Wednesday, June 8, 1983

The Passionate Pilgrim

My fourth short story, my first sold, my second published. In Playgirl, of all places. Around late 1984. It was written in Rome, in a tiny hotel room, in 1983. (See "Letter from Rome," on this blog.) They paid me, I remember, $750. It paid my Manhattan rent for two months. The story was dedicated to my dear friends Michael Schwartz and Tamara Bergman, native Los Angelenos who are still married. There was also talk of a film. It came to nothing, as usual. Still, it was a nice enough conversation. 

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unskillful in the world's false forgeries.



Amanda Hagerty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, was thjrty-one, divorced as of February, and lived in a long hidden house far up a green canyon in the Hollywood Hills. Three times a week she attended an aerobics class; late every afternoon she went for a two-mile run on Mulholland Drive looking out over half Los Angeles, above the enormous city radiating power and smoggy sunlight. Occasionally she went out for a meatless dinner with a divorced friend or two, but most evenings she spent indoors with her two cats, Arigato and Raffles—she had been reading Mr. Maugham the spring before.

Her living room, too, overlooked the night city with its countless lights, countless lives (during the morning it was hidden in haze), and when each blue evening she turned on the great flood lamp on the stucco wall outside, it lit the pale turquoise depths of her pool below, as if making ready for the California moon to rise on the other side of her house and drop down from the sky and into the pool for her benefit alone.

Each night she went to sleep at eleven forty-five, after the news and the Carson monologue—virtually the only television she allowed herself—and she awakened each morning at seven thirty exactly, without an alarm.

Recently—for the last two years or so, since divorce proceedings were begun—Amanda had been reading fact and fiction about the East. Her masseur, Charlie Cagliostro, had advised her what to read. He had a Masters Degree in Eastern Philosophy from a university "on the other side."

She did not know whether he meant of the country, or the world, but in any case his literary judgment was sound. Reading about the East, the Far East, made her calm; to think about the Near East, Chicago and New York especially, removed calm. Those were societies of hypocrites. They called the West Coast bad names (the "Left Coast" was one—silly), yet where did they get their new ideas, their fashions, their trends? And the new movies they lined up in blizzards to see?  Not to mention that half Los Angeles was made up of Easterners who came west to poke fun and sneer and ended up staying. She, luckily, had been born here.

It had taken time, but Amanda had learned to admit to herself that her best quality was her ability to recognize her own happiness. Not everyone could do this; few of her friends could; and now she was on her own again she could allow happiness to emanate freely from her like an animal scent, in rhythmic waves that kept their own cosmic schedule. She no longer had to worry about the Other’s unhappy waves colliding with her happy waves. She didn't think often of the Other: he was the Recent Past. In any case, he was gone now, gone east. She liked to think instead of the Unremembered Past, swinging inexorably toward Infinity, and the finite Now, creating it.

And there was so much else to ponder.

Unfortunately, one place could only be one window on the whole, no matter how well a person can see from it; and because Amanda had some money before the divorce and even more money after it, she decided to take a trip around the world that summer, taking advantage of a desperate airline’s deathbed offer.

After two expensive and satisfying weeks in Japan, she reached Bombay the last week in July.

She was unprepared for India’s heat, for the quantity of yelling, jumbled human lives, for the absolute poverty. It was a real mess. It was something out of a technicolor historical epic, too wide-screened and busy to be real, and it immediately dazed her. She was used to one thing at a time, not everything at once. For two days she forgot about rationing Life Energy as, half-conscious, she allowed herself to be bused and guided about the city as part of a tour group. It was a dream realized at last to be in India: why then did it feel so wrong? The place was ungraspably distant from the immaculate order of Japan, that had soothed her despite the fact the Japanese hurried everywhere. Japan was not, in fact, a Zen place at all, no matter what people mistakenly supposed. Now, in Bombay, she felt herself caught in the choking throat of history. Around her the misty dream of India had been turned into a livid nightmare.

After three days, feeling that she had failed the entire country, had failed her own best motives of discovery, worst of all had failed the secret destiny that had led her here, Amanda changed her airline reservation. She dropped her plan of side trips to Delhi, Calcutta, and the very important Taj Mahal in Agra; she skipped her side trip to Cairo. She skipped Europe. In utter desperation she flew back to Los Angeles, and home.

