The first in a planned duology of novels, Blue Flowers tells the story of Vijayalakshmi, raised in the Tamil Brahmin tradition, who leaves India in the summer of 1975 for graduate study in English literature in Iowa City. Twenty-one-year-old Viji, a devotee of Jane Eyre, meets her Rochester, Richard, an American philosophy student, and falls in love at first sight. Her passion for Richard collides with the weight of tradition: her parents expect her to return home after graduation to marry a Tamil Brahmin husband. This chapter narrates her second meeting and first lunch (date?) with Richard.
Over taboulleh salad and falafel sandwiches, Richard tells Viji, a devout Hindu, about Stoicism and his moment of epiphany as he read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. They discuss virtue, arete, and what it means to live a good life; Socrates and Jesus; the Lalitha Ashtoram (the 1008 names of the sacred feminine) and the four cardinal virtues. Richard’s discussion of Stoicism—What would Marcus do?—offers Viji a refreshing perspective on how to live one’s life. She realizes that philosophy can do what religion has traditionally done: forge the direction and wisdom to lead a good life.
As Viji navigates her life as a foreign student in mid-1970s America, and unexpected sufferings wedge Richard and her apart, she will recall their lunch at the Lebanese café, the kindness of his demeanour, and his impassioned voice as he spoke of Marcus Aurelius:
She will ask herself: What would Richard do?
MARCUS AURELIUS AT THE LEBANESE CAFE
We’d walked for a while that December afternoon of 1975 in Iowa City, a longish walk, but engrossed by Richard’s presence, I did not notice the cold. I was glad to hear his step beside me, and sometimes an indrawn breath. He was real. This was not a dream. There were no purple mountains or cobbled streets, but flat cornfields covered with snow. Though once I pointed to what seemed to be rolling hills and said, “I didn’t know there were hills here,” and he said, “Those are heaps of gravel.”
“It looks quite beautiful,” I said.
He laughed. “I guess the freshly fallen snow makes everything look beautiful. I love winter. Cross-country skiing and skating.” He talked about a slope near their childhood home in Des Moines, where as a child he had loved to toboggan.
I did not know how to skate or ski or toboggan and it had begun to depress me, this dark time when all nature seemed either to be sleeping or dying. It was only the strong who survived this most difficult of seasons and I wondered if I could be counted among the strong. I didn’t enjoy the heat and humidity of the summer months in Madras, but it felt better than the coldness of this season; too much sun made me tired and irritable, but rarely depressed.
I dug my gloved hands deeper into my pockets and dared to gaze at the world around me. Yes, everything was white and blue and bright—the sun’s lights reflecting off the snow. I met Richard’s eyes as he turned and smiled at me. His hip-length jacket looked lighter than my heavy factory-outlet coat that went almost to my ankles. His skin was flushed, his eyes bright. He wasn’t wearing a tuque and his hair seemed damp with the moisture in the air. Was this not a cold day for him? He looked beautiful.
The Lebanese café was a tiny house with pink clapboards. The sign in front had blown down and the owner, unable to push the sign back into the frozen earth, had laid it flat on its back beside an evergreen hedge by the walkway to the entrance.
The Lebanese family lived in the backroom (did the entire family live in one room?) and had converted the living and dining space into a restaurant. I assumed that Richard had been there before. The owner, a trim man with a handsome face who seemed to be in his early thirties, bragged that his wife was the main cook. “We don’t let anyone else touch the food.”
There was no one else in the café except for a young woman curled up on a couch in the next room with what looked like a textbook in front of her. Middle Eastern food, Indian food, any kind of ethnic food was hard to find in the Midwest, and I was surprised to find such a restaurant. I did not have a car, so it was complicated getting to some of the Indian restaurants in Chicago. Some classmates had commented that they could smell Indian spices on my clothes; they said it with a smile, but I’d felt myself flinch, almost with shame.
I smiled and nodded at the owner’s wife and complimented her on the taboulleh salad. She spoke little English. I wondered at her loneliness when language, too, was a barrier. “When did you learn English?” was a question I was sometimes asked, or the condescending, “Your English is so good.” I didn’t have the patience to lecture them on India’s colonial history. I was the only Indian in the English department. Most of my classmates didn’t know what it was to live in a country other than the one where they were born—to be a foreign student, an exile, an immigrant or refugee. I had come to another world hoping to find within it something of what I’d left behind, but it was different, and I resisted the difference and found myself alone. Now seated across from Richard, I found someone from this world who held within him resonance and appreciation of other cultures. He might be the bridge that would help me cross this distance between America and me.
