The village of the roadmakers

When the temple bell rang for the third time, my mother insisted that I pack away my playthings and wear old clothes. I protested, I said I was tired and that I was not feeling well, but she firmly took me by my hand and thrust me towards the cupboard. I changed into my old clothes, muttering all the while, but she pretended not to hear me. She was already ready, and didn’t want to offend anyone by arriving late. It was almost four. We walked out- my father had already gone ahead, he’d been busy since 12- and joined the group in front of our neighbour’s house. The leader for the season, my friend’s father, stood up and gave my mother a warm smile of welcome. She smiled back and asked him where my father was. Our neighbour pointed to the far end of the group. Through the people and the rapidly rising dust, I could make out my father lifting a basket filled with small stones. As usual I marveled at his strength- how could a man who’s spent most of his life doing nothing more strenuous than push a pen across paper find strength within him every season to perform back breaking work. I even asked my mother once and she replied, because it’s in our culture. Adding implicitly, it’s in yours as well. She thought of me with great fondness, waiting for the day I would lead a group of my own. In our village there was no greater honour than leading a group for a season. Indeed, some of the most famous people in the village have been people who have led groups season after season. Their ideas, their methods of working have been taught to us even in school, though without the government schoolteacher’s knowledge. Being an outsider, he just wouldn’t understand, and more importantly, he might create trouble for us. As it is, he kept objecting to our work, but nobody paid him any attention, which usually angered him even more.
This season was no different from others, but for the fact that this year, the roads were being built just outside our house. Every year, the elders get together and assign a different area of the village for work and sometimes there are heated arguments as to which locality should get the honour. But once the matter has been decided, everyone forgets their differences and pitches in. Only the very old and the very young are exempt from work. Sometimes even the old join the group- making up for weakness with wisdom. There are tales of how many a short stretch that was going bad was rectified by timely intervention of an elder.

Days passed slowly and I grew used to the work again, and the road was progressing splendidly. These days I seemed to have no time for anything. Come back from school, join the group and when work stopped at nightfall, I didn’t even have the energy to join the review group who sat around the road and discussed for ages into the night. I just ran home as soon as possible, ate ravenously and slept. The road kept coming closer to our house and excitement mounted within our family. One day I was working as usual, running about getting implements for young men, when suddenly loud voices were heard. I stopped short, recognizing my fathers’ voice as one of them. I hurried to my father’s side. He was saying, this is not right, we have watched it grow for more than 50 years, I myself have played under its branches, you yourself have stopped in its shade so many times. Who is here that doesn’t remember eating mangoes from this tree? I myself have gone from house to house distributing mangoes every year! Now all that is forgotten?

Another voice, a village elder’s, spoke ‘ but you should have brought it up when we were planning the road. You knew that the road would go in front of your house. Surely you could have said something then…

My father really didn’t have an argument for that, but he persisted. But now you can change it. Please save this tree, I love it as much as I do my children. Don’t do this injustice to me.

Another elder spoke, ‘Let us stop work for now and see what can be done’. The others agreed. Everyone left except for the leader, our neighbour, and a few elders. Of course I had no interest in going home now. I was also shocked that we might lose the tree. The elders sat and debated the matter till nightfall and beyond but the problem was thorny. If the road had to take a deviation it would mean many more days of work and could not be finished in this season. If this happened, our neighbour the leader would suffer a major loss of face-he would go down in the annals of our village lore as the only person who could not get a road finished in time. There were many more arguments to support our neighbour’s view. One elder who’d seen more seasons than anyone else looked at the proposed deviation and said that the finished road would have a bad ‘soul’ and no one would use it. Added to this, another elder, one of the wisest women in our village said, ‘Everybody has to sacrifice something. That is the rule here. If we listened to you, everyone would claim exceptions. Me, I myself flattened the land that fed my family through those drought years. You are not trying to save a tree, you are questioning our entire culture. I don’t think it can be allowed. Surely you don’t claim to know more than the entire accumulated wisdom of our village?’ Hers turned out to be the clinching argument. My father bowed his head and finally accepted the elders’ decision. The next day itself workmen came to cut down the tree. I was assigned to dart away the branches. I was still very young and I delighted in this new sport. There is wonder in seeing a huge old tree groan and crash to the ground and the sickly sweet smell broken fresh branches spread through the air. For weeks after that we could smell it in our house-but nobody brought up the subject. Except the schoolteacher, of course. He lost no time in raking coals over everyone’s head, but they were even more indifferent to him. Frustrated, he walked away from the village with a slim book of poems in this hand. We thought he had gone for a walk as he was accustomed to, but later it turned out that he’d left the village altogether. Nobody missed him and a few went so far as to say ‘good riddance’.

