by Shiv Ramdas

If it hadn’t been for the camel, Mithun might never have noticed the old balloon seller at all. He almost didn’t notice the camel either. If he’d been looking for it, he probably wouldn’t have.

Like so many other parts of Northern India, Qaisarbagh Bazaar wasn’t so much a place that time forgot as much as it was a place that had forgotten time, or at the very least, had pointedly refused to acknowledge its existence. To Mithun’s left, men in pathani kurtas herded goats past cellphone towers, never looking up. To his right, vendors pushed carts piled high with sweet-smelling fruit, bright clothes and trinkets under dangling electricity lines, ignoring the half-buried cables underfoot as they called out to passers-by as a steady stream of cars, bicycles and cycle-rickshaws swerved and cursed their way down the narrow cobbled streets. All in all, it was an explosion of sights, sounds and smells, a patchwork of colour and chaos of the sort that is so much more appealing on Exotic India postcards than when experienced in the flesh. Partly because it makes a lot of things rather difficult, such as the mundane yet surprisingly useful exercise that is finding things just by looking for them.

As Mithun stood there, he found the camel staring back at him, unblinking. Then slowly, deliberately, it jerked its head sideways, at the old man with the bent back and straggly grey beard, standing there between the paan-seller with bad teeth and the cigarette-vendor shouting discounts at schoolchildren, half-hidden in the shadow of the crumbling clock-tower. And that was when Mithun noticed the balloons.

Indeed, he couldn’t help but notice them, for these were no ordinary balloons. No, they were massive, lustrous, the most wondrous balloons you ever saw. Above the spotless white Gandhi topi on the old man’s head, a beautiful blue-green globe, the earth itself, or perhaps not quite, floating right there. Beside it, much larger, the fiery citrus glow of the reluctant red of the setting sun giving way to a soothing orange. Next to that, a small one, half translucent, half black, the moon being eaten by Rahu, just like in the myths the teacher read out every Friday.

Mithun looked at his mother, but she failed to notice him, being still engrossed in the vital task of securing an extra half kilo of lentils at no additional cost. An additional half kilo that he already knew it would be his destiny to spend the evening carrying around the bazaar. He looked back at the balloons, and as he watched, one of them, an impossibly radiant five pointed star, floated heavenwards, and then exploded in a shower of iridescence, each fragment now a star in its own right. This was the first thing Mithun noticed.

The second was that he seemed to be the only person who had noticed it.

‘Come here, boy.’

He looked around, but could see nobody who had spoken, just the usual whirling dervish of a small town economy hard at work all around.

‘Are you deaf? I said come here, boy!’

He swung around, looking across the street to where the voice had come from, and discovered he was looking at the camel again.

Mithun blinked. The camel didn’t. Instead, once more it jerked its head towards the balloons.

And then Mithun found himself far away from the channa vendor, skirting vehicles, making his way towards the talking camel and the magical balloons. But when he finally got there, he found the little stall in the shadows of the tower deserted. This gave him pause, but only briefly. Because just then he noticed the most amazing balloon of them all, a huge, black oval affair that was still translucent enough for him to see the other shapes inside it, too many to count, some round and revolving around bigger round ones, sometimes colliding, some impossibly bright, winking in and out and sometimes vanishing entirely. Mithun didn’t really know much about astronomy and had even once spelt it wrong on a test, but he knew enough to know that sometimes the appropriate response is just to gawk, mouth half-open. So gawk he did, pausing only twice, once to decline the offer of a paan and again, to point out he didn’t want a cigarette at half price.

So well did he gawk that he failed to notice the shouting, or the people suddenly running pell-mell in the opposite direction. The first inkling he had that something was wrong was a heavy, grinding sound, not dissimilar to the one Sarita Aunty’s lassi-machine had made when he’d tried to grind pebbles in it. Only this was much louder, loud enough to cut through his reverie.

He looked up, and saw it, the top of the clock tower teetering and then, ever so leisurely, tipping over, raining rock down, as it strained to obey gravity’s call. Then with a final, shuddering groan it fell, blocking out the sun above him, falling downwards like a furious thundercloud, Indra’s vajra hurtling down to earth.

Somewhere in the far recesses of his mind, Mithun knew he should run, but his legs wouldn’t work, nothing would, all he could do was look up, mouth open in a wordless scream. He felt a hand grab the back of his shirt, yanking` him back roughly, and then something slammed into his head, sending an explosion of white before his eyes, which just as quickly turned to black.

That was the last thing he remembered.

Mithun woke, opened his eyes, and then closed them again because it was so dark that the effort seemed pointless.

‘Are you all right?’

The voice, coming as it did from what appeared to be empty space, took him by surprise. Mithun sat up abruptly, bringing his head in sharp contact with what appeared to be an incredibly low roof.

‘Ow!’

‘Are you all right?’ the voice asked again.

‘My head hurts. Who’s there?’

‘Just me,’ said the voice. It was soft, and yet somehow strident, the sort of voice that has seen much service.

There was a sharp rasping sound, the unmistakable accent of a match striking stone, and Mithun found himself looking into the face of an old man in a torn, dirty Gandhi cap, worn askew on his head. It was a lean, lined face, weather beaten and grey-bearded, with a pair of gentle brown eyes.

‘It’s you,’ said Mithun. ‘Gubbara-wala. The balloon man.’

The match went out.

‘Bhak!’ said the old man. ‘Third-rate matches. Well, I suppose those are the only kind.’

A moment later he’d lit another.

‘Here, hold this,’ he said, holding out the match. ‘Yes, that’s fine, just a moment, let me find… Where did it–Ah, there we go!’

From his pocket he pulled a pale, translucent balloon.

He took a deep breath, then blew into the balloon. It swelled up, and as it did, it began to glow, filling the alcove with a thin, silvery light. The man gave the end a twist and let it go, and it floated up, coming to a rest against a rocky ceiling a few feet over his head.

‘Nothing quite like moonlight, is there?’

