In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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He arrives in London from India in 1991. His Tamil ancestors were converted to Christianity by British missionaries, and he grew up singing English worship songs in church. He got on the plane without his guitar because he couldn’t afford the extra bag. He is wearing a sweater vest and acid-washed jeans, and his hair reaches past his shoulders. There are lots of Indians at Heathrow Airport, but he is the darkest, his accent the thickest. Even in India, if he travels beyond Tamil country in the south, they tease him about his skin. When the border agent stamps his passport, he says a prayer. It must be a mistake; or a miracle. They are letting him in. They are letting him drag his suitcase over cobblestone and pavement to the church he has come to join, the church that is not quite a cult. When he arrives, he is given papers to sign: I will submit to the leadership in all matters, for they are God’s voice. I will submit my money, my body, my mind. I will go where they tell me to go. I will go, and trust God. He signs his name once, twice, a third time. Then there is a dorm with a dozen bunk beds and eleven other men like him, young and lean, and there are jobs to do: dishes to wash and potatoes to peel and tar-covered floors to scrub until his jeans turn black at the knee, because before this building was a church, it was a factory. He wonders if his English is failing him because the words don’t add up when the leaders talk about saving souls before the end of days, when the earth will be engulfed in darkness. Soon, soon, the end is coming, they say. God’s prophets are among us, they say; we must be the life raft, the city on a hill. A day passes quick and another one slow, and the night before Easter they all sit under the leaky roof in the light of fifteen candles. One by one, as the story of Christ’s betrayal and death is told, the candles are blown out. The service is called Tenebrae. It means shadows, darkness, someone whispers to him. He wonders where this name came from, if the Catholics or the Baptists or the Pentecostals invented it; if this church that is free of denominations can draw what it wants from other churches the way it has drawn him from India. Now he’s here, and there had better be something holy in this darkness. So he puts his hands up and opens his eyes as wide as he can and says he has a message from God. Slowly everyone turns. They see a skinny kid who is not quite a man speaking words that are hard to unravel because of his accent. But a guitarist adds in a few strums, and there is something just right about the sour notes, something just right about his trembling prophecy. And he thinks, I can stay. I can make this factory my cathedral. He is eighteen.
She arrives in London from the United States fourteen years later. It is the year of the city’s July 7 terrorist attacks, the year George W. Bush is sworn in for a second term, and the year her first boyfriend drives his Humvee over an improvised explosive device in Iraq. Her dad is a Lutheran pastor in the Midwest, and she grew up in a church with PowerPoint sermons, but she is tired of the lackluster hymns revamped as soft rock. Her heart aches when she thinks about that god naked on a cross, his long hair matted with blood. Her dad warned her about joining the church that is not quite a cult, but she needs more than his patient sermons; she needs truth that cuts. She arrives in the midst of a twenty-four-hour prayer session. The roof lets in a trickle of rain, and everyone is hungry because there is only canned pumpkin and donated hot cross buns to eat. Everyone pounds the floor with chairs and shouts, COME ON, GOD! as if the noise will wake the Almighty from whatever sleep he’s been sleeping since Christ’s Resurrection. There is a brown-almost-black man with wide eyes at the front, and she shakes hands with him and presses her legs together, and her senses are split open in this broken-down factory that is also a church. His accent is lyrical as he talks about dark nights of the soul, and she wonders where he lived and what languages he spoke before coming here to join this mob of believers. She wants to outdo them all. She wants to hear more of the voice in her head that she thinks might be divine; the voice that can answer questions she doesn’t know how to ask. After twenty-four hours of prayer she is prayed clean, and she runs across the lawn until she falls and rips her jeans at the knee. She is eighteen.
