‘Reality is not always probable, or likely.’
—Jorge Luis Borges
‘Ghrrr, ghrrr’ comes the sound of the drilling machine piercing through the wall behind the bed. She wakes up with a jolt. ‘Damn! The workers remodelling the neighbouring flat seem to have started early today,’ she thinks to herself. She has had no respite from the drilling machine since the last eight months—the Chawlas are forever displeased with the remodelling, not being able to get their architect, contractor, Vastu coach and spiritual baba to agree with each other. She has not been able to get used to the whirring—it startles her every time, popping up at different corners of the house at different times. Each time she would take a breath of relief at a moment of silence, hoping the workers are taking a break, ‘ghrrr’ it would go again.
But today it was just too much, starting off so early in the morning, when she had slept so badly on account of her upstairs’ neighbour moving her furniture at night, a curious activity she periodically engaged in. ‘When do the Chawlas get to relax and enjoy their house,’ she wonders. ‘And why does Moni move her furniture every other night?’ As she ponders over these mysteries, ‘dhak, dhak’, a new sound begins. The Chalwas seem to be knocking off their balcony yet again. Through these eight months, she had seen their balcony getting enclosed and then broken open and enclosed yet again. Through the construction and destruction, the workers often made use of her balcony to store their implements and smoke beedis. Her balcony was just a step away from the bamboo frame they used to go up and down the Chawlas’ balcony. Sometimes, they even sauntered into her drawing room through the open balcony door to ask her for a glass of water, scaring the wits out of her.
‘I have to have a word with Chawlaji,’ she says to herself and stomps down the stairs and then up the stairs of the adjoining building to ring his bell. The minute Chawlaji opens the door, she starts off without any exchange of pleasantries, ‘Uncle, will your construction work ever get completed? I can’t sleep or do any writing. Aapne mera jeena haram kar rakha hai.’ ‘Beta, the thing with work is that it’s never complete … you know how one thing leads to another. It’s an offering from Maya.’ ‘But Uncle …,’ she starts fumbling. Chawlaji butts in, ‘My dear, thoda adjust kar lo. I’d suggest that you too get your flat renovated. I can speak to my contractor and get you a discount. The change will be good for you.’ In no mood for taking the conversation further, she stomps down the stairs. She can hear Chawlaji saying behind her, ‘Arre, what happened? At least speak to my Vastu coach … he’ll find a solution for your insomnia.’
‘Why doesn’t Chawlaji ever talk sense? And who is Maya? Has he changed his architect again and got someone called Maya?’ she wonders. Gobbling up her breakfast of a toast, a both-sides-fried egg and a banana, she feels she should go out for a walk if she doesn’t want to end up with a migraine.
As she steps out and walks in the direction of the bus stop, Naradji, the crafty sabziwalla with a shop adjacent to the bus stop, greets her: ‘Namaste Madam. You’re not buying vegetables today? Tomato has become cheaper—it’s 80 rupees a kilo now,’ he says. ‘No, I’ve stopped eating tomatoes,’ she replies brusquely. She notices that the debris cleared from the drains before monsoon is lying in a pile next to Naradji’s shop. With the rains having arrived a few days early, the debris is now leaking back into the drain. Kaloo, her favourite dog on the street, is lolling in the pile of muck. She tries to make him budge, enticing him with Parle-G biscuits, but he seems to be enjoying his exercise and refuses to move. The lack of sleep, Chawlaji’s loony advice, tomato withdrawal symptoms, the pile of debris and Kaloo’s bad behaviour combine into a heady cocktail of bhadaas, which gets directed at Naradji for no reason other than that he happens to be there. ‘Naradji, you should sometimes do some work apart from conning customers! You are always bragging, “I have a lot of connections in the city, from SHO Saab to MLAji.” Then why are you not getting the debris next to your shop removed?’ ‘Arre Madam, why are you getting angry? I’ve made a complaint. MLAji had himself come for an inspection. But now the matter is in the corut. You see there is some confoozan about whose responsibility it is to remove the debris—MCD, Jal Board or PWD. Let’s see what happens. I say it’s all Maya’s doing.’ ‘Who is this Maya?’ she explodes. ‘What are you saying, Madam? You’re pulling my leg, no? Like you don’t know who Maya is!’ Feeling extremely foolish, she mumbles a ‘sorry, sorry’ and gets going. ‘I have to walk to clear my head and not engage in any more strange conversations,’ she tells herself as she crosses the road and then takes a left towards Hadbad Vihar Market, getting on to the pavement on the left to avoid the vehicles whizzing past.