Mithun glanced around at their surroundings. There wasn’t much to see, just rocks piled all around the small alcove where they were. Mithun pulled himself to where he could sit up, so he was now facing the old man.

‘Managed to get us under the arch,’ said the balloon man, and grinned, showing a set of strangely perfect teeth. ‘Cramped, but it’ll keep the weight out till they dig through.’

Mithun wasn’t sure if it was the words or the tone they were delivered in, but he felt the cold stab of panic slice through his chest.

‘Ma!’ he shouted.

The old man smiled, patting him on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry lad. You’ll be fine.’

Mithun looked around. There was a distinct watery sensation at the very bottom of his stomach.

‘How do you know?’

‘Well, you’d better be,’ said the man indignantly. ‘I had to run awfully fast to pull you safe, and I still don’t know if it’ll count. Or where that camel’s got to. But we’ll find out soon enough, I suppose and whatever will be will be. Oh, don’t look so scared, you’ll be fine, didn’t I say? They’ll save you, I promise.’

‘Don’t you mean us?’

The old man chuckled. ‘No, I’m the only one saving me.’

‘I don’t understand, baba. We’re here together. If I get rescued, so will you.’

‘Well, you should understand. Makes perfect sense when you do. Just remember the rule.’

‘What rule?’

‘That in India, whatever is true, the opposite is also true.’

Mithun blinked, realising that his fellow prisoner was not quite sane. He turned away, scrabbling at the rocks to his left.

‘Stop that!’ said the balloon man sharply. ‘Don’t upset the balance, you’ll bring them all down. Look at me, boy. Here. Look at me and take a deep breath. Alright, let it out. Slowly. Good, good. Feel better?’

‘No,’ said Mithun.

‘Of course you do. You just don’t know it yet. Alright, what’s your name?’

‘Mithun.’

‘Want to hear a story, Mithun?’

‘You think I’m six? No, I don’t want to hear a story.’

‘Well, you’ll just have to. How can you be part of the story if you won’t hear the rest of it?’

Once again, he reached into a pocket, and pulled out a packet, from which he shook out three balloons, green, black and white.

‘That’ll be enough,’ he said.

With that, he set to work, first blowing into the black balloon, then twisting and worrying at it with his callused hands as it grew, taking the shape of a bird. Except it wasn’t just a balloon bird, it was a real bird, a majestic black swan, feathers, beak and all. As Mithun watched, it jumped to the ground, and stood up and nodded at the old man, fluttering its wings.

‘H–how?’

The old man winked at him.

‘Magic,’ he said.

‘Magic? How did you do that?’

‘Quite a silly boy, aren’t you?’ said the swan.

Mithun felt his jaw loosen. He sat there, eyes bulging.

‘It talks?’

‘Of course I talk,’ said the swan. ‘Don’t you?’

‘How can it talk?’

‘She, and thank you very much, young man. And he just told you how. Magic.’

‘Yes, but how?’

The swan sniffed. ‘That’s why it’s called magic. If we knew, we’d call it science instead.’

The balloon man seemed to have been paying no attention to this exchange. Instead, he’d been busy working on the green balloon, so now there was also a long, grass-green snake in the alcove with them, staring straight at Mithun.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ said the snake.

Mithun could only stare.

Finally, the snake broke the silence.

‘I apologise if I’m being rude, but do you talk?’

‘Of course he does,’ said the balloon man. ‘He’s just shocked, that’s all. His name’s Mithun, by the way.’

‘Not very bright, though,’ said the swan, and sniffed. ‘Boys of this age seldom are.’

‘Maybe he’s just scared,’ said the snake, uncoiling slowly and moving towards Mithun. ‘Do you need a hug?’

‘No–I’m fine! Stay away!’

The snake retreated slightly, looking hurt.

Said the swan, ‘Where’s the camel?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘This is terrible.’

‘Well, make the best of it.’

‘I am making the best of it.’

‘Must you always be in a bad mood?’ asked the snake.

‘Yes,’ said the swan. ‘You try cleaning your feathers in this land with more dust than air for the last–‘

It broke off suddenly, looking towards where the last balloon-animal-turned-real-animal now stood, a large white elephant, about as big as the balloon man himself. With a start, Mithun realised it had several heads–five in fact. The balloon man bowed, as did the other animals.

‘It is time,’ said the elephant in a slow, ponderous voice.

‘Are you ready to be heard?’

‘We are,’ replied everyone except Mithun.

‘Then begin,’ said the elephant, sitting down. ‘Who shall it be?’

‘Me,’ said the snake. ‘Where do you wish me to begin, Lord?’

‘I have always found the beginning to be as good a place as any. And the appropriate one in a hearing such as this. Tell your part of the story, and tell it true.’

‘I will indeed, Lord,’ said the snake, and hissed, the sound slithering away over the stones around them.

‘Listen to me now. Listen as I tell you the story of the wretched King Vikramaditya.

VIKRAMADITYA AND THE CELESTIAL COW

Long, long ago, long before this land carried this name or the one before this or the one before that, this was the kingdom of the good Raja Vikramaditya. Many stories of his wisdom and valour have been written, but this is not one of them, for it is about neither. But know that the king was revered far and wide for being as learned as he was generous, and a true man of dharma. It was said he had never once broken a promise and no man who visited his court left without what he had come for. A greater, more generous, more virtuous king than Indra, king of the gods, whispered some, and judging by the state of the universe, that may even have been true.

Now, one day, there arrived in the court of Raja Vikram a rishi, a wandering holy man. Vikram received him immediately, for such was his custom.

‘Pray tell me, holy sire,’ he said. ‘What service may this monarch render you?’

‘Your protection, King Vikramaditya,’ replied the rishi. ‘And it is not for myself I ask it, but for another. For a while, I have made my abode a small ashram on the other side of the river. There I stay, alone save for one companion, a heifer. But now I must travel north for a pilgrimage, and it will be many a sunrise before I return. I cannot leave her there alone. Will you, O King, take her under your protection?’

