The following is the final curated piece by digital guest editor for November 2022, Taiba Abbas. We were unable to publish it in November due to technical issues.
All sorts of rumours floated about him. He’s a copyist, said some. He’s a phony, said others. He was accused of indulging in perversions. Occasionally, he posted cryptic messages on his Facebook page. He disregarded every opinion that was thrown at him. Nothing bothered him. He kept to himself. No one had seen him in years.
And then one day, on his Facebook page, a message appeared: Love is not the answer. Thousands of people kept commenting. I commented, too. Then what is, asked I. Two days later, I got a friend request. It was from him.
Very casually, I messaged him again. Then what is? I asked. He responded at an unearthly hour. Nobody replies to an insignificant message at 4 a.m.
Soon, we got chatting. At first, I didn’t think we would go anywhere at all. Maybe the levity of the moment will last an hour or a day, thought I. Little did I know I would be wrong. We debated about a certain word and its implied meanings in the context of the chat we were having.
God! You’re so pretentious, I wanted to say to him. He was after all a master of pretense and deception. Anyway, all this will seem insignificant once I reveal what happened later. We ended the conversation. But we resumed chatting the same evening.
He: What’s up this glorious evening?
Me: I wish my evening were as glorious as yours.
He: Yours and mine? Reminds me of a story.
Me: Go on if you wish.
He: I have a condition.
Me: A condition?
He: Forget it, it’s not worth your time and notice.
Me: You mistake me for someone else, someone important in the order of things?
He: Are you ready to meet the condition?
Me: I would like to hear it first.
He: Is that a counter condition?
Me: Empty promises are not my thing.
He: It’s a simple and straightforward condition. That you will listen with love and care even if it takes long.
Me: What if I’m a terrible listener?
In a monastery in a village north of Zanskar, lives a young monk. The monastery is run by the wisest masters ever to have lived.
Me: Will it be wrong of me to interrupt?
He: Not at all! If you don’t interrupt how will I know you are listening with love and care.
Me: How on earth will you ascertain my intentions?
He: I have my ways. In the story, there will be essential digressions by you and me.
Me: Is this too a fabrication like everything else?
He: Truth itself is a fabrication.
The monk is inquisitive. He wants to know everything. About life, the village, the river in the village, where it comes from, where it goes, the plants, where they come from, where they go, about life, sadness, happiness, about love and about desire.
It is cold in the village, very cold. The winds are icy; huge sheets of ice are floating in the river. But his heart…Oh! The monk’s heart is…
Me: You haven’t answered my question.
He: None of your questions will go unanswered. May I resume now?
The monk’s heart is on fire. Fire that he fears will engulf the entire village and burn everything. Fire that can’t be extinguished. Fire that…
Me: Fire that?
Fire that is dangerous. One day, the monk decides to go to the river to quench his thirst, hoping to douse the fire in his heart. Seeing the river in rage, he trembles. Suddenly, his gaze falls on a girl standing on the other side of the river. The monk is stunned. Never in his life has he seen a prettier sight. The girl is waving to him. Is she real or a beautiful dream? The monk wonders…
Me: What happens next?
He: Do you feel the fire raging in the monk’s heart?
Me: If I say no, will you stop?
The monk doesn’t know what to do. He thinks crossing the river towards the other side will douse the fire in his heart. But the river is in rage, too. The currents are frightening, the waves undulating. The naked dance of the river is fearsome. The monk waits and waits. Evening falls, night comes. Thunderous clouds rage in the night sky. Lightning. Hail. But the fire rages on in the monk’s heart. The girl illuminates the night. She doesn’t stop waving at the monk. Mornings come and evenings go. The flames become stronger. The rage of the river doesn’t ebb. And then one evening, the monk hears a sweet voice: Come to me, O lonely one. Come to me. Cross over to this side. Don’t be afraid. Cross over.
The voice grows louder.
He: Don’t you want to pause? Look at the river, the moon, the clouds? Look at the monk? Do you now feel the…?
Me: Not yet, but don’t stop now.
He: How can I go on? I am trembling.
Me: If we can live with the fire within, then surely the one outside will be much easier to bear.
He: In which case I will go on through this alone.
