Poetry and Fiction - Oh God!
by Parveen Chopra
It was the kind of door that you'd pass by without giving it a second glance. Years, maybe centuries, of sun and wind and rain had pounded it into an indeterminate color and shape. The old, ramshackle house it opened into didn't give any reason to passersby to stop and take notice.
hey walked past the secluded, uninhabited house with the indistinct door every day, day after day, at dawn and at dusk, on their way to work and on their tired way back. In comparison, the alive, verdant paths the people routinely treaded were far more enticing.
Their lack of interest in the house was strange, especially since a local myth had it that once at the exact spot there had been a huge hole, dark and awesome. Some sketches had survived inside a nearby cave showing the black hole cutting loose storms and snakes on the frightened populace, and unleashing bolts of lightning that shook the earth.
Generations rolled by. Their grownup children now accompanied men and women to work. One morning, one of the girls noticed some faint but unmistakable lines on the door and pointed it out to her friends. The freshly kindled interest grew as liens kept appearing on the door and poineered whether there was a pattern to those lines or whether they were random designs with no purpose. "Maybe they are dragon paths," said an old man, who vaguely remembered another culture altogether, an animist culture which held that fire-breathing creature of myth and legend in the highest regard and had mapped its meandering on the face of the earth.
Another generation passed. The pattern on the door had by now worked itself into a discernible but indeterminate shape. "Kelp, is it?" somebody thought aloud, wondering if the shape changing was a progressive pattern from the simplest of organisms to transcendence, perhaps. The grim-faced people, getting grimmer by the day, now made it a point to stop awhile outside the door of growing mystery. Not on their way back though, when they were too exhausted to care and in a hurry to get home. Besides, time was in short supply: they had to serve time in the evenings, carving a monumental statue in the village square of a goddess, She of the Outsized Pudendum.
More time passed. One day, some boys noticed that the shape on the door that they had gotten used to wasn't there any longer. Or rather, there was a different one. And it was clearer. "An inverted tree," one boy exclaimed. "Look, a beehive in that corner," said another. The word spread.
People started making it a point to visit the ancient ramshackle house. Sometimes, the figure on the door would change right in front of their eyes. A row of pyramids one week. A man astride a horse the next.
Conversation boiled over into heated debates. "We know that if there is a pot, there is bound to be a potter," said one with a philosophical bent of mind. "Ergo, if there are paintings, there has to be a painter."
But who? Suspicion fell on the inhabitant of the house—even though nobody had ever seen him or knew if one existed at all. If he did, what was he trying to communicate, if he was trying to communicate? Then again, why must it be a "He"? Why not a "She"? And why one inhabitant, not two, or three, or more? Vexed at their own ignorance, people often came to blows. It was as if their personal survival depended on the supremacy of their point of view.
There was consensus on only one point; that someone did indeed live in the house. There was another unsettling aftereffect of looking at the house: people realized that whenever they thought intently about the elusive painter, their attention inexplicably turned inwards and an amorphous kind of longing took possession of them.
Time kept passing as it was designed to. The door and its alleged decorator turned into the stuff of local legend. And subjective perception. Since the story went back to the distant past (perhaps even to the beginning of history), the painter was assumed to be an immortal. He was spoken about over dinner to incredulous children by melancholic elders, infecting them in turn with melancholia. Hordes of curious people arrived from far and near, as if on a pilgrimage, to confront and perhaps investigate the goings-on, only to return, carrying the virus.
It was ironic that while the story was static for a while, changes were afoot among the storytellers themselves. For one, there were far too many of them now, and the narrow thoroughfares were getting clogged with the curious and the thrill-seekers. The verdant paths were a faint memory.
Equally terrible was the increasing unrest among the youth, who were getting impatient with the centuries old secret work, which was just referred to as "Weaving Tomorrow", work which their forefathers, had carried on for generations without a murmur. All this led to domestic disharmony; father against son, husband against wife, sibling against sibling.
Melancholia assumed epidemic proportions and spawned fantastic cures. A shaman suggested making rows and rows of small replicas of the goddess's pudendum with cow dung. One healer recommended counting down from 108 to 1, 108 times a day. A rationalist, however, discovered that count-ups worked better, more so if done with coins. The village head toyed with the idea of passing an order that melancholia be henceforth equally shared among all people, diluting its effect.
