By Sadeq Hedayat

Translated from the French
by Mary K. St. John

by Iraj Bashiri
Copyright, © Iraj Bashiri, 1984


A torrential rain, one like those that must have fallen during the earth's formation, lashed the defenseless ground. The wind moved a fine spray of water along the asphalt road. Meanwhile the sea, silent and passive, full of profound, mute and distant love, lay plunged in a leaden fog. Everything was humid, sticky, viscous. The humidity gnawed, penetrating the body and aggravating the soul.

A vague shiver of desire went through the creatures, a breath of "folie" or of drunkenness hoping for oblivion, for tiredness. A desire to abandon everything, even existence itself, awoke. In this passionate lewdness flowed the water, the furious water of some angry God. The rain smothered all outside sounds. Suddenly it stopped.

The room, which I had recently rented on the first floor of a building, seemed comfortable but I had not yet been able to get used to the objects in it. The furniture had a bizarre, enigmatic, animate air: there were a short and sturdy commode; a tall and slender, yet hard and mocking, armoire with a practical air and a round stocky table; and a dainty mirror--all of which surveyed me with a menacing vigilance. An acrid, spicy odor typical of Hindu natives was floating in the air.

Half naked, an old Hindu shoemaker in a red turban had taken shelter under the lintel of my window where, in a holy and resigned pose, he contemplated the mingling of the crowd. Wasted almost to the point of emaciation, he had olive skin and black, sunken eyes. His unkempt beard covered most of his face. An old box and some worn shoes were spread out in front of him.

All afternoon I was glued to my phonograph. A Hindi record, bought at random, obsessed me. I played it and replayed it without interruption, while sitting in the armchair watching the rain and the few passersby who ventured outdoors. My window faced the sea, a grey and lazy mass that merged with the horizon.

Suddenly someone knocked on my door. I opened it. I saw a slender woman, pale, her forehead lined with pale veins, of regular features, with big green eyes and straw-colored hair. With a distracted air she said, "For God's sake, stop that record. It makes me nervous; it grates on my nerves."

"I'm so sorry," I replied.

She thanked me and went back into the next room.

I stopped the phonograph, thinking that she must be a foreigner even less familiar with Hindi music. Or perhaps she hated it by prejudice. I lay down on my bed to look through a local magazine.

At eight o'clock, I went up to the dining room on the third floor. The manager, a bronzed half-breed who came from Goa but who said he was Portuguese, introduced me to a half dozen persons of dubious nationality. The soup was being served when the door opened loudly and I saw my neighbor make a triumphant entrance. She was wearing a long blue and yellow flowered crêpe dress, tightly fitted and low cut. She wore it with a natural elegance that heightened her beauty and added a rustic gaiety to her slim silhouette. She acknowledged the guests with a nod of the head and sat down at the last vacant place at our table.

After supper, I asked the manager about the woman. He, with his simian physiognomy and a glint in his eyes, told me, "Her name is Felicia, an adventuress tormented by tropical crises." Then, smiling, he added, "A bit of advice: don't play with fire."

I was very much intrigued by this woman of bizarre allure, she who had so cruelly deprived me of my musical orgy.

On leaving for my evening walk, I saw Felicia in front of my window conversing animatedly with the Hindu shoemaker.

Between stray clouds, the full moon, pale and phosphorescent, like the eye of a dead fish, cast its weak light over "Bombay at Night." The whole sky seemed to have been sprayed with a luminous, milky liquid. The buses and taxis moved with a melancholy clanking noise. I took the road leading to the jetty amidst a throng of people wearing long tunics and enormous multicolored turbans. The women in brilliant saris seemed to float softly. The teaming masses, the strange mix of the lower class, the perverts, the foreigners and Hindus of a million faces, gave me the impression of a costume ball.

On my return along the jetty from Apollo Bunder, I saw Felicia sitting on the breakwater stairs, hands clasped, eyes dilated. She was staring fixedly at the full moon's reflection in the sea. Her diaphanous pallor and the trembling of her lips betrayed her deep emotion.

Lost in her dreams, she paid no attention whatsoever to the passersby.

When I returned to the pension, the heat was overpowering. I turned on the fan and lay down but the dry cough of the old shoemaker kept me from sleep.

The next evening she wasn't present at dinner. Afterward I went to the elevator and pressed the button. A click. The docile apparatus slid along its cables and stopped. I pulled open the door and pushed aside the gate. To my great astonishment, there was Felicia, motionless as a marble statue; a soft and provocative perfume surrounded her. It was she who spoke first, in French, with a strong English accent.

"Are you free this evening?"

