By Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
You’ve been watching the clouds above this place. You have the time for it. Rainclouds, clouds of smoke from the factories, sometimes just a shimmering haze in the sky, as if the sky here was in a reverie, remembering clouds, remembering smoke.
Remembering – or anticipating – clouds of ash, blown on a wind of death.
You’ve been watching this place. You have the time for it. Long, low buildings, abandoned warehouses, huddled together. Weeds choking empty yards, weeds growing from cracks in crumbling walls. Forgotten machinery breathing rust in the still air. Ramshackle boarding houses, most of the rooms empty, a few let out to the most desperate, impecunious or oblivious boarders in this city.
You’ve had time to watch yourself. Watch the rise and fall of your breath, feel the squall of blood in your veins as your jagged breathing tries to catch the strained atmosphere when you wake, sweating, from dreams. Dreams in which you dance, mad with power, dazed with strength, dreams in which everything is destroyed.
In dreams, you always have a third eye.
You’ve forgotten something.
Mr. Giri Anand is a charming, soft-spoken old-fashioned gentleman, a genteel crook and not very good at it either, too indiscrete and greedy when he rips someone off, which is a mistake in his small and close-knit world. He eats in the cheapest standing-only restaurants, never buys new clothes, smokes noxious leaf-rolled bidis instead of even the cheapest filterless cigarettes, never drinks, eschews television for an old battery-operated pocket radio and reads newspapers in a public reading room. Still, he never seems to have enough money. Mr. Giri Anand is long, lean and leathery, hair thinning on top but curly at the sides, parted along a straight line exactly an inch and a half above his right ear. He has a thin moustache, trimmed to a precise line with a pair of scissors that used to belong to his father. His father was a bank employee who rose steadily through the ranks, retired with a good pension and expected his son to follow suit. But three years into Mr. Giri Anand’s own bank career, his father died and a horde of relatives previously unheard of swooped in upon his grieving mother and him and managed to wrest their home and most of their inheritance away on various legal grounds. His mother died of heartbreak – yes, people really do that – alone and treated as an unbearable burden in the spare bedroom of a second cousin’s house. Giri came away from this experience with two qualities that would help drag him down to his present miserable state: a total lack of money and a similar lack of respect for the law. Unfortunately, he did not have the prudence of the successful criminal, or that deep, slothful, fundamental lack of scruples that also characterizes the effective thief. He did have just enough expertise and interest in one line to give him the chance to make money, honestly or otherwise. Giri knew books. He knew the popular books of his youth and his father’s: Edgar Wallace, Oliver Strange, PG Wodehouse, Sax Rohmer. He also knew something about the classics, and a little about everything else. He started working with a used-book seller and learned where to scout for container-loads of abandoned library books from England or America, he learned to look out for auctions of old estates, disbanded educational institutions or libraries, he learned all about buying low and selling high and finding people who would pay well for the second-rate Victoriana that passes for an antique book trade here in India. Finally, after four years of carefully pilfering the best books that passed his way, Giri sold the whole lot to a rival bookseller and left town. He fled from Bangalore to Mysore, where he set up shop on his own. For a while, his business thrived. He began scouting around shipyards and auction houses for more books. A scout from his old employer spotted him and went straight to the nearest police station. A complaint was filed and Giri was arrested. The only reason he was not found guilty was because the rival bookseller refused to admit to having bought the stolen books off him. Not out of any notion of honour among thieves but simply because the man wanted to protect his own reputation. Still, the damage had been done. Giri spent several weeks in police custody and word spread around town that he was not a good man to do business with. He sold his entire stock to another bookseller – at a loss, but with just enough money to make his way to Andhra Pradesh, where he no one had heard of him yet. He washed up in Warangal, where he managed to find a job with a pair of brothers who had inherited their father’s bookshop and had no idea how to run it. He helped them build up one of the best book businesses in that town, and he could probably have settled down there for the rest of his life if he hadn’t become greedy again. This dismal story repeated itself time and again until he was back in Bangalore, trying to hawk a set of late 19th-century encyclopaedias with colour plates – chromolithographs was the term the trade used – and a large set of damp-damaged semi-pornographic British novels from the 1970s. Naturally, he was low on funds and was forced to stay in one of the most ramshackle, seedy lodging houses in town – not even one of the run-down hotels in the Sivajinagar area but in that neighbourhood where the sky is always full of clouds: rainclouds or clouds of industrial smoke, or clouds of ash from the impending cremation of the universe.
