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The Other Gandhi

By
November 1, 2009

Royce was embarrassed of his headshot—that soulful, knee-hugging version of himself—and dreaded the day that his co-workers at Video World would acquire it, as they so often threatened to do. They knew he was an actor, some of the time. They did not know that he nearly abandoned acting a month ago, what with the NYU directing student and her four a.m. wake up calls, with the long stretches of silence from his agent, with the only roles available to him: cabbie, and more recently, doctor. “Why not a terrorist?” asked Murray, his boss. “Seems like there’s a demand right now.”

“Oh, that’s so original,” Laila said, rolling her eyes. “Royce has standards.” And Royce had said nothing, though the truth was that a casting director had deemed his eyebrows too delicate to belong to a terrorist. He would never say as much in front of Laila, who was beautiful and opinionated, blessed with the insoluble confidence of a child that had never been teased.

When Royce came into work on Monday morning, he prepared for an onslaught of opinions.

“Whoa” Murray’s voice trailed off as soon as he laid eyes on Royce.

“Yikes,” Laila said.

Royce rubbed the top of his freshly shaven head, which was quickly becoming a fond habit. Not a shadow of a hair remained. It was an impulse decision, to visit a barber just before his audition last week and to place a pair of fake drugstore lenses on the bridge of his nose, but as he watched the casting director slip his headshot into a pile as thick as a phone book, he felt certain that his efforts had not gone overlooked. He also found that there was a certain freedom to hairlessness, a pleasant awareness of every breeze.

“It was for an audition on Friday,” Royce said. “A role in a TV movie.”

Laila raised her eyebrows, nodding and nodding, as if nodding would conceal her skepticism.

“As Daddy Warbucks?” Murray said.

Royce ignored him. Instead he focused on Laila when he spoke: “As Gandhi.”

Her face cleared, brightened. “Mahatma Gandhi? ”

“Yeah, the History Channel, they’re doing a half-hour documentary on him.”

Royce never volunteered his own stories; he was slightly embarrassed that at thirty, his most widely watched TV role was in a commercial co-starring a cartoon bird that rested on his shoulder and squawked unhappily while he weighed a Dell laptop in his palm.

She seized his forearm with both hands. “I’ve got a whole shelf of books on Gandhi! I read Experiments with Truth when I was, like, sixteen. My grandfather gave it to me—he was involved with the Independence movement. Not that you would know that.”

Royce did know that. He knew every detail that she had told him and some she hadn’t: that her favorite dried fruit was the prune; that she re-filled her water bottle about five times per work day; that, in addition to being vegan, she eschewed leathers and silks, a fact that had led him to replace his belt with one made of canvas.

“I could loan you a book or two,” Laila offered.

“Great, yeah, that would be great.”

“Have you seen Gandhi—the Attenborough film? I’ve got that too. On VHS, but you’re welcome to watch it at my place if you don’t have a VCR.”

“No. I mean, no, I don’t have a VCR. So your place would be great.”

Murray looked from Royce’s smile to Laila’s and then back down to the PD-150 in front him, which refused to spit out its tape. He poked at the eject button, mumbling: “It’s not like he’s got the part just yet.”

Royce had been infatuated with Laila for fourteen out of the fifteen months they had been working together. He could still remember the way his heart dipped when she first leaned into him to complain about the hardboiled eggs that Murray ate every morning, chipping away at the shells so slowly and deliberately that the odor permeated the room. “I found a flake in my coffee mug!” she whispered. Wrinkling his nose in shared disgust, Royce took in the fragrance of her unwashed scalp, admired the thoughtless yet elegant knot of her hair, skewered by a No. 2 pencil. And was she aware of the way his eyes followed her before she disappeared into the inventory closet, the site of one of his most detailed fantasies? Murray certainly noticed. On more than one occasion, he had said, “Easy, Ro. That’s a cold you don’t wanna catch.”

