And Then There Was Michael Weiss
April 27, 2018
This is a short extract from The Last Email (2017), Mridula Garg's latest novel.
Mridula Garg is one of the few Hindi writers who also write in English. The Last Email is about two lovers who reconnect after four decades. They realise that the long years of separation have not diminished their love and desire for each other. They're both old and have families of their own and continue to stay in their respective marriages. In this, it is a departure from most other novels about lovers reconnecting after years.
This isn't the first time that Garg has chosen to write about something that is seldom explored by writers. In 1979, she wrote Chittacobra, a novel about a woman caught in an unhappy marriage who chooses to have an extramarital affair. Garg was arrested for writing "objectionable" material in 1982. A lengthy court battle followed, during which "sales of the books were suspended, stocks frozen." ['The night I was arrested,' Mridula Garg. The Hindu. 7 November 2010]
Read more about her ordeal and her latest novel in in this interview with the author.
M to K 31. October 2008
I say to you what I said to Michael Weiss, a boy my son’s age, a stranger, who just happened to come by during the most catastrophic time of my life. A few days after my son died
He did not have much English being an Austrian, also Jewish, as I told you earlier. A fine painter, an innovative musician and training to be a doctor (aren’t they all in Vienna)! He was here to work at a leprosy hospital in Chennai during the summer vacation. I met him again before he left for Pokhra in Nepal where he read Chittacobra in German, hence the tribute, as you called it, on the flap of a later edition. It was much more than a tribute. He was speaking from his soul to mine as no one ever had.
Not even you, though you wrote to me with genuine heartfelt feeling when you learnt of my tragedy, from the Indian High Commission in London. That was soon after we had met in London, you remember of course. Among other things, you asked me not to withdraw from you. I don’t think I answered, but I was touched and felt you close to me. But there were too many fears strangling me and I could not answer. I did not withdraw deliberately, it just happened. And then coincidently, your later letters went astray. A conspiracy of fate or a coincidence, who could say…like Michael Weiss?
Now, when I look back I wonder how could a total stranger understand so intimately what was in my heart and mind. For long I did not even think of that; it was so natural.
Write, I told him, when you want to. All his letters afterwards began with the words, ‘Now I want…’
For nearly eight years, every time I thought why would a young man write to someone as old as I, his letter came; as if my thoughts had reached him. Michael was twenty-six, the exact age my son was when he died and Michael came to me.
He later gave up medicine and became a painter. In fact he had sent me a sketch of a cured leprosy patient from Chennai after his first two visits to me but I did not think that it would become his vocation or one of his vocations. He also played an ancient musical instrument called Saaz. Later he went to Japan and took a vow of silence to learn classical theatre including Noh. And other things like that…there were many unfathomed depths to him.
Then a few years later, his very young sister Anna committed suicide. The last I heard from him was to say he was going on a pilgrimage for her. No more. I don’t know where he is or if he is. I am afraid to find out. For all I know, with all his talent he might be a very famous man and easily traceable on the web.
But…if he wanted to, would he not have written… after all he wrote to tell me of his sister Anna and also to say that my letter of shared grief had helped him. He was still with me but then the pilgrimage…and I never came to know why that vibrant young spirit had killed herself. Also I am not that good with Google so even if I try I might not succeed in tracing him. As you did me, God bless you…
But the truth is that I have never tried.
Who knows, one day I might open the door of my house and find him there! I’d take him in my arms and hug him to free him of all cares. But why should he have cares…he would be a famous painter or musician or actor or all three together…or else a mendicant? Who knows! Whichever way it might be, no vow lies between us to prevent me from holding him close like my lost son and soul mate…the true Sufi mashooq.
Before Michael went on to do other things, he did a fair sized painting for me in memory of my son, whom he had never met but perhaps knew better than anyone except me. It was a Japanese print and he sent it to me from Vienna by ordinary post. Surprisingly it reached me and hangs in my living room.165 166
It shows small children being taken out of their coffins and buried again. I don’t know the religious implication. I have never tried to find out and I don’t want to know.
For a long while all I saw in it was a red flower. Then gradually I saw a coffin and the print of the face of a man. There was grief and also hope and hopelessness: resurrection or rebirth, whatever one wanted to see. I saw all of them but above all saw my son, recreated by Michael, yet lost forever. So I wept and wept and did not stop weeping for a whole day.
I feel a great need to tell you more about Michael, his sudden appearance in my house, his sensitivity and also his antecedents. I had met his uncle, William Goldman, a Professor of History during a seminar in 1988, the first time I had gone abroad for a literary event, in Dubrovnik, former Yugoslavia. We connected well as co-passengers do on a ship; but we did not correspond or keep in touch.