‘Indeed I will,’ said Vikram.

‘Know this too, that she is no ordinary cow, for she was given to me as a boon by Kamdhenu, Mother of Cows. She eats only the greenest grass and drinks only the clearest water and her milk is sweeter than honey and has the power to cure any illness or ailment.’

‘I hear you, Gurudev,’ said Vikram. ‘It shall be as you ask. Leave on your pilgrimage when you wish and upon your return, she will be waiting here for you.’

‘Thank you, Maharaj,’ said the rishi. ‘I expected no less. May your years be long and your days filled with light.’

So saying, he left, taking with him a cohort of the king’s men to whom he would entrust the wondrous heifer. Meanwhile, Vikram called forth his ministers to decide how best to care for the rishi’s cow.

“Let us build an enclosure for her and make sure she is fed and guarded at all times,’ said one.

‘An excellent suggestion,’ said the king. ‘Let it be done.’

And so a grand enclosure was built, with high stone walls and a sloping roof and golden tiles within and a whole host of soldiers without. The king personally oversaw the construction, and well pleased he was, for he knew it to be so secure that perhaps even Vayu, god of the air, would have trouble getting in undetected. And no matter how busy with his duties, he never failed to look in on the rishi’s cow every night, to make sure she was safe and well.

Until one day, when a visitor arrived unbidden, one that set the entire palace aflutter with fear and excitement, for it was a nagin, a great she-serpent with a massive hood and scales as green as the gehu-stalks after the rains.

The king received her immediately, for such was his way with visitors.

‘They say you never refuse someone who comes to you for help, King Vikramaditya,’ said the nagin. ‘And it is for your help I am here.’

‘You honour me, noble nagin,’ said the king. ‘Tell me what it is you wish for, and if it be in my power, you shall have it.’

‘My daughter’s life, maharaj,’ spoke the nagin. ‘She accidentally angered a rishi, and was cursed with a lingering sickness that will take her. Indeed, her time is almost up. There is but one thing that can save her.’

‘Say no more,’ answered the king. ‘I know what it is you seek, but my hands are tied, for the milk of the celestial cow is not mine to give.’

‘No, Vikramaditya, you do not understand. My daughter’s ailment is from a god’s curse. Just the milk of the cow is not enough. To be cured, she must partake of its flesh.’

‘Never!’ said the king, shocked. ‘The rishi left the cow under my protection. And on my honour I vowed to protect it, not give it away to be slaughtered.’

‘Does your honour involve putting the life of a cow over that of my daughter, Vikramaditya?’ asked the nagin.

‘I will give you my entire herd if you so desire, but this cow is not mine to give,’ said the king.

‘All the herds in all three worlds are no use to me if you will not do so,’ said the nagin.

On and on they argued, but the king would not be swayed to break his promise and finally the nagin rose up on her tail. ‘So be it, Vikram, but I shall remember that you held my daughter’s life in your hands and refused to give it back, and you shall regret this day.’

And then she was gone, leaving no trace of her ever having come save the furrows on every brow in the hall.

‘She will be back, Maharaj,’ said one of his courtiers.

‘I am sure of it,’ said Vikram. ‘But I will not seek shelter from the rain before the clouds come. Never let it be said that Vikramaditya exchanged his honour for safety.’

But even though he spoke the words, he felt a dark foreboding in his heart, for even the gods thought hard before making an enemy of a nagin, and none had ever been known to renege on a vow of vengeance. Even so, he resolved to not show his trepidation, for a fearful king is inevitably soon a former king, and went about the rest of his regal duties.

At the end of the day, he visited the cow’s enclosure, as he always did. The guards saluted him and stepped back to let him enter. And he did so, only to realise that the enclosure was now empty, the cow gone.

He looked around, but there was no sign of her, no mark of anything. And then he heard the faintest sound, and turned and saw a hole in the wall, through which was disappearing a long, green tail.

‘Guards!’ shouted Vikram. ‘Guards! The nagin has escaped with the cow. Stop her!’

And with that, he ran outside, but when he got there he saw that the nagin had eluded his men, for he could see her in the distance, fleeing as swiftly as the winter in Vaisakha.

Undeterred, the king called for his swiftest horse, and immediately set off in pursuit. For countless days and nights he followed her, over leagues of forests and valleys, hills and dunes. Until they were all the way to the Saraswati, the famed river that marks the boundary between this world and the next.

The king leapt off his horse and prepared to dive in, and even as he did, he heard the nagin’s voice, carrying across to him from the other side.

‘How long will you follow me, Vikramaditya?’

‘As long as it takes,’ answered Vikram. ‘Until you return the rishi’s cow to me, unhurt, or until I finally catch up with you and force you to do so.’

The nagin laughed. ‘There is no power in existence that can give you what you want, Vikram. Even if you were to catch up with me, and defeat me, even then it would still gain you nothing. Hear me when I say that Shiva himself could not force the whereabouts of the cow from me while my daughter’s life hangs in the balance. In my place, you would do the same.’

And at this the king paused, for he recognised the truth in what the nagin was saying.

‘You will not succeed at this quest. And know that I take no pleasure in what I have done, but it is for the good of us both that I do it. It would have been far easier to have fought you for the heifer, and one of us would now be dead. Honour may lie in keeping your word, but wisdom is knowing that trying does not mean succeeding. Return to your kingdom and know that no shame or dishonour falls upon you. You pursued me to the very edge of Prithvilok and still you failed. This is the last time we shall exchange words, king, so return with your head held high and tell the rishi you did what any mortal man could have done and more.’

With that, she was gone, while the king stood ankle-deep in the river at the edge of the world, lost in thought, for truth is true no matter who speaks it and Vikram was wise enough to know this. Then he leapt back upon his horse and began the long, lonely journey back to his kingdom.

‘But what will you do when the rishi returns?’ asked his queen of him one night.

‘The only thing I can do,’ replied Vikram. ‘I shall throw myself at his mercy and whatever will be will be.’