Oh yes he did. So much so that he could listen to her talk, without pause, for hours, like the time she told him about her Bombay film, a short documentary that she was making about an orphanage of blind children. Since graduating college, she had been going back each September and shooting the same children, but the mountain of footage kept growing, swallowing whole drives of memory space, and she feared her inability to whittle it into a forty-five minute story. She referred to the children in daily conversation, as if they lived just down the street: “You guys should see Mohar dance. He can slide like James Brown.” She showed him photographs from those days, and the ones he lingered over the longest featured her: Laila in a green salwar, surrounded by children clamoring to hold her hand. Laila’s sun-browned feet, each latticed with tan lines left by sandals, the tide within an inch of her toes.

Royce never volunteered his own stories; he was slightly embarrassed that at thirty, his most widely watched TV role was in a commercial co-starring a cartoon bird that rested on his shoulder and squawked unhappily while he weighed a Dell laptop in his palm. The years had passed with minor roles on the stage and a notable stretch as Autolycus in an off-Broadway production of A Winter’s Tale, a part he may have earned because of his skills on the ukulele. He had always felt himself capable of more than he had accomplished, as though the muffled pulse of his potential was something only he could feel. He and his high school drama coach Mr. Mott, who nearly baffled Royce with his enthusiasm, his recurring refrain: “You’ve got something special, Royce.” All his other teachers seemed content with his mediocre output, all except sallow, sweater-vested Mr. Mott, who was the only one to cull Royce from the others and hoist his name to the top of the cast list for The Glass Menagerie. Mr. Mott was the only one to shake his head at rehearsals and genuinely sigh: “You can do better, pal.”

And Laila seemed to share that faith. After work, she gave him a stapled essay she had written in college, entitled Gandhi and the Voice Within. “Only if you have time for it,” she shrugged, shyly. “The writing’s probably crap, but it might be helpful before you start shooting, kind of a primer to Gandhi’s thoughts.”

He was flattered that she believed he would get the role. She was flattered when he came into work the next day, able to quote from her essay: “But today, Gandhi has been lofted to the status of an idol or a saint, so legendary that, in our reverence, we often lose sight of the serious, practical ideas that rooted him.” Royce also thumbed through her books on Gandhi and re-read the portions she had highlighted beneath the firm blue line of her pen. When asked for the definition of Truth, Gandhi replied: “A difficult question, but I have solved it for myself by saying that it is what the voice within tells one.” She had drawn a box around those words: the voice within.

On a Thursday evening, Laila invited Royce over to her apartment to watch Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Through the door he smelled something potent and peppery simmering on the stove, heard the soft padding of her feet. His insides thrummed with happy anticipation. He planned to tell her coolly, after he stepped inside and glanced around the apartment. Maybe he would stroll by her exposed brick fireplace (she had raved about it to Murray); maybe he would peer out the window and, as if it had just occurred to him, he would remark: “Oh, by the way, remember the History Channel thing?”

By the time the shoots came around, Royce had grown a mustache, a fat black bristle whose occasional gray threads he stroked away with a mascara wand.

But as soon as Laila opened the door, emerging bleary-eyed, pungent with chopped onions, a minced fleck of it in her hair, he blurted: “I got the part.”

For a sad split second, she seemed to need clarification.

And then her eyes widened; she gave a weird, joyful hoot and flew into him, her arms around his neck. Pulling away quickly, she wiped her watery eyes. “Look at me, Royce, I’m crying!” And it wasn’t so improbable that these would be genuine tears—not onion-induced—when he later replayed the moment in his mind.

By the time the shoots came around, Royce had grown a mustache, a fat black bristle whose occasional gray threads he stroked away with a mascara wand. All of the scenes were to be shot over the course of one week, MOS, so that voiceover could be added later. MOS, Laila told him, stood for mit out sound, a phrase coined by early German filmmakers in Hollywood, who couldn’t pronounce the word “with.” He already knew what MOS meant, but he liked hearing the way Laila mellifluously intoned: mit out sound.

