I was once a man, a poet, a teller of tales, but I am long dead now. I lived in the eleventh century of the Common Era in northern India. Then we could only dream of that fabulous device, the udan-khatola, the ship that flies between worlds. Then, the sky-dwelling Vidyadharas were myth, occupying a reality different from our own. And the only wings I had with which to make my journeys were those of my imagination. . . .
Who or what am I now, in this age when flying between worlds is commonplace? Who brought me into being, here in this small, cramped space, with its smooth metallic surfaces, and the round window revealing an endless field of stars?
It takes me a moment to recognize Isha. She is lying in her bunk, her hair spread over the pillow, looking at me.
And then I remember the first time I woke up in this room, bewildered. Isha told me she had re-created me. She fell in love with me fifteen centuries after my death, after she read a book I wrote, an eighteen-volume compendium of folktales and legends, called the Kathāsaritsāgara: The Ocean of Streams of Story.
"You do remember that?" she asked me anxiously upon my first awakening.
"Of course I remember," I said, as my memories returned to me in a great rush.
The Kathāsaritsāgara was my life's work. I wandered all over North India, following rumors of the Lost Manuscript, risking death to interview murderers and demons, cajoling stories out of old women and princes, merchants and nursing mothers. I took these stories and organized them into patterns of labyrinthine complexity. In my book there are stories within stories—the chief narrator tells a story and the characters in that story tell other stories and so on. Some of the narrators refer to the stories of previous narrators; thus each is not only a teller of tales but also a participant. The story-frames themselves form a complex, multi-referential tapestry. And the story of how the Kathāsaritsāgara came to be is the first story of them all.
I began this quest because of a mystery in my own life, but it became a labor of love, an attempt to save a life. That is why I wove the stories into a web, so I could hold safe the woman I loved. I could not have guessed that fifteen centuries after my death, another very different woman would read my words and fall in love with me.
The first time I met Isha, she told me she had created me to be her companion on her journeys between the stars. She wants to be the Somadeva of this age, collecting stories from planet to planet in the galaxy we call Sky River. What a moment of revelation it was for me, when I first knew that there were other worlds, peopled and habited, rich with stories! Isha told me that she had my spirit trapped in a crystal jewel-box. The jewel-box has long feelers like the antennae of insects, so that I can see and hear and smell, and thereby taste the worlds we visit.
"How did you pull my spirit from death? From history? Was I reborn in this magic box?"
She shook her head.
"It isn't magic, Somadeva. Oh, I can't explain! But tell me, I need to know. Why didn't you write yourself into the Kathāsaritsāgara? Who, really, is this narrator of yours, Gunādhya? I know there is a mystery there. . . ."
She asks questions all the time. When she is alone with me, she is often animated like this. My heart reaches out to her, this lost child of a distant age.
Gunādhya is a goblin-like creature who is the narrator of the Kathāsaritsāgara. According to the story I told, Gunādhya was a minion of Shiva himself who was reborn on Earth due to a curse. His mission was to tell the greater story of which the Kathāsaritsāgara is only a page: the Brhat-kathā. But he was forbidden to speak or write in Sanskrit or any other language of humankind. Wandering through a forest one day, he came upon a company of the flesh-eating Pishāch. He hid himself and listened to them, and learned their strange tongue. In time he wrote the great Brhat-kathā in the Pishāchi language in a book made of the bark of trees, in his own blood.
They say that he was forced to burn the manuscript, and that only at the last moment did a student of his pull out one section from the fire. I tracked that surviving fragment for years, but found only a few scattered pages, and the incomplete memories of those who had seen the original, or been told the tales. From these few I reconstructed what I have called the Kathāsaritsāgara. In all this, I have drawn on ancient Indic tradition, in which the author is a compiler, an embellisher, an arranger of stories, some written, some told. He fragments his consciousness into the various fictional narrators in order to be a conduit for their tales.
In most ancient works, the author goes a step further: he walks himself whole into the story, like an actor onto the stage.
