Fiction: excerpt from the novel 2012 Nights.
|Illustrations: Paul Aitchison|
Once there lived a man who grew rich through his hard work and industry. His parents gave him a good education and he made worthy use of it. He went to the best business school, laboured hard and earned a prestigious degree. He was snapped up by the sharpest corporate head-hunter and recruited to the largest company with a hefty initial salary (or ‘package’, as it is called). His name was Abdullah.
His parents died, one soon after the other, but he put his shoulder to the wheel and kept working hard. There was nothing else for him. His only dream was to make it to the top of the ladder and become rich. He dreamed of starting his own company one day, entering the Forbes 500 list, and even becoming the richest and most powerful man in the world. For this, he continued to work hard and to ring in the numbers.
One evening, as he was returning home from his office – it was quite late, you see; he never got back home at the usual hours like everybody else – a man unexpectedly jumped in front of his car and got hit. The street was deserted at this hour, there was no traffic nor any living soul to be seen, the road was well lit, and yet, Abdullah did not see the man coming. He was terrified. He thought he had killed the guy, that he would go to jail, and that all his dreams and ambitions would now go down the drain. His mind raced quickly through all the possibilities. Did he have a good lawyer? Should he make a run for it? Was that the pressure of pee that was pounding in his scrotum? He was paralysed with fear and unable even to step out of the car. Slowly, the man stirred. Abdullah breathed again. He got out of the car. The man was a deadbeat, and was obviously drunk. Abdullah just wanted to make sure the man wasn’t too badly hit, and to drive away to the safety of his residence.
Abdullah approached the drunkard, who was by now on his feet. As Abdullah got nearer, the man turned around and beamed a glorious smile – like the radiance of the sun breaking through on a cold winter day – full into Abdullah’s face. Abdullah was taken aback. This was not his mental picture of deadbeat drunks, beaming beatific smiles, their skin glowing.
The man had long grey hair, donned a flowing dark robe, and displayed prominent wrinkles on his face and crow’s feet around his eyes. And yet, there was a dash of impishness about him, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, which made his age seem very uncertain.
The man said: “I know of a treasure so great it will boggle the mind of any man. Would you like to be led to it?”
Abdullah did not understand this talk of treasure. He had never been much interested in magic tales. Even in childhood, he preferred the more practical ones. Like David Copperfield or the Swiss Family Robinson. Making one’s way up. He kind of gaped at the drunkard, who suddenly did not seem so drunk any more.
“No, I’m not hurt,” said the man, reading Abdullah’s thoughts. “So you can drive away if you like.”
There was nothing more Abdullah could have wanted at the moment; yet, he could not quite pull himself away.
“What do you mean by treasure?” he finally mumbled.
“You know what I mean. Gold, jewels, precious stones, maddening riches. That kind of thing. We can load your car with as much as we can fill in it, and drive away, and no one will be the wiser for it. There is so much of it there.”
“In the place I will lead you to. A valley between two mountains.”
“What about the police?”
“Had they known about it, they would have taken their share long ago.”
“No, I mean isn’t it a criminal offence to . . .?”
“No, it’s not. It’s magic! For the world it doesn’t even exist. It will have a real existence only when you take it, and bring it into the world. So it is not stealing. We will make the world a richer and a better place. That’s the capitalistic theory, isn’t it? And surely, looking at the fine gentleman that you are, you are one of them. Come on. What do you say?”
“I don’t know. Who are you, anyway?”
“I’m a dervish.”
“What’s a dervish?”
“A dervish is a holy man, who dedicates his life to prayer and the service of god.”
“Don’t look like one? You must be more careful in how you see things. Learn to look with your inner eye. Then you will see the treasure, too.”
Abdullah continued to prevaricate and wasn’t very sure until the dervish produced a ruby from inside his robe to convince him. Abdullah was taken by the sheer beauty of the red stone. Its beauty glittered in his eyes and sounded deep within his heart.
“There are dollar bills, too, if that’s more your kind of thing,” the dervish observed. “I would go myself, but I need a car.”
Abdullah was hooked.
“Get into the car,” he croaked.
The dervish got in to the car and they drove away.