The season drew to a close and the road was completed with as much as a week to spare. The leader, our neighbour, was a jubilant man. After that narrow escape, he had reaffirmed his status in the village. There was even talk that he would be a group leader again for the next season, but he just brushed aside any queries with fake humility saying, ‘ its left to the elders, but I am always willing to assume responsibility. Whatever the elders say, I will listen to… it’s all in their hands.

Many years passed since then, seasons came and went, our village slowly changed. Suddenly, there seemed to be much less land to farm in. A couple of bad years with low rainfall, and everyone started to get worried. Then some families started growing commercial crops instead of rice or ragi. With free electricity from the government, it became easier to switch crops. Almost overnight, all the farmers started growing sugarcane. We resisted for sometime, but times were hard- I was married and with one more mouth to feed, it seemed to be the only thing to do. Everyone welcomed my fathers’ decision, and he felt like part of the group again. Equally suddenly, people started becoming more and more prosperous. We had high returns and crop harvests were good with frequent irrigation. Then the group leader for the season, a man we knew only by reputation, decided to use the season to show off his prosperity. He hired outside workers, migrant laborers and paid them on daily basis. He brought in modern equipment-grinding machines, trucks, roadrollers, everything. But the most upsetting new thing was the tar. Till then we had been content with mud roads, hardened not to crack under any stress – but tar…we’d only known of it’s use in distant highways and cities, but in our village ! That season, the road was completed in the shortest time, setting a record of sorts in the village. He was praised like no other in my memory and set a new trend that refused to go away. From then on, every season brought in hordes of laborers. They were a sullen lot; spoke in their own language and pretty much kept to themselves. The decision to use tar was protested every year by the elders, but as time went by, even this diminished. The affair of the mango tree had affected my father badly and he never wanted to lead the group or even take active interest in the design of the road despite tremendous pressure from my mother and all our relatives. The memories were still too painful, and he had long ago stopped trying to explain his stance. I think he had thought that he could quietly lead his life away from the road and the roadmaking, but he was wrong. They started applying pressure in every possible way. They attacked us at every opportunity, they tortured my wife, my mother with allegations and even my daughter was troubled by the other village kids. Finally, he’d had enough. He approached the village elders and told them that he wanted to be the group leader in the next season. There was much jubilation – he was welcomed back as the lost son back into the fold. But it was not so easy for him. He knew that while he had to lead a group, there was no available land anymore. If we had to lead the road anywhere near our house, he would be cutting into our already depleted land and besides the whole village would be watched for any lack of interest. Finally he hit upon a solution. Some years back, the government had built a highway quite close to the village road network. There were two highways, actually, running almost parallel to each other with the village in the centre. He proposed to connect the two highways by building small roads from our village to each of them I was worried that somebody might figure out what my fathers plan was, but nothing like that happened. Instead there was wild rejoicing at his plan and the whole village surged with enthusiasm. Work started immediately and because there was not much distance to cover, we finished quite early as well. We had to take the help of migratory workers, though my father did not want to; they also had become a part of our culture by now.

The day the roads were finished, we had a special ceremony because the day was doubly auspicious: we had completed a road and also my father was now considered a part of the village hierarchy. Many people spoke that day, and again stories of previous road making triumphs were related. My father listened: outwardly calm and quietly triumphant, but inwardly sad – firstly at what he had done to the village and secondly at their acute short sightedness that had brought this upon them. The next few days he secretly made preparations to leave our village. I had arranged for us to stay at my wife’s village that was many days walk away. I had everything ready and thus we were able to leave the same day when the first lorries from the highway appeared in our village, taking the road that my father built as a natural shortcut.

The noise of the vehicles was the signal: it was the end of the village.

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The Traffic Sutras

#3

I just missed getting caught by a traffic signal, and as the light changed from yellow to green, I noticed the countdown timer displaying the number 60. As I sped on my way home, I felt happy that I had saved a minute. I told the Master this, and he asked me-

‘So what will you do with the saved minute?’

I said, ‘Oh, lots of things. I can read for an extra minute, I can watch TV for an extra minute, I can listen to music for an extra minute, I can even sleep for one minute more…’

The Master shook his head and asked-
‘What would you have done if you had stopped at the signal instead?’

