Nobody talked about the demonstrations which had been going on in every town they visited. Within the touring party, there was no acknowledgement of any disruption, not even when they were rushed in behind a cordon of police officers and heard the chanting and booing and watched the improvised missiles flying overhead.
“Michael looks like Buddy Holly. Just a little,” said the Bodhisattva to a group of councillors and journalists. The Bodhisattva could not pronounce ‘Holly’, but this seemed to delight his audience. The group was prepared to be devoted to the old man. The journalists were not of the type to write about the demonstrations.
Everyone laughed and Michael smiled and nodded. It was an ancient joke now. When he had first worked for the Bodhisattva as a translator, he had worn horn-rimmed glasses and someone had mentioned Buddy Holly. He had not known who Buddy Holly was, nor had anyone else amongst them, but then they found a picture and the Bodhisattva decided that this was going to be funny to the Europeans and the Americans, so he worked it into any meeting or press conference where Michael was introduced. Michael did not care about being compared to Buddy Holly, but he had never thought it was very funny, especially as now he wore a pair of modern spectacles with thin frames instead of the old horn-rims.
Ani-La smiled. She sat in the semi-circle around the Bodhisattva, as always, looking much more the part than Michael did. None of the western audience would know that she was the less authentic one. She wore the robes, had the Eastern name and spoke very little English; yet it was he, despite the tailored grey suit, the anglicised name and the excellent English, who was from the same stock as the Bodhisattva. Her role was undefined, but she was always part of the main group. She never appeared anxious, even when the conversation around her was in a foreign tongue, even when they were rushing past the protesters outside.
He did not know what emotion was behind the smile now. She did not go as far as to laugh, as others did who had heard the Buddy Holly joke a hundred times before, and her smile was probably no broader than Michael’s. He watched her as the Bodhisattva made his opening speech, which expressed his joy at being in the country and other sentiments which Michael knew so well.
His heart ached for Ani-La, he had admitted that to himself some months before. It was a physical experience, like the stitch he got after exercising in the hotel gyms which he did not know how to use properly. He felt it when he saw her talking to almost any man, even to the Bodhisattva. When he was alone he would groan softly and whisper ‘oh I love you Ani’ and his face would crumple. He made an effort not to talk to her too often, but when he did she was attentive to his conversation and smiled at him. He would feel a brief but deep contentment of the kind which intense meditation should have brought, but then he would see her talk to someone else. At his loneliest times, having left one of the evening functions breathlessly jealous, he would conclude that she was only there for her charm and her convincing aura of serenity which played so well with the westerners.
There were teachings in the daytime. Translating at the lectures was much harder work than the receptions. The Bodhisattva made little allowance for the audience and went into deep philosophical territory and rarely said anything the same way twice. His metaphors and explanations were complicated, leading to inconsistencies which Michael had to clear up as he went along.
“No!” said the Bodhisattva, at least once during each lecture. He held up an index finger and in English corrected what Michael had said. These corrections were never meaningful. They were delivered with an authority and sternness which would probably fool the audience, but the Bodhisattva would never have been able to follow Michael’s translation. Michael nodded and smiled and tried not to look at Ani-La in the front row.
The lecture went on for two hours and he could sense the audience struggling to follow what he was saying. His translation was excellent, he was sure of that. If they had seen a text of the original, they would have agreed that it was the lecture itself, not the translation, which was the problem. But no-one ever suggested that it was anything less than inspiring.
“My English- hopeless!” said the Bodhisattva, after he had tried a few sentences without a translator. This always charmed them. Another familiar trick.
After several hours, the Bodhisattva gathered up his robes, made gestures of blessing and left the stage. Then the circle of attendants, including Ani-la, followed and Michael was given his own smattering of applause. He bowed quickly. He was often the only person there who spoke both languages well enough to translate. The whole lecture theatre, the whole evening, was dependent on him. He deserved his bow as much as anyone.
