When we lived in Varanasi the Gods were present and very much alive. Even now we still talk to them. In this shallow sterile modern world, without their help we’d long ago have lost our way.
Like Go Papasan !, Mitsuko first wrote Govinda as a page for our Japanese language website. What follows is a loose retelling we hope preserves the spirit of her original piece.
Not much more than a month past the end of monsoon, recently a raging dragon, the Holy Ganges again flows powerfully between its normal banks. Yards deep, half dried clay still covers the giant bathing steps leading down into the river. As they’ve done for centuries, skinny almost naked men with hoes break it up, load it into baskets, carry it away on their heads.
Gone is the dark water which knee deep filled the streets. Once scary slippery, the left behind mud, cracked by harsh sun, blown by wind, trampled by men and animals, has almost vanished.
In the drier air the outrageous heat is now bearable, for the first time since the rains began food looks and tastes good. Flood season there’d been only squash, now street vendors sit behind careful piles of pumpkins, potatoes, carrots, big white radishes, tomatoes, eggplants, spinach, cabbage, and cauliflowers, cauliflowers which first appear just fist sized, later showing up big as footballs.
Happy to have once more survived the final fever wracked miserable days of monsoon, the people of the ancient city all look forward to the brilliant exciting autumn festivals.
Animals too are big relieved the rains are finished, relieved everything is back the way it’s supposed to be. Deer like cows, slender and elegant, by day wander free through narrow streets, at night return on their own to their owners. Water buffaloes, only noses out, stand content in the no longer dangerous waters. Donkeys dance by with astonishing high loads balanced on their tiny bodies. Camels without effort carry heavy bundles of firewood. No longer huddled hiding from the rain, monkeys chase each other, fly with joyful cries between flat roofed buildings.
Our story starts on a long slow lazy afternoon. His chai shop only half open, under a shade of tattered canvas the dude who makes tea naps on a narrow wooden bench. Behind him in the Old City, movie hit tunes float from a radio hidden in the maze of alleys.
Most of the monkeys lounge sensibly in the shade, quietly picking lice from each other’s fur. But one oddball, Govinda by name, as usual and by choice is all alone…
Perched way up on the top roof of Tiwari House, the highest place between the main crossing and the bathing ghats, he sits brooding. His favorite spot, safe from humans except for boys during the winter kite season, just perfect for a monkey lost deep in waking dreams. Idly he scans the far shore, trees and houses shrunken in the distance. Far below a circle of waves marks the arching jump of a long gray river dolphin. Then again all is still.
Eyes narrow to thoughtful slits. How wonderful to just once be a dolphin, to stare and stare at all the wonders under the water, to see my full of that strange world. Forever he’s had that wish.
Afternoon sun warm on his back, dry river breezes tickling his fur, drifting, dozing, another second he’ll be gone…
What’s that! Suddenly his ears prick up. Below him, wrapped in a sari, a woman walks out onto her roof, goes over to a plastic bucket full of water. In her hands a stainless tray with three tomatoes. Yawning hugely, Govinda quietly slides down to the low concrete wall surrounding the roof, without a sound steals along its six inch top towards the woman. On one side it plunges 50 feet straight down to the street, but for a monkey happy to walk a power line, it’s an avenue.
Busy washing her tomatoes, the woman doesn’t hear his approach. Eventually she finishes, stands up, straightens out, and there’s Govinda two feet from her face. Eyes meet. She’s confused. Govinda wide opens his mouth, shows his fangs. She screams, jumps back, freezes. Wasting no time Govinda swoops in, pops one tomato into his mouth and holding another in each of his hands dances away on his hind legs. On the next roof, he turns around and laughs. Since she first saw him it’s been just seconds. The woman’s still stunned, silent. Then her man explodes from the door, angry waves a long stick, but he’s way too late.
She deserved to lose her tomatoes, downright insulting to come out with food and no monkey stick. It’s a monkey’s duty to steal from such fools!
