‘The Inner Light’ by Murli Melwani

Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Here they beat me and want to know why I did it. They won’t believe me whenI say that the Inner Light led me to it. They laugh at the very mention of the Inner Light.

And yet in the beginning it wasn’t I who claimed that I could see it. Ever since I was a child, people said that I had this power. My father and mother believed in it too. My mother tells me that when I was two years old my father was mumbling where our buffalo could have strayed off. I’m reported to have said “Maize Hill.”  Our buffalo always sneaked off to what passed for a river in our village. But going up one of our pitiable hills where a stunted variety of maize grew was a new one. There were other such stories which testified to my special abilities. I don’t know whether they were the product of fiction of a mother’s fond heart and imagination or incidents that really happened.

But it was a fact that people came to our hut at all times to  talk about their problems. At first all they asked was if their problem could be solved or not, perhaps aware that the complexity of the adult world was beyond the grasp of a three, then a four, later a five year old.  I just had  to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, by way of a nod or a simple shake of my head. My nods and shakes must have had a high percentage of accuracy because over the years, the numbers who came to consult me continued to grow.

From my sixth year onwards, I was expected to give definite answers. And so I did.  It was strange, I never reflected on the questions that were asked, my tongue just rolled out a word or two.

“Master, my wife’s gold bangles, some one stole them.”

“Ask the man who limps.”  Everyone knew the person with a limp. A diplomatic chat with the man who limped (in our close-knit world), too direct a questioning would cause loss of face all round – opened a trail that led to the return of the stolen bangles.

I do know at what age I convinced myself that I saw everything through the prism of the Inner Light. However, I was not the one who gave my gift this name. I heard people using this term from the time I can recall. “The Inner Light guides him.” “The Inner Light gives him the words.” “How fortunate he is to have the Inner Light.” “The Inner Light works through him to ease our lives.”

Indeed life in our village was hard. Although I call it a village, we really were just a clusters of huts tacked on to the sides of a series of low dry hills. The little vegetation that grew was stunted and had a withered look. We worked as laborers on the fields around us; these belonged to landlords who lived in other, bigger villages. We could not eke out an existence here.  Most of the men went down to the plains to work on the fields of millet, maize, pulses and gram as well as the plots of sugar-cane.

What, you haven’t been there! That’s impossible! Makoria village became famous after people heard about the happening, and all sorts of people, specially policemen and people with cameras and notebooks began to flock to it. You should have seen the rush after the earrings were recovered from the goldsmith of nearby Heoni village!

How could you miss it? Get off about thirty miles from Tonk on the Tonk-Bundi freeway. Bundi is the city people from as far as America come to see the maharaja’s palace. Yes, I know Jaipur is more famous. Yes, yes, I know about the Palace on Wheels the tourists travel on.  But let us not digress. As you get off the freeway, take the unmetalled pathway through the fields. You’ll notice that they are all parched. The reason?  Not enough water in the wells for irrigation. Oh yes, for drinking? Yes, enough. Walk three miles and you will find yourself in Makoria village.

Now don’t be disappointed. I know it is small. About fifty houses in all. The paths are all uneven and sandy. You’ll find the whole village very backward. The huts are made of mud and dry grass, the roofs of thatch, bamboo and twigs. Just one primary school with three classes and fifteen pupils. The older boys go to a school in a neighboring village.

Right, let’s get back to my story. The number of visitors increased to such high numbers that there was not enough space in front of our hut to seat them. There was another inconvenience too: people came at odd hours; often they were there the whole day. As a result my parents’ time was not their own. When, for example, most people napped during the withering heat of the afternoon, my parents hovered in polite tolerance inside while I sat drowsily in front of the entrance to our house.

My parents solved the problem of space by seating me near the statue of the goddess Karuna Mata, Mother Mercy, a mile outside the village, on its very periphery.  Karuna Mata was the presiding deity of our village and of a number of villages for a few hundred miles around.  There was a lot of open space round the statue.

What, you haven’t seen the statue? Well, it’s about two feet high; it stands on an uneven stone platform close to a leafless tree, an idol of nondescript stone.  That’s our temple too; without a roof and no paved floor to sit on.  Our village has no other temple.

Around the age of fourteen, I began to have doubts as to what I was doing. How much of what I said was intuition, how much knowledge of the private histories of the people who came to me, how much was guesswork?  I asked my parents how long  I was expected to do this. Other boys of my age went to school, or what passed for a school, in the neighboring village. Those who did not go to school went with their fathers to work on the fields in the plains. Some went for months to the neighboring cities like Kota, Bundi or Tonk; a few even went to cities like Jaipur, Udaipur and Bikaner for 10 months at a time. If I found a job in one of these places, would I not, like the others, bring back colorful blouses, skirts and head cloths for my mother or yards and yards of cotton for my father’s turban? My mother said, yes, that would have given my father and her a lot of joy, but there were other considerations. She told me that all of us are born to a certain station in life and we have to perform the duties expected of us. Mine was to ease the suffering of those who came to us with hearts heavy and minds weighed down with worry.

