jash sen

excerpts, translations, articles, other scribbles

Tag: Fantasy

Excerpt From Skyserpents – 2

KALI’S DREAM

Bilal crouched inside Kali’s mouth—a miniscule atom of a being—biding his time. Now that he was in, he had to get into the recesses of Kali’s mind. But how? He concentrated, silently imagining Kali in his innermost core.

Nothing of note. He could hear Kali talk, discuss strategies and plans about Earth. All that was for Anya to figure out. He ignored the speech, focussing instead on the mind. Concentrate. It’s the layers underneath that you are seeking, not the crust. Look, feel. Search for the undercurrents, ignore the waves on top.

The whirr of activity, instructions and superficial thoughts was enormous. It was like searching for something in a storm. Bilal forced himself to stay calm, letting his own being get used to all this. It was bearable after a while. He could think and observe as an independent entity now. Not too independent, though. Kali would discover his presence if his personality showed any distinctive traits.

Slowly, he learnt to look around him. Something seemed to move away in the distance in a flash. What was that? He had a sense of a big black thing, endlessly long, just at the edge of his consciousness. Bilal quietened himself, waiting for more. No other glimpse. But he could sense it; something terribly unnatural, an anguish of an unhinged mind, a very powerful one. Something … a body perhaps? Cut in two, then ineptly rejoined. He waited and watched for other clues. The sense of anger and loss remained. Whose anger was it? It felt distant, as if the anger had been witnessed, not experienced by Kali. A sharp pang of agony, frustration and fury crossed his mind. Whatever it was, something had gone terribly wrong for it.

Bilal wanted to learn more, but a wave of another emotion, Kali’s this time, swept everything away. He was triumphant, exultant. What could it be? Anya would know. Kali’s euphoria continued for a while. In his tiny form, Bilal sensed another presence, a voice in the shadows whom Kali wished to please. A collaborator? But who? Bilal racked his being, but the shadow remained a shadow. He would have to wait for more.

He settled down in his place near Kali’s palate and emptied his own mind, waiting for the outside noise and emotion to subside. Only then would it be possible to search Kali’s subconscious.

Hours passed in this way. Bilal saw nothing new; once or twice, the strange elongated darkness passed by the edge of his awareness like a blind spot in a person’s vision. But there was nothing else worthy of note, so he concentrated on noticing things through the storm of superfluous thoughts in his quarry’s mind. At long last, these subsided. Kali was approaching sleep. Time to get to work.

Bilal felt the noise of Kali’s thoughts falling away. There was going to be a brief lull. Then his deep-seated emotions in the subconscious would start acting out their own story in a dream state.

That would be his chance.

***

His first awareness was of acute resentment. It was the ground he was standing on, and it was not solid. An ever-expanding swamp, it pulsated slowly under his feet, threatening to engulf him in a quicksand of resentment if Kali’s emotions surged. Emerging from this swamp was a black lotus on a black stem. In front of Bilal, the lotus grew and grew. A terrible four-headed old man emerged, sitting cross-legged on the lotus. He was black, like polished stone, with a long beard on each face and smouldering yellow eyes that looked like burning coals. His beard was white. The old man contrasted horribly with the angry red landscape around him. Bilal found himself speaking, to his surprise, in Kali’s voice. He had assumed Kali’s form in the dream, his own small form subsumed into the god’s dream version: he was Bilal-Kali.

‘Father!’

The front head turned its fearsome yellow eyes on him.

‘You! You are not my son.’

‘But you created me, Father. From your mind, don’t you remember? Just like Narad, the seven saints—Saptarshis. Just like Saraswati—I am a child of your mind, a manasputra !’

‘You were formed from all that was base in me. You had to be created so I could be rid of it all. No part of me wishes to live on in you. You were never meant to be my son.’

The ground pulsated alarmingly under Bilal-Kali’s feet. Kali was angry, hurt.

‘Did all this baseness disappear after you abandoned me? If so, what prompted you to obsessively control nature’s every move to suit you, so much so, that Shiva had to cut one of your heads off? Has your desire to control the universe truly died? If so, how could the march of ego continue in this world? Why are you never worshipped, even though you are one of the trimurti? You don’t fool me, Father, your lust for power still lives on in you and so it lives on in me and everywhere else. Whether you wish it or not, I am more your son than the others.’ Bilal-Kali said the words, mesmerised at the way he could be two distinct identities in one form.