This is one way I have broken from tradition. I am not, myself, a participant in the stories of the Kathāsaritsāgara. And Isha wants to know why.
Sometimes I sense my narrator, Gunādhya, as one would a ghost, a presence standing by my side. He is related to me in some way that is not clear to me. All these years he has been coming into my dreams, filling in gaps in my stories, or contradicting what I've already written down. He is a whisper in my ear; sometimes my tongue moves at his command. All the time he is keeping secrets from me, tormenting me with the silence between his words. Perhaps he is waiting until the time is right.
"I don't know," I tell Isha. "I don't know why I didn't put myself in the story. I thought it would be enough, you know, to cast a story web, to trap my queen. To save her from death. . . ."
"Tell me about her," Isha says. Isha knows all about Sūryavati but she wants to hear it from me. Over and over.
I remember. . . .
A high balcony, open, not latticed. The mountain air, like wine. In the inner courtyard below us, apricots are drying in the sun in great orange piles. Beyond the courtyard walls I can hear men's voices, the clash of steel as soldiers practice their murderous art. The king is preparing to battle his own son, who lusts for the throne and cannot wait for death to take his father. But it is for the queen that I am here. She is standing by the great stone vase on the balcony, watering the holy tulsi plant. She wears a long skirt of a deep, rich red, and a green shawl over the delicately embroidered tunic. Her slender fingers shake; her gaze, when it lifts to me, is full of anguish. Her serving maids hover around her, unable to relieve her of her pain. At last she sits, drawing the edge of her fine silken veil about her face. A slight gesture of the hand. My cue to begin the story that will, for a moment, smooth that troubled brow.
It is for her that I have woven the story web. Every day it gives her a reason to forget despair, to live a day longer. Every day she is trapped in it, enthralled by it a little more. There are days when the weight of her anxiety is too much, when she breaks the spell of story and requires me for another purpose. Then I must, for love of her, take part in an ancient and dangerous rite. But today, the day that I am remembering for Isha, Sūryavati simply wants to hear a story.
I think I made a mistake with Sūryavati, fifteen centuries ago. If I'd written myself into the Kathāsaritsāgara, perhaps she would have realized how much I needed her to be alive. After all, Vyāsa, who penned the immortal Mahābhārata, was as much a participant in the tale as its chronicler. And the same is true of Vālmīki, who wrote the Rāmāyana and was himself a character in it, an agent.
So, for the first time, I will write myself into this story. Perhaps that is the secret to affecting events as they unfold. And after all, I, too, have need of meaning. Beside me, Gunādhya's ghost nods silently in agreement.
Isha sits in the ship's chamber, her fingers running through her hair, her gaze troubled. She has always been restless. For all her confidences I can only guess what it is she is seeking through the compilation of the legends and myths of the inhabited worlds. As I wander through the story-labyrinths of my own making, I hope to find, at the end, my Isha, my Sūryavati.
Isha is, I know, particularly interested in stories of origin, of ancestry. I think it is because she has no knowledge of her natal family. When she was a young woman, she was the victim of a history raid. The raiders took from her all her memories. Her memories are scattered now in the performances of entertainers, the conversations of strangers, and the false memories of imitation men. The extinction of her identity was so clean that she would not recognize those memories as her own, were she to come across them. What a terrible and wondrous age this is, in which such things are possible!
In her wanderings, Isha hasn't yet been able to find out who her people were. All she has as a clue is an ancient, battered set of books: the eighteen volumes of the Kathāsaritsāgara. They are, to all appearances, her legacy, all that was left of her belongings after the raid. The pages are yellow and brittle, the text powdery, fading. She has spent much of her youth learning the lost art of reading, learning the lost scripts of now-dead languages. Inside the cover of the first volume is a faint inscription, a name: Vandana. There are notes in the same hand in the margins of the text. An ancestor, she thinks.
This is why Isha is particularly interested in stories of origin. She thinks she'll find out something about herself by listening to other people's tales of where they came from.