My boredom and my questioning were short lived.  I knew that the gifts the villagers brought as tokens of their gratitude allowed my parents to live a comfortable life. The question of comfort applied to me too. My mother asked me why did I want to be a farm hand and burn my back in the merciless sun or work as a grease-coated mechanic in some garage in Bundi or Tonk or Kota when goods and money came in without lifting a finger?

“Your fame has spread to other villages and towns. Perform your dharma.”  Yes, occasionally people from Jaipur and Bikaner came driving miles on dune-lined dusty roads, concealing their city dweller’s pride and superciliousness to sit cross legged on our parched brown earth.

By the time I was eighteen, I set up visiting hours: seven to ten in the morning, and four to seven in the evening. I wish you had heard me playing the sage! What an impressive figure I cut! There I would be sitting on a low platform in front of the statute of  Karuna  Mata surrounded by semi-circle upon semi-circle of villagers. A panorama of turbans of all colors, bright orange, red, blue, magenta, white, the colors identifying preference or caste. Turbans wrapped coil upon coil, so outsized as to drown the man’s face, that looked like sunburnt toys under the turban’s plume of color.

Women on one side or at the back, their red, orange or violet head cloths drawn over their faces as a mark of respect to the presence of their mustachioed men. With faces hidden, the women looked like igloos of screaming colors. And beyond them stood groups of children, disheveled hair, curious, whispering to each other, giggling occasionally. For them the scene in front of them was a spectacle, like the skits of Gods and Goddesses the school teacher put up during the festival of Ram Navami.

The crowd would arrive before I did. When I made my entrance they folded their hands in a respectful namaste. I would take a few minutes to settle down. I would run my eyes over my audience and begin with a little banter. I would ask them what they thought about preparations for the Pushkar Fair and other news of the outside world that had trickled in the day before. There would be respectful smiles but no attempt at familiarity. I would be silent for a few minutes. This was a signal for them to begin asking me questions. One by one the seated adults would tell me their problems. Someone had lost a pouch of coins. Where could he find it? I would ask him about his movements on the day of the loss, hear his answer, stroke my chin thoughtfully or look absently at the sky,  then suggest two or three likely places.

Another would say, “My wife is with stomach. Tell us, will it be a boy or a girl.” Telling them that the chances were fifty-fifty would not appeal to their sense of humor. I had to give a definite answer.

A third: “There is great pain in my stomach. What should I do, Master?” In such cases I recommended that he fast for two days and repeat the name of Karuna Mata twenty times a day. You see, I knew the cause of their stomach ailments: it was the infernal gram they ate; and they ate it unboiled. My suggestions almost always worked. Even if they didn’t, no one had the courage to tell me so, so grave was my demeanor and so commanding my voice. Confident of my standing among them, I sometimes scolded the ignorant fools.

Yes, I came to regard them as such. In return they called me Master. But I was “Master” only when I sat at the foot of the goddess. At other times they ignored me. Don’t be puzzled by this attitude. In our village everyone is conscious of caste. Most of the people in our village do not belong to the higher castes. There are a number of sub castes: there are people of various warrior classes, there are carpenters, there are cobblers and there are a few aborigines. No one talks much about caste but everyone knows who is higher than whom.  In my case they would take my advice as a man with special powers but ignore me socially. I was even denied the privileges of an ignorant priest. They would never ask me to perform even the lowly rites like consecrating a new hut or presiding over the first ceremonial tonsuring of a child, leave alone rites connected with a birth, a marriage, or death

What’s that? No, nobody carries swords. We are not so backward, ha, ha. But I’ll come to that particular sword later.

As I said, this feeling of hierarchy was always there. Here were these fools coming to me for advice, yet believing themselves my superiors because of some imaginary ancestral blood. Such injustice!  These thoughts festered in me.

One evening I became so angry that I shouted at them:

“Go away you owls. Why must you bother me with your stupid questions? I’ll have nothing to do with you anymore.”

They were stunned by my outburst but said nothing. They departed like sheep.

The next morning I went to my customary place. The scolding had not deterred them. My annoyance had not died down though. I sat silently. So did they. No one asked any questions.

Day after day I would go to the appointed place. I lived with my anger. I did not understand why these feelings should last so long. The people continued to come. The ritual of silence was enacted day after day.

I heard whispers.  People said that the Goddess had possessed me. Gods and goddesses always chose people with powers to work their will. Who better for the Goddess to favor than the one with the Inner Light?  That is how they sought to explain my strange behavior.

