I wonder if I could bring in a colleague?"
My father stared at him. "A colleague? Do you have colleagues? Another Hasid, I suppose."
"You might call him that," the Talmudist said imperturbably. "A certain theologian of my acquaintance." Again followed by my brothers, who winked at me broadly as they passed, he went back to the kitchen door, opened it, and returned a moment later by himself. "I would like to introduce Dr. Mahanan B. Brahmachari, my colleague from the University of Calcutta." This time preceded by my brothers, who with the greatest solemnity were carrying his hand drum, his copper begging bowl, his brass cymbals, and the water jug, Brahmachari appeared in the downstairs foyer. He was gorgeously made up.
On his head was a ceremonial turban of transparent gauze. His body was shrouded in a toga of the same material qand on his forehead and cheekbones he had daubed in yellow paste the markings of his religious order. "Good morning," he said, smiling at us amicably. "I've come to call on your grandmother."
"The Hindu!" cried the doctor. "Not the Hindu? Out! Out!" My mother was no less vociferous. Brahmachari's markings - they were in direct violation of the Mosaic injunction against tattooing or painting the flesh - seemed final proof. "The demons!" she cried. "It's the demons that Mamma was telling about!" But my father was more circumspect. "What did you mean?" he asked Mr. Isaacs. "You said the old lady had a bad memory. About what?"
Mr. Isaacs gestured triumphantly. "About locating herself in the Bible. It hurts me to say this," the Hebrew teacher told my parents, "but you've been wasting your money on her Hebrew lessons. Such a bad student. The worst I've had!"
It was clear that Mr. Isaacs had a point. Among the Jews, as with other groups who make use of the Old or New Testaments as the basis for their liturgical year, the sacred text is divided into portions for weekly reading. It was an old joke in our family that Grandma, whenever she became confused about the section for the week - and, according to Mr. Isaacs, this was often - would revert almost by instinct to the portion which describes the flight of the Jews from Egypt. So notorious was this habit that Mr. Isaacs sometimes referred to himself as Grandma's guide to the Promised Land. It was his hope that someday he would get her there. By some means he must teach her to follow, not her private idiosyncrasy, but the text. Finally, here was his chance. "For example," he continued, beginning to sway backward and forward in the approved manner of a Talmudist when he is about to explain anything, "she tells us that our friend Brahmachari is a member of the tribe who stoned us on our way out of egypt. This is a plain case of mistaken identity. Or insufficient attention to text," he added in a voice that was now falling into its traditional sing-song. "Our friend Dr. Brahmachari comes from another section entirely. Examine his cymbals and drum. Are these the equipment of a man who attacks caravans? Certainly not," he answered himself. "Then what section does he come from?" He looked at us expectantly.
"St. John?" said Josey.
"Wrong Testament," Mr. Isaacs told her. He looked at the cook disapprovingly. "Try the other one."
"Look here," the doctor protested. "I can't allow this to go any further. Whose patient is she?"
But we ignored him. It was plain that Mr. Isaacs, by recasting the issue in a more favorable Biblical framework, was now turning the tide in Brahmachari's direction.
My head reeled at this preposterous interpretation of history. "For goodness sake, Brahmachari," I said, hoping to be able to appeal to the monk as a university graduate, "surely you don't believe that?"
"What's the difference what he believes?" one of my brothers said violently. "You want Grandma to get well, don't you? Trust us, we've got it figured. If one shock put her into bed, a bigger one will get her out. Providing she holds still for it," he added grimly. "Otherwise we'll have a funeral around here."
"Of course," Mr. Isaacs continued dreamily, "there's always that affair with the Queen of Sheba. It's possible that Brahmachari is a son of Solomon by the Ethiopian queen. But no," he decided cautiously, "that puts him too close to Egypt. Best play it safe."
I was staggered by the perfidy of this reasoning. "Brahmachari," I again appealed to the Hindu, "you can't go along with this?"
The monk looked me straight in the eye. "I think I can. In a poetic sense, of course. It's possible that Mr. Isaacs, in his zeal to dignify my origins, is playing a little loose with the record. But in so far as Solomon himself was sired by King David, the author of the Psalms, I accept the paternity."
"You accept the paternity? He just made it up!"
"And a nice construction it is," the monk said comfortably. "Perhaps you're not aware of the close affinities between David, the dancing king of the Hebrews, and Lord Krishna, the ecstatic deity of the Hindus, one of whose followers I am.
For both, the proper method of worship is not doctrine and ritual, but enthusiasm and song.. You've been asked to examine my equipment. Look at it again." He reached over and gave the drum in the hands of one of my brothers a smart tap. "Cymbals and drum! Aren't these the implements of your own King David? Have you read the Psalms? We have more of a problem in treating your grandmother," he continued, "than giving me status in her somewhat quixotic world-view. Beyond that, it's a problem of convincing her that no matter what she's heard to the contrary, she's broken no commandment by accepting a mystic in her house. Or, as Mr. Isaacs would say, a Hasid. A devotee of the Psalms. We feel that once she's acknowledged that religious salvation, guided though it can be by rule and precept, has its origin not in theological doctrine, but in a spontaneous welling-up from below, from within the person, and is furthered less by abstract argument than by emotion, by a conversion of heart - she'll stop fighting herself. She'll no longer identify the sources of her movement with monsters and demons. She'll get up and walk. Even more than that," he added mischievously, "she"ll get up and dance. That will cure her." He nodded to my parents, signaled my brothers to precede him, and with Mr. Isaacs at his side began to mount the stairs.
