This Strange and Blessed Humanness
This Strange and Blessed Humanness is a spiritual novel that follows the angel of truth who, for questioning God during the creation of the first human, is sent to earth as a perpetual witness. The condition of his journey is that he can remain immortal only as long as he doesn’t interfere with human events. He is inevitably and repeatedly drawn into relationship after relationship and, through the weave that unfolds throughout history, this modern fable addresses our ongoing struggle with whether we live life or watch life.
The story moves mostly through two periods of history. At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Hong Wu (1382-1398), while the building of the Great Wall of China is being pressed, the angel encounters one of the Emperor's generals, Taiko, his precocious wife, Shenji, and their sage-like gardener, Zhang. Through their different approaches to life, the angel learns about friendship and betrayal.
The second half of the story is set in India at the beginning of the 19th century when British expansion is at its height; precisely in 1827 in the province of Bengal. Here, under the name Kirans, the angel falls in love with Nisha, the daughter of a British officer, Benjamin Holcomb, and a Hindu mother, Kapila. As a child of two cultures, Nisha grows before his eyes and he is forced to choose where life and immortality truly abide: in living forever or in living completely. Through the angel's journey on earth, a perennial challenge that we all face is explored: What is the line we each must honor or cross to live life to its fullest?
FROM NISHA AND THE TIGER
In this passage, the angel is living in northeast India during the British rule of the early 1800s. Here, he is known as Kirans and he has fallen in love with Nisha, the daughter of Benjamin, a British officer, and her Hindu mother, Kapila.
In her want to be married, Nisha has performed the marriage ritual known as mendhi, in which she has beautifully painted her hands and feet with henna and oils. But Kirans has backed off of his involvment, while her parents, who oppose the marriage, believe that they have already eloped. Still, Nisha’s grandmother, Varshaa, is all for it.
In this scene, we join them the day before they all go to a family picnic in a British-made park near the grasslands outside of Plassey.
The next day Nisha spoke to no one. Tomorrow, she thought, will be the picnic. And I have no way of warning Kirans. Worse now, as Varshaa had warned, they wouldn’t be alone. All of them gathered where the two had just met. All of them angry with her. Except Kirans who wasn’t sure he loved her. She was frightened he wouldn’t show. For his part, Kirans was unable to rest after their meeting in the park. He knew she was hurting, but so was he. Waking on the day of the picnic, he thought, There is little I can do about all this. In fact, there is nothing to be done. Fear had pushed him far enough back from the line that his old will was taking over. As he walked to the park, he thought, Perhaps it’s good we won’t be alone today.
When they met, there were other families around. So everyone felt restrained to say what they thought in public. Kirans counted this a blessing. Varshaa laid out the linens and Kapila placed the mangoes and nuts about. They all sat on the linens near each other. Benjamin began exchanging pleasantries. It was something he was good at. He offered Kirans some nuts, “I appreciate your care in watching over Nisha and Varshaa while I was away.” Kirans bowed slightly, “It was in my heart anyway.” Varshaa looked closely at Kirans, trying to understand him. Why wouldn’t he commit to Nisha? What was pressing on his soul?
Kapila had an edge to her. She was cool to Kirans and downright cold to her daughter. Benjamin just pretended that Kapila’s hostility wasn’t there. It was how he’d survived these last few years. But Nisha was dying inside. To picnic like this—with Kirans sitting right next to her, while Kapila and Varshaa stared at them as her father cut fresh slices of mango—it seemed unbearable. It was too hard to mask her feelings, too hard to act calm and ordinary. All this while waiting for Kirans to decide. Kapila kept eyeing her daughter’s painted hands. Nisha thought she might scream.
The tension between Nisha and Kirans was building. They both grew pensive in the midst of everyone else chatting. Nisha stood and paced about, away from the rest. When Kapila thought she was beyond the range of conversation, she went to confront Kirans. But Benjamin, in his well-bred reserve, whispered, “No. Let’s wait. Let’s give them time to come to us.”