She begged him to let her watch the first shoot. She was sweetly childish about the whole process, biting her nail as she watched a blazing light raised high on a stem, apologizing profusely if her foot grazed a cable. “I’m not used to this kind of production value,” she said. “Usually it’s just me and my camera.” She waited by the crafts service table, too intimidated to partake of the ham and brie sandwiches, while the makeup artist blotted at his face and the costumer looped a white dhoti around his legs. When Royce emerged, he spotted her from across the set, beaming. And, as if playing his part already, he raised his palm and ducked his head modestly.

At Video World, he overheard Laila describing the shoot to a lackadaisical Murray. “It’s all so professional, so real. They built this prison cell where Gandhi stayed and it even smelled the way a prison might smell”

Murray snorted while twisting a screwdriver into the underbelly of a drive. “Yeah, and you know how a prison smells.”

“I said might, jackass.”

Murray’s lack of interest did nothing to sway Laila. Each morning, she would perch on a stool next to Royce and ask about every detail of his shoots. Nothing was extraneous, not even the mousy PA whose small size belied the battle cry in which she yelled for quiet on set.

He told Laila of the shoot that took place in the cordoned-off room of a library, all dark polished wood, lush drapes, and clothbound books. There, Royce accepted tea from a fellow actor who played Lord Mountbatten, an Australian expat who shocked Royce with the assertion that kangaroo meat made a very tasty kebab. Lord Mountbatten crossed his legs in a ladylike way, grimly murmuring over his steepled hands while Royce nodded slowly, benignly.

He told her about the Salt March shoot—his favorite. Backed by a vast green screen, he trudged along a treadmill, cane in hand, imagining the thousands who had followed him to the edge of the sea, to lay claim upon the salt that Britain taxed from India’s shores. He knelt, picked up a chunk of mud from the green ground, gazed at it, and resolutely stared off into the middle distance. He then looked over his shoulder, as directed, and out of that abundant green, he saw faces as numerous as blades of grass, and the enormity of their will swept over him in a quiet, clarifying roar.

After shooting wrapped, Royce settled back into Video World. He still stole moments to himself, cleaning out the innards of a Mini DV deck while privately reveling in the fact that he had another life altogether, one in which he was powdered, directed, and plied with bottles of Perrier. “Fame,” Mr. Mott used to warn, quoting a television show about dead starlets and scandals, “ain’t it a bitch.” It was the sort of comment he would reserve for play rehearsals, after school, when light cursing was an ambiguous, enjoyable sin. In his other incarnation as biology teacher, Mr. Mott lived by the rules, diagramming the organelles of the cell within the safe boundaries of the marker board, never one to court danger, like Mr. Jones, who taught that Force = Mass x Velocity by shooting potatoes from a high-speed spud gun.

Sherman was a lethal virus and having penetrated Royce’s life, he was now intent on ruining it.

But the cursing, the inside jokes, the free pizza, the sassy t-shirts that lay just beneath his button-downs (Cancel my subscription. I’m sick of your issues.): this was the slightly transgressive side of Mr. Mott. He seemed happiest in that mode, so why did he shackle himself to the classroom for eight hours of every day, marker stains on his breast pocket? Why hadn’t he gone to LA or New York, snuck onto a set like Spielberg, made an office of a storage closet, and convinced some studio exec to finance his first film? Hadn’t Mr. Mott the same charisma and conviction, the ability to organize a mass of disparate, yawning individuals toward his singular vision of Opening Night? It all seemed so obvious to Royce at sixteen. Talent was a spud gun to be aimed and fired at will, and all the world was his target.

On the night that the show was set to air, Laila threw a party at her apartment. She was insistent about the party: “It’s the premiere and you want to celebrate alone?” Celebration, Royce had no problem with, but too much—he wondered—to ask for a party of two?

By the time of the party, Royce’s hair had grown a few fuzzy millimeters, attracting the hands of cousins and friends alike, rubbing his head as if for luck. Rarely did he and Laila get a minute side by side, but Royce couldn’t help watching her across the room, bestowing hugs, laying out platters of food, passing around bottles of Kingfisher beer. More than one guest had pulled him aside with a sly question: “So you and her?” And maybe it was the fourth beer, but he began to allow himself to answer, hesitantly: “Yeah, sort of, but don’t make a thing about it.” It didn’t feel like a lie, but rather, a precursor to the truth.

