Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 123 in June, 2010.
‘All will grow dark again.’
SOMEWHERE BEHIND THE ELEVATED WATER TANK is the trail that leads into the forest. The iron mesh has an opening there, like a wound that hasn’t been allowed to heal, and you can slip past it to the other side without any discomfort. The locals who work at the institute prefer this shorter course to return home every evening; part of the way they leave the trail to cleave the wilds, descending into the bowl of the valley through routes that remain hidden to the untrained eye, routes as many as rivulets in the rain, routes like hieroglyphs that can only be traced if one learns to read the symbols, to touch and to look closely: the impress on a patch of grass, the carelessly crushed cigarette butt, the broken twig, the startled call of a bird in flight.
At about nine thousand feet above the sea, this is pine country. Leaving the stinking dump that Simla has become – a dump through which the grandeur of the Raj rises like smoke here and there, not just vertically through space, but horizontally, too, along the axis of time, moving from a subdued and painful past towards a cataclysmic future – and travelling for an hour on the road that spirals higher and higher, you come into these hills that have not yet been laid waste under the heavy tread of progress. Here, deep in the pines and deodars, tall and dark and indistinguishable at a distance from one another, magic survives and magical events have a chance to occur.
From the guest quarters of this institute where I temporarily reside, it is barely a fifty-step walk up the incline to the water tank which stands on a high wrought-iron structure. Around it there is some flat space to move about and enjoy the vista that opens up between the trees; this being the highest point on the campus, and nearly the highest on the hill itself. At dawn, before the smoke and haze has obliterated the view, one can see the snowy peaks, blue, pink, and orange at once, that girdle the world’s edges.
Yet by noon there is little solitude here, so one ventures past the iron mesh in search of it, and the mudpath mercifully takes him where he belongs. First it ascends, then curves, and later begins to descend, only to flatten and meander under the canopy of branches. To either side the forest slopes downwards, and, intermittently, one can glimpse the road that clasps the hill like a snake, hundreds of feet below. In time the trail forks; one part dropping slightly, skirts along the hill and at half a mile’s walk ends at the spa resort; the other rises to its crest where an abandoned water pumping station awaits the solitude-seeker.
Upon being informed of the ‘strawberry trail’, I decided to explore it, and thought I should take at least one meal at the resort before my money, whatever little I had of it, ran out. So I set forth one morning soon after my arrival, and in barely a half hour could see the cone like, slate-blue roofs of the resort rising over the trees. Suddenly the road bent sharply to the left, and the view was lost behind the hill. Now the road was entirely under its shadow and the pines acquired a blackish hue; but above the sky was high and clear and dazzling, all of it making a very pretty picture.
Unlike in life, mountains always propel me to choose the course that moves upwards. Thus I instinctively selected the narrow path rising past young twisted pines and shrubs whose names I did not know, when it was apparent that the wider, flatter, oft-trodden road I had left behind was the correct way. But as in life so in the hills there is compensation for the drifter.
The pumping station was in a state of disrepair, and yet there was something striking about it. I went around in circles, unable to pinpoint it. On one side was a line of ancient trees, interspersed with a few young poplars. Here, I sat down and was suddenly tired, not just by the slight trek, but with the burden of my choices that lay heavy on me, and were now turning into an almost physical sensation of pain. Every story demands some insight into the life of its principal characters, the scorn of post-modernists notwithstanding; and I think one cannot ask for a quieter setting than in which I found myself to recall past events.
Floating in and out of the courts of Delhi, I had reached the point in my life from where I could simply stare at myself, ten, twenty, thirty years into the future: a Dantean vision that left me trembling the first time. At twenty six, with much difficulty and late night hardships, I had written a novel whose publication I had part financed upon it being turned down by every publisher and agent of any consequence. Aside from winning a small prize and a handful of ardent readers, it went unnoticed. As was also apparent, it made me little money. And yet there was a singular result: I started corresponding with J.C., the high priest of English letters, though not as much a priest as a monk. The legend of how fiercely he guarded his privacy refused to die; indeed the talk resurfaced each time he failed to appear to collect a prominent international prize (even the Nobel was not an exception). Obviously, I did not know his whereabouts, so I sent a copy of my novel to his agent in London. To my surprise, I received a brief remark about the book’s merit inside of a month from some obscure town in Australia. I was elated. I wrote a letter to his agent’s attention, and in response received a personally autographed copy of one of his novels. At last there came a short letter in longhand, where he told me, that I would write many good books and that I should never worry about criticism, for I was already past it. Kind of him to have written that, but criticism was the least of my worries then, and counts for nothing now that I am amid this solitary beauty.
Three months after my twenty eighth birthday, therefore, I departed from the city. I had not left much behind; whatever few relationships I had cherished were already on a downward spiral. A friend of my father very generously arranged for a month’s stay at the institute before I found myself another accommodation.