I discovered this on my very first journey with her. After she brought me into existence, we went to a world called Jesanli, where the few city-states were hostile toward us. None would receive us, until we met the Kiha, a nomadic desert tribe who had a tradition of hospitality. None of the inhabitants of this planet have much by way of arts or machinery, civilization or learning. But the Kiha have stories that are poetic and strange. Here is the first of them.
Once upon a time our ancestors lived in a hot and crowded space, in near darkness. They were not like us. They were not men, nor women, but had a different form. The ancestors, having poor sight, lived in fear all the time, and when one intruded too close to another, they immediately sprang apart in terror. It was as though each moment of approach brought the possibility of a stranger, an enemy, entering their personal domain. Imagine a lot of people who cannot speak, forced to live in a small, cramped, dark cave, where every blundering collision is a nightmare—for that is what it was like for them. Their fear became part of them, becoming a physical presence like a burden carried on the back.
But every once in a while two or more of them would be pushed close enough together to actually behold each other dimly through their nearly useless eyes. During these moments of recognition they were able to see themselves in the other person, and to reach out, and to draw together. In time they formed tight little family units. Then they had no more need to carry around their burdens of fear, which, when released, turned into light.
Yes, yes. You heard that right. Although they continued to live in their furnace-like world and be cramped together, what emanated from them—despite everything—was light.
Isha's eyes lit up when she heard this story. She told the Kiha that the story had hidden meanings, that it contained the secret of how the stars burn. They listened politely to her explanation and thanked her for her story. She wanted to know where they had first heard the tale, but the question made no sense to them. Later she told me that for all their non-technological way of life, the Kiha must have once been sky-dwellers.
They had told Isha the story to repay a debt, because she brought them gifts. So when she explained their story back to them, they had to tell her another story to even things out. They did this with reluctance, because a story is a gift not easily given to strangers.
Here is the second story.
In the beginning there was just one being, whose name was That Which Is Nameless. The Nameless one was vast, undifferentiated, and lay quiescent, waiting. In that place there was no darkness, for there was no light.
Slowly the Nameless One wearied of its existence. It said into the nothingness: Who am I? But there was no answer because there was no other. It said unto itself: Being alone is a burden. I will carve myself up and make myself companions.
So the Nameless One gathered itself and spread itself violently into all directions, thinning out as it did so. It was the greatest explosion ever known, and from its shards were born people and animals and stars.
And so when light falls on water, or a man shoots an arrow at another man, or a mother picks up a child, That Which Was Once Nameless answers a very small part of the question: Who Am I?
And yet the Once Nameless still reaches out, beyond the horizon of what we know and don't know, breaking itself up into smaller and smaller bits like the froth from a wave that hits a rocky shore. What is it seeking? Where is it going? Nobody can tell.
I could tell that Isha was excited by this story also; she wanted to tell the Kiha that the second story was really about the birth of the universe—but I restrained her. To the Kiha, what is real and what is not real is not a point of importance. To them there are just stories and stories, and the universe has a place for all of them.
Later Isha asked me:
"How is it possible that the Kiha have forgotten they once traversed the stars? Those two stories contain the essence of the sciences, the vigyan-shastras, in disguise. How can memory be so fragile?"
She bit her lip, and I know she was thinking of her own lost past. In my life, too, there are gaps I cannot fill.
The stories in the Kathāsaritsāgara are not like these tales of the Kiha. Queen Sūryavati was of a serious mien, spending much time in contemplation of Lord Shiva. To lighten her burdens I collected tales of ordinary, erring mortals and divines: cheating wives, sky-dwelling, shape-shifting Vidyadharas, and the denizens, dangerous and benign, of the great forests. These were first told, so the story goes, by Shiva himself. They are nothing like the stories of the Kiha.
Isha has so much to learn! Like Sūryavati, she is a woman of reserve. She conceals her pain as much as she can from the world. Her interaction with the Kiha is impersonal, almost aloof. Now if it were left to me, I would go into their dwelling places, live with them, listen to gossip. Find out who is in love with whom, what joys and sorrows the seasons bring, whether there is enmity between clans. I have never been much interested in the cosmic dramas of gods and heroes.
