Here is an excerpt from my first novel, The Moment, Before Sleep. It's a very poetic, philosophical, abstract kind of novel...characters include the imagination of the great 16th-century Mughal king Akbar, the wondrous, and wondering spirit of the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges, and characters in the US, India, Rwanda....
Ah, to look, for God in a book!
A blind writer in a library far away—or perhaps no further than the breadth of ones breath—opened the door to his writing-room. He placed his sheaf of invisible sheets upon a table, perplexed. He’d been writing of an Indian emperor, the 16th century Mughal Akbar, who’d once called off a tiger hunt. Akbar had been as dazzled by tigers as he’d been. And one day, in a sudden fit of revulsion at the idea of killing such a noble creature, Akbar had called off the hunt. But something strange had started to happen—
A Zoroastrian holy man, a fire-worshipper, had made his appearance. Akbar claimed the fire-worshipper had visited him decades ago. Nothing was strange about this: the blind writer knew that the Mughal Emperor had often had holy men of different faiths pulled up to his room on a platform that hung right outside his bedroom window in the palace. Akbar loved discussing the mysteries of all faiths with the learned.
But what confused the blind writer was that the fire-worshipper seemed to be the same one in The Circular Ruins, a story he himself had written so many ages ago, it seemed another life. He’d had absolutely no intention to write of the fire-worshipper now. Could it be possible, that one of his characters was now writing his story? He recalled the last line of that story—written so long ago that he felt it was someone else’s words—
“With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.”
But it couldn’t be—he, the blind man, was writing this story right now.
He sighed, walking to an armchair. He was stuck in this story anyway. Perhaps sleep would bring inspiration. He lay back his head, and dreamed…
…we are all connected, each one of us a single syllable in a musical composition unbearably beautiful, horrific, wondrous. A symphony of spirits created, perhaps, by a dreaming deity? For whom the whole of time is the holiest of mysteries. And the only entry into that dreaming world is through the moment, before sleep…
1. all the while, in blessing
Ashwini wasn’t dreaming.
As she watched the dancer offer his vibrant grace-lit spirit to the audience gathered on the coast of the Arabian Sea, she found her mind moving in several different melodic directions.
All steeped within the world of dance.
From Nataraja, the great cosmic dancer who danced life into death and back again, all the while holding his right palm outward in blessing, to the Emperor Akbar, who created a sanctuary for music, philosophy, and the arts in his fortress-city whose streets she knew by heart, to a newspaper article she’d read that morning of the genocide in Rwanda. How could such impossibly beautiful dance and impossible-to-believe death spirals exist within miles of each other upon the same planet? Only a mere leap across an ocean away….
She remembered a line in a film song she’d loved, about a woman so enraptured with the wonder of the world she wanted to wrap the earth in a sari. Ashwini smiled to herself. To wrap the whole world in a sari, a sari as light as starlight whose colors were as varied as the smiles of a thousand sunrises, as the sighs of hundreds of sunsets. Really, she dreamed too much.
But she wasn’t dreaming, she was gloriously awake, still watching the dancer. What would a sari-wrapped earth be but a mere bauble for Nataraja to toss in the air as he danced and danced?
One right hand holding the drum of creation.
One left hand holding the fire of destruction.
Another left hand pointing to the demon of vicious selfishness Nataraja stood upon.
All within a ring of fire, the circle of universal energetic connection.
But Nataraja didn’t simply kill the demon.
He danced upon it with abandon, lithely with vivid life, his other right hand steady, palm facing outward,
held all the while, in blessing.
I. a magic-music box
2. a marvelous magic-carpet ride
How could he be connected to them?
Akbar stared at the box in his hands. The jeweled object was wrapped in deep red brocade.
The fire-worshipper had given it to him. A long, long, time ago, so long ago it seemed another life, the fire-worshipper had spoken to Akbar about the mysteries of his faith, and Ahura Mazda, the deity who oversaw all. Akbar, impressed with his incandescent spirit, had ordered that the sun be worshipped four times per day, at morning, noon, evening, and midnight. He’d even had 1001 names in Sanskrit collected to adore the sun, which courtiers read out loud at noon.
The fire-worshipper had surprised him last night. He’d stealthily rapped at the Emperor’s bedroom window. Akbar had opened it, hardly recognizing him. Wrinkles crinkled his sinking pockets of skin. But the insight in his eyes was as intense as ever.
He handed the box to Akbar, whispering, “In memory of our conversations, Revered Sire.”
As Akbar gazed at the box in wonder and confusion, the fire-worshipper said, “Someone will help you, at the right moment. I can’t explain more right now. But the flickering darkness of my fiery faith asks me to give you this, now.”
He slipped out of the room before Akbar could say anything more.
There was a note inside the box. Akbar’s valet read it to him:
I will come soon. This is only to prepare you.
Listen to it over and over; you will hear the language of their lives.
After all, music means nothing more than thoughts in tune with one another.
And please remember: So much of humanity shares so many similarities that time simply sparkles with a strange synchronicity.
What did any of this mean?
Who would be coming soon?
He opened the box slowly, marveling at its mirrored exterior, and once opened, at its multicolored marbled interior. A second box lay inside the first; he opened it, and gasped.
Six figures popped up on a spring—small dolls of differing colors and heights. Three were dark, two pale, and one looked to be from his own land.
What was this? He noticed a tiny crank, and began to turn it.
To his astonishment, music began playing. Who had crafted this? A gandharva? The celestial musicians who peppered the subcontinent’s stories, who even taught the boy Krishna to play the flute?
But the music was so strange. When the three dark figures twirled he heard the resonant thuds of rumbling drums. When the two pale dolls spun he heard soaring music with flutes and violins, along with music which rocked to beats he’d never heard of. When the Indian doll whirled around he heard music that was more familiar to him yet still strange, belonging without doubt to another time.
