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Saturday October 23, 2021

Hungry Stones

Hungry Stones is a short story by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Originally titled Kshudhito Pashan or Khudhito Pashan, this short story is one of his most celebrated and oft quoted works. It is part of Tagore’s Galpaguchchha, an anthology of long and short stories. It has been translated into English by Ruma Chakravarti.

We met the gentleman on the train while my relative and I were returning to Kolkata after our holidays. At first when I saw his clothes I thought he was a Muslim gentleman from the west. My confusion increased when I heard him speak. He had so much to say about each and every thing on earth, it was as though the Creator did everything after discussing it with him first. We had been completely at peace thanks to our ignorance about many unheard of secrets, the advance of the Russians, the secret plans of the English and the tangled intrigues of the Indian princes. Our newfound acquaintance smiled slightly and said, ‘There happen more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are reported in your newspapers.’

This was the first time we had left our homes, and this man’s strange behavior surprised us. At the slightest excuse, he talked about science, quoted the Vedas, and recited Farsi couplets. As we had no knowledge of science, the Vedas or Farsi our reverence for him grew progressively. Even my theosophist relative started believing that this co-traveller of ours had some kind of supernatural aura; a kind of astonishing magnetism if you will, or unearthly power, or paranormal abilities or something of a similar nature. He was listening to everything this extraordinary man said with awestruck reverence and was making secret notes; I felt that the extraordinary man had understood this too and was enjoying it.

When the train stopped at the junction we waited in a group in the waiting room. It was half past ten at night. We heard that the train was quite delayed due to problems on the route. I had already decided to spread out my bed roll and sleep on a table when the extraordinary gentleman started to tell us the story below. Needless to say, I did not get any sleep at all the rest of that night.

Those fountains do not flow any more, those songs no longer fill the air, nor do  those fair feet fall upon the white stone floors – today it is a vast and terribly empty dwelling for tax collectors like me, deprived of female company and oppressed by the loneliness of our surroundings.

When I resigned my position at Junagadh after a few disagreements regarding how the kingdom should be run and joined the Nizam’s government at Hyderabad, seeing that I was a hardy young man they posted me at Barich as a cotton tax collector.

Barich was a very pleasant place. The Shusta(from the original Swachchatoya in Sanskrit) flowed fast over  a pebbled bed like the swaying motion of an expert dancer through great forests at the feet of lonely peaks. From the river a hundred and fifty marble steps led to a palace made of white stone that stood alone at the base of the mountains – there were no other houses near by. The cotton market at Barich and the village were far from here.

Shah Mahmud the Second had built his palace for pleasure in this remote place almost two hundred and fifty years ago. From then on rose scented water flowed in fountains from the bathing houses and young Persian beauties sat, hair flowing down their backs, with their pretty bare feet in the clear waters of the pools stone seats in those secret rooms with their sitars across their laps singing songs of the grape arbors of their native lands.

Those fountains do not flow any more, those songs no longer fill the air, nor do  those fair feet fall upon the white stone floors – today it is a vast and terribly empty dwelling for tax collectors like me, deprived of female company and oppressed by the loneliness of our surroundings. But the ancient clerk at work, Karim Khan had cautioned me repeatedly against staying there, saying to me, ‘stay here if you must during the day, but never spend the night here.’ I laughed his worries off. The servants said they would work till evening but they too refused to stay at night. I said, ‘So be it.’ The house was so infamous that even thieves refused to try their luck at night.

Initially the emptiness of the abandoned palace used to weigh on me like a terrible weight, I used to try and stay away for as long as possible and work continually to return home exhausted and fall sleep.

But within a week the house began to encompass me with a strange spell. It would be hard to describe my state and even to make people believe me. The entire house started to absorb me like a living thing being drawn slowly into its digestive system. Possibly this process had started the moment I set foot in the house – but I still remember the day I first noticed its beginnings within my consciousness.

The market was slow at the start of summer; I had no work to do. I was sitting on an easy chair at the bottom of those steps one evening a little before sunset. The river had grown shallow over summer; a large part of the sandy banks on the opposite side was coloured by the rays of the setting sun, on this shore the pebbles could be seen glinting in the shallow waters of the river hugging the steps. There was not a whisper of breeze any where. A dense perfume rose from the wild basil, mint and fennel forests of the nearby mountains and filled the still skies with heaviness.

