Infinity Between Us
MAITHREYI NANDAGOPALAN
I
stand before a red door, its dark cranberry color vivid against the grey
house, the grey sky, the grey snow on the lawn. It would make the perfect
backdrop for a Christmas wreath, and the season calls for one. But there is no
wreath, and this is no occasion for festivity.
I want the door to open, and yet I don’t.
My father’s hand presses the doorbell––his gloves grey, too––and a
melodic fourth rings out in the still air. The door opens just as the second
note fades to silence. My parents enter, but I do not follow them. Instead, I
stay leaning against the doorjamb, facing the stairway that rises across from
me. He’s sitting on the third step, his shoulder against the banister where a
thin crack mars the wood––my handiwork, from sliding down the stairs eons
ago. I stare at him, trying to find something in his face to recognize. There
isn’t much, but I know who he is. He couldn’t be anyone else.
Geoff. My friend, once my best friend, whom I haven’t seen since my
family moved to California eight years earlier. Geoff, with whom I was
engaged at the age of three––at least until he refused to let a girl on top of his
bunk bed––and I broke it off. Geoff, with whom I went sledding once behind
my apartment, where we overturned our saucer in a tangle of snow and flailing arms a mere instant before crashing into a creek. Geoff, with whom I
somehow thought I’d be able to pick things up from where we left off, as if
we’d grown up a thousand miles apart but on perfectly parallel paths. I forgot
that parallel lines don’t converge.
We are here, after so long, to mourn his older brother, who turned seventeen a week ago and died four days after that. I should know what to do––I
prepared for this moment on the plane, scripting lines for both the left-alive
brother and myself, his long-lost friend. I am nearly thirteen years old––a
mature thirteen, adults often say––and I have thought about death. It may
come at any time, I know, and I’m all right with that. Until it does, I will live.
Afterwards, nothing will matter. I accept that people might die. I accept that
I might die.
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With the edge of the doorframe digging into my shoulder, I discover that
I have never really thought about the possibility that my best-friend-turnedstranger’s brother might die.
“Hey,” he says, into the silence. Just that. And I, who as a child was
restricted to three sentences per bite at the table so meals wouldn’t last for
hours––I who at twelve already sprinkle my speech with four-syllable
words––can think of nothing to say. My scripted lines have fled, and I can
only stare at him. Above him, the staircase turns a corner into darkness. His
eyes, too, are very dark, and suddenly I can’t remember what color I had
remembered them to be. He doesn’t look like someone who would find comfort for his grief with me. He looks like a calm thirteen-year-old stranger
whose parents might have baby pictures that match my memories. The
silence, which seems infinitely long, stretches on between the two of us there
in the vestibule, six feet and eight years and a thousand miles apart.
I finally manage a “Hey” in response to his, but close my lips over the
instinctive “How are you?” that tries to follow. We are pretending that things
are normal, that he hasn’t just lost his closest brother, that we’re not talking
across a decade’s silence. I can pretend, because what else is there to do? But
How are you? would go too far.
“You’re tall,” he says. “Much taller than I remember.”
“I grew,” I tell him. “And you’re sitting down. I’m standing.” The trivial,
the irrelevant, the innocuous, the game with no stakes.
He looks at me. I stare back, utterly miserable and utterly helpless, and
utterly selfish in my misery and my helplessness. This isn’t how things are
supposed to be. I can’t see his grief, and I have no right to it.
But something passes between us as we stare at each other––something
that whispers of the memory of friendship and the nature of loss, of the illusions two strangers might offer each other. It isn’t much. It isn’t enough. But
it’s a start.
“I’ll show you where you’re sleeping,” he says, and I follow him up the
stairs.
I am a thousand miles, give or take, from the grey winter of that grey
house. A thousand days, give or take, have passed since then. The July sun
mercilessly assaults a dance studio in California. Every surface, from the mirrors on the walls to the varnish on the floor, seems to radiate heat. My teacher
sits untouched by the sweltering air; by contrast, I am disheveled and trembling, having danced already for three hours, with bruises on my knees from
slipping gracelessly on my own sweat. This latest dance piece, less technical196 - MERCER STREET
ly demanding than the others in my repertoire, was supposed to be a reprieve,
but what it lacks in physical rigor it makes up for in emotional intensity.