It was a long, long drive to the valley. The twin mountains were like the two halves of a ring, and enclosed a hidden valley, invisible to external view. Even Google Maps could not penetrate into this area of darkness. The entrance to the valley was led to by a long, winding mud path that climbed steeply up, and which the car struggled on. This opening was so narrow that the car had to do a James Bond-like stunt, driving tilted on two wheels, to get through it. The dervish had taken over the wheel by now, and by the ease and practice with which he carried out this difficult procedure, it seemed like he had executed it several times before. Perhaps not only in cars, but on horses, on asses, or camels, or on foot, he had led many people here and made them pass through this crevice, over many ages. This thought occurred dimly to Abdullah before it slunk away completely and vanished as if it had never existed. They were now descending into the enchanted valley.
There was nothing special here to indicate its enchantedness – only a dry river bed. The car drove down much more easily on this side of the mountain. The dervish sang a song of praise (to the lord) to signal that he was happy to be here. Suddenly Abdullah began to worry about lack of water. They hadn’t carried any with them, and there seemed to be none here. Only dry, baked mud, and hardly any vegetation. The mountains were completely bare too, and the dervish and Abdullah were as if in a special zone of the earth where material life flourished – there was boundless dust and stone here – but not the organic one. It was like a black hole that did not allow any living organism, that sucked up its life if one entered there and stayed too long.
“If you’re worried about water,” the dervish said, out of the blue, “don’t be. What you will see presently will make you forget all about water.”
They descended to the bottom and parked right in the centre of the dry river bed. Abdullah got out of the car. The air seemed very thin to him, and soon he began to wheeze. The dervish meanwhile appeared to have sat down in meditation, eyes closed and legs crossed in the lotus position, on the hood of the car. Soon he began to chant certain mantras. Thereafter, he undertook certain yogic poses, still on the car. Then, he took some coloured powder out of his pockets, charged them with certain magic formulae, and cast them to the air. There was hardly any wind, and yet the coloured particles of dust vanished without any trace. At last, he ejaculated a final conjuration: “Open, goodly world, and show us all that you have to offer.”
The surface of one of the mountains seemed to crack open. Two walls of stone slid apart, as if in a sci-fi or spy-thriller film, to reveal a very modern-looking chamber, abuzz and agleam with the hum and glow of the latest electronic equipment keeping the place alive and functional.
Abdullah was enchanted. He moved as if without volition towards the chamber.
“Aye,” cried the dervish, still perched on the car, “that is the effect it has. Go in then and see what you can find – what it is that will satisfy your soul.”
What Abdullah found within was all that he had ever dreamed of, and more: the most advanced and expensive electronic products like computers, tablets, mobile devices, television sets and home-entertainment systems, piled in a careless heap; the most fashionable and valuable cars, in a variety of different colours and models, all lined up neatly beside each other; branded clothes, shoes and accessories, whose value must have run into millions of dollars; and bundles and bundles of hard cash, green, irresistible dollar bills, stacked together in neat columns and rows as he had seen before in films involving bank heists. All these desiderata called to him with a lusciousness that made Abdullah swoon. He wanted to lick and devour them all at once!
There were other things, too. Things that Abdullah didn’t pay much attention to – like bars, bricks, ingots and coins of 24-carat gold; all manner of jewels and gemstones, like amber and amethyst and emerald and jasper and quartz and topaz, bunched together like a hidden treasure; and diamonds and pearls of great price, glittering away in a corner. Abdullah wasn’t really turned on by any of these, though he recognised their value. Nonetheless, he stuffed a few of the rough, pure, uncut diamonds into his pockets.
For the rest he focused on getting a car that he wanted – an ultra-chic GT car – his heart torn between the Aston Martin DBS V12 (unveiled so sensationally in the James Bond film) and the Ferrari 599 GTB (the supercar of the year), though neither of these cars was as big as some others, and so would be able to carry away less loot. But the car itself was the loot, Abdullah reasoned. The thought of letting either one of the cars go was unbearable to him. So he tried to get the dervish, who had come in by now – and had reasonably enough chosen a much bigger car, a crossover SUV (a touching gesture towards fuel economy and care for the environment) – to take either the Ferrari or the Aston Martin, hoping already that he’d be able to get it off him later. The dervish, in the goodness of his heart, relented and let go of his big car.