"All shots in the dark," mused an old man known for a head as big as a water pitcher. He noticed that the tantalizing mystery of an immortal painter had people by the throat. He collard some youths and harangued them: "Perhaps there is a link: if we track down the painter, we may discover a curve for melancholia and maybe even an answer to why we have been toiling so for generations."
Finding a receptive audience, Big Head told them a parable. "Once upon a time, there was a solitary man living in this world. His favorite game was hide-and-seek. To get over the problem of having no one to play with, he came up with a brilliant stratagem: he would hide from himself and pretend that he was you and I and all the people that the world can hold and all the trees and animals and rocks and stars. Now he was having fun—except that he played the game so well that he often forgot who he was and where he had hidden himself. It took him a long time to remember. Maybe he wanted it that way: maybe he didn't want to be found too quickly because that would spoil the game."
Was the parable supposed to give them a clue to a solution to the biggest mystery their world had been confronted with or to warm them against impatience? As time passed, the story started moving faster-faster than it could be updated by its tellers. The door began changing rapidly. No longer was there a consensus on what it kept turning into. Rows of houses, one said. An unfamiliar flying object, another insisted. At other times, you saw whatever you were thinking about: a flight of birds flashed on your mental screen—and lo! Birds flew out of the door in formation. Had you too known the story you are reading now, you could have seen it unfold on the door. The reverse was also true: a tableau of mothers wailing over their sons who died in battle would vividly duplicate itself in your head, causing you extreme distress.
Yes, war mongering had raised its ugly head. Fighting was usually triggered off by inter-gang rivalries on the issue of erecting the biggest statue of the Holy Pudendum, or to patent the latest and best version of Weaving Tomorrow. They used stink bombs as ammunition, which killed by asphyxiating the target. Even worse, the stench stayed on in the vicinity for years, insinuating itself into ponds and rivulets and the soil, and through that into all that grew.
With the passage of time, the scene changes, moving at the speed of light, ceased to be bound by the doorframe either. The whole house became like the stage for some mythical play. Loud rumbles emanated from one corner. Smoke billowed out of another. At night, the action spilled over to cover the entire sky. Fireworks created spectacular sights. Colorful, spherical projectiles blazed elliptical orbits extending far back into the horizon. A moment later, the orbits would start withdrawing into themselves and finally into spheres that shrunk and became invisible to the naked eye.
Needless to say, the urgency to solve the mystery reached a crescendo. Bad news poured in. The youth had struck work. An as-yet-undiagnosed pestilence that made blood run dry in its victims was raging. Perhaps the unfolding drama at the mysterious house was a bad omen. One day, amid despair and desperation and protracted dilly-dallying, people of all ages and ideological persuasions decided to break down the door and demolish the house to encounter the possibly supernatural entity that had been impishly playing with their lives and emotions for so long.
It was the moment of truth. As people assembled outside the house, welded together by a do-or-die resolve, a bright light streamed past them, forcing them to shut their eyes. Their mental screens became a jumble of images—some sort of recapitulation of personal, collective and cosmic histories that spanned eons.
After what seemed like eternity, the mental roar subsided. When they opened their eyes and adjusted to the glare, they found that the door had disappeared. Instead, a luminous being stood in the courtyard of the house, a being so tall that its head reached the sky. People craned their necks heavenwards to look at its face. Each one saw his or her own face reflected up there. The giant winked, as if in affirmation of their bizarre perception, and beckoned people into the house. They found themselves at the threshold of another door. "What will we see in the antechamber?" some wondered. What they found—to their disappointment and amazement—was a replica of what they had left behind.
What they were not destined to retain were their old selves. The giant's body started melting into translucence right in front of the unswerving gaze of the multitude. Soon, only a golden haze was left swirling. Finally, with a whoosh it raced towards the people, engulfing their being. Everyone, to the last person, witnessed his body losing solidity. It became difficult to draw the line where one paradigm ended and the other began. Their minds melded to form a mandala of consciousness that included and encompassed all.