The house was not as she had left it. She'd rented it to a young couple who'd recently secured a recording contract, but like all musicians they thought only of themselves. The couple had moved out the week before, as agreed, but they had left the sink full of dirty dishes, and the cats’ litter boxes looked as if they hadn't been emptied for weeks. Though food had been left out for the cats—hadn't Nancy promised to come every day, what kind of friend was she?—they mewed plaintively at her. Khaki-colored Raffles and black-and-white Arigato looked half-starved, like the cats slouching about Bombay's alleys. Only the rats there had looked well-fed, and the black mynah birds.

India's long arm had stricken even her helpless pets. With their sunken eyes staring at her in accusation for her absence, her betrayal, they reminded her of the beggars who approached her at every turn in Bombay. Her own failure to respond to their pleas, to recognize their humanity, came back to her now. Those beggars had not reminded her of anything human, of anyone she had ever known or seen before. Now she knew she was unworthy of this new sight, this unearned vision. She had blinked at revelation, and she had run from it.

She stood at her great living-room window in darkness, looking down at her floodlit swimming pool. It was tinted blue with the midsummer evening. Because the month was ending no moon lay in the pool; and it suddenly seemed to her that she was poorer inside than she had ever believed that she could be. She too was a beggar. Her journey had not filled her, it had revealed her emptiness, and she was at a loss as to where to begin to renew herself, to try again. Her adoring cats, whose sleek heads she stroked slowly with her thumbs as she held their warm breathing bodies against her breasts, could be no consolation to her now. Nor could the knowledge that inevitably, tomorrow night or the following night, her small blue lake, her private wealth of chlorinated waters, would once again calmly contain the moon.


He was an actor from the Near East—the East Side. His name was Alan Walker, and he was twenty-seven, but like all actors he prided himself on his ability to look, with disarming facility, ten years older or younger.

He was right about this: he could do it. He had black hair and green eyes, he was lithe and not tall, his face was not easily memorized, and so he had become chiefly a character actor, like his father. For two weeks in November, on a soap opera filmed in New York, he'd played a secretly deranged homosexual third cousin. In December and early January, in back-to-back productions he'd played The Fool in King Lear and Malvolio in Twelfth Night in the evenings and taped three more sanatorium episodes for the soap. He worked steadily enough that his agent sent him out to Hollywood in the late winter, early spring (such were the seasons back home; out here there was no such thing as a season unless there were floods), to get himself into a situation comedy. But there were a few situations, and that was no comedy.

He had been in Hollywood for four months, living above an Indian restaurant and eating more curry, out of their generosity, than he cared to. He was not in a position to refuse a free meal.  There was nothing going on in New York for another month; the city was deserted in midsummer. He could not go back, anyway: his apartment was sublet. He had come west with a $2763.48 bank balance and a credit line of $1000 ("Plenty, baby, plenty," his agent had said, reassuring back on W. 53rd Street); he'd whittled away two-thirds of each.

In those four months he’d gotten one part—three minute-long scenes in a made-for-TV movie. In the first two scenes he sold drugs to schoolchildren, in the third he had his head blown off. The pay had gone to new photographs, an answering service that was reliable, and some clothes that better suited Hollywood. He'd learned that whereas in New York success was virtually the art of disguising success—dirt was an emblem, a reward—out here the first rule as an impecunious actor was to look as if you were casually but inarguably making it, and lots of it.

From living above the Indian delegation the rule had turned into an exchange between guru and disciple: "Master, how may I attain great wealth as an actor? How may I be thus consumed?"

"My sweet white Christian child, to be wealthy one must first learn to appear wealthy. More wisdom than this I cannot safely disclose in one lifetime."

Alan had befriended a young Indian waiter named Hari, who aspired to become a film star. Though Hari sounded like any California twenty-one year-old, his career was hampered by the color of his skin, the shape of his face, the features on his face, his hair, his stature, and his movements. Alan did not have the heart to tell him America was not yet ready for a well-fed Indian film star. It was impossible for another reason: Hari's father owned the restaurant, and hence the future. Hari would run it one day with his brothers. Still, as soon as Hari learned of Alan's Juilliard training and extensive experience, he began taking private lessons in return for dinner for the actor every night.