And very soon he got his wish, for, as is so often the case in these stories, the very next day the rishi returned.

‘I am back, King Vikramaditya,’ he said. ‘Now return my heifer to me.’

Vikram bowed his head. ‘I have failed you, venerable one.’

So saying, he told the rishi what had happened with the nagin and how he had pursued her only to return empty handed.

Even before he had finished, the rishi’s face had darkened, his eyes flashing with rage. ‘You have broken your word to me, Vikramaditya,’ he said. ‘A king who cannot be trusted is no king at all. Tell me, what should I do with you? A curse, or something more befitting?’

Vikram fell at the sage’s feet. ‘Forgive me, gurudev,’ he cried. ‘I throw myself on your mercy. If there is anything I can do to atone, say the word and I am at your service.’

‘Is what you say true?’ asked the rishi, stroking his beard. ‘You once vowed to do me a service and failed. Will you now vow to do me another of my choosing?’

‘I do, gurudev,’ said Vikram.

‘No matter what I ask of you? Do I have your word?’

‘You do, gurudev,’ said Vikram.

‘Then I accept.’ said the rishi, in a very different voice. ‘Now rise, Vikramaditya. Rise like the king you are and look me in the eye.’

Vikram looked up and lo–the rishi was gone and in his place stood the demigod Narada, master of bards, storyteller of storytellers and messenger of the gods themselves.

‘But why, Lord?’ asked Vikram.

‘It was a test, King Vikramaditya,’ replied Narada. ‘A test that you failed, but I am willing to forgive, if you are willing to keep your vow this time.’

‘I am,’ answered the king.

Narada smiled, the irresistible smile that the songs tell us that even the apsaras could not resist, although most of those songs were composed by Narada himself. ‘All is well then,’ he said. ‘I accept your offer, King Vikramaditya. When the time comes, I shall return and remind you of your promise to serve me.’

He smiled again. ‘And I have just the service in mind.’

And so it came to pass that Vikramaditya, noblest of kings, found himself bound in service to the prince of all tricksters, although as it turned out, he might have been better off dead. What became of that service is a story in itself, but what you have just heard is the tale I have to tell, and know every word to be true, for I was there and saw it all.

‘Wait,’ said Mithun. ‘Better off dead? How could he have been better off dead?’

The snake hissed. ‘Because there are worse things than dying.’

‘Such as?’ said Mithun.

‘Not dying, said the swan.

‘That makes no sense,’ said Mithun.

The swan nodded. ‘I knew you were a foolish boy. Said so right from the start.’

‘Now, what we have here is a beginning, and little else,’ said the elephant. ‘Which of you will tell of what happened next?’

‘I will, Lord,’ said the swan, and flapping her wings, she began.

VIKRAMADITYA AND THE ELEPHANT’S CURSE

King Vikramaditya waited anxiously for Narada to return, and he waited in vain. Weeks passed into months, the rains came and went, and did so again, with still no sign of him. It was not till the rains came a third time that Narada returned, early in the morning on the first day of Vraj.

The king was still in his bedchamber, and when he heard, he rushed down, so hastily he even forgot his turban.

‘I have returned, O King,’ said Narada. ‘Do you intend to keep your word?’

‘I do,’ answered Vikram. ‘What is it you wish of me?’

‘To accompany me to a sabha–a grand gathering.’

‘As you wish. When do we leave?’

‘Immediately. I wish to arrive well in time’

‘It has already begun?’

Narada smiled. ‘It began almost thirty years ago, King Vikram.’

‘Thirty years? Who is this king who would throw a sabha that long?’

Narada smiled. ‘Mine. We go to Devlok, to the court of Indra. And there we shall play a little trick on him.’

At this Vikram stared at him. ‘This is madness, O sage. To attempt to deceive the king of the Devas himself? You will doom us both.’

‘No, I will repay the insult he dealt me. Do not presume to question me, Vikram! When the time is right, you will be told what to do. You need only follow the dharma of a king, and be true to your word.’

‘I may not share your confidence, but that does not mean I forget my dharma.’

‘Then there is no more to be said for the present and let us be on our way.’

So saying, he reached out and touched the king on the arm, and in that instant they both vanished, travelling ways that words cannot describe, so swiftly that they were at the gates of Devlok in no more time than it took to finish this sentence.

‘And here we are,” said Narada.

‘Indeed,’ answered Vikram. ‘Although I wish I could have no part of this. But the yolk cannot be returned to the broken egg, so tell me what it is we must do and let us do it and face whatever punishment Indra sees fit.’

‘You misjudge me, Vikram. It is true that Indra insulted me, but that does not wound me. But when a king falls into the folly of pride, it is the duty of his nearest and dearest to remind him of this fact and if they shall not do it then it must fall on us.’

‘It is not my place to teach the king of heaven of his follies.’

‘That is where you are wrong, King Vikramaditya. If it is anyone’s place, it is yours. Of your honour there can be no question, for I have seen it with my own eyes, and as for your wisdom, I have heard it said that your knowledge of statecraft is second to none, and that you learnt it from the great Rishi Vishwamitra himself. What is more, you are a mortal. We shall confront Indra with his secret fear–that one day a mortal might surpass him in prowess.’

‘Indra would tell you of his secret fear?’

‘Secrets rarely stay that way. Now listen to me, and listen well. I shall now disguise you as a wandering merchant. You will enter the sabha and challenge Indra to a battle of wits. And there before the entire assembly of the gods, he will learn his lesson. Even if you do not win, if you make him pause that is enough, for he will begin to wonder if he really is as great as he believes when even a common mortal can so challenge him.’

‘Very well,’ said Vikram. ‘I am ready.’

‘Two more things–when we enter, keep your eyes down and keep your eyes covered or you will be blinded by the grandeur of Indra’s palace. No mortal eyes can withstand such a sight. I will be beside you to guide you, but also in disguise, for I do not want Indra to suspect anything. Second, and do not forget this–no matter how hungry or thirsty you get, do not eat or drink anything within the palace, or you will regret it. Now let us be going, for the sabha has begun and each moment is more precious than you realise.’