Retreats across the rooftops until out of stone range, then pauses for a big bite of tomato. Happily Govinda munches through the first, the second, the third…. The sweet sour juice slides down his throat, Oh Radha my love, how much you adored this taste!… it feels only yesterday you turned me on to tomatoes, taught me to always steal three, one for each of us and one for Lord Hanuman, the Great Monkey, even those stupid humans know enough to worship him… you were so quick, by far the better thief, the day you filched some from that nasty miser’s kitchen, you couldn’t stop smiling…
Still thinking of Radha, Govinda wanders slowly off in search of a good place for the night, settles finally on a sheltered ledge high up the Shiva Temple by the stone steps into the river. Tummy nicely full, the sun sets, he floats off to sleep. But maybe because he’d been greedy and eaten all three tomatoes, his dreams were wild and strange.
… As usual all alone, back on the roof of Tiwari house. Now more than ever uncanny peaceful, a world away from the bustling evening street below. Again he hears a door open, again one roof lower the pink and green sari woman walks out with a tray of tomatoes. This time too she has no monkey stick.
“That lady has absolutely no respect for us monkeys! She won’t learn! She needs another lesson…”
Carefully creeps closer until he’s just above the squatting busy woman. Getting ready to show his fangs, he waits for her to notice him. She looks up…
“Radha!” He screams and leaps backwards.
Her eyes hard with totally justified disapproval. “Shame on you Govinda! You’re such a greedy pig. Three good tomatoes you stole, and didn’t even think to save one for Lord Hanuman! ”
“But I was alone”, he stammers, even to his own ears the excuse sounds worse than thin.
“Alone? Didn’t you feel me right next to you all the way from Tiwari’s roof? Pshaw!! You’re a disgrace to us monkeys. Get yourself out of my sight! ”
She turns around, fluffs her fur, leaps to the next roof.
“Wait! Wait! Wait for me!…”, but when he gets there, she’s already gone.
In the sudden emptiness, the swelling sound of a huge bronze temple bell…
“Dong!, Dong! Dong! ”
“Radha, where are you going… Wait! Wait!… Wait for me! ”
Startled by his own voice, still brushing away tendrils of dream, Govinda shakes himself back to consciousness.
From every temple, ringing bells. The burning disk’s first spark peeks above the distant river bank, then a blaze of brilliant light. It’s day.
Head throbbing, still sobbing from the horror of his loss, Govinda works to pull himself back together, starts picking through the glowing fragments of his dream.
Your shining fur, warm amber eyes, quickest bravest wire dancer in our tribe… Two monsoons ago it was, our little Gopala just starting to clamber about on his own… that terrible day! A wet metal awning, he slipped, fell screaming to the road… like lightning you leapt, followed him down. I, a second later… suddenly out of nowhere, a car! SCREECH! Two sick dull thuds. Silence. No! No! Unfading! Burned into my brain! It won’t go away! I wanted to kill that car which didn’t kill me too. Out of my mind, I cursed Lord Hanuman! For days when I wasn’t crying I was picking fights with every monkey. The tribe, certain I was mad, shunned me. It seemed my end. Only Lord Hanuman’s mercy and Lakshmi’s unfailing love brought me back…
Lakshmi, more beautiful than the flowers you sell to pilgrims, you alone of all humans know my name, you alone shared my pain. How tight you were with Radha! How you loved to play with little Gopala! There’s no other explanation, for sure last time round you were one of us. No wonder that donkey Kumar is so sweet on you.
Look, there she is with garlands her family made today before dawn…
Smooths his fur, leaps to the ground, pads over to where quietly she waits for the straggling last few worshipers come to bathe in the Holy River.
Feeling him she turns, frowns, quick concern, “Govinda, what’s wrong? You don’t look yourself ! You’re thinking about Radha again, Yes? ”
How can she know? Those eyes see right into my heart!
Lakshmi holds out one of her marigold garlands, “Here take this, offer it with prayers to Lord Hanuman, his mercy will heal your hurt.”
Gratefully Govinda accepts the garland, wraps it round his wrist, heads down the stone steps. Following him with her eyes, her serious look changes to a faint smile. Sun fully up, the day’s business done, she gathers her few things, picks up her remaining stock of flowers, walks 50 paces to her family’s home, a space roughly walled off with bricks from where the stone steps widen out into a platform.
