The Mural of Tilottamma
by David W. Landrum
When Kairavi Nagaswami’s crew broke into the vault, she felt vindication. She had heard so much tongue-clicking, seen so many rolled eyes, and endured so many patronizing words, the satisfaction she experienced at that moment suffused her with pride from head to toe. She told her crew not to open the chamber just yet. They had thrust in lights and cameras. The workers gasped. Kairavi almost wept. She had hoped to find a significant artifact at this site. What she saw through the probe cameras looked like a major discovery that would establish her career. As cool from the mountains blew down on her, she breathed in, fighting the tears that wanted to fill her eyes. The wave of emotion passed. She smiled.
“This is a miracle,” she said. “The entrance has to be done carefully, and I think we’re all so excited we might get hasty and do some damage if we try to open the site now. Let’s knock off for lunch. I’ll send in a report. The board down at the university will be sorry they denied us funding for so long.”
They posted a worker to guard the site and went to the house they had rented for the dig. Kairavi bought beer. A low-key celebration ensued. As she drank a cold bottle of Heineken, a cloud of sadness passed over her. She pushed it away, resolving she would not let her sorrow ruin the celebration. Finding a significant historical artifact vindicated her—to herself at least. She wondered if it would make much of an impression on her family.
When they finished eating and the heat of midday had dissipated, they returned to the site. Her workers carefully widened the opening, making it large enough for Kairavi to crawl inside.
She struggled into the cavern they had unearthed, switched on the light she had carried in, and turned in a circle. She stared in amazement. With the small probe camera they had glimpsed only a dim portion of the discovery. Now, in the harsh glare of the high-powered lamp she held, the whole scene lay in its fullness before her eyes.
The wall behind her bore no images, but murals covered the other three walls. The floor, though dusty, was paved with smooth stones. Vaulted supports crossed the domed ceiling. The chamber had been built and then sealed up.
Heart beating with excitement, she stepped forward to examine the murals more closely. The central one depicted a woman—beautiful, topless, wearing a wispy loincloth and a dancing crown, arms over her head, one bare foot raised. No doubt, Kairavi thought, this was Tilottamma. On either side of her, the artist had depicted Lord Shiva and Indra, God of Heaven. Both deities were making eyes at Tilottamma. Both, according to the ancient stories, had fallen in love with her.
She turned, shining the light of the electric torch to the wall on the left. There she saw Tilotamma, incarnated as the mortal woman Usha, with her husband Aniruddha.
She had to stop, close her eyes, and regain control of her emotions. This was a miracle. This would make her career.
That night she lay in bed at the house. The window air condition whined and sputtered. The smell of musty carpet filled her nostrils. Dim light coming through the curtainless window revealed a blue lizard clinging to the wall opposite her.
Quite a contrast, she thought, from where she had grown up. People had jokingly called her and her sisters the Kardashians. They were hip, beautiful, and rich. Men from prominent families lined up to meet them at the formal, chaperoned events their father organized once a month. Their money let them shop in Paris and New York and attend theater in London and opera in Sidney. Their home sat like a palace in the lush countryside of Maharashtra. Guards stood on its high walls. The complex of buildings always made Kairavi feel she lived in a city run by her family. Her entrance to the wider world came at fourteen. By age eighteen, she had jetted to every habited continent on the globe.
Suitors sometimes quietly commented that Kairavi did not shine as grandly as her sisters. She had darker skin and was shorter than and not as dazzling in beauty as Udaya and Gandahl. Still, the young men said, moonlight might not be as beautiful as dawn or flowers but it was beautiful in its own way. Make-up, coifed hair, and expensive clothes could do wonders for a woman.
It was perhaps the judgment of the suitors that made Kairavi notice things outside the prescribed path her family had set for her. Once in New York she met an Indian-American girl who was a student a Cornell. Her sisters had mocked the girl at dinner that night. The mockery aroused Kairavi’s curiosity. The whole mater might have ended there, but she saw the young woman, who name was Odathi, in a book store the next afternoon. Kairavi invited to her to have a drink.
“Is there place you like to go?” she asked.
“Ever hear of the KGB Bar?”