Somehow, I’m not getting it right. All the parts are there: I’ve memorized
the music and the steps and the gestures. It’s not a linguistic barrier, for the
lyrics are in Tamil––the language of my lullabies, which slips with equal ease
into endearments and epithets, any speech of strong emotion. It’s not that I’m
unfamiliar with the music, because I’ve studied this style of singing for years
precisely so that I could understand what I am dancing to. But something is
still missing, and I don’t know what it is. The parts don’t make a coherent
whole.
“Stop,” my dance teacher says. “This isn’t about you. Stop making it
about you.”
She’s right. It’s not about me, it’s about the song’s heroine, the naayika,
from whose point of view these lyrics were written. The piece I’m learning,
composed by the Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi, is called Asai Mugam,
“Beloved Face.” The naayika in this case is a girl who has fallen in love with
the Hindu god Krishna––the notoriously perfect lover, he of the night-dark
skin and lilting flute. Through a haunting and plaintive melody, crescendoing
from lighthearted exasperation into crushing grief and longing, the naayika
laments that she has forgotten his face. She remembers the warmth of his
embrace and the shape of his smile against her lips, but when she recalls his
form, his face is blank, and when she envisions his face, the essential smile is
missing. Of what use are eyes, she asks, when she can’t remember what she
sees? Of what use is life without even one picture of her beloved?
And I, dancing as her, must somehow capture her love and her despair,
must make a real person out of this character in a song. In my teacher’s choreography, I pantomime setting up an easel and palette; the naayika has decided to paint a portrait of Krishna from the disparate glimpses she can catch,
and hopes that from their aggregate she will be able to remember the visage
she yearns for.
Critic and writer John Berger would say that she searches for Krishna’s
“likeness,” the “space with its contours” that Berger describes in his essay
“Steps Toward a Small Theory of the Visible” (109). A likeness is that part of
a person that makes them themselves––or more accurately, makes them
uniquely recognizable to others as themselves. An artist, rendering a likeness,
captures not just the contours of this space but also “an encounter between
painter and model,” not just an image but also an interaction (108). On the
canvas, the naayika tries to convey all the force of her love and longing, every
instance of her seeing and his being seen.
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I, too, am trying to capture a likeness––the likeness of the naayika. I am
trying to dance as her, follow with my body the movements she would have
made, delineate with my dancing the contours of her space, as Berger might
say. It isn’t enough to go through the motions of the dance; I have to find and
convey the identity of the girl I am portraying. Somewhere in the intersection between dance and imagination, I have to encounter her.
In the dance, the naayika finishes the portrait she is trying to paint.
Playing her, my fingers delicately holding an imaginary paintbrush, I trace in
air the arch of Krishna’s eyebrows, the line of his nose, the curve of his mouth.
Together, the naayika and I take a step back to appraise the image.
It looks nothing like Krishna. The naayika has rendered each individual
feature, but has failed to capture a likeness. The parts are all there, but they
don’t make a whole; the composite, the composition, is incomplete. And she
still can’t remember his face. In disgust, she throws her brush at the easel,
splattering invisible paint. These movements are all predetermined, carefully
choreographed, but for a moment I share in the naayika’s disappointment.
The gesture of my hand, releasing the imaginary paintbrush, is abrupt with
real dismay.
The music stops, and suddenly the buzz of an ineffectual fan and the
sound of my own breathing are unbearably loud.
“You see?” my teacher says. “Your hand is upset, your hand loves Krishna.
I don’t believe the rest of you. You are too busy thinking of how she should
feel, so you don’t feel. You analyze. You intellectualize.”
I am ready to cry and collapse in laughter at the irony. We are faced with
parallel predicaments, my naayika and I. She cannot remember Krishna and
thus cannot paint him; I cannot find a way to encounter her and thus cannot
portray her. And while I can understand this irony, I can’t break free of the
mind that understands it, the mind that analyzes and intellectualizes. I know
we are in the same predicament, and yet I am no closer to expressing it.
“Enough.” My teacher’s voice tethers me to composure. “Go home and
practice.”
When I get home I play the song for my mother. She tells me that, as the
story goes, Bharathi wrote this song as an oblique reference to the death of
his mother, of whom he possessed neither photograph nor painting.