He is a prodigy, it turns out. After his prophecy in the factory, the church leaders take him aside and tell him God has touched him. He will be God’s voice. The light of God came through him the night of the Tenebrae service, and it will continue to do so. And he nods solemnly, mirroring their faces. His fingers still want to form chords, but the leaders have grander plans for him now than arranging notes into music, grander plans than peeling potatoes. They trot him out and spin stories of a prophet from India, and word by hollow word that country is not his home anymore. He is moved out of the dorm and into a bedroom that is also a library, where he reads books about theology and philosophy late into the night. He survives on donations from wealthy people who believe he will bring God to the world. He is the poster boy for the success of British colonialism: he is brown-almost-black, but his God is white. Sometimes when he rides the subway to Covent Garden, somebody bumps into him and says, Watch it, Paki, but he ignores this, because didn’t Christ say to turn the other cheek? At the weekly prayer meeting, where the door stays locked until everyone has confessed their sins, he meets a redheaded Catholic man in bell-bottom jeans and asks him about the Tenebrae, the service of shadows. He asks the man about the final candle, which they do not extinguish but hide to bring back on Easter morning: a resurrection. He asks whether one is allowed to be Catholic in this church. The redheaded man laughs wickedly and says there is no way to stop being Catholic, even if he tripped and wound up in hell. They talk about the Crucifixion: the Roman whips ripping into Jesus’s flesh, the wounds washed clean by the tears of a prostitute. The Catholic man is from Belfast and tells stories of walls dividing neighborhoods, graffiti, Molotov cocktails. Together they go down to the pub and drink a pint, and it is the Indian man’s first beer, and he can barely climb the stairs to his room afterward, and he wonders, Does this make me a bad Christian? He is nineteen.
She is a problem. It’s unfashionable to be an American in Europe these days, what with the two invasions and the nation moving to the right, while civilized Europeans talk about garment workers’ wages and social equality. She calls her pastor dad back home and asks in a whisper if any more Humvees have driven over improvised explosive devices and whether the naked god on the cross signed off on this latest war. On the third call she realizes her dad doesn’t know the answers, and she peels potatoes and scrubs dishes and wonders who has the answers if he doesn’t. The leaders call her in and tell her how to pray. How she must lift her arm like a sword and pray words like blows, so the devil will be defeated. How if she gets up early, when the air is clear and the world is quiet, maybe it will be easier for God to hear her — maybe it will be easier for her to hear God. She gets up at six and then five and then four and then three, but the air isn’t clear; it’s still clouded by a dispatch about a Humvee. So the church leaders call her in again, and she sits on a bench that’s hard like a pew, and they tell her they see darkness. One of them puts his hands on her head so firmly she can’t move, and he tells her to cough, and while she coughs, he tells the demons to go out of her. Then his arms are around her and her throat hurts and everyone is beaming. For a moment the air is clear and God is everywhere. She will be justice, the church leaders say. She will be wisdom. She will take God in her pocket to the dark places on the map. They put her on a train to Scotland to march with the others against the G8 summit, where eight nations gather to argue over the fate of the world. Her pastor dad doesn’t know what she is doing, doesn’t know she is becoming one of the people he warned her about. And she stays awake at night in a field and listens to the chants of anarchists burning flags and wonders, What does it mean to pray to God? Is it different than praying to everything? If she closes her eyes and presses her legs together tight, she feels a sliver of God come out from wherever he lives and pluck her like a guitar string. The brown-almost-black man is speaking words like a prophecy, and she wonders why God talks to him and whether if she tried harder, apologized more, believed purely, God would talk to her, too.
He begins to question. Fifteen years he’s been in England, and he’s read all the books and prayed all the prayers and said all the right things. He is not so young now, but he can still spew prophecies that make people shiver. At least he has that. He travels back to India every two years or so, whenever he can spare the money, and he can’t abide the trains there — so dirty, so crowded — and he speaks with too many English words, and his Tamil is rusty. His friends from school call him names that mean white man, Englishman. He goes back to London and rides the trains, where everyone is a hand span away from everyone else, and unless he goes to Camden, there are no beggars. He buys a bottle of whiskey and brings it to his room that is now mostly a library and drinks half. A great sin. In the warmth of his sin he looks out the window and sees a student there, one of the young ones, still burning hot with belief, dancing in torn jeans. The next day his head is an overnight train with a third-class seat and his mouth is a street in Chennai at rush hour and he sits next to the Catholic man, who points to the young student and says, What kind of attention is she after with that hole in her jeans?
She begins to question. She gets up two hours before sunrise to peel potatoes and listen to the factory awaken, and then everyone is up and singing while she is still peeling. She hears the clapping and the yowling and the COME ON, GOD! prayers. Is she the only one who cries with disappointment when she thinks of that naked god hanging from a cross? She looks at the new students with envy and thinks, Where did that feeling go? That feeling when the air was clear and she was rising and she ran down to the train tracks just to call the name of God into the sky? She and the others build offices in the factory, in the old garret and the storage closet and the lean-to in the back. She patches her jeans with a piece of duct tape. She is part of the organization now. She goes to meetings that aren’t for prayer. She saves her money for shampoo and shivers because she doesn’t have a winter coat, but she can’t call home to her pastor dad and admit that she is freezing, starving, failing. She eats hot cross buns with the mold scraped off and reads donated books, including a few racy ones that shouldn’t have been accepted as donations. When was the last time she opened her Bible? She starts to lie to the leaders about hearing the voice of God, because it is easier that way. Because she can’t bear to have their arms around her casting out demons, can’t bear their surety or their prophecies.
