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Early in Black Narcissus, the English agent working for the Indian General, Mr. Dean, sends a letter to the nuns, describing Mopu, the palace high in the Himalayas where they are to establish their outpost, and how to reach it.  “It’s not a comfortable spot,” he writes, “and it’s at the Back of Beyond. First you have to get to Darjeeling and then I have to find you ponies and porters to take you into the hills.  Mopu is nearly 8,000 feet up.  The peaks on the range opposite are nearly as high as Everest.  The people call the highest peak Nyanga-Devi; it means, ‘The Bear Goddess.’…  Mopu Palace stands in the wind on a shelf in the mountain.  It was built by the General’s father to keep his women there.  It’s called a palace, but there may be a slight difference between your idea of a palace and the general’s.  Anyhow, there it is…  The wind up at the palace blows 7 days a week, so if you must come, bring some warm things with you.   [The caretaker] lives there alone, with the ghosts of bygone days.”

To get to Darjeeling, he could have added, you can take the narrow-gauge ‘toy train.’  The train winds up 88 km from Siliguri for an eight-hour journey.  It’s pulled by an honest-to-goodness steam engine, with someone to shovel the black chunks of coal into a fire and everything. The whistle can blow out your eardrums. If you have your window open, each time the engine belches out a thick burst of steam, tiny pebbles of soot will buffet your face.  As you ascend higher and higher, the green of the tea plantations take over the hillside, and after you cross bridges and duck under tunnels so tight that they could be a tube, the tea plants await you on the other side.  Halfway up, you pass through a cloud barrier, and, perhaps for the first time in India, you feel cold. At noon, no less!  The clouds become a mist, a veil obscuring the tops of trees and darkening the sky.  Or you can take a taxi for a 3½ hour ride along treacherous roads edged with concrete barriers to serve as a bump before you tumble to your doom.

To get to New Jalpaiguri, he might have pointed out, you fly into Bagdogra Airport, which is about 14 km from Siliguri.  Inside the terminal at Bagdogra, which at one time was an Indian Air Force base, all the television stations are tuned to the 24-hour global news cycle.  You can stay up-to-date on which Bollywood stars plan to marry, and see their pictures framed in clip-art hearts that bounce around to the theme of Chariots of Fire.  Cats lounge beneath the rows of formed-plastic seats.  They eat only meat products, though they’ll sniff anything you put on the ground.  On average, only four flights come in and out of Bagdogra’s three runways each day.  Take your pick:  Delhi, Kolkata, or Guwahati.  Where you go after that, Mr. Dean surely meant to say, is no concern of mine.


Hinkley High School didn’t offer AP Chemistry, so every morning, my friends Steve and Dan and I piled into Steve’s black vintage Thunderbird and trekked to Gateway High.  The front seats were stuck in ‘recline,’ and since Dan was taller than I, I took the backseat.  For the fifteen minute ride, we talked about day-to-day mundanities that seem important at the time, but fade as years accumulate:  Did you get this answer on the homework? Who are you taking to prom?  Which colleges have you heard from?

But the times all three of us were groggy or belligerently silent, Steve, a Peter Gabriel fan, put on music.  So and Shaking the Tree were our soundtracks.  Every so often, he’d slip in Passion:  Music for The Last Temptation of Christ, and I imagined that the drive down Chambers Road was a desert journey:  police sirens and ululations; car tires thrumming over potholes and African talking drums.

We knew of The Last Temptation of Christ because of the controversy, another shot in the endless culture war, whose targets would eventually encompass Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Kevin Smith’s Dogma, Chris Ofili’s “Black Madonna,” and David Wojnarowicz’s “Fire in My Belly.”  But what makes something sacrilegious?  When an upscale dessert spot opened in Cherry Creek a few years ago, members of my parent’s temple were offended by a Buddha statue placed in front of the bathrooms.  They asked the management to move it.  Similarly, in Philadelphia, my sister huffed when we passed Buddhakhan, a yuppie-favored restaurant that features a gilded, oversized Buddha.

“We should,” my sister said, “open a theme restaurant with a big, honking Jesus overlooking everyone.”  Sample menu:  holy blood pudding, Disci-pulled pork, Communion wafer cookies.  The bar would serve nothing but rusty nails.  The name of the restaurant:  ‘The Last Supper,’ of course.