Clinging mud dropped by the raging monsoon floods still buries all down by the River. But the Holy Tree with its nest of steps, no longer is an island. Gods big and small crowd round its base. Among them a huge carved image of the Monkey God, glistens wet bright orange. Reaching it Govinda stops, sits cross legged before his Lord.
Respectfully and with care he arranges Lakshmi’s mala in front of him.
He prays, “Oh Lord Hanuman, please forgive this stupid worthless monkey. I didn’t hear Radha talking to me and ate the tomato she wanted to give you… please protect Radha and Gopala now they are in your care…”
… some time later, not knowing how long he’d been zoned out, Govinda opens his eyes. No one else around except a pair of mournfully cooing doves, mind smoothed, cares more distant, he’s peaceful. A few slow deep breaths, palms together to express gratitude, then an absent minded almost nothing little taste of some yogurt left previously as an offering, starts him thinking of food.
Time to check out the vegetable sellers up on main street. Got to be careful though. Yesterday one of those damn rickshaws almost got my paw. What’s this world coming to! Those honking buses! I tell you humans are a plague!
“Good Morning Govinda, it’s been too long since we’ve seen each other! ” The cheerful musical voice breaks into his grumpy musing.
Happy to be distracted, Govinda turns, sees a donkey almost invisible under two huge baskets bulging with bricks.
“Oh hi Kumar. What an impressive load! For a second I wasn’t sure if it was a pile of moving bricks or you. But how’s the old donkey doing? ”
“It’s a little beneath me to complain, but since you ask… My worthless employer is a greedy no good piece of shit. When I do my job well, first thing he does is add to my load. I tell you it’s killing me. But to change the subject to something more pleasant, have you by chance seen the lovely Lakshmi lately? ”
“Why I was just talking with her earlier this morning.”
Mixed emotions flit across Kumar’s long noble face.
“I truly envy your good fortune. Sometimes I so desperately want to have your freedom, it’s almost unbearable. All day every day I’d be right next to her, lost in the soulful depths of her beautiful eyes. Gently she’d braid flowers into my hair… I can almost feel it.”
He breaks into a despairing sobbing “Hee Haw, Hee Haw” so loud so full of sadness, Govinda must cover his ears.
Instantly Kumar is ashamed. “Please forgive my disgraceful loss of control, it’s just when I think of her something comes over me. I’ve never felt like this before, all I can think of is she must have been a donkey in her previous life.”
Govinda’s eyes widen with surprise. “Maybe… certainly with that sensitivity she was one of us animals, but you know I’ve thought about it too, and I’m pretty sure she was a monkey.”
Being very polite, Kumar doesn’t enjoy contradicting his friend, but this is important. “No! No! Those long sensitive lashes, those shiny gentle eyes, she could only have been a donkey! Hee Haw! Hee Haw…” Again he dissolves into a serious of pathetic lovesick cries interrupted only by a shriek of pain when his owner switches him a smart one with a thick cane.
Govinda looked disgustedly at the man tormenting his friend. Blood shot eyes, greasy face, fat, filthy clothing. Kumar’s absolutely right, the dude’s a pig.
Spitting with anger the man continues beating Kumar, “You good for nothing donkey. You eat my food but won’t do my work. Get your lazy ass in gear!! ” Swatt! Swatt! Swatt! Blows rain on poor Kumar’s butt.
Eyes red with hatred, Kumar’s leg twitches as though contemplating a game ending kick, but the flames die, he lowers his head, trudges ahead. Beaten and defeated, choking off tears, voice hoarse and broken, he throws a parting whisper back to Govinda, “When you see her again, be sure to give her my regards…”
“Not to worry old fellow, I won’t forget.” Trying to look cheerful, Govinda forces his face into what he hopes is an encouraging smile.
“I am in your debt Govinda. Truly I am fortunate to have such a good friend.” Pulling himself together, Kumar trots off before his boss can hit him again.
Feeling helpless, rooted to the spot, Govinda watches Kumar get smaller and smaller.