When the sun descended behind the shelter of the peaks a curtain of shadow immediately fell across the arena of the day – the mountains here prevent the mingling of light and dark from lasting long at sunset. I was thinking of going for a ride on my horse when I suddenly heard footsteps on the stairs. When I looked back, there was no one there.

Thinking it a trick of my senses I turned my back once again; immediately I heard the sounds of a number of feet, as though many people were running down the stairs. My whole body trembled with a most delicious thrill mixed with a slight degree of fear. Even though there was nothing before me, I felt as though I could clearly see a group of vivacious women descending into the river to bathe. Although there were no sounds to be heard anywhere that evening either on the silent mountain slopes or in the deserted palace on that river bank, I could still clearly hear the bathers chase each other past me with peals of amused laughter like the hundred streams of a waterfall. They did not seem to notice me. Just as they were invisible to me, I was invisible to them. The river was just as peaceful as before, but I clearly felt the shallow water being churned by the movements of many bangle bedecked arms; they were splashing each other with water as they laughed and the water droplets flew like fistfuls of pearls into the sky as the swimmers playfully kicked their legs in the river.

There was a trembling in my heart; I cannot say whether that thrill was caused by fear, joy or curiosity. I greatly wished to see them better, but there was nothing to see; it felt like I would be able to hear everything clearly if I only tried harder – but when I did, I could only hear the crickets in the forest. It was as though a two hundred and fifty year old black curtain was hanging in front of me – I had fearfully raised a corner and peeped in – there was a great gathering within but I could see nothing in the dense darkness.

Suddenly the stillness was broken by a breeze – the flat river surface rippled like waves in the hair of some celestial dancer, and the entire forest shook itself free from a nightmare with a great murmur. Whether it was a dream or the real thing, the invisible mirage that had appeared before me from two hundred and fifty years ago disappeared in the blink of an eye. The enchantresses who had pushed past me on ghostly steps with noiseless laughter to leap into the Shusta no longer walked past me as they returned from their baths in their wet clothes. Just as the wind blows perfume away, they disappeared with one whisper from the spring breeze.

I then felt very worried that aided by the solitude that surrounded the place, the muse of poetry had taken up with me; I was a hard working tax collector, what would happen to me now? I decided that I needed to eat properly; an empty stomach was known to be the root of many a difficult disease. I summoned my cook and ordered him to prepare many rich dishes redolent with ghee and spices.

The next morning it all seemed very laughable. I happily dressed like a Westerner in a sola topee, called for a carriage myself and went to work with the loud grinding of wheels. I was supposed to be late going home as I had to write a tri monthly report. But as soon as dusk fell, I felt drawn by my home. I did not know who was calling me, I, but I felt that I could not delay going home any longer. I felt as though everyone was waiting for me. Leaving that report incomplete I put my topee on and went home to that darkened, silent, vast mountain mansion, startling the lonely, tree-shaded, dusk blurred road with the sound of carriage wheels.

But within a week the house began to encompass me with a strange spell. It would be hard to describe my state and even to make people believe me. The entire house started to absorb me like a living thing being drawn slowly into its digestive system.

The room facing the stairs was vast indeed. Three rows of enormous columns topped with ornate beams held up the roof. This huge room used to vibrate under the weight of its own emptiness day and night.  No lamps had been lit that evening. As soon as I entered that room pushing the door open it seemed as though a great uproar broke out – a great throng of people left the place suddenly in a hurry through all the doors and windows around the room. I stood in astonishment as I could not see anything. My body thrilled to a strange feeling. I could almost smell the traces of long gone perfumes and hair oils.

 I stood in that great dark empty space surrounded by those ancient stone pillars and heard – the splashing of water from fountains onto white stone, a tune that I did not recognise being plucked on the sitar, from somewhere came the tinkle of golden ornaments, from other rooms came the sounds of anklets, and the occasional clang of massive copper bells to mark the time; the keening of flutes from a great distance, the silvery clinking of the crystal pendants of the chandeliers as the wind blew threw them, trills from caged bulbuls on the verandah, the harsher cries of tame water birds from the garden further away  – all these created a ghostly symphony all around me.