In the Last Supper scene of The Last Temptation of Christ, Willem Dafoe, as Christ, is calmly resigned to his fate.  This the same man (God?  Son of God?) who, earlier in the film, doubted his own divinity.  Did his doubt redouble his faith, or does faith exist only in the absence of doubt?

Dan, Steve and I also had English together, and our teacher presented a Bible-as-literature section.  In it, a classmate and I performed the first act of Arthur Miller’s The Creation of the World and Other Business.  We also gave presentations on other religions:  I wore my sister’s Norma Kamali dress and silvery bangles and drew, on the chalkboard behind me, extra arms to represent Shiva, dancing the world into destruction.

Dan, a Mormon, showed a videotape re-enacting the history of Mormonism.  Shot PBS-style, with a baritone narration over sepia-tinted images, the film droned on, a pioneer Western stripped of its outlaws, Indian raids, wild shoot-outs.  But when the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written were taken back to heaven, we erupted: What?  How’d that happen?  Did they get shipped Fed Ex?

Daniel, eyes flickering with visible agitation, remained silent, his faith unshakable.

This semester, I taught a section of the First Year Experience, a one-credit, pass/fail class that’s essentially a banner announcing, ‘Welcome to college.’  My students, for the most part, are good kids:  sometimes rowdy, sometimes apathetic, sometimes distracted and beyond my reach.

But, as I said, basically good kids.

Prompted by the recent spate of high-profile gay suicides, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to talk to my freshmen about anti-gay bullying and harassment.  In particular, the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped off a bridge after an intimate encounter with another student was broadcast without his knowledge by his roommate, raised issues that went beyond the bullying — negotiating privacy, living with other people, controlling your on-line image.

The discussion went well, I thought.  When I told Clementi’s story (amazingly, some hadn’t heard about it, which I expected from the international students, but not the English-speaking ones), one of the guys in class (who looks familiar with the Jersey Shore) commented, “That’s fucking demented.”  Towards the end of the conversation, he glanced up at the clock repeatedly, but he got it, I thought.  He understood.

That night, when I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc, the first thing that popped into my head was:  Joan of Arc, gender warrior! Of course, she was persecuted for heresy, but when the warty, jowly judges press her about her preference for men’s clothing, it brings to mind Daphne Scholinski’s The Last Time I Wore a Dress.  When Joan is first asked, Renee Falconetti, wide-eyed, nervously fingers her collar, as if the clothes are tightening around her neck.  When another judge presses — “So God orders you to dress as a man?” — her eyes are half-closed, as if in resignation.  Her answer doesn’t receive an intertitle, but her whisper is unmistakable:  Oui.

Yesterday, I took my class to the student center on campus for a lecture.  On the front of a building were posters announcing an upcoming drag show.  The featured drag queen, Sahara Davenport, was plastered on every window, in every conceivable color Hammermill provides:  fuchsia, goldenrod, lime, taupe — a Warholian whirl of fabulousness.  As we entered, the Jersey Shorean student muttered, “Seven bucks for a fucking tranny?”

Fucking tranny.

What upsets me is not that he said what he said — but that I didn’t stop right there and say something.  I kept walking.  Students sat at tables, eating their lunches.  The smell of fried Chik-Fil-A sizzled in the air.  His words hung there, unconfronted, unaddressed.

I’m no Joan of Arc.  At best, I’m Jean Massieu, the monk (played by Antonin Artaud) who knows better but is cowed into silence.  He supports Joan in spirit, but when things get hot, he bows his head, and lets his tonsure reflect his shame.  We share cowardly silence.  As punishment for our sins, how many more martyrings will we be forced to witness?

In the early 1990s, my sister dated K___, whom my parents hated.  They’d gotten over their Oh my goodness, he’s white phase and moved onto their Oh my goodness, he’s a loser phase.  Maybe this is true of over-protective parents everywhere:  no one is good enough.  For Vietnamese parents particularly, the ideal mate is an asymptote; though people can approach good enough, they never quite make it.

That’s not to say that K___ was good enough.  He was tall, thin, and blond, with the air of someone who’d just finished second in a regatta.  He worked waiting tables at the then-recently opened Spinnakers in the Cherry Creek Mall.  My sister had met him at the nightclub she frequented, the 23rd Parish; K___ was best friends with the DJ there, a gay black man named Tracy Jones.