One slow Monday evening Hari sat down hurriedly in the chair across from Alan and a tandoori chicken, and said in a low, rushed voice, “You see that brunette? Near the window. Do me a favor, take care of her friend for me."

The friend was a blonde with a quiet, thoughtful face and downcast blue eyes. Her cheekbones were soft, she was smiling quizzically as she talked and her face, the actor thought, was the face of someone alone. Her golden hair, to her shoulders, shown against the turquoise Indian blouse, but in the careful ease of her movements there was something remote and unapproachable, and the brunette’s tight body and jeans, from the back, looked more interesting. Still—

"Who is she?"

Hari shrugged, and danced a salt shaker across the prim tablecloth. "Her name's Amanda. She comes in a lot, you've seen her. She just got back from Mother India. She wants to be adopted. Come on, man, do me a favor. Her friend’s interested."

Alan had seen her here, once before; and he remembered that he'd thought then that she looked like someone who'd just given up cigarettes and missed them terribly. Beneath it all, there was something innately provocative about Amanda. But Alan had already been to bed with two blondes who were studying philosophy in their spare time, and he was not very interested in philosophy.

“Sounds like you’d have an easier time with Amanda.”

“They’re in here all the time, these types,” said Hari.  He rapped the table with the salt shaker. “They want an old cripple from Assam, not a stud.”

"That's where you're wrong," said Alan. “They want what all women want. The reliable combined with the exotic. If you put on a fine suit over that skin and did a James Mason invitation, they'd fight over you."

“Huh." Hari looked dubious.

"Anyway, I've got a script to finish reading for an audition tomorrow morning. So you're on your own, m’boy."

But that was not the end of it. A week later Hari succeeded in bedding the brunette, and heard Amanda's story in detail. He even swam in her pool with his new friend, naked, one Sunday afternoon, while Amanda went for her run. He told Alan everything.

Nothing came of the audition. There were none since, and it was now mid-August. Alan felt bored and defeated. To be an actor was to be purposeful and placeless, like Achilles without a war to wage. To distract himself Alan had been practicing accents. From Treasure Island, picked up at random, he'd been doing Blind Pew, Long John Silver, and mad old Ben Gunn. He tried reading Yeats aloud in a variety of Irish accents of both sexes and all ages, using a tape recorder. The work made him nostalgic; in New York once he'd ridden the subway disguised as an Egyptian farmer, and gotten away with it. He hasn't yet tried anything like that out here.

He was ready for adventure, and it crossed his mind one blank morning, waiting for the phone to ring, that it might be amusing to see what he did pick up from the Indians downstairs. He had the necessary skin dye; he owned a dignified brown suit, black knitted tie, white shirt, good shoes: he could be an Oxford doctoral candidate, preparing a thesis on the Vendayapratha in Hollywood society. And then he thought of Amanda.

Did he have the nerve? Of course he did. And he had the time, time that needed killing.

Thus did Amanda Hagerty come to meet the distinguished Mr. V. P. Mayweg, late of Chagroonimalautignyapore, India, now residing in Hollywood, California, and bearing many questions.


"Am most reluctant to inconvenience you."

"Oh, no, no, not at all."

“Am most grateful."

"What are you doing here? I mean, who are you?"

"Allow me to make introduction of myself. Am Vidhiadad Prahadur Mayweg, late of Calcutta University, all B.A. and M.A. examinations passed with highest honors. Presently engaged in study on leave from Oxford University, Oxford, England. May I ask to come in?"

"Sure. Can I, can I get you something? I was just making some herbal tea?”

"Some tea of any sort would be most damned welcome. I thank you. This sunlight is uncomfortable and I have been walking. Walking and asking questions. What a beautiful residence, madam, allow me to say."

“Thank you. Asking questions, who have you been asking?"

“Of everyone, I am afraid. Like proverbial cat, am perhaps too curious. But it is my work. This seems an unusually large house, madam. It belongs all to oneself?"