No sooner had she taken a couple of steps, she hears a man in a group standing about 300 metres ahead shouting and gesticulating wildly, ‘Hato, can’t you see there’s work in progress?’ She jumps off the pavement and walks along its side towards the group to find out what the matter is. The group she had seen from a distance turns out to be workers who are removing the pavement stones and the man who had screamed at her, their supervisor. She asks him why he instructed her to get off—surely she would have gotten off at the spot where they were currently removing the pavement stones. He explains that the pavement has caved in in different spots, so they were removing the stones to do an inspection of the surface below the stones. ‘It is not safe right now to walk on any stretch of the pavement till we complete our inspection,’ he tells her. ‘Why is there no board warning pedestrians then?’ ‘We’d put up a board. It got stolen,’ he says glumly. She asks him how this problem has come up when only three months back she had seen the same stretch getting repaired with new pavement stones. ‘What to do Sister, you know it’s all Maya’s doing,’ he replies. ‘Hmmm,’ she says knowingly, trying to ignore the sick feeling in her gut.
Pavement or no pavement, she decides today is not the day to walk on the streets. ‘Should I go to Chota Round Park at the corner?’ she ponders, but then decides against it. Doing the rounds of the 200-metre walking track in the park anyway makes her giddy, and here she is already feeling sick. ‘I think I’ll go to Lodi Gardens and take a walk there,’ she decides. She dashes across the road to stop an auto, ‘Bhaiyya, Lodi Gardens chaloge?’ ‘I’ll drop you at the Preet Vihar Metro Station,’ he says. ‘But I don’t want to go to the metro station. Did I ask you to take me to the metro station? Did I?’ The autowalla gives her a bewildered look and drives away without replying. She stops the next auto. ‘Lodi Gardens?’ she asks. ‘Sit,’ he responds. She jumps in and is trying to find a comfortable position when the autowalla says, ‘Let me drop you at the metro station.’ ‘Are you crazy? I’d said Lodi Gardens and you agreed. Where the hell did the metro station come from? Stop the auto, stop it right now,’ she fumes and gets off in a huff. She notices an auto parked a little way ahead and runs to it, asking, ‘Bhaiyya, where do you want to go?’ ‘Bhairon Mandir,’ he says. ‘Great! Should I drive the auto or will you drive?’ ‘What are you saying Madam? You sit, I’ll drive … will you pay by the metre or …’ ‘Take whatever money you want to, just get me out of here!’
As soon as the auto reaches Nirvana Road, it gets stuck in a massive traffic jam because the exit to NH-24 has been blocked due to the ongoing construction of Arrehat Expressway. Vehicles taking U-turns from the exit road and coming back in the wrong direction have created a blockage. ‘This is the problem with this city. Every time they have to build something new, they first have to ruin what already exists. For constructing this Arrehat Expressway, they’ve destroyed the entire stretch from Nizamuddin Bridge to Ghaziabad. Why can’t they work on the expressway in installments? No, first they have to completely wreck a perfect highway and then proceed. But what can you and I do? It’s all Maya’s doing,’ the autowalla tells her. Her head starts reeling at the mention of Maya. She tries to compose herself and then asks, almost in a whisper, ‘You also know Maya?’ ‘Surely, you are joking Madam,’ he says. She puts on her earphones, hinting that she is done with the conversation, and to doubly ensure it, she pretends to doze off.