He suddenly spied a note within the second box, wrapped in purple ribbon. He unwrapped it, and handed it to his valet, who read:
If one has the imagination one can pluck the strands of another’s thought as one plucks sitar strings, understanding the notes of another’s moods.
The valet looked at him curiously. Akbar shrugged his shoulders.
What did any of this mean?
The emperor Akbar, ruler of a sixteenth-century dynasty that claimed the lands of Northern India as its own, had been seriously ill for two weeks. There was no question the king was dying; the only question was, when?
Actually there was one further question: When he died, which god would hear his last prayers?
The god of the Mughals, his illustrious forbearers bent on more conquests?
The god of the Jesuit priests, visiting from Europe, his most welcome guests?
The god of the Hindustanis, who worshipped just one, but in millions of aspects?
To which deity would the monarch mutter final confessions?
His Mughal ministers wanted to know.
His European priests wanted to know.
His Native subjects wanted to know.
But no one knew, at least not yet.
Perhaps not even Akbar, for he seemed past all knowing.
The emperor, of course, knew he was dying. His sickness licked up his strength, and external pressures exhausted him. Was his son truly the most capable to lead his empire?
He found peace only at night, or when he had moments alone. Memories of silence wafted over him, so much like the sandstorms he had witnessed once, when he had gone off to the desert, alone. His ministers had tried to stop him, but Akbar hadn’t listened. Solitude called him, in storms of silent sand, and he couldn’t resist her voice.
So he had galloped off to the desert, not knowing what to expect, only knowing he needed to be alone. And so he had stood, in fields of coarse beige, sand swirling around him, revealing silence in spirals. He had never thought he could actually see silence, but there, nestled in the absence of noise, he saw her essence, heard her presence.
He let his horse go.
Heated grains prickled his skin.
He was really alone.
But he wasn’t frightened. He had battled wild animals bare-handed, he had fought so closely with enemies that their rages had mingled, forging sabers of thought, their sharp tips smeared with the poison of opposition. He considered fear as nothing more than a phantom, like so many of his courtiers, sycophants trussed up in royal garments seeking only the favor of the king.
In any case Akbar had proven himself as an emperor, but that wasn’t enough. He still had so many questions, questions much greater in breadth than the Mughal empire, more tantalizing in depth than the waters of the world’s oceans.
He could sink here, into the sands, and although the Mughals might mourn him initially, he knew there were enough people who would scramble for his position that his presence on the throne would be reduced to absence, which would be filled in a beat of time with another body, another king.
But such thoughts didn’t lead him to take shelter in despair, or to spin into the scaly skin of a cynic; instead he took the challenge, deciding that there was so little sense in life that it had to have a greater sense. The universe couldn’t behave like an empty-headed flippant goddess, dressed in chaos and bedecked only with baubles of chance. That was too easy.
He had an idea—more of an inkling of an idea—that whatever answers he was seeking were secretive. Subtlety, that was the key. Whatever sense there was in the world was scented with subtlety, as light as the breath of that jasmine which bloomed only at night. He mulled over this, over the shyness of subtlety. Whatever the answers to his questions might be, they traveled only in silent ships, in quiet caravans.
He was looking at his feet, at the layers of sand surrounding him, visualizing quiet caravans, traveling through this desert at night. The stars would be so brilliant here…
And then he saw them.
The sands were swirling into syllables, into the curvature of Persian, the calligraphy of Arabic, the characters of languages he couldn’t even identify. He was surrounded by syllables, speech rejoicing in the silence of the sands, singing through grains muffling their sounds. Speech celebrated silence, for without silence there would be no speech.
He couldn’t be sure if he heard the syllables or just saw them, but it didn’t matter; he was entranced by each letter, each character, celebrating its own identity.
A sudden gust of wind scattered the syllables. But instead of disappearing they formed phrases, sentences he was certain were pregnant with meaning.
He longed to decipher them. But in spite of all his accomplishments, there was one feat of which the king was incapable.
He couldn’t read.
Perhaps it was due to that simple fact that Akbar had taken such an interest in the arts, had funded painters, had built a magnificent library in his city of Fathepur Sikri. Maybe because the meanings of written letters eluded him he delighted in spoken expression, inviting scholars and philosophers from India as well as from distant lands to debate in a palace designed especially for explorations undertaken within the concrete fragility of the mind.
Akbar turned in his bed. He remembered another time he’d broken through the muddled view of the mundane, when he’d felt overwhelming revulsion upon killing a tiger. He’d felt so awful at destroying such muscled magnificence whose stripes of orange, black, and white were to serve as a stepping-stone to an emperor’s throne that he buried it himself, sanctifying its death with a blessing.
But he hadn't prohibited hunting in his empire, and indeed the royal hunt the following month went on as planned.
Why remember the tiger-hunt now? Perhaps because it was the only time in his life he quietly watched the lift of life leave a body.
He listened to the music-box once more. He couldn’t decide which piece of music he liked the best. He was wondering about this when he heard a knock at his window.
The fire-worshipper, perhaps? Who else could arrive now? He had, in the past, brought priests and mystics to his room at night, to listen to the beauty of their diverse verse, but he had ceased doing that a long time ago.
He was too weak now.
So he was surprised when the knock grew louder, and more insistent. Raps on glass commanded his attention.
Irritated, he slowly left his bed, walked to the window, and opened it.
He stepped back instantly, as water started rushing inside.
Who was pouring water in through the window? He grew furious and ordered the trickster to halt his pranks immediately; the emperor had no patience with practical jokers.
But no one responded.
Perhaps they had left. But the trick had no meaning for him. It was stupid, and annoying, like the truth of a thoughtless child.