When it was time for the show, everyone crowded into the living room with plates of lemon rice on their laps. As the opening credits crawled down the screen, his stomach began to collapse in on itself; he spent more time watching his clammy hands than he did watching the film. He caught the close-ups where the camera tilted up and down between his focused gaze and the letters he wrote to Nehru, to Jinnah, to Tagore, to Lord Irwin, and to his wife Kasturbai. The sepia-doused images glided past each other, Royce’s weary face, his writing hand delicately guided by the mournful sitar music in the background. He also saw the Newsreel footage in which the real Gandhi walked beside politicians and addressed factory workers in England. He listened to interviews with academics and historians who spoke passionately and left their last words hanging in the silence, heavy with meaning. Through all this, an Englishman’s voiceover rumbled rich and distinguished, sewing the scenes into a story. The film went on to follow Nehru’s ascension to the prime ministry and finally, Partition and the creation of Pakistan.

Watery blue shadows shifted across the walls; Royce felt warm and twitchy, anticipating the gathering attention of the room, the unanimous turning of heads after the last credit fell. Once or twice, he snuck a glance at Laila, whose expression seemed troubled, a good sign that she considered the film thought provoking.

At the end, the screen faded to black over a violin solo of “Raghupathi Raghava Rajaram,” the bhajan that Gandhi and his followers sang on the Salt March. Tears rose to Royce’s eyes though he couldn’t exactly distinguish why; he tipped his head slightly to will the tears back into his sockets just as Laila slapped his knee. She was pointing at the screen, which read:

SHERMAN ORTIZ as Mohandas K. Gandhi
with additional scenes by ROYCE VARGHESE
 

A murmur filled the room, and out of the dark came the drowsy voice of Murray: “Sherman Ortiz? Who the hell’s that?”

At first, the producer refused to answer any of Royce’s carefully worded emails of dismay and concern. After the eighth email, the producer’s assistant phoned him.

“I guess what I don’t really get,” Royce said, propping his forehead against a wall, “is why you needed two Gandhis, and why I wasn’t informed that my screen time would be cut so drastically.”

“I know,” the assistant said. She had perfected a tone of meek sympathy, brimming with apology without ever offering one. “A lot of these decisions get made in the editing.”

“You’re saying that the other Gandhi was created in the editing? Is that what you’re trying to say to me?”

“You were the one we went to for close-ups, Royce, no question. Gandhi’s own mother couldn’t tell you two apart. But we used Sherman for a lot of the wider shots and during those fasting periods.” She paused. “You had the face. Sherman had the physique.”

“I could’ve lost the weight.” Royce imagined himself dining on a potato per day until he was but a brittle husk, sustained by his craft. “Nobody even mentioned it to me.”

“There wasn’t time. Plus, Sherman did some amazing renditions of Gandhi’s speeches. He got the intonation and accent perfectly. Can you believe he’s Mexican?”

“No, Jenny, I can’t.”

“Oh Royce.” She batted his sarcasm away. “There’s an expression in doc filmmaking, that you have to be prepared to kill your babies—the shots you love most, the lines you love most—if it’ll make a better film.”

He was well aware of the expression. He was also aware that this assistant had never approached an editing suite herself, that her duties involved the most insignificant of tasks—brewing coffee, washing dishes, licking stamps, and, he realized, talking to the people who mattered least.

“These things tend to happen, Royce.” In a sweet, sage tone that signaled goodbye, she added, “If you had more experience in movies, you might know that.”

Laila was gentle with Royce in the week that followed, as he skulked among the shelves and avoided the customers. Carefully, she said, “I think the film was good overall.”

Royce shrugged.

“Well, okay, the voiceover was heavy-handed and why’d they use a Brit?” She waved her own question away. “But whatever. At least the academics did a good job of showing how Gandhi’s politics grew from his spiritual principles, from his belief in an all-transcendent Truth. Royce? Are you listening?”

