WHEN I FIRST met Prakash in the small Shiva temple in Benares that he helped finance, he was dressed in a clean white dhoti and was talking to the temple priest about God, his face brighter than the murtis on the altar.
“We must get together in New York,” he insisted. He gave me his card, sticky with prasad. It was hard to imagine him as a New Yorker. To New York, God is just another immigrant.
I kept his sticky card on my desk when I got home. I didn’t call him right away. I don’t trust the staying power of connections made in spiritual heat.
But Prakash was happy to hear from me. He gave me unnecessarily elaborate instructions to his house. I told him I had been there many times before in my previous incarnation as a foot messenger for a law firm.
Welcoming me into his duplex in the East Thirties that extended practically to the East River, Prakash, in blue slacks, looked gray, punctured.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. I touched his shoulder, the same scaffold of bones I remembered from India. A millionaire who didn’t eat.
With an agitated swipe of air, he introduced me to his daughter Ritu, a plump cardiologist whose ears dangled with heavy metal. She shot Prakash a tense look. I had obviously caught them in the middle of something.
“They confiscated my bottle of Ganga water at Customs,” Prakash finally said. “They said it was a health hazard.”
“It is a health hazard,” Ritu insisted. “Water from the Ganga? Are you kidding?”
“It is holy water.”
“People shit in that water.”
Prakash crumbled like a child who had been wrongly smacked. I tried to understand what it might mean for him to take comfort in a living river, the spawn of Shiva, that gives him the life of two worlds, only to have it confiscated at Customs and mocked at home.
After being separated from innocence, does one find it again? Are the blows to Shiva’s Ganga part of carrying the river with you? When he arises, in what direction will Prakash walk? The word exile. Does he know it?
“I have to go,” Ritu said. “I will leave you to your friend.”
Prakash looked at me and kept looking. He seemed to be trying to make up his mind about me.