It was dark when I stepped out of the bus. The conductor closed the door, waved out to me and signaled to the driver. In the distance, I saw the faint, pink glow of the village. I flashed the torch. But it refused to turn on. The moon in the sky, almost full, enabled me to see a little of what lay ahead of me. I walked towards the village, kit-bag on my shoulder. I missed the familiar sounds of night, the constant chirp of crickets and cicadas, the occasional cry of birds whose sleep had been disturbed. Everything was absolutely still, as if molten lead had been poured on every object in the vicinity. It seemed as if the darkness had sucked both time and silence into its black womb.
In the dim moonlight, I traced the outline of trees, and figured out there must be something soft, like leaves, on the branches. So there is vegetation of some kind in this place, I told myself. But what baffled me was the absence of the chirping of crickets and cicadas. Either a catastrophe had wiped out these living things, or they had, due to ecological changes, resettled elsewhere.
In spite of the eerie atmosphere, I did not feel in the least bit frightened. This was perhaps because of the assurances given to me by the gray-haired bus conductor and some of the passengers in the bus who were frequent visitors to the village. One particular passenger who had business dealings at the village had very patiently answered my questions. “Listen,” he said. “I visit this area at least twice every week. And here I am before you, alive and well.” “What about snakes?” I asked. “I haven’t seen one so far,” he replied. “Animals?” “No, no animals,” he said. “Thieves?” He shook his head vehemently. “The only condition,” intruded the bus conductor who was listening to our conversation, “is that you should rid yourself of fear. Because once you carry fear in you, then you start imagining a lot of things. For example, you might see the stump of a tree and mistake it for a ghost,” he concluded, amidst laughter from the other passengers who had gathered around me in the rear of the bus.
Before I set out on the journey, I had made enquiries at a tea shop near the bus stop. I was told that the village was surrounded by flat, agricultural land, with wheat being the main crop. As I made my way towards the village I was relieved that it was not a mountainous region. So there was no question of falling down a deep ravine and getting myself killed. Or worse still, lying in such a ravine with broken limbs, and dying a slow but certain death. I shuddered at the thought of such a death, as I always had, ever since I had watched Father die.
One evening Father came home from work, had a bath and retired to his room, as he usually did whenever he was not on tour. Often, he’d slip out of the house in the early hours of the next morning, to disappear for weeks together once again. So none of us got to see him at all. But on that particular evening, thirty minutes after he’d retired for the night he came out and asked me to come to his room. I know it was thirty minutes because he had gone in when the news on television had started and came out to call me soon after it was over.
“Sit,” he said, pointing to a chair. He gave me a brown envelope. “According to the doctor,” he said, “I’m going to be dead within three days. He’s diagnosed it as duodenal cancer. The will, the medical report and some important papers that are to be published after my death are in this envelope. Can you bring Cuckoo to me?” Cuckoo was my one-year-old daughter. My immediate reaction was one of total disbelief. I suspected that the man had gone crazy. I got up quietly, went out of the room, took out the medical report, read the diagnosis and realized that what he’d said was true. I put the report back into the envelope, and heard myself shouting for Cuckoo at the top of my voice. “What’s the matter?” Father asked, coming out of his room.
Three days passed, and he said that he knew all along that the doctor was wrong. On the fourth day when I suggested that he should be shifted to a hospital he said that I’d have only his dead body to bring back the very next day. I did not insist on it any more.
I was not close to my father for the very simple reason that he was never at home. He was an archaeologist. He would leave the house with a kit bag, a small pick-axe, and a flask of boiled water and disappear for the next three months, sometimes six. Earlier, when I was about ten or eleven and old enough to move around, I would take the bus to the university across the town and make enquiries at his department. They always had some information to give, which place he was at, often names of places I had never heard before. I would reach home quite thrilled at the fact that I possessed a secret which none of the other members of the family, which included my three older sisters and my mother, knew. But on trying to recall the name of the place, I would discover that I had forgotten it. So I would stealthily look through the atlas until I came to a place with an exotic name, and then reveal to my mother and sisters that Father was at that moment in such and such a place, and as quietly as I had slipped in, I would slip out again, never waiting for their reaction.
