Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Curtain

"Daring disbelief!" The swami's stool begins to rise slowly and smoothly into the air, suspended on clearly visible wires.

"So early in the night for these tests! We have told one fortune only – do you not wish for the show to go on?" The sage looks into the darkness of the audience and towards Cati's general area. Eyes twinkling, he coughs out a little laugh. "Daring lady, your is'lip is showing – and there is simply nothing else that we can reveal – regarding your undergarments." Someone in the audience sniggers.

Ramanuja now turns his attention to Thelonius, who is standing. The sage lifts his chin and looks down his nose at him. "This has all already happened, my brother," he announces grandly. "And these tests . . . I have never before passed. Please listen:"

He smiles sharply with his lips parted, teeth bared. " What searcher seeks the actor on the is'tage and the props behind? Who will see only what is obvious to us all: that the show is indeed a show? The really interesting question is what lies underneath – within – beyond." His eyes flit towards Cati and back to Thelonius.

"Or is it one who can disregard the rowdy lie in his face, who can appreciate the play of maya, our illusory existence, as such? We are but players in roles, and we go where the is'cript-writers of fate – Brahm, Vishnu, and Shiv – dictate.

"Yet, we can see the world with the third eye." He presents his open palm to the audience. He folds his little finger and thumb against it. "Will you see the births, the preservations, and the deaths of the tri-lok with the mind of the three-fold Godhead? Will you adore the worlds within and around you everywhere with the hearts of the divine brides, Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Uma – the ladies of Knowledge, Luck, and Power?" Thrusting his palm forward, he continues. "You are right now thinking of the number three, but how could you not be?" He pauses.

"We know that this is not the right now that tugs at your heart." Ramanuja shuts his mouth tightly and stares silently at Thel for several seconds. Thelonius returns the stare. "You want from us the number 61344225," the swami announces as he withdraws his hand. He smiles again, baring his teeth. In the spotlight, they gleam as brightly as the sequins that line his collar. His countenance suggests the sordid grin of a street dog – or an idiot. "Brother, if you are truly daring, there will be portraits for you to preserve."

He turns his face away from Thel's direction. Ramanuja glares through the darkness hanging over the audience; his gaze passes over Henri and directly to the scarf-wearing woman sitting next to him, Millie. He locks his gaze on her for a moment. Millie slips her hand under Henri's. The bon vivant can feel the smooth flesh on the back of favorite model's hand tense into goosebumps. "It is just as well that the show be short," Ramanuja sighs. The sage's eyes pass from the pair; his gaze searches to the right, passing over the monocled Englishman, over Emma, and to Cati. Watching her, he pronounces, "And these, brother, are your models . . . but:"

His smile dissipates and his eyes roll back into his head. "Mistress, you will die!"

His head falls back and he rocks backward as if struck. "Wait!" he cries. "It is coming now! We have passed through! Ho! What time! What comes next!" He lifts his face dramatically into the stage lighting and his jaw slackens once again. He brings his hands forward and up into the beam of the spotlight. The swami looks as if he is grasping at dust motes. He exhales and coughs a little, then sags at the shoulders and leans forward again. Face ever skyward, Ramanuja's body folds and he tumbles chin-first from his elevated stool. The hard smack of his cheek against the floor echoes in the dark ballroom.

Three stagehands rush towards the fallen swami, followed clumsily by Mags in her heels. "Vikram?" she begs the swami. "Vikram!"

She looks out to the audience. "Is there a doctor? – Call for a doctor!" She kneels closer over Ramanuja's senseless body. "Shit!" Mags lifts his head onto her lap and turns his face towards the audience. "Don't choke!" A string of shiny drool falls from the corner of his mouth and onto her dress.

Of all the elements in this strange scene before him, the one that catches Thel's eye most directly is the mess on Mags' dress. Henri releases Millie's hand – he, too, notices Ramanuja's glimmering drool, and how very opaque it is, like mercury, or a sky brimming with shining stars.

The ballroom lights turn on, and the starlight disappears. Ramanuja coughs. The audience's eyes adjust to the new light.

As he rubs the folded edges of the bill in his hand, Thelonius sees the woman who echoed and amplified his challenge for Ramanuja, the very woman had who guided him into the ballroom. Cati is standing now; her hands are on the seat in front of her, bearing her weight as she leans forward with unabashed curiosity. Henri stands between them, peering at the swami's face. Except for these three, everyone in the audience is still seated.

Through her makeshift veil, Millie looks up to Henri and takes his hand in her own. She pulls the borrowed scarf completely off with her other.

"For God's sake," Mags weeps, "close the curtain!"