Varshaa, however, knew what was going on. She approached Kirans and quietly let him know that Nisha had confided in her. Kirans didn’t know what to say, except, “You know what she means to me.” Watching Varshaa and Kirans talk somewhat privately made Kapila boil in her own assumptions. Under her breath, she muttered, “That’s enough of this.” She stood and interrupted them, accusing Kirans loudly, “How dare you marry our Nisha without even coming to us?! What kind of man are you?!”
Both Kirans and Benjamin were embarrassed and Nisha was beside herself. Her mother was only making this worse. Kirans quickly looked to Nisha and began to answer. At that moment, Nisha abruptly walked to the edge of the clearing, just out of sight, where the tall grasses swayed. She had to be alone. There, she went to her knees, and began to finger some grass, thinking about this love that had been awakened in her. Even alone, she could hear her mother’s strident voice above the rest. She began to cry. She so loved this man, so cherished this new feeling of love, and now there was a terrible ache at the prospect of his rejection. She couldn’t understand his hesitation. She was looking at the ache as if it were throbbing in her hands. My heart has popped out of its pouch, she thought, too big now to fit back in. Where will I put it, if he refuses me?
It was then that the tiger’s eyes appeared deep in the grass behind her. As big as the tiger was, it stalked quietly and slowly, its movements muscular and economic, suggestive of a breeze stirring through the day. Tigers like to strike from behind, and so, the tiger kept out of view, low to the ground as it sniffed in the scent of Nisha. The big cat recognized the two-legged smell and crouched lower. This was smaller than a deer and not as fast.
Nisha couldn’t bear this newfound heartache. It was a deeper and more invisible pain than she had ever known. She desperately wanted to be rid of it. She clutched her chest and rocked, thinking, If I could only rip this feeling from me. I was better off before. It was then that the tiger pounced for her neck from behind. She sensed something massive above her and, as she turned, she raised her right hand to her face. And so, he bit her upraised, painted hand. She flailed and screamed as the tiger tried to shake her. In her slapping terror, she poked the tiger’s eye. He dropped her long enough to swipe her, gashing her right side.
By this time, Kirans and Benjamin had arrived and Nisha lay in shock, bleeding and whimpering; her hand mangled, her side open and bleeding. The tiger sensed their presence at once and stood over his fresh kill, ready to protect it. He stared at them as Kapila and Varshaa finally arrived. Others in the park weren’t far behind. There was panic. Many, seeing the beast, ran. The tiger crouched low and faced the rest. Kapila was trembling. It was clear that Nisha was writhing. Varshaa was shouting to her to be still. No one knew what to do.
For all his training, the sight of his daughter bleeding stunned Benjamin, who simply stood there with his rifle pointing to the ground. Kapila grew hysterical. She began to shout at him, “Shoot it! Shoot it! What are you waiting for?!” Benjamin looked at her and snapped to, aiming his rifle, when Kirans walked right in front of him toward Nisha and the tiger.
The tiger was growling, his eyes fixed on the tired angel. As he moved toward them, he was thinking, There is nothing I can do except hold the moment open. I can’t touch the tiger and I can’t rescue Nisha. I can only hold the moment open. Finally, he was standing before Nisha and the tiger. He looked at Nisha who was sweating and heaving and crying. Her right side was deeply opened and her right hand was torn, blood covering the paint. The tired angel moved inside time and stepped over Nisha to sit cross-legged before the tiger whose eyes were glaring. Kirans began to slow his breathing.
He stared at the tiger. The tiger stared back. He was certain in this moment that this was more than a man-eater. The huge cat was being carried, at least in this instant, by some larger spirit. For some reason, he thought it was his God returning for him. This thought pierced him and he closed his eyes and began to meditate. Everyone was frozen in terror. Benjamin had his rifle cocked. Kapila was crying and Varshaa was aghast. This man whom Nisha loved was a Brahman, a holy man. How was this possible? Finally, the tiger broke his stare, came out of his crouch, and circled Kirans. He stopped to nuzzle his ear, then turned and walked back into the tall grass. Quickly, Kapila and Varshaa ran to Nisha. Benjamin uncocked his rifle. They carried her home.
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