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(From, “The Water Conglomerate (South Asian Corridor, Zone 15) Rohtas Fort Encampment (Latitude 32.9625° N; Longitude 73.5889° E) Circa 2084 CE, Book of Loathing,” Snuffing Out the Moon, Penguin, India, 2017, Pages 247-253)

 

‘I trust your journey was comfortable, old friend? Here, take this seat—it offers the kind of antique-world comfort that you so prefer.’ RRR ushered Alexander Al-Murtaza Afaqi into the deeper recesses of his cavernous and softly lit office. Almost as soon as they were seated, he pressed a button on his casually hovering remote pad. A tall, blue-tinted and beautifully crafted glass appeared on the table by his visitor’s chair.

 

‘Here. Let’s have a celebratory drink, shall we. This comes fresh from a new aquifer that we have recently tapped. Not very large or deep, but more precious than a field of diamonds. So this precious water is like manna from heavens as you would likely say in your quintessentially poetic manner. Who was that poet who wrote about it—the one who died so tragically young? I have always mixed up the two. Shelley or Keats? They are both so melancholic. There was a time when I remembered such trivia.’ His visitor remained impassive. Neither did he reach for the glass. ‘Keats. “She found me roots of relish sweet / And honey wild, and manna-dew”, from his La Belle Dame Sans Merci,’ he replied. ‘And they both died young,’ he added, without any hint of humour or sarcasm.

‘I suppose that this water can be compared to manna, except that the manna which came freely from the heavens was meant for all. At least, so say the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions,’ Afaqi couldn’t resist pointing out.

‘No! No! No! Wasn’t it only for the chosen ones? The ones in exile?’ RRR arched his eyebrows in exaggerated surprise.

‘For all those who were in need of it,’ Afaqi maintained. In any event, it is the so-called Regressives who are in exile, he thought to himself.

‘Well! Regardless! Manna or nectar or soma. You are the scholar, I am just an administrator.’ There was a lilting, mocking emphasis on each word. ‘This life-giver here that comes from deep within the earth is unambiguously meant for the chosen ones. But before we begin our little chat, what would you like to partake of? The culinary prowess of this place has been much augmented since your last visit. Shall we pick items that offer multiple tasting possibilities in small portions . . . hmm . . . Wazwan, Nyonya or Kaiseki? I am afraid though that it will have to be something relatively more contemporary, which I also like. Mature or Late Harappan may be all right for one’s pottery collection, but that’s about it. Ha ha ha.’

RRR had been one of Afaqi’s earliest colleagues when he had first embarked on his career. They had met in those days when it was still possible to think and speak relatively uninhibitedly. RRR too had been drawn to historical inquiry and the life of the mind, but soon left for where real prominence lay. And power. Thus, his lingering familiarity with archaeological terms and old literary and cultural references; also, the thinly disguised contempt for the life left behind. Getting no response from Afaqi, he shrugged and pressed a few more buttons on the remote pad. Then, extending his long arms to grasp the sides of his table, he leaned forward, looking very much like a gangly spider in his sleek and well-fitted midnight-black surge uniform.

‘Listen, old friend. You know that I have always been a straight talker. You need to get your act together. You can’t possibly imagine—increasingly cut off from things as you are— the furore after your last ramblings. I say without pause that you have been an inspiration—a muse for the new age, and a scholar both respected and readable. Don’t turn into an offensive and self-indulgent obscurantist. Somehow I managed to prevail the last time around. A transfer away from the public eye was the sole outcome. But much damage has already been done. Your latest tracts continued to raise eyebrows—the ones you refused to retract and which then had to be necessarily suppressed. Some have not forgiven that. You need to make a suitable comeback; there will be no true forgetting, let alone absolution, until you do so. Think it over. You have all the time and also a location that ought to inspire you—your beloved ruins sprawl wherever you care to look. What do you say?’ Without breaking eye contact, RRR reached out for an intricately carved silver- plated box inlaid with turquoise—a Moradabadi brassware antique traced back to Emperor Jahangir—that held his smile tablets.

‘Are you sure that you didn’t excessively put yourself out on my behalf? I wouldn’t even dream of seeing you jeopardize your clout with the decision makers. Particularly on my account,’ Afaqi’s tone was monotonous, but the sarcasm was undisguised. ‘Huh? What decision makers? I am one of the decision makers and I did what I did because I felt that you still have utility. Believe me, there are few who can make a case more persuasive than I do, when I put my mind to it.’ RRR deflected the sarcasm by opting for condescension.

‘Then I shouldn’t really feel personally indebted, should I? You did it for purely utilitarian purposes, as you yourself say. For a second, I thought that you may have taken on the higher powers just to safeguard me. For old times’ sake.’

‘What higher powers? Who do you allude to?’ RRR was getting irritated.