(Thelonius and Henri passed spot hidden checks.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Show


It's about ten til eleven when the lights flicker off. There are a few murmurs of surprise, but the source of the disturbance is quickly made clear: as the lights come back on, Mags Whitcombe has taken the stage. She moves across the stage floor with an understated grace; in fact, she barely seems to move at all beneath her long evening dress. No flapper, Mags' clothing does not so much create an illusion of boyishness or curve-less-ness as it completely hides her shape from the bust down. Her blonde hair is rolled into fat, unfashionable curls.

She is smoking. "Thank you all for coming. That’s the customary thing to say when one is on stage and greeting a room full of friends and persons with nothing better to do than drop by the Audubon on a Tuesday night – isn’t it . . . ?" She hums at her own joke and smoke seems to fall out of her nostrils. "I guarantee you all: This is something better to do. Oh yes. Tonight –" she begins to move across the stage again "– I give to you all a man unlike anyone else you’ve ever met. Vikram Kumar Ramanuja is more than just a performer. He is a . . ." She exhales and seems to deflate. Is she sighing or just expelling smoke from her lungs? "He is a man so great that none of you, nor I, will ever understand. He is a teacher, a guide, a master of the tantric arts; a seer among mere see-ers; a master among mere men; a maker among mere creatures.

"Tonight he is here at my request alone. Entertainment is not in his heart, only enlightenment. Some of you have already met him, and have had a taste of what he can do. The future is his to survey, the beasts are his to command, and the elements bend to his will. Tonight," she repeats, "he is here at my request, and what he does is no trick. I hope you enjoy; I hope you are edified; I know each of you will come away from this evening changed. Every last one of you . . ."


After Mags departs from the stage, the lights dim once again. Most of the crowd is now seated and a wave of half-expectant noise passes across the ballroom. Offstage, pipes are playing – high-nasal Arabesque chords. "Oh brother!" cries one member of the audience. "What next? A snake-charmer? A troupe of Turkish dancing girls?" Somebody laughs with the comment. Like a yawn, the laughter spreads. A muffled guffaw turns to a chortle, then a bellow, then a chorus of titters and giggles, and then – "Wait!"

There is a shape on the stage. It prowls in the darkness, on all fours. An animal? "It’s a leopard!" someone declares. The form moves about in the dark. A voice hails the audience. "So, I hear that you have come to see monkeys!" Its tone is reminiscent of any number of imagined South Asian voices, but the accent betrays British schooling.

Something springs from the stage – in the dark it is unclear whether or not the shape has been thrown or if it has been launched under its own volition. Behind Thelonius there is a gasp: a woman is clasping her hands together over her mouth. Her eyes are locked in a frightened gaze upward, where, suspended in the air over her head, is a huge, white-furred monkey. The size of a twelve-year-old, its long, ungainly limbs are spread out, as though it means to pounce on the woman. Its menacing fangs are bared and its black eyes – which shine in the dim light like glass beads – are as wide as the woman's own. Yet, it is motionless, as though it is just an image. In the air right above him, Thelonius can see that the beast is tethered to a rope, which extends into the darkness of the stage.

The creature begins to withdraw, but without moving and without coming to ground on the lady's face (as she surely expected it would). Stiff and motionless as a mounted specimen, the leaping thing is pulled backwards through space on its lead. In the dim light nothing apparently supports the monkey from above or below, yet it is drawn over the heads of the audience on an even plane as a toy train might be drawn across the floor by a child.

The monkey reaches the stage and the lights are turned up, but only enough to reveal the onstage form of a man: A very fair-skinned man, wearing a fine Mandarin suit and a bejeweled turban just like the one depicted on the poster. This can be none other than Ramanuja himself. "Ho!" laughs Ramanuja as he pulls the monkey down onto the stage floor. As it nears him, the animal returns to animated life and completes its leap, landing at the swami's feet. It shakes its joints out like an athlete preparing for a footrace and settles on its haunches. From his pocket Ramanuja produces a carrot for his assistant. The monkey snatches it and begins to munch away – with its relaxed pot-belly and calmed eyes, it is now rather more Buddha-like and less bestial. "Good monkey!" he says.

"Raju! Kud!" the swami commands, and the monkey does a backflip. "Kud! Kud!" The monkey jumps twice more, never dropping its carrot.


For ten minutes, the flying monkey tricks drag on. They're not all bad: Raju leaps, dances, strikes poses, and squeals on command. The crowd reacts positively to the decidedly non-mystical performance – indeed, if there is anything unusual about the show thus far, it is the animal's amazing powers of contortion and strength, which it executes with all the restraint and grace of a mime artist. Raju's most impressive trick is also his final one. His master commands, "Barh! Barh! Barh, Raju!" At this, the white monkey seems to grab hold of an invisible line and climbs up, up, up seemingly into thin air – until he has disappeared behind the border curtain and into the houselights. Once Raju is gone, Ramanuja bows and claps. "Please, congratulate my little friend!" he says smiling.