Seasons change hands. The monk grows old but not weary. The girl doesn’t age. She is the only light in the dark nights by the river. The monk waits for the river’s rage to end. He waits for the waters to become calm. He hears the girl’s voice, her laughter. Then one day, when he is looking towards the other side, he can’t see the girl. Is it the haze that has clouded her? Is it the mist? Is she still there? Where could she have gone? The monk’s gaze explores the other side, but…
There was silence. The next morning, a message, time stamped 4 a.m, flashes on my phone’s screen.
…the girl is gone. The monk’s heart sinks. He doesn’t know what to do. The girl doesn’t come out of hiding.
On a wintry night, when the moon is a bead of ice, when the crows are still, when the wind isn’t singing, when the trees are covered in moss, the monk falls asleep. It is spring. Everything is burgeoning. He is sitting next to a fountain by a young girl. The girl is playing hide and seek and calling a name. The monk isn’t sure what his name is. But the name the girl is calling isn’t his….
“I know nothing about you. You know nothing about me. Yet we have embarked on a journey together. Such journeys happen once in a lifetime”
Me: I like where this is going…
He: From now on, I must tread slowly. The monk is dreaming. I must sneak in through the girl’s dreams because the monk won’t allow me to enter his dreams.
Me: How does the story end?
He: The end is nowhere in sight yet. We have a long way to go. Will you have the time to go all the way?
Me: I vouch for myself.
It doesn’t take long for the monk to realise the girl isn’t calling his name. He doesn’t even remember his own name. He thinks the girl has mistaken him for someone else. But he doesn’t correct her for some reason. Spring arrives. The snow melts. Bubbling lakes form around the girl’s feet. She leaves tiny footmarks all over the sandy shore. The monk makes boats out of twigs and floats them in the tiny lakes. One day when the girl is chasing snow butterflies, the monk is woken up by the sound of the river. He wants to go back, but…
The next day, I sent him a photo of an Amaltas in full bloom.
Why can’t spring do such a thing to humans? said he.
Me: What’s the monk’s name?
He: I don’t know. Maybe we can call him Master Lama.
One day when the girl is chasing snow butterflies, the monk is woken by the sound of the river. He wants to go back, but he can’t. How will he reconcile his fate? He is old and grey again. Standing by the river, he looks wistfully towards the empty shore on the other side of the river, thinking of the girl who isn’t there.
He waits and waits. Time flows quietly, like the waters of the river. One morning, when a snow butterfly is sitting atop a bud, and when the moon isn’t a block of ice anymore for it has become a cloud, the monk’s gaze falls on a beautiful woman who seems to have come out of the river. She resembles his tutor at the monastery. When she comes nearer, she smiles. I have been searching for you, she says. You must return to the monastery. The monk narrates everything to her. The search for answers, his travels in the forest, his encounters with talking cats, bulbuls and crows. He tells her about the river and its rage, his desire, the girl, her voice, the changing of seasons, and then the dream in which he meets a girl who calls his name thinking he is someone else. The woman listens as if time has stopped like a frozen river that has come crashing against the sandy shore. She listens without losing the smile on her face. After the monk finishes narrating his ordeals, the woman laughs. What do you want to do, she asks. I want to go to the other side of the river, says the monk. But, my boy, says the woman, you are already on the other side. Aren’t you? The monk falls silent. He wonders what it means to be on both sides of the river at the same time. You must return, the woman says again. It is for your own good. Forget all that has happened. The monk relents, but he sets a condition for his return. The woman must meet his condition for him to go back to the monastery.
Me: I wonder where the monk learnt to set conditions.
He: The river, maybe.
Me: The monk likes his women.
He: That was a dream.
Me: Dreams are real.
He: How can you be so sure?
Me: Because you told me so.
He: You believe me now?
Me: Not unless you show me the proof.
The monk decides to return. On his way back, he sees new things. The distance to his monastery has become longer. After he reaches his monastery, he sees new monks. As days go by, he makes a new friend, a boy his age, a prankster. Together they go out into the village to tease people and steal fruit in the orchards. Then one day, his friend hits upon a plan. He suggests to him that they travel up north towards a village in a place that’s forbidden.
What’s that, says the monk.
It’s the place where no monks go. Want to come with me?
Are you sure we must go there? What if?
Don’t worry. No one will come to know.
What happens there?
Let’s find out for ourselves.
I don’t think so, says the monk.
