Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
THE MAPMAKER
b y   b r a n d y   b a u e r   ~   w a s h i n g t o n ,   d . c .

RAMESH KOTHARI had often been told about reincarnation by his elders, but it was not until he saw the blemish that day in the bazaar that he had seen it come true. For it was on one languid afternoon, milling about under the thatched roof of a fruit stand, that he saw the woman who would change his life.

Ramesh was poor. Every morning he plodded into work and stood over his table with rulers and protractors, attempting to make order of a disheveled universe. In his youth, he had longed to be a painter, but when his father condemned him for idleness, the boy had taken up the craft of his ancestors. It had been nearly fifteen years since his feet had first sifted the dirt of that cold earth, and by now his spine had begun to twist under the everyday toil.

Each day while Ramesh stood at his place in a room with ten other men, the supervisor would come around with instructions for redrawing the coordinates of the Jammu-Kashmir border. Often as he dipped his pen into a mildewed well, Ramesh would wonder about computers and their abilities to make maps. He had heard that in some lands men like him sat at desks and typed in numbers to redraw their worlds. But he himself had never seen a computer. They were for university men. Indeed, it did not seem to matter to the supervisor whether the maps were ever completed by Ramesh and the others. As soon as one was done, they were already retracing another.

At sundown, after hours of gripping the quill which arched over the fragments of his work, the mapmaker would walk through the noisy streets to the one-room tin façade that was his home. Often Ramesh would imagine that his wife, Sarojini, was still alive and that the smell of warm dosas greeted his arrival home. He remembered sneaking up on her, and seeing the little mole in the small of her back that her sari had left exposed. He used to tickle that spot even as she scolded him with her spoon, until her back stiffened -- like a cat's, Ramesh thought -- and she let out that little sigh he knew would lead her into his arms.

One evening the mapmaker had come home and found his wife, then heavy with child, lying on the floor. Ramesh had collected all his rupees in his kerchief before carrying Sarojini to the clinic three blocks away. As they stood waiting in line, he felt a rush of blood and water along his legs and his wife grew heavier and heavier in his arms. By the time their turn came, the woman had become limp and cold. "A miscarriage," the doctor pronounced. "I am sorry, but your wife simply could not handle it."

Now, almost eight years later, Ramesh came home from work and curled up naked on the straw mat, where he slept after beating his dhoti clean. Waking before sunrise, the little man made the daily excursion to the river to bathe before plodding back through the once-British section of town to his office.

Day after day, Ramesh eked out his existence. When he received his few rupees each week, he would sometimes take the train into the country to see his sisters, all married now and living with their growing families in their husbands' homes. More often, he would stave off his loneliness at the cinema, where he immersed himself in action stories and historical sagas, and where, after two hours, he would return squinting into the bustling light around him.

It was on one of those afternoons, coming back to his home from the pictures, that the mapmaker caught a glimpse of something. As he stood waiting to buy some almonds for his supper, Ramesh saw the mole, Sarojini's mole, on the back of a little girl in a purple sundress. Had the child's grandfather not just finished his purchase, Ramesh would have reached out and touched her. Instead, he stood, shaken. Though this girl was a shade darker than his dead wife, Ramesh could not help but be drawn to her. Even her hair grew in Sarojini's same widow's peak. Watching the old man who was with her gather up his belongings, Ramesh thought fast and then made a rash decision -- he decided to follow the pair.

At first, the mapmaker tried to be discreet, but he soon realized the child had caught sight of him, too. She seemed amused by his antics of dodging street cattle and holy men, and turned to look back every few feet they went. Once the girl even smiled at Ramesh, her pink tongue catching in the gap where her two front teeth were missing. Eventually, the mapmaker had trailed them back to their residence, a green-shuttered second-floor apartment two blocks from the university.

Consumed by feelings he could not understand, the mapmaker thought to knock on that door and inquire after the girl's name and situation. Instead, his natural shyness intervened, and he resisted. Ramesh walked in bewildered circles through the city streets until the sun began its descent.