He sighed, and closed the window.
His feet were soaked.
He turned around, to walk back to his bed--he would have a servant clean the floor in the morning--when he stopped.
A young girl stood in the room, holding a pot of water at her hip.
How did she enter? Whose daughter was she?
Akbar was about to speak, when the little girl sprinkled herself with water from the pot.
And in front of his eyes, the girl transformed herself into the goddess of the Ganges, the subcontinent's most sacred river. She was wrapped in rivulets of water, sparkling with flecks of foam. Long and black, her hair was nothing more than the Nile at night. Her whole body flowed constantly; only her eyes were still, clear, colorless pools that faced him calmly.
Akbar marveled that he wasn't drowning in water at this moment. Her waters kept flowing, yet she contained them within herself.
He knew her story. A celestial river who once only flowed in the heavens, she was needed desperately on earth at a time of great strife. She agreed to descend to earth, but she was vain, and inconstant as the waters of which she was composed. She thus planned to wreak havoc upon the earth with the force of her freefall.
However, Shiva, the great celestial dancer, whose ascetic powers were as acute as his dancing, knew her plan, and laughed. Unbeknownst to the goddess, he stood underneath the heavens as she descended, and trapped her as she fell on his head. He extinguished her arrogance within the entangled masses of his own hair.
Perhaps that is why her waters were said to be sacred; not because of her celestial origins, but because of her extinguished arrogance.
Akbar had completely lost his voice; he had never experienced a vision as real as this.
He backed away, and sat down on a chair. He had no idea what he should do; her waters had washed away his speech.
In an instant, as if the goddess understood his dilemma, she transformed herself into a young girl, dressed very plainly, surrounded by a grove of stunted trees that sprung up behind her.
As soon as he saw the trees Akbar realized he knew who this girl was. She was the poor daughter of a cruel stepmother in a famous tale told through the villages. She was a cowherd, and had once saved a snake from being attacked by cruel people. As it turned out, however, the snake was really a minor god. The deva, in gratitude, told her he would grant her one wish. The girl asked for a grove of trees to shade her cattle. Impressed by her selflessness, the deva gave her a grove of trees which would follow and protect her always.
And now she had entered the room of the emperor, surrounded by her magic grove.
Although the girl wasn't as mesmerizing as the goddess, Akbar found he still couldn't speak.
The girl must have understood his plight, because as he watched, the walls of his room seemed to fall away, and the trees behind her achieved their full size.
The night was pitch black, and perfectly still. Faint moonlight illuminated the leaves.
The girl had disappeared.
Suddenly, a leaf started trembling, although no breeze blew.
Another leaf started trembling, and then another, and another. Soon the whole grove was swaying as if tossed wantonly by wind.
Except that there was no wind. The grove was being tossed violently, by voices.
Each leaf seemed to utter its own sound, flutter in its own cry.
And the cries were human.
Akbar wanted to close his ears to muffle the moans but he found himself paralyzed. Each leaf appeared to be speaking to him, in its own unique cry, in its own violated voice.
He felt as if thousands of voices were fighting for his attention, trying to claw their way out of a tomb, out of a craven creation that caused them to live although they had died, and they ripped their nails as they scratched against walls more eternal than blocks of stone, forgotten beingsburied beneath incessant poverty and incessant war: the prostitutes of the desperately poor, where the young were seen as damsels in an age of wretched disease--damsels who would fetch a price as pathetic as the princes who came to see them. Children hexed by a life in the sex trade, women dehumanized by the inhuman, they all starved from being unable to speak, wandering as aimlessly as a pharaoh's servant in his dead ruler’s tomb, living breathlessly until his last breath.
Akbar was overwhelmed, by the voices of the violated, the burdens of the unburied.
He had to close his eyes.
But he was forced to open them quickly, because the young girl reappeared, took his hand, and walked him over to the grove.
The emperor didn’t resist.
They stood in the magic grove, a collection of ancient oaks and palms, banyans and bamboo, eucalyptus and elms, and the girl closed her eyes. Akbar watched her face.
Because he didn’t take his eyes off of the girl, he didn’t notice that very quietly, a carpet of leaves had collected beneath his feet, a quilt in Persian patterns, alternating in shades of green.
So he was taken completely by surprise when the girl held onto his hand, and the carpet rose into the air.
Akbar caught his breath; he had heard of magic carpets, but had never imagined them to be real. And now, in this instant, he and this girl were flying along a crisp breeze, on a lattice of leaves.
They rose quite quickly, and the girl still held onto his hand, as if to steady him.
After a few minutes of hyperventilation, Akbar felt his breath steadying. The girl let go of his hand, and simply gestured to the airs in front of her.
They were flying through darkness, nothing more than the Nile at night, illuminated only by slight moonlight. The feeling was dizzying, as they cleared treetops and sailed underneath the sight of starlight, with nothing but the wind whispering ahead, above, beneath and behind.
He didn’t say a word, as he truly had nothing to say. All he wanted to do was absorb the world around him.
The girl said nothing either. She obviously knew exactly what she was doing, as they first left his kingdom, and then, his country.
As his eyes became used to darkness he saw much more than he first could. He saw wooded hills, dry plains, etchings of rivers as they drew themselves across the subcontinent. They floated over seas of sand, flew over deserts of ice. The temperate zones tempted, with their acres of forest and mountains of petrifying depth. The
oceans beckoned as well, although their sheer breadth of water frightened the emperor. Should he fall into it he’d be no more than a forgotten fleck of foam. He swallowed. As if he’d ever been anything more.
They crossed into lands he’d never seen, continents he’d only imagined. Seas washed upon unknown shores, and he felt the cracks in land, the cracks of rivers, were nothing more than someone’s handwriting, belonging to an anonymous author who wrote his dreams on pages of earth. The gulfs and straits, hills and mountains, all bore so many similarities to one another, and were so different from one another, that he felt as if the author kept writing and writing, his first drafts nothing more than fossils which enriched the next version.
