The following is the thirty-fifth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available in paperback, in various ebook formats including Kindle, and as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog! The author also welcomes your comments.
Adam’s flight from Israel to India flew over the route of the original human migration from the near Middle East to the Fertile Crescent, across Persia, and to the Indus River Valley.
A taxi driver deposited him at a small hotel in New Delhi, and for a few days, he wandered around in a daze, glad for the temperate winter weather. He made himself take in some of the principal tourist sites, but felt disconnected and isolated. Getting his pocket picked at the Red Fort didn’t help. He only lost about twenty dollars worth of rupees, but it made him feel like a naïve tourist.
Remembering his promise to François, Adam wrote his mother to let her and Rowan know where he was, and to give his letter a little heft, he included his out-of-Africa ruminations.
As he wrote Easter’s address on the envelope, the baobab bracelet on his wrist caught his eye. It was ragged and dirty, but so far, so good.
On his way to the train station for the day-long trip down the Ganges to Banaras—where he hoped to find Vishu’s guru—he stopped one last time at American Express to check for mail. There was a letter from Marisol, and in an envelope postmarked Moscow were separate letters from his mother and Rowan. He immediately opened and read these two.
December 31, 1992
On the spur of the moment, we decided to fly to Moscow for our wedding.
Moscow is where we first realized we might be able to give our story a different ending. We returned to a park on the Moscow River outside the city where we’d picnicked during the summer of 1990. Back then, we sat on the riverbank amid the flowers, drinking champagne and watching the boats drift by. This afternoon we huddled in a shelter, drinking vodka and watching boys play ice hockey. Rowan, who still has friends at the Embassy, had the chef make us a lovely little wedding cake.
In marrying Rowan, I feel I’ve closed an open wound and come back to myself. But I want you to know that I have no regrets about my life with François. I don’t need to tell you that he is a fine man, but perhaps I do need to let you know that he will always have a place in my heart.
Your loving mother
Adam folded his mother’s letter and put it back in the envelope. Then he opened Rowan’s.
I knew the dollar was strong in Russia, but I didn’t realize it was this strong! On short notice, I managed to rent an entire church—complete with a Russian Orthodox priest—for just two hundred dollars cash. The ceremony was conducted in old Russian, an archaic language that’s no longer understood by anyone, including a former Russian colleague who stood in for you as best man.
After consenting to the vows—we had no idea what we were agreeing to, by the way—the priest sang a soulful dirge, presented us with icons of Russian saints, and topped it off with shots of hundred-proof plum brandy. Then, waving a pot of incense, he led us around the beautiful old church and out onto Sparrow Hill, from which Moscow could be seen under a blanket of snow. It was a glorious day.
As you know, your mother’s and my relationship has not been an ordinary one (if such exist). So we wanted to do something extraordinary to mark this milestone. We also wanted an unassailable excuse for not inviting any of our friends to the wedding. A Moscow marriage filled the bill. Your mother tells me that she mentioned our return to Fili Park in her letter to you. Yes, that’s where we first realized that our love had persisted through the years of separation. The result is that you and I both get to know each other as adults. I’d never have planned it this way, but I couldn’t be happier about how things have turned out.
I love you, Adam.
He stuffed Marisol’s unopened letter in his pocket and raced off to the train station.
Boarding the train at the last minute, he discovered that every seat was taken and he’d have to stand in the aisle for hours. But hearing from his parents, who’d obviously forgiven him for what he’d said in anger before he left, had the happy effect of rendering him oblivious to physical discomfort. People were huddled in the spaces between cars, teenage boys swarmed over the roof with the agility of spiders, and bicycles were strapped to the train’s sides. At every stop, wiry men sold thimble-sized earthen cups of milky tea that were passed up through the windows, consumed in one sip, then dashed on the ground below.
In Banaras Adam found a pension that for a pittance provided room and board by the week. From that base, he set off every morning to explore the city on the west bank of the Ganges River, sometimes heading north toward the confluence of the Varana River, and sometimes toward the Asi River that marks the city’s southern boundary. These tributaries gave the city its modern name—Varanasi.
The city itself was a web of narrow lanes teeming with vehicles, pedestrians, animals, and rickshaws. He wanted to capture its soul on film, and shot several rolls of film every day. He vowed he’d never ride in a rickshaw, that ancient mode of transportation in which one human being, in harness like a draft animal, tows another through the streets.
A few days later, several miles from his pension, he had a severe intestinal attack and had to rescind his vow. He gave the fellow who hauled him home in a rickshaw a big tip to assuage his guilt. Later that afternoon, he stumbled ashen-faced into a local pharmacy and, before he could speak, the man at the counter seemed to know he was looking for anti-diarrheal medicine.
He spent the next day in his room. His weakened condition opened him to the sounds of the ancient city: birds chirping, cows mooing, humans talking and singing, cars honking, scooters revving, awnings flapping, and his landlady sweeping the courtyard. Banaras was slowing him down, making him listen and inviting him to widen his gaze. In contrast to Jerusalem, which had jangled his nerves, this ancient city cooed a lullaby. The illness humbled him and left him content to do nothing, expect nothing, and want nothing more than an end to his nausea.
While temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, the balmy January weather helped him recover. On the third day, after a light breakfast of bread and tea, he sidestepped his way through the churning streets to the dusty calm of a neighborhood bookstore.
Though the window display featured travel books, novels, and comics, inside he found a vast collection in philosophy and religion. One wall was devoted to Hinduism, another to Buddhism. At least half the books were in English, India’s second language. No distinction was made between new and secondhand books. A back room was full of comics of epic Hindu myths.
He soon tired of standing and, in addition to a map of the city, he chose a fat book entitled Philosophies of India and a thin one called The Great Equation, which the elderly gentleman at the counter assured him would explain the fat one. When Adam asked him if that meant he could dispense with the fat one, he recommended that he take it too, as it would answer any questions left unanswered by the thin one.
Adam realized that he’d been drawn to The Great Equation because its title evoked the elegance and certainty of mathematics. If Indian philosophy could be expressed as an equation, he might be able to understand it. He hurried back to his room to read it.
The equation of the title was “Atman = Brahman.” As best he could make out, this meant that the Soul is not different from absolute, divine, cosmic reality. The equation was simpler-looking than those he’d studied in higher math, but like many of those, its meaning was not immediately apparent.