There was a dinner every day. The hosts waited anxiously as the touring party took their seats, apologising for the food before it had even been served. They expressed concern that it might be too western or else too contrivedly oriental; too rich or too inauthentic. The Bodhisattva just smiled and said everything was wonderful and Michael wanted to tell them that this was far better than what they normally ate, regardless of the type of cuisine. Still having to translate, he generally had little time to enjoy his food. It was rare that he had the opportunity to look at Ani-La, who would usually be on the Bodhisattva’s table too, but when he did she would be in conversation with one of the hosts.
He longed to translate for her. He wanted her to come and touch his sleeve and say ‘Michael, can you help me?’, then to smile up at him. The attempts that people made to communicate with her always ended up the same way, with them drawing on a napkin or performing some kind of mime and then laughing at the way everything was only half-understood or nodding excitedly when they had managed to make their trivial point. If Michael felt his temper rise he would occasionally mistranslate what the Bodhisattva was saying. It made no difference. The nods were just as sincere, the smiles just as beatifically satisfied. The Bodhisattva never managed to correct him when he actually needed to.
He imagined Ani-La in other clothes: a white t-shirt and light blue jeans. Her face was round and pretty, even with the shaven head. She would definitely not be thin, but no more than a little plump. He wanted to walk down the street with her dressed like that, with nobody staring. If she had not become a nun, if she were a young woman of an everyday kind, then she would have had plenty of men interested, he was sure, and he would have struggled to catch her attention.
The demonstrations became more fervent. In response, praise for the Bodhisattva from the people hosting the events and their allies in the media increased. There was some excitement in pushing through the crowds, hearing the insults, keeping low behind the police shields. Michael almost looked forward to the events now and though he was fearful, he would have been disappointed if no-one had been there to disturb the otherwise peaceful winding out of the days. It was getting more violent. Police had been attacked, they had responded and then there was a row about the force which had been used. Politicians and embassies started to put out statements.
Michael was kept busy all the time now, appearing on camera in press conferences and attending meetings with hard-faced men from the security forces. There was an altercation between demonstrators and the touring group late one night when the police presence was not so heavy and the Bodhisattva was pushed and someone spat on his robe. Michael sensed the tension everywhere increase. They were taken to a police station to make the complaint formal and the next morning they faced the press.
“How do you feel about the demonstrators?” the Bodhisattva was asked.
“We must find a way to have meaningful dialogue,” said the Bodhisattva, as he always did.
The questions and answers continued in the normal way. Michael translated phrases he knew off by heart.
“But what do you think of these people who seem to have come here to harm you?” said one persistent journalist. “Do you really feel no anger towards them?”
The Bodhisattva made the predictable responses. Michael watched him nod and smile and repeatedly adjust his robes; hitching the cloth up to cover his old shoulder, where the flesh was now mottled, flesh which did not look as if was renewing anymore.
“They are provocateurs,” said Michael in response. The Bodhisattva had not said that. But Michael was sick of the old man sitting there, pretending that he felt compassion for everyone. Surely the Bodhisattva knew that these people were provocateurs. He might even have called them something worse. Michael felt the interest in the room rise and watched dozens of men scribble the words down on their pads.
The word ‘provocateur’ was important news the next day. The Bodhisattva was criticised for using intemperate language. Perhaps he was the provocateur, it was suggested in several papers. Michael had to be careful.
“Anything interesting?” said the Bodhisattva.
“Just transcripts of the press conference really,” said Michael. “Something about the lectures. Quotes from members of the public who came to see you. All favourable.”
“They’re reported. Nothing unusual.”
The Bodhisattva nodded and walked off to confer with his small coterie of advisors and helpers to plan the forthcoming events. Ani-La was amongst them, saying very little, smiling beautifully.
The day continued in the way that most of the days did. Travelling, a reception, lunch. Earnest greetings and handshakes and laughter at nothing which was funny. The laughter of alliance. Michael knew that it was all probably very necessary but he could not bring himself to be a part of it himself. He translated and he kept a straight face, not hostile but not complicit.
“Time to go to the hall,” said one of the smiling hosts, making exaggerated gestures at his watch even though Michael had translated immediately. “We’re so very much looking forward to this.” His colleagues chorused their agreement.