"You are a foolish old man," he thought to himself during his reflective pacing, though it was not true. Ramesh was barely thirty years old. How could you love someone at first glance? And he thought back to his arranged marriage to Sarojini, whom he had never met before his wedding. When he peeked through the tent to see her that day as her sisters decorated her in red and gold, he gasped with love. He had vowed then that he would try and be the best possible husband so that she would love him back.

When Ramesh returned, footsore, to his lonely room, he lay in bed and stared at the stained ceiling, debating the ways he could declare himself. "This is my wife," he thought of announcing to the girl's stunned parents, but he did not want to appear insane. Perhaps he might meet her at her door with a token of affection -- a flower, or a bag of rice. But she was a child, and what claims could he have on her? Besides, it was not customary for a man to speak to a member of the opposite sex in an unfamiliar family. In a few years, however, she would be of prime age for courting. It was not so unusual, Ramesh considered, for an older man to take a young bride. He remembered fat, jolly Chaipau who had worked in his office a few years back. Chaipau had taken an adolescent wife when his beard was already grey. The young lady warmed up to him remarkably, and bore him two daughters and four robust sons.

What Ramesh needed was a way to prove his worthiness, so that he could command a decent dowry from the girl's family. He did not want a child bride living in one tin room. For the next eight hours, as the trains whirred over his roof, the hows and whys of the mapmaker's life traipsed through his mind.

The next morning, as he stood marking mountains and lakes on scrolls of parchment, Ramesh continued to ponder his situation. At length, after a battle of erasing smudge marks on the edge of Pakistan, Ramesh asked himself, "What would I give to my wife if she were here?" The answer came to him as if in a dream. "India," it said, "I would give her my world." Thrilled that he had come upon the solution, the mapmaker began to prepare for what he must do.

How does one give another person the world? For Ramesh, there was one, simple way. He would make her a map, a map of her very own. It would be tangible proof that he was a skilled professional, yet it would also be a token of love that would make him stand out as a worthy suitor. Ramesh knew that he needed to keep his project a secret from his supervisor, who would complain if he used work for pleasure, and moreover from his fellow workers, who would accuse him of having stars for eyes. So it was with grave determination that Ramesh decided to do what for so many years he had longed for -- he began to paint.

That night, on his way home from work, the mapmaker sought out a tanner in the bazaar, and spent his remaining rupees on a gloriously thin, white goat's hide. At home, he wound the hide around two large sticks his father had used as canes before he began his ascetic wandering, then he firmly planted the would-be easel into the clay earth.

Little by little, the man acquired the nuts, spices and leaves that were to be transformed into paint dyes. He had decided that the painting should depict his entire country -- all the people and buildings and hills that made India what she was. It was an ambitious project, one that would take years, but Ramesh felt sure the result would win him his wife again.

The young girl the mapmaker had spied that day in the marketplace became his obsession. Each day and evening he would make a circuitous path to and from work so that he might glimpse her again. From these surveillances, he learned that she had at least two sisters (though neither of these, he thought, displayed her great countenance), and a brother whose family resided with them. One evening he passed by her balcony as she was beating dirt off a rug, and he was astounded at the shiny brilliance of her mahogany eyes.

Night after night, year after year, the mapmaker squinted under the flickering glow of an always-burning lamp. Often he would awaken on his straw bed after just two hours of sleep and would stumble into his office, semi-comatose with fatigue.

When the monsoons came each June, he was forced to stand in a quarter inch of water when he came home to paint. He worked with a furious zeal so as to quicken the job, but was even more frustrated when his tins of dye were knocked over by the rain and succeeded in making the room a pool of rust-colored water.

Each season passed with his recognition that a child was becoming a woman. When the first monsoon ended, the girl had grown her adult teeth. By the time Ramesh had captured Calcutta and its pigeons swooping in the alleys, the child was the height of her grandfather. Ramesh painted and painted and the child grew and grew, so that finally, when the map was whole, she appeared the portrait of elegance with her raven hair knotted at the nape of her neck.