After two hours, she finally reaches her, or rather the autowalla’s, destination. There seems to be a mela happening outside Bhairon Mandir. There are stalls selling ice-cream pakoras, tandoori momos, Chinese bhelpuri, Italian chaat and what not. Kids are shrieking for their turn at camel rides. And thelas selling Doraemon T-shirts, bags, stuffed toys, tablemats, candies and sunglasses seem to be doing brisk business. ‘What is happening here?’ she asks the autowalla. ‘You don’t know …?’ ‘Oh god, please don’t tell me it’s that damn Maya again?’ she mumbles. ‘Today is the day for Kulhadi Baba’s darshan. People have come from all over the city and beyond to meet him. It’s said that Kulhadi Baba has an answer for every problem. You should also meet him … Don’t mind Madam, par mujhe aisi feeling aa rahi hai ki aap na kuch tension mein ho.’ ‘Accha … how much do I have to pay you?’ ‘Five hundred bucks,’ he says. ‘Five hundred?’ she repeats. ‘Koi najayez paise nahin mang raha hoon,’ he says and gives her a full break-up of the amount, ‘it’s 100 rupees by metre, an extra hundred for the traffic jam, another hundred because you refused to chat with me and I got bored, hundred for my chai–nashta and hundred as a donation for Kulhadi Baba.’ She reluctantly hands him a five hundred note and walks ahead to join the train of the Baba’s devotees.
Lost in the thoughts of the strange goings-on of the day, she mechanically moves along with the queue. She wonders whether she is part of a dream in which she has little control over her actions, let alone that of others. Otherwise what’s the explanation for her queuing up to meet this character called Kulhadi Baba? But then Bhairon Mandir to her left and the Old Fort in its background look exactly the way they do in real, and the smell of the ice-cream pakoras mixed with the dust raised by the crowd is too strong to belong in a dream. She pokes the woman in front with her elbow just to make sure. ‘Kya hai?’ the woman screams at her. ‘Nothing, nothing … I’m so sorry … I was just checking if you exist for real,’ she apologizes. The woman glares at her and rushes ahead, pushing those in front of her and setting in motion the utterance of the choicest Dilli expletives from the front.
Either the line was moving strangely fast or she’d lost her sense of time, and before she realized, it was her turn to meet Baba. Baba was seated under a Peepul tree, dressed simply in a not-so-sparkling white dhoti and kurta, which matched the not-so-sparkling white of his long hair and even longer beard. Behind him, leaning against the tree was a kulhadi. She sits down quietly on the ground in front of him, not quite sure what to ask him.
‘So you want to know who Maya is?’ he breaks the awkward silence. Trying not to look frightened, she clears her throat and manages to mumble a ‘Yes’. ‘The problem with you youngsters is that you don’t know the stories that rule this city. Never mind … you’re probably the only one of these people dying to meet me who’s not interested in some quick-fix solution for health, prosperity or love. You may not be aware, but you’ve come searching for a story … and I’d love to tell it … it’s been such a long while since I’ve told a story. But I have a condition.’ ‘What?’ she asks. ‘You cannot interrupt my storytelling and you cannot ask any questions after I’m done.’
After the Partition of the kingdom, the Pandavas had been ruling their half of the kingdom from Khandavaprastha for a year now. Khandavaprastha hardly looked like the capital city of a great ruler though. Flanked by thick forests to the west of the mighty Yamuna, the city was barely a small town, only recently settled with merchants and artisans by King Yudhishthira. The city paled in comparison to the richness of the Khandava forest, inhabited by every imaginable bird and beast, and by rakshashas and the Nagas, ruled by their king Takshaka.
One day Krishna, who was visiting the Pandavas, along with Arjuna and their wives and entourage headed off to the Yamuna for some respite from the heat. Krishna and Arjuna walked away from the bank of the Yamuna towards the edge of the forest and sat down under a tree to have a quiet chat. Deep in conversation over their exploits, they were interrupted by an approaching Brahmin, who said, ‘I am hungry. Feed me.’ When the two offered him food, he refused, saying food couldn’t satiate him. Arjuna, ever-ready for an opportunity to display his greatness, said, ‘Tell me what you wish to eat and I will have it in front of you.’ The Brahmin stated that he wanted to eat the Khandava forest. And then he revealed his true form. It was none other than the greedy Agni, who’d made many attempts earlier to eat the forest. Indra had thwarted every attempt of Agni, pouring rain to protect his friend Takshaka and the forest. With chariots and weapons provided by Agni, Krishna and Arjuna, all charged to show off their prowess, not only defeated Indra but also tightly guarded the forest from all sides, so no creature could escape, ruthlessly killing anyone who tried to. Agni went about consuming the forest, every animal, bird and Naga. The fire raged for a week, swallowing the wounds and cries of the forest dwellers.