However, the third Kiha tale is quite unlike the first two. I don't know what to make of it.
Once, in the darkness, a man wandered onto a beach where he saw a fire. He came upon it and saw that the fire was another man, all made of light, who spun in a circle on the beach as though drunk. The first man, warmed by the glow of the fire-man, wanted to talk to him, but the fire-man didn't take any notice of him. The fire-man kept spinning, round and round, and the first man kept yelling out questions, spinning round and round with the fire-man so he could see his face. And there were three small biting insects who dared not bite the fire-man but wanted to bite the cheeks of the other man, and they kept hovering around the other man, and he kept waving them off, but they would go behind him until he forgot about them, and then they'd circle around and bite him again.
Then nothing. They are all, all five of them, still on that dark beach, dancing still.
Isha thinks this story is a more recent origin story. She speculates that the ancestral people of the Kiha come from a world which has three moons. A world that floated alone in space until it fell into the embrace of a star. There are worlds like that, I've heard, planets wandering without their shepherd stars. It is not unlikely that one of these was captured by a sun. This story was told to Isha by a child, who ran up to us in secret when we were leaving. She wanted to make us a gift of some sort, but that was all she had.
If Isha is right, then the Kiha told us the stories in the wrong order. Arrange them like this: Birth of the universe, birth of their sun, coming into being of their world.
But these old stories have as many meanings as there are stars in the sky. To assign one single interpretation to them is to miss the point. Take the second story. It could be as much a retelling of a certain philosophical idea from the ancient Indic texts called the Upanishads as a disguised theory of cosmological origin. In my other life I was learned in Sanskrit.
But it is also important what we make of these stories. What meaning we find in them, as wanderers by the seashore find first one shell, then another, and form them into a chain of their own making.
Here is the start of a story I have made by braiding together the Kiha tales.
In the beginning, Isha made the world. Wishing to know herself, she broke herself up into parts. One of them is me, Somadeva, poet and wanderer. We circle each other for ever, one maker, one made. . . .
Sometimes I wonder if I have made her up as much as she has concocted me. If we are fictions of each other, given substance only through our mutual narratives.
Perhaps the Kiha are right: stories make the world.
I wake and find myself on that high stone balcony. The queen is watching me. A small fire in an earthen pail burns between us, an angeethi. Over it, hanging from an iron support, is a black pot containing the brew.
"Did it take you too far, my poet?" she asks, worried. "You told me of far worlds and impossible things. You spoke some words I couldn't understand. An entertaining tale. But I only want a glimpse of what is to come in the next few days, not eons. I want to know . . ."
I am confused. When I first opened my eyes I thought I saw Isha. I thought I was on the ship, telling Isha a story about Sūryavati. She likes me to recite the old tales, as she lies back in her bunk, running her fingers slowly over her brow. I wish I could caress that brow myself.
So how is it that I find myself here, breathing in pine-scented Himalayan air? How is it my mouth has a complex aftertaste that I cannot quite identify, which has something to do with the herbal brew steaming in the pot? My tongue is slightly numb, an effect of the poison in the mix.
Or is it that in telling my story to Isha I have immersed myself so deeply in the tale that it has become reality to me?
The queen's eyes are dark, and filled with tears.
"Dare I ask you to try again, my poet? Will you risk your life and sanity one more time, and tell me what you see? Just a step beyond this moment, a few days hence. Who will win this war. . . ."
What I cannot tell her is that I've seen what she wants to know. I know what history has recorded of the battle. The prince, her son, took his father's throne and drove him to his death. And the queen . . .
It is past bearing.
What I am trying to do is to tell her a story in which I am a character. If I can have a say in the way things turn out, perhaps I can save her. The king and his son are beyond my reach. But Sūryavati? She is susceptible to story. If she recognizes, in the fictional Somadeva's love for Isha, the real Somadeva's unspoken, agonized love, perhaps she'll step back from the brink of history.