I felt so entranced; it felt as though this intangible, unattainable and unreal world was the only truth, and all else mere mirages. Facts such as my name, that I was my father’s eldest son, I earned four hundred and fifty rupees as a cotton tax collector and went to work in hat and coat by carriage, all these seemed so incredibly laughable to me that I stood in the middle of that vast silent darkness and laughed aloud at the baseless lies that they were.

At that very moment my Muslim household help came into the room with a lighted kerosene lamp. I do not know whether he thought me mad, but I immediately remembered that I was after all my father’s eldest son; I also thought that even if somewhere in this world or without, a ghostly fountain was bubbling for eternity and unseen fingers were plucking tunes on ethereal strings, it was up to the great poets to say such things, for me the only truth was that I got paid four hundred and fifty rupees for collecting taxes on cotton sold in the market at Barich. I thought of the trance of a while ago and smiled with amusement as I sat close to the kerosene illuminated camp table to read my newspaper. 

After reading the paper and eating the Mughlai food I went to one of the tiny rooms at the back of the house and laid down on the bed. Through the open window before me a very bright star burned millions of miles away above the dark forested peaks of the Arali ranges, looking down at a tax collector reclining on a lowly camp bed; as I thought about it with both wonder and amusement I fell asleep at one point. I do not know how long I had slept for. I woke with a sudden start, there had not been any sound in the room, and neither did I see anyone come in. The watchful star had set behind the dark mountain and the wan moonlight had hesitantly crept in through the window.

I saw no one at all. Yet I felt certain that someone was gently nudging me. As soon as I woke she wordlessly beckoned with her be-ringed hand to follow her.

I got up very quietly. In spite of there being not a single other person in that hundred roomed palace filled with the weight of a vast emptiness, the sounds of silence and alertly awaiting echoes, I still felt fear dog each footstep lest I awoke someone. Most of the rooms were closed and I had never been inside them.

Today I could not say where I walked as I followed the call of that unseen vision on silent footsteps and silenced breaths. I passed through many narrow darkened passages, wide verandahs, great halls that stood sombre with silent expectation and airless secret rooms with terrible secrets of their own.

Even though I had not seen the invisible messenger, her form was not unknown to me. She was an Arab beauty, her shapely fair alabaster arms visible through her loose sleeves, a veil hanging over her face from a cap perched on her head and a curved scimitar at her waist. 

Every now and again a woman would appear within these vignettes swirling within the fragmented dreams, sometimes in a whiff of henna, sometimes in a tinkle of the sitar and in a sudden delight of scented mist.

I felt as though one of the thousand and one nights of the famed Arabian tales had arrived in my life. I was walking the unlighted streets of Baghdad in a tryst with something fearful on that dark night.

Eventually my guide stopped suddenly before a curtain that was of the darkest blue and pointed at something below. There was nothing there but my very blood seemed to freeze in terror. I sensed that there was a terrifying eunuch guard who nodded in slumber, an unsheathed sword on his lap in readiness. She stepped lightly over his legs and lifted an end of the drapes.

A part of a room spread with rich Persian carpets could be seen. I could not see the person sitting on the throne but a pair of tiny delicate feet in brocade slippers peeped out from the ends of flowing pants of a saffron colour. These rested idly on a foot stool covered in pink velvet. By the side sat a bluish crystal bowl of apples, pears, oranges and many bunches of grapes and two small cups stood with a golden wine filled carafe next to the fruits. Smoke from some wondrous incense burning within the room filled the air and intoxicated my senses as I breathed it in.

Tremblingly I tried to step over the sleeping guard’s feet but he immediately woke up – the sword falling from his hands with a clatter. 

Suddenly a horrific shout startled me and I woke abruptly to see myself sitting in a sweat  on the camp bed, with dawn light rendering the moon as pale as a sleepless convalescent – and outside Meher Ali the Mad carrying out his morning routine of shouting, ‘Keep away! Keep away!’ on the empty roads of the early hours. This is how the first of my Arabian fairy tale nights ended, but there were still a thousand more to endure. My nights and my days grew very conflicted. I would go  to work exhausted and curse my nights of illusion and empty dreams; as darkness fell my hours at work became an insignificant lie and quite laughable in the scheme of things.

