Maharaj-ji was Gautama’s personal moron, or a shared man-servant, when he chose to think otherwise. It was a regular job, nine to five, perks and bonus. But there were times when he tired of it. On such days he turned to Ero Nus, Gautama’s flat mate, for solace and random wisdom.
‘Maharaj-ji,’ Ero Nus obliged from his desk, ‘times have changed. Life is changing faster than salt peanuts. Tell your erstwhile master that.’
‘What’s so erst about Gautama? Maharaj-ji grumbled. ‘I thought he was just for a while anyway, like the job you once got.’
Ero Nus waved him away, got up from his desk and shuffled up to the window to watch the city below. Ero Nus worked from home now, correcting annual reports of small businesses that bored him to blankness. Gautama taught at the local college. Surely that was more exciting, Ero Nus pondered. Thus, another day came to a pass. It passed in between the rough minutes, the silk seconds and was gone. Gautama returned home in the evening with a fine, long-eared rabbit.
‘There’s no cure for rabbits.’ he said wearily. ‘They multiply. I’ve taught them additions and subtractions, even fractions but all they want to do is multiply. Can you squeeze some light on this, Maharaj-ji?
‘It is hopeless,’ Maharaj-ji assured his boss. ‘Rabbits cannot be trusted.’
‘I see.’ said Gautama.
‘What is there to see?’ Maharaj-ji stuck out his chin, annoyed.
‘I see your doubt, Maharaj-ji. A rabbit is enslaved to habit. Can you set him free?
‘You want me to play God?’ Maharaj-ji sniffed. ‘I have no time for omnipotence. What a rabbit needs is an alternative.’
‘What is an alternative? Elucidate.’
‘An alternative is a native who can alter his native stupidity without narks.’
‘Good,’ said Gautama. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course not.’
‘In which case, your time is up. You may vanish.’
‘Without a trace?’ Maharaji-ji asked anxiously.
‘No, that would be asking too much.’
That night, the wind raced at Force 10, as rain pounded highways to rubble tracks. The puchkawalla’s cart flew away, the pan masala sign-board folded in half, the high-rises caked with dust. In Gautama’s mind it left behind a mountain of debris. Maharaj-ji opened a languid eye. In times of human folly there was wisdom in ignoring it, just a little. But Ero Nus had to air his profound observations.
‘Things that end have inside them, things that begin.’ He cleared his throat. ‘But not necessarily in the same order.’
‘Now say that in reverse,’ ordered Gautama.
Ero Nus took offence and signalled Maharaj-ji, ‘Tell your erstwhile master…’
‘Errata.’ Maharaj-ji whispered. ‘Not erst, not even master. I think I have been fired.’
‘Whatever. Tell him not to interfere with my thoughts.’
‘Which ones? Please be lucid.’
Ero Nus turned his back annoyed.
Observing this Gautama said, ‘Maharaj-ji, have you ever considered taking a break from us? Take this long-eared rabbit and go to town?’
‘What a dangerous thought!’ Maharaj-ji was thrilled.
‘A fool,’ Ero Nus grimaced, ‘has no limit in misplacing wisdom.’
And so it came to pass on a mild afternoon. Gautama had come home from work and headed straight for a bath, while Ero Nus sat before his desk counting his illusions. It was jigsaw moment with open cracks. Maharaj-ji slipped out from the backdoor, on light and licit toes, ligaments singing, arms akimbo. Like a linchpin of verity he sallied forth without a doubt, with a long eared rabbit inside his dressing gown.
Gautama towelled his back with a chuckle as he heard the backdoor closing. The storm had abated, the city lay still and Maharaj-ji was out, adventuring.
Ero Nus was out of luck. Too much wisdom without a vacuum cleaner quickly gathers dust. ‘Maharaj-ji still absconds,’ he sighed. ‘The world is no longer what it was. Time has passed beneath the river and rabbits dance in town. Without toast and jam and a cup of tea, can a man dream? Gautama, why don’t you say something?’
‘I’m not ready, Ero. Words need kernel.’
Ero Nus strived but failed to summarise that further. A slow pandemonium overtook his brain. He got out of his bed finally, got out of the door, and got a job.
Alone at last, Gautama looked around the empty apartment.
Can a man dream?