It is summer. He dreams every night of being stripped naked and whipped by the church leaders, and then he dreams about sex, because he is thirty-three — the very age Christ was when he was murdered and martyred and god-ified — and he is still a virgin, just like Christ. Once, they sent him to Amsterdam to speak about faith, and he went to a mixed-gender sauna and saw women with fat brown nipples and hair between their legs and freckles and wrinkles, and he didn’t know whether to be ashamed or elated. Now he falls asleep every night thinking of those uneven breasts and the way the women’s bellies folded over when they sat in the sauna. But when he speaks to the new recruits, he is as eloquent as ever. His English has become so good — good enough to lie. One night he goes down to the pub and sits next to the girl with the hole in her jeans, and she orders them two drinks and tells him if she weren’t a Christian, she’d probably be a nudist or an anarchist burning flags in a field. He takes her back to his room and pulls out a bottle of whiskey he’s been saving. And she’s young, so young, and he is thirty-three, but he sees she is on the same path as him, just a little behind. When did you begin to question your faith? he asks. And she says, I don’t know. Do you? Do you remember a day, a minute? What hymn were they singing when the record skipped and your belief wasn’t pure anymore? Something happened, he says, and it became unbearable to have all the answers — to have only answers. He says, It took me fifteen years to question. How come it didn’t take you that long? She shrugs and says, I just figured I wasn’t born to be a prophet. Her shrug is beautiful, so he leans closer and confesses that he is not a prophet either. He’s more of a philosopher.
She goes down to the pub with the Indian man, and she is wearing her ripped jeans and a jacket that doesn’t keep out the cold, and she grows bold and asks him questions she’s wanted to ask herself, ones she can’t find a way to ask her pastor dad. And the man touches her with his brown-almost-black hand, and they are both laughing, and it feels as if everyone is waiting for them to sin. She goes back to his room and talks about anarchy and the cocks she’s never sucked and the sex she’s never had. She says, I don’t want to brag, but I think I’d be great at it. At what? the philosopher asks. Sex, she says, because I’m so good at praying, even when I don’t know why I’m praying or who I’m praying to. I put on such a good fucking show. And his eyes are so warm, warmer than any prayer. She drinks a glass of whiskey and then another, because she wants to impress him. She is drunk. She asks, How come you aren’t like anyone else here? How come I don’t have to be pious to impress you? After fifteen years, he says, you have to be impious to impress me. You know, not one of Jesus’s disciples was pious, and they all got to fall asleep every night listening to his voice. Isn’t that a good argument for wickedness? She stares into her empty glass and says, I guess this church is doomed then, because without wicked disciples, Christ would never have ended up on the cross, and there’d be no Resurrection. Let’s go down to the river, she says. And he grabs her hand, and they run out of the building in full view of everyone, including God. At the river she looks up and wonders if she has fallen in love, if this is what it feels like, his hand and his eyes and then his body against hers in the water and his arms like truth. The river flows past. One kiss. She is nineteen.
He gets the call in the middle of the night. His mother is phoning him from the two-story suburban house in Chennai. It’s about his father, his appa. It’s about tubes and monitors and the best care they could buy and hours of waiting and tests and an emergency surgery. And now it’s about death. The end. No more of Appa’s smiles. Come to think of it, there were never many of those — mostly just stern looks with his arms crossed over his chest, thumbs sticking up. But Appa was proud when his son went to London to join the church that will save them all at the end of the world. Proud when his son sent home photos of himself smiling in front of Big Ben in a blazer and a button-down shirt with shoes shined like a real Londoner. Appa’s daughter will fly in from America, where she’s immigrated, the traitor. There is only one sibling still at home now, only one beside the hospital bed when Appa died. The son books a ticket online before he hangs up with his mother. When he leaves, the girl with the torn jeans presses her face into his neck and sticks a worn copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet in his bag. He reads it on the planes and the overnight trains, the whole body of India stretched out under him. He says the old prayers in his parents’ church, and the pastor says the blessing in English. And he wonders why he ever left India and where he will live from now on and who he will be.