As he saw the earth from above he marveled at its many moods. Through his voyage in wind he experienced days in sunlight and calm, and watched in horror as hurricanes heaved unsuspecting waters into a terrifying stew, as a witch would stir a bubbling brew.
And then in between there were days of gentle rain, which lifted away heat sprinkling the earth with a scent of freshness.
He felt as if the earth were entwined in fabrics, enveloped in layers upon layers of air, water, light, and cloud. It was as if the goddess of the earth couldn’t decided upon what sari to wear, and as soon as she enveloped herself in one length of cloth, another beckoned, and she simply couldn’t resist from changing. An opaque enchantress as well as a capricious temptress she mystified all those who attempted to know her, to taste of her locks of red earth, of her jewels of timid minerals, mica and quartz, which hid themselves underneath layers of land, not to sparkle too ostentatiously, content to ossify quietly.
At any given moment the earth found itself layered in her scents, sounds, and smells, so that river water tasted like cool green leaves in the morning, while fields of snow could dream of honeysuckle creeping through tropical valleys, whose yellow and orange flowers could chase ocean waves, frightened by color as they were so used to a colorless waterscape. The waters would spill onto the lands, creating lakes and rivers once more, snow would form, creating scent-absence, perhaps the only true fragrance, and at any moment, the earth, scent-suous and sleepy from the unparalleled sensitivity of the senses,
surprised itself when it ripped those very saris to shreds, quaking from misunderstood faults, lifting tsunamis in enormously elegant brushstrokes, which crashed onto coastal villages, drowning them in an absence of thought, drowning them, in so many doubts..
A stench flared up.
The stench of doubtless destruction, and rotting creation.
The goddess of the earth picked up the ragged shreds, the tears in the sari mirroring the tears in her eyes, until at last, a sari was formed from her brimming tears. She wrapped herself in it, veiling herself from head to toe in space. It was her favorite sari, her sari of space, which enabled her to fit in between arching branches and alongside words, the space of faith which permitted sentences to be spoken, letters to be written...
The space in which Akbar found himself at this moment.
He suddenly realized that he had no idea how long he had been flying on this carpet of leaves. The girl was still by him, and had said nothing during the entire flight. Had it been days? Weeks? He remembered watching the sunrise in awe; it was like watching a painting take shape on a blank canvas by itself. Since then, he had no idea how many sunsets and sunrises he had seen.
He felt the carpet descend, gradually. Was the girl taking him home? He realized that he didn’t want to leave, just yet. Wasn’t there much more to see?
The carpet stabilized at a lower altitude. He had just seen the broad outline of the earth; now he realized the girl wanted him to see the details embellishing the astonishing variety of human life.
And in an instant the carpet gathered speed, and they swooped low to the ground from where they could see cities in close-up. Akbar felt himself tremble; he had seen maps from foreign explorers, and they always entranced him as they lent enchantment to the earth with their carefully drawn coastlines. But now the map had leaped into life, and as they passed over countries he felt each land whisper its name to him, fromKhartoum to Kathmandu, Yokohama to Addis Abbaba, Shanghai to Mumbai, and the rivers whispered in their waters, the Mississippi descended into the Amazon, which swallowed the Nile, which flowed upwards and drowned the Danube, which drenched the Volga, which engulfed the Tigris, which trembled at the touch of the Yangtze, which gently slid into the Ganges...he felt the spray, from eight legendary rivers and their thousands of tributaries...
And Akbar was in awe, at foreign kingdoms he’d never see, at their inhabitants he’d never meet. Most of all he was mesmerized, by motorized motion. He’d never seen so many vehicles, from steel contraptions speeding on land to steel ships speeding through air. He found the surplus of vehicles extraordinary; where did everyone need to go every single minute of their lives?
He had no idea through which century he traveled; he had a feeling he was seeing a series of centuries at once. He saw so many wonders, from the stones of a tremendous wall, to a gigantic Buddha sitting contemplatively by the sea. He saw miniature temples, carved into rock or carved out of thatch, and mosques in deserts that sparkled in deep blue symmetry, an architectural symphony. Huge churches, the cathedrals of which his Portuguese visitors had spoken, greeted him with soaring spires and a placidity of presence. Synagogues spoke solemnly, and a gigantic temple on top of a huge mountain in a continent far away positively demanded attention.
They floated over a coastal town in ruins, at the edge of a storied sea. The town was ancient, aeons older than the emperor’s own, and had been witness to cultures overlapped by cultures. Something glittered on the ground, in the middle of the town square, so they flew in closer for a look. A mound of pebbles was heaped on the earth. Akbar shook his head and was about to turn away when he felt his skin prickle and realized that all the statues in the square were staring at him with eyeless eyes. And he realized the mound of pebbles was really a mound of stones, the precious gems that had once given these statues sight. And they now lay on the ground, the detritus of dreamers who no longer wanted to see. What had caused them such fright?
And then the carpet veered suddenly, and he found himself floating over lands sheathed in clouds, but not the gentle rain-bearing kind. They were dark, but lacked the dignity of black. Instead they glistened in a smoky sheen, a noxious green, as if the color had sought to strip itself in horror at the scenes beneath.
In a land fabled for its philosophies, marveled at for its music, and listened to for the depths of its literature, a crooked man hid beneath a crooked sign and delivered crooked commands. And miraculously, millions listened, realigning their minds to fit inside the twisted sign. And thus millions perished, in camps created from the heated stagnation, of such collective concentration. The story was repeated on nearly every inch of the earth at some time or another, although not on such a surreal scale.