The final masterpiece, completed on a sweltering Sunday morning, was lavish with detail. All the turbaned Sikhs at Amritsar, the lopsided buses lumbering through the streets of Bombay, all the soot-stained loincloths hung out to dry and the mountains of horn-built houses in Sikkim were repainted in their full glory. In hues ranging from tan to deep violet, every man, cockroach and crack in India's earth could be seen on the goatskin. So satisfied was the mapmaker of his treasure that for a full day afterwards he danced and sang the poems of love he had learned as a boy.

There remained in the back of his mind, however, the question of how he was to present it to his queen. Should he show up at her door and simply hand it over? Was it best to bargain with her father? Wracked with indecision, the mapmaker finally, after three nights of restless tossing, chose his first course of action: He sent a dozen marigolds with a note to the child -- "Will you and your father receive me?"

The message was delivered by a friend who sold tea on a corner near the girl's home. Ramesh waited across the street while he went up, and after a few minutes saw the girl's face beaming in the window. His friend came running with another note. "Come a week from next Saturday." The mapmaker was thrilled.

Ramesh was distracted for the next ten days. He tipped over ink at the office and spoiled a map; he bought too many peas and not enough haldi. When the hour arrived for his meeting, the mapmaker strolled with sweaty hands to the familiar apartment. This day, however, an unusual feeling clouded the street. A crowd had congregated before some spectacle. As he pinched and pushed his way through the mob, Ramesh saw one of the beauty's sisters coming out of the home with a bouquet of flowers. Behind her several men carried two stretchers on which bodies were covered in cotton. The mapmaker approached the wiry, bearded man he knew to be the girl's grandfather, who stood at a small distance from the scene.

"Namaste! What has happened here?"

"My granddaughters, sir..." the old man said, then covered his mouth with his hand.

The mapmaker was struck dumb. On top of one of the sheets being borne to the north end of the city for burning were the marigolds he had sent to the girl the week before. Ramesh could do nothing but gape at the procession as the stretchers disappeared into the crowd.

Ramesh could hardly bear it. For the second time in his life, he felt that a chasm had opened inside him. Unable to bear the desolation of his room, he wandered through the back alleys of the city until long after dark. Finally, tortured by his thoughts, he trudged home.

Upon lighting his oil lamp, he was faced with an even greater heartbreak -- the painting. The masterpiece glared at him from its corner like some demonic jewel, cursing him for his slowness. Ramesh scoured the room for something he could destroy it with and came up with a tiny knife. As he was ready to thrust it into the canvas, he stopped, too miserable to do anything. Instead, the mapmaker stood for hours with his forehead pressed against the painting, a steady stream of tears saturating its surface.

When Ramesh awoke the next morning, he observed the product of his suffering. Blue was smudged into orange, orange was faded into brown and there was no India, just a muddy mess of paint. The mapmaker thought about it, and decided to keep it in a place where he'd remember his foolishness.

Later that morning, he unearthed the easel and rolled up the painting on its two staffs like a scroll. Balancing it on his shoulder, he elicited more than a few curious stares as he trotted into work. After the mapmaker had toiled at his table, he whittled the two poles of the easel down to make a semi-frame, and then hung the painting on the space that overlooked his table.

"What is that?" one man near him asked as the others began to stare.

"My folly," Ramesh said.

He had started to get back to his drawing, but the men in the room were too intrigued and stood gaping before the picture. Ramesh was annoyed. Finally, Krishna, one of the new boys that had started at the office a few months earlier, came closer to inspect it.

"It's beautiful," he said, making no move to recommence working.

Then another man came up behind it and made a surprised noise in his throat.

"It's alive," he said, as the others in the room, including the supervisor, gathered around to watch.

Slowly, the colors that Ramesh had washed in tears the night before began to take form again and swirl and dance. The map was changing, taking another form, but it was not going back to the country it once was. Instead, the colors seemed almost to be shaping themselves into -- was it true? A woman.

A collective murmur ran through the audience as the paint solidified itself into a human portrait. And then it became clear to Ramesh what he was seeing -- the face of Sarojini. She sat looking at him in her wedding day finery, and her mouth was curved into the slightest smile.

"Who is that?" one man implored. They all turned to the painter.

"It's India," Ramesh said. "My wife, my world."

This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize

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