Soon, like everybody else at home, I too learnt that there was no point waiting for him, and that the moment he appeared was the moment the waiting ended. It was on three such occasions when Father made his sudden unannounced appearance, that my three sisters were married off to three doctors who took them away to distant lands. I was left behind with Mother.
One day after Father had walked out of the house with the kit-bag, pick-axe and flask of boiled water, as I was giving my hair a final pat before going to the bank, Mother placed her hand on her left breast, slumped to the ground and died. And I was left with just Father.
The day after I came to know of Father’s terminal disease, I applied for a month’s leave from the bank, indicating that my father was on his death bed. For the next twenty-five days, I was with Father day in and day out, never leaving him, except to meet my essential needs. I watched the pain gradually spread from his eyes to his lips. Each time I stepped into his room, I felt as if I was stepping into a chamber that was soaked to its minutest atom with pain. But he never mentioned it. He would be reading, or making notes, and when the pain was unbearable, he would ask me to take down the notes.
It was on the night of the twenty-fifth day that he asked me to climb up the table and take out a particular book from the bookshelf. When I asked him whether he needed any further help, he said that he would manage on his own.
I allowed nobody else to touch him. I seemed to have reached a state of pure selfishness, wanting to nurse him myself, quietly hoping all the while that a miracle would completely cure him.
When I returned after a quick dinner, I found him weeping. A book was spread out on his lap. The page at which the book was open had a map on both sides. “What is it?” I asked, rushing to him. “Shall I call a doctor? Is the pain unbearable?” I kept asking him.
“Isn’t it sad,” he said, crying unashamedly, the tears pouring down his sunken cheeks, “that at the end of one’s life, when you know that you have just a day left to live, you want to start again, go back and search for the roots.”
He wiped his tears, sighing as he did so, blew his nose and composed himself, his face showing no trace of the spasms of pain emanating from his body. He asked me to move closer to him. “I’m going to tell you something now that no one in this world but you will know of,” he whispered. He put his finger on the map at a particular point and said, “Thousands of years ago, this great river actually began from this village here. Today, there is only a lake here and people believe that the river started from this town, twenty kilometres from the village. And this town through the years has become an important religious centre. Let me explain.”
He took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. “Between belief and truth,” he said, “there stands a vast tract of a very visible, physical time. Imagine this physical time to be filled with patterns, say like cobwebs. Very simple patterns. If I’m referring to a pattern like that in a cobweb, obviously there’s nothing complicated about it. But we not only complicate these patterns but have allowed them to grow as they like. As long as we don’t clean them, blindness will remain.” He paused.
“Do you want water?” I asked.
“I must be dying, because I’m finding it difficult to speak,” he said in a fading voice. “If you have to take me to the village, you have to take me tonight.” He was trying to sit up on the bed.
“I promise I will take you there,” I said, lifting up his frail, weightless body and setting him against the hard pillow. “But, for now, you should rest for a while,” I suggested, pulling the sheet to his chest.
“If you have to live,” he said very calmly, “I have to die.” His speech was getting slower, but at the same time there was this sense of urgency as if he was trying to share whatever it was that was coming to his mind before the end came.
“Death is of little consequence,” he said. “What is important is the dream. Now let us go back to the village. This is what must have happened. Millions of years ago, the area where the village now stands was perhaps mountainous. Since the region is seismic, there must have been an earthquake. The land was flattened out. Then later, maybe thousands of years ago, there must have been another earthquake. Landslides must have blocked the river in its upper reaches, forming a lake. The rest of the river continued on its course. What I am interested in is what lies under the bed of the lake.”
He took a good half an hour to relate this to me. The dialogue was punctuated with long pauses, long moments of silence through which I sat motionless, knowing that it was not possible to stop him from speaking.
“Can you take me there tonight?” he asked once again.
“I will,” I replied.
“We’ll take a taxi. Actually there’s a bus which goes to that place. But I don’t want to die on the way. Is the fever making me delirious?”
I touched his forehead. It was cold.
“Just the two of us,” he whispered, trying to pour himself some water from a plastic bottle on the side table. His hands shook as he poured and most of the water spilled on the table with very little going into the glass. Then forgetting to drink it, he sat there, sighing under his breath.