Here and there, however, individuals stood up who had refused to realign their minds to suit a despot's design, their names flitting like fireflies enlivening a sluggish summer night. Akbar heard their names, strange lighted syllables which flitted through nightspace in no particular order, from Bonhoeffer to Mandela, from Suu Kyi to Gandhi, to a Roman senator unjustly imprisoned centuries ago who sought consolation from his sole remaining possession, his beloved philosophy. And there were many many more, fireflies who shied from, or were simply denied, a historical light.
Suddenly Akbar felt he would fall off his carpet. Winds had picked up, and had started screaming through his ears, syllables haunted with horrors. From Auschwitz to Bosnia, from the Pelopponese to Cambodia, from so much of Africa to such a dismal end in Hiroshima, the winds tore through him in pent-up frustration, from having witnessed such remorseless alienation. And the winds stank, as they touched daily the mire of crooked minds, as they swept through fields festering with the fallen from wars fought in lands deemed holy by all sides, to wars which changed name depending upon the whim of the age. Continents quaked, monks quit chanting, and animals chewed on their own limbs. The earth was pockmarked, with a charred sulfurous stain, the product of such disheartening disdain,
and the stain spread through one's mouth, raced down one's throat, stifling any hope of song. And yet, after what seemed aeons, after the gales exhaled, relaxed, Akbar heard the song, of a solitary monk in a burned-out church, a Gregorian plea for peace. A mountaintop monk heard him, and began his own deep-throated syllabic dance. Another voice crooned from a minaret's tear-like tower, in the plaint of desert music created from the desolate light of sandscapes. Chants from every corner of the earth joined in, to cleanse the winds that carried them, and with all that music dance couldn't help but be born,
and a flamenco dancer clapped his hands, snapped his fingers, and crushed space within his castanets as he followed the rhythms of an imaginary guitar, and he danced faster and faster, one two, one two three!
He soon realized he was in line with other dancers, ballet and Arabian, african and polynesian, who had joyfully discarded the distinctions offered by capital letters with the sweep of a hand, the dance being so much more important than anything else.
The winds lashed at Akbar once more. The vision of universal dancing life disappeared, and he was looking at wars once more, although from his distance he couldn’t perceive who was fighting whom. Borders between nations were obfuscated as centuries overlapped. Viewing the results of statecraft from his spacecraft, the emperor once more found himself at a loss for thought. And he understood why the statues had taken flight from sight. But could they then sleep?
For one of the most marvelous aspects of his magic voyage was watching humanity sleep. One woke, lived, slept, dreamed. Woke, worked, slept, dreamed. All of the unmitigated misery in the world, and all of the breathless beauty, occurred in between states of sleep.
Wars had worn out Akbar. The girl must have noticed that Akbar needed a change in scene. For all of a sudden he saw a land that bewitched him. From far away, the houses of this land looked to be arranged in perfect symmetry, following neatly aligned streets.
The colors of the houses were perfectly white, the colors of their land brilliantly green. Where there were flowers, they all sparkled, inviting him to taste of their scent. He motioned to the girl that he wanted to fly closer to that land, to smell the flowers, but she was already lowering the carpet. They came closer, and Akbar marveled at the perfect cleanliness of the place. Who was the ruler of such a city? He flew in closer, in order to smell a flower, and he reached across to a petal,
and was bitterly disappointed. There was no scent. But it was impossible—the flowers were large, their colors perfect, like everything in this land. Each color—red, yellow, green was perfectly vibrant, meticulously cultivated. The vehicles all these people drove were splendid chariots, everything was perfect. He would have loved to experience such rapid motion! And these people lived in perfect peace, and went every day from their home to their place of work, and as far as he could tell life was perfect.
How could his beloved Fathepur Sikri compare to such a place? He had an idea; he wanted an insight into this land’s imagination. After all, artistic endeavor is what Fathepur Sikri treasured.
They flew in closer.
It was strange; for such a fine city there were only a few books. They stopped in what seemed to be a library and gazed at literary works. He was puzzled by their contents. Maybe the girl let him know what types of books they were, or maybe he just sensed it, but he felt that some of those books were the old classics that had been read by rote for centuries, but the rest…were not home to stories. At least, not the stories to which he was accustomed. Sealed-in by the worst of wearied reality, none of the stories belonged to imagination. He felt as if all these people knew the answers to everything, from the path of a cloud on a far-away Friday evening, to the exact profession their children would excel in on a far-away Monday morning.
He shivered. Everyone lived inside at all times. He saw machines everywhere, in clean chrome and white metal, and it frightened him. So many watched sparkling clear screens in lascivious fascination. No one seemed able to function without their machines. And he knew, that in this land loneliness was endemic—unadulterated loneliness, which knew nothing of solitude. It attacked, silently. The anonymous assassin.
Akbar desperately wanted to leave. And immediately the carpet started rising. The girl stood stock-still, staring in front of her. She hadn’t yet said a single word.
The emperor wanted to return home. The future, if indeed that was what he had seen, frightened him.
He must have been trembling perceptibly, for the girl eased the carpet to a welcoming island, isolated from all civilization. They must have retreated in time, for there was no sign of machinery anywhere.
They didn’t land, but hovered slightly over the earth, watching the sun set. Akbar’s head hurt. One man couldn’t support the weight of an entire world.
The trees near the coast were swaying to sea-breezes, in lush syllables of longing. As if the night were whispering, only to him.
Soon it was dark.
Once more, Akbar was stunned.
For one tree stood out among all the others. Not for its height or breadth, but for its leaves.