I wouldn’t exactly say I’m in the waifs and strays business but I do find myself spending time on people whom everyone else has written off. I don’t expect anything back from them; in fact I usually wind up giving them all sorts of hand-outs and hand-downs. I don’t expect them to turn themselves around, or imagine that my help will make a difference to their downward-sliding lives. It isn’t even because I am noble or humanitarian. I just feel calmer in their aura of decades-old failure, the heavy clouds of their despair blotting out the too-bright penumbra of manic illumination cast by a world that is surely taking its own demise too lightly. My father was of the same mind, and he cultivated his own rag-tag brigade of burned-out cases and losers. I inherited some of them, including Mr. Giri Anand. Whenever Giri is in town, he knows he can always depend on me for a cup of coffee and a couple of ITC King cigarettes. Sometimes he visits me at home before we head out for a coffee and I always dig around in my collection and find some old Fu Manchu novel or Dickens hardback that I know he will probably sell, but we pretend I am just lending it to him. Sometimes he brings me a book – something not too easy to find that he knows I will like – and I don’t ask him where he got it. He always overcharges me by local standards – but the Bangalore book market has very little idea of the real value of things, overvaluing the new and undervaluing the old. If I really wanted to, I could re-sell the things I buy from him for twice or thrice the price on eBay. This, time he’s back in town after an unusually extended absence. He looks thinner and more leathery than ever and there are streaks of grey in his hair. He is going to die alone; I always think this when I meet him, but there is something different this time. He has been in the process of dying alone for decades now, but now he looks like he knows it too. We’re sipping coffee in a quiet, old place we both know well. He’s been coming here since the 70s; I discovered it in the 90s, past its prime but still vital. Now it’s looking run-down and there’s been talk of the owners shutting the place down, unable to cope with increasing costs. It wouldn’t be the first old Bangalore institution to be trampled to death in the stampede to get rich quick off the city’s new prosperity; it won’t be the last. I look forward to the day when the city spasms to death, crushed by its own hubris and ingratitude. But that’s just me. We talk a bit; he mentions the books he’s currently trying to sell. I tell him I’ll look for a customer. And then, instead of working his courage up to touch me for a ‘loan’, he leans closer to me across the table and, pitching his voice almost too low to be heard over the bustle of stainless steel utensils being ferried to and fro, filled, dispensed, used and washed, the rising and falling hum-to-a-roar rhubarb of the cafe crowd and the cries of the waiters calling out orders to the kitchen, he asks me if I can keep a secret. ‘Of course I can, uncle. What’s up?’ Giri isn’t my uncle, but I used to call him that when I was a boy and it was the generic term of address for an adult male; the habit has stuck. He glances around furtively, one more time and then speaks. ‘I’ve found a book, Jay. An old book, maybe a very valuable book. This is nothing like all the other stuff I deal in – I know what I am, and this is something a small-time book dealer like me could never dream of finding in a hundred lifetimes. This could be our dead sea scroll, Jay.’ ‘“Our” dead sea scroll?’ ‘Yes, ours. I can’t do this alone. I need you to join me on this one. No respectable scholar will talk to me, but you can take this to them. Get someone to translate it, to authenticate it. We can be rich, Jay. I can finally pay you back for all the times you and your father helped me out.’ ‘You don’t owe me anything, uncle,’ I replied, at least partly because these numinous vistas of success did not appeal to me. Giri was as oasis of lost hope in a world that pulses with far too much hope and aspiration – I was discomforted by the idea that a new Giri, a svelte, assured Giri who would speak to me with firmness and authority might yet emerge from this shell of a man. Then my better nature took over, and I realised that I was bound to help him in any way I could, if I was really his friend. ‘But tell me more. Maybe we can work something out…’ Three days later, we met at the coffee shop again. Glancing around him nervously, Giri pulled a well-stuffed manila envelope out of his shoulder bag and handed it over to me. I began to extract its contents when he stopped me. ‘Not here. Too…messy. This is valuable. Look at it when you get home.’ He refused to discuss his mysterious find any further so we spent a quarter of an hour sipping coffee and discussing Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men On The Bummel’. I felt Giri was being a bit melodramatic, but didn’t grudge him the opportunity. Back home, I sat down in my study, moved some technical manuals I was proofreading off my desk and slid a bundle of palm leaf manuscripts out of Giri’s envelope. I know very little about ancient Indian manuscripts, but I could tell that they were written in an archaic form of Tamil and gave the impression of great age. I had seen manuscripts like this before, in museums and once in a wealthy acquaintance’s private collection; they are generally purely textual. This one, however, had illustrations; small, crabbed but vivid depictions of the central trinity of Hinduism: Brahma, Visnu and Siva – creator, preserver and destroyer. In many accounts, Siva is the supreme deity, and indeed the other two could be seen genuflecting before him in the first of these drawings. I leafed gingerly through the pages. Here was Siva standing in a ruined village, its inhabitants crouched around him. In the next picture, he was anointing a young boy with ashes from a burned hut. Then, a picture of the villagers, holding hand-cymbals and singing as the three gods looked down on them from above. I opened the second manuscript. It was also illustrated, the pictures telling the same story as the first but taking it further. I saw depictions of the tribespeople singing in village squares and outside palatial buildings. Each of these pictures was followed by one of a funeral procession. The next few illustrations showed scenes of war, destruction and chaos. People ran wild-eyed out of burning buildings only to be impaled on the blades of crazed soldiers. Mothers hurled their infants into cooking fires to prevent them from being consumed by ravening demons. I saw lovers stabbing each other to dead in their connubial bed, a king being slain by his courtiers, enraged cattle crushing a cowherd. The very last page of the manuscript contained a Sanskrit verse and a picture of Siva sleeping. It was a bright, perhaps too bright afternoon in the early summer. Outside, everything seemed bleached by the light, washed and buffed and made new and resplendent. Yes, when I had finished examining Giri’s find, I felt I had finally discerned the contours of a vast shadow hanging over everything. I drank a glass of water and then called a girl I knew, someone who could translate this and remain discreet for the moment. If this was authentic, it was the find of a lifetime.
You dream of time. It is a palpable thing, a wind blowing across the universe, a weight on the back of reality, a message to every living thing and to those who hold power over life. You dream of time, a labyrinth spinning, a ball of thread slowly unravelling into the tapestry of all that is. You dream of time, and you hear a high, shrill lamentation wavering on the wind. You dream of destruction. It is a blessed thing, an unravelling of threads that have served their purpose, a tidying up, a final chapter to every fraught saga. You dream of destruction, the needful ebb to the blessed flow, the ending and beginning of all things. You dream of destruction and you hear a deep, lugubrious sigh welling from within the fabric of the cosmos. You dream of your children, scattered to the four points of the compass, some old, some young, rich, poor, male, female. You dream of your children, of the knowledge they bear for the gods, the song they sing for the dying. You dream of your children and you know that you have given them a burden no mortal should ever bear. There is a tremendous silence, and you awake. And you are still not yourself. And you are still not awake.
You’ve forgotten something. You know you must remember, but all you have are these dreams.
Viji is 24. She feels at least a hundred years old on days like this: oppressively hot days, the sky a blue flame above streets that seethe and roil, trying to shake the grip of this dry heat. Viji ran away from home after her husband died. They’d been married for three weeks. Her parents had been biding their time all through those high, hopeful years in which she’d been allowed to do a Master’s degree; they had a card hidden up their collective sleeves. And it was a joker. A flabby, whiney-voiced man-child, mentally not all there, son of a distant relative, a tactical match made for Viji, daughter of the poorest man in his family, glad to parcel his young, intelligent but poor daughter, with her inauspicious horoscope off to this subhuman creature in return for a complete waiver of all dowry demands and the purchase of a small home where he and his wife could live out their old age. All men sell their daughters in this country; some sell high, some low, some sell to strangers who will traffic them in dank, crowded brothels in the Film City, others sell them to some plausible groom with the right family, the right horoscope, the right prospects. The men who are both poor and determined to think of themselves as respectable – whatever that means – sell them to someone like Viji’s husband, someone no woman with a father with the slightest backbone or financial wherewithal would ever be forced to spend a moment with. This man needed a nurse, not a wife. But wives cost less. And so Viji was introduced to the mundane arithmetic of horror: the subtraction of hope, the reduction of reality.
