She knew. Three years after Juddha Shamsher’s rani found out that the child she had loved and nurtured as her own wasn’t hers, she put on her favorite dhoti and went to visit Shaligram.
She is here, in Shaligram’s chambers. The lights come from candles; it is evening. On her right, next to the door that leads into his room, is the painting of a just-born child. It is a happy painting—the birth of the child is to be celebrated; life is to be celebrated. Juddha Shamsher’s rani recalls that the painting is hers, done as she waited, child inside, for nine whole months to birth the son that she had loved for 21 years now, thinking he was her very own. The time of her pregnancy she had spent in great distress. Her prince had demanded that she stay inside, guarded from the sun and from the cosmic rays that penetrate a woman’s uterus once in a while. And so she had done, but in the time that she stayed inside, out of loneliness or out of boredom, she had taken to painting portraits of children. Just born sons, with faces as round as her stomach; skin softer than the breasts she bathed each morning in buttermilk; a nose too large for his face; a face too large for his neck; a neck too large to be a baby’s. Then they turned into her fears: triangular slits where the baby’s eyes should be; yellow skin melted from his cheek into his neck, and from his neck outside of the canvas, dripping paint like blood from the body of a man stabbed to death. Of the paintings that she had done, Shaligram had selected the best for display — baby boy with divine skin and the stature of a patriarch; a drop of water under his left nostril as a reminder of his humanity — a speck of fault left on the body of the most perfect being. Here she is, walking into the chambers of another man, and she stifles the urge to say the first word until Shaligram speaks —
“My dear rani —”
Shaligram knows why she is here. But he has forgotten — does he remember things past? Things that happened yesterday, or the day before, or a hundred years ago, are they bits and pieces of memory that cohere just because they do? — he cannot tell. He is seated facing a mirror, and it is said that the only image one can see with their naked eyes of Shaligram is that image of him that one sees in a mirror. Juddha Shamsher’s rani does not care — or has she forgotten? — and she walks into the space between him and the mirror. Many years ago, the myth goes, there was a child who accidently walked into Shaligram’s chambers and, unaware, stared at him in all his naked existence, skin, substance, him. Shaligram warned her to close her eyes, but with less authority than he would demand his morning tea; for he, too, wanted to witness the result of this aberration. The child, it is said, died right where she stood; and before Shaligram could touch her, see her, remember her long enough to not forget her, she had disappeared — wiped away, stripped of all existence in the world. That day, Shaligram had grieved, and sensing the sheer strength of the emotion that went into his grief, the world around him had withered away and died with the child; no plant or animal remained to tell the story of existence; only humanity remained, and they told the story in parts — that thing called memory — and sometimes the story changed. Sometimes it became less coherent — the child had been Shaligram’s own — or it became much too coherent — the child had become one with Shaligram, at the greatest peace at such a young age. The myth goes that way, and it goes around. Here, in this moment, Juddha Shamsher’s rani is the child reborn —
Mana knocked twice on the table at which he was seated. The morning before, he had written a poem. The poem is the word of God, he wrote, and God speaks to me through it. In my words I express divine wisdom, but like the doctor cannot cure himself, or the preacher never preaches to himself, I do not heed my own wisdom, come to me by the word of God, he thought. At his table, he collected all sorts of pens: there were those that wrote only in blue, or in red, or in green; there were those that were heavier than gold, made of metal, as fragile as plastic. All of these pens he only kept at his desk; he never used them.
In the poem that he had written yesterday, called “The world a poem, and the poem its cocoon,” he had written about his father. From the moment of conception, the child belongs to his mother; and at birth, the father steals him, he had written. And then onwards — from the point of birth, the world belongs not to the child nor to his mother; it belongs to the father who claims to carry his household; the child submits, quietly and contently, to his father, and in every move, for every inspiration, he mirrors his father with no hesitation until such time come that he remembers his first home: his mother. That was in the poem: the image of a lone man contemplating his birth on the banks of the Trishuli, his fingers fidgeting restlessly on his bansuri, mimicking the musician whose fingers would once have produced music. Mana’s poetry, as it was to be described many years later by a well-to-do literary critic who sat under the salik in New Road and delivered his sermons, was conceived under pretense — and in pretending it thrived and survived.