“Yup.” Actually he was imagining Sherman Ortiz perched on the counter, bald and dhoti -clad, swinging his legs and nodding along with Laila. Such imaginings would occur to Royce at all hours these days: Sherman whistling and waiting at the head of a long line at the post office; Sherman at the dinner table, swirling spaghetti around his fork and sighing into the silence.

“You know,” Laila said uncertainly, “there’s something narcissistic about the whole notion of competition.”

“Sounds like something a loser would say.”

“Gandhi said it,” she snapped, as though Royce had just insulted a friend. “There’s no use comparing. Sherman was just different.”

“In what way?”

But she didn’t answer, her attentions taken up by a man who wandered in with an overwhelmed look on his face, the type of guy who would ask for a demonstration of every camera in the store, and then go home to think about it. Royce watched her fingers tapping impatiently at the edge of the counter. She had painted her nails a light lavender when he had come over to her apartment last week, to watch Gandhi for a fourth time. Sometimes they spoke the lines along with the actors, as when John Gielgud, with a grimace, announced: Mr. Gandhi will find it takes a great deal more than a pinch of salt to take down the British Empire. Ow, the nail polish was peeling into crude, ragged shapes, and Royce couldn’t tear his gaze from them.

Murray disrupted the reverie with his attempt at a compliment: “At least you were good in your parts, Ro. How did you get your legs to fold under you like that, in the scene where you’re sitting—”

“I didn’t,” Royce said.

So Sherman was a lethal virus and having penetrated Royce’s life, he was now intent on ruining it. This seemed the secret message contained in the invitation that Royce received two weeks after the screening. On the cover was a picture of the Indian flag in stripes of saffron, white, and green. Inside, in royal calligraphy, were the words:

You are invited to celebrate

the 60th Anniversary of Indian Independence

at

the India Day Parade

with guest speaker and grand marshal

Sherman Ortiz

as

Mahatma Gandhi

Apparently, Sherman was taking his act all over the country, his popularity ablaze due to the upcoming anniversary. He was wanted by Indian medical associations, Indian bar associations, an annual Gujarati convention, and the Telugu convention. There were rumors that he was being considered for a Bollywood film about a gangster who was daily haunted by the spirit of Gandhi, until he redeemed himself and set his life aright.

Meanwhile, Royce toiled on at Video World. He filled out invoices and when he was sent to find out if an item had been repaired, he sought refuge in the inventory closet, counted to seven, and returned, feigning exhaustion: “Sorry, not yet.” He could hardly lift a razor to his cheek in the morning, gathering a beard with undeniably terroristic implications.

To add to his disappointments, Laila no longer perched on a stool to chat or invited him over for Gandhi dates. There was a time when they would take every break together, but now she worked straight through her fifteen minutes of freedom or wasted her breaks on phone calls.

Royce sensed a shift between them, slight but unmistakable, a squirminess, a chafing. At last he mustered the courage to ask Laila whether he had done something wrong. She didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Honestly, it’s the wallowing, Royce. Ever since the screening, you’ve been clinically depressed. It’s like you forgot the bigger picture—to commemorate Gandhi, to shed some light on how he lived and what he thought.”

“So I should be happy this guy stole my big break?”

“You should be moving on already,” she sighed. “Onto the next.”

“Take Ben Kingsley. At least he’s half Indian. But Sherman Ortiz—what is this guy?”

Laila nearly yelled her reply: “He’s an actor! Christ!”

Over the next few days, Laila asked for her books back, but Royce kept pretending to forget them at home, on the chance that she would come by herself. He missed her questions, her curiosity, her couch, the fruit she sliced for him by hand, the changing, thrilling contours of their friendship, which by now had all but dissolved. He had to hold her books ransom for a week just to get her to reluctantly “swing by” after work.

Royce raced home an hour early so he could scrub the toilet seat, replace his gym-stolen towels, and stuff all his strewn clothes in a swollen wicker hamper that he had scavenged from off the street. Into a saucepan, he dumped a frozen green-gray block of okra curry that his mother had made for him. As soon as he set some rice to boil, the doorbell rang.