They were glowing, in a light lapis, as if each leaf had captured a stroke of the sky before it was swallowed in darkness. The entire tree was jeweled, in that transitory blue, as branches branched off one another, swaying in a dancer's grace. Each leaf spoke what seemed to be a name, of an artist, a writer, a composer, a philosopher, a sculptor, names which came from all over the world. He hadn’t heard most of them, but all those new syllables beckoned… Kalidasa and Dostoevsky, Voltaire and Vivaldi, Saro-Wiwa and Schopenhauer, Tagore and Baudelaire …and Akbar listened to all the names for what seemed a lifetime. And there were long periods during which there were no names, but the leaves still glittered in blue, perhaps remembering all those whose names history had forgotten. Or all those who disdained fame, who simply wrote, sculpted, sang, and thought for themselves.
Why was he chosen to see such a wonder? The tree of artistry, hidden on an unknown isle on an unknown sea? What had he done to be granted this experience? Had he been put here on earth to be entrusted with such marvels, and to spread a sense of wonder to all of the people underneath his reign? It was such a tremendous task that had been conferred to him, Akbar the Great, the Emperor who had accomplished so much on his own. He had been especially picked, to spread the word, he had been chosen for a reason unknown to him, he would do all he could to fulfill his task. After all, there must be something special in him to have been given such a duty…
Akbar hadn’t noticed but the carpet had flown high in the sky, he was too preoccupied with his own exploits to have noticed how high it rose…
Suddenly he felt himself falling. The carpet had disappeared, and he fell for what seemed like days,
until he landed on his bed, with a thump.
The girl, and the trees, were gone.
What happened? Why had he fallen? Had he simply imagined everything?
It couldn’t be. He had stood in the magic grove, with that magical girl, and a carpet of leaves, of the violated voices, had formed underneath his feet…
The violated voices…. he had forgotten them. What of their truth?
Akbar was ashamed of himself. How could he have believed that he alone had claim, to true perception?
He half-closed his eyes, laying his head on a fine, silk pillow.
He hadn’t noticed that water still lay, underneath his window.
3. the distress of a veiled dancer
After an hour or so Akbar awoke, and stood upon his veranda. What an astonishing tour of the world he’d just had. Was it all due to the arrival of the music box? He’d listened to it for hours now.
He closed his eyes. The drums he assumed were African thudded in his head. He saw elephants standing, fast asleep, soundly on silver African dunes.
How he wished he could really see the deepsleeping ancient animals, marvel at how moonlight bathed them in the sanctum sanctorum (how he loved the pinpoints of skipping Latin!) of the sands.
He sighed, opening his eyes. He was about to return inside when he noticed leaves in his garden trembling. This disquieted him, as no breeze blew.
Something was wrong.
The earth was screaming.
He saw Africa once more, hearing the bracing vibrations of kettle drums. The continent haunted him. Africa entranced him with the grandeur of its simplicity—
acres of earth and hot sun, tangible rhythms of life,
palpable in its beauty and nightmares...
but now he was frightened , by the stark simplicity of its terror....killing upon killing the rivers choked on blood.
The earth cried out, but its efforts were drowned out by the mad down-strokes of axes, the deafening discharges of pistols, men deferring entirely, to the will of their weapons. The elephants must be hiding, underneath the sands,..all those unborn syllables were hiding as well..algeriarwandaburundiliberia...shifting underneath the sands, ashamed of the power of their names.
He fell to the ground, on his knees.
The killing continued, one after another.
As he felt each life leave, he felt himself falling into a void, space, deadly space, too much space, nothing between nothing, nothing playing with nothing, nothing seducing nothing, nothing killing nothing.
The terror gripped his stomach, and he cried.
He cried, an emperor’s tears, angry at the visions angry because he could do nothing angry because he himself had killed,
helpless at the thought of those he had killed,
Salty, sultry, emperor’s tears.
Was there nothing? If so, he was crying at nothing.
Finally, silence reasserted itself. Saraswati’s veena played, and detached wisps of cloud gently floated in the sky. Moonlight shone brightly, and the goddess seemed to be gently illuminating the carnage beneath. Mournful, the veena’s notes seemed created from the last burned breaths of every man and woman butchered, the last screams of every child slain. Breath into music, screams into song; the flow was seamless, Akbar thought, to enable men to feel, thereby understanding….
The king was tired. He wanted no more of the visions. He wanted light, softness, grace.
He walked to the palace pool. It was quiet at this time of night; deepas were floating on the glistening surface, their drops of light flirting with their shadows. Jasmine petals lay scattered in the still waters, their subtle scents fragrancing the emperor’s thoughts.
Breath into music, screams into song…..breath into music, screams into song….
He noticed the veena had stopped playing. Having played out the sufferings of those massacred—thereby suffering herself—Saraswati rested. She had filled the silence with her music, and now she waited, listening to the silence, listening for-
And Akbar felt a sudden rush of love for the goddess. Because, he realized, the goddess didn’t expect men to understand.
Because she didn’t understand herself.
He recalled he had experienced such terror before. Once, years ago, while he still lived in Fathepur-Sikri, he’d gone to his diwan-i-khas, the palace he built for philosophical debate, at midnight. Silently he entered the imposing hall, climbed the stairs, and took the emperor’s place, on top of the main pillar.
He had listened to so many debates here, between the best scholars in the land. They had offered hours of pleasure, scintillating with wit and heartfelt emotion, as syllables swirled in double-helix delights, each man defending the logic of his faith.
However so often men argued so adamantly about deep-seated beliefs that Akbar felt they’d forgotten all about God. All they wanted to do was be proven right, to defeat the other with the able sabers of their intellect.
Different sects of Islam argued with one another, then argued with Hindus, Buddhists, and his Christian visitors from Portugal—Jesuit priests-- who all also argued amongst themselves. One of his biographers had written, “The mullahs became very Jews and Egyptians for their hatred of each other.” Akbar believed there was truth to every religion; he’d even had the Gospel translated into Persian by skilled linguists. Yet, he felt, absolute truth eluded them all.