The yellow eyes seemed to emit fire.

‘Ignorant fool! Do not toy with what you cannot understand! My mistake was a lapse in my good sense, for which I gladly paid the price of never again being worshipped by humankind. I have selflessly served my creation and Vishnu’s vision since then, always willing to serve humanity. The ambition of the other gods didn’t end with mine, however. If your value went up as they got drunk on power, it was not because of any encouragement from me. Beware, Kali! The pantheon is not an eternal thing, even if gods are immortal. It can and will change—accepting that change is something they, and you, will need to learn. Purandar has to learn to let go.’ Once again, the shadowy presence made itself felt, but Bilal knew he couldn’t afford to notice it and get spotted by the real Kali. He just knew it was angry. Very angry.

Rapidly, Brahma was lowering, disappearing into the swamp. Bilal-Kali dislodged his ankles from the quicksand with difficulty. They had sunk in during the discussion.

‘One word of acknowledgement from you and you could have been the Supreme God in the universe I would have created for you,’ sighed a voice next to Bilal-Kali. His heart missed a beat. Cautiously, calmly, he turned round to face Kali, looking at the last remnants of his dream inside the dream.

Bilal-Kali waited, unsure of what was expected from him. One false move and he would be exposed.

‘That is one father who will not stand by us, we can safely assume,’ said Kali, looking at Bilal. ‘He’s been getting frailer over the years as I have gained, did you notice? Bound to happen if you keep shedding parts of yourself when they don’t smell of roses. I just keep getting stronger each time. The more he rejected of himself, the stronger I grew. Talk about being in denial!’ Kali moved closer to Bilal-Kali, looking straight into his eyes, searching for something. Keep calm, breathe steadily and normally, was the only thought Bilal-Kali allowed himself.

‘He is never going to protect us, like a father should,’ he hissed in Bilal-Kali’s ear. ‘Which is why I learnt to protect myself.’

‘How?’ asked Bilal-Kali. His throat felt dry.

‘Gold for the humdrum enemy. I find it can buy anything, amongst a certain class of individual—human, demonic or divine. Vices are different. They are useful to lure people in and then to bind them to do my bidding. The old carrot and stick. There are gods who have been lured by gambling—remember the eight Vasus—and sent to serve on earth. All my manipulation. Then there is a class, usually rich in their own right, whose vice is power. This last class I find the most interesting, also the most challenging.

‘How so?’ asked Bilal-Kali. They were walking over the swamp-like ground, which was gradually solidifying into a muddy brown surface. Mist appeared in wisps, enhancing the sense of mystery. Kali was enjoying talking to someone at last. All that he had always kept bottled up for eons was pouring out to this new version of himself. It felt good. Very good.

‘They’re a gamble. They can be mortal or immortal, it doesn’t matter. They can bring us more victories than any other. But if things go wrong, then they can be powerful enough to not just wreck our plans, but cause serious harm to us as well. However, like all veteran gamblers, I carry insurance for such eventualities.’

‘Do you mean …’

‘The Syamantak? Of course I mean the Syamantak. The one good thing my enemy left for me. Yes, its incomplete right now, but we’re that close to getting the rest of them. We know the whereabouts of that camp of theirs for a start.’

So that was it. The reason behind the exultation. Bilal knew now that there was very little time. He would need to grab the amulets, and quickly. Something of his nervousness percolated to Kali. He stopped in his tracks and looked closely at his companion.

‘The dreams I dream are usually quite muted. This one has been an exception. Still, its good to have talked to my inner self.’

Inner self, thought Bilal-Kali. So that’s who he thinks I am.

He mustered up all his courage and looked straight into Kali’s eyes, thinking of nothing but the amulets—how it would feel to just see them once … to hold them in his hands and feel the security they offered … soon all ten would be in his hands, fiery, sparkling, protective …

‘All right, all right, we’ll do it!’ said Kali, his guard down in front of this newfound, perhaps only, close companion. ‘You know, I have the same hankering as you. Come along.’