“They say they’re looking forward to it,” said Michael to the Bodhisattva, who nodded at him and then turned and let his face relax into a smile.
The demonstration which greeted them at the hall seemed to be no different at first to all the others. They drew up in the minivan which barely made a noise when it moved at slow speed. The minivans they travelled in were the same in every town and city, brand new with dark windows and the smell of leather inside. The door slid open and there was a rush of air and sound: some cheering, some booing, the usual insults. But when they stepped outside it was obvious that there was more pressure from this crowd. The police cordon bent under the strain and there were screams of panic as well as opposition.
Michael saw the Bodhisattva look around, looking for direction himself now. One of the hosts pointed forward and they surrounded him and did their best to bundle him onwards. Michael looked around for Ani-La but she was already protected. The police had drawn truncheons and wrestled a few people to the ground. The touring party moved forward ten yards and the protest seemed to be about to subside, but then a young man with his hair held back from his forehead by a baseball cap, an Eastern man dressed like a westerner, broke the police line. He was slim but he looked strong and agile and he was wielding a stick. His momentum took him through the protective circle straight to the Bodhisattva.
Michael found himself in a frozen moment with everyone else. The young man beat the old, small man with astonishing speed and ferocity and howls went up all around. The Bodhisattva tried to cover himself with his arms but received a dozen hard blows around his head before the police could fight their way through the panicking hosts and pull away the attacker, who still managed to raise his arms and yell slogans before they felled him.
The crowd pulled back and a space cleared. Michael moved in, as a policeman tried to examine the Bodhisattva’s injuries. He was an old man. Michael saw that much more clearly now than he had ever done before. The robe was torn and there was the mottled flesh again, the liver spots, the hairless shins, the greying flesh. A poor elderly man unfairly beaten and lying unconscious. Michael did not attempt to look over at the attacker, because the face was still clear in his mind. He looked too much like one of the boys from his own youth. Handsome, cunning-looking, clearly ready to betray the kind-faced girls with the fringes swept across the forehead.
Michael felt just as powerless now and he could have cried. He knew he probably would when he found time to be alone. For now, he could not resist searching for Ani-La’s face. She looked horrified and held her clenched hands to her mouth. He made sure that he avoided her stare, for he felt sure that she would know what he had done if she saw him.
The evening was mournful. The Bodhisattva lay in hospital. His injuries were critical and everyone tried to decipher exactly what the doctors meant, without daring to voice the common fear. Michael went to his room and sat on his bed. The image of Ani-La naked, which was his normal way of blocking out the anxieties of the real world, was hard to summon. There were just pictures in his mind of the old man lying there and a sense of tearful sympathy which he would never have though himself capable of feeling towards the master.
The TV news made him shiver with fear. The representative of the demonstrators made play of the fact that the word ‘provocateur’ had been used and voiced outraged objections to such an offensive characterisation of people merely exercising a democratic right. There were debates and endless replays of the moment before the attack. The news seemed to get louder and louder, even when Michael turned off the TV. He imagined a crowd gathering below his hotel room. When he peered out of the window there was nobody there, but eventually he heard a knock at the door, which was almost a relief. Just before he opened it he allowed himself a final fantasy of Ani-La standing there, her dark, liquid eyes full of kindness as she came in to comfort him.
Two men from the touring party and a westerner he had not seen before stood before him. They introduced the westerner as a professor of languages.
“We want to study the translations from yesterday,” said one of the men, his voice completely calm. “There are points we would like to discuss.”
He gestured graciously for Michael to come out of the room and to accompany them. They walked quietly along the corridor to another room, which was larger and even quieter than Michael’s, with no noise coming in from outside. Glasses of water were poured and they all sat down together and began the interrogation.
Louis Malloy lives in Nottingham. He has had over forty stories published in a range of magazines and anthologies and has won various prizes. Publications his work has appeared in include the Edinburgh Review, the New Writer, the Middlesex University Press Anthology and The Huddersfield University Grist Anthology.