I said, ‘Nothing much, I suppose. Waited for the lights to change.’

The Master said-
‘A minute of doing nothing is 60 seconds of peace’

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#12

We were riding down a busy road.

‘Master’, I asked, ‘There are many who share the road with us, but not all follow the Way. How do we treat those who disrupt the flow?’

The Master did not answer, but pointed to a rash young man with a flashy bike, who was weaving in and out recklessly. After a couple of minutes, the young man was hemmed in by an autorickshaw in front, the sidewalk to the left and us at the right. As he revved in frustration, the Master gently slowed so that a gap opened up and the young man sped on his way.

The Master said only one word-

‘Compensate’
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#7

I narrowly avoided a crash the other day. The car in front of me braked suddenly – without warning- but I managed to twist out of the way. Nevertheless, I was incensed when I related the incident to the Master.

The Master said, –

There is no sudden. The braking is only the culmination of a chain of events. You only see the car in front of you, but the Superior Man sees further. He sees the pothole that caused the truck in front of the car to brake. He who knows the Way anticipates everything and acts to ease the consequences.’

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#13

After a sumptuous meal at a roadside restaurant, the Master was feeling expansive and spoke about the Road, –

‘You think that the Road is static- a thing once made and it is there for all eternity- but it’s not true. The road changes everyday. Today there’s dust, tomorrow rain causes streamlets to run on the sides. Potholes appear gradually and suddenly disappear, only to come again at the next rains. Be aware of the changes and you will be close to the Way.’

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#5

‘Master,’ I asked, ‘How do we know if there is a pothole ahead in the traffic/ how can we prepare ourselves against things that we cannot immediately see?’

The Master replied, –

‘Nothing exists in isolation. Just as you can know the presence of the jasmine by its fragrance alone, so too does the pothole give out its signs. The dip of the vehicle in front of you, the sudden brakes or the swerve of the car in front of you, the steady degradation of the road after the monsoons- all these are signs. If you pay attention to the Way, no secret will remain hidden from you.’

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#21

We never took the same route twice. One day, I was tired and wanted to reach home fast, but the Master took a different route in unfamiliar areas and we were soon lost among the bylanes. We stopped to ask for directions and I testily remarked, ‘We should have taken the normal route’, but the Master suddenly pointed to a tea-stall and said, ‘Oh, look, they are selling my favourite kind of tea.’

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#16

We were sitting at a sidewalk café and watching the traffic go by. When the lights changed, the engines revved up and a traffic policeman helped to organize the flow. Seeing this, I asked, ‘Master, there is already a system of rules- the traffic regulations of the country. Why do we need the Way?’

The Master replied, –

‘Those regulations are born of paper and talks. The Way emerges from within the flow itself.’

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#15

I heard from the others that the Master had had an accident. I couldn’t believe it, but they told me that it was true and that nobody dared to ask the Master how it had happened.

I walked up to the Master and asked, –

‘I heard that you had an accident. How did it happen? Did you miscalculate? Did you not anticipate?’

The Master gave me a rueful smile and said, –

‘Even the Superior Man makes mistakes, but only the Superior Man uses the mistake to see clearly. The Way is not only of the mind; it is also of the vehicle. The error was mine, my brakes were loose.’

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The Makhtesh Incident

Let me start at the beginning. My name’s Avi- I’m a master’s student studying in the Desert Center here in the Negev, and I’m working on the spatial ecology of Oryxes. I spend most of the time in the lab- our department was able to buy expensive satellite time to track Oryxes in the Negev. With individual digital signature tracking, I don’t even need to go into the field to see an Oryx. But there have been Sat coordination problems of late and I can only use the Satfeed in spurts. So I grab the video frame for a couple of hours everyday, for around 30 of the Oryxes but I also have to go the desert to verify and carry out some experiments. Sometimes I spend many weeks in the deset, and I’m usually cut off from all communication during those days- I don’t have a Sat-enabled pelaphone, and somehow I prefer the lack of communication: living with bedouin nomads does that to you. I even forget I’m carrying a beacon sometimes.