Ero Nus had chucked a good job once for a glittering offer. It was a scam. Now he scanned the matrimonial columns listlessly after circling errors in the annual reports. The greyness of day was slowly growing thick and crusty between his eyes.
Gautama straightened. Can a man dream? Or, does he only desire?
Maharaj-ji always claimed he had ‘higher’ desires. In his next life he planned to be a guru. People needed wisdom.
‘Why not start in this life?’ Gautama demanded. ‘War is imminent, prices are up, the broken drains have still not been repaired, Sonu’s mother was hit by a truck. The streets are brutal, Maharaj-ji, all revolutions are lost in blood. Start now.’
‘Erstwhile boss,’ Maharaj-ji shook his head piously. ‘Too late for gear change.’
Why late? Gautama grew irritable. Where are the gears? He bit off the irony in his voice, but it often backfired. The girls he taught in college giggled behind his back. It worried him. Was it because he was still handsome? Was it because his shirt had grown too tight over his belly? Or, was it because they could see the greyness of the city sinking into his eyes? Truth was such an elusive thing, but without it, day yielded no freedom.
Sonu had stopped him on the stairs one afternoon as she came home from school, her satchel on her back. She was eight.
‘Uncle, stop making shadows!’ Her pigtails swung.
Sonu lived next door with her father who came home late every night. After her mother died Sonu had developed a peculiar game with him.
‘Uncle,’ she would admonish, every time she saw his shadow on the staircase, ‘how many times do I have to tell you? Stop!’
‘Sorry Sonu, I’m working on it. Promise!’
Promise her what? Gautama looked out from the porthole window of his room on the third floor and sighed. The quiet canvas of day spread its wings of glory.
Can a man dream? Without toast and jam? Did he have a right to dream without pay? In the broad and open terror of day? Did he first have to have benefits and pensions, a fat dowry, before he was willing to start? Could a man dream longer than the night…
Gautama’s veins filled with a roar, wide as oceans, deep with cosmos.
Through the porthole window he spotted Maharaj-ji, roaming in the crowd. No dressing gown, no rabbit, just a handful of sprouts.
‘Oi!’ Gautama cupped his hands, ‘Can you hear me?’
‘I can hear everyone,’ Maharaj-ji answered counting the sprouts with delight.
‘Can you dream where you are standing or do you need a chair first?’
‘Erstwhile Gautama, boss of Destiny, I will tell you. Do you have a minute?’
‘Maharaj-ji, I’ve got two!’
‘No, no! A minute is everything. For in the middle of it steps in the universe.’
‘That’s erroneous,’ Gautama said dryly. ‘You’ll have to do better.’
Maharaj-ji’s grin doubled. Moron. He turned his back on his erstwhile boss and walked away.
Far away, Ero Nus was hard at work, counting chickens, counting ducks. Tallying up the universe against the number of bullets fired. It wouldn’t match.
Ero Nus sighed and leaned back, the first romance of surprise was over. He thought of something wise to clear his brain, but it was clogged with inconsistencies. Ero Nus regretted Maharaj-ji, the droopy moustache, the coconut hair-oil grin. He felt the loss even in his sleep. As for Gautam, Ero Nus winced. Always, those racy, unnecessary metaphors.
Ero Nus stared at his tally dull eyed. The universe refused to suck up to the bullet count. He decided to get another job, far from a desk and became a bricklayer. Brick, sand, cement, water and a spatula. He built a wall in no time. It could block out the sky. It could block out the trees, it could block him. Oh yes, it could block him.
Two young men went running by it followed by wailing sirens. A bag was tossed over the wall. Three guns fell out.
Ero Nus found another job, as a cook in a restaurant.
That is where he saw her first and the universe changed sixty times inside a merry-go-round minute. Her name was Noor.
‘Ahh…’ said Ero Nus without thinking and let the chapatti burn to charcoal.
He was fired.
Out on the pavement, sad eyed and lost, he bumped into Maharaj-ji.
‘Arre,’ said Maharaj-ji, ‘lost your mind or what?’
The sad-eyed man said yes.
‘How did it happen?’
‘I don’t know,’ Ero Nus was in a daze. ‘One minute she was there, the next minute I was fired. She disappeared and my mind went away with her…’
‘And Noor was her name?’
‘H-hhow d-ddid y-yyou know?’ Ero Nus stuttered in shock. ‘I thought she was god.’