K___ also fancied himself a DJ but had appalling taste in music.  Granted, electronic music was still in its infancy, but K___ preferred songs that sounded like that had come off a Commodore Amiga (long before chiptunes were hip, obviously).  He gave my sister mix tapes, and she passed them on to me, and I listened with an equal mixture of befuddlement and antipathy.

At the end of one of his tapes, he put the “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”  But stripped of its context, the song seemed odd to me.  K___ explained:  it’s funny because it’s sung by a group of men on crucifixes.  Okay then.  He pressed:  Haven’t you ever seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian?

(Growing up, I was only ever a moderate Monty Python fan.  It came on late night weekends on PBS, after The Benny Hill Show.  I remember segments like the ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ but much of its free-associative surrealism escaped me.   Even as a youngster, I demanded narrative cohesion.)

Under the guise of being a good little brother, I lent K___ music that I thought was great.  The Orb’s first album, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraverse.  The 4-disc This Mortal Coil boxset.   The Future Sound of London’s Accelerator.  But our tastes never converged.  And anyway, K___ soon joined the Navy and shipped off for training, and my sister found that an opportune time to break up with him.  Alas, I never got my CDs back.

I ran into K___ again, years later, after I had finished grad school and was working in a movie theater.  He came in with a redhead sporting the librarian-by-day/roller-derby-by-night look.  I recognized him immediately (confirmed I saw his credit card), but he didn’t recognize me.  I wanted to say, “Hey, give me back my This Mortal Coil boxset” — but didn’t.  Part of it was pride:  since we met last, I had accomplished what exactly besides making lattes and slinging popcorn?  The other part of it was:  why bother?  What would I say?  ‘Hey, thanks for ruining the ending of The Life of Brian for me’?

Instead, I poured him a glass of wine and let him see his movie in peace.  It goes without saying what song I hummed all night long.

I waited to watch The Seventh Seal again until I had recovered from my cold.  I wanted to concentrate on Bergman without having a sinus headache pulping my gray matter.  Also, no watching films about the bubonic plague while your head feels like a fishbowl full of mucus or films about Death while you feel His cold, clammy hand pressing on your chest, creating phlegm the color of algae.

As well, Matthew didn’t feel like Bergman tonight, so, together, we watched Hot Fuzz first. The gunplay and charming English countryside distracted him as I surreptitiously opened my new Blu-Ray of The Seventh Seal.

“Look at those lovely serpentine stone walls.  Is that crinkling cellophane I hear?”

“No.”  Cough, cough.  “Isn’t Simon Pegg adorable?”  (I actually didn’t say that last part but thought it through most of the film.)

In any case, I’m not one to bite the Blu-Ray that feeds me.  Both the Blu-Ray player and the new 40″ flat screen on which to watch Blu-Rays were surprises that Matthew had bought for the house while I was away in Wyoming.  And while we’re still too cheap to buy cable television, we get plenty of use out of the vivid contrasts of the screen.  And when I say “we,” I mean mostly me.

But I didn’t hook up the Blu-Ray player to the television until yesterday, because we don’t yet have a receiver and speaker system for the surround sound.  A ridiculously-heavy expense for something down the line, I suppose.  But we both were eager to see the Blu-Ray in action, so last night, I inserted the HDMI cables and popped in Howards End.  We were duly impressed.  And Matthew, once again, got to see beautiful English country estates in high-definition, the way God intended.

Tonight, though, instead of idyllic meadows, I got the rocky Swedish coastline and Max von Sydow at his broodingiest and most faith-wracked.  And though I, like many, have lumped Bergman in with the directors who specialize in large servings of portentousness, with a side order of despair (if I’m ever trapped in Sweden, I’ll be at least able to call out, “Doom, doom, doom!” like the monk during the flagellation scene), I forget how Bergman uses humor to punctuate the more dire sequences.

I worry that my non-Christian upbringing has left me cold to movies and books with strong Christian themes, symbolism or imagery. I had to abandon Marilynne Robinson’s Home a few chapters in because I couldn’t connect to it.  Boy, this cuts me out of the loop for most of Western literature and art, doesn’t it?  Still, when it comes to grand existential and spiritual questions, I’m afraid I have to lean with Jöns, the squire, in this case:  “I’ll stay quiet, but under protest.”