The owner’s wife, a fellow outsider in this country, had a pleasant smile and wore a pink headscarf that matched the outside walls of their house. She was pleased at my enthusiasm. She dictated the recipe in Arabic and Richard wrote it down in English and handed over the notecard to me. He spoke to her at length and with kindness. Perhaps it was this—his ability to make a genuine connection with her—that made me even more enamoured by him.
As I polished off my falafel sandwich, relishing the spices after the bland macaroni and cheese dinners and steamed vegetables that I’d been surviving on the last few weeks, I felt as if we had stepped into my story Jaanam. Though Richard was still a stranger, there was something oddly familiar in spending time with him.
I delighted in gazing at him as he sat back, his shirt stretching across the beautiful width of his shoulders. I found elegance in each of his movements, even in the way his lips moved, forming words and drawing in breath. He said he was reading the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. “Last week, a strange thing happened. It’s subtle, but feels life altering.” His blue eyes were sharp, intense and I felt in me an answering warmth. I smiled, my lips parting in anticipation. I imagined that like Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre, we were having a deep, not a superficial, conversation. “I was reading aloud a passage from The Meditations, and suddenly what I was reading didn’t feel like history, or a theoretical abstract ancient philosophy, but something that could be applicable to me right now, as a way of life.”
He moved forward in his chair, his eyes holding mine, talking to me as if we had known each other not for hours, but for years. He narrated the story of the Phoenician merchant Zeno of Citium who founded Stoicism in Athens in 310 BC. He said that Stoicism traveled to Rome and lasted for around five hundred years. Marcus was the last ancient Stoic. “Something in my being has hungered for something to believe in, to shape my life around. Now I think I’ve found it. You see, the primary goal of Stoicism is the cultivation of virtue, arete.”
His passion to be a good man moved me. Meeting him was like meeting a twin, one who knew my soul’s hunger for goodness—a desire to live an ethical and useful life. It seemed to me that Richard, even though he was coming at it from a different angle than me—philosophy, not religion—had an echoing aspiration. Never before had it occurred to me that philosophy could offer what religion did: I had labeled philosophy as a field of theoretical study and not as a way of life. I did not want our lunch to end and I felt that he did not want it to end. It was as if this café was a magical place that our incipient love had conjured into being.
“So how do the Stoics define virtue?”
“Excellence. Our most precious possession is our character. Living in agreement with nature. Nature around us and our nature.” Richard talked about justice, wisdom, courage and temperance. He said that things like wealth, health, fame, a good reputation were “externals”—“preferred indifferents.” Nice if you have them, but not necessary for one’s well being. There was no point in staying unhappy about something over which one had no control.
“So yes, surrender,” I said.
“Amor Fati,” he said. “Love your fate. Not just accept or endure it. But love it. It’s the resistance that causes suffering.”
He was absorbing and brilliant and I tried to memorize each word he said. I regretted bitterly my judgement of childhood friend Navtara’s infatuation for Gabriel. I had been too harsh. I knew that I could not, must not, love him, but we felt like two halves of one soul. I had not expected to meet such a man in America!
Swept forward by the force of my connection, I wove our future. If he loved Egypt, he would learn to love India. He would return to Madras with me; my parents would see his goodness and come to love him too. He would allow me to raise my children Hindu. He had learned Arabic, so I was sure that he would learn Tamil too. Now I knew that I had come to America to meet him. I thought all this as he discussed healthy and unhealthy passions. Was the passion I was experiencing, unhealthy?
“You didn’t find this inspiration in Christianity?” I asked. “In the Bible?”
He gave me wry smile. “No. I’m an agnostic. I don’t have much patience with religion. Are you a believer?”
I was uncomfortable with his dismissal of religion. I said, “Yes, Hinduism is important to me. Is your mother an agnostic too? Your sisters?”
“Mom goes to church sometimes. Faith is a personal matter.”