She gets the call from her grandmother in the Midwest, who says, Come home right now, young lady, and go to college. She says, We all struggled to get you a good education, and now you’re just going to throw it all away? The heathens will still be there when you finish school. Her grandmother worked in a cook shack during harvest and didn’t finish high school, and the girl loves her grandmother so much she would do anything not to disappoint her — even disappoint herself. She sits outside a doorway for an hour and feels her blood pumping faster until the leaders tell her to come inside. And she tells them she is leaving, and they nod as if they knew all along and say, You aren’t one of the chosen after all. And when she hears that, she feels once more that sliver of God come out and pluck her like a guitar string. Unsaved, she packs her backpack and leaves London. She won’t be there when the prophet who is more a philosopher gets back from India. In college she is an arrogant little know-it-all who wears the same jeans with the hole in the knee day after day. She calls her professors by their first names and interrupts lectures to talk about land mines in Cambodia or bombed-out bridges in Beirut — because when the church that is not quite a cult was sending her around the world to tell people about God, she wasn’t telling them anything. She was listening instead to other stories, other prayers — even the Muslim ones, even the strange atheist ones. And one by one they unbricked the walls inside her, and the precious beliefs all went galloping out into the world, and now she is chasing them. And she is angry. Her professors are patient, because they’ve seen this all before. In three years she will no longer call herself a Believer with a capital B, and her grandmother will be under a tombstone behind the Lutheran church.
The end is a revelation, though it’s been a long time coming. He leaves the church where he has lived for sixteen years. Before the sun rises, he unlocks the gate, and with his books and three bottles of whiskey he flees to the University of Cambridge. Behind him is the church-factory, that place of leaders watching him and judging him and smelling for whiskey on his breath or kisses on his lips — all of it forbidden. Being a brown-almost-black man also feels forbidden in a land cowering from terrorists who somewhat resemble him. People look at him different now: on trains and in pubs and in line to buy yogurt. He sits with the redheaded Catholic man, who says he, too, is leaving; he wants to start his own church where he can kiss men and won’t have to go to hell for it. Because, he says, I still love Jesus, and I think he still loves me. And the Indian man says to his friend, his oldest friend in England, He does. He holds his friend’s hand and puts his head on his shoulder and cries, because for such a long time he’s had to pretend, too. For such a long time his true self was forbidden. One kiss. Then the philosopher retreats to his lecture halls, and there is silence between them for a while. Does that kiss make him bad? And why can’t he love the Catholic man, who is so wise, with his port-and-chocolate parties and his books of poetry? In his dreams the church leaders are whipping him again. He goes to a bar. A German girl is sitting alone drinking a vodka soda, and her skirt is short, and he watches her lean forward for a sip and watches the skirt hitch up even higher, and he thinks, My God. And even though she’s white and blond he takes her home and makes love to her. His first time. Afterward he wonders, Is this really it? Is this what I’ve been waiting for? And he decides he will never make love to her again — at least, not unless he marries her — because it felt like sin. But he sees her again, and they make love again.
She finishes college and sets out for India, rides the trains third-class and sees the philosopher’s face in all the faces, and does that make her a racist? Somewhere along the way she got his body mixed up with the body of that naked god, and now she can’t stop hungering for it. She thinks she is in love with the philosopher, but no one ever told her what love is like when it isn’t white teenagers riding a Ferris wheel before the boy goes off to war. And her feelings for him make her afraid, so she doesn’t tell him how she feels when they talk on the phone; they just argue all night about the U.S. primaries, Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton, and the legacy of slavery in America. He tells her about the German girl he is seeing, but she doesn’t tell him about the men she sees sometimes, because what are they to him? He tries to make her understand what it’s like to be a brown-almost-black man in a white country, and she tries to make him understand what it’s like to be a woman in any country. They talk about institutionalized violence against brown bodies and female bodies, because neither of them knows how to talk about the thing they really want to talk about. She tells him that God has gone silent, like a radio cut off. He says, I’ve known that silence. It won’t last forever. One night they are drinking whiskey together across continents, talking through their computer screens, and he says, I want to show you my body. I want to see your body. So she strips off her T-shirt and her panties, and he strips off his clothes. They look at each other until the connection goes bad. When she wakes up the next morning, she finds the philosopher has gone silent like God, and for days she waits, she prays, she sends e-mails into the void, but all that distance between them is now solid matter. She goes to bed with anyone she can find. She is as hungry as when she had only canned pumpkin and hot cross buns to eat. She loves the way it feels when men fuck her before she gets wet, rough and fast, and she pictures a brown-almost-black man next to her in the river. All the things she never did with him. All the things he never said to her. His silence day by day hurts like a wound as she rides trains through former British colonies. When she thinks of the philosopher, envy flares in her because he still believes. He can still talk to God, and maybe even God talks back. At some point she collapses onto a couch at her parents’ home in the Midwest. Her pastor dad lights his pipe and pours her a glass of wine, because his belief is real and he, of all people, isn’t judging her. He, of all people, understands. And she sits in silence with him, and it is a good silence, even though she can still hear a noise in her soul like a stomach growling.