My fear is that if events unfurl as history records, I will lose my Sūryavati. Will I then be with Isha, wandering the stars in search of stories? Or will I die here on this earth, under the shadow of the palace walls, with the night sky nothing but a dream? Who will survive, the real Somadeva or the fictional one? And which is which?
All I can do is stall Sūryavati with my impossible tales—and hope.
"I don't know how far the brew will take me," I tell her. "But for you, my queen, I will drink again."
I take a sip.
I am back on the ship. Isha is asleep, her hair in tangles over her face. Her face in sleep is slack, except for that habitual little frown between her brows. The frown makes her look more like a child, not less. I wonder if her memories come to her in her dreams.
So I begin another story, although I remain a little confused. Who is listening: Isha or Sūryavati?
I will tell a story about Inish. It is a place on a far world and one of the most interesting we have visited.
I hesitate to call Inish a city, because it is not really one. It is a collection of buildings and people, animals and plants, and is referred to by the natives as though it has an independent consciousness. But also it has no clear boundary because the mini-settlements at what might have been its edge keep wandering off and returning, apparently randomly.
Identities are also peculiar among the inhabitants of Inish. A person has a name, let us say Mana, but when Mana is with her friend Ayo, they together form an entity named Tukrit. If you meet them together and ask them for their names, they will say "Tukrit," not "Ayo and Mana." Isha once asked them whether Ayo and Mana were parts of Tukrit, and they both laughed. "Tukrit is not bits of this or that," Mana said. "Then who just spoke, Mana or Tukrit?" Isha asked. "Tukrit, of course," they said, giggling in an indulgent manner.
"I am Isha," Isha told them. "But who am I when I'm with you?"
"We are teso," they said, looking at each other. Isha knew what that meant. "Teso" is, in their language, a word that stands for anything that is unformed, not quite there, a possibility, a potential.
It is hard for outsiders to understand whether the Inish folk have family units or not. Several people may live in one dwelling, but since their dwellings are connected by little corridors and tunnels, it is hard to say where one ends and another begins. The people in one dwelling may be four older females, one young woman, three young men and five children. Ask them their names and depending on which of them are present at that time, they will say a different collective name. If there are only Baijo, Akar, and Inha around, they'll say, "We are Garho." If Sami, Kinjo, and Vif are also there, then they are collectively an entity known as "Parak." And so on and so forth.
How they keep from getting confused is quite beyond Isha and me.
"Tell me, Isha," I said, once. "You and I . . . what are we when we are together?"
She looked at me sadly.
"Isha and Somadeva," she said. But there was a faint query in her tone.
"What do you think, Somadeva?" she said.
"Teso," I said.
Here is a story from Inish.
There was Ikla. Then, no Ikla but Bako walking away from what was now Samish. While walking, Bako found herself being part of a becoming, but she could not see who or what she was becoming with. Ah, she thought, it is a goro being; one that does not show itself except through a sigh in the mind. She felt the teso build up slowly, felt herself turn into a liquid, sky, rain. Then there was no teso, no goro, no Bako, but a fullness, a ripening, and thus was Chihuli come into happening.
And this Chihuli went shouting down the summer lanes, flinging bits of mud and rock around, saying, There is a storm coming! A storm! And Chihuli went up the hill and sank down before the sacred stones and died there. So there was nothing left but Bako, who looked up with enormous eyes at the sky, and felt inside her the emptiness left by the departure of the goro being.
Bako, now, why had the goro being chosen her for a happening? Maybe because she had always felt teso with storms, and since storms were rare here and people had to be warned, there was a space inside her for the kind of goro being that lived for storms and their warning. So that is how the right kind of emptiness had brought Chihuli into being.
Pods kept forming around Bako but she resisted being pulled in. It was because of the coming storm, because she could sense the teso with it. Nobody else could. With others it was other beings, wild things and bright eyes in the darkness, sometimes even the slowtrees, but only with Bako was there the emptiness inside shaped like a storm. And so she felt the teso, the way she had with the goro being.