“No Goddess has possessed me. Go away, go away!”

Around this time a strange desire filled me. I began to steal. It gave me much pleasure. The planning, waiting, watching, followed by swift action and a speedy escape. It didn’t matter what I stole. The action became an end in itself. It was usually something petty. A villager’s turban or someone’s plough. A cobbler’s hammer or a carpenter’s saw. Some of these I threw in the nullah, the sluggish steam on the other side of the village, some I took home, some I left near the image of Karuna Mata for the owners to reclaim.

I think these people knew that I was the one responsible for the missing items because they began to look at me with puzzled, frightened looks. Children fled even when I called out to them in gentle soothing tones.

One evening I shouted: “You come to me for solace. You say the Goddess has possessed me, has entered my body. Yet is this the way to treat your Goddess? An open platform. Where is the roof?  The sky?  What sort of a floor do the people have to sit on? The dry cracked earth?  Where are the walls? Haven’t you seen the temples in other villages? Why don’t you make one like that for   Karuna Mata?”

Flailing my arms in excitement, I raved:  “Build a temple for Karuna Mata.  Collect money.   Each person must give, must give what he can.”

My words were not premeditated. My demand came on the spur of the moment.  After that outburst, I could think of nothing else. My heart burned with the desire to build a temple for Karuna Mata.

I thought about it every hour of the day. If I jerked out of sleep suddenly in the middle of the night, the desire hung around me, like the snake coiled round God Shiva’s neck. The Inner Light became a reality for me. I began to see it. There right behind my eyes, like a flame of white milk, quivering with some hidden pulse.

My pilfering now acquired a purpose. I stored whatever I stole. I traveled often to the nearby town of Bundi to sell what I stole. A number of times I lifted cattle. In this way I collected a fair amount of money.

Attendance at my court began to drop. Fewer and fewer people came to see me. The gifts of food and money became few and far between. I had time to roam the dirt paths of the village.

“Where is the money for the temple? Why haven’t you collected money for the temple?” I shouted these words as I passed their shabby dwellings. I even took to stopping passers-by and embarrassing them.

I truly believed that one day we would build the temple. The quivering flame of milk which I now constantly carried in my head told me that people were collecting money without telling me. I led myself to believe that they wanted to surprise me with a huge sack of coins and notes. I refused to believe it when someone told me that they were too poor to spare anything for the Goddess.

There were times when I would feel the white flame balloon out and fill my whole body, making my skin feel a mere casing. Many thoughts came to me when I was caught up in its brightness:  a famine would strike us or a dust storm of immense proportions sweep away our huts or an epidemic kill everyone if we did not build the temple. I shared these predictions with the people. Instead of being alarmed they turned stony faces towards me.

To ease the agitation in my body, I bought a string of beads and began to tell them sitting in the shadow of the Karuna Mata. By now hardly anybody came to consult me. Note the irony: when I hadn’t seen the Inner Light people believed that I had. Now they seemed to doubt my word even though I told them hundreds of times that I lived with it. I doted on it when it shrank and burned like the wick of a candle. I grew agitated when it expanded and cocooned me.

Yet I was not without hope:  I believed that if the people didn’t collect the money, the Goddess herself would show me the way to build the temple.

And in time she did exactly that.

This thought came unbidden, suddenly: dig five steps to the left of the image and you will find hidden treasure. Diamonds, gold coins, rubies, gems. The question to which no answer came no matter how much I concentrated on it: five steps in which direction?

The question troubled me for a few days. Then without being aware of how I came upon it, I knew the means I should adopt to find the answer: sprinkle human blood on a fire before the image and count five steps in the direction in which the flame spurted. Only the Inner Light could have accessed this information for me.

Human offering consecrated mighty undertakings in ancient Rajasthan. This tradition is no longer observed. But what is to stop us from reviving the practices honored by our forefathers?

On the very day I was given this solution, I remembered that many  years back  Malalia Jat of  our village and  Bishu  Chamar of  Virgram  Village had asked  for permission to dig round the image for hidden treasure.

They narrated a story that had come down in Mahalia Jat’s family. One of his ancestors, a mercenary in the army of Adil Shah, ruler of the then principality of Bijapur, buried a sack full of loot on his return from a punitive expedition against another prince fiefdom. Rather than share the wealth with his joint family, the ancestor took the secret of the location to the other world with himself.  This memory provided the proof I needed. Here was the intuition of the Inner Light collaborated by a thought in two human minds.