"Yes—you know, I was just visiting—"

“Are no children at present?"

"—your country. No, I'm divorced."

“Am most dreadfully sorry. Children are like twinkling stars. Being most abstemious person, to ask further personal questions."

“No, that's alright, it's no secret. And it had to be, you know? I mean, it wasn't up to the two of us."

"I apologize for asking. Yet questions are my work and my un-fortunate destiny. Is that the swimming pool and terrace I see through your lovely sitting room?"

“Yes, that's how I keep in shape. Partly, at least."

"And I see it is the most pleasing shape, you will excuse me for being so honest. Would madam allow me to look at this pool while sipping tea? Or is it perhaps too arrogant to ask such a thing."

“No, by all means. I'll bring the tea out to the pool."

“I am most thankful."

She joined him three minutes later, bearing a tray. She had put on her blue silk Indian blouse.

"Ah, here is the very stuff of tea itself. Do you have also sugar, and milk of human kindness? Ah, the very thing. I thank you. You were saying you were once in my beautiful country?"

“Just a few weeks ago," said Amanda breathlessly. "My name's Amanda. Amanda Hagerty."

"Miss Hagerty," said Mr. Mayweg, stirring his tea, "allow me to say with absolute frankness what a very great pleasure this is for me." He took a sip of tea. "Ah, it is perfect." He clumsily, gradually, with incompletely masked terror, lay back in the chaise and put his feet up.

He blinked at her. "And and now I must ask you, first—what did you think Mother India, mother of us all?"


The strangest thing was that Mr. Mayweg should have come so perfectly into her life. That afternoon he questioned her directly and penetratingly about her yang. He pointed out, to her relief, that it was difficult for anyone, no matter how sympathetic and well-read, to get under the skin of an alien culture on the first try. He told her she should not reproach herself too much but simply plan to visit India again, and try to relax.

"You must learn to follow your own good advice," said Mr. Mayweg sagely.

And he had allowed her to question him directly, too, about his purpose here in Hollywood. He was guarded at first but soon warmed to her, and explained that he was doing a study of various types of relationships to see if in fact there were any links with Hindu or Muslim relationships back home. It was a very difficult task and he all but admitted it was too much for him.

Later that afternoon she had gotten him to try some iced tea. He found it remarkable, and the clink and tinkle of ice in a tall glass visibly delighted him. He stayed resolutely within the cool part of the terrace, refused to move his chaise into the sunlight, refused even to undo his shirt one button or take off his tie.  She suggested that he go swimming with her, and offered him some swim trunks left behind by her husband; but this idea apparently struck him as too immodest. But after she changed into her blue bikini she felt, curiously, his dark eyes on her tanned body as she swam several lengths of the pool and he watched in silence, sipping his iced tea and thinking his private Indian thoughts in her green California shade.

Two evenings later he came to dinner. He wore the same suit.

Three days after that, on Friday, he took her to lunch at an Indian restaurant where she knew one of the waiters, who had been seeing her friend Nancy.

“They know me here also," said Mr. Mayweg.

He now allowed Amanda to call him Vidhiadad, and he negotiated her first name as if it were slightly risqué to be so familiar with a woman. “They are distant relations. Amanda. That young man Hari is the grand-nephew of the second cousin of my mother's first cousin. That cousin also was from my home Chagroonimalautignyapore.”

She had mastered, finally, this word—they had laughed together over her attempts—but she hadn't yet located the village on her map. She wanted to locate it herself, without his help, and learn something of the area’s history so that she could demonstrate to him the sincerity of her interest. She felt at home with him now. He was popular with her cats, both of whom he had understood quite immediately. He knew just how to squeeze Arigato at the back of her neck until she purred, and how to tickle Raffles’ belly until she lay back helplessly.

Increasingly, also, Amanda felt Vidhiadad’s gaze on her breasts, and she discovered that this pleased her. After having been with him on three occasions—and his English was improving!—she admitted to herself that she wanted him as a lover.  There was a serene power about him, contained when he was with her, that she wanted to release. It excited her to think about him in bed, but she knew she could not be so rude as to bring it up herself. She hoped he would find the courage; she would do her best to inspire him. She did not want to threaten their friendship by doing anything too direct, that might frighten him. She wondered how much he admitted frankly to himself his own powerful urges. She thought that if she could just get him to go swimming with her he might take her right there, right in her lapping pool—in her own sacred Ganges.