“But, you know, Jesus…”
“Socrates died willingly for his teachings, for his character, for virtue, for his students. You could say that he did what Jesus did. How is he any less?”
The owner came over to our table and cleared our plates. He served Richard and me mint tea, seemingly pleased at the pleasure we took in this meal. We ordered sweets to compensate for the time we were taking—baklava and semolina biscuits.
“Socrates could have escaped. He could have given in to the Athenian court and saved his life, but he didn’t. He said that death was nothing to fear. A bogeyman. If we lose our fear of death, we have true freedom.”
“I guess. I’ve never thought of it that way. But it’s true what you say, Richard. But, for me, faith has always been central. Maybe it is because I was born during the special time of Navrathri. The day of the goddess Lakshmi. In my home, every morning, our day begins with Lalitha Ashtoram, the 1008 names of the goddess. My father gets fresh flowers from the garden and my mother lights incense. And this morning ritual, this invocation of the divine, feels centering. A way of reminding oneself of goodness—the goodness in nature and within oneself.”
“I know of Diwali. But does faith have to be grounded in religion?”
“I guess you’re saying that faith could center on philosophy? And you’ve made a convincing case. I’ll have to think about that.”
He nodded, his smile gentle, “Navrathri?”
“The nine nights that precede Diwali. I love books. Words,” I said as I enjoyed the dense flaky syrupy sweetness of baklava. I was not yet ready to tell him about my story Jaanam, and how he was my Muse; of how I’d always felt stories burn in my heart and dreamed of the old banyan tree across from the Sweet House in New Delhi with its thousand eyes and thousand arms.
“Wow, we’ve eaten up time,” Richard said, glancing at his watch.
Or were we in a place of no time?
Even as I write this, decades later, a woman in my fifties in a city on the other side of the world, seated at a desk by a window that overlooks the desert, one of the royal palaces and Emirates Towers in the distance, on the seventeenth floor of Oasis Towers on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, I feel that a part of me, a part of him, is still sitting at that table in the Lebanese café in Iowa City. And in this space of who Richard and I were in the Lebanese café, I understand Urvaishi Auntie and the courage that would come to define her later life. I understand how love for a philosophy, a religion, a woman, man or Goddess, a country, passion-filled work, in a moment of sartori, illumination, can turn our lives upside down, and if we allow and nourish this seeing, create sustained change.
As we put on our jackets, tuques and gloves, I noticed that the young woman with her textbooks had already left and that the owner’s wife had retreated behind the curtain. I discussed with Richard the paper that I’d turned in that morning: “’The Benevolent finger-marks of the good George Eliot’: A Reading of Eliot’s Middlemarch and Wharton’s Age of Innocence.” I explained that just as in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver could not “take good” out of her cousin Lucy Deane’s misery and so gives up Stephen Guest, in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Ellen Olenska gives up Newland Archer, her cousin May’s fiancée. After reading The Reef, the novelist Henry James wrote in a letter to Edith Wharton, “there used to be little notes in you that were like fine benevolent finger-marks of the good George Eliot—the echo of much reading of that excellent woman, here and there, that is sounding through.”
“Your paper sound interesting,” Richard said. “It’s about doing the right thing. Virtue.”
“Yes, virtue. As Eliot would say–duty must come over inclination.”
When I asked the staff member who escorted us to the door what his name was, both he and Richard looked surprised. “He’s the owner,” Richard said. “Arif.”
I blushed in embarrassment. To me, he looked much older than the man who had greeted us and served our meal and dessert and tea. His face was of someone in his late forties and his body was bulkier. Had I been so caught up with Richard that I’d not seen him clearly? So much for my memory!
As we walked back to the International Office, relaxed, happy and full of wonderful food, Richard confessed: “My moment with The Meditations, I didn’t have the words. I felt it at the level of feeling. But now that I’ve said this to you—articulated it, it feels more real. Thank you for listening.”
It seemed telling that he’d not shared this moment with anyone else but me. “Oh, it was a pleasure.” I looked out for the snow-covered gravel hills and was reassured to find them still there.
“Maybe last week I experienced an epiphany,” Richard said, “Though on the surface it was such an ordinary moment, maybe the rest of my life will be guided by the simple question—‘What would Marcus do?’”