The lights dim once again. "That should satisfy those of you who wished for a circus show! Now, allow me a moment to prepare – I am not just a monkey-trainer." A member of the stage crew brings a large, cushioned stool out and positions it center-stage. Ramanuja takes a seat on the stool and folds his legs in a lotus position. He closes his eyes and allows his shoulders to relax.

Mags Whitcombe's voice projects dramatically from off-stage. "Please be silent while the great swami contacts the gods." Aside from a few whispers and the sounds of shifting, the audience complies.

After two long minutes, Ramanuja's jaw goes slack, his neck relaxes, and his arms drop. "Who has a query for the gods? They know all and we see their is'cripts." The quality of his voice has changed. It has now settled into the nasal monotone expected of such performances. "This has all happened before," he drones in his chant-like voice. "Who will dare to know the future?" His neck seems to regain its strength and Ramanuja brings his head fully upright. The swami surveys the crowd and selects one of the young tuxedoed men who earlier were suspicious of miscegenation. "Young, young master. What will you know?"

"Say, is my lady keen on that fellow at the 150 or not?"

"She is not," is the immediate answer. "Not as you suspect. But," Ramanuja adds, "it is curious and unfair of you, sir, to make such an inquiry, given your own conduct!"

The tuxedoed man’s sober friend once again leans over his shoulder, grinning. This time, his friend has no advice for him, only a punch on the shoulder. The audience laughs. "You don’t know what you’re talking about!" protests the accused.

"O-fo! Of course we do! Who else dares?"

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


The flappers Emma and Cati escort the rumpled photographer inside, followed by the chattering pair of au courants.

The stage has been extended and perhaps fifty chairs have been set out around a dozen tables. Near the door, a handsome duo dance cheek to rosy cheek; they are the only pair to do so in the entire joint. Wait staff mill about serving hors d’ouvres and cigarettes – and, of course, no alcohol. Though it is nowhere near capacity, the ballroom is positively encrusted with the gems of high society, mingling and chatting about the goings-on of the island, the city, and the world. From the forced transformation of Russia at the hands of Stalin into the Soviet Union, to the more local spectacle of Diana Dalziel's marriage to the banker Thomas Reed Vreeland, the dance floor is alive with news and gossip.

The show has not started, but judging from the tittering of the modest crowd – it's only a Tuesday, after all – it will soon. The majority of the spectators and socialites are here purely for purposes of entertainment and many seem to regard Ramanuja first and foremost as a magician. Some are here out of interest in the occult aspects of the show and rumors of the monk's prescience. A few clearly consider the occasion to be some kind of outrageous debut. "Not good, I say. There’s only one word for it," too-loudly whispers one sauced-up fellow. "Mis-ce-gen-ation."
One of his pals leans over his shoulder with a virgin cocktail and offers a meager defense for the presumed couple, "You talk as if V.K. hails from Darkest Africa."
"Might as well for the voodoo he worked on that banker."

(Action point: Some time will pass before the show begins. Characters may mill about, snoop, mingle, explore. Next post will be made in a day or two: "The Show".)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An Evening at the Audubon

The Audubon Ballroom!

A monument to the success and ego of filmmaker William Fox, the Ballroom normally hosts vaudeville acts, but is also available for the dances and socials of wealthy Manhattanites. Tonight’s fare, however, is something quite different, for this evening playgirl Margaret “Mags” Whitcombe has rented the place out for the debut of her personal teacher, the mysterious Eastern monk, Ramanuja.

It’s a smaller affair than what is normally held at the Audubon; the queue of tittering flappers and dapperly dressed gents barely rounds the corner. Oh, the birds are roosting alright, but the doormen manage to move them along quickly enough to prevent any conspicuous accumulation of society types on the sidewalk. While the wait to get inside is very brief, a few snippets of conversation may be easily overheard if one bothers to pay attention.

". . . send a rope straight into thin air and have a monkey climb down with flowers for the dames . . ."

"Baby, those eggs don't know what they’re missing – this fella's as genuine as genuine comes I'm tellin' ya! I've seen it!"

". . . not gonna make it through the night – but don't'cha gimme no lines about flying Orientals."

". . . into a trance and spilled the beans on Cholly to Mags, Mildred, God, and Creation. Ol'Ramanoony did Cholly in right then and there – you shoulda seen the look on his face!"

"I’m here for the monkey show."

"She found him in San Francisco. Came out one morning with – oh, what was his name? You know, the banker – and he was just sitting there on her doorstep legs tied up Indian style, eyes rolled back in his head – oh, here’s my invitation."

A poster is sloppily pasted to the wall by the door. It occurs to you that Ramanuja might very well be at home among the magicians of Vaudeville after all . . .

(Ramanuja poster adapted by HomoDM from show poster for "Alexander: The Man Who Knows")