By now it was the third week of August.


It was Amanda's idea for them to see the film of Gandhi's life together. At first he was reluctant, but eventually he gave in. She guessed his reluctance to be a form of homesickness, but she said nothing of it.

After the four-hour film, which thrilled her, he steered her away from the spilling crowd that included surprisingly large numbers of turbaned Indian men and saried women speaking in low voices to each other. He did not speak to any of them and she guessed something must be amiss, some worry must be pressing down on him.

He gave her no clue as to what it was, though she knew the landscapes in the film made him nostalgic. Two blocks from the theater, where they had left her red sports car, he stopped abruptly on the sidewalk and held his chest with hands flattened, breathing in deep draughts of the easy night air.

“Are you all right, Viddy?" she asked anxiously.

He took a few more deep breaths, and sniffed.

“And what,” he said, “what did you think of that extended motion picture?”

She avoided his stern gaze. She had bought a life of the Mahatma only that week, and she didn't want to say the wrong thing. The images crowding her mind—vibrant images that had brought all the pandemonium and unpleasantness of her actual visit rushing back with violence—seemed to leave no room for whatever might possibly be the right thing to say.

“I will tell you something," he said, freeing her of responsibility. “India—” He paused. "India is a country that is full of damned nonsense!"

She was too startled to speak.

He was smiling mildly at her consternation. “You think perhaps that is an original thought of mine? No, no, madam. The Mahatma himself spoke that remark. It is Gandhi's remark, not Mayweg’s.” He laughed out loud. “But do they repeat that remark for the sake of truth in that damned film? No! I ask you why. Why?"

"I don't know," she stammered.

"I tell you why. Reason why,” he said triumphantly, “this film was made by damned Britishers, with damned British guilt and damned British and half-British actors. This is why India is such a damned half-British country full of such damned nonsense, half ours, half theirs!”

He put his hand, to stop her speaking in the unlikely event she would interrupt his outburst.

“I apologize for speaking with such loud honesty, but someone must speak truth. In many ways, I liked the movie. It has many good things. And movies make people think, and thought is never completely ill. But there are Indian actors who could have played the Mahatma." A light came briefly into his green eyes. “Even I could have played the Mahatma. But—” He smiled tightly. “Not for any money on this earth would I do such a thing. Only for Mother India, mother of us all.”

I want you, she thought, so much.

“Viddy,” she said, “come back to the house with me, will you? I know it's late but I feel like talking. Will you?"

Without meaning to she stroked the back of his neck with her finger.

He could not meet her gaze. He said, "Yes, I too feel like talking. Perhaps because my work here is almost complete."

Back at the house he lapsed into a crestfallen silence.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. She was seated beside him, but a distance away—give him space! she thought—on the black couch in her living room. “Something's wrong, Viddy, I can tell."

He gazed at her for several long seconds, in mute assent at the correctness of her judgment, then looked back out the great window at the glittering night city hung with so many soft lights. He blinked several times, as if to gather courage from the swift rhythm of his glimpses, then turned to her.

"I am a fake," he announced.

He waited for the thunder to descend.

She did not know what to say: she did not know what he meant. She swallowed and touched his arm timidly.

“What’s—what’s wrong?” she asked.  "You can tell me,  Viddy."

He stood and went to the window. His back was to her, muffling his words; she thought how like a cat’s back, full of emotion, it was.

"I am a fake," he repeated, in a strange, strangled voice.

She waited in silence for him to return to her. Did he feel he had failed in his work, or failed her in some way? But he had been wonderful to her, from the start!

"I don't know what you mean, Viddy,” she murmured finally.

He turned back to her, and she saw he had reached a decision. He sat back down on the couch, near her, and put his head in his hands.

"Am very sorry," he muttered. "I am so very sorry."

She put her arm around his shoulders and gathered him to her. “Oh, Viddy, what is it, you can tell me."