She had not. They took a taxi to East Village and found a table there. Poets were reading. The place buzzed with the energy of words. When the reading ended, Kairavi asked Odathi about her course of study.
“I’m surprised you want to know,” she said. “Your sisters didn’t seem very impressed with me when we met yesterday.”
Kairavi blushed. The girl had noticed.
“My sisters have a somewhat limited view of things,” she said diplomatically. “I would like to know more about what you study.”
The young woman spoke at length. An anthropology major, she was going on a dig in Israel this summer. Her area of interest centered on the tribes of Central Asia and how the various peoples within that area interacted with the peoples of India.
“Did you know the Mongols tried to invade India several times and were repeatedly repulsed? They conquered China, the Middle East, and Russia. Only the Indians kept them at bay. After the dig in Israel, I’m going to Uzbekistan and to India to do research on the Mongols in the eleventh century.”
“If that’s your area of study, and if you’re in anthropology and not archeology, why are you going to do an excavation in Israel?”
Odathi smiled. “Just for fun.”
As Odathi talked more about school, her eyes glowed with passion. Her gestures were animated. Kairavi got her email address and said she would come and visit her in Israel.
That snowy day in New York changed her path. Despite growing up in a tropical region, Kairavi liked cold. She took long walks through the snowy streets of the vast city of skyscrapers and hurried people and thought on the vacuity of her present life. She missed a party that night. When she arrived back at the hotel, Udaya demanded to know where she had been. “We thought you’d been abducted,” she chided.
“I sent you a text.”
“Why would I be looking at texts?”
That night Kairavi got on the internet and read through sites about anthropology. It looked far too academic and boring. Because Odathi had mentioned she was going on an archeological dig, Kairavi looked at websites about that area of study. She attended parties and concerts and went shopping with her sisters the remaining time they stayed in New York, but by the time they flew back to Mumbai, she had decided her course for the next few years. It would not be what her parents planned on or what her sisters expected her to do.
“College!” her father demanded. “Don’t you want to get married?”
“Not yet. Father, Mother, I just don’t want to get married right now. I’m only eighteen. I want to go to school. I want to get a degree. Marriage can come later.”
Her parents relented more easily than Kairavi had thought they would (she had not been certain they would relent at all). Two days later, her father came and, grumbling, told her she could go to school; he and her mother, he warned, expected her to consent to a match they would arrange after she graduated. Kairavi had no intention of agreeing to an arranged marriage, but she said nothing. She could tell them that after graduation in four years.
She considered Oxford (her father’s suggestion) and Harvard (her mother); neither appealed to her. Odathi mentioned Boston University. Kairavi had visited Boston and did not like the city that well. Someone told her Bryn Mawr had a good undergraduate program in archeology, but an all-female school did not appeal to her. When Kairavi visited Odathi in Israel, they went to Tel Aviv University. She told her parents she intended to enroll there.
“Why there?” her father asked, trying to rein in his vexation. “What’s wrong with the schools we suggested?”
“Nothing, Father. Tel Aviv has an undergraduate program like I want. I can get my Bachelor’s degree and then a Master’s afterward.”
“How long will that take?”
She enrolled that fall.
Kairavi loved living in Israel and attending Tel Aviv University. The classes were taught in English, so she did not have to learn a new language (though she did soon learn to speak Hebrew and Arabic). Several Indians studied there. Kairavi introduced them to her parents when they visited. Thought they tried to seem disapproving, she knew both of them felt pride at her accomplishments and at how students they met loved her and how faculty to whom they were introduced honored her.
Her views changed during her university days. She found reasons for the feelings that had led her on a different path from her sisters (both of whom were married by her third year in college). Her moral views changed as well. She lost her virginity to one of the Indian students there—on purpose—and carried on liaisons with Israelis, a visiting American, and an Ethiopian Jew. And, of course, with Lior. She knew her parents wanted to marry her off the moment she got out of school. Not being a virgin would head off that threat, at least with her sort of families her parents were probably already in negotiations with.
She finished her three-year undergraduate program and enrolled in the Masters course. Near the beginning she told her parents she had decided to put off marrying a little longer. After the initial storm blew over, they asked why.