They turned left from the misty road and Bilal sensed, rather than saw, moist tissue. A feeling of claustrophobia overcame him as the moist tissue walls closed in on them. They were engulfed by the walls, suffocating with the pressure; then suddenly, it eased. They found themselves in a flesh-pink cell, uncomfortably reminiscent of tonsils. Kali waved his left hand. The fleshy walls expanded and moved away further into the distance. Bilal-Kali stepped behind him, remembering to keep his mind and his thoughts on an even keel.

The duo walked on a little further. Then Kali stopped. He put his hand in a recess that seemed to materialise out of nowhere and simply pulled out a bag made of silk. It was yellow in colour and was tied at the neck with a silken red string. He loosened this string at the neck and poured out five sparkling blood-red stones on his palm.

At that very instant, Bilal recognised a very important thing: that although everything else was a dream, the five stones, just like him, were real.

Now, he thought.

Kali was stringing the neck of the bag closed.

‘May I?’ asked Bilal-Kali, reaching out for it.

Instinctively, Kali gave it to him. And realised immediately that he had made a mistake.

‘Its too comfortable, too good to be true,’ he mused, turning slowly to face Bilal. Everything was dissolving around them, rapidly.

‘Who are you?’ he whispered, suddenly fearful.

Bilal-Kali found himself replying, in the words of an unknown person, and in a voice he didn’t recognise as his own, ‘ I am He whose gem you dared to steal. I take back what is mine today. Your reign is hereby challenged.’

Dissolve, dissolve away, damned dream. The image was taking his amulets away from him. Kali thrashed about in his sleep, but couldn’t wake. He let out an agonised cry, and with it, Bilal emerged, a speck with a tiny bag in his hand, a drop of the dribble from the sleeping god’s mouth. Then that too, disappeared. In Kali’s dream, anger filled the vacuum in a red haze.

***

tower

Excerpt From Skyserpents – 1

MANY, MANY EONS AGO

The din was unbelievable. Who knew that a churning could produce so much noise? Milky white waves, many feet high, crashed upon the shore with ferocity. No one was injured because every man available had been pulled into the ocean to churn. Pull left, then right.

In the centre stood a long, narrow mountain peak, kissing the heavens. It was now moving clockwise, now anti-clockwise. Slowly, the peak was building up speed. The waves were frothing.

The armies at both ends, innumerable men, pulled at a thick, leathery rope. No, not a rope – an immensely long snake – coiled around the peak with both its ends being pulled in opposite directions, faster and faster. The air was heavy with their gasps, moist with their combined sweat. They were close to exhaustion, but still they pulled. There was no stopping now. The snake had vomited earlier, nearly killing them with its venom, because the churning had made it giddy. They were narrowly saved by the wild looking man on the shore who had calmly drunk all the poison floating on the sea foam and still remained standing. Everyone wondered how he survived, but there wasn’t much time for speculation. They had to get back to the churning. Pull left, then right.

A beautiful woman stood next to the wild man on the shore.  They spoke in quiet tones in spite of the waves crashing around them.

‘Are you certain that this will work? Assigning roles, separating them in this manner?’ asked the man.

‘Without structure, they will not know their responsibilities. They have to help the human race evolve. Both roles are crucial.’

‘I still feel that this interference with Nature is unnecessary. Why give the humans more power than others?’

‘It is not so much an interference as a catalyst. To bring forth new thoughts. To leap ahead and learn to create. A complement to Nature, if you like. The evolved Human spirit. Who knows what wonderful innovations and discoveries it might unveil?’

‘And if this spirit decides to overreach itself? What then?’

‘I shall correct the course. I take that responsibility.’

They stood in silence and watched the milky ocean churn. Pull left, then right.

Hours passed by.

The waves were clumping, separating into stiff white shapes and transparent water. A white horse shape seemed to form first. Its perfectly sculpted form came to life, unfurled its wings and flew to the shore with a neigh. More was yet to come; there could be no slacking in the churn now. Left – and right, left – and right.