They loaded their respective cars with as much of the money and goods as they thought they could and drove out of the chamber. The dervish made sure to close the walls of the mountain again, with the same elaborate procedure that he had performed to open them. Abandoning Abdullah’s old car – which the dervish assured him would soon disintegrate and become as dust, leaving no trace, and might even transmute into gold given time – they drove out of the secret valley contained within the twin mountains.
The narrow opening between the mountains seemed just a bit wider now than Abdullah remembered it having been while entering, and he was able to drive through it without having to perform any heroic stunts, just about squeezing his shiny new red Ferrari through. After descending to the other side and getting on the regular road again, the two stopped to congratulate each other on the successful accomplishment of their mission, shook hands like honest partners and men, and went their separate ways.
But it was not long before Abdullah’s mind began to whirl like a twister.
Why should, he thought, a holy man such as a dervish keep all the wealth that he had got from the mountain? The times were corrupt, he knew – holy men were not so holy anymore – yet, wasn’t it his duty to make sure the pure remained the pure – and this dervish seemed very pure still – and to take all the corruption on to himself? Besides, he really wanted that Aston Martin. The Ferrari didn’t seem quite so much the thing anymore, even though he had its superb new wheel between his hands. It bolted like a horse, accelerated like a leopard, was smooth like a shark. What more did he want?
The Aston Martin. Plus all the things that the dervish had gathered. Abdullah realised at some point that while he had focused on grabbing the latest Mac and a branded suit or two, besides a whole range of shoes, the dervish had sensibly filled his car with the most precious jewels, about which he seemed to know a lot and of which Abdullah knew nothing. Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to pool their resources? The dervish wasn’t very well-dressed and Abdullah could teach him a thing or two in the line of the mode. Meanwhile, he wouldn’t mind having one or two of those shining red rubies with which the dervish had lured him in in the first place.
Thinking all these thoughts, his mind still spinning, Abdullah didn’t know when he had turned his car around and was racing after the Aston Martin. He put his foot down on the gas, rammed the pedal to the floor, and the prancing horse responded obediently to his urgency. Soon he was up beside the dervish, waving for him to stop. The two cars stopped one behind the other by the side of the road, as when a policeman asks you to pull over and parks his car right in front of you. Abdullah was the policeman, suspicious, sniffing out the loot.
The dervish lowered his window.
“What seems to be the trouble, officer?”Abdullah thought he heard in his mind’s ear, though the dervish had only said, “What’s the matter, Abdullah?”
Abdullah recovered himself just in time to prevent himself from saying, “May I see your licence, please?”
He said: “You know, dervish, I was thinking . . .”
“I don’t think you have a home. At least not as comfortable a one as I have.”
“That’s true. I don’t have a particular home. The whole world is my home.”
“Besides, you won’t even have a garage to park the car, and someone will pinch it off you very soon if you leave it out on the street.”
“Yes, you have a point. One can’t leave precious things on the street.”
“I have a big garage at my place, you know, in addition to the latest burglar alarms, hidden cameras and other security paraphernalia. I’m also thinking of hiring a security company and getting actual security guards soon.”
“I can also get us insurance.”
“Yes. If you think that’s what we need.”
“Moreover, you didn’t seem to be driving the car too well. I don’t think you really know how to handle it. You should learn first, with someone more experienced instructing you.”
“Your criticism is just. I don’t know too much about these things. I only know about the treasures that can be mined.”
“So I was thinking, maybe you could come along with me for a while, you know, and let all this settle down, so that no one gets suspicious.”
“Why should anyone get suspicious?”
“Oh, a holy man with a lot of wealth . . .”
“Isn’t that pretty normal these days?”
“Yes, but not all of a sudden. You have to build an ashram first, and all that kind of thing. I can help you. I know the ropes. That’s why I think you should come with me, and settle into this new life. I can show you how wealth works, you know. You don’t seem to have much experience of it.”
“That’s true. I always let other people have these experiences.”
“So will you come with me?”
“Of course. It is the best way, since you have my best interests at heart.”
“Great. Let’s go.”
And so they drove away, Abdullah quite pleased with his own cleverness. In his mind’s eye, Abdullah could already envision how he would murder the dervish late one night and bury him in his backyard under the cover of the darkness. He could visualise all that he would do with the wealth, how he would set up an industry, become the richest man on the planet, move around in the top circles of society, and even set up charities for the poor, diseased and disabled, etcetera. He did not realise that he was thinking automatically, almost without autonomy. As if in a trance, he felt and moved like a man leading a lamb to the slaughter, without any real sense of what he was doing.