“I want to go on for a Ph.D.” She hesitated and then said, “And I’m not a virgin anymore. I’ve been intimate with men. I know that disappoints you, but the deed can’t be undone and I don’t intend to lie about it. The men here won’t want me for a wife. I do plan to marry. Indian men in the US or Europeans won’t mind what I’ve done.”
Once more, their reaction surprised her. It was as if they had known what she had done was inevitable. Her father scolded her but said perhaps she could make the family proud by her academic achievement—though they still expected her to wed.
Over the next year, Kairavi developed skill at her discipline. The digs she went on in Israel produced valuable artifacts. Being a polyglot (besides English, she spoke Marathi, Hindi, Urdu and French), she improved on her initial acquisition of Hebrew and Arabic, mastering both languages, often serving as interpreter when her class went on digs in predominantly Arabic-speaking areas. The university offered her a teaching post but she decided to return to India. Some desire to vindicate herself as a dutiful daughter loyal to her family and country remained in her. She accepted a teaching post at a small school in the north and began scrounging for funding to finance digs. After a frustrating year of begging for money, she was able to secure enough cash to go on a dig in Madhya Pradesh. She had found gold—gold dug out of her national heritage and religious beliefs. Kairavi held her beliefs loosely. Most of her friends in Tel Aviv had been atheists, and while she qualified her faith it remained in her heart. As she lay in bed in the house and listened to the annoying drone of the air conditioner, she resolved to go to a temple she had seen passing through town and make an offering of thankfulness to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Good Fortune.
Besides finding the murals, she reflected, she had much for which to be thankful. Her family had not shunned her. Though disappointed she had not squeezed herself into the template they had for daughters, they had reconciled themselves to something of a second-best expectation for her. Perhaps she would not marry a rich man with an opulent estate such as she grew up on, but it was honorable—a feather in their cap—to have a daughter who taught at Cambridge, Harvard, or Deli. Kairavi did not know if this discovery would open doors at any of those places; still, she had uncovered a valuable relic, the visual brilliance of which would probably send it viral over the internet and help it find its way into the pages of glossy magazines like National Geographic or Smithsonian. She could write something up for Archeological Journal or Indian Archeology. Her find did brighten her future.
She wondered, too, if it would make her parents accept Lior.
Kairavi had never lacked for boyfriends in Israel, but only Lior had won her heart.
They met when he had worked for a stint as head of security at the university. A sabra who had grown up on a kibbutz, fought in a special forces unit of the Israeli Defense Force, and now operated his own business—a chain of four fitness centers he had started with a small loan and a lot of hard work—Kairavi had developed a passionate emotional and physical desire for him. The week she left Tel Aviv for home, he suggested marriage.
“Out of the question,” she answered.
Race did not enter the picture as an obstacle (he was of European origin, his family immigrants from Russia). Nor did nationality. The insurmountable difficulty, at least as Kairavi saw it, was religion.
“We’ll practice our own religions,” he protested.
“Won’t work—never does. And what if we have children?”
“We’ll let them decide for themselves.”
She only shook her head, fighting back tears. She told him they would be lovers. “We’ll carry on an affair that will last the rest of our lives. Nothing will keep us back.”
Lior, however, had been a soldier. An Israeli soldier, he once told her, cannot consider the possibility of defeat. He began his campaign. His war of attrition eventually won her over as the reasons she had for refusing him weakened and deserted her one by one. She knew from experience that her parents would negotiate and when they would not. They had been willing to do so when she announced her decision to put off marriage and when she wanted to go to the University of Tel Aviv. They would not negotiate, she knew, on this.
Kairavi reported her findings to the government. She and her crew carefully widened the opening. The Indian government immediately coughed up funding to install a climate-control doorway. When her crew had set up proper lights and Kairavi was able to assess the condition of the paintings on the wall of the chamber they had unearthed, she felt amazement. Perfectly preserved, shielded from the elements for the hundreds of years since its creation, the mural glowed with vivid color that made them look as if the paint had been laid on only yesterday.
The first panel showed Vishwakarma, the architect of the gods, smiling down at the newly-formed figured of Tilottamma that he had created in response to Bhrama’s instructions. The large central painting on the east side of the chamber depicted Tilottamma dancing; on either side of her Shiva and Indra gasped in wonder and desire. The last painting pictured her as a lovely but not stunningly beautiful wife of a moral husband. The triptych told her story.