Are you sure you don’t wish to come with me, asks the friend, luring the monk into following him, as he walks out the gates of the monastery. The monk watches. His feet tremble. His heart races on. Then, suddenly, he decides to…
Me: I can’t keep pace with you. How can the monk be old and young at the same time?
He: You analyse too much.
Me: Blame it on the knowledge I acquired by reading books.
He: Knowledge doesn’t lie in books.
He: It exists in twilight dreams.
Me: Knowledge can certainly be drawn from books.
He: Of what use is a book to you when you have Lama Junior as your twilight friend? Am I right? Or is it just a rumour I heard?
Me: How do you know Lama Junior is my friend?
He: Because you like his cave story.
Me: How do you know I like the cave story?
He: How I know is a long story, and we don’t have time for one more story because we are in the middle of a story that, I suspect, isn’t going to end soon.
Me: Now this is creepy. But I still wish to know how you know.
He: That love might not be the answer?
Me: How you are so sure that I like the cave story. I can’t wait. Remember curiosity killed the cat.
He: Cats have nine lives.
Me: C’mon now. Out with your little secret. Cut the long story short, please.
He: How on earth do I do that? But if you wish I could give it a try. Do you want me to cut it short?
Me: Now that’s plain blackmail.
He: Remember the video of your dream you sent me. That’s how I know.
Me: Video of my dream?
Me: What dream, you liar?
He: You sent me a video of your dream. This is the truth. Why don’t you believe me?
Me: Because I have seen no proof.
He: You forget easily.
Me: What was in the video?
He: The video was hazy. Thank God!
Me: You didn’t see anything?
He: I didn’t say so.
Me: Then why thank God. What did you see?
He: Forget all this. You still in for the twilight rendezvous tomorrow?
Me: Why do you ask that every day?
He: Because every day the waters in the river change. Because every day you change, too. Trust changes. Hearts waver.
Me: If everything changes, then why do you need to ask if anything will change? Invariably something will. Always.
He: Yes, that’s precisely why. Everything changes. Every moment is new. Even the story changes hands. But one thing must not change in the universe. It must not be made to change. Ever. If it does, then I am gone.
Me: What’s that thing?
He: The search is on…
The message time stamped 4 a.m. read:
Are you sure you don’t wish to come with me, asks the friend, luring the monk into following him, as he walks out the gates of the monastery. The monk watches. His feet tremble. His heart races on. Then, all of a sudden, he decides to follow his friend through the narrow path that leads to a place unknown. He sees things he has never seen before. Light trapped in the branches of trees. Strange faces peering through the chinks of half-lit windows of huts. A strange scent wafting from the gardens nearby. Lilting sound of flute. Wind humming a tune. What place is this? the monk wonders. His friend leads him towards a small pond in a garden. The waters in the pond are cerulean. Take off your clothes, let’s go for a swim, says his friend. The monk doesn’t know how to swim. Had he known swimming he would have crossed the river. He dips his hand in the water and experiences a strange, indescribable sensation. His hand shivers. He looks into the water and sees the reflection of a girl. Could she be the same girl who stood on the other side of the river? The silvery reflection appears and disappears over the waves. The monk can’t decide which one of the girls is prettier. The girl on the other side of the river or the girl in front of him. He can’t take his eyes off the surface of the water. Hoping to see the reflection one more time and hoping it won’t disappear, he spreads his arms over the water to keep it still. His friend smiles. Jump into the pond. It isn’t deep, he says. You won’t drown. The monk doesn’t know what to do. He remembers the strange sensation he felt at the touch of water. He’s afraid of the touch. What if? He wonders. What if this is a dream? He hears the sound of gushing waters. The sky clears, revealing the golden peak of a mountain afar. At a distance is a narrow path leading towards the mountain. Leaving his friend and the reflection of the girl behind, the monk sets off once again…
Me: I wish to know everything in one go.
He: The story is going to take a dangerous turn from now on.
Me: Why so?
He: The girl has begun to suspect my intentions.
Me: You mean she might call your bluff.
He: No, but she knows both of us have been talking.
Me: About her and the monk?
He: It’s not just about them.
Me: Then about what?
He: It’s about us, too.
Me: What about us?
He: Do you not see what is at stake here?
Me: What precisely is at stake here?
He: The girl is plotting to have me eliminated.