Two years later, I come to a halt before a different painting: René
Magritte’s The Lovers. It depicts a man and a woman kissing each other, their
bodies truncated by the frame just below the shoulders. Their faces are eerily obscured by white cloths that cover their heads, pulling taut across their
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lips and noses but sweeping back and relaxing into folds that drape around
their necks. They kiss through these veils. A red-brown wall defines the right
side of the painting. Behind the lovers, the bluish grey background might be
another wall; it might be the sky at dawn, with early light bleeding up from
the lower edge. The contour of the lovers’ heads traces an infinity symbol, its
twin loops crossing at the point where their lips meet. The line of this juncture is painted into shadow.
Though they do not see each other’s faces, each can surely recognize the
touch of the other’s lips. They kiss despite their veils; the veils separate them
despite their kiss. And although canvas and frame withhold them from us, just
as they are withheld from each other, the lovers’ closest contact––the kiss, the
greatest visible evidence of their love––takes place at a point where they press
and strain against the cloth and seem to press, also, against the canvas.
We may imagine, too, that they press and strain against more subtle barriers, which the painted veils simply make visible. There is a poem by e. e.
cummings that begins, “since feeling is first / who pays attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you” (1-4). The rules that govern how
words may be related to each other, how they are ordered, are so ingrained
that it is easy to follow them without being aware of how they control us. And
there is also a syntax that governs how people can relate to each other. Most
of us abide by it without noticing. Such syntax, a grammar of relationships,
keeps the lovers from wholly kissing. It keeps the veils stretched tight across
their faces. It separates “I” from “you” so thoroughly that most of us don’t
know that anything other than that separation is possible. Consciousness distinguishes self from other; the thinking “I” of a person is always trapped inside,
looking out at people, searching for encounters to be had.
When an encounter occurs, when one thinking consciousness meets
another, the exchange is always incomplete. We hold part of ourselves back,
as does the other person, so it is impossible to see someone from the inside,
the way they see themselves. Instead, we form images of them, flights of
imagination, conceits––the products of acts of conceiving. And it is conceit––in the sense of unwarranted vanity––to think that these flights of imagination are the whole picture, or that they are the truth. Yet perhaps something may be gained from leaving a little to the imagination; perhaps the
lovers love as well as they do because there are parts of each that the other
cannot see, because they are free to fill in the hidden spaces with what they
wish to be there.
When we look at another, we seldom create an image that matches the
true complexity of that other’s own consciousness. But if we stop and think
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about it, we can see from this image, this conceit, this likeness, the suggestion
of a whole identity. We usually ignore it, instead piecing together a less-thanwhole from the parts we see of someone else. It is comforting to avoid confronting a consciousness as layered and intricate as our own; we would risk
our own selves in such a confrontation. But there is a kind of magic in seeing
people as more than the images we form of them, or at least embracing the
awareness that they are, in fact, more.
Paintings, too, perform this kind of magic. They suggest, within geometrically enclosed spaces, a view of the infinite. It is a dizzying thought that
through a bounded two-dimensional surface layered with pigments, we can
look beyond our limits into an endless space. Sometimes it can be a terrifying
thought, and when it strikes me, I have to turn away from the painting that
inspired it. I am limited, bounded by the outermost layer of my skin and by
the things I don’t know; and all that I am, because it is finite, comes to nothing in the face of the infinite. I must guard against being swallowed up, subsumed. But infinity is beautiful, and art encloses that beauty so that we may
gaze upon it without terror.
One such painting hangs in my parents’ bedroom. Imagine a Madonna
and Child, both looking out at the viewer, the toddler sitting upright in his
mother’s arms. Now make the Madonna’s eyes dark, her hair black; clothe her
not in blue robes, but in a sari of vivid green and vermilion, its borders patterned with gold beads. The child is so dark-skinned that he is painted in
shades of blue. A peacock feather waves in his hair and a mischievous glint
gleams in his eyes. This child is none other than Krishna, who will grow up
to become the perfect lover, the same Krishna whose face a girl will weep to
have forgotten. This painting portrays a favorite subject of Indian artists:
Krishna as a child with his foster mother Yashoda, wife of the headman of a
village of cowherds. And though it depicts a very simple domestic moment,
for those who know the story it, too, suggests the infinite.