Outside, in Juddha Shumsher’s courtyard, crows crowed today. Rumor, that which had born Mana, was now dying out. Rumor needed memory to survive, and when memory remained unrecorded, it faded away, like the color from a rose petal. Outside, in Juddha Shumsher’s courtyard, the ground had swallowed itself, and the buildings on it; and with the ground, Mana was swallowed into darkness, consumed for what had remained of his life. What outlives him is his poetry, the words that tell the world the truth about the birth and death of the only rajkumar of Kathmandu. Four generations later, on that very ground, a tree will grow, it is said, and the fourth fruit born on that tree will contain the seed of that rajkumar — the rightful heir to Kathmandu — but none will carry the seed. They will leave it to rot under that tree, on the ground that had once swallowed the child, Mana, and the ground will open up and swallow it once more, never to be seen again. Outside, in Juddha Shumsher’s courtyard, a man who screams salaam, sir! — and bows at every chance he gets has today lost gravity; he stands upright, his back pointed towards the skies, his world a different one to Juddha Shumser’s courtyard, and the tears from his eyes fall onto the ground in small explosions — bisfot! — while Mana falls from the sky and onto the ground, driven by the strength of his poetry, the realization of the complete story to his life and death.
Such is the act of suicide.
The man who had seen Mana fall ran up to his chambers, as though to salvage what can be salvaged. Outside, in Juddha Shumsher’s courtyard, a throng had formed around the body of Mana. Fallen from the height of a thousand stories, the body could only be called so for so long — for when does a body stop being a body? When it has been completely deformed, head separated from torso, torso ripped into a hundred pieces, and those pieces scattered across the earth like rain on a gray day — where and when does the body stop being a body? After it has fallen from a thousand stories, driven to death by anyaya — injustice — and unrighteousness?
In this very language, these thoughts raced across the mind of the man who ran to the thousandth floor, to Mana’s chambers. There, he knew, would be the truth to this untimely death, and none would reach there quicker than he could. And someone must get there — for poetry fades away; it becomes unreadable, arcane, obscure, obscene even. Unread poetry goes stale, like uneaten bread, he thought, and as he raced across the thousand staircases on his way to Mana’s room, his heart pumping blood just fast enough for him to stay awake, the world outside became consumed by itself — the weather, a gust of wind, the slightest rain, a warm sun. Outside Mana’s chambers, these things were the world and the world was these things, and for those gathered around Mana’s body, their own lives fallacies in the face of untimely, omniscient death, this world was undesirable. The man still ran, unrelenting in his pursuit of the thousandth floor, where, he thought, poetry in its purest, most worthy form would be found. A poem is like a dictionary, he amused himself, in the way it proposes new meanings for words that we already know and learn and use. An intoxication this thing must be, that even the strongest minds are seduced by it, ruined by it — intellects undermined, rationality consumed. That is the idea of the poem.
The man still ran — there could be no stopping now. His own history was irrelevant — his name, the history behind his skin, the color of it, the hardness of it. In this moment, there was nothing for him than poetry. What had been written in the few pages that Mana had left behind as legacy before he was driven to death — no, suicide; it is not death. Death ought to happen organically, quietly. This was sudden, unnatural, against the idea of God, against time — suicide was not death. Philosophically, the man thought, it was an even greater death than death itself. For in death, often you are unaware of the impending doom. You simply face it, and you greet it with honor and dignity, and then you make friends with it, love it, caress it. In suicide, he thought, death comes much easily; and yet death is enemy. It is the impending doom given birth to prematurely. As he ran, his left knee began to hurt. There must be a story behind it.
Juddha Shumsher had two wives, but only one fit to be the rani. Shaligram was to judge the fitter among the two. There they were: two beautiful, round-breasted women, donned in the most exquisite jewelry in Kathmandu. The criteria were thus: that the woman know her dharma, her place in the household and with her husband; that the woman bear a son — indeed, the better, as many sons as possible; that the woman know how to carry herself as one; that, in the time of need, the woman be skilled enough to lead the kingdom, to practice its politics for as long as it took. Shaligram, who was blind, had never seen either woman. He knew simply to choose — and Juddha Shumsher trusted him with it. And that was when he chose her — Juddha Shumsher’s rani. When he lightly tapped her shoulder with his hand, it is said that flowers rained down from the sky, and tears from the woman’s eyes. The other woman disappeared that very moment, and that was that. She was gone, wiped out, khuda hafiz, and no one knew where she went. Juddha Shumsher never asked. Shaligram never told.