A five headed elephant, a tree of gold with silver leaves, a woman bearing an overflowing, ever filling jar of gold, all solidified from the stiffening foam and emerged one by one, granted life by an unknown hand. Faster, faster, left – right!

Finally, when the all the water of the ocean had become the transparent greenish white that we see today, a small pot formed with the remaining white solid, overflowing with an unseen liquid. Then the armies halted. The prize that they had allied and worked so hard for had arrived at last. The nectar of immortality – Amrit.

The woman on the shore seemed to be there all at once, organising everything. Her allure was all overpowering. One look turned their knees to liquid, but on hindsight, no one could accurately describe her. All everyone remembered was that she was the most beautiful woman of they had ever imagined. Each man present had a different description.

The armies took to the shore, organised into an orderly file. No one seemed to question how the pot of Amrit had somehow become the woman’s responsibility, how she had started doling it out from the end the Devs sat at and seemed to slow down as she approached the Asurs. Was she not planning to reach them at all? No one noticed, except one Asur.

Swarbhanu had not allowed the euphoria of the successful mission cloud his goal of immortality. Taking no chances, he disguised himself as a Dev. He would just need to pass himself off as one for a short while.

She was nearly there. He held his breath, not daring to move. The Dev next to him drank and turned into a harsh, bright golden yellow aura, unbearable to look at, powerful and immortal. The woman was next to him now. He closed his eyes and took that all important sip. A warm strength coursed through him. The Dev to his right was drinking the Amrit next, his aura turning into a soothing shimmery silver. Time to make an unobtrusive exit.

He never quite understood how they found out. Who knows how he gave himself away? The two Devs on either side lunged at him, holding him captive. ‘Imposter!’ went up their cry. Before he knew it, the woman turned into a gigantic dark man, furious with his trick. With a sickening feeling in his stomach, he saw the man summon a spinning discus. The Sudarshan Chakra. He took one last look at the two Devs holding him.

‘I shall have my revenge,’ said he. Then the Chakra whirred closer and closer, slicing off his massive head as simply as a knife cutting through a potato. Swarbhanu didn’t see it, but his kinsmen had begun to arm themselves, ready for battle. The deception of the Devs had finally dawned on them.

One person silently watched the chaos with great satisfaction. It was all going exactly as planned. He watched as Swarbhanu’s disembodied head flew past him in a graceful arc and smiled to himself. The stupid Asur had made his ambition too clear too fast. He would not make the same mistake. Success lay in stealth. He had time on his hands.

*

In the cold stillness of the Himalayan night, the sky loomed limitless; an overlord of the meek earth below it. It was cloudy. A rare crack of lightning signaled the approaching thunderstorm. The twin lakes lay still and dark, not a soul in sight. The one on the right, circular, holy, life-giving Mansarovar. To its left, crescent shaped, forbidding, dead Rakshas Tal. Its thick, saline waters were swirling.

A gigantic man emerged from under the water, as if he had just risen from a dip in the Lake.  A putrid smell filled the air. The man was at least sixteen feet tall and proportionately broad. His curly mane of hair hung loose up to waist length, twinkling with droplets that were caught in the entangled curls. His long snout like nose stood out in the dark silhouette made by the moonlight. He was bare chested and wore only a red dhoti. In his folded hands was a bone.

‘Have you understood what is required of you?’

The voice tore the silence into a thousand shreds. It was a clear voice, not especially loud, but the gigantic man in the lake could hear every word as if the speaker was right next to him. Its penetrating clarity was meant just for the listener’s ears. Not even the air stirred.

Our giant spoke. ‘It is an extremely difficult task that you ask for, almost impossible to achieve. My best sorcerers will be testing their limits.’

‘It has to be done if victory has to be ours; he is essential to my plans,’ replied the voice. Its clarity had such a perfection about it that it sounded unnatural.

‘We know nothing about the effects of this … experiment, my Lord. If it can be done at all, he would undergo immense pain. Will he be willing?’

‘Wills are meant for bending. The experiment will be carried out by your sorcerers. We know he cannot die. Whether he will be of any use to us depends on you. Remember this Kali: we cannot win without Swarbhanu.’