It’s a story I’ve often been told. One day, it begins, Yashoda set her son
down briefly to perform some household task and turned around to find that
he had vanished. Frantic, she searched for him everywhere, at last finding him
sitting in a patch of dirt, happily eating the mud. Relieved but angry, she
scolded him, crying, “Open your mouth!” He refused, proclaiming his innocence and protesting that he had not eaten any mud. Failing to convince her,
he began to cry. Only when she threatened to spank him did he tearfully open
his mouth, into which she peered, expecting to have to remove the dirt.
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And she could not believe her eyes. His mud-smeared lips contained the
entire universe. The cosmos danced and galaxies spun between tiny white
teeth. All the endlessness of time and all the boundlessness of space were captured there, and peering into that perfect circle, she saw vastness that brought
her to her knees in terror and awe. Her Krishna was no ordinary boy.
Prankster and paramour, cowherd and king, divinity in human form, he united the endearingly mundane with the transcendentally eternal. And in return
for his mother’s devotion, he granted her a glimpse of eternity. Some versions
of the legend maintain that, had he not enclosed it within the curve of his lips
and shielded her with his own face, the sight would have driven her mad.
There is a place on the shores of Lake Jackson, Wyoming, in the Grand
Tetons National Park, where the lake water shrugs in gentle waves against a
pebbled beach. Across the water, the Tetons themselves rise, streaked with
snow even in summer, and from this vantage point it is easy to see how they
got their name. To the left, a small pine-covered peninsula thrusts out into the
lake, pointing at the mountains. To the right, the pebbled beach continues
until it curves out of sight, reemerging at the slope of a green hill.
My family, moved by arbitrary impulse or irresistible compulsion, chose
this spot as our breakfasting site on the last morning of our visit to the park.
Wanting to explore, I walked toward where the beach curved out of sight.
When I was out of earshot of my family, my pace slowed. The morning was
achingly beautiful, and I walked with gentle steps. My strides grew slower and
slower until the crunch of pebbles beneath my feet was barely audible. Then,
at last, my footsteps halted. Along with my family’s voices and my own footsteps, something within me had grown quiet.
I removed my shoes and socks, as if entering a temple. The pebbles were
hard and very cold, but smooth against my feet.
I sat cross-legged at a point where the more ambitious waves would just
reach my feet. The water seemed to edge back to make room for me, but
then, slowly and almost curiously, the waves crept closer until I felt a soft, icy
touch along my instep. Leaning forward, I submerged my hands in the water.
They looked strange there, refracted and distorted. The water blurred their
edges so that I could not quite tell where the boundaries of my skin lay, nor
what shape my once-familiar hands had now adopted. Beneath them, I could
see that the pebbles, dull grey and brown on the beach, were revealed for
what they truly were: vivid green, bright ochre, fiery red.
I sat there for a long time, cold and still, breathing water and pine, hearing birds and splashes and my own breath. At some point––exactly when I
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cannot say––something shifted. Thought stilled. On some dimension beyond
the three spatial ones, I was growing translucent, effaced, starting with my
edgeless hands. Lake water and human blood flowed to the same rhythm. The
infinite approached and I sensed within it my own dissolution, but the
prospect was comforting and gentle, with none of the terror I would have
expected. Some profound communication––no, communion––was taking
place, in which there was no room for a distinct human being or a discrete
sentience. Somewhere beyond macroscopic stillness and beneath microscopic frenzy, in the infinitely vast and the infinitely minute, there was convergence.
I don’t know what brought me back. At some time I realized I did not
want to go back, and realized in the same moment that I and want meant I
had already returned. I withdrew my hands, ordinary and brown, armed my
feet once more against the pebbles, and walked back.
It is difficult to pinpoint what catalyzed the experience, what consecrated the scene. The setting of this miracle was large and grandiose, dominated
by the presence of the mountains and the expanse of the lake. The site of the
miracle, however, was small, for it occurred in the simple contact between
water and hands. I immerse my hands in water every day, and have never,
before or since, lost myself. I experienced the transcendent through the trivial. Two summers later we traveled to Tibet, and though we made a trek that
for many was a pilgrimage, though we bathed in a lake made sacred by the
traditions of three religions and circumambulated a mountain holy to millions, what I received in Tibet was an education. Not a miracle. It is not up
to us to decide where our miracles occur, whether out of the mouths of babes,
or at the places where water invades skin. If I were able to replicate that relinquishment, I might have found the words to talk to Geoff. I might have performed a dance that was not about me.