Shaligram was the state puret. He was trained in Kashi, and it was there that he had been blinded. The story goes thus: his guru, the pandit that had trained him all his life, from beginning to end, had become so jealous of Shaligram’s vision — the way he saw things, and the way he refused to see some things — that, out of pure spite and hatred he had blinded his most accomplished shishya, the one student that would have carried over his legacy. Legacy — Shaligram had thought to himself then — what is it without sight? Anger had taken over him in those days. There was so much anger within his body that it caused fires, they said; not a day passed by when there wasn’t a fire near Shaligram, one that arose out of nowhere and went nowhere: just angry, spontaneous fire. That was many years ago, but it still carried over. When they said that nothing could pass in front of his eyes without disappearing, khalas, no one believed it. And when the child disappeared, no one said a word. They believed the rumors; they believed the anger that had led to the child’s death. No one ever said a word again.
The man had reached the thousandth floor. Exhausted beyond his wits, he walked into Mana’s room. The tears in his eyes burned. He could no longer see. He made his way to Mana’s desk, where the chair was still warm. He sat down slowly, calculatedly. The poetry the man sought was on Mana’s desk, organized in the order that he would have wanted it read.
The first poem was the poem he had written yesterday, called “The world a poem, and the poem its cocoon.” In it, the man saw traces of himself, an image of his fatherhood being caressed by the subject of the poem, the lone musician, out by himself, fingering his bansuri. The man thought back to a billion years ago. He recalled the beating. He flipped the page to turn to the next poem. It was called “To my mother, always; to life and to family.” The man remembered that he had a story to tell.
Many years ago, after Juddha Shumsher’s other wife had disappeared, Juddha Shumsher’s rani had visited Shaligram. It was her desire, no, compulsion, to bear children, for her husband and for the kingdom. For Juddha Shumsher could not leave Kathmandu without a seed whose tree would shade the city from all else. There had to be children — a son — and it had to be sooner rather than later. Shaligram gave her a potion. He instructed her —
“My dear rani, drink one thirds of this before you sleep with your husband; drink one-thirds during the act of sleeping; and drink the final third after you have fornicated.”
With that in mind Juddha Shumsher’s rani had returned home happily, knowing that she would bear a child soon. But months came and went, and the rani saw no change to her physique. Her womb was as cold as always; it bore no sign of life. She decided to visit Shaligram yet again.
In his chambers, the puret sat cross-legged, meditating as though he was playing cards with the epistemological obscene, gambling with knowledge he did not need. When Juddha Shumsher’s rani walked in, he knew —
“My dear rani, what brings you here?”
She replied —
“Guru, you must know what brings me here. It is the only thing that has kept me awake night and day for the last year — that thing that you had promised me. Why do I not come to you bearing a child, guru?”
Shaligram had handed her another concoction, one that he now claimed would guarantee her desire to bear children, and if it did not —
“Mero naam nai Shaligram hoina.”
That was the end of their conversation. The second poem that the man read as he perused through the remainders of Mana’s life was a tribute to Mana’s mother. Drawing analogy between the relationship of mother and child, and a buffalo and its teats, Mana had written —
“Swallow / this pain when the buffalo sits / beneath the willow tree and asks / for advice to the mouth that suckles on its teats / but he later learns that the mouth is fingers / that belong to a farmer / stealing from underneath the willow tree.”
Two years later, Juddha Shumsher’s rani was at the puret’s doorstep again, and this time she cradled a son in her arms. The man turned to the next poem that Mana had written, and in this one, he wrote about the puret. These were the lines the man read:
“Like waves that form on the inside of our palms / a stone that I found at sea turned into a man named Shaligram / for the remainder of his life, conceived in anyaya and paap / the man named Shaligram will cry from his two blind eyes.”
Many years later, in the moment that the rani had known that her son Mana had never been hers, in the moment that she had decided to confront that man named Shaligram, in the moment that she had paid no heed to rumor, to the idea of death, to the fear of disappearance, and walked in front of his blinded eyes, body and soul and all, it was these lines that ran through her head, in the space between her eyes and forehead, over and over again.