He slowly stood up and walked towards a window. No stars; clouds covered the sky, still dark, the blackest moment before the yawning light of a new dawn.
He stared out the window, not thinking of anything. A cool breeze blew, sweetly refreshing.
Then he heard something.
A slight jingling, then more forceful, the unmistakable tremor of dance-bells. Was one of the court dancers practicing so early?
The jingling came closer. To his surprise, it entered the quiet hall, beneath the emperor’s seat. Why would the guards allow anyone into his hall without his permission?
Before he could ask who it was, the bells started dancing. He started to demand the individual’s identity, but stopped himself.
He knew the music of the bells wouldn’t listen to him, he had to listen to her. The music was so enveloped within herself, within her own tones, and beats, lilting to her own rhythms, that he doubted she even knew he was there.
It was late, and he was tired, and so he closed his eyes and listened. While the bells entranced his senses, his closed eyes invited the visions, dancing to the bells—
horrible dances, on burning cremation grounds. Fires arched in a flamenco dancer’s precision, burning sleeping villagers in oil. The sea swept away thousands of workers toiling in a salt marsh, thousands of individuals on tropical isles, in salty waters on aSaturday morning. The earth itself joined in this mad fandango, swallowing cities whole as she shifted position on a whim, wanting to possess each of her individual dance partners absolutely. Genocide gyrated in spasmodic ballets, sashaying its way through jungles laced with twisted creepers or stormtrooping through lands frozen by thought, asphyxiated in an intellectual embrace. An insidious weapon burrowed into his beloved
Kashmir, only one of hundreds lined up against the earth; two had already flattened cities, triumphing in a mushroom cloud…
and while the destruction increased to a fever pitch, the music grew more somber, wanting to soothe. But the suffering spread exponentially, he saw individual faces from a hundred nations, tangoing with silent suffering. Death, illness, addiction all played their parts, but curiously, the most invidious suffering seemed to be minds languishing within prisons of their own limited perceptions.
The mad pirouette continued, until Akbar thought whirling violence was his whole world. But after one long insane crescendo, the bells stopped.
The jarring displacement into silence, in a single rapid heartbeat, shook Akbar. He had become so accustomed to the noise that the silence hung sickly over him.
He soon noticed the quiet hall was tinted with the soft fall of tears. He opened his eyes, wondering who could possibly be crying. Was it the dancer?
He looked downstairs, and saw a huddled form, weeping quietly in a corner. She couldn’t have been the one dancing; she looked like an old woman, wrapped tightly in veils. He descended the stairs, and asked her gently who she was. She didn’t answer, and remained huddled next to the wall, pale red in the early morning light. If he hadn’t heard her sobbing he might have thought that she was dead.
He wanted to help her and thought for a moment to call one of his guards. But he was so ensconced in the silky privacy of the moment—he must have entered even a deeper level of his solitude, that he couldn’t bear any disturbance.
He thought she might be injured, or ill, so he carefully lifted the veil from her face.
To his utter surprise he found himself faced with another veil.
Well, he didn’t keep up with the latest fashions in the harem, he supposed a woman could wear two veils although it must get dreadfully warm. And so he lifted the next veil, expecting to see sodden eyes, perhaps shut in shame.
But once again he was faced with a veil.
He lifted the next veil. And was faced with another.
He felt a slight chill; this frightened him, more than his earlier visions of dancing destruction. However, he was determined not to give into fear. Thus, exasperated, and with more than a little curiosity, he started tearing off the veils.
And as he did, faster, and faster, the sobbing quieted, and Kashmir rose before him. She led him to another land, rocky and ravished by war, where men with slit hearts prowled every nook and cranny with metal madguns, damming the rivers with their demands, hollow edicts which obstructed mountain passes and hung heavy over the land, as they destroyed unbearably ancient Buddhist deities (in the name of his religion?), and along the way, silenced the speech of women.
Akbar was shocked. He was looking at Afghanistan, which he had ruled, nearly a half-millennium into the future. He reeled, reaching for the banister, hearing a distraught dervish sputter swallowed words. For the Sufi had attempted to grace Kabul with quawalli, but in the face of such cruelty, he strangled himself as he sang.
Only the eyes of the women remained open, beautiful, liquid eyes, of deep green flecked with hazel, night-black, honey-colored with a touch of glorious mountainsky blue.
But their words had crept underground, from naked fear. Each individual word held its breath, and sank, noiselessly, into the earth.
How could women be treated like this in the future? He himself had welcomed a woman painter to his court, Nadira Banu…As Akbar reeled from the horror, of the voicelessness of the women, of their negligible presence, of speech committing suicide, the collection of veils crumpled into a heap, on the floor.
Millions of women closed their eyes, at a stroke. Millions of lids swung shut, and visions retreated into irises as black as the loss of all hope.
Numb with shock, crushed by time, he collapsed into the veils. They were wet, with women’s tears.
Softly, he brushed one against his cheek.
4. the massacre at Chitor
When Akbar awoke the next morning a servant stood waiting, with a note wrapped in a purple ribbon upon a silver salver. He looked very nervous.
Ah! Perhaps the arrival of the man who would explain the mystery of the music-box?
The servant read the note, and Akbar’s face fell. Only another quote:
A dreamer must have dreamed up a dream-dappled world. But why dream up worn ravaged souls?
He had dreamed himself in the hour or two that he had slept. He dreamed of washerwomen in Kabul hundreds of years hence, wringing their laundry over a dribbling creek, desiring to twist their throats as they twisted their clothes, at a situation offering no perceptible hope, when suddenly, he saw one of the washerwomen stand up and lick her lips. Opening her mouth slowly, taking a deep breath, she began to whistle. She whistled loudly, permitting herself unquenchable defiance.