‘I saw it in the sprouts.’
‘You what?’ Ero Nus looked at him distressed.
‘Never mind that now, just come along, I know where to find her.’
Gautama watched from the porthole window, glued flat against it like a fly. He saw Ero Nus and Maharaj-ji on the cracked pavement eating salt peanuts.
‘Oi!’ he cupped his hands again. ‘Can you hear me?’
Ero Nus looked around, alarmed. ‘What was that?’
‘Nothing, just a fly,’ Maharaj-ji put an arm around him and hustled away quickly.
Gautama choked, stumbled off the window seat and fell.
He kept on falling, falling on…
Where was he falling? Where was his porthole window? Was this even possible? But he kept going down, through darkness, as if forever. He crossed mountains and lakes, past high-rise kingdoms and slums.
Is this your mystery? God…?
He landed with a thud, right in the middle of town.
Horns blared around him, trucks, SUVs, motorbikes and blinded him with headlights. Grime filled his nostrils, but the dust would not settle. The wind howled through his arteries now. Migrant cities rushed through his mind, clamouring inside his veins, drowning him in stock exchange. The wind kept rising over the black cliffs the city had become: a high, echoing wilderness, grey with betrayals.
Gautama stood himself up and began walking. He trudged through Ero Nus’s blank wasteland, past the shattered trench in Sonu’s heart, through the ruins of Maharaji-ji’s dreams till there was nothing at all. Not even the North Star. Suddenly he spotted Sonu, her hands full of grains hands. She was looking for a grain that had her mother’s name. Dane dane par khane wale ka nam likha hai… her mother used to say. If so, Sonu wanted to find a grain with her mother’s name. It would mean she was still alive. Sonu looked up and caught Gautama’s eye.
Gautama stumbled over a slant ray of sun.
How did that get in between his legs? But it was too late for questions. Gautama tripped and went hurtling, full velocity, inside.
Oh, miles and miles inside till time grew still. He was jammed inside a crevice and suffocating. Gautama summoned his will to open a slit.
Fresh, sweet air wafted up his neck and slipped inside his nostrils.
From outside, a voice reached him. So mild and so familiar, it almost made him weep. ‘But why did you run away?’ It was Ero Nus, unmistakably.
‘It was the challenge,’ said the replying voice, ‘to test my erstwhile master’s words.’
‘Who? Gautama? You saw him?’ said Ero Nus but his mind was elsewhere. ‘When will I see my Noor? How did you find her, Maharaj-ji?’
‘I found her in the sprouts.’
‘You stole them from Sonu!’
‘You shameless man!’
‘Arre, she only kept her mother’s sprout and threw the rest away. I had to save everyone else from drowning in the gutter na.’
Locked inside the dark crevice, Gautama eavesdropped like a demon.
Noor lived with diligence, it is said. She had a quarter of a smile upon her face, always, no matter what happened, and her blood never coagulated in the arteries. Noor had the artless beauty of a flower, it was said. She lived with the sun, in total dedication to the day. She lived above the local bakery in town. Each morning she awoke to the smell of freshly baked bread, opened her door and stepped out on the terrace. Far beyond the mountains, at the faint horizon line, she could see them gathering, the great grey warships, waiting for a signal. They had been gathering for months. She needed three men. That’s all.
Noor thought fleetingly of the cook in the restaurant. He had handed her the take-away parcel, his mouth open. Yes, that one. He would do.
She turned to watch the street again. The last leaves of autumn had drizzled on the pavement. Only one leaf remained on a high branch now, still red and defiant, against the sky, refusing to rust.
The snarl of traffic was thickening with the morning. Noor noticed two men from her window. They were walking down the street, arm in arm. She spotted the cook at once. Yes, he would do. The other man had a drooping moustache and coconut oil hair. She frowned, but only mildly. Yes, that one too.
She looked up at the sky again. The clouds were drifting breezily. One more. She needed just one man more. Noor searched the horizon line till she found the slit.
There was a knock on her door. Noor opened it quietly.
‘Show me the sprouts.’
Maharaj-ji held out his palm, trembling.
‘There’s one missing.’
‘Oh, no. No-no…’ Maharaj-ji stammered, confused.
Noor slapped the door shut.