Me: Is that even a possibility?
He: Very much, that is why I must get her undivided attention.
Me: But why is she wanting to get rid of you?
The next morning, there was no message. I sent him a video of a sermon by a guru I admired. The sermon was about a monk who upon Buddha’s instructions travels a long distance to meet a danseuse.
He didn’t respond to my message at his usual time.
Me: What happened to the monk at twilight?
He: You failed to meet my condition.
Me: How come?
He: Some other monk has your attention now.
Me: Is this a game?
He: You must ask your heart.
Me: You have my attention.
Me: That might be impossible. Perspective is important for sanity.
He: Okay, let’s do an act. May I go first?
Me: Are there any conditions to the act?
He: It’s an unconditional act. May I begin now?
He: Twilights without you are unimaginable.
Me: Where are we going with this?
He: C’mon now. It’s just an act. Your turn now?
Me: Begin again, please.
He: I’m falling for you.
Me: Is it the truth or…?
He: I don’t know what lies are. But if you think I am lying, then my lies are superior to the truth.
Me: What do you mean?
He: You do to me what the girl is doing to the monk.
Me: What if it isn’t the girl’s doing? What if it’s the monk’s own creation?
He: Don’t you see that the monk exists because of the girl?
Me: Tomorrow everything could change. Everything would be different and back to normal. Moreover, why should I believe you?
He: You think I don’t see what is going on between you and the monk?
Me: What’s going on between the monk and me?
He: The answer to a question can’t be another question.
Me: You must stop assuming things about me. You know nothing about me.
He: I know nothing about you. You know nothing about me. Yet we have embarked on a journey together. Such journeys happen once in a lifetime.
… the monk sets off once again. After days and nights of traveling alongside the mighty river, the monk arrives at a ruinous village. A village that seems to have been ravaged by devastating floods. The fury of the river hasn’t spared anything. Not even a tree or a boulder. There is no trace of people’s houses and places of worship. Even the face of the mountain is scarred. A horrid smell of death lurks everywhere. Ravenous birds are feeding off animal carcasses and corpses. They don’t even leave the bones. What might have happened here, wonders the young monk. The river is calm, as if it hasn’t done anything. As if nothing has happened. Why has the river turned a blind eye to its own doings? The monk thinks about the girl, her charms, and her infinite beauty. He hopes she hasn’t been a witness to this catastrophe, this devastation, this naked dance of death. Beauty mustn’t be made to see horror. The monk’s thoughts and feelings wander off to the day he first saw the girl. It was as if she was sent by God just for him and no one else. The weary monk looks skyward. The shimmering peak of the mountain beckons him. He sets off once again hoping to find out what might have caused the destruction…
Me: Does the monk believe in God?
He: I wish I had a clue.
Me: How can you not know? You’re the master.
He: I swear I’m not. I wish I could explain. It takes a toll to shadow the monk and the girl twilight after twilight. It is forbidden terrain at all other times. Twilight is the only time when I can sneak in because it is the hour of stillness when Time isn’t conscious of its own existence. It’s the penultimate day, the eve of the monk’s final ascent. Will you miss the monk after he’s gone tomorrow?
Me: Yes, I will.
He: I find it incredibly true.
Me: Why do you find it incredibly true?
He: Because I don’t want to believe it’s untrue.
Me: Does the monk have to go because he’s not supposed to stay attached to anything?
That evening, I took a stroll by the riverside and sent him a photo of the river glistening in the rays of the dying sun. He responded: So beautiful, so serene, unlike the fearsome river that separates the monk from the girl, that wreaks havoc in the village, that stands indifferent to the monk’s waiting and his passion. Your river is the river of togetherness, not of separation.
I wanted to tell him the vision I had at the riverside. In the vision the monk sees him coming. What follows is a deadly battle between them. A battle between two souls! But it’s a lost battle for him. I don’t want him to lose. I pray for his victory.
The weary monk looks skyward, the shimmering peak of the mountain beckons him. He sets off once again hoping to find out what might have caused the destruction. He goes up against the river’s flow. The sound of the river becomes louder as he nears the mountain. After seven full moon nights, he arrives at a confluence. Two rivers descending from the mountain meet. It’s a strange sight. One river is calm, the other is in rage. But when they merge, a new river is born that’s partly calm and partly furious.