I would find myself entangled in a web of obsessive yearning as soon as evening fell. I became part of that unwritten story of centuries ago; no longer did the suits of the foreigner and the tailored trousers seem the right attire. Instead I found myself dressing with great care, selecting a red velvet fez for my head, loose pants, flowery over shirts and long silken coats, an attar soaked colourful kerchief twisted between my fingers as I put aside my cigarettes and smoked from an enormous hookah filled with rose water, sitting in a cushioned chair. One might say I was waiting eagerly for the arrival of someone very dear to me.

I find it impossible to describe the strange turn of events as darkness grew. It was as if tableaus from a wonderful tale were blown into this time by a spring breeze and were now floating about the various rooms of the huge mansion. One could follow the story for a while but not beyond that. I did just that all night through the rooms.

Every now and again a woman would appear within these vignettes swirling within the fragmented dreams, sometimes in a whiff of henna, sometimes in a tinkle of the sitar and in a sudden delight of scented mist. She was the one who wore the saffron pyjamas and a pair of curved brocade shoes encasing her two fair feet. She wore a flowered brocade bodice, a red cap on her head and a golden veil that descended from the cap to conceal and cover her fair forehead and her cheeks.

She had intoxicated me. I wandered the alleys and depths of that hellish kingdom each night in search of her through the dangerous twisted paths of palaces peopled with nightmares.

Some days as I stood in front of the huge mirror with lights on either side of me, dressing myself as a prince, I would see that young Iranian woman reflected in the mirror next to me- in a trice she would turn away, after casting an eager expressive passionate look at me from her huge dark eyes and whispering a hint of some words; she would spin on her heel, raising waves of pain, desire and enchantment before disappearing within the mirror, leaving behind traces of the brilliance of her smiles and her jewels. A sudden wind carrying all the scents stolen from the gardens and groves of the surrounding mountains would suddenly put out both my lights, I would stop dressing and lie down on the bed adjoining the dressing area, my body thrilled by her presence, my eyes closed, listening to the winds bring memories of kisses and loving touches that swirled through the room in the dark – I would hear the murmur of many voices, someone would breathe sweetly on my forehead and a perfumed soft veil would trail deliciously across my cheeks again and again. I would slowly be entrapped in the enchanting embrace of a seductive serpent, my breath falling rapidly until I surrendered my unfeeling body to a deep sleep.

One afternoon I decided to take a ride on the horse – I felt someone restraining me but that day I paid no heed. My Western hat and shirt were hanging on a wooden stand; as I prepared to put them on, a great wind rose in eddies of river sand and dry leaves from the Arali Mountains and carried the hat spinning into the distance. A sweet tinkling laugh spun around me with the breeze, touching on every note of amusement till it faded away in the light of the setting sun.

I did not ride my horse that day and completely gave up wearing the ridiculous shirt and hat from the next day. 

At midnight again I sat up in my bed and heard someone sobbing plaintively as if their heart would break – under my very bed, under the floor, deep from within a wet dark grave under the very stone foundations of this vast palace, crying to me – ‘save me, take me away – leaving harsh illusion, deep sleep, broken dreams – all these behind, place me on your horse, clasp me to your breast and carry me away through forests and over mountain peaks, across rivers; take me to the sunlight of your rooms. Save me!’

Who was I! How was I to rescue anyone? Which drowning siren of desire would I pull out from this revolving, ever changing whirlpool of dreams! When did you exist? Where were you, formless one? Where did you take birth, under the shade of date palms by which cool streams in the lap of what wandering desert dweller? What Bedouin bandit stole you from her lap like a bud torn from a wild vine, and rushed on horses with lightning fast hooves across burning sands to sell you at the slave marts of what exotic capital? There a trusted servant of the Padishah must have examined the newly blossoming shy beauty of your youth and counted out golden coins, placed you on a ship and then finally in a golden palanquin to be presented to his master. The history there! The strains of the sarengi, the tinkling of anklets and the liquid gold in the wine cups must be marred by flashing knives, poisoned chalices and hateful glances. What endless wealth, what eternal imprisonment. Two slave girls flash diamonds at their wrists as they fan the emperor, jewel encrusted shoes scattered at his feet. Outside an Abyssinian as fearsome as a messenger of death, dressed like a messenger of the gods in borrowed finery stands guard with an open blade. After swirling about on that bloody, spite flecked, web of deceit and ugly wealth, a flower of the desert ends up, saved from cruel death or perhaps cast upon the shores of an even cruel fate.