“I must tell you about this dream,” he said, after a long silence. “Please listen to me. In this dream I saw an order based on the universal, homogeneous State. I’m speaking of a political situation. Because it is the political make-up of a country which ultimately gives the individual his freedom. Great civilisations have sprung by great rivers. At the source of this river, which is now a lake, I saw in my dream a political State based on truth, and the fever of a love that this quest for truth brings with it. I think I must be dying, because I am not able to see anything very clearly, except this dream.” I did not attempt to stop him. “Because in all my wanderings,” he continued, “across deserts and uninhabited wild lands, this was what I was in search of — the possibility for mankind to set up a State based on the first principles of life.”
Around two o’clock that night, Father died. I was left with one desire: to reach the village without delay. At the bank I was informed that I did not have any leave left. But by some stroke of luck it so happened that when I was returning home by bus that evening, I saw an advertisement in the newspaper asking for a supervisor-cum-clerk for a poultry farm at the very same village. The person to be contacted was one Dr B. Three days later I got a letter in reply to my offer to work for him. Dr B’s letter read:
Thank you for your telegram. I would like to give you some idea of the kind of work that you would be supervising. There are three disciplines to it: (1) counting of eggs (2) counting of the chicks that are hatched and (3) counting of the dead chicken that are slaughtered for consumption. You will also assist me with filing, typing and other clerical work. Initially, you can stay with me. I have a big house with several rooms. Later, after your family comes, you can either stay at my place, or you can hire a two-room house, with a small garden in the front and the back. The salary will be what you have mentioned in the telegram. Will be expecting you in a few days. Come to the village, and ask for Dr B. Dr B with the moustache. The villagers will guide you. Thank you. Dr B.
I resigned my job as a clerk at the bank. But my wife continued to work there. It was agreed that she would follow me after I had settled in the village. As for me, I had decided to devote the rest of my life to the cause of digging out the dream that Father thought was lying under the lake.
Except for the lights burning at the windows of a couple of houses, the village streets were dark and empty. I stood for a few minutes, not knowing how to go about locating Dr B’s residence.
Suddenly, on the opposite side of the road, a light appeared. I walked across the road and knocked on the glass frame. The window opened and the shadow of a man’s face appeared. Since the light was in another room, I was unable to see his face clearly, except that the nose seemed to protrude and the ends of his moustache curled in the shape of a semi-circle and stood out from the silhouette of his face.
“Sir,” I said in a low voice, “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you at this time of the night. I have come from the city by the university. Would you be kind enough to direct me to Dr B’s residence.” I had to strain my head to look up at him, since the window was at a higher level. As he scanned me from top to toe, he must have pressed his lips tightly together, because the ends of his moustache moved.
When he spoke, the voice was low and guttural. “Firstly,” he said, you have the impertinence to enter the village like a criminal in the dead of the night. And then you ask for Dr B’s residence. There are eleven Dr Bs in this village.”
His accusation that I was some kind of a criminal in the guise of a traveler, upset and annoyed me a great deal, and I felt called upon to vindicate myself. “I’m not a criminal,” I protested mildly. “I got dropped three kilometers away by this bus which brought me from the university bus stand. It was twelve midnight when this bus dropped me, and since then I haven’t had the faintest idea of time, precisely because I have been walking through stretches of total darkness.”
A parrot screeched and shot out of the window like an arrow. For a long time the man stood looking in the direction of the parrot’s flight, at the end of which he whispered, “You bastard.” Seizing the opportunity, I started with a “Sir,” but he cut me short. “Listen,” he said. The curled ends of his moustache seemed to shiver. “I have no time for your stories.” Saying this, he banged the glass window-frame on my face. The lights inside were switched off, and the house was immersed in darkness.
There was nothing left to do but pick up my kit-bag and make my way towards the light at the window down the street. This time I decided to ring the door bell instead of tapping at the window. I rang the bell once, twice, thrice. The fourth time, as I was about to press the switch, a man’s voice over an intercom broke the silence. Coming as it did quite suddenly, and not expecting it, I was totally taken aback for a moment.
As the voice began to speak I felt I had been transported into some distant, alien land. The voice sounded warm and kind. It asked me to identify myself, which I promptly did, after which I was asked to explain my presence in the village.
“But,” reasoned the voice gently, “there are seven Dr Bs who own poultry farms. How would you know which one has employed you?”