It was in the year 7 of the Return of the Mashiach (Hebrew year 5810), and there was a crisis brewing. The armies of Hind were growing ever aggressive and more and more countries were coming under their sway. Of course, calling them countries is a bit of a dated term, but the other option-city states- sounds even more dated. Anyway, the whole of South asia and Southeast asia were now ruled by the fundamentalist Hinds. This was really of no concern to us here in Israel, because most of the world considered Jerusalem as the capital anyway. The Mashiach was responsible for this: every christian country, every muslim country and of course, us, swore allegiance to the Mashiach. Jerusalem was now re-carved into a great city state and not a thing happened in the westernized world without going through the Mashiach. It was hard to consider all these ancient enemies venerating the same G-d, but it seemed obvious that the three great monotheistic religions shared the same G-d, and indeed the same area of genesis. The Arab states took their time to follow the Mashiach, especially because his given body was that of a 12 year old boy, also because the Quran had no reference to a returning messiah unlike Christianity and Judaism. But eventually they did. Despite the mocking efforts of the songster Hanoch, the Mashiach indeed had come. And promptly the reconstruction of the Third temple had begun. All the materials hidden by the orthodox was brought out, but the Mashiach disdained and rejected all expectations. The Third temple looked exactly like the Kaaba, but in white. I’ve heard that it was a massive engineering effort, and when the dust settled, the gleaming white marble cube stood in the centre of Jerusalem. No one was admitted in to the inner sanctum, except by explicit order of the Mashiach. I remember the first few days when the TV networks almost came to blows over the right to interview the Mashiach, but all of of it was in vain. Nobody ever saw the Boy, except those who were called. There was only one meeting of the so called world leaders, and that was it. The entire world bent to His will, and that too willingly. I’ve heard it said that anyone who even approached the temple was filled with a sensation of lightness and a sense of perspective. The old order was crumbling before our eyes. There were even cranky orthodoxers who protested that the Mashiach was not the true one and there would be another one, simply because He didn’t do anything as predicted by the bible.

Meanwhile I continued my research, and due to the resurgence in ecology caused by the Mashiach’s statement that those who worship His creation, worship Him, we got lots of grants that year and I started my work on the Oryxes. The problem was an old one: fission and fusion of herds in Oryxes. Oryx herds are a freewheeling collection of individuals and sometimes they forage together and sometimes they don’t. There’s a sort of hierarchy but it’s very loose and transient, and groups dissolve and merge with great frequency. I was trying to understand how and why. In my first year. I usually spent all my time in front of the comp playing with the tracking software, but it was difficult to get an idea of the scale of these things without going to the field site itself. The best place to work was in the now dismantled Israeli Defense Forces’ base in the area behind the Makhtesh Ramon. But oryxes did venture into the erosion crater itself, and that’s how I was able to establish a very good base- near the lava bricks known as the carpenter’s shop.

The Hind armies had now taken over most of the war devastated areas of Iran and Iraq, but that was a hollow victory and meant only as a threatening gesture. G-d knows if there was anything left there to take over. Everyone expected the Mashiach to do something, but despite the frantic efforts of the world leaders, nothing happened. The Mashiach refused to see them and no one dared to do anything to oppose His wishes. But there was a confrontation looming. The Hinds did not consider the idea of living in a world ruled by a monotheistic G-d appealing, and if they took Jerusalem, by default, they took the world. All it needed was a single symbolic victory and the world would be theirs. Hinduism had changed a lot. I remember, during my visit to India after I got discharged from the army, that it used to be a peaceful religion. I spent a lot of time reading the scriptures, especially the Bhagavad Gita, and going on semi-pilgrimages to various important temples. I had come to believe that the religion had no history of conversion, but like all religions what is true is often obscured by people with their own agenda. Hinduism had almost no history of aggression till the Hinds came to power and from then on it was a relentless nationalistic campaign that brought so much change in Indian society and affected a large part of the world.

I was near the rim of the makhtesh when the news came that the Hind army had released a horse in the manner of the olden times. Ancient kings of India used to perform a yagna called the Ashwameda yagna wherein a horse was allowed to roam about wherever it chose. An army followed it. If anyone stopped the horse, they were honour bound to fight the army. Kings expanded their kingdoms dramatically with this device. But the Hind horse was no ordinary horse: it was a genetically bio-engineered monster of a horse. It stood as high as an elephant, with steel armour and a real flaming mane. They must have been planning this for a long time. You could hear the horse’s hoofs miles away in the desert. And it was marching towards Israel, followed by the thousands and thousands of Hind soldiers. We expected the Mashiach to do something quickly, but He remained His usual enigmatic self. The horse wended its way unchallenged across Syria, took a detour into parts of Iraq and then down to Jordan. It reached the mountains, crossed across the Arava valley and entered Israel. Slowly tension was mounting in the world: politicians threatened to send fighter planes and start strafing, but without explicit permission from the Mashiach it was impossible. Everything in the world ground to a halt as the world watched the progress of the Horse