Suddenly Meher Ali the madman shouted, ‘Stay away, stay away, it is all lies, all lies!’ I opened my eyes and saw that dawn had broken; my valet gave me the mail and the chef came and asked what he was to prepare that day.

I said, no, I cannot stay here any more. I took all my belongings to the office. The old clerk Karim Khan smiled slightly on seeing me. I was annoyed by his smile and kept working wordlessly.

As the afternoon approached, I found myself growing distracted. I kept thinking I had to go somewhere, the work of calculating cotton sales seemed to be completely unnecessary. My existence in the Nizam’s employ, the pay, the present that surrounded me, the moving, living, breathing world around me seemed impoverished, meaningless and unnecessary.

I threw my pen down, shut the huge ledger and ran to the carriage. It stopped at the doors to that stone palace just as the twilight hour was upon us. I climbed the steps fast and went into the house.

Today all was quiet. The darkened rooms seemed to be brooding in anger. My heart heaved in repentance, but who would hear my entreaties, I found no one I could beg forgiveness from. I wandered through the rooms, my mind emptied of all thought. I felt like singing to someone, like saying, ‘Fire, the moth that sought to escape you has returned to embrace death. Now forgive it, singe its wings, burn it to nothingness.’

Suddenly two tears fell on my forehead from above. Dense clouds had wreathed the peaks of the Arali Mountains that day. The dark forests and the inky depths of the river seemed silenced in a terrible wait. Everything trembled suddenly and suddenly a storm rushed at us, baring teeth of lightning, like a mad man freed from his shackles with screams of terror through the pathless depths of distant forests. The doors to the vast un-peopled rooms of the palace banged in the wind as if in intense pain.

Who was I! How was I to rescue anyone? Which drowning siren of desire would I pull out from this revolving, ever changing whirlpool of dreams! When did you exist? Where were you, formless one?

Today all the servants were in the office, no one had been there to light the lamps. In the pitch black darkness of that cloudy moonless night I could clearly feel – a woman was lying prostrate on the carpet at the foot of the bed; her long hair coming away in her angry fists as she pulled at it, her fair forehead bleeding from a cut. Now she would laugh, a shrill mirthless sound, and then suddenly her whole body would be wracked with sobs. She struck at her bosom as she ripped away her blouse and the wind roared in through the open window as the rain rushed in and drenched her whole body.

The storm and the weeping went on that whole night. I wandered the rooms in the darkness in fruitless lament. There was no one else there that I could console. Whose was this great anger? Where was this restless repentance coming from?

The mad man cried out, ‘Keep your distance, keep your distance! They are all lies! They are all lies!’

I found it was already dawn and Meher Ali had done his usual walk around the palace and was now shouting his usual phrases despite the storm. I suddenly thought that he too might have once lived in the palace, even after succumbing to lunacy and leaving he was still caught up in the spell cast by the demon stones and came to circle around the place each morning.

I immediately ran to him in the rain and asked him, ‘Meher Ali, what lies are these?’

He did not reply and pushed past me calling frantically, like a bird in the thrall of a python’s coils, on his path around the house. He kept crying out that warning to himself, ‘Keep your distance, keep your distance! They are all lies! They are all lies!’

Like one possessed, I rushed to the office in that storm and asked Karim Khan, ‘Tell me what this all means!’

What the old man said was this; once the palace had been the scene of many unsatisfied desires and much untamed passion – those anguished souls and unrequited lust had cursed each and every stone with an eternal hunger; they seized upon living men and devoured them when they could. Of all the people to live in that palace only Meher Ali had survived, although he had become insane, the rest had never been seen again.

‘Is there no way then of saving me?’ I asked.

 ‘There is a way, ‘said the old man, ‘But it is very difficult. I will tell you, but first let me tell you the story of an Iranian slave girl in Gulbaag. Nothing as amazing and as tragic has ever happened on this earth.’

The porters came and told us that the train was coming. So soon? As we quickly packed our things again the train arrived. An Englishman who must have just woken up looked out of a window of  the First Class carriage to read the name of the station, saw our co-passenger and greeted him loudly before inviting him into his own compartment. We boarded the Second Class carriage. We did not get to know who he was, nor did we hear the end of the story. 

I declared that the man had amused himself at our expense because he saw we were clearly quite inexperienced; his story was completely made up.

This led to an argument that ended my friendship with the theosophist.

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