Inside the tight crevice Gautama gasped and broke up with laughter. The slit split wide open and Gautama fell out, straight into the blinding sky.
Noor ran out the terrace.
Gautama went flying, head arrowed downward, eyes screwed tight with fright, when a sudden wave of feathers touched his body. A fleet of migrating swans cradled him downward. Gautama opened his eyes on a half breath and saw her through merging octaves of light.
‘She didn’t even look at me!’ Ero Nus whimpered.
‘She did,’ Maharaj-ji said gravely. ‘She looks at everyone at the same time.’
‘Does that make sense?’
‘I don’t know. There are no reasons for truth.’
Ero Nus pressed the doorbell in desperation. After a long moment, the door opened again. Gautama stood before them grinning like a school boy.
‘Where is she?’ Ero Nus cried.
Gautama stepped aside and Ero Nus saw her at last.
His eyes widened like the horizon and, and in measure, he fainted, slumping limp on the ground till he was flat. Noor crossed the room rapidly, lifted Ero Nus in her arms and carried him out to the terrace. Maharaj-ji gawked but Noor commanded, ‘Follow me,’ quarter smile unwavering.
The terrace was an open, wind-swept platform. Noor lay Ero Nus down and looked up at the horizon. Maharaj-ji saw them then, the grey gleaming warships, intensely arrayed and ready. A calamitous horizon waiting for command.
Gautama flinched. He searched the sky for the slit from where he had fallen.
Noor lay a calming hand on both their shoulders.
‘When this man awakes,’ she pointed to Ero Nus, ‘the horizon will retreat.’
‘Why?’ The word leapt off Maharaj-ji’s tongue.
Noor’s smile widened with the horizon.
‘Some say you are a sky trader,’ Gautama turned to her surprised.
‘Some do,’ she agreed.
Arre, how did he know? Maharaj-ji marvelled at his ex-boss.
‘But can Ero Nus really pull that off?’ Gautama wondered. ‘Look how he sleeps, he is oblivious to the world.’
‘If you don’t doubt it too much,’ was all that Noor said.
Maharaj-ji lay beside Ero Nus trying not to fall asleep. Gautama had disappeared into the house with Noor. Maharaj-ji tried not to let his imagination run away too far, just in case it failed him. With Noor there was no knowing. His sprouts were getting twitchy, but all there with him. Earlier, Gautama had introduced them: ‘I’m Gautama, Maharaj-ji’s erstwhile boss. And this is Maharaj-ji, my erstwhile moron.’
Erstwhile moron? He had never thought of that. There was a definite ring to it.
But if he was no longer a moron, then what was he? Maharaj-ji counted his sprouts to be sure. All there. He lay back satisfied and watched the sky. The warships hung in the distance still. He looked again. No!
They were advancing. Closing in fast. Those warships were not retreating at all…
Ero Nus lay fast asleep, his dreaming breath serene.
At this rate it would take days! Maharaj-ji panicked. He leapt to warn Noor about the fattening line of warships but only Gautama appeared at her door, hair tousled.
‘Why are you here?’ Maharaj-ji’s eyebrows squiggled.
‘Oh, jealous…’ Gautama turned away.
Maharaji-ji took a deep breath. ‘There’s no time to lose. I have to see Noor. What if Ero Nus never wakes up?’
Maharaj-ji’s jaw dropped a muscle. ‘Is that possible?’
Gautama stepped aside.
Maharaj-ji looked through the door, cautiously.
Noor was standing before the open window, facing the sky, poised on a spirit breath. She seemed to have a thousand arms suddenly, spreading across every horizon.
Through the door Maharaj-ji watched the sky open dialogue. Gautama went back to the cot and fell asleep like a child.
Maharaj-ji blushed at his own lack of innocence.
The sky had grown live, Maharaj-ji could hardly stand still. He felt his skin tearing up from inside, wanting to push through, trying to wrench him open, struggling to be freed. Maharaj-ji cried out.
Without turning her head Noor said. ‘Get back on the terrace. Your friend wakes.’
Maharaj-ji dropped his sprouts in utter shock. They scattered all over the floor. He looked on in horror as the sky swept them all up in a lightning flash. All gone…
‘Go!’ Noor commanded. Maharaj-ji rushed outside, shaking.