"Yes, mademoiselle."

"Do you want to escort me as far as Green?"

"With pleasure."

She had changed. Her attitude and facial expression were subdued. On our way out she stopped before the Hindu shoemaker.

"Tabiat tik hey?" she said.

In a gesture of respect, the Hindu pressed his hands together and raised them to his head, bowing ceremoniously.

"Saheb salom parmatma tamara balakareh, bal batche sonkira ke!" he replied.

She opened her purse and slid some coins into his hand. He bent to the ground saying, "Bhagvan marguia, Bhagvan marguia."

"I hate this guy," I said. "He coughs all the time. Last night I couldn't even close my eyes. I don't know why he has chosen to sit in front of my window."

"Poor Bhagvan," she replied. "He is my protégé. At times I feel great pity for him. At times I'm afraid of him, and at other times he disgusts me. And, although he obeys me like a dog, he has an extraordinary power over me. He is very ill now; I have to take him to the hospital. Tomorrow I'll arrange it."

She wasn't looking at me; she was looking through me as if I were made of glass. We made our way towards Apollo Bunder, while the shoemaker, folded up, coughed incessantly.

The moon, rosy like a well-polished brass plate, was sitting on the horizon. Dressed in a white sari, Felicia seemed as indifferent to the spectacle as if she were a sleepwalker. Her beauty was dazzling. She was humming a jazz tune in a frail, pretty voice, a weak voice, full of breaks, yet sad and haunting. The brim of her hat threw a shadow over her green eyes.

Then, without my having asked any questions, she told me she was originally from Calcutta and had been raised in Europe. She added, "I traveled a bit in Europe and Asia, but never did a country attract me like India. I was always homesick. Its only in the weighty atmosphere of this country that I can live. It is not snobbism that makes Europeans see only fakirs, snake charmers, rajahs and temples in India. The first to visit a country or a people return to tell their stories and all the others follow blindly, seeing only that which has been described. Mysterious India, its fasts, its poverty and its miracles, have been exploited to exhaustion. I hate these miracles. For me, the biggest miracle is that I exist." She spoke as though trying to persuade herself.

"With your acquaintances and your experience," I ventured, "you could easily become a good reporter."

She listened distractedly, eyes fixed on the people around us, not even seemingly interested in what I was saying.

"Oh how I hate that profession!" she said. "All that I seek is to enrich myself. I hate to share the best part of my life experience with curious readers. I have no desire to bare my soul or seek fame. What for?"

With a dreamy air, she stopped a moment in front of the "Gate of India."

"Do you smell this flammable gas?" she asked. "That smell reminds me of the flammable gas that's hidden in us all."

A moment later, she added, "I'm invited out this evening." Then she said goodbye and left. She stopped again, suspicious, then suddenly turned around and left me. Her silhouette, thin and white, slipped through the bizarre crowd promenading toward Green. But the waves didn't bring in the pure salty breath of the ocean to sweep away this heavy noxious atmosphere. Several dinghies struggled hopelessly among the capricious waves.

So I was abandoned in the humid road, in the opaque night, fed up with Bombay. I was overwhelmed by a mad but powerless wish to escape here, to travel to the ends of the earth--a wish that could not be fulfilled. A bitter wave of regret, desire, sadness swept over me. It so engulfed me that my whole life, past, present, and future, seemed as empty as that road, full of boredom, solitude, and aggravating hallucinations.

I had been asking myself, since last night, why I mingled with this capricious, eccentric woman, this brazen, dangerous adventuress? It was as if a mysterious force had endowed her with charms and bestowed on her an incomprehensible attraction. Why did she act as though I were the center of her attention yet, moments later, become distant and reserved? And her attachment to that poor devil of a shoemaker was inexplicable, given her connections with Indian and European society and those rich, foreign businessmen. Every Sunday, luxurious cars pulled up in front of our pension to take her to Djouhou, Bombay's most fashionable beach, but she would often reject the offers, going instead to the Taj or Green with some unknown youths--just to demonstrate that she was not interested in people of distinction. Even more puzzling was her vague job selling Parisian fashions in a boutique.

She surely was spoiled and blemished. Were not her complexes the result of incompatible marriages or even of marriages among the next of kin? I certainly couldn't resolve these complicated problems.

In returning to the pension, I saw old Bhagvan folded in half like an empty envelope on the sidewalk, snoring away.

The next morning, I saw her speaking to Bhagvan in front of my window. I waved a greeting and she came to my window. Extending to me her hand in which she held a fawn-colored glove, she asked, "Do you have ten rupees I could borrow?"