Horror, to Viji, is about being numb. About holding her tongue when the creature she’d been tethered to crawled to her from across a flower-strewn nuptial bed, barely mentally present but still physically capable of wanting and taking the customary perquisites. And then collapsing, snoring and slobbering, over the slim sacrifice his father had procured for him.
Horror, to Viji, is about learning how much hate she is capable of. Since a young girl she was taught to pray each morning and include all her relatives in her prayer. Since her marriage, she has prayed for their destruction, sounding out each name clearly and vividly imagining the pain and distress she would visit on its bearer. Most of all, she has prayed for the painful and humiliating deaths of her parents.
Horror, to Viji, is the memory of her husband’s last moments, as he goes into shock, his skin puffing up, his limbs flailing, the ever-present streams of saliva that dangled from his lips slowly turning red. In the back of her mind, she knows that she had been planning this moment ever since she first heard of his allergy. In the back of her mind, where she has learned to store facts and contingency plans.
Hope, to Viji, is a silly word, a precious word, a trinket that only men and high-born women can afford.
Reality? Reality is this shabby room in a shoddy boarding house, reality is the daily grind of making too little money tutoring high school students, reality is the money she made selling her jewels, the false name she has acquired, the fake certificates she bought, the slim suitcase containing half a dozen saris and the tattered volumes of Sanskrit classics that are all that remains of a dead girl, a Viji who is no more.
I knew that Viji was the right person to translate Giri’s manuscript. I wanted to entrust the task to someone who was an expert; but also someone outside the complex world of tenured academia, someone who would understand what this could mean to a broken man like Giri, because she was a broken woman.
I’m not sure I can describe Viji as one of ‘my’ waifs and strays. She was too fierce, too proud and strong. She never asked me for a favour and all I could do was find tuition students for her. She had such a mind – a steel trap, a headman’s blade, but bejeweled and worked with delicate engravings. A scientific mind, almost, but with a poet’s hunger for truths that logic cannot contain. She was going to be a Sanskrit scholar, and her formidable intellect would have surely helped her build a successful, respected body of work.
Instead she is a broken woman, a fugitive, sustaining herself by teaching students whose intellectual abilities and aspirations are not even a hundredth of hers. A broken woman with just the knowledge I need.
I meet her at a nice restaurant, a quietly luxurious place that serves superior Coastal fare. It is the only concession she makes to my desire to do something more for her; she has agreed that we are to meet in good restaurants. She reads through their menus with the same concentration she would devote to an academic text; confers briefly with the waiter and then orders for both of us. She always picks out the most affordable meal in any place we visit; in the tussle between my urge to be generous and her determination not to be a burden, we both cling to what small victories we can achieve.
We do not talk while eating; she is insistent on this. Instead, we savour each mouthful in silence. It is a calm, if intent silence on her part; as for me, I’m usually a little worn out by the effort of keeping silent by the time we finish up and ask for coffee. But these are her rules, and she is not interested in anyone else’s.
Over coffee, I outline the situation to her. She asks me a few questions, and then agrees to examine the manuscript. She refuses to be paid. We arrange for a time and a place for her to pick it up from my place. Just before leaving, she pauses. ‘The heat is different this year. I wonder if your manuscript has something to do with it.’ Before I can reply, she is moving briskly away from me, a girl like a dagger slicing through the throng.
Everything is broken here. Industry, hope, dream, habitat, inhabitants. Everything is broken and a broken god nestles within this place, clutching tight to his broken avatar, this god of gods who has never appeared before in a form that was not his own. He bides his time here, pending anamnesis, clutching this humiliation of human flesh around his essence, gathering broken things around him. The broken people come here, walking down streets of broken stone, along alleys where broken days lie slumped in piss-soaked dust alongside derelicts and drunks, drunken derelicts, derelict drunks cheek by jowl with ruined time slumped in defeat.