After some days, the monk arrives at a vast glacier at the foot of the mountain. Out of a narrow cavern, resembling the mouth of a cow, gushes forth icy water. The sound of the water drowns all other sounds. Nothing else can be heard. Water smashes against water forming tiny rivulets. One of the rivulets enters a wide crater forming a lake. Birds come to quench their thirst in it. The monk is overcome by a sense of futility and emptiness. Was it for this, he wonders. Now that I have travelled so far to be here, I might as well go past the glacier, climb the mountain and see what lies beyond. He aims for the final ascent.
One night while climbing a slippery slope of the mountain, he falls asleep. At dawn, he wakes up to the most ethereal of sights. In front of him is a bounteous valley teeming with trees and animals. There’s abundance of light and plentiful shade. A tiny lake is full of golden fish. It’s springtime. Saplings are erupting out of the wet earth. Goats and deer are giving birth. Blossoming buds are dancing atop treetops. Afar, he sees people. They are naked. Their bodies are luminous, their faces radiant. They are singing and dancing and chanting. The incantation is better than the one practised in his monastery. Never before has he heard such human sounds. So pristine, so primordial, so pure. The sounds reverberate and pierce through the soul of the valley. Sound is God, he remembers his master’s words. What’s going on, wonders the monk. Who are these people? As he approaches the people, he is welcomed by a small girl and led into her tiny hut. It’s warm inside. The monk’s hands are swollen and his soles are cracked. The girl gives him food to eat and water to drink. She applies a paste on his swollen hands. Lines crisscross on her palms, and conceal a secret. She keeps smiling and doesn’t utter a word. No words are exchanged between her and the monk. They speak the language of eyes. The unspoken language of truth, of deception, and of hope! Soon, she hums a song and the wind sings, too. The monk believes she’s singing to him. He falls asleep on a bed made of hay. He dreams a dream. In the dream, a nomadic family rescues him after he falls into a river. He’s safe but terrified. The family takes care of him and doesn’t let him go. They nurse him and adopt him. When he grows up, he rears animals and looks after the elders. One day, when he’s out with his flock of sheep and dogs, his gaze falls on a strange sight. He squints and sees a familiar face. He sees the girl’s face imprinted on the slope of the mountain. He looks at the lake. He sees the reflection of the girl’s face in the waters. The girl’s face is everywhere. On the grasslands, on the fields, in the clouds, the honeycombs, everywhere. He becomes restive, agitated. For the first time in his life, he screams. But he can’t hear his own voice. He yells, but there is no sound. He doesn’t even know the girl’s name. He screams louder and louder. He runs desperately from one end of the valley to the other.
Just when he’s about to fall into the river, he hears voices. Wake up, wake up… He opens his eyes and finds himself surrounded by his teachers and friends in the dormitory at his monastery. Everything is as it was.
The next day, everything stopped. I waited at twilight. Several days passed. He didn’t show up at his usual magic hour. He had said it was just the beginning. I kept messaging him. There were messages from others, but not a word from him. The rumours about him after all weren’t unfounded at all.
He stole everything and regained his lost fame and reputation. After his play was staged, a message appeared on his Facebook page. It was in response to a question by some insignificant fan about the truth of the play. It went: Of course, none of it happened at all. It’s all a grand invention, much like my other plays. The girl, the monk and everybody else don’t exist. Critics called it an anti-play. I pretended not to have ever known him or chatted with him. I went back to my abandoned film project and completed it without any further delays. I wanted him to see the film. The title of the film is Love: the only Answer.
I never heard from Master Lama thereafter.
Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia) for his short story, The Umbrella Man, Siddhartha Gigoo has written two books of poetry, four novels—The Garden of Solitude, Mehr: A Love Story, The Lion of Kashmir, Love in the Time of Quarantine—and a book of short stories, A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories (long listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2015). He has also co-edited two anthologies, A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits and Once We Had Everything: Literature in Exile. In 2021, he won the New Asian Short Story Prize for his short story, Elephant’s Tusk. His short stories have been long listed for the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Prize, Royal Society of Literature's V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize, and Seán O'Faoláin Short Story Prize. Siddhartha's short films, The Last Day and Goodbye, Mayfly, have won several awards at international film festivals. His writings appear in various literary journals.