I’d heard my first love George’s parents say that they always asked themselves: What would Jesus do? And here was Richard asking himself what a Philosopher Roman Emperor would do.
Richard found faith in a philosophy—as a way of living and being. In some ways, philosophy felt more open and less divisive than religion, its outcome the same: living a good life and the pursuit of wisdom. And philosophers, too, had been put to death for their teachings. When I mentioned Socrates’ death again to Richard, he said that Seneca, another famous Stoic and tutor to Emperor Nero, had also been put to death.
“Socrates spoke for us all when he said, ‘Know yourself.’ I can’t think of a more worthwhile way of living one’s life.”
“Ah yes, the unexamined life is not worth living.” I resisted the urge to reach out and grasp his gloved hand. “I should return to journaling. In my journals, I tried to examine my life, know myself. Journaling was something that I did when I was a teenager until my mother’s elder sister, my Aunt Jayanthi, found my diary, read it, and scolded me. Write only nice things, she said.”
“Read it!” he exclaimed. “That’s not virtuous of her. Her judgement of you is her business. An external. Don’t let her opinion deter you from doing what you love. It’s your diary. Get back to writing!”
“Thanks for a great conversation,” I said, pausing, turning around, and he stopped too. He reached to brush a strand of hair that was twisted across my cheek and lips. I shivered when he touched me, and stopped myself from raising my hand to cover his as it rested, ever so briefly, on my upturned face, my lips softening, parting, waiting for his kiss. Of course, we didn’t kiss.
I was not cold anymore. The heat from my body made me sweat. Even if my sudden infatuation was unhealthy, our conversation felt illuminating, as if it could spark us forward to a way of living our lives to the fullest, as long as we didn’t forget what we had learned, but held on to wisdom like a raft in the flow of the river of life.
I was excited by the thought of living one’s life with such a clear sense of direction and purpose. I loved Urvaishi Auntie but for most of her life she seemed to float like driftwood on the stream of her life, lost in regret and longing. I didn’t want to live that way.
As we walked in-step to the International Office, I said, “Your moment with Marcus feels significant. Time will tell if its effects are lasting. I guess one could call such moments…grace. Subtle, but there. Our lives change and are never the same again.”
“Yes,” Richard said. “Unless we choose to forget. It takes attention and effort to live eudaimonia, the good life. Epictetus said that we cannot slacken our attention for a moment. We train ourselves moment by moment. There’s no time-out, no space where our actions have no consequence.”
“Except in story,” I said.
“We can do things in story that we cannot do in our real lives. There’s consequence for the characters, of course, but it’s not real.”
“Do you write stories?”
In this one year I had only written only one-and-a-half stories: my first story, “Gulmohar” inspired by Urvaishi Auntie’s relationship with her servant, Dev, begun on my last day in Delhi, just before I left India for America; and “Jaanam,” a story begun on the day I first met Richard.
“Yes, I write,” I said, as if by saying yes, I could pull closer that part in me that I’d felt as a child as I lay in bed writing stories in my head; the part of me that had closeted herself in the bathroom to finish a book when I was supposed to be doing my homework.
I said yes, as if by saying yes, I could pull closer that part in me that would write stories until the day I died. I said yes, as if by yes, I could find the rebel in me that would risk my parents’ (and my culture’s) disapprobation and follow what I felt for Richard and write the stories that I wanted to write.
For most of her life Urvaishi Auntie had locked herself in a miserable marriage. She had made the wrong decision by giving up Anand, a boyfriend from a lower caste, for the sake of her parents. Meeting someone such as Richard felt like destiny. If our relationship blossomed, as it surely would—judging by the way we instantaneously connected—my parents would not accept him. But I did not want to make the mistake my Auntie did. I would fight for him. It was auspicious that Richard and I were falling in love at first sight as my parents did at their first meeting in a London grocery store.
“That’s wonderful,” he said, and then, as if to validate that this was the first of many meetings, Richard said, “I’d love to read one of your stories.”
Ranjini George teaches courses on meditation, writing, Stoicism and the good life at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto. Two excerpts from her novel-in-progress Blue Flowers, have been published in So to Speak and in The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Contemporary Women Writers on Forerunners in Fiction. You can find her at The Kuan Yin Story Cafe, The Writing Stoa, and on Twitter