He opened the door to Laila, her hands stuffed in the pockets of an aging tweed jacket that was as familiar to him as the sound of her voice. Privately, he bemoaned the red velvet house slippers on his feet, an insistent gift from his mother that she seemed to have culled from the closet of Hugh Hefner. “Smells good in here,” Laila said, entering.

Royce darted between the fridge and the stove. “Can I take your coat?”

“Nah, I just came for the books.” She sauntered over to the bookshelf, her hands still in her pockets.

“But you’ve gotta be hungry.” He stabbed and scraped at the okra with a fork. “I just threw this together at the last minute—”

“You don’t want to use a fork on a nonstick pan. Try a wooden spoon.”

“Right. Yeah.” He dropped the fork on the counter, yanked open the utensil drawer.

Laila bent to gather up the stack of books on the ground, the ones she had given him. Rising, her gaze fell on the TV and the VCR below it.

She turned. “I thought you said you didn’t have a VCR.”

He took his time answering as he scratched at the bottom of the pot, where the okra was beginning stick. “Yeah, it wasn’t working, but I fixed it. Hey, now we can watch Gandhi at my place for once.”

“Something tells me that movie didn’t make much of an impression on you.”

“What do you mean? I love Gandhi.

“Yeah?” Laila strode over to him so that she was mere inches from his elbow, the books held to her heart. “What about it did you love so much?”

Maybe it was the self-destructive okra. Maybe it was the pugnacity of her tone. Whatever the reason, Royce ran through his options and resorted to the only wrong one. Deepening his pitch to a British growl, he declared: “Mr. Gandhi will find it takes a great deal more than a pinch of salt to take down the British Empire!”

He waited for the laugh she used to give him, that look of vague surprise at the thought that Royce was brighter, livelier than she had estimated.

She frowned.

“You know,” Royce said, “that thing with John Gielgud. Okay no, seriously” He scoured the dusty attic of his memory, but in her silence, all he could recall were the tears she wiped with the back of her hand during the credits, quickly and discreetly. At work she seemed so calm, so unflappable, but the tears had surprised him, the spill of her emotion, its unknown springs.

Before he could come up with another answer, Laila took a step back and sighed. “Okay. Listen, Royce.” She spoke briskly, as if tidying up a misunderstanding. He heard her say something about their incompatibility. He heard her say that nothing mattered to him, nothing important at least. As she talked, he looked at everything but her face—at her shoelaces, at a stray thread of tweed, at her messenger bag, and, by some cruel chance, at the card that was poking out it. Fat stripes of saffron, white, and green. He tugged it out.

“Royce, what the hell! Don’t bend it!”

The invitation. Sherman’s march upon New York.

Quietly, Royce said: “You’re going to this?”

She yanked the invitation from his grip and stuffed it into her bag. “My mom saw a presentation he gave at temple yesterday. She thought he was like Gandhi himself, talking to her and shaking her hand. And she would know.”

“Yeah, yeah, she went to hear Gandhi speak at a train station when she was five, along with a million other people, and your grandfather was a freaking saint.”

Laila flinched. Royce bit his lip. Too much, Mr. Mott would’ve said. Try again, Royce. This time, smaller.

“I’m going.” Laila moved past him just as the okra began to sizzle.

Royce cut her off at the door; his arm barred the way. What sadly slipped from his mouth was: “But okra?”

Squinting slightly, she scanned his features as if to make sense of them. She didn’t even answer.

By this time, the sizzling had grown to a feverish hiss. She told him to throw some water in the pan before she pushed his arm out of the way and slammed the door behind her.

It should have come as no surprise that Laila switched her shifts at Video World. He should have expected this, Royce told himself, staring into his mirror, stoned, his chin so heavy he thought it would slide right off his face. Goodbye, Laila. Goodbye, chin. In this state of mind, he tried to shave off his beard.

“Oof!” Murray said, the next morning. “The hell happened to you?”

Royce put a hand to the crisscross of band-aids that cradled his chin. “Never mind. Listen.” He petitioned Murray for a switch in his schedule, maybe a few evening shifts, to coincide with Laila’s.