“In his letter, Dr B has specifically referred to his moustache,” I said, standing outside the door and speaking into the empty space before me.
“So what?” continued the voice, “Out of the ten Dr Bs, five have short moustaches, three have curled ones, and the rest wear theirs straight.”
“But this man whom I met just now told me that there were eleven Dr Bs.”
“One died tonight,” the voice said promptly. “But who was this man who gave you this information?” he asked, clearing his throat as he spoke.
“That man with a parrot,” I replied.
“Oh him,” the voice continued, breaking into a mild laughter. “He’s a crackpot.”
“His parrot escaped,” I said.
There was total silence for a few minutes. “Now listen carefully,” the voice finally said, having mellowed down considerably. “Go down this street, turn left, and you’ll come to a traffic signal. You’ll know it is a traffic signal, because the lights would still be going on and off. The whole world can come to an end, but those damn lights, the red, the orange, and the green would still be going on and off, on and off. At the signal, you cross the street, walk straight, and stop at the second house. You will find a circle on the door. Knock at the door. Don’t ring the bell or knock on the glass pane. You tell the person who opens the door that I sent you. The strap of your watch is loose.”
“Who’s I?’’ I asked, fixing the strap.
“It’s enough if you say that I sent you. You spend the night there. Tomorrow we’ll locate Dr B for you.” Reassured, I thanked the voice profusely, picked up the kit-bag and promised to call on him the next morning.
His instructions were quite simple, but I had hardly walked down a few metres, when I banged my head against a hard wall. There was no question of the wall having suddenly materialised out of the blue because there was enough moonlight for me to have seen something like this happen. I stepped back, rubbed my forehead vigorously wondering why the voice had not warned me of the wall and how I could have missed it. I debated whether to climb the wall or walk along it.
Holding on to the wall, I walked alongside it, so I would know exactly when it came to an end. I did not want to keep walking and then suddenly realise that I had left the wall miles behind me. The very thought of such a situation sent a shudder down my spine. I pressed my fingers harder on the wall as I walked by it. The wall must have been twice my height. I was five feet nine. My father was two inches taller than me. The recollection of his wasted body on his death bed made me all the more determined to somehow settle down quickly and begin to investigate — the real purpose of my stay in the village.
My fingers suddenly found themselves weightless in the air. That’s when I realised that I had reached the end of the wall. But I was wrong. It was a narrow gap, small enough for a thin man to pass through. I was not very sure whether I would be able to make it to the other side. I did not want to get stuck in between and remain there for the rest of the night and in the morning have the villagers gather at the scene of the accident.
This whole question of having to make choices seemed rather strange to me – first whether I would have to walk along the wall, or scale it, then whether I should squeeze myself through the gap in the partition or walk further until I reached a wider passage. For the first time in the thirty-three years of my life, here I was, standing before a wall, having to make choices. If the wall did not exist I would not have had to make a choice, I said to myself, my body halfway through the wall, the kit-bag just about to cross through. But the kit-bag, being bulky, got stuck. It meant that I had to remove some of the things in the kit-bag, and take them along with me and deposit them on the other side. There was nothing much in it. A few sets of clothes, some of Father’s archaeological equipment and a book — a murder mystery which I had bought at the bus stop to read on the journey. In short, I would have to make two or three trips through the partition. But as I stood there between the walls, holding on to the strap of the kit-bag, a chilling fear struck me — what if my movements were being monitored on a screen? Why did the man have to speak on an intercom? He could have come out and given me the instructions. True, this was not something new, it was quite common at the university. But it is also possible, I thought to myself, that somebody just had to push a button, and the wall would automatically close in an instant. And with the crushing of the body it was not the dream that would die but the desire — the desire in the heart of a human being to keep searching for a civilisation where perhaps thousands and thousands of years ago a state did exist, ruled by the simple principle of compassion.
I must have nodded off for a second, because when I opened my eyes, I found myself leaning against the wall. There was darkness all around, even more than before. Without a moment’s hesitation, in a state of total panic, I loosened my hold on the kit-bag and quickly tried to get to the other side. This was not very easy as my feet were placed sideways, the space between the wall being really narrow. When I looked back through the partition, I saw the navy blue kit-bag lying on the ground. If I had to retrieve it, it would mean having to go through the whole process once again.