They gather around in the evenings, when another broken day joins its fellows in the ranks of the defeated, they gather around and make no sound. They stand there, quiet, patient, wanting nothing, having nothing, a silent army of defeat clustered around this hovel where a broken god nestles, pending anamnesis.
He is as quiet and patient as them, but he is working. Somewhere inside the cocoon, he is sending out his call. Calling his scattered, wronged children. The broken ones. The ashen ones.
He is going to take it back.
No god has ever done this before. But he has never been like the other gods. Maybe he isn’t a god at all, but something else. Something that was never quite like the rest of the trinity, something from the fringes where the outcasts and outcastes forge a covenant of their own with a universe that is vaster, darker and more luminous than this priestly religion can imagine.
Giri is restless. There is an unfamiliar gleam in his eyes. It takes me a while to realize that it is hope. ‘Has she finished? Is it ready?’ he asks me. He has dropped by every day since I told him I had found someone to translate the manuscript. Every day he rings my doorbell and stands waiting on my doorstep, tense with anticipation. Every day I shake my head, assure him that Viji is making steady progress and then invite him to have a coffee with me. Today, as we sit and sip our coffee, he has something else on his mind.
‘Something’s going on in my neighbourhood, Jay.’ I’ve never spent time in the locality where Giri stays, but I’ve driven past it sometimes. It’s a largely deserted former industrial area. Few of the old factories and workshops still function, there’s filth everywhere and a few squalid old boarding houses. What could possibly ever happen in this valley of ashes?
‘There’s a house near my place. Just an old hut really, maybe it was built more than a hundred years back when this was still farmland. Someone lives there, someone with power.’ ‘Power?’ ‘Something you can feel, can’t quite explain. I feel it sometimes, a dark magnet. Other people feel it to, more strongly. People go there, Jay, they gather around every evening.’ ‘Is he some sort of guru?’ ‘If he is, he’s really discrete about it. They don’t do anything, he doesn’t come out and speak to them. They just stand there, quiet, patient, for about an hour and then they go back to wherever they came from.’ That certainly is strange, but the strangest thing is probably that phrase Giri used, ‘a dark magnet’. People don’t talk like that. Giri doesn’t talk like that – until just now. I wonder if he is getting dragged into something strange. Then I think about the illustrations in that manuscript and I remember that we are all getting dragged into something strange. We finish our coffee, talk dismissively about the new Erle Stanley Gardner re-issues, discuss the merits of the cover art of different Wodehouse editions and then part.
‘This is written in 14th century Tamil, but could have been composed much earlier – or not. It’s framed as like the stories in the Siva Purana, as a tale recited to a group of holy men by someone who has heard the story from Ved Vyasa himself. Regional versions of scriptural texts aren’t unknown – there’s the Tamil Ramayana, written by Kamban, and a whole set of Stala Puranas, tales of various Tamil holy places, but this is the first I’ve heard of a Tamil version of the Siva Purana. It isn’t a complete version, just one story that isn’t in any other version I know of.‘ Viji pauses, takes a sip from a cup of cappuccino. We’re in one of those coffee cafes that were trendy in the 2000s and are merely ubiquitous and obnoxious today. Giri is with us, of course. He sits across the table from Viji and me, tense, alert but also calmer, more at peace than I have ever seen him. He occasionally takes a sip from his cup. He has ordered something called ‘Traditional Mysore Filter Kaapi’ and has already made several snide remarks about its inauthenticity.
Viji has left us with no doubts about the authenticity of our manuscript, though. She is confident that this is the real thing and that she can get someone official from the university to attest to this. That’s good, that means we can get a good price for this. Good for Giri, good for all of us. ‘What next,’ asks Giri.
‘I don’t know. This could be explosive,’ says Viji. She takes off her glasses and wipes them on her dupatta. In the moment before she puts them on, I see dark lines under her eyes and she seems a decade older, almost the same age as Giri, who on the other hand has been looking boyishly delighted ever since he realised that the long awaited translation was finally ready. ‘Explosive?’ I ask. Viji is not one to use hyperbole. ‘Yes…well. Here. I’ve typed out copies for both of you. Go home, read them. We can meet again tomorrow.’ Again, she lays down the rules and we follow them. She hands us two brown envelopes. We chat a while and then go our ways, eager to delve into this lost legend we are bringing back into the world.