“Nope, sorry, Ro. I warned you about workplace romance. I’d probably have to fire one of you if she wasn’t already leaving.”

“Leaving?” Royce’s voice nearly cracked.

“Next month. She goes to Bombay this time every year, remember? Not sure what lit the fire under her ass but she said she’s not coming back till she’s finished with that film.”

Royce called her and left halting, apologetic, unanswered messages.

August was heat and beer and hay fever and guilt. At last, Royce set out to find her, a quest that would take him to the one event he had wanted to avoid ever since receiving the invitation. He fished the card from his recycling bin, the saffron stamped by the damp ring of a beer bottle.

Royce slithered through the masses, intent on catching up to the front of the parade. Though he hadn’t been to India since he was a boy, this was how he imagined it to be: forests of people rooted to the ground, caught in a dead heat whose odor was slightly repulsive yet comforting.

By the time he reached the middle of the procession, the sidewalks were already thick with Indians shouting, brandishing tiny Indian flags, sucking down tubs of Coke. Children cupped their palms for candies and coins that rained from passing floats, people swarming between them—a Gujarati youth group twirling _raas_ sticks, broad skirts spinning like bright, mirrored wheels, followed by the South Asian-American Gay & Lesbian Collective, their banner lofted by two dignified drag queens, bosoms rigid beneath their sari blouses. A song started up, a frenzy of bhangra and bass, as an airborne butterscotch hit Royce in the eye.

Royce took the subway up to 68th street. Hurrying back to Madison, scanning the tops of heads, he saw that the parade had stopped; all the floats and bystanders faced ahead, staring in silence ahead of them. He turned to see a wisp of a man in the distance, clad in a white dhoti, standing on a makeshift platform and speaking into a microphone. Royce went closer. Sherman was gripping a curved cane, gesturing in a precise, gentle manner. A white cloth covered his shoulders, but his chest lay bare, the ridged topography of his sternum straining against the skin. In spite of himself, Royce could not ignore the music of Sherman’s voice, as if from the shallows of his stomach there played a quivering instrument:

“and it is not necessary that all of you should be like me. That would be mere imitation. Aspire to the Truth, not to me, and tread firmly the path of love

Royce pushed past a cluster of girls, wound his way around a man with a little boy on his shoulders, all rapt to the voice that thrummed from the speakers.

“Even if you hear that I am no longer in the land of the living, continue to do your duty as if nothing had happened and thus falsify the news of my passing away. It does not matter if my body is here or has even been reduced to ashes. If you made a proper use of your eyes, you would surely see me where you wish, for my soul is there.”

After the speech, Sherman folded his hands and gave a small bow. The crowds cheered and shimmied their flags. Someone called for an encore. A young man wearing a Columbia sweatshirt hollered, “Hey, what about Kashmir? Where do you stand on Kashmir?” But Sherman had already backed away from the mic, his hands clasped at his stomach.

Between Royce and Sherman were hundreds and hundreds of heads, not one of them turned to Royce. It reminded him of the Salt March shoot, how the thought of all those faces had sent through him a pure jolt of purpose, someone else’s purpose and not his own, but purpose all the same. Now he felt a rootless sensation, as if he might detach from the earth and float up above the throngs, unknown and unnoticed by everyone, even Laila. She was finished with him, a storm that had descended, rattled the walls, and left as it pleased. It was over. He would not find her.

But Royce didn’t leave, not yet.

Keeping a casual distance, he followed Sherman into a nearby office building, only dimly aware that his actions, to an outsider, might deem him a bit creepy. Dangerous even. Climbing the stairs, Royce felt guided by a pressure at his back; he hardly knew what awaited him, but if it came to blows, his weight would finally give him an advantage.

He halted at the entrance of what seemed to be a small, makeshift dressing room. It was furnished with a folding chair and a card table where Sherman had placed a bag of makeup, a bottled water, a round mirror, and a pair of spectacles. Still in his dhoti, Sherman had his back to the door and was bent over the mirror, wincing as he peeled off his mustache inch by inch. He suddenly turned around, the mustache between his fingers. Without it, his face seemed smaller, possessed of a peculiar, lamblike innocence.

