Around last month, I got a couple of e-mails asking me to put up some more excerpts from the supposedly in-progress book that I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. The reason I delayed this was because I felt everything was just so scattered- tiny little pieces of something floating around missing a form. But tonight as I was reading this particular chapter, I thought, oh well..magic doesn’t need a form now, does it? Here’s another chapter guys. Dig in.
* The Magician who was buried alive *
There was a soul. It glowed in apprehension of things to come, spitting tiny emoticons into the eyes.There was a heart. It beat itself silly for the flutter of eyelashes and strawberry lips. There was a brain. It thought and thought. And then there were none.
She was gone. Every time the hot water touched my skin; I felt a tingling sensation of loss, like little specks of my soul sizzling into the steam. A hot shower always gave me temporary dementia. I couldn’t recall names or faces, only sensations. There was no Ms. Z anymore, no tiger and no girl with the golden locks. Where was my father? My mother? The caravan of stooping servants? There was no home either. Where was I from anyway? I remembered a temple somewhere on a steep hill where little puppies followed me till the very top and then watched as I laid down in front of my black god.
Who was that deity? What was the trishul for? What was the serpent doing on his neck? Did it consume my memories?
I turned off the shower and watched the water trickle and bubble on the floor. Drop by drop it moved though the tiny foams and lather inside the drain head. I wondered if the small hilly town was on the other side. I dived in.
Bells were ringing, chimes and chants could be heard if you strained your ears really hard. And the temple could be seen at the pinnacle of a thousand steps. A red flag flowing on top of a triangle. My mother was there, but in shadows. Now and then I tried to look up to the thin, frail figure wobbling up the broken rocks, but I couldn’t see her face. Soon we were halfway there, marked by a simple but effective sign -“Keep Walking. He is near”. The cold breeze was stronger; the ringing of the bells was getting louder now. I wanted to turn back and see how high up we really were, but it always made me dizzy. So I clutched on the soft fur of the black puppy trotting behind me. Bhoot (as I called him) was accompanied by six of his minuscule siblings, brown balls of fur, tails wagging aggressively in hope for some treats. But my mother was in no mood to stop and oblige. In the entire town, there was one government school, a bank, a railway station and a lively market that sold everything from woollen shawls to grumpy cows. But most certainly, this ruined temple was the star attraction of this forgotten place and every Tuesday evening I would accompany my mother to the very top, to ring the gigantic iron bell and to eat the delicious halwa that was generously poured into my tiny hands. Bhoot groaned loudly as we reached the top and I left his fur to run to the temple entrance. There were about fifty people seated on the doorway, beneath the bell, and the priest was chanting mantras while a tiny bell rang furiously in his hands. I didn’t know the words or the meaning but I usually moved my lips and uttered gibberish when present in the aarti. This time however, I thought against it as it was a special annual pooja to appease the snake god. The priest’s face was smeared with ash freshly brought in from the nearby graveyard, and a snake solemnly rested near a bowl of milk at his feet. I was both, scared and intrigued, with cobras. Many a time, I’d lifted up a stone in my backyard to see the serpent dashing across or seen my resident mongoose shred apart his double mouthed cousin, but was always warned by mother not to get any closer.
“Snakes reflect your own demons, son, deal with them from a distance. You get too close, and you may never get away.”
But I always did. I watched them from the branches of the mango tree in my courtyard, as they wound themselves to a nearby branch or gobbled up an unsuspecting rat.
The priest was shaking uncontrollably now and taking names of men seated for the aarti. One by one, they came and took the holy water along with his blessings. Sometimes, before giving the prasad, he would slap a man across his ears and shout out expletives. The man would then proceed to ask for forgiveness and move on to bow in front of the snake.
“Will he take my name, too?” I asked mother in a hushed tone. I was not afraid of the snake, but slaps were not my idea of a fun day.