On the terrace, Ero Nus sat up with a yawn and rubbed his eyes.
‘Its getting too close, Maharaj-ji’ Ero Nus waved his hand. ‘Can you push it back a little?’
‘That’s the sky,’ Maharaj-ji gagged, ‘not a curtain, Ero Nus!’
‘So?’ Ero Nus stretched his arms luxuriously. ‘Just look at it, can’t you?’
Maharaj-ji turned around with a shiver.
‘Well, what do you see?’
‘I see the horizon.’ Maharaj-ji stammered.
‘It stretches far and free, beyond the mountains.’
‘A few clouds. Small, white and fleecy. The flight of birds…’ Maharaj-ji’s eyes bulged. ‘No warships?’
‘That will do.’
Maharaj-ji took a step back, lurched over sideways and fainted gracefully.
Noor turned away from the window.
Gautama had not seen it, but he had dreamt it all.
The sky, it is said, is such a well practised mystery. Some saw it everyday, some never did. Some dreamt it to perfection.
Near the door, Maharaj-ji lay prone and still as one after another, the warships melted in his eyes. Oh, it was the greatest show on earth.
Noor went out of the room, quarter smile widening and stepped out on the terrace.
Ero Nus sprang to his feet like a grasshopper, a cry of joy on his lips. But words failed him. No existential gems sprang forth, no weighty wonderments. Ero Nus stood before Noor, his mind windblown with sky. He dared to smile.
At that extraordinary moment a new horizon came into play.
Gautama sat up with a start, rushed out to the terrace and came to an abrupt halt.
Ero Nus and Noor were laughing together like old, old friends.
An alternative is a native who can alter his native stupidity without narks…
Maharaj-ji’s wisdom had blossomed, composted under the fragrant shade of his coconut-oil hair. Gautama stared.
What of him then? He needed a reason to keep on living. A real one if such a thing was still possible.
Maharaj-ji yawned dreaming of a sprout. That’s unreasonable, he told himself and rolled over. But a reason has no credible management plan. It just becomes indispensable, but not for the reasons you think. That evening Gautama lay awake in the cot fronting the open window. Night deepened and stretched. Gautama kept looking out till the first rays wakened the birds.
There was a flash of curving white.
A long eared rabbit leapt past the open window. Gone.
Gautama jumped out of the cot and shook Maharaj-ji awake.
‘Where did you go when you left my house?’
Maharaj-ji blushed. ‘It wasn’t me, it was the rabbit…’
‘Exactly,’ said Gautama. ‘Where is he now?’
Maharaj-ji cleared his throat and sat up. ‘Erstwhile boss, let’s have some tea.’
The street was empty, no sounds yet of the cleaning truck, no newspaper boy ringing his cycle bell, no determined morning walkers, just small wisps of smoke swirling out from the tea shop across the lane and rising up into the greyness of morning.
Maharaj-ji and Gautama crossed the street. Instinctively they stopped and looked back at the house. The upstairs window was still open. Through it they saw a vast blue sky, golden with sunlight.
A long-eared rabbit leaped right across.
Gautama grabbed Maharaj-ji’s arm and looked up.
Noor was waving out to him, her smile inscrutable as ever.
They looked up at the sky again but it held no footprints.
To understand a rabbit it takes tea. Maharaj-ji and Gautama huddled in the corner bench of the teashop, two glasses of tea warming their tales.
‘What happened after you left my house with the rabbit?’ Gautama demanded again.
Maharaj-ji blushed. ‘Erstwhile boss,’ he ran a finger over his moustache, ‘even as I stepped across our building and out on the pavement, the rabbit leapt out of my dressing gown and ran for it. And I ran after him. For three days and nights I ran and ran, down pavements and alleyways, racing like a thief through other people’s houses and offices, I chased him through parks and gardens, I nearly caught him in a school playground, but he escaped. I chased him at twilight, at midnight, at dawn, even at high noon. At last I cornered him on a bridge. I almost had him. Almost, my hand on his hind leg, but in a wink he dropped into a drain pipe. Too small for me to follow further. I waited there hoping on hope, but all was lost. That’s when I noticed the first sprout. It had a name. I picked it up and went my way. And you know what? The rabbit followed me! So many times I caught sight of that tail behind a thicket, a twitch of ear behind a tree, a whisker trembling behind a car-park. Always, for a split second and then, nothing. And always, I found a sprout, with a name. I picked them all up. When I found Ero Nus’s, I went looking for him.’