Five years later in July 1993, when I decided to take a trip alone to Austria on my way back from a conference in Germany, I wrote to him and asked him if he could meet me in Graz. He did for a day and showed me the sights, not from a touristy point of view, but as only an astute historian could, with an incisive and humorous perspective. I never realized he was Jewish, but why should I have. It was, after all, 1993. But perhaps I should have, because I was coming from Germany where they had taken me on an obligatory tour of the concentration camps. But Prof Goldman did tell me of Vienna’s deal with Hitler, whereby Hitler agreed to spare its demolition if he could have Graz instead. He showed me the ramparts of the ruined forts of Graz, but more significantly, took me to the church with two staircases which met on every floor and separated again.
Little did I know that, just two months later, my world would come crashing down. That I would turn from a gregarious cheery woman to a stone. Goldman had no idea of what or how I was doing but when his nephew Michael Weiss decided to take a trip to India, he told him to be sure to meet me in Delhi. He gave him my address and I guess not my phone number; I don’t think the mobile phone had yet been invented; at least it had not come to India.
Anyway… Michael did not call. He just dropped in one evening! Little knowing that he was walking into a house of mourning, or about to come face to face with a woman, more dead than alive, who hadn’t slept for a week and walked around like a robot.
He came in, young and vital, to hear from my niece about what had happened. He saw me sitting rigid and mute on the sofa before my son and his wife’s picture. He walked over, came and sat beside me. Then he took me in his arms without saying a word. And would you believe it I put my head on his shoulders and went to sleep. He spoke to the soul within the stone I had become and filled it such empathy and succour that I came back to life and, like a newborn, went to sleep. He came again the next day with everyday ordinary flowers that he had picked from a wayside garden and gave them to my son and his wife. There is no other word for it. He did not put them ritualistically on the table on which their picture stood; he did not hand them over to me; he gave it to them as if to living people.
He told me he was going to Pokhra in Nepal for a few days. Mountains, lakes and solitude! That’s where I want to go…I whispered. He said you will. He then asked for the German Chittacobra, (his uncle must have mentioned it) and said he’ll write to me as he read it. He did and I felt I was in Pokhra with him.167 168
He came once more before he left for Austria. He seemed destined to come on catastrophic days. My elder sister had had a heart attack and I had spent the day in the hospital with her. I came home to a pile of dirty dishes and no help. I had time only to prepare kadi chawal. You know what kadi chawal is, of course having lived in India for so long. And of course, like any Indian woman of my generation, I had to ask him if he wanted to eat anything! When he said yes, it threw me in a tizzy. Then I remembered that someone had brought chocolate barfi to my sister in the hospital. That’s what we Indians excel at, bringing unsuitable food to the sick. My sister had not only had a heart attack, she was a heavy diabetic—so what better gift than a box of sweets! I offered them to Michael; after all he was from chocolate-crazy Vienna. He politely refused, said his grandfather had fed him so many chocolates in his childhood that he had an aversion to them. He could not eat anything with a hint of chocolate and this was solid chocolate plus thickened milk! I was still wracking my brains about what to give him when he quietly picked up a bowl and filled it with kadi. He sat in my kitchen, eating it with relish and said it was delicious. This time it was I who took him in my arms and hugged him tight till he said he was leaving for Vienna the next morning. The earth stopped spinning and my grip loosened. I had to sit.
He sat at my feet and said, ‘I need to ask you something. If I leave medicine, it’ll be a great blow not only to my parents but all my uncles, the whole family. And yet…I want to play music, paint, write…don’t know exactly which…but what do you think…should I continue with medicine or…?’
My brain cried out, ‘Do medicine. You will make a wonderful doctor. Who else would opt to work in a leprosy hospital, draw sketches of the patients and write with such poetic feeling about them?’
What I said was, ‘You have the soul of an artist. Choose music or art. Your family would understand. After all they don’t force you to eat chocolates, do they?’
He got up, embraced me and said, ‘I’ll write.’
That’s when I said, ‘Write when you want to.’
I have already told you the rest. He wrote when he wanted to…the important thing was that he wanted to. That he could write to me about his young sister’s suicide as naturally as he offered flowers to my dead children or held me in his arms or painted an abstract painting, both poignant and mystical.
So I repeat to you, write when you want to. It is up to you to decide what to do. For myself I think my heart is big enough to give love to lots of people without bothering about right or wrong. That’s why people write. To play havoc with the world’s accepted sense of right and wrong.
E 421(G.F) G.K part 2
New Delhi 110048
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