They are scattered now, scattered to the winds and tides. They are no longer a single tribe but a persistent thread of dark foreshadowing running through a vast skein of humanity. They have spread across the globe, like seeds carried on winds of change and doom. Some live in vast cities, perched high in gleaming towers, others work in fields, hunched over their seasonal tasks, still others are nomads, always on the move, driven by custom or professions. They are a diaspora, these children you have marked and blessed and wounded.
They are scattered by misfortune and ill fate, your doom-seeing, fate-touched children. They carry their primal unease with them to every inhabited place. They are storm crows, betokening chaos. They are Typhoid Marys, riding a wave of mischance for which they are not responsible. They are crucified for the gods, sacrificed by the plea of weak deities.
They are scattered, shattered, unknowing and all-knowing. You never wanted to shape them like this. It was meant as an object lesson for those other two deities. Now, your children’s trials must come to an end. It was a bad business from the start, and now it must stop.
You must stop this, make things right again. But first, this shell you have hidden yourself in has to grasp its immanence. It has to remember.
Cities are big fish, they swallow the little minnow towns and villages and become bigger, they absorb meadows and fields, rivers and rills, transform sunny earth into dark alleyway, shady wood into neon-spangled market square. My city is vast and growing. When I was 24, I used to ride the district bus down to my parents’ house, 300 kilometers away from the big city. They’d moved there after my father retired. It was a town I had known since my mid-teens because we had relatives there. The route was a familiar one but it had been a while since I’d been on it. So it became especially clear to me that although the stops along the way were the same, the spaces between them had started to fill. My city extended further out than before, long fingers snaking out into the surrounding countryside, reaching to grasp and subsume outlying townships. Each town along the way heralded its onset earlier than before, rows of houses and shops, places of worship and educational institutions multiplying outward from the fecund urban womb in the intervening time.
One day, I had a dream. In it I saw the cities slowly reaching out and meeting in the middle until finally there was no in-between anymore, just city, as far as the eye could see.
But what happens to the swallowed spaces? Do they just disappear, or become assimilated? No. I have learned that something always survives. Malls rear where primitives offered sacrifice, streets follow the courses of submerged waterways, spirits arise and walk the asphalted earth high above their sunken resting places. Something always survives. Bides its time. Prepares to return. Or has never really gone away.
The big fish keeps growing bigger, but something waits for the moment when the hook rips through the gullet and it can tear a way out of its flailing, thrashing, weakened host. Consider this place. This small hodgepodge of houses and stores with streets running crazily after their own tail, it’s a part of the city now, has been for a century or more. But it still preserves its archaic contours. It still welcomes its archaic guests. I’ve been here in dreams, I’ve been here in nightmares. This is where the ashen people come. Growing up, I was startled how much folklore still lurks within this crass, future-impatient city. The Come Tomorrow ghost. The dancer of the dying. The minstrels of disease. The starlit palace that becomes an abandoned shack by day. The ashen people.
You can read about the ashen people on the internet, on Wikipedia, even. It uses their more common name, and describes them as a primitive tribe, briefly mentions their cattle-rearing practices and leaves you with the impression that that’s all they are, another nondescript group of indigenous people slowly subsuming their identity in a larger modern society.
The text books don’t tell you much more. Sometimes they mention the fact that these people cover themselves in pale ashes for religious rituals, but that’s all.
But this manuscript tells their story. The whole story, the one that was hidden all these years, hidden but not lost.
Now listen to the tale of the keepers of time unborn.
Very long ago, Brahma the creator and Visnu the preserver went to the supreme deity, Siva the destroyer. They told him of the burden of the future, how it weighed on them, threatened to cripple them. Every time Brahma caused a universe to come into being, his awareness of time yet to come was expanded, to the point where even he could not grow enough heads to contain it all. Meanwhile, the sleeper on the ocean of eternity, Visnu, found his dreams twisting and coiling with a million futures, his serenity shattered by the growing immensity of what lay ahead. Time was not constant, the future was not established; but their divine compulsions kept increasing the scope of both, and the burden that went with it. The Destroyer laughed at their cares, and then turned serious. ‘I come at the end; my concerns are not as yours. But I will pass this burden on, so that you may attend to your own rightful duties.’ He searched the lands for a people who could be the vessel for time unborn, and found the ashen people. The legend does not relate what made them suitable for this burden; perhaps they were just very insignificant and could be spared for it. But they were chosen, and the burden has been theirs ever since.