“Need something?” Sherman asked politely. “You look lost.”

Maybe it was Sherman’s faint Texan twang, but Royce forgot why he had come or what he meant to say. He said the only thing he could think of: “I’m the other Gandhi. From the History Channel thing. I’m Royce.”

“Oh.” Sherman’s face cleared, his eyebrows arched. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

Sherman wiped his hands on a towel, slowly and methodically cleaning each finger. “Listen, I’m sorry about the way it all shook out. Stupid credits. I didn’t ask them to put me on top.”

Royce nodded, his eye caught by the fake mustache, a withered fringe of black and gray. Sherman nodded back, his hands on his hips, as if they had come to some joint conclusion.

“Hey!” Sherman snapped his fingers. “Maybe your agent told you about this, but there’s a casting for an Intel commercial next week. They said they want diversity, so.”

Another audition, another part, another festering hope. Suddenly, to Royce, none of it seemed appealing. He had felt differently at sixteen, when he played Tom in The Glass Menagerie, tearfully arriving at his last line: “Oh Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” Out in the audience, he had spotted his mother, who looked up at him as if at a pitiful stranger, her hand over her parted lips. It struck him only then, what Mr. Mott had meant by his possession of “something special,” not talent, as he had assumed, but hope, want, yearning: the ingredients of great, remembered men. Where had it all gone, and where was Mr. Mott to shake his head and wave from out in the empty seats, fiercely insisting: “No! Again. Again.”

Sherman asked if Royce was okay.

“I’ve been better,” Royce said quietly.

Sherman sighed in sympathy. “Well if it helps, I just want to say that I liked what you did in the prison scene. You were writing a letter and you stopped for a second to think, and you bit your thumbnail, like this.” He demonstrated. “You’d never think of Gandhi biting his fingernails. But maybe he did, right? Maybe Gandhi bit his fingernails, same as anyone.”

Royce thanked him and offered a hollow compliment in return, though he knew what Mr. Mott would say about Sherman’s performance. The guy could do a great Gandhi impression, but he had lost something in the pinpoint mimicry of every word, blink, tick, and gesture; he had lost the man behind them. And this was the most baffling thing: Laila had failed to recognize the puppetry. Or maybe the failure belonged to Royce. It was like the time she told him that she hated The Glass Menagerie because Laura’s fragility annoyed her. “So the girl’s got a bum leg. Big deal,” Laila had said, then paused. “Why—do you like it?

“Oh, I barely remember it,” he said quickly. “Just some play we read in high school.”

On the subway ride home, Royce murmured the same lines to himself: Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! The woman sitting next to him moved to the opposite end of the car, and he smiled to himself, suddenly aware of the power held by a perceived lunatic.

In spite of the woman, Royce kept murmuring. Oh Laura, Laura.

Oh Laila.

He tried to remember other lines, but those were the only ones he could recall.

jamescreditjoannechan.jpgTania James was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, after a brief stint in Chicago from ages 0 to 4. She graduated from Harvard University in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in filmmaking. She received her Masters of Fine Arts in fiction from Columbia’s School of the Arts in 2006. Her debut novel Atlas of Unknowns (Alfred A. Knopf, April 2009) was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, and an Editor’s Choice for the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. Her work has appeared in One Story magazine, the New York Times, Elle India, and fivechapters.com. Visit her at taniajames.com.

Writer’s Recommendations:

Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Bynum brings wonder, charm, hilarity, and astonishing insight to an eighth grade classroom.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard
The reach of Shepard’s subject matter—from Texas to Chernobyl—is awe-inspiring enough, but that he fills these worlds with deeply felt, deeply human characters makes me reach for this book time and again.

Author photo by Joanne Chan.

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One comment for The Other Gandhi

  1. Comment by Najeeb on November 15, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    Enjoyed it. Reminded me so much about Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories. Thank you!

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