The Undying Traveller

By Nirjhor Barua
This was an entry for a short story collection type book.
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Since my unsuccessful attempts to escape from the uncalled-fortress of impending doom that I brought upon myself, I became a new man. I believed in nothing, believed in no one. Love was put to sleep or at least that was the intention. Feeling betrayed by the wolf mother, who took me in her arms, who once nursed me the way she once nursed the great Romulus and Remus, who overnight transferred herself from a supposed-saviour to the greatest enemy, created a hole in me. A hole of indifference, indifference towards the world. She was once the half-goddess of the bountiful loving-care, a seductress to the lecherous of deities, a master of potions, the most knowledgeable of the gifted, the infamous and misunderstood whore of the underworld of Babylon, and most importantly—she was the protector of an unloved. Now, she was nothing as such, she was just an immortal witch amongst the living, and a dead one. She was a widow from Samarkand, who never lived long in one place, who had witnessed history unfold, who had seen prophets come and prophets go, whose late husband’s void was filled by me. I too, accepted such love out of foolishness, accepted it without complaint. I needed a place to stay, food to eat, a warm bed to sleep in. I was taken in as a young abandoned orphan who needed a home, but as years past I became a requirement of a different kind. She would come at night and sleep in my bed, covet me, while I could make no protest; I was helplessly surviving at her mercy. The utter disgust and shame soon was gone, I accepted it as fate and learned to make it a part of my life, I learned to love it, and it became educational. Years had passed and gone, while she was not getting any older and I was becoming more of a man—grown up. She held her beauty, her everlasting youth, through her secret sorcery, I thought, staying young as the day I had first seen her. She never played any of her alchemy tricks on me though, never drunk me any potions, she kept me in the clear. Other than the pleasures of the flesh, there were other lessons I had to learn from her, one of which was that—immortality was a curse. All her previous husbands or lovers were dead and she as evergreen, lived on, it had caused her much pain, a burden I wanted to share. And as soon as I realised that fact that she knew the key to live forever, I got trapped. I stepped into the trap of the lust for eternal life.

‘Why have you never given me the formula of your ever-lasting youth?’ I asked her once, while she was skinning a rat. She smirked while still skilfully separating the skin from the flesh of the rodent. ‘Is there any fountain I put my tongue in? Any spells you could perform? Or would I have to sell my soul to this Devil the Israelites keep talking about?’ I asked a series of questions again, curiosity got the best of me.

She looked up this time and put her knife on the table, after licking her fingers clean, she said, ‘devil? What devil? He does not exist. He is the figment of our imagination, a creation for our weaknesses, escape-goat. Even if he existed, he would not want your soul, he would not care about sacrifice or your appeasement, a character such as him does not suffer from vanity, vanity is for the heroes who wants to be loved’, she paused and exhaled audibly, ‘and I will not let you to be like me, you will do no such thing. I will have you take no such burden. It is for your own good I say.’ She came closer as she spoke and put her hands on my chin, caressing it, her nails slowly and painlessly digging into my face. Strangly enough, despite her activty with the dead on the table, her hands smelled like a flower—jasmine.

‘Do you not want us to stay like this for eternity?’ I retorted. I was restless, I wanted to live for hundreds of years and see everything. See the world. Or so I thought.

‘Eternity? You haven’t seen eternity boy. Eternity is when you hear rumours about a prince of the distant land in the East who sits under a tree, or hear stories about the parting of the Nile. Eternity is when you witness the library of Alexandria torn apart by a mob, or when you see the fall of the mighty Roman Empire in your lifetime. Eternity is when you get cursed by Hera for stealing her husband’s love from her.” She chuckled. “She was still kind with her punishment and did not turn me into a monster.’ She then began whispering in my ear, trying to calm me down. ‘No dear… I cannot bring you to bear such pain. Forgive me.’ A tear rolled down her face. The first time I had seen her show such character.

‘I want to… I want to. Believe me I am ready.’ I pleaded.

And she stopped digging her finger nails into face.

‘Alright then, you leave me no choice’, she said, ‘for this to work you must love me; love me with all your heart. You should want to share my burden and lighten me, with all your heart. Can you?’ her tone changed and it got me excited. My wish was finally being fulfilled.

‘Yes, with all my heart.’ I replied, hastily, holding her hand and closing my eyes. I tried digging out all the fond memories I had of her. It was not difficult; she had been the only light in my life of darkness.

‘Repeat after me’ she instructed, ‘as if it is yours to obey’.

Yes, I nodded.

‘We have been waiting to the counting of its days’, she said.