I decided that I would first find the house that the voice had instructed me to locate and ask the person there for advice. I crossed the street which ran perpendicular to the wall, turned left and as luck would have it, saw the traffic post at the corner. At the signal, I found that only the red and green lights blinked alternately, not the yellow one. And then, on the left side of the road, I found the door marked with a circle the size of an orange, thinly streaked in white paint with a light above it. Whoever had drawn the circle seemed to have been nervous while drawing it because it was irregular at places.
I knocked on the door, relieved to have located the house. The door opened immediately with a loud creak as if the occupant inside had been waiting for me all the while. But for a few seconds nobody appeared. “Who’s there?” I called out, imagining that perhaps the door was not shut in the first place and had opened with the force of my knocking. After a few moments a head, that of a woman’s, peeped out of the door. “The voice asked me to get in touch with you,” I said. “Come in,” she muttered, her eyes looking tired and swollen, as if she had been forced to keep awake.
I stepped into the room. It was furnished simply with a cot, a table and two chairs. There was a door opposite the entrance leading possibly to other rooms, and another on the left side of the wall. The woman was wrapped in metres and metres of grey, light cloth. It was draped around her in a most complicated but tidy manner.
She was short, not more than five feet in height, and about fifty years old. I introduced myself and mentioned the purpose of my visit. When I asked her name, she did not answer, but instead remarked that I must be feeling very tired and hungry. “I’ll get you some hot black coffee and fresh bread,” she said. “I’m sorry, this is all that I can offer you. Nothing is left of dinner. In fact I had guests for dinner. I hope you don’t mind.” I replied that as long as I was safe for the rest of the night, and not lost in the streets, it was all right with me. I noticed her face turning pale, but before I could attempt to make any further conversation she walked away from me in quick short steps, her voice trailing behind her, telling me that the bathroom was on my left.
“Madam,” I said, shouting after her. She came back to the door.
“My kit-bag is on the other side of the wall. Now that I know where your house is situated, can I go back and collect it? I desperately need to get into a fresh set of clothes.”
“That would be a very foolish thing to do,” she replied, shaking her head sideways. “It’s dangerous to be seen moving around at night by yourself.”
“But I was out there all alone, at least for the past three hours,” I argued, looking at my watch. It was then that I discovered that the watch was missing. “But the watch is gone,” I said, a little surprised and taken aback. “What’s the time now?” I asked her.
“I don’t have a watch, nor a timepiece or a clock. I have no instrument with me that would keep time. That you were able to reach me is indeed a miracle. This place is like a maze. I’ll get you some clothes,” she said and walked out of the door.
Soon she was back with a night dress. The grey cotton clothes — a pyjama and a shirt — had navy blue stripes on them. “You go have your bath. I’ll make the coffee,” she said, going out of the door.
I thought it was strange that she had to use the word “maze”, when I had not encountered problems of any kind, like being intercepted by a policeman and being taken to the police station and questioned. Except for having left behind my kit-bag and having lost my watch, the rest of the journey had gone off quite smoothly.
It was as I was stepping out of the toilet after my bath that I noticed a thermos flask on a shelf by the cot. The rest of the shelf was empty. I froze on the spot. It looked exactly like Father’s thermos flask. Covered with a moss-green woollen material, it had an aluminium plated tumbler on the top and a light green plastic strap attached to the sides.
As a child, on several occasions when Father was asleep, I would very quietly tip-toe into his room to observe and reimpress his face in my mind. That used to be a constant problem with me. Father would be away for six months at a time and I would have forgotten his face. But the moment I stepped into his room I would feel that I was in an entirely new world. There would be books of various colours spread on the floor. The books on the shelves would be arranged in a haphazard manner. On his table would be scattered books, articles, files, newspaper clippings, pens, money, keys. There would be total chaos around him, and yet when he had to work on an article or deliver a lecture, he knew where to find a particular book or a paper that he needed. Some of the colourful pictures in the books would fascinate me and I would spend hours flipping through them. It was during those visits to Father’s room that I noticed his thermos flask. Often I would feel jealous of it for the simple reason that it was the flask, filled with boiled water, that got to be with him on his endless archaeological trips. I would touch the flask, feel it, run my hands on the green woollen fabric covering it, and then very quietly put it back under his cot.