So saying he transformed them both, King Vikram into a turbaned merchant, himself into a camel loaded with wares. They made their way through the gates all the way to the palace. Here Vikram shielded his eyes, allowing the camel to guide him all the way into the famed Celestial Hall. Once they were inside however, his curiosity got the better of him and he wrapped his turban and placed it over his eyes, just opening his eyes enough to peer through.

Around them played music, a melody so sweet the rain stopped falling to listen. In the front of the room, before the throne, danced an apsara, her beauty such that it put even the summer sunset to shame. Invisible hands pressed a goblet into his hand, and without thinking about it, he took a sip. It was the sweetest drink he’d ever tasted, like wine and honey and something else he couldn’t describe. And too late he remembered Narada’s warning and stopped, and no sooner had he thought about drinking no more than the goblet vanished. The minutes passed, and he felt no ill effects, no different than usual. From the corner of his eye, he saw Varuna, God of the Ocean lounging on a gold seat, hair made of water, streaming down and curling at the back in waves. Beside him sat Chandra, gentle silvery moon, skin glowing with a soft white light. And beyond him, another being, but as Vikram turned towards him all he saw was a bright, fiery incandescence that burnt into his eyes, forcing him to squeeze them shut for fear he would be blinded and he knew he had almost committed to folly of daring to look straight at Surya.

‘Still your mind,’ said Narada into his ear. ‘When I give you the signal, raise your voice and challenge Indra.’

And Vikram stood there, eyes lowered, listening until the music softened and he felt the camel nudge him in the back.

‘Great and noble Indradev, king of us all, I challenge you!’ he cried.

There was a hush and then a ripple, the music stopped abruptly.

‘Who says that? Stand before me!’ said a voice that sounded like thunder, and Vikram knew that Indra had heard.

The camel nudged him again and Vikram stepped forward, making his way through the sabha until he stood before the massive, dazzling throne.

Said Indra, ‘Who are you, mortal who wishes to challenge me?’

‘To a battle of knowledge, Lord,’ said Vikram. ‘Who I am not important. If I am, as you say, a mere mortal, then surely a merchant is as good as a king to you just as a fly is as a mosquito to a man.’

‘Even the fly and the mosquito have their proper place and wisdom lies in knowing that place.’

‘I see you have accepted my challenge, Indradev,’ said Vikram bowing.

At that there was a laugh from the assembly. Airavarta, mount of Indra himself clapped, nodding his many heads appreciatively and even Indra smiled.

‘Very well, mortal. Let us proceed.’

And so it began, question and answer, back and forth. And the longer it went on, the more all those watching marvelled at the wit and wisdom of Vikram, so much so that even Indra was forced to focus all his attention on their battle going so far as to even stop listening to the prayers people sent him from earth.

Until finally, Indra sat up on his throne and looked straight as Vikram. ‘You are no merchant. The depth of your knowledge and the breadth of your arguments are those of someone who has devoted his life to statecraft. You have entered my halls uninvited, on false pretences. How came you here?’

And then his gaze fell on the camel and Indra’s face darkened, like the thunderclouds from where he wielded his vajra.

‘Narada? Are you the one responsible for this deceit?’

Hearing that terrifying voice roaring through the hall, Narada turned, only to find that Vayu blocked his way.

‘Nay, trickster,’ he said. ‘Today you shall answer for your actions.’

But Narada’s action had confirmed his guilt and there now rang out cries and exclamations from those in the assembly. Until Airavata jumped to his feet, many trunks quivering in fury, and the hall fell silent, for the God-king of the Elephants was known for his wisdom and his compassion but few were foolish enough to not fear his anger.

‘Narada! You thought to deceive our king in this fashion, while you disguise yourself and hide among us, watching, like a coward? This time you have gone too far. And as for this mortal whom you brought here as an instrument of your trickery, I shall crush him where he stands!’

So saying he set off towards Vikram, but Vayu was there, barring his path, even as he continued to stop Narada from escaping, for the God of the Wind can be everywhere at once.

‘Stop, good Airavata! Stay your hand and listen to me. I recognise this mortal and he is none other than the noble King Vikramaditya, whose name has reached even these halls. Many a time have I flown over his lands and not once have I found any of what is said to be untrue. Now, listen to me, Indra, listen to me, all you immortals. Hear what I have to say, for I know the truth of what has happened. What we have seen today is the fruit of a great many seeds, and in each case the same hand planted them. It was Narada the double-tongued who entreated the apsara Visala to take the form of a nagin and steal away his cow from King Vikramaditya, the same cow he promised to the apsara Nairiti if she transformed into a bird and flew to the very top of the celestial palace and listened at Indradev’s bedchamber. They thought that nobody would know, but the wind carries all voices, no matter how soft, and I hear them all. And this is how they tricked this mortal into standing here today, and it is to his credit that he has acted with dharma throughout. As to his fate, and the fate of these others, that is for you to decide, Lord. But know what I tell you to be true, for I was there and saw it all.’

‘I have heard enough,’ said Indra. ‘But still I would give each of the accused an opportunity to speak in their defence. Has any of you anything to say?’

‘My lord, I merely was doing my bounden duty!’ said Narada. ‘I saw you had made an error and I sought–‘

‘You sought to create a spectacle for your amusement,’ said Airavata. ‘Your untruths have caused much annoyance to many, so still your tongue ere I still it for you.’

‘What of you apsaras?’ asked Indra. ‘Is what Vayu says true?’

‘It is, lord,’ they said, beautiful faces burning pink.

‘And you, King Vikramaditya? Have you anything to say?’

‘Only that I am yours to do with as you see fit and know that had I not given my word, I would not be here.’