He repents. He looked at the naked body of the girl even though she wasn’t for him, even though he was supposed to be teaching her, leading her back to God. He breaks it off with the German girl and returns to celibacy. He reads the books of the saints and the prophets. He would lament in sackcloth and ashes if he could. Because he looked at her skin, all of it, and he shouldn’t have. Because she loved him, she loves him, and he shouldn’t love her back. In Cambridge they don’t care so much that he is brown-almost-black, and he studies and keeps going to church, even though the prayers are like a punishment. He calls his sister in America and asks, Why did you immigrate to a country that fucking hates brown people so much? And his sister says, Quiet with that language! My kids can hear you. Sometimes he gets e-mails from the girl with the torn jeans, but he can’t compose a reply, can’t find the words. Sometimes he gets a voice mail from the Catholic man saying, Come over, my dear, but he doesn’t respond to him either. He is silent within and without for a whole winter. He trains his body not to need anything: no hugs, no kisses, no fucks. He trains his mind not to dream, not to have nightmares. One day there are green shoots sprouting up through snow, and he realizes he has been in England seventeen years, which means in one year he will have been here as long as he was in India, his own country. Except it isn’t his country anymore. He gets a letter in the mail telling him he can become a UK citizen, but for some reason he doesn’t.
She gets a graduate degree and a job and returns to London to work in an office and live with a man who never struggled to believe or to stop believing, a man who dances around the kitchen and cries watching sitcoms. Her pastor dad is proud of her now, even though she still feels like she failed at something. Is this the only way things could have turned out, or could they have been different? Sometimes she passes a church and feels a great yearning. One day she sees a brown-almost-black man entering a church, and it is him, the one person in a country of 53 million she most wants to see. Is he back in London now? She crosses the threshold into the sanctuary, and after the prayers that still make her sweat, she finds him and together they go for a drink. Nice and civilized. No whiskey, no rivers to jump in. He tells her he is sorry for his silence, and she doesn’t tell him that she still loves him. They talk about work, about meaningless little things, like his mom visiting England after all these years and taking a photo in front of Big Ben; things like the last time she visited the factory-church and found the place had been shut down for visa fraud and the building converted into a roller-skating rink. I like my new church much better, he says. It is bright and clean, a place of forgiveness. Why don’t you come with me sometime? And even though she is still smarting with wounds, even though she hates him for still being able to believe, even though she loves him for still believing, she says, Yes, I’ll come sometime.
She goes to his church once and only once: the night before Easter for the Tenebrae service. He is not there. Inside she finds fifteen candles and a familiar silence. The service begins, and right away the music makes her eyes water: the same hymns she heard growing up; the same hymns she heard for five hundred mornings when she was peeling potatoes. The hymns are like meeting her dead grandmother in a dream and thinking, Why haven’t I called her? She was right here the whole time. The priest tells the story of the night Jesus was handed over to be killed. One by one his disciples betrayed him. One by one the candles go out. The priest is a kind, earnest man like her pastor dad. He talks about how Christ’s followers must have felt that night, thinking it had all been for nothing; that it was over and they’d never see him again. Another candle goes out. She finds she is crying, but she keeps it quiet, because if life has taught her anything it’s how to cry without disrupting a whole fucking church. A door slams and the tomb is sealed and the darkness is complete. There is no benediction to end the service. She walks into the night.
And then the noise of London is around her, and she feels scraped out, scrubbed clean. The last candle was not snuffed out, only hidden. Saved or unsaved, she is filled with something like compassion: For the believer she used to be. For the brown-almost-black man she spent a decade loving, who still believes.