The air crackled with electricity; dark clouds filled the sky, like a ceiling about to come down. Everywhere you looked, it was gray: gray water, gray beings, looking up with wondering, frightened eyes. Only for Bako, as the teso built, was the excitement, the anticipation. Many had felt that before when they found their special pod, their mate-beings. The feeling of ripening, of coming into a fullness. The wild sweetness of it. Now Bako felt something like that many times over.
Samish came sweeping up the hill where she was standing, trying to swoop her back with them, so they could be Ikla again, and the teso with the storm would become nothing more. But she resisted, and Samish had to go away. This was a thing stronger than the love-bonds they had known.
Came the storm. A magnificent storm it was, rain and thunder, and the legs of lightning dancing around Bako. Rivers swollen, running wild over land, into homes, sweeping everything away. Hills began to move, and the beings ran from their homes. Only Bako stood in the rain, on the highest hill, and the storm danced for her.
The teso became something. We call it T'fan. T'fan played with the world, spread over half the planet, wrapped her wet arms around trees and hills. The storm went on until the beings thought there would be no more sun, no more dry land. Then one day it ceased.
Samish gathered itself up, and went tiredly up the hill to find Bako, or to mourn the death of Ikla.
Bako was not there. What was there was standing just as they had left Bako, arms outstretched to the sky. She looked at them with faraway eyes, and they saw then that although the sky was clearing, the storm was still in her. Tiny sparks of lightning flashed from her fingertips. Her hair was singed.
They saw then that the storm had filled her empty spaces so completely that there would never be Ikla again. They did not even feel teso. They walked away from her and prepared for mourning.
T'fan stands there still, her eyes filled with storms, her fingers playing with lightning. Her hair has singed away almost completely. She needs no food or water, and seems, in the way of storms, to be quite content. When storms come to her people they cluster around her and she comes to life, dancing in their midst as though relatives have come again from far away. Then T'fan goes away and is replaced by something larger and more complex than we can name.
"What does that story mean, I wonder," Isha said.
"Sometimes stories are just stories," I told her.
"You've never told me what happened to Sūryavati, after you took the next sip, told her the next tale," she told me, turning away from the consequences of my remark. The fact that you can't wrest meaning from everything like fruit from trees—that meaning is a matter not only of story but of what the listener brings to the tale—all that is not something she can face at the moment. She is so impatient, my Isha.
I steeled myself.
"The queen was distraught with grief when her son took the kingdom and destroyed his father," I said. "She threw herself on his funeral pyre. I could not save her."
But in this moment I am also conscious of the queen herself, her eyes dark with grief and yearning. Her hand, with its long fingers—a healed cut on the right index finger, the henna patterns fading—her hand reaches up to wipe a tear. And yet in her gaze leaps a certain vitality, an interest. Her mind ranges far across the universe, carried by my tales. In that small fire in her eyes is all my hope.
Perhaps all I've found is a moment of time that keeps repeating, in which, despite the predations of history, I am caught, with Isha and Sūryavati, in a loop of time distanced from the main current. Here my stories never end; I never reach the moment Sūryavati awaits, and Isha never finds out who she is. Gunādhya remains a whisper in my mind, his relation to me as yet a secret. Here we range across the skies, Isha and I, Vidyadharas of another age, and Sūryavati's gaze follows us. Who is the teller of the tale, and who the listener? We are caught in a web, a wheel of our own making. And if you, the listener from another time and space, upon whose cheek this story falls like spray thrown up by the ocean—you, the eavesdropper hearing a conversation borne by the wind, if you would walk into this story, take it away with you into your world, with its sorrows and small revelations, what would become of you? Would you also enter this circle? Would you tell me your story? Would we sit together, Sūryavati, Isha, and I, with you, and feel teso within us—and weave meaning from the strands of the tale?
I am Somadeva. I am a poet, a teller of tales.