I gave her my wallet. She took out a five-rupee note and gave it to Bhagvan. Then she added, "Until this evening."

At dinner she gave me the five rupees. The other guests exchanged meaningful smiles. As we went out together, she said, "Could we take a walk in the Hanging Gardens?"

I hailed a taxi and we drove off

"I had Bhagvan taken to St. George's Hospital today. He's not in good condition. I went twice to the hospital to see how he was."

Then she lapsed into a dreamy mood. I was more or less used to her fantasies now, but I could not understand her attachment to this poor shoemaker. I thought it was perhaps a mania, an indulgence of the very wealthy who are sometimes charitable to the poor, but only to show off their magnanimity. But, to be really charitable, shouldn't the source of such deeds remain unknown?

As we rode, she kept an obstinate silence, looking at the deserted streets, the native quarters and the teeming marketplace.

I didn't want to annoy her. The taxi dropped us in front of the Hanging Gardens. We followed the well-lit paths through tropical vegetation, then crossed a splendid garden from which we could see the sea and the lights of the sleeping city. We walked side by side and her dress brushed against me. I could smell her soft and light perfume.

For a moment, she leaned against the cement balustrade that ran along the ravine, gazing into the darkness at the Tower of Silence. From afar, the unpleasant scream of a vulture disturbed the stillness of the night. The heavy sky was menacing. The damp trees gave off exciting odors. Felicia turned towards me.

"It's going to rain soon. We'd better go back," she said.

She wasn't wrong. Just as we got into the taxi, the sky burst and the rain came down in sheets. The city was engulfed in the rain and darkness. She was right next to me. I was almost touching her bare arm and was intoxicated by her perfume. She was more at ease, calmer, and the atmosphere was very intimate. Suddenly a flood of confidences sprayed from her lips.

She told me about a Hindu myth in which a vase of Soma represents the moon. The Soma is depleted as the gods drink it, only to be replenished again by the sun. Then she confided that her own emotions were affected by the phases of the moon. She felt as though she were a toy belonging to some strange force, foreign, yet part of her. She was directed by it and couldn't help but obey.

"It's stronger than I," she added. "I know the moon decides my destiny. I am its slave. I don't know, maybe in a past life I committed some grave sin? What I have to live with is terrible--two divorces in Europe and now living here in India. I can no longer live anywhere else. I don't know if it's the poetry or the philosophy of India that draws me. You know, the line dividing the three states of nature, where life and death disappear. The Indians are the only people in the world who have based their morals and customs on abstract philosophy. One day in Benares I was at the side of the Ganges. Suddenly, the grandeur of Hindu philosophy dawned on me. With total indifference one for the other, a marriage was being celebrated on one spot, nearby the dead were being cremated and, not far away, holy men performed their ablutions. For thousands of years, the Hindu soul has remained the same. In spite of modernization, nothing has really changed and nothing in this country can be considered ordinary. Thanks to their atavism, these people have a great richness and force."

The taxi stopped in front of our pension. Her limpid eyes rested on me for an instant without seeming to see me and, with an easy air, she said, "Let's go to your room."

I took her to my room. She looked troubled. Her eyes were full of supplication. I was bemused by her anxious gestures, her sickly white color and her rambling speech. At the same time I was trembling with desire.

Her cold, yet aggressive, manner on the first day I'd met her and her subsequent resigned submission fueled my desire.

The rain still fell, less violently but with the same mercilessness, surety and blind will. I played a few records. She listened distractedly and was obviously bored; then suddenly she said, "I have a premonition that something bad is going to happen to me."

To sooth her, I got next to her on the bed and tried to take her hands in mine. And, I should add, I was burning with passion. But, irritated, she withdrew her hand.

"Ah! Let go of me! Who do you take me for?" She said this with a sarcastic laugh that rang oddly through the room, "You are mistaken, my friend. You disgust me, do you hear me? If I confide in you, it's because outwardly you seem serious, even timid, and because you are a foreigner and a traveler. How much I dread the people here. They mock me and treat me as if I were a madwoman. But, be assured, I would not give one of Bhagvan's hairs in exchange for you."

I was astounded; on the one hand I was disconcerted and humiliated at the role I had played in this masquerade; on the other, I deeply resented the old shoemaker.

Then she left, slamming the door.

The rain came down in buckets. I undressed in haste. Her incoherence, bizarre behavior, and scornful, nervous laugh had quite upset me. I decided never to speak to her again and plunged into a book, although I didn't know what I was reading. Despite my every effort, Felicia filled my thoughts. My whole being yearned for her, her words, her smiles, her gestures. The sadness of this was exquisite.

