During the night someone has parked my bed in the no-standing zone just outside the Australian Museum, College Street, Sydney. It’s all black, not a star to be seen, the city’s light pollution masking their millions and millions, the universe’s night sky blotted out. And there’s this eerie music playing in the background, its growing tempo bearing a horrible resemblance to the theme music from the first ‘Jaws’ movie; that opening swimming scene just before the naked busty girl gets bitten in half by the oversized Great White Shark, except now there’s this hollow-eyed ample-breasted woman looming towards me in the darkness across the end of my bed. She has no teeth, her empty gums stained a sickening red-black from the chewing of betel nut and the sucking of cremation ash. “It’s a bad habit lady!” I call in reprimand. It’s as if they have recast the Bodhisattva Tara in the lead role from the original film version of ‘The Woman in Black’ and I’m a little worm wriggling about on a fishing hook, stuck fast by its cruel barb to my bed. To make matters worse there are two old hags from the tobacco industry, perched up on the museum’s roof top screaming out “it’s all about choice, it’s all about choice”. One hag has a little pink breasted parrot on its shoulder, the bird chorusing in accompaniment “and he’s only got ‘oornamental’ knowledge, ‘oornamental’ knowledge”; the words screeched out and repeated over and over again, rising in ever high pitch above the commotion of city traffic.
But it’s not finished yet, not by half and a bit more of it. In the park opposite troops of wraith-like office workers and lunch-break joggers float without any discernable effort through the carnage of a great battle. Trees have been uprooted and thrown about, public waste bins carelessly upended, and memorial bronze statues overturned and broken. Flowering tamarinds, silk-cotton trees, paper-barks and leopard-woods, all up-rooted and splintered. Amongst it all lies the torn corpses of giant forest-roaming ‘vanara’ monkeys and night-roaming ‘raksasa’ demons, and there by the park’s War Memorial to the Unknown Soldier, the waters of its shallow lake now turned to foul and bloody gore, lay the epic heroes Rama and his brother Laksmana, their motionless bodies pierced by hundreds of arrows shot from the golden bow of the demon Indrajit, son of Ravana, Lord of Lanka, captor of Sita. And Sita in fearful lament approaches the body of Rama, her husband, crying rivers of tears and freely quoting aloud from a paperback translation of an early version of the Ramayana, one of several versions available in reputable bookshops at a modest price: “Ignorant liars, all of them, now Rama’s been killed, those fortune-tellers who foretold I should bear sons and not be a widow! Ignorant liars, all of them, now Rama’s been killed, those who foretold I should be chief queen of a sacrificer and wife of an oblation-maker! Ignorant liars all of them, now Rama’s been killed, those Twice-Born astrologers who publicly labelled me auspicious! Each of my feet, certainly, bears the lotuses which are supposed to deck women destined with their kingly husbands for monarchy, and even without my lucky signs, search as I may I cannot discern in myself any of the signs which doom ill-omened women to widowhood. These lotuses, supposedly a true sign of a woman’s fortune, have today become untrue for me now Rama’s been killed. With my fine, smooth, dark hair, my unjoined eyebrows, my shapely, hairless calves, my gapless teeth, my neat temples, eyes, hands, feet, ankles and thighs, my glossy rounded nails, my even fingers, my smooth, swelling breasts with their sunken nipples, my sunken, deep-set navel, my firm sides and chest, my pearly complexion and my soft body-hair, I was said to be provided with the twelve signs of good fortune. The teller’s of girls’ fortunes noted my gentle smile and my unblemished, well-coloured hands and feet with all the right barleycorn marks. I and Rama were promised for the monarchy, it was our due, now it has come to nothing”. All this from the mouth of an undernourished and wasted girl who had wandered wretched for weeks in the wilderness, her skin soiled, her flimsy garments filthy and torn. It is all a confused scene from the epic battle before the fortress walls of Lanka, Sita stooping to tenderly kiss the blood-smeared lips of Rama, only to be interrupted in the final second before they touch by the intervention of an Indian film censorship officer. “AAArh, AAArh” I call out, then two more ‘AAArhs’ in hurried repetition, my anguished cries for help sounding more like a pathetic attempt to mimic a crow up to its neck with the enjoyment of eating a well-stewed bit of day-old carrion, than a frantic plea for divine deliverance. Then there’s this nudge in my ribs, followed by a reassuring voice alongside me in the bed. “Wake up, you’ve been writing that book again haven’t you?”
I was at Day 21 of my manuscript, the road trip having ended eight months earlier, and I was having trouble with the opening draft. I just couldn’t get past the first paragraph. I was in desperate need of an opening theme that didn’t have anything to do with whinging about up-market hotels, the price of a meal in Indian rupees, or pseudo-scholarly prattle concerning history, religion or philosophy. I was stuck in the gutter, the one adjacent the museum’s ‘no-standing zone’, and each night I found myself drawn to the caverns far below its cold walls of colonial era sandstone. There dwelled worm-ridden gypsy ‘raksisis’, their skeletal frames whirling madly like entranced mystic Sufis, ever around and around, their swirling multiple arms outstretched in demand of money. I was convinced it was the karma thing, and if I’d had a previous life or two, in one of them at least I must have tallied up more debit points than credits, and done a good share of misdeeds that I was now paying for. In the balance of my heart my past sins were weighing heavier than a feather. I was held in a dream of the ‘Age of Kali’, the ‘age of the one legged cow’; a metaphor for the ills and chaos of the world, and writer’s block, as good as any, and I had not yet learned the folk cure for recurring bad dreams; that of putting a little sprig of oaten straw under my pillow each evening to feed the ‘night mares’.