Everything flowed smoothly after that. The Inner Light itself planned my modus operandi.  I decided first to ask Malalia Jat and Bishu Chamar whether they were still interested in looking for the treasure. I planned to give both a small share of the booty.  In one of my trances, when the Inner Light was the size of a sapling inside my body, I was told to perform the deed on the festival of Holi which was not too far off. I thought this a happy choice because people celebrated the arrival of spring by throwing colored powder and colored water on each other. The color formed such a natural camouflage that few people recognized each other. Add to that the fact that on the day of Holi, people start drinking their strong country brews from early in the morning.

The steps – what we would do that day – outlined themselves quickly. We would take the ‘Chosen One’ to an old   disused irrigation well, a mile on the other side of the village. This area was quiet. The well was surrounded by fields on three sides and the dyke over on the apology of a river on the fourth. Few people passed this way at any time of the day.

***

Holi came. Ah! Holi. The colored powders symbolize the visual beauty of spring, the many hues of renewal in nature, seasons and man. My mood was as light as the colors around me were bright. The colored water people throw on each other on Holi represent abundance, the life-giving qualities of water. My action would bring about a renewal of a different sort; it would be the trigger for prosperity and abundance for our village and the villages around ours.

The colour-smeared faces and clothes became indistinguishable masks, and nobody could recognize anybody else. Shortly after noon when the sun was strong and the effect of drink high, I began to move and talk with an old man, Shivnath Khati.

He was black, very tall, with long white bushy mustaches. He wore a loose turban and his ears were pieced with a pair of gold earrings. He was a goldsmith by profession. I remember how he swayed on his stilt-like legs as I led him towards the well.

Malalia Jat and Bishu Chamar were waiting, exactly twenty one steps from the well as the Inner Light had indicated. Near their feet was a heap of cloth. I knew what was concealed under it – the sword Malalia Jat had borrowed from Bhim Lal Daroga, the retired policeman, and an empty bottle. I began to tremble.  At last my dream would be realized; the temple I had thought about, talked about, dreamed about. The temple! The temple! At last, at last!

We threw Shivnath Khatri’s body in the well. Bishu Chamar burnt green gram on the blood-stained spots on the ground in order to destroy all evidence.  Malalia Jat and I flung our weapons over the dyke, and the three of us ran to the statue of Karuna Mata with the bottle. We lit a fire; I focused on the Inner Light and sprinkled the contents of the bottles on the flames. The flames subsided, then leapt. They leapt to the left. All of us counted five steps to the left.

We began to dig frantically. We were tired, the day had been a hard one, and we took turns digging. Three feet deep, and still no sign of the treasure. Five feet, no luck. We dug to the right, we dug to the north, we dug to the east, we dug at random all round. We almost dug a circle round the statue.

They left, both of them, angry, disgusted, cursing. I sat alone. The fire was dead, the wood had become cinders. I wept. Wouldn’t my dream come true? I had tried so hard. What more could I do, what more could I do, I cried before the Inner Light. Tears of frustration.

Then it all began to come out. First Shivnath Khati’s bloated body surfaced. Then his earrings; Bishu Chamar had sold to a goldsmith in Heoni Village. Finally, the sword. The last discovery brought an avalanche of people.

My jailors tell me that the people of Makoria village are planning to atone for what they call the sin of a mad man. Otherwise, they fear, a catastrophe will befall the village. But I know the real reason. They are sorry that they did not listen to me and refused to build the temple. Who after all predicted the catastrophe?  Did I not tell them that famine would strike us or a dust storm of immense proportions sweep away our huts or an epidemic would kill everyone?

Here they beat me and want to know why I did it. They won’t believe me when

I say that the Inner Light led me to do it. They laugh at the very mention of the Inner Light.

***

Author’s Bio: Murli Melwani’s short stories have been published in magazines in various countries. A few have been published in anthologies, including Stories from Asia: Major Writers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (Longman Imprint Books, U.K), Lotus Leaves (Macmillian,India),Call it a Day (Thought Publications) and The First Writers Workshop. He is the author of a collection of short stories: Stories of a Salesman, Writers Workshop 1967 (a second edition appeared in 1979) and a play in Three Acts. Deep Roots, Writers Workshop 1973. His book of criticism, Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: An Historical and a Critical Survey was published in 2009 to favorable reviews. http://indoenglishstories.blogspot.com. Murli Melwani is a U.S citizen; he lives in Plano, TX, U.S.A, and is an occasional contributor to The Dallas Morning News. The Inner Light has been published before at- http://www.marcopoloartsmag.com/The-Inner-Light.

Glossary:

Nullah– a narrow, sluggish steam

Ram Navami – A festival that commemorates the birth of Lord Rama, hero of the Indian epic: The Ramayana

Holi celebrates the arrival of spring, of the earth rejuvenating itself. Hindus celebrate this festival by sprinkling colored powder and water on each other, symbolically replicating the colours that adorn nature during this season.

 

Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)

 

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