Incarnations by Olga Pavlinova Olenich


Olga Pavlinova Olenich

The Professor of Environmental Sciences, Pondicherry University, wheels her bike like a triumphant winner taking the accolades of the crowd after completing the Tour de France. I marvel at the way she gets it over and around the usual obstacles: the multiple gaping potholes, the odd squatting child, the earnest follower of Sri Auribindo who has donned a shiny blue suit more suited to a Seventh Day Adventist than to a devoted child of the ashram, several diverse and rotting piles of vegetable matter, a cluster of cycle rickshaw drivers and their reclining rusty steeds, a man who is picking his teeth contemplatively without any regard to the passing traffic and, of course, here and there, the ubiquitous wide-eyed wandering cow. The professor is not actually riding her bike because she is walking with us, yet she manages to manoeuvre it beautifully from the awkward position of having to steer by the handlebars while walking alongside and avoiding the jutting pedal as well as the obstacles of the street. Because my travelling companion is threatening me with hiring a bike (“Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it again. It’s like riding a horse, once you’ve done it, you never forget, etc. etc.”) I am particularly sensitive about bikes and more so their riders. I watch these virtuosi out of the corner of my eye wherever we go and note enviously how they manage to navigate the impossible streets with the traffic and animals and crowds milling around them. At this stage, I would give anything, not, as you might expect, for the professor’s impressive list of qualifications, nor for her prestigious position in the university, nor for her glorious apartment with its impossibly romantic bed, but for her more enviable bike-riding and steering abilities. I follow her and the bike humbly through the streets of Pondicherry trying not to think about the humiliations ahead. She has invited us to her apartment, which is in one of the leafy streets behind the boulevard. Just as we turn into Rue Dumas (the street numbers, as well as the names, are French: the blue and white enamels of Paris corroded here and there by time and the salty air but still imposing their colonial order on the city) she is hailed by a tall, good-looking young man.

“Ah, here’s Stalin!” she says by way of an introduction. I look at Stalin accusingly. After all, he has a lot to answer for. Karma. But the professor and Stalin are not aware of my silent accusations. They have an amicable and very ordinary chat. The professor asks after Stalin’s family. It seems they are all thriving. I am tempted to ask if Stalin has siblings, perhaps a little Molotov or a teenage Beria, but he seems to be a nice enough boy with a wide lazy smile and a gentle stoop so I keep my silence. From the conversation, I surmise that he is one of the professor’s less dazzling students. But I’m wrong. Stalin is not a student, dazzling or otherwise. As we leave him, the professor explains that, until recently, she had employed Stalin as a cleaner.

“He was very lazy,” she says with an indulgent smile. “I kept him on for as long as possible, but he did less and less until it became ridiculous!” She gesticulates in a very Gallic way. “Ooh la la!” but she is good-humoured about Stalin’s shortcomings and hopes that he manages to find some employment soon. She thinks she can recommend him for his honesty. I think about this for a moment and then, under the brilliant Indian sun that has a way of bleaching things to a dazzling white, I find myself wishing this Stalin (bleached of his black heart, reincarnated in a beautiful black body) well.


In Bombay, Lenin appears unexpectedly in a famous pizza restaurant on Marine Drive. Lenin the waiter. Lenin serving capricciosa (hold the meat) to the yuppies of Bombay. Lenin pouring the Evian into large glass tumblers. Lenin making a milkshake behind a counter, which stretches for miles. A young Lenin, full of resentment and frustration and, paradoxically, or perhaps predictably, exactly the right words to say to customers. He seems to be popular and much in demand. No other waiter quite matches his energy. He is in several places at once, balancing trays and glasses and plates on a long arm. Perhaps this is the Lenin who will change the world. Somehow, looking around me at the tables of complacent well-fed young people more concerned with the labels on their clothes than with the pithy slogans of agitprop, I doubt it. But then, you never know in India.

“Lenin!” someone cries and I wonder if it is a call to arms.

Napoleon drives a cycle rickshaw in the temple city of Madurai. This, in itself, is a feat of heroic proportions. The sweat runs down his back freely and his hair is wet.