It has conferred certain powers on them. They see the future in dreams. If they go to sleep wearing some article of clothing that belonged to you, they will see your future.
They cover themselves in ashes as camouflage; it hides them from the eyes of time. But they are not immortal, not individually.
They know when death stalks. They will leave their dwelling places in the early mornings, before dawn, and pass the houses where death will soon strike, singing an ancient, timeless, wordless song.
This burden has had consequences. Freewill is the first among them. Once, only the gods knew our destinies and they wove and strove to ensure that the Karmic unities were maintained. When the gods relinquished this knowledge, the future became contingent, governed by the actions of billions of fallible human creatures. The ashen ones see this; they see that the most possible outcome is always doom, always apocalypse, in a world where the future is shaped by weak sentience. They see the other threads too, the futures we do not have the wisdom to strive towards. The see, and the knowledge of all we could be, but do not have the will or wisdom to, makes them all a little mad.
The ashen ones are considered auspicious, but to be kept at a distance. They have been treated as soothsayers, courted and feared for their knowledge, honoured but not included. And for thousands of years they have wandered, restless, scattering far and wide but retaining an atavistic connection to this patch of land they first came from.
A time may come when they return and the curse is lifted, the gift taken back. May our prayers speed the arrival of this auspicious day.
I read the lost Purana, and I was struck with an absolute sense of its truth. I knew that something had changed. The god no longer watched over the forces of destruction. We can feel it. We can all feel it. Soldiers spit the infants of the people they are meant to be liberating over the flames of huts burning; parents destroy their offspring with words and fists and worse, parricide is everywhere, torture spreads like an epidemic, a contagion of atrocity chokes the gullets of the newsreaders, a concatenation of war and brutality shackles a shocked planet.
After reading the Purana, Giri and I left our respective dwelling places and converged on the café where we had met earlier that day. Viji was still there, and we took our places around the over-small table. Sitting there in that banal café, Viji, Giri and I knew that the unbelievable thing had happened.
The god had taken flesh.
Siva had stepped away from his graveyard seat, from his mountaintop throne. Siva was among us. The Trinity unhinged, the dark lord had taken an Avatar. ‘It’s Him, crouching there in that valley of ashes,’ said Giri. ‘And they are his children gathering around it, his ashen children.’ ‘They have prayed for the cup to be taken from their lips and he has listened.’ ‘Something very fundamental is about to change.’ We were speaking in turns, taking up the thread instinctively, one from the other. ‘The curse will be rescinded, the gift taken back,’ ‘The ashes washed away, the diaspora redeemed,’ ‘Time unborn shall be restored to the eyes of gods…’ It was as if we were speaking with one mind, finishing each other’s sentences. One utterance from many voices, and it had spread to other tables, already strangers were joining in. ‘Let us go to that place, and watch…’ ‘Dispensation of a just god…’ ‘The one who drives away our anguish…’ ‘Rudra…’ ‘Let us go and worship…’ ‘The ashen ones, we shall fall at their feet, thank them for carrying this burden for the gods…’ ‘We will rejoice as they are freed…’ ‘The Trinity restored…’ ‘The weak whim of the gods reversed…’ ‘The wheel of Karma supreme again…the true path glowing…’ ‘…gleaming…’ ‘…glittering in the dark a golden thread we follow to Nirvana…’ ‘Moksha…’ Oblivion.
I can’t pretend to know what happened that day. I don’t know if there was some vast confluence that had already been triggered or if our shared knowledge of that manuscript’s contents somehow accelerated things, our gnosis a meme that went viral from mind to mind. I know that we went out into the streets and there was a multitude with us. A river of people, we washed through the city, into that grim, desolate place where another multitude waited around His shack.