‘Prettily spoken indeed!’ said Indra. ‘From what I have heard here, Vikramaditya has conducted himself with great honour and for this reason I forgive him his deception, and even his forcing me to stop listening to the prayers of those invoking me. There will be no punishment, he has been punished enough by staying here this long. You are a credit to all men, Vikramaditya. Ask me for what you will and if it be in my power, I will grant it.’

‘You honour this unworthy one, lord,’ said Vikram, bowing. ‘But I desire nothing further than to return to my kingdom and family.’

‘That is impossible, O King,’ said Indra. ‘They are gone.’

‘Gone?’ cried Vikramaditya. ‘I do not understand, Lord. Where could they go? And if they are, grant me your permission to leave immediately to set out after them. It has scarce been a few hours since I left home, and I can still catch them.’

But Indra shook his head. ‘Nay, Vikramaditya. Time here in Devlok is not as time on Prithvilok. Every second here is a year there. You have been here several hours, but you have been gone for hundreds of years. Your family, kingdom, the world as you knew it, all are long since gone. And even you with all your courage and wisdom cannot follow them, for a body may not travel the paths souls take.’

At these words, a terror ran through Vikram and he folded his palms before Indra. ‘Then there is nothing left to return to. You promised me a boon, Indra, so I now ask it–return me to them.’

‘Nay, I cannot,’ answered Indra. ‘For none may turn back the cycle of Time, and neither will I take you before your time.’

‘Then I am lost!’ said Vikramaditya. ‘All is lost. It seems all I can do is return to earth and wait for my time.’

‘Return by all means, but first tell me this–did you eat or drink anything here?’

‘Only a sip of wine,’ said Vikram. ‘The merest taste.’

And Indra looked at him and there was sadness in his eyes. ‘You have made a grave mistake, O Vikramaditya. What you drank was Amrit, the divine nectar of immortality. Lord Yama will not come for you, for Death does not visit those touched by Amrit.’

Vikram fell to his knees. ‘You mean I am destined to wander the earth till the end of Creation itself? No, Indra, no! Do not this to me, I entreat you!’

‘I cannot make Yama come for you, King Vikramaditya,’ said Indra. ‘Indeed there is but one path I can offer you. But it will not be easy. Are you willing?’

‘I would do anything.’

‘Then here is what you must do. For hours I ignored prayer after prayer, devotees I would have helped, people in need of my aid, all because you distracted me. One thousand times one thousand they numbered, and none of them did I aid. Your task is this–return to Prithvi and make it your mission to help people, until such time as you have performed one good deed for each prayer you caused me to miss in all the years that have passed since you came here. Do this and when you have finished, I will grant you a place in my halls, and here you may sit alongside us, as one of us, until the end of this cycle of Creation.’

‘If this is the only choice before me, said Vikram. ‘I shall do as you command, Lord. But know I would prefer to not have to make it.’

‘And that is the only reason I offer it,’ said Indra. ‘So be it, then. As for you, Narada, Airavata spoke for us all when he said that for too long have you spread false stories. You are hereby banished from the heavens. Spend your time on the mortal plane, until such time as you have told a true story for each untruth you have uttered. Then and only then will you ever have hope of returning here. Airavata, faithful one, I leave it to you to see that what I have said today is done.’

Airavata bowed. ‘It shall be done, Lord. But the bard cannot escape this lightly. It was by my boon that he gained the power to transform himself. So let him remain in this form, not a man, but a beast, for all the time he must spend on Prithvi.’

‘But I too have something else,’ said Vayu. ‘I feel for you, King Vikramaditya and what the fates have decided for you. I cannot undo any of what has been done, but accept this gift from the God of the Winds.’

So saying he pressed a bag into Vikram’s hands.

‘Toys of my devising that one day mortal children will play with, but these ones have been blessed by me, Vikramaditya. When you have need, invoke me as you fill them and the air itself will help you. Accept this as a token from Vayu.’

‘Lord Indra, what of the apsaras?’ asked Airavata. ‘Is their part to go unpunished?’

‘Since they helped create this situation, let them be part of it till the end,’ said Indra. ‘They too are banished from my halls until Vikramaditya returns. Let them be witness to each task he performs for as long as it may take.’

And that was how King Vikram was condemned to wander the earth as a commoner, helping those he could. And how Narada was punished, along with the apsaras Visala and Nairiti.‘

The swan gulped. A single large tear fell from its eye, landing on the dirt underfoot with a soft plop.

‘And what happened of his task is a story in itself ’ went on the swan. ‘But what you have just heard is the tale I have to tell, and know every word to be true, for I was there and saw it all.’

‘But that’s not fair!’ said Mithun. ‘Why would the gods not let Vikram stay right then?’

‘The gods never claimed to be fair, they only claimed to be right,’ said the elephant.

‘That makes no sense,’ said Mithun.

‘Guard your tongue, boy!’ said the swan, and squawked angrily. ‘If you must address Lord Airavata, do so with respect or not at all!’

‘I shall answer for myself, Nairiti,’ said Airavata. ‘Makes no sense, you said? And you are surprised because everything else makes sense? The gods have the power to be anywhere they want whenever they want and yet Indra has me, Shiva has Nandi, Vishnu has both Ananta and Garuda, almost every god has a mount. Does this make sense? This is the trouble with mortals, always demanding that things must make sense and be logical. Such a human desire. To exist, a thing need not be logical, it just needs to be. Now let us move on for we have a beginning and a middle but not an end. Are you the third witness? Of course you are, for yours is the next story.’

‘I don’t know any stories,’ said Mithun.

‘Of course you do. Everyone does. And today yours is the most important one of all, so don’t be shy. I shall even help you. Are you ready?’