The streets of Madurai are a nightmare: haphazard, narrow, winding and congested especially around the wildly colourful Sri Meenakshi temple where they seem to circle and circle without getting anywhere. Perhaps this is as much a religious statement as the temple. The streets of this inland city are awash with water dumped on the town in a sudden deluge the night before, possibly some kind of divine compensation for its land-locked state. There are signs and portents everywhere and on every corner there is a spreading brown lake as the water accumulates from hundreds of tiny rivulets in the muddy thoroughfares. Sometimes Napoleon has to get off the bike and haul us through the dirty shallows. It is backbreaking work. We feel guilty about putting him through this test of endurance but at the same time we are aware that, had we taken up one of the mass of auto-rickshaws plying their trade around the station, we would have deprived Napoleon of an income, particularly as he is taking us to see a relative, his cousin, the tailor, and there will be more money involved than just the fare. This is the usual way of commerce in this religious town. But Napoleon himself is unusual. Firstly, Napoleon has a striking face that might have been carved from the same rock as the unpainted remains of the old temple except that, unlike the temple, Napoleon does not appear immediately to be Indian. There is a Roman caste to his face. In profile, he could be a centurian or even a general. Secondly, Napoleon is very communicative for someone who is cycling against great odds, two of whom are sitting heavily in the rickshaw and listening to his patter that he picks up in snatches between avoiding the water, the cows, sundry vehicles and hundreds of excited pilgrims. When Napoleon turns around to smile, it is hard not to believe he is some extraordinary being who has fallen from heaven on hard times or is doing his penance for powerful sins committed in a time when he stood tall and commanded armies. Drawn in by his persona, we find ourselves wiping the sweat from his brow with our precious cologne-saturated tissues whenever he turns to face us. Maternal gestures, gestures of supplication. The journey through the quagmire of Madurai takes on some of the qualities of a quest with Napoleon as leader and visionary. One wonders if there is a Josephine waiting for Napoleon at home. It is hard to tell if Napoleon is old enough to be a family man. Then again, he might be much older than we think. Napoleon is an enigma.

We have several near-collisions with cyclists, cars, pedestrians and, most heart stopping of all, buses. Yet there is no stopping Napoleon. He is bent on delivering us into the hands of his cousin the tailor and, no doubt, the tailor’s employer, the cloth-merchant and god knows who else along the line. We hang on tightly as Napoleon takes another bend. The muscles in his legs are tight black knots.

The tailors of Madurai work in what could well be the most extraordinary factory in the world: under the great carved pillars and arches of an ancient temple, a dark labyrinth of caves and a hundred treadle sewing machines and the thump of solid irons on wooden boards. Stall upon stall of fabrics, row upon row of fast-talking sprukers ensnaring customers under the indifferent gaze of semi-eroded gods. Napoleon forges ahead, leading us deeper and deeper into the gloom where a bright little tailor in a dazzling white shirt greets us like long-lost relatives. He has sprung from behind his sewing machine and a rickety table on which two tatty German pattern books circa 1970 are lying open for perusal. If he is a cousin of Napoleon’s, then he is predominantly of another bloodline. His shape is different; his face is different. It is the face of Madurai, there are thousands like it in the streets and its very commonness accentuates the strangeness of Napoleon’s appearance. In a moment we are caught up in the succession of little dramas, which pass as trade in India: the cajoling, the stand-off, the abrupt departure, the tentative return, the offer of tea, the striking of a deal.

Sadly, we disappoint Napoleon by insisting on shopping around before we place any order with his cousin. His magnificent profile is disapproving but he lets us go. He is philosophical. “If you want, you go.” Napoleon does not cajole. We do eventually come back to the cousin but we do not see Napoleon again. I presume he has taken the rickshaw back to the station where he waits in the mud for another fare.

Later, on a beach, where the timeless waves roll in oblivious of our small religions, resurrections, and reincarnations, I wonder at these names. I reckon that only a V.S.Naipaul could have the stamina and connections to track down the parents of Lenin, Stalin, and Napoleon, and find the reasons behind the names, weaving the reasons and the persons and the political ties in and out with the vastly intricate story of post-colonial India. I can only speculate at Lenin and Stalin’s fathers’ reasons and characters. I can see them as extinguished firebrands, sitting in dimly lit rooms writing many an indignant letter to the editor of some local paper, which once had leftist leanings but now specialises in reporting accidents, marriages and assorted petty crimes. I can see the two ageing men conducting long political discussions with other believers on a sunlit pyol outside a respectable but crumbling home deep in the South of India.

“These are dark days, comrades,” I can hear one or the other of them say while the lights of the afternoon play on the new leaves of a mangosteen tree. If the men still have an occasional flicker of fire in their bellies, I’ll bet the women, the mothers of Lenin and Stalin, have lost interest, (if they ever had any interest, if they were ever allowed to have any interest), and have real names for their boys, names like Nagaraj and Gopu. Napoleon’s father, on the other hand, is more of an enigma to me. Did he have a French connection or was he just a dreamer, a poor man with a rich vision for his son? Perhaps Napoleon was born out of wedlock and gave himself the name, hoping that something would come of his extraordinary profile. If so, Napoleon must live in a pool of disappointment, a brown pool like the other awful pools of Madurai.

About the Author

Olga Pavlinova Olenich is a widely-published writer from Australia. Her work has appeared in many literary publications in her home country and overseas as well as being broadcast on Australian national radio. Several of her travel pieces have been published in major daily newspapers.