I was sent an emergency warning on the beacon and then I realized that I was going to be more involved than any other person: the Mashiach had decided to meet the horse in the makhtesh!! Three days after the warning, there was a Khamseen. The wind whipped up the sand like crazy and I couldn’t open my eyes for more than five seconds. The Khamseens usually last around three days and I knew that it was almost pointless trying to see Oryxes in this weather and coupled with the Mashiach coming here, I decided that it would be a good time to start heading out. I climbed into the jeep and started driving towards the road. I had climbed around halfway up the crater walls when I heard the Horse. It was an enormous thumping, and the echoes made it harder to tell where the Horse was. I don’t know if it was because of the Khamseen, or the crater walls, but when I heard the Hind Army, I thought that this was it. Armageddon. A monstrous noise assaulted my ears. Considering that normally the sound of the wind is the only noise one hears in the Makhtesh, the sounds were too dramatic to get used to. I could see tanks and jeeps stretching for miles, all maintaining a respectful distance from the terrifying horse. The makhtesh was so big that it took some time before it started filling up, but it did slowly. I was so preoccupied with watching the army and the horse that I didn’t even notice the TVbots and the defense helicopters battling the winds to hold their place. I didn’t even notice the single car going the other way till it passed me: a small white car.

I looked back at the makhtesh walls: hundreds of cars stood at the rim, and people were peering down to see the greatest spectacle in human history. What would the Mashiach do? Would there be a bolt of lightning and the army vanquished, would there be a deluge of biblical proportions? It would be a story worth telling for generations. Another entry in the bible even. I was one of the few who were actually inside the crater and I could see exactly what was going on. The Horse walked slowly up to the middle of the crater, as if knowing that it was facing a potent enemy. Or maybe it was being controlled by radio or something. The white car stopped at the bottom of the winding road and a figure in white got out. Even with my binocs I could only make out a fuzzy white figure, but I didn’t need my eyes to tell me that it was the Mashiach.

They say that it lasted only ten minutes, but it seemed like forever. The Mashiach met the Horse in the center of the makhtesh. The Horse neighed, but it sounded more like a shriek, and it reared and pranced. The Mashiach didn’t move. Soon the Horse calmed down and there was no motion. The Army watched, but didn’t interfere. The skies suddenly opened up and the gloom lifted a bit. We all waited for the calamity to strike the Hind army. But all the waiting was in vain. Nothing happened. After an interminable wait, the Horse shrieked once more and slowly started steeping away from the white figure. It turned and retraced its steps back. The army parted to let it through and soon the horse disappeared from sight. The Mashiach walked sedately back to His car, accompanied by a super herd of Oryxes, which had suddenly emerged from somewhere. i started scanning the color coded ID tags of the Oryxes, and to my surprise the herd consisted of several individuals who would have fought before running in the same herd. My only thought at the time was- this is going to screw up my data. The Mashaich got into the car and headed back, presumably to Jerusalem.

Coda
Much later, when all the speculations on why the Horse had turned back, and why the Hind soldiers had accepted the hegemony of the Mashiach, had died down a bit, and after countless interviews with the TVbots, I realized what had happened. The entire scene had given me a massive deja vu, and I realized where I had come across it before. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna develops an acute case of conscience when faced with the army of his opponents, most of whom are his kinsmen. And Lord Krishna in the process of explaining why he must commence the war, shows Arjuna His true self- the Universal Form. Of course I could never prove it, or even be sure that it was the right explanation, but it sounds right. But one thing I know, the Messiah sure messed up my data, and the Oryxes’ patterns of group formation have changed completely.

Glossary:
Most of the non-english words should be understandable from context, but just in case…
Makhtesh- (Hebrew) Erosion crater
Makhtesh Ramon- World’s largest erosion crater, found in the South Negev Desert
Mashiach- (Hebrew) Messiah
Pelaphone-(Hebrew) Cellphone
G-d- God, in Judaism, the uttering the name of God is forbidden
Khamseen (Hebrew/Arabic) Kind of sandstorm
Yagna- (Sanskrit) sacrifice/ offering to the Gods