She whistled to her fellow washerwomen, who were beating rocks with clothes, beating them until they shred, ripping holes in soulless souls, and they stopped and watched her in awe, in tearful respect, as she whistled and whistled until her cheeks blushed soft red.
The emperor smiled, applauding her in silent admiration.
The washerwoman ran out of breath, and collapsed on the ground. For the first time in ages her friends laughed. Perhaps there was hope for them? But, truly, he was puzzled—how could such injustice exist so far ahead into the future?
Something weighed on his mind--something terrible, which he could no longer neglect.
His life seemed to be regaling him with magic and mystery at its end, but his conscience now demanded he focus on once incendiary incident, an episode attributable only to an emperor’s anger in its purest form.
The massacre at Chitor.
Forty thousand people had died.
Or, rather, forty thousand civilians had died. Who didn’t need to.
The battle had been raging, on this hilltop fortress in Rajasthan. The last outpost of a proud Rajput king who wouldn’t succumb to Akbar’s rule gently. He had scorched the earth for miles around Chitor in hopes the emperor and his troops would give up the assault, for lack of food.
Akbar didn’t relent however. His troops pressed forward, their footsteps crunching on burnt earth.
And so the two sides fought. For weeks. The fighting was fierce, and the emperor lost hundreds of soldiers. Furious, his beleaguered pride stoking his rage, he battled the Rajput soldiers who dared to defy him, who dared to prevent him from laying claim to their space of earth.
Finally, one day, the fortress started smoking. The Mughals congratulated themselves.
The emperor had won.
For the smoking fortress could only mean one thing.
The old Rajput custom. They started the fires when they knew without doubt that defeat was a heartbeat away. They burned their most treasured property, those secrets wrapped in jeweled veils, perfumed in sandalwood. The treasure which they would never allow to fall into enemy hands.
They were burning their women.
The women leapt into the pyres proudly, so one said, independently, the Rajputs declared. But as the first flame singed the first inch of skin, could every one of the women declare that she was not scared, that she had entered the fire entirely of her own desire?
Looking back on the incident now, the emperor was quite sure that the fires had only elated him—after all victory was now within his grasp. He had his soldiers storm Chitor, and in his dancing rage, intoxicated on the fumes of the scorching females, he aided the Mughals in massacring the city’s terrified residents.
Normally he didn’t eliminate a city’s entire population. He usually wasn’t that cruel.
But these things happened to a statesman.
Now, in his declining days, he faced his greatest challenge yet. The act of thought which would require a purer courage than that which he had displayed in feats of physical prowess.
He could hear the terror of the peasants he had killed. He could see the screams of the scorching women.
Akbar felt himself besieged by a maelstrom of emotion. Remorse? Reconciliation? With what? The words danced in front of his eyes.
He didn’t want to escape from what he had done. He wanted to deal with it, to deal with the ensuing memories, which never vanished, reminding him of his role in the destruction of forty thousand lives. They were his only true possessions; undeniably, inalterably, his, and his alone. Closer to him than his wife, or his only surviving son. The memories would only depart when he exhaled his very last, very final, breath.
He wanted to face this, the consequences as yet concealed, of his actions.
But he didn’t know how.
5. the composition of a blind bard
Akbar listened to the music-box all afternoon. It was strange—he felt he was beginning to picture the lives of these small dolls. But was it just his imagination?
He remembered how much music he’d listened to in Fathepur-Sikri. Once more, he heard Tansen’s voice. Who had sung the megh rag, with such purity that courtiers had been astonished by the arrival of the rain-bearing clouds.
Akbar hadn’t been surprised. It was all due to the singer’s intensity, brought about by such heartfelt purity.
Akbar drew in his breath. He suddenly saw his life from another perspective. A viewpoint as significant, if not more, than the political perspective.
What more had his life been, than an homage to unanswerable questions?
He remembered an incident that had occurred once when he had been listening to Tansen. He’d been in near rapture, his quest for truth fulfilled through the visions inherent in the singer’s voice. Tansen replied, however, that the song was not of his composition. It was created by another singer, Soordas, who had gained renown not simply because of his voice and devotional fervor, but because he was blind.
Akbar had ordered his courtiers to find and bring the blind bard to his court.
They found the singer. But he wouldn’t come. He said he had no need to sing at a royal court. Wealth and power wielded no wonder for him.
Curious by this man’s refusal, and not a little surprised, the emperor decided to go and see him.
So they sat, the Mughal Emperor, leader of one of the largest empires in the world, and a small blind bard, in the singer’s small thatched hut. The blind bard performed for the emperor, unable to delight in the emperor’s expression of understated enchantment.
Akbar had left the hut, ruminating on the layers of thought, devotion, and passion, involved in the creation of one simple song. The blind bard had composed it, and gave to it his own special flavor. Tansen had sung it, rendering its beauty alive in an entirely different manner, lending it the variations of his own voice. The song stayed alive, but varied according to the singer. That fascinated him.
He was about to turn on the music-box again when a servant arrived bearing a piece of parchment wrapped in green. He said he’d found it at the foot of Akbar’s bed. Again, he seemed very nervous, almost scared. Akbar opened it with irritation, handing it to his servant to read. Why didn’t the man who would enlighten him simply appear?
As if reading his thoughts, the note said:
I will arrive when you are ready to hear what I have to say. Become familiar with the stories of these six people first. Remember: marveling at another’s thoughts results either in the vision of shared connection or in the lesion of unfathomable incomprehension.
Another cryptic message. Akbar turned on the music-box, sat down, and decided to listen further to the language of the lives of these six small dolls.
Suddenly, he noticed there was space for a seventh doll.
Who was missing?
And, more importantly, why?