‘We have been waiting to the counting of its days’, I repeated.

‘For you to live long, this is one of its ways’

‘For I to live long, this is one of its ways’

‘This is the curse you seek and burden you must take’

‘This is the curse I seek and burden I must take’

‘You must relieve me, out of love, for my own sake’

‘I must relieve you, out of love, for your own sake’ Then we kissed. A cold gust swept through my lungs and we broke our kiss. ‘Relieve?’ I finally realised what I may have done.

‘Yes, my love, my fool, you played straight into it.’ She walked into away from me. ‘I have been waiting for this moment for centuries. Still, I never wanted to do this to you. I truely loved you, but you harkened for it, you did this to your self, you lusted for iternal life’, she said, As she walked away her body started to age, she went from being young to being old in a blink of an eye and finally crumbled into a pile of ash.

‘The mother of all Bitches!’ I realised my blunder and I that I was stuck for a very long time. All I could do was to scream and foul-mouth my way into the unending tie with the universe and its existence. Bitch.

 

********

 

My name was not important, it never stayed the same. I was Asgar the fortune-seeker for a century or two and I travelled eastwards. It was the time of a crusade, with the faiths killing each-other for a strip of land. The thoughtlessness of men over such petty reasons sickened me, so I travelled east, across the Hind Kush into the feet of the mighty mountains. I went for silk and spices and to find love. The love that I put to rest was slowly raised at my beck and call. If I was going to live forever, may as well feel the warmth of human-contact. In the delta with its flood-plains, with its fishermen, with its beauty I found myself a bride, but she did not live long, and my sons did not live long. But I lived through it. So I had to go back to where I was from. That was nowhere. I failed to relieve myself of the curse; I had truly loved my bride.

I came back again to the plains, this time not as a merchant but as Keherman the Warrior. I rode with a fierce band of horsemen. I wanted to pillage and burn, I did not know what I wanted from life, so I did as I pleased. And thus, I rode with them. With eighteen riders, we secretly entered into the city of the Senas, disguised as traders and we brought hell down with us. We callously slaughtered the ‘Saffron-army’ and ransacked the ‘fortress of Nalanda’, they offered no resistance and they had no weapons. We burned their books, their paintings, although some escaped into the mountains with their folded papers, other than that, we burned them all. We burned the images of their Idol—An image of a sitting man with a smile on his face, with a tree over him, offering him shade—wherever we found it. Our commander, a flag bearer of the faith, a man who was more to me then my leader, he was a companion. He would force me into to loving him. I could not pass on my curse onto him, he did not love me and neither did I. So I, escaped in the middle of the night, and went back to Persia.

As Shahyamir the Sufi, I entered the fabled land of Bongo again. Being a refined holy man, holy man taught in one of the best of God’s schools, I had to make magic happen, have everyone at awe. My miracle—I never aged. As a man, who never aged, I can be holy, and I was loved and revered, but if I had been a woman, I would have been dubbed a witch no doubt. Maybe I would have been cast into the waters with stones around my neck. Maybe I would have been burned alive, but I did not belong to the motherly race. I, being schooled by the famous Mevlana, the poet, poet Rumi, had become quite a poet myself. Poetry helped holy men, poetry made beautiful words, beautiful words brought in a lot of people, and a lot of people made lots of riches come in, lots of riches made everyone happy. Kings and Sultans would come at my feet, shower me with their weight in gold, wanting my divine intervention. I had the ability all their gold and million kingdoms could not buy. I would live while their skin would wrinkle, eyesight would dim down and their heart would one day stop. In this journey, I could not give away my burden to someone else, for them to have. As a holy man I was required not to love anyone, except the almighty. And the almighty was already burdened. Like me, he would live forever. So after a century or so I forged my own death, built myself a mausoleum for the devotees and I fled, fled to China.
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The silk route was my home, my livelihood for all these years and I knew it at the back of my hand. My heart longed to go back to Bengal. From China to the Island lands of the north-east I went towards and with silk worms I came back. This time I was Khan the Silk Merchant. It was quite different from how I had last seen it. The British had come at last. They had finished the last of the Nawabs. All of those who were left were merely puppets, greedy goons for a king thousands of miles away. I hated it. I could not pass on my problems to the people who were already burdened from high taxes and an insecure life. I went to the west, to Europe this time. It was safe to travel to Europe again, the last end of the mighty silk route. It had left its dark middle ages behind. Its darkness now came from the soot from factory chimneys. It, with its western civilization, was calling me.