He lifted his head from his hand and said softly, “Yes, yes. Perhaps I can." He seemed to droop within her arm’s embrace and then, still seated, drew himself up again, to his former full strength.

"It has been too long," he announced. "Too long since I have been home to Chagroonimalautignyapore. I am no longer real Indian. Am polluted by this society. Am no damned prodigal son, to stay away so long and do this to oneself."

She gathered her legs beneath her. She could feel his body tensing now, full of purpose. She put her other arm about his neck and clasped him loosely. He was hers now, she sensed it.

His face was very near. He said hoarsely, “I would like to take you with me. But this final journey must be made by myself alone. As it is said, so must it be done.”

His green eyes did not waver from her blue gaze. Within the loop of her draped arms she felt his entire being whirling like the needle on a compass, the magnet slowly drawing it round the giant axis of the heavens until at last it pointed straight at her.

He was breathing heavily. “Amanda,” he said in a low voice, “I am a mere man, not a Mahatma. I may never see you again in this lifetime.” He licked his lips. “Remove your clothes, woman, and kneel down on that rug. We will start with the position forty-three of the Kama Sutra.”

“Oh, Viddy!”


They were lovers for a week, then he left.

Even afterward it seemed to Amanda that she was singularly lucky to have known Mr. Mayweg, no matter how briefly. He was everything her husband had not been. Viddy was giving, he was fun, he was fascinating. He had not sat in judgment of her, but listened with patience and approval. He had made her no promises and yet kept the unspoken ones. He had taught her everything he could of a culture that thrilled her, and he had removed the ugly mark India had left on her. She couldn't believe, now, that so different a place might one day be within her power to grasp.

Yet after he left, saddened as she was, she was not heartbroken. She understood that it was his destiny to return and her destiny to remain. She was learning, finally, what India had tried to teach her—as Viddy put it, "to accept what cannot remain unaccepted."

Her own stoicism surprised her. She missed him in bed; he was a wonderfully creative lover, different from most American men she’d known. He always refused to remove his underclothing, though, even his t-shirt, and for some reason this excited her.

She did not expect to ever hear from him again, and he had no address to leave with her. She did not try to put him out of her mind; in fact she wrote several letters to him directly into her journal. She thought of him almost constantly, with the mingled poignance, awe, and appreciation of an astronomer gazing through a powerful telescope at a flourishing galaxy, a bright whorl of stars retrieved from the past and preserved in the present by the clear lens of memory, yet somewhere far away already unfathomably changing. She knew in her heart that she was witnessing in his departure not the death of a star but the rebirth of one.

She was surprised, then, two months later, to receive a huge package mailed from New York with “Mayweg” as the return address. It was the end of October now, the evenings breezy and the moon appearing at the deep end of her pool every night. The package had been mailed three weeks previous, and inside, meticulously wrapped, was a turquoise silken dress with gold handiwork, of Indian design, and a huge book of photographs, with text by a noted scholar, and entitled The Treasures of India.

There was also a letter, written in black ink in a pristine hand on fine paper.

My dear Amanda,
I am hoping so very much, prior to departing the shore for my own beloved
coastline, that the two presents I have sent with this letter give your mind and body 
as much happiness as the time with you gave to me, and of a similarly deep and 
lasting nature. May you think of me with affection always as your grateful
Vidhiadad Prahadur Mayweg.

But that was not all. When she opened the book a note in Viddy’s handwriting fell out.

Amanda—a friend of mine from this disgusting city may be calling on you shortly. 
His name is Alan Walker. He is an actor. Like all of these damned actors he has not 
perhaps decided where the dream ends and the reality begins, but who among us 
can say that he has not sometimes gone astray in this respect also? I think you may 
like him—he has a sense of humor—and I know you will not judge him harshly. He 
means well.
V. P. M.

The last two sentences surprised her: she thought she rarely judged anyone harshly. That sort of judgment belonged to her cats—perhaps they would not approve of this Alan Walker! She wondered when she might hear from him, at why destiny in the strange form of V. P. Mayweg was bringing them together. She wondered whether she might like this friend of Viddy’s. She hoped she might.

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