Poor sweet Kumar doesn’t deserve to be pushed around that way by a creep who should be roasting in hell. Bet he only gets piss poor cheap food. Oh Lord Hanuman, this world makes no sense to me, sometimes this ignorant monkey just doesn’t know what to do. Kumar never does anything wrong, yet still he’s treated badly. If I could give him just a little bit of my freedom, enough so he could visit Lakshmi, I would, but Lord, freedom’s my most important treasure, and though it’s greedy of me, I’m not good enough to be willing to swap places with him…
Ah! What’s that delightful smell?
Loaded with bananas, filling the air with a delicious sweet aroma, pushed by a man, a flat wooden cart with two large spoked wheels slowly approaches.
Making himself small Govinda doesn’t move until it’s right in front of him, then like lightening leaps onto it, grabs a bunch of overripe bananas, without pausing flies to the back of a nearby cow that’s busy eating vegetable scraps. Stuffing the fruit into his mouth, a half second later, before the man can move, he’s quick climbing a wall to the safety of his monkey rooftop world.
That night, as though answering his prayer, Lord Hanuman sent Govinda a sweet dream.
Thick deep jungle, Govinda and Radha sit together on the branch of a Mango tree.
“Radha my love, where do you think we are? ”
“It’s old Varanasi, back before the nasty humans cut the trees, back when all India knew it as the Forest of Bliss, when hermits and holy souls searched here for the door between the worlds.”
In the moonlight each hair of her fur glistens like stardust. Looking at himself Govinda sees he too is glowing bluish silver.
“Let’s go ! Follow me!,” lighter than a feather Radha flies to the branch of the next tree.
“Go? Go? Where are we going? ”
“Off to see our little Gopala. He and Lord Hanuman are waiting for us.”
Govinda leaps as though weightless through the fragrant warm night air. Huge trees, their edges painted silver by the moon, cast complicated intertwining swaying shadows on the soft jungle floor. In the distance, the sound of splashing water.
It’s like my old dreams of the Water World, like moonlight shimmering through blue green glass!
The trees tremble, blur, come back into focus as long grasses swaying beneath the waves, softer than any grasses which ever waved in the wind. Govinda, smooth, sleek, glides among them. Silver beams play across bottom, he can see every detail of each pebble, of all the strange insect like beings walking sideways across the River’s floor. Everything around him swaying, dancing, silent.
Suddenly materializing out of nowhere, a huge long gray body slowly approaches. Govinda’s shaking, terrified, desperate for a place to hide. In a voice warm and soft as velvet, the being speaks.
“Welcome little one to our Water World. The Monkey Lord has heard your wish to be a dolphin.”
Am I really a dolphin! Can it be true? Ecstatic, Govinda tries out the power of his tail.
Shooting high above the surface, dazzled by a quick glimpse of the brilliant moon, the reflected moonlit forest, he turns a somersault, dives head first back into the river. Still a bit unsure of how to do things with his new body, his bulbous nose plows into the soft silted bottom.
Far below the waves Govinda’s blunder stirs up mud, suddenly it’s dark, difficult to see.
Graceful swaying water weeds sing out in protest, “Oh Govinda you thoughtless boy, you’re so clumsy! You’re throwing dirt all over our perfect spotless leaves! Who then will want to dance with us? We’re lost! We’re lost! ”
“Please forgive me ladies, it’s all so new, so exciting, my head’s spinning! ”
Slowly the mud settles, once more the graceful grasses dance, again all is well in the Water World. Govinda has never felt so much himself, so content.
Wait! Wait! Where’s Radha? Where’s Gopala? Suddenly he’s frantic.
Darting, searching, heart pounding, he must find them!
At last, indistict in the distance, half hidden behind waving water weeds, Govinda catches a glimpse of what could be two shining figures. Drawing closer, peering carefully through a mist of sparkling bubbles, he see’s it is indeed a tiny dolphin playing joyfully around its mother.
“Radha! Gopala! here I am! here I am! I’m coming! ”
His voice shaking the water, with strong strokes of his tail Govinda swims straight towards them.