VIKRAM, THE CAMEL AND THE BOY

     ‘Vikramaditya had lost his kingdom, but not his will.’ said Airavata. ‘He was determined to fulfill the task Lord Indra had given him. Even so, he knew it would not be easy. A thousand times a thousand numbered the prayers Indra had ignored, and for each of these Vikramaditya owed one good deed. And since it is a lot easier to pray than help, he was destined to spend more years on earth than he had been away in Devlok. Indeed, he soon found that helping people is a lot harder than it sounds. On one occasion he decided to help a young lover sneak into his beloved’s home, only to discover that he was no such thing, but a burglar who robbed the family as they slept. On another, he assisted distraught parents in finding their lost son, except that it turned out the parents were drunkards whom the boy had run away from and Vikram was forced to rescue him again. Even so, he persevered, until he had done too many good deeds to remember the count, although not nearly enough to stop counting.

Until one day, walking towards a destination that no longer matters, he was caught in one of those torrential midyear downpours that are so important to the livelihood of both the farmer and the poet. Seeking shelter from the rain, Vikramaditya left the road and came across a small cowshed in a field. Within it, he found a man, also taking refuge from the storm. Once the mandatory pleasantries had been exchanged, they set to talking.

‘So what brings you this way?’ asked Vikramaditya.

‘Ill-fortune,’ replied the man. ‘And this rain has added to it else I would already be in the next town where I could put an end to my misery.’

‘These are worrying words, friend,’ said Vikramaditya. ‘I hope you do not mean to do yourself an injury.’

‘Only to my money-purse,’ said the man.

‘Tell me what ails you,’ said Vikramaditya. ‘Perhaps I can help.’

‘You seem like a good person, said the man. ‘So while it would be easy to give you my burden, it would not be right. You see, I am not travelling alone. I have with me a camel that I tied outside and you may have seen as you entered. I am taking it to the butcher in the town up the road so he may slaughter it. He may not pay me very much for it, for it is old and its meat no doubt stringy, but I would rather pay him to slaughter it than take it back with me.’

‘Why do you say this?’ asked Vikramaditya.

‘Because this is no ordinary camel. It was sold to me by a merchant who said it was a magic talking camel and would bring me good fortune. It seemed an excellent bargain so I agreed, even though I did not believe him just as I have no doubt you will not believe me. But you may take my word for it–the beast does in truth speak. Indeed, it has scarce ceased speaking since I got it and every word it has uttered has brought me naught but misfortune. Curse that scoundrel and curse his camel.’

‘I see,’ replied Vikramaditya. ‘In that case, perhaps you would not mind if I saw this magical camel for myself?’

‘If that is what you wish, by all means. But I warn you now not to listen to a word it says, for every sentence that escapes its lips is either terrible or a lie.’

‘Thank you for your warning, friend,’ said Vikramaditya, and getting up, he made his way out of the cowshed to where the camel was tied. And when he got outside, he saw that it was indeed Narada still trapped in camel form who was tied there, because of course it was, for these are the sort of coincidences that make stories possible.

‘Vikramaditya!’ said Narada. ‘It is indeed you! I had not thought to see you.’

‘The fates have not been kind to you, it would appear.’

‘Certainly not. I have never cared much for mortals but now I love them even less. Do you know what it has been like trying to tell only true stories all these years? To begin with, nobody wants to listen because most true stories are not pleasant. But we waste time. Quickly, free me before this lout realises or he will be taking me to the butcher. Hurry now– the rain ceases as we speak.’

‘Do you indeed expect me to do you a good turn after all you have put me through?’

‘No, Vikramaditya, I expect you to do a good turn. Is that not your purpose now?’

‘You will not twist me around with your words again, Narada. It is yourself you care about.’

‘Certainly, but it is also you I think of. And it is not so bad for me as you might think. I am an immortal and cannot die, which the fool inside does not know. The butcher cannot kill me, but it will hurt a great deal, which I am anxious to avoid. Also reflect that the man inside wishes to be rid of me, as I wish to be rid of him and by freeing me you would be doing us both a good turn, and so have one less to perform.’

‘It is this very cunning that has put you in the position that you find yourself in now, Narada. Too much cleverness is not a virtue. Even so, I will free you, for malice is a slow poison and makes the blood grow thicker.’

‘Do this and I will repay you, Vikramaditya. You have my word.’

‘You are already making me regret this,’ replied Vikramaditya, and so saying, he went back into the shed. A few minutes later, and somewhat lighter in the pocket, he returned and led the camel away.

‘You are now free to go, Narada.’

‘You are a man of honour, Vikramaditya. You have come to my aid, even after I tricked you and have earned my gratitude. And so I have decided to help you in your task, to end your imprisonment on earth, and I swear I will not rest until I have seen you finish your last good deed.’

‘I do not trust you.’

‘Merely reflect that we can help each other, for I have ever had a nose for trouble and by helping you I can tell the story of those deeds and it will be a pleasant story after all. And Indra never said I could not be in my own stories. And you have my word, the word of a demigod. As heaven is my witness, if I do not keep it, may I be trapped here forever.’

‘Very well,’ said Vikramaditya. ‘I will accept your offer, for I do not believe you would be so foolish as to attempt to deceive the gods another time.’

They set off, and Vikramaditya soon found the camel was as good as his word, for where earlier he had gone days and even a week without any good deeds to perform, the camel found them one every day, and sometimes more. And so, with the help of the camel and Vayu’s gift, the years rolled on, as did the good deeds, until one day they came to a small town, and as they passed through, they came upon an old, abandoned building, alongside the town square, lined with shuttered shops and locked stalls.

‘I have a premonition that we will be needed here,’ said Narada. ‘Let us stop in this building for the night, and see if the morrow brings any answers.’

When they awoke it was with the sunrise, and the square was already beginning to fill with people.

‘I have a premonition that something terrible is about to happen here,’ said the camel. ‘And it will happen today. We must stay here. And perhaps before this day is done, you will have a chance to repay Yama for refusing to visit you all these years.’

‘If this is the place, then I shall invoke Vayu’s gift so as to not attract any suspicion and await the danger you have predicted here.’

‘That is wise,’ said Narada. ‘And I shall look around and see if I can find its cause. If I find anything, I shall let you know.’

And so Vikramaditya stood by the building, waiting, till the sun began setting, and then he heard his name being urgently called, and saw the camel.