The woman’s announcement that food was served brought me back to reality. I asked her about the flask. She said that she was not sure as to who had left it behind, since men, women and children, had moved in and out of her house. “But many years ago,” she said, as she sat opposite me at the narrow table which could barely seat three people, “a man visited this place.”
“Was he an archaeologist?” I asked, interrupting her, as I dipped a piece of warm bread in the hot, black coffee.
“I wouldn’t know,” she said.
“Did he carry a small kit-bag of books?” I questioned.
“Books?” she said, looking up surprised. “It’s years and years since I’ve seen a book,” she said.
“How come?” I asked.
“Because we are not supposed to be reading them.”
“I don’t believe it,” I said, breaking into a mild laughter, convinced hat the woman, perhaps because of lack of sleep, was not in her proper senses.
“But I was under the impression that you knew all about this,” she said, shaking her head sideways.
“All right then,” I said, trying to hold back my smile, “what happened to this man who visited you?”
“Ah yes,” she continued, “this man came to me. I was young then, and we fell in love with each other. There was a war going on here during those times. I hid him in the bunkers below this room for about two months. On the night cease-fire was declared, he escaped. I begged him to take me with him. He said he would return. I waited, knowing fully well that he would never return. I cannot recollect his name now. But he left behind his love for me.”
She paused as she picked up the tiny crusts of bread that lay on the table with the tips of her fingers. “It’s difficult to give love. But he gave it to me. He was a kind man. I live on the love and kindness that he left behind in this house. If I were you, I would return to the city by the university without any further delay. I would not wait for morning.”
“Why?” I asked, stunned. She was clearing the table. Her eyes looked lost and lonely. The more she looked at me, the more I felt her gaze turning from gentleness to an indifferent coldness.
“Because it is so,” she said curtly.
“There must be a reason for it,” I argued.
“Please don’t ask me questions,” she said, as she walked out of the room with the empty plates and the mug. She returned a few seconds later to say that she was retiring for the night. “Within two hours it will be dawn. If you decide to leave, you can go, You don’t have to call me. But please ensure that the door is shut behind you. You should follow the wall towards the east and walk alongside it until you reach a bus stop. All the buses halt at the university, except 013. Goodnight. If you feel thirsty, there’s water in that flask,” she added, pointing to the flask on the shelf. With that she closed the door and bolted it from the inside.
I sat on the bed, in my striped pyjamas and shirt, not knowing what to make of her strange and irrational outburst. Finally I decided to step onto the street to check out for myself if I could spot any disturbing signs to validate the woman’s warning.
Outside, everything was as it was when I had left it to enter the house. The streets were as silent as before. I must have stood at the door for about five minutes when, across the street, I heard the cry of a baby. Soon a light appeared at the window and a woman passed by it. A few seconds later she returned, perhaps with a bottle of milk. The baby stopped crying. I waited until the light at the window turned off. I went back to the room closing the door behind me, quietly dismissing the woman’s warnings as just another piece of her fantasy.
When they woke me up, I thought it was an extension of a dream I had been seeing in my sleep. There were three men before me. They wore dark blue uniforms and had shining silver lapels on their shoulders. The door stood slightly ajar, and I could see that outside, the sun was bright and hot. It was when one of them, with a thin and well trimmed moustache which extended up to his lips, asked me to brush my teeth, that I realised I was awake.
On returning from the toilet, the man who had asked me to brush my teeth held out my kit-bag and inquired whether it belonged to me. I nodded my head. I knew that something was wrong, but kept my cool for I knew that there were no serious charges which they could bring up against me. I expected to be questioned on the purpose of my visit to the village and then be let off.
“Can I explain why I’m here?” I asked.
“It’s not necessary,” the man replied.
“Perhaps the woman in whose house I’m staying can intervene on my behalf,” I said.
“She has left for work. She’s a nurse working at one of our hospitals.”
“Where are you taking me?” I asked.
“Please come with us,” the man requested in a very gentle manner. When I asked him whether I could take the kit-bag along with me, he bent his body forward, and repeated that it was not necessary. I also noticed that the two men accompanying him had turned away from me. I observed that they did not have moustaches.
Outside, the streets thronged with people; men and women in colourful clothes, school children in navy blue uniforms moving about in groups, talking and laughing among themselves. On one side were cars, buses, and trucks, at a standstill, while on the other side vehicles were plying smoothly.