Exactly seven creatures escaped the massacre. Takshaka, who had been away from the forest at the time. His son Ashwasena, saved by the sacrifice of his mother who swallowed him and jumped out of the forest—she was beheaded by Arjuna but Ashwasena remained safe inside her. Four Saranga birds. And Maya. Maya was Takshaka’s friend and the architect of the netherworld, much admired in all the worlds. Maya had come running out of the forest and fallen at Arjuna’s feet, pleading, ‘Please save me and I’ll do anything for you.’ Arjuna was aware of Maya’s reputation and saw an opportunity here. He saved Maya. In return, Maya was ordered to design the palace of the Pandavas, putting together artisans and materials including precious gems from all over the world. The small town started expanding into a city, rising on the ashes of the destroyed forest and the blood of its creatures. And the centre of attraction was the dazzling palace built by Maya. The palace was named Mayasabha both to honour its architect and because it was indeed a palace of illusions. Doors in the palace turned out to be solid walls and walls, doors. What appeared like the floor was actually water and what seemed like flowing water was actually the floor.
When the palace was complete, Maya took his leave of the Pandavas and was rewarded with riches. As he walked away from the palace, he silently cursed not only the Pandavas but also their city: ‘O you Great Pandavas! You’ve founded this city with the massacre of the forest and its inhabitants, my brothers, sisters and friends. I curse you—you will kill your brothers, friends and kin, and you will witness the killing of your own children. You will never know any peace. I curse that this city may never be complete nor any other city that is founded on this land. In every city that rises here, brothers will kill brothers. And the city’s inhabitants will never be satisfied with anything they make, forever trapped in the cycle of construction and destruction.’
The Pandavas unaware of Maya’s curse were delirious with the beauty of the palace. But they couldn’t quite enjoy the palace fully—beauty isn’t quite beauty unless it makes the other envious. Finally armed with something to show off to their cousins who ruled from Hastinapur, the Pandavas invited Duryodhana and his brothers to the palace. Duryodhana was mesmerized with the palace but found it disorienting. One day, while taking a step on what seemed like solid ground, Duryodhana fell into a pool. As he tried to get up, he could hear Draupadi and Bhima laughing at him from behind.
Duryodhana wouldn’t forget this insult. Maya’s creation had played the role of its birth—to set in motion Maya’s curse. Duryodhana would go on to invite the Pandavas for a game of dice, trick them into gambling everything, humiliate Draupadi, and banish the losing party to the forest for thirteen years, precipitating the cycle of revenge that would culminate in the Great War of Mahabharata in which brothers would go on to kill brothers. The Pandavas went back to Hastinapur after winning the war, if losing your brothers, children and much of your family and subjects could be called winning. And they were left with no one they could make envious any more. Khandavaprastha was forgotten and it fell off the pages of the story.
Yet others would follow to set up one majestic capital city after another, only to get caught up in Maya’s curse and the cycle of construction and destruction, of vanity and violence …
At this point, she could no longer hold back the question she had been wanting to ask. And forgetting the Baba’s warning, she asks, ‘Why didn’t Maya stop at just cursing the Pandavas … why did he have to curse the place?’ But she’s simply mouthing the question without any sound. She tries clearing her throat and still there’s no sound coming out of her. She sees that Kulhadi Baba is smiling the I’d-warned-you-not-to-interrupt smile … her eyes start feeling heavy and Kulhadi Baba’s smiling face soon starts fading away. When she manages to open her heavy eyelids, her head is throbbing just like from the hangover of an all-night party …
‘Ghrrr ghrrr’ comes the sound of the drilling machine piercing through the wall behind her bed.
This story has brewed over years mixed with my love for and frustration with Dilliwalas who can be bizarre with élan and the city that is forever under construction, as well as my fascination with the Mahabharata. It is said of the epic that the stories contained within it may be found elsewhere, but what is not there does not matter.
Cover painting by Sarover Zaidi.