After a certain point, it was the dervish's turn to ask Abdullah to pull over.
“Do you have food to eat at your place?” the dervish asked him. The question was startling.
Abdullah took a minute to take it in, and to respond.
“Yes, of course, I have food at home. Why?”
“Ah, just. I’m hungry. Famished, actually. And you look ravenous, too.”
“Yes, there is food. And drink. Do you drink?”
“Only in good company.”
And Abdullah could picture how he would get the dervish drunk, before going on to crucify him.
“Say!” he exclaimed suddenly, a new thought flashing out to him, one that should have been obvious from the beginning.
“What’s the matter?” asked the dervish.
“How will I – er, we – find our way back here? You know, in case we run out and need more.”
“Yes, we always need more. I’m always coming back.”
“How do you find your way?”
“With this magic powder.”
And the dervish produced a little round metallic box from under his robes, like those blue ones for the Nivea creams, containing the coloured powder that Abdullah had seen him performing his ritual with.
“Will you teach me the ritual to open the mountain walls?” said Abdullah, already unable to restrain himself.
“Yes, but it’s dangerous.”
“What can happen?”
“With a single wrong word or turn of the wrist, you can lose your mind, in some cases even your body, and become like the waking dead, wandering the earth, seeing everything but unable to consume anything.”
“Pshaw! All these ghost stories are stuff and nonsense. Science has already proven this. I believe in science.”
“Yes, I admire your rationality. But then aren’t all stories about magic, and secret chambers, and sliding mountain walls, and finding hidden treasures, also nonsense?”
“Yes, unless you teach me this technique and prove me wrong.”
“I will give you whatever you like, including all that you may want to learn. You just have to be willing.”
“Then let’s go back in there so that you can show me and I can practise.”
“I warn you. It is dangerous. With the right hand and the right eye, you can see and be the master of all the riches of the world. With the wrong hand and the wrong eye, you will lose everything, including your sight, and be reduced to the state of a beggar.”
“It sounds like a fable to me.”
“ – a story that you tell your children in order to scare them into morality.”
“You may be right.”
“There is no morality.”
“No right or wrong? No good or evil?”
“None. Only greed. And strength. Greed is good because all that is good in the world has been produced by man’s greed. And strength is necessary because might always prevails, and wealth is might. Money is power!”
“The meek shall not inherit the earth? It is not more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Don’t make me mad! Let’s do this. Let’s go back in there. I want to open the gates.”
“Of the flood?”
“There is a fire in my heart. It’s consuming me!”
“Don’t you want to practise here first, in order to learn? To make sure you don’t make a mistake.”
“No. I want to return right away. I’m sure it can’t be as difficult or as dangerous as you’re making it appear.”
And so the two wealth-laden cars made their way back up the mountainside and down into the valley – a solemn procession. The crevice that served for the entrance seemed even wider now, letting them pass together, side by side, but Abdullah had no longer any memory of how narrow it had been when he first entered. His mind was already gripped by a variety of thoughts, which were like wild horses, tearing the chariot away, impossible to control. His face looked grim; his jaw was set. His eyes bore relentlessly into the ground ahead. He focused with consuming attention on the road, the path to the wished-for arrival. The dervish manoeuvred his Aston Martin fairly well, contrary to Abdullah’s diagnosis, and drove alongside or just behind Abdullah, letting him lead.
And so, my dear Schahriar, you see what comes to pass in the desert of non- awakening. One man is led astray while another fasts for a whole lifetime – call it forty days – and receives a benediction beyond belief.
You know how this story ends. And if you don’t, I will tell you the sad conclusion to it tomorrow night. Because this night is already ending, as you can see – the light of truth once again threatens us, and we have to battle against it to remain in the darkness. We shall fight valiantly till another night arrives, and perhaps then, at last, I will be able to speak of the temptations which besiege us, of which I could not bring myself to speak tonight.
2012 Nights is due out later this month from Fingerprint Press.
~ Vipul Rikhi is a writer based in Bangalore, India. He writes poetry, fiction and drama.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
China, Southasia and India
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