The interview was over. Silence regained its hold over the valley. The gigantic silhouette was slowly sinking into the depths of Rakshas Tal. Bit by bit, his form was lost to view, only the huge head remaining towards the end, a worried frown creasing its forehead.

Swarbhanu.

Then that too, disappeared in the depths of the dark waters.

The silence in the valley was unchanged but for the steady patter of rain that had followed the thunderstorm. Only a third hidden person remained, one who had witnessed every word.

This would be worse than the last attempt. Far worse.

*

tower

THE SEER – From The Wordkeepers

The Supremo’s personal pod was inaccessible to all except his most trusted lieutenants. He usually preferred to meet his team at official venues. General Kokh was one of the few to have the honour of visiting him at his residence. 

Tonight, however, the Supremo was his escort to another meeting. The General sat and waited patiently for his buzzer to go off. He didn’t have to wait long. A large moon-like asteroid enveloped in mist appeared on his oculus, a screen that showed him what was directly above on the surface, for the General’s abode was deep under the ground. General Kokh tapped his brother on the shoulder and both men disappeared through the reinforced metal walls, their arms linked. 

They found themselves in a brilliant white hemisphere, the upper half of the pod, the Supremo’s public domain. They were seated on a long, white sofa in the softest leather. Behind them was a mahogany twenty-seater table. In front of them was a massive desk of black, polished wood, with gold edgings, flanked by two huge, circular white rugs made of silk. Behind the desk, where the hemisphere nearly ended, was a domed staircase leading down to the sanctum sanctorum, the Supremo’s living quarters. The chair behind the desk was made of pure gold. On it was seated an enormous figure. The Supremo. 

His snout-like face, under its mane of curly black hair, surveyed them in an unblinking stare. His black uniform with its thick gold braiding dazzled their eyes. As the twins had expected, the room was heavily, even cloyingly scented—but an all-pervading putrid smell, like rotten corpses, filled the air. Years of experience ensured that both men kept their faces impassive, although their complexions paled under the onslaught. 

‘Greetings Kokh-Vikokh. I trust all’s well?’ The voice was unexpectedly soft and seductive. A large tongue lolled out, unguarded. The Supremo often had a problem with the size of his tongue. His lieutenants knew better than to ever mention it. 

‘We are well, Supremo, just surprised at this rare honour,’ replied Vikokh, careful with his words. 

‘Take a look outside,’ said the Supremo, not explaining himself yet. 

The landscape had changed; they were hovering above Earth, over a barren patch of land with a few flickering fires. Skulls and bones were strewn all over. It was isolated, although the bustle of the city surrounding the spot could be seen below. 

‘A cremation ground. Where exactly are we?’ 

‘At Kaalikshetra—or Kolkata as it’s now called. That is Keoratola, a favourite spot for our quarry,’ replied the Supremo. ‘I have a guest for you two, I think you’ll find her both interesting and informative, especially given the task at hand.’ He pressed a buzzer on his desk and spoke into it: ‘Bring Dhoomavati up, Durukti.’ 

‘You have the Seer for us, Supremo? Has she anything new to tell?’ Vikokh leaned forward, his voice sharpening in excitement. The Seer had not been seen by anyone on Vishasha but Kali, and was a subject of endless speculation. 

‘You two are masters at ferretting out the truth. Who knows, seeing her in person and discussing the prophecy might bring up some clues. Perhaps there’s something I haven’t identified yet that you’ll find. But I have to warn you, she’s in a foul mood—didn’t take kindly to being brought here from Earth, I expect. Got a sharp tongue, too, so watch your temper. And remember she’s a goddess. You don’t want to get blown to smithereens with a curse.’

‘No risk of that one while we’re together, Supremo,’ said General Kokh, touching his brother’s arm lightly. 

 

A most ungodly goddess entered the room. 

Dhoomavati looked like a mad old beggar in the last stages of starvation. She was enveloped in a cloud of smoke, one hand clutching a half-smoked cigarette, the other, a winnowing basket. Her matted hair was white but nicotine-stained. Cigarettes stuck in the tangles made her head look like an albino porcupine. Her dark skin was as wrinkled as crepe paper, either from extreme old age or excessive smoking—it was difficult to say which. Her tattered sari, once white, now muddy, hung loose on her emaciated figure. Her eyes were bloodshot and she seemed drunk. 

