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Sculpting the Elephant by Sylvia Vetta

Bombay Dreams

Ceylon, May 1882

What a surprising discovery for me (but not for the Ceylonese)! Ashoka’s eldest daughter, Sangamitra, came here to spread the teachings of Buddha at the request of King Devanampiya Tissa. It appears that Ashoka’s initial reluctance to send his daughter on an overseas mission was overcome on the insistence of Sangamitra herself. She founded the nun-lineage of Bhikkhunis & it is still in existence. Why didn’t I know this before? It’s aim is to achieve as high an attainment in Buddhism as men. Extraordinary, simply extraordinary. If John Stuart Mill knew about this, it would add fuel to the fire of his determination for women’s rights, an issue that I have long regarded with scepticism. This discovery is making me reconsider my position on the Second Reform Bill.

I have been guilty of underestimating Dora. She too is a determined woman. Dora & Douglas are on their way. They should reach Port Said next week. I must find a way to reach Bombay for when their ship docks. The early monsoon has wreaked havoc. The floods & landslides are devastating. No one wants to travel. It has taken thrice the expected time to reach Colombo. It is proving to be extremely difficult to find a ship willing to take me to Mumbai. I’m pinning my hopes on a clipper returning from Hong Kong.

When the well-travelled chest of drawers was shipped to Mumbai it was called by the British name Bombay, and the journey to India through the Suez Canal took three weeks. Harry’s was a lightning journey in comparison: a flight of nine hours. 

He emerged from the air-conditioned jet and stepped onto the tarmac at Shivaji Airport – and the heat took his breath away. Although he wished the arms of the Hindu god could stir up the Mumbai air, the artist in him was conscious of the vast sky and the dazzling light. He had booked into a medium-priced hotel not far from Marine Drive in the knowledge that Gangabharti’s apartment was nearby, a mile from Chowpatty Beach. He wanted to settle in and acclimatise before calling Gangabharti. At least that is how he rationalised the delay. His procrastination was really because Harry had no idea how Gangabharti would react to his unexpected arrival. Ramma had not replied to his emails. Was all the effort to be a wasted journey?

He unpacked his sketchbook and opened at a drawing of Ramma. Was she still in Madhya Pradesh? How would she react to him pursuing her to India?

After tea and a rest, he took a stroll onto Chowpatty dreaming that Ramma might be in Mumbai and had decided to do the same thing. His eyes swept over the crowds, taking in the vibrant colour. The beach framed a vast panoply of life: yogis, families out for a stroll, ragged children, hawkers, tourists, fishermen and office workers heading for the stalls of bhelpuri. Despite the unreasonableness of the expectation, he was hit by a wave of disappointment because Ramma was not part of this Indian picture.

He joined a queue of workers at a food stall. Ten minutes later he sat on the sand admiring the artistry of the paper dosa before taking a bite from the mouth-watering stuffed South Indian pancake. Made from fermented rice and lentil flour it was shaped like an elegant fan. Harry savoured the aromatic sensation. Was this experience really his for less than fifty pence?

The food stalls made the temptation to eat hard to resist. The aloo tikka chaat garnished with coriander and tamarind sauce and the yoghurt looked healthy as well as desirable. Waiting for his salad to be assembled, Harry’s attention was distracted from the variety of life on display around him by the sound of children shouting.

A crowd of ragged boys exclaimed excitedly as they splashed into the sea. It was different from Europe – of course – there were no adults in the water except fishermen bringing in their catch. The boys alone were having fun in the water – swimming, or, at least, trying to. Women in saris and small children dipped their toes in the ripples on the shore but did not swim. Most had bare midriffs, which must have been blissfully comfortable in the heat, and they giggled whenever they delicately lifted their hems so the waves could caress their ankles.

Harry pulled out his sketchbook and drew them like colourful ghosts on the shoreline, their brightly-coloured saris blowing in the sea breeze. In England, with the sun low in the often-cloudy sky, the vermilions and tangerines would appear garish but here they radiated brilliance. On a grey winter’s day in Oxford, he wanted to be able to close his eyes to experience this moment again. It crept up on him, the most romantic sunset he had ever seen. Ribbons of green, brown, red and grey shimmered on the water as the languorous dying sun throbbed just above the horizon. There was all this beauty around him but no sign of Ramma. Harry’s senses yearned for her. Why hadn’t he felt this certain in England? Emotionally exhausted, he headed back to his hotel, showered and slept.

After breakfast, he plucked up the courage to phone. A manservant answered, so Harry gave his name and asked for Gangabharti. Ramma’s father received his call, sounding full of bonhomie.

‘Harry, so you are here. Where are you staying? We have a guest room, you must come here, no? This morning I must be in the studio. Why do you not join me? Would you like that?’

Harry breathed a deep sigh of relief. He tempered his excitement at what he was hearing with a desire to be tactful: not to rush things, not to ask if Ramma was there too. ‘That is so generous of you, sir. I don’t want to put you out but I’d love to take you up on both your offers, if I won’t be in the way.’

‘Not at all, young man. My driver will pick you up at 10.30 and drop your luggage off here before taking you to the studio. We can catch up with our news this evening.’

Sculpting the Elephant is available in paperback and ebook

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