A Russian colony deep in the Indian jungle
Legs crossed as best I can, knees on the floor, spine straight, hands resting on the lap, one on top of the other, thumbs gently touching. I try to relax my shoulders without losing the firmness of the posture. I breathe. Through the barely closed curtain of my eyelids a misty darkness penetrates, my gaze rests, unfocused, on an indefinite place on the floor. I hear nothing but the sound of insects. It still smells of the insecticide we burned last night, the beam of the flashlight illuminated fluttering, crawling shapes wherever I pointed it. It’s impossible to close the window screen, the wood is swollen from the heat and the humidity, and bugs pass through the cracks. Our house is the last one, at the end of the path that enters the jungle and there ends. There’s not even electricity here, the room is used as storage and is full of bags and piles of bedclothes. Dimitri promised we would move soon.
Anyone who could see me now, eyes closed in such darkness, would say that I sleep sitting up, and it would be hard to explain what I get out of it instead of staying in bed for another hour. But I’m awake, my mind, just now snatched away from sleep, is already jumping from one memory to another, thoughts and the little irritations that urge me to move, to swallow my saliva, to change the position of a leg, to react to an itch. It’s not a bug that bothers me, I’m not that experienced in meditation, if I felt tiny legs crawling on my skin I wouldn’t be able to resist and not shake it away, it’s one of those itches without a precise cause, that comes and goes and changes places. I keep resisting, and from the inner struggle nothing can be seen on the outside, I’m a statue of flesh. The morning reveals itself slowly in the light that passes through the eyelids…
And then the alarm clock goes off! How long have I been in this half-awake, half-dreamy trance that made time move forward? Sara mumbles, hammers on the bed table with her hand, looking for the phone to turn it off. She staggers sleepily behind me, passing through the other houses and all the way to the porch. While she awakens, I help the Russians move the tables and chairs aside to free up the space. Each of us gets a mat. Aleksei, the sensei, waits cross-legged for us to be in position, we line up in two rows in front of him. On the floor spirals of citronella are burning, to keep the mosquitoes away. We say little, we yawn a lot.
Aleksei demonstrates the exercises, instructing us with monotonous phrases in Russian, which Dimitri, the director of the center, translates. We start with slow movements, deep breaths, and move on to a vigorous exercise, with as much of yoga as military instruction, that warms up the whole body. One of the Russians, Peter, leaves in the middle of the session to prepare our breakfast. We carry on, yoga is a must for everyone. Dimitri fumbles in the last repetitions of the exercise and lets out a fart, hoping it will be lost among the sounds of exertion. Prakash, an Indian volunteer, huffs and puffs, trying to see it through to the end. Katia, the only woman among the Russians, replaces the exercises with ones she likes better, working on her legs. Sara and I stay with her in the back row and exert ourselves moderately. The morning is cool and pleasant, by the time we start working it will be too hot.
When the yoga class is finished we put the chairs, the benches and the tables back in place. If Peter is not finished yet, we help him with breakfast and bring everything to the table: a pot of oatmeal, a jar of honey, cinnamon, and four or five bowls with fruit (pomegranate, papaya, pineapple, banana, apple, grapes…). I ready the coffee pot with the coffee that Sadhna’s father gave us. We eat leisurely, breakfast is one of the favorite moments of the day. Still at the table, Dimitri assigns the tasks. Katia will cook, the Russians and Prakash will build a bathroom next to the kitchen, so we don’t have to go to the bedrooms every time we need to use it. We will continue painting.
A wall bisects the house closest to the porch, half of which is Dimitri’s office and the other half the kitchen. The two doors at each end of the kitchen are always open, forming a corridor through which we pass into the living area, a wide, deforested area with an unused well, and surrounded by areca palm trees, absurdly slender and tall, where the ropes for hanging clothes are tied. On the far side of the clearing are the little houses, first Dimitri’s, in an overlooking position, then the one we are painting, with another attached. The next one is at ground level, and the rest are on the way down the path. In total there are seven houses, well-spaced, made of large earth-colored bricks joined by fat cement joints. On the outside, the irregular bricks are bare, with no finish, just a white painted stripe around the windows and doors, and another thick red stripe skirting the bottom, the same color as the floor inside.
Dimitri leaves us to our tasks and goes off on his motorcycle to do the day’s shopping. It’s about fifteen minutes to Gokarna. On the side of the road, among the trees, a portico marks the name of the recovery center, with green letters on a white background. The dirt road vanishes amidst the greenery after an elbow curve, the recovery center is well below the road level, buried deep in the jungle and far away from view.
Dressed in white T-shirts with the center’s logo, Sara and I get our hands on the buckets of paint, brushes and rollers. By the third day, a glistening white covers the walls, all that’s left to do is paint the floor. We start at one end, next to the bathroom, rubbing the floor with the paint-soaked rollers, walking backward to the door. The first time I painted walls I was eight years old. The house my parents had built in the countryside was still in bare concrete on the outside, the walls gray with green shuttered windows. Two years after we had moved in, there was finally money to finish painting it, and I wanted to ‘help’, so they let me paint too. Once, I took Sara to see this house where I lived for more than twenty years, now taken over by the creditor banks and left to rot. Weeds were growing in place of grass, the shutters hung crooked from the hinges, the windows broken, and inside the empty rooms with the still white walls had been gutted, stripped of their copper insides.
We work slowly, with many breaks, no one is checking our pace. Russians and Prakash have always heavier tasks, today they are carrying bricks down from the parking lot. I go to the kitchen to make tea and watch them walk by with the rocks in their arms, their chests bare and shimmering with sweat. Aleksei and Peter look like Russian mafia goons, tough and mean-looking. Aleksei has a shaved head, icy blue eyes, and a Bruce Lee tattoo on his right arm, in combat stance, with an outstretched arm that widens in thickness and ends in his meat-and-bone fist. Peter has thin black hair pulled back, dark, inscrutable eyes.
From the office door Dimitri, now returned, is giving instructions. Prakash descends the stairs behind Mayur, an Indian employee, very quiet and modest. Instead of bending down under the weight of the bricks, they have wrapped a rag around their heads and walk straight, holding them up high.
“Mayur taught me how to carry bricks. It’s much easier this way” says Prakash enthusiastically.
Dimitri takes no notice of him. “Why all the trouble? Just carry them in your hands, it’s faster. The Russians don’t need those tricks.”
Katia calls me from the kitchen, the water is boiling. I ask her what she’s cooking, a chicken stew with vegetables and rice. Apart from Dimitri, she speaks the best English among the Russians. She has flowing black hair, a bulging bosom, and long, shapely legs. She could be one of the prostitutes that come to Goa to make a living. A nasty thought, I know she came with Grisha, the youngest of the Russians, and her boyfriend.
Sara sat on the steps of the house, smoking and waiting for the tea. We sip it quietly, now we only have only the front steps to paint. Prakash comes from the kitchen, smiling, with his face smeared with oil. “Hey! Dimitri asked me to repair the generator” he says, enthusiastically. “I’ll get the tools.”
Working hours are Monday through Saturday, from nine until one, never more than that. Sara and I finish earlier and spend the last hour washing the brushes and stalling until lunchtime. Behind the kitchen, Sara rubs her hands under a trickle of water falling from a pipe, the reddish water runs between the leaves on the ground and reveals the henna marks on her skin, finally fading. Red is more noticeable than white on the clothes, and we ended up dappled in paint.
Perpetual Motion is a serial novel. Go to the Table of Contents to read previous posts.
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