An almost unbearable cawing filled the air. I awoke to find a raven, its black plumage glossy in the noon light, perched on the tap which jutted out from the side of the pumping station, watching me. The cool draught had put me to sleep, and I drank all the water I had with me to collect my bearings. Every once in a while, there was the sound of a lorry passing on the road below or maybe it was just the wind swaying the pines. Later, sitting very nearly on the roof of the world, I had an expensive meal in the open and drank a copious quantity of wine, returning light in the pocket, but feeling all the better for it.
It’s three weeks since my arrival; I have made several trips to the pumping station, and some even to the resort. For hours I read or lie under the trees gazing at the sky, where at times I can detect a few old faces – always happy faces – in the shapes of clouds. The forest has its own music, clear, simple, and fluid; it glides over you like a stream in which you have fallen with joyous abandon. Choices, however, remain. And time.
The sky is a riot of stars. I sip my whiskey and let it trickle down my throat, absorbing its warmth. The wind is sharp and chilly and makes me yearn for the fiery sky; it flows over the hillside and the giant trees tremble in it, a roar erupts that drowns every other sound. Yet before the wind has risen again, I can hear very faintly the notes of a flute.
The notes grow prominent; I realize with a slight jolt that I am already in the forest, lured by the melody. At first the notes are spaced out like droplets, but soon they merge and rise into a river of hope and melancholy. Unbeknown to me, I have made the choice. Now all that remains is to walk the path to its end. Fortunately, the moonshine filters through the overhanging branches, and I have followed this path many times in the day. Still I cannot make out at once when I hit the fork. The music is coming not from above, but from the side of the hill, from the direction of the resort.
The trail stretches endlessly ahead. Even after half an hour, I am no closer to my destination. Either time has slowed down or I have somehow lost my way. I am deep in the forest; here the moonshine does not reach me, but countless tiny eyes follow my steps in the dark. The music has stopped, too, it occurs to me. Then the moon tears away from a cloud, and I see at last the familiar green wooden gate. Beyond it, however, I see nothing. This is when I realize I am in a dream, mine or another’s I can’t tell.
A glade. Pale clouds of mist roll across it in files, while above sparks of an exploding universe emphasize the dense silhouettes of trees that make its circumference – how calm they appear from a distance. A vague smell of burnt wood rests on the air, and I walk in its direction. Presently I can see a cottage in the distance, streaks of smoke are coming off its chimney; a few old cedars close the view from one end. Suddenly I am standing at its door (on each side a paper lantern produces a velvety glow), about to knock. Hair rise on my arms and the back of my neck, and I know I am going to meet a ghost from the past.
I knock twice and wait. After a time, I knock again. I hear a lumbering, approaching step. The door creaks, and what I see – or cannot see at first – is a curious blue light in which I do not instantly recognize the face of J.C. He says nothing, only phlegmatically stands aside for me to enter. Most of the room is in shadow; gradually my eyes adjust to the light coming from the window and from the embers in the grate. Under the window, there is a round table with two chairs. In the funnel of light, I see a chessboard on which only five pieces remain, though clearly this is not a game in progress, for both the kings are missing from the board. The board itself is placed diagonally, such that a corner points at the player. At its centre stands a white queen, bishops and knights surrounding her in a rhombus-like formation. For some strange reason, I silently start burdening them with names: ‘the black bishop – Borges; the white knight – Joyce; the black knight – Faulkner; the white bishop . . .’
‘Beckett,’ his voice down to a whisper reaches me. By the time I turn, he has settled in one of the chairs.
‘Beckett,’ I repeat, hearing my voice for the first time and taking the empty chair. His face, silhouetted against the blue light, appears to be young and timeless. ‘And the queen?’ I ask.
‘. . . isn’t the queen, of course. Just like this isn’t chess.’
‘Who’s she, then? The Muse,’ I offer. ‘And this is the chequered world of literature, of joy and despair chasing each other.’
‘Chess is a proof that we live in a world of symbols, a world which we both pinch and populate.’
‘What are books, then,’ I enquire.
‘What they’ve always been, rivers, stars, galaxies.’ J.C. has moved deeper into his chair, and his lean frame is completely in dark. He is his voice alone, though I can’t tell if this voice belongs to him, for I haven’t heard it before. ‘What do you think music is?’
‘A bridge,’ I say instinctively. ‘From one void to the next.’ I have a vague feeling that he is smiling. I am enjoying the game now, and I go on: ‘What is poverty a symbol of?’
‘The avarice of the rich,’ the voice answers. With horror I understand that I am losing my way in a labyrinth of symbols, where everything is a symbol for everything else, a web that may hold me prisoner forever. Suddenly, on an inspiration, I ask: ‘what does the calm ironic smile of a child symbolize?’
My voice echoes around me. The chair opposite me is empty. But I already know the answer. ‘Truth,’ I say softly to myself.
The word weighs me down; gives me vertigo. Light begins to fade from the room and return to the sky, and the room begins to spin, and it feels like I am fast falling into a bottomless pit of darkness.