************

Like I always did, I came back. As my destiny had pulled the strings time and again, I came back at last. I was Simon the Journalist. Being a former poet, a holy man and a trader, one who spoke several tongues from the ancient times to the modern day, languages dead and alive, I knew my way with words. The land was going through a new swing. A man, a great poet, who was as tall as the Himalayan Mountains, as loved as one’s father, had taken reins, he was being followed. And his countrymen had followed him into their most peril of journeys, and in his name they went to war. I, the undying traveller, never belonged anywhere, I had no loyalties, I forgot my parents, I forgot my birthplace, I never had a home and I had no reasons to love anything selflessly, so I tried distancing myself from the conflict. But I could not do so. I had met a lovely girl, Fatema Das—a secularly-obscure name she took in the spirit of the cause—during the early days of the war, as I was covering it, reporting it to the west. She was my guide to the country I had come after so many years. She became everything, my only weakness, the thorn in my bed of selfishness. She belonged to the side that was fighting for its independence. Her passion towards the cause had rubbed off onto me. We would roam in the jungles of Sundarban, she in her manly trousers and safari-shirt with a 303 in her arms, I, listening to her every word, as we went through the maze laying traps for the enemy. She would boast of her achievement of the number of ‘Bastards’ she had killed and would talk in pride of the things she would do in the new country. In the mangrove forest, where tigers play, life was full of fear, full of challenges. The days turned to night, and the night brought more darkness. In these times, no beast larked in the shadows to pounce on innocent humanity, but a new kind of animal roamed about, an animal that killed brutally and walked on two legs, wearing military uniform. Even in all these danger,  we had enchanted each other, she with her spirit, and I, with my words and stories of the old. I had found the kind of love, I was looking for, at last.

During the last days of the war, the area she fought in finally was rid of enemies. As we sat on the river bed, under a new flag of red, green and yellow, fluttering in the air, she says, ‘you speak of the past as if you have lived them.’

‘I have’, I state, with my sincereest of voices.

‘You funny man, you. I never thought you were one for games.’ She muses.

The sourrounding air became weighty. The moment of truth had come.

‘Do you want to live for centuries to come, to see what would happen to your new country and all?’ I ask.

She looks at me, while stroking my chin, with her left had, occasionally scratching my rough chin, she replies, ‘Why not?’[She laughs at the strangeness of the topic] ‘I would not mind. Are you not going to stay with me, if we live long, for hundreds of years?’ she asks. I had her attention. She was now imagining all the sights she could see if she lived for centuries. Her eyes gleaming.

I was silent for a while, not knowing what to say.  I was having the queerest of feelings, feelings of the old, a memory haunting me, a deja vu so heavy, it hurt. I finally mustered all my courage and spoke again, ‘if you love me, like you say you do, I want you to think of all the things you love about me. Close your eyes and repeat after me. Repeat it like as is if its an oath.’ She laughs and nods as she calms down. She finds my present oddities funny.

‘Alright man. Alright, alright, whatever, Accha accha …..’ She answers and she closes her eyes with a smile on her face.

‘We have been waiting to the counting of its days’, I say, as softly and lovingly as I can.

‘We have been waiting to the counting of its days’, she repeats and obeys my instruction.

‘For you to live long, this is one of its ways’

‘For I to live long, this is one of its ways’

‘This is the curse you seek and burden you must take’

‘This is the curse I seek and burden I must take’

‘You must relieve me, out of love, for my own sake’

‘I must relieve you, out of love, for your own sake’ Then we kiss. I felt a gust of cold chill leave my lungs and enter hers. She suddenly breaks our kiss and stares at me with suspicion. ‘Relieve?’ She did not know the meaning of all this.

‘I am sorry my love, it had to end’, I apologise. As I pass on my millennium long curse onto her, coincidently, in the Race-course Maidan, in the heart of the capital,the khaki enemy had fully surrendered; the land she had fought for was at last free. Maybe she will realise after a lot of years, that there was something wholly different about her.

I was sorry, I had lived long enough. Not a single moment of it I could bear now. Even though I had loved her, she foolishly wanted it. I had tricked her into lusting ceaseless existence.

‘In love you would want live and in love you would wish to come to an end. That, darling, is the curse.’

Fatema Das, the epitome of Bengal herself, the revolutionary, the guerrilla, the intellect, the teacher, the lover and a mother of the future, would live long, as her new born country would, she would be evergreen, ever young. Maybe her shoulders that once her rifle rested on, would one day have a factory-hammer resting on it, maybe it will carry her bag full of university books, and maybe it will carry her sleeping child, who knows. All I knew was that my time making history along the route to the delta had ended, and the time of her new found freedom had begun.

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

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