"I forbid it," the doctor shouted. He tried to block the procession. "Nurse, nurse, lock the door!" But he was too late: in a moment the procession had swept past him and disappeared up the stairs.
Our ears cocked, we waited for the first sound from above. It came in a moment, preceded by a short gasp and a scuffle which I took to be the nurse protesting and then being thrust aside as the procession moved into Grandma's room. Grandma's shriek, while not as shrill as the one with which she had greeted the sight of Brahmachari at prayer, had more substance. Full of violence, the sound reverberated down the stair well.
My father shook his head. "It's those markings," he said, nodding sagely. "I knew she wouldn't take to that paint job. Against the Laws of Moses, you know," he informed the doctor. To this the latter had no reply.
Then there came from upstairs a sound of such intensity that Grandma's in comparison was the whimper of a small girl in a hurricane. In mood, though, the sounds were reversed. Whereas Grandma's was shrill, even strident in undertone, the new sound that emerged from her bedroom, soul-piercing as it was, had a high, sweet, overriding quality that seemed to originate, not in the brainpan, but in the heart. It had been going on for some time, I later realized - first low and muted, as if two soft metals had been struck together, then louder and stronger and more sweetly resonant - but none of us downstairs had been truly struck by it because of the violence of Grandma's cry. When it struck us it was all at once and almost at crescendo. It had in it the sound - not that the wind makes, but that the wind means, before sunup on a clear June morning. It had in it the swell of the sea, and the echo of the conch hell that reproduces internally the sea's message. It was Brahmachari, of course, dancing like an oriental King David in front of Grandma and clashing his cymbals.
Then came silence, abrupt and absolute. The sound had stopped.
""Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," the cook said. She crossed herself.
I looked around me and saw that my parents were huddled together in a corner like two frightened children. They nodded to me and without a word we swept past the doctor and up the stairs. Outside the shut door to Grandma's bedroom the nurse was standing, her face as white as her uniform. For a moment we surrounded her as my father tried the door. It was locked. From inside the room there came fresh sounds, but this time, although hard to make out, they were human. As if from another world I heard Mr. Isaacs chanting in Hebrew. "To the chief musician," he sang. "A psalm by David. Sing unto the Lord a new song, His praise in the congregation of the pious." I also heard a drum being tapped.
Wordlessly, and with my parents still in the lead, we turned and made our way through Brahmachari's adjoining bedroom and out to the balcony. There, with my arms around my parents' shoulders and our faces pressed to her screen door, we saw Grandma for the first time since her illness. She didn't seem ill at all. Still wearing the same night shift but with her hair and face made up - she had, in preparing for these inevitable visitors, even applied a little rouge - Grandma was propped against the pillows at the head of her bed. She seemed many years younger, and on her face there was a dazed but contented expression. At the end opposite hers on the bed Brahmachari squatted, his legs folded under him. He had again stripped down to his loin cloth, his turban and the holy beads, and with his long brown fingers he was tapping on the two-headed drum. Bolt upright in front of Grandma and with a slight smile on his lips he weaved the upper half of his body as he tapped. "Hare Krishna," the monk hummed. "Praise Krishna."
She smiled at him dazedly, her cheeks flushed. Brahmachari, I now realized, had also applied the religious markings to his chest. It was at these that she was staring. Tentatively, she put a hand up to her own slightly made-up face. As he continued to tap on his drum and sway in front of her I also noted that the large copper begging bowl was placed on the bedspread between them. In it was the pair of now-discarded cymbals. Each no larger than the palm of a man's hand and tied to the other by a thong that ran through their centers, they seemed dim and inconspicuous instruments to have produced the sounds that had drowned out Grandma's. And on the night table beside them Brahmachari's Tulasi plant nodded and rustled in the noonday breeze.
"A psalm by David," Mr. Isaacs chanted. The Hebrew teacher had taken up his station in a corner of the room and with a prayer book in front of him was singing and rocking backward and forward. "Hallelujah," he repeated. "sing unto the Lord a new song, Hs praise in the congregation of the pious."
"What time is it, Grandma?" the monk asked. He paused in his drumming for a moment. "Who am I?"
Her lips moved wordlessly. "King David?" she asked presently, but in a voice so timid that my parents and I, with our faces pressed to the screen door, could hardly hear.
"Hallelujah," Mr. Isaacs chanted. "Praise Him upon the clear-ringing cymbals. Praise Him on the high-sounding cymbals."
"It's Dr. Brahmachari, Grandma," my brother told her. "It's the Hindu Hasid that Mr. Isaacs wants to introduce to you. Up on your feet," he urged her. "Say hello to the Hasid."
They slipped their hands under her shoulders and lifted her to the floor. As she stood there between them, smiling bashfully and still uncertain on her feet, the monk slipped off the other side of the bed and came around to greet her. "I am Mahanan Brata Brahmachari, " he said, folding his palms in front of his face and bowing, "a Hindu monk from the Sri Angan Monastery, Faridpur, East Bengal. I've been invited by your grandsons to stay for the summer."
There was an instant of silence. At the church around the corner a bell struck the midday. Then Grandma came across. "Good afternoon, Dr. Brahmachari," she said in English. "Welcome to our house."
"Hallelujah," Mr. Isaacs began again but Grandma beat him to it. "Hallelujah!" she cried, wresting herself from my brothers' arms. "Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord." It was my parents' impression that she stumbled towards the Hindu but my own is that she skipped. As my brothers stepped forward to grab her she turned to them with a radiant expression. "It's twelve o'clock, children," she told them. "Where's...?" But before she could ask her final question I had plunged through the screen door and taken the old woman in my arms.