It told it frankly as well. In temple carvings, the apsara, the dancing nymphs who entertained the gods, were always depicted as topless and wearing tiny fringed belts as their only garments. Eastern prudery had censured them over the years. In more contemporary paintings they appeared clothed. Modern dance troops who did “apsara” dancing did not dance topless. These panels, however, showed her in all her glory. The one of the newly created Tilottamma framed her wearing nothing—breasts and pubis visible. In the second, larger panel, she danced topless, though she wore the headgear and a g-string. In the last panel, a blue sari made for modesty. She wondered how the conservative Indian press would react.
Television stations came to report on the remarkable find—only Indian TV at first, but soon the BBC, Australian Public Television, and PBS from America came to do stories. Kairavi hired a photographer and created a website. As she had hoped, the photographs went viral. Tilottamma’s risqué appearance caused controversy, though she stated she had only displayed the pictures as they were in the original. Archeology departments in India, Europe, and North America asked her to speak and to consider serving as a visiting professor. The University of Tel Aviv proudly identified her as a graduate and offered her a teaching post. And, as she knew he would, Lior came to visit her.
Too worn out to argue with him and tell him to hide, she introduced him to her parents.
She had not considered her new-found academic celebrity an asset in the matter of her relationship with Lior, but only a few minutes into the dinner with him and her mother and father, she realized the velocity of her architectural success as it related to her marriage plans.
Lior did not seem particularly impressed with their estate. He smiled at Kairavi’s sisters (one married now and living with her husband in the family compound, the other living in Jaipur but visiting at the time). Kairavi could sense their disappointment that he did not ogle at them. His egalitarianism and contempt for materialism made him oblivious to the accouterments that dazzled most young men visiting here. Yet he was not dismissive or condescending and congratulated her parents for their hard work and success. Kairavi had dreaded the evening. Soon she relaxed and reveled in Lior’s interaction with her mother and father and sisters. Her parents and siblings appeared charmed by him. She smiled. He was a soldier. He knew how conduct a successful campaign.
He spent a week with her. The day before Lior headed back to Tel Aviv, Kairavi accepted an invitation to speak at a small university forty kilometers away from the dig site. She and Lior drove over together. As they travelled in silence she sensed barriers had been removed. She would marry him. As if by divine intervention, her parents’ objections to their relationship had dissolved like sugar in tea. She held hands with him as they walked across the campus of the remote, traditional school where she would deliver her first address as an accomplished architect.
The lecture hall was filled to capacity. People stood at the doors. The university tech people had set up monitors for the students and local people unable to get into the auditorium. Despite the prominence of saris, chali, and salwar, Kairavi wore a short red dress and pumps. After applause had died down, she began her lecture, outlining the process by which she discovered the general location of the paintings, the trail that led to them, and the meticulous care she and her crew had taken to ensure no damage came to the artifacts. She showed a PowerPoint of the murals. The crowd reacted with some discomfort at the nudity in the first two paintings, but she did not rush past them. Enough of accommodating people, she thought. She had done so long enough for parents and sisters—and for society with all its expectations.
“The story of Tilottamma teaches us many things,” she said toward the close of the lecture, “but perhaps above all it teaches us that the quotidian is to be preferred. Beauty and opulence—thing things Tilottamma possessed in such excess—only caused trouble, not to say sorrow. The last panel”—she selected a slide—“showing Tilottamma, now mortal and much more ‘average,’ if you will, sharing a tender moment with her husband, Aniruddha, is more glorious, deep and magnificent than the depictions of her with her previous divine lovers. I believe the artist wanted to create just that effect. Our eyes rest with more satisfaction on her as a mortal woman, lovely but perhaps not beautiful, appropriately dressed, sharing the joy of wedded life with her lawful husband. It is this last scene that gives us resolution. Thank you.”
Thunderous applause followed and then a standing ovation.
“I will take questions now.”
A glimpse of Lior, who sat in the first row of seats, told her she could answer any question that might come her way.
She called on a man in the middle of the room who had raised his hand.