She stood with her hands on her hips, swaying slightly. The cigarette smouldered near her right hip, burning a hole in her sari, but she didn’t seem to notice. She took one last drag and threw it on the plush white carpet, unconcerned. 

‘Supremo? That’s what you’re calling yourself these days? Whatever happened to the good, old- fashioned name your father gave you, eh, Kali?’ She paused and allowed herself a look round the room. 

‘Nice pad you’ve got yourself—not bad for a banished god, not bad at all! A far cry from the earlier barren planet, eh?’ She cackled, clearly pleased with her own humour. 

The Supremo sat still at his desk, toying with a gold paperweight. His eyes flashed golden for one brief moment, at the word banished. When he spoke, his voice was normal, pleasant even. 

‘Have something to eat, Dhoomavati,’ was all he said. A retinue of silent staff brought in trays of food that covered the entire length of the large, twenty- seater table. 

Dhoomavati uttered a little shriek. Without speaking a word, she seemed to carve through the mountain of food. She didn’t just gorge, she devoured. Her toothless mouth opened wide as she shovelled food in, indiscriminately and without any pleasure. In no time, the emaciated old woman stood in front of a sea of empty dishes and belched loudly. Then she opened her mouth wide and simply sucked in the whole table with the empty dishes. She looked as underfed and hungry as ever when she finally turned to face Kali. 

Archly, she said, ‘I see your obsession with gold still carries on. Maybe you should’ve made yourself a gold suit with the braiding in black instead. Now, why did you send Dreadful Durukti to abduct me?’ 

‘You forget that I am gold, Dhoomavati,’ replied Kali calmly. ‘And all the vices too,’ he added, nodding towards the cigarette stub on the carpet. ‘Which is why you worship me more than you know, and I have my power over you just like I do over every other being on Earth.’ 

‘The great Mahesh made me this way and I serve his grand purpose. If he needed me to be a nurturing goddess at this time, you would have seen me as Kamala. The time for dissolution is near; I have had to change myself.’ 

‘Brazen words Dhoomavati, but your eyes betray your doubt. It can’t be easy, being abandoned like this. All beings on Earth are under my sway now. Why don’t you join the side where the power lies?’ 

‘Almost all beings,’ snapped Dhoomavati. ‘There are still people wed to the better principles of humanity. And their day is coming.’ 

‘A negligible minority,’ shrugged Kali. ‘The rest can be bought or seduced or imprisoned. Gold, money, prostitutes, alcohol, drugs, power—I rule them all. This epoch is all mine, and don’t you forget it.’ 

‘Your epoch, as you put it Kali, is ripe for dissolution. Have I not told you before? Shambhal has fulfilled its destiny; the child has been born.’ 

‘Are you sure?’ asked Vikokh in his crisp voice.

She spun on her toes to face him, noticing him for the first time. ‘Why the devil should I answer to you, minion? Know this, Kali— the avatar was born when the Sun, Moon and Jupiter were in Pushya nakshatra in Karkata. That was nearly fourteen years ago. This child is still safe and secure and hidden and it is now fourteen years of age.’ 

‘Is it male or female?’ persisted Vikokh, in the same crisp voice. 

A subtle change came over her expression, like an invisible hood. She hesitated for a fraction of a second. In the pod, they all felt it. 

‘I don’t know,’ was all she said. ‘All I know is that this child will challenge and overthrow the existing order.’ 

‘Where is the child now? Who looks after it? Who are its parents?’ 

Again, they felt the same reticence. Then she spoke. ‘As I said before, the child is hidden well, and away from its birth parents. It will move all over, as is its destiny. You can try to find Shambhal, for a start. Some say it’s in the Ganga valley, or near the Chengapattanam–Andhraka region; or maybe it’s where the Buddhist Shambhal is—close to Tibet. Others have another name for it—Shangri-La.’ She leered with glee at Vikokh. ‘You magician boys have your work cut out for you, don’t you?’

Then she disappeared in a whiff of smoke, leaving behind the dying fragments of her malicious laughter.