‘The ones who sit at the very top. The ones whose complexion is not quite the same as yours or mine, despite your complexion-enhancement treatment. The ones who once ran multinational commercial consortiums and international financial institutions, and the British East India Company long before that. The very ones who imagined and built the Conglomerates, and then hired and retained some of us for our local expertise, to give a more cosmopolitan flavour to the entire enterprise. Old racial hierarchies remain intact, don’t they? Do I really have to spell it out for you? Haven’t they always had native agents and collaborators? Like you and I?’ Afaqi gazed into RRR’s deep-set eyes and noted how they hardened with every word he uttered.

‘What absolute rot! Your mind is well and truly addled. This is the greatest enterprise that man has ever known. An age dedicated to science and progress. Unprecedented leadership, and a people who shun dogma and abhor superstition. A brilliant system that provides equal opportunities to each according to his or her merit. A glorious ethos that upholds the finest human norms and traditions. A prophetic vision that conserves and carefully expands precious and scarce human resources. A true and informed liberalism that allows one such as you to explore the mysteries of the past and to cultivate your intellectual pursuits and disseminate the results. What you say is unjust and ungrateful.’ RRR looked grim and slightly smug in his oratorical flourishes.

‘Impressive sophistry. What fine words for the debating halls. Did you write it this morning?’ Afaqi paused and then spoke slowly, ‘I have looked deeply into the past and thought much about the present. The condescension of this age allows it to pretend that it is making a fresh start. Yours is nothing but the age-old project of enforced normalization. Those who don’t fit into your models of acceptability—with unquestioning adherence to your narrow notions of satisfactory behaviour and desirable life—are deemed unsuitable. Even for survival.’

Afaqi stood up and looked directly at RRR. ‘So what will it be? A formal execution? If so, then it will be the very first one since the proscription of the death penalty by the New Order. Five years, three months and thirteen days ago, to be precise. Will I be the exception?

‘Make it look like an accident? Likely, but not suave. It carries the slight risk of a feeble legend, but a legend nevertheless, developing around my crumpled, contorted carcass.

Damnatio Memoriae? Your favourite? I am already isolated, and a vague and distant memory for most.

‘Incarceration? Expensive, tedious, inefficient. ‘Mind alteration? Quick, decisive, permanent.

‘So what will it be, old friend? How much longer do I have my mind and my memories?’

‘Come, come. What gibberish is this?’ RRR laughed a little, but with no real mirth. ‘At worst, we will let you be. “Alone and palely loitering” though you may be, in your beloved ruins. Such unappetizing thoughts, my friend! Stay for lunch. At least have the purest of the pure from our new aquifer. It may cool you down.’

Afaqi briefly glanced at the untouched water and attempted to smile, though it appeared like a grimace. ‘Ah, that symbol of the hegemony of progress. They had called water life. They had exalted it as a fundamental human right. You came and turned it into something you controlled and hoarded and sold at leisure. At your price. Thirst became your weapon of choice, droughts became your war strategy, and the seasons of failing rains your seasons of invasion. You stole humanity’s lifeblood, and then, like petty, profiteering shopkeepers, you vended it by the glassful. No, I will definitely not drink it! That chalice offered by your New Order is loathsome to me. It contains something that is denied every day to many who need it as much as I do. I thank you. But please keep your poisoned chalice.’

‘Poisoned chalice! Wow! How melodramatic, my dear Afaqi. The wondrous joys of the arcane and the archaic that you always introduce into conversations to help escape the tedium of the colloquial. Now, at least allow me to guess where that comes from for I know your fascination for long-dead bards. Let’s see, “This even-handed justice / Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice / To our own lips.” Where’s that? Macbeth. Act I Scene VI, I would hazard a guess. Always so very fatally poetic, my friend.’

‘I have been your unsuspecting mouthpiece for far too long, Roy. I now crave nothing but oblivion. And Scene VII by the way.’

‘Enough of this jaded emotionalism, Afaqi. I am quite sure that we can suitably address whatever is causing such distress to your mind, and might I add, to your heart,’ RRR looked intently at him, his expression revealing little, his eyes even less. ‘Since you indulge my weakness for lines written long ago:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

‘There is nothing you can fix without breaking it further. You can’t cure a mind and a heart that have been tainted by the truth with more falsehoods. But yes, oblivion you can give me. And I am sure that you will. So I shall await your “sweet oblivious antidote”.’ Alexander Al-Murtaza Afaqi left the office.

‘An hour dedicated to idle fantasies, delusions and dead poets. Quixotic to the last,’ RRR muttered to himself.

 

(Excerpted with permission from the author)

 

This work is published as part of the Sage ~ December 2017 Issue, of the Coldnoon journal.

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Osama Siddique

Osama Siddique

Osama Siddique is a Pakistani legal scholar and policy reform expert. A Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he got his doctorate from Harvard and has also taught there as a Visiting Professor. He has also worked for several years as a lawyer in New York and Lahore, taught in different countries, and recently authored the book Pakistan’s Experience with Formal Law: An Alien Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) which has won two prestigious book awards. Snuffing Out the Moon is his first novel.

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