At meals the next day, I was careful to ignore her, and she me. After supper, someone knocked on my door. There, wearing a beautiful robe appliquée with Chinese designs, was Felicia. She entered the room with a smile. Her transparent pallor, her lovely body and her soft perfume affected me. She spoke to me in the familiar, "Do you attach any importance to what I told you the other night? I was expecting something evil to happen. Did you hear the horrible news?"

"What are you trying to tell me?"

"Well, this afternoon the hospital telephoned that Bhagvan died."

"It's not possible. No, I didn't know."

"So, can I ask you a favor? Come with me to claim his body and send it to Soummatpur. I'm afraid they'll send him to the medical school to be dissected."

"Now let's be patient. The hospital is closed at this time of night. We'll take care of it in the morning."

Dissatisfied, she stamped her foot sulkily, "We must, we must go right away. I'm so afraid. He had confidence in me. It's a sacrilege, don't you understand?"

She burst into tears and fell on my bed.

"I'm so alone," she babbled, "so unhappy. I counted on you. Come here, I have something to say to you."

I approached hesitantly as she offered me her delicate hands and then confided, "I've never dared tell anyone but-- I am extremely partial to these humble lives, these simple people whose lives vanish as do the waves in the ocean. This poor devil Bhagvan came into the world, then departed without leaving a single trace. He never even tried to indicate that he had been a speaking, moving, thinking entity. Now he is no more. His death was as meaningless as his life. And there are millions just like him. Surely he believed in his karma. He accepted his fate with resignation and he was convinced that after death he'd be reborn perhaps to a better life.

And I was familiar with his world. I often noticed, even the first time that I took him my shoes to be shined, that he loved me. He admired me and desired me. Mostly he desired me. In my dreams I saw him burning with passion. But whether it is he or someone else who loves me I am not sure. These Hindus are incredibly secretive; it's in their blood. But at the same time they are very quiet; they never talk about their secrets. His extremely respectful manner exasperated me. If I helped him, it was to satisfy myself. He didn't need me any more than he needed the others. The Hindus can tolerate death itself. It was more that I needed him. Although I have many rich admirers, they are maybe less intelligent and less humane than Bhagvan. All they have is money, and it's the money that gives them their prestige and impudence. They indulge themselves in anything and give themselves airs of intelligence. Oh! How I hate them! I've always hated them from the bottom of my heart. So, he withered away, dissolved in front of this window, and now he's dead. He'll be cremated and the wind will carry away his ashes. He suffered in spite of his desires and passions. He, but no one else, knew that desire and passion are blown away by the wind. Isn't his our fate as well?"

She spoke as though trying to convince herself. Her pupils were dilated, her lashes were long and blond and a bluish vein swelled her forehead. Her severe manner had changed. She was simple, almost naive. She leaned against me; her uncanny expression was a combination of fear and passion. I felt her skin and could count her heart beats. A dull rhythm began to beat in my veins, at first slow, then faster and faster. I asked myself why she wanted to visit me and why she confessed so much.

She gestured towards the window, "Please close the curtain."

It was hot and muggy, heavy with a coming storm. The air stuck to the skin like a shirt full of sweat. The crescent moon, bathed in red, was setting onto the horizon. I drew the curtain and hesitantly remained at the window.

"Come closer," she murmured.

She talked for a long time, from time to time raising her head to me as if for approval. Then she fell to her knees, put her arms around me and, pleadingly, leaned her extraordinary blond head against me and murmured softly. She spoke words of love, trembling with secret tears. Her words had the resonance and gravity of magic charms.

I was just going to embrace her when I heard wings beating and saw a bat, a harmless animal which comes out at night especially during the rainy season. Frightened, it flew around my room.

Felicia, frozen with fear, huddled against me and cried, "Do you see? It's his soul, Bhagvan's soul! He's come to punish me. He's come to catch us together. I must leave you immediately."

I, too, lost much of my enthusiasm and a special sense of fear overtook me. She got up with difficulty and, without saying goodbye, bolted out. I didn't know what to do. Vaguely uneasy, I turned out the light and lay down. Soon I fell into a deep sleep.

I got up early the next morning and dressed hastily. I knocked on her door; no response.

I saw the manager in the corridor. Indicating Felicia's room, he said with his shifty smile, "She didn't tell me in advance, but she left last night. I don't know where she's gone. Fortunately, she had already paid. I told you that you shouldn't trust such an adventuress. The people of the tropics are like that!"


1. How are you feeling? back to text

2. Peace be upon you. May God protect you and your children. back to text

3. Bhagvan died. back to text

Sadeq Hedayat's Corner

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