‘It is about to happen! Run to the shadows at the door to the building and wait there. Hurry!’

Vikramaditya did as he was told, running swiftly to the shadows, and now his story is told.

‘Huh?’ said Mithun. ‘You mean that’s the end? That’s not even an end!’

‘Just because a story is told does not mean it cannot still be part of someone else’s. It is now your turn, Mithun.’

‘How do you know my nam–‘

‘God,’ said Airavata. ‘Now tell us how you got to be here among us.’

‘Well, I was standing with my mother and then I saw a camel and then the balloons and then it called to me–oh! Oh!’

‘Please continue. The camel called you?’

‘Yes, it called me across the road and I don’t know why but I went there but it was gone and then the tower fell and something hit my head and when I woke up I was here.’

‘It is as I thought,’ said Airavata.

‘I was right!’ said the swan. ‘The wicked one endangered this boy deliberately. Did he truly have a premonition the building would collapse or did he actually aid it in doing so?’

‘And did he do it to help Vikramaditya or merely do it to have a true story to tell?’ said the snake.

‘Whoever knows with that one?’ said the balloon man.

‘Well, shouldn’t you?’ said Mithun, turning to Airavata. ‘You’re a demigod. Shouldn’t you know everything?’

‘Sometimes,’ said Airavata.

‘That doesn’t make sense!’

‘In his first avatar, Lord Vishnu turned into a fish and swam on the surface of the Great Flood. But in his third, when he needed to dive into the ocean to rescue Bhoomi Mata, he took the form of a boar, which cannot even breathe underwater. Does this make sense? But now, we have heard all the tales and it is time for the judgment. If we count the rescue of this child, Vikramaditya’s good deeds now total one thousand times one thousand, as was his charge. ‘

Airavata paused. ‘However, by all the laws of dharma, this deed should not count because it was performed with the aid of trickery. And where there is one broken cashew, there may well be others. Now, I do not believe Vikramaditya knew of this, nor any other deceit and neither did the apsaras. But what I believe matters not, for Lord Indra charged me with the duty of seeing his wishes were carried out. And his wishes were clear– that a thousand times a thousand good deeds be done. It is my decree that that number has been arrived at and I see no reason to waste further time on mathematics. So, here and now, in the name of mighty Indradev, King of the Heavens, and ruler of us all, I state that the conditions have been met and shall ask that you be granted mukti from the mortal plane. And perhaps I defy dharma by what I say, but if there are those who would disagree, let them reflect that I am merely a god and just as likely to err as any other divine being. You shall all return to Devlok with me.’

The balloon man smiled gently. ‘Thank you, Lord. And thank you, Mithun.’

‘So where is the camel?’ asked Mithun.

‘Oh, he is still here somewhere,’ said Airavata. ‘He still has many true stories to tell before his time is done.’

‘If he knows what’s good for him he’ll have begun already,’ said the snake.

‘Probably out trying to devise some new way to shorten his sentence,’ said the swan.

‘And this judgment is passed,’ said Airavata, and rapped his foot on the ground, sending dust flying everywhere, and the entire alcove shaking.

Mithun coughed, shifting away from the wall, which was still shaking. He turned towards his companions as the dust settled, but the alcove was empty. The pounding went on, loud banging sounds, then a crash. Somewhere nearby, he could hear voices, men, shouting excitedly.

‘Here!’ he screamed. ‘In here!’

There was another crash, and then a section of rock somewhere above fell down, and a stream of light burst in.

‘Here!’ shouted a man. ‘He’s alive! He’s still alive!’

Mithun felt hands, hard hands dragging him, backward and upward. As they did he looked for the old man but the alcove was empty, save for three scraps of rubber, black, green and white.

‘Asphyxiated,’ he heard someone mutter.

And he was free, lying in the open air, taking deep, racking breaths, cold, sweet air, so beautiful he thought his lungs would burst. And then everything went dark.

The next time he woke up, he was in a bed, his mother standing there, staring at him with eyes adoring instead of the wrath he’d expected to see.

Behind her, a TV was on, and the first thing he saw on it was the face. Lined, grey-bearded, wearing a spotless white Gandhi-topi.

The balloon-man.

He listened and could hear the announcer shouting his angry condolences, regretting the unfortunate demise of this still-unidentified victim of the Towergate scandal, lamenting the state of government welfare that had forced the poor soul to illegally make his home in the crumbling Qaisarbagh clock tower.

‘That’s him, ma,’ said Mithun.’That’s King Vikramaditya.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she said. But she was worried enough to summon a doctor, who tut-tutted and muttered long words like ‘hallucination’ and ‘concussion’.

It was another week before Mithun’s mother let him leave the house again. The first thing he did was race down to the market, making his way to the mound of rubble from the collapse of the clock tower. On his right, the paan seller tried to hand him a banarasi. On his left, the cigarette man offered him a pack of Gold Flakes at half price.

Starting with them both, he made his way around the market, and long before he’d finished asking everyone about the balloon-man whose stall lay buried under the rubble of the clock tower, he’d come to a curious realisation. Nobody recalled the balloon seller, the tower-dweller or even the camel. Well, almost nobody. The paanwalla was positive there had been a balloon stall under the ruined tower. The cigarette man was equally adamant there had never been anything. Inevitably, they came to blows over the matter, right under the huge banner calling for peace and solidarity. Qaisarbagh was still Qaisarbagh, after all.

Upon reflection, Mithun decided to believe them both. Because whatever is true, the opposite is also true.

‘And because just because your story is told does not mean it cannot still be part of someone else’s,’ finished the camel.

____

Copyright 2018 Shiv Ramdas

Shiv Ramdas is an Indian writer and reader of science fiction, fantasy and everything in between, including a dystopian cyberpunk novel, Domechild (Penguin, 2013). He is a graduate of the 2016 Clarion West Writers Workshop. You can find him on social media at @nameshiv on Twitter and on Facebook.