It came back to him now — to the man, the story in its entirety. His son had been stolen from him by that man, holier than thou, Shaligram, and now his son had been stolen yet again from him, for eternity, by that thing called death; he recalled the beating, the stick that made his knees weep, the crack of a breaking bone, the unseeing eyes of a murderer, the anger behind those eyes, the guilt behind each throbbing vein, and all of a sudden the mind that had been a fortress all these years was compromised — he had given in to the all-seeing eyes of murder, and now he had nothing to do but lay for dead, to come again in his next life to seek nyaya — justice — come what may, and that was all he could do, he thought. He remembered the unapologetic, immutable face of Juddha Shumsher. That was the end of it. It had ended before it began.
The urge to run to the thousandth floor, the blood that surged through his veins and threatened to pop out of his forehead — bisfot! For all that remained of his life, he knew he would spend it here, in this room, on the thousandth floor, crying like a swallow in its wallow.
Sometimes I wonder if it ever made sense — the paused worlds of Kathmandu’s monarchs. They later found the man lying on the winding staircase that led to Mana’s chambers. He had tripped and fallen and broken his skull, the stairs painted in blood and grime and brain. Mana had died; suicide, they said. Juddha Shumsher’s rani had disappeared. They said they had last seen her walk into Shaligram’s chambers with nothing but hatred in her eyes and anger in her skin. For many years, however, I looked for this man, Shaligram, yet I found nothing of him — not a trace. None knew him, none had heard of him, and nowhere in the state’s official papers was he identified as the puret. I found it rather strange that so much can happen in a family, in a country, and none would ever know about it, or know why it happened. It hadn’t seemed possible to me. History, I had thought, was unchangeable — if things changed, they would be feelings, thoughts, inclinations, interpretations, those unreal things. Never history itself, nor the people in it.
I then began to look for Juddha Shumsher. For none had talked of his death; none of the abdication of his throne. It must mean, I thought to myself, that he is still there, somewhere, alive and in charge of Kathmandu. For months on end I looked for him, through every wall in Kathmandu, past every door, on the porch of every home. I could not find him anywhere. The people I talked to around Kathmandu — they knew nothing about the monarch, nothing about where he was, where he might be, where he had been; in the fifty years since he was last seen walking past New Road, where he had disappeared. One evening, drunk and out of my wits, I even went to look for him in his palace. It was late and dark; I had finished my last bottle of whisky, and I did not know what direction my Chronicles of Juddha Shumsher was headed in. It was a rather low moment for me, I must admit — and I found myself breaking into Juddha Shumsher’s chambers. Perhaps it was the alcohol that I had drunk that kept me from seeing clearly, but I saw nothing. Nothing — his chambers were empty if not for a drawer in the middle of the room, and a single, lonely chair, stuck against a vast wall of brown and white. I cried for hours and hours, and with my tears I had soon wet the entire carpeted floor. My tears, mixed with the dust that had layered over the carpet in the years that none had visited these chambers, created a mixture of fumes that had me passed out there, on the floor of Juddha Shumsher’s chambers. When I finally woke up after rather long — it must have been two days — I concluded thus: in the middle of New Road, Juddha Shumsher must have turned into stone.
I am now in possession of the thick legacy of poetry that Mana left behind. In it, I am trying to retrace his origins. This story — the above one that I transcribed from my own memory — came to me in a single dream from one night’s sleep; that is, the voice of it, the narrator, the emotional inflections, the poetry of Mana’s suicide, the undilutedness of the society of Shaligram, Juddha Shumsher’s rani, of Juddha Shumsher himself. But it is simply a footnote in the bigger history that I now feel the necessity to write, the book of my career that I have titled the Chronicles of Juddha Shumsher. And yet, if in just this one single footnote there is so much pain, so much happening, poetry that has made my skin ache night and day, then how can I claim right to the whole of these Chronicles?
This much is clear to me: on one evening, when Kathmandu had turned into stone and that stone carved into a mess of buildings, statues, and people, a crime was committed. A real crime — not a symbol for my story. In the years since, roots have grown through Kathmandu’s stone; its foundations have weakened; and none of those roots, to my greatest dismay, have grown from the seeds of real, living, breathing people — not stone people, carved out unnaturally, unwillingly. At the center of the crime was the monarch, Juddha Shumsher, and to his side, like a tree, stood Shaligram; under it, trampled by the feet of the stone people, lay the dying body of a poet, Mana.
Photo source: http://www.bilder-aus-nepal.de/Pages/Geschichte/Juddha4.html