“No, of course not. You’re a child, not a man yet.” She said smiling. Unconvinced and a little insulted by her reply, I slipped out and ran to the back of the temple where no one could see me. Bhoot rolled in the damp grass behind me, right at the edge of the steep drop. I pushed him away from the edge and he whimpered in protest. Quite a daredevil, bhoot was. I pressed my ears against the wall, right behind where the black statue of the deity with the giant trishul rested. The priest was screaming out my name.. I turned to bhoot in panic and he gnawed at my slippers in consolation, pulling me to the edge. He was trying to climb down and he wanted me to take the plunge too. I looked down, one steep rock, a little terrain and then a terrific drop of about a hundred feet. My head circled as I gave it a thought. Suddenly, the large iron bell started booming and shouts of my name grew more urgent. I took bhoot in my arms and jumped down. I hid under a depression in the algae-ridden rock. There seemed to be a hole big enough for both of us there. Bhoot crawled out of my arms into the darkness and I followed him on all fours into the damp cavern.
There was complete, pitch black darkness. As I crawled into the tiny space it opened up, downwards, where tiny bits of lights glowed now and then. Fireflies? I could hear bhoot trying to whack them with his paws. I climbed down, manoeuvring through pieces of jagged, wet rocks. Soon enough, the cavern widened with neatly cut stones and enough headspace for us to stand. I cleared some stones and a tiny bit of sunlight crept in through, lighting up the area. Bhoot was munching on some insect he’d managed to catch. I noticed we were both sitting on some window of sorts, an iron doorway perhaps, with rusting circular handles. Whenever we moved, it uttered an echoing, thumping sound, as if hollow. I moved to a little tiny edge and pulled the handle. With some effort and a lot of creaking it gave way and slid across slowly. A burst of air filled the room with a peculiar stench. Bhoot whimpered and hid behind my legs. To my horror, a man was sleeping inside. Dressed in a magician’s costume, with a black hat and a shining tuxedo complete with a cane, he seemed to be snoring away to glory. Bhoot uttered short, aggressive growls but stopped, as his arms slowly started moving. I let out a tiny cry of desperation and ran back to the opening, but it was too steep to climb back for a ten year old. I jumped with all my might to clutch the top but fell down and bruised my elbow.
“Where do you think you’re going, young man? “ A loud booming voice rocked the tiny cavern triggering bhoot’s growls to a series of loud whimpers.
The magician stretched to its full glory, his cape flowing back, his tiny moustache curling up in anger.
“Well, if you go out from that side, you’re going to roll down a hundred feet and break your skull. It’s a steep drop, son.” He announced, brushing off dirt from his red collar. I looked at him in confusion.
“You must enter my grave; there is a narrow tunnel that opens up right into the ramlila maidan. That’s where I enter and exit from. It’s safe and discreet.”
He picked up the whining bhoot and handed him to me. I stepped away from him and his glowing cane.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Ghutur, the magician who was buried alive on Dusshera. You do remember me, child. I saw you clapping when I did my vanishing cow trick.”
“Oh. Wow. Oh. You’re..the magician?” I said, smacking my head. It made sense now. People used to come all the way from Varanasi to see his fabled show in our small town. Every year, in Dusshera he was buried alive for fifteen days, after which on the eve of Diwali, the festival of lights, he would rise from the ground dressed as Lord Rama and burn the effigy of Ravana with his fire arrows.
“That’s right.” He said smiling.
“I’m scared. The priest was chanting my name and I have a feeling my mother will be very angry.” I muttered shaking his outstretched hand.
“Well, child, do you want to go back?”
“Right after I show you a magic trick.” He said smearing some mud from the ground to his face. “Now, child, do you believe in magic?” he asked, his moustache curling up with enthusiasm and his eyes shining like fireflies.
“Yes, I do.” I said, clutching bhoot tightly.
“Very well, then, close your eyes, count up to three and open them again.”
I closed my eyes, counted up to two and opened them again.
The water sizzled warmly on my beard and trickled to my feet. I took my towel from my shoulders and buried my face in it. I would rise in a while, in fifteen days, with fire arrows in my spirit and magic in my soul.