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.
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.