The man who had been doing all the talking walked ahead, while the other two followed me. They were not armed. We had a tough time crossing the road because of the crowd. They asked me to get into a car parked in front of a restaurant. Two of the men sat on either side of me in the back of the car and the man with the moustache sat in front with the driver. Throughout the journey I did not speak. Within minutes we had left the busy traffic behind us and were motoring down the countryside. On both sides of the road there were stretches and stretches of freshly sprouting wheat fields.
“Are you taking me back home,” I finally blurted out, unable to take the suspense any longer. I observed that the man on my left kept his face turned away from me. When I spoke, he turned to look at me. He must have been barely sixteen years old. His face was pale, and his body was trembling with fear. He was sweating profusely.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked. As soon as I asked this question there was a sudden and unexpected movement in front of the car. The man with the moustache had turned towards me. I saw something coming down — a short, black metallic piece. It was the man in the front seat who raised it in the air and brought it down heavily on my head. And I lost consciousness.
Later what I recollected was this — I felt something like water enter my eyes. I wonder what made me open my eyes just at the moment, because when I did, I saw, down below, a well laid out city, with streets, and rows of houses. This picture lasted in my mind for a split second — like a vision, concentrated and intense.
After that I remember finding myself on a bus. The conductor was tapping me on my shoulder, asking me where I wanted to get down. My clothes were wet and my head was bandaged. “Does it go via the university,” I whispered, feeling weak and dizzy. “It terminates there,” he replied. With great difficulty I took out a note from my purse. “I’m sorry its wet,” I mumbled, unable to talk. “It’s all right,” he said, handing me a ticket.
I don’t remember how I reached home. For a month I was under treatment. Since I had resigned my job, the bank refused to reinstate me. I got a job as a teacher in a school near our house. I teach the third standard. Occasionally when the headaches return, I take some pills and give the children surprise tests.
I haven’t told anybody of my experience at the village, not even my wife. When she, and later, the doctor asked me about the injury, I told them that while walking under a building which was under construction, an iron beam got dislodged and fell on my head.
It is fear which prevents me from revealing what happened in the village. Fear for my life. Because I’m afraid of death, and I want to live.
When I set out on my search for what I imagined to be a civilisation which would serve as a universal model for future historians, the motivation that drove me to it was not the desire to project myself as some kind of a hero. At a subconscious level I knew that I was doing my mite for humanity. But whatever the intentions, they remain submerged in that basic and naked truth, the truth that I did not want to die. And so it is that for the rest of my life I should wander on the face of this earth, cursed with silence.
Last week a neighbour visited the village. For a long while over drinks I very subtly questioned him about the village. The problem for me was to appear as normal as possible and not raise any suspicion in him. I looked closely at his facial reactions, which I felt would express his inner turmoil. But he appeared to behave normally.
When I asked him about the wall, he said that he had stayed there for about a week, and had toured the entire village, but had not seen such a construction. The probabilities are many. The wall could have been demolished. The woman, who was a nurse at the hospital, could have died. The door on which the circle was marked could have been repainted. But whatever the possibilities, I knew for certain that what I saw down below in the water that day were the only moments of truth, which keep alive the dream on which I survive.
There is one other thing that keeps me going — Father’s thermos flask. From the very first day in school, I started taking boiled water in it. My wife keeps telling me that I should throw it away and buy a new one. Initially I offered all kinds of excuses, but now when she brings up the topic, I just remain quiet and say nothing.
“The Village” by Suma Josson was first published in Katha Prize Stories Volume 3 in January 1993. The story won the Katha Award for Creative Fiction in 1993. Katha is a registered, nonprofit society devoted to enhancing the pleasures of reading.
SUMA JOSSON. Is a writer and film-maker. She has worked as a journalist and as a correspondent for PTI –TV for the western region. She has earlier published two books, Poems and Plays and A Harvest of Light, a collection of poems. She has also made a film on the riots in Bombay in December 1992 and early ’93 “Bombay’s Blood Yatra”, that attracted wide notice. She has a work of fiction, Circumferences and has recently been to the U.S. with her film on the Gujrat riots. Has also scripted and produced two feature films, including “Sari”.