"Sir, I am wondering—have you considered lately what happens in Hell?"
No, I hadn't, but I liked that "lately." We were on our way from the San Francisco Airport to Palo Alto, and the driver for Bay Area Limo, a Pakistani American whose name was Niazi, was glancing repeatedly in the rearview mirror to check me out. After all, there I was, a privileged person—a hegemon of some sort—in the backseat of the Lincoln Town Car, cushioned by the camel-colored leather as I swigged my bottled water. Like other Americans of my class and station, I know the importance of staying hydrated. And there he was, up front, behind the wheel on a late sunny Saturday afternoon, speeding down California State Highway 101, missing (he had informed me almost as soon as I got into the car) the prayer service and sermon at his Bay Area mosque. The subject of the sermon would be Islamic inheritance laws—a subject that had led quite naturally to the subject of death and the afterlife.
I don't really enjoy sitting in the backseat of Lincoln Town Cars. I don't like being treated as some sort of important personage. I'm a Midwesterner by location and temperament and don't even cotton to being called "Sir." So I try to be polite ("Just call me Charlie") and take my shoes off, so to speak, in deference to foreign customs, as Mrs. Moore does in A Passage to India.
"No," I said, "I haven't. What happens in Hell?" I asked.
"Well," Niazi said, warming up and stroking his beard, "there is no forgiveness over there. There is forgiveness here but not there. The God does not listen to you on the other side."
"No. The God does not care what you say, and He does not forgive you once you are on that side after you die. By then it is over."
"Interesting," I said, nondirectively.
"It is all in the Holy Book," Niazi went on. "And your skin, Sir. Do you know what the God does with your skin?" [End Page 13]
"No, I don't," I said. "Tell me." Actually I was most interested in the definite article. Why was the deity referred to as the God? Are there still other lesser gods, minor subsidiary deities, set aside somewhere, who must be differentiated from the major god? I drank some more water as I considered this problem.
"It is very interesting, what happens with the skin," Niazi said, as we pulled off the Bayshore Freeway onto University Avenue. "Every day the skin is burned off."
"Yes. This is known. And then, each day, the God gives you new skin. This new skin is like a sheath."
"Ah." I noticed the repeated use of the word you.
"And every day the new skin is burned off." He said this sentence with a certain degree of excitement. "It is very painful as you can imagine. And the pain is always fresh pain."
Meanwhile, we were proceeding through downtown Palo Alto. On the outskirts of town I had noticed the absence of pickup trucks and rusting American cars; everywhere I looked, I saw Priuses and Saabs and Lexuses and bmws and Volvos and Mercedes-Benzes and a few Teslas here and there. The mix didn't include convertible Bentleys or Maybachs, the brand names that flash past you on Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica. Here, ostentation was out; professional-managerial modesty was in. Here the drivers were engaged in Right Thinking and were uncommonly courteous: complete stops at stop signs were the norm, and ditto at the mere sight of a pedestrian at a crosswalk. No one seemed to be in a hurry. There was plenty of time for everything, as if Siddhartha himself were directing traffic.
And the pedestrians! Fit, smiling, upright, well-tended, with not a morbidly obese fellow-citizen in sight, the evening crowd on University Avenue appeared to be living in an earlier America era, one lacking desperation, hysteria, and Fox News. Somehow Palo Alto had remained immune to what one of my...