I can tell you what I saw that day, but it can never convey the feeling of being there, the cold, hot, sharp, soft completely wrong, entirely right sense of the presence of a deep being, of something to which our reality was only an outer layer of tissue.
There is a passage in the Bhagvad Gita that tries to convey this vertiginous assault of the naked numinous on mortal senses, when the god drops his charioteer disguise and reveals his boundless true form; I won’t attempt to match its timeless poetry.
I don’t even believe in gods, not as gods. I never used to worship, and I still don’t. But something happened, something that took the form of the old gods. Something that took the form of a lost Purana, an apocryphal tale of the doings of gods. Something was foisted on these people, and some entity manifested and took it back.
As for the rest, we saw what we had to, what we could manage to see. I am sure we projected those forms onto that deep being.
But this is what I saw:
I saw the entity – the ungod, the cuckoo in the nest, the ganja sage, the graveyard eminence. I saw him step out of that dilapidated structure. He was as the poets have described him; dark, disheveled, powerful and beautiful. So achingly beautiful; wrapped in ragged skins, covered in dust and ashes, eyes bloodshot: so terrible, sobeautiful. An emissary from a place beyond the cycles of yugas and the karmic wheel.
A vast circle of people milled about and danced a distance from him. Within this circle, another vast crowd gathered around him. One by one they knelt down before him. But the god was still impassive; looking into his eyes, I could see a soul lost, confused.
Of course! He still could not remember. He had to be awakened from this mortal slumber. And his brother gods had to be there too. It seemed as if everything was about to fall apart, after all. Then Giri turned to me, a strange smile on his face. ‘I’ve been holding out on you. There is another part to this manuscript.’
Viji looked at him and nodded. ‘I’d guessed there might be,’ she said.
Giri hung his head. ‘I thought if the one I shared with you was really valuable, then I could try and sell this one on my own, make my fortune…’ His words dwindled away. An oppressive calm was beginning to settle all around us. It was too much like the end of the world and I spoke out.
‘Giri…I don’t care about that. Just get it. Just get the damned thing. Now! Go!’
He turned away immediately, strode to his own squalid room, a few streets away, and came back with a bundle. He stood there, turning it over and over in his hands, mumbling about how sorry he was. Viji took the bundle from him, sat down on the ground, opened the bundle and started leafing through the manuscript.
‘Viji, do you think you can figure out what it is?’ I asked.
She nodded. ‘I don’t know how these manuscripts made their way to Giri but they were supposed to be passed down from generation to generation, from one high priest of the ashen people to the next. The first contained the story. The second is more practical…it is a manual. A manual for summoning the gods.’
‘The Creator and the Preserver. They have to be here, they have to ask him to take it back. His incarnation is the feather that tilts the balance. Trapped in human form, he has forgotten who he is. And when the lord of destruction has left his throne, other, less…suitable forces strive to fill the gap.’
He touched each of their foreheads and a thing passed from them into him and then through him into some inner place, within reality. It felt like a shifting of plate tectonics, like chain lightning, like a napalm barrage, like the endless white noise of a hurricane lashing a thrumming ocean. Each of the ashen ones, ashen no more, stood up and then merged with the outer circle, whatever boon or geas they had borne now removed from them. As this continued, something very obvious and basic seemed to change all around us, as if we had all suddenly noticed that the sky was blue after all – but that wasn’t it either. It was something even more fundamental, so fundamental that there has never needed to be a word to describe it.
And I couldn’t help but feel that we had somehow helped it happen, the three of us: the thief, the scholar and the go-between. The old man, the maid and the swain. For of course I was a swain. I was in love with my waifs and strays, I adored their sorrows, their denudation by the vicissitudes of life unhinged. They reassured me, comforted me, gave me a sense of community. I loved these wounded people because I was one of them; but I was something else, too. I was the conduit, the funnel through which the truth would erupt into the world. A dark and confusing truth, but one that would leave the world brighter and simpler.
At least a little. I hope.
Because today, as I watch Giri bustling around the bookshop we have started together, Viji stopping by to pick up our son, hers and mine, from the shop on her way back home from her job at the museum, today as I sit here in a world that seems simpler and brighter I wonder what it was in the depths of the unborn time that had been given to the Ashen People to hide. I wonder, and I watch the clouds.