‘Did you find one with my name?’
Maharaj-ji blushed. ‘I did. But I threw it away.’
‘It’s your unbearable certitude, mister know-it-all.’
Silence and the ticking of old clocks.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Gautama.
Maharaj-ji sniffed. ‘The rabbit came back only for you. Where did you find him?’
Gautama began to smile. Under the bench, a pair of long ears twitched against his legs. ‘I stole him from a man who was about to put him in a stew, a man with immense prowess and authority.’
Ero Nus sauntered into the tea shop like a field of fresh marigold.
The teashop regulars lowered their morning papers to watch him, glasses of tea untouched. Something was amiss behind that extraordinary appearance of well-being. His shirt buttons were carelessly done but that was a mundane reading. Behind Ero Nus’s ears the last skin of sky was starting to come loose.
The regulars gawped. The last skin, it was known, was always the most unyielding, the most treacherous. The city never forgave inflexibility or carelessness. But there it was now, fluttering, unbeknown to Ero Nus.
‘Greetings friends,’ he said, ‘I bring good news.’
But no one said a word.
‘Anything wrong?’ Ero Nus looked around, petulant.
Gautama tried. ‘There’s stuff behind your ears, Ero. Come and sit with us.’
‘Stuff? My words are authorised by Noor,’ Ero Nus lashed with new-found authority. ‘You speak without sanction and with ridicule, it is unfortunate. Do not cross my words.’
Maharaj-ji was aghast. What had gone wrong? The loose skin was starting to flap. ‘Ero Nus,’ he signalled urgently, ‘shut up and sit down.’
But Ero Nus ignored him, unaware of the treachery of that final skin.
‘The good news is that I can be your personal emissary from Noor.’ He smiled. It was toxic. ‘I will preach to you every word she says. For free! If you report to me daily.’
There was instant uproar. Newspapers and glasses went slapping down on the tables
– Get out, clown, did she appoint you?
– No preachers!
– Power monger!
Gautama leapt off the bench, caught Ero Nus by the shoulders and hauled him out of the teashop. Maharaj-ji came running behind. ‘Back to Noor, at once!
Ero Nus struggled to break free. ‘What do you think you are doing? I’m within my rights to offer my services!’
‘Wrong,’ said Gautama quietly.
‘Noor is an old friend of mine!’ Ero Nus was incensed.
Gautama dragged him across the street and up the stairs to Noor’s door.
‘Noor is our oldest friend, Ero. Not just yours. Everyone’s.’
‘You’re jealous!’ said Ero Nus and pressed on the doorbell furious.
The doorbell pealed into the emptiness but no one answered.
No Noor came to the door.
Ero Nus was in a state. He picked up his right leg shakily and smashed the door screaming. The door went reeling inside. Corridors and corridors of space stretched through corridors and corridors of time.
As usual, Ero Nus saw her last.
Far away, Noor was dropping her name into a flowing mountain stream. She dropped it in wide rivers, in stinking city gutters, in school playgrounds, in the open sea. Noor turned around and looked straight at Gautama. The red leaf on the high branch still glowed with the morning sun.
‘I am not a cynical man Noor,’ Gautama said steadily, ‘I don’t need reasons for life. But I need proof. Am I just a passing shadow or can I hold the griefless light?’
Noor laughed with delight.
Gautama felt a long, blinding pain evaporating from his heart. In the revealing emptiness he saw the world all over again. The city streets, the people, the flower growing out of a crack in the wall. Everything was the same, yet everything had changed. A shadow had gone.
‘One shadow less…’ Gautama marvelled. ‘But is that enough?’
‘That’s your job then.’ Noor said simply. ‘Take them out.’
The leaf twitched off the high branch and fell into his hands, golden. A hard anchor in his heart snapped then and time began flying inside.
Anuradha Majumdar’s books include Refugees from Paradise and The God Enchanter and two books of poetry, Mobile Hour & Light Matter. She has contributed poetry for art installation and choreography projects and participated in the Prakriti poetry festival. Has published short stories and also writes for young adults. Participated in the Literature-Cinema conference at the Focus India event in Rome in 2007. www.anumajumdar.com