Memory, too, colors my rendering of this experience. I can sense the tale
change with the telling; I can sense significance emerging not just from the
details I recall, but from my longing for those I have forgotten. Memory is
inherently an act of the self, an act that delineates what I lived from what anyone else lived, and from what actually happened. It lets us believe that we
recall things as we experienced them, but like life and language it has a syntax that keeps a part of us hidden from ourselves. Sometimes we don’t even
realize what we don’t remember. Tamil captures this better than English.
Bharathi’s song begins with the words, asai mugam marandhu poche––literally,
“that cherished face has gone forgotten.” We don’t willingly relinquish our
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memories; no, they go forgotten, creeping from our brains so stealthily we
don’t even notice their absence until something requires us to remember. I
didn’t know I had forgotten the face of a friendship until the dark eyes of a
boy on a shadowy staircase challenged me to resurrect it. And then, because
I could not give in to a more willful forgetting, a relinquishment of self, I could
not find the words to talk to him. Had I been able to erase the boundaries
between myself and him, we might have been able to encounter each other in
the infinite space between the boundaries. Instead, I settled for an ascent into
shadow, into darkness, into possibility.
My telling of that encounter is also unreliable. Geoff is an image to
me––a truer one now, and in retrospect, than he was at the time, but still an
image. Memory gives me a likeness of him, but I can’t be sure that the contours he fills for me are the ones he believes himself to inhabit. So he remains
a conceit, a flight of imagination. Yet it’s possible to get closer, to bring the
conceit into greater concordance with the truth. Once we have tasted the infinite, we know at least that there exists something beyond the boundaries,
some space in which two people might meet and know each other.
It’s only in writing that we mark spaces between words. In speech, the
rush of sound is continuous; our brains, not our tongues or our ears, parse and
parcel the sounds into separations, into syntax, into significance. Syntax is
ingrained. But its limits are not essential. The e. e. cummings poem ends,
“life’s not a paragraph / And death i think is no parenthesis” (15-16). Geoff
and I began something that day in the vestibule that eventually led us beyond
our separation. It took me a long time to learn that in giving up a little bit of
ourselves, in ceding the I to something greater, we can begin to expand––if
not escape––its boundaries. I remembered that parallel lines converge at
infinity.
Three years after the death of Geoff’s brother––three years during which
we barely contacted each other––we struck up an email correspondence. Over
email, unable to see each other’s faces, we exchanged confessions and confidences that would never have come out in person. We grew close, closer than
we had ever been. Close enough that he traveled a thousand miles to see me
perform my dance debut. Afterwards, in the car on the way home, I leaned
against the window, looking out at the darkness edging up the eastern horizon, while he hummed and tapped a rhythm on the armrest. An otherwise talented musician, he sings tonelessly, and I asked him what he was humming.
He looked at me ruefully and said, “I thought you’d recognize it. It’s been
stuck in my head all evening since you danced to it.” I stared at him, surprised
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that one of my dance pieces had so captivated him. He smiled. “That one
about the girl, and Krishna’s face.”
I still write to him. We have come to the point where, in the spaces
between sentences, I can hear the comfortable silences that punctuate the
conversations of close friends. Such silences, such spaces, need not be boundaries; they admit the small moments that transcend syntax and speech, the
moments whose duration is brief but whose potential for exchange, for
encounter, is vast. In such silences, as in the darkness above a staircase landing, as in the shadow between two veiled faces, as in the lips’ remembrance of
a smile that the eyes fail to reconstruct, as in the blurriness of hands underwater or the mud that breaks the circle of a child’s lips––in such silences, it
may be that I can disappear.
WORKS CITED
Berger, John. “Steps Toward a Small Theory of the Visible.” Occasions for
Writing: Evidence, Idea, Essay. Ed. Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II.
Boston: Thomson, 2008. 106-10. Print.
Bharathi, Subramanya. Asai Mugam. c. 1910. Perf. Asha Ramesh, Vidhya
Subramaniam, N. Narayanan, Shanthi Narayanan. McAfee Center,
Saratoga, California. 25 Aug. 2007. Performance.
Cummings, E. E. “since feeling is first.” Selected Poems. Ed. Richard S.
Kennedy. New York: Liverwright, 1994. 99. Print.
Magritte, René. The Lovers. 1928. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art,
New York.
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